Productivity growth

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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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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Understanding Business Dynamism

For at least the past 30 years, the rate of U.S. business formation has been falling and the average age of existing firms has been rising. Since 2000, two other things have happened: productivity growth has slowed, while many skilled jobs have disappeared. Startups are thought be a key source of innovation in the economy and of net job creation. At the same time, as Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction suggests, the death of old firms is a critical part of the renewal process. So, the declining trend of entry and exit has people worried that U.S. business dynamism is ebbing (see our earlier post).

How concerned should we be? To be completely honest, we don’t really know; at least, not yet. But the answer is important, because it can help orient the U.S. economic policy framework to support the creation of successful businesses that generate high-quality jobs. In this post, we summarize some new research aimed at helping us understand what the decline in business formation really means. Does it signal a fall in the number of successful firms that contribute substantially to business value added, productivity, and employment? Or, is it a decline in the formation of firms that never exceed a tiny scale and have little impact on the broader economy?

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