Testimony of Geoffrey A. Manne, ‘Reviving Competition, Part 5: Addressing the Effects of Economic Concentration on America’s Food Supply’
Written Testimony of
Geoffrey A. Manne
Founder and President,
International Center for Law & Economics
“Reviving Competition, Part 5: Addressing the Effects of Economic Concentration on America’s Food Supply”
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary,
Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law
January 19, 2022
There is a wide range of possible explanations for the rise in consumer food prices over the past year: Increased demand driven by fiscal stimulus, disruptions arising from an unprecedented set of simultaneous supply and demand shocks, the incentive effects of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increase in the money supply, among others. Each of these factors is interrelated, and each has surely contributed in varying degrees to current headline inflation woes.
What is not a plausible explanation is increased concentration and the exercise of market power in the food supply chain.
Between December 2019 and September 2021, the U.S. money supply (driven primarily by the Federal Reserve’s purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities), grew by approximately $5.5 trillion—a 36% increase. Likewise, the federal government has approved about $4.5 trillion in pandemic relief and stimulus payments since the beginning of COVID-19. The government also injected a huge amount of money into the economy and added about $5 trillion to the federal debt.
Massive debt spending isn’t inherently inflationary as long as people understand that taxes will increase or spending will decrease to “pay off” the debt. But today it seems that people do not have much of an expectation that taxes will meaningfully increase or that spending will meaningfully decrease. Indeed, the discourse around the administration’s “Build Back Better” legislation gives the impression of a virtually endless spending binge with little additional revenues to offset the spending. This feeds inflation expectations, and expectations can be self-fulfilling.
To make matters worse, the pandemic was not a standard demand-driven recession. Pre-COVID, the U.S. economy was more or less roaring. Unemployment was at its lowest rate in 50 years. Labor force participation among the working age populations was back to pre-Great Recession levels. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was at an all-time high. Americans may have needed relief to get through the pandemic, but the economy did not need any stimulus.
We should also be clear that the current 7% headline inflation rate is a measure of past price- level changes between December 2020 and December 2021. It’s not a measure of the rate at which prices are increasing right now, however. And while the 7% number grabbed all the headlines, the CPI rose at a slower rate in December than it did in November, meaning the monthly inflation rate (as well as the implied annualized inflation rate) actually fell in December. The point is that, problematic as they are for actual consumers, current consumer prices and trends do not provide a sound basis for massive, economy-wide government intervention.
It is hardly surprising that shifting consumption patterns and the post-vaccine re-opening of the economy have led to short-term frictions, such as backlogs at ports, a shortage of truckers, and disruption throughout the supply chain, all of which are associated with important relative price movements. But they aren’t “inflation” in the sense that all prices and wages aren’t increasing together. These shocks are most likely transitory, and higher prices will recede as the supply chain returns to normal. That is, as long as sensible economic and fiscal policies predominate. But in the face of the harsh political realities of the current state of affairs, there is no guarantee that reason will prevail.
Rather than accepting these extremely likely causes of the recent increase in prices, some blame inflation on a widespread pandemic of “greed” and “collusion” by businesses. Wide swaths of American industry have been hit with these allegations, including oil companies, natural gas producers, health care providers, meat packers, and grocery stores.
Critics of American business blame years, if not decades, of so-called “rising concentration.” It’s claimed that the increase in concentration stems from mergers and acquisitions over the years that were blessed by lax antitrust regulators or merely overlooked by overworked agencies. These critics give the impression that in virtually all corners of the American economy lurk sleeper cells of colluding cartels that activated their plans just as the country went into lockdown.
Under this thinking, vigorous antitrust enforcement will punish the colluders and stop the scourge of rising prices. But this thinking is misplaced.
First, antitrust is simply not the proper tool. The purpose of antitrust law in the U.S. is to protect competition, rather than to guarantee low prices in and of themselves. That’s why it is illegal to conspire to raise prices or attempt to monopolize a market. Conversely, this also explains why high or rising prices are not an antitrust violation—because these prices may be the result of the undistorted competition antitrust ultimately protects. Even price gouging during a disaster rarely merits antitrust scrutiny because it’s understood that that is how markets work—especially competitive markets. That is because it is widely understood that the price system is the most effective system for allocating resources, even when the process itself is painful.
Second, and more practically, antitrust enforcement often moves at a glacial pace. Even successful prosecutions of anticompetitive behavior take years to resolve. The DOJ’s investigations of price fixing in the broiler chicken market and the packaged seafood market were announced several years after the alleged collusion began. While the investigations led to guilty pleas and a criminal conviction, they did nothing to reduce prices at the time the conspiracies were active.
All of this is not to say that some producers are not monopolizing a market or conspiring with competitors to raise prices. If they are, there is an important role for an antitrust investigation and enforcement—that is the purpose of our antitrust laws. But even relatively rapid and vigorous antitrust investigations will do little to reduce the prices consumers are paying today, especially if they are the perfectly predictable, if messy, result of market competition in the midst of a global pandemic. As much as some would like antitrust to be the Swiss Army knife of public policy, it is an entirely inappropriate tool to address economy-wide inflation.
At the same time, even within the industries that have seen particularly newsworthy price increases, and which are the subject of today’s hearing, the complex competitive dynamics of those industries offer far more plausible explanations of current prices than do unsubstantiated claims of anticompetitive conduct or collusion. But they don’t offer convenient scapegoats to quell the political consequences of these price increases.
It is difficult not to see the pursuit of a scapegoat in the administration’s focus on concentration and market power as a culprit for today’s higher food prices.