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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Weak Economy As a Competitive Advantage to the Largest Corporations

Size matters, at least in the business world. This is not a call to lewdness at work for the most well-endowed. Rather, the size I am referring to here is organizational. At the very least, the largest corporations can perform differently than smaller firms in an economy. In April 2013, it was clear that the biggest companies were outpacing smaller ones. Analysts estimated profits for the 100 largest companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock-index to rise 6.6% in the second quarter, while earnings for the bottom 100 were expected to fall by 1.6 percent. Of all the profits earned by the companies in the S&P 500, 22% would be coming from the 10 largest companies, enabling them relatively more wherewithal with which to gain still more market share. Put another way, beyond a certain point, organizational size can protect or buffer a company in the midst of a languid economy. It is not only the market mechanism that accounts for this phenomenon.
One benefit enjoyed by the big corporations is being able to profit from other markets around the world and thus make up for a slow market at home. Smaller firms, with little or no access globally, are more constrained in the sense of being limited to the conditions of the domestic economy. Additionally, large companies enjoy easier access to credit. A bad economy need not keep the biggies from making investments in expanding operations still more, hence building on their existing size-advantage. There appears to be a certain threshold in organizational size beyond which the size of a company's operations can act as a buffer mitigating the negative effects of a slowing economy. It may even be that the market mechanism itself rewards size, and in so doing facilitates the shift from competition to oligopoly or even monopoly in a given market. This does not necessarily result in greater efficiency in business or benefits for the consumer.
Once an organization reaches a certain size, diseconomies of scale kick in. Further increases in size bring disproportionate increases in costs, which counter the earlier economies of scale. As argued by Thompson in Organizations in Action (1967), as organizational size increases, the cost of integrating the various divisions and departments increases more than proportionately. In fact, coordination and integration can become virtually impossible once an organization has reached a certain size. For example, banks like JPMorgan and Bank of America may be so large that they cannot be effectively managed, not to mention in a cost-efficient way.
In addition to the impact from the market mechanism and business, federal legislation can benefit the largest corporations disproportionately or even exclusively, thereby widening the gap between the "haves" and "have nots." For example, federal budget-cutting tends to hurt small business more than large corporations. Also, large corporations like G.E. can afford to lure tax experts away from the IRS in order to minimize the corporate income tax liability. In fact, G.E. got away with zero tax in 2010, despite having earned billions of dollars in the U.S. that year. 

Furthermore, large corporations have considerably more lobbying power than do small companies. With some strategically-placed political campaign contributions, a large company can get its particular situation explicitly exempted in proposed tax legislation. In some cases, the companies or their lobbying group have even given the tax-writing Congressional staff the legislative language--saving the staff some work.

 A large corporation can even create a sustainable competitive advantage for itself by getting Congress to increase the tax burden on smaller firms! Applied to the formulation of regulations by regulatory agencies, a large company with exclusive access to domestic and even international market data can "give" it to the regulators, who depend on such data in crafting regulations that will be effective in the market. Of course, the company can use its informational asset as leverage with which to sway regulators to soften the regulations in a way that benefits the company over its competitors. Even the prospect of future, well-compensated employment can influence a regulator to see to it that the future employer will not face regulations that are too costly. Otherwise, the eventual salary of the regulator-turned-regulatee could be lower amid the lower profits from costly regulations. This use of assets to sway regulators to go easy on the company (but not its competitors!) is known as the strategic use of regulation. I submit that organizational size facilitates such use because the assets that can be used as leverage are more valuable to regulators.

The power of large corporations over public policy and regulations is not the market mechanism at work; rather, it is a manifestation of plutocracy at the expense of representative democracy and the public interest. In a plutocracy, the good of the part trumps the good of the whole. This is suboptimal for the whole because the interest of a part is not necessarily in line with the interest of the whole. Accordingly, public policy can be justified in countering the “artificial” advantages of organizational size in the political arena. Furthermore, even the size bias of the market mechanism and business itself could be reduced or even countered as per the public interest in more competitive markets in place of oligopolies and monopolies. This would take thinking systemically from the perspective of the public interest.


Nelson Schwartz, “As Wall St. Soars in Tough Era, Company Size Is a Big Factor,” The New York Times, April 15, 2013.