When Industry Analysis Goes Flat

Barry Lynn, apparently some sort of John Kenneth Galbraith wannabe, has an amusingly cockeyed post over at the Harvard Business Review blog. He seems to think that state regulations protecting local beer distributors from vertically integrated competitors are the font of virtue, preserving needed diversity in the beer market by allowing craft and micro-brewers to get their product delivered. But if the big brewers were legally able (and motivated) to foreclose distribution of the small brands, they would be legally able to do it without vertically integrating into distribution (by requiring exclusivity).

A simpler analysis: When there were many  competing major brewers, independent multi-brewer distributors made economic sense, since they eliminated needless duplication of sales and delivery of all those brands to retail establishments. With the consolidation of the beer industry into two giant companies that own all the big brands (and a shift from on-premises to at-home consumption), a single-brewer distribution firm can now internalize almost all those economies. Then the beer industry starts to look a bit more like the soft-drink industry, where two major firms own and develop all the major brands and we don’t blink an eye at their bottler/distributors having exclusive relationships with the upstream brand owners or even being vertically integrated with them. If your local Costco or supermarket won’t carry a micro-brew or an off-brand soda, it’s unlikely to be due to market power on the part of the distributors.

UPDATE: It seems that AB InBev, owner of Budweiser and many other beer brands, is indeed shifting to more of a product innovation strategy and running into distribution problems with these new products:

“That’s not to say that AB InBev has perfected the process. Profit this year was hurt by higher distribution and administration costs in the U.S. as the brewer struggled to keep up with demand for Platinum and Lime-A-Rita, which required extensive — and expensive — countrywide distribution.”

So maybe there are strategic reasons why AB InBev would want more control over its distribution pipeline.

“Patents as Swords”? — More like Patents as Bombs

A great New York Times article this morning (link below) details ways in which the patent system gets used as both an offensive and defensive weapon, with billions of dollars of collateral damage to start-ups, consumers (see the “patent tax”), and innovation in general. The victim in the opening Vignette (Vlingo, a voice-recognition software start-up) might have been saved by a simple change in the rules: make the losers of patent lawsuits pay the legal costs of the winner. It turns out that it’s rather easy to kill small firms (or force them to sell to you) by launching a patent lawsuit against them that bleeds them dry with legal fees. You don’t have to win — you just have to force them to fight until they no longer have any money.  Vlingo ultimately won the patent lawsuit that had been filed by a much larger rival, but had to loot its own meager coffers to pay the legal fees of doing so. Vlingo slumped home with its patent lawsuit victory and shut its doors for good. If losers of such battles paid the legal fees of winners, such fights might both be less common, and less likely to be fatal.

The article also points out that software patents have proven particularly dangerous because they are prone to protecting vague claims like “a software algorithm for calculating online prices,” thereby granting the patent holder vast tracks of technological real estate. An interesting talk by Tilo Peters at the Strategic Management Society conference yesterday points to another useful tool for rationalizing some of this misuse of the patent system: Strategic disclosure. If, for example, you decided to publish a manifesto about all of the things you might do with software in the reasonable future (remember patents have a “usefulness” condition so you’re not allowed to claim something deemed non-feasible), you might be able to essentially proclaim that technological territory as unpatentable. It wouldn’t prevent competitors from developing in those areas, but it could keep them from patenting in those areas. In essence, it transforms a space in which property rights may be allocated into one in which property rights may not. I’ve left out some details but you get the idea.

Now it occurs to me that a fair amount of strategic disclosure in the smart phone space took place in the form of Star Trek episodes. I’m going to go look for references to prior art…

-Melissa Schilling


Alex Tabarrok’s Patent Policy napkin

Alex Tabarrok's Patent Policy napkin

Alex Tabarrok’s pictorial commentary on patent policy, drawn on a napkin, posits that the current patent system is somewhat too strong and thereby decreases innovation (the link to his original post is below). I have to say, however, that I don’t think patent strength is the problem. The problem is that the growth in patent applications over the last two decades has vastly exceeded the growth in resources available to the patent office, resulting in 1) long delays between patent application and granting (which can render patents completely pointless in fast moving industries), and 2) inadequate ability to examine the patent applications for novelty, usefulness and non-obviousness. This lowers the value of good patents (because they aren’t granted quick enough or may be fallaciously challenged) and increases the likelihood of bad patents being granted. As a result, for many individuals and firms, the expected net gains from manipulating the patent system for the purposes of extortion (hostage taking, patent trolling) now exceeds the expected net gains from using the patent system to actually innovate.

It’s difficult to assess how patent strength affects innovation without first making sure that patents are being granted and used the way the system had originally intended.

Alex Tabarrok’s original post can be found here:  http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/09/patent-theory-on-the-back-of-a-napkin.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29

Healthcare Price Control Shuffle…

Romney and Ryan have incorrectly characterized Obamacare as a “Raid on Medicare” and news organizations and the Obama campaign have fired back that is it actually a program to reduce healthcare costs — an important achievement of the administration. This whole discussion misses the fundamental point that $716 billion in savings would be the result of mandated price controls. Given that this is a major intervention, it is important to understand how these altered incentives will affect the U.S. healthcare system.

Medicare currently pays providers 30% less than private insurers and Obamacare will further reduce that to save $716 billion in payments to providers (hospitals, doctors, etc.). At the same time, broader coverage (another goal of the new law) will undoubtedly increase demand for services. How will these effects play out?

We already know that some providers are less willing to accept Medicare Read the rest of this entry »

Excessive government paperwork–meta edition

An earlier post described the sclerotic impact of excessive regulatory documentation requirements on real-estate development projects. it turns out that the private sector isn’t the only victim of this tendency:

I think we all know what the logical response to the GAO meta-meta-study is…

H/t Instapundit.

The History Tax

Try to guess the context for this piece of writing. Is it part of a scholarly study on the history of convention centers? A tourist guidebook? Is it the catalogue to a museum display on convention-center architecture?

In order to attract growing numbers of conventions in the
second half of the twentieth century, cities incorporated
convention center construction within urban renewal and
redevelopment schemes, usually at the edge of core urban
areas where space would be available for construction of
large buildings with contiguous, flat-floor space.

Read the rest of this entry »

MBA tuition bubble update

If you want to see just where the MBA business may soon be heading, read this – just in from Balkinization (HT: Instapundit): The Law School Crunch Is Here–Finances and Quality to Suffer. New numbers released by LSAC show applicants to law school for 2012 are down in every region of the US vs. previous year, with the majority experiencing drops of 15%-20%. Enrollment is also dropping – 2012 may see the lowest enrollments since the 1990s (from 52,000 enrolled in accredited programs two years ago to a possible 43,000 this year). With such a precipitous enrollment drop comes low quality students and severe financial difficulties. The bad news is that even at these low numbers, the number of graduates far outstrips the number of available jobs. Tamanaha estimates the equilibrium number of first year enrollments to be around 35,000. The good news is hard to find.

The law school industry appears to lead its b-school counterpart by a few years. Many of the trends affecting law schools – the most salient being the discouraging cost/benefit ratio facing prospective students – are also affecting graduate business schools. The lag between the two may be due to the fact that, for law schools, the immediate value of a law degree is much more transparent. One cannot be a lawyer without a law degree and the only purpose in having a law degree is to become a lawyer. When the bottom falls out of the market for lawyers, one would expect it to fall out of the market for law education in short order. Since MBAs are, ostensibly, useful in any business endeavor, the connection between the education and practitioner markets is less obvious.

That said, business schools face other challenges. For example, law schools still provide an important certification function and, as such, have presumably retained a requisite level of educational content. This maintains their position as a necessary link in the professional chain. Business school educational content, on the other hand, has been on a downward glide path ever since the advent of Business Week surveys in the late 80s (and the Northwestern response innovation to treat students as “customers”). With no objective certification requirement, b-schools have been free to dumb down the education, admit large numbers of questionably-qualified-but-able-to-write-a-check students, and increase activities that have little to do with learning (e.g., social networking). Simultaneously, we see the stirrings of competition from untraditional  sources, such as high quality schools in Europe, China and India (previously a growth segment of the domestic MBA education market), free online courses from top schools such as MIT and Stanford, and alternative forms of education (such as E[enstitute]‘s apprenticeship approach). These differences suggest that the bottom, when we hit it, may be worse than that for law schools.

During a discussion of these developments the other day, a young colleague objected to (what he interpreted as) my Cassandra-like apocalypticism on this topic. The objection was misplaced. I do believe the market for MBAs is going to get a lot tougher in the near- to mid-term – perhaps catastrophically so for programs outside the first tier. In the long-term, however, the turbulence is going to force our institutions … wait, I mean us, the faculties … to revise our business and educational models to compete effectively. The reason to start thinking about the bad-news scenarios now is to prepare. So, when the crunch comes, clear-thinking colleagues can step up to implement successful responses. In my judgment, the market for business education is going to become much more fragmented and diversified. This strikes me as a good thing, with one  winning strategy being to take the research-education link and its attending certification role seriously once again. And, that, in my opinion, would be a wonderful development.


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