The effects of market power over wages

More and more companies have monopoly power over workers’ wages. That’s killing the economy.

By Suresh Naidu, Eric Posner, and Glen Weyl

 Vox

“For a time, economists believed that labor markets were . . . competitive. But that conventional wisdom was vaporized by a series of empirical studies that suggest that labor market power is real and significant. A number of studies, summarized here, have found, for example, that when wages fall by 1 percent, only about 2 to 3 percent of workers leave, at most.

If labor markets were really competitive, we might expect the figure to be closer to 9 or 10 percent. Other studies have found that employer concentration has been increasing over time and that this concentration is associated with lower wages across labor markets.

. . . .

[G]rowing labor market power may well be a significant explanation of the host of maladies that have beset wealthy countries, notably the United States, in the past few decades: declining growth rates, falling labor share of corporate earnings, rising inequality, falling employment of prime-age men, and persistent and growing government fiscal deficits. It’s remarkable how well labor market power alone can simultaneously explain all these trends.

Many conservative economists blame high taxes for these problems. But inordinately high taxes cannot explain these trends, because tax rates have been cut several times during this period. Nor can globalization and automation. Globalization and automation can help explain why inequality has increased but not why economic growth rates have stagnated: On the contrary, globalization and automation should have increased economic growth (by expanding markets and by reducing the cost of production), not reduced it.”

Read the whole article at Vox

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Democracy and prosperity: What can antitrust do to maintain or create an open economy?

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty” is quite an ambitious book. The authors, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, attempt to put forth a global theory that explains the cause of the differences in prosperity across countries. Granted, there is already substantial work on how many factors, such as low levels of education and corruption, affect income per capita levels and growth rates. The book in question goes, however, to a more fundamental level. Why have some nations been able to overcome these problems and others not? That is the trillion dollar question.

The differences that we see today in income levels across the globe were historically unprecedented before the industrial revolution started in Great Britain. Before that, the whole world was roughly equally poor. After this fateful development, some countries became substantially wealthier than others by adopting the latest production technologies and becoming themselves fertile ground for later frontier innovations. According to the book, at that time, the industrial revolution could only have happened in a country like Great Britain. Why? Because it had generated a virtuous circle of inclusive political and economic institutions. Here, inclusiveness means a regime that allows and encourages the participation of a broad cross-section of society as opposed to a small powerful elite (both in economic and political terms). The more inclusive the participation in political life became, the more inclusive the economic rules of the game, which in turn empowered more people who acquired a saying in what the government did. In the authors’ words, Great Britain broke the mold. Before then, the historical rule had been that of extractive regimes or relatively short-lived, imperfect attempts at inclusiveness (such as the Roman Republic and Venice between the 11th and 13th century). Was the benevolence of British rulers the cause of such a drastic departure from history? According to the book, no.

The explanation is of course somewhat complicated. It all starts with the Black Death, goes through the instauration of the Transatlantic trade, and ends up with the Glorious Revolution. I want to keep it short and also do not want to spoil more of the book so I will not go into much detail on this. The principle behind it all is that these shocks (or critical junctures, as the book calls them) provided an opportunity for some parts of the population who were historically neglected (peasants and merchants) to demand greater rights and representation from the crown. In all of these developments, there is one important element that the authors do not neglect: chance. Great Britain had some luck in coming out of these shocks as a more inclusive society than before.

I think this is enough explanation of the book to set the mood. The point that is worth highlighting in this blog is the part of the book that talks about antitrust. According to the authors, the US antitrust laws played an important role in the time of Standard Oil and the Robber Barons. The prosecution of anticompetitive behavior and monopolization of markets was key in maintaining the US economy open to the entrepreneurial efforts of a broader cross section of society. The book also talks about competition policy matters when it analyzes how the abolition of monopolies in many markets and trade routes in Great Britain in the years leading up to and after the Glorious Revolution allowed it to keep developing a more inclusive and prosperous society.

The point has important implications for what we consider competition law’s role in a society to be. The US antitrust laws were conceived as a tool to halt the rising tide of concentration in the American economy because such a trend was incompatible with democratic values. Later on, these views largely disappeared from antitrust scholarship and case law, though not from other fields of the economics profession. The predominant view now is that consumer welfare (or sometimes overall efficiency), both from a static and dynamic point of view, should guide enforcement activities.

Under the current paradigm, market concentration can be tolerable to the extent that it incentivizes creative destruction, or in other words, innovation efforts to become the next monopoly. To be sure, such a consideration does not always trump static concerns in many important cases. However, and here is where the theory developed in the book comes into play, the incentive of other firms to innovate in order to achieve a dominant position is not the only dynamic effect of market concentration. In addition, monopolies and oligopolies have an incentive to stop or delay innovation through their political influence. In other words, the dynamic effects of monopolies (at least the largest ones) are theoretically ambiguous. On one side we have eager firms who will spend considerable resources to innovate in order to achieve the same profitability of current dominant firms (or current dominant firms trying to maintain their lead); on the other, we have the obstacles that incumbent players could erect thanks to their political power.

The book is full of examples of how regimes in extractive societies explicitly opposed innovation and the adoption of the latest technologies based on the fear of social unrest and, therefore, their hold on power. Russian and Austrian monarchies were reluctant to allow the construction of railroads and the adoption of manufacturing technologies because these led to urban development, and cities made it easier for the people to organize and take action against social injustices.

In most countries with a competition law, it is hard to imagine that politicians can oppose innovation explicitly based on such considerations. The arguments have changed. However, organized interest groups are still able to exert their political influence to shield themselves from competitive pressures.  There is vast theoretical and empirical work that explores how policy is thus shaped.

The role of antitrust in developing countries could then be to support the development of inclusive social and economic institutions. In developed countries, antitrust can be a powerful tool to keep the economy open. How can antitrust authorities achieve this? Certainly not alone but they can do their part. Inclusive political and economic institutions depend on other important areas such as tax policy, social investments (e.g. education, public health, transport, and communications infrastructure), and IP rights.

Some highly complex questions that must be answered based on this are whether it should be anticompetitive that firms lobby to close markets and how much market concentration should be tolerated to keep dynamic incentives to innovate. The answer to neither of them has been uniform across jurisdictions.

The book’s theory is indeed compelling. It will go through a very important test in the medium to long term, namely, through the developments in China. Currently, this nation has been taking steps toward a more central and authoritarian rule. It is possible again for a president to hold power for his entire life. According to the Economist, Xi Jinping is the most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong. If the political situation does not change and China is still able to achieve the levels of prosperity in per capita terms as those experienced in Western Europe and the US, then the book’s hypothesis will suffer a fatal blow. If not, China might still be able to contest the technological supremacy of other nations in some fields (as it also happened in the times of the Soviet Union) but a wealthy society depends on a broader reach of innovative efforts.

I personally think it is highly unlikely that China will achieve, let alone sustain, a high level of prosperity under a ruler that faces little constraints. Even if we assume that Xi Jinping is an enlightened and benevolent statesman, the situation will still be fragile for three reasons (the first two taken from the book): first, there will be strong incentives to overthrow him since getting your hands on such a powerful economy will be incredibly attractive to his detractors, who may not show the same hypothetical restraint; second, even if the first does not happen, there is a high likelihood that an appointed successor, who will be subject to ever fewer restrictions regarding the exercise of power, will start to steer the economy to the benefit of its supporters, which normally has destructive consequences to economic welfare; and third, open dissent and public debate, which are necessary conditions of effective policy making, are utterly incompatible with authoritarian rule. On another level, I think it is still tricky to argue that it is good to live in a prosper society even if most civil liberties are abolished. Though I do not think it will come to that.

The purpose of this discussion is to open a fundamental debate regarding the role of antitrust. Should we go back to basics? i.e. should we apply the antitrust laws so that the functioning of the economy is not incompatible with democratic values (taking into account the positive feedback loop that may exist between both)? or should we leave it to other areas of public policy to guard the gates?

The way the two questions are formulated above implies that there should be some, at least academic, consensus on the need for limiting corporate influence on economic policy. If we assume this, then the question is which is the right policy approach to achieve this result. The book seems to lean toward interventions that aim at market structure. However, a legitimate question is whether other policy options could serve this purpose better. Direct regulation of campaign donations and lobbying activities are a choice. Whether these and structural measures should be substitutes or complements should also be explored. These could be some starting points. The matter is rather complex for one blog post but I leave you with the promise of future analysis.

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Standard economic thinking does not capture consumer behavior quite well

The understanding of complex social problems requires interdisciplinary approaches. In a Project Syndicate article, Ricardo Hausmann describes recent research on how moral psychology can improve current economic models of consumer behavior. This branch of psychology can give better insights on how to predict our economic choices, since we carry out transactions not only with the aim of maximizing our utility but also driven by social norms that are specific to the groups to which we belong or want to belong.[1]

For example, our aspirations and those of our peers may cause our demand to be significantly inelastic to price, which has an important implication for antitrust analysis. Different groups that share common values may constitute different relevant markets. If authorities are able to identify such groups, the information would be useful to know where to look for different price elasticities. This could expand current criteria used to segment relevat markets. Relevant market segmentation is of course a common concept, but the innovative insight would be to look for social norms that determine purchasing behavior across different customer groups.

This line of thinking might also lead us to better understand the potential of a new entrant that offers a product with great social identity appeal (e.g., electric cars). A good reason to buy a Tesla instead of a diesel engine luxury car may not only be our genuine concern for the environment but also our desire to be seen as progressive. In the same way, small shops may be able to survive the onslaught of giants and their economies of scale because a significant group of people may not want to be seen in a Walmart but rather at a local farmers market. Some people may use Uber not only because it is cheaper and convenient but also because they want to be seen as supporters of innovation and technological progress.

In addition, other consumer behavior theories can help us understand advertising within antitrust cases in a different way. If, contrary to standard economic theory, we do not assume stable preferences, advertising can also be regarded as a powerful force that can sway consumer spending (a Don Draper-approved statement) toward a given firm’s output. The effect would not only be due to awareness of a product and its characteristics but because the advertising campaign may be successful in making consumers perceive a brand as compatible with the group that they want to be a part of.

In sum, consumers make decisions not only based on relative prices and qualities but also on who they are and who they want or not want to be. If we want to assess market conditions within antitrust cases more accurately, we should start taking all of this into consideration.

[1] Hausmann describes this as a quiet revolution, but such theories of consumer behavior have been around for a long time. For a brief review, see Swan, Peter (2009). The Economics of Innovation (pp. 187–197). United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing.

 

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Competition Law and Economic Development – A Universal Solution?

This is the topic of a conference that will take place in El Salvador next November the 21st and 22nd, which is organized by the antitrust authority (Competition Superintendence). The event features two of the most influential academics on the topic: Prof. Eleanor Fox of NYU and Prof. Michal Gal of the University of Haifa. Other speakers include competition authority officials from South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, and the US; and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition in Munich.

As we have tried to report in this blog, many developing countries do not follow a conventional approach to the application of antitrust law. A part of the reason behind this is that the authorities share a feeling that their countries have pressing needs that are different from those in the economies in which competition law originated or where it has a longer track record. My home country shares now the same concerns—for which I sadly can’t take any credit—and is organizing the mentioned event in order to 1) obtain inputs on what adjustments it could make to its policy in order to have a greater impact on economic and social development; and 2) disseminate the ideas of researchers that have worked on topics regarding this general theme.

Given 1), the conference will also include roundtables in which practitioners, academics, and staff of various authorities will participate to refine the policy proposals that can come from the research discussed in the conference.

If you are interested in attending, here is the registration form. The audience so far includes attendants from many corners of the world. I will leave you with the event’s lineup.

Speaker Topic
Eleanor Fox Drafting Competition Law in Developing Countries: What Have We Learned (via Skype)
Michal S. Gal General Characteristics of Developing Economies and their Implications for Competition Law (via Skype)
Mor Bakhoum The Impact of Informal Economy on Competition Dynamics in Developing Countries”
Francisco Beneke Entry Analysis and Competition Law in Latin America: Why does Economic Development Matter?
Russel Pittman Competition Policy for Regulated Industries in Developing Countries
João Paulo de Resende Adapting Competition Law to Brazilian Context and its Contribution to BRICS Discussions
Liberty Mncube Beyond Economic Goals in the Application of Competition Law: South Africa’s Experience”
Raphael Mburu Enforcement of Competition Law in Kenya: A Contrasting Approach

 

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Hipster antitrust

Policy debate has an important rhetoric component. An appealing metaphor can be powerful in swaying the opinion of policy makers and the public (remember trickle-down economics?). That said, there is a recent trend in the US and other parts of the world to depart from certain aspects of conventional antitrust wisdom and some scholars are expressing concerns about how digital markets will look like in the future. Some commentators are calling these new/refurbished ideas and gloomy views of the digital landscape hipster antitrust because they depart from what is deemed to be the mainstream.

To the best of my knowledge, the term started to be used as a twitter hashtag, mostly with a pejorative connotation. The problem with that, seems to me, is that being a hipster is not necessarily a bad thing and, therefore, the rhetoric trick may not be the best tactic for the defenders of the antitrust status quo.

Let me give you a brief historical timeline, which I think has led us to the use of this term. Back in the 1950s, there was discontent among a small group of academics with how antitrust laws were applied, mainly to single-firm conduct and mergers. These scholars and their ideas gave birth to the most influential school of thought in modern competition law: the Chicago School (CS) of antitrust. In those days, George Stigler and his colleagues were the outcasts who proposed non-mainstream, hipster ideas. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the Chicago School became conventional wisdom. Current antitrust law in the US still reflects a great deal of influence from it. I will not discuss the relative merits and flaws of the CS. I will just point to one common theme in the rhetoric of its proponents. Practitioners and academics who defend CS points of view have always said that they use the economic approach to antitrust.

Since now most of the CS views are mainstream, that formulation is very powerful. It implies that someone who tries to approach antitrust analysis with frameworks other than price theory does not deserve to be called an economist. Now, the rhetoric was freshened up and the advocates of ideas that depart from the mainstream are dismissed as antitrust hipsters. Some are even trying to make #adultantitrust (the opposite of #hipsterantitrust) a thing. This is problematic for one fundamental reason. The way a society is organized in order to produce goods and services depends on a myriad of important factors studied across many fields of the economics profession and other disciplines. Saying that price theory alone holds all the answers is, to put it mildly, myopic.

As I explained in a previous post, an intervention aimed to curtail market power can have detrimental/positive effects on other sources of market failure such as information asymmetries and externalities.[1] Therefore, the improvement of consumer welfare is too narrow a focus of antitrust enforcement policies. The first issue would, therefore, be to analyze the merits of including a holistic approach to efficiency.

In addition, there is the issue of whether to consider other policy objectives. In the US, Banks were allowed to merge and grow because it was thought that the financial system was going to become more efficient, which might have been true. However, as a result, too-big-to-fail institutions arose from this merger wave, which may have led to the reckless behavior that caused the global financial meltdown that started in 2007. The question in retrospect is whether such factors should have been taken into account by the antitrust authorities. One could say that other public entities are better suited to make such an evaluation of these peculiar issues. Even if that is true, policymakers still have to decide how the balancing of the interests will be carried out. Should financial stability, for instance, take precedence over consumer welfare?

The Chicago School of antitrust succeeded against the backdrop of the deep economic recession in the 1970s, which led to a change in economic thinking and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It comes, therefore, as little surprise that views of strong (though not blind) faith in market forces have come under attack after the Great Recession, with antitrust being no exception. The potential shift in competition policy could have deep repercussions at the global stage. Many countries in the world look to influential jurisdictions such as the US and the EU for guidance. If the consumer welfare paradigm falters in the former, the push for convergence toward the “economic approach” to antitrust could take a wild turn.

As a final consideration, it is important to keep in mind that each one of the new ideas and views in hipster antitrust analysis deserves its own individual trial. I, for one, do not question the merits of the law on vertical restrictions in the US compared to that in the EU. Another story is that of the relationship between political economy considerations and market dominance, topic on which I have already written before. Therefore, the doom of one hipster idea should not be taken to mean that all hipster points of views are baseless.

[1] See Markowitz, Richard (2014). Economics and the Interpretation and Application of U.S. and E.U. Antitrust Law (Vol. I). United States of America: Springer.

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Interesting links of the week

According to this video on Project Syndicate’s Facebook page, if you want to be a better economist you should read more novels. Stories are better at explaining life than math. https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fprojectsyndicate%2Fvideos%2F10155634206384481%2F&show_text=0&width=476

More on the inadequacy of GDP in measuring important aspects of development. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/is-it-time-to-abandon-gdp?barrier=accessreg. Some alternative measures, other than the Human Development Index, include Gross National Happiness (used in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan) and the OECD’s Better Life Index. They have their own problems too.

Fabeook’s Internet.org project has some detractors. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/05/internetorg-not-neutral-not-secure-and-not-internet. The project enlists websites that people with lower incomes can access through their mobile devices without data charges. The article in the link applauds the purpose of the initiative but takes issue with some features that affect privacy.

How do you measure competition policy’s performance?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the impact of competition policy on economic growth. I argued that it was an important question since competition authorities in developing countries have to struggle with where to assign financial resources and that they should do so based on the the potential of policies in solving the population’s more urgent problems (extreme poverty, for example). The conclusion was that, so far, there is no consensus on the effects of the policy on GDP growth, in part because differences in quality and performance of antitrust agencies is hard to measure.

In addition to the arguments in the mentioned post, there is an important issue that I did not address but that I came upon in a lecture given at the Munich’s Antitrust Law Forum (Münchner Kartellrechtsforum) by Prof. Richard S. Markovitz of the University of Texas. One of his points was that it is a mistake to focus competition policy on consumer welfare and his arguments were, surprisingly, very much grounded on neoclassical economics. His point, I find, is quite compelling. Market failures come not only in the form of market power but also externalities, information assymetries, and underprovision of public goods. Prof. Markovitz explained that there is no theoretical nor empirical support for assuming that a state intervention that reduces market power will be neutral in terms of the other sources of inefficiencies and that the effects on these can very well be negative.

The point can be illustrated with an example. If an antitrust agency uncovers a cartel in the munfacturing of cigarettes and manages to make the firms compete more aggressively in price, the negative externality that smokers impose on other people will increase and the net effect on efficiency will be ambiguous.

Another example with information assymetries can be the following. Higher margins may allow firms to invest more in advertising that, among other things, increases consumer awareness of different product traits. An antitrust intervention that reduces the market power of firms (say, by blocking a merger) will not necessarilly enhance consumer welfare since search costs will increase if firms start spendig less money on advertising.

The result is that even if competition policy in a given country succeeds in curtailing market power, its effects on efficiency and economic growth will not necessarily be positive. Since the net effects are in theory ambiguous, the matter is an empirical one. However, we go back to our first problem, which is how does one measure differences in the policy’s performance.

Last week, I read an interesting post based on research regarding the measurment of the deterrence effects of antitrust law. My first impression when reading the title was of wonder. One has to get creative in order to measure something that you can not see. However, the research mentioned in the post found a way by exploiting data on 500 legal and illegal cartels and their overcharges. This information allowed them to run simulations and provide conservative and upper-bound estimates. For more information on the research you can check out the post in question. The point I wanted to make is that if you can capture differences in deterrence effects across countries or through time, the data could serve to have a more appropriate measure to plot against other variables such as investment rate and GDP growth.

The authors themselves advise for further research on the topic. However, it might be that we are finally approaching a satisfactory measure of competition policy’s performance.

 

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Some interesting research in South Africa on competition law

The Economic Society of South Africa will hold its biennial conference starting on next Wednesday (30th of August). It will be a three-day event and competition policy presentations will be featured on Thursday. Even for our non-South African audience, we thought it a good idea to share with you the relevant parts of the program, as they include interesting research of which it is useful to be aware.

The talks on antitrust-related subjects include:

  • Oluwatobi Ogundele and Melissa Naidoo, Institutional mechanisms (IMs) for successful competition policy design and implementation in developing countries
  • Keabetswe Mojapelo, Testing For Structural Changes In Prices Due To Competition Policy Intervention: A Bai-Perron Approach
  • Joseph Akande, Does Competition reduce Stability? SFA and GMM Application to SSA Commercial Banks.
  • Willem Boshoff and Rossouw van Jaarsveld, Analysing Cartel Episodes: A Markov-Switching Application
  • Anmar Pretorius, Ewert Kleynhans and Reghard van Niekerk, The determinants of concentration in the South African manufacturing industry
  • Tapera G. Muzata, Overcharges and cartel deterrence in multi-product collusion
  • Albertus van Niekerk and Nicola Theron, Impact of competition enforcement in the cement industry in South Africa

We hope this information is of use.

 

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Democratic Party “Better Deal” Antitrust Proposals Would be a “Worse Deal” for the American Economy and Consumers

Last week we shared with you news about the Democratic Party’s plan in the US to revamp antitrust law and include considerations other than consumer welfare in the analysis of cases (e.g. wage stagnation due to increased comcentration). This post by Alden Abbott says it’s all nonsense. On the other hand, this Vox article takes a more favorable view: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/7/31/16021844/antitrust-better-deal. The US debate will definitely have global repercussions and we’re sure there’s still more to be said. We will keep you updated.

Truth on the Market

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of…

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U.S.: It looks like Democrats want a public interest clause in merger control

Public interest clauses are somewhat controversial. They introduce non-competition considerations into the evaluation of the desirability of a merger and, therefore, give a queasy feeling to the neoclassical orthodoxy. In short, such clauses allow the competition authority or another regulator to evaluate the effects that the merger will have in aspects of the economy other than market power––for example, employment. In practice, these clauses can introduce uncertainty to the merging parties as to what they can expect in a final decision and can make the proceedings susceptible to political calculations.

Public interest clauses can be found in legislations of many a developed and developing country. Recent prominent examples where such a consideration played a key role are the SAB Miller-AB InBev merger in South Africa and the takeover of Tengelmann by Edeka in Germany (in this latter case, the approval of the merger by the Finance Minister led the chief of the Monopolies Commission to resign).

Now, Democrats in the United States are giving competition law a prominent position in their economic policy plans. According to an article in Bloomberg Law, the antitrust part of the plan says that “large mergers that would harm consumers, workers, and competition via higher prices and lower wages should be blocked.” (emphasis added) For this, Democrats want to establish “new merger standards that require regulators to review how the deal may impact wages and jobs, among other criteria”. This would arguably need an amendment to introduce a public interest clause, at least to be on the safe side (courts would in all likelihood strike down any agencies’ attempt to introduce such considerations based only on the Clayton Act).

The US has always been a champion of convergence of competition law around the world. An important part of this convergence effort is the urge to use an economic approach to enforce the law. What scholars and practitioners mean by economic approach is to focus on consumer welfare or efficiency as the sole concern. Hence the economic part of the term is somewhat confusing because this discipline is so much broader. But putting this discussion aside, it is somewhat ironic to see that convergence may ultimately go the other way around, with the US converging to other countries.

What are the driving forces behind this political movement? As I shared with you last week, some academics are increasingly worried with the effects of concentration on equitable growth, which has led them to start exploring their association. This will be perhaps one of the most crucial areas of research in antitrust analysis. It is of course a highly ideological subject but let’s hope that the availability of data in more and more countries around the world and the empirical research that they allow will ground the debate on more objective terms.

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