Datenjournalismus

Data journalism.

Germany has thousands of gas stations that tend to be owned by only a handful of chains affiliated with the world’s major oil companies. For years, people accused German gas stations of raising fuel prices right before weekends and holidays and especially holiday weekends, in concert, yet no one could prove collusion. So the government created the Market Transparency Office for Fuel. In 2013, the Markttransparenzstelle began requiring German gas stations to communicate their fuel price changes in real time, and then it broadcast the data to companies whose phone apps let consumers quickly and easily compare gas prices at the closest gas stations.

Süddeutsche Zeitung has now taken four weeks of gas price data from one of the larger phone apps and combed through the information looking for patterns in what they’re calling a “data journalism” investigation. They’ll be publishing their findings in a series of articles.

Update on 16 Apr 2014: Some immediately obvious outliers turned out to be caused by gas stations that were sending in prices without decimal points, or e.g. one was submitting the price “9999.” S.Z. said the system still doesn’t have a way to check whether the numbers submitted by gas stations are truthful. Currently consumers are to send complaints about incorrect price data to the phone app companies.

S.Z. said they too can’t prove collusion. But some gas station chains are more expensive (the chain with the highest fuel prices said it’s because their fuel is such high quality). Some chains are big enough that their price changes move the market, with smaller chains changing their prices after a bigger chain does so.

The lowest fuel prices tended to be in areas with dense populations.

One gas station chain tends to change its fuel prices >13 times a day, another only 9 times a day. Both are very likely to change fuel prices between 7 and 8 p.m., while several other chains are very likely to change prices between 9 p.m. and midnight. Apparently until this report was published the cheapest time to refuel was between 5 and 7 p.m., with fuel prices rising steeply after 8 p.m.

Update on 17 Apr 2014: The chain with the most gas stations in Germany has the highest fuel prices in Germany, in the data set the Süddeutsche Zeitung examined. The chain with the second-highest number of gas stations has the second-highest fuel prices. S.Z. said the ratio holds true for four other large “A brand” chains.

“B brand,” cheaper and smaller, gas station chains tend to use a strategy of selling fuel at prices only perhaps two eurocents below the prices of the closest “A brand” gas stations but the new pricing data shows that their prices average four to five eurocents below the A brands’ when looking at Germany as a whole. The C.E.O. of one of the fuel price phone apps said, “The strategy of the B brands is actually: one or two cents cheaper is okay, that won’t start a price war.”

Germany also has many gas stations not affiliated with the large oil-company chains, but the current database groups independent gas stations in the same category as ones that belong to a large non-oil company such as a chain of car washes or supermarkets. The larger category of independent gas stations plus gas stations belonging to non-oil-company chains had higher average fuel prices than the B brand gas stations, yet S.Z. said “a look at the data” showed that in fact car wash and supermarket chains sell the cheapest fuel, because they’re hoping customers who arrive to buy gas will stay to wash cars or buy groceries.

Austria is trying to regulate gas stations’ pricing to benefit consumers more by mandating that gas stations there can only change fuel prices once per day, at noon. It’s not known whether the advantages of this model will outweigh the disadvantages: German and other officials are watching to see how the experiment works out.

(DOT en jure nah LIZ moose.)

Bussgeld gegen Brauereien

Fines to brewers.

The German cartel authority and several major German brewers have confirmed that >100 million euros in fines for pricing collusion have been issued so far as a result of investigations into the “biggest beer cartel in German history” ever caught, going on for “umpteen” years according to testimony from a Veltins manager. The Belgian beer giant InBev that bought Budweiser and Becks ratted the German brewers out and will thus be the only participant not fined. Some other brewers’ fines were also reduced from the maximum possible 10% of annual gross, depending on their cooperation.

By Scandinavian and U.S. standards, even illegally inflated German beer prices were relatively low because of Germany’s low sin taxes on alcohol. (Alcohol is not considered the spark in the societal powder keg in Germany. Beer, especially, is thought to have some redeeming qualities of bringing people together socially, and possibly some of the nutritional aspects of bread.) The cartel’s agreements would have raised the price of a 20-bottle case of beer by 1 euro in 2008, Spiegel.de explained.

Investigations are still ongoing against two more corporate brewers and four regional (i.e. smaller) brewers, who have not yet been named for that reason.

(BOOSS geld   gay gen   BROW ah WRY en.)

“Das Geld dafür geben die Anderen”

“Other people are paying for it,” how financial reporter Frank Bethmann commented the U.S. company Verizon’s “schwindelerregend” offer of $130 billion to buy out British partner Vodafone’s stake in their U.S. joint venture Verizon Wireless. In the 02 Sep 2013 announcement of the sale, Verizon said as part of it they intended to borrow $25 billion one week later at the currently very low interest rates; that would have been the largest amount ever borrowed by a company in the history of the world apparently.

Update on 12 Sep 2013: Verizon’s $49 billion Unternehmensanleihe [“company loan” i.e. corporate bond] “emission in eight tranches at varying interest rates and terms to investors around the globe” was the biggest ever, according to manager-magazin.de, adding that the takeover itself was also the third-biggest ever.

This is not the only vertiginous telecom merger in the works. There’s two in the German market as well.

On 23 Jul 2013, Spanish Telefónica’s German subsidiary O2 announced that it wanted to buy the Dutch KPN’s German subsidiary E-Plus, though “only” for five billion euros. The resulting company would become the German market’s largest mobile phone provider (43 million customers), followed by Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-mobile (37 million customers) and then the British Vodafone (32 million c.). The merger required approval from German and E.U. competition authorities.

Update on 12 May 2014: The German Monopoly Commission [Monopolkommission] told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung they expect the E.U. to set serious competition-saving conditions for approving Telefónica’s acquisition of E-plus, including that there will still be four mobile telephony providers in the German market after the merger. “Abstract concessions and offers won’t do it.” Three mobile phone providers competing in the German market would not suffice because E-plus was the one that stirred up the market the most and it would be the one disappearing.

Update on 13 Sep 2013: Now British Vodafone is purchasing the Munich-based Kabel Deutschland, “Germany’s biggest cable network operator,” at ~8.5 million television households,” for ~11 billion euros (~7.7 billion for ≥75% of Kabel Deutschland’s stock and the rest to cover Kabel’s debts; stock cost to be announced Monday 16 Sep 2013), according to Spiegel.de and manager-magazin.de. This will increase Vodafone’s competitiveness with Deutsche Telekom in the German market selling wireless and landline telephonery, television cable and internet access. European competition authorities approved the deal on 20 Sep 2013.

Huge telecom mergers & acquisitions could be motivated by more than just the roseate future of voice and internet communications plus current rock-bottom interest rates. If telecom industry people believe governments will stop defending net neutrality and consumer privacy, they will fear they must join a large existing telecom and fight to expand it, or die. They will not think risky entrepreneurship or small-to-medium-sized companies are an option. If a telecom gets big enough in a deregulated market that includes suspicionless surveillance, the money will sort itself out somehow. In regulatory situations where governments have to grant unusual concessions to big telecoms, governments will grant unusual concessions to big telecoms.

(Doss   GELD   dah foor   gay ben   dee   ON dare en.)

Zwei-Klassen-Internet

“Two-class internet,” Deutsche Telekom’s third current scandal: they plan to charge content providers for not slowing down their content’s delivery, ultimately giving large, financially-established firms an advantage over smaller firms and startups.

By also “throttling” consumers’ internet access speeds, Telekom was planning to cash in at both ends of the pipe. Deutsche Telekom has now conceded to the outrage by announcing they won’t throttle consumers’ internet access as hard or as fast as originally announced.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal wrote on 19 Jun 2013 that large US content companies have already been paying tens of millions of dollars per year per company to large phone and cable internet companies in the USA to keep the network operators from slowing down delivery of their content. The same large content companies could be blackmailed by similar network controllers in every country in the world.

(Tsv eye CLOSS en Internet.)

#Drosselkom

Twitter hashtag for snark about Deutsche Telekom’s second current scandal, their unilateral decision to choke new flat-rate customers’ Internet tubes after 02 May 2013.

Telekom’s decision against net neutrality might have given permission to its competitors to take similar steps. In April, internet policy activists were concerned that Arcor purchaser and important ISDN competitor Vodafone had started looking into data throttling as well, but that company responded by saying it was not currently considering so doing.

In a 30 May 2013 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the president of the German anti-cartel authority [Bundeskartellamt] said that if Deutsche Telekom planned to allow providers to buy their way out of Telekom’s plans to slow down data to its flat-rate consumers, this might be anticompetitive because smaller providers might have trouble paying the new fees charged to resume normal data access or “purchase a priority treatment” as he put it. Yet the anti-cartel authority had decided to neither investigate nor prosecute for anti-competitive market access limitations in this case, merely to get “the clearest possible picture” of the situation. They were concerned that Telekom provide better information to its customers about whether they were close to exceeding data limits and about which services were counting toward customers’ volume limit (companies have until 2016 to make priority partnership agreements with Telekom to have Telekom stop counting their content toward Telekom customers’ volume limits). Also, the president of the anti-cartel authority said, the networks authority [Bundesnetzagentur] would be determining whether network neutrality was being violated enough to require further investigation. The F.A.Z. noted that Telekom is considered a major market player because it controls ~45% of the German DSL market, with ~12.4 million connections, according to the Bundesnetzagentur.

(DROSS ell com.)

Der Dickmacher

The thickmaker,” sugar. On 23 April 2013 the European and German Cartel Authorities carried out razzias at sugar processing plant company offices in four countries for suspected price fixing from 2004 to 2011. Sugar’s well-meant but interestingly unusual regulatory status in Europe has led to a lack of transparancy that apparently made it possible for pricing questions to arise. By law, 15% of European sugar must be imported from developing countries. European farmers who grow the roots from which the remaining 85% is processed are guaranteed a minimum price, but at strictly controlled quantities. Sugar beet farmers have to sell their product to the sugar-processing factories; very little sugar is traded on the open market. The six largest sugar processing companies control 80% of the European sugar market, writes the Süddeutsche. Two German sugar processors control 40% of the European market. The processing factories set the prices, which do not always track with world sugar prices. German consumers have been paying between EUR 0.60 and 1.00 per kilo (annual consumption averages ~36 kg/year/German). Sugar root farmers were getting 27 euros per ton until 2012 when, after a good harvest, the price jumped to 45 to 50 euros per ton.

Update on 18 Feb 2014: The German cartel authority [Bundeskartellamt] has fined Germany’s three largest sugar manufacturers ~280 million euros for collusion. The companies Pfeifer und Langen, Südzucker and Nordzucker were fined, as well as seven individuals. Südzucker had to pay nearly 200 million euros but Nordzucker’s cooperation substantially reduced that company’s fine.

(Dare   DICK maw caw.)

Bundeskartellamtliche Bußgeldleitlinien

The German Federal Cartel Authority‘s fining guidelines. Appeals to the record-breaking fine imposed on some cement companies for anticompetitive behavior in the 1990’s have prompted discussion of the rules governing Germany’s current maximum limit on cartel fines and how those rules do or do not fit into European and other international structures.

According to Hans Jürgen Meyer-Lindemann’s 08 May 2013 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Cartel Authority updated its relevant rules in 2006 to match European regulations. IIUC, the German fine for collusion is based on the company concerned’s total collusion sales, averaging 20% of that for the “base fine”; but according to European and now German law the fine cannot exceed 10% of the total worldwide gross from the fiscal year before the year the sanction is imposed. Mr. Meyer-Lindemann wrote that the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg decreed for this purpose the definition of the company should be given a broad interpretation, and thus according to the ECJ not just a national subsidiary’s but the parent corporation’s entire worldwide sales should be used in calculating a maximum upper limit for fines for cartel law violations.

Mr. Meyer-Lindemann felt there remain some loose ends in conforming German to European regulations on this issue. Under European law, he said international corporation parent companies have responsibility in antitrust violations committed by their European subsidiaries. The German supreme court in Karlsruhe’s recent decision on the appeal to the cement companies’ cartel fine merely dealt with how to use international corporate assets to calculate more appropriate maximum antitrust fines and did not deal with assigning responsibility when international corporations are involved in such matters. The European approach of having a 10% maximum limit to cartel fines, he wrote, “has been massively criticized by some German commentators.”

(BOON dess car TELL omt lichh ah   BOOSS geld LIGHT lean ian.)

Schienenkartell

“Rails cartel.” Troubled steel giant Thyssen-Krupp and three other firms are defendants in a lawsuit by the Deutsche Bahn for railroad construction price-setting collusion said to have lasted almost a decade. Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) is seeking 550 million euros after, it said, trying for several months to reach an out-of-court settlement. Its lawsuit is said to have good chances, in particular because somehow the suit suspends the statute of limitations for the offenses, for which these companies were fined ˜100 million euros last summer by the German Federal Cartel Authority (Bundeskartellamt), which criticized the Deutsche Bahn’s lax procedures. Tagesschau.de reports that the Deutsche Bahn has often been the victim of rail cartels. The F.A.Z. called them “nearly a historical normality.” In 2012 Thyssen-Krupp announced losses of 5 billion euros after failures of e.g. investments in steel processing plants in the USA and Brazil; it fired half its board in consequence.

Update on 23 Jul 2013: The Bundeskartellamt announced it has issued a second set of fines in this matter totalling ˜97 million euros to eight companies, moving its fines total for this rail cartel to ~230 million euros. This second set of fines was for overcharging construction firms and local, regional, private and industry train organizations. F.A.Z. reported the fine money will go to the federal government. Almost all the companies are cooperating, according to the cartel authority. The investigation was started by a request to turn state’s evidence from the Austrian Voestalpine company, which also said recently that it is the only one of these companies to have reached a negotiated settlement with the Deutsche Bahn so far. This second set of BKA fines is not yet final; they may still be appealed.

The Bundeskartellamt’s press release said in the cartel the company scheduled to win each order was given a “leadership” role that included telling the others how much to ask for in their so-called “safety bids” [“Schutzangebote“] tendered to camouflage the collusion.

(SHEE nen cartel.)

Ökostromumlage

“Environmentally-friendly electricity contribution” or “share in the costs”; this is a subvention to build more solar and wind power-generating capacity in Germany. Paid by electricity consumers, this contribution will probably increase in 2013 from ~3.6 to ~5.3 eurocents/kWh, or by an additional ~60 euros per average German household.

On 07 Oct. 2012 the president of the German Federal Cartell Authority asked for this contribution to be modified because he said it will soon be as high as the price of electricity on the Exchange.

Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the libertarianesque FDP, advertises itself as a party that lowers taxes and deregulates in the interest of simplification (though it appears to me they have trouble finding projects that do this while actually simplifying and while actually benefiting average voters and not e.g. rich people). The FDP has now called to reduce value-added tax on electricity as compensation for the Ökostromumlage. Angela Merkel’s environmental minister (CDU) disagreed, saying he first wanted to find out how their partner party would compensate for the lost budgeted funds. The Green Party said it refuses to lower subventions for alternative power sources.

Update on 10 Oct 2012: Angela Merkel’s environmental minister (CDU) is now calling for a new Ökostromumlage law.

Update on 21 Oct 2012: Tagesschau.de reports that an internal SPD paper is also calling for a value-added tax rebate on electricity. The paper also calls for student allowances (BAFÖG), the base welfare income for people seeking work (Grundsicherung für Arbeitssuchenden, EUR ~690/month) and housing allowances (Wohngeld) to be “adjusted” for the electricity contribution increase.

(ÖÖÖ koh strome oom log eh.)

Markttransparenzstelle

The new “Market Transparency Office,” under the auspices of the German Federal Cartell Authority. The MTO is intended to gather and evaluate data from electricity companies and especially gas stations to ensure there is no price fixing. These data will not be shared with the public. It is not clear whether this new office will be functional or grandstanding.

Update on 12 Sep 2013: Starting today, drivers will have access to the price data ~13,000 German gas stations have been sending to the federal cartel authority [Bundeskartellamt] since 31 Aug 2013. The bundled data are forwarded to several phone apps and “registered consumer protection centers” or “consumer portals” drivers can use to compare gas station prices in real time; price changes are updated to the market transparency office every five minutes. Beta testing is scheduled to end 01 Dec 2013.

The following consumer portals have been approved for this so far:

http://www.clever-tanken.de

http://www.spritpreismonitor.de

http://mehr-tanken.de

http://www.ADAC.de

http://tanken.t-online.de

Spiegel.de reported another eight “information services” have been approved to help share the price data with consumers and another hundred have applied for approval.

The Green party called this a placebo office, criticizing inter alia that it does not fix inflationary pricing malheurs committed by the refineries (which have the same ownership as some large gas station chains in some cases). Also, it doesn’t cover all fuels or 100% of the market because the smallest gas stations can apply to be exempted. Germany has about 14,000 gas stations, so ~1000 are not participating as the service is launched.

(MARKED trons par ENTS shtell ah.)

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