With the coronavirus pandemic having reached almost every country in the world, the impact on the global economy has been catastrophic. Governments have struggled balancing the spread of the virus and keeping the economy afloat. This has left businesses counting the costs of various control measures and numerous lockdowns. The crisis has particularly affected small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), causing massive job losses and longer-term economic scars. Among these is an increase in the market power held by dominant firms as they emerge even stronger while smaller rivals fall away.
It is feared that with the full effects of the pandemic not yet realised, there may well be a wave of bankruptcies that will hit SMEs harder than larger firms, particularly in the most affected industries. Larger firms are most likely to be more profitable in general and more likely to have access to finance. Firm-level analysis using Orbis data, which includes listed and private firms, suggests that the pandemic-driven wave of bankruptcies will lead to increases in industry concentration and market power.
What is market power?
A firm holds a dominant position if its power enables it to operate within the market without taking account of the reaction of its competitors or of intermediate or final consumers. The key role of competition authorities around the world is to protect the public interest, particularly against firms abusing their dominant positions.
The UK’s competition authority, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) states:
Market power arises where an undertaking does not face effective competitive pressure. …Market power is not absolute but is a matter of degree; the degree of power will depend on the circumstances of each case. Market power can be thought of as the ability profitably to sustain prices above competitive levels or restrict output or quality below competitive levels. An undertaking with market power might also have the ability and incentive to harm the process of competition in other ways; for example, by weakening existing competition, raising entry barriers, or slowing innovation.
It can be hard to distinguish between a rapidly growing business and growing concentration of market power. In a pandemic, these distinctions can become even more difficult to discern, since there really is a deep need for a rapid deployment of capital, often in distressed situations. It is also not always evident whether the attempt to grow is driven by the need for more productive capacity, or by the desire to engage in financial engineering or to acquire market power.
It may be the case that, as consumers, we simply have no choice but to depend on various monopolies in a crisis, hoping that they operate in the public interest or that the competition authorities will ensure that they do so. With Covid-19 for example, economies will have entered the pandemic with their existing institutions, and therefore the only way to operate may be through channels controlled by concentrated power. Market dominance can occur for what seem to be good, or least necessary, reasons.
Why is market power a problem?
Why is it necessarily a problem if a successful company grows bigger than its competitors through hard work, smart strategies, and better technology adoption? It is important to recognise that increases in market power do not always mean an abuse of that market power. Just because a company may dominate the market, it does not mean there is a guaranteed negative impact on the consumer or industry. There are many advantages to a monopoly firm and, therefore, it can be argued that the existence of a market monopoly in itself should not be a cause of concern for the regulator. Unless there is evidence of past misconduct of dominance, which is abusive for the market and its stakeholders, some would argue that there is no justification for any involvement by regulators at all.
However, research by the International Monetary Fund concluded that excessive market power in the hands of a few firms can be a drag on medium-term growth, stifling innovation and holding back investment. Given the severity of the economic impact of the pandemic, such an outcome could undermine the recovery efforts by governments. It could also prevent new and emerging firms entering the market at a time when dynamism is desperately needed.
The ONS defines business dynamism as follows:
Business dynamism relates to measures of birth, growth and decline of businesses and its impact on employment. A steady rate of business creation and closure is necessary for an economy to grow in the long-run because it allows new ideas to flourish.
A lack of business dynamism could lead to a stagnation in productivity and wage growth. It also affects employment through changes in job creation and destruction. In this context, the UK’s most recent unemployment rate was 5%. This is the highest figure for five years and is predicted to rise to 6.5% by the end of 2021. Across multiple industries, there is now a trend of falling business dynamism with small businesses failing to break out of their local markets and start-up companies whose prices are undercut by a big rival. This creates missed opportunities in terms of growth, job creation, and rising incomes.
There has been a rise in mergers and acquisitions, especially amongst dominant firms, which is contributing to these trends. Again, it is important to recognise that mergers and acquisitions are not in themselves a problem; they can yield cost savings and produce better products. However, they can also weaken incentives for innovation and strengthen a firm’s ability to charge higher prices. Analysis shows that mergers and acquisitions by dominant firms contribute to an industry-wide decline in business dynamism.
Changes in market power due to the pandemic
The IMF identifies key indicators for market power, such as the percentage mark-up of prices over marginal cost, and the concentration of revenues among the four biggest players in a sector. New research shows that these key indicators of market power are on the rise. It is estimated that due to the pandemic, this increase in market dominance could now increase in advanced economies by at least as much as it did in the fifteen years to the end of 2015.
Global price mark-ups have risen by more than 30%, on average, across listed firms in advanced economies since 1980. And in the past 20 years, mark-up increases in the digital sector have been twice as steep as economy-wide increases. Increases in market power across multiple industries caused by the pandemic would exacerbate a trend that goes back over four decades.
It could be argued that firms enjoying this increase in market share and strong profits is just the reward for their growth. Such success if often a result of innovation, efficiency, and improved services. However, there are growing signs in many industries that market power is becoming entrenched amid an absence of strong competitors for dominant firms. It is estimated that companies with the highest mark-ups in a given year, have an almost 85 percent chance of remaining a high mark-up firm the following year. According to experts, some of these businesses have created entry barriers – regulatory or technology driven – which are incredibly high.
Professor Jayant R. Varma, a member of the MPC of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), observed that in several sectors characterised by an oligopolistic core and a competitive periphery, the oligopolistic core has weathered the pandemic and it is the competitive periphery that has been debilitated. Rising profits and profit margins, improving capacity utilisation and lack of new capacity additions create ripe conditions for the oligopolistic core to start exercising pricing power.
The drivers and macroeconomic implications of such rises in market power are likely to differ across economies and individual industries. Even in those industries that benefited from the crisis, such as the digital sector, dominant players are among the biggest winners. The technology industry has been under the microscope in recent years, and increasingly the big tech firms are under scrutiny from regulators around the world. The market disruptors that displaced incumbents two decades ago have become increasingly dominant players that do not face the same competitive pressures from today’s would-be disruptors. The pandemic is adding to powerful underlying forces such as network effects and economies of scale and scope.
A new regulator that aims to curb this increasing dominance of the tech giants has been established in the UK. The Digital Markets Unit (DMU) will be based inside the Competition and Markets Authority. The DMU will first look to create new codes of conduct for companies such as Facebook and Google and their relationship with content providers and advertisers. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the regime will be ‘unashamedly pro-competition’.
The additions in regulation in the UK fall in line with the guidance from the IMF. It recommends that adjustments to competition-policy frameworks need to be made in order to minimise the adverse effects of market dominance. Such adjustments must, however, be tailored to national circumstances, both in general and to address the specific challenges raised by the surge of the digital economy.
It recommends the following five actions:
- Competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant when enforcing merger control. The criteria for competition authorities to review a deal should cover all relevant cases – including acquisitions of small players that may grow to compete with dominant firms.
- Second, competition authorities should more actively enforce prohibitions on the abuse of dominant positions and make greater use of market investigations to uncover harmful behaviour without any reported breach of the law.
- Greater efforts are needed to ensure competition in input markets, including labour markets.
- Competition authorities should be empowered to keep pace with the digital economy, where the rise of big data and artificial intelligence is multiplying incumbent firms’ advantage. Facilitating data portability and interoperability of systems can make it easier for new firms to compete with established players.
- Investments may be needed to further boost sector-specific expertise amid rapid technological change.
The crisis has had a significant impact on all businesses, with many shutting their doors for good. However, there has been a greater negative impact on SMEs. Even in industries that have flourished from the pandemic, it is the dominant firms that have emerged the biggest winners. There is concern that the increasing market power will remain embedded in many economies, stifling future competition and economic growth. While the negative effects of increased market power have been moderate so far, the findings suggest that competition authorities should be increasingly vigilant to ensure that these effects do not become more harmful in the future.
Reviews of competition policy frameworks have already begun in some major economies. Young, high-growth firms that innovate and create high-quality jobs deserve a level playing field and a fair chance to succeed. Support directed to SMEs is important, as many small firms have been unable to benefit from government programmes designed to help firms access financing during the pandemic. Policymakers should act now to prevent a further, sharp rise in market power that could hold back the post-pandemic recovery.
- What are the arguments for and against the assistance of a monopoly?
- What barriers to entry may exist that prevent small firms from entering an industry?
- What policies can be implemented to limit market power?
- Define and explain market dynamism.
Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
Firms are increasingly having to take into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, such as consumers, workers, the local community and society in general (see the blog, Evolving Economics). However, with many firms, the key stakeholders that influence decisions are shareholders. And because many shareholders are footloose and not committed to any one company, their main interests are short-term profit and share value. This leads to under-investment and too little innovation. It has also led to excessive pay for senior executives, which for many years has grown substantially faster than the pay of their employees. Indeed, executive pay in the UK is now, per pound of turnover, the highest in the world.
So is there an alternative model of capitalism, which better serves the interests of a wider range of stakeholders? One model is that of employee ownership. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which owns both the department stores and the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. As the partnership’s site claims, ‘when you’re part of it, you put your heart into it’. Although the John Lewis Partnership is the largest in the UK, there are over 330 employee-owned businesses across the UK, with over 200 000 employee owners contributing some £30bn per year to UK GDP. Again, to quote the John Lewis site:
Businesses range from manufacturers, to community health services, to insurance brokers. Together they deliver 4% of UK GDP annually, with this contribution growing. They are united by an ethos that puts people first, involving the workforce in key decision-making and realising the potential and commitment of their employees.
A recent example of a company moving, at least partly, in this direction is BT, which has announced that that every one of its 100 000 employees will get shares worth £500 every year. Employees will need to hold their shares for at least three years before they can sell them. The aim is to motivate staff and help the company achieve a turnaround from its recent lacklustre performance, which had resulted in its laying off 13 000 of its 100 000-strong workforce.
Another recent example of a company adopting employee ownership is Richer Sounds, the retail TV and hi-fi chain. Its owner and founder, Julian Richer, announced that he had transferred 60% of his shares into a John Lewis-style trust for the chain’s 531 employees. In addition to owning 60% of the company, employees will receive £1000 for every year they have worked for the retailer. A new advisory council, made up of current staff, will advise the management board, which is taking over the running of the firm from Richer.
According to the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), a further 50 businesses are preparing to follow suit and adopt forms of employee ownership. As The Conversation article linked below states:
As a form of stakeholder capitalism, the evidence shows that employee ownership boosts employee commitment and motivation, which leads to greater innovation and productivity.
Indeed, a study of employee ownership models in the US published in April found it narrowed gender and racial wealth gaps. Surveying 200 employees from 21 companies with employee ownership plans, Joseph Blasi and his colleagues at Rutgers University found employees had significantly more wealth than the average US worker.
The researchers also found that the participatory management practices that accompanied the employee ownership schemes led to employees improving their communication skills and learning management skills, which had helped them make better financial decisions at home.
But, although employee ownership brings benefits, not only to the employees themselves, but also more widely to society, there is no simple mechanism for achieving it when shareholders are unlikely to want to relinquish their shares. Employee buyout schemes require funding; and banks are often cautious about providing such funding. What is more, there needs to be an employee trust overseeing the running of the company which takes a long-term perspective and not just that of current employees, who might otherwise be tempted to sell the company to another seeking to take it over.
- What are the main benefits of employee ownership?
- Are there any disadvantages of employee ownership and, if so, what are they?
- What are the main barriers to the adoption of employee ownership?
- What are the main recommendations from The Ownership Effect Inquiry? (See linked report above.)
- What are the findings of the responses to the employee share ownership questions in the US General Social Survey (GSS)? (See linked Global Banking & Finance Review article above.)
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
The annual Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, normally known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has been awarded 49 times since it was founded in 1969. Many well-known economists have been recipients of the award. This year it had been awarded to Richard Thaler for his research in behavioural economics. The award recognises his work in integrating economics with psychology.
Richard H. Thaler has incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes.
In total, Richard Thaler’s contributions have built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making. His empirical findings and theoretical insights have been instrumental in creating the new and rapidly expanding field of behavioural economics, which has had a profound impact on many areas of economic research and policy.
Instead of making the assumption that people are rational maximisers, behavioural economists look at how people actually behave and respond to various incentives.
For example, people may be motivated by concepts of fairness and be prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others. Such concepts of fairness tend to depend on the social context in which choices are made and can be influenced by the way choices are framed.
Also people may not weigh up costs and benefits but use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, when making decisions. This might be an example of rational behaviour when time or information is limited, but the use of such heuristics often becomes engrained in behaviour and the rules become just habit.
People may also suffer from a lack of willpower or ‘present bias’. They may spend more than they can afford because they cannot resist the temptation to have a product. They may overeat because of the short-term pleasure it brings and ignore the long-term effects on their health.
Understanding how people make choices and the temptations to which they succumb can help policymakers devise incentives to change behaviour to achieve various social goals.
One type of incentive is nudging. A well-known example is people’s choice about whether to become an organ donor in the event of their death. If people are required to opt in to such a scheme, they may never get round to doing so. However, if they are required to opt out if they do not want to participate, many more people would thereby be donors and more organs would become available.
Another form of nudge is making desirable things fun. A well-known experiment here was encouraging people to use the stairs rather than the escalator when exiting a subway by making the stairs like a musical keyboard. See here for more examples.
The UK government set up a Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit (now independent of government) to find ways of encouraging people to behave in their own or society’s best interests.
But it is not just governments which use the insights of behavioural economists such as Thaler. The advertising and marketing industry is always examining the most effective means of influencing behaviour. A classic example is the loss leader, where consumers are tempted into a shop with a special offer and then end up buying more expensive items there rather than elsewhere.
Firms and advertisers know only too well the gains from tempting people to buy items that give them short-term gratification – such as putting chocolate bars by the tills in supermarkets.
Understanding consumer psychology helps firms to manipulate people’s choices. And such manipulation may not be in our best interests. If we are being persuaded to buy this product or that, are we fully aware of what’s going on and how our tastes are being affected? Would we, by standing back and reflecting, make the same choices as we do on impulse or out of habit?
And governments too can seek to manipulate people in ways that some may find undesirable. Governments may try to influence us to follow their particular political agenda – as may newspapers. Certainly, during election or referendum campaigns, we are being nudged to vote a particular way.
It is important then for us to understand when we are being nudged or otherwise persuaded. Do we really want to behave in that way? Just as it is important, then, for governments and firms to understand individuals’ behaviour, so too it is important for individuals to understand their own behaviour.
Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard The Economist, RA (11/10/17)
Nobel in Economics Is Awarded to Richard Thaler The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (9/10/17)
The Making of Richard Thaler’s Economics Nobel The New Yorker, John Cassidy (10/10/17)
Nobel prize in economics awarded to Richard Thaler The Guardian, Richard Partington (10/10/17)
Richard Thaler is a controversial Nobel prize winner – but a deserving one The Guardian, Robert Shiller (11/10/17)
What the mainstreaming of behavioural nudges reveals about neoliberal government The Conversation, Rupert Alcock (17/10/17)
This year’s economics Nobel winner invented a tool that’s both brilliant and undemocratic Vox, Henry Farrell (16/10/17)
How a critic of economics became the disciplines Nobel-winning best friend The Guardian, Tiago Mata and Jack Wright (25/10/17)
How Richard Thaler changed economics BBC, More of Less, Tim Harford (14/10/17)
- For what reasons may individuals not always weigh up the costs and benefits of purchasing an item?
- Give some examples of the use of heuristics in making consumption decisions?
- Is the use of heuristics irrational?
- Explain how people considering that they have behaved fairly is influenced by the social context of their behaviour?
- Find out what is meant by the Dictator Game and how it can challenge the assumption that people behave selfishly. How is the ‘dictator’s’ behaviour affected by the possible payoffs?
- Thaler suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. Find out what he meant by this. Do you agree?
- Give some examples of ways in which the government can nudge people to persuade them to behave in socially or individually desirable ways.
- Find out what is meant by the ‘endowment effect’ and how it influences people’s valuation of items they own.
- Why may nudging by governments be undemocratic?