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Biden puts workers ahead of consumers

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US economy updates

For the past 40 years in America, competition policy has revolved around the consumer. This is in part the legacy of legal scholar Robert Bork, whose 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox held that the major goal of antitrust policy should be to promote “business efficiency”, which from the 1980s onwards came to be measured in consumer prices. These were considered the fundamental measure of consumer wellbeing, which was in turn the centre of economic wellbeing.

But things are changing. A White House executive order on competition policy, signed last month, contains some 72 discreet measures designed to stamp out anti-competitive practices across nearly every part of the US economy. But it isn’t about low prices as much as it is about higher wages.

Like the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, which took power from unions and unleashed markets and corporations, Biden’s executive order may well be remembered as a major economic turning point — this time, away from neoliberalism with its focus on consumers, and towards workers as the primary interest group in the US economy.

In some ways, this matters more than the details of particular parts of the order. Many commentators have suggested that these measures, on their own, won’t achieve much. But executive orders aren’t necessarily about the details — they are about the direction of a government. And this one takes us completely away from the Bork era by focusing on the connection between market power and wages, which no president over the past century has acknowledged so explicitly.

“When there are only a few employers in town, workers have less opportunity to bargain for a higher wage,” Biden said in his announcement of the order. It noted that, in more than 75 per cent of US industries, a smaller number of large companies now control more business than they did 20 years ago.

His solutions include everything from cutting burdensome licensing requirements across half the private sector to banning and/or limiting non-compete agreements. Firms in many industries have used such agreements to hinder top employees from working for competitors, as well as to make it tougher for employees to share wage and benefit information with each other — something that Silicon Valley has done in nefarious ways.  

This gets to the heart of the American myth that employees and employers stand on an equal footing, a falsehood that is reflected in such Orwellian labour market terms as the “right to work”. In the US this refers not to any sort of workplace equality, but rather to the ability of certain states to prevent unions from representing all workers in a given company.

But beyond the explicitly labour-related measures, the president’s order also gets to the bigger connection between not just monopoly power and prices, but corporate concentration and the labour share.

As economist Jan Eeckhout lays out in his new book The Profit Paradox, rapid technological change since the 1980s has improved business efficiency and dramatically increased corporate profitability. But it has also led to an increase in market power that is detrimental for people in work.

As his research shows, firms in the 1980s made average profits that were a tenth of payroll costs. By the mid 2000s that ratio had jumped to 30 per cent and it went as high as 43 per cent in 2012. Meanwhile, “mark-ups” in profit margins due to market power have also risen dramatically (though it can be difficult to see this in parts of the digital economy that run not on dollars but on barter transactions of personal data).

While technology can ultimately lower prices and thus benefit everyone, this “only works well if markets are competitive. That is the profit paradox,” says Eeckhout. He argues that when firms have market power, they can keep out competitors that might offer better products and services. They can also pay workers less than they can afford to, since there are fewer and fewer employers doing the hiring.

The latter issue is called monopsony power, and it is something that the White House is paying particularly close attention to.

“What’s happening to workers with the rise in [corporate] concentration, and what that means in an era without as much union power, is something that I think we need to hear more about,” says Heather Boushey, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, who spoke to the Financial Times recently about how the White House sees the country’s economic challenges. 

The key challenge, according to the Biden administration, is that of shifting the balance of power between capital and labour. This accounts for the emerging ideas on how to tackle competition policy. There are many who regard the move away from consumer interests as the focus of antitrust policy as dangerously socialist — a reflection of the Marxian contention that demand shortages are inevitable when the power of labour falls.

But one might equally look at the approach as a return to the origins of modern capitalism. As Adam Smith observed two centuries ago, “Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.” Reprioritising it is a good thing.

rana.foroohar@ft.com



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PayPal to acquire ‘buy now, pay later’ provider Paidy for $2.7bn

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Mergers & Acquisitions updates

PayPal, the US online payments company, has agreed to acquire Paidy, a Tokyo-based “buy now, pay later” group, for ¥300bn ($2.7bn) in the latest shake-up in the industry.

The deal announced late on Tuesday, which will be paid for principally in cash, deepens PayPal’s push into the crowded BNPL sector, in which consumers spread the cost of goods over a small number of payments, typically without interest and often without requiring a credit check.

Last month, Square, the payments company led by Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, acquired BNPL group Afterpay for $29bn, in the largest takeover in Australian history.

Shares in San Francisco-based Affirm, another BNPL company, soared last month after it announced a partnership with Amazon allowing shoppers who spend more than $50 to make payments in monthly instalments.

Paidy, founded in 2008, is one of Japan’s few “unicorns”, or start-ups worth more than $1bn. The company launched the country’s first zero-interest post-payment service last year.

While the global BNPL market has exploded in popularity owing to the pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, the trend is only starting to catch on in Japan, where consumers still depend heavily on cash payments.

Paidy allows its 6m registered users to split the cost of goods into three equal instalments with no interest. Users can pay off their balance using cash at convenience stores or bank transfers.

According to Yano Research Institute, the volume of transactions made through post-payment services in Japan is expected to more than double from an estimated ¥882bn in fiscal 2020 to ¥1.88tn by fiscal 2024.

Paidy was valued at $1.3bn when it raised $120m in March, and was expected to list its shares in Tokyo later this year. It has been backed by trading house Itochu, Goldman Sachs and Soros Capital Management along with PayPal.

Russell Cummer, the Japanese fintech’s founder, recently told the Financial Times that a public listing “made sense” — though no firm timetable had been established. Instead, the company is now expected to become part of PayPal by the fourth quarter of this year.

“Paidy pioneered ‘buy now, pay later’ solutions tailored to the Japanese market and quickly grew to become the leading service, developing a sizeable two-sided platform of consumers and merchants,” said Peter Kenevan, PayPal’s vice-president and head of business in Japan.

“Combining Paidy’s brand, capabilities and talented team with PayPal’s expertise, resources and global scale will create a strong foundation to accelerate our momentum in this strategically important market.”

PayPal said Paidy would “continue to operating its existing business, maintain its brand and support a wide variety of consumer wallets and marketplaces”. Cummer and Riku Sugie, Paidy’s president and chief executive, will continue to lead the company, according to a statement.

“Paidy is just at the beginning of our journey and joining PayPal will accelerate our plans to expand beyond ecommerce and build unique services as the new shopping standard,” said Sugie. “PayPal was a founding partner for Paidy Link and we look forward to working together to create even more value.”

The acquisition comes as PayPal rolls out its broader strategy to become a “super app” — incorporating payments, cryptocurrency investments and savings — drawing inspiration from under-one-roof Chinese apps such as WeChat.

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Bitcoin: El Salvador’s experiment does not warrant cross-cryptocurrency price rise

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Bitcoin updates

Early adopters of virtual currencies have a clear incentive to promote mainstream acceptance. The more buyers, the higher the price. Crypto fans, therefore, hatched an online plan to bolster bitcoin as El Salvador legalised the tokens for payments. That was logical. The knock-on rise in other cryptocurrency prices was not.

Bitcoin’s 8 per cent rise over the past seven days means that it is now worth about $51,000. But according to data from CoinGecko, which tracks more than 9,000 coins, it is not the largest mover. Ethereum, the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency, has leapt 16 per cent over the past week. Solana’s SOL tokens have risen 69 per cent.

There is no sensible reason for these rallies. El Salvador is not expected to make other virtual currencies legal tender. Instead, the jumps reflect a soupy mixture of low rates, blind faith and better investor access.

Trading apps make it easier for retail investors to buy cryptos. The initial public offering of Coinbase in April raised its profile, leading to a jump in downloads.

The make-believe world of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, has also given cryptos a boost. These prove ownership of digital assets such as art, music or even virtual pet rocks. Many use the ethereum network. Solana, which is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, has its own NFT marketplace, Solanart.

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None of this, however, has anything to do with El Salvador’s attention-seeking adoption of bitcoin. This diverts domestic attention from the failing economy of this impoverished Central American nation, the first country to embrace bitcoin as legal tender. It also supplies cheerier news flow to bitcoin fans than did the cryptocurrency’s collapse in value this spring.

Rising prices mean the total market value of cryptocurrencies has reached nearly $2.4tn. It is rapidly closing in on the previous record of $2.57tn set in May. Bitcoin’s share of the market has fallen. It is now about 40 per cent, down from 57 per cent a year ago. Yet bitcoin remains a powerful bellwether.

This could be a problem if bitcoin’s latest rally depends on success in El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele says the country has purchased 400 bitcoins — equal to just 0.002 per cent of the outstanding value. Local opposition is widespread, suggesting take-up will be low. A damp squib is more likely than the financial dislocation some critics are prophesying.

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Europe stocks notch best day in 6 weeks on sustained stimulus hopes

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Equities updates

European equities had their biggest rise since late July on Monday as weaker-than-expected US jobs data suggested pandemic-era stimulus, which has helped prop up markets, may continue for longer than anticipated.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index gained 0.7 per cent, the region-wide benchmark’s best day in six weeks, as traders analysed the implications of a large miss in US job creation. Employers in the US added 235,000 jobs in August, which fell wide of economists’ projections of more than 728,000 new hires.

“The weak jobs number gave the Federal Reserve ample room to take it easy in terms of how and when it will taper” its $120bn of monthly bond purchases that begun in March 2020, said Maarten Geerdink, head of European equities at NN Investment Partners.

Before Friday’s non-farm payrolls report, some analysts had expected the Fed to announce a reduction of its asset purchases as early as this month.

European stocks, Geerdink added, were “in a sweet spot with the eurozone economy doing well while financial conditions remain extremely loose”.

London’s FTSE 100 index also ended the session 0.7 per cent higher while US markets were closed for Labor Day.

Column chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index, daily % change  showing European stocks notch best day in six weeks

Economists expect the European Central Bank to provide an update about its own debt purchases at its meeting on Thursday, with government bond prices signalling some expectations of a pullback. The yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, was steady on Monday at minus 0.37 per cent, around its highest point since mid-July.

Technology shares, which tend to perform well when expectations of low-for-longer bond yields flatter valuations of growth companies, were the best performers in Europe with the sector rising 1.7 per cent on Monday.

In Asian equity markets on Monday, Chinese shares rallied after vice-premier Liu He said the government would continue to support private businesses despite a regulatory crackdown across the technology and education sectors. 

“Policies for supporting the private economy have not changed . . . and will not change in the future,” Liu said in comments reported by state news agency Xinhua. The CSI 300 index of mainland Chinese stocks climbed 1.9 per cent. 

Japan’s Nikkei 225 gained 1.8 per cent as investors bet that last week’s abrupt resignation by prime minister Yoshihide Suga would usher in a successor more focused on protecting the nation’s economy from rising Covid-19 cases. 

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, slid 0.7 per cent to $72.10 a barrel.



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