Archive for the ‘Antitrust’ Category

Same-Industry Marriages

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

mergersSame-sex unions are not the only kind of marriage on the rise. In the business world, same-industry combinations are happening at breakneck speed as large corporations join with their rivals.

The same-industry marriages that will probably affect the largest number of people are those being proposed in the health insurance industry, where Aetna is seeking to buy Humana, and Anthem (formerly known as Wellpoint) is playing the mating game with Cigna, though UnitedHealth may get in on the act. Additional concentration does not bode well for keeping insurance premiums under control.

There’s a lot more going on. This was driven home to me recently while I was updating the parent-subsidiary linkages in the Subsidy Tracker database I oversee in my role as research director of Good Jobs First. I had to make adjustments relating to dozens of recently completed mergers.

Among these are the combination of Heinz and Kraft Foods arranged by Warren Buffett and the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, the union of deep-discount chains Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, and the merger of packaging giants MeadWestvaco and Rock-Tenn into a combined firm called WestRock.

An interesting trend is increasing German control over what remains of the U.S. industrial sector. Siemens recently completed its purchase of the industrial equipment firm Dresser-Rand, and ZF Friedrichshafen acquired TRW Automotive.

Other deals still in the pipeline include Staples’ bid for Office Depot, Expedia’s plan to acquire Orbitz (after gobbling up Travelocity), Monsanto’s offer for Syngenta, and AT&T’s plan to buy Dish Network, which in the meantime is looking to acquire T-Mobile.

Thanks to all this activity, 2015 could set a new record for M&A activity. Along with the economic benefit of consolidation, large companies are taking advantage of the mostly lax regulatory climate. Business apologists complain when the occasional deal — such as the attempted mergers of Sysco and US Foods, and Comcast and Time Warner Cable — is blocked, but the fact is that a large portion of proposed combinations face little opposition. And when regulators do protest, they can often been placated with relatively minor concessions, such as the requirement that Dollar Tree sell off only 330 out of the more than 8,000 outlets in the Family Dollar chain.

These corporate combinations are all about profit. In a country that claims to revere free competition, large corporations tend to move in the opposite direction: they want to control markets. While human marriages, as Justice Kennedy put it, are all about dignity, these business unions are about power and are thus one kind of marriage we should not be celebrating.

Dual Perils Confront the ACA

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

scylla-and-charybdis-bookpalaceThe Affordable Care Act is a Rube Goldberg-like contraption based on both private-sector competition and government subsidies. Both of those elements are in danger of collapse.

The disappearance of the federal subsidies that enable millions of lower-income people to purchase the coverage they are now required to have is, of course, a possible outcome of an imminent Supreme Court ruling. It is mind-boggling that the King v. Burwell case, a brazen effort by diehard Obamacare opponents to exploit an obvious drafting error in the ACA, has gone this far and might actually succeed. It says a lot about the mangled state of public policy in this country that we see a front-page story in the New York Times about the growing panic among conservatives that they might win and be held responsible for the ensuing chaos. Apparently, they forgot there is a difference between taking meaningless votes in the House and bringing a case to a high court with a significant contingent of Justices inclined to take ideological posturing seriously.

Also at risk is the system in which private insurance carriers are supposed to compete against one another to provide coverage in the exchanges to their expanded pool of captive customers. In many places, that competition was not very robust to begin with, but now it may become even more diminished.

According to reports in the business press, the biggest for-profit health insurance companies are looking to gobble up their slightly smaller rivals. The Wall Street Journal says UnitedHealth Group has its eye on Aetna, which in turn is said to be exploring some form of cooperation with Humana, whose success in selling supplementary insurance to Medicare enrollees is attractive. At the same time, the Journal reports, Anthem has been in negotiations with Cigna, which is also said to be talking to Humana.

We can see where all this is going. Unless antitrust regulators show some backbone, the current private health insurance oligopoly could turn into a duopoly. The non-profit portion of the market does not provide much help. The 37 independently owned companies that make up the Blue Cross and Blue Shield network are increasingly inclined to divvy up markets and avoid competing with one another, according to lawsuits now pending in federal court. The litigation charges that the behavior of the Blues, some of which are controlled by for-profits such as Anthem, is driving up premium costs for customers while at the same time pushing down payment rates for physicians and other healthcare providers. These predatory practices threaten both the ACA and traditional employer-provided plans.

In the eyes of the Administration, the big insurers are the good guys. Initially suspicious of the ACA, the companies came to accept the law and even turned into major boosters. They embraced ACA’s Medicaid expansion component, seeing opportunities for managed care business in some states, and supported the Administration’s position in King v. Burwell. A SCOTUS ruling in the other direction would take a big hit on their soaring stock prices.

That’s where mainstream healthcare reform has left us — caught between predatory insurance providers on the one side and nihilistic ideologues on the other.

Resisting Oligopoly

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

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.

Tarnished Heroes of the Drug Industry

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

tevaGeneric drugmakers are supposed to be the heroes of the pharmaceutical business, injecting a dose of competition in what is otherwise a highly concentrated industry and thus putting restraints on the price-gouging tendencies of the brand-name producers.

Just recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved a generic version of Copaxone, paving the way for the first multiple sclerosis medication that is not wildly overpriced.

Yet some generic producers are acting too much like Big Pharma. Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals just announced a $40 billion offer for its rival Mylan NV, which had recently made its own bid for another drugmaker, Perrigo. A marriage of Teva and Mylan would create the world’s largest generic drugmaker with more than $30 billion in revenue from customers in 145 countries.

Bigger would not be better, at least for customers. A stock analyst told the New York Times: “Last year taxes were one of the main drivers,” referring to deals in which Mylan and Perrigo reincorporated abroad to avoid federal taxes and Pfizer sought to do the same. “Now the main driver is getting bigger. Getting bigger gives you better pricing and better leverage.”

Even before the Mylan deal, Teva’s shining armor has been getting tarnished. Recently, its subsidiary Cephalon agreed to pay $512 million to settle allegations that it made questionable payments to other generic producers to keep their cheaper versions of the narcolepsy drug Provigil off the market.

Last year the Federal Trade Commission sued Teva and AbbVie for colluding to delay the introduction of a lower-priced version of the testosterone replacement drug AndroGel. While AbbVie filed what the agency called “baseless patent infringement lawsuits,” it also entered into an “anticompetitive pay-for-delay” deal with Teva. Mylan’s record also has blemishes. It once had to pay $147 million to settle price-fixing allegations.

A weakening of the deterrent power of generics is troubling at a time when the brand-name producers remain sluggish in their introduction of new drugs and are doing everything possible to milk their existing offerings. Their idea of innovation seems focused these days on what are known as “biosimilars,” close copies of certain brand-name drugs that are somewhat less expensive but much more costly than traditional generics. In March the FDA approved the first biosimilar, a cancer drug called Zarxio made by Sandoz. Pfizer indicated its intention to compete in this arena by announcing plans to acquire biosimilar pioneer Hospira.

Rising drug costs are, of course, a concern not only for individuals but also for taxpayers. The Medicare program, which thanks to the Bush Administration and Congress cannot negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, now spends about $76 billion a year providing drug benefits.

To be fair, Part D costs in recent years have been lower than the Congressional Budget Office had previously projected, but the CBO attributed the difference in large part to the increased use of generics. If generic producers continue to consolidate — and collude with brand-name producers — those savings will evaporate and we will be completely at the mercy of Big Pharma.

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New Resource: Greenpeace has introduced the Anti-Environmental Archives, a collection of thousands of documents on the efforts of corporations and their surrogates to undermine the environmental movement and government regulation.

Taking the Anti Out of Antitrust

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

brewopolyThe early episodes of the new Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts showing on PBS highlight Teddy’s role as a trust-buster, even addressing the debate between those like TR who wanted to more strictly regulate the giant conglomerates and those who wanted to dismantle them.

Today, much of the “anti” seems to have gone out of antitrust, as little in the way of either regulation or dismemberment is on the agenda. Some of the largest players in already highly concentrated industries have no compunction about trying to take over one another and grow larger still. They take it for granted that such combinations will be sanctioned outright or with cosmetic changes to make the outcomes slightly less anti-competitive.

The latest example of one big fish seeking to swallow another is the reported pursuit by Anheuser-Busch InBev of fellow beer leviathan SABMiller. Those who reach for a Bud or a Miller Lite may not realize that those familiar beverages are no longer all-American products. Anheuser-Busch InBev is a Belgian-Brazilian company that took its name after acquiring A-B in 2008 for more than $50 billion. The combined firm grew much larger after buying Mexico’s Grupo Modelo in 2013. Today AB InBev has more than 200 beer brands around the world and some $43 billion in annual revenue.

Its target, London-based SABMiller, is the result of the 2002 purchase of Miller Brewing by South African Breweries. In 2008 SABMiller created a joint venture with Molson Coors (a 2005 marriage) called MillerCoors to sell their brands together in the United States.

The combination of AB InBev and SABMiller would take an already super-concentrated industry and make competition even more of a joke. Sure, there are a few independents left — such as Pabst, Yuengling and Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams — but they would be up against a company with more than three-quarters of the U.S. market.

AB InBev’s move is just the latest in a series of takeover attempts among companies that are already effective oligopolies. In July, number two U.S. tobacco company Reynolds American announced plans to acquire number three, Lorillard. Dollar General, the largest deep-discount retailer, is seeking to purchase the second-largest, Family Dollar, thereby overturning a deal to acquire that firm by Dollar Tree, the third largest player. Earlier, Sysco announced it would purchase rival distribution giant US Foods.

Not every deal goes through: Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox dropped its bid for Time Warner and Sprint abandoned its bid for T-Mobile. Comcast, one hopes, will not succeed in its attempt to take over Time Warner Cable. But the fact that these deals were even floated is an indication that mergers that were once unthinkable are now considered serious possibilities.

All this is good news for investment bankers, who have been celebrating the fact that merger activity in the first half of 2014 was the highest in seven years and shows no signs of abating. But it does little for the rest of us.

Increased concentration tends to reduce employment, prop up prices, restrict consumer choices and discourage innovation. There was a time when employees of oligopolies had an easier time winning wage increases, but the weakening of labor unions has largely eliminated even that limited benefit.

Such drawbacks were known at the time of Teddy Roosevelt and became only clearer during the following decades. Today these lessons are frequently forgotten. A country that supposedly celebrates free competition instead bows to the desire of large corporations to absorb their competitors and dictate terms to the market. J.P. Morgan’s arrogant statement “I owe the public nothing,” is echoed every time one of these megadeals is announced.

Real Abuses, Sham Reforms

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

bosses_900It is now a full century since the Progressive Era ended some of the worst abuses of concentrated economic power. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.   It is 103 years since the dissolution of the Standard Oil trust, 108 years since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Yet even a casual reading of the business news these days suggests that we live in an economy disturbingly similar to the age of the robber barons.

Back then, the trusts shifted their incorporation to states such as New Jersey and Delaware that were willing to rewrite their business laws to accommodate the needs of oligopolies. Today large corporations are reincorporating themselves in foreign tax havens to dodge taxes. The practice is reaching epidemic proportions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Back then, unscrupulous drug companies and meatpackers sold adulterated products that could sicken or even kill their customers. Today General Motors is caught in a growing scandal about ignition switch defects that resulted in at least 13 deaths. The news about the automaker’s recklessness grows worse by the day, with the New York Times now reporting that company withheld information from federal regulators about the cause of fatal accidents.

Back then, wheeler-dealers such as James Fisk peddled dubious securities in companies that later collapsed, impoverishing investors. Today we’re still trying to get over the impact of the toxic mortgage-backed securities that the big banks packaged and sold during the housing bubble. Just the other day, Citigroup became the latest of those banks to settle charges brought by the Justice Department. Yet the $7 billion extracted from Citi, like the amounts obtained from the other banks, will cause little pain for the mammoth institution and will thus do little to deter future misconduct. The provision in the settlement for “consumer relief” is too little, too late.

And, of course, back then, the trusts got to be trusts by eliminating their competition. Today concentration is alive and well. Recently, the second largest U.S. tobacco company, Reynolds American, proposed a takeover of Lorillard, the number three in the industry. If this deal goes through, it won’t be long before Reynolds tries to marry Altria/Philip Morris, putting virtually the entire carcinogenic industry in the hands of one player, the way it was a century ago during the reign of the American Tobacco Company, aka the Tobacco Trust.

The movement toward a Media Trust just accelerated with the revelation that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, already huge, is seeking to take over Time Warner. The deal would put a mind-boggling array of entertainment properties under one roof. Murdoch offered to sell off Time Warner’s CNN – a meaningless concession given that the news network has struggled to survive against Murdoch’s despicable Fox News. Murdoch’s move comes as another media octopus, Comcast, is awaiting approval for its deal to take over Time Warner’s previously spun off cable business.

While we have all too many indications of a new Gilded Age, still scarce are signs of an effective response. We’ve got a good amount of muckraking journalism and a fair number of people (and even a few elected officials) who calls themselves progressives. Yet somehow this does not add up to a movement that can take a real bite out of corporate crime.

Part of the problem is that many of those in power professing progressive values are not serious about challenging corporate power. Some historians argue that the original Progressives were, like the New Dealers who came later, mainly concerned with saving capitalism from itself rather than changing the system. Yet they still managed to impose significant restrictions on big business through antitrust and other forms of regulation.

Today’s progressive officials often seem to want nothing more than to give the appearance of reform. That’s the story at the Justice Department, which has raised settlement levels and extracted some token guilty pleas but still allows corporations to buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, antitrust enforcement is tepid, and as the GM case increasingly shows, regulation is often a joke.

A resurgence of robber-baron behavior requires real, not sham reform.

Liar’s LIBOR

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Mainstream economics would have us believe that interest rates are determined by the “invisible hand” of the market, except on those occasions when the Federal Reserve or other central banks intervene to modulate borrowing costs. One of the benefits of the current scandal embroiling the British bank Barclays is that it reveals the flimsy and fishy nature of one of the key rate-setting mechanisms of the global financial system.

That mechanism is the British Bankers’ Association’s London Interbank Offered Rate, an interest rate index that has been around since the 1980s. While LIBOR’s primary function is to represent what it costs big banks to borrow from one another over the short term, it has become the linchpin of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial transactions ranging from complex interest-rate swaps to adjustable-rate home mortgages.

One would think that something so crucial to the efficient functioning of capitalism would be determined in a rigorous way. LIBOR rates, it turns out, are assembled in a remarkably arbitrary manner. They are based on figures submitted each day by major banks on what they think they would have to pay at that time to borrow in ten different currencies for 15 different periods of time. The upper and lower ends of the range are removed before the actual index is calculated by Thomson Reuters on behalf of the bankers’ association, but the figures are still based on what the banks decide to report as their perceptions.

While there has been debate since the beginning about the use of perceptions rather than actual transactions, serious questions about the integrity of LIBOR date back to the early stages of the financial meltdown in 2008. In April of that year the Wall Street Journal noted growing concerns that banks, whose individual LIBOR figures are made public, were adjusting those submissions downward to disguise the fact that their increasingly shaky condition was forcing them to pay higher rates for short-term loans.

The Journal then published its own analysis concluding that banks such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, to avoid looking desperate for cash, had been reporting significantly lower borrowing costs to LIBOR than what other indicators suggested should have been the case.

By 2011, LIBOR discrepancies had moved from the realm of financial analysis to that of government oversight. The Swiss bank UBS disclosed that its LIBOR submissions were being reviewed by U.S. and Japanese regulators, and there were reports that other institutions were involved in the probes. It soon emerged that a group of megabanks were being investigated in various countries for colluding to manipulate the LIBOR rate. This, in turn, prompted a wave of lawsuits filed by institutional investors as well as by municipal governments whose interest rate swaps became less beneficial because of artificially low LIBOR rates.

Barclays is the first bank to be penalized for LIBOR shenanigans. The $453 million it is paying to U.S. and U.K. regulators to settle the case is more an embarrassment than a serious financial burden. Moreover, no executives or traders were charged, despite the smoking-gun emails quoted in the UK Financial Services Authority’s summary of the case. And, in an arrangement that is standard operating procedure for corporate miscreants these days, Barclays negotiated a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that allows it to avoid a criminal conviction.

It was satisfying to see the bank’s CEO Robert Diamond (phot0) forced to resign after the revelation of evidence suggesting that senior executives knew very well what was going on with the LIBOR manipulation. (Diamond, an American, also had to step down as a co-host of a fundraising event in London for Mitt Romney.) Yet we then had to put up with the ridiculous spectacle of Diamond testifying to a parliamentary committee that regulators were partly to blame.

The highlight of the hearing was when Labour MP John Mann told Diamond: “Either you were complicit, grossly negligent or incompetent.” After a pause, Diamond asked. “Is there a question?”

There is no question that the big banks are corrupt and that an interest-rate-setting system that depends on honest reporting by representatives of those institutions has no legitimacy.

A Rogues Gallery of the One Percent

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

For the past 30 years, Forbes magazine has used its annual list of the 400 richest Americans as a platform for celebrating the wealthy. This year, amid the persistent jobs crisis and the growing challenge posed by the Occupy movement, the Forbes list has to be viewed in a different light. Rather than a scorecard of success, it comes across as a rogues gallery of the 1 Percent who have hijacked the U.S. economy.

Start with the overall numbers. Combined, the 400 are worth an estimated $1.5 trillion, up 12 percent from the year before. This at a time when both the net worth and annual income of the typical American household have been sinking. When the first Forbes list was published in 1982 there were only about a dozen billionaires. Today, every single member of the 400 has a ten-figure fortune. Their average net worth is $3.8 billion.

And where did this wealth come from? Forbes tries to justify the skyrocketing assets of the 400 by saying that “an alltime-high 70% are self-made…This is the working elite.” New riches may indeed be better than inherited wealth, but how did this “elite” climb the ladder of success?

The question is all the more pertinent, given the current inclination of conservatives to refer to the wealthy as “job-creators” as a way of rebuffing efforts to get the plutocrats to pay their fair share of taxes.

How much job creation can be attributed to the Forbes 400? In a chart on Sources of Wealth, the magazine notes that the largest single “industry” is investments, accounting for the fortunes of 96 of the 400. By contrast, manufacturing, which is more labor intensive, is listed as the source for only 17 of the tycoons.

Within the investments category, about one-sixth of the people in the top 100 made their fortunes from hedge funds, private equity and leveraged buyouts—activities that are more likely to result in the destruction than the creation of jobs. For example, Sam Zell (net worth: $4.7 billion) was ruthless in laying off workers after his takeover of the Tribune newspaper company.

Forbes no doubt would respond by pointing to the 48 people on the list who got fabulously wealthy from the technology sector. Yet many of these companies create very few jobs: Facebook, which made Mark Zuckerberg worth $17.5 billion, has only about 2,000 employees. Or, like Apple, which gave the late Steve Jobs a $7 billion fortune, they create most of their jobs abroad in low-wage countries such as China rather than manufacturing their gadgets in the United States. The same is now true for Dell—source of Michael Dell’s $15 billion fortune—which has closed most of its U.S. assembly operations.

The few people on the list who are associated with large-scale job creation in the United States got rich from a company known for paying lousy wages and fighting unions. Christy Walton and her immediate family enjoy a net worth of more than $24 billion deriving from the notorious Wal-Mart retail empire (other Waltons are worth billions more). The Koch Brothers ($25 billion) are bankrolling the effort to weaken collective bargaining rights and thereby depress wage levels, while satellite TV pioneer Stanley Hubbard ($1.9 billion) has been an outspoken critic of labor unions and was an aggressive campaigner against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Poor job creation performance and anti-union animus are not the only sins of the 400 and their companies. Some of them have a checkered record when it comes to other aspects of accountability and good corporate behavior.

Start at the top of the list. Bill Gates, whose $59 billion net worth makes him the richest individual in the United States, is known today mainly for his philanthropic activities. Yet it was not long ago that Gates was viewed as a modern-day robber baron and Microsoft was being prosecuted by the European Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and some 20 states for anti-competitive practices. In the 1990s there were widespread calls for the company to be broken up, but Microsoft reached a controversial settlement with the Bush Administration that kept it largely intact.

Today it is Google, whose founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are estimated by Forbes to be worth $16.7 billion, that is at the center of accusations of monopolistic practices.

Amazon.com, headed by Jeff Bezos ($19.1 billion), has fought against the efforts of a variety of state governments to get the online retailer to collect sales taxes from its customers. By failing to collect taxes on most transactions, Amazon gains an advantage over its brick-and-mortar competitors but deprives states of billions of dollars in badly needed revenue.

Cleaning products giant S.C. Johnson & Son, the source of the combined $11.5 billion fortune of the Johnson family, recently admitted that it has used aggressive tax avoidance practices to the extent that it pays no corporate income taxes at all in its home state of Wisconsin. Forbes ignores this issue, but instead describes in detail the criminal sexual molestation charges that have been filed against one member of the family.

And then there are the environmental offenders, such as Ira Rennert ($5.9 billion.) His Renco Group was for years one of the country’s biggest polluters, and the Peruvian lead smelter of his Doe Run operation is one of the most hazardous sites in the world.

This is only a small sampling of the transgressions of the 400 and their companies. Rather than being hailed as job creators, they should be made to answer for their job destruction, their tax avoidance, their anti-competitive practices, their environmental violations and much more.  Rather than celebration, the Forbes 400 and the rest of the 1 Percent are in need of investigation.

The Price Fix Is Still In

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Matt Damon in The Informant!

Free market ideologues love to quote Adam Smith, but one passage from The Wealth of Nations that they tend to downplay is Smith’s observation that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Americans today tend to think of price-fixing as a characteristic of the age of the Robber Barons and something that was dealt with by the Progressive movement. It is true that many anti-competitive practices were outlawed by the 1890 Sherman Act and the 1914 Clayton Act, but those laws did not put an end to attempts by corporations and their executives to keep prices artificially high.

Subsequent decades saw major revelations about price-fixing cartels, such as the big electrical equipment industry conspiracy of the 1950s and early 1960s in which companies such as General Electric were implicated. The 1990s saw, for example, the revelation of a conspiracy by companies such as Archer Daniels Midland to fix the price of the animal feed additive lysine. Unfortunately, what many people may recall of that case has now been colored by the comic way it was depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Informant!

A spate of recent cases shows that, even at a time of purported hyper-competition, price-fixing conspiracies are still with us:

  • Furukawa Electric Co. Ltd. just agreed to plead guilty and pay a $200 million fine to the Justice Department for its role in a criminal price-fixing and bid-rigging conspiracy involving the sale of parts to automobile manufacturers. Three Furukawa executives, who are Japanese nationals, agreed to plead guilty and serve prison time in the United States ranging from one year to 18 months.
  • Former executives from Panasonic, Whirlpool and Tecumseh Products were recently indicted in federal court on charges that they conspired to fix the prices of refrigerant compressors. Earlier, Panasonic and a Whirlpool subsidiary pleaded guilty to related charges and were sentenced to pay a combined fine of $140 million.
  • Another Japanese company, Bridgestone, agreed recently to plead guilty and pay a $28 million criminal fine to the Justice Department for its role in conspiracies to rig bids and to make corrupt payments to foreign government officials in Latin America related to the sale of marine hose and other products.
  • More than a dozen carriers, including Singapore Airlines, have been caught up in an investigation of a conspiracy to fix air freight prices for shipments going to and from the United States.

Although Asian companies seem to have predilection for price-fixing, U.S. firms are not immune. During recent months the Justice Department has obtained guilty pleas from domestic firms such as aftermarket automobile light distributors in California and ready-mix concrete companies in Iowa.

As in the refrigerant compressor case cited above and the 1990s lysine case, U.S. firms often join with their foreign “competitors” in the conspiracies. The big European paraffin cartel that came to light in 2008 involved secret meetings at a moat-ringed French chateau with representatives of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol of Spain and Sasol of South Africa. European antitrust officials fined Procter & Gamble along with Unilever earlier this year for fixing prices of laundry detergent.

At a time of modest inflation, including falling prices for some popular electronic products, it may be tempting to brush aside price-fixing as an insignificant problem. The fact that the conspiracies often involve industrial components means that consumers do not readily see the effects of anti-competitive practices.

Price-fixing does have an impact. A survey by John M. Connor of Purdue University found that over the long run price-fixing cartels result in overcharges of more than 20 percent.

The fact that price-fixing is still a frequent occurrence is yet another rebuttal to those libertarian and laissez-faire types who insist that government regulation of business is unnecessary and counter-productive. We can’t forget the lesson learned by the Progressive movement more than a century ago: Left to their own devices, large corporations will not act in the public interest and will even undermine the very principle of competition on which capitalism is supposed to be based.

A Good Merger for a Change

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition of its smaller cell-phone rival T-Mobile has been widely criticized as anti-competitive and bad for consumers. Normally, I would be joining in such a chorus, but this is a special case.

Giant mergers are usually bad news not only for consumers but also for workers, especially if they happen to be unionized. Acquisitions are typically followed by layoffs and sometimes by efforts to bust unions at the firm being purchased. This was seen, for instance, after the acquisition of Northwest Airlines by Delta, which has been accused of intimidating flight attendants and other Northwest workers into decertifying their unions last year.

A very different dynamic is at work in the T-Mobile/AT&T deal. This is a rare instance in which the acquiring company has a vastly better labor relations record than the target.

Let’s start with T-Mobile. The cell phone provider, owned by Deutsche Telekom, has aggressively opposed an organizing drive launched by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) after the German company entered the U.S. market a decade ago. The company’s anti-union crusade, not widely reported in the mainstream media, has employed the usual techniques of targeting workers with propaganda, misinformation, captive meetings and warnings that unionization would lead to job losses.

What makes T-Mobile’s practices all the more egregious is that Deutsche Telekom has good relations with unions in Germany. It is one of numerous European companies that operate under a global double standard: cooperating with unions at home while fighting them tooth and nail in the United States. It was one of those firms singled out in a report issued last year by Human Rights Watch with the title A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations.

The report charges that “T-Mobile USA’s harsh opposition to workers’ freedom of association in the  United States betrays Deutsche Telekom’s purported commitment to social responsibility, impedes constructive dialogue with employee representatives, and in several cases, has violated ILO and OECD labor and human rights standards.”

These findings reinforced the conclusions of an earlier report written by John Logan for the American Rights at Work Education Fund.

Consider, by contrast, the case of AT&T, which in its current incarnation is the result of the 2006 recombination of various parts of the old Bell system that had been broken up in 1984. Its mobile phone business is what was previously known as Cingular Wireless.

Before the creation of the new AT&T, Cingular had adopted a policy of strict neutrality with regard to union organizing drive—the stance that the law requires but which is rarely adhered to by U.S. employers. That policy carried over into AT&T, which in 2007 was honored by American Rights at Work for its enlightened labor practices. A report issued by the group at the time quoted an AT&T executive as saying that the company “has long taken pride in our cooperative and respectful relationship with the unions that represent our employees.”

In keeping with this position, AT&T recently told a reporter from BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscribers only) that it would maintain strict neutrality regarding union organizing after acquiring T-Mobile. This means that an estimated 23,000 T-Mobile employees would have an excellent chance of finally gaining union representation.

It is thus no surprise that CWA and the AFL-CIO have voiced support for the merger. This should not be viewed as a matter of narrow self-interest. The remarkable response to Wisconsin’s attack on union rights has revived the old labor solidarity principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. A corollary to that is that a boon to the rights of one group of workers is a boon to all.

The achievement of collective bargaining rights by 20,000-plus T-Mobile employees would be one of the largest labor gains in the U.S. private sector in many years and could serve as an important lesson about the willingness of workers to embrace unions when management thuggery is taken out of the picture.

Also keep in mind that if AT&T does not acquire T-Mobile, it might end up in the hands of the other industry giant, Verizon Wireless, which also has a dismal record on labor relations.

All this is not to discount the concerns of consumer groups. The fact that AT&T is union-friendly does not give it a pass in other areas. It wouldn’t hurt if the CWA works with consumer groups to be sure that AT&T does not abuse its bigger position in the market.

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