Archives For profits

Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development. 

Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.

There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move. 

What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets. 

The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation

One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace. 

This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs. 

The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.

For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.  

While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs. 

For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit. 

All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.

Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.

Municipal broadband as islands of chaos

Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.

The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.

This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes. 

Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.

But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.

Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate. 

Conclusion

There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.

A recent NBER working paper by Gutiérrez & Philippon has attracted attention from observers who see oligopoly everywhere and activists who want governments to more actively “manage” competition. The analysis in the paper is fundamentally flawed and should not be relied upon by policymakers, regulators, or anyone else.

As noted in my earlier post, Gutiérrez & Philippon attempt to craft a causal linkage between differences in U.S. and EU antitrust enforcement and product market regulation to differences in market concentration and corporate profits. Their paper’s abstract leads with a bold assertion:

Until the 1990’s, US markets were more competitive than European markets. Today, European markets have lower concentration, lower excess profits, and lower regulatory barriers to entry.

This post focuses on Gutiérrez & Philippon’s claim that EU markets have lower “excess profits.” This is perhaps the most outrageous claim in the paper. If anyone bothers to read the full paper, they’ll see that claims that EU firms have lower excess profits is simply not supported by the paper itself. Aside from a passing mention of someone else’s work in a footnote, the only mention of “excess profits” is in the paper’s headline-grabbing abstract.

What’s even more outrageous is the authors don’t define (or even describe) what they mean by excess profits.

These two factors alone should be enough to toss aside the paper’s assertion about “excess” profits. But, there’s more.

Gutiérrez & Philippon define profit to be gross operating surplus and mixed income (known as “GOPS” in the OECD’s STAN Industrial Analysis dataset). GOPS is not the same thing as gross margin or gross profit as used in business and finance (for example GOPS subtracts wages, but gross margin does not). The EU defines GOPS as (emphasis added):

Operating surplus is the surplus (or deficit) on production activities before account has been taken of the interest, rents or charges paid or received for the use of assets. Mixed income is the remuneration for the work carried out by the owner (or by members of his family) of an unincorporated enterprise. This is referred to as ‘mixed income’ since it cannot be distinguished from the entrepreneurial profit of the owner.

Here’s Figure 1 from Gutiérrez & Philippon plotting GOPS as a share of gross output.

Fig1-GutierrezPhilippon

Look at the huge jump in gross operating surplus for U.S. firms!

Now, look at the scale of the y-axis. Not such a big jump after all.

Over 23 years, from 1992 to 2015, the gross operating surplus rate for U.S. firms grew by 2.5 percentage points. In the EU, the rate increased by about one percentage point.

Using the STAN dataset, I plotted the gross operating surplus rate for each EU country (blue dots) and the U.S. (red dots), along with a time trend. Three takeaways:

  1. There’s not much of a difference between the U.S. and the EU average—they both hover around a gross operating surplus rate of about 19.5 percent; and
  2. There’s a huge variation in gross operating surplus rate across EU countries.
  3. Yes, gross operating surplus is trending slightly upward in the U.S. and slightly downward for the EU average, but there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in the slope of the trendlines. In fact the slopes of the trendlines are not statistically significantly different from zero and are not statistically significantly different from each other.

GOPSprod

The use of gross profits raises some serious questions. For example, the Stigler Center’s James Traina finds that, after accounting for selling, general, and administrative expenses (SG&A), mark-ups for publicly traded firms in the U.S. have not meaningfully increased since 1980.

The figure below plots net operating surplus (NOPS equals GOPS minus consumption of fixed capital)—which is not the same thing as net income for a business.

Same three takeaways:

  1. There’s not much of a difference between the U.S. and the EU average—they both hover around a net operating surplus rate of a little more than seven percent; and
  2. There’s a huge variation in net operating surplus rate across EU countries.
  3. The slope of the trendlines for net operating surplus in the U.S. and EU are not statistically significantly different from zero and are not statistically significantly different from each other.

NOPSprod

It’s very possible that U.S. firms are achieving higher and growing “excess” profits relative to EU firms. It’s also very possible they’re not. Despite the bold assertions of Gutiérrez & Philippon, the information presented in their paper provides no useful information one way or the other.