Antitrust Sanctions in The Economist

Josh Wright —  23 July 2012

In light of Barclays and other recent events, The Economist focuses on increasing corporate fines in response to price-fixing violations.

That some firms behave badly is nothing new, but the response of the authorities has changed recently. Take cartels. Internationally, fines rose by a factor of one thousand between the 1990s and 2000s. Data from America suggest this is not because there are more cartel cases, which have shown no upward trend since the late 1980s. Rather, the average level of fines has risen (see left-hand chart). Recent penalties have smashed records. The Barclays fine includes the largest ever levied by Britain’s financial regulator and America’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission, for instance. Even so, are fines high enough to work?

The article goes on to discuss the Becker optimal sanction framework.  It also makes some important mistakes in framing the debate.  For example, it describes the Chicago School approach has rejecting corporate or individual fines in lieu of the reputational costs antitrust violators will bear.  The article reaches an unsurprising conclusion consistent with the historical approach of U.S. antitrust and with conventional wisdom: what is needed is more increases in corporate fines.

To deter bad behaviour fines need to rise. The watchdogs are biting, but some need sharper teeth.

For reasons described in my article with Judge Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; NYU Law), Antitrust Sanctions, I’m skeptical ever-increasing corporate fines are the appropriate prescription for improving deterrence of hard core cartel activity.   Competition Policy International (who published the original article) interviews Judge Ginsburg and I here.  We discuss existing evidence on the effectiveness of criminal antitrust sanctions and propose adding to the mix debarment for individuals responsible for cartel activity.