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Posts Tagged ‘Antitrust’

A few months ago, I noted that Amazon and book publishers were tussling over the pricing of electronic books. Amazon had originally acquired e-books using a wholesale pricing model. It paid publishers a fixed price for each e-book it sold, and then decided what retail price to charge customers. Retailers usually sell products at a mark-up above the wholesale price–that’s how they cover their other costs and, if possible, make a profit. Amazon, however, often offered books at promotional prices below its costs. For example, it priced many new e-books at $9.99 even if it had to pay publishers $13.00 or more for them (often about half of the list price of a new hardback).

Several large publishers hated Amazon’s pricing strategy, fearing that it would ultimately reduce the perceived value of their product. They thus pressured Amazon to accept an agency pricing model for e-books. Under this approach, the publishers would retain ownership of the e-books and, most importantly, would set their retail prices. Amazon would then be compensated as an agent for providing the opportunity for the publishers to sell at retail. Under this approach, Amazon would receive 30% of each sale, and publishers would receive 70%.

The strange thing about these negotiations is that their initial effect appears to be lower publisher profits. As I noted in my earlier post:

Under the original system, Amazon paid the publishers $13.00 for each e-book. Under the new system, publishers would receive 70% of the retail price of an e-book. To net $13.00 per book, the publishers would thus have to set a price of about $18.50 per e-book, well above the norm for electronic books. Indeed, so far above the norm that it generally doesn’t happen. … [In addition]  publishers will sell fewer e-books because of the increase in retail prices. Through keen negotiating, the publishers have thus forced Amazon to (a) pay them less per book and (b) sell fewer of their books. Not something you see everyday.

Publishers presumably believe that the longer-term benefits of this strategy will more than offset lost profits in the near-term. What they may not have counted on, however, is the attention they are now getting from state antitrust officials such as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. As reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning, Blumenthal worries that the agency pricing model (which is also used by Apple) is limiting competition and thus harming consumers. And the WSJ says he’s got some compelling evidence on his side:

The agency model has generally resulted in higher prices for e-books, with many new titles priced at $12.99 and $14.99. Further, because the publishers set their own prices, those prices are identical at all websites where the titles are sold. Although Amazon continues to sell many e-books at $9.99 or less, it has opposed the agency model because it argues that lower prices, as exemplified by its promotion of $9.99 best sellers, has been a key factor in the surging e-book market.

It’s also interesting to note that Random House decided to stick with the wholesale model, and many of its titles are priced at $9.99 at Amazon.

Of course, higher prices on select books are not enough to demonstrate an antitrust problem. Publishers will likely argue that there is nothing intrinsically anticompetitive about agency pricing, which is used in many other industries. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that they are colluding on e-book pricing. Also, they may claim that their pricing strategy will allow more online retailers to enter the marketplace, thus providing more competition and more choice for consumers (albeit along non-price dimensions).

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This morning’s headlines include some important follow-ups to recent posts:

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Yesterday’s deal between Microsoft and Yahoo is a big boost for Bing. Microsoft’s new engine will power search on Yahoo, raising its visibility and, perhaps, eating into Google’s market leadership.

If the stock market is any guide, Microsoft is getting the better of the deal. As Techcrunch notes, Yahoo’s stock fell 12% on the day, lopping almost $3 billion off its market cap:

yahoodown

Microsoft , on the other hand, was up  about 1.4%  — boosting its market cap by about $3 billion.

The real question, of course, is how the deal will affect Google. GOOG was down about 0.8% (around $1 billion in market cap), a bit more than the decline in the Dow or the Nasdaq. That suggests that Google investors respect the MSFT-YHOO deal, but aren’t running scared just yet.

The logic of the deal seems impeccable. Yahoo is an also-ran in the search space, while Microsoft’s Bing is an exciting new entrant. Just how far Yahoo has trailed in search was driven home for me when I reviewed my posts about the search market (here is a list). Google gets the most attention in those posts, of course, but I also discussed competitors Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and Cuil. But it never occurred to me to mention Yahoo. That oversight is vindicated by today’s deal.

Personally, I am looking forward to having Bing on the Yahoo home page. I’ve spent far too much effort avoiding Yahoo’s search engine (e.g., by uninstalling the annoying Yahoo toolbar that various services foist on you when you get new software). Perhaps now I will have reason to let Yahoo take up a bit more valuable screen space.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any of these companies.

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The August Wired has a nice article about the increased antitrust scrutiny that Google is facing. (Updated July 28, 2009 I would usually insert a link to the article, but I couldn’t find one online; sorry, but I am working from the dead-tree-and-ink version that the postman dropped off.)

Early on, the article notes some ironies of the current situation:

More than 15 years ago, federal regulators began making Microsoft the symbol of anticompetitive behavior in the tech industry. Now, a newly activist DOJ may try to do the same thing to Google.

It is an ironic position for the search giant to find itself in. [CEO Eric] Schmidt not only campaigned enthusiastically for the very Obama administration that appointed [DOJ antitrust chief Christine] Varney, but also was one of the most devoted opponents of Microsoft in the mid-’90s, eagerly helping the government build its case against the software firm.

A few weeks ago, I described some of the arguments that Google might use to defend itself. The Wired article elaborates on one of these: it’s fine for a company to be a monopoly if, as John Houseman used to say, they earn it. It then points to the other issues that may raise concerns:

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Some good items elaborating on topics I’ve discussed in the past week:

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As Jeff Horwitz notes in the Washington Post this morning (“Google Says It’s Actually Quite Small“, previously posted on Slate), the search giant will likely face close scrutiny from the Obama administration.  Indeed, Google is already the subject of at least three separate antitrust reviews.

How will Google try to defend itself?

As Horwitz reports, Google will undoubtedly employ two classic defenses:

Defense 1.  Being a monopolist isn’t illegal.  If firms achieve market dominance through “superior skill, foresight, and industry” (as Justice Learned Hand put it decades ago), that’s fine under our system.  We want to reward firms that gain market share by being innovative and delivering value to customers.

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