Why are some markets dominated by single firms? What are the sources of monopoly power? Economists have identified a number of conditions that, individually or in combination, can lead to domination of a market by a single firm and create barriers that prevent the entry of new firms.
Barriers to entry are characteristics of a particular market that block new firms from entering it. They include economies of scale, special advantages of location, high sunk costs, a dominant position in the ownership of some of the inputs required to produce the good, and government restrictions. These barriers may be interrelated, making entry that much more formidable. Although these barriers might allow one firm to gain and hold monopoly control over a market, there are often forces at work that can erode this control.
Economies of Scale
Scale economies and diseconomies define the shape of a firm’s long-run average cost (LRAC) curve as it increases its output. If long-run average cost declines as the level of production increases, a firm is said to experience economies of scale.
A firm that confronts economies of scale over the entire range of outputs demanded in its industry is a natural monopoly. Utilities that distribute electricity, water, and natural gas to some markets are examples. In a natural monopoly, the LRAC of any one firm intersects the market demand curve where long-run average costs are falling or are at a minimum. If this is the case, one firm in the industry will expand to exploit the economies of scale available to it. Because this firm will have lower unit costs than its rivals, it can drive them out of the market and gain monopoly control over the industry.
Sometimes monopoly power is the result of location. For example, sellers in markets isolated by distance from their nearest rivals have a degree of monopoly power. The local movie theater in a small town has a monopoly in showing first-run movies. Doctors, dentists, and mechanics in isolated towns may also be monopolists.
The greater the cost of establishing a new business in an industry, the more difficult it is to enter that industry. That cost will, in turn, be greater if the outlays required to start a business are unlikely to be recovered if the business should fail.
Suppose, for example, that entry into a particular industry requires extensive advertising to make consumers aware of the new brand. Should the effort fail, there is no way to recover the expenditures for such advertising. An expenditure that has already been made and that cannot be recovered is called a sunk cost.
Restricted Ownership of Raw Materials and Inputs
In very few cases the source of monopoly power is the ownership of strategic inputs. If a particular firm owns all of an input required for the production of a particular good or service, then it could emerge as the only producer of that good or service.
Another important basis for monopoly power consists of special privileges granted to some business firms by government agencies. State and local governments have commonly assigned exclusive franchises—rights to conduct business in a specific market—to taxi and bus companies, to cable television companies, and to providers of telephone services, electricity, natural gas, and water, although the trend in recent years has been to encourage competition for many of these services. Governments might also regulate entry into an industry or a profession through licensing and certification requirements. Governments also provide patent protection to inventors of new products or production methods in order to encourage innovation; these patents may afford their holders a degree of monopoly power during the 17-year life of the patent.
Patents can take on extra importance when network effects are present. Network effects arise in situations where products become more useful the larger the number of users of the product. For example, one advantage of using the Windows computer operating system is that so many other people use it. That has advantages in terms of sharing files and other information.