LESSONS LEARNED #63: “There is no such thing as a monopoly in free market capitalism.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 28th, 2011

Even the mighty Coke-Pepsi Duopoly can’t stop People from Drinking Tap Water

Coke and Pepsi have a near monopoly in the cola market.  Or a duopoly.  They dominate.  And they’re bitter enemies.  Few brands are locked in such a bitter struggle that we call it war.  The Cola Wars.  They are archenemies.  Even though they may cooperate by alternating their discounting to limit their losses.  One month Coke may be on sale.  The following month, Pepsi.  They’re big and their powerful and when you ask for a Coke at a restaurant you’ll either get a Coke.  Or they’ll ask you if Pepsi is okay.  Or vice versa.  Because they own the market.

But do they?  There’s always another choice.  At a restaurant, we can order ice tea.  Hot tea.  Coffee.  Orange drink.  Beer.  Wine.  A cocktail.  Or even water.  Ditto at the grocery store.  Walk down an aisle and there’s more to choose than Coke or Pepsi.  RC Cola, for one.  And then there’s the un-cola (7-Up).  VernorsA&W Root BeerSquirtDr. PepperCrushSnapple.  And other name brands that aren’t owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.  Not to mention all the store brands.  And, of course, tap water.  Which I personally drink with most of my meals.  Even though there’s nothing finer than a Coke or Pepsi to wash down a greasy pizza.

Try as they might Coke and Pepsi can’t limit entry into the beverage market.  The barriers they can erect are minimal.  They can offer a special price to a store or restaurant in exchange for keeping out their hated rival, but they can’t prevent people from asking for tap water.  Or from people simply going elsewhere to get the Coke or Pepsi product they want.  Or the million other options out there.  And if they raise their prices in their ‘duopoly’, people will just seek out those other options.  Yes, they may be able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in blind taste tests.  But if the price isn’t right, they’ll enjoy RC Cola just fine.  Or even the store brand cola.

Go ahead and Tax our Tea.  We’ll just drink Coffee Instead.

You see, to keep out the competition, you need the power of government.  Just ask the sugar importers.  Who would love to sell to the cola companies.  But don’t.  Because government has erected a barrier to that market.  Now, we don’t know what their highly guarded secret recipes are, but we do know that they each use the same sweetener.  High fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  They don’t use sugar.  Why?  Because Big Ag lobbied Congress to slap high tariffs on imported sugar.  Which they have.  Now the price of sugar is so high the cola companies use HFCS instead.  Though that may be changing as of late with a new round of health concerns about HFSC.  But that’s a whole other story.

To limit consumer choice, you need government to step in.  Because only government can write laws to erect market barriers.  For example, the last straw of British oppression before America’s Declaration of Independence was about a British law that erected a market barrier.  British Americans, being of British stock, liked their tea.  But they didn’t like paying the high price of East Indian Company tea.  In the Mercantile economics of the day, everything bought and sold in the British Empire shipped on British ships through British ports.  Indian opium shipped on British ships to China (via Calcutta).  The British than used the proceeds from those sales to purchase tea.  Which they shipped on British ships back to London.  Where they paid a duty on it.  And then on to America.  Where the colonists paid a tax on it.  All these markups made their tea pretty expensive.

Famine and recession caused financial problems for the East India Company.  To help alleviate their problems, British Parliament stepped in.  Said they could ship their tea directly to British North America (without going through London).  And sell it tax-free in the colonies.  Which made all other tea more expensive.  Which did not go over well with the American tea merchants.  Or the colonists in general.  This led to the Boston Tea Party.  American Independence.  And the switch from drinking tea to drinking coffee in America.  Because even when there is only one tea that is legal to drink, there is always another choice.

Rockefeller benefited Consumers.  The ICC did not.

People love Teddy Roosevelt for his trust busting.  Attacking the big robber barons.  To help the little guy.  And one of the big guys the little guys loved to hate was John D. Rockefeller.  Of Standard Oil fame.  Rockefeller was richer than most nations.  And some people just hated that.  He made his wealth by making refined oil products affordable to the consumer.  And he was a great environmentalist.  He saved the whales by replacing whale oil with kerosene.  And his relentless research and development made every bit of refined oil into a useful product.  While his competitors dumped most of their waste back into the environment.  Not Rockefeller.  He hated waste.  He even experimented in finding the least number of welds it would take to hold an oil barrel together.  He invented vertical integration (controlling industries up and down the product pipeline from the collection of raw resources to the sale of a finished product).  He not only made refined oil products cheap.  He made them plentiful.  Which made America the world’s leading economic power.  Successful corporations follow his example today.

Sure, he put a lot of his competitors out of business.  But it wasn’t because he was a monopoly.  It was because he was just that much better.  He produced refined products better and cheaper than his competition.  By the time the trust busters busted up Standard Oil, competition was coming into being on the Standard Oil model.  Which ultimately produced more refined products at lower costs.  He forced the competition to step up to his level which benefited consumers.  While the trust busters tried to bring Rockefeller down to his competitor’s level which benefited his competitors.  Not the consumers.  No, consumers did very well by John D. Rockefeller.  He created and produced at a relentless rate.  He didn’t ask for government help.  Unlike his competitors.  Who complained to the government.  (It is never a consumer that complains about predatory pricing).  Because when you can’t compete legitimately, you petition government for special favors.  Much like some of the railroads did.

Building a railroad is costly.  And takes a lot of friends in government.  At all levels.  Because you have to lay track through federal land, state land, county land as well as through cities.  Of course, everyone wanted that track to go through their land because the railroad was the way to ship goods.  And people.  So the system was ripe for corruption.  And it often was.  Once built some shippers complained about unfair shipping rates compare to what others got.  Rockefeller, for example, was highly criticized for getting better rates by far than any of his competitors.  Of course, he shipped by far more product than any of his competitors.  Which probably had a lot to do with his rates.  But the government saw that things were unfair in the railroad business.  So they stepped in.  And created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).  Which was to right all the wrongs.  Which, of course, it didn’t.  It just made it easier for the big companies to fix things in their favor.  For they now had a single governing body to buy.  Which made it easier to buy political influence.

But none of this made a difference to save the railroads.  They started to die in the Fifties.  Of arrogance.  When people asked the big railroad executives what business they were in, they replied, “The railroad business.”  But they weren’t.  They were in the transportation business.  What’s the difference?  The ‘railroad’ business had only other railroads for competition.  The transportation business had cars, trucks and, eventually, planes, as competition.  So even though those who used the power of government to restrict other railroads from entering their markets, there was still competition.  The interstate highways and the automobile killed passenger rail.  And the trucking industry almost killed the freight railroads.  What saved them was realigning their operations into the transportation business.  Intermodal transportation combined container ships, railroads and trucks into a seamless and cost efficient transportation system.  Roadrailers took that concept to a higher level.  These are truck trailers that can be pulled by a locomotive without the need of a rail flatcar.  Trucks deliver these trailers to a rail yard.  They add a train bogey to the trailer.  Put it on the track.  Couple them together.  And attach them to a single locomotive.  Very little non-revenue weight.  Making it very efficient.  John D. Rockefeller would be impressed.

In a Free Market there is always a Choice

Wherever there is a market there is competition.  For any market where a profit can be made will attract others to that market.  Companies can try to restrict competitors.  But that’s all they can do.  Try.  Because if it’s a free market, it’s open to competition.  There are no barriers that a competitor can’t overcome.  Except one legislated by government.  And competitors can even crack that barrier.

And this is what it takes to make a monopoly.  Government.  Railroads had monopolies for awhile.  But creative business people found a way to crack their government-imposed monopoly.  Truckers came in and shipped at rates lower than the ICC said was fair.  Of course, fair is a relative term.  What’s fair to the railroad is not fair to the shipper.  Or the consumer.  But a trucker shipping at rate that he can cover his expenses and support his family is fair to everyone.  Except the railroad who depended on government instead of innovation for their business profits.

Coke and Pepsi can fight their cola wars but they can’t keep out competition.  There’s always root beer, ginger ale, orange drink, beer, wine, liquor, water, coffee or tea.  And even when government uses their full weight and power to create and maintain a tea monopoly, tea drinkers can simply become coffee drinkers.  For in a free market there is always a choice.  Always.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2010

LOW PRICES.  GOD help me, I do hate them so.  I hate them with every fiber of my body.

Who says this?  Do you?  I don’t.  Of all the times I’ve spent shopping, I have never heard anyone bitch about low prices.  I’ve heard people bitch about high prices.  But never about low prices.  When gas approached $3/gallon, people bitched about that being too high and drove 10 miles to find ‘cheap’ gas to save a few pennies per gallon.  Let it approach $4/gallon and they’ll want Congress to take action.  To attack Big Oil.  To seize their oil and their profits and give us cheap gasoline in return.  But when gas was cheap, no one ever bitched about it being ‘too’ cheap.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  People bitch about high prices.  Not low prices.

So who bitches about low prices?  Competitors.  There’s a saying that competition makes everything better.  And it does.  It lowers prices.  And raises quality.  And who is looking for lower prices and higher quality?  Consumers.  Who isn’t?  Competitors.  Especially competitors with political connections.

WHEN THE BIG 3 were putting out crap in the 1970s, they did so because they could.  I mean, who else were you going to buy a car from?  So what if your car breaks down and the fenders and quarter panels rust away?  That just means you gotta buy another car sooner rather than later.  A pretty sweet deal.  Especially when there are only three places to go to buy a car.  And each of the Big 3 is selling the same crap.

Then the Japanese had to go and ruin a good thing.  They started selling cars in America.  These cars were smaller than your typical American car.  But there were other differences.  They didn’t rust like the American cars.  They didn’t break down as much.  And the imports were cheaper than the American cars.  Lower price and higher quality.  More bang for the buck.  Exactly what consumers were demanding.

So what was the response of the Big 3?  Did they rise to the level of their new competitors and deliver what the consumer wanted?  No.  They ran to government for help.  For protection.  And they got it.  Voluntary Export Restraints (VER).  The government negotiated with the Japanese to ‘voluntarily’ limit the number of cars they exported to the United States.  Or else.  So they did.  To avoid worse protectionist policies.  Problem solved.  Competition was limited.  And the Big 3 were very profitable in the short run.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the Japanese refused to play nice.

The problem was what the Big 3 did with those profits.  Or, rather, what they didn’t do with them.  They didn’t reinvest them to raise themselves up to the level of the Japanese.  Protected, they saw no incentive to change.  Not when you have Big Government on your side.  And how did that work for them?  Not good. 

So look, the Japanese said, the Americans like our cars.  If the American manufacturers won’t give them what they want, we will.  While honoring the VER.  We won’t export more cars.  We’ll just build bigger and better cars to export.  And they did.  The Big 3 were no longer up against inexpensive, higher quality subcompacts on the fringe of their market share.  Now their mid-size and large-size cars had competition.  And this wasn’t on the fringe of their market share.  This was their bread and butter.  What to do?  Build better cars and give Americans more bang for their buck?  Or run to government again?  What do you think?

The Big 3 assaulted the Japanese under the guise of ‘fair trade’.  The cry went out that unless the Japanese opened up their markets to American imports (in particular auto parts), we should restrict Japanese imports.  To protect American jobs.  To protect the American worker.  To protect the children.  This was code for please make the Japanese cars more unattractive to purchasers so they will settle for the more costly and lower quality cars we’re making.  (Let’s not forget the reason Americans were buying the Japanese cars in the first place).

The Japanese response?  They took it up a notch.  They entered the luxury markets.  They launched Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  They competed against Cadillac and Lincoln.  And well.  The quality was so good they even affected the European luxury imports.  More attacks followed.  Americans were losing their jobs.  Soon there would be no more American manufacturing left in the country.  So the Japanese built plants in America.  And Americans were now building the Japanese cars.  The Japanese actually created American jobs.

SON OF A BITCH!  So much for the loss of American jobs.  The Japanese threw a wrench in that argument.  So now the argument became about the loss of ‘high paying’ American jobs.  For the Japanese plants were non-union.  Didn’t matter that their workers were making better pay and benefits than many in their region.  No.  What mattered was that they were building a better product.  And they didn’t want THESE jobs in America.  But if they couldn’t get rid of these new workers, they should at least unionize them so their cars cost more.  To make them a little less appealing to the American consumer.  So far they have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.  The workers are happy as they are.

Well, these cars just weren’t going away.  So the Americans surrendered car manufacturing to the Japanese.  They couldn’t beat them.  (Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t even try).  They, instead, focused on the higher profit truck and SUV markets.  Then the Japanese entered those markets.  And at every level they competed with the Americans, the Japanese gave more bang for the buck.  And the consumers responded.  With their hard-earned wages.  It just wasn’t fair.  The Japanese kept giving the American consumer a better product.  No matter what political action the Big 3 took or demanded.

And there’s the problem.  They sought their answers from government.  Instead of making a better car.  They wanted to stop the Japanese from giving the American consumer what they wanted so they could force Americans to pay more for less.  All the while the economy was forcing the majority of consumers to get by on less (the majority of consumers do not have the wage and benefit package the ‘select’ few had in the Big 3). 

Fast forward to 2008 and we see the ultimate consequence of their actions.  Bankruptcy.  GM and Chrysler had to grovel for a federal bailout and in the process become Washington’s bitch.  Ford survived on her own.  As did the Japanese.  You can bitch all you want about costs, but if you have the revenue you can pay your costs.  And the Americans just couldn’t sell enough cars to maintain the revenue they needed for their cost structure.  By refusing to address the core problem (they weren’t making cars Americans wanted to buy), they only made their competition stronger and more entrenched in the U.S. market.

IT’S ALL POLITICS.  Political cronyism.  And crony capitalism.  It all comes down to political spoils and patronage.  That’s what happens when politics enter capitalism.  Big Business partners with Big Government and they enter into relationships.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.  But when government protects a business for political expediency, the industry suffers in the long run.  As the U.S. automobile industry has.  Ditto for the U.S. textile industry.  And the U.S. steel industry.

So what goes wrong?  When you protect an industry you insulate it from market forces.  You can build crap.  The problem is, consumers don’t buy crap.  So, for awhile, politics intervene and makes the crap more favorable.  Whether it’s predatory pricing, monopolistic pricing or collusion, business can’t win.  Big Government is there.  If your prices are too low, government will intervene.  If prices are too high, government will intervene.  If prices are too similar, government will intervene.  To make things ‘fair’.  And by fair they mean to reward those who play the game and to punish those who don’t.  And the spoils go to those large voting blocs they need.  And in return for their votes, they can count on patronage.  Government jobs.  Political positions.  Favorable legislation and regulation.  If you got the vote out, you were rewarded quite nicely. 

And consumers be damned. .

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