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contestable market
a market with low barriers to entry and exit.

Contestable markets
By Chris Rodda

In recent years the term contestable markets has been used by Baumol, Panzer and Willig. A contestable market requires barriers to entry to be low, and a perfectly contestable market requires a total absence of barriers to entry. Barriers to entry for example being, special licences, patents, copyrights, high fixed costs, marketing barriers (legal and illegal) constructed by incumbent firms.

A monopoly or firms in oligopoly may not behave as neo-classical economic theories of the firm predict because they may be fearful of new entrants to the market. If super-normal profits are earned potential competitors may enter the market, so it is argued that the existing firm(s) will keep prices and output at a level where only normal profits are made. In some cases potential competitors may engage in hit-and-run behaviour. A hit-and-run competitor will notice when super-normal profit is being made, enter the market and take advantage of the situation. As prices settle down once more the hit-and-run competitor exits the market again. Thus the incumbent firms become wary of the potential competitor and set prices so that hit-and-run competitors are discouraged.

Attention is now focused on the costs of exit from a market. For hit-and-run competition to be a threat, not only must the costs of entry to the market be low, the costs of exit need to be low too. The costs of exit are sometimes called ‘sunk costs’. These are costs that cannot be recovered when the firm leaves the market. For example a high street shop can be sold easily to another retailer, its stock can be sold off at cost price, and even some of the shop fittings may be sold off. However, some things might not be sold off, for example shop signs and changing room curtains, maybe some stock will have to be sold at less than cost price. Nevertheless the sunk costs are not too high.

However, with some businesses the sunk costs are a large percentage of the business costs. Creating a brand name or corporate image can be hugely expensive. Advertising costs are often a significant part of a company’s total costs for products such as cigarettes, perfume, soap powder and the like. Leaving the market means that all the money spent creating the brand may be lost – although even brand names can be sold. The costs of car production involve very high fixed costs in terms of machinery, design, staff training, advertising etc. so that sunk costs are high and this will discourage companies from entering the market unless they are planning to stay for the longer term. Thus a contestable market requires both low entry and exit barriers. But an established company does not have to leave the market entirely, it can leave part of the market. A high street multiple can close one shop in its chain in one town without closing the whole chain. A motor manufacturer might retreat from a country or a continent without closing down in the rest of the world.
The theory of contestable markets has been used as a defence for companies with established monopolies. Microsoft have argued that they might have a monopoly of supplying operating systems but because the costs of entry are so low (a PC is all that is required!) that the software business is contestable. One result of this thinking is in anti-monopoly legislation which has undergone a change of emphasis from ‘is there a monopoly?’ to ‘is there a harmful monopoly?’.
Baumol W J, Panzer J and Willig R D, (1986)
Contestable Markets and the Theory of Industrial Structure,
Harcourt Brace and Jovanovitch.










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