In September 2023, the Stonegate Group, the largest pub company in the UK with around 4,500 premises, announced that it was going to start increasing the pint of beer by 20p during busy periods. There was an immediate backlash on social media with many customers calling on people to boycott Stonegate’s pubs such as the Slug & Lettuce and Yates.
This announcement is an example of dynamic pricing, where firms with market power adjust prices relatively quickly in response to changing market conditions: i.e. to changes in demand and supply.
Traditionally, prices set by firms in most retail markets have been less flexible. They may eventually adjust to changing market conditions, but this could take weeks or even months. If a product proves to be popular on a particular day or time, firms have typically left the price unchanged with the item selling out and customers facing empty shelves. If the product is unpopular, then the firm is left with unsold stock.
One business that makes extensive use of dynamic pricing is Amazon. Prices for popular items on Amazon Marketplace change every 10 minutes and can fluctuate by more than 20 per cent in just one hour.
Conditions for dynamic pricing to operate
The Amazon example helps to illustrate the conditions that must be in place for a firm to implement dynamic pricing successfully. These include:
- The capacity to collect and process large amounts of accurate real-time data on the demand for and supply of particular items i.e. the number of sales or the interest in the product.
- The ability to adjust prices in a timely manner in response to changing market conditions indicated by the data.
- Effectively communicating the potential advantages of the pricing strategy to consumers.
The last point is an interesting one. As the Stonegate example illustrates, consumers tend to dislike dynamic pricing, especially when price rises reflect increases in demand. A previous article on this website discussed the unpopularity of dynamic pricing amongst fans in the ticket market for live musical events.
The precise reason for the increase in demand, can also have an impact on consumer attitudes. For example, following a mass shooting at a subway station in New York in April 2022, the authorities shut down the underground system. This led to a surge in demand for taxis and this was picked up by the algorithm/software used by Uber’s dynamic pricing system. Fares for Uber cars began to rise rapidly, and people started to post complaints on social media. Uber responded by disabling the dynamic pricing system and capping prices across the city. It also announced that it would refund customers who were charged higher prices after the subway system shut down.
There is a danger for businesses that if they fail to communicate the policy effectively, annoyed customers may respond by shopping elsewhere. However, if it is implemented successfully then it can help businesses to increase their revenue and may also have some advantages for consumers.
The growing popularity of dynamic pricing
It has been widely used in airline and hotel industries for many years. Robert Cross, who chairs a revenue management company predicts that ‘It will eventually be everywhere’.
More businesses in the UK appear to be using dynamic pricing. In a consumer confidence survey undertaken for Barclays in September 2023, 47 per cent of the respondents had noticed more examples of companies raising prices for goods/services in response to higher demand at peak times.
It has traditionally been more difficult for bricks-and-mortar retailers to implement dynamic pricing because of the costs of continually changing prices (so-called ‘menu costs’). However, this might change with the increasing use of electronic shelf labels.
It will be interesting to see if dynamic pricing becomes more widespread in the future or whether opposition from consumers limits its use.
- Explain the difference between surge and dynamic pricing.
- Using a diagram, explain how dynamic pricing can increase a firm’s revenue.
- Discuss both the advantages and disadvantages for consumers of firms using dynamic pricing.
- How might dynamic pricing influence consumer behaviour if it alters their expectations about future price changes.
- There is some evidence that the use of dynamic pricing is less unpopular amongst 18–24-year-olds than other age groups. Suggest some possible reasons why this might be the case.
- Using the concept of loss aversion, consider some different ways that a business could present a new dynamic pricing policy to its customers.
Tickets for Beyonce’s 2023 UK Renaissance tour went on general sale via Ticketmaster’s website at 10am on Tuesday 7 February. Throughout the day, social media were full of messages from fans complaining about technical issues, long online queues and rising prices. This is not the first time this has happened. Similar complaints were made in 2022 when tickets went on sale for tours by Bruce Springsteen, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift.
With the general sale of tickets for Beyonce’s tour, many fans complained they were waiting in online queues of over 500 000 people. Others reported their frustration with continually receiving ‘403 error’ messages.
In November 2022, Ticketmaster’s website in the USA constantly crashed during the pre-sale of tickets for Taylor Swift’s tour. This led to the general sale of tickets being cancelled.
In response to the public anger that followed this decision, the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee organised a hearing with the title – ‘That’s The Ticket: Promoting Competition and Protecting Competition and Protecting Consumers in Live Entertainment.’
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Chair of this committee, stated that
The issues within America’s ticketing industry were made painfully obvious when Ticketmaster’s website failed hundreds of thousands of fans hoping to purchase tickets for Taylor Swift’s new tour, but these problems are not new. For too long, consumers have faced long waits and website failures, and Ticketmaster’s dominant market position means the company faces inadequate pressure to innovate and improve.
Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation in 2010 to become the largest business in the primary ticket market for live music events. Some people have accused the firm of abusing its dominant market position by failing to invest enough money in its website, so leading to poor customer service.
Fans have also been complaining about the system of dynamic pricing that Ticketmaster now uses for big live events. What exactly is dynamic pricing?
Firms with market power often adjust their prices in response to changing market conditions. For example, if a business experiences significant increases in demand for its products in one quarter/year it may respond by raising prices in the following quarter/year.
With dynamic pricing, these price changes take place over much shorter time periods: i.e. within minutes. For example, in one media report, a Harry Styles fan placed £155 tickets in their basket for a concert at Wembley stadium. When the same fan then tried to purchase the tickets, Ticketmaster’s website sent a message stating that they were no longer available. However, in reality they were still available but for £386 – the price had instantly jumped because of high demand. Continually monitoring market conditions and responding to changes so quickly requires the use of specialist software and sophisticated algorithms.
Arguments for dynamic pricing
With ticket sales taking place months/years in advance of most live events, it is difficult for artists/promotors to predict future levels of demand. Given this uncertainty and the importance for the artist of playing in front of a full venue, event organisers may err on the side of caution when pricing tickets.
If the demand for tickets proves to be much stronger than initially forecast, then resellers in the secondary market can take advantage of the situation and make significant amounts of money. Dynamic pricing enables sellers in the primary market, such as Ticketmaster, to adjust to market conditions and so limits the opportunities of resale for a profit.
Ticketmaster argues that without dynamic pricing, artists will miss out on large amounts of revenue that will go to re-sellers instead. A spokesperson for the company stated that
Over the past few years, artists have lost money to resellers who have no investment in the event going well. As such event organisers have looked to market-based pricing to recapture that lost revenue.
Critics have claimed that Ticketmaster’s use of dynamic pricing is simply an example of price gouging.
No doubt the controversy over the sale of tickets for live music events will continue in the future.
- Beyoncé tour: UK fans snap up tickets despite Ticketmaster glitches
BBC News, Ian Youngs (7/2/23)
- Beyoncé Fans Are Going to Extreme Lengths to Secure Renaissance Tour Tickets
Time, Mariah Espada (10/2/23)
- Live music: How buying concert tickets could be made better
BBC News, Mark Savage (26/1/23)
- Ticketmaster demand-based pricing system criticised
BBC News, Annabel Rackham (10/10/22)
- Did Ticketmaster’s Market Dominance Fuel the Chaos for Swifties?
Yale Insights, Florian Ederer (23/11/22)
- Taylor Swift ticket sale problems spark widespread criticism of Ticketmaster
PBS NewsHour on YouTube, Diana Moss and John Yang (17/11/22)
- Springsteen tickets are going for a whopping $4,000 – what else are we paying dynamic prices for?
The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi (27/7/22)
- Will the Taylor Swift-Ticketmaster Senate Hearing Actually Change Anything?
Variety, Dean Budnick (1/2/23)
- Beyonce fans scramble for Renaissance tickets as sellers warn availability is already ‘extremely limited’
Sky News, Bethany Minelle (3/2/23)
- Explain the difference between the primary and secondary market for ticket sales for live events.
- Draw a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the primary market for tickets. Using this diagram explain how below market clearing prices in the primary market enable re-sellers to make money in the secondary market.
- What are the limitations of using demand and supply diagrams to analyse the primary market for tickets?
- Who has the greater market power – Ticketmaster or artists such as Taylor Swift and Beyonce?
- Try to provide a precise definition of the term ‘price gouging’.
- What other sectors commonly use dynamic pricing?
The emergence of the digital economy has brought about increased competition across a wide range of products and services. The digital economy has provided businesses with the opportunity to produce new categories of goods and services with the aid of artificial intelligence. This new digital era has also been beneficial for consumers who now have greater choice and access to often higher-quality products at lower prices.
But while the digital revolution has facilitated greater competition, it also presents some challenges for competition law enforcement. Competition agencies continue to intensify their scrutiny of the digital economy as they try to get to grips with both the opportunities and challenges.
The role of regulation
Many agencies are aware that regulatory overreach could have negative effects on the development of digital markets. Therefore, any competition enforcement in this area needs to be evidenced-based.
A number of agencies have commissioned market studies or appointed experts in the digital field to prepare industry reports. While many of these reports and studies have found that existing competition rules generally continue to provide a solid basis for protecting competition in the digital age, there is growing demand for various changes to regulation. The reports have generally noted that the traditional tools for competition analysis may require some adaptation or refinement to address better the specificities of online markets, such as the multisided nature of platforms, network effects, zero-price markets, ‘big data’ and the increased use of algorithms.
Tech giants and online platforms, in particular, have been a focus of recent intervention by competition authorities. Investigations and intervention have related to a range of practices, including self-preferencing in the ranking of search results, the bundling of apps (and other alleged anti-competitive leveraging strategies), the collection, usage and sharing of data, and the setting of access conditions to mobile ecosystems and app stores.
The duration and complexity of these investigations have been met with concerns that competition authorities are not sufficiently equipped to protect competition in fast-moving digital markets. These concerns have been amplified by the growth in size and importance of online platforms, their significant economies of scale and network effects, and the risk that market power in digital markets can become quickly entrenched.
In addition to the commissioned reports, some agencies have established or appointed specialist digital markets units or officers. The aim of such units is to develop expertise and regulation to deal with fast-paced digital markets. In Europe, The Digital Markets Act (DMA) was adopted by the EU in response to these concerns to establish a uniform ex-ante regulatory regime to make digital markets fairer and more competitive, and to prevent a fragmentation of the EU’s internal market.
A recent case concerns Apple. Because of the Digital Markets Act, Apple has been required to allow app store competitors onto its products. This will come into effect in 2024.
In the UK, the government has been concerned that ‘the unprecedented concentration of power amongst a small number of digital firms is holding back innovation and growth’. UK competition rules are thus set to change significantly, with the government setting out the framework for an entirely new ‘pro-competition regime’ for digital markets. As it states in the Executive Summary to its proposals for such a regime (see linked UK official publication below):
The size and presence of ‘big’ digital firms is not inherently bad. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that the particular features of some digital markets can cause them to ‘tip’ in favour of one or two incumbents… This market power can become entrenched, leading to higher prices, barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, less innovation, and less choice and control for consumers.
It has established a new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). It was launched in ‘shadow form’ in April 2021, pending the introduction of the UK’s new digital regulatory regime. Under the proposals, the new regime will focus on companies that the DMU designates as having ‘strategic market status’.
The government is expected to publish its much-awaited Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, which, according to legal experts, will represent the most significant reform of UK competition and consumer protection laws in years.
It is expected that the Bill will result in important reforms for competition law, but it is also expected to give the DMU powers to enforce a new regulatory regime. This new regime will apply to UK digital firms that have ‘strategic market status’ (SMS). This will be similar to the EU’s Digital Markets Act in how it applies to certain ‘gatekeeper’ digital firms. However, the UK regulations are intended to be more nuanced than the EU regime in terms of how SMS firms are designated and the specific obligations they will have to comply with.
A report by MPs on the influential Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published in October, urged the Government to publish a draft Digital Markets Bill that would help deter predatory practices by big tech firms ‘without delay’.
On 17th November 2022, the UK Government announced in its Autumn Statement 2022 that it will bring forward the Bill in the third Parliamentary session. There has been no specific date announced yet for the first reading of the Bill, but it will probably be in Spring 2023. Current expectations are that the new DMU regime and reforms to competition and consumer protection laws could be effective as early as October 2023.
Proposals for the Bill were trailed by the Government in the Queen’s Speech. It announced measures that would empower the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) Digital Markets Unit (DMU) to rein in abusive tech giants by dropping the turnover threshold for immunity from financial penalties from £50 million to £20 million and hiking potential maximum fines to 10% of global annual income. Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that the Bill, once enacted, would ‘tackle anti-competitive practice in digital markets’ and provide consumers with higher quality products and greater choice. The strategy includes tailored codes of conduct for certain digital companies and a bespoke merger control regime for designated firms.
The Bill is also expected to include a wide range of reforms to the competition and consumer law regimes in the UK, in particular:
- wide-ranging changes to the CMA’s Competition Act 1998 and market study/investigation powers, including significant penalties for non-compliance with market investigation orders;
- significant strengthening of the consumer law enforcement regime by enabling the CMA directly to enforce consumer law through the imposition of fines;
- changes to UK consumer laws to tackle subscription traps and fake reviews and to enhance protections for savings schemes.
Competition law expert Alan Davis of Pinsent Masons said:
Importantly, the Bill will bring about major reforms to consumer protection law, substantially strengthening the CMA’s enforcement powers to mirror those it already uses in antitrust cases, as well as important changes to merger control and competition rules.
It is anticipated that the Bill will announce the most significant reforms of UK competition and consumer protection laws in years and is expected to have an impact on all business in the UK to varying degrees. It is advised, therefore, that businesses need to review their approach to sales and marketing given the expected new powers of the CMA to impose significant fines in relation to consumer law breaches.
Technological innovation is largely pro-competitive. However, competition rules must be flexible and robust enough to deal with the challenges of the online world. A globally co-ordinated approach to the challenges raised in competition law by the digital age remains important wherever possible. Under the EU’s Digital Markets Act, firms that are designated as gatekeepers, and those defined as having strategic market status under the UK regime, will be required to undertake significant work to ensure compliance with the new rules.
UK official publications
- For what reasons may digital markets be more competitive than traditional ones?
- What types of anti-competitive behaviour are likely in digital markets?
- Explain what are meant by ‘network economies’? What are their implications for competition and market power?
- Explain what is meant by ‘bundling’? How is this likely to occur in digital markets?
- Give some examples where traditional markets are combined with online ones. Does this make it difficult to pursue an effective competition policy?
- Give some examples of ways in which firms can mislead or otherwise take advantage of consumers in an e-commerce environment.
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
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.