In the past twenty years [the] U.S. has lost almost 50% of its publicly traded firms [from 6,797 in 1997 to 3,485 in 2013, AT]. This decline has been so dramatic, that the number of firms these days is lower than it has been in the early 1970s, when the real gross domestic product in the U.S. was one third of what it is today. This phenomenon has been a general pattern that has affected over 90% of U.S. industries.
A rather stunning finding from Grullon, Larkin and Michaely.
The total number of firms has dropped far less than the number of publicly traded firms, so in part this is probably due to laws affecting publicly traded firms in particular such as Sarbanes-Oxley. But there has also been a small drop in the total number of firms (depending on year measured) and concentration ratios have increased which suggests that competition might have fallen. (I wish the authors had looked more closely at the entire size distribution). Have international firms risen to offset the decline of publicly-trade firms? The authors discuss but discount the role of globalization. I don’t see, however, how their findings of small effects on output competition are consistent with big labor market effects. Nevertheless the bottom line is that as concentration rates have increased so have profits, as a recent CEA report also argues.
Is this all the after-effects of the Great Recession? I hope so but the decline in the number of publicly traded firms is also consistent with the research on long-run declining dynamism (including my own research on regulation and dynamism) which shows that startup and reallocation rates have been trending down for thirty years.
Guy Rolnick at Pro-Market also discusses these trends and adds another thought to keep you up at night:
…One question may even loom larger: given that more and more Americans’ pensions and long-term savings today are invested in the stock market in defined contribution schemes, have we created a pension model that is based on a growing share of investments in rent-seeking activities? Put another way, are we facing an economic model in which tens of millions of Americans’ pensions are relying on the ability of companies to extract rents from consumers and taxpayers?