Friday, 22 April 2016

Is market power on the march?

Last week I wrote about a piece in the Economist which made a case that corporate profits had become too big in the US - too big in the sense that the rise in profitability was more down to an unwelcome easing of competitive pressures (including through mergers of competitors), and a consequent rise in market power for incumbents, than down to any underlying efficiency gains or customer service improvements. My take was that if it's a potential issue for the US, it's potentially an even bigger issue for us if it's also happening here, as we're already an economy with high degrees of market concentration in various sectors. It would consequently be a good idea to see if we have (for whatever reason) become too relaxed about giving clearance to mergers, and have been allowing through ones that had actually resulted in a substantial loss of competitive pressure.

And it's like buses - right after the Economist, along comes the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) in the US saying much the same thing in their 'issue brief', 'Benefits of competition and indicators of market power'. It's not a hard or a long (14 pages) read, but if life's too short you'll find a pretty good summary here, from the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It also covers President Obama's consequent executive order, asking the American public sector to come up with specific ideas that would boost competition.

Where I've got to, after reading this latest effort and some of the sources it references, is that I'm in the same place as I was before. There's suggestive but (as yet) nowhere near knock-out evidence for the US, but if it's even a realistic prospect there, we need to be on our guard here that we haven't got a more severe case of it, and in particular that we aren't making the condition worse by inadvertently nodding through mergers that will reduce competition.

Let's look at some of the evidence. The CEA led off with this.

Well, yes, concentration is up, but often not to levels that ought to be in the least bit worrying: these are revenue shares for the top 50 companies combined, and they're often at entirely non-threatening levels. The CEA had to start somewhere, I suppose, but you'd need something a lot stronger to get to "there's a problem" territory.

The CEA do however reference some studies at a market level (which is the right frame of reference) which suggest it's happening there, too, and sometimes to levels that would indeed give you pause for thought. And other folk tend to find the same general trend, for example this paper on listed US companies concluded (p33) that
the decline in the number of industry incumbents is associated with remaining firms generating higher profits through higher profit margins. The results suggest that the increase in profit margin cannot be attributed to increased efficiency but rather to increased market power. Second, mergers in industries with a decreasing number of firms enjoy more positive market reactions, consistent with the idea that market power considerations are becoming a key source of value during these corporate events. Finally, firms in industries with a declining number of firms experience significant abnormal stock returns, suggesting that considerable portion of the market power gain accrues to shareholders. Overall, our findings suggest that despite popular beliefs, competition could have been fading over time
Of course, if you buy the idea that market power is on the rise, there could still be a bunch of reasons for it other than competition regulators not catching the anti-competitive impact of mergers, including (as both the Economist and the CEA mentioned) increased regulatory barriers to entry. It could be technology, for example: this graph from the CEA shows the already most profitable companies becoming even more so. But note that the acceleration in the top performers' ROE starts to take off mid-1990s, just when all the internet-enabled stuff started to take off. Are these the Googles of this world, and/or the companies outside the IT sector that made the best use of the new technologies?

And the CEA piece also shows that the US regulators have not been asleep at the wheel. The chart below shows that the US competition authorities have, rightly, been spending more of their time on the big (above US$1 billion) mergers than they used to. Proposed mergers ("Hart-Scott-Rodino transactions") over about US$78 million get notified to them: the regulators start "second request investigations" if they think there might be competition issues. In 2000, some 6% of proposed mergers were US$1 billion or more, and they accounted for about 25% of the push-backs from the regulator. In 2014, the big ones made up about 14% of all mergers, but were responsible for nearly 50% of the regulators' queries. If anything, you could make the case that the regulators had been spending a disproportionate amount of their time on the smaller stuff in 2000, and have got their act together since. They could, of course, still be letting "too many" through, but it's not obviously for want of kicking the tyres in the first place.

Where does this leave New Zealand and our policies and practices?

First of all, there's the law, and the Commerce Commissioners have got to call it as they see it, merger application by merger application. If they're "satisfied" that there's no substantial lessening of competition - that's the legal threshold - then it's game on. But, almost by definition these days, the proposals that come in the door are knotty. Getting to "satisfied" isn't easy. And to get there, I think Commissioners and their staff advisers would want a good deal of info to hand on trends in New Zealand corporate profitability and industry structure - what sort of 'natural experiments' are we seeing, for example when the third player in a market falls over, leaving just two? - and in particular they'd want to know what had happened when mergers "like" this one went through in the past. Against this background, ex post analysis of previous merger decisions is crucial.

Which, by the way, is also where Gary Rolnik, one of the professors at the University of Chicago's Booth School, has got to. No, there's (as yet, anyway) no smoking gun that excessive concentration and anticompetitive mergers are the issue: "these claims need more empirical studies before we can conclude, like The Economist, that for S&P 500 firms these exceptional profits derived from undue market power are currently running at about $300 billion a year, equivalent to a third of taxed operating profits, or 1.7 percent of GDP". But there's a real risk they might be: "the growing anecdotal evidence from many industries and the persistence of high profits margins in the face of stagnant growth and growing inequality deserves serious consideration".

We need to know, too. I can think of a lot worse projects for (say) our Productivity Commission to turn its mind to.


  1. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution

    "The total number of firms has dropped far less than the number of publicly traded firms, so in part this is probably due to laws affecting publicly traded firms in particular such as Sarbanes-Oxley. But there has also been a small drop in the total number of firms (depending on year measured) and concentration ratios have increased which suggests that competition might have fallen. (I wish the authors had looked more closely at the entire size distribution). Have international firms risen to offset the decline of publicly-trade firms? The authors discuss but discount the role of globalization. I don’t see, however, how their findings of small effects on output competition are consistent with big labor market effects. Nevertheless the bottom line is that as concentration rates have increased so have profits, as a recent CEA report also argues.

    Is this all the after-effects of the Great Recession? I hope so but the decline in the number of publicly traded firms is also consistent with the research on long-run declining dynamism (including my own research on regulation and dynamism) which shows that startup and reallocation rates have been trending down for thirty years."

    So we may not have a competition policy issue as such, it may be more complicated than that. Why the decline in firms? The size distribution does seem important here. Which sized firms are falling? All? Just some? The declining dynamism possibility is interesting and none of this will be helped by yet more hyper-active competition policy.

  2. Thanks for the point to Tabarrok and for your own questions - all good ones. The declining dynamism point is indeed interesting as are whatever connections it may have with regulation (esp regulatory barriers to entry), competition, and competition policy. I wish more applied micro folk would have a look at having a go at measuring the intensity of competition in markets over time. And sure, hyperactive competition policy would have its own flaws, but the trouble is that the most likely policy error is not hyperactivity but lethargy, esp (at risk of re-opening previous discussion!) in face of arguably overlenient merger clearances