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7.1 Why Perfect Competition Usually Does Not Happen

The perfect competition model (and its variants like monopolistic competition and contestable markets) represents an ideal operation of a market. As we noted in Chapter 6 "Market Equilibrium and the Perfect Competition Model", not only do the conditions of these models encourage aggressive competition that keeps prices as low as possible for buyers, but the resulting dynamics create the greatest value for all participants in the market in terms of surplus for consumers and producers.

Some markets resemble perfect competition more than others. Agricultural markets, particularly up through the beginning of the 20th century, were viewed as being close to a real-world version of a perfectly competitive market. There were many farmers and many consumers. No farmer and no consumer individually constituted sizeable fractions of the market activity, and both groups acted as price takers. With a modest amount of capital, one could acquire land, equipment, and seed or breeding stock to begin farming, especially when the United States was expanding and large volumes of unused land were available for purchase or homesteading. Although some farmers had better land and climate or were better suited for farming, the key information about how to farm was not impossible to learn.

However, in recent decades circumstances have changed, even for farming, in a way that deviates from the assumptions of perfect competition. Now farmers are unlikely to sell directly to consumers. Instead, they sell to food processing companies, large distributors, or grocery store chains that are not small and often not price takers. Many farming operations have changed from small, family-run businesses to large corporate enterprises. Even in markets where farming operations are still relatively small, the farmers form cooperatives that have market power. Additionally, the government takes an active role in the agriculture market with price supports and subsidies that alter farm production decisions.

One reason so few markets are perfectly competitive is that minimum efficient scales are so high that eventually the market can support only a few sellers. Although the contestable market model suggests that this factor alone does not preclude aggressive price competition between sellers, in most cases there is not really free entry for new firms. A new entrant will often face enormous startup capital requirements that prohibit entry by most modest-sized companies or individual entrepreneurs. Many markets are now influenced by brand recognition, so a new firm that lacks brand recognition faces the prospect of large promotional expenses and several periods with losses before being able to turn a profit. To justify the losses in the startup period, new entrants must expect they will see positive economic profits later to justify these losses, so the market is not likely to reach the stage of zero economic profit even if the new entrants join.

Due to economies of scope, few sellers offer just one product or are organized internally such that production of that one product is largely independent of the other products sold by that business. Consequently, it will be very difficult for a competitor, especially a new entrant in the market, to readily copy the breadth of operations of the most profitable sellers and immediately benefit from potential economies of scope.

Sellers that are vertically integrated may have control of upstream or downstream markets that make competition difficult for firms that focus on one stage in the value chain. For example, one firm may have control of key resources required in the production process, in terms of either the overall market supply or those resources of superior quality, making it hard for other firms to match their product in both cost and quality. Alternatively, a firm may control a downstream stage in the value chain, making it difficult for competitors to expand their sales, even if they price their products competitively.

As we will discuss in the next chapter, markets are subject to regulation by government and related public agencies. In the process of dealing with some perceived issues in these markets, these agencies will often block free entry of new firms and free exit of existing firms.

In our complex technological world, perfect information among all sellers and buyers is not always a reasonable assumption. Some sellers may possess special knowledge that is not readily known by their competition. Some producers may have protection of patents and exclusive rights to technology that gives them a sustained advantage that cannot be readily copied. On the buyer side, consumers usually have a limited perspective on the prices and products of all sellers and may not always pay the lowest price available for a good or service (although the Internet may be changing this to some degree).

Finally, for the perfect competition model to play out according to theory, there needs to be a reasonable level of stability so that there is sufficient time for the long-run consequences of perfect competition to occur. However, in our fast-changing world, the choices of goods and services available to consumers, the technologies for producing those products and services, and the costs involved in production are increasingly subject to rapid change. Before market forces can begin to gel to create price competition and firms can modify their operations to copy the most successful sellers, changes in circumstances may stir enough such that the market formation process starts anew.