Commissioner Wright’s McWane Dissent Illuminates the Law and Economics of Exclusive Dealing

Thom Lambert —  17 February 2014

Commissioner Josh Wright’s dissenting statement in the Federal Trade Commission’s recent McWane proceeding is a must-read for anyone interested in the law and economics of exclusive dealing. Wright dissented from the Commission’s holding that McWane Inc.’s “full support” policy constituted unlawful monopolization of the market for domestic pipe fittings.

Under the challenged policy, McWane, the dominant producer with a 45-50% share of the market for domestic pipe fittings, would sell its products only to distributors that “fully supported” its fittings by carrying them exclusively.  There were two exceptions: where McWane products were not readily available, and where the distributor purchased a McWane rival’s pipe along with its fittings.  A majority of the Commission ruled that McWane’s policy constituted illegal exclusive dealing.  Commissioner Wright agreed that the policy amounted to exclusive dealing, but he concluded that the complainant had failed to prove that the exclusive dealing constituted unreasonably exclusionary conduct in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.

The first half of Wright’s 52-page dissent is an explanatory tour de force.  Wright first explains how and why the Supreme Court rethought its originally inhospitable rules on “vertical restraints” (i.e., trade-limiting agreements between sellers at different levels of the distribution system, such as manufacturers and distributors).  Recognizing that most such restraints enhance overall market output even if they incidentally injure some market participants, courts now condition liability on harm to competition—that is, to overall market output.  Mere harm to an individual competitor is not enough.

Wright then explains how this “harm to competition” requirement manifests itself in actions challenging exclusive dealing.  Several of the antitrust laws—Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act and Section 3 of the Clayton Act—could condemn arrangements in which a seller will deal only with those who purchase its brand exclusively.  Regardless of the particular statute invoked, though, there can be no antitrust liability absent either direct or indirect evidence of anticompetitive (not just anti-competitor) effect.  Direct evidence entails some showing that the exclusive dealing at issue led to lower market output and/or higher prices than would otherwise have prevailed.  Indirect evidence usually involves showings that (1) the exclusive dealing at issue foreclosed the defendant’s rivals from a substantial share of available marketing opportunities; (2) those rivals were therefore driven (or held) below minimum efficient scale (MES), so that their per-unit production costs were held artificially high; and (3) the defendant thereby obtained the ability to price higher than it would have absent the exclusive dealing.

The McWane complainant, Star Pipe Products, Ltd., sought to discharge its proof burden using indirect evidence. It asserted that its per-unit costs would have been lower if it owned a domestic foundry, but it maintained that its 20% market share did not entail sales sufficient to justify foundry construction.  Thus, Star concluded, McWane’s usurping of rivals’ potential sales opportunities through its exclusive dealing policy held Star below MES, raised Star’s per-unit costs, and enhanced McWane’s ability to raise prices.  Voila!  Anticompetitive harm.

Commissioner Wright was not convinced that Star had properly equated MES with sales sufficient to justify foundry construction.  The only record evidence to that effect—evidence the Commission deemed sufficient—was Star’s self-serving testimony that it couldn’t justify building a foundry at its low level of sales and would be a more formidable competitor if it could do so.  Countering that testimony were a couple of critical bits of actual market evidence.

First, the second-largest domestic seller of pipe fittings, Sigma Corp., somehow managed to enter the domestic fittings market and capture a 30% market share (as opposed to Star’s 20%), without owning any of its own production facilities.  Sigma’s entire business model was built on outsourcing, yet it managed to grow sales more than Star.  This suggests that foundry ownership – and, thus, a level of sales sufficient to support foundry construction – may not be necessary for efficient scale in this industry.

Moreover, Star’s own success in the domestic pipe fittings market undermined its suggestion that MES can be achieved only upon reaching a sales level sufficient to support a domestic foundry.  Star entered the domestic pipe fittings market in 2009, quickly grew to a 20% market share, and was on pace to continue growth when the McWane action commenced.  As Commissioner Wright observed, “for Complaint Counsel’s view of MES to make sense on the facts that exist in the record, Star would have to be operating below MES, becoming less efficient over time as McWane’s Full Support Program further raised the costs of distribution, and yet remaining in the market and growing its business.  Such a position strains credulity.”

Besides failing to establish what constitutes MES in the domestic pipe fittings industry, Commissioner Wright asserted, complainant Star also failed to prove the degree of foreclosure occasioned by McWane’s full support program.

First, both Star and the Commission reasoned that all McWane sales to distributors subject to its full support program had been “foreclosed,” via exclusive dealing, to McWane’s competitors.  That is incorrect.  The sales opportunities foreclosed by McWane’s full support policy were those that would have been made to other sellers but for the policy.  In other words, if a distributor, absent the full support policy, would have purchased 70 units from McWane and five from Star but, because of the full support program, purchased all 75 from McWane, the full support program effectively foreclosed Star from five sales opportunities, not 75.  By failing to focus on “contestable” sales—i.e., sales other than those that would have been made to McWane even absent the full support program—Star and the Commission exaggerated the degree of foreclosure resulting from McWane’s exclusive dealing.

Second, neither Star nor the Commission made any effort to quantify the sales made to McWane’s rivals under the two exceptions to McWane’s full support policy.  Such sales were obviously not foreclosed to McWane’s rivals, but both Star and the Commission essentially ignored them.  So, for example, if a distributor that carried McWane’s products (and was thus subject to the full support policy) purchased 70 domestic fittings from McWane and 30 from other producers pursuant to one of the full support program’s exceptions, Star and the Commission counted 100 foreclosed sales opportunities.  Absent information about the number of distributor purchases under exceptions to the full support program, it is simply impossible to assess the degree of foreclosure occasioned by the policy.

In sum, complainant Star – who bore the burden of establishing an anticompetitive (i.e., market output-reducing) effect of the exclusive dealing at issue – failed to show how much foreclosure McWane’s full support program actually created and to produce credible evidence (other than its own self-serving testimony) that the program raised its costs by holding it below MES.  The most Star showed was harm to a competitor – not harm to competition, a prerequisite to liability based on exclusive dealing.      

In addition, several other pieces of evidence suggested that McWane’s exclusive dealing was not anticompetitive.  First, the full support program did not require a commitment of exclusivity for any period of time. Distributors purchasing from McWane could begin carrying rival brands at any point (though doing so might cause McWane to refuse to sell to them in the future).  Courts have often held that short-duration exclusive dealing arrangements are less troubling than longer-term agreements; indeed, a number of courts presume the legality of exclusive dealing contracts of a year or less.  McWane’s policy was of no, not just short, duration.

Second, entry considerations suggested an absence of anticompetitive harm here.  If entry into a market is easy, there is little need to worry that exclusionary conduct will produce market power.  Once the monopolist begins to exercise its power by reducing output and raising price, new entrants will appear on the scene, driving price and output back to competitive levels.  The recent and successful entry of both Star and Sigma, who collectively gained about half the total market share within a short period of time, suggested that entry into the domestic pipe fittings market is easy.

Finally, evidence of actual market performance indicated that McWane’s exclusive dealing policies did not generate anticompetitive effect.  McWane enforced its full support program for the first year of Star’s participation in the domestic fittings market, but not thereafter.  Star’s growth rate, however, was identical before and after McWane stopped enforcing the program.  According to Commissioner Wright, “Neither Complaint Counsel nor the Commission attempt[ed] to explain how growth that is equal with and without the Full Support Program is consistent with Complaint Counsel’s theory of harm that the Program raised Star’s costs of distribution and impaired competition.  The most plausible inference to draw from these particular facts is that the Full Support Program had almost no impact on Star’s ability to enter and grow its business, which, under the case law, strongly counsels against holding that McWane’s conduct was exclusionary.”

***

Because antitrust exists to protect competition, not competitors, an antitrust complainant cannot base a claim of monopolization on the mere fact that its business was injured by the defendant’s conduct.  By the same token, a party complaining of unreasonably exclusionary conduct also ought not to prevail simply because it made self-serving assertions that it would have had more business but for the defendant’s action and would have had lower per-unit costs if it had more business.  If the antitrust is to remain a consumer-focused body of law, claims like Star’s should fail.  Hopefully, Commissioner Wright’s FTC colleagues will eventually see that point.

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.

2 responses to Commissioner Wright’s McWane Dissent Illuminates the Law and Economics of Exclusive Dealing

  1. 

    Thom…..excellent summary of Wright’s position.You say: “If antitrust is to remain a consumer-focused body of law…” I would put it differently (since I can’t accept that consumer welfare was EVER the focus of antitrust law)….”If antitrust is to become a consumer-focused body of law…” And I’m equally pessimistic that Wright’s colleagues “will ever see the point” (that the law is consumer-focused). Their DNA position is that “competition” needs protection (of competitors) and that has always been the “problem” with antitrust regulation.

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