Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
It may sound like a cute refrain from your childhood, but the promise of similar punishment is all too real for large American companies trying to navigate the murky waters of actual mergers and monopolies. Just ask Comcast, whose giant merger with Time Warner Cable was called off in April 2015 due to increasing backlash from regulatory bodies in both the trade and communications spheres.
But Comcast’s was far from the only merger planned for 2015, and several big names in the marketplace got that much bigger while no one was looking: Walgreens combined with Rite Aid, Kraft with Heinz, and Budweiser bought Miller to create one enormous super-brewery. In fact, there were so many mergers and acquisitions in 2015 that it recently broke the previous record set in 2007 for total M&A deal volume.
So what does all of this mean for consumers? Although antitrust laws governed by the Federal Trade Commission are in place “to protect the process of competition for the benefit of consumers,” there’s only so much they can regulate, and, in some cases, very little they can do to break up certain strongholds, especially on the regional or county level.
Curious about the level of competition for your dollar? We took a look at the industry influence of major goods, utilities, and service providers around the country to get the inside scoop on which companies are cashing in big.
A monopoly, despite common conception, is not simply a very large company that has most of the market share. A business is only termed a monopoly when it has virtually no other competition in its industry because it has undertaken to quash its opponents. So are any of these household names really "monopolies?" The FTC doesn’t think so, but a look at their annual revenue certainly paints an interesting, profitable picture.
Walmart, for example, brings in 2.5 times more money than Costco and Target, its next closest competitors, combined.
And remember that failed deal between Comcast and Time Warner? Had it gone through, the company would have been a force to be reckoned with, at 10 times the size of Charter. Instead, Time Warner and Charter have announced a merger, which may help to keep Comcast in check (although the new company will still bring in less than half of what Comcast does).
But while no one company may have a true monopoly nationally, the same can’t always be said regionally, especially when it comes to utilities or services like cable and internet. Cox Communications, which accounts for only 10% of broadband service in the country, controls a whopping 99% of it in the state of Rhode Island. And they’re not alone. Time Warner all but owns Hawaii with 98% of its business, and Comcast comes in big with 86% of Maryland and 83% of Delaware.
Is your town powered by a natural monopoly?
Mouse over the interactive below
to see energy utilities by county.
Breaking it down even further, often specific cities and counties (and sometimes entire states) end up under the umbrella of a single service provider because it would be inefficient and often financially unsound for a competitor to break into the area. Imagine, for example, having two gas lines running to your house, or three different companies vying for your tap water business, each with its own huge and intricate system of underground pipes. The result of these situations is a natural monopoly, wherein a single company lays the foundation for these services in a given area, and, rather than being kept in check by their competitors (of which there often are none), they are regulated by the government.
For an example of this idea in action, check out our interactive map of how the energy utility industry plays out county to county. (And no, that’s not a map of the 1940s era Eastern Bloc borders, though you could have fooled us.)
Taking a look at the map of counties with one versus two electric companies below, it’s obvious that many areas are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to available options. Several of the states with the highest populations, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida, show large pockets of dual service providers (as do a few less populous ones like Wisconsin), but much of the country, especially in the West and South, is being hung out to dry.
Surprisingly, some of the most populous counties, including Los Angeles and the several counties that make up Manhattan and the boroughs, offer only one electric option, despite smaller bordering counties offering two or more.
And, it turns out that even when you’ve only got one option for a service or utility provider, there’s an even shorter end of the stick, and you may be getting it. One report earlier this year showed that some residents of California were paying twice as much as others for the same amount of usage, and that electricity through investor-owned (private) companies was nearly universally more expensive than service through a public (government or consumer operated) company. So if, like much of the country, you’re in an area that offers only one electric option, you may be stuck with rates much, much higher than your neighbor’s.
If all this talk of natural monopolies, investor-owned utilities, and mergers and acquisitions has your head swimming, don’t sweat it. Instead, think about how many rules you had to follow playing the game Monopoly as a kid (curse you, unimproved property mortgage), and rest assured that any US company trying for a major industry takeover has many, many more rules to follow, all under the watchful eye of the FTC. And, if nothing else, you’ll smile knowingly the next time you pull out the ol’ game board and land on Electric Company or Water Works. Utility rates that vary widely from turn to turn and person to person? Yep, that sounds about right.