Jason Furman (the text of the report is 18 pages long, including figures and tables):
Beyond Antitrust: The Role of Competition Policy in Promoting Inclusive Growth: Thank you very much for inviting me to today’s conference. Discussions of competition often center on issues of antitrust enforcement. Those are important issues, but I will not address them in my remarks today because they are enforcement questions that are within the purview of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). I will argue, though, that public policy can play an important role in promoting competition that goes well beyond traditional antitrust enforcement.
The Administration has focused on competition policy in a wide range of areas, from airport slots to standards essential patents to spectrum allocation. Most recently, this past April, the President signed an Executive Order calling on agencies to identify creative actions that they can take to promote competition. The Executive Order calls on agencies to maintain a focus on competition policy in the future by submitting proposed actions on a semi-annual basis. The Administration is currently reviewing the first set of proposals from agencies on how we can use public policy to promote competition, a number of which will be announced in the coming months.
The first action undertaken as part of this Executive Order was the Administration filing in support of the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) proposed rule to bring increased competition to the market for cable set-top boxes. We have been pleased to see FCC Chairman Wheeler actively listen to the many stakeholders involved to improve the proposal, and believe that he is charting out a responsible way to address their meaningful concerns while being responsive to Congress's explicit directive to ensure a healthy set-top marketplace.
In conjunction with the Executive Order, the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released an issue brief documenting some of the evidence suggesting a reduction in competition throughout the economy. Our findings are consistent with recent arguments from academic papers such as Bennett and Gartenberg (2016), and other observers, including The Economist and the Center for American Progress (CAP), stating that competition in the U.S. economy has declined in recent years (The Economist 2016; Jarsulic et al. 2016).
Part of the underlying motivation for the Administration’s efforts is the belief that competition can play an important and broader role not just in static, allocative efficiency but also in dynamic efficiency—making the economy more innovative and increasing productivity growth. In addition, there is also increasing evidence that greater competition or more evenly balanced power in some areas could also play a role in reducing some of the causes of inequality.
In my remarks today, I will start by quickly reviewing some of the evidence for greater concentration in the economy, then provide some broad macroeconomic motivation, before discussing a few specific areas that the Administration is working on, with a focus on some of the difficult questions raised by the rapid evolution of technology in recent years.
What Is the Evidence on the Trends in Concentration?
Some Pro -Competition Policy Applications
To the extent that these macroeconomic trends are related to decreased competition, then pro - competitive policies have potential to not only benefit consumers but also improve the state of the macroeconomy by, for example, increasing productivity and ensuring that the benefits of growth are widely shared. For these reasons, the Administration has taken several significant policy actions to promote competition. I will next briefly touch on four examples.
Intellectual Property and Patent Reform...
Increasing the Bargaining Power of Workers...
Reforming Occupational Licensing...
Reforming Land-Use Regulation...
The Future of Competition in the Digital Age
One topic we have been grappling with in a range of economic issue areas, including competition policy, is the ever-increasing role that digitization plays in our economy. The digital age has the potential to increase competition in many ways, but at the same time, changing technology will bring new challenges to policymakers, challenges that will come increasingly to the fore as the digital economy expands.
So far, internet markets have tended to favor digital giants that hold high market shares, a characteristic that is traditionally associated with low competition in brick-and-mortar markets. However, understanding the competitive implications of these new markets requires a closer analysis. The markets of the digital economy are in many ways different from “old economy” markets. Some of those differences are differences of degree—the internet lowers many costs for small businesses, increasing their ability to rapidly and inexpensively scale up, collect information on potential consumers, and create new products and ideas. These differences do not transform the structure of the market; instead, they merely lower the cost of doing business. Other differences, however, are differences of type: business models may be dramatically different due to digitization. These differences of type warrant closer consideration.
One type of business model that has flourished with digitization is the “platform” model, which relies heavily on network effects to grow because the primary product is access to other customers. Examples include payment platforms like PayPal, sales platforms like eBay, and social networks like Facebook. Switching costs for customers are particularly high in these markets—no one wants to be the first and only user of a platform—and these network effects can act as a barrier to entry.
However, it is not as clear whether these “quasi-monopolies” pose the same harm to consumers as traditional monopolies. In these markets, highly concentrated market share might not be as detrimental to customers as in traditional markets because the services provided by these businesses are more valuable to consumers as their consumer base grows. This means that determining the optimal level of competition in these new markets is a dramatically different and harder task.
Even the task of measuring competition is complicated in digital markets. Usually, economists use prices as indicators of the level of competition, but we cannot necessarily do that here because many markets are two-sided and there are different types of consumer harm. Businesses on the internet are often complementary, so companies may subsidize one side of the market by profiting from the other side of the market. For example, social media sites often offer free services to users and charge for ads. However, the lack of high prices for consumers does not mean that consumer harms or other risks could not occur. Industry watchers have raised concerns 18 about whether the large companies that dominate search and social networking may be able to acquire inefficient power in ads or control people’s access to news. Another concern is that instead of raising prices or reducing quantity, these companies may reduce innovation. Firms holding quasi-monopolies may lose the incentive to keep improving the quality of their products.
Switching costs are traditionally an indicator of competition, and many may assume that switching costs in internet markets are virtually zero because competition is just a click away. This may have been true in the early ages of the internet, but to automatically assume zero switching costs now would be to miss a large part of what is happening. For example, the original search engines were merely directories of websites, and their quality didn’t depend on how many users they had. However, search engines today collect data on the behavior of their users and use it to improve their services and tailor those services to individual users. Thus, in order for other firms to be competitive, they need a large user base and the data that comes with it. Furthermore, for each individual user looking to switch services, the incumbent, with its existing knowledge of that user, has a significant advantage over a competitor that does not yet know the user and therefore cannot tailor services to him or her.
Lastly, digitization could bring a new level of opacity to businesses. Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behavior becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behavior, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity.
Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers. It will be imperative that agencies continue the great work and creative solutions that came out of the President’s Executive Order to promote competition and inclusive growth in the digital age.
Recent trends in concentration in a range of industries suggest decreasing levels of competition, and many concerning macroeconomic trends seem to suggest that this decrease not just due to increases in economies of scale, but rather that increases in barriers to entry are playing a role. For the sake of both consumers and the macroeconomy as a whole, the Administration has used and will continue to use public policy to address these concerns. Increasing competition has the potential to drive faster productivity and output growth, faster real wage growth, and increased equity. We have moved forward in areas such as intellectual property and patent reform, increasing worker bargaining power, and reforming occupational licensing and land use regulations. While these are examples of positive changes, our work in promoting competition does not end here. The President’s Executive Order will continue to encourage agencies to develop creative solutions for increasing competition by soliciting new ideas on a regular basis. In considering the future of competition policy, we must also keep in mind the way in which changes in the economy, such as digitization, will affect how we evaluate competition effectively.