Monday, December 14, 2009

Will The Obama Administration Pursue More Anti-Trust Action?

Economist Mark Thoma discusses the unlikelihood of the government pursuing any anti-trust cases at this time due to the political risks of taking action that could make the recession worse. Will the Obama Administration be willing to take action against large powerful firms when the economic environment improves? See the following post from Economist's View for more on this.

I've been somewhat encouraged by this administration's attention to anti-trust issues, but so far there's been more talk than action. I don't think this issue received enough attention in the previous administration -- if anything the Bush administration promoted the interests of large, powerful firms -- and the movement away from strict enforcement of anti-trust rules can be traced to Ronald Reagan's push against government intervention in markets. There have been a few headline cases, e.g. Microsoft, but not the kind of systematic examination of markets and the enforcement of rules to promote competition as I'd like to see. I've been hoping this administration would change that.

Maybe there's a reason for the lack of action. One cost of a severe recession is that anti-trust enforcement is likely to be pursued with less vigor. Suppose, for example, that the government is considering initiating an anti-trust suit against a few large, systemically important firms within the economy (e.g. Google and Wal-Mart? Goldman Sachs?). The government might worry that doing so would create uncertainty in these businesses and cause them to pull back on expansion plans, be less aggressive, etc. That could make already bad conditions even worse, and it could also create uncertainty more broadly within the business community and cause similar, amplifying effects. Thus, the government might prefer to withhold action until things got better (much as though it might be willing to let a car company fail during good times, but not in a recession).

Even if the initiation and pursuit of such action has no effect at all on economic activity, the recovery from the recession could drag on for awhile, and the sluggish recovery could be attributed, in part, to the government's action. Thus, initiating an anti-trust suit against a large, economically important firm would leave the party in power vulnerable to a charge from the other side that their "overly zealous" enforcement of these laws prolonged the recession. As a political calculation, why not wait until things improve before taking such potentially politically volatile action?

There may be other reasons to wait as well. e.g. needing votes to pass a stimulus package that might be lost if anti-trust action is announced. So it seems quite likely that an administration might decide to delay action until the economy is on more solid footing rather than taking action that might upset the economy or leave them politically vulnerable to charges of making conditions worse. It could also be that these types of cases are complicated and take time to build, and with no foundation from the previous administration to build upon, it's too soon to expect results.

But I also worry that, for whatever reason, the administration won't actually take the needed action even when things get better and they've had plenty of time to build their case. One argument used in the past to forestall the regulation of market power is the argument that markets are self-regulating, that they can take care of market power problems by themselves (and it's best to let them do so). We've seen how well the self-regulation argument works when it's applied to financial markets, and it doesn't work any better when it comes to market power. Regulation and effective enforcement of the rules are needed to solve the problem.

It's costly when one or a few firms dominate markets, and it's not just the economic losses that are the problem. Excessive size also gives firms political power and influence and this, too, is costly. We should have done something about this long ago -- perhaps more attention to the costs associated with excessive size and power would have left us less tolerant of too big to fail firms in the financial sector. But in any case, I hope the administration follows up on its increased scrutiny of market power and anti-competitive behavior with meaningful action. We shall see.

This post has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.
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