Some Thoughts on the Spring Meeting: Bummed About RPM, Happy About the FTC’s Future

Thom Lambert —  12 April 2013

I’ve spent the last few days in DC at the ABA Antitrust Section’s Spring Meeting. The Spring Meeting is the extravaganza of the year for antitrust lawyers, bringing together leading antitrust practitioners, enforcers, and academics for in-depth discussions about developments in the law. It’s really a terrific event. I was honored this year to have been invited (by my old law school classmate, Adam Biegel) to present the “antitrust economics” and “monopolization” sections of the Antitrust Fundamentals session. Former TOTM blogger (now FTC Commissioner) Josh Wright has taught those sections in the past, so I had some pretty big shoes to fill. It was great fun.

Two sessions yesterday really got my blood pumping, albeit for different reasons. The first was a session on counseling clients on RPM after Leegin. Leegin, of course, was the 2007 Supreme Court decision overruling the 1911 Dr. Miles precedent that declared minimum resale price maintenance (RPM) to be per se illegal. Post-Leegin, a manufacturer’s setting of the resale price its downstream dealers may charge is evaluated under the Rule of Reason, at least for purposes of federal antitrust law.

While it was a 5-4 decision, the holding of Leegin is hardly controversial among antitrust scholars. Chicago School and neo-Chicago scholars like myself, Harvard School scholars like Herb Hovenkamp, and even post-Chicago scholars like Einer Elhauge are in agreement that RPM is not always or almost always anticompetitive and thus ought to be analyzed under the Rule of Reason. (Indeed, Elhauge queried: “The puzzle is what provoked a vigorous dissent from Justice Breyer, one of the world’s most sophisticated antitrust justices…”). There’s simply no doubt about Leegin among those who have studied RPM most closely: it was correctly decided.

It was most disheartening, then, to hear a group of esteemed panelist opine that Leegin hasn’t really changed the advice one should give clients considering RPM policies. It’s still wise, the panelists stated, to advise manufacturing clients to avoid RPM and instead to implement either (1) so-called Colgate policies where the manufacturer simply announces and follows a unilateral policy of not selling to dealers who discount, or (2) consignment arrangements where the manufacturer doesn’t sell its product to dealers but instead enlists them as its sales agents and retains title to its product until the product is sold to the end-user consumer. The former approach avoids RPM liability because there is no “agreement” concerning resale prices; the latter, because there is technically no “resale.” Both approaches, though, involve costly and cumbersome methods by which manufacturers may exert control over the resale prices of their products. (See, e.g., golf club manufacturer Ping’s now-classic discussion of the difficulties involved in implementing a Colgate policy.)  So why counsel clients to adopt Colgate policies and consignment/agency arrangements when RPM is now adjudged under the Rule of Reason?

Because of the states — a number of them, at least. Maryland has adopted an explicit Leegin-repealer; California’s Cartwright Act uses language that appears to declare RPM to be per se illegal; and the Supreme Court of Kansas recently held that RPM is per se illegal under that state’s predictably unenlightened antitrust laws.  (Sorry Kansas folk. Proud Mizzou Tiger here.) In addition, a number of states lack statutes or court decisions harmonizing state antitrust law with federal precendents, and at least six have rejected certain federal precedents –chiefly, Illinois Brick – even without statutory repealers. How those states will treat RPM post-Leegin is anybody’s guess. (For an exhaustive and regularly updated list of state law treatment of RPM, see this helpful article and chart by Michael Lindsay.)

So what’s behind states’ hostility toward RPM?  At yesterday’s RPM session, California Senior Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Foote suggested that state attorneys general tend to oppose RPM because they are particularly concerned about consumer protection and because states have had actual experience with RPM under the so-called “Fair Trade” laws that for several decades allowed states to create antitrust immunity for RPM arrangements.  The empirical evidence of conditions under Fair Trade, Ms. Foote says, establishes that RPM leads to higher consumer prices and therefore tends to be anticompetitive.

But these arguments, each of which was considered and rejected in Leegin, have been soundly refuted.  A heightened concern for consumer protection in no way supports adherence to Dr. Miles, for manufacturers generally have an incentive to impose RPM only when doing so benefits consumers.  The retail mark-up — the difference between the price the retailer pays and that which it charges to consumers — is the “price” manufacturers effectively pay for product distribution.  Like consumers, they have no incentive to raise that price (i.e., to increase the mark-up through imposition of RPM) unless doing so generates retailer services that are worth more to consumers than the incremental retail mark-up.  Only then would RPM enhance a manufacturer’s profits, but in that case, it also enhances overall consumer surplus.  In short, manufacturer and consumer interests are generally aligned when it comes to RPM.

With respect to Fair Trade, Ms. Foote was playing a little fast and loose.  The Fair Trade laws did not, like Leegin, simply declare RPM arrangements not to be per se illegal; rather, they said that such arrangements were per se legal.  Hardly anyone doubts that RPM arrangements may sometimes be harmful and should be scrutinized.  But under Leegin — unlike under Fair Trade — anticompetitive instances of RPM (those that facilitate manufacturer or retailer collusion or serve as exclusionary devices for dominant manufacturers or retailers) may be condemned.  Thus, the fact that states witnessed consumer harm under Fair Trade’s regime of per se legality says nothing about how consumers will fare under Leegin’s Rule of Reason.

Finally, Ms. Foote’s reasoning that RPM is anticompetitive because the evidence shows it tends to raise prices is fallacious.  Of course RPM raises prices.  It is, after all, the imposition of a price floor.  But that price effect is beside the point.  Each one of the procompetitive, output-enhancing justifications for RPM assumes an increase in consumer prices.  The key is that the increase in retail mark-up will induce dealer services that consumers value more than the amount of the mark-up and will thereby enhance overall sales.  The fact that RPM raises prices, then, is a red herring.

If legislators, courts, and enforcement officials in states like California, Maryland, and Kansas can’t understand these fairly simple points (yes, I realize I’m asking a lot of the Kansans), then the promise of Leegin may go unfulfilled.  It was pretty clear from yesterday’s session that legal advice — and, accordingly, manufacturer practice — will look much as it did pre-Leegin unless the states get their act together.  That’s pretty depressing.

Fortunately, the session following the RPM session was a good bit more promising.  The highlight was a speech by FTC Commissioner Wright, in which he laid out his intentions to promote a more principled understanding of Section 5 of the FTC Act and to pursue the “low-hanging fruit” (his words) of public restraints.  Both developments would be warmly welcomed.

Commissioner Wright maintains that the promise of Section 5 (which enables the FTC, but not private parties, to enjoin unfair methods of competition that do not necessarily constitute antitrust violations) will remain unfulfilled until the FTC lays out the guiding and limiting principles that will govern its use of the provision.  He’s right.  Absent such articulated principles, use of Section 5 could well end up the way Robert Bork once described mid-20th Century antitrust, which he likened to a frontier sheriff who “did not sift the evidence, distinguish between suspects, and solve crimes, but merely walked the main street and every so often pistol-whipped a few people.” The evidence-based principles Commissioner Wright proposes to develop would avoid the frontier sheriff problem by bringing predictability and fairness to the Commission’s implementation of its Section 5 authority.

Even more exciting were Commissioner Wright’s remarks on public restraints.  Without doubt, competition-reducing laws and regulations are responsible for the destruction of vast amounts of consumer welfare.  State action immunity and other legal hurdles, though, make it difficult to police welfare-reducing public restraints.

But litigation isn’t the only weapon in the FTC’s arsenal.  As Commissioner Wright observed, the FTC is uniquely positioned to advocate for the removal of competition-destructive public restraints.  I was heartened to learn that the Commission recently helped persuade Colorado officials not to impose regulations that would have squelched Uber, a smart phone application that is creating much-needed competition in the taxi and private car service market.  It also took the side of the angels in St. Joseph Abbey case, helping to persuade the Fifth Circuit to strike protectionist regulations that reduced competition among casket sellers in Louisiana.  Commissioner Wright also noted that the FTC’s recent victory in the Phoebe Putney case, which narrowed somewhat the scope of state action immunity, will allow it to pursue more public restraints by state and sub-state governmental entities.  This all bodes well for consumers.

So here’s an idea for the FTC: How about using some of that advocacy prowess to convince the anti-Leegin states to bring their RPM doctrine into conformity with federal law?  It might be tough — and Kansas may be beyond help — but I’m confident that Commissioner Wright and his colleagues could help the anti-Leegin states see that they’re not helping consumers by clinging to moth-eaten Dr. Miles.  Instead, they’re just guaranteeing more jobs for lawyers charged with crafting and implementing Colgate policies, consignment relationships, etc.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

5 responses to Some Thoughts on the Spring Meeting: Bummed About RPM, Happy About the FTC’s Future

  1. 

    Sorry, Thom, that’s just outdated thinking. Since the advent of online sales RPM is consistently used to push up prices with no benefit to the consumer or the manufacturer. The sooner it is outlawed the better.

  2. 

    Is there any plausible argument that such state rules are preempted?

  3. 

    Teaching at a law school in the paradigmatic rule of reason (i.e., “show me”) state, you may have misinterpreted her. I was not at the session so I can’t comment based on the facts. But, maybe she was meaning to say that Kansas lacks the resources to litigate ROR RPM cases. And given the choice between per se legality and per se illegality, Kansas has opted for the latter.

    But, I mainly wanted to ask a question. Has any federalist econometrician done the econometric study to see if the anti-RPM state laws have affected prices in the other states? Its been 5 years. And, the policies vary — whether the use of RPM in the RPM states has been focused on products with the strongest efficiency rationales and the weakest anticompetitive rationales?

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