Business in America

The problem with profits

Big firms in the United States have never had it so good. Time for more competition

Mar 26th 2016 |

by Judith Stein and Biodun Iginla, Business News Analysts, The Economist Intelligence Unit, New York

AMERICA used to be the land of opportunity and optimism. Now opportunity is seen as the preserve of the elite: two-thirds of Americans believe the economy is rigged in favour of vested interests. And optimism has turned to anger. Voters’ fury fuels the insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and weakens insiders like Hillary Clinton.

The campaigns have found plenty of things to blame, from free-trade deals to the recklessness of Wall Street. But one problem with American capitalism has been overlooked: a corrosive lack of competition. The naughty secret of American firms is that life at home is much easier: their returns on equity are 40% higher in the United States than they are abroad. Aggregate domestic profits are at near-record levels relative to GDP. America is meant to be a temple of free enterprise. It isn’t.

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Borne by the USA

High profits might be a sign of brilliant innovations or wise long-term investments, were it not for the fact that they are also suspiciously persistent. A very profitable American firm has an 80% chance of being that way ten years later. In the 1990s the odds were only about 50%. Some companies are capable of sustained excellence, but most would expect to see their profits competed away. Today, incumbents find it easier to make hay for longer (see Briefing).

You might think that voters would be happy that their employers are thriving. But if they are not reinvested, or spent by shareholders, high profits can dampen demand. The excess cash generated domestically by American firms beyond their investment budgets is running at $800 billion a year, or 4% of GDP. The tax system encourages them to park foreign profits abroad. Abnormally high profits can worsen inequality if they are the result of persistently high prices or depressed wages. Were America’s firms to cut prices so that their profits were at historically normal levels, consumers’ bills might be 2% lower. If steep earnings are not luring in new entrants, that may mean that firms are abusing monopoly positions, or using lobbying to stifle competition. The game may indeed be rigged.

One response to the age of hyper-profitability would be simply to wait. Creative destruction takes time: previous episodes of peak profits — for example, in the late 1960s — ended abruptly. Silicon Valley’s evangelicals believe that a new era of big data, blockchains and robots is about to munch away the fat margins of corporate America. In the past six months the earnings of listed firms have dipped a little, as cheap oil has hit energy firms and a strong dollar has hurt multinationals.

Unfortunately the signs are that incumbent firms are becoming more entrenched, not less. Microsoft is making double the profits it did when antitrust regulators targeted the software firm in 2000. Our analysis of census data suggests that two-thirds of the economy’s 900-odd industries have become more concentrated since 1997. A tenth of the economy is at the mercy of a handful of firms — from dog food and batteries to airlines, telecoms and credit cards. A $10 trillion wave of mergers since 2008 has raised levels of concentration further. American firms involved in such deals have promised to cut costs by $150 billion or more, which would add a tenth to overall profits. Few plan to pass the gains on to consumers.

Getting bigger is not the only way to squish competitors. As the mesh of regulation has got denser since the 2007–08 financial crisis, the task of navigating bureaucratic waters has become more central to firms’ success. Lobbying spending has risen by a third in the past decade, to $3 billion. A mastery of patent rules has become essential in health care and technology, America’s two most profitable industries. And new regulations do not just fence big banks in: they keep rivals out.

Having limited working capital and fewer resources, small companies struggle with all the forms, lobbying and red tape. This is one reason why the rate of small-company creation in America has been running at its lowest levels since the 1970s. The ability of large firms to enter new markets and take on lazy incumbents has been muted by an orthodoxy among institutional investors that companies should focus on one activity and keep margins high. Warren Buffett, an investor, says he likes companies with “moats” that protect them from competition. America Inc has dug a giant defensive ditch around itself.

Most of the remedies dangled by politicians to solve America’s economic woes would make things worse. Higher taxes would deter investment. Jumps in minimum wages would discourage hiring. Protectionism would give yet more shelter to dominant firms. Better to unleash a wave of competition.

The first step is to take aim at cosseted incumbents. Modernising the antitrust apparatus would help. Mergers that lead to high market share and too much pricing power still need to be policed. But firms can extract rents in many ways. Copyright and patent laws should be loosened to prevent incumbents milking old discoveries. Big tech platforms such as Google and Facebook need to be watched closely: they might not be rent-extracting monopolies yet, but investors value them as if they will be one day. The role of giant fund managers with crossholdings in rival firms needs careful examination, too.

Set them free

The second step is to make life easier for startups and small firms. Concerns about the expansion of red tape and of the regulatory state must be recognised as a problem, not dismissed as the mad rambling of anti-government Tea Partiers. The burden placed on small firms by laws like Obamacare has been material. The rules shackling banks have led them to cut back on serving less profitable smaller customers. The pernicious spread of occupational licensing has stifled startups. Some 29% of professions, including hairstylists and most medical workers, require permits, up from 5% in the 1950s.

A blast of competition would mean more disruption for some: firms in the S&P 500 employ about one in ten Americans. But it would create new jobs, encourage more investment and help lower prices. Above all, it would bring about a fairer kind of capitalism. That would lift Americans’ spirits as well as their economy.

From the print edition: Leaders

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