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?
In the last few years there have been growing concerns (see here for example) that markets in the USA are becoming increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. It is feared that the result of this will be a reduction in competition. Consistent with this, evidence suggests that the profits these firms make have increased. Last month The Economist and the Resolution Foundation published evidence (see references below) suggesting a similar picture may be emerging in Britain.
The Economist divided the British economy into 600 sub-sectors and found that in 58% of these the share of total revenue accruing to the 4 biggest firms had increased since 2008. The Resolution Foundation found a similar picture, especially in manufacturing industries where from 2004-16 the top five firms’ share of total revenue increased by over 10%.
Economic theory would suggest that as markets become more concentrated prices are likely to rise and The Economist cites research showing that mark-ups charged by firms in Britain have indeed risen. In addition to consumers facing higher prices, there is also concern that the lack of competition both in the USA and the UK is leading to lower wages being paid to workers. On the other hand, unlike in the USA, the evidence from the UK does not so far suggest there has also been an increase in corporate profits. Instead, it appears that the more successful firms’ profits have increased at the expense of their rivals.
This evidence on profits is line with a number of arguments that suggest we should perhaps be less concerned when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Large firms may benefit from economies of scale and, being sufficiently large may be necessary for firms to innovate in new products and processes. Furthermore, high market shares may result from the competitive process as a reward for a firm developing a unique product or being more efficient than its rivals.
The Economist cites the supermarket industry as an example where concentrated is high, but competition is intense. Interestingly, this is a market where the British competition authorities have previously been concerned about the level of competition and spent considerable amounts of time investigating.
Despite these two opposing viewpoints, overall, The Economist argues strongly that we should be concerned about the situation in Britain. Not only are prices too high and wages too low, but growth in productivity is slow, even for the leading firms. Furthermore, they make clear that the situation may worsen following Brexit. It is argued that:
leaving the EU’s single market and customs union would reduce trade, easing competitive pressure from abroad.
This is consistent with evidence that joining the EC in the mid 1970s increased foreign competition in the UK and helped to end the low productivity growth that had plagued the economy since the 1930s.
Furthermore, it is suggested that:
to attract investment the government might look more favourably on proposed mergers—and loosening regulations would be easier outside the EU’s competition regime.
Therefore, it is clear that in the future there will be a vital role for the UK’s competition authority to remain independent of political objectives and aim to promote competition. In particular, they must prevent mergers that raise concentration and harm competition and intervene if they believe firms are abusing their dominant positions. Of course, following Brexit the case load of the competition authority in the UK will increase dramatically as they have to take on cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. One estimate is that it will need to look at around 40% more merger cases. It will certainly be interesting to see how competition in markets in Britain evolves over the next few years and the role competition policy plays in regulating this process.
- Outline the ways in which concentration in a market is usually measured.
- Explain the different price levels that arise under the alternative models of market structure.
- Why do you think competition is currently so intense in the supermarket industry?
Every firm has been hit by the recession and for most, it’s been bad news. However, the latest firm to file for bankruptcy is an interesting case, as the causes extend well beyond a weak economy. The company in question? Eastman Kodak. Renowned for inventing the hand-held camera and being the market leader, selling 90% of photographic film and 85% of all cameras in the USA in 1976, the company has since seen a large change in its fortunes.
Massive competition has emerged from all over the globe and the company has seemed to lag behind the digital revolution. Arguably, unwilling to take risks and making some strategic errors, Kodak saw its stock tumble from $94 in 1997 to under $1 per share in 2012. Since 2004, Kodak has only seen one profitable year. With massive competitors in the world of digital photography, the market has become a highly competitive one. As Rupert Goodwins, the editor of technology website ZDNet said:Kodak made all its money from selling film, then the digital camera came along and now no-one’s buying film. It’s not like they didn’t see it coming. Kodak hesitated because they didn’t want to eviscerate their business.
By filing for bankruptcy, Kodak is protected and its operations will continue for the time being, perhaps giving the company time to have a rethink and a reorganization. Eastman Kodak has previously tried to take a new direction and has been moving away from film and towards its printer, software and packing businesses. The problem is that these markets already have some very strong competitors: Hewlett Packard, Canon and Epson. It’s a difficult job to break into this market and gain market share.
The future of the company is very much in the balance and as reorganization of its operations looks inevitable, so does a loss of jobs. Thank goodness it only employs some 19,000 workers and not the 145,000 it did back in its day. Bankruptcy will certainly keep the creditors at bay for the time being, but it is by no means a long term solution to the company’s ailing profits. The following articles consider this ‘Kodak moment’.
Eastman Kodak files for bankruptcy protection BBC News (19/1/12)
Eastman Kodak files for bankruptcy The Christian Science Monitor, Ben Dobbin (19/1/12)
Kodak: From Brownie and roll film to digital disaster BBC News, James Cowling (19/1/12)
Kodak files for bankruptcy CNN Money, Aaron Smith and Hibah Yousuf (19/1/12)
Photography pioneer Kodak files for bankruptcy Reuters, Jonathan Stempel (19/1/12)
Kodak: 30 fascinating facts The Telegraph, Matthew Sparkes (19/1/12)
Kodak: why the moment has oassed Guardian, Simon Waldman (19/1/12)
- Using the product life cycle, explain where Kodak currently lies.
- To what extent are Kodak’s current problems related to the obsolescence of their products and not the recession?
- What strategic errors have Kodak made?
- What has caused Kodak’s collapse in share prices and profitability?
- Why is Eastman Kodak finding it difficult to gain market share in other markets, such as printing?
- What options are open to Kodak for the future if it is to become profitable once more?