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.
On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
Each week, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts readings from a book serialised in five 15-minute episodes. In the week beginning 18 January 2021, the readings were from English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, a farmer from the Cumbrian fells. His farm is relatively small, covering 185 acres.
He has attempted to make it much more sustainable and less intensive, reintroducing traditional Herdwick sheep, having a mixture of cows and sheep rather than just sheep, a greater sub-division of fields, and more natural scrubland, peatbogs and trees. As a result, soil quality has improved and there has been an explosion of biodiversity, with an abundance of wild flowers and insects.
Apart from being an autobiography of his time as a farmer and his attempt to move towards more traditional methods, the book examines broader issues of agricultural sustainability. It looks at the pressures of consumers wanting cheap food, the market power of supermarkets and wholesalers, the cost pressures on farmers pushing them towards monoculture to achieve economies of scale, and the role of the agrichemicals industry promoting fertilisers, feeds and pesticides which bring short-term financial gains to farmers, but which cause longer-term damage to the land and to biodiversity.
Rebanks has gained quite a lot of media attention after the publication of his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, including being one of the guests on Desert Island Discs and the subject of an episode of The Food Programme.
Listen to the Food Programme podcast and try answering the questions, which are all based on the podcast in the order of the points made in the interview.
- What are the incentives of an unregulated market for food that result in monoculture and a loss of biodiversity?
- To what extent are consumers responsible for changes in farming methods?
- Have the changes helped the urban poor?
- How is the monopsony power of supermarkets and food wholesalers impacting on food production and the pattern of agriculture?
- There are various (private) economies of scale in food production, but these often involve substantial external costs and long-term private costs too. How does this impact on land use?
- What are some of the limits of technology in increasing crop, meat and dairy yields?
- Will more recent changes in the pattern of food consumption help to increase mixed farming and biodiversity?
- Is it ‘rational’ for many farmers to continue with intensive farming with high levels of artificial fertilisers and pesticides?
- Is diversity in farming across farms within a local area a public good? If so, how could such diversity be achieved?
- How can farmers be encouraged to think and act holistically?
- Is there a trade-off between food output and biodiversity?
- What are the dangers in the UK reaching an agricultural trade deal with the USA?
- What are the benefits and costs of encouraging local food markets?
In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
At 23:00 on 31 December 2020, the UK withdrew from the European single market. This ended the transition period which followed the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. But, with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (‘the deal’) signed on 30 December, it was agreed that there would be no tariffs or quotas on trade in goods between the UK and the EU.
So what are the new economic relations between the EU and the UK and how will they impact on the UK economy? What new restrictions are there on trade in goods and on the movement of labour and capital? How is trade in services, including financial services, affected? What new agreements, such as on fishing, will replace previous agreements?
What will happen to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? What will happen to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
What will happen to regulations over standards of traded products and their production? Will the UK government be able to provide subsidies or other types of support for goods or services exported to the EU? How will disputes about standards and support to companies be resolved?
How will trade with non-EU countries change? If the EU has trade agreements with such countries, do these agreements now apply to trade between the UK and such countries? How free is the UK now to negotiate new trade agreements with non-EU countries? How will the UK’s negotiating strength be affected by its withdrawal from the EU?
Rather than listing the changes here, follow the links below to the articles and assess the nature of the changes and then attempt the questions. The articles represent a balance of views.
What is clear is that these are all big issues and are likely to have a significant impact on the UK economy. Most economists argue that the net effect will be negative on trade and economic growth, but there is huge uncertainty about the magnitude of the effects. Much will depend on how arrangements between the UK and the EU develop over the coming months and years.
- Brexit deal explained: What will be the impact of UK’s agreement with EU?
Sky News, Ed Conway (24/12/20)
- Brexit deal: What is in it?
BBC News, Chris Morris (28/12/20)
- Brexit: What are the key points of the deal?
BBC News, Tom Edgington (30/12/20)
- Brexit trade deal explained: the key parts of the landmark agreement
Financial Times (25/12/20)
- The key details of the Brexit deal summarised, from trade to fishing
The Telegraph, James Crisp and Gordon Rayner (3/1/21)
- Committees, visas and climate change: Brexit experts’ verdicts on the deal details
The Guardian, Lisa O’Carroll (28/12/20)
- The left must stop mourning Brexit – and start seeing its huge potential
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/12/20)
- The Guardian view on Britain out of the EU: a treasure island for rentiers
The Guardian, Editorial (27/12/20)
- Brexit Is Finally Done, but It Already Seems Out of Date
New York Times, Mark Landler (30/12/20)
- Towards a modern UK-EU trade relationship
Best for Britain, David Henig (28/12/20)
- Brexit Is a New World Businesses Still Need to Figure Out
Bloomberg, Deirdre Hipwell, Craig Trudell, and Dara Doyle (1/1/21)
UK and EU documents
- Summarise the main features of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and how the UK’s new relationship with the EU differs from being a member.
- What are the potential economic benefits from being outside the EU?
- What are the economic drawbacks for the UK from having left the EU, albeit with the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement?
- On balance, do you think that the UK will gain or lose economically from having left the EU? Explain your answer.