Drop in oil prices, but don’t be happy just yet.

27 10 2008

Prices of crude oil dropped from a peak of $147 a barrel in July to below $60 a barrel today. This drop in oil prices has sparked off a price war between, you guessed it, UK’s top four supermarkets-Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. After trying to fill up cash strapped consumer’s shopping carts, they are now trying to fill up their cars. Prices of unleaded petrol fell to just under £1 per litre. The recent fall in the prices is due to the fear that the sharp increase in prices is likely to lead to a fall in demand and hence a fall in revenue.

However, this drop in prices is likely to be short lived. This is because OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), a cartel of oil producing nations, announced in the wake of the recent drop in prices that they would cut the production of oil by 1.5 million barrels a day by next month since they fear that their revenue will decrease because of the drop in oil prices. This, they hope, will lead to a decrease in supply and since the demand of petrol is likely to go up due to the decrease in prices, it will ultimately lead to an increase in the price of oil, which some experts estimate to be around $80 to $100 per barrel.

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Although it is immoral and unethical, the oil producing nations, in a way, have made a smart move by coming together and working for a common interest, i.e., to make as much money as possible, rather than against each other. Working together ensures that they can control the amount of supply of oil and hence also the price we pay. Oil is by all means almost a necessity which means that the demand is price inelastic; this means that the change in price does not have a huge impact on the level of demand. People still have to fill up their cars to go from A to B, transportation firms still have to fill up their trucks to transport goods and so do buses, trains and airplanes. Also, petrol and diesel have no real alternatives.

However, in a recession, demand is likely to be price elastic, which means that demand is sensitive to the price. So, the move to cut production may lead to a fall in supply, but the increase in prices might also lead to a fall in demand, which would give counterproductive results to what OPEC hope.

Cartels formed by companies are against the law, otherwise we would not have competitive prices and certainly no price wars between supermarkets since they would be busy colluding with each other and fixing prices.

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The value of Pound (£) has been falling against the Dollar ($). The benefit of this is that it makes UK businesses very competitive in foreign markets and allows them to import their goods at a competitive price. The flip side of this is that it increases the cost of importing raw materials of which oil is a part. It is likely that even this will increase the price of petrol and diesel we pay at the fuel station.

So, there is no reason to be happy about the drop in fuel prices since it is only temporary and more of a Christmas offer than a real deal.

Keynes way of kick starting the economy

22 10 2008

Argos Logo 120x60
Home Retail Group, the company that owns the DIY store Homebase and retailer Argos, reported a loss of £450 million in its half-year operating profit. The reason for this loss is attributed not only to consumers restricting their spending, but also the weakening of the Pound which means that it costs more to import products from other countries, add to that the increase in the cost of raw materials, production and transportation. Products that are seen as a luxury have seen their sales and consecutively their profits drop as consumers switch to cheaper value-for-money products. Budget stores, as a result, have seen their sales and profits increase rapidly, in cases like Poundland, even double.

However, a drop in sales at Argos, which is not exactly an upmarket store, should create a little more than just a flutter amongst businesses operating in similar sectors. This is because it suggests that not only have consumers changed their shopping habits and switched to cheaper stores, they have stopped spending altogether on items they deem unnecessary. There are concerns about unemployment as many are worried that they would lose their jobs. The utility bills and mortgage repayments are rising. All this creates an atmosphere of uncertainity and leaves people preferring to save any surplus rather than spend it as they did before.

John Keynes, Image from Business Week

John Keynes, Image from Business Week

According to John Maynard Keynes, a well-known British economist, who lived during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the only way to give the economy a kick-start, is to spend and spend and spend. This is because a recession is caused by a fall in demand, not by the fall in supply. Demand has fell quite a lot recently because the credit that backed it no longer exists. Although Governments around the world have injected banks with capital, banks in turn have effectively turned off the tap of credit. Keynes believed that in the event of consumer spending decreasing, the Government should maintain or even increase its spending rather than cutting back. The people employed in the sectors where the Government spends its money would in turn spend their wages benefiting the local businesses who in turn spend and make investments and that gets the whole economy moving again. That way, a downward spiral of recession could be turned into an upward spiral of growth.

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is adopting Keynes’s ideas. He said that the Government would increase its spending on large scale projects. In the long term, it means increasing the national debt as the Government has to borrow money to keep up its spending. So be it. Keynes said that Governments should think of the short term, because, as he put it, “in the long run we are all dead”.

This isn’t just any gas & electricity; this is M&S gas & electricity

15 10 2008

Marks & Spencer announced today (15 Oct) its partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy to launch its new offering- M&S Energy. Customers can sign up in store and online through www.mandsenergy.com which goes live on the 27th of October. M&S plans to reward their customers by offering them M&S vouchers when they sign up, reduce their energy usage or opt for paperless billing. It is relying on its strong brand name to attract customers. However, since M&S is regarded more as an upmarket brand, it is unlikely that people will switch to M&S initially since it will naturally be perceived to be more expensive than its competitors.

Offering vouchers rather than a discount on the bill itself is an interesting way of making people sign up and shop at M&S since shopping at M&S is the only way to redeem the vouchers. This would lead to a rise in sales for M&S, who has seen its sales drop-M&S style, and would ensure that the money stays within the organisation. This is because if you get a £10 voucher, M&S is not actually spending the £10, but the voucher is worth £10 that can only be spent at M&S. This is different to it giving you £10 discount on your bill that it does have to spend and since you are free to spend it anywhere you choose, M&S might not benefit from it. It will be interesting to see if other stores, like Britain’s Biggest Discounter, Tesco, will join M&S to offer gas & electricity to its customers.

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Further reading:

M&S Corporate Website: http://corporate.marksandspencer.com/media/press_releases/company/pressrelease_mandsenergy

M&S Sales:https://bizeasy.wordpress.com/2008/10/03/ms-weather-forecast-bleak-in-britain-sunny-in-shanghai/

£37bn Bank Bailout

14 10 2008

The UK Government announced on Monday (13 Oct) that it was going to lend £37bn to three of UK’s biggest banks with the aim of “unfreezing” the frozen credit market. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) will receive the biggest cash injection worth £20bn. The Government will buy £5bn worth of preference shares and another £15bn worth of ordinary shares in RBS if they are not bought by ordinary investors, which will give it a healthy 60% share of the business. HBOS and Lloyds TSB will jointly receive £17bn in return for which the Government will receive approximately 43.5% of the merged business. Preference shares, as the name suggests, are given preference when it comes to paying dividends. This means that the Government will be paid the dividends, if there are any, before they are paid to the ordinary shareholders. It also means that the Government will have a say in the operations of the banks.

Although this announcement would have lead to a sigh of relief for some since the banks will get the cash injection they desperately need and give them stability, many investors are worried that the purchase of a huge number of shares by the Government will lead to a dilution of shares of the existing shareholders. Dilution basically means that since the total amount of shares of the banks will increase, this will mean that the existing shareholder’s ownership of the company in terms of percentage will decrease.

There has been support and opposition to the bailout plan proposed by the UK and American Governments. Many people are angry that taxpayers’ money is being used to pay for the mistakes of a few irresponsible bankers especially since most of the bankers got bonuses and left the general public to clear up the mess. However, the bailout is a necessary evil. This is because the credit crunch ultimately affects all of us. If banks are reluctant to lend to each other, it means that banks cannot lend to the general public, which means that the general public cannot spend this money which affects local businesses, this leads to a loss of jobs and goes on and on like a downward spiral. There have been reports recently that many small businesses have seen their overdraft facility severely reduced of even cancelled in certain cases. This has affected their cash flow. Businesses that were sound a month ago are finding it hard even to pay their staff.

The Economist (http://economist.co.uk/) described the lack of credit in an interesting manner by comparing it to air. We always take the air we breathe for granted because it is readily available. When we start drowning, we suddenly realise the true value of air because the lack of air hurts. Similarly, when credit is flowing, everything runs smoothly. However, the lack of credit leads to a lot of problems. The bailout plan is not a silver bullet that will solve all the current problems, but it remains to be seen what effects, if any, it will have in the near future.

The BBC website has an interesting article about past bailout plans and whether they worked. Have bailouts worked? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7648330.stm

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Sir Alan Sugar buys a 4% stake in Woolworths

10 10 2008

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Sir Alan Sugar, more famous for his show “The Apprentice” than his electronics     company Amstrad, today (10 Oct) bought a 4% (3.88% to be exact) stake in the high street retailer Woolworths for £1.8 million. There have been fears recently that Woolworths could become yet another victim of the credit crunch. It reported a half-yearly loss of £100 million and its share price dropped by about 80%. Sir Alan made his fortune from Amstrad which he founded in 1968. Amstrad is famous for its low priced home computers launched in 1984 which took on Commodore and Sinclair who were the existing players in the market. It has also made set top boxes for BSkyB’s Sky TV and also the Sky+ set top box. In 2007, Amstrad was bought by BSkyB and is now a 100% subsidary of BSkyB plc.

The credit crunch has allowed many investors to buy shares in well known companies at a very cheap rate, standing to make a huge profit when the markets recover and the share prices begin to rise. The world’s richest man and the “Sage of Omaha”, Warren Buffet, recenlty invested $5 billion in the troubled bank Goldman Sachs through his investment company Berkshire Hathaway by buying preference shares which will give him a 10% of return each year in the form of dividends. He also bought $3 billion worth of preference shares in General Electric. No wonder shares in Berkshire Hathaway are worth around $100,000 (each).
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Sales at Poundland and Thorntons thrive

8 10 2008

Poundland, the single price retailer where everything costs £1, announced that its operating profit for the financial year ending March 2008 had risen by a staggering 122%. Its profits rose from £3.6 million to £8 million. This shows that consumers are abandoning traditional retailers and heading for discount stores to save money. However, the interesting thing is that Poundland claim that they have seen a 20% rise in shoppers belonging to the AB social class. AB social class consists of the upper middle class and the middle class and typical occupations include doctors, lecturers, accountants, company directors, etc. This is interesting because those belonging to this class are generally associated with shopping at stores such as M&S, John Lewis, etc. and would rarely be seen, or want to be seen, at a discount store. It seems nobody is immune to the credit crunch, not even the rich. The Times recently reported that Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man, recently saw the weight of his fortune become a little less heavier as he lost £16 billion due to the drop in the share prices.

Thorntons, the well known chocolate maker, announced that its sales for the first quarter had risen by 6.4%. In addition to its own stores, Thorntorns also has numerous franchisees and also sells to supermarkets. Sales in its own stores grew by 4.9%, while sales at franchise stores and retailers grew by 2.4% and 11% respectively. Although consumers are cutting their spending and avoiding expensive brands and switching to discount stores, they still like to treat themselves occasionally. Thorntons has a well known brand name and a reputation for quality. It has numerous products for under £5 many starting at around £1.15. Add this up and Thorntons has a product that is able to keep up its sales even when other products which are deemed a luxury suffer falling sales.
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“Pizza Hut” gets a healthy makeover

6 10 2008
Pasta Hut, Image for DailyMail

Pasta Hut, Image from DailyMail

Pizza Hut, famous for its pizzas (no prizes for guessing), is launching a new healthier menu which is to include pastas. As a part of this revamp, 30 of its branches in the UK are to be re-branded to “Pasta Hut”, for the time being atleast, to reiterate the point that it is going to sell pastas. This re-brand is expected to cost £100m and will last 6 years. Pizza Hut has over 700 franchises in the UK and the first one opened in 1973, over 35 years ago. They hope that this move will help put the brand a upmarket position with a sophisticated and chic atmosphere that will clearly give it an edge over its competitors.

It seems that Pizza Hut is trying to attract health conscious middle-class people affected the credit crunch who are looking to downgrade, but are still looking for a more healthier, more wholesome option. This is the only way it is going to survive the current economic climate since it is likely that many of its current customers belonging to the lower income group would be downgrading to cheaper options and hence Pizza Hut has to somehow attract new customers.

However, not a lot changes as by re-branding to Pasta Hut, it is again restricting itself to a particular product line, like it did before, with pizzas. Currently, pasta accounts for around 3% to 4% of the sales, but Pizza Hut’s chief executive in Britain, Alasdair Murdoch, hopes it will account for around 10% soon.

Those willing to try it out should go to the following website http://www.pastahut.co.uk/Home

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