Monday, April 2, 2018

Amazon's Antitrust Paradox (AMZN)

From the Yale Law Journal, Vol. 126, #3, Jan. 2017:
Amazon is the titan of twenty-first century commerce. In addition to being a retailer, it is now a marketing platform, a delivery and logistics network, a payment service, a credit lender, an auction house, a major book publisher, a producer of television and films, a fashion designer, a hardware manufacturer, and a leading host of cloud server space. Although Amazon has clocked staggering growth, it generates meager profits, choosing to price below-cost and expand widely instead. 

Through this strategy, the company has positioned itself at the center of e-commerce and now serves as essential infrastructure for a host of other businesses that depend upon it. Elements of the firm’s structure and conduct pose anticompetitive concerns—yet it has escaped antitrust scrutiny.

This Note argues that the current framework in antitrust—specifically its pegging competition to “consumer welfare,” defined as short-term price effects—is unequipped to capture the architecture of market power in the modern economy. We cannot cognize the potential harms to competition posed by Amazon’s dominance if we measure competition primarily through price and output. Specifically, current doctrine underappreciates the risk of predatory pricing and how integration across distinct business lines may prove anticompetitive. These concerns are heightened in the context of online platforms for two reasons. First, the economics of platform markets create incentives for a company to pursue growth over profits, a strategy that investors have rewarded. Under these conditions, predatory pricing becomes highly rational—even as existing doctrine treats it as irrational and therefore implausible. Second, because online platforms serve as critical intermediaries, integrating across business lines positions these platforms to control the essential infrastructure on which their rivals depend. This dual role also enables a platform to exploit information collected on companies using its services to undermine them as competitors. 

This Note maps out facets of Amazon’s dominance. Doing so enables us to make sense of its business strategy, illuminates anticompetitive aspects of Amazon’s structure and conduct, and underscores deficiencies in current doctrine. The Note closes by considering two potential regimes for addressing Amazon’s power: restoring traditional antitrust and competition policy principles or applying common carrier obligations and duties.
“Even as Amazon became one of the largest retailers in the country, it never seemed interested in charging enough to make a profit. Customers celebrated and the competition languished.”
The New York Times1

“[O]ne of Mr. Rockefeller’s most impressive characteristics is patience.”
Ida Tarbell, A History of the Standard Oil Company2
In Amazon’s early years, a running joke among Wall Street analysts was that CEO Jeff Bezos was building a house of cards. Entering its sixth year in 2000, the company had yet to crack a profit and was mounting millions of dollars in continuous losses, each quarter’s larger than the last. 

Nevertheless, a segment of shareholders believed that by dumping money into advertising and steep discounts, Amazon was making a sound investment that would yield returns once e-commerce took off. Each quarter the company would report losses, and its stock price would rise. One news site captured the split sentiment by asking, “Amazon: Ponzi Scheme or Wal-Mart of the Web?”3

Sixteen years on, nobody seriously doubts that Amazon is anything but the titan of twenty-first-century commerce. In 2015, it earned $107 billion in revenue,4 and, as of 2013, it sold more than its next twelve online competitors combined.5 By some estimates, Amazon now captures 46% of online shopping, with its share growing faster than the sector as a whole.6 In addition to being a retailer, it is a marketing platform, a delivery and logistics network, a payment service, a credit lender, an auction house, a major book publisher, a producer of television and films, a fashion designer, a hardware manufacturer, and a leading provider of cloud server space and computing power. Although Amazon has clocked staggering growth—reporting double-digit increases in net sales yearly—it reports meager profits, choosing to invest aggressively instead. The company listed consistent losses for the first seven years it was in business, with debts of $2 billion.7 While it exits the red more regularly now,8 negative returns are still common. The company reported losses in two of the last five years, for example, and its highest yearly net income was still less than 1% of its net sales.9

HT: Naked Capitalism Links post, Apr 2