Since Brussels has ordered Ireland to recover 13€ billion from Apple, much ink has been spilled on the European Commission’s (EC) alleged misuse of power and breach of the “rule of law.” In the Irish Times, Professor Liza Lovdahl-Gormsen wrote that the EC has been “bending” competition law to pursue a corporate taxation agenda in disguise. Former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes went so far as to suggest that the EC was attempting to rewrite international tax rules.
Conspiracy stories sell well, all the more so when the EC administration is on display. Yet, the claim that the Apple case is not a genuine competition case is a trick often used to deride enforcement — one that papers over an old lesson of mainstream economics: that monopolists are particularly good at “acquiring” public interest legislation. Nobel Prize winner George Stigler once wrote that “the most obvious contribution that a group may seek of the government is a direct subsidy of money.”
While this basic economic teaching is not the narrative behind the EC decision against Ireland, there are clear signs that Apple is a textbook monopolist, and that rent-seeking theory could thus assist the EC in the forthcoming appeal. Let us look closer. Year after year, Apple sits atop the rankings as the most successful company of the 21st century. It has been the world’s largest company by market capitalization for some time. It is also the most profitable company in the history of the modern economy. Its flagship product, the iPhone, is the most expensive mass-market smartphone ever sold. On each device, Apple’s earns a 69% gross margin. Last year, industry analysts were taken aback when Apple outsold Samsung.
Granted, high prices and large profits do not a monopolist make. So let us consider other metrics: among tech’s frightful five, Apple is the slacker when it comes to investing in innovation: It spent about 3.5% of its revenue on research and development in 2016. By way of comparison, Alphabet (Google) spent 16%, Microsoft spent 14%, and Facebook spent a whopping 27%. Apple didn’t even feature in the EU ranking of the top 50 highest R&D-intensive companies, trailing behind a host of less-glitzy manufacturers of telecoms infrastructure equipment like Nokia and Ericsson and even “mundane” suppliers of cars, chemicals, and agricultural products. At such low levels of R&D investment, it is even questionable that Apple can be called a “high tech” company (the minimum to be part of that league is 5-7.5%).
Apple also features as the world champ payer of dividends and purchaser of its own shares in financial analysts’ recommendations. Instead of retaining earnings to devote to internal R&D projects as a patient capitalist, Apple returns comparatively more profits to shareholders than any of its peers. It also sits atop a mountain of unproductive capital.
Beyond financial numbers, Apple’s body language also denotes behavioural signs of monopoly power. In his best seller, “Zero to One,” Peter Thiel writes that “monopolists lie to protect themselves.” Apple is a grandmaster at this game. In a bid to reduce the prices it pays for certain inputs, Apple has routinely claimed to be an antitrust victim in proceedings in the US, the EU, and Asia, accusing upstream component suppliers and innovators such as Qualcomm and Nokia, but also rivals such as Samsung, of unlawful monopolization. To assist it, Apple enlisted the help of a former European Commission official who spent over ten years spearheading the EU’s assaults on Intel, Microsoft, Google and other high-tech firms. To the trained observer, this should come as no surprise. For monopolists, the ends justify the means – including efforts to instrumentalise the regulatory process.
With such facts in mind, it is now much less obvious that the EC Apple tax case is not plain vanilla competition policy, and much more clear that Apple behaved as a textbook rent-seeking monopolist when it secured 13€ billion from the Irish Government.
That monopolists expend vast resources in rent-seeking, unproductive activities aimed at capturing rents from governments is a fundamental teaching of modern economic theory. Like theft, corruption or bribery, those resources – and those invested by governments to counter rent-seeking strategies – are pure waste; they generate no socially valuable production. The EC would be well advised to keep this narrative in mind when defending its case against allegations of unlawful tax harmonization before the EU courts. As I often tell my students, forget the legalese; go for the big picture.