Monopoly and Antitrust Policy

Figure 1. Oligopoly versus Competitors in the Marketplace Large corporations, such as the natural gas producer Kinder Morgan, can bring economies of scale to the marketplace. Will that benefit consumers? Or is more competition better for consumers? (Credit: modification of work by Derrick Coetzee/Flickr Creative Commons)


More than Cooking, Heating, and Cooling

If you live in the United States, there is a slightly better than 50–50 chance your home is heated and cooled using natural gas. You may even use natural gas for cooking. However, those uses are not the primary uses of natural gas in the U.S. In 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, home heating, cooling, and cooking accounted for just 18% of natural gas usage. What accounts for the rest? The greatest uses for natural gas are the generation of electric power (39%) and in industry (30%). Together these three uses for natural gas touch many areas of our lives, so why would there be any opposition to a merger of two natural gas firms? After all, a merger could mean increased efficiencies and reduced costs to people like you and me.

In October 2011, Kinder Morgan and El Paso Corporation, two natural gas firms, announced they were merging. The announcement stated the combined firm would link "nearly every major production region with markets," cut costs by "eliminating duplication in pipelines and other assets," and that "the savings could be passed on to consumers."

The objection? The $21.1 billion deal would give Kinder Morgan control of more than 80,000 miles of pipeline, making the new firm the third largest energy producer in North America. As the third largest energy producer, policymakers and the public wondered whether the cost savings really would be passed on to consumers, or would the merger give Kinder Morgan a strong oligopoly position in the natural gas marketplace?

That brings us to the central question this chapter poses: What should the balance be between corporate size and a large number of competitors in a marketplace? We will also consider what role the government should pay in this balancing act.

Introduction to Monopoly and Antitrust Policy

The previous chapters on the theory of the firm identified three important lessons: First, that competition, by providing consumers with lower prices and a variety of innovative products, is a good thing; second, that large-scale production can dramatically lower average costs; and third, that markets in the real world are rarely perfectly competitive. As a consequence, government policymakers must determine how much to intervene to balance the potential benefits of large-scale production against the potential loss of competition that can occur when businesses grow in size, especially through mergers.

For example, in 2006, AT&T and BellSouth, two telecommunications companies, wished to merge into a single firm. In the year before the merger, AT&T was the 121st largest company in the country when ranked by sales, with $44 billion in revenues and 190,000 employees. BellSouth was the 314th largest company in the country, with $21 billion in revenues and 63,000 employees.

The two companies argued that the merger would benefit consumers, who would be able to purchase better telecommunications services at a cheaper price because the newly created firm would be able to produce more efficiently by taking advantage of economies of scale and eliminating duplicate investments. However, a number of activist groups like the Consumer Federation of America and Public Knowledge expressed fears that the merger would reduce competition and lead to higher prices for consumers for decades to come. In December 2006, the federal government allowed the merger to proceed. By 2009, the new post-merger AT&T was the eighth largest company by revenues in the United States, and by that measure the largest telecommunications company in the world. Economists have spent—and will still spend—years trying to determine whether the merger of AT&T and BellSouth, as well as other smaller mergers of telecommunications companies at about this same time, helped consumers, hurt them, or did not make much difference.

This chapter discusses public policy issues about competition. How can economists and governments determine when mergers of large companies like AT&T and BellSouth should be allowed and when they should be blocked? The government also plays a role in policing anticompetitive behavior other than mergers, like prohibiting certain kinds of contracts that might restrict competition. In the case of natural monopoly, however, trying to preserve competition probably will not work very well, and so government will often resort to regulation of price and/or quantity of output. In recent decades, there has been a global trend toward less government intervention in the price and output decisions of businesses.

Corporate Mergers

A corporate merger occurs when two formerly separate firms combine to become a single firm. When one firm purchases another, it is called an acquisition. An acquisition may not look just like a merger, since the newly purchased firm may continue to be operated under its former company name. Mergers can also be lateral, where two firms of similar sizes combine to become one. However, both mergers and acquisitions lead to two formerly separate firms being under common ownership, and so they are commonly grouped together.

Regulations for Approving Mergers

Since a merger combines two firms into one, it can reduce the extent of competition between firms. Therefore, when two U.S. firms announce a merger or acquisition where at least one of the firms is above a minimum size of sales (a threshold that moves up gradually over time, and was at $70.9 million in 2013), or certain other conditions are met, they are required under law to notify the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The left-hand panel of Figure 2(a) shows the number of mergers submitted for review to the FTC each year from 1999 to 2012. Mergers were very high in the late 1990s, diminished in the early 2000s, and then rebounded somewhat in a cyclical fashion. The right-hand panel of Figure 2(b) shows the distribution of those mergers submitted for review in 2012 as measured by the size of the transaction. It is important to remember that this total leaves out many small mergers under $50 million, which only need to be reported in certain limited circumstances. About a quarter of all reported merger and acquisition transactions in 2012 exceeded $500 million, while about 11 percent exceeded $1 billion.

Figure 2. Number and Size of Mergers (a) The number of mergers in 1999 and 2000 were relatively high compared to the annual numbers seen from 2001–2012. While 2001 and 2007 saw a high number of mergers, these were still only about half the number of mergers in 1999 and 2000. (b) In 2012, the greatest number of mergers submitted for review was for transactions between $100 and $150 million.


The laws that give government the power to block certain mergers, and even in some cases to break up large firms into smaller ones, are called antitrust laws. Before a large merger happens, the antitrust regulators at the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice can allow the merger, prohibit it, or allow it if certain conditions are met. One common condition is that the merger will be allowed if the firm agrees to sell off certain parts. For example, in 2006, Johnson & Johnson bought the Pfizer’s “consumer health” division, which included well-known brands like Listerine mouthwash and Sudafed cold medicine. As a condition of allowing the merger, Johnson & Johnson was required to sell off six brands to other firms, including Zantac® heartburn relief medication, Cortizone anti-itch cream, and Balmex diaper rash medication, to preserve a greater degree of competition in these markets.

The U.S. government approves most proposed mergers. In a market-oriented economy, firms have the freedom to make their own choices. Private firms generally have the freedom to:

  • expand or reduce production
  • set the price they choose
  • open new factories or sales facilities or close them
  • hire workers or to lay them off
  • start selling new products or stop selling existing ones


If the owners want to acquire a firm or be acquired, or to merge with another firm, this decision is just one of many that firms are free to make. In these conditions, the managers of private firms will sometimes make mistakes. They may close down a factory which, it later turns out, would have been profitable. They may start selling a product that ends up losing money. A merger between two companies can sometimes lead to a clash of corporate personalities that makes both firms worse off. But the fundamental belief behind a market-oriented economy is that firms, not governments, are in the best position to know if their actions will lead to attracting more customers or producing more efficiently.

Indeed, government regulators agree that most mergers are beneficial to consumers. As the Federal Trade Commission has noted on its website (as of November, 2013): “Most mergers actually benefit competition and consumers by allowing firms to operate more efficiently.” At the same time, the FTC recognizes, “Some [mergers] are likely to lessen competition. That, in turn, can lead to higher prices, reduced availability of goods or services, lower quality of products, and less innovation. Indeed, some mergers create a concentrated market, while others enable a single firm to raise prices.” The challenge for the antitrust regulators at the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice is to figure out when a merger may hinder competition. This decision involves both numerical tools and some judgments that are difficult to quantify.

What is U.S. antitrust law?

In the closing decades of the 1800s, many industries in the U.S. economy were dominated by a single firm that had most of the sales for the entire country. Supporters of these large firms argued that they could take advantage of economies of scale and careful planning to provide consumers with products at low prices. However, critics pointed out that when competition was reduced, these firms were free to charge more and make permanently higher profits, and that without the goading of competition, it was not clear that they were as efficient or innovative as they could be.

In many cases, these large firms were organized in the legal form of a "trust," in which a group of formerly independent firms were consolidated together by mergers and purchases, and a group of "trustees" then ran the companies as if they were a single firm. Thus, when the U.S. government passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 to limit the power of these trusts, it was called an antitrust law. In an early demonstration of the law's power, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911 upheld the government's right to break up Standard Oil, which had controlled about 90% of the country's oil refining, into 34 independent firms, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron. In 1914, the Clayton Antitrust Act outlawed mergers and acquisitions (where the outcome would be to "substantially lessen competition" in an industry), price discrimination (where different customers are charged different prices for the same product), and tied sales (where purchase of one product commits the buyer to purchase some other product). Also in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was created to define more specifically what competition was unfair. In 1950, the Celler-Kefauver Act extended the Clayton Act by restricting vertical and conglomerate mergers. In the twenty-first century, the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice continue to enforce antitrust laws.

The Four-Firm Concentration Ratio

Regulators have struggled for decades to measure the degree of monopoly power in an industry. An early tool was the concentration ratio, which measures what share of the total sales in the industry are accounted for by the largest firms, typically the top four to eight firms. For an explanation of how high market concentrations can create inefficiencies in an economy, refer to Monopoly.

Say that the market for replacing broken automobile windshields in a certain city has 18 firms with the market shares shown in Table 1, where the market share is each firm’s proportion of total sales in that market. The four-firm concentration ratio is calculated by adding the market shares of the four largest firms: in this case, 16 + 10 + 8 + 6 = 40. This concentration ratio would not be considered especially high, because the largest four firms have less than half the market.

Table 1. Calculating Concentration Ratios from Market Shares
If the market shares in the market for replacing automobile windshields are:
Smooth as Glass Repair Company 16% of the market
The Auto Glass Doctor Company 10% of the market
Your Car Shield Company 8% of the market
Seven firms that each have 6% of the market 42% of the market, combined
Eight firms that each have 3% of the market 24% of the market, combined
Then the four-firm concentration ratio is 16 + 10 + 8 + 6 =40
The concentration ratio approach can help to clarify some of the fuzziness over deciding when a merger might affect competition. For instance, if two of the smallest firms in the hypothetical market for repairing automobile windshields merged, the four-firm concentration ratio would not change—which implies that there is not much worry that the degree of competition in the market has notably diminished. However, if the top two firms merged, then the four-firm concentration ratio would become 46 (that is, 26 + 8 + 6 + 6). While this concentration ratio is modestly higher, the four-firm concentration ratio would still be less than half, so such a proposed merger might barely raise an eyebrow among antitrust regulators.

Link It Up

Visit this website to read an article about Google’s run-in with the FTC.

The Herfindahl-Hirshman Index

A four-firm concentration ratio is a simple tool, which may reveal only part of the story. For example, consider two industries that both have a four-firm concentration ratio of 80. However, in one industry five firms each control 20% of the market, while in the other industry, the top firm holds 77% of the market and all the other firms have 1% each. Although the four-firm concentration ratios are identical, it would be reasonable to worry more about the extent of competition in the second case—where the largest firm is nearly a monopoly—than in the first.

Another approach to measuring industry concentration that can distinguish between these two cases is called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). The HHI, as it is often called, is calculated by summing the squares of the market share of each firm in the industry.

Calculating HHI

Step 1. Calculate the HHI for a monopoly with a market share of 100%. Because there is only one firm, it has 100% market share. The HHI is 1002 = 10,000.

Step 2. For an extremely competitive industry, with dozens or hundreds of extremely small competitors, the value of the HHI might drop as low as 100 or even less. Calculate the HHI for an industry with 100 firms that each have 1% of the market. In this case, the HHI is 100(12) = 100.

Step 3. Calculate the HHI for the industry shown in Table 1. In this case, the HHI is 162 + 102 + 82 + 7(62) + 8(32) = 744.

Step 4. Note that the HHI gives greater weight to large firms.

Step 5. Consider the example given earlier, comparing one industry where five firms each have 20% of the market with an industry where one firm has 77% and the other 23 firms have 1% each. The two industries have the same four-firm concentration ratio of 80. But the HHI for the first industry is 5(202) = 2,000, while the HHI for the second industry is much higher at 772 + 23(12) = 5,952.

Step 6. Note that the near-monopolist in the second industry drives up the HHI measure of industrial concentration.

Step 7. Review Table 2 which gives some examples of the four-firm concentration ratio and the HHI in various U.S. industries in 2009. (You can find market share data from multiple industry sources. Data in the table are from: Verizon (for wireless), The Wall Street Journal (for automobiles), IDC Worldwide (for computers) and the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (for airlines).)

Table 2. Examples of Concentration Ratios and HHIs in the U.S. Economy, 2009
U.S. Industry Four-Firm Ratio HHI
Wireless 91 2,311
Largest five: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, MetroPCS
Automobiles 63 1,121
Largest five: GM, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Chrysler
Computers 74 1,737
Largest five: HP, Dell, Acer, Apple, Toshiba
Airlines 44 536
Largest five: Southwest, American, Delta, United, U.S. Airways
In the 1980s, the FTC followed these guidelines: If a merger would result in an HHI of less than 1,000, the FTC would probably approve it. If a merger would result in an HHI of more than 1,800, the FTC would probably challenge it. If a merger would result in an HHI between 1,000 and 1,800, then the FTC would scrutinize the plan and make a case-by-case decision. However, in the last several decades, the antitrust enforcement authorities have moved away from relying as heavily on measures of concentration ratios and HHIs to determine whether a merger will be allowed, and instead carried out more case-by-case analysis on the extent of competition in different industries.

New Directions for Antitrust

Both the four-firm concentration ratio and the Herfindahl-Hirschman index share some weaknesses. First, they begin from the assumption that the “market” under discussion is well-defined, and the only question is measuring how sales are divided in that market. Second, they are based on an implicit assumption that competitive conditions across industries are similar enough that a broad measure of concentration in the market is enough to make a decision about the effects of a merger. These assumptions, however, are not always correct. In response to these two problems, the antitrust regulators have been changing their approach in the last decade or two.

Defining a market is often controversial. For example, Microsoft in the early 2000s had a dominant share of the software for computer operating systems. However, in the total market for all computer software and services, including everything from games to scientific programs, the Microsoft share was only about 16% in 2000. A narrowly defined market will tend to make concentration appear higher, while a broadly defined market will tend to make it appear smaller.

There are two especially important shifts affecting how markets are defined in recent decades: one centers on technology and the other centers on globalization. In addition, these two shifts are interconnected. With the vast improvement in communications technologies, including the development of the Internet, a consumer can order books or pet supplies from all over the country or the world. As a result, the degree of competition many local retail businesses face has increased. The same effect may operate even more strongly in markets for business supplies, where so-called “business-to-business” websites can allow buyers and suppliers from anywhere in the world to find each other.

Globalization has changed the boundaries of markets. As recently as the 1970s, it was common for measurements of concentration ratios and HHIs to stop at national borders. Now, many industries find that their competition comes from the global market. A few decades ago, three companies, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, dominated the U.S. auto market. By 2007, however, these three firms were making less than half of U.S. auto sales, and facing competition from well-known car manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and Mazda. When HHIs are calculated with a global perspective, concentration in most major industries—including cars—is lower than in a purely domestic context.

Because attempting to define a particular market can be difficult and controversial, the Federal Trade Commission has begun to look less at market share and more at the data on actual competition between businesses. For example, in February 2007, Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Market announced that they wished to merge. These were the two largest companies in the market that the government defined as “premium natural and organic supermarket chains.” However, one could also argue that they were two relatively small companies in the broader market for all stores that sell groceries or specialty food products.

Rather than relying on a market definition, the government antitrust regulators looked at detailed evidence on profits and prices for specific stores in different cities, both before and after other competitive stores entered or exited. Based on that evidence, the Federal Trade Commission decided to block the merger. After two years of legal battles, the merger was eventually allowed in 2009 under the conditions that Whole Foods sell off the Wild Oats brand name and a number of individual stores, to preserve competition in certain local markets.

This new approach to antitrust regulation involves detailed analysis of specific markets and companies, instead of defining a market and counting up total sales. A common starting point is for antitrust regulators to use statistical tools and real-world evidence to estimate the demand curves and supply curves faced by the firms that are proposing the merger. A second step is to specify how competition occurs in this specific industry. Some possibilities include competing to cut prices, to raise output, to build a brand name through advertising, and to build a reputation for good service or high quality. With these pieces of the puzzle in place, it is then possible to build a statistical model that estimates the likely outcome for consumers if the two firms are allowed to merge. Of course, these models do require some degree of subjective judgment, and so they can become the subject of legal disputes between the antitrust authorities and the companies that wish to merge.

Regulating Anticompetitive Behavior

The U.S. antitrust laws reach beyond blocking mergers that would reduce competition to include a wide array of anticompetitive practices. For example, it is illegal for competitors to form a cartel to collude to make pricing and output decisions, as if they were a monopoly firm. The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice prohibit firms from agreeing to fix prices or output, rigging bids, or sharing or dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers, territories, or lines of commerce.

In the late 1990s, for example, the antitrust regulators prosecuted an international cartel of vitamin manufacturers, including the Swiss firm Hoffman-La Roche, the German firm BASF, and the French firm Rhone-Poulenc. These firms reached agreements on how much to produce, how much to charge, and which firm would sell to which customers. The high-priced vitamins were then bought by firms like General Mills, Kellogg, Purina-Mills, and Proctor and Gamble, which pushed up the prices more. Hoffman-La Roche pleaded guilty in May 1999 and agreed both to pay a fine of $500 million and to have at least one top executive serve four months of jail time.

Under U.S. antitrust laws, monopoly itself is not illegal. If a firm has a monopoly because of a newly patented invention, for example, the law explicitly allows a firm to earn higher-than-normal profits for a time as a reward for innovation. If a firm achieves a large share of the market by producing a better product at a lower price, such behavior is not prohibited by antitrust law.

Restrictive Practices

Antitrust law includes rules against restrictive practices—practices that do not involve outright agreements to raise price or to reduce the quantity produced, but that might have the effect of reducing competition. Antitrust cases involving restrictive practices are often controversial, because they delve into specific contracts or agreements between firms that are allowed in some cases but not in others.

For example, if a product manufacturer is selling to a group of dealers who then sell to the general public it is illegal for the manufacturer to demand a minimum resale price maintenance agreement, which would require the dealers to sell for at least a certain minimum price. A minimum price contract is illegal because it would restrict competition among dealers. However, the manufacturer is legally allowed to “suggest” minimum prices and to stop selling to dealers who regularly undercut the suggested price. If you think this rule sounds like a fairly subtle distinction, you are right.

An exclusive dealing agreement between a manufacturer and a dealer can be legal or illegal. It is legal if the purpose of the contract is to encourage competition between dealers. For example, it is legal for the Ford Motor Company to sell its cars to only Ford dealers, for General Motors to sell to only GM dealers, and so on. However, exclusive deals may also limit competition. If one large retailer obtained the exclusive rights to be the sole distributor of televisions, computers, and audio equipment made by a number of companies, then this exclusive contract would have an anticompetitive effect on other retailers.

Tie-in sales happen when a customer is allowed to buy one product only if the customer also buys a second product. Tie-in sales may sometimes be illegal. Suppose that to purchase a popular DVD, the store required that you also purchase two other DVDs of your choice. That would be a violation of the tie-in sales regulations. A related, but not identical, concept is called bundling, where two or more products are sold as one. For example, a cell phone that takes pictures forces a customer to buy a camera along with the phone.

In some cases, tie-ins and bundling can be viewed as anticompetitive. However, in other cases they may be legal and even common. It is common for people to purchase season tickets to a sports team or a set of concerts so that they can be guaranteed tickets to the few contests or shows that are most popular and likely to sell out. Computer software manufacturers may often bundle together a number of different programs, even when the buyer wants only a few of the programs. Think about the software that is included in a new computer purchase, for example.

Predatory pricing occurs when the existing firm (or firms) reacts to a new firm by dropping prices very low, until the new firm is driven out of the market, at which point the existing firm raises prices again. This pattern of pricing is aimed at deterring the entry of new firms into the market. But in practice, it can be hard to figure out when pricing should be considered predatory. Say that American Airlines is flying between two cities, and a new airline starts flying between the same two cities, at a lower price. If American Airlines cuts its price to match the new entrant, is this predatory pricing? Or is it just market competition at work? A commonly proposed rule is that if a firm is selling for less than its average variable cost—that is, at a price where it should be shutting down—then there is evidence for predatory pricing. But calculating in the real world what costs are variable and what costs are fixed is often not obvious, either.

The Microsoft antitrust case embodies many of these gray areas in restrictive practices.

Did Microsoft® engage in anticompetitive and restrictive practices?

The most famous restrictive practices case of recent years was a series of lawsuits by the U.S. government against Microsoft—lawsuits that were encouraged by some of Microsoft's competitors. All sides admitted that Microsoft's Windows program had a near-monopoly position in the market for the software used in general computer operating systems. All sides agreed that the software had many satisfied customers. All sides agreed that the capabilities of computer software that was compatible with Windows—both software produced by Microsoft and that produced by other companies—had expanded dramatically in the 1990s. Having a monopoly or a near-monopoly is not necessarily illegal in and of itself, but in cases where one company controls a great deal of the market, antitrust regulators look at any allegations of restrictive practices with special care.

The antitrust regulators argued that Microsoft had gone beyond profiting from its software innovations and its dominant position in the software market for operating systems, and had tried to use its market power in operating systems software to take over other parts of the software industry. For example, the government argued that Microsoft had engaged in an anticompetitive form of exclusive dealing by threatening computer makers that, if they did not leave another firm's software off their machines (specifically, Netscape's Internet browser), then Microsoft would not sell them its operating system software. Microsoft was accused by the government antitrust regulators of tying together its Windows operating software, where it had a monopoly, with its Internet Explorer browser software, where it did not have a monopoly, and thus using this bundling as an anticompetitive tool. Microsoft was also accused of a form of predatory pricing; namely, giving away certain additional software products for free as part of Windows, as a way of driving out the competition from other makers of software.

In April 2000, a federal court held that Microsoft's behavior had crossed the line into unfair competition, and recommended that the company be broken into two competing firms. However, that penalty was overturned on appeal, and in November 2002 Microsoft reached a settlement with the government that it would end its restrictive practices.

The concept of restrictive practices is continually evolving, as firms seek new ways to earn profits and government regulators define what is permissible and what is not. A situation where the law is evolving and changing is always somewhat troublesome, since laws are most useful and fair when firms know what they are in advance. In addition, since the law is open to interpretation, competitors who are losing out in the market can accuse successful firms of anticompetitive restrictive practices, and try to win through government regulation what they have failed to accomplish in the market. Officials at the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice are, of course, aware of these issues, but there is no easy way to resolve them.

Regulating Natural Monopolies

Most true monopolies today in the U.S. are regulated, natural monopolies. A natural monopoly poses a difficult challenge for competition policy, because the structure of costs and demand seems to make competition unlikely or costly. A natural monopoly arises when average costs are declining over the range of production that satisfies market demand. This typically happens when fixed costs are large relative to variable costs. As a result, one firm is able to supply the total quantity demanded in the market at lower cost than two or more firms—so splitting up the natural monopoly would raise the average cost of production and force customers to pay more.

Public utilities, the companies that have traditionally provided water and electrical service across much of the United States, are leading examples of natural monopoly. It would make little sense to argue that a local water company should be broken up into several competing companies, each with its own separate set of pipes and water supplies. Installing four or five identical sets of pipes under a city, one for each water company, so that each household could choose its own water provider, would be terribly costly. The same argument applies to the idea of having many competing companies for delivering electricity to homes, each with its own set of wires. Before the advent of wireless phones, the argument also applied to the idea of many different phone companies, each with its own set of phone wires running through the neighborhood.

The Choices in Regulating a Natural Monopoly

So what then is the appropriate competition policy for a natural monopoly? Figure 3 illustrates the case of natural monopoly, with a market demand curve that cuts through the downward-sloping portion of the average cost curve. Points A, B, C, and F illustrate four of the main choices for regulation. Table 3 outlines the regulatory choices for dealing with a natural monopoly.

Figure 3. Regulatory Choices in Dealing with Natural Monopoly A natural monopoly will maximize profits by producing at the quantity where marginal revenue (MR) equals marginal costs (MC) and by then looking to the market demand curve to see what price to charge for this quantity. This monopoly will produce at point A, with a quantity of 4 and a price of 9.3. If antitrust regulators split this company exactly in half, then each half would produce at point B, with average costs of 9.75 and output of 2. The regulators might require the firm to produce where marginal cost crosses the market demand curve at point C. However, if the firm is required to produce at a quantity of 8 and sell at a price of 3.5, the firm will suffer from losses. The most likely choice is point F, where the firm is required to produce a quantity of 6 and charge a price of 6.5.


Table 3. Regulatory Choices in Dealing with Natural Monopoly
Quantity Price Total Revenue* Marginal Revenue Total Cost Marginal Cost Average Cost
1 14.7 14.7 - 11.0 - 11.00
2 12.4 24.7 10.0 19.5 8.5 9.75
3 10.6 31.7 7.0 25.5 6.0 8.50
4 9.3 37.2 5.5 31.0 5.5 7.75
5 8.0 40.0 2.8 35.0 4.0 7.00
6 6.5 39.0 –1.0 39.0 4.0 6.50
7 5.0 35.0 –4.0 42.0 3.0 6.00
8 3.5 28.0 –7.0 45.5 3.5 5.70
9 2.0 18.0 –10.0 49.5 4.0 5.5
*Total Revenue is given by multiplying price and quantity. However, some of the price values in this table have been rounded for ease of presentation.
The first possibility is to leave the natural monopoly alone. In this case, the monopoly will follow its normal approach to maximizing profits. It determines the quantity where MR = MC, which happens at point P at a quantity of 4. The firm then looks to point A on the demand curve to find that it can charge a price of 9.3 for that profit-maximizing quantity. Since the price is above the average cost curve, the natural monopoly would earn economic profits.

A second outcome arises if antitrust authorities decide to divide the company, so that the new firms can compete. As a simple example, imagine that the company is cut in half. Thus, instead of one large firm producing a quantity of 4, two half-size firms each produce a quantity of 2. Because of the declining average cost curve (AC), the average cost of production for each of the half-size companies each producing 2, as shown at point B, would be 9.75, while the average cost of production for a larger firm producing 4 would only be 7.75. Thus, the economy would become less productively efficient, since the good is being produced at a higher average cost. In a situation with a downward-sloping average cost curve, two smaller firms will always have higher average costs of production than one larger firm for any quantity of total output. In addition, the antitrust authorities must worry that splitting the natural monopoly into pieces may be only the start of their problems. If one of the two firms grows larger than the other, it will have lower average costs and may be able to drive its competitor out of the market. Alternatively, two firms in a market may discover subtle ways of coordinating their behavior and keeping prices high. Either way, the result will not be the greater competition that was desired.

A third alternative is that regulators may decide to set prices and quantities produced for this industry. The regulators will try to choose a point along the market demand curve that benefits both consumers and the broader social interest. Point C illustrates one tempting choice: the regulator requires that the firm produce the quantity of output where marginal cost crosses the demand curve at an output of 8, and charge the price of 3.5, which is equal to marginal cost at that point. This rule is appealing because it requires price to be set equal to marginal cost, which is what would occur in a perfectly competitive market, and it would assure consumers a higher quantity and lower price than at the monopoly choice A. In fact, efficient allocation of resources would occur at point C, since the value to the consumers of the last unit bought and sold in this market is equal to the marginal cost of producing it.

Attempting to bring about point C through force of regulation, however, runs into a severe difficulty. At point C, with an output of 8, a price of 3.5 is below the average cost of production, which is 5.7, and so if the firm charges a price of 3.5, it will be suffering losses. Unless the regulators or the government offer the firm an ongoing public subsidy (and there are numerous political problems with that option), the firm will lose money and go out of business.

Perhaps the most plausible option for the regulator is point F; that is, to set the price where AC crosses the demand curve at an output of 6 and a price of 6.5. This plan makes some sense at an intuitive level: let the natural monopoly charge enough to cover its average costs and earn a normal rate of profit, so that it can continue operating, but prevent the firm from raising prices and earning abnormally high monopoly profits, as it would at the monopoly choice A. Of course, determining this level of output and price with the political pressures, time constraints, and limited information of the real world is much harder than identifying the point on a graph. For more on the problems that can arise from a centrally determined price.

Cost-Plus versus Price Cap Regulation

Indeed, regulators of public utilities for many decades followed the general approach of attempting to choose a point like F in Figure 3. They calculated the average cost of production for the water or electricity companies, added in an amount for the normal rate of profit the firm should expect to earn, and set the price for consumers accordingly. This method was known as cost-plus regulation.

Cost-plus regulation raises difficulties of its own. If producers are reimbursed for their costs, plus a bit more, then at a minimum, producers have less reason to be concerned with high costs—because they can just pass them along in higher prices. Worse, firms under cost-plus regulation even have an incentive to generate high costs by building huge factories or employing lots of staff, because what they can charge is linked to the costs they incur.

Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, some regulators of public utilities began to use price cap regulation, where the regulator sets a price that the firm can charge over the next few years. A common pattern was to require a price that declined slightly over time. If the firm can find ways of reducing its costs more quickly than the price caps, it can make a high level of profits. However, if the firm cannot keep up with the price caps or suffers bad luck in the market, it may suffer losses. A few years down the road, the regulators will then set a new series of price caps based on the firm’s performance.

Price cap regulation requires delicacy. It will not work if the price regulators set the price cap unrealistically low. It may not work if the market changes dramatically so that the firm is doomed to incurring losses no matter what it does—say, if energy prices rise dramatically on world markets, then the company selling natural gas or heating oil to homes may not be able to meet price caps that seemed reasonable a year or two ago. But if the regulators compare the prices with producers of the same good in other areas, they can, in effect, pressure a natural monopoly in one area to compete with the prices being charged in other areas. Moreover, the possibility of earning greater profits or experiencing losses—instead of having an average rate of profit locked in every year by cost-plus regulation—can provide the natural monopoly with incentives for efficiency and innovation.

With natural monopoly, market competition is unlikely to take root, so if consumers are not to suffer the high prices and restricted output of an unrestricted monopoly, government regulation will need to play a role. In attempting to design a system of price cap regulation with flexibility and incentive, government regulators do not have an easy task.

The Great Deregulation Experiment

Governments at all levels across the United States have regulated prices in a wide range of industries. In some cases, like water and electricity that have natural monopoly characteristics, there is some room in economic theory for such regulation. But once politicians are given a basis to intervene in markets and to choose prices and quantities, it is hard to know where to stop.

Doubts about Regulation of Prices and Quantities

Beginning in the 1970s, it became clear to policymakers of all political leanings that the existing price regulation was not working well. The United States carried out a great policy experiment—deregulation—removing government controls over prices and quantities produced in airlines, railroads, trucking, intercity bus travel, natural gas, and bank interest rates.

What are the results of airline deregulation?

Why did the pendulum swing in favor of deregulation? Consider the airline industry. In the early days of air travel, no airline could make a profit just by flying passengers. Airlines needed something else to carry and the Postal Service provided that something with airmail. And so the first U.S. government regulation of the airline industry happened through the Postal Service, when in 1926 the Postmaster General began giving airlines permission to fly certain routes based on the needs of mail delivery—and the airlines took some passengers along for the ride. In 1934, the Postmaster General was charged by the antitrust authorities with colluding with the major airlines of that day to monopolize the nation's airways. In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was created to regulate airfares and routes instead. For 40 years, from 1938 to 1978, the CAB approved all fares, controlled all entry and exit, and specified which airlines could fly which routes. There was zero entry of new airlines on the main routes across the country for 40 years, because the CAB did not think it was necessary.

In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act took the government out of the business of determining airfares and schedules. The new law shook up the industry. Famous old airlines like Pan American, Eastern, and Braniff went bankrupt and disappeared. Some new airlines like People Express were created—and then vanished.

The greater competition from deregulation reduced airfares by about one-third over the next two decades, saving consumers billions of dollars a year. The average flight used to take off with just half its seats full; now it is two-thirds full, which is far more efficient. Airlines have also developed hub-and-spoke systems, where planes all fly into a central hub city at a certain time and then depart. As a result, one can fly between any of the spoke cities with just one connection—and there is greater service to more cities than before deregulation. With lower fares and more service, the number of air passengers doubled from the late 1970s to the start of the 2000s—an increase that, in turn, doubled the number of jobs in the airline industry. Meanwhile, with the watchful oversight of government safety inspectors, commercial air travel has continued to get safer over time.

The U.S. airline industry is far from perfect. For example, a string of mergers in recent years has raised concerns over how competition might be compromised.

One difficulty with government price regulation is what economists call regulatory capture, in which the firms supposedly being regulated end up playing a large role in setting the regulations that they will follow. When the airline industry was being regulated, for example, it suggested appointees to the regulatory board, sent lobbyists to argue with the board, provided most of the information on which the board made decisions, and offered well-paid jobs to at least some of the people leaving the board. In this situation, consumers can easily end up being not very well represented by the regulators. The result of regulatory capture is that government price regulation can often become a way for existing competitors to work together to reduce output, keep prices high, and limit competition.

The Effects of Deregulation

Deregulation, both of airlines and of other industries, has its negatives. The greater pressure of competition led to entry and exit. When firms went bankrupt or contracted substantially in size, they laid off workers who had to find other jobs. Market competition is, after all, a full-contact sport.

A number of major accounting scandals involving prominent corporations such as Enron, Tyco International, and WorldCom led to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. Sarbanes-Oxley was designed to increase confidence in financial information provided by public corporations to protect investors from accounting fraud.

The Great Recession which began in late 2007 and which the U.S. economy is still struggling to recover from was caused at least in part by a global financial crisis, which began in the United States. The key component of the crisis was the creation and subsequent failure of several types of unregulated financial assets, such as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs, a type of mortgage-backed security), and credit default swaps (CDSs, insurance contracts on assets like CMOs that provided a payoff even if the holder of the CDS did not own the CMO). Many of these assets were rated very safe by private credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poors, Moody’s, and Fitch.

The collapse of the markets for these assets precipitated the financial crisis and led to the failure of Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, numerous large commercial banks, such as Wachovia, and even the Federal National Mortgage Corporation (Fannie Mae), which had to be nationalized—that is, taken over by the federal government. One response to the financial crisis was the Dodd-Frank Act, which attempted major reforms of the financial system. The legislation’s purpose, as noted on dodd-frank.com is:

To promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end “too big to fail,” to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, [and] to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices. . .
We will explore the financial crisis and the Great Recession in more detail in the macroeconomic chapters of this book, but for now it should be clear that many Americans have grown disenchanted with deregulation, at least of financial markets.

All market-based economies operate against a background of laws and regulations, including laws about enforcing contracts, collecting taxes, and protecting health and the environment. The government policies discussed in this chapter—like blocking certain anticompetitive mergers, ending restrictive practices, imposing price cap regulation on natural monopolies, and deregulation—demonstrate the role of government to strengthen the incentives that come with a greater degree of competition.

More than Cooking, Heating, and Cooling

What did the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decide on the Kinder Morgan / El Paso Corporation merger? After careful examination, federal officials decided there was only one area of significant overlap that might provide the merged firm with strong market power. The FTC approved the merger, provided Kinder Morgan divest itself of the overlap area. Tallgrass purchased Kinder Morgan Interstate Gas Transmission, Trailblazer Pipeline Co. LLC, two processing facilities in Wyoming, and Kinder Morgan's 50 percent interest in the Rockies Express Pipeline to meet the FTC requirements. The FTC was attempting to strike a balance between potential cost reductions resulting from economies of scale and concentration of market power.

Did the price of natural gas decrease? Yes, rather significantly. In 2010, the wellhead price of natural gas was $4.48 per thousand cubic foot; in 2012 the price had fallen to just $2.66. Was the merger responsible for the large drop in price? The answer is uncertain. The larger contributor to the sharp drop in price was the overall increase in the supply of natural gas. More and more natural gas was able to be recovered by fracturing shale deposits, a process called fracking. Fracking, which is controversial for environmental reasons, enabled the recovery of known reserves of natural gas that previously were not economically feasible to tap. Kinder Morgan's control of 80,000-plus miles of pipeline likely made moving the gas from wellheads to end users smoother and allowed for an even greater benefit from the increased supply.

Glossary

acquisition when one firm purchases another

antitrust laws laws that give government the power to block certain mergers, and even in some cases to break up large firms into smaller ones

bundling a situation in which multiple products are sold as one

concentration ratio an early tool to measure the degree of monopoly power in an industry; measures what share of the total sales in the industry are accounted for by the largest firms, typically the top four to eight firms

cost-plus regulation when regulators permit a regulated firm to cover its costs and to make a normal level of profit

exclusive dealing an agreement that a dealer will sell only products from one manufacturer

four-firm concentration ratio the percentage of the total sales in the industry that are accounted for by the largest four firms

Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) approach to measuring market concentration by adding the square of the market share of each firm in the industry

market share the percentage of total sales in the market

merger when two formerly separate firms combine to become a single firm

minimum resale price maintenance agreement an agreement that requires a dealer who buys from a manufacturer to sell for at least a certain minimum price

price cap regulation when the regulator sets a price that a firm cannot exceed over the next few years

regulatory capture when the firms supposedly being regulated end up playing a large role in setting the regulations that they will follow and as a result, they “capture” the people doing the regulation, usually through the promise of a job in that “regulated” industry once their term in government has ended.

restrictive practices practices that reduce competition but that do not involve outright agreements between firms to raise prices or to reduce the quantity produced

tie-in sales a situation where a customer is allowed to buy one product only if the customer also buys another product

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