State-Enforced Cartels

27 February 2008 at 12:28 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Theory and evidence suggest that firms cannot form effective cartels on the free market. So, when producers wish to cartelize, they naturally turn to the state for help. Pennsylvania’s recent decision to forbid dairies from advertising hormone-free milk provides a vivid example. “It’s kind of like a nuclear arms race,” said State Agriculture Secretary Dennis C. Wolff in November. “One dairy does it and the next tries to outdo them. It’s absolutely crazy.” Right, next thing you know firms will be lowering prices, increasing output, improving quality — who knows what else! If only they could agree not to compete. . . . (Andrew Samwick helpfully declared Wolff’s office a “Microeconomics Free Zone.”)

The classic example of state-enforced cartelization is, of course, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The Depression, argued President Roosevelt, was exacerbated by excessive competition among firms, so firms must be compelled to form cartels to keep nominal prices and wages high (exactly the opposite, unfortunately, of what was needed to reduce unemployment). Despite a massive propaganda campaign to enforce participation the NIRA cartels largely fell apart by early 1934. Jason Taylor and I have a new paper exploring the role of expectations and enforcement in the collapse of the NIRA. Abstract below the fold:

This paper explores the nature and causes of the cartel compliance crisis that befell the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) one year after its passage in 1933. We employ a simple game-theoretic model of the NIRA’s cartel enforcement mechanism to show that the compliance crisis can largely be explained by changes in expectations, rather than a change in enforcement policy. Specifically, firms initially overestimated the probability that defection would be met with sanction by the cartel’s enabling body, the National Recovery Administration — including a consumer boycott resulting from loss of the patriotic Blue Eagle emblem — and complied with the industry cartel rules. As these expectations were correctly adjusted downward, cartel compliance was lost. We support this hypothesis empirically with industry-level panel data showing how output and wage rates varied according to consumer confidence in the Blue Eagle. The analysis provides insight about cartel performance more generally.

The paper is coming out in Research in Economic History, a research annual edited by Alex Field, Greg Clark, and Bill Sundstrom.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Food and Agriculture.

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