Five factors determine market structure:
The number and relative size of firms supplying the product;
The degree of product differentiation;
The power of the seller over pricing decisions;
The relative strength of the barriers to market entry and exit; and
The degree of non-price competition.
The number and relative size of firms in a market influence market structure. If there are many firms, the degree of competition increases. With fewer firms supplying a good or service, consumers are limited in their market choices. One extreme case is the monopoly market structure, with only one firm supplying a unique good or service. Another extreme is perfect competition, with many firms supplying a similar product. Finally, an example of relative size is the automobile industry, in which a small number of large international producers (e.g., Ford and Toyota) are the leaders in the global market, and a number of small companies either have market power because they are niche players (e.g., Ferrari) or have little market power because of their narrow range of models or limited geographical presence (e.g., Škoda).
In the case of monopolistic competition, there are many firms providing products to the market, as with perfect competition. However, one firm’s product is differentiated in some way that makes it appear better than similar products from other firms. If a firm is successful in differentiating its product, the differentiation will provide pricing leverage. The more dissimilar the product appears, the more the market will resemble the monopoly market structure. A firm can differentiate its product through aggressive advertising campaigns; frequent styling changes; the linking of its product with other, complementary products; or a host of other methods.
When the market dictates the price based on aggregate supply and demand conditions, the individual firm has no control over pricing. The typical hog farmer in Nebraska and the milk producer in Bavaria are price takers . That is, they must accept whatever price the market dictates. This is the case under the market structure of perfect competition. In the case of monopolistic competition, the success of product differentiation determines the degree with which the firm can influence price. In the case of oligopoly, there are so few firms in the market that price control becomes possible. However, the small number of firms in an oligopoly market invites complex pricing strategies. Collusion, price leadership by dominant firms, and other pricing strategies can result.
The degree to which one market structure can evolve into another and the difference between potential short-run outcomes and long-run equilibrium conditions depend on the strength of the barriers to entry and the possibility that firms fail to recoup their original costs or lose money for an extended period of time and are therefore forced to exit the market. Barriers to entry can result from very large capital investment requirements, as in the case of petroleum refining. Barriers may also result from patents, as in the case of some electronic products and drug formulas. Another entry consideration is the possibility of high exit costs. For example, plants that are specific to a special line of products, such as aluminum smelting plants, are non-redeployable, and exit costs would be high without a liquid market for the firm’s assets. High exit costs deter entry and are therefore also considered barriers to entry. In the case of farming, the barriers to entry are low. Production of corn, soybeans, wheat, tomatoes, and other produce is an easy process to replicate; therefore, those are highly competitive markets.
Non-price competition dominates those market structures where product differentiation is critical. Therefore, monopolistic competition relies on competitive strategies that may not include pricing changes. An example of non-price competition is product differentiation through marketing. In other circumstances, non-price competition may occur because the few firms in the market feel dependent on each other. Each firm fears retaliatory price changes that would reduce total revenue for all of the firms in the market. Because oligopoly industries have so few firms, each firm feels dependent on the pricing strategies of the others. Therefore, non-price competition becomes a dominant strategy.
Exhibit 1. Characteristics of Market Structure
|Market Structure||Number of Sellers||Degree of Product Differentiation||Barriers to Entry||Pricing Power of Firm||Non-price Competition|
|Perfect competition||Many||Homogeneous/ Standardized||Very Low||None||None|
|Monopolistic competition||Many||Differentiated||Low||Some||Advertising and Product Differentiation|
|Oligopoly||Few||Homogeneous/ Standardized||High||Some or Considerable||Advertising and Product Differentiation|
|Monopoly||One||Unique Product||Very High||Considerable||Advertising|
From the perspective of the owners of the firm, the most desirable market structure is that with the most control over price, because this control can lead to large profits. Monopoly and oligopoly markets offer the greatest potential control over price; monopolistic competition offers less control. Firms operating under perfectly competitive market conditions have no control over price. From the consumers’ perspective, the most desirable market structure is that with the greatest degree of competition, because prices are generally lower. Thus, consumers would prefer as many goods and services as possible to be offered in competitive markets.
As often happens in economics, there is a trade-off. While perfect competition gives the largest quantity of a good at the lowest price, other market forms may spur more innovation. Specifically, there may be high costs in researching a new product, and firms will incur such costs only if they expect to earn an attractive return on their research investment. This is the case often made for medical innovations, for example—the cost of clinical trials and experiments to create new medicines would bankrupt perfectly competitive firms but may be acceptable in an oligopoly market structure. Therefore, consumers can benefit from less-than-perfectly-competitive markets.
PORTER’S FIVE FORCES AND MARKET STRUCTURE
A financial analyst aiming to establish market conditions and consequent profitability of incumbent firms should start with the questions framed by Exhibit 1: How many sellers are there? Is the product differentiated? and so on. Moreover, in the case of monopolies and quasi monopolies, the analyst should evaluate the legislative and regulatory framework: Can the company set prices freely, or are there governmental controls? Finally, the analyst should consider the threat of competition from potential entrants.
This analysis is often summarized by students of corporate strategy as “Porter’s five forces,” named after Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter. His book, Competitive Strategy, presented a systematic analysis of the practice of market strategy. Porter (2008) identified the five forces as:
Threat of entry;
Power of suppliers;
Power of buyers (customers);
Threat of substitutes; and
Rivalry among existing competitors.
It is easy to note the parallels between four of these five forces and the columns in Exhibit 1. The only “orphan” is the power of suppliers, which is not at the core of the theoretical economic analysis of competition, but which has substantial weight in the practical analysis of competition and profitability.
Some stock analysts (e.g., Dorsey 2004) use the term “economic moat” to suggest that there are factors protecting the profitability of a firm that are similar to the moats (ditches full of water) that used to protect some medieval castles. A deep moat means that there is little or no threat of entry by invaders, i.e. competitors. It also means that customers are locked in because of high switching costs.