Hazlett on T-Mobile/Sprint

Tom Hazlett whose op-ed on the T-Mobile Sprint merger I quoted earlier writes me:

A few thoughts on your robust MR debate: (1) Were we to observe the counterfactual over the post-merger period we would have additional evidence – no disagreement. But the counterfactuals are themselves controversial to construct, and antitrust analyses typically make just the “before/after” prediction referenced. As the case against the merger (brought by several states, but rejected by a federal court) put it: “The proposed transaction would eliminate Sprint as a competitor… This increased market concentration will result in diminished competition, higher prices, and reduced quality and innovation.”

(2) There is powerful supporting evidence about merger effects apart from the retail price data. If real, quality-adjusted rates were anticipated to drop at even a faster clip (without a merger), reversing a pre-merger pro-consumer trend, then the post-merger performance in stock prices would have benefited the three incumbents in the market. Instead, two of the three firms have seen large abnormal declines in share values.

(3) The “cozy triopoly” theory is itself upended by both the firm stock price performances and the pattern of capital investments. The “Demsetz Critique” of the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm showed that a positive concentration-profits correlation does not imply monopolistic behavior if the proximate cause of the excess profits is efficiency. Here, T-Mobile’s network improvements appear to be caused by its merger-based spectrum acquisitions, and these upgrades linked to its subscriber growth and capital gains. The non-merging mobile rivals have suffered highly negative returns, likely in significant part from intensified competitive challenges that forced them to make large investments in response. In 2021, Verizon and AT&T combined to pay over $75 billion for spectrum rights in an FCC auction, easily the most ever paid by two (or any number of) license bidders. Cartel formation predictably reduces rivalry; evidence of firms aggressively increasing capex to better compete for market share runs counter to the expectation.

(4) Industry analysts – who provide third-party evaluations often given great weight by antitrust authorities – support these interpretations. In Dec. 2022, e.g., sector expert Craig Moffett (MoffettNathanson) wrote: “We expect T-Mobile to continue, and indeed accelerate, their market share gains versus AT&T and Verizon, as T-Mobile’s 5G network superiority becomes increasingly evident and increasingly relevant as 5G handsets become ubiquitous. The combination of a single telecom operator having both the industry’s best network and its lowest prices is unprecedented… “

(5) A 750-word oped is not the ultimate format for such evidence. My Working Paper with Robert Crandall (formerly of Brookings, now with the Technology Policy Institute) supplies a more complete analysis – comments again welcome.


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