Alphabet earnings and the jaws of antitrust

It pays to be a monopolist. Alphabet’s earnings were stellar, and that is truly saying something. Just a few weeks ago, the European Union placed a record €4.34 billion fine on the Mountain View-based company, a penalty for the company’s payments to OEMs to include Google Search as the default search option in order to […]

It pays to be a monopolist.

Alphabet’s earnings were stellar, and that is truly saying something. Just a few weeks ago, the European Union placed a record €4.34 billion fine on the Mountain View-based company, a penalty for the company’s payments to OEMs to include Google Search as the default search option in order to access Google Play, the company’s App Store.

The acrimonious feud with the EU has become such a constant financial concern for the company that it now includes a “European Commission fines” line item in its consolidated statements of income.

Yet, one can’t help but stand back in awe at a company whose results show the complete lack of teeth of existing antitrust law, whether here in America or anywhere else globally. Alphabet’s revenues grew by $6.6 billion, far more than the record fine the EU laid on the company. Net income for the quarter was $3.2 billion even after the fine was deducted as an expense. The Alphabet cash machine remains as strong as ever.

The EU fine was of course one component in the plan of the antitrust authorities. There are structural remedies, namely that Alphabet needs to cease and desist on leveraging Android to cement its market share in search. But at this point, what exactly are the alternatives for handset manufacturers? DuckDuckGo? Bing?

My colleague Natasha Lomas, along with many other journalists, discussed the potential of the EU demanding that Alphabet being broken up. Yet, even such a meat cleaver of a structural remedy would seem to be useless at this juncture. Google Search essentially has no peer, and isn’t likely to have one in the near future. It has brand equity, data equity, extensive capital investments and trade secrets. No amount of structural remedies save the complete destruction of the company is going to reduce those burdens to competition.

These fines then are less about punishing behavior — after all, they aren’t deterring would-be monopolists from their activities. Instead, they essentially act as an excess profits tax, a way to uniquely target extraordinarily profitable tech companies without changing general business taxes.

Even when we expand the lens beyond just these anticompetitive enforcement actions to include data sovereignty issues like GDPR, Alphabet is once again positioned to be a winner. As I have written before, Alphabet and Amazon are likely the only companies with sufficient scale to even begin to handle the myriad laws and regulations emanating around the world on data sovereignty. Far from empowering consumers, these laws essentially ensure that there is now an added “regulatory network effects” barrier to competition in these markets.

The next billion internet users will ultimately determine the ceiling for Alphabet’s revenues

To me, there is only one force today that has any potential to threaten Alphabet’s complete and ongoing dominance, and that is China and its ambitious tech industry. Transsion’s subsidiaries dominate in the African smartphone market, and it along with other smartphone players like Xiaomi have targeted India and its quickly burgeoning middle class. If the next one to two billion internet users come to rely on Chinese internet services instead of Alphabet, that could prove a serious competitive headwind for the company.

One legacy of GDPR may simply be that it forced large tech companies to double down on the U.S. and Europe at a time when they should have been focused on global expansion. Alphabet broke the $5 billion revenue barrier for the Asia-Pacific region for the first time this quarter, but that amounts to only 15.6 percent of the company’s revenues. Meanwhile, Facebook, dealing with its Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, has started to curtail the expansion of its Free Basics internet access scheme.

Those distractions provide a rare opportunity for Chinese companies to focus exclusively on global expansion. Certainly Huawei and ZTE have taken that course. While broadly blocked from the U.S. market and with Australia preparing to ban 5G deployments, the two have had tremendous success in developing markets, with infrastructure and handset products that are often significantly cheaper than competitors.

All of that might mean little to the U.S. or European consumer, but it does potentially put a ceiling on the growth of Alphabet and other large tech companies. As TechCrunch pointed out yesterday, there has been a race to see who will break the trillion-dollar market cap barrier first among the major tech players. Alphabet is sitting at $865 billion and a trillion isn’t far away. But could it grow much beyond that? That to me depends on these new, developing markets, and there the race is much more competitive.

As these earnings show, the jaws of antitrust have no teeth, and competitive dynamics might constrain Alphabet to merely be a trillion-dollar company. It pays — over and over again — to be a monopolist.

EU fines Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer $130M for online price fixing

The European Union’s antitrust authorities have issued a series of penalties, fining consumer electronics companies Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer more than €110 million (~$130M) in four separate decisions for imposing fixed or minimum resale prices on their online retailers in breach of EU competition rules. It says the four companies engaged in so called […]

The European Union’s antitrust authorities have issued a series of penalties, fining consumer electronics companies Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer more than €110 million (~$130M) in four separate decisions for imposing fixed or minimum resale prices on their online retailers in breach of EU competition rules.

It says the four companies engaged in so called “fixed or minimum resale price maintenance (RPM)” by restricting the ability of their online retailers to set their own retail prices for widely used consumer electronics products — such as kitchen appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.

Asus has been hit with the largest fine (63.5M), followed by Philips (29.8M). The other two fines were 10.1M for Pioneer, and 7.7M for Denon & Marantz.

The Commission found the manufacturers put pressure on ecommerce outlets who offered their products at low prices, writing: “If those retailers did not follow the prices requested by manufacturers, they faced threats or sanctions such as blocking of supplies. Many, including the biggest online retailers, use pricing algorithms which automatically adapt retail prices to those of competitors. In this way, the pricing restrictions imposed on low pricing online retailers typically had a broader impact on overall online prices for the respective consumer electronics products.”

It also notes that use of “sophisticated monitoring tools” by the manufacturers allowed them to “effectively track resale price setting in the distribution network and to intervene swiftly in case of price decreases”.

“The price interventions limited effective price competition between retailers and led to higher prices with an immediate effect on consumers,” it added.

In particular, Asus, was found to have monitored the resale price of retailers for certain computer hardware and electronics products such as notebooks and displays — and to have done so in two EU Member States (Germany and France), between 2011 and 2014.

While Denon & Marantz was found to have engaged in “resale price maintenance” with respect to audio and video consumer products such as headphones and speakers of the brands Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics in Germany and the Netherlands between 2011 and 2015.

Philips was found to have done the same in France between the end of 2011 and 2013 — but for a range of consumer electronics products, including kitchen appliances, coffee machines, vacuum cleaners, home cinema and home video systems, electric toothbrushes, hair driers and trimmers.

In Pioneer’s case, the resale price maintenance covered products including home theatre devices, iPod speakers, speaker sets and hi-fi products.

The Commission said the company also limited the ability of its retailers to sell-cross border to EU consumers in other Member States in order to sustain different resale prices in different Member States, for example by blocking orders of retailers who sold cross-border. Its conduct lasted from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2013 and concerned 12 countries (Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway).

In all four cases, the Commission said the level of fines were reduced — 50% in the case of Pioneer; and 40% for each of the others — due to the companies’ co-operation with its investigations, specifying that they had provided evidence with “significant added value” and had “expressly acknowledg[ed] the facts and the infringements of EU antitrust rules”.

Commenting in a statement, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc’s competition policy, said: The online commerce market is growing rapidly and is now worth over 500 billion euros in Europe every year. More than half of Europeans now shop online. As a result of the actions taken by these four companies, millions of European consumers faced higher prices for kitchen appliances, hair dryers, notebook computers, headphones and many other products. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. Our decisions today show that EU competition rules serve to protect consumers where companies stand in the way of more price competition and better choice.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies for comment.

The fines follow the Commission’s ecommerce sector inquiry, which reported in May 2017, and showed that resale-price related restrictions are by far the most widespread restrictions of competition in ecommerce markets, making competition enforcement in this area a priority — as part of the EC’s wider Digital Single Market strategy.

The Commission further notes that the sector inquiry shed light on the increased use of automatic software applied by retailers for price monitoring and price setting.

Separate investigations were launched in February 2017 and June 2017 to assess if certain online sales practices are preventing, in breach of EU antitrust rules, consumers from enjoying cross-border choice and from being able to buy products and services online at competitive prices. The Commission adds that those investigations are ongoing.

Commenting on today’s EC decision, a spokesman for Philips told us: “Since the start of the EC investigation in late 2013, which Philips reported in its Annual Reports, the company has fully cooperated with the EC. Philips initiated an internal investigation and addressed the matter in 2014.”

“It is good that we can now leave this case behind us, and focus on the positive impact that our products and solutions can have on people,” he added. “Let me please stress that Philips attaches prime importance to full compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations. Being a responsible company, everyone in Philips is expected to always act with integrity. Philips rigorously enforces compliance of its General Business Principles throughout the company. Philips has a zero tolerance policy towards non-compliance in relation to breaches of its General Business Principles.”

Anticipating the decision of the EC, he said the company had already recognized a 30M provision in its Q2 2018.