A Lesson In Predatory Price-Cutting: Herbert Dow, the Monopoly Breaker

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Herbert Dow founded Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan when he invented a way to produce bromine cheaply. He sold the chemical for industrial purposes all over the US for 36 cents per pound at the turn of the 20th century. He couldn’t go overseas, however, because the international market was controlled by a giant German chemical cartel that sold it at a fixed price of 49 cents per pound. It was understood that the Germans would stay out of the US market so long as Dow and the other American suppliers stayed within its borders.

Eventually Dow’s business was in trouble and he had to expand. He took his bromine to England and easily beat the cartel’s fixed price of 49 cents per pound. Things were okay for a while until a German visitor came to Michigan and threatened Dow that he had to cease and desist. Dow didn’t like being told what to do and told the cartel to get lost.

Shortly thereafter German bromine started appearing for sale in the US for 15 cents per pound, way below Dow’s price. The cartel flooded the US market, offering the chemical way below their own costs, intending to drive Dow out of business. But Dow outsmarted them. He stopped selling in the US market entirely and instead arranged for someone to secretly start buying up all the German bromine he could get his hands on. Dow repackaged it as his own product, shipped it to Europe, and made it widely available (even in Germany) at 27 cents per pound. The Germans were wondering 1) why wasn’t Dow out of business and 2) why was there suddenly such demand for bromine in the US??

The cartel lowered its price to 12 cents and then 10 cents. Dow just kept buying more and more, gaining huge market share in Europe. Finally the Germans caught on and had to lower their prices at home. Dow had broken the German chemical monopoly and expanded his business greatly. And customers got a wider range of places to buy bromine at lower prices.

Dow went on to do the same trick to the German dye and magnesium monopolies. This is now the textbook way to deal with predatory price-cutting.

Read more: Herbert Dow, the Monopoly Breaker

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