November 2015        

The real structure of the Irish economy

Kieran Crilly

In this article we analyse different branches of the Irish economy according to the dominance of one firm or a small number of firms.

Supermarkets

This sector is dominated by five firms: Supervalu, Dunne’s, Tesco, Aldi, and Lidl. They give the impression of competing on price by taking full-page advertisements citing low prices for a small range of products. With these enticements they encourage people to do a full shopping in their stores, leading to increased sales and profits.
     Aldi and Lidl (two German companies) have expanded rapidly and have put pressure on the existing firms. Tesco has responded by opening smaller and more expensive “express” branches. Dunne’s has reacted by introducing zero-hour contracts.
     There is informal evidence that Tesco charges higher prices in Ireland than they do in Britain, and that Aldi and Lidl charge higher prices than they do in Germany. They all try to maximise profits and so maximise share prices for their shareholders.

Banks

Banking in Ireland is dominated by Allied Irish Bank, Bank of Ireland, Irish Permanent, Ulster Bank, and KBC.
     Now, they do not compete on price for deposits or when they are lending. They try to confuse the public by offering a large number of different rates of interest on deposits. They also reduce rates without informing the depositor. They put small advertisements in the daily papers. For mortgages, Irish banks charge about 4 per cent, while their European counterparts charge 2 per cent. This is because they want to build up their capital so that they can be sold back to the private sector. In the case of Bank of Ireland it is to increase profits and share price for its shareholders.
     So if you pay 4 per cent you will get a mortgage. It’s a “take it or leave it” proposition. The Central Bank does not regulate the interest rates in the interest of consumers.

Insurance companies

Insurance (motor and home) is dominated by six companies: FBD, Axa, Aviva, Liberty, Royal Sun Alliance (123.ie), and AIG. They have raised their prices on average by 20 per cent in the past year, but there is no way that customers can tell whether the price increase is justified.
     As these are mainly subsidiaries of foreign companies, they may be taking advantage of Irish customers so that they can send back more profits to their parent companies. They are licensed by the Central Bank, but it does not regulate their prices. One would expect a regulation of prices with an oligopoly, where a small number of firms dominate, if the Central Bank were interested in consumers.

Mobile phones

There is only a small number of mobile phone manufacturers in the world. Apple, Samsung and Nokia dominate the market. They update their models regularly so that their older models become obsolete. They advertise heavily. They charge high prices for their products to maximise their profits.
     There are three mobile network providers in Ireland: Meteor, Vodafone, and 3. Each provides a range of payment methods, and it is very difficult for customers to work out which is the best option for them. By confusing customers they aim to get the largest number of customers and maximise profits. They minimise costs by having a small number of retail outlets and a small head office staff. Once the network of masts is installed, maintenance costs are minimal.

Alcohol

The beer and cider sector is dominated by three companies: Diageo (Guinness), Bulmers, and Heineken. They set prices to maximise profits. They advertise heavily, and they sponsor sports and music events to attract young people into the drinking habit. They portray drink as a beneficial product, when all the medical evidence shows that in fact it is harmful.
     The medical profession asked the government to introduce legislation that would ban drinks companies from sponsoring sports events. But the government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party put the profits of the drinks companies before the health of the population and decided not to introduce a ban.
     The whiskey industry is dominated by two firms: Irish Distillers (Pernod Ricard) and Diageo. They are free from government regulation to set their prices to maximise profits.

Television satellite and cable companies

Satellite sports television is dominated by three companies: Sky, BT Sport, and Setanta. These companies offer billions for the right to screen live English premiership matches. They charge high monthly rentals to recoup their costs, and they make large profits.
     Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Sky, was able to buy Fox News in the United States with the large profits he made in Britain and Ireland after Margaret Thatcher allowed him to set up Sky in the late 1980s.
     The cable companies, UPC and now Eircom, are offering packages of phone, broadband and television; Sky is doing the same. You have to take all three services (a “bundle”) at a set price. The three companies are setting a similar price for the bundles. These offers are heavily advertised and are set at a low initial price to get new customers, who enable these firms maximise profits.

Terrestrial stations

RTE (including RTE1, RTE2, and TG4) is the state channel; its main rivals are TV3, BBC, UTV, and Channel 4. But it also has to compete with Sky.
     The terrestrial channels are losing out to Sky, because they are buying up the rights to sports events which were available free. Sky has bought up the rights to some international soccer and rugby friendlies and GAA matches; if you haven’t got Sky you have no access to the matches.
     Profit is the driving force for Sky in all of this. They gain extra income from new subscribers and from the extra advertising generated by the matches. Rupert Murdoch only wants Sky to grow and expand his empire.

Radio

National radio is dominated by RTE (Radio 1, Radio 2, Lyric, and Raidió na Gaeltachta). It is financed through the licence fee and advertising, and it competes for advertising with stations in the private sector. Getting funds from the licence fee impose an obligation on the television and radio stations to provide high-quality programming.
     The private sector is dominated by two groups: Communicorp (Newstalk, Today FM, Dublin 98, Spin 1038, Spin Southwest, and TXFM), in which Denis O’Brien is a major shareholder, and UTV Radio Solutions (Dublin FM 104, Dublin Q102, Cork 96 FM, Limerick Live 95 FM, LMFM, U105, WLRFM, and Galway Bay FM).
     The private stations aim to maximise profits, which they do by having wall-to-wall pop music. They have no commitment to high-quality programming. Because they are owned by businessmen it is probable that they have a pro-business and pro-conservative (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) bias in their news and their economic and political coverage.

National newspapers

Irish News and Media Group, with six titles, is the largest media group in the country. It comprises the Irish Independent, Herald, Irish Daily Mail, Irish Mail on Sunday, Sunday Independent, Sunday World, and 50 per cent of the Daily Star.
     The Irish Times (owned by a trust), the Irish Examiner (owned by the Crosby family of Cork) and the Sunday Business Post (owned by Key Capital and Paul Cooke, Irish businessmen) are the other Irish-owned papers. The Irish Daily Mirror and Irish Sunday Mirror are owned by the British company Trinity Mirror. The Irish Sun, Irish Sun on Sunday and Sunday Times are owned by Murdoch companies.
     There are only six owners of newspapers in Ireland, despite the number of titles. Each of these companies tries to maximise its profits. They have a lot of power, as they set the agenda of politics here. The same comment applies to them as was applied to radio stations.

Cement and building materials

Cement Roadstone (CRH Holdings) is the largest company quoted on the Irish Stock Exchange, and the only Irish company to appear among the top 160 companies in Europe by income in 2012. It had a 100 per cent monopoly in the production of cement until recent years, when the Quinn factory was set up in Co. Fermanagh.
     There is a significant barrier to entry when cement is produced in an island country. The shipping and delivery costs for cement are high, because its ratio of value to weight is low. A tonne of cement is cheap, but the cost of transporting it from England to Ireland is high. So cement prices were kept high, and large profits flowed in. Using these profits, CRH was able to expand abroad. The company is also dominant in the building materials sector.

Non-alcoholic carbonated drinks (fizzy drinks)

This sector is dominated by the Coca-Cola Group and the Pepsi-Cola Group and to a lesser extent by the Cantrell and Cochrane Group. In recent years Coca-Cola has introduced a smaller bottle (200 ml) instead of the previous larger bottle (330 ml); but hotels, pubs and restaurants are charging the same price as previously, which has the same effect as a whopping 65 per cent increase in price.
     These companies are good at fighting their corner when it comes to governments “interfering” in their market. Obesity has become a growing problem, especially among young people, and health experts have called for a sugar tax. Carbonated drinks contribute to obesity because they contain large amounts of sugar. Our pro-business government ignored the pleas of the medical profession and the health needs of our young people and dropped the idea of a sugar tax. The needs of business are more important than the health of the nation.

Motor vehicles

In 2014 a total of 93,361 new cars were sold. Of these, 23,825 (26 per cent) were supplied by the Volkswagen Group, 9,658 (10½ per cent) were Toyota, 9,040 (10 per cent) were Ford, 7,410 (8 per cent) were Hyundai, 6,691 (7 per cent) were Nissan, and 6,156 (6½ per cent) were Opel. Between them these six companies supplied a total of 62,776 cars, or 68 per cent of all cars bought in Ireland. There is competition among the few, but the last thing they want to do is to compete on price.
     It is interesting that the Central Statistics Office does not collect information on car prices.

Petrol and diesel

Four companies—BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell—dominate the petrol, diesel and heating-oil sectors. These were originally seven companies that merged to form three. From the late 1920s these companies shared production zones and transport costs and agreed sales prices. As a cartel, they colluded—and still collude—on price, and smaller operators follow suit.
     No government would dare take on these companies, as they have overthrown governments and have pauperised countries, such as Nigeria.

Department stores (Dublin)

Three department stores—Arnott’s, Debenham’s, and Marks and Spenser—serve mainly middle-income people, with Dunne’s and Penney’s mainly serving ordinary people while Brown Thomas caters for the bourgeoisie.

Summary

There is nothing free about the “free market,” except that it is free from government regulation. But because nearly all branches of the economy, including those not listed above, are dominated by one or a small number of firms, the state should regulate these sectors much more in the interest of the majority of the population, who are being exploited by a relatively small number of firms.

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