TRUSTBUSTERS ATTACK DIGITAL GIANTS
Halloween has past, so don’t get scared of FANG – get rich. That’s the advice of a securities analyst reporting on the wealth of the top tech stocks.
The major players in the mega-internet universe, referred to collectively as FANG, appear to be under scrutiny by federal authorities. According to The Economist, the tech giants have suddenly found themselves without a political party to protect them just when they need one the most.
The so-called FANG companies are Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Each company is a powerhouse in the stock market and social media. They have accumulated massive amounts of stock value and cash reserves and influence millions of customers’ opinions every day. Congressman are looking at this industry as a reincarnation of the robber barons of the late 19th century when a few major industrial and financial companies had monopolies on major industries.
Congressional concern at that time resulted in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 that subjected the major industries to government regulation of competition. The likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan were reined-in from unfairly competing in the marketplace as monopolies using a complex scheme of trusts. The advocates of government oversight were trustbusters.
Democrats, long time backers of the tech industry products, are no longer the allies they used to be. That warmth disappeared last November because the politicos believed Twitter, Google and Facebook helped put a Republican in the White House by boosting misinformation in favor of Trump, reported The Economist.
Meanwhile, Republicans have also turned more hostile. Previously, tech companies could count on minimum regulation of their industry, but today’s populist Republicans are demanding more government oversight. It hasn’t helped that President Trump has beat up Amazon and other tech firms, while his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, suggested regulating Google and Facebook as utilities, the news magazine reported. This did not go down well in Silicon Valley.
At the beginning of November, a few FANG company witnesses were brought before a Senate hearing committee to answer for their control of certain markets and public information distribution. The Senators asked tough questions with the intent to impose anti-trust regulations. Today’s tech tycoons, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are being compared to the robber barons of the 19th century for their wealth and influence on public opinion and commerce.
The tech attack so far has consisted more of rhetoric than regulation, especially a proposal to regulate online political advertising. The government’s position will be better clarified after the recent hearings when legal counsels of Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared before congressional committee for interrogation.
An in depth report of e-commerce appeared in The Economist in October titled “The new bazaar.” The message claims e-commerce is changing business and daily life. Over the past decade global e-commerce has grown 20% a year.
The two titans in this exploding business are Amazon and Alibaba, a Chinese online retailer. Both are relatively young giants. Amazon went public in 1997 and Alibaba was founded in 1999. They don’t classify themselves as retailers. Revenues come from entertainment, cloud computing, adverting and manufacturing, even though most consumers see Amazon as digital on-line catalog.
When Amazon was referred to as a conglomerate, I was reminded how many icons of American industry got in trouble in the 1990’s when they expanded into unfamiliar territory during the M&A frenzy.
Amazon has bled red ink most of its years but has turned the corner with cloud-computing services, accounting for 74% of corporate income. The latest concept is to re-invent brick and mortar stores. The acquisition of Whole Foods will test shopping by direct pay at the shelf and avoid checkout lines.
Critics of these tech giants see a new Gilded Age of income inequality and powerhouse tycoons controlling American commerce and opinion. Monopolies grew with the 19th century industrial revolution. As early as 1859, The New York Times used the term “robber baron” to characterize Cornelius Vanderbilt for his unethical business practices of rigging markets, crushing competitors and corrupting government.
Maybe this kind of monopoly is not what the FANG companies practice, but their power in the marketplace is a dominating force. How Congress will respond to the hearings might bring on some form of regulations, especially for distribution of fake news, political ads and the billion dollar M&A deals.