Some of it is entirely respectable analysis. Last year, for example, President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers came out with an influential report, 'Benefits of competition and indicators of market power', which was well argued and reasonable. This graph from the report, for example, has got a lot of airtime (including an outing at this year's Competition Law and Policy Institute annual workshop).
As it shows, there's a small group of companies, which includes the FAANGs, who are doing far, far better than everyone else and bagging quite remarkable rates of return on their equity (ROEs). It's not surprising that they've attracted attention from people genuinely concerned about how they have achieved these results, about what they are doing with the market power they've created - the classic being the European Commission's big fine last month on Google for allegedly illegally discriminating against competitors in online advertising - all the way down to assorted ambulance-chasers following the money. There have even been proposals that some of these companies need regulating like utilities: there's a Wikipedia entry, for example, on the idea of 'Social media as a public utility'.
It hasn't helped that some of these firms have at times got right up the noses of competition authorities, with Facebook's 2014 purchase of WhatsApp being a good example. As part of the EU merger approval process, Facebook said that it was technically impossible to merge WhatsApp's customer data with Facebook's. It wasn't, and they did. The Commission fined Facebook €110 million "for providing misleading information"; Facebook said it was inadvertent.
But there is also some pretty poor 'diagnosis' of 'a problem' floating around. Somewhere on Twitter recently I got pointed to the latest annual Trade and Development Report, published in September by UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. While it sounds like a tedious Leninist tract - "Market power and inequality: The revenge of the rentiers" - Chapter VI actually contains an interesting empirical go at measuring the quantum of allegedly "excess" profits being earned at these superstar companies.
Their approach as they said on p124 was
Sounds reasonable enough in principle, and rather resembles an OECD exercise recently which attempted to measure excessive mark-ups.define a benchmark that captures typical firm performance in given market conditions. The idea is to measure the gap between actually observed profits on the one hand, and typical or benchmark profits on the other. A positive gap between these two variables means that some firms are able to accumulate surplus or “excess” profits.
Their key result is shown below: as they summarise it (pp124-5), "the share of surplus profits in total profits grew significantly for all firms in the database until the global financial crisis, from 4 per cent during the period 1995−2000 to 19 per cent in 2001−2008. It increased again to 23 per cent in the subsequent period", with bigger increases again for the 100 biggest firms (by equity). Recently, we are asked to believe, 40% of total top 100 firms' profits are "surplus" or "excess".
The only trouble is that the whole thing falls apart when you unpack the methodology. Their measure of benchmark profit is the median rate of return on assets (ROA), which they say (p124) is "a widely used accounting measure of profitability". That's your first clue right there that something's naff: economists - and this is an economics-focussed chapter - would not normally, em, come to the aid of an accounting measure of profits if its hair was on fire.
The UNCTAD people at least had the gumption to apply their median ROA sector by sector since cross-sector ROAs are essentially meaningless. But even then I doubt if their database was sufficiently granular to do the job properly (I couldn't find out how many sectors they used, either in the report or on the UNCTAD website). Even if you got down to a 'shipbuilding' sector, say, if half the firms are making fishing boats with lowish amounts of fixed assets, and the rest are making battleships in enormous facilities, the higher ROA on fishing boats is going to spit out 'excess' profits where there may be none.
The whole ROA exercise still tells you nothing about the proper focus of inquiry, ROE: the battleship builders could be the more profitable. And there are other issues. In particular, there's no inherent logic in using the median sectoral ROA as the benchmark. You could well have - and likely do in many industries - have a small group on the efficiency frontier earning normal profits (or even excess profits) with a long tail of relatively inefficient firms earning sub-normal returns. The right level for identifying 'excess' profitability could be the 80th or 90th percentile or even above.
"Clearly", the UNCTAD report said, "these results need to be interpreted with caution". Indeed.
As it happens the report (p122) mentioned - but didn't subscribe to - an alternative explanation:
So, on the one hand, UNCTAD with its view (as put in the Chapter VI press release): "the vicious cycle of market power begetting lobbying power has meant that the economic underworld of corporate rent-seeking is becoming legitimate". On the other, Schumpeter: consumers all over New Zealand finally getting video choice at a decent price (Netflix), with thriving social lives (Facebook) and good e-commerce (I'm a big fan of the Amazon-owned Book Depository). And some of us will have to have our iPhones prised from our cold, dead hands.Schumpeter pointed out that temporary surplus profits, or rents, could play an important role in facilitating technical progress by compensating innovative entrepreneurs (as opposed to imitators) for risk-taking and initiative. Importantly, these entrepreneurial rents – now generally referred to as Schumpeterian rents – do not require protective regulation such as, for example, IPRs [patents]. They are the result of “thinking ahead of the curve”. According to Schumpeter... .since imitators would eventually catch up, such rents or surplus.profits would be only temporary.
Which view sounds the more reasonable to you?