Anheuser-Busch InBev — purveyor of the president’s preferred brew, Bud Light — and MillerCoors, a joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors, are raising prices at the same time, during a recession and while beer demand is slumping. With 80 percent of the market between them, the move almost begs for an antitrust review.The problem, of course, is that consolidation has left us with just two owners. When there are three or more, the companies have to compete on prices for market share. When there are only two? Well, all that competition gets in the way of profit margins.
After South African Breweries bought Miller in 2002, it set out to take market share from Bud. Its bigger rival responded by slashing prices. The others were then forced to match. This competition fostered a better outcome for consumers — indeed, the summer of 2005 was a beer drinkers’ dream.By historical standards, this is pretty outrageous. In 1966, the Supreme Court prevented the 10th and 18th largest breweries--Pabst and Blatz--from merging. All of which has inclined Obama to have a look, and the Justice Department may review these Bush-era mergers.
That’s all changed. SABMiller and Molson Coors kicked off a joint venture last year that combines the market powers of the second- and third-largest players. InBev, meantime, has no stomach for a price war after its $52 billion debt-financed splurge on Anheuser.
As an editorial aside, the idea to raise beer prices seems totally boneheaded. While it's true that they control 80% of the market, that share isn't growing, thanks to micros. Sales are way down this year for tin-can beer, and further alienating off your already-wavering customer base seems like a bad long-term strategy. And all of that is before the question of price-fixing arose. We are often lectured by certain segments of the political spectrum about the genius of business, but there are moments when you have to wonder.
Patrick Emerson riffs on my post, rebutting my suggestion that the macros are behaving stupidly. Rather than have a two-blog debate, you can read his post there, and my response in comments.