Debunking the "pro-business" rationale for Section 5 enforcement

Geoffrey Manne —  4 February 2010

Repeating claims he made in his statement in Intel, Chairman Leibowitz in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal has this to say about stepped-up Section 5 enforcement at the FTC:

The courts have pared back plaintiffs’ rights in antitrust cases. They’re concerned about what they believe to be the toxic combination of class actions, treble damages and a very aggressive plaintiffs’ bar. The problem for us as an agency is we come under those restrictions, [too]. So how do we do what we’re supposed to do, which is stopping anticompetitive behavior? One tool in our arsenal is using what’s known as our Section 5 authority to stop unfair methods of competition.

Leibowitz further justifies his approach to Section 5 with an appeal to what he claims to be an important intrinsic limit of Section 5:

The other advantage of this authority is, because it’s not an antitrust statute, it’s going to limit follow-on, private treble-damages law suits. I think in the end, if we use this statute effectively to stop anticompetitive behavior, the business community is going to end up supporting it very, very strongly. Because what they’re most concerned about is follow-on, private, treble-damages litigation. They’re not so much concerned about cease-and-desist [orders], which is the kind of thing we’re often looking at when we use our Section 5 authority. I don’t think big business should be worried. I think they should embrace this trend.

Yes, I’m sure business will eagerly embrace the FTC’s use of this statute, particularly as the agency defends it precisely on the ground that its use is relatively unconstrained by courts and their pesky rule of law.

Leibowitz has been making these claims for some time (see, e.g., these remarks from October 2008 and the N-Data Statement).

But admittedly, if it were true that the FTC’s use of Section 5 did not lead inexorably to costly follow-on litigation, and if it were not the case that the statute were a recipe for unprincipled, uneconomic antitrust enforcement, no doubt there would be some support for it.  But unfortunately for Leibowitz, the claim is NOT true–it is not the case that Section 5 removes the specter of costly private litigation from the equation.

The reality is that many states have “Baby FTC Acts,” modeled on the federal FTC Act and taking enforcement cues–by law–from FTC interpretation of the Act.  And these statutes do provide for private rights of action and treble damages.  So although it is technically true that there is no private right of action under the federal FTC Act, this hardly shields antitrust defendants from follow-on liability.  And even if such actions have been rare up until now (as Leibowitz claims in the remarks linked above), that may well change as the FTC’s precedent-setting enforcement decisions shift toward using the statute as an antitrust enforcement tool and as the Act is used more and more for otherwise-unwinnable Sherman Act cases.

This point isn’t new, and Commissioner Kovacic made this same point in his dissent from the N-Data settlement:

The Commission overlooks how the proposed settlement could affect the application of state statutes that are modeled on the FTC Act and prohibit unfair methods of competition (“UMC”) or unfair acts or practices (“UAP”). The federal and state UMC and UAP systems do not operate in watertight compartments. As commentators have documented, the federal and state regimes are interdependent. [Citations omitted].  By statute or judicial decision, courts in many states interpret the state UMC and UDP laws in light of FTC decisions, including orders. As a consequence, such states might incorporate the theories of liability in the settlement and order proposed here into their own UMC or UAP jurisprudence. A number of states that employ this incorporation principle have authorized private parties to enforce their UMC and UAP statutes in suits that permit the court to impose treble damages for infringements.

If the Commission desires to deny the reasoning of its approach to private treble damage litigants, the proposed settlement does not necessarily do so. If the Commission’s assumption of no spillover effects is important to its decision, a rethink of the proposed settlement and order seems unavoidable.

As far as I can tell, however, Leibowitz and other defenders of this rationale for expanded Section 5 enforcement have not addressed this point, and they continue to rely, disingenuously, in my opinion, on claims that Section 5 enforcement will not lead to follow-on, private actions.

At the same time, as I pointed out here, Leibowitz’ continued claim that courts have reined in Sherman Act jurisprudence only out of concern with the incentives and procedures of private enforcement, and not out of a concern with a more substantive balancing of error costs–errors from which the FTC is not, unfortunately immune–seems ridiculous to me.  To be sure (as I said before), the procedural background matters as do the incentives to bring cases that may prove to be inefficient.

But take, for example, Twombly, mentioned by Leibowitz as one of the cases that has recently reined in Sherman Act enforcement in order to constrain over-zealous private enforcement (and thus not in a way that should apply to government enforcement).  Yes, of course, Twombly was concerned with the private incentives for bringing antitrust strike suits and the costs of such suits.  (And I note in passing that, while the specific monetary incentive at issue in the case might not apply to the government, the government, too, certainly has incentives to bring cases that may be weak–I hardly think the analysis is completely inapposite.  Meanwhile the costs of protracted litigation are just as high if the plaintiff is the government as if it is a private party.)

But the over-zealousness of private plaintiffs is not all it was about, as the Court made clear:

The inadequacy of showing parallel conduct or interdependence, without more, mirrors the ambiguity of the behavior: consistent with conspiracy, but just as much in line with a wide swath of rational and competitive business strategy unilaterally prompted by common perceptions of the market.  Accordingly, we have previously hedged against false inferences from identical behavior at a number of points in the trial sequence.

* * *

Hence, when allegations of parallel conduct are set out in order to make a §1 claim, they must be placed in a context that raises a suggestion of a preceding agreement, not merely parallel conduct that could just as well be independent action. [Citations omitted].

The Court was appropriately concerned with the ability of decision-makers to separate pro-competitive from anticompetitive conduct.  Even when the FTC brings cases, it and the court deciding the case must make these determinations.  And, while the FTC may bring fewer strike suits, it isn’t limited to challenging conduct that is simple to identify as anticompetitive.  Quite the opposite, in fact–the government has incentives to develop and bring suits proposing novel theories of anticompeitive conduct and of enforcement (as it is doing in the Intel case, for example).

I recognize that Leibowitz may believe that he is not susceptible to mistakes of this sort, or that (as Dan Crane might say), the FTC has a comparative institutional advantage over courts in making these sorts of determinations.  I disagree, but if that is the claim then Leibowitz should make it explicitly rather than suggesting that current Sherman Act jurisprudence is all about treble damages and strike suits.  I’m quite certain, however, that an explicit claim by the FTC that it never gets it wrong and thus shouldn’t be constrained by meddling courts wouldn’t be viewed very favorably by the business community.

Geoffrey Manne

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