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 USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
Record fines have been imposed by the European Commission for the operation of a cartel. Truck makers, Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco and DAF have been fined a total of €2.93bn. The fines were considerably higher than the previous record fine of €1.7bn on banks for rigging the LIBOR rate.
Along with MAN, they were found to have colluded for 14 years over pricing. They also colluded in passing on to customers the costs of compliance with stricter emissions rules. Together these five manufacturers account for some 90% of medium and heavy lorries produced in Europe.
The companies have admitted their involvement in the cartel. If they had not, the fines might have been higher. MAN escaped a fine of €1.2bn as it had revealed the existence of the cartel to the Commission.
A sixth company, Scania, is still in dispute with the Commission over its involvement. Thus the final total of fines could be higher when Scania’s case is settled.
In addition, any person or firm adversely affected by the cartel can seek damages from any of the companies in the national courts of member states. They do not have to prove that there was a cartel.
The Commission hopes that the size of the fine will act as a disincentive for other firms to form a cartel. ‘We have, today, put down a marker by imposing record fines for a serious infringement,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner.
Also, by being able to exempt a cartel member (MAN in this case) from a fine if it ‘blows the whistle’ to the authorities, it will help to break existing cartels.
There are some other major possible cartels and cases of abuse of market power currently being considered by the Commission. These include Google and whether unfair tax breaks were given to Apple and Amazon by Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.
Price-Fixing Truck Makers Get Record E.U. Fine: $3.2 Billion New York Times, James Kanter (19/7/16)
Truckmakers Get Record $3.23 Billion EU Fine for Cartel Bloomberg, Aoife White (19/6/16)
EU fines truckmakers a record €2.93bn for running 14-year cartel Financial Times, Peter Campbell, Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker (19/7/16)
Truckmakers fined by Brussels for price collusion The Guardian, Sean Farrell (19/7/16)
Europa Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines truck producers € 2.93 billion for participating in a cartel European Commission (19/7/16)
Competition DG European Commission
- How have the various stakeholders in the truck manufacturing industry been affected by the operation of the cartel?
- What incentive effects are there, (a) for existing cartel members and (b) for firms thinking of forming a cartel, in the fining system used by the European Commission?
- Unlike the USA, the EU cannot jail managers for oligopolistic collusion. Compare the relative effectiveness of large fines and jail sentences in deterring cartels.
- What determines the profit-maximising price(s) for a cartel?
- Apart from the threat of action by the competition authorities, what determines the likely success of a cartel in being able to fix prices?
- Choose two other cases of possible cartels or the abuse of market power being examined by the European Commission. What is the nature of the suspected abuse?
The market structure in which firms operate has important implications for prices, products, suppliers and profits. In competitive markets, we expect to see low prices, many firms competing with new innovations and firm behavior that is in, or at least not against the public interest. As a firm becomes dominant in a market, its behavior is likely to change and consumers and suppliers can be adversely affected. Is this the case with Amazon?
Much attention has been given to the dispute centering around Amazon and its actions in the market for e-books, where it holds close to two thirds of the market share. Critics of Amazon suggest that this is just one example of Amazon using its monopoly power to exploit consumers and suppliers, including the publishers and their authors. Although Amazon is not breaking any laws, there are suggestions that its behavior is ‘brutal’ and is taking advantage of consumers, suppliers and its workforce.
But rather than criticizing the actions of a monopolist like Amazon, should we instead be praising the company and its ability to compete other firms out of the market? One of the main reasons why consumers use Amazon to buy goods is that prices are cheap. So, in this respect, perhaps Amazon is not acting against consumers’ interests, as under a monopoly we typically expect low output and high prices, relative to a model of perfect competition. The question of the methods used to keep prices so low is another matter. Two conflicting views on Amazon can be seen from Annie Lowrey and Franklin Foer, who respectively said:
“Amazon relentlessly drives down prices for goods and services and delivers them fast and cheap. It ploughs its profits into price cuts and innovation rather than putting them in the hands of its investors. That benefits millions of families – full stop.”
“In effect, we’ve been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.”
So, with Amazon we have an interesting case of a monopolist, where many aspects of its behaviour fit exactly into the mould of the traditional monopolist. But, some of the outcomes we observe indicate a more competitive market. Paul Krugman has been relatively blunt in his opinion that Amazon’s dominance is bad for America. His comments are timely, given the recognition for Jean Tirole’s work in considering the problems faced when trying to regulate any firm that has significant market power. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. I’ll leave you to decide where you place this company on the traditional spectrum of market structures, as you read the following articles.
Amazon: Monopoly or capitalist success story? BBC News, Kierran Petersen (14/10/14)
Why the Justice Department won’t go after Amazon, even though Paul Krugman thinks it’s hurting America Business Insider, Erin Fuchs (20/10/14)
Is Amazon a monopoly? The Week, Sergio Hernandez (19/11/14)
Big, bad Amazon The Economist (20/10/14)
- What are the typical characteristics of a monopoly? To what extent does Amazon fit into this market structure?
- Why does Paul Krugman suggest that Amazon is hurting America?
- How does Amazon’s behaviour with regard to (a) its suppliers and (b) its workers affect its profitability? Would it be able to behave in this way if it were a smaller company?
- Why is Amazon able to charge its customers such low prices? Why does it do this, given its market power?
- Is there an argument for more regulation of firms with such dominance in a market, as is the case with Amazon?
- The debate over e-books is ingoing. What is the argument for publishers to be able to set a minimum price? What is the argument against this?
- Should customers boycott Amazon in a protest over the alleged working conditions of Amazon factory employees?
There has been an ongoing battle between Microsoft and Google for many years in the technology industry. Microsoft have received many fines in countless anti-trust cases, but Microsoft has now taken the upper hand in the most recent development, after filing its first official complaint with the regulators against Google. Microsoft is claiming that Google’s actions are restricting competition in the market and thereby abusing its dominant position. This complaint follows numerous complaints by small businesses. Microsoft’s Brad Smith said that they had been forced to act because of a:
“broadening pattern of conduct aimed at stopping anyone else from creating a competitive alternative”.
Google controls approximately 95% of the European search engine market and complaints have focused on actions that Google have taken to restrict competition, further its dominance in the market and thereby harm consumers. The European Commission is already investigating Google and will continue to discuss the case with all parties involved.
Microsoft takes on Google with antitrust complaint Guardian, Mark Sweney (31/3/11)
Minnow Microsoft v the Google giant BBC News Blog, Rory Cellan-Jones (31/3/11)
Adding our voice to concerns about search in Europe Microsoft Blog, Brad Smith (30/3/11)
Microsoft accuses Google of antitrust violations CNN Money, David Goldman (31/3/11)
- What constitutes a dominant position? In what forms can a firm abuse its dominant position?
- What is the purpose of anti-trust laws and competition policy?
- To what extent are Google’s actions against consumer’s interests?
- What anti-competitive practices have Google been accused of? Explain how each is against consumer’s interests and against the interests of its competitors.
- What are (a) the arguments for keeping interest rates at 0.5% and (b) the arguments for raising interest rates? Who wins and loses in each case?