Acquisitions of Our Lives

Zachary Currie, MJLST Staffer


Growing up, my mother was an avid consumer of soap operas, which aired during the daily drought of day-time television. I never watched any soap opera closely, but I occasionally stopped in the living room while one was on and caught a glimpse of the whirling melodrama—after all, the characters were beautiful, handsome, and belonged to a realm of luxury far removed from my paltry existence. The story was always the same; it was always about banal, dynastic feuding, resulting in predictable and outrageous tragedies. But never once did I think that the content of a soap opera was accurate, not in the sense of being based on a true story, but in the sense of being as realistic as a story written by Ernest Hemingway about fishing for marlin in the Gulf Stream. My perception of the quality of soap opera writing changed when I was introduced to the melodramatic world of telecommunication corporations, their acquisitions, and anti-trust law, through its latest garish episode: AT&T’s bid for Time Warner.


The latest episode of this soap opera involves players as glamorous, foolish, rich, and powerful as any soap opera cast. A takeover of Time Warner by AT&T would create America’s sixth largest firm by pre-tax profits; the Department of Justice has expressed its disapproval of the star-crossed lovers’ plans to elope. Some important socialites in ermine fur have hinted, with winks, that DoJ is motivated by the Donald’s hatred for CNN, a channel owned by Time Warner. Others belonging to the grapevine scoff at the match, deriding it as unsophisticated and gauche; after all, the marriage will cost over a $100 billion, return on capital is egregiously low, and attempting to increase returns by forcing Time Warner content on AT&T consumers would irritate the ever-watchful and puritanical anti-trust regulators.

So, the plot thickens: is the corporate tryst motivated by an intent to commit some dirty illegality? Well, the DoJ was suspicious and nosy enough to file a suit seeking to block the acquisition. The suit claims that after the acquisition, AT&T would be situated to force rivals to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more per year for Time Warner content, and the new formidable couple would dampen technological innovation. But is the DoJ being disingenuous? Perhaps it is motivated more by priggishness, or, maybe, political vengeance, than a concern to foster competition. Remember, this acquisition is vertical integration rather than horizontal integration; there can be good, healthy reasons for vertical integration. One way in which vertical integration can be efficient is through gaining economies of scale, when average total cost decreases with increasing output; surplus from gaining economies of scale may outweigh social costs caused by imperfect competition. Another advantage of vertical integration is the correction of market governance failures: integration allows firms to internalize the costs that arise from strategic and opportunistic behavior. Has the DoJ seriously considered all the consequences of acquisition? One anonymous attorney general claimed that the DoJ has not been forthcoming with any economic analysis helpful to decide whether to sue. Stay tuned to see the end of this Great American Corporate Love Story. Other juicy details include AT&T’s use of one of Trump’s former lawyers and Trump’s tweets about CNN (including an edited wrestling video showing Trump punching a man whose head is replaced by the CNN logo) for litigation.