A2 Economics – the need to move to more contestable markets.

The Economist had as its main Leader an article on the lack of competition in the global market place. Too many companies have  monopoly power and earn, what the economics textbooks call,  significant ‘abnormal profits’. In 2016 a survey found that more than half of young Americans no longer support capitalism. In the past governments have made it a more level playing field.

  • US – at the start of the 20th century they broke up monopolies in railways and the energy industry. Ronald Reagan also unleashed the power of the market
  • West Germany – created competitive markets to rebuild their post-war economy
  • Britain – Margaret Thatcher exposed state-owned inefficient domestic industries to the dynamic foreign competition. She also privatised the Commanding Heights of the economy.

There are 3 tests that The Economist use to examine the market structure:

Concentration Ratios
A lot of firms have experienced inertia and become very comfortable whilst the tech firms are building significant amounts of market power. In the US Concentration ratios between 1997 and 2012 have risen in approximately 600 census industries, with the weighted average market share of the top 4 firms growing from 26% to 32%. 10% of the US economy is made up of industries where 4 firms have more than 66% of the market share. The concentration ratio is the percentage of market share taken up by the largest firms. It could be a 3 firm concentration ratio (market share of 3 biggest) or 5 firms concentration ratio.

Abnormal Profits
In a healthy economy you would expect profits to be competed down, but the free cashflow of companies is 76% above its 50-year average, relative to GDP. In Europe the trend is similar, if less extreme. The average market share of the biggest four firms in each industry has risen by three percentage points since 2000. On both continents, dominant firms have become harder to dislodge.

Openness
Of US firms that made very high profits in 1997, 50% still did in 2017. There is a reduction in new firms and with a lowdown in globalisation industries that are less exposed to trade have become more dominant in the market place – the domestic market. The current protectionist policies of the Trump Administration don’t help to breakdown the barriers to entry and as the high stock values of profitable firms show, investors believe their advantages will continue. Powerful firms tend to stay and of the total capital spending and R&D done by America’s leading 500 companies the top 20 firms account of 38% of this spending.

The Contestable Market – A2 Economics – Theory

The degree of contestability of a market is measured by the extent to which the gains from market entry for a firm exceed the cost of entering (i.e. the cost of overcoming barriers to entry), with the risks associated with failure taken into account (the cost associated with any barriers to exit). Accordingly, the levels of barriers to entry and exit are crucial in determining the level of a market’s contestability. Barriers to exit consist of sunk costs, that is to say costs that cannot be recovered when leaving the market. The contestable markets approach suggests that potential entrants consider post‑entry profit levels, rather than the pre-entry levels suggested by neo‑classical theory.

Obviously no market is perfectly contestable, i.e. with zero sunk costs. In modern economies it is the degree of contestability which is relevant, some markets are more contestable than others. Also just because there have been no new entrants to a market over a given period of time does not mean that this market is not contestable. The threat of entry will be enough to make the existing (incumbent) firms behave in such a way as to recognise this, i.e. by setting a price which doesn’t attract entry and which only makes normal profits.

Markets which are highly contestable are likely to be vulnerable to ‘hit and run competition’. Consider a situation where existing firms are pricing at above the entry‑limit level. Even in the event that existing firms react in a predatory style, new entry will be profitable as long as there is a time lag between entry and the implementation of such action. Having made a profit in the intervening period, the new entrant can then leave the market at very little cost.

In a contestable market there are no structural barriers to the entry of firms in the long-run. If existing businesses are enjoying high economic profits, there is an incentive for new firms to enter the industry. This increases market competition and dilutes monopoly profits for the incumbent firms.
Market contestability requires there are few sunk costs. A sunk cost is committed by a producer when entering an industry but cannot be recovered if a firm decides to leave a market.

The video below on the Airline Industry in the US from Commanding Heights series is a good example of breaking down monopoly power.

Sources:

The Economist – The Next Capitalist Revolution – November 17th 2018

Anforme – A2 Level Economics Revision Booklet

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