A new scholarly study of economic concentration sheds further light on the flawed nature of the Neo-Brandeisian claim that the United States has a serious “competition problem” due to decades of increasing concentration and ineffective antitrust enforcement (see here and here, for example). In a recent article, economist Yueran Ma—assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business—found that economies of scale (an efficiency) were associated with a U.S. economy-wide rise in concentration in economic activities (not antitrust markets) and a growth in output over the last century. In particular, Ma explained (emphasis added):
New research observing 100 years of concentration in economic activities and investment in research and development shows that the dominance of large businesses has been increasing for at least a century and, as Marx conjectured, may be a feature of the increasingly stronger economies of scale that accompany industrial development. . . .
To understand the broad historical currents of concentration, we collected financial information of all US corporations by size groups for the past 100 years. . . .
To be clear, our focus is not market concentration for a particular product, which would require defining markets based on consumption activities. Instead, our focus is the business size distribution in the US, namely the extent to which larger businesses dominate in the total volume of production activities across the economy. . . .
The data reveals a persistent rise in the dominance of the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent of businesses in the US. From 1918 to 1975, the SOI provided size groups sorted by net income (green line with circles). Starting in 1959, the SOI also provided size groups sorted by sales (red line with diamonds). The longest and most comprehensive size groups are sorted by assets, available since 1931 (blue line with triangles). No matter the measure you choose, the long-run increase in corporate concentration is clear. . . .
Just as Stigler, Marx and Lenin had predicted, the reason for increased concentration appears to be economies of scale. Among different industries, we find that the timing and the degree of rising concentration align closely with rising investment in research and development (R&D) and information technology (IT), measured using additional data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). These types of investments usually require a certain degree of scale due to upfront spending, while also producing technological changes that enhance economies of scale. Accordingly, we use investment intensity in R&D and IT as a general indicator of firms exploiting economies of scale. . . .
We also find that increases in concentration are positively associated with industry growth. In particular, over the medium term (e.g., twenty years), industries that experience higher increases in concentration are also the ones that experience higher growth in real gross output. Correspondingly, their shares of economic output expand as well. . . .
A[ ] natural question is whether regulatory policies and antitrust enforcement drive the main trends we find. For instance, regulatory restrictions on interstate banking could have a direct impact on the size of banks (and we indeed observe rising concentration in banking when these restrictions were lifted). In most other sectors, we are not aware of policies that align with the patterns of rising concentration in our data. The past century witnessed several regimes of antitrust enforcement—however, rising corporate concentration has been a secular trend throughout these different antitrust regimes. We do not observe a significant relationship between corporate concentration in our data and standard aggregate antitrust enforcement measures, such as the number of antitrust cases filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the budget of the DOJ’s antitrust division. Overall, we do not find evidence that antitrust shapes the economy-wide business size distribution, although it could have a more visible impact on the market for a particular product (which is closer to the domain of antitrust analyses).
Even if higher concentration in production activities comes from economies of scale, some contemporary observers fear that economies of scale will ultimately weaken competition and cultivate monopoly power (Lenin highlighted such concerns as well). Analyzing this question requires reliable measurement of market power. So far, most studies do not find rising markups (the standard measure of market power) before the 1980s, and some argue that markups have increased since the 1980s. Combined with our findings, the evidence suggests that stronger economies of scale does not always lead to stronger market power. It is possible that such a link may exist under certain conditions, and future research could shed more light on this topic.
In broad terms, Ma’s study describes a long-term rise in economic concentration (again, something entirely different from antitrust-relevant market concentration) in tandem with substantial increases in economies of scale and output expansion—overall, a story of long-term welfare enhancement. Antitrust-enforcement levels are not portrayed as significantly related to this trend, and there is no showing that rising economies of scale inevitably enhance market power. (Even possible increases in markups, whose existence has been contested, do not necessarily reflect an increase in market power, see here and here.)
Admittedly, Ma was engaged in a positive analysis of concentration, not a normative assessment. But her research certainly lends no support to the normative neo-Brandeisian notion that a drastic interventionist-minded overhaul of antitrust is required to address major competitive ills. To the contrary, one could logically infer that a dramatic rise in antitrust interventionism is not only uncalled for, but it could threaten the beneficial nature of rising economies of scale and output that have been shown to characterize the U.S. economy. One would hope that this inference would give Congress and U.S. antitrust enforcers pause before they embark on a novel interventionist path.
The Jan. 18 Request for Information on Merger Enforcement (RFI)—issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ)—sets forth 91 sets of questions (subsumed under 15 headings) that provide ample opportunity for public comment on a large range of topics.
Before chasing down individual analytic rabbit holes related to specific questions, it would be useful to reflect on the “big picture” policy concerns raised by this exercise (but not hinted at in the questions). Viewed from a broad policy perspective, the RFI initiative risks undermining the general respect that courts have accorded merger guidelines over the years, as well as disincentivizing economically beneficial business consolidations.
Policy concerns that flow from various features of the RFI, which could undermine effective merger enforcement, are highlighted below. These concerns counsel against producing overly detailed guidelines that adopt a merger-skeptical orientation.
The RFI Reflects the False Premise that Competition is Declining in the United States
The FTC press release that accompanied the RFI’s release made clear that a supposed weakening of competition under the current merger-guidelines regime is a key driver of the FTC and DOJ interest in new guidelines:
Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division launched a joint public inquiry aimed at strengthening enforcement against illegal mergers. Recent evidence indicates that many industries across the economy are becoming more concentrated and less competitive – imperiling choice and economic gains for consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
This premise is not supported by the facts. Based on a detailed literature review, Chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President concluded that “the argument that the U.S. economy is suffering from insufficient competition is built on a weak empirical foundation and questionable assumptions.” More specifically, the 2020 Economic Report explained:
Research purporting to document a pattern of increasing concentration and increasing markups uses data on segments of the economy that are far too broad to offer any insights about competition, either in specific markets or in the economy at large. Where data do accurately identify issues of concentration or supercompetitive profits, additional analysis is needed to distinguish between alternative explanations, rather than equating these market indicators with harmful market power.
Soon to-be-published quantitative research by Robert Kulick of NERA Economic Consulting and the American Enterprise Institute, presented at the Jan. 26 Mercatus Antitrust Forum, is consistent with the 2020 Economic Report’s findings. Kulick stressed that there was no general trend toward increasing industrial concentration in the U.S. economy from 2002 to 2017. In particular, industrial concentration has been declining since 2007; the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI) for manufacturing has declined significantly since 2002; and the economywide four-firm concentration ratio (CR4) in 2017 was approximately the same as in 2002.
Even in industries where concentration may have risen, “the evidence does not support claims that concentration is persistent or harmful.” In that regard, Kulick’s research finds that higher-concentration industries tend to become less concentrated, while lower-concentration industries tend to become more concentrated over time; increases in industrial concentration are associated with economic growth and job creation, particularly for high-growth industries; and rising industrial concentration may be driven by increasing market competition.
In short, the strongest justification for issuing new merger guidelines is based on false premises: an alleged decline in competition within the Unites States. Given this reality, the adoption of revised guidelines designed to “ratchet up” merger enforcement would appear highly questionable.
The RFI Strikes a Merger-Skeptical Tone Out of Touch with Modern Mainstream Antitrust Scholarship
The overall tone of the RFI reflects a skeptical view of the potential benefits of mergers. It ignores overarching beneficial aspects of mergers, which include reallocating scarce resources to higher-valued uses (through the market for corporate control) and realizing standard efficiencies of various sorts (including cost-based efficiencies and incentive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization through vertical integration). Mergers also generate benefits by bringing together complementary assets and by generating synergies of various sorts, including the promotion of innovation and scaling up the fruits of research and development. (See here, for example.)
What’s more, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has explained, “[e]vidence suggests that vertical mergers are generally pro-competitive, as they are driven by efficiency-enhancing motives such as improving vertical co-ordination and realizing economies of scope.”
Given the manifold benefits of mergers in general, the negative and merger-skeptical tone of the RFI is regrettable. It not only ignores sound economics, but it is at odds with recent pronouncements by the FTC and DOJ. Notably, the 2010 DOJ-FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (issued by Obama administration enforcers) struck a neutral tone. Those guidelines recognized the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers while noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (“[t]he Agencies seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral”). The same neutral approach is found in the 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (“the Agencies use a consistent set of facts and assumptions to evaluate both the potential competitive harm from a vertical merger and the potential benefits to competition”).
The RFI, however, expresses no concern about unnecessary government interference, and strongly emphasizes the potential shortcomings of the existing guidelines in questioning whether they “adequately equip enforcers to identify and proscribe unlawful, anticompetitive mergers.” Merger-skepticism is also reflected throughout the RFI’s 91 sets of questions. A close reading reveals that they are generally phrased in ways that implicitly assume competitive problems or reject potential merger justifications.
For example, the questions addressing efficiencies, under RFI heading 14, casts efficiencies in a generally negative light. Thus, the RFI asks whether “the [existing] guidelines’ approach to efficiencies [is] consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts,” citing the statement in FTC v. Procter & Gamble (1967) that “[p]ossible economies cannot be used as a defense to illegality.”
The view that antitrust disfavors mergers that enhance efficiencies (the “efficiencies offense”) has been roundly rejected by mainstream antitrust scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here). It may be assumed that today’s Supreme Court (which has deemed consumer welfare to be the lodestone of antitrust enforcement since Reiter v. Sonotone (1979)) would give short shrift to an “efficiencies offense” justification for a merger challenge.
Another efficiencies-related question, under RFI heading 14.d, may in application fly in the face of sound market-oriented economics: “Where a merger is expected to generate cost savings via the elimination of ‘excess’ or ‘redundant’ capacity or workers, should the guidelines treat these savings as cognizable ‘efficiencies’?”
Consider a merger that generates synergies and thereby expands and/or raises the quality of goods and services produced with reduced capacity and fewer workers. This merger would allow these resources to be allocated to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy, yielding greater economic surplus for consumers and producers. But there is the risk that such a merger could be viewed unfavorably under new merger guidelines that were revised in light of this question. (Although heading 14.d includes a separate question regarding capacity reductions that have the potential to reduce supply resilience or product or service quality, it is not stated that this provision should be viewed as a limitation on the first sentence.)
The RFI’s discussion of topics other than efficiencies similarly sends the message that existing guidelines are too “pro-merger.” Thus, for example, under RFI heading 5 (“presumptions”), one finds the rhetorical question: “[d]o the [existing] guidelines adequately identify mergers that are presumptively unlawful under controlling case law?”
This question answers itself, by citing to the Philadelphia National Bank (1963) statement that “[w]ithout attempting to specify the smallest market share which would still be considered to threaten undue concentration, we are clear that 30% presents that threat.” This statement predates all of the merger guidelines and is out of step with the modern economic analysis of mergers, which the existing guidelines embody. It would, if taken seriously, threaten a huge number of proposed mergers that, until now, have not been subject to second-request review by the DOJ and FTC. As Judge Douglas Ginsburg and former Commissioner Joshua Wright have explained:
The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. . . . The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.
By inviting support for PNB-style thinking, RFI heading 5’s lead question effectively rejects the economic effects-based analysis that has been central to agency merger analysis for decades. Guideline revisions that downplay effects in favor of mere concentration would likely be viewed askance by reviewing courts (and almost certainly would be rejected by the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, if the occasion arose).
These particularly striking examples are illustrative of the questioning tone regarding existing merger analysis that permeates the RFI.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Not Incorporate the Multiplicity of Issues Embodied in the RFI
The 91 sets of questions in the RFI read, in large part, like a compendium of theoretical harms to the working of markets that might be associated with mergers. While these questions may be of general academic interest, and may shed some light on particular merger investigations, most of them should not be incorporated into guidelines.
As Justice Stephen Breyer has pointed out, antitrust is a legal regime that must account for administrative practicalities. Then-Judge Breyer described the nature of the problem in his 1983 Barry Wright opinion (affirming the dismissal of a Sherman Act Section 2 complaint based on “unreasonably low” prices):
[W]hile technical economic discussion helps to inform the antitrust laws, those laws cannot precisely replicate the economists’ (sometimes conflicting) views. For, unlike economics, law is an administrative system the effects of which depend upon the content of rules and precedents only as they are applied by judges and juries in courts and by lawyers advising their clients. Rules that seek to embody every economic complexity and qualification may well, through the vagaries of administration, prove counter-productive, undercutting the very economic ends they seek to serve.
It follows that any effort to include every theoretical merger-related concern in new merger guidelines would undercut their (presumed) overarching purpose, which is providing useful guidance to the private sector. All-inclusive “guidelines” in reality provide no guidance at all. Faced with a laundry list of possible problems that might prompt the FTC or DOJ to oppose a merger, private parties would face enormous uncertainty, which could deter them from proposing a large number of procompetitive, welfare-enhancing or welfare-neutral consolidations. This would “undercut the very economic ends” of promoting competition that is served by Section 7 enforcement.
Furthermore, all-inclusive merger guidelines could be seen by judges as undermining the rule of law (see here, for example). If DOJ and FTC were able to “pick and choose” at will from an enormously wide array of considerations to justify opposing a proposed merger, they could be seen as engaged in arbitrary enforcement, rather than in a careful weighing of evidence aimed at condemning only anticompetitive transactions. This would be at odds with the promise of fair and dispassionate enforcement found in the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines, namely, to “seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.”
Up until now, federal courts have virtually always implicitly deferred to (and not questioned) the application of merger-guideline principles by the DOJ and FTC. The agencies have won or lost cases based on courts’ weighing of particular factual and economic evidence, not on whether guideline principles should have been applied by the enforcers.
One would expect courts to react very differently, however, to cases brought in light of ridiculously detailed “guidelines” that did not provide true guidance (particularly if they were heavy on competitive harm possibilities and discounted efficiencies). The agencies’ selective reliance on particular anticompetitive theories could be seen as exercises in arbitrary “pre-cooked” condemnations, not dispassionate enforcement. As such, the courts would tend to be far more inclined to reject (or accord far less deference to) the new guidelines in evaluating agency merger challenges. Even transactions that would have been particularly compelling candidates for condemnation under prior guidelines could be harder to challenge successfully, due to the taint of the new guidelines.
In short, the adoption of highly detailed guidelines that emphasize numerous theories of harm would likely undermine the effectiveness of DOJ and FTC merger enforcement, the precise opposite of what the agencies would have intended.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Avoid Relying on Outdated Case Law and Novel Section 7 Theories, and Should Give Due Credit to Economic Efficiencies
The DOJ and FTC could, of course, acknowledge the problem of administrability and issue more straightforward guideline revisions, of comparable length and detail to prior guidelines. If they choose to do so, they would be well-advised to eschew relying on dated precedents and novel Section 7 theories. They should also give due credit to efficiencies. Seemingly biased guidelines would undermine merger enforcement, not strengthen it.
As discussed above, the RFI’s implicitly favorable references to Philadelphia National Bank and Procter & Gamble are at odds with contemporary economics-based antitrust thinking, which has been accepted by the federal courts. The favorable treatment of those antediluvian holdings, and Brown Shoe Co. v. United States (1962) (another horribly dated case cited multiple times in the RFI), would do much to discredit new guidelines.
In that regard, the suggestion in RFI heading 1 that existing merger guidelines may not “faithfully track the statutory text, legislative history, and established case law around merger enforcement” touts the Brown Shoe and PNB concerns with a “trend toward concentration” and “the danger of subverting congressional intent by permitting a too-broad economic investigation.”
New guidelines that focus on (or even give lip service to) a “trend” toward concentration and eschew overly detailed economic analyses (as opposed, perhaps, to purely concentration-based negative rules of thumb?) would predictably come in for judicial scorn as economically unfounded. Such references would do as much (if not more) to ensure judicial rejection of enforcement-agency guidelines as endless lists of theoretically possible sources of competitive harm, discussed previously.
Of particular concern are those references that implicitly reject the need to consider efficiencies, which is key to modern enlightened merger evaluations. It is ludicrous to believe that a majority of the current Supreme Court would have a merger-analysis epiphany and decide that the RFI’s preferred interventionist reading of Section 7 statutory language and legislative history trumps decades of economically centered consumer-welfare scholarship and agency guidelines.
Herbert Hovenkamp, author of the leading American antitrust treatise and a scholar who has been cited countless times by the Supreme Court, recently put it well (in an article coauthored with Carl Shapiro):
When the FTC investigates vertical and horizontal mergers will it now take the position that efficiencies are irrelevant, even if they are proven? If so, the FTC will face embarrassing losses in court.
Reviewing courts wound no doubt take heed of this statement in assessing any future merger guidelines that rely on dated and discredited cases or that minimize efficiencies.
New Guidelines, if Issued, Should Give Due Credit to Efficiencies
Heading 14 of the RFI—listing seven sets of questions that deal with efficiencies—is in line with the document’s implicitly negative portrayal of mergers. The heading begins inauspiciously, with a question that cites Procter & Gamble in suggesting that the current guidelines’ approach to efficiencies is “[in]consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts.” As explained above, such an anti-efficiencies reference would be viewed askance by most, if not all, reviewing judges.
Other queries in heading 14 also view efficiencies as problematic. They suggest that efficiency claims should be treated negatively because efficiency claims are not always realized after the fact. But merger activity is a private-sector search process, and the ability to predict ex post effects with perfect accuracy is an inevitable part of market activity. Using such a natural aspect of markets as an excuse to ignore efficiencies would prevent many economically desirable consolidations from being achieved.
Furthermore, the suggestion under heading 14 that parties should have to show with certainty that cognizable efficiencies could not have been achieved through alternative means asks the impossible. Theoreticians may be able to dream up alternative means by which efficiencies might have been achieved (say, through convoluted contracts), but such constructs may not be practical in real-world settings. Requiring businesses to follow dubious theoretical approaches to achieve legitimate business ends, rather than allowing them to enter into arrangements they favor that appear efficient, would manifest inappropriate government interference in markets. (It would be just another example of the “pretense of knowledge” that Friedrich Hayek brilliantly described in his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture.)
Other questions under heading 14 raise concerns about the lack of discussion of possible “inefficiencies” in current guidelines, and speculate about possible losses of “product or service quality” due to otherwise efficient reductions in physical capacity and employment. Such theoretical musings offer little guidance to the private sector, and further cast in a negative light potential real resource savings.
Rather than incorporate the unhelpful theoretical efficiencies critiques under heading 14, the agencies should consider a more helpful approach to clarifying the evaluation of efficiencies in new guidelines. Such a clarification could be based on Commissioner Christine Wilson’s helpful discussion of merger efficiencies in recent writings (see, for example, here and here). Wilson has appropriately called for the symmetric treatment of both the potential harms and benefits arising from mergers, explaining that “the agencies readily credit harms but consistently approach potential benefits with extreme skepticism.”
She and Joshua Wright have also explained (see here, here, and here) that overly narrow product-market definitions may sometimes preclude consideration of substantial “out-of-market” efficiencies that arise from certain mergers. The consideration of offsetting “out-of-market” efficiencies that greatly outweigh competitive harms might warrant inclusion in new guidelines.
The FTC and DOJ could be heading for a merger-enforcement train wreck if they adopt new guidelines that incorporate the merger-skeptical tone and excruciating level of detail found in the RFI. This approach would yield a lengthy and uninformative laundry list of potential competitive problems that would allow the agencies to selectively pick competitive harm “stories” best adapted to oppose particular mergers, in tension with the rule of law.
Far from “strengthening” merger enforcement, such new guidelines would lead to economically harmful business uncertainty and would severely undermine judicial respect for the federal merger-enforcement process. The end result would be a “lose-lose” for businesses, for enforcers, and for the American economy.
If the agencies enact new guidelines, they should be relatively short and straightforward, designed to give private parties the clearest possible picture of general agency enforcement intentions. In particular, new guidelines should:
Eschew references to dated and discredited case law;
Adopt a neutral tone that acknowledges the beneficial aspects of mergers;
Recognize the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers, while at the same time noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (consistent with the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines); and
Acknowledge the importance of efficiencies, treating them symmetrically with competitive harm and according appropriate weight to countervailing out-of-market efficiencies (a distinct improvement over existing enforcement policy).
Merger enforcement should continue to be based on fact-based case-specific evaluations, informed by sound economics. Populist nostrums that treat mergers with suspicion and that ignore their beneficial aspects should be rejected. Such ideas are at odds with current scholarly thinking and judicial analysis, and should be relegated to the scrap heap of outmoded and bad public policies.
Ever since David Teece and coauthors began writing about antitrust and innovation in high-tech industries in the 1980s, we’ve understood that traditional, price-based antitrust analysis is not intrinsically well-suited for assessing merger policy in these markets.
For high-tech industries, performance, not price, is paramount — which means that innovation is key:
Competition in some markets may take the form of Schumpeterian rivalry in which a succession of temporary monopolists displace one another through innovation. At any one time, there is little or no head-to-head price competition but there is significant ongoing innovation competition.
Innovative industries are often marked by frequent disruptions or “paradigm shifts” rather than horizontal market share contests, and investment in innovation is an important signal of competition. And competition comes from the continual threat of new entry down the road — often from competitors who, though they may start with relatively small market shares, or may arise in different markets entirely, can rapidly and unexpectedly overtake incumbents.
Which, of course, doesn’t mean that current competition and ease of entry are irrelevant. Rather, because, as Joanna Shepherd noted, innovation should be assessed across the entire industry and not solely within merging firms, conduct that might impede new, disruptive, innovative entry is indeed relevant.
But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.
In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”
What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.
We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.
To assess fully the impact of a merger on market performance, merger authorities and courts must examine how a proposed transaction changes market participants’ incentives and abilities to undertake investments in innovation.
At the same time, they point out that
Innovation can dramatically affect the relationship between the pre-merger marketplace and what is likely to happen if the proposed merger is consummated…. [This requires consideration of] how innovation will affect the evolution of market structure and competition. Innovation is a force that could make static measures of market structure unreliable or irrelevant, and the effects of innovation may be highly relevant to whether a merger should be challenged and to the kind of remedy antitrust authorities choose to adopt. (Emphasis added).
Dynamic competition in the ag-biotech industry
These dynamics seem to be playing out in the ag-biotech industry. (For a detailed look at how the specific characteristics of innovation in the ag-biotech industry have shaped industry structure, see, e.g., here (pdf)).
One inconvenient truth for the “concentration reduces innovation” crowd is that, as the industry has experienced more consolidation, it has also become more, not less, productive and innovative. Between 1995 and 2015, for example, the market share of the largest seed producers and crop protection firms increased substantially. And yet, over the same period, annual industry R&D spending went up nearly 750 percent. Meanwhile, the resulting innovations have increased crop yields by 22%, reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.
In her discussion of the importance of considering the “innovation ecosystem” in assessing the innovation effects of mergers in R&D-intensive industries, Joanna Shepherd noted that
In many consolidated firms, increases in efficiency and streamlining of operations free up money and resources to source external innovation. To improve their future revenue streams and market share, consolidated firms can be expected to use at least some of the extra resources to acquire external innovation. This increase in demand for externally-sourced innovation increases the prices paid for external assets, which, in turn, incentivizes more early-stage innovation in small firms and biotech companies. Aggregate innovation increases in the process!
The seed-biotechnology industry has been reliant on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as sources of new innovation. New SME startups (often spinoffs from university research) tend to specialize in commercial development of a new research tool, genetic trait, or both. Significant entry by SMEs into the seed-biotechnology sector began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a second wave of new entrants in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, exits have outnumbered entrants, and by 2008 just over 30 SMEs specializing in crop biotechnology were still active. The majority of the exits from the industry were the result of acquisition by larger firms. Of 27 crop biotechnology SMEs that were acquired between 1985 and 2009, 20 were acquired either directly by one of the Big 6 or by a company that itself was eventually acquired by a Big 6 company.
While there is more than one way to interpret these statistics (and they are often used by merger opponents, in fact, to lament increasing concentration), they are actually at least as consistent with an increase in innovation through collaboration (and acquisition) as with a decrease.
For what it’s worth, this is exactly how the startup community views the innovation ecosystem in the ag-biotech industry, as well. As the latest AgFunder AgTech Investing Report states:
The large agribusinesses understand that new innovation is key to their future, but the lack of M&A [by the largest agribusiness firms in 2016] highlighted their uncertainty about how to approach it. They will need to make more acquisitions to ensure entrepreneurs keep innovating and VCs keep investing.
Competition maximizes the potential for numerous collaborations. It also minimizes incentives to refuse to license, to impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or to tacitly “agree” not to compete…. All of this points to the importance of maintaining multiple, parallel R&D pipelines, a notion that was central to the EU’s decision in Dow-DuPont.
And yet collaboration and licensing have long been prevalent in this industry. Examples are legion, but here are just a few significant ones:
Monsanto’s “global licensing agreement for the use of the CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology in agriculture with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.”
Dow and Arcadia Biosciences’ “strategic collaboration to develop and commercialize new breakthrough yield traits and trait stacks in corn.”
Both large and small firms in the ag-biotech industry continually enter into new agreements like these. See, e.g., here and here for a (surely incomplete) list of deals in 2016 alone.
At the same time, across the industry, new entry has been rampant despite increased M&A activity among the largest firms. Recent years have seen venture financing in AgTech skyrocket — from $400 million in 2010 to almost $5 billion in 2015 — and hundreds of startups now enter the industry annually.
The pending mergers
Today’s pending mergers are consistent with this characterization of a dynamic market in which structure is being driven by incentives to innovate, rather than monopolize. As Michael Sykuta points out,
The US agriculture sector has been experiencing consolidation at all levels for decades, even as the global ag economy has been growing and becoming more diverse. Much of this consolidation has been driven by technological changes that created economies of scale, both at the farm level and beyond.
These deals aren’t fundamentally about growing production capacity, expanding geographic reach, or otherwise enhancing market share; rather, each is a fundamental restructuring of the way the companies do business, reflecting today’s shifting agricultural markets, and the advanced technology needed to respond to them.
Technological innovation is unpredictable, often serendipitous, and frequently transformative of the ways firms organize and conduct their businesses. A company formed to grow and sell hybrid seeds in the 1920s, for example, would either have had to evolve or fold by the end of the century. Firms today will need to develop (or purchase) new capabilities and adapt to changing technology, scientific knowledge, consumer demand, and socio-political forces. The pending mergers seemingly fit exactly this mold.
As Allen Gibby notes, these mergers are essentially vertical combinations of disparate, specialized pieces of an integrated whole. Take the proposed Bayer/Monsanto merger, for example. Bayer is primarily a chemicals company, developing advanced chemicals to protect crops and enhance crop growth. Monsanto, on the other hand, primarily develops seeds and “seed traits” — advanced characteristics that ensure the heartiness of the seeds, give them resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and speed their fertilization and growth. In order to translate the individual advances of each into higher yields, it is important that these two functions work successfully together. Doing so enhances crop growth and protection far beyond what, say, spreading manure can accomplish — or either firm could accomplish working on its own.
The key is that integrated knowledge is essential to making this process function. Developing seed traits to work well with (i.e., to withstand) certain pesticides requires deep knowledge of the pesticide’s chemical characteristics, and vice-versa. Processing huge amounts of data to determine when to apply chemical treatments or to predict a disease requires not only that the right information is collected, at the right time, but also that it is analyzed in light of the unique characteristics of the seeds and chemicals. Increased communications and data-sharing between manufacturers increases the likelihood that farmers will use the best products available in the right quantity and at the right time in each field.
Vertical integration solves bargaining and long-term planning problems by unifying the interests (and the management) of these functions. Instead of arm’s length negotiation, a merged Bayer/Monsanto, for example, may better maximize R&D of complicated Ag/chem products through fully integrated departments and merged areas of expertise. A merged company can also coordinate investment decisions (instead of waiting up to 10 years to see what the other company produces), avoid duplication of research, adapt to changing conditions (and the unanticipated course of research), pool intellectual property, and bolster internal scientific capability more efficiently. All told, the merged company projects spending about $16 billion on R&D over the next six years. Such coordinated investment will likely garner far more than either company could from separately spending even the same amount to develop new products.
Controlling an entire R&D process and pipeline of traits for resistance, chemical treatments, seeds, and digital complements would enable the merged firm to better ensure that each of these products works together to maximize crop yields, at the lowest cost, and at greater speed. Consider the advantages that Apple’s tightly-knit ecosystem of software and hardware provides to computer and device users. Such tight integration isn’t the only way to compete (think Android), but it has frequently proven to be a successful model, facilitating some functions (e.g., handoff between Macs and iPhones) that are difficult if not impossible in less-integrated systems. And, it bears noting, important elements of Apple’s innovation have come through acquisition….
Under most circumstances, profit–maximizing vertical–integration and merger decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view.
Other antitrust scholars are skeptical of vertical-integration fears because firms normally have strong incentives to deal with providers of complementary products. Bayer and Monsanto, for example, might benefit enormously from integration, but if competing seed producers seek out Bayer’s chemicals to develop competing products, there’s little reason for the merged firm to withhold them: Even if the new seeds out-compete Monsanto’s, Bayer/Monsanto can still profit from providing the crucial input. Its incentive doesn’t necessarily change if the merger goes through, and whatever “power” Bayer has as an input is a function of its scientific know-how, not its merger with Monsanto.
In other words, while some competitors could find a less hospitable business environment, consumers will likely suffer no apparent ill effects, and continue to receive the benefits of enhanced product development and increased productivity.
That’s what we’d expect from innovation-driven integration, and antitrust enforcers should be extremely careful before thwarting or circumscribing these mergers lest they end up thwarting, rather than promoting, consumer welfare.
Innovation is more and more in the spotlight as questions grow about concentration and declining competition in the U.S. economy. These questions come not only from advocates for more vigorous competition enforcement but also, increasingly, from those who adhere to the school of thought that consolidation tends to generate procompetitive efficiencies. On March 27th, the European Commission issued its decision approving the Dow-DuPont merger, subject to divestitures of DuPont’s global R&D agrichemical assets to preserve price and innovation competition.
Before we read too much into what the EU decision in Dow-DuPont means for merger review in the U.S., remember that agriculture differs markedly across regions. Europe uses very little genetically modified (or transgenic) seed, whereas row crop acreage in the U.S. is planted mostly with it. This cautions against drawing major implications of the EU’s decision across jurisdictions.
This post unpacks the mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer in the U.S. and what they mean for innovation competition.
A Troubled Landscape? Past Consolidation in Agricultural Biotechnology
If approved as proposed, the mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer would reduce the field of Big 6 agricultural biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms to the Big 4. This has raised concerns about potentially higher prices for traits, seeds, and agrichemicals, less choice, and less innovation. The two mergers would make a 3rd wave of consolidation in the industry since the mid-1980s, when transgenic technology first emerged. Past consolidation has materially affected the structure of the markets. This is particularly true in crop seed, where relative to other agricultural input sectors, the level of concentration (and increases in concentration) over time is the highest.
Growers and consumers feel the effects of these changes. Consumers pay attention to their choices at the grocery store, which have arguably diminished and for which they pay prices that have risen at rates in excess of inflation. And the states in which agriculture is a major economic activity worry about their growers and the prices they pay for transgenic seed, agrichemicals, and fertilizers. Farmers we spoke to note, for example, that weeds that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup have evolved over time, making it no longer as effective as it once was. Dependence on seed and chemical cropping systems with declining effectiveness (due to resistance) has been met by the industry with newer and more expensive traited seed and different agrichemicals. With consolidation, these alternatives have dwindled.
These are not frivolous concerns. Empirical evidence shows that “technology fees” on transgenic corn, soybean, and cotton seed make up a significant proportion of total seed costs. The USDA notes that the prices of farm inputs, led by crop seed, generally have risen faster over the last 20 years than the prices farmers have received for their commodities. Moreover, seed price increases have outpaced yield increases over time. And finally, the USDA has determined that increasing levels of concentration in agricultural input markets (including crop seed) are no longer generally associated with higher R&D or a permanent rise in R&D intensity.
Putting the Squeeze on Growers and Consumers
The “squeeze” on growers and consumers highlights the fact that ag-biotech innovation comes at an increasingly higher price – a price that many worry will increase if the Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer mergers go through. These concerns are magnified by the structure of the food supply chain where we see a lot of growers and consumers at either end but not a lot of competition in the middle. In the middle are the ag-biotech firms that innovate traits, seeds, and agrichemicals; food processors such as grain millers and meatpackers; food manufacturers; distributors; and retail grocers.
Almost every sector has been affected by significant consolidation over the last two decades, some of which has been blocked, but a lot of which has not. For example, U.S. antitrust enforcers stopped the mergers of beef packers JBS and National Beef and broadline food distributors Sysco and USFoods. But key mergers that many believed raised significant competitive concerns went through, including Tyson-Hillshire Brands (pork), ConAgra-Horizon Mills (flour), Monsanto-Delta & Pine Land (cotton), and Safeway-Albertsons (grocery).
Aside from concerns over price, quality, and innovation, consolidation in “hourglass” shaped supply chains raises other issues. For example, it is often motivated by incentives to bulk up to bargain more effectively vis-a-vis more powerful input suppliers or customers. As we have seen with health care providers and health insurers, mergers for this purpose can trigger further consolidation, creating a domino effect. A bottlenecked supply chain also decreases resiliency. With less competition, it is more exposed to exogenous shocks such as bioterrorism or food-borne disease. That’s a potential food security problem.
Innovation Competition and the Agricultural Biotechnology Mergers
The Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer merger proposals raise a number of issues. One is significant overlap in seed, likely to result in a duopoly in corn and soybeans and a dominant firm (Monsanto) in cotton. A second concern is that the mergers would create or enhance substantial vertical integration. Where some arguments for integration can carry weight in a Guidelines analysis, here there is economic evidence from soybeans and cotton indicating that prices tend to be higher under vertical integration than under cross-licensing arrangements.
Moreover, the “platforms” resulting from the mergers are likely to be engineered for the purpose of creating exclusive packages of traits, seeds, and agrichemicals that are less likely to interoperate with rival products. This could raise entry barriers for smaller innovators and reduce or cut off access to resources needed to compete effectively. Indeed, one farmer noted the constraint of being locked into a single traits-seeds-chemicals platform in a market with already limited competition “[I] can’t mix chemicals with other companies’ products to remedy Roundup resistance.”
A third concern raised by the mergers is the potential elimination of competition in innovation markets. The DOJ/FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (§6.4) note that a merger may diminish innovation competition through curtailment of “innovative efforts below the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.” This is especially the case when the merging firms are each other’s close competitors (e.g., as in the DOJ’s case against Applied Materials and Tokyo Electron). Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer are four of only six ag-biotech rivals.
Preserving Parallel Path R&D Pipelines
In contrast to arguments that the mergers would combine only complementary assets, the R&D pipelines for all four firms show overlaps in major areas of traits, seeds, and crop protection. This supports the notion that the R&D pipelines compete head-to-head for technology intended for commercialization in U.S. markets. Maintaining competition in R&D ensures incentives remain strong to continue existing and prospective product development programs. This is particularly true in industries like ag-biotech (and pharma) where R&D is risky, regulatory approvals take time, and commercial success depends on crop planning and switching costs.
Maintaining Pro-Competitive Incentives to Cross-License Traits
Perhaps more important is that innovation in ag-biotech depends on maintaining a field of rivals, each with strong pro-competitive incentives to collaborate to form new combined (i.e., “stacked”) trait profiles. Farmers benefit most when there are competing stacks to choose from. About 60% of all stacks on the market in 2009 were the result of joint venture cross-licensing collaborations across firms. And the traits innovated by Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer account for over 80% of traits in those stacks. That these companies are important innovators is apparent in GM Crop Database data for genetic corn, soybean and cotton “events” approved in the U.S. From 1991-2014, for example, the four companies account for a significant proportion of innovation in important genetic events.
Competition maximizes the potential for numerous collaborations. It also minimizes incentives to refuse to license, to impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or to tacitly “agree” not to compete. Such agreements could range from deciding which firms specialize in certain crops or traits, to devising market “rules,” such as cross-licensing terms and conditions. All of this points to the importance of maintaining multiple, parallel R&D pipelines, a notion that was central to the EU’s decision in Dow-DuPont.
Remedies or Not? Preserving Innovation Competition
The DOJ has permitted two major ag-biotech mergers in the last decade, Monsanto’s mergers with DeKalb (corn) and Delta & Pine Land (cotton). In crafting remedies in both cases, the DOJ recognized the importance of innovation markets by fashioning remedies that focused on licensing or divesting patented technologies. The proposed mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer appear to be a different animal. They would reduce an already small field of large, integrated competitors, raise competitive concerns that have more breadth and complexity than in previous mergers, and are superimposed on growing evidence that transgenic technology has come at a higher and higher a price.Add to this the fact that a viable buyer of any divestiture R&D asset would be difficult to find outside the Big 6. Such a buyer would need to be national, if not global, in scale and scope in order to compete effectively
Add to this the fact that a viable buyer of any divestiture R&D asset would be difficult to find outside the Big 6. Such a buyer would need to be national, if not global, in scale and scope in order to compete effectively post-merger. Lack of scale and scope in R&D, financing, marketing, and distribution would necessitate cobbling together a package of assets to create and potentially prop up a national competitor. While the EU managed to pull this off, it is unclear whether the fact pattern in the U.S. would support a similar outcome. What we do know is that past mergers in the food and agriculture space have squeezed growers and consumers. Unless adequately addressed, these mega-deals stand to squeeze them even more.
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.