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Uber/Grubhub Merger Sparks Rising Concern over Pandemic Profiteering

Uber/Grubhub: Pandemic Profiteering, Merger Moratoriums, and Rising Concentration … Or Not

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This article was originally published by Truth On The Market.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

Earlier this week, merger talks between Uber and food delivery service Grubhub surfaced. House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline quickly reacted to the news:

Americans are struggling to put food on the table, and locally owned businesses are doing everything possible to keep serving people in our communities, even under great duress. Uber is a notoriously predatory company that has long denied its drivers a living wage. Its attempt to acquire Grubhub—which has a history of exploiting local restaurants through deceptive tactics and extortionate fees—marks a new low in pandemic profiteering. We cannot allow these corporations to monopolize food delivery, especially amid a crisis that is rendering American families and local restaurants more dependent than ever on these very services. This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support.

Pandemic profiteering rolls nicely off the tongue, and we’re sure to see that phrase much more over the next year or so. 

Grubhub shares jumped 29% Tuesday, the day the merger talks came to light, shown in the figure below. The Wall Street Journal reports companies are considering a deal that would value Grubhub stock at around 1.9 Uber shares, or $60-65 dollars a share, based on Thursday’s price.

But is that “pandemic profiteering?”

After Amazon announced its intended acquisition of Whole Foods, the grocer’s stock price soared by 27%. Rep. Cicilline voiced some convoluted concerns about that merger, but said nothing about profiteering at the time. Different times, different messaging.

Rep. Cicilline and others have been calling for a merger moratorium during the pandemic and used the Uber/Grubhub announcement as Exhibit A in his indictment of merger activity.

A moratorium would make things much easier for regulators. No more fighting over relevant markets, no HHI calculations, no experts debating SSNIPs or GUPPIs, no worries over consumer welfare, no failing firm defenses. Just a clear, brightline “NO!”

Even before the pandemic, it was well known that the food delivery industry was due for a shakeout. NPR reports, even as the business is growing, none of the top food-delivery apps are turning a profit, with one analyst concluding consolidation was “inevitable.” Thus, even if a moratorium slowed or stopped the Uber/Grubhub merger, at some point a merger in the industry will happen and the U.S. antitrust authorities will have to evaluate it.

First, we have to ask, “What’s the relevant market?” The government has a history of defining relevant markets so narrowly that just about any merger can be challenged. For example, for the scuttled Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger, the FTC famously narrowed the market to “premium natural and organic supermarkets.” Surely, similar mental gymnastics will be used for any merger involving food delivery services.

While food delivery has grown in popularity over the past few years, delivery represents less than 10% of U.S. food service sales. While Rep. Cicilline may be correct that families and local restaurants are “more dependent than ever” on food delivery, delivery is only a small fraction of a large market. Even a monopoly of food delivery service would not confer market power on the restaurant and food service industry.

No reasonable person would claim an Uber/Grubhub merger would increase market power in the restaurant and food service industry. But, it might convey market power in the food delivery market. Much attention is paid to the “Big Four”–DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. But, these platform delivery services are part of the larger food service delivery market, of which platforms account for about half of the industry’s revenues. Pizza accounts for the largest share of restaurant-to-consumer delivery.

This raises the big question of what is the relevant market: Is it the entire food delivery sector, or just the platform-to-consumer sector? 

Based on the information in the figure below, defining the market narrowly would place an Uber/Grubhub merger squarely in the “presumed to be likely to enhance market power” category.

  • 2016 HHI: <3,175
  • 2018 HHI: <1,474
  • 2020 HHI: <2,249 pre-merger; <4,153 post-merger

Alternatively, defining the market to encompass all food delivery would cut the platforms’ shares roughly in half and the merger would be unlikely to harm competition, based on HHI. Choosing the relevant market is, well, relevant.

The Second Measure data suggests that concentration in the platform delivery sector decreased with the entry of Uber Eats, but subsequently increased with DoorDash’s rising share–which included the acquisition of Caviar from Square.

(NB: There seems to be a significant mismatch in the delivery revenue data. Statista reports platform delivery revenues increased by about 40% from 2018 to 2020, but Second Measure indicates revenues have more than doubled.) 

Geoffrey Manne, in an earlier post points out “while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.” That may be the case here.

The figure below is a sample of platform delivery shares by city. I added data from an earlier study of 2017 shares. In all but two metro areas, Uber and Grubhub’s combined market share declined from 2017 to 2020. In Boston, the combined shares did not change and in Los Angeles, the combined shares increased by 1%.

(NB: There are some serious problems with this data, notably that it leaves out the restaurant-to-consumer sector and assumes the entire platform-to-consumer sector is comprised of only the “Big Four.”)

Platform-to-consumer delivery is a complex two-sided market in which the platforms link, and compete for, both restaurants and consumers. Platforms compete for restaurants, drivers, and consumers. Restaurants have a choice of using multiple platforms or entering into exclusive arrangements. Many drivers work for multiple platforms, and many consumers use multiple platforms. 

Fundamentally, the rise of platform-to-consumer is an evolution in vertical integration. Restaurants can choose to offer no delivery, use their own in-house delivery drivers, or use a third party delivery service. Every platform faces competition from in-house delivery, placing a limit on their ability to raise prices to restaurants and consumers.

The choice of delivery is not an either-or decision. For example, many pizza restaurants who have their own delivery drivers also use platform delivery service. Their own drivers may serve a limited geographic area, but the platforms allow the restaurant to expand its geographic reach, thereby increasing its sales. Even so, the platforms face competition from in-house delivery.

Mergers or other forms of shake out in the food delivery industry are inevitable. Mergers will raise important questions about relevant product and geographic markets as well as competition in two-sided markets. While there is a real risk of harm to restaurants, drivers, and consumers, there is also a real possibility of welfare enhancing efficiencies. These questions will never be addressed with an across-the-board merger moratorium.

The post Uber/Grubhub: Pandemic Profiteering, Merger Moratoriums, and Rising Concentration … Or Not appeared first on Truth on the Market.

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Shedding light on reptilian health: Researchers investigate origins of snake fungal disease in U.S.

Although only recently recognized as an issue in wildlife ecology, snake fungal disease (SFD) is of emerging concern in the U.S., with parallels among…

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Although only recently recognized as an issue in wildlife ecology, snake fungal disease (SFD) is of emerging concern in the U.S., with parallels among other better-known wildlife fungal diseases such as white-nose syndrome in bats. SFD can be deadly to snakes, and even in milder cases disrupts an animal’s abilities to perform normal biological functions such as hibernation, eating and avoiding predators.

Credit: Northern Arizona University

Although only recently recognized as an issue in wildlife ecology, snake fungal disease (SFD) is of emerging concern in the U.S., with parallels among other better-known wildlife fungal diseases such as white-nose syndrome in bats. SFD can be deadly to snakes, and even in milder cases disrupts an animal’s abilities to perform normal biological functions such as hibernation, eating and avoiding predators.

To better understand SFD, a team of researchers, including assistant professor Jason Ladner of Northern Arizona University’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute, conducted a genetic study of the pathogen that was recently published in PLOS Biology, “The population genetics of the causative agent of snake fungal disease indicate recent introductions to the USA.”

Collaborating with study co-author Jeff Lorch of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other scientists from the USGS, Genencor Technology Center, the University of California-Riverside, Stetson University, the Institute of Zoology, the University of Kentucky and Holyoke Community College, Ladner’s goal was to determine whether SFD originated in the U.S. or was introduced from outside the country, which could provide a historical basis for how it emerged—and ultimately inform management of the disease. 

“Snake fungal disease first came to be recognized in the U.S. around 2008. There happened to be a well-studied population of rattlesnakes in Illinois that started coming down with some very severe fungal infections. People asked, ‘OK, what is this thing? Where is it? What’s going on? Is this a new emerging fungal pathogen or not?’ What they eventually found was that it was already almost everywhere, at least in the eastern half of the U.S.,” Ladner said. 

SFD, though seemingly not as deadly as other wildlife fungal diseases, is still a worrying threat to animals that represent an important part of the ecosystem. “We’re very concerned, not just about SFD’s effect to drive population declines, but also as a contributing factor amongst many other threats that snakes are already facing, like habitat destruction or over-collection for the pet trade,” Lorch said. 

Understanding wildlife diseases is critical, both in the context of ecosystem health and in their potential effects on humans. “I have a lot of interest in wildlife diseases, partially because wildlife serves as important reservoirs for diseases that could potentially emerge in humans; SARS-coronavirus-2 is a great example of that. If we want to be prepared for the next emerging infectious disease in humans, we need to better understand the pathogens currently circulating in wildlife populations which may have the potential to be transmitted to humans,” Ladner said. 

The study presented unique difficulties, however. “For snakes, there’s almost no long-term population trend data, especially when we compare snakes to an animal like bats, which have suffered from white-nose syndrome,” Lorch said. “In many states, historical data on bat populations exists because they’re not generally as difficult to monitor as some other types of wildlife.”

Snakes, in contrast, “are pretty secretive animals. They’re not something that you probably see on the landscape routinely, unless you’re looking for them,” Lorch explains. Without a large body of historical data on North American snake populations, “it makes it hard to say what snake populations were doing before SFD was noticed. Long-term trends are really difficult to decipher.”

Prior to beginning research, the team had two hypotheses on how the disease originated in the U.S. “One hypothesis was that the fungus that causes this disease may have been introduced only recently into the U.S. and then has been spreading within the past several decades, maybe 100 years. The alternative hypothesis was that this pathogen has been here for a long time and is essentially native to the U.S.; maybe it’s been here for thousands of years and has been co-evolving with these snake populations. In the latter case, maybe it seems to be emerging simply because we’re looking for it now. Or there’s been some type of environmental change, maybe something linked to climate change, that is leading to an increase in the number of cases even though this pathogen has been here all along,” Ladner said.

In order to track the disease’s evolution, Ladner and Lorch created a “family tree” for strains of the fungus that causes SFD found in the U.S. “One of the ways we could reconstruct the history of the disease was to look at the genetics of the pathogen to get an idea of how long it’s been here and how it’s changed over time,” Lorch said. 

Studying the genetics of SFD provided the team with a trail of breadcrumbs, revealing more about its history and throwing light on SFD cases in the U.S. “The reason that genomic data is useful for doing this is because each time this fungus replicates, grows and divides, the polymerase (the molecule that makes the new copy) sometimes makes mistakes. Those mistakes result in mutations. And then those mutations will be passed on through the generations. By looking at those different mutations in the population, we can understand how long certain lineages have existed and have some idea of how the different strains are related to each other. And that can tell us something about how long SFD has been here,” Ladner said. 

After taking samples from different SFD-affected snakes, the team performed genetic sequencing on 82 strains of the fungus. This included strains of SFD isolated from wild snakes in the U.S. and Europe, as well as captive snakes from three different continents. Based on the genetic similarities and differences among the strains, the team was able to partially reconstruct the evolutionary history of this fungus. “In the U.S., we found that there are several divergent lineages of this fungus circulating, but a lack of intermediates between these lineages, which would be expected if they originated in the U.S. Because of that, we think that there were likely multiple, somewhat recent introductions of this fungus to the U.S., and that an unsampled population, somewhere else in the world, acted as a source,” Ladner said.

This evidence allowed the team to form conclusions on how SFD arrived in America. “It suggests that this fungus was introduced to the United States through anthropogenic means—humans moving these snakes around. The most likely culprit is the trading of captive snakes as pets: the different clonal lineages that we see in the U.S., we also see represented in captive snake populations,” Ladner said. 

The study provides guidance for future management of SFD in the U.S., as well as a better understanding of how it was introduced. “If we had caught SFD being introduced very early on, then you can imagine trying to stop the spread of the disease in the U.S. and potentially even eradicate it. I think that’s unlikely at this point, given how widespread it is. However, I think it’s still helpful to better understand the mechanism for how SFD was introduced, as there’s still the potential for new introductions of diverse strains from these source populations. If we know that this fungus was introduced several times over the past several decades through the captive animal trade, then putting more restrictions and controls and testing animals in that process could be important for preventing further spread,” Ladner said. 

Though their work provides critical insight on SFD, its treatment and movement in the U.S., both scientists stress the need for further research. “What I’m hoping is that this study increases awareness of the disease. I think SFD warrants more of our attention,” Lorch said. 

More work needs to be done to assess the ecosystem, population and species effects of SFD. “The broader question of, ‘what is going to be the impact of this fungal pathogen on these snake populations?’ is a very open question and needs more research,” Ladner said.

About Northern Arizona University

Founded in 1899, Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities and outcomes in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its nearly 30,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. As a community-engaged engine of opportunity, NAU powers social impact and economic mobility for the students and communities it serves. The university’s longstanding history of educating and partnering with diverse students and communities throughout Arizona is enhanced by its recent designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). Dedicated, world-renowned faculty and staff help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research and experiential learning opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success. Located on the Colorado Plateau, in one of the highest-ranked college towns in the country, the NAU Flagstaff Mountain Campus is truly a jewel of the Southwest.

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China Suggests It Could Maintain ‘Zero COVID’ Policy For 5 Years

China Suggests It Could Maintain ‘Zero COVID’ Policy For 5 Years

Authored by Paul Joseph Watson via Summit News,

China has suggested it will…

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China Suggests It Could Maintain 'Zero COVID' Policy For 5 Years

Authored by Paul Joseph Watson via Summit News,

China has suggested it will maintain its controversial ‘zero COVID’ policy for at least 5 years, eschewing natural immunity and guaranteeing repeated rounds of new lockdowns.

“In the next five years, Beijing will unremittingly grasp the normalization of epidemic prevention and control,” said a story published by Beijing Daily.

The article quoted Cai Qi, the Communist Party of China’s secretary in Beijing and a former mayor of the city, who said that ‘zero COVID’ approach would remain in place for 5 years.

After the story prompted alarm, reference to “five years” was removed from the piece and the hashtag related to it was censored by social media giant Weibo.

“Monday’s announcement and the subsequent amendment sparked anger and confusion among Beijing residents online,” reports the Guardian.

“Most commenters appeared unsurprised at the prospect of the system continuing for another half-decade, but few were supportive of the idea.”

Although western experts severely doubt official numbers coming out of China, Beijing claimed success in limiting COVID deaths by enforcing the policy throughout 2021.

However, this meant that China never achieved anything like herd immunity, and at one stage the Omicron variant caused more more coronavirus cases in Shanghai in four weeks than in the previous two years of the entire pandemic.

Back in May, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggested that China would be better off if it abandoned the policy, but Beijing refused to budge.

As we previously highlighted, the only way of enforcing a ‘zero COVID’ policy is via brutal authoritarianism.

In Shanghai, children were separated from their parents in quarantine facilities and others were left without urgent treatment like kidney dialysis.

Panic buying of food also became a common occurrence as the anger threatened to spill over into widespread civil unrest.

Former UK government COVID-19 advisor Neil Ferguson previously admitted that he thought “we couldn’t get away with” imposing Communist Chinese-style lockdowns in Europe because they were too draconian, and yet it happened anyway.

“It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,” said Ferguson.

“And then Italy did it. And we realised we could,” he added.

*  *  *

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Tyler Durden Tue, 06/28/2022 - 18:05

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No sign of major crude oil price decline any time soon

Bullish pressure on crude oil markets doesn’t seem to be easing Crude oil prices fell last week, notching their second weekly decline in the face of…

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Bullish pressure on crude oil markets doesn’t seem to be easing

Crude oil prices fell last week, notching their second weekly decline in the face of concern that rising interest rates could push the global economy into recession.

Yet the future of crude oil still seems bullish to many. Spare capacity, or lack of it, is just one of the reasons.

The global surplus of crude production capacity in May was less than half the 2021 average, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported on Friday.

The EIA estimated that as of May, producers in nations not members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had about 280,000 barrels per day (bpd) of surplus capacity, down sharply from 1.4 million bpd in 2021. It said 60 per cent of the May 2021 figure was from Russia, which is increasingly under sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine.

The OPEC+ alliance of oil producers is running out of capacity to pump crude, and that includes its most significant member, Saudi Arabia, Nigerian Minister of State for Petroleum Resources Timipre Sylva told Bloomberg last week.

“Some people believe the prices to be a little bit on the high side and expect us to pump a little bit more, but at this moment there is really little additional capacity,” Sylva said in a briefing with reporters on Friday. “Even Saudi Arabia, Russia, of course, Russia, is out of the market now more or less.” Nigeria was also unable to fulfil its output obligations, added Sylva.

Recent COVID-19-related lockdowns in parts of China – the world’s largest crude importer – also played a significant role in the global oil dynamics. The lack of Chinese oil consumption due to the lockdowns helped keep the markets in a check – somewhat.

Oil prices haven’t peaked yet because Chinese demand has yet to return to normal, a United Arab Emirates official told a conference in Jordan early this month. “If we continue consuming, with the pace of consumption we have, we are nowhere near the peak because China is not back yet,” UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al-Mazrouei said. “China will come with more consumption.”

Al-Mazrouei warned that without more investment across the globe, OPEC and its allies can’t guarantee sufficient supplies of oil as demand fully recovers from the pandemic.

But the check on the Chinese crude consumption seems to be easing.

On Saturday, Beijing, a city of 21 million-plus people, announced that primary and secondary schools would resume in-person classes. And as life seemed to return to normal, the Universal Beijing Resort, which was closed for nearly two months, reopened on Saturday.

Chinese economic hub Shanghai, with a population of 28 million-plus people, also declared victory over COVID after reporting zero new local cases for the first time in two months.

The two major cities were among several places in China that implemented curbs to stop the spread of the omicron wave from March to May.

But the easing of sanctions should mean oil’s price trajectory will resume its upward march.

In the meantime, in the U.S., the Biden administration is eying tougher anti-smog requirements. According to Bloomberg, that could negatively impact drilling across parts of the Permian Basin, which straddles Texas and New Mexico and is the world’s biggest oil field.

While the world is looking for clues about what the loss of supply from Russia will mean, reports are pouring in that the ongoing political turmoil in Libya could plague its oil output throughout the year.

The return of blockades on oilfields and export terminals amid renewed political tension is depriving the market of some of Libya’s oil at a time of tight global supply, said Tsvetana Paraskova in a piece for Oilrpice.com.

And in the ongoing political push to strangle Russian energy output, the G7 was reportedly discussing a price cap on oil imports from Russia. Western countries are increasingly frustrated that their efforts to squeeze out Russian energy supplies from the markets have had the counterproductive effect of driving up the global crude price, which is leading to Russia earning more money for its war chest.

To tackle the issue, and increase pressure on Russia, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is proposing a price cap on Russian crude oil sales. The idea is to lift the sanction on insurance for Russian crude cargo for countries that accept buying Russian oil at an agreed maximum price. Her proposal is aimed at squeezing Russian crude out of the market as much as possible.

So the bullish pressure on crude oil markets doesn’t seem to be easing.

By Rashid Husain Syed

Toronto-based Rashid Husain Syed is a respected energy and political analyst. The Middle East is his area of focus. As well as writing for major local and global newspapers, Rashid is also a regular speaker at major international conferences. He has provided his perspective on global energy issues to the Department of Energy in Washington and the International Energy Agency in Paris.

Courtesy of Troy Media

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