Category Archives: Concentration risk

13/9/18: Concentration Risk: IPOs, New Firms Arrivals & Super Stars


One of my favourite long-run tail risks to watch in the financial markets (and indeed, due to ongoing monopolisation trends, in the entire economy) is concentration risk. Here is an absolutely epic post from @michaelbatnick on the subject of increasing concentration in equity markets driven by the growing trend toward keeping new tech mega starts private: http://theirrelevantinvestor.com/2018/09/10/making-private-public/

Aside from compiling a treasure trove of data, the post brings to light some interesting observations, not necessarily central to the author's core arguments.

Take, for example, this chart:


The post correctly views this as evidence that both volumes and numbers of IPOs have been relatively steady over the recent years. Albeit, both are running woefully below the pre-dot.com bust era averages. And, as other evidence presented shows, this is not the feature of the dot.com bubble build up phase: in fact, numbers of IPOs have been running well below the 1980-2000 average since the dot.com bust.

Maturity to IPO duration is also longer:

Which, of course, supports higher median IPO size in the chart above. Controlling for this, the collapse in IPOs activity in 2001-2018 period is probably much more dramatic, than the first chart above indicates. Or, put differently, IPOs are now more concentrated in the space of older, and hence more able to raise funds, companies. That is a phenomenon consistent with concentration risk rising.

It is also a phenomenon consistent with the hypothesis that entrepreneurialism is declining in the U.S. as younger, more entrepreneurial ventures are clearly less capable of accessing public equity markets today than in pre-2001 period.

There is a lot, really a lot, more worth reading in the post. But here are two more charts, speaking directly to the issue of concentration risk:

 and

Yes, the markets are dominated by a handful of stocks when it comes to providing returns. Namely, Facebook and Alibaba account for a whooping 85% of the total market cap gains since 2012. $85 of each $100 in market cap increases went to just these two companies.

This is concentration risk at work. Even tightly thematic investment strategies, e.g. ESG risk hedging investments, cannot avoid crowding into a handful of shares. Any tech sector blowout is going to be systemic, folks.

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 http://www.nber.org/papers/w24700 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: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2018/05/24518-america-medici-cycle-and.html) and I wrote about these phenomena in the context of the growing trend toward de-democratization of the U.S. politics (see: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3033949).  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.

24/5/18: America, the Medici Cycle and the Corporate Powers in Politics


A recent paper by Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, titled "Towards a Political Theory of the Firm" (NBER Working Paper No. 23593, July 2017: http://www.nber.org/papers/w23593) deals with the issue of rent-seeking behavior by monopolistic firms through political influence. "Neoclassical theory assumes that firms have no power of fiat any different from ordinary market contracting, thus a fortiori no power to influence the rules of the game," writes Zingales. "In the real world, firms have such power. I argue that the more firms have market power, the more they have both the ability and the need to gain political power. Thus, market concentration can easily lead to a “Medici vicious circle,” where money is used to get political power and political power is used to make money."

In his opening to the paper, Zingales notes 2016 report by Global Justice Now showing that 69 of the world’s largest 100 economic entities are now corporations, not governments. Using "both corporation and government revenues for 2015, ten companies appear in the largest 30 entities in the world: Walmart (#9), State Grid Corporation of China (#15), China National Petroleum (#15), Sinopec Group (#16), Royal Dutch Shell (#18), Exxon Mobil (#21), Volkswagen (#22), Toyota Motor (#23), Apple (#25), and BP (#27). All ten of these companies had annual revenue in higher than the governments of Switzerland, Norway, and Russia in 2015. ...In some cases, these large corporations had private security forces that rivaled the best secret services, public relations offices that dwarfed a US presidential campaign headquarters, more lawyers than the US Justice Department, and enough money to capture (through campaign donations, lobbying, and even explicit bribes) a majority of the elected representatives. The only powers these large corporations missed were the power to wage war and the legal power of detaining people, although their political influence was sufficiently large that many would argue that, at least in certain settings, large corporations can exercise those powers by proxy."

Despite this reality, economic theory largely ignores the issue of political power of the firms despite the fact that throughout modern history, "the largest modern corporations facilitated a massive concentration of economic (and political) power in the hands of a few people, who are hardly accountable to anyone." And despite the well-established fact (including through the precedent of the U.S. sanctions), that "...many of those giants (like State Grid, China National Petroleum, and Sinopec) are overseen by a member of the Chinese Communist party." Worse, as Zinglaes notes, "In the United States, hostile takeovers of large corporations have (unfortunately) all but disappeared, and corporate board members are accountable to none. Rarely are they not reelected, and even when they do not get a plurality of votes, they are coopted back to the very same board (Committee on Capital Market Regulation, 2014). The primary way for board members to lose their jobs is to criticize the incumbent CEO (see the Bob Monks experience in Tyco described in Zingales, 2012). The only pressure on large US corporations from the marketplace is exercised by activist investors, who operate under strong political opposition and not always with the interest all shareholders in mind."

So Zingales argues "that the interaction of concentrated corporate power and politics it a threat to the functioning of the free market economy and to economic prosperity it can generate, and a threat to democracy as well." Which, of course, is simply consistent with existence of the set of market-linked trilemmas, such as The International Relations (Order) Trilemma that implies that in the presence of perfect capital mobility, the nation states can either pursue a democratic sovereign political set up or an objective of international stability/order, as well as. (see more on these here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2786660).

Logically, thus, economics need to be asking the following questions, largely ignored in the neo-classical theory of the firm: "To what extent can the power firms have in the marketplace be transformed into political power? To what extent can the political power achieved by
firms be used to protect but also enhance the market power firms have?"

As Zingales notes correctly, "US economic patterns in the last few decades have seen a rise in the relative size of large companies," as also documented in a number of posts on this blog:
for example, the rise of monopolistic competition here:


monopsonistic power here:


effects on regulatory enforcement efficiency here:


effects on democratic institutions here:



As the result, Zinglaes calls "attention to the risk of a “Medici Vicious Circle.” The “signorias” of the Middle Ages—the city-states that were a common form of government in Italy from the 13th through the 16th centuries--were a takeover of a democratic institution (“communes)” by rich and powerful families who ran the city-states with their own commercial interests as main objective. The possibility and extent of this Medici Vicious Circle depend upon several non-market factors. I identify six of them: the main source of political power, the conditions of the media market, the independence of the prosecutorial and judiciary power, the campaign financing laws, and the dominant ideology. I describe when and how these factors play a role and how they should be incorporated in a broader “Political Theory” of the firm."

The driver for this 'Medici Circle' dynamic is market concentration or monopolistic competition. Product differentiation and market regulation can bestow onto a firm a degree of market power that translates into market concentration (rising and significant share of market activity captured by the firm). While in the environment of continued innovation, such competitive advantage generates only temporary abnormal profits, the degree of market power can be significant enough to provide the firm with substantial resources (profits) to engage in lobbying activities, corruption and other rent-seeking activities. There are also symmetric incentives for the firms to engage in rent seeking. As Zinglaes notes: "If the ability to influence the political power increases with economic power, so does the need to do so, because the greater the market power a firm has, the greater the fear of expropriation by the political power". This sounds strange, but it is quite intuitive: as a firm gains market power, it's prices rise above the marginal cost, yielding abnormal economic profits to the firm at the expense of consumers. The Governments can (and do) claim political mandate to limit these profits by taxing the market dominant firms' profits (either through regulation or direct taxation), thus expropriating part of the abnormal profits.

In simple terms, "Most firms are actively engaged in protecting their source of competitive advantage: through a mixture of innovation, lobbying, or both. As long as most of the effort is along the first dimension, there is little to be worried about. ...What is more problematic is when a lot of effort is put into lobbying. In other words, the problem here is not temporary market power. ...The fear is of what I call a “Medici vicious circle,” in which money is used to gain political power and political power is then used to make more money. ...In the case of medieval Italy, it turned Florence from one of the most industrialized and powerful cities in Europe to a marginal province of a foreign empire. At least the Medici period left some examples of great artistic beauty in Florence. I am not sure that market capitalism of the 21st century will be able to do the same."

Zingales relates the Medici circle concept to the modern day U.S. economy. "In the last two decades more than 75 percent of US industries experienced an increase in concentration levels, with the Herfindahl index increasing by more than 50 percent on average. During this time, the size of the average publicly listed company in the United States tripled in market capitalization: from $1.2 billion to $3.7 billion in 2016 dollars... This phenomenon is the result of two trends. On the one hand, the reduction in the rate of birth of new firms, which went from 14 percent in the late 1980s to less than 10 percent in 2014. On the other hand, a very high level of merger activity, which for many years in the last two decades exceeded $2 trillion in value per year... The market power enjoyed by larger firms is also reflected in the increasing difficulty that smaller firms have in competing in the marketplace: in 1980, only 20 percent of small publicly traded firms had negative earnings per share, in 2010, 60 percent did... Barkai (2016) ...finds that the decrease in labor share of value added is not due to an increase in the capital share (that is, the cost of capital times amount of capital divided by value added), but by an increase in the profits share (the residuals), which goes from 2 percent of GDP in 1984 to 16 percent in 2014. ...By separating the return to capital and profits, we can appreciate when profits come from (non-replicable) barriers to entry and competition, not from capital accumulation. Distinguishing between capital and share allows Barkai (2016) also to gain some insights on the cause of the decline in the labor share. If markups (the difference between the cost of a good and its selling price) are fixed, any change in relative prices or in technology that causes a decline in labor share must cause an equal increase in the capital share. If both labor and capital share dropped, then there must be a change in markups—that is, the pricing power firms to charge more than their cost."

And fresh from the presses today: "US IG Chart of the Day: Global M&A deal flow has doubled YTD for a total of $1.5 trillion of announced deals. US-only deals account for about 37% of the global total, for $555 billion of transactions."


While firms require market power to acquire political power, access to political power is required to protect abnormal profits arising from market power. Which, in a highly polarised society (aka, the U.S. system of politics dominated by two mainstream parties) can result in political representation concentrated in the hands of minorities (e.g. Trump Presidency, gained absent major corporate support), and in ineffectiveness of lobbying monitoring (As Zinglaes notes: "Even when it comes to lobbying, the actual amount spent by large U.S corporations is very small, at least as a fraction of their sales. For example, in 2014 Google (now Alphabet) had $80 billion in revenues and spent $16 million in lobbying".) Which is, of course, quite ironic, given that the ongoing Robert Mueller probe of the Trump campaign is focusing almost exclusively on the violations in the legal or declared channels of lobbying, instead of the indirect forms of political influencing.


I will quote Zingales' conclusion almost in full here, for it is a powerful reminder to us all that we live in a world where corporatism (integration of State and corporate powers) and monopolisation / concentration of the markets are two key features of our environment, not only in the economic sense, but in the political / democratic domains as well.

"In a famous speech in 1911, Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, considered the practical advances made by large corporations in the late 19th and early 20th century and stated: 'I weigh my words, when I say that in my judgment the limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times, whether you judge it by its social, by its ethical, by its industrial or, in the long run, ...by its political, effects.' Butler was right, but this discovery of the modern corporate form – like all discoveries – can be used to both to foster progress or to oppress. The size of many corporations exceeds the modern state. As such, they run the risk of transforming small- and even medium-sized states into modern versions of banana republics, while posing economic and political risks even for the large high-income economies. To fight these risks, several political tools might be put into use: increases in transparency of corporate activities; improvements in corporate democracy; better rules against revolving doors and more attention to the risk of capture of scientists and economists by corporate interests; more aggressive use of the antitrust authority; and attention to the functioning and the independence of the media market. Yet the single most important remedy may be broader public awareness."

The latter bit is still woefully lacking in the Fourth Rome of Washington DC, where the usual, tired, unrealistic narrative of American Exceptionalism reigns supreme, and where the U.S. flags at the 4th of July picnics are still confused for meaningful symbols of the U.S. meritocracy and the American Dream, the native entrepreneurialism and the social mobility. Wake up, folks, and smell the roses.

15/1/18: Of Fraud and Whales: Bitcoin Price Manipulation


Recently, I wrote about the potential risks that concentration of Bitcoin in the hands of few holders ('whales') presents and the promising avenue for trading and investment fraud that this phenomena holds (see post here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2017/12/211217-of-taxes-and-whales-bitcoins-new.html).

Now, some serious evidence that these risks have played out in the past to superficially inflate the price of bitcoins: a popular version here https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/15/researchers-finds-that-one-person-likely-drove-bitcoin-from-150-to-1000/, and technical paper on which this is based here (ungated version) http://weis2017.econinfosec.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/05/WEIS_2017_paper_21.pdf.

Key conclusion: "The suspicious trading activity of a single actor caused the massive spike in the USD-BTC exchange rate to rise from around $150 to over $1 000 in late 2013. The fall was even more dramatic and rapid, and it has taken more than three years for Bitcoin to match the rise prompted by fraudulent transactions."

Oops... so much for 'security' of Bitcoin...


21/12/17: Of Taxes and Whales: Bitcoin’s New Headaches


I have recently mused about the tax exposures implications of Bitcoin 'investments', and in particular, my suspicion that many today's BTC enthusiasts (retail investors speculating on BTC and other cryptos) are likely to be caught out with unexpected and un-covered tax liabilities arising from trading in currencies pairs that involve cryptos and regular currencies (e.g. BTCUSD pair). Normally, every trade in BTC that involves sale of BTC for USD is subject to capital gains tax. This is a nasty side effect of the BTC trading.

And here comes a new and a worse one: the GOP tax plan will make even trades between cryptos (e.g. BTCETH pair) subject to capital gains (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-21/tax-free-bitcoin-to-ether-trading-in-u-s-to-end-under-gop-plan). The GOP plan removal of the like-kind swap tax deferral provision for everything other than real property sweeps cryptos put of the deferral cover because back in 2014, the IRS designated cryptos as non-currency property-type assets, like gold.

In addition to catching many investors off-guard and leaving them facing potentially explosive tax bills, the new change induces more liquidity risk into the system: removal of the deferral imposes a de facto transaction tax on BTC and other cryptos. This is likely to reduce frequency of trading conducted by investors. Which, in turn, reduces liquidity of the BTC and other cryptos.

This tax change, in part, likely explain why the BTC and other cryptos concentration is falling: the whales, who used to control up to 40% of the entire BTC issuance to-date, are selling, and selling at speed (https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2017-12-21/bitcoin-whales-are-cutting-back).  Ordinarily, this would be a good thing (lower concentration risk, increased liquidity), but cryptos are not your ordinary assets. The problem with whales selling is that one of the key arguments in favor of cryptos is that crypto-enthusiasts and pioneers are market-makers who prefer mine-and-hold strategy. In other words, to-date, the argument has been that the whales simply will never sell their holdings before BTC issuance reaches its bound of 21 million units.

That reasoning is now going, like the proverbial hot air out of a punctured balloon: