Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 06

Why did a competition authority change its mind on one aspect of this merger?

In January 2022, Microsoft announced its plan to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. Activision Blizzard is one of the largest games publishers in the world and famous for titles such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Sales revenue from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II was over $10 billion within ten days of its release in 2022. Given Microsoft’s ownership of the Xbox, one of the three devices that dominate the market for gaming consoles, the deal was always likely to raise competition concerns.

Potential competition issues

Following Phase 1 and 2 merger investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) a number of competition issues were raised. One particular concern was in the market for gaming consoles and the potential impact of the merger on the future availability of Call of Duty (CoD). Some of the key findings of the initial research undertaken by the CMA were that:

  • Sony’s PlayStation was a much closer rival for the Xbox than the Nintendo Switch, which tends to offer more family-orientated games.
  • PlayStation users spend significant amounts of gametime playing CoD.
  • Game availability is a key factor that influences console purchase decisions.
  • Twenty-four percent of PlayStation users who play CoD stated that they would not purchase future versions of the console if CoD was unavailable on the platform.

These findings suggest that there are commercial incentives for Microsoft to limit the availability of CoD on the PlayStation. For example, the newly merged business could make future versions of the game exclusive to the Xbox – total exclusivity. Alternatively, it could adopt a policy of partial exclusivity. For example, it could only make versions of CoD available on the PlayStation that exclude some of its more popular features.

There are costs to Microsoft of implementing a policy of total or partial exclusivity. For example, 76% per cent of PlayStation users who play CoD stated that they would not switch consoles if future versions of the game were made unavailable. By making CoD exclusive to Xbox users, Microsoft would lose revenue from forgoing potential sales of the game to this group of users. The firm may also suffer reputational damage if there was a social media backlash against an exclusivity decision.

However, these costs of implementing a policy of exclusivity could be outweighed by the potential benefits. These include:

  • The additional sales of consoles as some users switch from the PlayStation to the Xbox to gain access to CoD.
  • the sale of CoD and other games to these additional Xbox users.

To quantify these costs and benefits, the CMA used a financial model that includes information on the amounts of money users typically spend on the Xbox platform and CoD over a five-year period. This ‘lifetime value of customers’ model found that it would be profitable for Microsoft to implement a policy of exclusivity post-merger.

The CMA also noted that in the majority of cases where Microsoft had previously acquired gaming studios, the subsequent release of games had been made exclusive to the Xbox.

CMA findings

Following its analysis of the case, the CMA published its provisional findings on the 8th February 2023. One key finding was that the merger would harm consumers, as it would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the supply of console gaming services. The CMA argued that the acquisition should proceed only if Activision Blizzard sold off the parts of its business responsible for producing CoD. This is a structural remedy.

Microsoft rejected these findings and argued that the financial modelling used by the CMA was based on inaccurate data. In its formal written response to the competition authority the company argued that:

  • The potential gains from a policy of exclusivity had been calculated over a five-year period whereas the costs (i.e. the forgone sales of CoD) had only been calculated over a one-year period. More accurate analysis should compare both the potential gains and losses over a five-year period.
  • When more recent data are used to calculate the amounts of money users typically spend on the Xbox platform and CoD over a five-year period, the figure is lower than in the original work by the CMA.

Revised CMA findings

Having adjusted its analysis to take account of these criticisms, the CMA published an update to its Provisional Findings on 24th March 2023. In this update the competition authority stated that:

The analysis now shows that it would not be commercially beneficial to Microsoft to make CoD exclusive to Xbox following the deal, but that Microsoft will instead still have the incentive to continue to make the game available on PlayStation.

Therefore, just six weeks after publishing its Provisional Findings the CMA changed its conclusion and stated that the merger would not result in a substantial lessening of competition in the market for the supply of console gaming services in the UK.

In response to these changes an ex-CMA lawyer stated that:

This is extremely unusual. Restating your provisional findings is something ‘you would rather die than do’.
It is important to remember that the investigation by the CMA also raised concerns about the impact of the acquisition on competition in the cloud gaming market. These concerns remain unaffected by these updated findings and a final report will be published by the CMA at the end of April.

Competition authorities from 16 different countries/regions are also investigating the deal, including the Federal Trade Commission in the USA and the European Commission. It will be interesting to see if these authorities agree on the potential impact of the merger on competition.

Articles

CMA documentation

Questions

  1. Under what circumstances could a merger result in a substantial lessening of competition?
  2. Summarise the thresholds that have to be met by a potential merger before it is investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority.
  3. Explain the direct and indirect network effects that exist in the console gaming market. To what extent do they create barriers to entry?
  4. Outline some different ways that Microsoft could introduce a policy of partial exclusivity for the Call of Duty franchise of games.
  5. What would be the impact of a policy of exclusivity on the cross price elasticity of demand between Xbox and PlayStation consoles?
  6. Outline the difference between behavioural and structural remedies for merger.
  7. Discuss why the acquisition of Activision by Microsoft might reduce competition in the cloud gaming market.

In two previous posts, one at the end of 2019 and one in July 2021, we looked at moves around the world to introduce a four-day working week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no reduction in weekly pay. Firms would gain if increased worker energy and motivation resulted in a gain in output. They would also gain if fewer hours resulted in lower costs.

Workers would be likely to gain from less stress and burnout and a better work–life balance. What is more, firms’ and workers’ carbon footprint could be reduced as less time was spent at work and in commuting.

If the same output could be produced with fewer hours worked, this would represent an increase in labour productivity measured in output per hour.

The UK’s poor productivity record since 2008

Since the financial crisis of 2007–8, the growth in UK productivity has been sluggish. This is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the production industries: i.e. it excludes services, where average productivity growth tends to be slower. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Prior to the crisis, from 1998 to 2007, UK productivity in the production industries grew at an annual rate of 6.1%. From 2007 to the start of the pandemic in 2020, the average annual productivity growth rate in these industries was a mere 0.5%.

It grew rapidly for a short time at the start of the pandemic, but this was because many businesses temporarily shut down or went to part-time working, and many of these temporary job cuts were low-wage/low productivity jobs. If you take services, the effect was even stronger as sectors such as hospitality, leisure and retail were particularly affected and labour productivity in these sectors tends to be low. As industries opened up and took on more workers, so average productivity fell back. In the four quarters to 2022 Q3 (the latest data available), productivity in the production industries fell by 6.8%.

If you project the average productivity growth rate from 1998 to 2007 of 6.1% forwards (see grey dashed line), then by 2022 Q3, output per hour in the production industries would have been 21/4 times (125%) higher than it actually was. This is a huge productivity gap.

Productivity in the UK is lower than in many other competitor countries. According to the ONS, output per hour in the UK in 2021 was $59.14 in the UK. This compares with an average of $64.93 for the G7 countries, $66.75 in France, £68.30 in Germany, $74.84 in the USA, $84.46 in Norway and $128.21 in Ireland. It is lower, however, in Italy ($54.59), Canada ($53.97) and Japan ($47.28).

As we saw in the blog, The UK’s poor productivity record, low UK productivity is caused by a number of factors, not least the lack of investment in physical capital, both by private companies and in public infrastructure, and the lack of investment in training. Other factors include short-termist attitudes of both politicians and management and generally poor management practices. But one cause is the poor motivation of many workers and the feeling of being overworked. One solution to this is the four-day week.

Latest evidence on the four-day week

Results have just been released of a pilot programme involving 61 companies and non-profit organisations in the UK and nearly 3000 workers. They took part in a six-month trial of a four-day week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no loss in pay for employees – in other words, 100% of the pay for 80% of the time. The trial was a success, with 91% of organisations planning to continue with the four-day week and a further 4% leaning towards doing so.

The model adopted varied across companies, depending on what was seen as most suitable for them. Some gave everyone Friday off; others let staff choose which day to have off; others let staff work 80% of the hours on a flexible basis.

There was little difference in outcomes across different types of businesses. Compared with the same period last year, revenues rose by an average of 35%; sick days fell by two-thirds and 57% fewer staff left the firms. There were significant increases in well-being, with 39% saying they were less stressed, 40% that they were sleeping better; 75% that they had reduced levels of burnout and 54% that it was easier to achieve a good work–life balance. There were also positive environmental outcomes, with average commuting time falling by half an hour per week.

There is growing pressure around the world for employers to move to a four-day week and this pilot provides evidence that it significantly increases productivity and well-being.

Articles

Questions

  1. What are the possible advantages of moving to a four-day week?
  2. What are the possible disadvantages of moving to a four-day week?
  3. What types of companies or organisations are (a) most likely, (b) least likely to gain from a four-day week?
  4. Why has the UK’s productivity growth been lower than that of many of its major competitors?
  5. Why, if you use a log scale on the vertical axis, is a constant rate of growth shown as a straight line? What would a constant rate of growth line look like if you used a normal arithmetical scale for the vertical axis?
  6. Find out what is meant by the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Does this hold out the hope of significant productivity improvements in the near future? (See, for example, last link above.)

The emergence of the digital economy has brought about increased competition across a wide range of products and services. The digital economy has provided businesses with the opportunity to produce new categories of goods and services with the aid of artificial intelligence. This new digital era has also been beneficial for consumers who now have greater choice and access to often higher-quality products at lower prices.

But while the digital revolution has facilitated greater competition, it also presents some challenges for competition law enforcement. Competition agencies continue to intensify their scrutiny of the digital economy as they try to get to grips with both the opportunities and challenges.

The role of regulation

Many agencies are aware that regulatory overreach could have negative effects on the development of digital markets. Therefore, any competition enforcement in this area needs to be evidenced-based.

A number of agencies have commissioned market studies or appointed experts in the digital field to prepare industry reports. While many of these reports and studies have found that existing competition rules generally continue to provide a solid basis for protecting competition in the digital age, there is growing demand for various changes to regulation. The reports have generally noted that the traditional tools for competition analysis may require some adaptation or refinement to address better the specificities of online markets, such as the multisided nature of platforms, network effects, zero-price markets, ‘big data’ and the increased use of algorithms.

Tech giants and online platforms, in particular, have been a focus of recent intervention by competition authorities. Investigations and intervention have related to a range of practices, including self-preferencing in the ranking of search results, the bundling of apps (and other alleged anti-competitive leveraging strategies), the collection, usage and sharing of data, and the setting of access conditions to mobile ecosystems and app stores.

The duration and complexity of these investigations have been met with concerns that competition authorities are not sufficiently equipped to protect competition in fast-moving digital markets. These concerns have been amplified by the growth in size and importance of online platforms, their significant economies of scale and network effects, and the risk that market power in digital markets can become quickly entrenched.

In addition to the commissioned reports, some agencies have established or appointed specialist digital markets units or officers. The aim of such units is to develop expertise and regulation to deal with fast-paced digital markets. In Europe, The Digital Markets Act (DMA) was adopted by the EU in response to these concerns to establish a uniform ex-ante regulatory regime to make digital markets fairer and more competitive, and to prevent a fragmentation of the EU’s internal market.

A recent case concerns Apple. Because of the Digital Markets Act, Apple has been required to allow app store competitors onto its products. This will come into effect in 2024.

UK policy

In the UK, the government has been concerned that ‘the unprecedented concentration of power amongst a small number of digital firms is holding back innovation and growth’. UK competition rules are thus set to change significantly, with the government setting out the framework for an entirely new ‘pro-competition regime’ for digital markets. As it states in the Executive Summary to its proposals for such a regime (see linked UK official publication below):

The size and presence of ‘big’ digital firms is not inherently bad. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that the particular features of some digital markets can cause them to ‘tip’ in favour of one or two incumbents… This market power can become entrenched, leading to higher prices, barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, less innovation, and less choice and control for consumers.

It has established a new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). It was launched in ‘shadow form’ in April 2021, pending the introduction of the UK’s new digital regulatory regime. Under the proposals, the new regime will focus on companies that the DMU designates as having ‘strategic market status’.

The government is expected to publish its much-awaited Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, which, according to legal experts, will represent the most significant reform of UK competition and consumer protection laws in years.

It is expected that the Bill will result in important reforms for competition law, but it is also expected to give the DMU powers to enforce a new regulatory regime. This new regime will apply to UK digital firms that have ‘strategic market status’ (SMS). This will be similar to the EU’s Digital Markets Act in how it applies to certain ‘gatekeeper’ digital firms. However, the UK regulations are intended to be more nuanced than the EU regime in terms of how SMS firms are designated and the specific obligations they will have to comply with.

A report by MPs on the influential Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published in October, urged the Government to publish a draft Digital Markets Bill that would help deter predatory practices by big tech firms ‘without delay’.

On 17th November 2022, the UK Government announced in its Autumn Statement 2022 that it will bring forward the Bill in the third Parliamentary session. There has been no specific date announced yet for the first reading of the Bill, but it will probably be in Spring 2023. Current expectations are that the new DMU regime and reforms to competition and consumer protection laws could be effective as early as October 2023.

Proposals for the Bill were trailed by the Government in the Queen’s Speech. It announced measures that would empower the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) Digital Markets Unit (DMU) to rein in abusive tech giants by dropping the turnover threshold for immunity from financial penalties from £50 million to £20 million and hiking potential maximum fines to 10% of global annual income. Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that the Bill, once enacted, would ‘tackle anti-competitive practice in digital markets’ and provide consumers with higher quality products and greater choice. The strategy includes tailored codes of conduct for certain digital companies and a bespoke merger control regime for designated firms.

The Bill is also expected to include a wide range of reforms to the competition and consumer law regimes in the UK, in particular:

  • wide-ranging changes to the CMA’s Competition Act 1998 and market study/investigation powers, including significant penalties for non-compliance with market investigation orders;
  • significant strengthening of the consumer law enforcement regime by enabling the CMA directly to enforce consumer law through the imposition of fines;
  • changes to UK consumer laws to tackle subscription traps and fake reviews and to enhance protections for savings schemes.

Competition law expert Alan Davis of Pinsent Masons said:

Importantly, the Bill will bring about major reforms to consumer protection law, substantially strengthening the CMA’s enforcement powers to mirror those it already uses in antitrust cases, as well as important changes to merger control and competition rules.

It is anticipated that the Bill will announce the most significant reforms of UK competition and consumer protection laws in years and is expected to have an impact on all business in the UK to varying degrees. It is advised, therefore, that businesses need to review their approach to sales and marketing given the expected new powers of the CMA to impose significant fines in relation to consumer law breaches.

Conclusions

Technological innovation is largely pro-competitive. However, competition rules must be flexible and robust enough to deal with the challenges of the online world. A globally co-ordinated approach to the challenges raised in competition law by the digital age remains important wherever possible. Under the EU’s Digital Markets Act, firms that are designated as gatekeepers, and those defined as having strategic market status under the UK regime, will be required to undertake significant work to ensure compliance with the new rules.

Articles

UK official publications

Questions

  1. For what reasons may digital markets be more competitive than traditional ones?
  2. What types of anti-competitive behaviour are likely in digital markets?
  3. Explain what are meant by ‘network economies’? What are their implications for competition and market power?
  4. Explain what is meant by ‘bundling’? How is this likely to occur in digital markets?
  5. Give some examples where traditional markets are combined with online ones. Does this make it difficult to pursue an effective competition policy?
  6. Give some examples of ways in which firms can mislead or otherwise take advantage of consumers in an e-commerce environment.

Shipping and supply chains generally have experienced major problems in 2021. The global pandemic disrupted the flow of trade, and the bounce-back in the summer of 2021 saw supply chains stretched as staff shortages and physical capacity limits hit the transport of freight. Ships were held up at ports waiting for unloading and onward transportation. The just-in-time methods of delivery and stock holding were put under considerable strain.

The problems were compounded by the blockage of the Suez canal in March 2021. As the blog, JIT or Illegit stated “When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.”

Another major event in 2021 was the Glasgow COP26 climate conference and the growing willingness of countries to commit to decarbonising their economies. But whereas electricity can be generated from renewable sources, and factories and land transport, such as cars, vans and trains, can run on electricity, it is not so easy to decarbonise shipping, especially for long journeys. They cannot plug in to the grid or draw down from overhead cables. They have to carry their own fuel sources with them.

So, have the pandemic and the Ever Given incident exposed weaknesses in the global supply chain and in shipping in particular? And, if so, in what ways is shipping likely to adapt? And will the pressure to decarbonise lead to a radical rethinking of shipping and long-distance trade?

These are some of the issues considered in the podcast linked below. In it, “Shipping strategist Mark Williams tells Helen Lewis how examining the challenge of decarbonising shipping reveals a future which looks radically different to today, in a world where population, oil extraction and economic growth have all peaked, and trade is transformed”.

Listen to the podcast and have a go at the questions below which are based directly on it.

Podcast

Articles

Questions

  1. Why should we care about the shipping industry?
  2. What lessons can be drawn from the Ever Given incident?
  3. What structural changes are needed to make shipping an industry fit for the long-term demands of the global economy?
  4. Distinguish between just-in-time supply chains and just-in-case supply chains.
  5. What are ‘reshoring’ and ‘nearshoring’? How have they been driven by a growth in trade barriers?
  6. What are the implications of reshoring and nearshoring for (a) globalisation and (b) the UK’s trading position post-Brexit?
  7. What is the contribution of shipping to global greenhouse gas emissions? What other pollutants are emitted from the burning of heavy fuel oil (or ‘bunker fuel’)?
  8. What levers exist to persuade shipping companies to decarbonise their vessels?
  9. What alternative ‘green’ fuels are available to power ships?
  10. What are the difficulties in switching to such fuels?
  11. What economies of scale are there in shipping?
  12. How do the ownership patterns in shipping benefit decision making and change in the industry?
  13. Are ammonia or nuclear power the answer to the decarbonisation of shipping? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
  14. Why are President Xi’s views on the future of shipping so important?
  15. How will the decarbonisation of economies affect the demand for shipping?
  16. What is likely to happen to Chinese demand for iron ore and coking coal over the coming years? What effect will it have on shipping?
  17. How and by how much is the European Emissions Trading System likely to contribute to the decarbonisation of shipping?
  18. What is the Sea Cargo Charter? What difference is it likely to make to the decarbonisation of shipping?
  19. In what ways do cargo ships optimise productivity?
  20. What impact is slowing population growth, or even no population growth, likely to have on shipping?

The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.

In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.

The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.

In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.

These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.

New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.

New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.

Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.

A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.

Podcast

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
  2. What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
  3. How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
  4. Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
  5. How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
  6. How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
  7. What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?