Consider this narrative. A combination of economies of scale, first-mover advantages and network effects have privileged a handful of firms across industries. The superstar firms lobby hard to capture the government and set the rules of the game through regulation and occupational licensing, as well as seek innovative approaches to erect entry barriers to competitors. They attract the smartest talent and compensate them with exorbitant salaries, which often border on the vulgar, far far higher than those affordable for their also-ran competitors, thereby engendering an ever widening skills inequality. They raise capital at the cheapest terms while also crowding out capital to the remaining majority. Finally, and most disturbingly, they also exercise market power egregiously to accumulate massive surpluses, which in turn finds its way back not as increased investments and more jobs but returns to shareholders in the form of share buy-backs at inflated prices. The result is heavily amplified market concentration and declined competition. Finance and technology sectors dominate this trend.
As much as we sing paeans about these innovative and disrupting companies, this picture of post-modern capitalism is far from the orthodoxy associated with free market capitalism.
This trend is most egregious with technology based firms, where the popular perception endures of start-ups in garages creating entire markets or disrupting entrenched incumbents. Instead the reality has been of a small group of massive firms, which benefited from being at the right place at the right time to take advantage of a nascent industry with dominant network effects and regulatory arbitrage potential.
Consider the evidence. The Economist points to the work of Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon of New York University, who write,
The US business sector has under-invested relative to Tobin’s Q since the early 2000s. We argue that declining competition is partly responsible for this phenomenon. We use a combination of natural experiments and instrumental variables to establish a causal relationship between competition and investment. Within manufacturing, we use Chinese imports as a natural experiment to test the main prediction of competition-based models of investment and innovation, namely that competition forces industry leaders to invest (innovate) more. We establish external validity beyond the manufacturing sector by showing that excess entry in the 1990s, which is orthogonal to demand shocks in the 2000’s, predicts higher industry investment given Q. Finally, we provide some evidence that the increase in concentration can be explained by increasing regulations and, to a lesser extent, stronger winner-takes-all effects in some industries.
The Economist elaborates on the investment slowdown,
Messrs Gutiérrez and Philippon benchmark investment against “Tobin’s Q”, the ratio of a firm’s market value to its book value. A high Q signals that an industry is earning a lot from its assets, which, all else being equal, suggests it should invest more. The authors show that America’s investment has fallen most substantially, relative to Q, in concentrated industries. In these sectors, investment has also fallen more than in Europe. To explore the issue further, the authors draw a distinction between “laggards” and “leaders”, defined as firms comprising the top third and bottom third, respectively, of an industry’s market value. Laggards, they reason, are more likely to wither in the face of competition, so their investment might be expected to fall. Leaders, though, should be up for a fight if rivals challenge them; their investment should rise. They find it is leaders, not laggards, who are responsible for the bulk of the investment slowdown, suggesting a lack of competition.
And its contribution to the declining labour share of profits relative to capital and widening inequality,
Recent research by David Autor of MIT and four co-authors finds that “superstar” firms pay out less of their profits in wages. As these firms have grown in importance, labour’s overall share of GDP has fallen. Other research suggests that these firms nonetheless pay more, in gross terms, than ordinary firms, so their rise has directly contributed to inequality.
Rana Faroohar has this to say about its impact on the labour market and labour share of the income,
Finance takes 25 per cent of all corporate profits while creating only 4 per cent of jobs, since it sits at the centre of the dealmaking hourglass, charging whatever rent it likes. Meanwhile, wealth and power continue to flow into the technology sector more than any other — half of all American businesses that generate profits of 25 per cent or more are tech companies. Yet the tech titans of today — Facebook, Google, Amazon — create far fewer jobs than not only the big industrial groups of the past, like General Motors or General Electric, but also less than the previous generation of tech companies such as IBM or Microsoft. What’s more, it is not just the top sectors that control the majority of corporate wealth, but the top companies themselves. The most profitable 10 per cent of US businesses are eight times more profitable than the average company. In the 1990s, that multiple was just three. Workers in those super profitable businesses are paid extremely well, but their competitors cannot offer the same packages. Indeed, research from the Bonn-based Institute of Labor Economics shows that the differences in individual workers’ pay since the 1970s is associated with pay differences between — not within — companies. Another piece of research, from the Centre for Economic Performance, shows that this pay differential between top-tier companies and everyone else is responsible for the vast majority of inequality in the US.
Finally, Gillian Tett points to Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef who have shown how closely linked pay has been to deregulation of the sector.
However one slices the data, the case for more employee power and use of collective bargaining, direct regulatory action on anti-competitive practices, and enhanced role for public policy to address the failings of excessive competition has never been so clear. Just as the welfare state saved capitalism from the onslaught of socialism in the immediate post-war aftermath, these policies may be needed now to save capitalism from capitalists.