The Big and the Bad

Proposed new guidelines on merger enforcement just released by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department are a welcome development. In many industries, takeovers have put U.S. consumers at the mercy of a small number of mega-corporations all too willing to use their market power aggressively.

DOJ and FTC have put forth 13 guidelines under which the agencies could block mergers that eliminate substantial competition, increase concentration, entrench or extend a dominant position and so forth. Mergers that substantially lessen competition for workers could also be targeted.

Along with the market benefits that would come from slowing consolidation (reduction in the number of firms in an industry) and concentration (increase in the share of business activity controlled by a small number of large firms), this new aggressive posture could also help to restrain the growth of corporate misconduct.

The reason is that as corporations grow larger and more dominant they seem to become more inclined to break the rules—not only the rules against price-fixing but also those concerning labor standards, environmental protection, transportation safety and much more. Evidence for this can be found in the data collected in Violation Tracker.

A prime example is the financial services sector. The country’s four largest banks—JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo—account for $180 billion in cumulative penalties since 2000. This is nearly half of the penalties paid by all of the 330 parent companies in this sector covered by Violation Tracker.

Penalty concentration is even greater in the petroleum industry, where the top five oil companies—Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips—are responsible for cumulative penalties of $42 billion. That is three-quarters of the $55 billion paid by all the companies in the sector.

Big Tech giants Meta Platforms, Alphabet and Microsoft have cumulative penalties of $9 billion, which is 60 percent of the total paid by entire the information technology sector. (This excludes, which is categorized in Violation Tracker as a retailer, and Apple Inc., which is put in the electronics category.)

Tyson Foods, JBS (the Brazilian parent of Swift and Pilgrim’s Pride), and WH Group (the Chinese parent of Smithfield Foods), which dominate meat and poultry processing, account for $1 billion in penalties, while leading packaged food companies PepsiCo, Mondelez International, Kraft Heinz and ConAgra account for another $435 million. Together they are responsible for about 40 percent of the $3.7 billion in penalties paid by the food products sector overall.

In other industries such as motor vehicles and airlines there are few significant companies, so penalties are also highly concentrated among them.

This is not to say that mega-corporations have a monopoly on misconduct. Many of the more than 500,000 cases documented in Violation Tracker involve small firms.

Yet their misdeeds usually have a limited impact, whereas the transgressions of the godzillas of the business world cause the most harm to workers, consumers and communities. Preventing large companies from becoming even larger and more dominant will help limit these harms.