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Fri Nov 9, 2012, 01:04 AM

"Land of the corporate giants" at the Economist

Land of the corporate giants

at the Economist



But once the cost function has been pinned down, it can be used to identify scale economies. If average costs fall as a firm of a given size grows bigger, this suggests economies of scale exist for firms of that size. Results vary by industry. American dairy farms, for example, have been getting bigger but a recent paper shows there are still economies of scale to exploit, especially at those many farms with fewer than 200 cattle. By contrast, rail-industry studies show dwindling economies of scale over time as companies have grown. Overall, estimated cost functions suggest the limits of scale may have been reached for some very large firms.

Merger studies support this. The “winner’s curse” describes the phenomenon of mergers destroying value for the shareholders of an acquiring firm. Research by McKinsey, a consultancy, provides one explanation: close to two-thirds of managers overestimate the economies of scale a merger will deliver, often overegging the benefits by more than 25%. Size can even drive costs up, if firms get too big to manage efficiently.

Top dogs and fat cats

If size does not keep driving down costs, why do big firms keep expanding? One possibility is that they are seeking to boost profits not by driving down costs but by raising prices. Buying up rivals softens competition and enables firms to charge more. American antitrust regulators recently looked back at past health-care mergers, and found that prices rose significantly after some deals. Another view is that mergers are driven by something other than profit. The “empire-building” theory holds that managers are out to increase the scale of their business whatever the cost in terms of creeping inefficiencies.

State safety nets can distort incentives, too. America’s leading three car manufacturers have all grown through mergers: each of them employs over 50,000 workers, and the government balked at letting them fail during the crisis. Some firms may be growing not to lower costs but to receive the comfort of implicit state support. A 2011 paper by Federal Reserve staff supports this conclusion, suggesting banks pay a premium to merge if the tie-up gives them “too-big-to-fail” status. None of these reasons for operating at a vast size is benign. All suggest that antitrust authorities should be much more sceptical about mergers that claim to be justified because of economies of scale.


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