As we face the situation recounted in Part One

We’re all going to be making economic sacrifices for awhile, making cuts in order to dig ourselves, individually and as societies/economies, out of the trench into which we’ve fallen. There is, in country after country (and household after household), a great deal of arguing about which things to cut, and how far; there’s even (I believe wise) talk of restructuring the worst of the debts to make them more manageable.  Still, there’s no disagreement that something has to give, and that one way or another, the sacrifices required will denominated in some combination of lower consumption and reduced government services.

But as Lou Gerstner knew when he took on the turnaround of IBM, we can’t save our way to growth.  We can cut to stop the bleeding; but if we want to create opportunity and the possibility of improvement and growth, individual or national, we have to find ways to add new value– value that will translate into employment and well-being.  In theory, this new value can be created in incumbent companies or in innovative new ones; historically, it’s come from some combination of both.

But this time around, there’s data suggesting that we will be unusually reliant on innovation and entrepreneurs to create jobs– that’s to say, that incumbent companies can’t/won’t…

Celerant Consulting, an HR consulting firm, has just released  a corporate workforce productivity study, drawing on a  review of hundreds of subjects across the developed world (download a pdf of the report here).  The striking findings are summarized in this chart:


As the report observes,

Across all four industries surveyed – Energy, Chemicals, Healthcare, and Consumer Staples – the Impactability Study revealed a similar pattern of inefficiency. Value-add activity accounted for 50 percent or less of time spent on the job, leaving significant room for improvement. Although areas such as Healthcare and Chemicals are to some extent exposed to greater bureaucratic hurdles that direct more hours to approval processes, there is no question that each industry can reduce costs by refocusing the organization’s workforce.

One can quibble with Celerant’s methodology, and argue for marginally higher or lower productivity numbers in one sector or another.  But I doubt that anyone feels that the report is fundamentally wrong.  In our hearts (and minds and stomachs) we know that organizations that struck their “Coase balance” when the state of technology and society were very different, and have accreted layers of organizational sediment ever since, are bound to be inefficient today.  From Dilbert to The Office, we recognize the situation even as we laugh at it.

So, there’s plenty of productivity to be had in incumbent companies without adding any staff.  Indeed, these big companies may even be able further to reduce their employee costs, either by continuing to reduce staff or by holding– even lowering– wages and salaries.  Indeed this is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests is happening: productivity up; labor costs down…  Not very good news for the economy as a whole, in which employment is a continuing concern; but OK for shareholders, right?

In the very short-run, maybe; but overall, not so much.  Companies that are focused on cutting costs, in which employees are fearful of their salaries or jobs, are not hot beds of innovation.  There are exceptions, like IBM under Gerstner; but they tend to prove the rule:  most often, companies in the Celerant boat are trying to figure out how to do the same things with less (or, like the airlines today, to do less with lots less).  Innovation in companies like these too often amounts to figuring how how to charge more for the same thing (c.f., airline “service fees”).  This is, as Gerstner knew, no way to build a profitable, growing future.

Clearly, big, incumbent companies should try to innovate.  Some (again, pace Gerstner) may get it right.  But, for all these reasons, many more probably won’t– if they even try.

So, if incumbent companies aren’t likely to create the innovation and employment that we’ll need to achieve sustainable growth in our economies, where will we find it?

It’s been long believed that small businesses, and the jobs they create, lead economies out of recessions.  Surely, they have historically played play an important role (a role threatened by the current contraction of capital available to them.)

But Paul Kedrosky argues that we should look more specifically to new companies.  Using the mathematical  idea of the “drunkard’s walk” (a version of the probability theory concept of the random walk), he illustrates the “inevitability” that new companies are key…

…the central thing about job creation from young companies is its inevitability. It is a species of mathematical certainty (one driven by initial simplicity and a wall) that young companies must create the most jobs (even without assuming particular skill on their part, or taking into account sectoral or economic growth, both crazily conservative assumptions).

“Crazily conservative assumptions” indeed.  Those new companies are– certainly not entirely, but largely– exploring the frontiers of the market.  They are innovating products, services, and processes– creating the “stuff” of real economic growth.  And they are giving their employees the opportunity to learn the skills and work habits that can achieve it.

So while cutting away the fat in incumbent companies and established markets is both necessary and useful to economic renewal, it doesn’t begin to be sufficient.  Real growth requires the creation of new value, in new ways.  And while there are some older, bigger companies that can pull that off, it is historically the role of small, new entrants— of the entrepreneurs and their start-ups.

How do we encourage new business, create the conditions in which it can help us out of the trench that we’re in?  There are detailed answers being developed in lots of spots, e.g., at the Kauffmann Foundation.   Here, let me suggest one very obvious theme:

If we want to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, then we have to stop pursuing policies that pre-empt them by advantaging large incumbent companies and their desire to preserve– and milk– the status quo.  From obvious fronts like financial, securities, and anti-trust regulations, to corners as seemingly arcane as the patent process, the deck is stacked.

Indeed, these policies knit together to become a kind of “pro-consolidation platform”– one that both parties have adopted.  The results, we’ve already begin to see:  the financial crisis, the reduction in meaningful consumer voice and choice in an increasing number of arenas, the feudal concentration of income, wealth, and power in a big-bank, big-company elite…


Beware the Land of the Giants— it is a barren place.

As Adam Smith argued, markets can be a wondrous thing, they can lead to increased economic growth, increased welfare, and increased equality– but only if the governments that legitimize and police them work to be sure that they are actually “open” and “free.”

Thursday’s mysterious Space Mountain-like stock market plunge aside, the domestic U.S. economic news last week seemed pretty good:  employment up, personal consumption expense up– sounds like a recovery.

And a recovery it may ultimately be.  But a peek underneath those number and a look out at the global economy each suggest that it’s premature to party…

My friend, anthropologist Grant McCracken, is an insightful observer of the American consumer.  Last year, as many were arguing that a new frugality– a “new normal”– was sweeping the nation, he begged to differ.  In The Harvard Business Review Blog, Grant argued that consumers would soon be spending again as though it were 1999. And indeed, in Q1 consumer spending added 2.6 points to GDP growth, following a strong Q4 last year.

But as Calculated Risk observes, the entire increase in consumption in Q1, and most of the growth in prior months, has been due to government transfer payments and reductions in personal savings.  That’s to say: Grant’s right, we’re continuing to spend…  we’re just not earning to support the expense.

click image to enlarge (source)

Perhaps that’s at least in part because we’re still not working.  This week’s report of 290,000 new jobs notwithstanding, the unemployment rate rose to 9.9%.  Add in the number of workers who are involuntarily on reduced hours and the number (U-6, as the BLS calls it) swells to 17.1%.  And then there is the record number of people unemployed for 27 or more weeks– 6.72 million, or 4.34% of the work force.  To put this in perspective, the recession of the early 80s peaked at 10.3% unemployment; but long-term (27+ weeks) unemployment never rose above 2.6%… to wit, the preponderance of transfer payments as noted above.

click image to enlarge (source)

There are lots of signs that can signal an economic rebound; but in the end, a sustainable recovery will be built on employment, on jobs.  In Part Two, a look at where those jobs might (and might not) be found.  But first, a quick look at the global context in which any U.S. recovery will have to make its way.  In a way that’s analogous to the domestic employment situation, underneath the good news of the moment, there’s trouble.

To wit, the news this morning of European-IMF agreement on a bail-out plan for Greece:  it’s encouraging…  But friend Peter Herford recently forwarded a terrific (albeit, mildly terrifying) piece from Der Spiegel, looking at the underpinnings of the European debt crisis: “The Mother of All Bubbles.”

Greece is only the beginning. The world’s leading economies have long lived beyond their means, and the financial crisis caused government debt to swell dramatically. Now the bill is coming due, but not all countries will be able to pay it…

Here, too, we find ourselves returning to jobs as a– the– central concern…

As we think about the ways in which we in the developed world have lived beyond our means, we arrive quickly at the extraordinary accumulation of public debt that’s the “hero” of the European drama (which isn’t to say, of course, that it’s not an issue in the U.S. and elsewhere):

click image to enlarge (source)

…and at the kind of private debt– commercial, mortgage and consumer credit– that contributed so powerfully to the 2008 meltdown:


click image to enlarge (source)

But as we consider private debt, it’s worth calling out the corporate/commercial component– the bit that’s directly related to the businesses that provide jobs.  While there have been some bankruptcies among over-levered companies, corporate credit doesn’t seem, given the relative paucity of attention its gotten, to have played much of a role in getting us into our current pickle.  Indeed, most of the concern about corporate debt since 9-15-08 has been around whether there would be enough of it to support a recovery.

If governments are going to be reducing their services, then growth will have to come from new/higher incomes, from real growth… and that– the creation of those new jobs and of those higher incomes– is the role of business.   If we’re going to climb out of the trough we’re in (a trough that, if Spiegel is right, could be about to get deeper still),  business must create new (and new kinds of) value, and in so doing, create jobs.

And so, to Part Two

“The Vine that Ate the South” (source: WolfeReports)

When is a “green shoot” not a “green shoot”? When it’s kudzu

In yesterday’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports on two recent corporate mergers– Abbott’s purchase of a Solvay unit and Xerox’s absorption of ACS, each valued at over $6 Billion.  Good times are back, he suggests.

… taken in the context of what has been a merger drought — in the wake of the financial crisis, deal-making is still off by more than 50 percent from last year — the transactions suggest that the most senior ranks of corporate America may now have a more optimistic outlook on the economy than some people thought.

“Will you see us move with a lot of acquisitions over this next year? You betcha,” John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, said in a recent meeting. “Especially if it plays out economically the way that I think.”

In fact, as noted here before, M&A activity has already run hot and heavy in the financial services arena, not despite, but because of the economic crisis and the bailout.  TARP and related funds, ostensibly meant to loosen credit for consumers and commerce, has instead been largely used to fund investments on the receiving banks’ own accounts– to help the favored “too large to fail”  banks buy up competition and expand their market shares.  (See the illustration here for a graphic– pun intended– depiction of your tax dollars at work.)

Now, Sorkin suggests, the imperial expansion moves to other arenas.

The greatest concentration of deal-making appears to be in the health care and technology sectors. Warner Chilcott made a $3.1 billion deal for Procter & Gamble’s drug business last month, for example, and Dell bought Perot Systems, a technology services company, for $3.9 billion. But deals are also being made in other sectors, like food; Kraft’s $16.7 billion unsolicited bid for Cadbury, which was rejected but remains a possibility, is the largest outstanding offer to date.

“If you’re healthy, it’s a great time to acquire inexpensively,” adds Ted Rouse, a head of Bain & Company’s global mergers and acquisitions practice. “But it’s an awful time for two weak companies to merge.”

The experience of the last several decades has trained us to see increased M&A activity as a sign of economic strength.  And indeed, when the economy is fertile– when every company that disappears via acquisition is replaced by two or three new start-ups with world-beating plans, it probably is a sign of economic health.

But when the companies that are swallowed up are not replaced– because funding/credit isn’t available or because IP laws are too restrictive or because oligopolists’ channel power freezes new players out or…  well, you get the picture– the prognosis is not so rosy.  At best, we get a return to the “gray flannel suit” 50s; at worst, a decline into the turbidity of the 30s.

As suggested in “Beware the Land of the Giants…“:

When oligopolies emerge, they do all they can to retard competition and innovation; it’s their self-interest.  But in a growing economy, their impact is measured in “decreases in the rate of growth,” “slowing rates of innovation.”  On balance, things are still trending up.  And to the extent that new entrants succeed, that innovation trumps defensiveness, the oligopolies fade.

But when oligopolies form by default in troubled times, their self-protection can salt the earth around them, can make it hard-to-impossible for ferment– for start-ups or disruptive innovation– to take root…  and it’s from those seeds that strong growth in a recovering economy can emerge.

We have a huge stake in making sure that the more concentrated economy with which we’ll emerge from this downturn is as “un-oligopolistic”– as free and open– as we can make it.

The problem is that it can be very hard to tell one kind of M&A activity from the other while in the midst of the deal stream.  A slide into oligopoly can feel, as it’s unfolding, just like the good old days of the 90s– one exciting deal after another– until it’s too late to do anything about it.  And when so many of the parties to the transactions are paid– and richly paid– on the transactions,  as opposed to the longer term outcomes of the deals (much less their utility to the economy as a whole), there is, to put it politely, no incentive for the actors to pause to consider.

But pause we should.  Vulnerable as we are in what may or may not yet be the trough of economic decline, We can ill afford an implosion of competition that resolves into a tar-baby of oligopolies.

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It’s no secret that the economic “unpleasantness” we’re suffering is having a redefining effect on company after company and industry after industry.  Neither is it any surprise.  But it’s been, in my observation anyway, peculiarly hard for managers to think effectively about the most fundamental challenges that times like these present.

It’s widely appreciated that when the going gets tough, competition gets tougher.  We all instinctively get it that extra pressure will force all of our current competitors to fight harder.  And we get it that this pressure might drive new competitors– competitors from distant geographies, players from adjacent sectors, the owners of new technologies– into our market.  But there’s a deeper and more deadly threat that too often goes unconsidered.

There are two questions that, when I’ve had the opportunity over the last twenty years, I’ve encouraged managers to ask themselves:

What if the thing that you do for a living– the product that your company makes, the service you provide– simply evaporates?

What if the boundaries of your market or you profession change out of all recognition?

Sadly, these questions are more timely today than ever.

At first, the presenting reason to challenge folks in this way was the unfolding impact of technology.

Back in the earliest parts of the Twentieth Century, the owners of ice plants faced a tough investment decision:  should they bulk up their central facilities and invest in more ice wagons (maybe even those new-fangled gasoline-powered “trucks”) to carry their product to the growing number of customers at the expanding edges of the towns they served?  Or should they build more smaller plants across their territories?…  It was a tricky call– and of course, it was altogether beside the point.  While they worried over the centralization-decentralization dilemma, George Westinghouse introduced the fractional horsepower motor; the electric grid spread to the houses that the ice makers served; those homeowners increasingly bought the refrigerators that Westinghouse’s technology made possible… ice became a feature of (someone else’s) product, and the ice companies were frozen out of their own markets.

More recently, but in a painfully analogous way, newspaper owners have felt that same deep freeze, as the internet has almost casually made the distribution of news a “feature,” at the same time that the web has begun to revolutionize news gathering.  We’re on the verge of seeing the same thing happen in (what we used to think of as) telephony, as voice is increasingly just a feature in a bundle the “fat” parts of which are video and data.

In industry after industry, the same kinds of dynamics were at play, the same sorts of pressures building.  And so I challenged managers to think through the ways in which their products/services could become someone else’s feature.  At best, companies can develop effective defenses; at worst, they can minimize their exposure.  Either way, it’s more profitable– and less disorienting– than being blind-sided.

Technology remains a key driver, but it is only one enabler of this kind of transition.  Changes in regulation or the law, nationally or trans-nationally, can do it, as can material shifts in social values.  And so can big economic challenges.

Indeed, these big economic challenges are (as we’re experiencing) particularly potent: they are causes in their own right; and at the same time, they amplify and accelerate the other drivers.  From financial services to automotive, sector after sector is being wrenched into new configurations, with new economics, new rules.

– Technology was already eating at the newspaper franchise, as it had the recorded music oligopoly; but the implosion of advertising revenue that accompanied the downturn has accelerated the erosion.

– While there’s still hope that nationalist reactions to the downturn will stop short of Smoot-Hawley destructiveness, It’s clear that we’ve taken a step backward on the path to a Flat World, as global trade has gotten harder and more more expensive.

– Strapped consumers’ newly-found conversion to discounts, bargains, and “economic” answers to their needs is amplifying the attraction of bundles, and accelerating their adoption. If it saves money, “good enough” is good enough.

…and on and on and on.

As incumbent companies and their managers contemplate these threats, there are a number of defensive stratagems they can and should consider… steps that basically come to strengthening their foundations.  But while necessary, this defense doesn’t begin to be sufficient against the threat of re-definition.  The only really effective response is innovation– is preparing to change one’s offer– one’s business– to accommodate, indeed to take advantage of, the forces that are presenting the threat.

I’ve argued before (see, e.g.,  here and here) that the times we’re in look all too likely to lead to a period of consolidation, concentration, even lock-in.   That’s certainly challenging enough for managers determined to stay in business– and thus to be the “eaters,” not the “eaten.”  But that’s only part of the challenge.  In times like these, managers need to be watchful of the forces that could steal their companies’ markets from beneath them.  And even before it’s clear exactly how– indeed, if– that’s going to happen,  managers need to be innovating to succeed on the other side, in the the newly-organized, newly-bundled market(s) that might emerge.

Innovation like this can feel especially expensive when cash is as tight as it is today.  But it is, for all the world, like health insurance:  in the end, much more expensive do without.

Thinking the Unthinkable…

February 4, 2009

A question I never imagined myself raising: Is it time to (re)turn our telecom/broadband infrastructure into a regulated monopoly?…

Bell, opening long-distance service between New York and Chicago

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first (intelligible) words ever spoken over the telephone: “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you.”  Bell patented his device, then a few years later patented an improvement. And until Bell’s second patent expired in 1894, only Bell Telephone and its licensees could legally run telephone systems in the United States.

But then the fun began: between 1894 and 1904, over six thousand independent telephone companies went into business in the United States, and the number of telephones grew from 285,000 to 3,317,000.  Many previously unwired areas got their first telephone service, and many others got competing companies. (For more on this period, see here.)

But this explosion of telephone companies brought with it a follow-on set of issues– main among them, that there was little or no interconnection among systems, so subscribers to different telephone companies couldn’t call each other easily (or often, at all).

Theodore Vail, who’d done a stint as President of AT&T from 1885  to 1889, and then took the reins again in 1907, had a solution.  Vail was a “natural monopolist”:  he innately believed in “natural monopolies” (i.e., that some services– e.g., the telephone– are “naturally” better developed and delivered by monopoly suppliers).  Indeed, Vail joined AT&T from Western Union– which had been founded in part by his cousin Alfred Vail, Samuel Morse’s partner–then, on landing at AT&T  took it over.

Vail’s solution to the interconnectivity issues of the early Twentieth Century was a masterpiece of monopolist maneuver:  In 1913, he negotiated “the Kingsberry Commitment” (AKA “Vail’s Bargain”).  Arguing that “one policy, one system [AT&T’s] and universal service” would allow AT&T to provide service that no collection of separate companies could give the public, Vail agreed with the Justice Department and the ICC to divest Western Union (but only with the provision that it couldn’t go into the phone business) and to provide long-distance services to independent exchanges (under conditions that the ICC– there was not yet an FCC– would oversee, but that were “comfortable” for AT&T).  In return, the government gave Vail and AT&T permission to acquire independents.

In effect, Vail’s Bargain was “you give AT&T a monopoly, and we’ll give you a world-class phone system that you can regulate.”  And for several decades, that’s how it worked…

“May I connect you?”

But customers got restless and technology beckoned again… and in the Above 890 (Fifties), Carterphone (Sixties), and Execunet” (Seventies) decisions, courts and the FCC began to loosen AT&T’s hold; then in 1984, divestiture shattered the monopoly altogether (though it’s begun to reform; see here and here).

We don’t have to care — we’re the phone company”

Still, over the several decades of their monopoly, Vail and AT&T  did hold up their end of the bargain.  Indeed, AT&T’s Bell System provided what was by all accounts the best telephone system in the world.– one that marched steadily towards its goal of universal service, which came in the Twenties and Thirties to mean that everyone should have a telephone. By 1945, 50% of U.S. households did; by 1955, 70%, and by 1969, 90%… and through the period, the quality of the service steadily improved.

I tell this story in some measure as a caution to myself.  I’ve written (see here and here) about the danger (as I see it) that consolidation through the current economic downturn could lead to oligopolistic– or worse, monopolistic– industry structures in the U.S.  And I do worry…

Still, I have to admit that Vail’s tale is provocative… and as we contemplate how to manage the “successor technologies” to the telephone– digital telephony, wireless, cable, and broadband– it’s timely.

I don’t share Vail’s belief in “natural monopolies”;  indeed, I note that European telephony, which was so slow to catch up to phone service in the U.S., was essentially all monopoly-run.  And I note that the explosion of experimentation and advance that characterized the post-patent period of 1894-1913 slowed to a steady pulse as AT&T became a monopoly.

But that monopoly settled (albeit by force) the biggest issue– standards– standing in the way of the growth of telephony.  And while innovation was more “managed ” under Ma Bell, it was formidable:  Much of the advance of the system through the Twentieth Centurty was enabled by science and technology developed at AT&T’s subsidiary Bell Labs, which also contributed to a variety of other technical and social spheres.

Probably the biggest difference between the U.S. and the European approaches to telephony through most of the Twentieth Century was that most European operators were state enterprises, while AT&T was a private company, regulated by the government (actually governments, as state governments also played a big role).While the regulatory regime was elaborately complicated, the fundamental logic was simple:  “rate of return.”  AT&T was “allowed” to earn a fixed return on the capital it invested.  So AT&T had an incentive to keep expanding and improving its system, as balanced by regulator’s concern to keep prices manageable for consumers.

It all worked, and pretty well for all concerned… until it didn’t.  By the Sixties, businesses and consumers in the U.S. began to feel that , while they might have had the best phone system in the world, it wasn’t as good, nor as responsive to their individual needs, nor as cheap as it could be.  At the same time, technology was emerging (some of it from labs founded by refugees from the Bell System) that promised precisely those benefits. Those disgruntled consumers joined with those emerging new competitors to plead their case; and the AT&T monopoly began to fall apart.

But for almost sixty years, it worked.  Through that period the phone industry grew to a multi-billion dollar business.  But the real impact was the telephone’s contribution to the growth in the economy as a whole.  There is no exact tabulation (nor any way to get one); but it seems clear that the fast spread of a reliable phone system drove hundreds of billions of dollars of growth.

Today, we find ourselves considering a stimulus package that features broadband connectivity as a priority, and considering it in the context of a global economy in which we are dropping down the league table in percent population with broadband connections (and even further behind in the speed of those connections).

There’s a chorus of objections to the inclusion of broadband in the stimulus package (c.f., this Economist piece, arguing, among other things, that the follow-on economic benefits might not be all that are claimed).  I certainly share the caution over over-expectation, and I don’t expect that the transformative effects of ubiquitous broadband will necessarily solve lots of legacy problems.  But I do believe that the effect will in fact be transformative– and will drive second-order benefits, just as the telephone did, that will dwarf the investment– indeed, will dwarf our imaginations.

An oligopoly is unlikely to get us there in the way and at the speed that, as nation, we want and need. Indeed, the world into which we’re all-too-likely skating– one in which carriers “coordinate” to slow innovation’s pace to market, keep prices aloft, and create walled gardens— is not a pretty place.   An oligopoly has incentives that will, unchecked, lead it to invest less, less broadly, and more slowly.


Per earlier posts, my hope is that we can keep real competition and free access to markets alive.  But if genuine competition isn’t in the cards, it may be that a monopoly– a regulated monopoly– is the answer.  We’d trade off some of the ferment and excitement of ecumenically-sourced innovation for faster standards and deployment… but we’d still get from here to a better– a broader and more accessible– technostructure.

The trick, to observe the obvious, would be to strike the right balance:  it would be as big a mistake to nationalize the technostructure as it would be to allow it to recede into the anti-competitive lethargy of oligopoly.  Indeed (per earlier posts), in any case the new Administration will need to be active in promoting and protecting access (a la Network Neutrality and Intellectual Property Rights reform) and in being sure that national investments in infrastructure actually turn into real improvements in service for, and at fair prices to, citizens.  I hope that this is all that it takes.  But if not, it’s a relatively short step– a question of degree, not kind– to apply those legislative and regulatory tools more forcefully in a way that effectively creates a regulated market, even a regulated monopoly.

It’s hard to recall a time when legislators and regulators did their jobs; but there was one.  For the last eight years, Congress and regulatory agencies have largely been, at best, asleep at the switch; at worst, operating on behalf of the companies they’re meant to be overseeing.  But the AT&T story reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way.

So is it time to (re)turn to monopoly connectivity?  Certainly not yet. But while I hope that it doesn’t come to this, I’m awfully grateful for the team moving into place in in and around the White House… a team that seems ready to think pragmatically about the public interest– and when necessary, to think the unthinkable.

Now, if we can only bring Congress along

“This is a transformational crisis, and the world will certainly be different afterward.”

– Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, on the eve of this week’s annual meeting in Davos

If every challenge is an opportunity, then the economic crisis facing the U.S. and the rest of the world is knocking like a jackhammer.  And if opportunities like these are too precious to waste, we might all do well to pay (even) more attention than we are…

Even as I write this, the Obama team is doing it’s best to convince Congress that the Administration’s pending Stimulus Package will get enough money to to the neediest corners of the economy quickly enough to make the crucial difference.  Most of the money is likely ultimately to flow to existing companies– both because they’re screaming loudest for it, and because…  well, there aren’t really any alternatives that’ll be ready soon enough to be useful.  All of us have a stake in the Stimulus Package working, and fast.  But as we saw when TARP funds meant to enable banks to resume lending were used instead to fund the acquisition of other banks, we have a huge stake in how it’s done.

It isn’t enough simply to stop the decline in the economy; we need to prepare the way for a return to growth, growth that’s fueled by innovation that addresses new priorities like energy and environment, growth that’s inclusive of more and more Americans.  And if we’re going to accomplish that, we’ll need to tread very carefully to avoid an all-too-plausible outcome of the kinds of stimulus measures being proposed– an economy congealed into oligopolies…


Time and Again

Companies like to grow.  When they run out of the steam it takes to build from within, they grow, if they can, by swallowing other companies.  In good times we call it “expansion through acquisition”; in bad times, “consolidation.”  In either case,  the big get bigger by eating the small or the weak, and the result is concentration– more market share/market power in fewer corporate hands…  so (given that monopoly is, strictly speaking, mostly illegal in most developed countries) this natural tendency is toward oligopoly, the rule of the few… a market concentrated in a few (usually 3 or 4) well-coordinated corporate hands.

What’s not to love?  Competition in an oligopoly is “gentlemanly”; the pace of innovation/change slows to a manageable– and managed– pace; ditto, prices; and in all but the very worst economies, everyone makes money.

But what’s good for vendors isn’t always good for consumers…  nor, to the extent that the competitiveness of a nation is at stake,  for a country.  And so, for most of the Twentieth Century the U.S. has had (and for most of the post-World War II period, Europe has had) safeguards against this kind of concentration and the abuses that it can bring.

One or both of two things can restrain, even stop, the concentration that spawns oligopolies: 1)  regulation and the law (restricting collusive or otherwise unfair behavior, limiting percent market share of any one competitor, etc.) and 2) disruptive technology (which creates options for consumers faster than dominant companies can buy it in and control it).  Over the last 20, arguably 30, years in the U.S., anti-concentration laws and regulations have been, overall, steadily weakened.  (Enforcement, especially over the last eight years, has also been painfully lax).  But until relatively recently, the pace and character of technological innovation has kept the marketplace largely competitive.  Technology– and the new entrants and consumers it has empowered– have outrun the ability of big incumbent companies to contain it.  There’ve been “islands of oligopoly”– telephony, cable, et al.– but (at lest, until 6 or 7 years ago) competition was still largely the rule.

Oligopolies work to serve their members, so they make it very hard for new entrants.  It’s only during periods (like the last 25-30 years, in contrast to the 25-30 that preceded them) when technology is “outrunning” the oligopolies, and is reorganizing markets, that new entrants flourish.  The irony, of course, is that, as these new entrants succeed, they begin themselves to crave oligopolistic privilege.  Microsoft is an extreme example (craving, as it did, monopoly); more “normal” would be cell phone providers (now for all practical purposes four, probably soon three, competitors where there used to be a dozen).

So, for the last decade, up through 2007, the pace of consolidation and market concentration quickened.  Then the credit bubble burst…  I want to argue that it’s even more important in down times than up to be watchful of concentration– because it is even more likely to occur, and potentially even more dangerous.

Good Times


In times of economic expansion– like most of the last 60 years– all of this consolidation is driven by two fundamental engines:  the desire for oligopolistic control and the desire for growth.  We’ve talked about the lure of concentration and control; as to growth: as a company grows, its increasing scale naturally tends to reduce it organic growth rate.  A $100,000 increase in sales from a base of $500,000, is a 20% jump; that same $100,000 on a base of $10,000,000, is a puny 1%.  With growth, every absolute increment of growth– every extra unit sold, every extra sales dollar gathered– “buys” the company less in the way of percentage growth.

So managers– especially those beholden to public markets– start to look for ways to keep those growth rates up.  In earlier posts, I’ve talked about two deviant techniques that have been used:  financial engineering and plain old fraud.  But the main event is merger and acquisition:  it buys growth that can move the needle, and it keeps the acquirer on the path to (or better positioned within) an oligopoly…

It’s a long-established and widely-known fact that, measured on the stated criteria given at the time of the transactions, most– between 50% and 85%– of all acquisitions fail (see, e.g., the preface this pdf download).

But the stated reasons for an acquisition (usually “syngergistic” arguments, articulated in operational terms like “cost savings”) are rarely the underlying– the real– motivation.  The real motivations are the manager’s categorical imperatives– growth and control… even if (as is too often the case), the deal destroys shareholder value.

(Ironic side-bar: If consolidation to often destroys value, break-ups often create it:  Most famously, the case of the Standard Oil Trust: John D. Rockefeller was a rich man before the government forced that break-up of Standard; but essentially immediately afterwards, his wealth tripled [and he bacame the first billionaire], as his holding in the resulting smaller companies soared.  More  recently, after the 1984 “divestiture” of ATT– its devolution into seven RBOCs and a long-distance company– total shareholder value rose sky-rocketed…  only to settle back toward earth over the next twenty years, as the RBOC and the LD company re-consolidated into two… )

Bad Times


The urge to oligopoly has driven a tremendous number of transactions; the scale of mergers and acquisitions hit half a trillion dollars worldwide in 2007.  But it fell in 2008.  These are not expansionary economic times. Still, concentration is in the cards.

If mergers and acquisitions in good times are largely, shall we say, imperial, then in times like these, they are  mostly by default.  A kind of “circling the wagons” consolidation in which the stronger players in an industry pick up the other players who don’t outright die.  (Witness the game of musical chairs that played out among banks and investment houses at the outset of the TARP chapter of the on-going bailout…)

The assets-in-question are worth less in a depressed economy like today’s, so the value numbers are down from their bubble-inflated highs.  But on a percentage-of-market basis, it yields extraordinary concentration.  And this, at a time when the scarcity of credit and investment capital is slowing the pace of innovation (whether measured in corporate R&D spending or in the number of start-ups with any kind of meaningful financing).

So when we come out of this downturn– as someday, of course, we will– who will “we” be?  What will the topography of our economy be?  Will we find ourselves in a rich and varied landscape of the sort that, I suspect, most of us believe is the “natural” lay of the land?  Or in a flatland, punctuated by a few tall rocks?  It’s likely, alas, to be the latter– concentration is a natural consequence of times like these.

Next Time


The real question, then, is whether that flatland will be a Monument Valley-like desert, in which not much is likely to grow in the several years thereafter; or rather, more like a Montana mountain valley after a forest fire– where the barren burn turns quickly into a fledgling forest.

We have a big stake in the answer being “forest”; our kids have an even bigger stake.  When oligopolies emerge, they do all they can to retard competition and innovation; it’s their self-interest.  But in a growing economy, their impact is measured in “decreases in the rate of growth,” “slowing rates of innovation.”  On balance, things are still trending up.  And to the extent that new entrants succeed, that innovation trumps defensiveness, the oligopolies fade.

But when oligopolies form by default in troubled times, their self-protection can salt the earth around them, can make it hard-to-impossible for ferment– for start-ups or disruptive innovation– to take root…  and it’s from those seeds that strong growth in a recovering economy can emerge.

We have a huge stake in making sure that the more concentrated economy with which we’ll emerge from this downturn is as “un-oligopolistic”– as free and open– as we can make it.

What we know about the new Administration’s stimulus package is that, while it is aimed at creating jobs, it isn’t focused on starting new businesses, nor even to any terrific extent on fostering innovation.  If our deforested economy is going to come back in the rich way that can restore its vitality– and America’s place as a world leader in innovation and growth– it’s going to take more than the stimulus package currently provides– more, and different.

Because while money could help; rules matter more…  rules and regulations…rules and regulations and a government commitment to enforcing them.   If we are to insure that the implosion of competition through this downturn doesn’t resolve into a tar-baby of oligopolies, we have to bank on the new Administration taking up again the long-ago-dropped mantle of oversight.

It will be an important start simply to enforce the pro-competitive laws and regulations that remain on the books.  Then perhaps some of those that were sliced away to make way for the Bubble should be reinstated, or better yet, reinvented– we certainly need, for example, to reform intellectual property laws, to remedy at least some of the most egregious excesses of the last decade or so, and clear the way for a next generation of innovation and growth.

But as important as these remedial steps may be, it’s more critical, I believe, to be sure that the legal and regulatory tracks that are laid for emerging new industries (broadband distribution, biotech, green tech, et al.) run straight and true– straight and true to the national interest, to citizens’ interests.  By way of one obvious example, network neutrality is crucial; but there are dozens of other formative issues of this sort facing the Obama Administration and the nation, as well.

They are– we are– facing those issues at a time when there is monstrous pressure– and some reason– to channel financial resources and to cut regulatory slack to support incumbent companies, even as they consolidate, in order to protect jobs (a la Detroit).  And even then, the Administration can largely only lead; Congress has to be on board as well…  Which is all simply to say that it’s going to be very hard to resist these centripedal forces, to keep markets open.

As I’ve written before, I’m enormously encouraged by appointments like Julius Genachowski (FCC)  and Steve Chu (Energy).  But they and their colleagues have rough rows to hoe.  They are going to need our support, both directly, and probably more importantly, with our Congresspeople.

Indeed, readers might consider Larry Lessig’s and Joe Trippi’s Change Congress movement as a resource.  Unless we wean our representatives from the steady flow of large-company contributions on which they’ve come to depend, it’s a sad-but-safe bet that– our new President’s best efforts notwithstanding– we’re headed for Monument Valley.


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