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7 Near-Monopolies That Are Perfectly Legal in America

By Brian Feroldi - Updated Jul 21, 2017 at 10:50AM

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These seven companies dominate their industries so heavily that it isn't much of a stretch to consider them virtual monopolies.

a drawing of a big fish eating little fish

Image source: Getty Images.

True monopolies were outlawed in 1890 in the U.S. after Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. This law was designed to protect consumers from large companies that sought to use their dominant market position to engage in anticompetitive business practices. The bill also gave the federal government the power to step in and take action when necessary.

While this law is still in place today, that hasn't prevented a handful of very powerful companies from gaining a huge amount of market share in their industries. Below we'll take a closer look at seven companies that could easily be considered near-monopolies today.

three beers next to each other

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Anheuser-Busch InBev NV

Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD 0.30%) has long enjoyed top-dog status in the U.S. thanks to its ownership of a number of best-selling beer brands such as Budweiser, Michelob Ultra, Beck's, Stella Artois, Bass, and more. However, the company's market dominance was brought to a whole new level last year after it spent over $100 billion to swallow SABMiller -- the industry's second-largest player -- whole. This megamerger was so large that AB InBev is now estimated to control about 46% of global beer profits and produce about 27% of the world's total beer supply.

On the bright side (for consumers), getting this deal past regulators wasn't easy. The two companies were forced to sell off some brands to appease competition concerns. AB InBev is also prohibited from using its power to restrict the distribution of beer from rivals. However, even with these concessions the company still commands a dominant market share in the U.S. of about 45%.

Looking ahead, AB InBev growth plans call for it to continue to increase its presence in international markets and to realize the synergies of its massive acquisition. With so many top-selling brands under its wing, AB InBev looks well-positioned to retain its near-monopoly status.

researchers in lab with laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Illumina

The cost to sequence an entire human genome has plummeted over the last decade. One company that deserves high praise for driving those costs lower is Illumina (ILMN 5.95%). Throughout its history, Illumina has consistently brought to market new products that have significantly driven down the cost curve of genetic testing by an order of magnitude. A good example of this is the company's HiSeq machines line. These products were introduced years ago and enable researchers to sequence an entire genome for as little as $1,000. That's a price point that rivals have had trouble matching, which is a big reason why Illumina's market share regularly hovers around 90%.

Illumina looks poised to continue its dominance of the genetic-testing market thanks to the recent launch of its NovaSeq Series. The company believes that this new product line will one day enable researchers to sequence a genome for as little as $100. That could be a low enough price to attract interest from insurers and consumers alike, and should go a long way toward helping Illumina to maintain its industry-leading position.

da Vinci system operating on a patient

Image source: Intuitive Surgical.

3. Intuitive Surgical

In 1999 Intuitive Surgical (ISRG 2.62%) launched its da Vinci robotic surgical system to market. This new tool was approved to assist surgeons with general laparoscopic procedures. Intuitive sold the device on the promise that it enabled smaller incisions and led to less blood loss, both of which helped patients to recover faster. Over time surgeons found more ways to use the system and the demand for robotic surgery grew. That greatly benefited Intuitive, since it faced virtually no competition at all for years on end, providing the company with a monopoly-like stranglehold on the industry.

Fast forward to today and the company now has more than 4,000 da Vinci systems in use around the world. What's more, Intuitive recently launched its next-generation system, called the da Vinci X, which is designed to appeal to cost-conscious hospitals and physicians. Given the company's massive install base and technological capabilities, potential competitors certainly have their work cut out for them if they have any hope of catching up.

hand touching button on car radio

Image source: Sirius XM.

4. Sirius XM Holdings

If you subscribe to a satellite radio service then you are likely aware that you basically only have one choice -- Sirius XM Holdings (SIRI 0.79%). The company's stranglehold on the market came about when XM and Sirius merged, in 2008, to form the juggernaut that we know today. This move was truly a match made in heaven as it costs a pretty penny to launch and maintain satellites in orbit. In addition, signing content deals with Howard Stern and the NFL isn't exactly cheap. Operating as two stand-alone businesses made little economic sense, so joining forces seemed like a win-win proposition for both companies.

However, while Sirius XM holds a monopoly-like position in satellite radio, it would be laughable to say that the company is free of competition. Consumers can choose to listen to their local radio stations, stream music through services like Pandora or Spotify, or even download podcasts whenever they want. This variety means that the battle over a consumer's listening time remains quite fierce.

workers sorting recycling

Image source: Waste Management.

5. Waste Management

Have you ever noticed that your local trash collector services every single house on your block? That's because garbage is heavy and holds little economic value, so it makes no sense to send multiple providers down the same street. What's more, transporting trash is expensive, so haulers almost always seek out the closest landfill that they can find. These factors provide Waste Management (WM 1.91%) -- the nation's biggest trash hauler -- with near-monopoly status in many areas.

Waste Management owns and operates several hundred recycling centers, landfills, and transfer centers in North America. This enormous scale, combined with the monopoly-like characteristics, of the business has turned Waste Managment into a fantastic long-term investment.

It is hard to imagine how someone could truly disrupt the waste-hauling business. That fact should allow Waste Management to crank out recession-proof profits for decades to come.

mailbox full of letters

Image source: Getty Images.

6. Broadridge Financial Services

An investor's mailbox gets bombarded with a mountain of paperwork each year. Publicly traded companies need to send out proxies, prospectuses, annual reports, trade confirmations, and account statements to investors on a regular basis in order to remain compliant with financial regulations. However, it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work for companies to keep up with their investor-communications responsibilities. That's why the vast majority of them outsource a lot of this work to Broadridge Financial Services (BR 1.63%).

To say that Broadridge is a leader in its field would be an understatement. The company boasts a market share of 80% in the U.S. and more than 50% worldwide. What's more, the company boasts a client retention rate of 98%, which is telling about how much customers value its services.

It is likely that public companies will continue to need help with staying in touch with their investors. That should help to ensure that Broadridge's services remain in demand for years to come. 

browser with search box highlighted

Image source: Getty Images.

7. Alphabet

You know that you've made it big when your company name gets turned into a common English verb. If you've ever casually mentioned to a friend that you plan on Googling something, then you know what I mean. That word association is easy to understand because Alphabet (GOOG 4.16%)(GOOGL 4.20%) -- the company formerly known as Google -- has dominated the internet search market for more than a decade. 

Just how dominant is Google? According to Net Market Share, Google's search engine commands a global market share of 79% as of June 2017. By contrast, Google's next three closest rivals -- Bing, Baidu, and Yahoo -- currently boast a global market share of just 7.3%, 7%, and 4.9%, respectively. Since Google's market share is more than four times larger than its three closest rivals combined, I think it could easily be considered a near-monopoly.

On the downside, having such a commanding position in such an important market segment hasn't gone unnoticed by regulators. In fact, the European Union recently slapped Google with a record $2.7 billion fine over antitrust concerns related to its shopping portal. However, that's truly chump change when compared to the $92 billion in cash that Alphabet had on its balance sheet as of the end of March. 

Will competitors ever be able to knock "Big G" off its perch? That's tough to say, but since Google's search market share has actually been increasing in recent years, I have a hard time believing that will happen anytime soon.

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Stocks Mentioned

Alphabet Inc. Stock Quote
Alphabet Inc.
$2,246.33 (4.20%) $90.48
Sirius XM Holdings Inc. Stock Quote
Sirius XM Holdings Inc.
$6.38 (0.79%) $0.05
Intuitive Surgical, Inc. Stock Quote
Intuitive Surgical, Inc.
$229.16 (2.62%) $5.86
Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV Stock Quote
Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV
$56.65 (0.30%) $0.17
Illumina, Inc. Stock Quote
Illumina, Inc.
$258.06 (5.95%) $14.49
Waste Management, Inc. Stock Quote
Waste Management, Inc.
$161.00 (1.91%) $3.01
Alphabet Inc. Stock Quote
Alphabet Inc.
$2,255.98 (4.16%) $90.06
Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc. Stock Quote
Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc.
$146.80 (1.63%) $2.36

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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