Resisting Oligopoly

April 30th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-is-deadComcast spent tons on lobbying and image-burnishing philanthropy while its CEO golfed with President Obama, yet the telecom giant was blocked from carrying out its anti-competitive $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. It’s encouraging to see that large corporations do not always get their way in Washington.

Another good sign came a few days later, when two of the largest semiconductor machinery producers, Applied Materials of the United States and Tokyo Electron of Japan, called off their planned merger after the U.S. Justice Department said the deal would restrict competition. Another problem was that Applied Materials planned to reincorporate in Japan after the acquisition to dodge U.S. taxes.

It would be nice to think that these aborted mergers are signs of an antitrust revival in the United States, but there is more evidence pointing in the opposite direction. Large, competition-inhibiting mergers are being announced all the time.

For example, Teva Pharmaceuticals recently made a $40 billion bid for its generic drug rival Mylan NV, seeking to trump a $28 billion offer Mylan had previously made for a third company, Perrigo. Berkshire Hathaway and Brazil’s 3G Capital, which took over Heinz in 2013, are seeking to merge the company with Kraft Foods. Earlier, Staples announced plans to acquire one of its few remaining competitors, Office Depot.

Last year, AT&T proposed to buy DirecTV for $48 billion, Halliburton offered $34 billion for Baker Hughes, and Reynolds American announced plans to buy competing tobacco company Lorillard for $27 billion. The list could go on.

It remains to be seen whether the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission will block these deals. Chances are that most of them will be allowed to proceed intact or with only limited concessions. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the FTC, facing pressure from Republicans in Congress, was revising its procedures in a way that might make it easier for deals such as Sysco’s proposed purchase of US Foods, which the agency had challenged, to go through.

Ironically, while U.S. antitrust policy may be weakening, China is beefing up its enforcement. It February, U.S. telecom and chip company Qualcomm was fined the equivalent of $975 million for violating the Chinese anti-monopoly law.

The sad truth is that oligopoly is increasingly the norm in the U.S. economy, and consumers feel the consequences. The low rate of overall inflation has dampened the impact, but the signs are there. As Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times pointed out, the decline of competition in the airline industry through deals such as American’s purchase of US Airways has kept air fares high despite the savings the carriers are enjoying from plummeting fuel costs. The proposed acquisition of Orbitz by Expedia would not help things.

To reverse the troubling trend, what happened with Comcast needs to become the norm rather than the exception.

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