What the monopoly narrative gets wrong
At the center of the monopoly narrative is the claim that most industries and markets have become dangerously concentrated, largely due to the malign influence of Bork. But how factual is the narrative of the anti-monopolists?
Reagan’s DOJ did indeed relax its guidelines on horizontal mergers in 1982. But his biggest impact on corporate organization was to allow the largest wave of hostile takeovers in history. The industry-spanning conglomerates that were built up in the 1960s and 1970s (thanks in large part to antitrust restrictions on horizontal and vertical mergers) were chronically undervalued by the stock market. The whole was worth less than the sum of the parts. With the availability of new forms of bridge financing such as junk bonds and a favorable regulatory climate, it became possible for raiders to buy bloated corporations from their shareholders, fire their managers, and sell off the parts for a quick profit.
A lasting legacy of the takeover wave was the ascendance of shareholder primacy; the idea that corporations existed first and foremost to create shareholder value, and that any corporate deviation from this mission should be punished. The shift from traditional defined benefit pensions to 401(k) (defined contribution) plans, and the growing popularity of retail investment in mutual funds, meant that most American households were at least somewhat invested in the stock market by 2001, which further reinforced the idea that shareholder value was the North Star.
Has industry been dominated by monopolists since 2000? The second paragraph of Biden’s executive order “fact sheet” opens, “For decades, corporate consolidation has been accelerating. In over 75% of US industries, a smaller number of large companies now control more of the business than they did 20 years ago.” Most of the anti-monopoly tracts cite this same figure, taken from a recent article in finance. But the study relies on global sales data for US-based corporations listed on American stock markets, with industry defined at the 3-digit NAICS level (I know, bear with me). Why is that a problem? First, corporations routinely operate in many different industries. In 1980 Westinghouse built nuclear plants, locomotive engines, wrist watches, high school curricula, financial services, and bottles of 7Up, among many others. Attributing all of a corporation’s revenues to just one industry gives a distorted picture of that industry’s concentration.
Second, American corporations have been global for generations, and are even more global now. Between 30% and 40% of the S&P 500’s revenues are from outside the US. Two-thirds of Netflix’s subscribers are outside North America; 67% of Apple’s revenues come from overseas; and 100% of Yum China Holdings’ sales of KFC and Pizza Hut are in China (but because Yum China is incorporated in Delaware and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it is an “American” restaurant chain). Global sales are irrelevant for American market concentration. Likewise, some American giants have foreign parents, including Anheuser-Busch and Chrysler, which removes them from the data. And some evidently American corporations like Accenture and Medtronic are incorporated overseas for tax reasons. Third, since 2008 dozens of major corporations have left the stock market, either for a few years (GM, Dell, Hilton) or for longer (Albertsons-Safeway). Private equity has grown by several trillion dollars and owns many of the biggest firms in several industries; it is simply not possible to assess concentration using only listed companies. Lastly, 3-digit industries can be quite broad. Coach, Nike, and Skechers are all in the same NAICS industry, but are in no real sense competitors.
The evidence that industry has become dangerously concentrated in recent years is weak, unsystematic, and inconsistent, and doesn’t always tell us very much about the actual state of competition.
An industrial organization economist would point out that national sales revenues are not very informative about rivalry on the ground. Olive Garden’s corporate revenues say nothing useful about the rivalry among Italian restaurants in my town. Indeed, retail and other services are among the industries that have seen the greatest consolidation at the national level, driven in part by new technology-enabled economies of scale yet at the local level these industries have often become even more competitive, as national chains move in to contest local markets. Rivalry among car repair shops, funeral homes, therapists, and real estate agents are also mostly local.
But there is a more fundamental difficulty in figuring out how the “curse of bigness” has led to industry monopolization: the digital revolution has left basic categories such as size and industry hard to parse. Put plainly: if a monopoly is a giant corporation that dominates an industry, what happens if “industry” and “giant” and “dominance” no longer scan?