Why megamergers may hurt consumers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The corporate merger-and-acquisition wave rushes on. The pace is the fastest ever on a worldwide basis, a near-record in the United States.

Company executives and publicists trumpet the efficiencies and savings that will result from the new combination.

There's another side.

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North Dakota's Senator Byron Dorgan (R) speaks of "an orgy of mergers ... that is alarming."

"Our job," he adds, "is to safeguard the marketplace so it is free and open for competition. It is high time we take a fresh look at antitrust laws and the enforcement of these laws."

Notes Washington economic consultant Charles McMillion: "The era of big sovereign governments may be over. The era of big bureaucratic labor may be long gone. But the era of really big, global business and private oligopoly power seems to be just beginning."

The merger boom, says merger expert James Brock, is largely driven by CEOs with "sheer unadulterated egos" seeking market dominance. And often the fatter salaries that come with bigger companies.

"It is the kind of market power not dreamed of being attempted except in the past few years," says the Miami University of Ohio professor.

Senator Dorgan, together with Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, two weeks ago introduced a bill that would put a moratorium on giant combinations in the agribusiness area.

The dog was put among the chickens by the megamerger between Cargill and Continental Grain companies. "Something's wrong" with the antitrust laws, Dorgan said in an interview.

The largest four firms in most areas of the grain trade and agricultural-processing industries control anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of all business in those sectors, he notes. This "chokes off competition to the detriment of family farmers."

With Congress reluctant to put any new restraints on business, chances of passage of the Dorgan-Wellstone bill are slim.

Mr. McMillion warns, though, that increasing corporate concentration and economic power is "a political time bomb just waiting to explode worldwide."

Globally, three or four firms now dominate most industries, he says. "Merger mania supports splendid chateaux and Big Bertha driving ranges for investment bankers in Wyoming," he charges. It "has helped fatten the 401(k)s of many working stiffs."

But "it is also beginning to raise pesky questions about private monopoly power, effective consumer choices."

Mr. Brock says studies generally indicate that most mergers do not actually add to corporate efficiency. The financial pages, he adds, are full of stories about layoffs, bankruptcies, and other troubles arising from mergers.

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS *Some 8,605 mergers have been announced to date in 1999 in the US. The total assets involved are $1.36 trillion.

*For all of 1998, the number of mergers and acquisitions totaled 12,266 worth $1.61 trillion.

*From 1995 through the present, US firms announced 51,518 deals worth $5 trillion.

*Around the world (including the US), 24,521 mergers have been announced so far this year. They involve $2.45 trillion assets.

*Worldwide mergers in the past five years total $8.6 trillion. Source: Thomson Financial Securities Data, Newark, N.J.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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