Category Archives: oligopoly

16/7/18: Wither Free Market America

Prior to the 1990's, “U.S. markets were more competitive than European markets”, with the U.S. having a lead-start on the EU of some decades, if not centuries, when it comes to the anti-trust laws and anti-true enforcement. In fact, as noted by Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon in their new paper “HOW EU MARKETS BECAME MORE COMPETITIVE THAN US MARKETS: A STUDY OF INSTITUTIONAL DRIFT” (NBER Working Paper 24700 June 2018), it was Europe that largely copied the U.S.  legal and regulatory frameworks for dealing with excessive concentration of the market power. Thus, given the “initial conditions, one would have predicted that U.S. markets would remain more competitive than European (EU) markets.” Except they did not. As Gutiérrez and Philippon show, the U.S. “experienced a continuous rise in concentration and profit margins starting in the late 1990s. And, perhaps more surprisingly, EU markets did not experience these trends so that, today, they appear more competitive than their American counter-parts.”

“Figure 1 illustrates these facts by showing that profit rates and concentration measures have increased in the US yet remained stable in Europe. In addition, note that the U.S the increased integration among EU economies essentially shifts the appropriate measure of concentration from the red dotted line towards the blue line with triangles – which further strengthens the trend."

Figure 1: Profit Rates and Concentration Ratios: US vs. EU

Source:  Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018)

So, in summary, today, “European markets have lower concentration, lower excess profits, and lower regulatory barriers to entry.” even looking at specific industries “with significant increases in concentration in the U.S., such as Telecom and Airlines, and show that these same industries have not experienced similar evolutions in Europe, even though they use the same technology and are exposed to the same foreign competition” (see chart below).

Source:  Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018)

Of course, the point of reduced degree of competition in the U.S. markets is hardly new. I wrote about this on numerous occasions, including covering evidence on the U.S. markets monopolization, oligopolization and markets concentration risks (see links here: and I wrote about these phenomena in the context of the growing trend toward de-democratization of the U.S. politics (see:  Hence, the main issue with this evidence is: “what explains the U.S. trend in contrast to the EU?”

Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) argue that politicians care about consumer welfare but also enjoy retaining control over industrial policy. We show that politicians from different countries who set up a common regulator will make it more independent and more pro-competition than the national ones it replaces.” In other words, once politicians surrender control to a multinational institution (e.g. the EU or ‘Brussels’ or, in the case of Switzerland, to the umbrella-type Federal Government), they tend to favour such new institutional arrangement to be more independent from national politics.

Hence, as Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) more, “European institutions are more independent than their American counterparts, and they enforce pro-competition policies more strongly than any individual country ever did. Countries with ex-ante weak institutions benefit more from the delegation of antitrust enforcement to the EU level. “ These dynamics are reflected in the switch from the ’average of the nation states’ red dotted line in the chart above, toward a unified EU-wide measure reflected by the blue line.

This theoretical view produces three treatable hypotheses: if Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) are correct, then:
1. EU countries agree to set up an anti-trust regulator that is tougher and more independent than their old national regulators (and the US)
2. US firms spend more on lobbying US politicians and regulators than EU firms.
3. Countries with weaker ex-ante institutions benefit more from supra-national regulation.

For Hypothesis 1, the authors look at merger and non-merger reviews and remedies that form “an EU-level competency”. Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) “show that DG Comp is more independent and more pro-competition than any of the national regulators, including the U.S.” Furthermore, “enforcement has remained stable (or even tightened) in Europe while it has become laxer in the U.S.” More ominously (for the consumption-based economy like the U.S.), product market regulations, usually a shared competency between the member state and the EU, the authors “find that the EU has become relatively more pro-competition than the U.S. over the past 15 years. Product market regulations have decreased in Europe, while they have remained stable or increased in the U.S.”

For Hypothesis 2: Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) look at political expenditures, and show that “U.S. firms spend substantially more on lobbying and campaign contributions, and are far more likely to succeed than European firms/lobbyists.”

For Hypothesis 3: Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) show that “EU countries with initially weak institutions have experienced large improvements in antitrust and product market regulation. Moreover, we find that the relative improvement is larger for EU countries than for non-EU countries with similar initial institutions.”

There is, of course, a remaining issue left unaddressed by the three hypotheses above: does more enforcement by more independent regulators inhibit innovation and competition? In other words, is European advantage over the U.S. a de facto Trojan Horse by which inhibiting regulation enters the markets? Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) “find no evidence of excessive enforcement in Europe: enforcement leads to lower concentration and profits but we find no evidence of a negative impact on innovation. If anything, (relative) enforcement is associated with faster future (relative) productivity growth, although the effects are small.”

So, put simply, part of the increasing market concentration and power in the U.S. can be explained by the tangible politicization of the American regulatory environment. Of course, as noted in my own posts on the subject (see link above), this political channel for monopolization reinforces industry structure channel (ICT ‘disruption’ channel) and other channels that support increased market power for dominant firms. All of this, taken together, means one thing: the U.S. is falling dangerously behind in terms of the degree of its economy openness to challengers to the dominant firms, resulting in barriers to entrepreneurs, innovators and smaller enterprises. The costs of this ‘Google Syndrome’ are mounting, ranging from depressed wages, to jobs insecurity, to lack of investment and productivity growth, to growing voters unease with the status quo.

The premise of the Free Markets America no longer holds. Worse, Social(list) Europe is now beating the U.S. in its own game.

9/2/18: Angus Deaton on Monopolization and Inequality

For anyone interested in the topics of wealth inequality, structure of the modern (anti-market) economy and secular stagnation, here is an interview with economist Angus Deaton on the subject of market concentration, rent seeking and rising inequality:

I cover this in our economics courses, both in TCD and MIIS, as well as on this blog (see here:

In simple terms, rising degree of oligopolization or monopolization of the U.S. (and global) economy is, in my opinion, responsible for simultaneous loss of dynamism (diminished entrepreneurship, weakened innovation) in the markets, the dynamics of the secular stagnation and, as noted in our working paper here (, for the structural decline in our preferences for liberal, Western, values.

As Deaton notes, "Monopoly, I think, is a big part of the story. Both monopoly and monopsony contribute to lower real wages (including higher prices, fewer jobs, and slower productivity growth)—just a textbook case! But there are things like contracting out, which are making it much harder at the bottom, or local licensing requirements—mechanisms for making rich people richer at the expense of stopping poor people starting businesses and stifling entrepreneurship. There are also more traditional mechanisms other than rent-seeking, like the tax system. All these affect the distribution of income very directly. One of the things that seem to be going on more than it used to be is rent-seeking that’s redistributing upwards."

While I agree with his top level analysis on the evils of monopolization, I find the arguments in favour of unions-led 'redistribution downward' to be extremely selective. Unions co-created the current rent-seeking system through (1) collusion with capital owners, and (2) selective redistribution based on membership, as opposed to merit. In other words, unions were the very same rent seekers as corporations. And, just as capital owners, unions restricted redistribution downstream to select few workers at the expense of all others. Which means returning unions to a monopoly power of representation of labor is a fallacious approach to solving the current problem. Instead, we need to make people shareholders in capital via direct provision of carefully structured equity.

Disagreements aside, a very good interview with Deaton, worth reading.

7/2/18: American Wages, Corporotocracy & Why the Millennials Should be Worried

Pooling together a range of indicators for wages, Goldman Sachs' Wage Tracker attempts to capture more accurate representation of wages dynamics in the U.S. Here is the latest chart, courtesy of the Zero Hedge (

According to GS, wage growth is not only anaemic, at 2.1% y/y in 4Q 2017, and contrary to the mainstream media reports and official stats far from blistering, but it has been anaemic since the Global Financial Crisis. The latter consideration is non-trivial, because it implies two things:

  1. Structural change, consistent with the secular stagnation thesis, that is also identified in the GS research that attributes wages stagnation to increasing degree of concentration of market power in the hands of larger multinational enterprises (or, put more succinctly, oligopolization or monopolization of the U.S. economy); and
  2. A decade long (and counting) period in the U.S. economic development when growth has been consistent with continued leveraging, not sustained by underlying income growth.
The first point falls squarely within the secular stagnation thesis on the supply side: as the U.S. economy becomes more monopolistic, the engines for technological innovation switch to differentiation through less significant, but more frequent incremental innovation. This means that more technology is not enabling more investment, reducing the forces of creative destruction and lowering entrepreneurship and labor productivity growth.

The second point supports secular stagnation on the demand side: as households' leverage is rising (slower growth in income, faster growth of debt loads), the growth capacity of the economy is becoming exhausted. Longer term growth rates contract and future income growth flattens out as well. The end game here is destabilization of the social order: leverage risk carries the risk of significant underfunding of the future pensions, it also reduces households' capacity to acquire homes that can be used for cheaper housing during pensionable years. Leveraging of parents leads to reduced capacity to fund education for children, lowering quantity and quality of education that can be attained by the future generation. Alternatively, for those who can attain credit for schooling, this shifts more debt into the earlier years of the household formation for the younger adults, depressing the rates of their future investment and savings.

Goldman's research attempts to put a number on the costs of these dynamics, saying that in the longer run, rising concentration in the American private sector economy implies a 0.25% annual drop in wages growth since 2001. While the number appears to be small, it is significant. From economic perspective this implies 3.95% lower cumulative life cycle earnings for a person starting their career. And that is without accounting for the effects of the Great Recession. A person with a life cycle average earnings of USD50,000 would earn USD940,000 less over a 30-year long career under GS estimated impact scenario, than a person working in the economy with lower degree of corporate concentration. 

The 0.25% effect GS estimate is ambiguous. So take a different view: prior to the Global Financial Crisis, longer term wages growth was averaging above 3% pa. Today, in the 'Best Recovery, Ever' we have an average of around 2.2-2.4%. The gap is greater than 0.6-0.8 percentage points and is persistent. So take it at 0.6% over the longer term, forward, the lower envelope of the gap. Under that scenario, life cycle earnings of the same individual with USD 50,000 average life cycle income will be lower, cumulatively, by USD 1.53 million (or -6.4%). 

That is a lot of cash that is not going to be earned by people who need to buy homes, healthcare, education, raise kids and save for pensions.

Remember the "Don't be evil" motto of one of these concentration behemoths that we celebrate as the champion of the American Dream? Well, their growing market power is doing no good for that very same Dream.

Meanwhile, on academic side of things, the supply side secular stagnation thesis must be, from here on, augmented by yet another cause for a long term structural slowdown: the rising market concentration in the hands of the American Corporatocracy.