Too big, full stop

No sooner has summer ended than it’s almost Christmas – how has this happened? In between meetings and paper-writing, I have managed to read a few things. Two thrillers on journeys to and from a family visit last week, John Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies and one of the outstanding Mick Herron Jackson Lamb series, Spook Street – highly recommended if new to you.

On more serious matters, I’m half way through the handsome new Stripe Press edition of Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine. And I’ve finally read Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness. This is a very interesting, and commendably concise, history of US anti-trust legislation and enforcement. The argument in a nutshell is that anti-trust was born out of a power relations confrontation between the original trusts – Rockerfeller, Carnegie etc – and the US government: Theodore Roosevelt determined on trust-busting to establish the primacy of government power. To some extent this tradition continued after the second world war with landmark cases against AT&T and IBM. But, Wu continues, the Chicago school and especially Robert Bork defanged US anti-trust enforcement by embedding so thoroughly an economic test based on a consumer welfare standard as measured only by consumer prices. Today, with digital giants so often charging zero or low prices, this is less appropriate than ever. The time has come to reaffirm that the government, not rent-extracting monopolies, runs the country.

This is an interesting and persuasive account. It is also a specifically American one. Although the underlying economic analysis concerned crosses the Atlantic, there has never been such a narrow interpretation either of consumer welfare or of how to measure it in Europe. The test in UK law is a ‘substantial lessening of competition’ with reasonably wide discretion for the competition authority, and the guidance sets out other dimensions of welfare such as quality, range, innovation – although of course price is the easiest to measure. We have had prominent cases looking at monopsony power, such as the inquiry into supermarkets. Nor has there ever been on this side a routine acceptance that the benefits of vertical integration or horizontal merger can be assumed to be passed on to consumers – in my cases we always asked about the incentive as well as the scope for efficiencies to be passed on. And, as Wu notes at the end of the book, the UK’s market inquiry tool can be very powerful.

Having said all this – and cautioning against translating Wu’s account and other influential authors such as Lina Khan – to non-US contexts, this does not mean the question of monopoly power is not a pressing one here too. The UK has an inquiry into digital competition under way (chaired by Professor Jason Furman – I’m a member). In other markets from insurance/banking to pharma there are very powerful and profitable firms sustaining their position over long periods and scant sign that new entry is possible. As I’ve written in a forthcoming paper, the competition authorities need tools to assess dynamic, Schumpeterian competition as well as their everyday static toolkit.

Behind the technicalities, there is also the issue of political power highlighted by Wu’s book. Most economists would be hesitant to re-politicise competition policy after the dire experiences of big companies using their lobbying power to protect themselves before the present regime came into force. Two former DGs of the UK’s Office of Fair Trading, John Fingleton (here) and John Vickers, have rightly pointed to the vast expansion of arbitrary ministerial say-so over mergers in proposed UK legislation. This is a route sure to make consumers worse off.

At the same time, there are valid political questions. Some companies in a number of sectors have become simply too powerful. Paul Tucker’s recent book Unelected Power highlights these, arguing for a tilt in the balance away from technical economic analysis toward political choice. I’m not persuaded that the problem stems from the use of economics in competition policy, such that dethroning economic analysis would fix the pwer imbalance. However, there do seem to be some unresolved tensions between the economic standards for assessing competition in a market, the legal interpretations, and the politics.

Much food for thought in a short book. The Curse of Bigness is a great stocking filler for the economists and lawyers in your life.

Share

My damp Scandinavian view of the world

It’s the last full day of our holiday in Sweden and the weather has turned a bit wet, so in between the detective novels (the latest – Jill Paton Walsh’s Dorothy Sayers update, Thrones, Dominations) I read Robert Peston’s WTF. It’s as well-informed and full of insight about the present state of the world as you’d expect from such a distinguished journalist (although written in a slightly matey style which didn’t appeal to me). The book is mainly about Brexity UK – with a brilliant chapter on our last general election and the respective characters of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn – though it touches on parallel trends in Trumpland. I agree with his diagnosis that the issues contributing to the anti-establishment anger date back well before the financial crisis, to the deindustrialisation of the 80s and 90s, and the chasm between London/SE and the rest of the country. The book’s fundamental point is that the economy stopped working for an ever-growing number of voters, vast numbers of whom have seen no significant rise in living standards for well over a decade, and even longer for too many.

Interestingly, in the light of the current fashion for saying the big economic problem is all about concentration and the exploitation of market power, Peston instead pins the blame for a dclining labour share of national income on the Reagan-Thatcher-led attack on union power from the mid-70s on. The press reports of the Jackson Hole discussions this year noted that debate there focused on the issue of concentration. When I expressed some doubt on Twitter that this was anything other than a US phenomenon (as the UK labour share looked from eyeballing an ONS chart to have been fairly stable), a couple of replies insisted I was wrong (one arguing I was looking at the wrong data, and the other claiming the IMF said it was a global phenomenon). Well, after my years on the Competition Commission, I’m a big fan of tough competition policy, and agree it has been lax in the US for some time. The US also has an issue with creeping occupation licensing as the Obama CEA pointed out. But, reading up on the IMF’s recent work on trends in the labour share makes plain the great diversity of national experiences – and indeed, they say the UK labour share has increased.

Well, whenever a phenomenon is so varied across countries, it tells you institutions are playing a big part. Combined with the fact that across countries the big decline in the labour share occurred from the mid-1970s to around 2000, surely labour market institutions played a key part – for all that it’s right to be concerned about concentration in some countries/sectors now. (And the IMF data goes only to 2014, so perhaps there has been a dramatic decline in the latest 3 years of data…)

Anyway, looking out at the rain, on now to proofs of the forthcoming book by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, which I’m going to be reviewing in due course – a history of capitalism in America, which is going to be fascinating, as I’m anticipating a defence. There has also on Twitter been some discussion about what books to put on the syllabus for a history of capitalism course (really, a history of thought course), in which I didn’t participate (& can’t find now), but noted with interest that all the books were critiques, from The Great Transformation on. Maybe the Greenspan/Wooldridge book could balance it out.

Share

Competition, competition, competition

Grazing along my bookshelf this morning, postponing getting to work, I found ‘Industrial Concentration‘ by M.A.Utton in the Penguin Modern Economics series – 1960s/70s paperbacks for the people providing overviews of different fields in the subject. This one was published in 1970 and it’s fascinating as a window on the historical evolution of competition policy.

One distinction it draws, certainly no longer valid, is between tough American anti-trust policy with a legacy dating back to the Sherman Act and relatively weak and new British competition policy based on 1948 legislation under the Monopolies Commission, which Utton describes as always willing to accept ‘public interest’ arguments for allowing mergers of big companies. American policy was far more willing to tackle the structure of an industry, he argues.

Hence UK business had become far more concentrated in the 1950s and 60s, although with effects mitigated by greater openness to foreign competition via trade than the relatively closed US economy. At the time of writing, the newish (1966) Industrial Reorganization Corporation (IRC) in the UK was busy promoting still more mega-mergers to create ‘national champions’, with the companies involved given a nod and a wink to say they would not be referred to the Monopolies Commission.
Interestingly, a recent Yale Law Journal article by Lina Khan argues for a return from the Chicago School emphasis on consumer welfare as measured by current prices to Sherman Act-inspired interventions in market structure, in the context of the digital giants. But it isn’t just the digital sector; there’s pretty convincing evidence of increasing concentration across the US economy, as The Economist recently summmarised.

The UK’s history of competition policy has been brighter recently thanks to the formation of the independent Competition Commission and now Competition and Markets Authority (with its excellent economists, including my son). There have been blips – notably the very bad decision during the financial crisis to make finance a sector exempt from the usual competition rules, in order to allow the Lloyds-HBoS merger. Still, the independence of the watchdog and the removal for the most part of vague ‘public interest’ considerations has been beneficial. However, vigilance is needed.

It isn’t only the challenge of ensuring the giant digital companies, with their giant network effects and economies of scale, continue to deliver for social rather than just private gain. The EU’s State Aid regime has been a massively important backdrop to domestic policy. If the Brexit train wreck continues, it will be essential to carry the regime over into domestic policy.

This is all the more important in the context of both the likely negative impact of Brexit on key sectors – there will be queues of badly affected businesses asking for special help or dispensations – and the aim of having a more strategic approach to economic policy, an industrial strategy. Nobody (in theory) wants a return to the ‘picking winners’ (ie losers) days of the IRC.

A really tough competition policy is the best way to avert this. It needs to include not just State Aid rules but also a rethink about the weak sector regulators in network sectors like water and telecoms. This is why we on the Industrial Strategy Commission have been putting so much emphasis on competition policy.

(I note the Amazon price for this book is algorithmically weird – original cover price was 40p.)

Share

Digi-trust-busting

As someone who spent eight years on the Competition Commission, the changing shape of competition in the digital world is a question of compelling interest to me. Mainly, I blocked mergers, but the exceptions were retail inquiries where the growing competition from online retailers (especially Amazon) was, to me, a clear constraint on merging high street chains (some of my colleagues were less convinced – this was 2001-2009). Looking more recently at the literature on digital platforms, it is clear that economists have to step up and deliver new, practical analytical tools for competition authorities. As Jean Tirole and his co-authors famously established, the old tools of market definition and SSNIP tests are inadequate for assessing competitive conditions. And when the dynamics of competing for versus in the market, and the evolution of ecosystems, are so important now, the longstanding failure of competition economics to deliver a systematic way of thinking about static versus dynamic impacts of mergers really matters.

This is a long-winded preamble to mentioning Virtual Competition: the promise and perils of the algorithm-driven economy by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke. The authors clearly are concerned about the failure of competition policy tools in the new context, and although it tries to be even-handed the book paints a picture of a world of increasing market power, to the detriment of consumers and citizens.

The most interesting thread in the book from an economist’s perspective is the reflection on the role of information in markets. Reductions in search costs should improve consumer and economic welfare, make markets more competitive. However, the greater availability of information in the online world is illusory because there is a staggering imbalance. Digital platforms have an extraordinary amount of extra information about us – and there are very interesting chapters covering the struggle between platforms, advertisers, app developers etc to gather and aggregate the personal information. However, the information we consumers get about the goods and services we’re looking to purchase is diminishing. The book raises the question as to whether the use of cookies and geo-tracking is enabling ever-better price discrimination by platforms and online sellers; there has been no systematic evidnce that this is so, but then it would be hard to gather the data to test this properly.

At the start of the internet era, there was great optimism that this was a technology for empowering consumers with more nearly perfect information, allowing easy price and product comparisons. In fact, it may be returning us to the era of the bazaar, with reducing transparency of information about prevailing market prices and conditions. “In a market that is in reality controlled by bots and algorithms, what power does the invisible hand posess?” Instead, maybe we have a digitalized hand, determining the specific market price in any given context. As others have done (Francis Spufford in Red Plenty – not cited – and Eden Medina in Cybernetic Revolutionaries – which is cited here), the book notes that in the limit a profit-maximizing market with perfect information and a social-welfare maximising central planner similarly well-informed would reach the same prices and allocations (although contrasting distributions).

The book does a good job of describing the changing dynamics of competition in digital markets, and why there is every reason to be concerned. Written by two lawyers, it is frustrating that it hardly mentions the economic research literature, which is proliferating even if not yet reaching policy-ready conclusions. The authors also over-do some of their critique of digital businesses – for example, they include a section on the use of framing and choice architecture to manipulate consumer choice, but that dates back to the pre-digital days of Mad Men. Still I share their view that we are in an age similar to those of the giant industrial trusts, and some digi-trust-busting is going to be needed.

41cjyoodbol

Share

When everything is a platform

Sometimes it seems like nobody wants to set up a business these days; it has to be a platform. These come in different flavours of course, from sharing economy start-ups to existing online social or other networks. Whatever, the platform concept has become ubiquitous. Like many ubiquitous concepts, its definition is a bit fuzzy and its exact characteristics variable, but the basics are well-understood: an entity enabling value-creating interactions between different groups of people; with the value coming from network effects (across the sides of the platform) and often also the improved matching of transacting parties enabled reduced information/transaction costs. Thus Ebay provides sellers with lots of buyers and vice versa, and enables people to sell or buy niche items.

It’s intriguing that for many people everything looks like a platform now. The economics of multi-sided platforms (or two-sided markets) dates back to the early 2000s. The well-known Rochet and Tirole paper was published in 2004 and had been circulating for a while before then, while Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne were publishing related work in 2000. In their new book Parker and Van Alstyne, joined by co-author Sangeet Paul Choudary argue that once platforms became possible, they became inevitable: “Platforms virtually always win… Pipelines [ie traditional businesses] rely on inefficienct gatekeepers. … The platform can grow to scale more rapidly and efficiently because traditional gatekeepers are replaced by market signals provided automatically by the entire community.” What’s more, platforms do not need the same investment in physical capital as a pipeline business and have no idle capacity – think Airbnb versus hotel chains. They do not need inventory. The community can even provide the quality control and certification.

[amazon_image id=”0393249131″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets are Transforming the Economy–and How to Make Them Work for You[/amazon_image]

The book is a very accessible introduction to the economics of multi-sided platforms, very much from the perspective of a business audience, people who might want to set one up. Introductory chapters describing platforms and the basic economic principles are followed by chapters on how to design a successful platform – how to provide value and set prices to balance both sides appropriately; how to acquire and use data; successful launch and growth strategies; monetization; growth; competition issues; and regulatory issues. There are helpful examples throughout – eight different cases of launch strategies that worked, for instance.

If you don’t know the economics literature, this book is a clear and practical guide to platforms. If you do know it – and I’ve now read a fair amount – the analysis will be familiar, albeit with lots of interesting and useful examples that still make it worthwhile.  I found the chapter on strategy the most interesting. It notes the challenges of getting to successful scale, although I think in fact underestimates them. It also discusses the complexity of competition (or as it’s sometimes called ‘convergence’ – everybody competing with everbody) and the advantages that go to those able to take a very long term view. The book’s main downside is apparent in this chapter too: it’s a Pollyanna view of platforms. I’d have liked a more challenging discussion of competition among the titans and the regulatory and even political questions this raises. (I set out my thoughts on this on the FT’s The Exchange blog.)

All in all, though, this book is a welcome addition to the still quite small non-technical literature on platforms, which is much needed given how complicated the academic literature on this subject has become.

Share