Some Skepticism About the Role of Behavioral Economics in the FTC’s Antitrust Analysis

Josh Wright —  6 July 2012

Given the enthusiasm for application of behavioral economics to antitrust analysis from some corners of the Commission and the academy, I found this remark from Alison Oldale at the Federal Trade Commission interesting (Antitrust Source):

Behavioral economists are clearly correct in saying that people and firms are not the perfect decision makers using perfect information that they are portrayed to be in many economic models. But alternative models that incorporate better assumptions about behavior and which give us useful ways to understand the likely effects of mergers, or particular types of conduct, aren’t there yet. And in the meantime our existing models give us workable approximations. So we haven’t done much yet, but we’ll keep watching developments.

For myself, I wonder whether the first place behavioral economic analysis might be brought to bear on antitrust enforcement will be in areas like coordinated effects or exchange of information. These are areas where our existing theories are not very helpful. For example when looking at coordinated effects in merger control the standard approach focuses a lot on incentives to coordinate. But there are lots and lots of markets where firms have an incentive to coordinate but they don’t seem to be doing so. So it seems there is a big piece of the puzzle that we are missing, and perhaps behavioral economics will be able to tell us something about what to look at in order to get a better handle when coordination is likely in practice.

I certainly agree with the conclusion that the behavioral economics models are not yet ready for primetime.  See, for example, my work with Judd Stone in Misbehavioral Economics: The Case Against Behavioral Antitrust or my series of posts on “Nudging Antitrust” (here and here).