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The Last Days of the Monopolist

By Alex Planes - Nov 20, 2012 at 11:30AM

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Learning from the market's past to understand its present.

On this day in economic and financial history...

No one under the age of 30 remembers what AT&T (T 0.94%) used to be. That's because the Department of Justice initiated its third major antitrust effort against AT&T on Nov. 20, 1974, an effort which would ultimately prove successful in 1983.

AT&T was no stranger to antitrust efforts. Its first major battle against the federal government occurred in 1914. This suit left the Bell System intact but forced the sprawling company to divest itself of Western Union (WU 0.47%), which had been acquired via merger in 1909. An antitrust suit filed by the DoJ in 1949 led to a 1956 consent decree, which effectively sanctioned AT&T's monopoly control over the American telephone network while limiting its expansion into the infant computer industry.

The third time was the charm for the DoJ, as it was virtually impossible to argue that AT&T wasn't a monopoly in 1974. According to Michael Riordan of The Porticus Centre, AT&T's annual revenue that year amounted to 1.4% of American GDP. General Motors (GM -1.99%), the nation's second-largest company, was only a third AT&T's size. AT&T had more than 100 million customers and nearly a million employees -- more than a third the number employed by the entire federal government at the time.

A decade later, the suit was over, and the "Baby Bells" began to work on their own. The original AT&T remained in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.03%) well past its breakup, until it was removed in 2004 to make way for Verizon (VZ 0.88%). The AT&T that occupies the Dow today is the result of Baby Bell SBC Communications' acquisition of its former corporate parent.

Today, AT&T (a rebranded SBC) has reconsolidated into the nation's largest telecom company, trailed by Baby Bell Verizon. Only one of the original seven Baby Bells has not become part of either AT&T or Verizon since divestiture. The lone exception, US West, is now part of CenturyLink (LUMN -2.64%).

Welcome to the big leagues
AT&T never really left the Dow, if you consider SBC to be its corporate heir. Its string of uninterrupted index membership, in this regard, stretches back many decades. Not many companies have been listed on the Dow for a longer stretch of time. DuPont (DD) can claim to be one of the few: It joined the Dow on Nov. 20, 1935, four years before AT&T rejoined and just four years after it introduced neoprene, an important product in the history of synthetic chemicals. DuPont has maintained its spot on the Dow ever since.

Hyperinflation, German-style
On Nov. 20, 1923, Weimar Germany hit the peak of its post-WWI hyperinflationary fiasco. On that day, the German government authorized the exchange of 1 trillion inflated Papiermarks for one Rentenmark. Inflation peaked that month at a daily equivalent rate of 20.9%, meaning that it took less than four days for prices to double.

No nation of such global importance has ever suffered such a steep rate of inflation, either before or since. The meltdown of the German economy destabilized the Weimar government, leaving cracks wide enough for the Nazis to slip in. Memories of 1923's hyperinflation and its terrible consequences continue to have a profound effect on German monetary policy to this day.

Opening Windows
In the beginning, there was Xerox PARC's Alto computer. Then Apple (AAPL 0.17%) came along and improved on it for the Lisa and the Macintosh. Finally, on Nov. 20, 1985, graphical user interfaces came to the PC when Microsoft (MSFT -0.23%) released Windows 1.0 to the public, two years after initially announcing the operating system.

The release of Windows 1.0 occurred mere months after Microsoft CEO Bill Gates offered a licensing proposal for Apple's GUI to then-CEO John Sculley. It was hardly a smashing success due to limited application availability, but its release eventually resulted in a fairly wide-ranging licensing agreement between Apple and Microsoft. This licensing agreement culminated in a failed Apple copyright lawsuit that helped clear the way for a Windows-dominated world. Microsoft remained dedicated to the obsolete operating system for 16 years before finally ending support at the end of 2001. By that point Microsoft was celebrating the release of Windows XP, the 14th version of Windows.

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Stocks Mentioned

Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return) Stock Quote
Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return)
^DJI
$31,261.90 (0.03%) $8.77
Apple Inc. Stock Quote
Apple Inc.
AAPL
$137.59 (0.17%) $0.24
AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
T
$20.40 (0.94%) $0.19
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
MSFT
$252.56 (-0.23%) $0.58
E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company Stock Quote
E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company
DD
The Western Union Company Stock Quote
The Western Union Company
WU
$17.07 (0.47%) $0.08
Verizon Communications Inc. Stock Quote
Verizon Communications Inc.
VZ
$49.53 (0.88%) $0.43
General Motors Company Stock Quote
General Motors Company
GM
$35.40 (-1.99%) $0.72
Lumen Technologies Stock Quote
Lumen Technologies
LUMN
$11.06 (-2.64%) $0.30

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

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