Firm size and competition: a comparison of the housebuilding industries in Australia, the UK and the USA
Ball, M., (2007) Firm size and competition: a comparison of the housebuilding industries in Australia, the UK and the USA. Working Papers in Real Estate & Planning. 02/07. Working Paper. University of Reading, Reading. pp35.
Housebuilding is frequently viewed as an industry full of small firms. However, large firms exist in many countries. Here, a comparative analysis is made of the housebuilding industries in Australia, Britain and the USA. Housebuilding output is found to be much higher in Australia and the USA than in Britain when measured on a per capita basis. At the same time, the degree of market concentration in Australia and the USA is relatively low but in Britain it is far greater, with a few firms having quite substantial market shares. Investigation of the size distribution of the top 100 or so firms ranked by output also shows that the decline in firm size from the largest downwards is more rapid in Britain than elsewhere. The exceptionalism of the British case is put down to two principal reasons. First, the close proximity of Britain’s regions enables housebuilders to diversify successfully across different markets. The gains from such diversification are best achieved by large firms, because they can gain scale benefits in any particular market segment. Second, land shortages induced by a restrictive planning system encourage firms to takeover each other as a quick and beneficial means of acquiring land. The institutional rules of planning also make it difficult for new entrants to come in at the bottom end of the size hierarchy. In this way, concentration grows and a handful of large producers emerge. These conditions do not hold in the other two countries, so their industries are less concentrated. Given the degree of rivalry between firms over land purchases and takeovers, it is difficult to envisage them behaving in a long-term collusive manner, so that competition in British housebuilding is probably not unduly compromised by the exceptional degree of firm concentration. Reforms to lower the restrictions, improve the slow responsiveness and reduce the uncertainties associated with British planning systems’ role in housing supply are likely to greatly improve the ability of new firms to enter housebuilding and all firms’ abilities to increase output in response to rising housing demand. Such reforms would also probably lower overall housebuilding firm concentration over time.