By: Richard N. Langlois (Truth on the Market)
Market share has long been the talisman of antitrust economics. Once we properly define what “the product” is, all we have to do is look at shares in the relevant market. In such an exercise, today’s high-tech firms come off badly. Each of them has a large share of the market for some “product.” What I appreciate about Nicolas Petit’s notion of “moligopoly” is that it recognizes that genuine competition is a far more complex and interesting phenomenon, one that goes beyond the category of “the product.”
In his chapter 4, Petit lays out how this works with six of today’s large high-tech companies, adding Netflix to the usual Big Five of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. If I understand properly, what he means by “moligopoly” is that these large firms have their hands in many different relevant markets. Because they seem to be selling different “products,” they don’t seem to be competing with one another. Yet, in a fundamental sense, they are very much competing with one another, and perhaps with firms that do not yet exist.
In this view, diversification is at the heart of competition. Indeed, Petit wonders at one point whether we are in a new era of “conglomeralism.” I would argue that the diversified high-tech firms we see today are actually very unlike the conglomerates of the late twentieth century. In my view, the earlier conglomerates were not equilibrium phenomena but rather short-lived vehicles for the radical restructuring of the American economy in the post- Bretton Woods era of globalization. A defining characteristic of those firms was that their diversification was unrelated, not just in terms of the SIC codes of their products but also in terms of their underlying capabilities. If we look only at the products on the demand side, today’s high-tech firms might also seem to reflect unrelated diversification. In fact, however, unlike in the twentieth-century conglomerates, the activities of present-day high-tech firms are connected on the supply side by a common set of capabilities involving the deployment of digital technology…