Retailers rejoice at end to government intervention

With the change in government, the effort to control prices is gone and, not unexpectedly, prices in several commodities have surged in recent days. Representatives of retailers were quick to pin the blame on the previous government for intervening in the market and offered the timeworn explanation that unfettered competition will push prices lower – after the initial upward explosion. The new minister in charge of trade, Yiannis Papathanassiou, a former businessman, chastised, on the one hand, the previous government for resorting into «policing» prices. On the other, he criticized his predecessors and the Competition Commission for not being vigilant enough in policing prices. «There have been more than 300 cases of collusions that adulterate competition at the expense of the consumer and which have not been investigated yet,» he said, adding that he will not hesitate to take measures against price gouging, if it happens. Pantelis Panteliadis, president of the Hellenic Association of Supermarket Owners (SESME), visited Papathanassiou yesterday to inform him that prices of several consumer products have risen by up to 4 percent since the March 7 election. In some cases, such as olives, olive oil and flour, price rises have reached 7 percent, because of the «exceptional circumstances» affecting these sectors in the past few months. The drop in last year’s production of olives and wheat had led olive and flour companies to warn last fall that the relative rise in processing cost would hit the consumer. «When you intervene in the functioning of the market, it comes back to haunt you down the road,» Panteliadis said. He was referring to the interventionist stance of the previous Development Ministry officials, especially Papathanassiou’s predecessor, Kimon Koulouris, who, despite serving only eight months as deputy minister, was known for his relentless pursuit of profiteers. Koulouris had called many meetings with producers and retailers and had exacted promises of price stability. Some of the biggest supermarket chains, such as Carrefour, had made advance commitments to keep prices low, causing resentment among other SESME members. SESME officials were confident yesterday that the government intervention of the past few months that had «delayed» price rises was over and that «the market is recovering its pace.» However, SESME officials also promised Papathanassiou that competition will put things right before Easter and that the holiday’s staples, such as lamb, could be cheaper than last year. Besides their positions on price controls, SESME officials took up with Papathanassiou the issue of opening hours, which they asked to be made uniform throughout the country. Before meeting the retailers’ representatives, Papathanassiou early yesterday visited the fruit and vegetable market in central Athens. He told producers that the ministry’s policy was to alleviate the causes of price rises and not to police prices. He did warn them, however, that «in the transitional phase we are going through, until the new policies begin to produce results, we will not hesitate to take tough measures if we get wind of price-gouging practices.» He asked producers to show «self-restraint» in raising prices and added that the government will study in depth the meat and vegetable markets in order to reveal the networks of middlemen that impose high prices at the expense of the consumer. Later yesterday, Papathanassiou met with representatives of the pharmaceuticals industry. No announcement was made about the meeting.

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