Monday, May 2, 2016
Jim Case, the author of Competition: The Birth of a New Science , who also frequently reviews books for the SIAM Review, writes that I could have written a different book than Who Gets What and Why, and offers some thoughts on what it might cover. Here's his guest post.
The Effect of Rules on Market Performance by Jim Case
The early chapters of Who Gets What and Why argue, by means of examples, that the success or failure of individual markets often depends less on the details of supply and demand than on the way the markets are organized, and the rules (written or unwritten) that govern participant behavior. History offers any number of memorable examples, of which the following seem particularly instructive:
The parimutuel system of betting at racetracks was invented in 1867. The large amount of calculation involved led to the development of a specialized mechanical calculating machine known as a “totalizator,” or “tote board”. The first one was installed at a track in New Zealand in 1913. The U.S. introduction was in 1927, at Arlington Park, near Chicago. The system was immediately popular with gamblers, for allowing them to bet against other gamblers, rather than “the house,” invariably suspected of acting on inside information.
Air-Brakes on Railroads engaged in interstate commerce were mandated by federal law in 1893. Before that, no individual road could afford the expense of installing such brakes. When all were required to have them, however, freight and passenger rates could be raised sufficiently to make them affordable. Railroad profits actually increased, due to the feasibility of operating longer trains in relative safety!
The Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) was allotted the task, during the 1920s, of regulating in-state oil production on the ground that (pipelines being yet few and far between) crude was mainly transported in railroad tank cars, limited numbers of which were available. After the discovery of the East Texas Field in 1931, the supply of crude oil so far outpaced demand that the price fell to 10 cents a barrel, ironically bringing many producers of “black gold” to the verge of bankruptcy. The commission responded by imposing limits on the fraction of rated capacity well owners were permitted to produce. Initially, they were allowed as little as ten percent, or three “producing days” per month. Texas oil men grew rich only after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the TRC was indeed within its rights to enforce such regulation by whatever means necessary.
The Securities and Exchange Commission was established in 1934 to regulate trade in stocks, bonds, and other securities. Before that time, controls on the issuing and trading of securities had been virtually nonexistent, allowing all manner of fraud and manipulation. Drastic measures were required to restore public confidence (and participation) in the stock market following the crash of 1929. The business community, ever wary of New Deal reforms, was mollified by the effective yet business-friendly chairmanships of Joseph P. Kennedy and William O. Douglas.
The Regulation of Radio Communication has been ongoing in the US since 1912. Military, emergency responder, police, and entertainment enterprises all wanted the ability to get their signals out over the airwaves to target audiences without interference. The Radio Act of 1912 authorized the establishment of a commission to designate which airwaves would be reserved for public use and which would be available to private users. In 1926, at the request of the nascent broadcasting industry, the Federal Radio Commission was established for the immediate purpose of assigning non-interfering radio frequencies to near-by broadcasters. Advertising time became markedly easier to sell when potential buyers could be assured that their messages would be audible to target audiences. It was exactly the boost the fledgling industry needed at the time, and hastened the day when governments could generate significant revenue by auctioning radio frequencies. The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission, holding dominion over telephone as well as radio (& later TV) traffic.
The New Jersey Holding Company Act of 1893: Large corporations were illegal under English common law, which formed the basis of state law in most of the United States. Wholesale mergers and acquisitions therefore remained impossible until legal obstacles were eliminated. The critical piece of legislation is generally held to be the New Jersey Holding Company Act of 1889, which reversed the common law taboo forbidding corporations to buy and hold stock in other corporations. Further restrictions were removed in 1893 and 1896. The result was the consolidation of some 5300 original manufacturing firms into just 318 large corporations between 1897 and the panic of 1903, mostly under New Jersey law. By 1920, most US industries had become oligopolies, with consequences the economics profession has been reluctant to acknowledge.
It should be added that failure to modify the rules of conduct within specific markets can lead directly to market failure. Congress’ failure to regulate the sale and purchase of derivative securities during the 1990s, and its continued failure to impose a carbon tax, are but two of many cases in point.