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12.11: Introduction to Monopoly and Antitrust Policy

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  • What you’ll learn to do: analyze strategies used to control monopolies

    AT&T logo of a blue sphere with white stripes and the text "AT&T" in black letters. Bell South logo of a blue bell in a blue circle and the text "Bell South" in blue letters.

    So far, we have learned three important lessons about markets: First, that competition, by providing consumers with lower prices and a variety of innovative products, is a good thing; second, that large-scale production can dramatically lower average costs; and third, that markets in the real world are rarely perfectly competitive. As a consequence, government policymakers must determine how much to intervene to balance the potential benefits of large-scale production against the potential loss of competition that can occur when businesses grow in size, especially through mergers.

    For example, in 2006, AT&T and BellSouth, two telecommunications companies, wished to merge into a single firm. In the year before the merger, AT&T was the 121st largest company in the country when ranked by sales, with $44 billion in revenues and 190,000 employees. BellSouth was the 314th largest company in the country, with $21 billion in revenues and 63,000 employees.

    The two companies argued that the merger would benefit consumers, who would be able to purchase better telecommunications services at a cheaper price because the newly created firm would be able to produce more efficiently by taking advantage of economies of scale and eliminating duplicate investments. However, a number of activist groups like the Consumer Federation of America and Public Knowledge expressed fears that the merger would reduce competition and lead to higher prices for consumers for decades to come. In December 2006, the federal government allowed the merger to proceed. By 2009, the new post-merger AT&T was the eighth largest company by revenues in the United States, and by that measure the largest telecommunications company in the world. Economists have spent – and will still spend – years trying to determine whether the merger of AT&T and BellSouth, as well as other smaller mergers of telecommunications companies at about this same time, helped consumers, hurt them, or did not make much difference.

    This section discusses public policy issues about competition. How can economists and governments determine when mergers of large companies like AT&T and BellSouth should be allowed and when they should be blocked? The government also plays a role in policing anticompetitive behavior other than mergers, like prohibiting certain kinds of contracts that might restrict competition. In the case of natural monopoly, however, trying to preserve competition probably will not work very well, and so government will often resort to regulation of price and/or quantity of output. In recent decades, there has been a global trend toward less government intervention in the price and output decisions of businesses.

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