Commissioner Wright lays down the gauntlet on Section 5

Geoffrey Manne —  16 April 2013

joshua-wright As Thom noted (here and here), Josh’s speech at the ABA Spring Meeting was fantastic.  In laying out his agenda at the FTC, Josh highlighted two areas on which he intends to focus: Section 5 and public restraints on trade.  These are important, even essential, areas, and Josh’s leadership here will be most welcome.

I’m especially encouraged by his comments on Section 5.  As readers of this blog know, Section 5 has been an issue near and dear to our hearts, and Josh’s intention to make it a centerpiece of his agenda at the Commission should come as no surprise. (There are too many posts on topic to link them individually here, but this link includes all our posts tagged with Section 5.  My own most recent discussion of the general topic (with Berin Szoka) is here).

Of perhaps greatest significance is this bit from Josh’s speech:

The Commission, however, has another choice available. It can and should issue a policy statement clearly setting forth its views on what constitutes an unfair method of competition as we have done with respect to our consumer protection mission…. I firmly believe this Commission is up to this important task and I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners. In that spirit, I will soon informally and publicly distribute a proposed Section 5 Unfair Methods Policy Statement more fully articulating my views and perhaps even providing a useful starting point for a fruitful discussion among the enforcement agencies, the antitrust bar, consumer groups, and the business community.

This is great news, and I eagerly look forward to Josh’s proposed Policy Statement.  As Berin and I noted (and as others, including most notably Bill Kovacic, have noted, as well), this kind of guidance is sorely lacking and much needed:

Rather than attempting to do this in the course of a single litigation, the agency ought to heed Kovacic and Winerman’s advice and do more to “inform judicial thinking” such as by “issu[ing] guidelines or policy statements that spell out its own view about the appropriate analytical framework.”

Not surprisingly, my views line up with Josh’s, and his speech is full of important comments on the current state of Section 5 enforcement at the Commission. Of note:

(1) Objective evaluation of the historical record reveals a remarkable and unfortunate gap between the theoretical promise of Section 5 as articulated by Congress and its application in practice by the Commission;

(2) There is little hope for Section 5 to play a productive role in antitrust enforcement unless the Commission articulates in a policy statement about precisely what constitutes an unfair method, how the agency will decide whether to bring unfair method claims, and a general framework including guiding and limiting principles for evaluating Section 5 cases.

* * *

What does a frank assessment of the 100 year record of Section 5 tell us about its contribution to the competition mission? Or as I might put it, has Section 5 lived up to its promise of nudging the FTC toward evidence-based antitrust? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” There is no shortage of scholars and commentators filling the empty vessel of Section 5 with visions or further promise or purpose of, for example, creating convergence among international jurisdictions, shifting the attention of competition policy from economic welfare to consumer choice, or incorporating behavioral economics into modern antitrust. History, however, tells us that Section 5 has fallen far short of its intended promise. Section 5 has not produced more than a handful of adjudicated decisions with any durable impact on antitrust doctrine or economic welfare.

* * *

After one hundred years the balance of evidence more than suggests the Commission’s use of Section 5 has done little to influence antitrust doctrine and less to inform judicial thinking or to provide guidance to the business community. This void is not a small matter for an administrative agency whose institutional blueprint contemplated such a significant role for Section 5. In my view, it is the Commission’s duty to provide that guidance. But beyond our obligation as responsible stewards of the FTC and consumers through execution of our competition mission, there is considerable risk to the agency of continuing on its current path of putting Section 5 to use without providing guidance. I simply do not believe that path is sustainable or sound competition policy. Section 5 will not live up to its promise of offering an analytically coherent contribution to competition policy if the Commission continues not to offer guidance.

Focusing in particular on the problem of the currently unfettered Section 5 and how it might sensibly be circumscribed, Josh makes some great points:

First, Section 5 should not be used to evade existing antitrust law. Where courts have proven competent to evaluate a particular type of business conduct under the traditional antitrust laws, there is little reason for the Commission to step in under its unfair methods authority. This is especially the case when Section 5 is used to take advantage of a weakened requirement to prove consumer harm in the rigorous manner required in, for example, Section 2 cases. Evading the consumer welfare proof requirements of existing Sherman Act jurisprudence reduces the credibility of the agency, runs the risk that procompetitive conduct will be condemned under Section 5, and circumvents the healthy development of Sherman Act jurisprudence in the courts.

* * *

A second potential limiting principle is a restriction that Section 5 unfair methods cases – as is the case with invitation to collude cases – do not involve plausible efficiency claims. Not only does the lack of efficiency justification reduce any potential collateral consequences associated with false positives, but determining the presence of absence of cognizable efficiencies also plays to a core institutional strength of the Commission. The Commission’s learning and expertise in this regard has already influenced the evolution of the Merger Guidelines, and is applied on a regular basis.

I have no doubt Josh can and will deliver on his promise of working with the other Commissioners to bring some much needed sense to this problematic aspect of the FTC’s authority. This is an enormously important issue, one in great need of attention, and I can think of no one better than Josh to lead the effort to address it.

Geoffrey Manne

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