Tag: econ 400

Tirole wins Nobel; Galambos wins Nobel-Picking Contest

Jean Tirole is the sole winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, for his work on industrial organization. He is certainly well-known among graduate students, as his industrial organization textbook was the industry standard for decades.  He is a favorite on Briggs 2nd for, among other things, his classic 1980s co-authored piece, “The Fat-Cat Effect,the Puppy-Dog Ploy, and the Lean and Hungry Look.”

Some of his more recent work is on platform markets, which is the subject of our ECON 495 course this term!   Here is Alex Tabarrok’s take:

Platform markets or two-sided markets are markets where a firm brings together two or more sides both of whom benefit by the existence of the platform and both of whom may (or may not) be charged. A trivial but telling example is the singles bar that brings together men and (usually) women. Other examples are the Xbox a platform for game players and game developers, credit cards bring together buyers and firms that accept that card, newspapers bring together readers and advertisers, mall brings together stores and customers.

A key difficulty in these markets is that the price charged to one side of the market influences the demand on the other side of the market… [T]he cost of the technology that goes into an X-box console is often more than or not much less than the price of the console. So Microsoft sells the console at near cost and instead makes it money by charging game developers for the right to write games for the Xbox.  Antitrust and regulation issues come into play here because the two sets of prices may look discriminatory or unfair. In a mall, for example, it’s often the largest firm (the anchor) that gets the lowest price (sometimes even zero!). Does this represent an unfair advantage that a large firm has over smaller rivals or is it a rational consequence of the fact that the anchor store may bring the most customers to the other, smaller stores in the mall so that the total package is welfare maximizing? Is Microsoft engaging in predatory pricing if it prices the Xbox at or below cost?…  Platform markets mean that pricing at marginal cost can no longer be considered optimal in every market and pricing above marginal cost can no longer be considered as an indication of monopoly power.

Professor Galambos picks up the department prize for his selection.

The Lysine Price-Fixing Conspiracy

Tuesday night, for about the fourth time in my tenure, the Economics Department will show The Informant as a complement to our oligopoly case study in Economics 400.  It should start at 9 p.m. in the Warch Campus Center Cinema.   A good chunk of this text is a repost from last year:

The movie “comically” recreates the character of Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) employee, Mark Whitacre, the principal informant in the notorious lysine price fixing scandal.  Lysine is an essential amino acid used to fatten up hogs and broilers. If you mix it in with corn, you don’t have to spring for the relatively more expensive soymeal, or so I’m told.

Well, I’ll let deRoos (2006) characterize the market for us:

Lysine is an essential amino acid for the lean muscle development of hogs and poultry. Being a chemical compound, lysine is as close as we get to a homogeneous product. Farmers can obtain the required nutrients either through the use of soybeanmeal, or through the combination of corn and lysine… Industry experts suggest that there are no substantial costs involved in switching between these two nutrient sources. The shadow price of the alternative feed source (henceforth the “ceiling price”) can be approximated by a weighted average of corn and soybean meal prices. In the demand estimation results below, we will characterise demand as being relatively inelastic… Firms face capacity constraints. There is a great deal of heterogeneity in firm capacities, locations, and costs.

Through 1990 the market lysine market was dominated by three firms with prices (as you can see) somewhere north of $1 / lb.  However, in 1991 ADM opened a massive production facility in Decatur, Illinois, doubling world capacity and pushing the price below $1 toward its (probable) marginal cost of $0.66 / lb.

Whitacre subsequently orchestrated a coordinated effort to fix prices among the four dominant producers (a CR4 of 95-97%), though there is some dispute as to what exactly happened. Nonetheless, price fixing is a per se violation of federal antitrust laws, so ADM was in pretty serious hot water as soon as Whitacre turned informant.

On the other hand, Whitacre was absolutely crazy himself. And the movie does a good job portraying the frustration and insanity of everyone involved in the situation as the events unfolded. It seems the best defense for ADM was to simply let Whitacre unravel and leave the prosecutors to deal with him.

Meanwhile, the economics of the case spawned a rather, well, let’s call it a rather spirited debate in the academic literature over the length of the conspiracy and the damages done.  These are well documented in the sources below, particularly John Connor and Lawrence White, who trade body blows over the appropriate theoretical model, the appropriate choice of the conspiracy period, and the proverbial “but for” price (that is, the price that would have prevailed “but for” the conspiracy).  Connor is sort of the go-to guy on these issues and he was profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education about three weeks ago.

A truly remarkable episode all around.

Pop some corn and mix in three parts lysine. We’ll see you there.

 

For further reading:

John M .Connor (1997) “The Global Lysine Price-Fixing Conspiracy of 1992-1995,” Review of Agricultural Economics, 19 (Fall/Winter), 412-427.

Nicholas deRoos (2006) “Examining models of collusion: The market for lysine,” International Journal of Industrial Organization, 24(6): 1083-1107

Lawrence White (2001) “Lysine and Price Fixing: How Long? How SevereReview of Industrial Organization,18 (1):23-31

 

Deregulation and Consumers

This week in Industrial Organization we will talk about the peculiarities of the deregulation movement that got going in the Jimmy Carter administration (?).  One peculiarity is that — like the Spanish Inquisition — no one expected the deregulation movement. Why? Because the benefits of regulation generally flowed to a nice, concentrated group of producers at the expense of diffuse, often clueless consumers.   This is pretty much the point of the Stigler-Peltzman-Becker characterizations of regulation.

A second puzzle is the public suspicion of regulation, and in particular the lack of recognition that consumers have been the overwhelming beneficiaries of the deregulation movement.  On each of these points, I refer my students to the Clifford Winston’s excellent (but somewhat dated) piece from the Journal of Economic Literature.

Derek Thompson has a quite excellent piece in The Atlantic online, “How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50% in 30 Years (and Why Nobody Noticed).”  Well, some of us noticed, I guess, like those of us who teach IO.

Of course, deregulation has had its share of fiascoes and industry handouts as well, so perhaps that’s more etched in our brains than the radical price differences and innovation that often accompany industry deregulation.

La Cerveza Mas Roguish

Great post at Cheap Talk about beer pricing and Anheuser-Busch’s thwarted attempt to acquire Grupo Modelo, based on a New York Times article.

For decades, [the Justice Department] argue[s], Anheuser-Busch has been employing what game theorists call a “trigger strategy,” something like the beer equivalent of the Mutually Assured Destruction Doctrine. Anheuser-Busch signals to its competitors that if they lower their prices, it will start a vicious retail war…. Budweiser’s trigger strategy has been thwarted, though, by what game theorists call a “rogue player.” When Bud and Coors raise their prices, Grupo Modelo’s Corona does not.

Definitely worth reading, especially if you spent the last term engrossed in the ins-and-outs of the beer industry.  See pages 168-170 of Tremblay & Tremblay for some illuminating background.

Modelo Justice

Blocked!

Amidst the hoopla of the triumphant release of Budweiser Black Crown, the King of Beers learned that its $20.1 billion offer to purchase Grupo Modelo — maker of Corona, that beer people put lemons in — had been given the kibosh by the good folks at the Department of Justice.

One of the key DoJ players in the blockages is our own LU alum William Baer, who had this to say:    

This is the sort of product that matters to consumers. If you have a very slight price increase that happens because of this deal, it could mean that consumers will pay billions of dollars more.

Now, reaching for the back of my envelope, the average American guzzles down about 30 gallons of beer per year, about a half gallon per week.  Now, if the price per gallon goes up $0.10, that would entail about $3 per person per year times 300 million people, or about a billion dollars (assuming the demand for beer is pretty inelastic, of course).

On the down side of all this consumer largess, young folks will probably be saddled with more STDs!

Thanks you to the formerly bearded “Mr. T” for the tip.  Those of you in the 400 class should take a look.  Very interesting stuff.

The Informant is Back

Once again this year, the Economics Department proudly presents The Informant Tuesday, January 29 at 9 p.m. in the Warch Campus Center Cinema.  

The movie “comically” recreates the character of Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) employee, Mark Whitacre, the principal informant in the notorious lysine price fixing scandal.  Lysine is an essential amino acid used to fatten up hogs and broilers. If you mix it in with corn, you don’t have to spring for the relatively more expensive soymeal, or so I’m told.

Well, I’ll let deRoos (2006) characterize the market for us:

Lysine is an essential amino acid for the lean muscle development of hogs and poultry. Being a chemical compound, lysine is as close as we get to a homogeneous product. Farmers can obtain the required nutrients either through the use of soybeanmeal, or through the combination of corn and lysine… Industry experts suggest that there are no substantial costs involved in switching between these two nutrient sources. The shadow price of the alternative feed source (henceforth the “ceiling price”) can be approximated by a weighted average of corn and soybean meal prices. In the demand estimation results below, we will characterise demand as being relatively inelastic… Firms face capacity constraints. There is a great deal of heterogeneity in firm capacities, locations, and costs.

Through 1990 the market lysine market was dominated by three firms with prices (as you can see) somewhere north of $1 / lb.  However, in 1991 ADM opened a massive production facility in Decatur, Illinois, doubling world capacity and pushing the price below $1 toward its (probable) marginal cost of $0.66 / lb.

Whitacre subsequently orchestrated a coordinated effort to fix prices among the four dominant producers (a CR4 of 95-97%), though there is some dispute as to what exactly happened. Nonetheless, price fixing is a per se violation of federal antitrust laws, so ADM was in pretty serious hot water as soon as Whitacre turned informant.

On the other hand, Whitacre was absolutely crazy himself. And the movie does a good job portraying the frustration and insanity of everyone involved in the situation as the events unfolded. It seems the best defense for ADM was to simply let Whitacre unravel and leave the prosecutors to deal with him.

Meanwhile, the economics of the case spawned a rather, well, let’s call it a rather spirited debate in the academic literature over the length of the conspiracy and the damages done.  These are well documented in the sources below, particularly John Connor and Lawrence White, who trade body blows over the appropriate theoretical model, the appropriate choice of the conspiracy period, and the proverbial “but for” price (that is, the price that would have prevailed “but for” the conspiracy).

A truly remarkable episode all around.

Pop some corn and mix in three parts lysine. We’ll see you there.

 

For further reading:

John M .Connor (1997) “The Global Lysine Price-Fixing Conspiracy of 1992-1995,” Review of Agricultural Economics, 19 (Fall/Winter), 412-427.

Nicholas deRoos (2006) “Examining models of collusion: The market for lysine,” International Journal of Industrial Organization, 24(6): 1083-1107

Lawrence White (2001) “Lysine and Price Fixing: How Long? How SevereReview of Industrial Organization,18 (1):23-31

 

Man Bites Dog Reading Book

It is well known that author’s clamor for Oprah’s endorsement because the book sales go bonkers, and sales of the author’s other books also go bonkers.  The conventional wisdom is that publishers love Oprah because she pumps up book sales.

On the other side of Chicago, however, Northwestern’s Craig Garthwaite has another tale to tell:  Oprah’s endorsements reduce overall book sales:

In the publishing sector, endorsements from the Oprah Winfrey Book Club are found to be a business stealing form of advertising that raises title level sales without increasing the market size. The endorsements decrease aggregate adult fiction sales; likely as a result of the endorsed books being more difficult than those that otherwise would have been purchased.

It is I who emphasized that startling finding. Here’s how Garthwaite describes it:

At the genre level, the post-endorsement period is marked by large sales declines in the romance, mystery, and action categories. These genres were popular prior to the endorsements in the geographic areas demonstrating the largest endorsement responses. Using quantitative measures of text readability, I show that endorsed titles require one additional year of education to read than is typical for romance, mystery and action books. Furthermore, the post-endorsement sales decline was largest following the endorsement of classic novels, which require nearly four more years of education to comprehend than typical romance, mystery, or action titles. Since the cost of consuming a book is the combination of the retail price and the opportunity cost of the time spent reading the text, the post-endorsement sales decline in publishing should be considered similar to endorsements in other sectors that shift consumers towards more expensive products.

The Late, Great Bubba Smith

I read through the paper this evening, and this will likely wind up on my Industrial Organization reading list for next year. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in our analysis of the beer industry — advertising doesn’t increase overall sales so much as it redistributes sales within the sector. Indeed, we kick off that class with a simple advertising game model, where advertising expenditures are treated as a prisoner’s dilemma, and we learn why incumbents are often copacetic with an advertising ban.  The analogy here, I guess, is that a beer producer that heavily advertises a new, difficult-to-drink product could cause an overall beer consumption to go down (possible ad line: New Bud Super Dark: It’s Like Drinking a Bagel ! ).

I wonder if the “light beerrevolution of the 1970s had the opposite effect?

Via the fellas at Marginal Revolution.

Winners, Losers, and Microsoft Update

Our Senior Readers have forged through Liebowitz and Margolis’s Winners, Losers, and Microsoft, so terms like “increasing returns,” “network effects,” “serial monopoly,” and “lock in” are now rolling off their tongues.  I am very impressed with how the group has embraced the book and how fluid the discussions have been.  I will count this one as a winner.

So, as a follow up,  we have an absolutely remarkable data point from Business Insider (via Mark Perry) that the iPhone is now bigger than Microsoft. (See here for background to the big pies).

Not to Scale, but Still…

 

The iPhone.

Bigger than Microsoft.

That is remarkable.

More from Business Insider:

Microsoft just plain missed these markets (iPhone and iPad). And Apple created them. And it turns out that, at least for now, they are much more valuable and lucrative markets than the ones Microsoft dominated.

The other mistake Microsoft made, one that ultimately could be far more devastating, is that it became obsessed with the wrong competitor.

For the past decade, Microsoft has obsessively targeted Google as Enemy No. 1, blowing more than $10 billion trying to compete with Google’s amazing search engine.

Plenty to chew on here.

One observation: This does not seem to be Bertrand or Cournot competition, does it?

Streaming Profitability? Less So Than July

Back in July I was telling you about Netflix and its remarkable stock price ascension.  At the time, its price was rising rapidly  with a price flirting with $300, and it was overall looking like a good bet (click on the chart to your right).  If the author was to be believed, it was a great bet.  Indeed, the stock price rose 60 points in the week following that post (did our loyal readers run out and bid the price up?).

So let this be a lesson about getting your stock tips from The Atlantic, things can change pretty fast these days.  Today I pick up my local computer and Netflix shareholders — the ones who haven’t bailed, that is — are bemoaning a stream of remarkable decisions that have kneecapped the company’s stock price, sending it into a free fall back toward $100 per share.

UPDATE: During the time I was writing this post, the stock price opened 40 points lower at about $75.  Wow. Here it is in real time.

Of course, this could be one of those cases where Netflix management is taking the long view instead of grubbing for short-term profits.  The original argument is that there were significant barriers to entry in streaming content, and that seems to be what management still believes — no close substitutes, no potential entrants with the same type of content.

This will likely make its way into both IO and the Senior Read.  A very interesting situation, indeed.

Father of Deregulation Movement, Alfred Kahn

The deregulation of network industries in the 1970s is a puzzle for many political economists, as consumers generally benefited at the expense of entrenched, well-connected producers.  How did that happen?

One widely acknowledged answer is that economist Alfred Kahn, head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, played an influential role. Professor Kahn died this past week, and Thomas Hazlett has a brilliant piece in the Financial Times on Kahn’s influential role.

Those interested a more formal look at the benefits of deregulation might check out Clifford Winston’s 1993 JEL piece that scopes out the movement nicely.

And Kahn’s Ph.D. advisor was none other than Joseph Schumpeter.  How do you like that?

Always Check the Second-Order Conditions

Here’s something to consider as Wall Street gets set to report record profits — a  Sunday New York Times piece on the machinations of the derivatives market.   As it turns out, the new banking regulations tend to restrict entry and favor incumbent firms.

“When you limit participation in the governance of an entity to a few like-minded institutions or individuals who have an interest in keeping competitors out, you have the potential for bad things to happen. It’s antitrust 101,” said Robert E. Litan, who helped oversee the Justice Department’s Nasdaq investigation as deputy assistant attorney general and is now a fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. “The history of derivatives trading is it has grown up as a very concentrated industry, and old habits are hard to break.”

Sometimes known as “capture,” of course. When I learned this back in the day, my professor emphasized that capture does not mean that firms necessarily want regulation, but given that there are regulations, firms will bend them to their own advantage — especially politically connected ones.

And shouldn’t be all that surprising, even to the most optimistic of you.

Well worth reading.

UPDATE: For rather convincing rejoinders, see here and here.

Streaming Econ 400

Many students have asked me about the types of things covered in Industrial Organization (Econ 400), and I typically respond with blah blah blah price theory blah blah blah structure-conduct-performance until the student leaves my office.  Perhaps a better response would simply be to give students a list of interesting topics that would come under an IO umbrella, such as Comcast’s dispute with Netflix. There’s many issues embedded there, including this tasty one:

A recent study found that at peak times, Netflix represented 20 percent of Internet download traffic in the United States. That makes it a de facto competitor for incumbent distributors like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which are eager to protect both the subscription television business and the emerging video-on-demand business.

I wonder how soon cable and satellite television will be relegated to economic history courses, a la the video rental business.

Perhaps you can write a paper on that next term.

Coming to an HBS Case Near You

A few months ago I had a series of posts on the Amazon-Macmillian-Apple fracas, related to publishing and sale of e-books.  A recent New Yorker piece provides a very nice discussion of the role of technological innovation and competition in reordering the publishing business, with Apple, Amazon, and Google all playing major roles.  One of the more interesting aspects is the blurring of the lines as firms integrate, disintegrate, or just try to make money.  My favorite line in the piece is this:

In (Amazon’s Russ) Grandinetti’s view, book publishers—like executives in other media—are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking they were in the train business rather than the transportation business.

I’m not sure I have much to add to the article at this point, except to say that I recommend it.  And that you will probably be reading some version of this story as a business school case if you happen down the MBA route.

In fact, you will probably be discussing this in an Industrial Organizations course if you aren’t careful.

Revisiting the Amazon-Macmillian Fracas

The dust is settling on the, well, the dust up between Amazon and Macmillian over eBook prices. There are some excellent posts from Virginia Postrel, Lynne Kiesling, and Megan McCardle. Some great Industrial Organization topics here, like price discrimination, resale price maintenance, and why entry by Apple here is leading to higher retail prices. (Did he just say entry is leading to higher prices? Yes, he did).

Well, as we try to sort that out, it appears the dust is on the rise again, as a third publisher is demanding the “agency model” in the pricing of e-Books.

The future of the $9.99 e-book is in danger. A third major publisher, Hachette, is going for Apple’s agency model in order to sell e-books for up to $14.99 apiece, the company revealed in a memo to agents.

Following Amazon’s public dispute over e-book prices with Macmillan early this week, Hachette is also seeking a shift to the agency model, which allows the publisher to set the price for the e-book, while the retailer keeps 30 percent of the sales.

I wonder if that “agency model” bears any relationship to the “principal-agent” problem we will be covering in 450 after the break?

Stay tuned.

Did Amazon Blink?

Looks like Amazon might have blinked.

Dear Customers:

Macmillan, one of the “big six” publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!

Thank you for being a customer.

More on the Amazon-Macmillian Fracas

Excerpts from a very illuminating discussion:

Greed, no doubt, exists on both sides, living as we do under capitalism, but greed alone doesn’t explain the dispute. Yes, Amazon wants to sell e-books for $9.99 or less, and Macmillan wants Amazon to sell them for $15 or less. But as Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent explains, in a statement released today as an advertisement to the book-industry newsletter Publisher’s Lunch, Amazon and Macmillan aren’t at the moment fighting to see who can make more money on a book sale. They’re fighting to see who can lose more money. This is a very peculiar battle.

,,,

Most publishers have until now sold their e-books to Amazon for the same wholesale price that they sell their hardcovers–roughly half the hardcover’s list price. It is up to a retailer like Amazon whether to sell the book to consumers at its list price, as printed on the inside front flap, or at a discount. With e-books, Amazon has usually offered a discount so low that it actually loses money. That is, Amazon buys for $12 an e-book whose hardcover list price is $24.95, and then Amazon sells the e-book to its customers for $9.95.

Macmillan has probably been selling its e-books to Amazon at the wholesale price of about $12, and Amazon has been selling them retail for about $10. Macmillan says that it would like to sell its e-books at the wholesale price of about $10.45, and have Amazon sell them for the retail price of $14.95. In other words, Macmillan was offering to earn $2 less per e-book. Amazon, however, insisted that it would prefer to take a $2 loss on each e-book, instead, and became so indignant over the matter that it has now ceased selling any Macmillan titles, print or electronic. Macmillan’s proposal is known as the “agency model” for e-book pricing, and the company probably only dared attempt it because Apple has promised that it will sell e-books for its new tablet on exactly those terms. (Amazon has said that they’re willing to accept the agency model, starting in June, but only if an e-book’s list price does not exceed $9.99.)

Thank you, Mr. Shatzkin.

Big Apple Stirs Up Bezos’ Hive

A few months ago we saw Amazon and Walmart and Target engaged in some aggressive price competition in the sale of on-line books. I haven’t heard to much on that front of late, so I assume that the dust has settled and those firms will fight another day. Amazon is back in the thick of things, this time aggressively defending its Ebook turf from the encroachment of Apple and its new iPad.

The book world is all a flutter. Here’s a note from one of friend of mine, who has intimate knowledge of the sordid dealings of the book world (edited for content; these book people drink like journalists and swear like sailors):

So this ebook pricing conflict is getting serious. Amazon has pulled all of Macmillan’s titles from its store — physical, ebook, etc. — in response to Macmillan wanting higher prices for some kindle editions than $9.99. So, for example, you can’t buy any Picador titles. That’s a lot of bestselling books.

[I’m not certain I agree with Amazon’s actions here]. To dictate $9.99 for all books and instill that price point in readers minds as the only appropriate ebook price is just ridiculous — especially when they’re losing money on every kindle edition they sell of a hardcover book.

And this:

So it’s about Macmillan trying to switch over the agency model of pricing, which is what Apple is offering with their new ibookstore. It makes a lot more sense than the distribution model that Amazon uses for ebooks.

Nothing like a good old fashioned price squabble to keep things interesting. I’m looking into the details of this “agency pricing” model and of course will let you know when I find out.

Stay tuned to this space.

Update: This stuff is so delicious I just want to take a big bite out of it. It appears to be more of a market power argument than a transaction costs argument. And it appears this may well have all come to a head with or without the iPad.

Thanks to my source, “The Big Stick,” for the tips.