The 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.