Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Co-opetition, collusion and free markets

Co-opetition is when traditional competitors in a market form a pact and offer a single product, service or an experience to the consumers in order to avoid splitting the market shares. It is optimal when the market is saturated and further fragmentation is not beneficial to the players involved.

Can co-opetition be a good solution all the times?

Consider the case of the flower vendors outside Dadar railway station in Mumbai. The small lane where the sell their flowers is a key artery which all the pedestrians use to get to the railway station from workplaces in the Dadar area. Come a festival season, this street is so crowded that getting to the station for commuters is nearly impossible! Now, assume that people who regularly use this street all decide to work out a deal with the flower vendors.

Assume that deal is simple - the flower sellers will sit only on one side of the road thereby allowing the commuters to freely use the other side of the road. In return, the flower sellers who are displaced could be incentivized monetarily or sell their daily quota to other flower sellers who sit on the side of the road where they are not displaced at prices slightly higher than what they would sell to consumers. All these transactions are facilitated by a small association formed with participation from the flower sellers and commuters. There is no involvement from the law enforcement agencies or the government.

Unfortunately, although I am a firm believer of free markets and voluntary regulations (like the one mentioned above), the following concerns pop into my head immediately:

  • The above system will work when the monetary incentive which the displaced flower sellers get is more than what they can make in the free market. It won't be business sense to be party to such a scheme if the flower seller ends up making a loss. Hence, the value of the incentive would essentially need to be above the profit of the most profitable flower seller. A threshold price which will need to be borne by the commuters.
  • How would the consumers distribute the cost of bearing the incentive given? As the commuters are not a homogeneous community and there would be many who would not be willing to partake any financial cost and not mind the madness.
  • Where does co-opetition end and collusion begin? The displaced and not-displaced flower sellers can soon start forming cartels and look to make profits in the arbitrage thereby offsetting the commuter's costs.
And the problems I can forsee are many more. Some trivial and some profound. What about enforcing the framework of the law on those who default? It is when I see such situations where the market is so dense and players innumerable that I feel that regulation from the government is the only feasible way out. One overarching rule which all people have to abide by and enforced by the government. Although I hate myself for admitting this, I doubt free market mechanics to be able to handle such a situation when the market players are compelled to make a profit by any means possible, so that one can feed oneself the next day.

One mega solution would be to privatize the entire suburban railway system in Mumbai. This would force the private company to make the surroundings, entries and exits to the station commuter friendly to keep up business. This would involve costs, which eventually would have to be borne by the commuter, atleast initially - and given the fabric of current Indian society, such a plan would face severe opposition. So we are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Bold plans like privatizing the suburban railway system in Mumbai would never get off the ground because of the opposition, and even small bottom up approaches like voluntary self imposed regulations by the people who are involved in the matter is also doomed to fail because of the immense number of variables. One would need to impose a very strict 'Police Raj' to see that all these variables are harnessed - which is defeating the very premise that it is a voluntary.

What really bugs me is, how then can a society like that of India be, even gradually moved towards a free market economy from its current socialistic bent of mind. Top down, mega projects would fail because they would never get off the ground and would have to be championed, ironically by the government itself, and bottom-up approaches which would act as shining examples of how efficiently a voluntary free market regulation can work, showcasing it so that it can be adopted in other situations, also are doomed to fail due to the sheer number of hurdles it needs to overcome!

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