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?
On my commute to work on the 6th October, I happened to listen to a programme on BBC radio 4, which provided some fascinating discussion on climate change, growth, capitalism and the need for co-operation. With more countries emerging as leading economic powers, pollution and emissions continue to grow. Is it time for a green revolution?
The programme considers some ‘typical’ policies and also discusses some radical solutions. There is discussion on developing and developed nations and how these countries should be looked at in terms of compensation, entitlement and aid. Carrots and sticks are analysed as means of saving the planet and how environmental damage can be reduced, without adversely affecting the growth rate of the world economy. I won’t say any more, but it’s certainly worth listening to, for an interesting discussion on one of the biggest problems that governments across the world are facing and it is not going to go away any time soon.
Naomi Klein on climate change and growth BBC Radio 4, Start the Week (6/10/14)
- What are the market failures with the environment?
- Why is global co-operation so important for tackling the problem of climate change?
- Which policies are discussed as potential solutions to the problem of climate change?
- What has been the problem with the European carbon trading scheme?
- Why may there be a trade-off between capitalism, growth and the problem of carbon emissions?
- To what extent do you think that countries such as Bangladesh should be ‘compensated’?
In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)
There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.
Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.
Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?
On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:
Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.
But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.
Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:
Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “
One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.
Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.
Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:
It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.
The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)
Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature
- How would you define natural capital?
- What are ecosystem services?
- Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
- How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
- How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
- What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
Here’s a question that goes to the heart of economics and the social sciences generally: how desirable is the market system?
Our lives are dominated by markets. Whether in working or consuming, we operate in a market economy in which money is exchanged for goods or services. But also financial and product markets determine much of the structure of society, where most things seem to have a price.
But whilst, as a positive statement, we can say that money and markets are all around us, does that make them desirable? Markets provide signals and incentives; but are the signals the right ones? What are the incentives and how do we respond to them? And are these responses optimal?
You will probably have studied various ways in which markets fail to provide the optimal allocation of resources. But what are the limits of markets as a mechanism for social choices? And is there some more fundamental issue about the morality of a society that is organised around markets?
These are questions considered in the following podcast. It is an episode from BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, hosted by Andrew Marr, with guests Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle and Grigory Yavlinksy. Here are the programme details:
Andrew Marr discusses the relationship between markets and morals with the political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel questions the dominance of the financial markets in our daily lives, in which everything has a price. But the economist Diane Coyle stands up for her much maligned profession, and points to the many benefits of a market economy. The Russian economist Grigory Yavlinksy argues against viewing the world of money as separate from culture and society: he believes the financial crisis was merely a symptom of a wider moral collapse, and that it is time to examine the way we live.
(Links to the three contributors: Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle (see also), Grigory Yavlinsky.)
Michael Sandel on Money and Morality BBC Start the Week programme (21/5/12)
Videos and articles
For a range of videos and articles on the morality of capitalism, see the previous post at:
We need to talk about Capitalism (28/1/12)
- What crises are there in current capitalism?
- What, according to Michael Sandel, is the difference between a market economy and a market society?
- Is the market society a relatively new phenomenon, or does it go back hundreds of years?
- To what extent is the greed expressed through markets and encouraged by markets affecting/infecting society and human relationships generally?
- What is the role of morality and trust in determining the desirability of market relationships?
- To what extent does a market economy allow people, rich and poor, to live separately from each other and not interact as joint members of society?
- What are the value systems promoted by marketisation? Should certain aspects of human life be outside these value systems?
- To what extent is the crisis of capitalism a crisis of economics?
- What policy alternatives are there for rebalancing society?
- What is the role of economists in advising on policy alternatives?
With the fall of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, many hailed this as the victory of capitalism.
Even China, which is still governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has embraced the market and accepted growing levels of private ownership of capital. It is only one or two countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, that could be described as communist in the way the term was used to describe the centrally planned economies of eastern Europe before 1990.
But whilst market capitalism seemed to have emerged as the superior system in the 1990s, may are now questioning whether the market capitalism we have today is fit for the 21st century. Today much of the world’s capital in the hands of big business, with financial institutions holding a large proportion of shares in such companies. And the gap between rich and poor is ever widening
The market system of today, is very different from that of 100 years ago. In fact, as John Kay agues in his article “Let’s talk about the market economy” below, it would be wrong to describe it as ‘capitalism’ in the sense the term was used in the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, the term is still used and generally refers to the market system we now have. And it is a market system that many see as failing and unfit for purpose. It is a system that coincided with the bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2007–9 and the recession of 2008/9, now seeming to return as a double-dip recession
With the political and business leaders of the world meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland on 25–29 January 2012, a central theme of the forum has been the future of capitalism and whether it’s fit for the 21st century.
Is there a fairer and more compassionate capitalism that can be fostered? This has been a stated objective of all three political parties in the UK recently. Can we avoid another crisis of capitalism as seen in the late 2000s and which still continues today? What is the role of government in regulating the market system? Does the whole capitalist system need restructuring?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to talk about capitalism. The following webcasts and articles do just that.
Webcasts and podcasts
Davos 2012 – TIME Davos Debate on Capitalism< World Economic Forum (25/01/12)
Can capitalism be ‘responsible’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (19/01/12)
Capitalism ‘nothing to do with responsibility’ BBC Newsnight, Eric Hobsbawm (19/01/12)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? BBC Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein, Tristram Hunt and Julie Meyer (19/01/12)
America Beyond Capitalism The Real News on YouTube, Gar Alperovitz (27/12/11)
The future of capitalism CNBC, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (12/11/09)
Capitalism Hits the Fan (excerpt) YouTube, Richard Wolff (2/1/12)
Panel Discussion “20 years after – Future of capitalism in CEE” Erste Group on YouTube, Andreas Treichl, Janusz Kulik, Jacques Chauvet, and media Adrian Sarbu (24/2/11)
The Future of Capitalism: Constructive Competition or Chaos? YouTube, Nathan Goetting, Tony Nelson, Craig Meurlin and Judd Bruce Bettinghaus (24/1/11)
Capitalism in Crisis Financial Times, Various videos (24/1/11)
Bill Gates: Capitalism a ‘phenomenal system’ BBC Today Programme, Bill Gates talks to Evan Davis (25/1/12)
Capitalism (See also) BBC The Bottom Line, Evan Davis and guests (28/1/12)
Meddle with the market at your peril Financial Times, Alan Greenspan (25/1/12)
The world’s hunger for public goods Financial Times, Martin Wolf (24/1/12)
When capitalism and corporate self-interest collide JohnKay.com, John Kay (25/1/12)
Let’s talk about the market economy JohnKay.com, John Kay (11/1/12)
A real market economy ensures that greed is good JohnKay.com, John Kay (18/1/12)
Seven ways to fix the system’s flaws Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/1/12)
To the barricades, British defenders of open markets! The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook (26/1/12)
Community reaction to doubts about capitalism in Davos CBC News (26/1/12)
Capitalism saw off USSR, now it needs to change or die The National (UAE), Frank Kane (26/1/12)
Words won’t change capitalism. So be daring and do something Observer, Will Hutton (22/1/12)
A political economy fit for purpose: what the UK could learn from Germany Our Kingdom, Alex Keynes (20/1/12)
Debate on State Capitalism The Economist (24/1/12)
- How has the nature of capitalism changed over recent decades?
- Can capitalism be made more ‘caring’ and, if so, how?
- What do you understand by the term a ‘fair allocation of resources’? Is capitalism fair? Can it be made fairer and, if so, what are the costs of making it so?
- Can greed ever be good?
- How does the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism differ from the European model?
- What do you understand by the term ‘crony capitalism’? Is crony capitalism on the increase?
- John Kay states that “Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital.” Explain what this means and what its implications are for making capitalism meet social goals.
- In what ways can governments control markets? Have these instruments and their effectiveness changed in effectiveness over time?
- What are the costs and benefits to society of the increasing globalisation of capital?
- To what extent was the financial crisis and credit crunch the result of a flawed capitalist system and to what extent was it a failure of government intervention?
- Why is it important for the success of capitalism that companies should be allowed to fail? Consider whether this should also apply to banks. How is the concept of moral hazard relevant to your answer?