Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The control of rent-seeking behaviour

Initially business regulation focused on anti-trust policies and barriers to entry. However, rent-seeking behaviour is not exclusive of natural or government sponsored monopolies and oligopolies. Rent-seeking is generally defined as the pursuit of payments beyond those necessary to have the service or factor supplied. Although most of these situations involve licensing, e.g. as in the case of doctors, taxis, drugs etc., or natural monopolies (as in the case of land), there are situations where market dominance may create the same type of rent-seeking behaviour.

I shall illustrate this with two examples related to new technologies and distribution, that is, – rent seekers vs. innovators and distributors vs producers.

With free entry, innovators will enjoy only a temporary monopoly until new imitators come in and drive profits to zero, thus eliminating any rents. However, in sectors subject to winner-takes-all economics that is no longer the case, because innovators can only compete until one of them dominates the market. That is, inventors become like lottery players, playing in the hope of winning a jackpot. Those who get it either retire or become a kind of private equity fund (doing little or no new research) but buying up any new innovators that threaten their dominance.

This eat-or-be-eaten is not always negative. Indeed, many so-called serial entrepreneurs thrive on finding new business opportunities and not on running them for long periods and therefore welcome the possibility of cashing-in and having a higher turnover in their investments. The problems exist when the acquirers use bundling and financial power to stop prematurely the natural selection of the winners.

Consider for example the social network Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, for 20 billion USD, in order to secure dominance in global photo-sharing and mobile messaging. Can we be sure that those services had already achieved their position of winner-takes-all through competition or did they reach it prematurely by being acquired by a dominant player in the same space?

It is important to note that most of those payments were in Facebook shares, which may be seen as counterfeit currency if they are excessively overvalued because of the expected longevity of its oligopolistic position. So who is rent-seeking, the innovators or their acquirers? Probably both, because the innovators capitalize on the anticipation of a wider monopoly position while the acquirer achieves a higher valuation on the assumption that it will be able to maintain its dominant position and capture the rents achievable through such position longer than normal.

However, it is not uncommon that the acquirer ends up writing-off many of such acquisitions and ends up being the “sucker” while the tech entrepreneurs cashes in hefty gains. So, as long as this processes increases rather than limits entrepreneurship, the potential for market perfecting policies on the part of regulators is very limited.

This is possible because inventors also hold a monopolist position. This is quite different from the position of distributors and suppliers. To the extent that retailers manage to concentrate their retail outlets in a few locations their stores achieve a local oligopolistic situation which allows them to pursue rent-seeking. These oligopolies are often reinforced by local planning and licensing regulations.

For instance, during sudden recessions consumer demand contracts and retailers try to stop falling sales through discounts and lower prices. However, these reductions are transferred to their suppliers so that they manage to protect their profit margins throughout the recession. They are able to do so because suppliers no longer have direct access to end-user clients . Therefore, most of the adjustment takes place at the producers level. However, in contrast to the tech sector, here a write-off in the producers’ investment generates a reduction in entrepreneurship but the distributors will not incur write-off losses.

A similar process occurs in sectors (e.g. petrol stations) where the producers are in an oligopolistic position while the retail distributors are many and receive a fixed payment. Obviously, in this case, the producers are the only able to pursue rent-seeking.

That is, there are cases where producers impose a fixed price to retailers e.g. soft drinks, ice cream, petrol and domestic gaz. And the opposite, cases where distributors impose a price to producers, e.g. research, supermarkets, etc. Such practices are certainly anti-competition and may justify some form of regulation. However, in those sectors where both producers and distributors have oligopolistic power (e.g. IT and healthcare) it is not clear whether regulation can add much value.

In conclusion, striking the right balance between market perfecting regulation and intrusive messing up it is not always easy. For instance, in the financial sector excessive regulation often results in the protection of the incumbents which have the resources needed to cope with heavy regulation. Nevertheless, in most domains, whenever the right level of regulation cannot be ascertained, one should err on the low side.

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