Are Cartels Pragmatic Responses to Market Failures?

The International Mercury Cartel, 1928 – 1949

By Miguel López-Morell (mlmorell@um.es), Universidad de Murcia and Luciano Segreto (segreto@unifi.it), Università degli Studi di Firenze.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:pra:mprapa:46772&r=his

Abstract

Mercury has been one of the most persistent cases in contemporary history of international market regulations and this in spite of its having been affected by important technological changes and the regular discovery of new deposits. This paper offers an approach to the least known period, although perhaps the one in which the greatest rises in process and production occurred as a consequence of market manipulation. The period coincides with a series of agreements between the Spanish and the Italian producers and the outcome was a worldwide cartel known as “Mercurio Europeo” which came into being in 1928. The aims of this work will, therefore, be first to describe the features of the various stages of development of the international mercury market during the first half of the twentieth century, with emphasis on the characteristics and conditioning factors in each period. Secondly, the objective is to analyse the various market agreements that came about, the effectiveness of the clauses therein, the construction of distribution networks and the influence that the increase in production had on other mines and on certain technological developments.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

There are two sides to every argument and the different forms of competitive collaboration is no exception. On the one hand, the claim against cartels and other forms of collusion is the loss of efficiency and the dampening of incentives for technological progress. These are exacerbated by the potential to influence the political process (e.g. lobbying, regulatory capture, etc.) and the potential to augment economic inequality through biased distribution of profits. On the other hand, business historians have documented the importance of cartels for industrialisation in Germany as well as to achieve network externalities in banking (particularly around payment systems). Legally sanctioned competitive collaboration can provide an industry with a guaranteed profitability and a secure competitive path by being more stable, dividing up markets, and securing price and production.

The case of competitive collaboration around the extraction of mercury documented by López-Morell and Segreto, distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-05-11, looks at the cartel known as Mercurio Europeo, to advance arguments which favour collaboration in industries were collusion allows producers to achieve economies of scale as well as foster technological change and reduce market prices in the long-term. The central question is whether a cartel was or not a pragmatic response to the imperfect allocation of the resources between the Spanish and Italian mercury producers from 1928 to 1949.

Based on the assumption that cartel agreements have been around for a while, López-Morell and Segreto present a thorough revision of the strategies during its early years. The agreement between Minas de Almaden y Arrayanes (Spain) and Monte Amiata (Italy) was signed in 1928 as a way to control the supply of mercury in a very stable market. In other words, the cartel was organized in order to deal with an unchanging demand. The result was a cartel with a complex internal organization that, in a very short time kept, managed to place the price of mercury close to monopoly levels but, at the same time, failed in achieve greater efficiency in production and/or increase sales volume.

López-Morell and Segreto explore in detail the reasons for the formation of the Spanish-Italian mercury cartel while arguing that there was a desire to stabilise production levels in order to increase profits without losing market share nor, as it was mainly in the Italian case, to invest in new technology. The cartel strategy proved to be effective because the demand for the product was inelastic and the collusion between the two producers increased the profit without harming the individual production targets.

Although, López-Morell and Segreto omit a discussion of the relative efficiency of collusion and competitive collaboration, from their empirical evidence it would seem that a carel was the best organisational option for the case of mercury. Mercurio Europeo was successful at least in part because during the 1928-1949 period mercury was a key input in the production of other metals and at the time there were only a handful of mines around the world. A cartel, therefore, became the answer to best manage scarcity.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)

However, the argument by López-Morell and Segreto is in need of a counter factual. Perhaps one that explores the option of a monopoly with private ownership (such as the Rothschild family) rather than a cartel agreement. In other words, could the absence of a cartel change ownership structures, market share, and international price levels? Further, there is a need to understand the role of both governments in the agreement. The 1928-1949 period coincides with fascist governments in both Spain and Italy, which characterised by radical nationalistic ideas, peculiar forms of corporatism, the role of the state (e.g. protectionism, interventionism), economic self-sufficiency and autarky, among others. Hence, the particular form of cooperation between Spanish and Italian mines could well be the result of institutional pressures (including, the war effort) rather than the behaviour of consumers.

Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (1892-1975)

In summary, the paper by López-Morell and Segreto is an interesting contribution to the study of collaboration because it focuses on the strategies taken by two national companies to organise a cartel. It builds upon surviving internal documents (e.g. analyses of Board meeting minutes) of each company to bring about a better understanding of changes in the market. Moreover, it shows that the strategic decision to whether co-operate or cheat within the cartel has a profound effect on the market outcome.

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2 thoughts on “Are Cartels Pragmatic Responses to Market Failures?

  1. Russell Pittman

    Very interesting. But why isn’t the (or at least an) appropriate counterfactual not monopoly but duopoly competition — i.e. the two firms facing at least some incentives for price cutting, supply improvement, and technological change?

    Reply

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