Regulatory Costs and Market Power

That’s the title of a blockbuster new paper by Shikhar Singla. The headline finding is that increased regulatory costs are responsible for over 30% of the increase in market power in the US since the 1990’s. That’s a big deal, but not what I found most interesting.

One big advance is simply the data on regulation. If you want to measure the effect of regulation on different industries, you need to come up with a way to measure how regulated they are. The crude, simple old approach is to count how many pages of regulation apply to a broad industry. The big advance of Mercatus’ RegData was to use machine learning to identify which specific industry is being discussed near “restrictive words” in the Code of Federal Regulation that indicate a regulatory restriction is being imposed. But not all regulatory words (even restrictive ones) are created equal; some impose very costly restrictions, most impose less costly restrictions, and some are even deregulatory. Singla’s solution is to take the government’s estimates of regulatory costs and apply machine learning there:

This paper uses machine learning on regulatory documents to construct a novel dataset on compliance costs to examine the effect of regulations on market power. The dataset is comprehensive and consists of all significant regulations at the 6-digit NAICS level from 1970-2018. We find that regulatory costs have increased by $1 trillion during this period.

The government’s estimates of the costs are of course imperfect, but almost certainly add information over a word-count based approach. Both approaches agree that regulation has increased dramatically over time. How does this affect businesses? Here’s what’s highlighted in the abstract:

We document that an increase in regulatory costs results in lower (higher) sales, employment, markups, and profitability for small (large) firms. Regulation driven increase in con- centration is associated with lower elasticity of entry with respect to Tobin’s Q, lower productivity and investment after the late 1990s. We estimate that increased regulations can explain 31-37% of the rise in market power. Finally, we uncover the political economy of rulemaking. While large firms are opposed to regulations in general, they push for the passage of regulations that have an adverse impact on small firms

More from the paper:

an average small firm faces an average of $9,093 per employee in our sample period compared to $5,246 for a large firm

a 100% increase in regulatory costs leads to a 1.2%, 1.4% and 1.9% increase in the number of establishments, employees and wages, respectively, for large firms, whereas it leads to 1.4%, 1.5% and 1.6% decrease in the number of establishments, employees and wages, respectively for small firms when compared within the state-industry-time groups. Results on employees and wages provide evidence that an increase in regulatory costs creates a competitive advantage for large firms. Large firms get larger and small firms get smaller.

The fact that large firms benefit while small firms are harmed is what drives the increase in concentration and market power.

What I like and dislike most about this paper is the same thing: its a much better version of what Diana Thomas and I tried to do in our 2017 Journal of Regulatory Economics paper. We used RegData restriction counts to measure how regulation affected the number of establishments and employees by industry, and how this differed by firm size. I wish I had thought of using published regulatory cost measures like Singla does, but realistically even if I had the idea I wouldn’t have had the machine learning chops to execute it. The push to quantify what “micro” estimates mean for economy-wide measures is also excellent. I hope and expect to see this published soon in a top-5 economics journal.

HT: Adam Ozimek

Population Predicts Regulation

Texas is one of the most regulated states in the country.

This is one of the surprises that emerged from the State RegData project, which quantifies the number of regulatory restrictions in force in each state. It turns out that a state’s population size, rather than political ideology or any thing else, is the best predictor of its regulations.

This is what I found, with my coauthors James Broughel and Patrick McLaughlin, when we set out to test whether a previous paper (Mulligan and Shliefer 2005) that showed a regulation-population link held up when we used the better data that is now available. We found that across states, a doubling of population size is associated with a 22 to 33 percent increase in regulation.

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