Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Three Headed Dog of an Argument

This past week, Cerberus Capital, a private equity fund, acquired 80% of Chrysler for $7.4 billion. According to Wikipedia, Cerberus has over $24 billion under management.

This clearly shows that private equity can invest in just about any industry, and take a controlling stake.

Many people seem to imply that certain items are artificially too expensive because the existing companies in the sector somehow collaborate to keep new entrants out and the prices high, or the barriers to entry are so high that new companies cannot compete. This allows the companies to make excessive (sometimes called windfall) profits, and these industries usually earn the adjective "big" like "big oil".

However, the acquisition of Chrysler should demonstrate that if there's some industry out there in which the players are making excessive profits, private equity funds will soon show up. Private equity funds have guys that do nothing all day but look for potential markets to enter. If a certain industry is not that competitive, they'll pounce. They've got no loyalties to the existing players, and the acquisition of Chrysler should be clear evidence that there's plenty of money floating around.

A few industries have actual legal protection to keep out competition. The tobacco settlement essentially prohibits new entrants into the cigarette market. Certain utilities have a grantted monopoly. Patents and trademarks protect, for a while, companies with intellectual property (you can't start making lipitor, nor can you decide to print the latest John Grisham book). There are reasons for these protections, however: the companies had to expend particular amount of research to develop the products.

A limited number of companies can still very competitively compete: just because there are only 5 or 10 companies doesn't mean they don't compete.

If you think something is way too expensive for the cost involved, there's probably one of a few outcomes: 1) no, it really does cost a lot to produce that product or service; 2) yes, but it's intellectual property, which cost a lot; 3) the industry has somehow gotten the government to ban new entrants; 4) you're right, in which case you ought to go work for a private equity fund, and then enter that market. Your new company could undercut the others, making you millions of dollars in the process.

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