Posts tagged ‘anti-trust’

Politicians Will Burn Down Anything That Is Good Just To Get Their Name In The News

Via Zero Hedge:

a group of 12 Democratic Congressman have signed a letter urging the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a more in-depth review of e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc.'s plan to buy grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., according to Reuters.

Rumblings that Amazon is engaging in monopolistic business practices resurfaced last week when the top Democrat on the House antitrust subcommittee, David Civilline, voiced concerns about Amazon's $13.7 billion plan to buy Whole Foods Market and urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing to examine the deal's potential impact on consumers.

Making matters worse for the retailer, Reuters reported earlier this week that the FTC is investigating the company for allegedly misleading customers about its pricing discounts, citing a source close to the probe.

The letter is at least third troubling sign that lawmakers are turning against Amazon, even as President Donald Trump has promised to roll back regulations, presumably making it easier for megamergers like the AMZN-WFM tieup to proceed.

It is difficult even to communicate how much Amazon has improved my life.  I despise going to stores, and Amazon allows me the pick of the world's consumer products delivered to my home for free in 2 days.  I love it.  So of course, politicians now want to burn it down.

I say this because the anti-trust concerns over the Whole Foods merger have absolutely got to be a misdirection.  Whole Foods has a 1.7% share in groceries and Amazon a 0.8%.  Combined they would be the... 7th largest grocery retailer and barely 1/7 the size of market leader Wal-Mart, hardly an anti-trust issue.  So I can only guess that this anti-trust "concern" is merely a pretext for getting a little bit of press for attacking something that has been successful.

The actual letter is sort of hilarious, in it they say in part:

in the letter, the group of Democratic lawmakers – which includes rumored presidential hopeful Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey – worried that the merger could negatively impact low-income communities. By putting other grocers out of business, the Amazon-backed WFM could worsen the problem of “food deserts,” areas where residents may have limited access to fresh groceries.  "While we do not oppose the merger at this time, we are concerned about what this merger could mean for African-American communities across the country already suffering from a lack of affordable healthy food choices from grocers," the letter said on Thursday.

Umm, the Amazon model is being freed from individual geographic locations so that everyone can be served regardless of where they live.  This strikes me as the opposite of "making food deserts worse."  It is possible that Amazon might not deliver everywhere at first, and is more likely to deliver to 90210 than to Compton in the first round of rollouts.  But either they do deliver to a poor neighborhood, and improve choices, or they don't, and thus have a null effect.  And it is really sort of hilarious worrying that new ownership of Whole Foods, of all groceries, is going to somehow devastate poor neighborhoods.

By the way, if I were an Amazon shareholder, I would be tempted to challenge Bezos on his ownership of the Washington Post.  In a free society, he is welcome to own such a business and have that paper take whatever editorial stands he wishes.  However, we do not live in a fully free society.  As shown in this story, politicians like to draw attention to themselves by using legislation and regulation to gut successful companies, particularly ones that tick them off personally.  In this case:

So far, it’s mostly Democrats who are urging the FTC to take “a closer look” at the deal. However, some suspect that Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s ownership of the Washington Post – a media outlet that has published dozens of embarrassing stories insinuating that Trump and his compatriots colluded with Russia to help defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton – could hurt the company’s chances of successfully completing the merger, as its owner has earned the enmity of president Trump. Similar concerns have dogged CNN-owner Time Warner’s pending merger with telecoms giant AT&T.

 

EU Fines Google in a Dose of Net Neutrality Schadenfreude

Via engadget:

The European Commission's long-running investigation into Google has finally come to an end, and it's not good news for the search giant. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed today that the company has been fined €2.42 billion ($2.72 billion) for unfairly directing users to its own products rather over those of its rivals. It's the biggest financial penalty the Commission has ever handed out, eclipsing the €1.06 billion ($1.4 billion) charge incurred by Intel back in 2014.

In a statement, Vestager said: "Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

Via calls for "net neutrality"** in this country, Google has been arguing that ISPs must act as common carriers of its content and must ignore the fact that nearly half of all US ISP bandwidth investment is used without compensation to support the business model of just two content providers (Google and Netflix).  Google does not want ISP's to somehow favor other content providers over themselves, even though these others cost orders of magnitude less to serve than does Google's Youtube division.

Well, as I wrote before, the EU is bringing karmic justice to Google via this decision.

Hah!  I think this is a terrible decision that has nothing to do with economic sanity or even right and wrong -- it has to do with the EU's frequent historic use of anti-trust law as a way to bash foreign competition of its domestic providers, to the detriment of its consumers.  But it certainly is Karma for Google.  The EU is demanding that Google's search engine become a common carrier, showing content from shopping sites equally and without favor or preference.  The EU is demanding of Google exactly what Google is demanding of ISP's, and wouldn't you know it, I don't think they are going to like it.

** I put "net neutrality" in scare quotes because I think it is a term that means exactly the opposite of what it says.  Neutrality is what we had 2 years ago, with no regulation that favored either content providers or bandwidth providers in the typical negotiations and back-and-forth that occurs in every supply chain.  "Net neutrality" actually means tipping the scales and being non-neutral in favor of content providers over ISP's.

As A Reward for Introducing Price Competition into the Taxi Monopoly, Uber Gets Sued for Price Fixing

From Engadget:

After failing to get a class-action lawsuit dismissed, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will go to court over price fixing claims. A US district court judge in New York ruled Kalanick has to face the class of passengers alleging that he conspired with drivers to set fares using an algorithm, including hiking rates during peak hours with so-called surge pricing. According to Reuters, district court judge Jed Rakoff ruled the plaintiffs "plausibly alleged a conspiracy" to fix pricing and that the class action could also pursue claims the set rates led to the demise other services, like Sidecar.

I guess this is the downside of calling all their drivers independent contractors -- it leads Uber potentially being vulnerable to accusations of price fixing among these contractors.  Of course, taxi cartels have been fixing prices for decades, but that is government-assisted price-fixing so I suppose that is OK.   It would be ironic that the first price competition introduced into the taxi business in decades is killed based on antitrust charges.

As with just about all modern anti-trust cases, this has little to do with consumer well-being and more about the well-being of supply chain participants (ie the drivers) and competitors (ie Sidecar and taxis).

Achievement Unlocked: Banned by Mother Jones

Not really sure what I did to reach this achievement, but somehow I got banned in the last 2 days by Mother Jones, and probably by Kevin Drum.   My comment history is here, and I am totally perplexed what led to this.  My last comment was on a post of Drum's about hospital price competition, where I wrote:

The authors portray this (at least in the quoted material) as an anti-trust issue, but I suspect a bigger problem is the cronyist certificate of need process. In many locations, new hospitals, or hospital expansions (even things as small as buying a new cat scanner) require government permission in the form of a certificate of need. As one may imagine, entrenched incumbents are pretty good at managing this process to make sure they get no new competition. This, by the way, is a product of classic progressive thinking, which in its economic ignorance saw competition as duplicative and wasteful. We are lucky the Supreme Court shot down FDR's NRA or we would have this sort of mess in every industry.

Hard to believe this got me banned, unless Mother Jones has gotten really thin-skinned.   The second to last comment I made there was actually in support of Mother Jones, congratulating them on winning a libel suit against them.   The most recent one before that was over 2 months ago.  This leads me to believe the comment above had to have gotten me banned, but the mind boggles -- did I run into some secret National Industrial Recovery Act fetishist?

Update:  Mr. Drum, who I respect while disagreeing with frequently, was nice enough to write me back and said he didn't ban me, it had to come from Mother Jones staff somewhere.  Which leaves me even more confused.   Not sure why this comment among all the flotsam that washes ashore in the totality of Mother Jones comment sections would earn the ire of some intern.

Life in the Anti-Trust World

Today Apple Computer won the class-action anti-trust case filed against them.  The plaintiffs were seeking a billion dollars in damages (after tripling) for a DRM system (Fairplay) that does not exist any more used on a device (the iPod) that Apple has pretty much phased out.  These products were such a threat to the survival of competitors that they don't even exist any more.  This is not atypical of how anti-trust often plays out in the marketplace, particularly in the technology sphere.  Any day now I will be filing my lawsuit against Commodore for suppressing competition in the home computer market.

Newspapers and Government

I don't have time right now to editorialize in depth, but I found many of the links in this Reason piece on newspaper bailout proposals to be really creepy.  Nothing could be worse for the First Amendment than making news organizations dependent on government largess.   This bit from the Nation is not only totally misguided, but it demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of history, to the point of demonstrating contempt for hist0rical accuracy:

Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. [...]

Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.

Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.

I find the arguments that such intervention is needed because publishing is too expensive and effectively excludes all but the largest players to be hilarious in the Internet age.  The real problem of newspapers is in fact that it has become so cheap to publish, and competition is rampant.  The problem papers are struggling with is not monopoly, but just the opposite -- that their historic monopoly is gone.   (Take yours truly, for example.  With a $10 a month hosting fee and some of my free time, I have a circulation of almost 5,000 per day).

This appears to me to be yet another veiled attempt by current incumbents to use the government to give them a boost against competition.  Murdoch's empire is utterly assailable -- all you have to do is a better job.   The only thing that makes a business position unassailable is government protection or political advantage aimed at selected players.

Which reminds me of an interesting story.  Ben Franklin  (you know, one of those founders that the Nation refers to as horrified by domination of journalism by moneyed interests) is pretty famous for being among the country's first postmasters.  Before the Revolution, he was postmaster of Philadelphia and later one of the lead postmasters for all the colonies.  We all read in school how he did all kinds of innovative things, because Franklin was a freaking smart guy**.

What you may not know is why he sought out the postmaster job.  Ben Franklin was a printer, and a large source of income for him was running a periodical in Philadelphia  (the names changed over time but among them were the Philadelphia Gazette).  At the time, there were no wire services  (and no wires!)  News came via mail.  Franklin actively sought the postmaster job as a way to get special, privileged access to the mail, which he monitized via his publications.   He had fresher news, and he used the mails to deliver his own publication to customers for free  (a right competitors were not granted)  In a strategy that he did not invent (it was fairly common at the time, and in fact he took the Philadelphia job from his main journalistic competitor who had pursued the same strategy) the surest route to success in the newspaper business was to secure an advantaged position via the government, specifically in a postmaster role.

I am perfectly happy not to go back to this model.

** Postscript:  Franklin seldom gets credit in popular literature for the real areas he contributed to science.  Everyone knows the kite in the thunderstorm story, but I always thought this kind of made him look like a goof, rather than a real scientist.  But Franklin did some real theoretical science, for example by describing what was really going on in a Leyden jar, and substantially advancing how scientists thought about electrical charge and capacitance.

The Last Temptation

Nothing makes purity more interesting than temptation.  This applies to ideological purity just as much as the physical sort.  As a libertarian, my greatest temptation to call for government action comes when I deal, as a retailer, with Visa and Mastercard (V/MC).

This post is not a call for government action, so I guess I am resisting temptation.  But I at least need to vent, sort of like a monk pounding his head on the wall after getting the Victoria's Secret catalog in the mail.  So here is my rant.

First, let's start with how credit card companies make their money.  I will confess that I do not know how the card companies (V/MC) and the card processors (often large banks) split the take, so this is how they make money together.  V/MC and the processors charge fees to merchants.  Typically this is a fixed fee per transaction plus a percentage.  On average, a merchant might be paying 2.5-3.5% of a transaction.  The card companies also make money from card holders, charging annual fees, interest fees, etc.

You will have seen of late that most credit cards offer various loyalty programs, from airline miles to cash rebates.  You might have thought those were marketing expenses paid by the credit card companies.  Wrong.  The card companies simply charge merchants a higher fee for processing transactions using these cards.  In a sense, the card companies have organized with card users to use their power to extract extra value from merchants.

All of this I can generally live with.   Visa and MasterCard, through both their credit facility and their implicit standardization, bring enormous value to retailers and customers.  Its a big circular game anyway -- customers get 1% back and think they are getting a deal, merchants pay this extra 1% in fees, and then add it into the price of what they are selling.  It's a wash, except to the extent that customers with reward cards in the end extract a bit of value from customers who pay cash (for reasons explained below).

For this value one must accept the typically arrogant and indifferent customer service provided by any monopoly  (American Express is particularly awful to deal with as a retailer).   But they are no worse to deal with than the government, so its unclear how the government could make the service any better.

What tends to tick me off, though, are rules and restrictions.  Like the creeping work rules in the UAW contract, these are in many ways more insidious than the service and pricing.  Here is what set me off today, from one of my card processors  (in this case Bank of America, which, to be fair, is someone I would recommend for merchant account processing).  Click to enlarge.

visa

So, why are businesses breaking these rules so often?  Let's take a look:

  • No minimum transaction. Remember that V/MC charges a minimum fee, from 10-40 cents or so, per transaction.  So if someone buys a pack of gum in our store, likely 100% of the sales price is going to V/MC.  Typically it takes at least a one dollar total sale for there to be any money left over beyond paying cost of goods sold and the credit card folks.  So merchants logically want to set a minimum.   V/MC hates this practice, but it is rampant.  I plead the fifth on our own practices.
  • Surcharging. Credit card customers cost more than cash customers.  Sure, we get some non-sufficient funds checks, but the eventual cost of these is nowhere near 2.5% of sales.  Merchants logically don't like having their cash customers having to subsidize the frequent flyer rewards of their credit customers.  However, unlike transaction minimums, card processors have mostly been able to drive out cash discounts.
  • Requiring ID and Fraudulent Transactions. I will take these two together, since they are so ironic one after the other.  V/MC is telling merchants that they can't check ID, which is the only reasonable approach to limiting fraud, but that they can't submit fraudulent transactions.  You say that the text says "known fraudulent?"  Well, read on --

To the latter point, I think most people assume that the credit card companies are absorbing the fraud, which is how they justify the fees they charge.  Wrong again.  Credit card companies only absorb credit risk.  Over the last 10+ years, they have pushed fraud back on the retailer.  If a consumer claims fraud on his card with some transaction, then the credit card company refunds the customer and takes the money from the merchant unless the retailer can absolutely prove he made delivery to the consumer personally (which he can't prove because he can't check identification) .  Merchants bear the cost of fraud, not card companies.  Which I could accept (since I have more ability than the card companies to control fraud) expect the card companies ban me from controlling fraud.  So I have to take financial responsibility for something I am not allowed to prevent.  And that really ticks me off.

Anyway, maybe someday we can organize a large merchant boycott, where, even for a day, we all refuse to accept Visa and Mastercard.  Of course we would be breaking the rules, because that is not allowed by our V/MC agreement.

Postscript: I suspect that a few retailers with some power are starting to crack this, at least for themselves.  Costco only takes American Express.  Sams Club only take one card (MC, I think).  My guess is that both, with their large size, bargained for exclusivity in exchange for concessions on fees and/or terms.

Postscript #2: I expect comments like, "Well so-and-so always makes me show an ID."  I don't doubt you.  I am merely saying that by doing so, they have either negotiated an exception to the V/MC agreement (very unlikely, as V/MC holds to these rules like the Maginot Line) or the retailer is breaking the rules.