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?
Apple was last week found guilty in the US for its role in the fixing of e-book prices. A subsequent hearing will now be held to determine the damages that Apple will be forced to pay. However, Apple vehemently denies the allegations and looks set to appeal the decision.
To understand what the US Department of Justice (the European Commission has also brought a case) is objecting to, we need to look back to how pricing in this rapidly growing market has evolved over time.
Until the end of 2009 e-books were sold under a wholesale pricing model. Here, publishers charge retailers a wholesale price per book and retailers are then free to charge final consumers whatever price they choose. This all changed in the US (there were also similar developments in Europe) during an eventful period of a few days in January 2010 when Apple unveiled its iPad for April release.
The publisher Macmillian proposed that Amazon switch to an agency pricing model under which the publisher sets the retail price. This is typically referred to by economists as Resale Price Maintenance (RPM). Interestingly, RPM has a long history in the book industry. In the UK for example, throughout most of the last century publishers set prices under the Net Book Agreement, until this broke down in the mid 1990s. In addition, in some countries, for example Germany, books continue to be sold under RPM.
Macmillan also threatened Amazon that if it preferred to keep wholesale pricing it would delay the supply of e-book releases to them. Amazon initially responded by refusing to stock Macmillan titles. However, soon after Amazon ceded to Macmillan’s proposal. Despite this, Amazon made clear its dissatisfaction to its customers:
We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.
It turned out that 5 of the 6 major publishers (including Macmillan) had already agreed the same agency terms to sell e-books for Apple devices. Like Macmillan, the other publishers all then also imposed agency pricing on Amazon. Furthermore, crucial to the contracts agreed with Apple was a so called ‘most-favoured customer’ clause which guaranteed that e-books would not be sold elsewhere at prices below those charged to Apple customers. Effectively, therefore, this clause made it necessary for the publishers to impose agency terms on Amazon. The Department of Justice objected to this and believed consumers would be harmed due to higher prices. All of the publishers involved eventually decided to settle the case, leaving Apple alone to fight the case in court.
In the decision Judge Cote concluded that:
the publisher defendants conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy. Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the Spring of 2010.
It is interesting to consider the reasons why the publishers would be keen to take control of the prices Amazon charges for e-books. Evidence suggests that Amazon was frequently retailing e-books at substantial discounts and even below wholesale costs. One explanation for this is that Amazon was keen to increase demand for Kindle devices. The publishers, on the other hand, might well be concerned about the implications of Amazon dominating the e-book market. Potentially, this would give Amazon significant bargaining power over them.
Of course, such dominance might also have knock-on effects on consumer prices in the long-run. Whether the publishers will be permitted to use agency pricing to mitigate such concerns in the future remains unclear and depends on whether the competition authorities object to agency pricing per se or just the coordinated way in which it was achieved.
As the articles below demonstrate, opinion is strongly divided for and against the judgement against Apple.
EU raids ebook publishers in price fixing investigation The Guardian, Benedicte Page and Leigh Phillips (4/3/11)
Apple Faces Damages Trial Over E-Book Antitrust Violation Bloomberg Businessweek, Bob Van Voris, Adam Satariano and David McLaughlin (10/7/13)
Apple played ‘central role’ in ebook price-fixing conspiracy, says federal judge The Guardian, Amanda Holpuch (11/7/13)
US: Apple found guilty, but what happens next? Competition Policy International (11/7/13)
Why It’s Insane That No One Cares About Apple’s Price-Fixing Conspiracy (AAPL) Seattle pi, Jim Edwards (13/7/13)
Apple Learns The Hazards Of Innovation With E-Book Antitrust Ruling Forbes, Daniel Fisher (10/7/13)
- What are the important features of the e-book market?
- What are the key differences between the traditional and e-book markets?
- To what extent do Amazon and Apple have different incentives in the e-book market?
- Do you think Resale Price Maintenance is more likely to harm competition in the market for traditional or e-books?
- What do you think might be the short and long-run implications of this decision?
Since the late 1990s the European Commission (EC) has been concerned with trying to prevent Microsoft from abusing its dominant position. As described previously on this site, in the latest instalment last week Microsoft was fined for accidentally failing to adhere to an earlier commitment automatically to allow Windows users a choice of web browser.
This is the first case of fines being imposed for failure to comply with commitments required by the EC. In part because of Microsoft’s compliance, the fine imposed was well below the maximum level it could have been. However, it still means that Microsoft has now in total contributed enough to the EC’s coffers to cover the competition department’s budget for over 20 years.
Commitments appear to be increasingly the EC’s preferred solution for resolving competition disputes, especially in the rapidly changing IT sector (see for example Google and e-books). In contrast to a lengthy litigation process, in theory such commitments can quickly fix the problem and increase competition. The EC hopes that the fine imposed on Microsoft will send clear signals to firms that agreed upon commitments must be adhered to. However, this case also highlights that behavioural commitments require close monitoring by the competition authorities. As one industry consultant argues:
While it’s highly likely that it was a technical mistake that broke the browser choice facility the fact that it remained broken for 14 months raises significant questions about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to comply with the voluntary agreement with the EU.
At the same time the situation also raises concerns over the EU’s ability to actually monitor the outcomes of antitrust agreements.
Microsoft offers web browser choice to IE users BBC News (19/02/10)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (06/03/13)
Microsoft fined €561m for ‘browser choice’ error The Guardian, Charles Arthur (06/03/13)
- Why is it essential that competition disputes in the IT sector are quickly resolved?
- What are the problems with monitoring company behaviour in this sector?
- What are the pros and cons of agreeing commitments rather than litigation for competition law infringements?
- How might Microsoft respond to this latest fine from the EC?