Dominant U.S. companies have delivered amazing benefits to consumers and shareholders, but their success has also damaged our economy.
The problem with winner-take-all capitalism is that the winners take it all and leave a mess for the rest of us to deal with.
These companies have developed fantastic brands and wonderful products and services, but the downside to the proliferation of superstar companies is equally real: They are destroying local economies, driving down workers’ wages, shackling growth, depressing entrepreneurship and increasing the inequality that’s ripping our country apart.
And for all the talk about disruptive technologies, it’s getting worse.
Census Bureau statistics show that about three-fourths of U.S. business sectors have become more concentrated in the past 20 years, as indicated by an ever-growing market share for the top companies in hundreds of sectors, from dog food to health insurance.
About 10% of the economy is deemed to be highly concentrated, with almost all of the revenue in those niches going to just a few companies. Many industries are effectively controlled by fewer than 10 companies.
And it’s not obscure backwaters of the economy. These are goods and services we buy every day.
Think of big-box retailers, airlines, express-delivery companies, drug makers, car makers, insurers, banks, media companies, phone companies, software companies, electronics makers, aerospace firms, vast swathes of the internet and even slaughterhouses. Think of companies like Alphabet GOOG, -0.27% Apple AAPL, -1.40% Facebook FB, +0.56% Microsoft MSFT, +0.14% General Motors GM, -0.90% AT&T T, +0.31% UPS UPS, +0.30% Altria MO, +1.14% Wal-Mart WMT, -4.65% and American Express AXP, +0.93% and dozens more.
|The largest highly concentrated businesses|
|Segment||Market share of top four companies||Annual revenue in segment (2012)|
|Warehouse clubs & supercenters||93.6%||$406 billion|
|Drug wholesalers||72.1%||$319 billion|
|Auto & truck manufacturing||68.6%||$231 billion|
|Drug stores||69.5%||$230 billion|
|Mobile-phone service||89.4%||$225 billion|
|Administration of pension funds||76.3%||$145 billion|
|Landline-phone service||73.4%||$142 billion|
|Cable TV||71.1%||$138 billion|
|Airplane manufacturing||80.1%||$113 billion|
|As of the 2012 Economic Census|
The list includes almost all of the biggest companies in America. Almost all of the gains in the stock market come from these few corporations. And they earn almost all of the profits.
In many cases, the dominant companies have licenses, patents, copyrights or other intellectual property that lock out potential competitors. They have powerful brands that command a premium. They take advantage of network effects, which create natural monopolies. They lobby governments for subsidies or special regulatory favors. To snuff out competition, they acquire potential rivals or lock up supplies of essential inputs, including skilled labor. They control distribution channels.
In some cases, those few companies act more like a cartel than they do competitors.
Their size gives them economies of scale that smaller rivals can’t match.
In other words, these companies are protected by high barriers to entry, what famed investor Warren Buffett calls a “moat.” A moat protects the company, keeping profits higher than they would be if it faced real, fair competition.
“So what’s the problem?” you may say. After all, these companies are winners, they’re giving the people what they want — stop punishing success.
For decades, economists, jurists and policy makers thought the same thing. As long as consumers weren’t harmed, they ignored the increasing concentration of American and global industries, figuring that there wasn’t much to worry about.
But lately, there’s been a lot more attention paid to the downside of the monopolization of America.
Here are the three biggest problems with our winner-take-all economy.
Wages are lower; profits are higher
The most damning charge is that the trend toward larger companies is driving a wedge between the few at the top who are paid spectacularly well and the majority at the bottom whose wages are stagnant.
Economists David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence Katz, Christina Patterson and John Van Reenen concluded in a recent paper that the rise of “superstar” firms with high profits and relatively small workforces has contributed to the shrinkage in workers’ share of national income and a corresponding increase in the share of profits.
Economists Jason Furman and Alan Krueger argue that some firms are able to tamp down wages through what’s called monopsonistic behavior, such as collusion and noncompete agreements. (A monopsony is a company that exercises power as the only buyer, analogous to a monopolist who is the only seller.) Collusion to depress wages is prevalent in high-tech, entertainment and health care.
The median corporation gets a return on invested capital of about 20%, but the top 10% of companies hit 100%, a sign that they are extracting economic rents due to their market power.
Furman and Peter Orszag, meanwhile, found that a small number of companies use their market power to capture extraordinary 100% returns on invested capital, compared with typical profits of 20% or so.
Local economies are hollowed out
Once upon a time, back in the economy’s golden age, every city had a local department store or two, as well as other businesses with deep roots in the community, such as banks, newspapers, TV stations, factories, drug stores, utilities and others.
The owners and the top managers of those businesses lived in the community, and felt a sense of civic pride that went beyond noblesse oblige. They were the paternalistic philanthropists who funded the arts, the parks, the libraries, the schools and the hospitals.
The money generated by those businesses stayed local, keeping the regional economy chugging along.
But now the owners and top managers have moved on, replaced by the faceless, faraway investors that George Packer described in “The Unwinding.” The new bosses have no place for sentimentality, as Christopher Lasch observed in his prophetic “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” more than 20 years ago. They care about their bottom line, their summer house and their private school; they don’t care about Youngstown.
Locally owned businesses are better for communities, many researchers have found. They hire more local workers, they buy from local suppliers, and the revenue they receive is recycled locally, rather than in the Hamptons or Shanghai. The presence of lots of local businesses even seems to lower the crime rate.
Local businesses appear to be a public good, something state and local economic development agencies should consider the next time they try to lure a big multinational corporation.
Business dynamism suffers
The potential profits and wealth earned by a winner-take-all company ought to provide a great incentive for entrepreneurs to start new businesses with the hope of becoming a dominant firm themselves, but the trend is going the wrong way: For all the talk about disruptive companies, there are fewer startups now than there were decades ago, in part because the barriers to entry into these lucrative markets are so high that few entrepreneurs even try.
The number of new companies formed each year is down sharply.
Many of the new tech startups never get the chance to compete with the established companies, because as soon as they prove their technology, they are acquired. The big five tech firms — Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — have acquired more than 500 companies in the past decade.
The most profitable companies in America aren’t reinvesting much in their businesses. For them, it’s more profitable to restrict production and dampen supply than it is to invest in expanding their capacity. If would-be rivals can’t mount an effective attack on their moat, the entrenched companies have a reduced incentive to research and develop the next big thing. Innovation suffers, and that means the economy isn’t growing as fast as it could.
The economy is indeed rigged against the majority in favor of a few. It’s not just a few banks that are “too big to fail.” It’s not just a few heavily regulated industries, or the new frontiers of high-tech. Most of the highly successful businesses are privileged.
Many critics of our stagnant economy say the problem is globalization, and their answer is to control the borders. But the problems of business concentration would be just as debilitating if the United States were a completely closed economy. The global nature of these businesses isn’t the core problem; concentration is.
The winner-take-all economy is making losers out of American workers and communities. We desperately need more competition. Our economy needs to be constantly renewed through the process of creative destruction, but that’s not happening.