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.