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.
Cloud computing is growing rapidly and has started to dominate many parts of the IT market. Cloud revenues are rising at around 25% per year and, according to Jeremy Duke of Synergy Research Group:
“Major barriers to cloud adoption are now almost a thing of the past, especially on the public-cloud side. Cloud technologies are now generating massive revenues for technology vendors and cloud service providers, and yet there are still many years of strong growth ahead.”
The market leader in cloud services (as opposed to cloud hardware) is Amazon Web Services (AWS), a subsidiary of Amazon. At the end of 2016, it had a market share of around 40%, larger than the next three competitors (Microsoft, Google and IBM), combined. AWS originated cloud computing some 10 years ago. It is set to have generated revenue of $13 billion in 2016.
The cloud computing services market is an oligopoly, with a significant market leader, AWS. But is the competition from other players in the market, including IT giants, such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, enough to guarantee that the market stays competitive and that prices will fall as technology improves and costs fall?
Certainly all the major players are investing heavily in new services, better infrastructure and marketing. And they are already established suppliers in other sectors of the IT market. Microsoft and Google, in particular, are strong contenders to AWS. Nevertheless, as the first article states:
Neither Google nor Microsoft have an easy task since AWS will continue to be an innovation machine with a widely recognized brand among the all-important developer community. Both Amazon’s major competitors have an opportunity to solidify themselves as strong alternatives in what is turning into a public cloud oligopoly.
While Amazon dominates cloud infrastructure, an oligopoly is emerging. Which will buyers bet on? diginomica, Kurt Marko (16/2/17)
Study: AWS has 45% share of public cloud infrastructure market — more than Microsoft, Google, IBM combined GeekWire, Dan Richman (31/10/16)
Cloud computing revenues jumped 25% in 2016, with strong growth ahead, researcher says GeekWire, Dan Richman (4/1/17)
Press releases Synergy Research Group
- Distinguish the different segments of the cloud computing market.
- What competitive advantages does AWS have over its major rivals?
- What specific advantages does Microsoft have in the cloud computing market?
- Is the amount of competition in the cloud computing market enough to prevent the firms from charging excessive prices to their customers? How might you assess what is ‘excessive’?
- What barriers to entry are there in the cloud computing market? Should they be a worry for competition authorities?
- Are the any network economies in cloud computing? What might they be?
- Cloud computing is a rapidly developing industry (for example, the relatively recent development of cloud containers). How does the speed of development impact on competition?
- How would market saturation affect competition and the behaviour of the major players?
Concerns have been expressed about the UK’s relatively poor record of upgrading broadband services so that households can receive ultrafast connectivity. Some commenters have argued that future economic growth prospects will be harmed if the UK continues to lag behind its leading rivals.
Much of the fixed line system that allows people to connect to broadband was originally installed many years ago for the land-line telephone network. The so called ‘final mile’ consists of copper-based wiring that is carried from street cabinets to the premises of the end-user. This wiring is transported via a huge network of telegraph poles and cable ducts (small underground tunnels).
In order for people to gain connectivity to ultrafast broadband this copper based wiring needs to be replaced by fibre optic cables. This is commonly referred to as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). Unfortunately, the UK has a relatively poor record of installing FTTP. Japan and Korea were forecast to have 70% and 63% coverage by the end of 2015 as opposed to just 2% in the UK.
Why is the UK’s record so poor? Many observers blame it on the structure of the industry. In other network industries, such as those for gas pipeline and electricity grids, the business responsible for managing the infrastructure, National Grid, is a regulated monopoly. This company does not directly supply services to consumers using the network it is responsible for maintaining. Instead, customers are supplied by the retail sector of the industry, where firms compete for their business. This sector includes the so-called ‘big six’ (British Gas; npower; SSE; Scottish Power; EDF; E.On) and a number of smaller suppliers such as Ovo Energy and Ebico.
The structure of the fixed line telecommunications sector is very different. The company that manages the ‘final mile’, Openreach, is a subsidiary of BT. BT also competes with other Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as TalkTalk and Sky, to supply broadband to customers using this network. Its market share of 32 per cent makes it the largest player in the broadband market. Sky and TalkTalk have market shares of 22 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Virgin Media also supplies 20 per cent of this market using its own network of ducts and cables.
Given that in most cases ISPs such as Sky and TalkTalk are stuck with the network Openreach provides, BT may have limited incentives to invest. It can still earn a good return from its infrastructure of copper-based wiring and avoid installing expensive FTTP. Dido Harding, the chief executive of TalkTalk, argued that:
“We need to separate Openreach from the rest of BT to create a more competitive, pro-investment market”
Ofcom, in its recent review of the market, has taken a different approach. Rather than creating an entirely separate monopoly business to manage the network (i.e. splitting Openreach from BT), the regulator instead opted for a policy of encouraging competition between different suppliers that deploy fibre optic cables. It states in the report that:
“We believe competition between different networks is the best way to drive investment in high-quality, innovative services for customers.”
This competition could come from ISPs such as TalkTalk and Sky or other smaller network providers such as CityFibre and Gigaclear.
One major problem with this approach is that potential new entrants might be deterred from entering the market because of the very high initial costs involved in building a new network in order to deploy FTTP. In particular, the costs of digging up the roads and laying the ducts are considerable. Matt Yardley, author of a study on the industry, said:
“It is widely accepted that civil works such as digging trenches account for up to 80% of broadband deployment costs.”
One way of reducing these costs and encouraging more competition is to allow rival firms access to the existing ducts and poles that are currently managed by Openreach. Once access has been obtained, these firms could effectively rent space inside the ducts and lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing copper-based wiring. Vodafone reported that a similar policy in Spain had reduced its capital expenditure of building FTTP by 40 per cent compared with constructing its own network of ducts and poles.
Ofcom first introduced this type of policy in 2010 when it launched its Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) initiative. Unfortunately it has proved to be relatively unsuccessful with very little demand for PIA from rival firms. The success of this type of policy will depend on a number of factors including (1) the prices charged by Openreach to access and rent space inside the ducts; (2) the simplicity of any relevant administration; and (3) the availability and reliability of information about the ducts. With this last point, key issues include:
||Where they are located .
||How much space is available: i.e. is there enough space for firms to lay fibre optic cables alongside the existing wiring?
||What condition they are in: i.e. are they flooded or clogged up with sand and mud, which will involve expensive work to make them usable again?
Firms did complain about the pricing structures and bureaucratic nature of the administration process under the PIA scheme. However, their most significant concerns were about the uncertainty that was created by the lack of information about the ducts and poles. For example, analysts from the consultancy firm, Reburn, argued that if a firm contacted Openreach to try to obtain access to the network it was informed that:
“We don’t know what condition the ducts and poles are in. Please pay £10 000 for a survey. Also unfortunately we are rather busy and we can only start in six weeks.”
Matthew Hare, the chief executive of Gigaclear, argued that it was like going to a shop where the assistant says:
“Give me some money, and I’ll tell you whether you can have it or not.”
In response to these criticisms Ofcom has introduced a number of changes to PIA, which has been re-named Duct and Pole Access (DPA). In particular, it has imposed a new requirement on Openreach to create a database that provides information on the location, condition and capacity of its ducts and poles. The database must be made available to rival ISPs and network providers. DPA must also be provided on the same timescales, terms and conditions to all businesses including other parts of BT – this is referred to as ‘equivalence of inputs’.
The first big test of this policy is in Southend where City Fibre is hoping to deploy 50km of fibre optic cables using DPA. However, reports in the media have suggested that the initial surveys have found very limited capacity in some of the ducts, which would make DPA impossible.
It will be interesting to see how the trial in Southend progresses. If it is successful, then DPA may be viable for about 40 per cent of premises in the UK. If it fails, then Ofcom might ultimately have to force Openreach to be completely separated from BT.
How the gothic city of York became a broadband battleground The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (22/5/16)
City Fibre first to mount BT challenge after Openreach is told to share network The Telegraph, Kate Palmer (1/3/16)
Challenges as CityFibre Moot Using BT Cable Ducts in Southend-on-Sea ISPreview, Mark Jackson (2/5/16)
CityFibre to build pure fibre infrastructure for Southend Networking (5/4/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up infrastructure to rivals The Guardian, Rob Davies (26/2/16)
- Draw an average total cost curve to illustrate the economics of building a network of ducts and poles. Label the minimum efficient scale.
- To what extent does DPA create a contestable market?
- For DPA to deliver productive efficiency, what must be true about the economies of scale of laying fibre optic cables?
- In the run-up to Ofcom’s review of the telecoms industry, many commentators described Openreach as being a natural monopoly. To what extent do you agree with this argument?
- What are the advantages of marginal cost pricing? What issues might a regulator face if it tried to impose marginal cost pricing on a natural monopoly?
- Using a diagram, explain how the network of ducts and poles might be a natural monopoly in rural areas but not in densely populated urban areas.
- Discuss how Ofcom has tried to increase the level of separation between Openreach and BT.
In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).
As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.
Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.
Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.
According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)
- What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
- What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
- How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
- Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
- If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
- How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
- T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
When people think about healthcare in the UK they tend to associate it with the NHS. However, there is a £5 billion private healthcare market. Concerns have been expressed about the lack of effective competition in this sector and it has been investigated by the competition authorities over a 5-year period.
Approximately 4 million people in the UK have a private medical insurance policy. The majority of these are paid for by employers, although some people pay directly. Four companies dominate the health insurance market (AXA PPP, Bupa, Pru Health and Aviva) with a combined market share of over 90%.
Health insurance companies purchase healthcare services for their policy holders from private hospitals. The majority of private hospitals in the UK are owned by the following businesses – BMI, HCA, Nuffield, Ramsey and Spire. Some concerns have been expressed about the lack of competition between private hospitals in some areas of the country.
After its initial analysis into the sector, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) referred the case to the Competition Commission (CC) in April 2012 to carry out a full market investigation. This process was then taken over by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) when it replaced the OFT and CC. The final report was published on April 2nd 2014.
One specific region that was identified in this report as having a lack of effective competition was central London for patients with health insurance. In particular it was concluded that:
||The market in central London was heavily concentrated and HCA had a dominant market position – its aggregated share of admissions across 16 specialities (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, Neurology, Dermatology etc.) was 45% to 55%.
||There were significant barriers to entry including substantial sunk costs. A particular issue for a new entrant or existing business was the problem of securing suitable sites in central London to build new hospitals and in obtaining planning permission. It was pointed out in the report that the market structure in central London had changed very little in the previous 10 years despite a rapidly growing demand for private healthcare.
|| HCA was charging insured patients higher prices for similar treatments than its leading rival – The London Clinic. HCA was also found to be making returns that were in excess of the cost of capital.
One of the key recommendations of the report was that HCA should be forced to sell–off one or two of the hospitals that it owned in central London to increase the level of competition.
Unsurprisingly HCA was very unhappy with the decision and applied to the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) for a review of the case. During this review, economists working for HCA found errors with the analysis carried out by the CMA into the pricing of health services for insured customers.
In January 2015 the CAT concluded that the findings and recommendations of the report on insured patients in central London should be overturned and the CMA should reconsider the case. In November 2015 the CMA announced that having reviewed the case it had come to a similar set of conclusions: i.e. there was a lack of effective competition and HCA should be forced to sell off two of its hospitals in London.
HCA still claimed that the pricing analysis was incorrect because it did not fully take into account that HCA treated patients with more complex conditions than TLC and that was why their prices were higher.
On March 22nd 2016 the CMA announced that it had reversed its ruling and HCA would no longer be expected to sell off any of its hospitals. The reason given for this change in recommendation was the appearance of new entrants into the market. For example, Cleveland Clinic a US-based private healthcare provider has purchased a long-term lease on a property in Belgravia, central London. It plans to convert the office space into a private hospital with 2015 beds.
A spokesperson for Bupa commented that:
“The CMA has confirmed again that there isn’t enough competition in central London, with HCA dominating the private hospital market and charging higher prices. We ask the CMA to act now to address this gap.”
It will be interesting to see the impact these new entrants have on the market in the future.
London develops as a global healthcare hub Financial Times Gill Plimmer (31/01/16)
Competition watchdog reverses ruling on private hospitals Financial Times Gill Plimmer, (22/03/16)
CMA’s private healthcare provisional decision on remedies CMA 22/03/16
Competition problems provisionally found in private healthcare CMA 10/11/15
CMA welcomes Court of Appeal verdict in private healthcare case CMA 21/05/15
- Define sunk costs using some real-world examples.
- Why might the existence of sunk costs create a barrier to entry?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a profit-maximising business with significant market power might charge higher prices than one in a very competitive environment.
- What is the cost of capital? Explain why returns that are greater than the cost of capital might be evidence that a firm is making excessive profits.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of new entrants in a market.