In the past I have been a knee jerk advocate of disintermediation. However upon closer examination I realized that the reality of middlemen is far more nuanced. Many people believe that modern technology is eliminating middleman, yet in fact their role is changing shape, not disappearing. In the Middleman Economy , Marina Krakovsky examines this aspect of the modern economy. The Private Investment Brief has also produced valuable analyses of middleman business models. Additionally, Michael Munger’s paper puts this all into a historical context with emphasis on the importance of reduced transaction costs.
Conventional wisdom says that middleman take a cut of every deal, so they raise buyer costs and reduce seller profits. In reality by facilitating transactions that would otherwise not happen at all, good middlemen enlarge the size of the pie, making all parties better off. Many people assume that middlemen’s work is easy because they don’t actually create anything. But to create value… good middlemen must cultivate distinct skills and practices, which they deploy in work that until now has been largely hidden from public view…
“Instead of the of the demise of the middlemen, we are seeing the rise of the middleman. In fact , ours is more than ever a middleman economy.”
Marina Krakovsky, Middleman Economy
There seems to be a gap between public perception and market reality. Therein lies the opportunity:
And yet—thousands of years after it first occurred to someone to ask “why don’t they just cut out the middleman?”—middlemen continue to exist and even thrive. Therein lies the opportunity, for if we can learn to appreciate what others dismiss or misunderstand, we might then have an investing green field all to ourselves
-Mystery of the Middleman
Indeed, Michael Munger takes it even further and argues that we are experiencing a profound historical shift that will alter capital allocation incentives across the economy:
The Neolithic revolution made it possible for humans to enter complex relations of more or less voluntary dependence, and to share economies of organization and information. The Industrial revolution created an astonishing burst of productivity, which made ownership ofMichael Munger: The Third Entrepreneurial Revolution: A Middleman Economy
a bewildering variety of commodities and tools possible for all but the poorest of people, where just 50 years before such items would have denied all but wealthiest. The Middleman revolution, the third revolution whose leading edges we are now crossing, will transform owning
into sharing. The Middleman revolution will make it possible, for the first time, for entrepreneurs to create value almost exclusively by reducing the transactions costs of sharing existing commodities, or by sharing commodities or services made expressly to be shared by the new platforms and new market processes.
Aggregators by any other name
In a world where buyers and sellers can just find each other online quickly and easily, middleman must be obsolete, right?
Wait a minute…
Often when people talk about cutting out the middleman, they are actually just replacing it with a new middleman. All the aggregator platforms are in fact distinct breeds of middlemen whose businesses are made possible by the internet. Examples include: Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, Taskrabbit, Grubhub, ZocDoc, etc. Instead of a person, buyers and sellers deal with software on a website that is developed and managed by people. As Krakovsky points out:
In many ways, the internet is a middleman’s ally. Thanks to the internet, middlemen who used to do business in person — a position that limited their geographic reach can a attract customers from all over and can share information with them more quickly and easier than ever…
These days, two sided markets (sometimes called two-sided networks or two sided platforms ) are everywhere because many of today’s internet startups are middlemen business of exactly this type
Understanding middleman requires multidisciplinary thinking. There isn’t really one accepted definition, and there are many different angles from which to analyze how this social and economic phenomenon works:
Economic theory has much to say about transaction-cost economics, two sided markets, and intermediaries ability to reduce information asymmetries between buyers and sellers. In particular, game theory informs our understanding of repeated interactions, reputation, shirking and cheating, and third party enforcement. Social psychology and experimental economics show how acting on behalf of others affect people’s behavior and impressions. And sociology offers insights into the way acting on behalf of others affects people’s behavior and impressions. And sociology offers insights into the ways the structures of social networks create opportunities for middlemen
Six kinds of Middlemen
Krakovsky identifies five different roles that middleman can play. These roles define what middleman’s trading partners expect, so its critical for a middleman to know what role they play, and do play it well. They often overlap, so a successful business may fill of these roles at different times in the same supply chain.
A bridge promotes trade by reducing distance(either physical, social or temporal). RA Radford’s study on the development of a market in a WWII POW camp is a stark example. An itinerant priest was willing to connect disparate groups who did not interact, facilitating trade along the way.
Another example featured in the New York Times and highlighted by Private Investment Brief involves an Afghanistan based used clothing wholesaler who makes an annual trip to Pakistan to buy bulk clothing. He is able to succeed for many reason, one of which is the fact that he reduces the fixed costs of dealing with travel, customs, logistics, etc.
A certifier gives reassurance about underlying quality. This is important anywhere there is need for a trusted third party. Essentially, they help fix information asymmetry in a market. That same clothing wholesaler who facilitated trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan was also known as a trusted counter party to disparate group of buyers and sellers.
Trust is an elusive and intangible quality, so those of us in the more contemplative, analytical corners of the business world tend to underestimate how important it is to people transacting day to day
Mystery of Middlemen
An enforcer makes buyers and sellers cooperate and stay honest. Like certifiers, they are important in situations where there is need for a trusted third party. My favorite example of an enforcer is the role of a pimp at a truck stop in Uganda.
A risk bearer reduces fluctuations. Micro VCs play this role, especially now that technology has drastically reduced the cost of starting businesses. “Uber for this or that” business models are an example of a risk bearer business model. Additionally in the Japanese fish markets, risk bearing middleman ensure smooth functioning of trade in a highly perishable commodity.
A concierge reduces hassles and helps clients deal with information overload. For example, travel agents, in spite of widespread predictions of their demise, play a critical role in high end business travel as concierge middlemen.
An insulator helps clients get what they want without being though of as too greedy, self promotional, or confrontational. Sports agents help defuse tensions between players and teams. Additionally, sometimes an investor will use a broker to build up a position without signalling the market. This may be essential in distressed and illiquid securities, or disputed situations.
Munger looks at markets in the broad sweep of history. The role of technology, he argues, is in creating a new “entrepreneurial revolution” that makes middleman more important in an an economy based on sharing, not owning.
The third entrepreneurial revolution will be based on innovations that reduce transactions costs, not the costs of the products themselves. An unimaginable number and variety of transactions will be made possible by software platforms that make renting from a middleman, rather than renting from one’s self, cheaper.
A former student of Douglass North, Munger emphasizes the transaction cost angle throughout:
To succeed, a middleman has to reduce three key transactions costs:
• Provide information about options and prices in a way that is searchable, sortable, and immediate
• Outsource trust to assure safety and quality in a way that requires no investigation or
effort by the users
• Consummate the transaction in a way that is reliable, immediate, and does not require negotiation or enforcement on the part of the users