In recent years, US tech companies have faced increased scrutiny in Washington over their size and power. Despite the big tech firms in America being economically robust, seemingly more so than any other sector, they are also more politically vulnerable. This potential vulnerability is present regardless of the recent election result.
Both the Democrat and Republican parties are thinking critically about monopoly power and antitrust issues, where ‘antitrust’ refers to the outlawing or control of oligopolistic collusion. Despite the varied reasons across different parts of the political spectrum, the increased scrutiny over big tech companies is bipartisan.
Rising monopoly power
Monopoly power occurs when a firm has a dominant position in the market. A pure monopoly is when one firm has a 100% share of the market. A firm might be considered to have monopoly power with more than a 25% market share.
If there is a rise in market concentration, it tends to hurt blue-collar workers, such as those employed in factories, more than everyone else. Research, from the University of Chicago, studied what happens to particular classes of workers when companies increasingly dominate a market and have more power to raise prices. The study found that those workers that make things tend to be left worse off, while the workers who sell, market or design things gain. When companies have more pricing power, they make fewer products and sell each one for a higher profit margin. In that case, it’s far more valuable to a company to be an employee working in so-called expansionary positions, such as marketing, than in production jobs, such as working on a factory line — because there’s less production to be done and more salesmanship.
Monopoly power under Trump Vs Biden
In February, President Trump and his economic team saw no need to rewrite the federal government’s antitrust rules, drawing a battle line with the Democrats on an issue that has increasingly drawn the attention of economists, legal scholars and other academics. In their annual Economic Report of the President, Mr. Trump and his advisers effectively dismissed research that found large American companies increasingly dominate industries like telecommunications and tech, stifling competition and hurting consumers. At the time the Trump administration contended that studies demonstrating a rise in market concentration were flawed and that the rise of large companies may not be a bad thing for consumers.
On page 201, the report reads:
Concentration may be driven by economies of scale and scope that can lower costs for consumers. Also, successful firms tend to grow, and it is important that antitrust enforcement and competition policy not be used to punish firms for their competitive success.
The Trump administration approved some high-profile corporate mergers, such as the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, while also trying to block others, such as AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner. Mr. Trump’s advisers stated that agencies already had the tools they needed to evaluate mergers and antitrust cases. It lamented that some Americans have come to hold the mistaken, simplistic view that ‘Big Is Bad.’
However, it is likely that such big firms, including the tech giants, would take a hit under the new presidency. President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo the tax cuts introduced by Trump and has vowed to increase corporation tax from 21% to 28%. As part of these tax changes, he has suggested the introduction of a minimum 15% tax for all companies with a revenue of over $100 million. This has now been given the nickname of the ‘Amazon Tax’ and it is clear how it would impact on the big the firms such as Amazon.
This is the opposite of what was probable if Trump were to have been re-elected. It was expected that the US would continue along the path of deregulation and lower taxes for corporates and high-income households, which would have been welcomed by the stock market. However, analysts suggest that the tax changes under Biden would negatively affect the US tech sector, with some analysts maintaining that the banking sector would also be hit.
Antitrust enforcement is often associated with the political left, but the current situation is not so clear-cut. In the past, Silicon Valley has largely avoided any clashes with Washington, even when European regulators have levied fines against the tech giants. European regulators have fined Google a total of $9bn for anticompetitive practices. In 2018 Donald Trump attacked the EU decisions. “I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google,” Trump tweeted. “They truly have taken advantage of the US, but not for long!”
However, since then the mood has changed, with Trump and other conservatives joining liberals, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in attacking the dominance of tech firms, including Amazon, Google, Facebook and others. While Democrats have largely stuck to criticising the scale of big tech’s dominance, Republicans, including Trump, have accused the major tech companies of censoring conservative speech.
An antitrust subcommittee of the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee released a 449-page report excoriating the Big Four tech companies, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google-owner, Alphabet, for what it calls systematic and continuing abuses of their monopoly power. Recommendations from the report include ways to limit their power, force them out of certain areas of business and even a break-up of some of them.
Democratic lawmakers working on the probe claim that these firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in. But not all Republicans involved agreed with the recommendations. One Republican congressman, Jim Jordan, dismissed the report as “partisan” and said it advanced “radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left.” However, others have said they support many of the report’s conclusions about the firms’ anti-competitive tactics, but that remedies proposed by Democrats go too far.
The US tech giants
Amazon is a leading example of the economic strength held by the tech giants. Amazon has produced 12-month revenues of $321bn to October 2020, which in an increase from 2019 and 2018 revenues of $280bn and $233bn respectively. However, Amazon, along with the other big players Apple, Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, and Microsoft, are facing increased government scrutiny.
The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Google for entrenching itself as the dominant search engine through anti-competitive practices. Google’s complex algorithms, software, and custom-built servers helped make it into one of the world’s richest and most-powerful corporations. It currently dominates the online search market in the USA, accounting for around 80% of search queries. The lawsuit accuses the tech company of abusing its position to maintain an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising. Facebook also faces an antitrust lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. It is arguable that the US tech giants are so powerful that they may accomplish the seemingly impossible and unite the two parties, at least on one policy – breaking them up.
If it is correct that the tech giants’ behaviour ultimately damages innovation and exacerbates inequality, it is arguable that such problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic. Many smaller businesses have succumbed to the economic damage: many have been closed during lockdowns or suffered a decline in sales; many have gone out of business.
The changing patterns in teleworking and retail have accelerated in ways that have made Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. It could therefore be claimed that the dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
On 20 October, the Department of Justice — along with eleven state Attorneys General — filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.
This is the most significant legal challenge to a major tech company in decades and comes as US authorities are increasingly critical of the business practices of the major tech companies. The suit alleges that Google is no longer a start-up company with an innovative way to search the emerging internet. Instead Google is being described as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet” that has used “pernicious” anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies.
The allegation that Google is unfairly acting as a gatekeeper to the internet is based on the argument that through a series of business agreements, Google has effectively locked out any competition. One of the specific arrangements being challenged is the issue of Google being preloaded on mobile devices. On mobile phones running its Android operating system, Google is preinstalled and cannot be deleted. The company pays billions each year to “secure default status for its general search engine and, in many cases, to specifically prohibit Google’s counterparties from dealing with Google’s competitors,” the suit states. It is argued that this alone forecloses competition for internet search as it denies its rivals to compete effectively and prevent potential innovation.
However, Google has defended its position, calling the lawsuit “deeply flawed”. It has argued that consumers themselves choose to use Google; they do not use it because they are forced to or because they can’t find an alternative search platform. Google also argues that this lawsuit will not be beneficial for consumers. It claims that this will artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, increase phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.
Despite wanting to stop Google from “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for” search services, advertising, and general search text, the lack of consensus and divergence among the Democrats and Republicans on the antitrust issues remains a major issue to move things forward.
The Democrats want to see the power held by these companies reined in, while the Republicans would rather see targeted antitrust enforcement over onerous and burdensome regulation that kills industry innovation. It is clear that the US government will have to balance its reforms and ideas while making sure not to put the largest companies in the USA at a competitive disadvantage versus their competitors globally.
- US tech giants accused of ‘monopoly power’
BBC News (6/10/20)
- Tech, healthcare & the ‘fear index’: An investor’s guide to US election night 2020
Investment Trust Insider, Alex Steger, Alex Rosenberg, John Coumarianos, Nicole Piper, Jake Martin and Ian Wenik (2/11/20)
- Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google For Violating Antitrust Laws
The United States Department of Justice (20/10/20)
- Trump Administration Sees No Threat to Economy From Monopolies
The New York Times, Jim Tankersley (20/2/20)
- Trump vs Biden: Winners and losers under America’s next leader
Shares, Yoosof Farah (29/10/20)
- America’s Monopoly Problem Goes Way Beyond the Tech Giants
The Atlantic, David Dayen (28/7/20)
- US justice department sues Google over accusation of illegal monopoly
The Guardian, Dominic Rushe and Kari Paul (20/10/20)
- With the aid of a diagram, explain how pricing decisions are made in a monopoly.
- What factors influence the degree of monopoly power a company has within an industry?
- What are the advantages of a monopoly?
- Why would a government want to prevent a monopoly? Discuss the policies a government could implement to do this.
The UK rail industry was privatised by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. As Case Study 14.8 on the Economics 10th edition website states:
The management of rail infrastructure, such as track, signalling and stations, was to be separated from the responsibility for running trains. There would be 25 passenger train operating companies (TOCs), each having a franchise lasting between seven and fifteen years. These companies would have few assets, being forced to rent track and lease stations from the infrastructure owner (Railtrack), and to lease trains and rolling stock from three new rolling-stock companies. …In practice, the 25 franchises were operated by just 11 companies (with one, National Express, having nine of the franchises).
In 1996, at the start of the franchise era, the train operating companies were largely private-sector companies such as National Express, Stagecoach, Virgin Rail and Prism Rail. By 2020, most of the franchises were operated by a foreign state-owned business or a joint venture with a foreign state-owned firm.
As a result of poor performance (see above case study), Railtrack was effectively renationalised in 2002 as Network Rail – a not-for-profit company, wholly dependent upon the UK Treasury for any shortfall in its funds.
TOCs had mixed success. Some performed so poorly that their franchise contracts had to be temporarily taken over by a state-owned operator. For example, in June 2003 the Strategic Rail Authority withdrew the operating licence of the French company Connex South Eastern. The franchise was temporarily taken over by the publicly-owned South Eastern Trains from November 2003 until March 2006 before being returned to a private operator.
Perhaps the most troubled franchise has been the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. It was renationalised in 2009, reprivatised in 2015 and renationalised in 2018.
The effect of the coronavirus pandemic
The spread of the coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns and social distancing saw a plummeting of rail travel. Passenger numbers fell to just 10% of pre-pandemic levels. In March 2020, the UK Government introduced Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs), which temporarily replaced rail franchise agreements. TOCs were paid a 2% fee (based on pre-Covid costs) to run trains and losses were borne by the government.
When the EMAs ran out on the 20 September, they were replaced by Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), set to last until no later than April 2022. Under these measures, the fees paid to TOCs were reduced to a maximum of 1.5%. These consist partly of a fixed fee (again based on pre-Covid costs) and partly on a performance payment, depending on punctuality, passenger satisfaction and financial performance. As with the EMAs, the new arrangements involve virtually no risk for the TOCs (except for the size of the performance-related fee). Costs and revenue will be passed to the Department for Transport, which will bear any losses.
TOCs were required to run a virtually full service to allow reduced passenger numbers to observe social distancing. Despite journeys still being only 30% of pre-pandemic levels, social distancing on trains meant that many trains were sold out.
The ERMAs also contain provisions for the replacement of franchises when they come to an end. The precise nature of these will be spelt out in a White Paper, which will respond to the recommendations of the Williams Review of the railways. This review was set up in 2018 in the aftermath of difficulties with various franchises and a chaotic nationwide timetable change. The review’s findings were originally scheduled to be published in Autumn 2019, but were then put back because of the general election and the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The government hopes that it will be published before the end of 2020.
It is expected that the review will recommend replacing the franchise system with something similar to the currents ERMAs. TOCs awarded a contract will be paid a performance-related fee and revenues will go to the government, which will bear the costs. While this is not quite renationalisation, it is not the previous franchise system where TOCs bore the risks. It is in effect a contract system where private companies are paid to deliver a public service.
The CrossCountry franchise
The first test of this new approach to contracting with TOCs came this month. Arriva’s franchise for running CrossCountry trains ran out and was replaced by a three-year contract to run the services, which span much of the length of Great Britain from Aberdeen to Penzance via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth; from Bournemouth to Manchester via Reading, Oxford, Wolverhampton and Stoke; from Cardiff to Nottingham via Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby; and from Birmingham to Stanstead Airport via Leicester and Cambridge.
The contract will last three years. The Department for Transport will gain the revenues and cover the costs and pay Arriva (owned by Deutsche Bahn) a management fee that is ‘performance related’ – as yet unspecified. This, like the EMAs and then the ERMAs, will remove the risks from Arriva.
Nationalisation in Wales
The Welsh government has announced that Transport for Wales will be taken over by a publicly owned company in February 2021. TfW operates many of the routes in Wales and the borders and most of the branch lines in Wales, including the valley commuter lines into Cardiff. It is currently owned by KeolisAmey (a joint company owned 70% by the French company, Keolis (part of SNCF), and 30% by the UK company, Amey), which took over the franchise in 2018 from Arriva. The Welsh government considered that KeolisAmey would collapse if it did not provide support. Ministers decided that nationalisation would give it greater control than simply subsidising KeolisAmey.
James Price, chief executive of the Welsh Government, stated that this allows it:
to reduce the profit we pay to the private sector massively over time, and make sure that when the revenue comes back, it comes back in to the taxpayer.
Under emergency measures, KeolisAmey has already been supported by the Welsh government to the tune of £105 million (£40 million in March and £65 million in June) to continue operating the franchise. Passenger numbers fell by 95% as the pandemic hit.
Is nationalisation a better way forward, or should private train operating companies continue with the government taking on the risks, or should the franchise system be amended with greater support from the government but with the TOCs still bearing risk? The articles below consider these issues.
- Rail nationalisations may be coming down the track
BBC News, Tom Burridge (17/9/20)
- ONS recognises full nationalisation of the UK railways
Financial Times, Tanya Powley (31/7/20)
- Train services are very efficient for shareholders – less so for customers
The Conversation, Daniel Fisher (22/8/19)
- UK government on standby to nationalise more rail lines
Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Philip Georgiadis (17/9/20)
- British Government Ends Rail Franchising
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién (21/9/20)
- British government announces end for rail franchise system
Trains, Keith Fender (12/10/20)
- Monday essay: A new era?
Railnews, Sim Harris (19/10/20)
- Arriva secures three-year CrossCountry contract
International railway Journal Kevin Smith (16/10/20)
- New contract signed for Arriva CrossCountry
RTM, Ailsa Cowen (16/10/20)
- Franchising is Dead
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién and Gareth Davies (16/9/20)
- Transport for Wales rail services to be nationalised
BBC News (23/10/20)
- Transport for Wales to be nationalised
- Why has the Welsh Government nationalised rail’s Wales and Borders franchise?
BusinessLive, Sion Barry (22/10/20)
- Explain how the franchising system worked (prior to March 2020).
- To what extent could each franchise be described as a ‘contestable monopoly’?
- What incentives were built into the franchising system to deliver improvements in service for passengers?
- What were the weaknesses of the franchising system?
- In the context of post-pandemic rail services, compare the relative merits of nationalisation with those of awarding contracts where the government receives the revenues and bears the costs and pays train operating companies a fee for operating the services where the size of the fee is performance related.
- What are the arguments for subsidising rail transport? What should determine the size of the subsidy?
Like most other sectors of the economy, private schools have been significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As with all schools, they have been restricted to providing their pupils with online instruction. In addition, some parents are likely to have seen their ability to pay the high fees private schools charge restricted. As a result of both of these factors, private schools have been forced to look into providing discounts or refunds on their fees. However, the UK competition authority have received evidence that these schools may have been communicating with each other over how they will set these fee reductions. The authority is concerned that this will allow the schools to restrict the discounts and keep their fees higher.
In other markets (see here and here) the competition authorities have been prepared to relax certain elements of competition law in light of the coronavirus situation. However, price fixing is the severest breach of competition law and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been clear that this continues to be the case in the current climate. A CMA spokesperson said:
Where cooperation amongst businesses or other organisations is necessary to protect consumers in the coronavirus outbreak, the CMA will not take enforcement action. But we will not tolerate organisations agreeing prices or exchanging commercially sensitive information on future pricing or business strategies with their competitors, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Therefore, the CMA has written to the Independent Schools Council and other bodies representing the private school sector. This letter made clear that communicating over the fee reductions would be very likely to breach competition law and could result in fines being imposed.
This warning is important since the sector has a history of illegal communication between schools. In 2006 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) (one of the predecessors to the CMA) imposed fines when it discovered that 50 of them, including Eton and Harrow, had for a number of years shared information on the fees they intended to charge. The OFT discovered that this had taken place following evidence obtained by a student who hacked into their school’s computer system. Here the student found information on the intended fees of competitor schools and leaked this information to the press. It is clear that the CMA will keep a close eye on private schools as they react to the ongoing pandemic.
- What are the key features of the private school sector? Is this a market where you would expect competition to be intense?
- Why is price fixing the severest breach of competition law?
- Assuming communication between the private schools is eradicated, how would you expect the sector to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the UK, the government has been forced to introduce a range of drastic measures, including severe restrictions on movement of people to ensure social distancing. Supermarkets have also been forced to act as they experienced panic buying and struggled to keep up with supply. They responded by starting to impose limits on the number of certain items an individual consumer could purchase and by reducing the range of products they made available. In addition, supermarkets contacted the government to suggest that competition law should be relaxed to allow the rival chains to coordinate their response to the ongoing situation.
WM Morrison, the forth largest supermarket retailer in the UK, was one of the key players lobbying for this change. Their chief executive, David Potts, argued that “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”
The supermarket industry is in fact a market where the UK competition authorities have expressed considerable concerns in the past regarding a lack of competition (see for example the 2008 market investigation and the recent decision to block the merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda). The supermarkets also previously made similar demands for a relaxation of competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Despite this, the government has agreed to temporarily relax elements of competition law to help supermarkets respond to the Coronavirus crisis with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, stating that:
By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.
In moves supported by the Competition and Markets Authority, laws enabling them to do so will soon be passed through Parliament. Supermarkets will be allowed to:
- share data with each other on stock levels
- cooperate to keep shops open
- share distribution depots and delivery vans
- pool staff with one another to help meet demand.
It is also expected that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will take a pragmatic approach to rules previously in place to prevent the big supermarket chains abusing their power over suppliers. These rules previously prevented supermarkets from stopping orders from a given supplier without reasonable warning. However, it is now accepted that they may need to do so in order to focus on supplying a restricted range of essential products.
Such relaxation of competition laws has been rare, with previous examples being measures taken in 2006 for the maintenance and repair of warships and in 2012 during the fuel crisis. In contrast, typically competition law is extremely hot on preventing agreements between firms. This is due to the fact that they distort competition and prevent the considerable benefits that can arise for consumers when firms compete to offer the best deals.
In the extreme situation the UK is currently in, the government’s stance appears to be that there are sufficient other benefits from restricting competition between supermarkets and allowing some degree of cooperation. It is then important that the form of cooperation between the supermarkets is restricted to narrow areas that will help to ensure the continuity of supply. In particular, it would be worrying if the supermarkets started discussing the prices they charge. Already food prices may rise due to increased demand and a potential shortage of supply. Furthermore, many consumers will see their income reduced. Therefore, it is important that coordination between supermarkets doesn’t result in further increases in prices.
It is therefore reassuring that the Government made clear that the relaxation of competition law:
will be a specific, temporary relaxation to enable retailers to work together for the sole purpose of feeding the nation during these unprecedented circumstances. It will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement.
The Competition and Markets Authority has also stressed that they will not:
tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Once the current crisis is over, it will also be important that the competition authority closely monitors the supermarket sector to ensure that cooperation between the supermarkets ends and normal competitive conduct is resumed.
- Outline the effects agreements between firms to raiser prices have on economic welfare.
- What are the pros and cons of allowing cooperation between the supermarkets in response to the Coronavirus crisis?
In the last few years there have been growing concerns (see here for example) that markets in the USA are becoming increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. It is feared that the result of this will be a reduction in competition. Consistent with this, evidence suggests that the profits these firms make have increased. Last month The Economist and the Resolution Foundation published evidence (see references below) suggesting a similar picture may be emerging in Britain.
The Economist divided the British economy into 600 sub-sectors and found that in 58% of these the share of total revenue accruing to the 4 biggest firms had increased since 2008. The Resolution Foundation found a similar picture, especially in manufacturing industries where from 2004-16 the top five firms’ share of total revenue increased by over 10%.
Economic theory would suggest that as markets become more concentrated prices are likely to rise and The Economist cites research showing that mark-ups charged by firms in Britain have indeed risen. In addition to consumers facing higher prices, there is also concern that the lack of competition both in the USA and the UK is leading to lower wages being paid to workers. On the other hand, unlike in the USA, the evidence from the UK does not so far suggest there has also been an increase in corporate profits. Instead, it appears that the more successful firms’ profits have increased at the expense of their rivals.
This evidence on profits is line with a number of arguments that suggest we should perhaps be less concerned when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Large firms may benefit from economies of scale and, being sufficiently large may be necessary for firms to innovate in new products and processes. Furthermore, high market shares may result from the competitive process as a reward for a firm developing a unique product or being more efficient than its rivals.
The Economist cites the supermarket industry as an example where concentrated is high, but competition is intense. Interestingly, this is a market where the British competition authorities have previously been concerned about the level of competition and spent considerable amounts of time investigating.
Despite these two opposing viewpoints, overall, The Economist argues strongly that we should be concerned about the situation in Britain. Not only are prices too high and wages too low, but growth in productivity is slow, even for the leading firms. Furthermore, they make clear that the situation may worsen following Brexit. It is argued that:
leaving the EU’s single market and customs union would reduce trade, easing competitive pressure from abroad.
This is consistent with evidence that joining the EC in the mid 1970s increased foreign competition in the UK and helped to end the low productivity growth that had plagued the economy since the 1930s.
Furthermore, it is suggested that:
to attract investment the government might look more favourably on proposed mergers—and loosening regulations would be easier outside the EU’s competition regime.
Therefore, it is clear that in the future there will be a vital role for the UK’s competition authority to remain independent of political objectives and aim to promote competition. In particular, they must prevent mergers that raise concentration and harm competition and intervene if they believe firms are abusing their dominant positions. Of course, following Brexit the case load of the competition authority in the UK will increase dramatically as they have to take on cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. One estimate is that it will need to look at around 40% more merger cases. It will certainly be interesting to see how competition in markets in Britain evolves over the next few years and the role competition policy plays in regulating this process.
- Outline the ways in which concentration in a market is usually measured.
- Explain the different price levels that arise under the alternative models of market structure.
- Why do you think competition is currently so intense in the supermarket industry?