Economy

U.S. Economy Increasingly Dominated by Monopolies as 2015 Corporate Mergers Continue

More evidence of the nation's new gilded age.

Photo Credit: Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

There’s more evidence that corporate America is becoming ever more monopolistic and that’s not good for small businesses or consumers. This year is on track to see the most corporate mergers and takeovers since the Great Recession of 2008, according to many business page reports that said October was the fifth biggest month ever for mergers.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported in a recent series that corporate America is increasingly forcing its customers to agree to arbitration in disputes—forgoing the constitutional right to a jury trial—when signing contracts for basic services, and Robert Reich said in his new book, Saving Capitalism, the U.S. economy is increasingly dominated by monopolies. 

“We’re now in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first Gilded Age, when the nation’s antitrust laws were enacted,” Reich wrote. “The political effects of concentrated economic power are no less important now than they were then, and the failure of modern antitrust [laws and regulators] is surely related to the exercise of power itself.”

The business press cheers mergers and acquisitions as a sign that the economy is robust, but that merely reveals its bias toward servicing those at the top of country’s economic pyramid. On the receiving end of the latest wave of mergers are consumers and the public that almost never sees any savings. Instead, there typically are fewer choices and whenever one signs a contract for services with a big corporation, one usually has to agree to private arbitration in disputes, which shuts off access to the court system.   

“Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to apply for a credit card, use a cellphone, get cable or Internet service, or shop online without agreeing to private arbitration. The same applies to getting a job, renting a car or placing a relative in a nursing home,” the Times said. “By inserting individual arbitration clauses into a soaring number of consumer and employment contracts, companies like American Express devised a way to circumvent the courts and bar people from joining together in class-action lawsuits, realistically the only tool citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices.”

That backdrop—few regulatory obstacles and legal fine-print that’s stacked against consumers—forms the backdrop to the latest wave of mergers and acquisitions.

“America’s already huge corporations are combining like nobody’s business,” wrote Harold Meyerson, in a column for the American Prospect and Washington Post. “In recent months, Walgreens bought Rite Aid, uniting two of the nation’s three largest drugstore chains; in beerland, Molson Coors is buying Miller; mega-health insurers Aetna and Anthem, respectively, bought mega-health insurers Humana and CignaHeinz bought Kraft, good news for those who take ketchup with their cheese; and American Airlines completed its absorption of US Airways, reducing the number of major U.S. airlines to four, which now control 70 percent of the air travel market. On Wall Street, the five biggest commercial banks hold nearly half of the nation’s bank assets; in 1990, the five biggest held just 10 percent.”

As Meyerson notes, these and other mergers are not likely to benefit consumers by making more businesses compete for clients by offering better prices and service.

“Online shoppers for flights and hotels may be less than thrilled to learn that once the Expedia-Orbitz merger is completed, the combined company and Priceline will control all the online vendors,” he wrote. “October was the fifth biggest month ever for mergers and acquisitions. So far this year, the value of those deals is roughly $4 trillion, creeping up on the all-time record of $4.3 trillion, set in 2007, just before the crash. These numbers, as one study after another demonstrates, are bad news for consumers, workers, and startups."

Various economists have researched and noted America’s growing gap between its rich and everybody else has been partly fueled by the outsized financial rewards granted to executives and major shareholders in firms that dominate their field, achieving virtual monopolies.

“But the unchecked combination of mega-firms tells just half the story of the rising imbalance of wealth and power (both market and political),” Meyerson writes. “The other half is the legal obstacle course that makes it effectively impossible for consumers to come together, and for workers to form unions.”

Both Meyers and Reich note that a century ago, the nation’s political leaders took on the biggest monopolies of the day—Standard Oil and Carnegie Steels—with protest movements that sought and won antitrust legislation and worker rights.

The closest modern parallel to those historic populist movements might be the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. That is why Hillary Clinton’s odd defense in Saturday’s debate of her huge speaker fees and numerous 2016 presidential campaign contributions from many of the country’s biggest corporations and their executives is a big deal, not just a campaign trail gaffe. Clinton showed that many of those in the circles driving and profiting from this latest spree of merger mania are comfortable with her, as they assume that whatever Wall Street reforms she might pursue, they won't amount to much more than the cost of doing business.

“Those with the most economic power have been able to use it to alter the rules of the game to their advantage, thereby adding economic power, while most Americans, lacking such power, have seen little or no increase in their real incomes,” Reich writes, pointing to the bottom-line costs and benefits from an increasingly monopolistic American economy.

“The vast majority of the nation’s citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs,” he concludes. “But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again.”

In the meantime, the economic powers that be are joining forces to fortify where their interests lie, as seen by the increasing likelihood that 2015 will set a record for the most corporate mergers and acquisitions in many years.   

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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