Price Control

Ceiling price to floor bottled water industry

Originally appeared on Daily FT

By Joshua Karpinski

The recently instilled price control on bottled water seems like a positive for all consumers. How can a lower priced good hurt society? A recent report by the Advocata Institute “Price Controls in Sri Lanka” finds that price controls are of limited value in reducing costs. The report claims that price controls can cause significant welfare losses, deterioration in product quality, reduction in investment and, in the long run, higher prices. Hence, one must approach production and economic fundamentals to observe a price controls’ potentially detrimental outcomes.

As per the extraordinary gazette notification released by the government on the 5th of October 2018, the maximum retail prices of bottled water are as follows:

Gazette Table.PNG

As shown (table), the new ceiling prices shave off a fair chunk of the bottled water seller’s margin (for instance, the cheapest common 500ml brand retailed at Rs. 45.00). This falling margin trickles down from the retailer/wholesaler to the distributor and eventually the producer (bottler). As with any economic activity, the goal is to generate profit. This aim remains with the producer to the retailer, and a ceiling price disrupts economic activity. We must observe how this industry operates.

The common water bottler sources his PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles from local plastic producers or importers. These bottles are a product of the petrochemical industry, a sector of rising cost due to increasing petroleum prices, internationally. Additionally, the ailing Sri Lankan Rupee has done no favours to importers.

The water is sourced from dug wells to springs and deep wells, and various brands treat the water using different techniques (like pricey reverse osmosis or cheaper chemical treatment). The water and the PET bottles need to abide by a predetermined SLS criteria and Health Ministry specifications. Additionally, they undergo licensing (with periodic renewals), site inspections, water and product testing and random checks (by the Consumer Affairs Authority).

The finished water bottles then make their way to wholesalers or retailers, to be purchased in large quantities (for events or corporates) or shelved at boutiques and supermarkets. This is done with the help of distributors, who range from large corporate in-house logistics departments, to the DIMO Batta owners outstation. This price control lowers the distributor’s margin, potentially removing the smaller distributors altogether.

The larger sellers, like Keells with “K Choice” water or Cargills’ “KIST Knuckles”, vertically integrate the entire process. It will no longer be in the interest of these supermarket oligopolies, to use up shelf space for rival brands (this is already apparent in some Keells outlets) and eventually the consumer suffers with few to no brand alternative. The price ceiling acts as a barrier to entry for new producers, as now they do not have the freedom to charge prices in line with economic forces. Existing producers may be forced out of the market or absorbed by larger entities. In economic terms, consumer choice falls.

A shift to aggressively cut costs could lead to lower quality plastic, (albeit still in line with health standards) being used and recycled. Furthermore, cheaper alternatives to water purification like chemical treatment will become the standard, despite poorer taste and lower healthy mineral content. A fall in research and development investment will lower innovation into current and future water products and services and this too will be at cost to the consumer.

Lower priced bottled water leads to higher demand and consumption. This does not bode well for the environment, owing to more plastic use and waste. Sri Lanka annually imports 9,600 tonnes of raw virgin plastic (PET) to manufacture bottles, packaging and for other requirements. 70% of this is processed and consumed as an end product in Sri Lanka and the used plastic waste creates monstrous environmental issues. Although recyclers are trying to address this issue, the price control in question could severely contribute to even greater plastic waste.

Tap water is the cheapest water option available. It usually goes through a process of basic filtration techniques like flocculation, which adds chemicals to the water to get particles to coagulate and float, so that they can be removed; sand filtration, which filters out large pieces of debris; or chlorination, which adds chlorine to kill bacteria and microorganisms. Despite tap water being considered drinkable (to some, purely out of convenience), it can lead to numerous problems. Chlorine is not ideal for human consumption (while our bodies can technically handle it, chlorine can lead to a variety of health complications and is potentially carcinogenic). The presence of microbes and impurities from pipes add health issues too. These risks have not gone unnoticed as we observe tourist forums and foreign travel bloggers strongly urging future visitors to avoid Sri Lankan tap water and to always opt for sealed bottled water. This leads on to the variety of bottled water available to consumers.

  • Artesian Water: Water from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand) in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer.

  • Spring Water: Water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth.

  • Purified Water: Water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or other suitable processes.

  • Distilled Water: Water that has been vaporized into steam, then cooled to re-condense it back into water. The water's minerals are left behind, leaving only pure tasting steam-distilled water.

  • Mineral Water: Water that contains no less than 250 parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids (TDS).

It is evident that a variety of water sources can be tapped and different purification methods can be employed to produce consumable water. This “clean, drinkable water” is then bottled and intensely marketed across a spectrum of brands, along with their source and unique purification methodology.

Below, tabulated, is a collection of some local branded water. (Source: bottle label/bottler website)

Collation of bottled water prices.jpg

These bottles contain drinking water that was sourced differently. It was then processed (filtered/purified) differently. The plastic it is contained in is not standardized (it just has to fulfil a minimum health and quality requirement). These aspects of a seemingly simple good exposes variety with differentiability, and this may sway demand for one brand over the other. This should influence price and create a variation of prices for different brands, at the stimulus of consumer choice.

However, in essence, this price control has homogenized a differentiable good. The consumer now pays one price across a range of bottled water.

The price ceiling, although seemingly to help us buy cheaper bottled water, could cycle back to hinder the bottled water industry from giving the end consumer the best possible product. Water is not a scarce good (yet) in Sri Lanka and there are plenty of existing alternatives to bottled water. Has the government truly taken this into consideration? How have the new prices been calculated? What research has been carried out? Has a cost benefit analysis been performed? If so, where is it? Where is the data? Despite multiple attempts to communicate with senior employees at the CAA, we failed to gather any meaningful answers, useful information nor a compliant contact. Why does the CAA pass the buck to its ministry who in turn has no one willing to answer these queries? Does society truly benefit from this seemingly positive, yet irrational gazette? Who really stands to benefit from this decision in the long run?

Price Control Outcome.jpg

Game of charades: The lackadaisical implementation of price controls on basic foods

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Government has imposed price controls on a number of basic foods in order to control the cost of living. For the purpose of study, we wanted to ascertain the products subject to controls, as well as the prices at which they were supposed to be sold.

A list of price controlled items is a straightforward piece of information that should be readily available to any consumer.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be available anywhere. The website of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) lists a few items; gas, cement, milk powder, chicken, rice, and pharmaceuticals. The other items were not listed.

The information on the CAA website is outdated (eg. A controlled price from 2014 is listed for chicken although chicken was removed from the list of controlled items in April 2017). On inquiring from the CAA over telephone, we were asked to refer to the website. A list was eventually compiled after a field visit to the CAA by extracting the relevant information from copies of the gazettes.

How are price controls to be enforced if a list of items subject to control is not readily available?

The proper approach would be to ensure that list of controlled prices is displayed at every outlet, so customers know if they are being overcharged and can then make their purchasing decisions accordingly.

Having compiled a list, we compared the controlled prices with the weekly market prices published by the Department of Census and Statistics in its survey of the main markets in the Colombo district in the period September 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.

It is evident from the table we have collated that the controlled prices are not being followed in most instances.

The surveys of traders by Breakthrough indicate that 67% of retailers and 46% of wholesalers react to raids by the CAA by temporarily adjusting prices. They later revert to business as usual. Trying to enforce retail level price control across the informal trade and public markets is a practical impossibility. The CAA annual report (2014) states that 22,402 raids were carried out that year and 25,287 in 2013. This is small fraction of 205,573 retail outlets (general as well as those specialised in food, beverages and tobacco) in the country.

In any case if the controlled prices were strictly enforced, then the usual distortions such as shortages and queues would become obvious with unpalatable political consequences.

The CAA is successful in enforcing prices on items supplied by large businesses or corporates such as in cement or milk powder. Whether this actually keeps prices low is questionable.

Large businesses are relatively easy to monitor and they are open to pressure to supply even at a loss; on the implicit understanding that they will be allowed to recoup this at some point, as noted in the articles included in the appendices to this report. It is very clear that the only item consistently being sold at the controlled price is milk powder produced by a multinational. Wheat flour, which is also produced by large corporates tends to track the controlled price closely. The majority of the other items were being traded at prices above the controlled price.

During the period under survey, price controls were imposed on Nadu rice (December 26, 2017) coconuts (December 6) and revised on dhal and kata (December 6) with minimal impact on prices.

The impact of taxes on prices is particularly interesting. When some taxes were reduced in November 2017 (dhal, potatoes, Big onions), prices declined on these items over period of weeks, sometimes falling below the controlled price. When taxes were later raised (potatoes to Rs.30/kg on February 24, B onions to Rs.40 on May 2) prices rose again eventually breaching the controlled price. In the case of dhal prices eventually fell below the original controlled price (159/kg) following the reduction in tax – but prices did not respond significantly when the controlled prices was reduced to Rs.130 (December 6, 2017).

This underlines the case for reducing specific food taxes if there is any serious intention to control prices.

It is also worth noting the difference in prices between imported and local items, potatoes, and big onions. Locally produced items are not subject to tax or price control, but when available, these retail at prices higher than the controlled price and are sometimes higher than the (taxed) imported items.

Instead of attempting to protect agriculture through taxes (which raises prices for consumers) the government should facilitate the modernisation of the sector, supporting investments that improve productivity (eg. mechanisation, drip irrigation, greenhouses, quality seeds etc).

Using controls to reduce prices does not appear to work.

Addressing the inefficiencies within local agricultural is the sustainable way to lower prices: increased productivity raises farmer incomes and lower consumer prices in the long term.

The scheme itself is ill-conceived and there seems little intent or capacity to enforce. Reducing taxes, increasing competition and productivity in local agriculture is a surer path to lower consumer prices.

Updated Price List

“Price Controls in Sri Lanka: Political Theatre”, a new report by the Advocata Institute finds that consumer price controls lead to unintended outcomes including lower quality.

To read more on Price Controls and download full report:

A video documentary:

Tea & Hoppers - Fixed Prices, perverse incentives [Podcast]

By Anushka Wijesinha

In my latest podcast, I talk about tea and hoppers; two of my favourite food items, and indeed of most Sri Lankans. But the government now dictates how much shops can charge me for these – and its a pretty fantastic, lower price than ever before – milk tea at Rs 25, plain tea at Rs. 10, and plain hoppers at Rs. 10. As a consumer, I should be pretty happy right? “Not if it’s causing unintended consequences!”, the economist inside me is saying.

In this article titled ‘The Problems of Price Controls‘, The Cato Institute – a prominent libertarian think tank in the US, asserts that,

“price controls reduce quality, create black markets, and stimulate costly rationing”.

We are seeing this play out right here in Sri Lanka. Last month, we saw one of the most intrusive and bizarre examples of administered prices (or price controls) being introduced by a government in recent times. This was on tea, and hoppers, served anywhere in the country, to be enforced by the Consumer Affairs Authority. What this has done is cause perverse incentives among those making and selling these items. Using poorer quality ingredients, shaving off quantity, skimping on the add-ons. Government-imposed fixed prices not only completely violates basic economic freedoms enjoyed by firms – like the freedom (and ability) to use price to signal quality or differentiation – but it is also notoriously difficult for a government to enforce fully and fairly. We must do more to make policymakers and bureaucrats understand that badly thought out public policies cause perverse incentives by economic agents, and this helps nobody. Listen to the podcast by clicking play below, or visit it on Soundcloud 

Anushka Wijesinha is a development economist and a consultant to a host of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka.  He has previously worked at Institute for Policy Studies, The World Bank and the presidential commision on taxation.  His writings on economics are found on his blog -- The curionomist.  You can follow him on Twitter @anushwij