Slow productivity growth and rising income inequality have shaped the world economy in a time of rapid technological change. A variety of explanations have emerged to help us understand these related trends, but one overarching theme is the decline in competition.
The combination of increasingly concentrated markets, rising market power of large firms, and slowing business dynamism suggest that competition among firms is weakening. The concern is that the rise of dominant firms will hinder the diffusion of technology and exacerbate income inequality.
Adding to these concerns are two key features of the digital economy—the potential for scale with digital platforms and the growing importance of intangible capital—that, by their very nature, lend themselves to bigger and more dominant firms.
These characteristics of the digital economy present challenges on how we think about and implement competition policy. Policies aimed at ensuring a level playing field and fostering a dynamic and inclusive economy will therefore need to adjust to better reflect a growing reality.
Potential for scale with digital platforms
First, market concentration is especially high in markets with large returns to scale and network effects. Going digital can come with high capital expenditures, like setting up data centers and other digital infrastructure. But it also comes with the ability to reproduce digital offerings instantly and at low or zero marginal cost, implying large returns to scale and lower prices for consumers. When network effects are involved, the potential returns to scale are even greater.
The argument for bigger firms in these markets is that consumers are the biggest winners. Free digital services and a plethora of user data used to customize and cross-sell products help raise consumer welfare and offer greater choice. (In some cases, firms controlling “big data” can extract more consumer surplus through sophisticated algorithmic pricing and customization of offerings.)
Small businesses and entrepreneurs also benefit, the argument goes. Digital giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, among others, reduce startup costs for small firms by offering cloud services and open-source software, make it easier to reach distant markets through their platforms, and offer venture funding and financing.
Due in part to the potential to scale up quickly, the threat of disruption is higher in the digital economy than in the past. Many argue that this threat strengthens competition among big firms as well as smaller firms who can unseat the giants (see here, here, and here).
However, it is not so clear that these arguments for bigger firms always hold. Less than one percent of startups end up as $1 billion companies and are often acquired or imitated by the giants along the way. In addition, industry lines are increasingly blurred as big firms leverage their user’s data to offer a broader range of goods and services, providing more valuable data on spending habits, and, ultimately, reinforcing the competitive advantage of big firms across industries.
A challenge for policymakers and regulators comes when assessing who indeed the biggest beneficiaries are. Diane Coyle of the University of Manchester points out that although the network effects of digital platforms produce real economic welfare gains, it is unclear how big those gains are or who captures them. Advertisers also place great value on free services and, as Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik of the University of Chicago notes, users do pay for these services in the form of very valuable information.
More economic tools are needed to quantify consumer benefits in such markets where traditional pricing does not provide the same kind of signals on market power as in other industries. Such assessments would better help policymakers and regulators ensure a level playing field and better distinguish between competitive and anti-competitive behaviors.
Growing importance of intangible capital
A second feature of the digital economy that advantages larger firms is the growing importance of intangible capital.
Unlike tangible capital like buildings and equipment, intangible capital is not physical. It consists of ideas, branding, business processes, software, supplier relationships, licensing agreements, and other immaterial assets that generate value for a firm.
As digitization changes business models, firms are placing greater emphasis on intangibles. In the U.S., U.K., and some European economies, intangible investment already exceeds investment in tangibles.
As Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake describe in their book Capitalism Without Capital, there are four key economic properties of intangible assets that differentiate them from tangibles. Those properties are “scalability” (multiple people can use them simultaneously), “sunkenness” (the cost of producing them is mostly sunk), “spillovers” (easy for others to appropriate), and “synergies” (can be combined effectively).
With these properties, firms can achieve much larger scale, go to great lengths to prevent spillovers to competitors who can appropriate their sunk investments, and acquire other firms with intangible assets that offer synergies (like human capital or branding). Haskel and Westlake argue that these properties help explain the rise of superstar firms, more mergers and acquisitions, and higher market concentration in industries with a larger share of intangible investment.
In industries with greater intangible investment, small firms may have a harder time finding financing to invest and boost productivity. Small firms typically rely on bank lending that often require collateral from borrowers. But intangibles cannot offer physical collateral, are hard to measure, and, in the case of investments in knowledge and research and development, can easily be appropriated by others. These characteristics of intangibles make private equity financing more attractive for intangible-heavy firms, not only to undertake investments in assets where the cost is mostly sunk, but also to have an easier time protecting intellectual property when privately held.
In addition, private equity financing and venture capital for small firms can be difficult to scale up. These difficulties are partly due to the importance of social relationships and the large role of public subsidies in supporting a vibrant venture capital industry, which takes a long time to develop.
Large firms, on the other hand, can use their economies of scale (and buying power to acquire firms) to capture spillovers and exploit synergies. They also more easily attract capital.
Are we headed into an economy dominated by big firms? Even techno-optimists, who believe that it is only a matter of time before the potential for today’s technological advances drive faster growth, are pessimistic on the implications for distribution. Concentrated markets may become the new normal. Policies would need to adjust to ensure level playing fields. In addition, better intellectual property protections, broad and inclusive financing ecosystems, new measurement standards, and greater investment in skills are examples of policies better suited for an intangible economy that is dynamic and inclusive. The possibilities are limitless, but the promise won’t realize itself.