Showing posts with label telecommunications. Show all posts
Showing posts with label telecommunications. Show all posts

Friday, April 15, 2022

Digital revolution is leaving economists scratching their heads

There should be a law against holding election campaigns while people are trying to enjoy their Easter break. So let’s forget politics and think about the strange ways the economy is changing as the old industrial era gives way to the post-industrial, digital era.

The revolution in information and communications technology is working its way through the economy, changing the way it works. The markets for digital products now work very differently from the markets for conventional products.

So a growing part of the economy consists of markets that don’t fit the assumptions economists make in their basic model of markets, as Diane Coyle, an economics professor at Cambridge University, explains in her book, Cogs and Monsters.

And the way we measure the industrial economy – using the “national accounts” and gross domestic product – isn’t designed to capture the new range of benefits that flow from digital markets.

Starting at the beginning, the great attraction of the capitalist, market economy is its almost magical ability to increase its productivity – its ability to produce an increased quantity of goods and services from an unchanged quantity of raw materials, capital equipment and human labour.

It’s this increased productivity – not so much the increase in resources used – that explains most of the improvement in our standard of living over the past two centuries.

Where did the greater productivity come from? From advances in technology. From bigger and better machines, and more efficiently organised factories, mines, farms, offices and shops, not to mention better educated and skilled workers.

Particularly in the past 70 years, we benefited hugely from the advent of mass-produced consumer goods on production lines. Economists call this “economies of scale” – the bigger the factory and the more you could produce, the lower the cost of each item.

Although each extra unit produced added marginally to raw material and labour costs, the more you produced, the more the “fixed cost” of building and equipping the factory was averaged over a larger number of items, thus reducing the “average cost” per item.

Decades of exploiting the benefit of economies of scale explain why so many of our industries are dominated by just a few big firms.

But the new economy of digital production has put scale economies on steroids. Coyle says software – and movies, news mastheads and much, much else – is costly to write (high fixed cost) but virtually costless to reproduce and distribute (no marginal cost).

So, production of digital products involves “increasing returns to scale”, which is good news for both producers and consumers - everyone except economists because their standard model assumes returns are either constant or declining.

But another thing that makes the digital economy different is “network effects”, starting with the greatest network, the network of networks, the internet. The basic network effect is that the more users of the network there are, the greater the benefit to the individual user. More increasing returns to scale.

Then, Coyle says, there are indirect network effects. Many digital markets involve “matching” suppliers with consumers – such as Airbnb, Uber and Amazon Marketplace. For consumers, the more suppliers the network attracts, the better the chance of quickly finding what you want. But, equally, for suppliers, the more customers the network attracts, the easier it is to make a sale. Economists call these digital networks “two-sided platforms”. The owner of the platform sits in the middle, dealing with both sides.

So, yet more benefits from bigness. And that’s before you get to the benefits of building, mining and sharing large collections of data.

All these benefits being so great, it’s not hard to see why you could end up with only a couple – maybe just one – giant network dominating a market. Welcome to the world of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

In their forthcoming book, From Free to Fair Markets, Richard Holden, an economics professor at the University of NSW, and Rosalind Dixon, a law professor at the same place, note that a number of leading lights have proposed breaking up these huge tech companies, in the same way America’s big telephone monopoly and interlocking oil companies were broken up last century.

But, the authors object, in most of these markets the power of these giants stems from the “network externalities” we’ve just discussed.

“Unlike traditional markets, when the source of market power is also the source of consumer harm, in these markets the source of market power is also what consumers (and producers, in the case of two-sided platforms) value – being connected with other consumers and producers,” they write.

“The key driver of the value that these firms create is precisely the network externalities that they bring about. Facebook is valuable to users because lots of other users are on Facebook . . .

“Google is a superior search engine because in performing so many searches, machine learning allows its algorithm to get better and better, making it a more desirable search engine.”

So, the driving force that leads to these markets having one dominant player is also the force that creates economic value. “Breaking up the large players will stop there being just a few large players, but it will also stop there being nearly as much economic value created,” they say.

Research by Holden, Professor Luis Rayo and the Nobel laureate Robert Akerlof has found that markets with network externalities tend to have three features. First, the firm that wins the initial competition in the market ends up with most of the market.

Second, it’s difficult to become a winning firm, and success is fragile. For instance, Microsoft has had little success getting its search engine Bing to take business from Google. And Netscape was once dominant in the browser market, but suddenly got supplanted.

Third, winners can’t go to sleep. They must constantly innovate and seek to raise their quality.

This makes the tech markets quite different from conventional markets like oil or even old-style networks like railways.

Economists’ efforts to get a handle on the new economy continue.


Monday, February 24, 2020

Phone users have a reason to cheer ACCC's black eye

How much do you pay for your mobile phone contract – a lot or a little? Do you wish there was more price competition in a market dominated by three big companies, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone?

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been stymied in its efforts to make that possibility more likely.

Last year the competition commission blocked a plan for Vodafone (one of the world’s biggest mobile phone companies) to "merge" with TPG (a mainly fixed-line phone and internet service provider) on the grounds that it could substantially lessen competition in the mobiles market.

Earlier this month the Federal Court overturned the commission’s ruling and allowed the merger to proceed – to much cheering from big business, which loves seeing the interfering competition regulator get a poke in the eye.

But phone users have nothing to cheer about. A chance to get more effective competition in the mobile phone market has been lost. Any threat of disruption to the comfortable life of the three-firm oligopoly – which already controls almost 90 per cent of the market – has been removed.

The competition commission thought the merger would do little to increase competition in the mobiles market, whereas allowing the smallest of the big-three oligopolists to take out the one outsider that could have threatened their cosy oligopoly – TPG – made it unlikely their cosy arrangement would ever be disrupted.

It thought this because, under the leadership of its swashbuckling chairman, David Teoh, TPG had turned itself into a company big enough to challenge Telstra and Optus in the internet provider market by acquiring various smaller providers and offering more competitive prices. And it had already spent $1.26 billion preparing to build a mobile network, before the government refused to let it partner with the Chinese-owned leader in 5G technology, Huawei.

Were the merger to be prevented, the commission believed, there was a good chance that TPG, with its record as a disrupter of markets, would revert to its plan to break into the mobile market, and do so by undercutting the incumbents’ prices.

The court rejected the competition regulator’s argument, primarily because it accepted Teoh’s assurance that he’d abandoned his plan to break into the mobiles market and wouldn’t return to it.

The court ruled that “it is not necessarily the number of competitors that are in the relevant market, but the quality of the competition that must be assessed. Further, it is not for the ACCC or this court to engineer a competitive outcome”.

Sorry, your honour, not sure what you mean. It’s certainly true that assessing the competitiveness of an oligopolistic market is more complicated than counting the number of dominant firms. The complexity comes in assessing the nature of the competition.

But what does it mean to “engineer” a competitive outcome? If it means the competition regulator and the court can’t do anything that would increase the likelihood of an industry being disrupted by a new and aggressive entrant, it’s telling us the law is biased in favour of maintaining the status quo and thus protecting the comfortable lives of the incumbents.

Does it mean the only views the authorities may hold about how the future may unfold for the industry must come from what the companies seeking permission to merge say about their intentions, not from the evidence economists have gathered about how oligopolists seek to compete in ways that maximise their profits and limit the benefit to their customers?

One of the main ways the rich countries have become rich is by firms’ continuous pursuit of economies of scale. The inevitable consequence, however, is that most of our markets have become dominated by a small number of huge firms with considerable power to influence the prices charged – especially if they reach an unspoken agreement to avoid competing on price.

The big question for public policy is how to ensure the gains from scale economies flow through to customers in lower prices and better service, rather than being retained as “super profit” in excess of the “normal profit” needed to cover the firm’s cost of capital and the risks it’s run. This is why economists have built up a great body of empirical knowledge about how oligopolists behave.

The court found that increasing the number of big players in the mobiles market from three to four (should the merger be blocked and TPG resume its plan to enter the market) would do little to increase competition, whereas allowing Vodafone to buy out the potential entrant and so become closer in size to its two rivals would improve competition.

Sorry, both conclusions run contrary to what the empirical evidence tells us was likely to happen. Remember, the chief tactic the world's digital megafirms have used to protect their pricing power is buying out small outfits looking like they could become a disrupter.