Thursday, October 23, 2014

Big Bad Heteroskedasticity: Bezos vs Krugman vs Andreessen Edition.

Paul Krugman accuses Amazon of asserting monopsony power by pressuring publishers to reduce prices, likening Jeff Bezos to J.D. Rockefeller.
Does Amazon really have robber-baron-type market power? When it comes to books, definitely. Amazon overwhelmingly dominates online book sales, with a market share comparable to Standard Oil’s share of the refined oil market when it was broken up in 1911. Even if you look at total book sales, Amazon is by far the largest player.
The econ 101 explanation is in the following graf:
So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance [that's one hypothesis, anyway -SLW]. What it has done, instead, is use its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books — hence the fight with Hachette. In economics jargon, Amazon is not, at least so far, acting like a monopolist, a dominant seller with the power to raise prices. Instead, it is acting as a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.
Amazon is a mancgere, a merchant that neither improves nor alters its wares, but rather offers the conveniences of transporting goods from seller to buyer with as little fuss as possible for buyers. By being the largest middleman, Amazon is (ostensibly) able to extract monopoly/monopsony rents on multiple margins. If you're a publisher, your BATNA is to try to get books out in tottering brick-n-mortar joints. If you're a reader, maybe you can look around for a pirated .pdf or something (hands up if there's a Barnes & Noble in a 20 minute drive of where you are right now, let alone the good ol' mom and pop book store).

What's more, their very size allows them the luxury of discriminating on multiple margins. Krugman identifies an editorial margin related to partisan politics and delivery times:
Last month the Times’s Bits blog documented the case of two Hachette books receiving very different treatment. One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.”
I'd add that you don't even have to reach that far. One of the unintended upshots of the fragmented local book markets is that micro-markets could thrive. As other-Sam notes, the content curation issue is extremely important. Book store owners anticipate customers' purchases, and stock the shelves accordingly. This sends production signals back to publishers to tell them the sort of talent they should be scouting. These days, the signals are chiefly coming from a single retailer. If this retailer is non-neutral, future content could be skewed. If this retailer rejects tail risks, future content could be leptokurtotic. Either one of these is unjust, especially for our descendants.

Krugman recommends swift government intervention. I do not. A wise and benevolent sovereign might remedy the content curation problem, but wise and benevolent sovereigns are sadly in short supply. An agency chartered with the sort of authority required to monitor the business operations of a bookseller of all things is, in other regimes, called a "censor." The question the careful analyst (and entrepreneur!) should ask is: "is there an alternate institutional arrangement that would solve the problems of content curation, monopsony coercion, & al without creating greater systematic risks?"

I think the answer is "yes." At the risk of being glib, consider an Uber of books; a bitcoin of books. Or of any non-durable consumer goods. Amazon provides a centralized service. They're so large because they're able to cheaply solve the very difficult problem of how to match buyers and sellers. This problem can be solved in an algorithm, perhaps on the blockchain. Warehousing and delivery are entirely separable from the core competency of Amazon.

Is Amazon euvoluntary? I guess the answer depends on what you want to compare it to.

See Marc Andreessen's commentary here.

h/t the ST Gang

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?