Innovation by Acquisition: New Dynamics of High-tech Competition

Right now policymakers are grappling with the implications of slow economic growth in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. One response is austerity—cutting back on spending, accepting reduced living standards, and slowly digging out from the mess.

A better option, though, is innovation, which accelerates growth, creates new jobs, and makes U.S. products and services more competitive world-wide.  Innovation has the potential for raising incomes, an especially important task given that real median household incomes have fallen more than 10 percent since the beginning of the recession.

While innovation can come from any industry, the technology sector is particularly important, as it has been the main source of growth and innovation in the economy for the past 35 years.  The locus of innovation started with the personal computer in the late 1970s and 1980s; shifted to software and the internet in the 1990s; and now has moved to mobile, search, and more broadly communications, where U.S. companies are world leaders. Today’s technological advances have facilitated the emergence of innovation “ecosystems,” or platforms on which many different companies can build products or provide services.

The growth of tech companies stems from a combination of organic growth and business acquisitions, driven by the rapidity of innovation. It’s a virtuous circle, where successful technology companies pay large sums for small startups, which in turn induces the formation of more startups. For that reason, technology acquisitions need not diminish competitiveness, even as they accelerate innovation and job growth.  Indeed, as we will see later in this paper, periods of high levels of acquisition have also been periods of rapid job growth.

One question is whether there is anything that government policy can do to encourage technology innovation in the short run.  The answer is probably not—while the government does have plenty of long-term levers, such as spending on basic research and investment in science and engineering education, there are few ways to speed up innovation over the next year.  On the other hand, government policy is actually quite capable of discouraging innovation in the short-run, through outdated regulation and restrictive antitrust policy that does not take the importance and uniqueness of the technology sector into consideration.

Antitrust policy, as applied to the technology sector in its current form, can impede the virtuous circle of nurturing innovation through startups and acquisitions. By slowing down or blocking acquisitions, antitrust policy can limit the exit routes for startups, potentially reducing their value and making it less attractive for investors to put their money into the next round of innovative new companies.

This paper will explore the role of technology acquisitions in encouraging innovation, facilitating economic growth, stimulating jobs, and enhancing our quality of life. First, this paper examines past trends in technology acquisitions, establishing that waves of industry acquisitions have been an integral part of the rapid innovation in tech since the 1980s.  We focus in particular on the post-2005 acquisitions by major tech firms.

Second, we examine the question of whether technology acquisitions facilitate innovation, and in particular high-impact innovations. In fact, the benefits to the rest of the economy are connected to the speed at which potential innovations are moved to market and scaled up. This is because the value created from rapid technological innovation is distributed across all users of the new technology.

Further, this paper will show that periods with high levels of acquisitions generally also tend to be periods of rapid employment growth. This is not meant to be an assertion of causality, but to rather argue that tech acquisitions are part of the same innovative process as employment growth.

To summarize: (1) when done correctly, acquisitions in the technology sector can and have encouraged innovation by bringing new products to market faster and more effectively; and (2) acquisitions and innovation in the technology sector are positively associated with economic growth and job creation. What’s more, mainstream economic theory associates sustainable economic growth in the long-term with constant innovation and technological progress. Looking at technology acquisitions from this perspective provides a different framework from which to assess the potential implications of excessive antitrust regulations, and current antitrust policy.