Is a lack of competition causing inequality in Australia?

When I started studying economics I was 17. Young enough to be arrogantly skeptical of everything I heard. One of the many questions and concerns I had as I chomped through the stale bread of first-year economics was why we would believe that firms in competitive markets would put all their efforts into producing at lowest cost, when they could instead put their efforts into deterring competitors.

What was assumed away in the basic competitive market theory we were learning was that firms will fight hard to protect their space. Few firms operate in the unrestrained markets where they live and die red in tooth and claw. Far more operate in spaces where competitors are kept at bay, by owning a key resource (Telstra, Rio Tinto) or by making sure regulations operate in their favour (Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank). Their operations are run with an eye on costs, sure, but also with an eye on the competition.

Competition matters. Western countries run relatively unfettered capitalism because the prediction of competitive market theory is that capitalism will deliver more happiness, more efficiently. But competition is a key input to that theory. If competition falls short, we must question whether relatively unfettered markets are serving us best.

Some new research from the United States shines an important light on competition.

How America Became Uncompetitive and Unequal is a Washington Post op-ed that summarises a great body of work from non-partisan think tank the New America Foundation. It outlines how mergers and market power see prices pushed up and looks at how firms use their power to suppress workers’ wages.

“While dwindling competition hurts the vast majority of Americans, for the well-off it often proves a path to huge payoffs. Indeed, it has even become a basic formula for successful investing. Goldman Sachs in February published a research memo advising investors to seek out “oligopolistic market structure[s]” in which “a smaller set of relevant peers faces lower competitive intensity, greater stickiness and pricing power with customers due to reduced choice, scale cost benefits including stronger leverage over suppliers, and higher barriers to new entrants all at once.” Goldman went on to highlight a few markets, including beer, where dramatic consolidation over the past decade has enabled dominant companies to use their market power to extract more from suppliers and consumers — and thereby enrich investors.”

In Australia, competition policy has flickered through the news like a shooting star in the last few weeks, with a warning from ACCC head Rod Sims that privatisations are creating uncompetitive scenarios; and a Wikileak that suggests Australia’s financial sector would be exposed to competition if Australia signs a new Trade in Service Agreement. But we should wish on that shooting star, because competition is more important than ever.

“The lack of competition in America inhibits dynamism and risk taking. A New America Foundation study shows that the number of job-creating businesses that Americans start every year fell by 53 percent between 1977 and 2010, when measured as a proportion of the U.S. working-age population.”

I’ve dived into the ABS figures to see what Australia looks like on the same issue. We don’t have as much historical data as America, but the numbers are just as striking. While Australia is home to ever more businesses, the number of businesses per person has fallen from nearly ten to closer to nine.

Business numbers

The explanation for this is in the willingness of Australians to open businesses. A decade ago, 900 new businesses were registered every day. Now it is under 700.

Bu
Bu

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If people can have employment without risking their house on a business idea, then perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps something has changed in the economies of scale that mean our economy runs on fewer bigger businesses now.

But the coincidence of rising inequality(1, 2) and higher market concentration makes the application of vigorous competition a huge priority for Australia. If rising inequality is explained by markets becoming more cosy than competitive, that is something we should act on as a matter of urgency.

Competition is something both left and right should be able to get behind. The only people who support market power are plutocrats who grow fat on the cream churned up by insufficiently competitive systems.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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