Contestability theory in the real world [Ag-Biotech Symposium]

Levi Russell —  30 March 2017

Levi A. Russell is Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Applied Economics, University of Georgia and a blogger at Farmer Hayek.

Though concentration seems to be an increasingly popular metric for discussing antitrust policy (a backward move in my opinion, given the theoretical work by Harold Demsetz and others many years ago in this area), contestability is still the standard for evaluating antitrust issues from an economic standpoint. Contestability theory, most closely associated with William Baumol, rests on three primary principles. A market is perfectly contestable if 1) new entrants are not at a cost disadvantage to incumbents, 2) there are no barriers to entry or exit, and 3) there are no sunk costs. In this post, I discuss these conditions in relation to recent mergers and acquisitions in the agricultural chemical and biotech industry.

Contestability is rightly understood as a spectrum. While no industry is perfectly contestable, we expect that markets in which barriers to entry or exit are low, sunk costs are low, and new entrants can easily produce at similar cost to incumbents would be more innovative and that prices would be closer to marginal costs than in other industries. Certainly the agricultural chemical and biotech space does not appear to be very contestable, given the conditions above. There are significant R&D costs associated with the creation of new chemistries and new seed traits. The production and distribution of these products are likely to be characterized by significant economies of scale. Thus, the three conditions listed above are not met, and indeed the industry seems to be characterized by very low contestability. We would expect, then, that these mergers and acquisitions would drive up the prices of the companies’ products, leading to higher monopoly profits. Indeed, one study conducted at Texas A&M University finds that, as a result of the Bayer-Monsanto acquisition and DuPont/Pioneer merger with Dow, corn, soybean, and cotton prices will rise by an estimated 2.3%, 1.9%, and 18.2%, respectively.

These estimates are certainly concerning, especially given the current state of the agricultural economy. As the authors of the Texas A&M study point out, these estimates provide a justification for antitrust authorities to examine the merger and acquisition cases further. However, our dependence on the contestability concept as it pertains to the real world should also be scrutinized. To do so, we can examine other industries in which, according to the standard model of contestability, we would expect to find high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant cost disadvantages for incumbents.

This chart, assembled by the American Enterprise Institute using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the changes in prices of several consumer goods and services from 1996 to 2016, compared with CPI inflation. Industries in which there are high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant cost disadvantages for new entrants such as automobiles, wireless service, and TVs have seen their prices plummet relative to inflation over the 20 year period. There has also been significant product innovation in these industries over the time period.

Disallowing mergers or acquisitions that will create synergies that lead to further innovation or lower cost is not an improvement in economic efficiency. The transgenic seeds created by some of these companies have allowed farmers to use less-toxic pesticides, providing both private and public benefits. Thus, the higher prices projected by the A&M study might be justified on efficiency grounds. The R&D performed by these firms has led to new pesticide chemistries that have allowed farmers to deal with changes in the behavior of insect populations and will likely allow them to handle issues of pesticide resistance in plants and insects in the future.

What does the empirical evidence on trends in prices and the value of these agricultural firms’ innovations described above imply about contestability and its relation to antitrust enforcement? Contestability should be understood not as a static concept, but as a dynamic one. Competition, more broadly, is the constant striving to outdo competitors and to capture economic profit, not a set of conditions used to analyze a market via a snapshot in time. A proper understanding of competition as a dynamic concept leads us to the following conclusion: for a market to be contestable such that incumbents are incentivized to behave in a competitive manner, the cost advantages and barriers to entry or exit enjoyed by incumbents must be equal to or less than an entrepreneur’s expectation of economic profit associated with entry.  Thus, a commitment to property rights by antitrust courts and avoidance of excessive licensure, intellectual property, and economic regulation by the legislative and executive branches is sufficient from an economic perspective to ensure a reasonable degree of contestability in markets.

In my next post I will discuss a source of disruptive technology that will likely provide some competitive pressure on the firms in these mergers and acquisitions in the near future.

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  1. Ag-biotech merger symposium wrap-up [Ag-Biotech Symposium] « Truth on the Market - April 5, 2017

    […] to entry, markets are contestable to the extent that incumbents are incentivized to compete (Russell). It is worth noting that certain industries with high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk […]