The recent merger of DuPont/Pioneer with Dow and the acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer have sparked a lot of discussion of market concentration, monopoly, and prices. A recent working paper published by the Agriculture and Food Policy Center (AFPC) at Texas A&M University written by Henry Bryant, Aleksandre Maisashvili, Joe Outlaw, and James Richardson estimates that, due to the merger, corn, soybean, and cotton seed prices will rise by 2.3%, 1.9%, and 18.2%, respectively. They also find that "changes in market concentration that would result from the proposed mergers meet criteria such that the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission would consider them “likely to enhance market power” in the seed markets for corn and cotton." (pg 1) The paper is certainly an interesting read and I have no quibble the analysis as written. However, some might draw conclusions from the analysis that, in light of other important work in industrial organization, are not well-founded.
The first thing I want to point out is that mergers an acquisitions can, at least potentially, result in innovations that would justify increases in the prices of the merged firm's products. To the extent that VRIO analysis is descriptive of firm's behavior with respect to innovation, we would expect that better entrepreneurs would be able to price above marginal cost. Harold Demsetz made this point in his 1973 paper Industry Structure, Market Rivalry and Public Policy. The authors of the AFPC study point this out as well, but the problem is that, even though we have estimates of potential price increases due to the mergers, it is very difficult to determine whether any change in price in the future is actually attributable to market power or simply due to innovation in the seed technology.
Secondly, the standard models of monopoly assert that pricing above marginal cost is at least potentially a sign of a firm exercising market power. Here, articles by Ronald Coase and Armen Alchian are relevant. I provided a discussion of the relevant portions in a previous post so I'll just briefly summarize here: pricing above marginal cost is an important signal that the current market demand is potentially not being met by the firms in the industry. It's a signal to other potential investors that entering the industry might be worth it. Further, there is an issue of measurement. Outside observers may calculate fixed cost, variable cost, and price and determine that a firm is pricing above marginal cost. However, there may be costs of which said observers are unaware. For example, there may be significant uncertainty (which is not the same as risk) about the future prospects of the industry. This is certainly possible in the biotechnology industry since the government heavily regulates firms in this sector. This is not to say that such regulation is bad or should be removed, simply that it presents costs that are difficult for outsiders to calculate.
Finally, I want to examine one part of the analysis in the AFPC paper. On pages 10 and 11, the authors write (citations deleted):
A market is contestable if there is freedom of entry and exit into the market, and there are little to no sunk costs. Because of the threat of new entrants, existing companies in a contestable market must behave in a reasonably competitive manner, even if they are few in number.
Concentrated markets do not necessarily imply the presence of market power. Key requirements for market contestability are: (a) Potential entrants must not be at a cost disadvantage to existing firms, and (b) entry and exit must be costless. For entry and exit to be costless or near costless, there must be no sunk costs. If there were low sunk costs, then new firms would use a hit and run strategy. In other words, they would enter industry [sic], undercut the price and exit before the existing firms have time to retaliate. However, if there are high sunk costs, firms would not be able to exit without losing significant [sic] portion of their investment. Therefore, if there are high sunk costs, hit-and-run strategies are less profitable, firms keep prices above average costs, and markets are not contestable.I submit that under this definition, scarcely any industry on the planet is contestable, yet we see prices fall in many industries over time, even in those we would expect to have significant sunk costs and in which we would expect incumbents to have significant cost advantages over new entrants.
commit the Nirvana Fallacy. To expect anything in the real world (whether in markets or in the policymaking arena) to be "costless" is an impossible standard.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of these mergers and whether seed prices move sharply upward in coming years. What is certain is that there is tremendous causal density in any complex system, such as the market for bio-engineered seed. Thus, policymakers should be humble and cautious about applying the results of theoretical and statistical analysis in their attempts to better our world.