Thursday, January 26, 2006

Misunderstanding Consolidating Industries: A Lesson From Schumpeter

Two of our nation's large daily papers contained articles this week which shared a common misunderstanding of the implications of sector consolidation.

A friend sent me the New York Times piece on Les Moonves' newly hatched television network hookup with Time Warner's WB. The new network, a combination of CBS's UPN with WB, to be known as CW, should be somewhere south of the #3 broadcast network.

Meanwhile, Jesse Eissinger wrote about GM's woes, and some second-tier sell-side analyst's wacky scheme for giving the thing to the employees to run, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Now, I will grant Mr. Moonves his "midas touch" with programming. However, sadly, that does not a CEO make. It's all well and good to stanch the bleeding fiscal wound that has been UPN, but it doesn't mean CBS is suddenly reinvigorated by this combination. I think, at best, it's triage.

So, is it me, or do the writers in the business section of the Times not understand what this consolidation really means? The Big 3 broadcasters are already worried about their survivability in current form. What do you think this means for the smaller broadcasters? In this case, consolidation means the entire sector is finally succumbing to competitive pressure from cable, satellite, and, yes, the internet. The last of these is now nearly indistinguishable from digital cable, in that both will allow users to watch what they want, when the want.

Presto....chango......and the broadcasters vanish! I'm not sure Harry Houdini would be able to make them reappear again, at least not in recognizable form.

Now to Mr Eissinger's handwringing about GM. He begins by noting that the firm is once again, with Ford, making huge capacity and employee cuts, while foreign-based auto manufacturers continue to put up more plants and hire more workers in the US. So far, so good. He understands that Ford and GM are poorly-run companies on their way into bankruptcy.

Then Mr. Eissinger loses his perspective, and begins to wail about how important it is for the US that GM be preserved.

First, let me say that this is his second really ill-conceived article in the Journal within a fairly short timespan. I can hardly wait for strike three. Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder why he is still on the paper's staff, unless it is to be their new "Al Hunt" in training.

Second, Eissinger, like the Times writer, has it all wrong.

Joseph Schumpeter first wrote about the (now overused to the point of naseau-induction) "gale of creative destruction" in the 1920s. That is what we are seeing in these two industries now.

Both sectors, broadcast television and automobile manufacturing, have become much less value-adding than they were as recently as a decade ago. So it is no wonder that resources are being pulled out of them, voluntarily or not, to feed new sectors. In this case, ironically, probably the same new one- online communications. It is clear that broadcast television is being devoured by cable and the internet. It may well be argued that these same advances have resulted in a lessening of primary demand for vehicles of the type Detroit-based manufacturers have produced, making them less important as well.

In any case, neither demise is by any means lethal for our Republic. Nor should they surprise us. If the largest phone company on earth, AT&T, could have vanished without a trace, why should the disappearance of broadcast networks and auto makers be any different? UPN's and WB's is a totally predictable, but not very important, event from an industrial structure viewpoint. GM's demise is actually a good thing. There is way too much capacity in that sector as it is, and the weakest firm is the one most likely to die first.

Do you really want to commit serious capital to an industry, such as auto making, where most of the value-adding is now done in the design function, whereas most of the components are produced by parts vendors? Vehicle production is more assembly than "manufacturing" nowadays. It's arguable that a billionaire could profitably hire a team to design cars, license dealers to sell them, and job out the actual assembly via competitive bidding to some current car "manufacturer."

When the provision of a service or product such as these companies offer becomes so commoditized that consolidation is necessary to achieve any semblance of profitability, that's a good thing for consumers in terms of living standards and quality of life. This is what Schumpeter saw before anyone else. The perennial gale of resource reuse among sectors is the hallmark of a successful, dynamic economy in which consumers continually enjoy increased living standards, while resources are productively recycled.

The UPN/WB merger is a good, but probably not very earthshaking development. Whether it marks Moonves as a great CEO is unclear at this time, but it does mark him as a pragmatic, informed one. And that alone may signal that he is on his way to success in the role. The GM crisis is, as Eissinger ruminated, the beginning of the end for the weakest player in an overcrowded global vehicle production sector.

The markets are working as intended. Here's to better living standards from the most productive resource "recycling" that our society ever does.

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