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Friday, January 28, 2005

Concentration begets concentration

The proposed Proctor & Gamble-Gillete merger illustrates the historical tendency of concentration in one line of business to foster defensive concentration as suppliers or customers try to restore a balance of power. As the New York Times' reporters put it this morning, "The friendly transaction reflects just how much the balance of power has shifted from consumer products makers to the giant discount retailers, mainly Wal-Mart, in recent years. The deal is a bid by two venerable consumer-products giants to strengthen their bargaining position with the likes of Wal-Mart, which can now squeeze even its largest suppliers."
Andrew Ross Sorkin and Steve Lohr, "Proctor Is Said to Reach a Deal to Buy Gillette," New York Times [natl. ed.], 1/28/05, A1, C14 (quotation from A1).

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Mercantilism and IBM-Lenovo

In talking in lecture the other day about the set of 18th-century policies that constituted what came to be called "mercantilism," I pointed out that, except for the matter of establishing formal colonies, the policies actually look very familiar to us today--for example, the U.S. has sought for most of the twentieth century to keep specific technologies out of foreign hands, generally on national-security grounds. In this sense, it's more accurate to think of mercantilism not as a historical phenomenon confined to the 18th century, but as a set of policies that have great attractions in times of intense international rivalry.

So here's the IBM-Lenovo deal in the news again: turns out that three House Republicans are asking the Bush administration to investigate whether the deal "poses a risk to national security" (reporter Steve Lohr's words).
Steve Lohr, "I.B.M. Deal in China Faces Scrutiny Over Security Issue," New York Times [natl. ed.], 1/27/05, C5.

revision 2/8/05: see also Steve Lohr, "Is I.B.M.'s Lenovo Proposal a Threat to National Security?" New York Times [natl. ed.], 1/31/05, C6.

Synergy redux

The concept of "synergy" outlived the conglomerate movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Recent example of contemporary usage comes from stock analyst Timothy Horan, discussing the Cingular -AT&T Wireless merger: "Investors are going to give them the benefit of the doubt because the synergies are ahead of them."
Matt Richtel, "Drop in Quarterly Earnings for Cingular," New York Times [], 1/25/05.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Airlines = railroads?

When is an airline really just a railroad? When its industry is de-regulated. "Airline executives say they never anticipated that deregulation would precipitate a crisis as deep or as long as the present one," Micheline Maynard reported in the New York Times on Sunday. But anyone familiar with the "cut-throat" competition that prevailed in the American railroad industry in the late 19th century wouldn't be surprised by it. What is interesting is that it took so long back then for expert observers outside of the industry to understand the peculiar competitive dynamics induced by high fixed costs--and that they are hardly any better understood today.
Micheline Maynard, "Coffee, Tea or Regulation? As Grumbling Grows About Airlines, Some Eyes Turn to Washington," New York Times, 1/23/05, sec. 3, pp. 1, 4, 12 (quotation from p. 4).

Speaking of govt-bus partnership

Speaking of the U.S.'s long tradition of government-business partnership in matters technological, . . . Stevel Lohr reports in the New York Times this morning that six technology companies are "forming a consortium [called Globus Consortium] to accelerate the adoption of utility-like grid computing in the corporate world." As with so much of twentieth-century technology, the federal government served as incubator and midwife of Globus Consortium's software for grid computing. "The government provided most of the early finances to develop the software," he writes, "which is freely shared, open-source code."

Steve Lohr, "New Group Will Promote Grid Computing for Business," New York Times, 1/24/05, C7.
Who provided that early financing? Based on past history, the likeliest candidate would be the Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, and sure enough, as it reported in 2002 (go to and search for "grid computing"), it was involved, along with the Department of Energy and IBM.

Shareholder democracy?

From the Wall Street Journal, 1/18/05, B2, yet another indication that the more democratic voting rights that predominated in the early nineteenth century--yes, even in the United States--still prevail in some companies in Europe, in this case, an Austrian company. The WSJ reports that "German engineering company Siemens AG failed to persuade the required number of VA Technologie AG shareholders to change a rule that limits investors' voting rights to 25% regardless of the size of their stake." Dropping the proportional cap on total votes, which had been a condition of Siemens' takeover offer, required a 75% majority (also typical of earlier practice) and Siemen's motion received only 73.2% of the votes cast.

Lessons of history - #2, the dynamics of a federal system

Re. Laura Mansnerus, "New Jersey Faces Tough Competition for Stem Cell Scientists," NYT, 1/17/05, A16: From a historical perspective, one of the fascinating developments since 1980 (the end of the New Deal era, it seems) has been the revivial of state governments as potent policymakers. This story is about the competition among some American states--most recently, New Jersey--to develop stem-cell research capabilities, now that the Bush administration has removed the federal government from this field of activity. Interstate competition will prove to be a boon for stem-cell research, at the same time that it produces, in the words of Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, "duplication and splintering in research," hence, "a crazy-qult pattern across the U.S." The dynamic here is the same as that in the history of incorporation policy in the U.S., one of the few policy areas not to have been federalized between the 1880s and the 1970s. In incorporation policy, interstate competition brought about the (in)famous "race to the bottom" (that is, towards ever laxer regulation) and it's hard to see how a similar result can be avoided in this case.

Lessons of history - #1, govt-bus partnership

"Is less government really better for business? Not if history provides a reliable guide." So reads the subtitle of Jeff Madrick's column, "Economic Scene," in Thursday's New York Times (NYT, 1/20/05, C2).

Madrick is absolutely right. The only problem is that he doesn't sort out differences over time in the roles of the federal and state government. As a result, he neglects to mention that "an active partnership between government and business" actually generated enormous controversy before the Civil War when the government in question was the federal government. This was largely because acceding to an activist federal role in promoting internal (transportation) improvements, banking, or domestic manufacturing threatened to open the door to federal abolition of slavery. "An active partnership between government and business" did indeed characterize the U.S. in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the locus of government action shifted from the state to the national level in the nineteenth century as the biggest businesses crossed state lines with increasing frequency. Regulation of steam boilers on interstate waters (1850s - if I remember right) and creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate interstate railroad rates (1886) marked the first steps, and the decisive movement came during the New Deal.