I covered this topic today at the Cambridge A2 Economics revision course. The degree of contestability of a market is measured by the extent to which the gains from market entry for a firm exceed the cost of entering (i.e. the cost of overcoming barriers to entry), with the risks associated with failure taken into account (the cost associated with any barriers to exit). Accordingly, the levels of barriers to entry and exit are crucial in determining the level of a market’s contestability. Barriers to exit consist of sunk costs, that is to say costs that cannot be recovered when leaving the market. The contestable markets approach suggests that potential entrants consider post‑entry profit levels, rather than the pre-entry levels suggested by neo‑classical theory.
Obviously no market is perfectly contestable, i.e. with zero sunk costs. In modern economies it is the degree of contestability which is relevant, some markets are more contestable than others. Also just because there have been no new entrants to a market over a given period of time does not mean that this market is not contestable. The threat of entry will be enough to make the existing (incumbent) firms behave in such a way as to recognise this, i.e. by setting a price which doesn’t attract entry and which only makes normal profits.
Markets which are highly contestable are likely to be vulnerable to ‘hit and run competition’. Consider a situation where existing firms are pricing at above the entry‑limit level. Even in the event that existing firms react in a predatory style, new entry will be profitable as long as there is a time lag between entry and the implementation of such action. Having made a profit in the intervening period, the new entrant can then leave the market at very little cost.
In a contestable market there are no structural barriers to the entry of firms in the long-run. If existing businesses are enjoying high economic profits, there is an incentive for new firms to enter the industry. This increases market competition and dilutes monopoly profits for the incumbent firms. Market contestability requires there are few sunk costs. A sunk cost is committed by a producer when entering an industry but cannot be recovered if a firm decides to leave a market.
Entry limit pricing
The fear on the part of existing firms of rendering the market contestable (stimulating new entry) by making high levels of profit is likely to lead to the adoption of entry limit pricing, a concept introduced in the previous unit. This is essentially a defensive strategy, with existing firms setting prices as high as possible but not so high as to enable new corners to enter the industry. If the existing firms set price at P2 and output at Q2 (see diagram below), it would be possible for a new firm to enter the industry and supply Q1. Total market supply would then be Q3 (Q1 + Q2), the price would be P3 and the new firm would be covering its costs. If, instead, the existing firms chose to produce at Q3 (with price level P3), the new firm producing Q1 (total market supply would now be Q4 at price P4) would not be covering its costs and would have to exit the industry in the long run.
The video below on the Airline Industry in the US from Commanding Heights series is a good example of breaking down monopoly power.