There is no such thing as a free lunch.

An Interesting Consequence of Regulation

Milton Friedman once said that regulations favor big businesses and put small businesses at a disadvantage. The theory goes that big businesses can afford the lawyers, accountants, and staff to manage complex regulations, as well as the lobbyists to influence regulators and other government bureaucrats, while small businesses and fledgling companies cannot. It should therefore be the case, that in the most heavily regulated industries, you will see some of the largest and most powerful companies.

Of course, large companies sometimes have advantages in other ways (industries with high startup costs, economies of scale, etc.) And also some might say that the regulations are put in place because the companies became too large. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look at a list of the largest companies in 2008 (by revenue) in the U.S., and to see what industries they represent:

  1. Wal-Mart – Retail
  2. ExxonMobil – Energy/Oil
  3. Chevron – Energy/Oil
  4. General Motors – Automobiles
  5. ConocoPhillips – Energy/Oil
  6. General Electric – Congolmerate
  7. Ford Motor – Automobiles
  8. Citigroup – Banking
  9. Bank of America – Banking
  10. AT&T – Telecommunications

So in the top 10 we have companies representing banking, energy/oil, the auto industry, and telecom. Though I haven’t proved anything, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are some of the most heavily regulated industries in the country.

Another way of looking at is to look at the age of companies. The idea is that regulations would give the advantage to older, more entrenched corporations. That’s exactly what Brian Gongol has done. His data shows that corporations in countries with heavy regulations tend to be much older. Again, correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the data is interesting nonetheless.

So next time someone suggests that government somehow needs to restrain the size of banks, auto companies, or pharmaceutical companies, so that they don’t become too big (to fail) and powerful, think for a second that the reason those companies are so large may due to government involvement in the first place.

May 20, 2009   No Comments

Paul Atkins: The SEC Was Distracted

The now former Republican SEC Commissioner shares his thoughts on the economic meltdown:

February 21, 2009   No Comments

When Less is More

In the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, both presidential candidates are calling for tighter regulation of the U.S. financial markets. That might make for good soundbites, but it’s more important to look back at the root cause of today’s troubles.

Under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the government heavily promoted home ownership to all citizens, even those with lower incomes and weak credit. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought these loans from the primary lenders (banks) because they offered the highest rate of return, and coincidentally, the most risk. Fannie and Freddie casually assumed those risks, because the two companies were effectively guaranteed by the federal government, i.e., the taxpayer.

Whose idea was it to create Fannie Mae? It was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. Who’s idea was it to make Fannie Mae a private corporation with implicit government backing? It was Lyndon Johnson’s (Freddie Mac was created in 1970 during Richard Nixon’s administration to provide some competition to Fannie Mae). Whose jobs were to make sure that Fannie and Freddie were able to handle these high-risk mortgages? The regulators. Why didn’t the regulators do their jobs? It might be that the incentive for someone to do his/her job as a regulator is much less than the incentive for someone else to try to make millions of dollars. The end result is that the seeds sown by the government years ago probably set the stage for the takedown of two huge financial companies, and possibly more to come.

I think what we can learn from all this is that when the government intervenes in the free market, any short-term benefit will likely be counteracted by an unforeseen catastrophe in the long-term. What’s happening now is probably a much needed correction in the financial markets that will be necessary for long-term economic health. Hopefully, the government doesn’t throw too many wrenches in the works during the meantime.

September 15, 2008   No Comments