Oligopoly is a market situation in which there are a few firms selling homogeneous or differentiated products. It is difficult to pinpoint the number of firms in ‘competition among the few.’ With only a few firms in the market, the action of one firm is likely to affect the others. An oligopoly industry produces either a homogeneous product or heterogeneous products.
The former is called pure or perfect oligopoly and the latter is called imperfect or differentiated oligopoly. Pure oligopoly is found primarily among producers of such industrial products as aluminium, cement, copper, steel, zinc, etc. Imperfect oligopoly is found among producers of such consumer goods as automobiles, cigarettes, soaps and detergents, TVs, rubber tyres, refrigerators, typewriters, etc.
CHARACTERISTICS OF OLIGOPOLY
There is recognised interdependence among the sellers in the oligopolistic market. Each oligopolist firm knows that changes in its price, advertising, product characteristics, etc. may lead to counter-moves by rivals. When the sellers are a few, each produces a considerable fraction of the total output of the industry and can have a noticeable effect on market conditions.He can reduce or increase the price for the whole oligopolist market by selling more quantity or less and affect the profits of the other sellers. It implies that each seller is aware of the price-moves of the other sellers and their impact on his profit and of the influence of his price-move on the actions of rivals.
Thus there is complete interdependence among the sellers with regard to their price-output policies. Each seller has direct and ascertainable influences upon every other seller in the industry. Thus, every move by one seller leads to counter-moves by the others.
The main reason for this mutual interdependence in decision making is that one producer’s fortunes are dependent on the policies and fortunes of the other producers in the industry. It is for this reason that oligopolist firms spend much on advertisement and customer services.As pointed out by Prof. Baumol, “Under oligopoly advertising can become a life-and-death matter.” For example, if all oligopolists continue to spend a lot on advertising their products and one seller does not match up with them he will find his customers gradually going in for his rival’s product. If, on the other hand, one oligopolist advertises his product, others have to follow him to keep up their sales.
This leads to another feature of the oligopolistic market, the presence of competition. Since under oligopoly, there are a few sellers, a move by one seller immediately affects the rivals. So each seller is always on the alert and keeps a close watch over the moves of its rivals in order to have a counter-move. This is true competition.
- Barriers to Entry of Firms
As there is keen competition in an oligopolistic industry, there are no barriers to entry into or exit from it. However, in the long run, there are some types of barriers to entry which tend to restraint new firms from entering the industry.
They may be:
(a) Economies of scale enjoyed by a few large firms
(b) control over essential and specialised inputs
(c) high capital requirements due to plant costs, advertising costs, etc.
(d) exclusive patents and licenses; and
(e) the existence of unused capacity which makes the industry unattractive. When entry is restricted or blocked by such natural and artificial barriers, the oligopolistic industry can earn long-run super normal profits.
- Lack of Uniformity
Another feature of oligopoly market is the lack of uniformity in the size of firms. Finns differ considerably in size. Some may be small, others very large. Such a situation is asymmetrical. This is very common in the American economy. A symmetrical situation with firms of a uniform size is rare.
- Demand Curve
It is not easy to trace the demand curve for the product of an oligopolist. Since under oligopoly the exact behaviour pattern of a producer cannot be ascertained with certainty, his demand curve cannot be drawn accurately, and with definiteness. How does an individual seller s demand curve look like in oligopoly is most uncertain because a seller’s price or output moves lead to unpredictable reactions on price-output policies of his rivals, which may have further repercussions on his price and output.The chain of action reaction as a result of an initial change in price or output, is all a guess-work. Thus a complex system of crossed conjectures emerges as a result of the interdependence among the rival oligopolists which is the main cause of the indeterminateness of the demand curve.
- No Unique Pattern of Pricing Behaviour
The rivalry arising from interdependence among the oligopolists leads to two conflicting motives. Each wants to remain independent and to get the maximum possible profit. Towards this end, they act and react on the price-output movements of one another in a continuous element of uncertainty.On the other hand, again motivated by profit maximisation each seller wishes to cooperate with his rivals to reduce or eliminate the element of uncertainty. All rivals enter into a tacit or formal agreement with regard to price-output changes. It leads to a sort of monopoly within oligopoly.They may even recognise one seller as a leader at whose initiative all the other sellers raise or lower the price. In this case, the individual seller’s demand curve is a part of the industry demand curve, having the elasticity of the latter. Given these conflicting attitudes, it is not possible to predict any unique pattern of pricing behaviour in oligopoly markets.