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America’s monopoly problem, in one chart

From cellphone providers to beer to cat food, consumers have a lot fewer choices when it comes to buying — even if they don’t know it.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

If it feels like you constantly have fewer choices when it comes to where to get a phone plan, book a flight, or go to the pharmacy, that’s because you do. You’ve also got fewer options in areas you might not notice, such as pet food, peanut butter, and coffins.

That’s because due to monopolization, many segments of corporate America are becoming increasingly concentrated spaces.

On Monday, the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank based in Washington, DC, released a new report on what it calls America’s “concentration crisis.” The report details how a variety of industries, ranging from cat food and jelly to domestic airlines and cellphone providers, have come to be dominated by just a handful of actors in recent years.

Four companies, for example, control 97 percent of the dry cat food sector: Nestlé, J.M. Smucker, Supermarket Brand, and Mars. According to the report, Nestlé has a 57 percent hold on the industry, owning brands such as Purina, Fancy Feast, Felix, and Friskies.

Altria, Reynolds American, and Imperial have a 92 percent market share of the cigarette and tobacco manufacturing industry. Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, and Constellation have a 75 percent share of the beer industry. Hillenbrand and Matthews have a 76 percent share of the coffin and casket manufacturing industry.

“This is an effort to really introduce the fact that you go to the store, you see all of these brands, but guess what? They’re all being operated by the same companies,” Sarah Miller, deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, told me. She called the system a “scam economy” where “competition is an illusion, and choice is an illusion.”

On Sunday, New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt published some of the results of the report before its release, including a chart showing how concentration has shifted. The visualization demonstrates just how much the market share of just two companies in many industries has increased since the turn of the century.

In more traditional sectors, such as hardware stores, tobacco, and railroads, concentration is on the rise. And in technology-related fields, including smartphones, social media, and cellphones, in just in the past five or so years, it’s even higher.

Leonhardt points to mergers as a reason for consolidation — namely, competitors combining, or one buying up others. But he also notes it’s more than that:

Another is the power of so-called network effects — in which the growth of, say, Facebook makes more people want to use it. True, a few industries have become less concentrated, but they are exceptions. If anything, the chart here understates consolidation, because it doesn’t yet cover energy, telecommunications and some other areas. It also doesn’t cover local monopolies, such as hospitals that are dominant enough to drive up prices.

Why corporate concentration matters

A lot of the concern about corporate concentration surrounds its potential to drive up prices. The fewer options there are, the fewer places consumers have to shop for goods and services, and the less pressure for competitors to keep prices down.

But monopolization can have much broader implications.

“Monopolization across the economy, I think, is the core reason for all of these economic and social problems that we’re talking about that for years have been a headwind into progress on anything from raising wages to entrepreneurship to reducing political polarization to reducing corruption and power in politics,” Miller said.

Concentration can translate to something called “monopsony” power, where a large buyer controls a big portion of the market. (In monopolies, the focus is on the power of the seller.) A company with a monopsony has outsize control over suppliers and workers.

One potential example of this is Amazon, which could eventually become so big that it can control what shipping companies such as FedEx and UPS charge it, and, in areas where it becomes a dominant buyer of labor, could contribute to pushing employee wages down. (To be sure, Amazon last month announced it would raise its minimum wage for workers to $15 an hour.) Situations like that potential one, some scholars argue, can lead to a broader drag on the overall economy.

The Open Markets Institute used data from industry market research firm IBISWorld to create its Monday report, which is one of three. The Federal Trade Commission stopped collecting and publishing data on industry concentration in 1981.

Even if many consumers don’t immediately notice concentration, it’s present in their everyday lives — it’s why millions of homes only have one internet provider, for example. And it’s getting worse: The Open Markets Institute report lists four cellphone providers that control 98 percent of the market — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. T-Mobile and Sprint announced plans to merge earlier this year. If the deal goes through, the arena will be down to three.

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