SOME TOPICS IN THE RECENT HISTORY OF THE IMPORT TRADE
The degree of concentration in the import trade in West Africa has been illustrated in the preceding chapter (Tables 7-10). The tables show that one firm is dominant in the (economic and statistical) sense of handling a significantly large share of the total; and it therefore substantially influences the market. However, it would not be correct to infer from this alone that the firm is able to coerce other firms or customers, or to dictate the volume, range and prices of merchandise imports into West Africa. The term 'dominant' is used in this study in the indicated technical sense only.
In addition to the dominant position of one firm a (comparatively) small group of firms (including the dominant firm) is seen to import and distribute merchandise imports of the order of two-thirds of the total, and an even larger proportion of the principal staples of West African trade. This broad pattern of concentration appears to have come into being by the early 1930's. There is evidence that the dominant firm lost ground in the 1930's in certain directions. This was slightly more than compensated for by its acquisition of several previously independent firms.
In markets in which there is a high degree of concentration firms are likely to have formal or informal market-sharing agreements. In the import trade the most important market-sharing agreements in recent years were the Staple Lines Agreement operative from 1934 to 1937, and the Merchandise Agreement which operated with some modification from 1937 until after the war. These were agreements between a group of firms on familiar cartel lines. The Staple Lines Agreement was limited to certain staples such as corrugated iron sheets, cement, sugar, flour, salt and so forth. It divided up the trade in these commodities on a percentage basis. The Merchandise Agreement was more ambitious and covered practically the entire range of merchandise trade. Its principle of operation was similar to that of the earlier agreement; for non-standardized merchandise the percentage shares were calculated for broader classes of merchandise instead of for individual lines.