By Henry Kyambalesa
I wish to comment on plans by Energy and Water Development Minister Kenneth Konga to “introduce uniform prices for oil products throughout Zambia to ensure equity among consumers regardless of their geographical location,” as reported in a recent Times of Zambia article entitled “Government to Introduce Uniform Fuel Prices.”
If by “uniform prices” the Minister means “uniform retail prices,” then I am afraid this would not be a good idea as it would lead to price controls by the government.
One of the essential elements of the economic liberalization program that we embarked on upon the defeat of the UNIP administration and its regime of price controls and state monopoly in commerce and industry was the idea of competition, which, in Economics, actually refers to price competition in contrast to non-price competition involving advertising and other sales-getting tools.
Competition provides the incentive for business entities to operate more efficiently in order to reduce costs and prices, and benefits consumers in a variety of ways. Among other things, it leads to lower prices when businesses are discouraged by law from charging uniform prices for similar (or substitute) products. Moreover, it can reduce the smuggling of products whose government-controlled prices are below those obtaining in neighboring countries.
Besides, competition generally cures the problem of black markets since it entices suppliers to increase their outputs in order to benefit from economies of scale, thereby resolving the problem of commodity shortages which can bolster black marketeering in a country’s economy. In this regard, I am often reminded of the words of Murray Sanderson, which I wish to quote from a paper entitled “The Remedies for Black Marketeering and Smuggling” presented at a seminar held at Baluba River Motel between August 26 and 27, 1989:
“Price controls have the effect of discouraging supply while encouraging demand. The inevitable result is scarcity of commodities; and when there is scarcity, you always get people who buy up commodities wherever they can and resell them on the black market. In Zambia, we call them ‘black marketeers’. It is a useful term, for it puts the blame upon them rather than the authorities.”
Under a regime of price controls, there are certain arrangements which suppliers may resort to in an effort to maximize income (or minimize costs) which would tend to have adverse effects on the economic welfare of citizens.
Examples of such arrangements include the following:
(a) discontinuing the production or sale of affected commodities;
(b) restricting or reducing the quantity and quality of affected commodities;
(c) smuggling of affected commodities to countries where prices are higher than controlled prices obtaining in the domestic market;
(d) restricting or abandoning attendant marketing services, such as delivery service;
(e) imposing conditional sales on consumers, such as tying contracts;
(f) engaging in speculation in the controlled commodity.
There are several important elements which suppliers take into account when making pricing decisions other than transportation and storage costs; they include costs relating to labor, insurance, advertising, buildings, and contributions to host communities. These costs may not necessarily be the same among the retailers of oil products in Zambia. Also, the returns on investment expected by oil retailers are not likely to be the same. The idea of uniform retail prices for oil products is, therefore, uncalled-for.