Macroeconomics or Microeconomics? Is a Lack of Competition in Some Industries Behind the Increase in Inflation?

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

In January 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that inflation, measured as the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from December 2020 to December 2021, was 7 percent. That was the highest rate since June 1982, which was near the end of the Great Inflation that lasted from 1968 to 1982. The following figure shows the inflation rate since the beginning of 1948. 

What explains the surge in inflation? Most economists believe that it is the result of the interaction of increases in aggregate demand resulting from very expansionary monetary and fiscal policy and disruptions to supply in some industries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply during the pandemic in the updated editions of Economics, Chapter 23, Section 23.3 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 13, Section, 13.3.)

But President Joe Biden has suggested that mergers and acquisitions in some industries—he singled out meatpacking—have reduced competition and contributed to recent price increases. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has made a broader claim about reduced competition being responsible for the surge in inflation: “Market concentration has allowed giant corporations to hide behind claims of increased costs to fatten their profit margins. [Corporations] are raising prices because they can.” And “Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline.”

Do many economists agree that reduced competition explains inflation? The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago periodically surveys a panel of more than 40 well-known academic economists for their opinions on significant policy issues. Recently, the panel was asked whether they agreed with these statements:

  1. A significant factor behind today’s higher US inflation is dominant corporations in uncompetitive markets taking advantage of their market power to raise prices in order to increase their profit margins.
  2. Antitrust interventions could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.
  3. Price controls as deployed in the 1970s could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.

Large majorities of the panel disagreed with statements 1. and 2.—that is, they don’t believe that a lack of competition explains the surge in inflation or that antitrust actions by the federal government would be likely to reduce inflation in the coming year. A smaller majority disagreed with statement 3., although even some of those who agreed that price controls would reduce inflation stated that they believed price controls were an undesirable policy. For instance, while he agreed with statement 3., Oliver Hart of Harvard noted that: “They could reduce inflation but the consequence would be shortages and rationing.”

One way to characterize the panel’s responses is that they agreed that the recent inflation was primarily a macroeconomic issue—involving movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply—rather than a microeconomic issue—involving the extent of concentration in individual industries. 

The panels responses can be found here

Sources for Biden and Warren quotes: Greg Ip, “Is Inflation a Microeconomic Problem? That’s What Biden’s Competition Push Is Betting,” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2022; and Patrick Thomas and Catherine Lucey, “Biden Promotes Plan Aimed at Tackling Meat Prices,” Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2022; and https://twitter.com/SenWarren/status/1464353269610954759?s=20

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