Common ownership

Common Ownership: Back to Basics

Do diversified investment vehicles―especially index funds―diminish competitive pressures in concentrated industries? There is an active (and contentious) debate among researchers, policymakers and practitioners about the costs and benefits of such “common ownership.”

In addition to a rapidly growing number of industry-level studies—looking at airlines (here and here), banking (here and here) and ready-to-eat cereals (Backus, Conlon and Sinkinson, forthcoming), or at broad groups of industries—other researchers have sought to link common ownership to macroeconomic phenomena, like the weakness of post-crisis investment. And, in response to anti-competitive claims, legal scholars propose using antitrust law to limit the holdings of institutional investors in oligopolistic industries. Against this background, competition authorities in Europe and the United States are taking the debate seriously (see, for example, the FTC hearing held in December at the NYU School of Law).

Our own view is that the discussion remains at a very early stage, and that it is likely to take years to resolve whether CO, especially through index-tracking mutual and exchange-traded funds, meets the cost-benefit test (for a skeptical view of CO, see here). Importantly, even if CO does reduce competitive pressures, we currently know far too little to about the scale or scope to identify remedies that would be most effective and least disruptive. Furthermore, should the case for broad-based anti-competitive effects become compelling, any response will need to consider the welfare trade-off between the very large consumer benefits arising from broad index funds and the consumer costs associated with a loss of competition in selected oligopolistic industries.

Against this background, we welcome two new papers (here and here) by Backus, Conlon and Sinkinson (BCS) that review the literature, provide new data to characterize the evolving pattern of share ownership, and suggest a back-to-basics approach for testing the CO hypothesis in specific industries. We hope that their work will spur a wave of CO research that will help us weigh the increasingly animated claims and counter-claims. In the remainder of this post, we highlight a few of the lessons from this recent research….

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Antitrust and the Financial Sector

Antitrust has again become a hot topic in U.S. policy discourse. There are lots of contributing reasons:  Online firms have grown large and ever more important in many individuals’ lives. Media references to “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma”, “Big Tech”, etc., have become more common. The Obama Council of Economic Advisers issued a 2016 report that highlighted rising seller concentration—and related concerns about rising market power—in many sectors of the U.S. economy. These concerns have been echoed by The Economist and by a number of academic and “think tank” studies. There have been efforts to link this increasing size and concentration to wage stagnation and worsening income distribution.

The term “monopoly” is heard far more frequently today than was true even a decade ago.

Antitrust is one of the major policy tools in the United States—along with direct regulation—designed to address monopoly and more generally the exercise of market power. For the financial sector, regulation of various kinds generally overshadows antitrust. But even for the financial sector, antitrust plays an important role: indeed, in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided an important antitrust case that involved American Express’s relationship with the merchants that accept its payment card.

So, let’s first review some basics about antitrust. We’ll next describe the recent trends in company sizes and seller concentration. And we will then move on to the relevance of antitrust for the financial sector….

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