In a recent blog post on this site about the Microsoft/ Activision Blizzard merger, the European Commission had just reached a decision to approve the merger subject to remedies, but the investigations in the USA and UK were still ongoing. Since then, the merger has been approved by competition authorities around the world, including in the USA and UK, and thus the merger has gone through.
However, there were some differences in the way the case unfolded under the regulation of these three competition authorities.
The European Commission’s (EC) decision
The European Commission (EC) was the first to give the merger the green light. The EC’s in-depth investigation revealed concerns about the market for the distribution of games via cloud game streaming services. In particular, the concern was related to the possibility that Microsoft might make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service (Game Pass Ultimate) and restrict access from competing cloud game streaming providers.
The EC argued that this in turn could strengthen Microsoft’s position in the market for PC operating systems, as Microsoft may have an incentive to limit or reduce the quality of the streaming of Activision’s games on PC’s which do not use the Windows operating system.
Thus, while the merger was approved, this was subject to remedies. These remedies included 10-year licensing commitments from Microsoft, as outlined in the EC’s press release:
These licenses will ensure that gamers that have purchased one or more Activision games on a PC or console store, or that have subscribed to a multi-game subscription service that includes Activision games, have the right to stream those games with any cloud game streaming service of their choice and play them on any device using any operating system.
This type of remedy is called a behavioural remedy and often requires the merging firms to commit to taking particular actions post-merger. Unlike structural remedies (which may for example, require the merging firms to sell off an entire business unit), behavioural remedies often require monitoring and enforcement by competition authorities. The EC argued that the deal, with these behavioural remedies, could strengthen competition in the market for cloud gaming.
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision
The FTC, in the USA, had similar concerns to those of the EC related to the cloud gaming market. These were outlined in the FTC’s press release:
[The deal] would enable Microsoft to suppress competitors to its Xbox gaming consoles and its rapidly growing subscription content and cloud-gaming business.
The FTC also argued that when Microsoft had previously acquired gaming content, it had made this content exclusive to Microsoft consoles. This could result in higher prices, and reduced quality, choice and innovation. To this end, the FTC appealed in an attempt to block the deal, but the Court ruled in favour of the deal going ahead.
During this time, Microsoft announced that it had committed to keeping Call of Duty on Sony’s PlayStation after the merger, and this likely contributed towards the court’s decision. Hence, the FTC was unsuccessful in its attempt to halt the merger.
The Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) decision
The final hurdle remaining for Microsoft, was the CMA’s approval. As outlined in a previous blog post on this site, the CMA’s phase 2 investigation revealed similar concerns about the supply of cloud gaming services (amongst concerns related to the market for the supply of console gaming services, which were later dispelled), and whilst Microsoft offered some commitments similar to those accepted by the EC, the CMA did not deem these to be sufficient to address its concerns and thus prohibited the merger.
The CMA’s published remedies guidance suggests that the regulator has a preference for structural remedies over behavioural remedies. One of the reasons for this is because of the requirement to monitor and enforce the commitments, and this therefore formed part of the CMA’s reasons for not accepting the remedies. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft appealed this decision to the UK’s Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT), probably partly driven by the fact that the EC accepted similar remedies to those rejected by the CMA. However, Microsoft and the CMA agreed that if the appeal was paused, Microsoft could propose a new deal.
The new deal: did the CMA make a U-turn?
In August 2023, Microsoft submitted a new restructured deal for the CMA to review. As described by the Chief Executive of the CMA, this deal was “substantially different from what was put on the table previously” and was therefore investigated as a separate merger case under the CMA’s phase 1 processes.
The new deal meant that Microsoft would no longer be purchasing the cloud streaming rights held by Activision. Instead, the cloud streaming rights would be sold to an independent third-party game publisher – Ubisoft. This means that Microsoft will not be in control of the cloud gaming rights for Activision’s gaming content (outside of the EEA), and therefore will not be able to restrict its competitors’ access to Activision’s games, which was one of the main concerns outlined by the CMA based on the initial merger proposal. The new deal also opens up the possibility that Activision’s games will be made available on cloud gaming services that run on a non-Windows operating system.
On 13 October, the CMA approved this deal, subject to the cloud gaming rights being sold to Ubisoft, and some subsequent commitments from Microsoft in relation to its relationship with Ubisoft post-merger, as outlined in the CMA’s final report. However, the Chief Executive of the CMA has emphasised that they are unhappy with the way that Microsoft dealt with negotiating the approval of the merger:
But businesses and their advisors should be in no doubt that the tactics employed by Microsoft are no way to engage with the CMA. Microsoft had the chance to restructure during our initial investigation but instead continued to insist on a package of measures that we told them simply wouldn’t work. Dragging out proceedings in this way only wastes time and money.
What’s next in big tech?
While the merger deal has now gone through, the FTC has recently re-opened its case against Microsoft, which will continue to unfold over the next couple of months until December when the case will appear in Court. This means it is possible that the FTC could attempt to undo the merger, though this would be challenging.
In the tech market more broadly, the CMA has recently launched a market investigation into cloud services. While the focus of this blog post was on cloud gaming, cloud services are now increasingly being used by many businesses. The CMA’s issues statement suggests that a key focus of its investigation will be on the ability for customers to switch between cloud service providers. Microsoft is one of the largest providers of cloud services in the UK, and therefore it is inevitable that it will be under scrutiny. Given all three regulators’ recent efforts to ‘crackdown’ on big tech, this is just one of a series of cases that will be interesting to see unfold.
Competition authorities documentation
- Discuss the effectiveness of behavioural remedies vs structural remedies for a merger.
- Why might the competition authorities have been concerned about the possibility of Microsoft making Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service? Is exclusive dealing always anti-competitive?
- Why was the transfer of the cloud game streaming rights to Ubisoft seen as a suitable remedy?
Effects on competition in the console and cloud gaming markets
Many people in the games industry expected the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to approve Microsoft’s proposed takeover of the games business, Activision Blizzard. However, in its final report published on 26 April, the CMA stated that the takeover would result in a substantial lessening of competition (SLC) in the supply of cloud gaming services in the UK. It rejected a behavioural remedy proposed by Microsoft and concluded that the merger should be prohibited.
When analysing the potential impact of this merger, the CMA focused on the following three issues:
- How important is the availability of Activision Blizzard’s games for the competitiveness of Microsoft’s rivals in the console and cloud gaming market? If, following the merger, Microsoft used its control over Activision Blizzard to restrict the availability of the games, would this significantly harm the competitiveness of their rivals?
- If restricting the availability of the games did harm its rivals, would it be profitable for Microsoft to do so? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The major benefit for Microsoft is the additional sales this generates as consumers switch to its products to gain access to Activision’s games. The major cost is the forgone sales of the games to their rivals in the console and cloud gaming market.
- If it is profitable for Microsoft to limit the availability of the games, would this policy lead to a substantial lessening of competition (SLC) in the console and cloud gaming market? To answer this question the CMA compared the level of competition that would be most likely to occur if the merger were to proceed with the level if the deal were prohibited? In other words, it needed to identify the counterfactual.
In response to the first issue, the CMA judged that restricting access to Activision Blizzard’s games post-merger would significantly harm the competitiveness of Microsoft’s rivals in both the console and cloud gaming markets. However, its judgment on the second issue differed between the two markets. Why was this? One key issue was the difference in the relative market power of Microsoft in cloud vs console gaming.
One common indicator used to analyse the market position of a business relative to its rivals is market share. Using data on revenues generated from the sales of hardware, associated games and subscription services, console gaming market shares in the UK for 2021 were as follows:
- Sony (PlayStation): 40% – 50%
- Microsoft (xBox): 30% – 40%
- Nintendo (Switch): 10% – 20%
Given the important market position of the PlayStation, limiting the ability of its users to purchase Activision games would result in Microsoft forgoing significant sales and revenue. Detailed analysis of the data by the CMA, indicated that the costs outweighed the benefits and so Microsoft did not have a commercial incentive to limit the availability of the games in this market. Therefore, the CMA concluded that the merger would not result in a SLC in the console gaming market. This finding was discussed in more detail in a blog on this website in March 2023.
The CMA judged that Microsoft had a much stronger position in the market for cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming services
Cloud gaming offers consumers a new way of playing graphically complex games. In this sector of the market, the games run on remote servers/data centres and then stream over the internet to the user’s device. The great advantage with this approach is that it enables consumers to play games on less powerful hardware devices such as smartphones, tablets, smart televisions, and standard PCs. Although the market is currently quite small it, has grown significantly over the past couple of years. Some people argue that it has the potential to make a dramatic change to the gaming market in the same way that businesses such as Netflix and Spotify have transformed the film, TV, and music industries.
It is more difficult to judge the relative market position of firms in a new and dynamic market, where things can change very quickly. The use of market share data is less informative but can still offer some insights. To estimate market shares in cloud gaming, the CMA used data on the number of monthly active users (MAUs). The figures for paid services in the UK for 2022 were as follows:
- xCloud (Microsoft): 70% – 80%
- PlayStation Cloud Gaming (Sony): 20% – 30%
- Boosteroid: 0 – 5%
- Nvidia GFN: 0 – 5%
Data suggest that Microsoft has a much stronger position in this market than in console gaming. There is also evidence that its market position is becoming more dominant. The same market shares for xCloud and PlayStation Gaming in 2021 were 40% – 50% and 50% – 60% respectively.
Given some of the limitations of using market-share data in a new and dynamic market, the CMA analysed other information about the sector to assess Microsoft’s market position. The investigation identified three key factors that could give Microsoft a significant cost advantage over its rivals: cloud infrastructure, the Windows operating system and access to a wide variety of games.
- Infrastructure: Microsoft’s ownership of Azure, a major cloud computing platform, could give it a significant cost advantage over its rivals in the future. A rival firm would need to develop it own cloud infrastructure or purchase these services from a third-party supplier.
- The Windows operating system: Given that far more games are developed for Windows as opposed to other operating systems, using Windows on a cloud infrastructure system gives a supplier access to large number of games. As it already owns Windows, Microsoft will be able to supply the operating system to its own cloud gaming service at little additional cost whereas its rivals will have to pay a license fee.
- Access to a wide range of games: Microsoft already owns twenty-four development studios that produce some very successful games such as Minecraft and Halo. It also has commercial relationships with other third-party developers who produce games for the Xbox console. This gives Microsoft another advantage over many of its rivals.
Given this evidence on Microsoft’s strong market position, the CMA concluded that the benefits to the company of restricting the availability of the games in the cloud gaming market outweighed the costs.
If Microsoft has commercial incentives to restrict the availability of Activision’s games, would this strategy lead to a SLC in the market for cloud gaming? To answer this question, the CMA had to identify the counterfactual: i.e. the most likely outcome in the market if the merger did not proceed. Following detailed analysis of the evidence, the competition authority concluded that Activision was likely to make its games available to different cloud gaming services if the deal did not take place.
Given Microsoft’s (a) strong market position and (b) limited number of relatively small competitors in cloud gaming, the CMA concluded that Microsoft’s commercial incentive to restrict the availability games would lead to a SLC compared to the counterfactual.
Martin Coleman, the chair of the independent panel of experts who conducted the CMA’s investigation, stated that:
Microsoft already enjoys a powerful position and head start over other competitors in cloud gaming and this deal would strengthen that advantage giving it the ability to undermine new and innovative competitors.
In response to these competition concerns, Microsoft offered to supply Activision games to certain cloud gaming services for a 10-year period. However, the CMA concluded that this behavioural remedy was not enough to address the competition issues raised by the merger and recommended that the deal be prohibited.
Microsoft’s immediate response was to appeal the decision to the Competition Appeal Tribunal.
The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating the impact of the deal in the USA while the European Commission has just completed its investigation in the European Union. On 15 May, the EC announced that Microsoft’s behavioural remedy did fully address the competition concerns identified during its investigation. Therefore, the merger was approved on condition that Microsoft fully implemented the actions outlined in the remedy.
It will be interesting to read the recommendations of the FTC when the final results of its investigation are published later this year.
CMA and EC press releases
- Discuss the barriers to entry that exist in both the console and cloud gaming markets.
- Outline some of the issues when trying to calculate market shares in cloud gaming.
- What is meaning of the term ‘input foreclosure’? How is this relevant to the Microsoft/Activision case?
- What is the difference between a behavioural and a structural remedy? In what circumstances is a behavioural remedy most likely to be effective?
- Discuss some of the potential limitations with the behavioural remedy proposed by Microsoft.
- Explain why Microsoft’s position in the downstream market for cloud gaming is likely to influence incentives it faces to restrict the availability of Activision’s games post-merger.
Why did a competition authority change its mind on one aspect of this merger?
In January 2022, Microsoft announced its plan to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. Activision Blizzard is one of the largest games publishers in the world and famous for titles such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Sales revenue from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II was over $10 billion within ten days of its release in 2022. Given Microsoft’s ownership of the Xbox, one of the three devices that dominate the market for gaming consoles, the deal was always likely to raise competition concerns.
Potential competition issues
Following Phase 1 and 2 merger investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) a number of competition issues were raised. One particular concern was in the market for gaming consoles and the potential impact of the merger on the future availability of Call of Duty (CoD). Some of the key findings of the initial research undertaken by the CMA were that:
- Sony’s PlayStation was a much closer rival for the Xbox than the Nintendo Switch, which tends to offer more family-orientated games.
- PlayStation users spend significant amounts of gametime playing CoD.
- Game availability is a key factor that influences console purchase decisions.
- Twenty-four percent of PlayStation users who play CoD stated that they would not purchase future versions of the console if CoD was unavailable on the platform.
These findings suggest that there are commercial incentives for Microsoft to limit the availability of CoD on the PlayStation. For example, the newly merged business could make future versions of the game exclusive to the Xbox – total exclusivity. Alternatively, it could adopt a policy of partial exclusivity. For example, it could only make versions of CoD available on the PlayStation that exclude some of its more popular features.
There are costs to Microsoft of implementing a policy of total or partial exclusivity. For example, 76% per cent of PlayStation users who play CoD stated that they would not switch consoles if future versions of the game were made unavailable. By making CoD exclusive to Xbox users, Microsoft would lose revenue from forgoing potential sales of the game to this group of users. The firm may also suffer reputational damage if there was a social media backlash against an exclusivity decision.
However, these costs of implementing a policy of exclusivity could be outweighed by the potential benefits. These include:
- The additional sales of consoles as some users switch from the PlayStation to the Xbox to gain access to CoD.
- the sale of CoD and other games to these additional Xbox users.
To quantify these costs and benefits, the CMA used a financial model that includes information on the amounts of money users typically spend on the Xbox platform and CoD over a five-year period. This ‘lifetime value of customers’ model found that it would be profitable for Microsoft to implement a policy of exclusivity post-merger.
The CMA also noted that in the majority of cases where Microsoft had previously acquired gaming studios, the subsequent release of games had been made exclusive to the Xbox.
Following its analysis of the case, the CMA published its provisional findings on the 8th February 2023. One key finding was that the merger would harm consumers, as it would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the supply of console gaming services. The CMA argued that the acquisition should proceed only if Activision Blizzard sold off the parts of its business responsible for producing CoD. This is a structural remedy.
Microsoft rejected these findings and argued that the financial modelling used by the CMA was based on inaccurate data. In its formal written response to the competition authority the company argued that:
- The potential gains from a policy of exclusivity had been calculated over a five-year period whereas the costs (i.e. the forgone sales of CoD) had only been calculated over a one-year period. More accurate analysis should compare both the potential gains and losses over a five-year period.
- When more recent data are used to calculate the amounts of money users typically spend on the Xbox platform and CoD over a five-year period, the figure is lower than in the original work by the CMA.
Revised CMA findings
Having adjusted its analysis to take account of these criticisms, the CMA published an update to its Provisional Findings on 24th March 2023. In this update the competition authority stated that:
The analysis now shows that it would not be commercially beneficial to Microsoft to make CoD exclusive to Xbox following the deal, but that Microsoft will instead still have the incentive to continue to make the game available on PlayStation.
Therefore, just six weeks after publishing its Provisional Findings the CMA changed its conclusion and stated that the merger would not result in a substantial lessening of competition in the market for the supply of console gaming services in the UK.
In response to these changes an ex-CMA lawyer stated that:
This is extremely unusual. Restating your provisional findings is something ‘you would rather die than do’.
It is important to remember that the investigation by the CMA also raised concerns about the impact of the acquisition on competition in the cloud gaming market. These concerns remain unaffected by these updated findings and a final report will be published by the CMA at the end of April.
Competition authorities from 16 different countries/regions are also investigating the deal, including the Federal Trade Commission in the USA and the European Commission. It will be interesting to see if these authorities agree on the potential impact of the merger on competition.
- Under what circumstances could a merger result in a substantial lessening of competition?
- Summarise the thresholds that have to be met by a potential merger before it is investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority.
- Explain the direct and indirect network effects that exist in the console gaming market. To what extent do they create barriers to entry?
- Outline some different ways that Microsoft could introduce a policy of partial exclusivity for the Call of Duty franchise of games.
- What would be the impact of a policy of exclusivity on the cross price elasticity of demand between Xbox and PlayStation consoles?
- Outline the difference between behavioural and structural remedies for merger.
- Discuss why the acquisition of Activision by Microsoft might reduce competition in the cloud gaming market.
Boeing and Airbus have called a truce in their 17-year battle over subsidies. During this period, both have accused each other of unfair government subsidies to their respective plane makers.
The long-running trade dispute
In October 2004, the USA requested the establishment of a WTO panel to consider whether Airbus was providing unfair subsidies to develop its new super-jumbo – the A380. This provoked a counter-request by Airbus, claiming unfair subsidies of $27.3 billion for Boeing by the US government since 1992. In July 2005, two panels were set up to deal with the two sets of allegations.
In June 2010, the WTO panel circulated its findings on Boeing’s case against Airbus. It found Airbus guilty of using some illegal subsidies to win contracts through predatory pricing, but dismissed several of Boeing’s claims because many of the subsidies were reimbursable at commercial rates of interest. However, some of the ‘launch aid’ for research and development was given at below market rates and so violated WTO rules. The report evoked appeal and counter-appeal from both sides, but the WTO’s Appellate Body reported in May 2011 upholding the case that ‘certain subsidies’ provided by the EU and member states were incompatible with WTO rules. In June 2011, the EU accepted the findings.
In March 2011, the WTO panel circulated its findings on Airbus’s case against Boeing. The EU claimed that ten specific measures amounted to subsidies to Boeing, which were inconsistent with the WTO’s rules on subsidies (the SCM agreement). It upheld three of ten alleged breaches, including subsidies between 1989 and 2006 of at least $5.3 billion. These subsidies were adjudged to have resulted in adverse effects to the EU’s interests, specifically in lost sales, especially to third-country markets, and in significantly suppressing the price at which Airbus was able to sell its aircraft.
But these rulings were not the end of the matter. Various appeals and counter-appeals were lodged by both sides with varying degrees of success. Also the disputes extended to other wide-bodied jets and to narrow-bodied ones too with claims by both sides of unfair subsidies and tax breaks.
On 9 June 2017 the WTO’s compliance panel rejected several EU claims that the USA had failed to withdraw all illegal subsidies to Boeing. However, it also found that the USA had not complied with an earlier ruling to abolish illegal tax breaks. Both sides claimed victory. Airbus claimed that the ruling had seen the WTO condemn non-compliance and new subsidies. In particular, it focused on the WTO ruling that Washington State subsidies had resulted in a significant loss of sales for Airbus. On the other hand, a Boeing press release spoke of a US win in a major WTO compliance ruling. Boeing claimed that that ruling meant that the United States had complied with ‘virtually all’ of the WTO’s decisions in the counter-case that the EU had filed against the USA in 2006.
On 27 June 2017, as expected, the EU challenged the WTO decision. This meant that the EU’s case would go back to the WTO’s appellate body, which was still considering a separate US case over state aid to Airbus.
On 15 May 2018, the WTO ruled that Airbus did not use unfair subsidies for narrow-bodied jets, such as the A320, which competes with the 737, but did for wide-bodied jets. The EU said that it would comply with the WTO ruling over the support for wide-bodied jets.
In 2019, the WTO ruled that the EU had illegally provided support to Airbus. The USA responded with tariffs of up to $7.5bn on a range of goods imported from the EU. In a parallel case, the WTO ruled that the US benefits to Boeing also violated trade rules, authorising the EU to impose tariffs on US imports worth roughly $4bn. Then in March 2020, the USA imposed a 15% tariff on Airbus aircraft.
Agreement was reached on 15 June 2021 in trade talks between the USA and the EU in Brussels. Both sides recognised that the dispute had been a negative-sum game, with both sides losing. It was thus agreed to suspend for five years all tariffs on aircraft and on a range of other goods, such as EU cheese and wine and US tobacco and spirits. The agreement did not include ending EU tariffs on US steel, however.
It was also agreed to work on an overarching agreement on subsidies, which would allow fair support by governments on both sides, and to co-operate in finding ways to counter unfair state investment in aircraft by China. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that the agreement ‘includes a commitment for concrete joint collaboration to confront the threat from China’s ambitions to build an aircraft sector on non-market practices’. China’s state-sponsored aerospace manufacturer, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, sees its C919, now in late stages of development, as a direct rival to the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 Max.
To work out the details of US-EU collaboration, a working group will be set up. It will consider ways of ensuring that finance is provided on market terms, that R&D funding is transparent and that support given to aircraft manufactures will be equivalent by each side and will avoid harming the other side. It will consider just how the two sides can co-operate to address unfair competition from elsewhere.
Two days later, an almost identically worded deal was reached between the USA and the UK to end tariffs on a range of goods and join the EU-USA co-operation on aircraft manufacture.
- US and Europe end Airbus-Boeing dispute as they eye threat from China
CNN, Charles Riley and Kevin Liptak (15/6/21)
- After 17 years, truce nears in U.S.-Europe jet subsidy war
Reuters, Tim Hepher, Andrea Shalal, David Shepardson and Philip Blenkinsop (15/6/21)
- U.S, EU agree truce in 17-year Airbus-Boeing conflict
Reuters, Philip Blenkinsop (16/6/21)
- After EU, Britain and U.S. reach truce in aircraft trade dispute
Reuters, Tim Hepher and Alistair Smout (17/6/21)
- EU and US end Airbus-Boeing trade dispute after 17 years
Financial Times, Jim Brunsden, Sam Fleming, Aime Williams and James Politi (15/6/21)
- Boeing-Airbus trade row set to end after 17 years
BBC News (16/6/21)
- Biden, E.U. end 17-year Airbus-Boeing trade dispute, seek to calm relations after Trump
The Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum, Anne Gearan and David J. Lynch
- EU, U.S. Agree to Five-Year Truce in Boeing-Airbus Trade Dispute
Bloomberg, Alberto Nardelli, Nikos Chrysoloras and Jennifer Jacobs (15/6/21)
- Choose any one particular complaint to the WTO by either Boeing or Airbus and assess the arguments used by the WTO in its ruling.
- Are subsidies by aircraft manufacturers in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- Is collaboration between Boeing and Airbus in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- How is game theory relevant to the long-running disputes between Boeing and Airbus and to their relationships in the coming years?
- Would cheaper aircraft from China be in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- Explain what is meant by ‘strategic trade theory’. How is it relevant to aircraft manufacture?
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.
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- 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.