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.
As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the UK, the government has been forced to introduce a range of drastic measures, including severe restrictions on movement of people to ensure social distancing. Supermarkets have also been forced to act as they experienced panic buying and struggled to keep up with supply. They responded by starting to impose limits on the number of certain items an individual consumer could purchase and by reducing the range of products they made available. In addition, supermarkets contacted the government to suggest that competition law should be relaxed to allow the rival chains to coordinate their response to the ongoing situation.
WM Morrison, the forth largest supermarket retailer in the UK, was one of the key players lobbying for this change. Their chief executive, David Potts, argued that “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”
The supermarket industry is in fact a market where the UK competition authorities have expressed considerable concerns in the past regarding a lack of competition (see for example the 2008 market investigation and the recent decision to block the merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda). The supermarkets also previously made similar demands for a relaxation of competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Despite this, the government has agreed to temporarily relax elements of competition law to help supermarkets respond to the Coronavirus crisis with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, stating that:
By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.
In moves supported by the Competition and Markets Authority, laws enabling them to do so will soon be passed through Parliament. Supermarkets will be allowed to:
- share data with each other on stock levels
- cooperate to keep shops open
- share distribution depots and delivery vans
- pool staff with one another to help meet demand.
It is also expected that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will take a pragmatic approach to rules previously in place to prevent the big supermarket chains abusing their power over suppliers. These rules previously prevented supermarkets from stopping orders from a given supplier without reasonable warning. However, it is now accepted that they may need to do so in order to focus on supplying a restricted range of essential products.
Such relaxation of competition laws has been rare, with previous examples being measures taken in 2006 for the maintenance and repair of warships and in 2012 during the fuel crisis. In contrast, typically competition law is extremely hot on preventing agreements between firms. This is due to the fact that they distort competition and prevent the considerable benefits that can arise for consumers when firms compete to offer the best deals.
In the extreme situation the UK is currently in, the government’s stance appears to be that there are sufficient other benefits from restricting competition between supermarkets and allowing some degree of cooperation. It is then important that the form of cooperation between the supermarkets is restricted to narrow areas that will help to ensure the continuity of supply. In particular, it would be worrying if the supermarkets started discussing the prices they charge. Already food prices may rise due to increased demand and a potential shortage of supply. Furthermore, many consumers will see their income reduced. Therefore, it is important that coordination between supermarkets doesn’t result in further increases in prices.
It is therefore reassuring that the Government made clear that the relaxation of competition law:
will be a specific, temporary relaxation to enable retailers to work together for the sole purpose of feeding the nation during these unprecedented circumstances. It will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement.
The Competition and Markets Authority has also stressed that they will not:
tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Once the current crisis is over, it will also be important that the competition authority closely monitors the supermarket sector to ensure that cooperation between the supermarkets ends and normal competitive conduct is resumed.
- Outline the effects agreements between firms to raiser prices have on economic welfare.
- What are the pros and cons of allowing cooperation between the supermarkets in response to the Coronavirus crisis?
The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.
Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:
co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.
In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.
Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.
It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.
European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)
- What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
- Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
- How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?
Price fixing agreements between firms are one of the most serious breaches of competition law. Therefore, if detected, the firms involved face substantial fines (see here for an example), plus there is also the potential for jail sentences and director disqualification for participants. However, due to their secretive nature and the need for hard evidence of communication between firms, it is difficult for competition authorities to detect cartel activity.
In order to assist detection, competition authorities offer leniency programmes that guarantee full immunity from fines to the first participant to come forward and blow the whistle on the cartel. This has become a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels. Recently, competition authorities have introduced a number of new tools to try to enhance cartel detection.
First, the European Commission launched an online tool to make it easier for cartels to be reported to them. This tool allows anonymous two-way communication in the form of text messages between a whistle blower and the Commission. The Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:
If people are concerned by business practices that they think are wrong, they can help put things right. Inside knowledge can be a powerful tool to help the Commission uncover cartels and other anti-competitive practices. With our new tool it is possible to provide information, while maintaining anonymity. Information can contribute to the success of our investigations quickly and more efficiently to the benefit of consumers and the EU’s economy as a whole.
Second, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an online and social media campaign to raise awareness of what is illegal under competition law and to encourage illegal activity to be reported to them. The CMA stated that:
Cartels are both harmful and illegal, and the consequences of breaking the law are extremely serious. That is why we are launching this campaign – to help people understand what cartel activity looks like and how to report it so we can take action.
This campaign is on the back of the CMA’s own research which found that less that 25% of the businesses they surveyed believed that they knew competition law well. Furthermore, the CMA is now offering a reward of up to £100,000 and guaranteed anonymity to individuals who provide them with information.
It will be fascinating to see the extent to which these new tools are used and whether they aid the competition authorities in detecting and prosecuting cartel behaviour.
CMA launches crackdown on cartels as illegal activity rises The Telegraph, Bradley Gerrard (20/03/17)
European Commission launches new anonymous whistleblower tool, but who would use it? Competition Policy Blog, Andreas Stephan (21/03/17)
CMA launches campaign to crackdown on cartels Insider Media Limited, Karishma Patel (21/03/17)
- Why do you think leniency programmes are a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels?
- Who do you think is most likely to blow the whistle on a cartel (see the article above by A.Stephan)?
- Why is it worrying that so few businesses appear to know competition law well?
- Which of the two tools do you think is most likely to enhance cartel detection? Explain why.
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?