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Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act proclaims that “[u]nfair methods of competition . . . are hereby declared unlawful.” The FTC has exclusive authority to enforce that provision and uses it to prosecute Sherman Act violations. The Commission also uses the provision to prosecute conduct that doesn’t violate the Sherman Act but is, in the Commission’s view, an “unfair method of competition.”

That’s somewhat troubling, for “unfairness” is largely in the eye of the beholder. One FTC Commissioner recently defined an unfair method of competition as an action that is “‘collusive, coercive, predatory, restrictive, or deceitful,’ or otherwise oppressive, [where the actor lacks] a justification grounded in its legitimate, independent self-interest.” Some years ago, a commissioner observed that a “standalone” Section 5 action (i.e., one not premised on conduct that would violate the Sherman Act) could be used to police “social and environmental harms produced as unwelcome by-products of the marketplace: resource depletion, energy waste, environmental contamination, worker alienation, the psychological and social consequences of producer-stimulated demands.” While it’s unlikely that any FTC Commissioner would go that far today, the fact remains that those subject to Section 5 really don’t know what it forbids.  And that situation flies in the face of the Rule of Law, which at a minimum requires that those in danger of state punishment know in advance what they’re not allowed to do.

In light of this fundamental Rule of Law problem (not to mention the detrimental chilling effect vague competition rules create), many within the antitrust community have called for the FTC to provide guidance on the scope of its “unfair methods of competition” authority. Most notably, two members of the five-member FTC—Commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Josh Wright—have publicly called for the Commission to promulgate guidelines. So have former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic, a number of leading practitioners, and a great many antitrust scholars.

Unfortunately, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez has opposed the promulgation of Section 5 guidelines. She says she instead “favor[s] the common law approach, which has been a mainstay of American antitrust policy since the turn of the twentieth century.” Chairwoman Ramirez observes that the common law method has managed to distill workable liability rules from broad prohibitions in the primary antitrust statutes. Section 1 of the Sherman Act, for example, provides that “[e]very contract, combination … or conspiracy, in restraint of trade … is declared to be illegal.” Section 2 prohibits actions to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize … any part of … trade.” Clayton Act Section 7 forbids any merger whose effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly.” Just as the common law transformed these vague provisions into fairly clear liability rules, the Chairwoman says, it can be used to provide adequate guidance on Section 5.

The problem is, there is no Section 5 common law. As Commissioner Wright and his attorney-advisor Jan Rybnicek explain in a new paper, development of a common law—which concededly may be preferable to a prescriptive statutory approach, given its flexibility, ability to evolve with new learning, and sensitivity to time- and place-specific factors—requires certain conditions that do not exist in the Section 5 context.

The common law develops and evolves in a salutary direction because (1) large numbers of litigants do their best to persuade adjudicators of the superiority of their position; (2) the closest cases—those requiring the adjudicator to make fine distinctions—get appealed and reported; (3) the adjudicators publish opinions that set forth all relevant facts, the arguments of the parties, and why one side prevailed over the other; (4) commentators criticize published opinions that are unsound or rely on welfare-reducing rules; (5) adjudicators typically follow past precedents, tweaking (or occasionally overruling) them when they have been undermined; and (6) future parties rely on past decisions when planning their affairs.

Section 5 “adjudication,” such as it is, doesn’t look anything like this. Because the Commission has exclusive authority to bring standalone Section 5 actions, it alone picks the disputes that could form the basis of any common law. It then acts as both prosecutor and judge in the administrative action that follows. Not surprisingly, defendants, who cannot know the contours of a prohibition that will change with the composition of the Commission and who face an inherently biased tribunal, usually settle quickly. After all, they are, in Commissioner Wright’s words, both “shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them.” As a result, we end up with very few disputes, and even those are not vigorously litigated.

Moreover, because nearly all standalone Section 5 actions result in settlements, we almost never end up with a reasoned opinion from an adjudicator explaining why she did or did not find liability on the facts at hand and why she rejected the losing side’s arguments. These sorts of opinions are absolutely crucial for the development of the common law. Chairwoman Ramirez says litigants can glean principles from other administrative documents like complaints and consent agreements, but those documents can’t substitute for a reasoned opinion that parses arguments and says which work, which don’t, and why. On top of all this, the FTC doesn’t even treat its own enforcement decisions as precedent! How on earth could the Commission’s body of enforcement decisions guide decision-making when each could well be a one-off?

I’m a huge fan of the common law. It generally accommodates the Hayekian “knowledge problem” far better than inflexible, top-down statutes. But it requires both inputs—lots of vigorously litigated disputes—and outputs—reasoned opinions that are recognized as presumptively binding. In the Section 5 context, we’re short on both. It’s time for guidelines.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has a terrific essay in the Review section of today’s Wall Street Journal.  The essay, Competition Is for Losers, is adapted from Mr. Thiel’s soon-to-be-released book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.  Based on the title of the book, I assume it is primarily a how-to guide for entrepreneurs.  But if the rest of the book is anything like the essay in today’s Journal, it will also offer lots of guidance to policy makers–antitrust officials in particular.

We antitrusters usually begin with the assumption that monopoly is bad and perfect competition is good. That’s the starting point for most antitrust courses: the professor lays out the model of perfect competition, points to all the wealth it creates and how that wealth is distributed (more to consumers than to producers), and contrasts it to the monopoly pricing model, with its steep marginal revenue curve, hideous “deadweight loss” triangle, and unseemly redistribution of surplus from consumers to producers. Which is better, kids?  Why, perfect competition, of course!

Mr. Thiel makes the excellent and oft-neglected point that monopoly power is not necessarily a bad thing. First, monopolists can do certain good things that perfect competitors can’t do:

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto–“Don’t be evil”–is in part a branding ploy, but it is also characteristic of a kind of business that is successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence.  In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

Fair enough, Thiel. But what about consumers? That model we learned shows us that they’re worse off under monopoly.  And what about the deadweight loss triangle–don’t forget about that ugly thing! 

So a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsize profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: Profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputations–but only in a world where nothing changes.

Wait a minute, Thiel. Why do you think things are different when we inject “change” into the analysis?

In a static world, a monopolist is just a rent collector. If you corner the market for something, you can jack up the price; others will have no choice but to buy from you. Think of the famous board game: Deeds are shuffled around from player to player, but the board never changes. There is no way to win by inventing a better kind of real estate development. The relative values of the properties are fixed for all time, so all you can do is try to buy them up.

But the world we live in is dynamic: We can invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.

Even the government knows this: That is why one of the departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It is possible to question whether anyone should really be rewarded a monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design. But something like Apple’s monopoly profits from designing, producing and marketing the iPhone were clearly the reward for creating greater abundance, not artificial scarcity: Customers were happy to finally have the choice of paying high prices to get a smartphone that actually works. The dynamism of new monopolies itself explains why old monopolies don’t strangle innovation. With Apple’s iOS at the forefront, the rise of mobile computing has dramatically reduced Microsoft’s decadeslong operating system dominance.

…If the tendency of monopoly businesses was to hold back progress, they would be dangerous, and we’d be right to oppose them. But the history of progress is a history of better monopoly businesses replacing incumbents. Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Geez, Thiel.  You know who you sound like?  Justice Scalia. Here’s how he once explained your idea (to shrieks and howls from many in the antitrust establishment!):

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place. It induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Sounds like you and Scalia are calling for us antitrusters to update our models.  Is that it?

So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It is a relic of history. Economists copied their mathematics from the work of 19th-century physicists: They see individuals and businesses as interchangeable atoms, not as unique creators. Their theories describe an equilibrium state of perfect competition because that is what’s easy to model, not because it represents the best of business.

C’mon now, Thiel. Surely you don’t expect us antitrusters to defer to you over all these learned economists when it comes to business.

Anyone interested in antitrust enforcement policy (and what TOTM reader isn’t?) should read FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s interview in the latest issue of The Antitrust Source.  The extensive (22 page!) interview covers a number of topics and demonstrates the positive influence Commissioner Wright is having on antitrust enforcement and competition policy in general.

Commissioner Wright’s consistent concern with minimizing error costs will come as no surprise to TOTM regulars.  Here are a few related themes emphasized in the interview:

A commitment to evidence-based antitrust.

Asked about his prior writings on the superiority of “evidence-based” antitrust analysis, Commissioner Wright explains the concept as follows:

The central idea is to wherever possible shift away from casual empiricism and intuitions as the basis for decision-making and instead commit seriously to the decision-theoretic framework applied to minimize the costs of erroneous enforcement and policy decisions and powered by the best available theory and evidence.

This means, of course, that discrete enforcement decisions – should we bring a challenge or not? – should be based on the best available empirical evidence about the effects of the practice or transaction at issue. But it also encompasses a commitment to design institutions and structure liability rules on the basis of the best available evidence concerning a practice’s tendency to occasion procompetitive or anticompetitive effects. As Wright explains:

Evidence-based antitrust encompasses a commitment to using the best available economic theory and empirical evidence to make [a discrete enforcement] decision; but it also stands for a much broader commitment to structuring antitrust enforcement and policy decision-making. For example, evidence-based antitrust is a commitment that would require an enforcement agency seeking to design its policy with respect to a particular set of business arrangements – loyalty discounts, for example – to rely upon the existing theory and empirical evidence in calibrating that policy.

Of course, if the FTC is committed to evidence-based antitrust policy, then it will utilize its institutional advantages to enhance the empirical record on practices whose effects are unclear. Thus, Commissioner Wright lauds the FTC’s study of – rather than preemptive action against – patent assertion entities, calling it “precisely the type of activity that the FTC is well-suited to do.”

A commitment to evidence-based antitrust also means that the agency shouldn’t get ahead of itself in restricting conduct with known consumer benefits and only theoretical (i.e., not empirically established) harms. Accordingly, Commissioner Wright says he “divorced [him]self from a number of recommendations” in the FTC’s recent data broker report:

For the majority of these other recommendations [beyond basic disclosure requirements], I simply do not think that we have any evidence that the benefits from Congress adopting those recommendations would exceed the costs. … I would need to have some confidence based on evidence, especially about an area where evidence is scarce. I’m not comfortable relying on my priors about these activities, especially when confronted by something new that could be beneficial. … The danger would be that we recommend actions that either chill some of the beneficial activity the data brokers engage in or just impose compliance costs that we all recognize get passed on to consumers.

Similarly, Commissioner Wright has opposed “fencing-in” relief in consent decrees absent evidence that the practice being restricted threatens more harm than good. As an example, he points to the consent decree in the Graco case, which we discussed here:

Graco employed exclusive dealing contracts, but we did not allege that the exclusive dealing contracts violated the antitrust laws or Section 5. However, as fencing-in relief for the consummated merger, the consent included prohibitions on exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts despite there being no evidence that the firm had employed either of those tactics to anticompetitive ends. When an FTC settlement bans a form of discounting as standard injunctive relief in a merger case without convincing evidence that the discounts themselves were a competitive problem, it raises significant concerns.

A commitment to clear enforcement principles.

At several points throughout the interview, Commissioner Wright emphasizes the value of articulating clear principles that can guide business planners’ behavior. But he’s not calling for a bunch of ex ante liability rules. The old per se rule against minimum resale price maintenance, for example, was clear – and bad! Embracing overly broad liability rules for the sake of clarity is inconsistent with the evidence-based, decision-theoretic approach Commissioner Wright prefers. The clarity he is advocating, then, is clarity on broad principles that will govern enforcement decisions.  He thus reiterates his call for a formal policy statement defining the Commission’s authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act.  (TOTM hosted a blog symposium on that topic last summer.)  Wright also suggests that the Commission should “synthesize and offer high-level principles that would provide additional guidance” on how the Commission will use its Section 5 authority to address data security matters.

Extension, not extraction, should be the touchstone for Section 2 liability.

When asked about his prior criticism of FTC actions based on alleged violations of licensing commitments to standards development organizations (e.g., N-Data), Commissioner Wright emphasized that there should be no Section 2 liability in such cases, or similar cases involving alleged patent hold-up, absent an extension of monopoly power. In other words, it is not enough to show that the alleged bad act resulted in higher prices; it must also have led to the creation, maintenance, or enhancement of monopoly power.  Wright explains:

The logic is relatively straightforward. The antitrust laws do not apply to all increases of price. The Sherman Act is not a price regulation statute. The antitrust laws govern the competitive process. The Supreme Court said in Trinko that a lawful monopolist is allowed to charge the monopoly price. In NYNEX, the Supreme Court held that even if that monopolist raises its price through bad conduct, so long as that bad conduct does not harm the competitive process, it does not violate the antitrust laws. The bad conduct may violate other laws. It may be a fraud problem, it might violate regulatory rules, it may violate all sorts of other areas of law. In the patent context, it might give rise to doctrines like equitable estoppel. But it is not an antitrust problem; antitrust cannot be the hammer for each and every one of the nails that implicate price changes.

In my view, the appropriate way to deal with patent holdup cases is to require what we require for all Section 2 cases. We do not need special antitrust rules for patent holdup; much less for patent assertion entities. The rule is simply that the plaintiff must demonstrate that the conduct results in the acquisition of market power, not merely the ability to extract existing monopoly rents. … That distinction between extracting lawfully acquired and existing monopoly rents and acquiring by unlawful conduct additional monopoly power is one that has run through Section 2 jurisprudence for quite some time.

In light of these remarks (which remind me of this excellent piece by Dennis Carlton and Ken Heyer), it is not surprising that Commissioner Wright also hopes and believes that the Roberts Court will overrule Jefferson Parish’s quasi-per se rule against tying. As Einer Elhauge has observed, that rule might make sense if the mere extraction of monopoly profits (via metering price discrimination or Loew’s-type bundling) was an “anticompetitive” effect of tying.  If, however, anticompetitive harm requires extension of monopoly power, as Wright contends, then a tie-in cannot be anticompetitive unless it results in substantial foreclosure of the tied product market, a necessary prerequisite for a tie-in to enhance market power in the tied or tying markets.  That means tying should not be evaluated under the quasi-per se rule but should instead be subject to a rule of reason similar to that governing exclusive dealing (i.e., some sort of “qualitative foreclosure” approach).  (I explain this point in great detail here.)

Optimal does not mean perfect.

Commissioner Wright makes this point in response to a question about whether the government should encourage “standards development organizations to provide greater clarity to their intellectual property policies to reduce the likelihood of holdup or other concerns.”  While Wright acknowledges that “more complete, more precise contracts” could limit the problem of patent holdup, he observes that there is a cost to greater precision and completeness and that the parties to these contracts already have an incentive to put the optimal amount of effort into minimizing the cost of holdup. He explains:

[M]inimizing the probability of holdup does not mean that it is zero. Holdup can happen. It will happen. It will be observed in the wild from time to time, and there is again an important question about whether antitrust has any role to play there. My answer to that question is yes in the case of deception that results in market power. Otherwise, we ought to leave the governance of what amount to contracts between SSO and their members to contract law and in some cases to patent doctrines like equitable estoppel that can be helpful in governing holdup.

…[I]t is quite an odd thing for an agency to be going out and giving advice to sophisticated parties on how to design their contracts. Perhaps I would be more comfortable if there were convincing and systematic evidence that the contracts were the result of market failure. But there is not such evidence.

Consumer welfare is the touchstone.

When asked whether “there [are] circumstances where non-competition concerns, such as privacy, should play a role in merger analysis,” Commissioner Wright is unwavering:

No. I think that there is a great danger when we allow competition law to be unmoored from its relatively narrow focus upon consumer welfare. It is the connection between the law and consumer welfare that allows antitrust to harness the power of economic theory and empirical methodologies. All of the gains that antitrust law and policy as a body have earned over the past fifty or sixty years have been from becoming more closely tethered to industrial organization economics, more closely integrating economic thought in the law, and in agency discretion and decision-making. I think that the tight link between the consumer welfare standard and antitrust law is what has allowed such remarkable improvements in what effectively amounts to a body of common law.

Calls to incorporate non-economic concerns into antitrust analysis, I think, threaten to undo some, if not all, of that progress. Antitrust law and enforcement in the United States has some experience with trying to incorporate various non-economic concerns, including the welfare of small dealers and worthy men and so forth. The results of the experiment were not good for consumers and did not generate sound antitrust policy. It is widely understood and recognized why that is the case.

***

Those are just some highlights. There’s lots more in the interview—in particular, some good stuff on the role of efficiencies in FTC investigations, the diverging standards for the FTC and DOJ to obtain injunctions against unconsummated mergers, and the proper way to analyze reverse payment settlements.  Do read the whole thing.  If you’re like me, it may make you feel a little more affinity for Mitch McConnell.

Today is the last day for public comment on the Federal Communications Commission’s latest net neutrality proposal.  Here are two excellent op-eds on the matter, one by former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and the other by Tom Hazlett and TOTM’s own Josh Wright.  Hopefully, the Commission will take to heart the pithy observation of one of my law school friends, Commissioner Ajit Pai:  “The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules. It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem.”

Last Monday, a group of nineteen scholars of antitrust law and economics, including yours truly, urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reverse the Federal Trade Commission’s recent McWane ruling.

McWane, the largest seller of domestically produced iron pipe fittings (DIPF), 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 FTC ruled that McWane’s policy constituted illegal exclusive dealing.

Commissioner Josh Wright agreed that the policy amounted to exclusive dealing, but he concluded that complaint counsel had failed to prove that the exclusive dealing constituted unreasonably exclusionary conduct in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.  Commissioner Wright emphasized that complaint counsel had produced no direct evidence of anticompetitive harm (i.e., an actual increase in prices or decrease in output), even though McWane’s conduct had already run its course.  Indeed, the direct evidence suggested an absence of anticompetitive effect, as McWane’s chief rival, Star, grew in market share at exactly the same rate during and after the time of McWane’s exclusive dealing.

Instead of focusing on direct evidence of competitive effect, complaint counsel pointed to a theoretical anticompetitive harm: that McWane’s exclusive dealing may have usurped so many sales from Star that Star could not achieve minimum efficient scale.  The only evidence as to what constitutes minimum efficient scale in the industry, though, was Star’s self-serving statement that it would have had lower average costs had it operated at a scale sufficient to warrant ownership of its own foundry.  As Commissioner Wright observed, evidence in the record showed that other pipe fitting producers had successfully entered the market and grown market share substantially without owning their own foundry.  Thus, actual market experience seemed to undermine Star’s self-serving testimony.

Commissioner Wright also observed that complaint counsel produced no evidence showing what percentage of McWane’s sales of DIPF might have gone to other sellers absent McWane’s exclusive dealing policy.  Only those “contestable” sales – not all of McWane’s sales to distributors subject to the full support policy – should be deemed foreclosed by McWane’s exclusive dealing.  Complaint counsel also failed to quantify sales made to McWane’s rivals under the generous exceptions to its policy.  These deficiencies prevented complaint counsel from adequately establishing the degree of market foreclosure caused by McWane’s policy – the first (but not last!) step in establishing the alleged anticompetitive harm.

In our amicus brief, we antitrust scholars take Commissioner Wright’s side on these matters.  We also observe that the Commission failed to account for an important procompetitive benefit of McWane’s policy:  it prevented rival DIPF sellers from “cherry-picking” the most popular, highest margin fittings and selling only those at prices that could be lower than McWane’s because the cherry-pickers didn’t bear the costs of producing the full line of fittings.  Such cherry-picking is a form of free-riding because every producer’s fittings are more highly valued if a full line is available.  McWane’s policy prevented the sort of free-riding that would have made its production of a full line uneconomical.

In short, the FTC’s decision made it far too easy to successfully challenge exclusive dealing arrangements, which are usually procompetitive, and calls into question all sorts of procompetitive full-line forcing arrangements.  Hopefully, the Eleventh Circuit will correct the Commission’s mistake.

Other professors signing the brief include:

  • Tom Arthur, Emory Law
  • Roger Blair, Florida Business
  • Don Boudreaux, George Mason Economics (and Café Hayek)
  • Henry Butler, George Mason Law
  • Dan Crane, Michigan Law (and occasional TOTM contributor)
  • Richard Epstein, NYU and Chicago Law
  • Ken Elzinga, Virginia Economics
  • Damien Geradin, George Mason Law
  • Gus Hurwitz, Nebraska Law (and TOTM)
  • Keith Hylton, Boston University Law
  • Geoff Manne, International Center for Law and Economics (and TOTM)
  • Fred McChesney, Miami Law
  • Tom Morgan, George Washington Law
  • Barack Orbach, Arizona Law
  • Bill Page, Florida Law
  • Paul Rubin, Emory Economics (and TOTM)
  • Mike Sykuta, Missouri Economics (and TOTM)
  • Todd Zywicki, George Mason Law (and Volokh Conspiracy)

The brief’s “Summary of Argument” follows the jump. Continue Reading…

Whereas the antitrust rules on a number of once-condemned business practices (e.g., vertical non-price restraints, resale price maintenanceprice squeezes) have become more economically sensible in the last few decades, the law on tying remains an embarrassment.  The sad state of the doctrine is evident in a federal district court’s recent denial of Viacom’s motion to dismiss a tying action by Cablevision.

According to Cablevision’s complaint, Viacom threatened to impose a substantial financial “penalty” (probably by denying a discount) unless Cablevision licensed Viacom’s less popular television programming (the “Suite Networks”) along with its popular “Core Networks” of Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, and MTV.  This arrangement, Cablevision insisted, amounted to a per se illegal tie-in of the Suite Networks to the Core Networks.

Similar tying actions based on cable bundling have failed, and I have previously explained why cable bundling like this is, in fact, efficient.  But putting aside whether  the tie-in at issue here was efficient, the district court’s order is troubling because it illustrates how very unconcerned with efficiency tying doctrine is.

First, the district court rejected–correctly, under ill-founded precedents–Viacom’s argument that Cablevision was required to plead an anticompetitive effect.  It concluded that Cablevision had to allege only four elements: separate tying and tied products, coercion by the seller to force purchase of the tied product along with the tying product, the seller’s possession of market power in the tying product market, and the involvement of a “not insubstantial” dollar volume of commerce in the tied product market.  Once these elements are alleged, the court said,

plaintiffs need not allege, let alone prove, facts addressed to the anticompetitive effects element.  If a plaintiff succeeds in establishing the existence of sufficient market power to create a per se violation, the plaintiff is also relieved of the burden of rebutting any justification the defendant may offer for the tie.

In other words, if a tying plaintiff establishes the four elements listed above, the efficiency of the challenged tie-in is completely irrelevant.  And if a plaintiff merely pleads those four elements, it is entitled to proceed to discovery, which can be crippling for antitrust defendants and often causes them to settle even non-meritorious cases. Given that a great many tie-ins involving the four elements listed above are, in fact, efficient, this is a terrible rule.  It is, however, the law as established in the Supreme Court’s Jefferson Parish decision.  The blame for this silliness therefore rests on that Court, not the district court here.

But the Cablevision order includes a second unfortunate feature for which the district court and the Supreme Court share responsibility.  Having concluded that Cablevision was not required to plead anticompetitive effect, the court went on to say that Cablevision “ha[d], in any event, pleaded facts sufficient to support plausibly an inference of anticompetitive effect.”  Those alleged facts were that Cablevision would have bought content from another seller but for the tie-in:

Cablevision alleges that if it were not forced to carry the Suite Networks, it “would carry other networks on the numerous channel slots that Viacom’s Suite Networks currently occupy.”  (Compl. par. 10.)  Cablevision also alleges that Cablevision would buy other “general programming networks” from Viacom’s competitors absent the tying arrangement.  (Id.)

In other words, the district court reasoned, Cablevision alleged anticompetitive harm merely by pleading that Viacom’s conduct reduced some sales opportunities for its rivals.

But harm to a competitor, standing alone, is not harm to competition.  To establish true anticompetitive harm, Cablevision would have to show that Viacom’s tie-in reduced its rivals’ sales by so much that they lost scale efficiencies so that their average per-unit costs rose.  To make that showing, Cablevision would have to show (or allege, at the motion to dismiss stage) that Viacom’s tying occasioned substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market. “Some” reduction in sales to rivals–while perhaps anticompetitor–is simply not sufficient to show anticompetitive harm.

Because the Supreme Court has emphasized time and again that mere harm to a competitor is not harm to competition, the gaffe here is primarily the district court’s fault.  But at least a little blame should fall on the Supreme Court.  That Court has never precisely specified the potential anticompetitive harm from tying: that a tie-in may enhance market power in the tied or tying product markets if, but only if, it results in substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market.

If the Court were to do so, and were to jettison the silly quasi-per se rule of Jefferson Parish, tying doctrine would be far more defensible.

[NOTE: For a more detailed explanation of why substantial tied market foreclosure is a prerequisite to anticompetitive harm from tie-ins, see my article, Appropriate Liability Rules for Tying and Bundled Discounting, 72 Ohio St. L. J. 909 (2011).]

I share Alden’s disappointment that the Supreme Court did not overrule Basic v. Levinson in Monday’s Halliburton decision.  I’m also surprised by the Court’s ruling.  As I explained in this lengthy post, I expected the Court to alter Basic to require Rule 10b-5 plaintiffs to prove that the complained of misrepresentation occasioned a price effect.  Instead, the Court maintained Basic’s rule that price impact is presumed if the plaintiff proves that the misinformation was public and material and that “the stock traded in an efficient market.”

An upshot of Monday’s decision is that courts adjudicating Rule 10b-5 class actions will continue to face at the outset not the fairly simple question of whether the misstatement at issue moved the relevant stock’s price but instead whether that stock was traded in an “efficient market.”  Focusing on market efficiency—rather than on price impact, ultimately the key question—raises practical difficulties and creates a bit of a paradox.

First, the practical difficulties.  How is a court to know whether the market in which a security is traded is “efficient” (or, given that market efficiency is not a binary matter, “efficient enough”)?  Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion suggested this is a simple inquiry, but it’s not.  Courts typically consider a number of factors to assess market efficiency.  According to one famous district court decision (Cammer), the relevant factors are: “(1) the stock’s average weekly trading volume; (2) the number of securities analysts that followed and reported on the stock; (3) the presence of market makers and arbitrageurs; (4) the company’s eligibility to file a Form S-3 Registration Statement; and (5) a cause-and-effect relationship, over time, between unexpected corporate events or financial releases and an immediate response in stock price.”  In re Xcelera.com Securities Litig., 430 F.3d 503 (2005).  Other courts have supplemented these Cammer factors with a few others: market capitalization, the bid/ask spread, float, and analyses of autocorrelation.  No one can say, though, how each factor should be assessed (e.g., How many securities analysts must follow the stock? How much autocorrelation is permissible?  How large may the bid-ask spread be?).  Nor is there guidance on how to balance factors when some weigh in favor of efficiency and others don’t.  It’s a crapshoot.

In addition, focusing at the outset on whether the market at issue is efficient creates a market definition paradox in Rule 10b-5 actions.  When courts assess whether the market for a company’s stock is efficient, they assume that “the market” consists of trades in that company’s stock.  This is apparent from the Cammer (and supplementary) factors, all of which are company-specific.  It’s also implicit in portions of the Halliburton majority opinion, such as the observation that the plaintiff “submitted an event study of vari­ous episodes that might have been expected to affect the price of Halliburton’s stock, in order to demonstrate that the market for that stock takes account of material, public information about the company.”  (Emphasis added.)

But the semi-strong version of the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis (ECMH), the economic theorem upon which Basic rests, rejects the notion that there is a “market” for a single company’s stock.  Both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic reason that public misinformation is quickly incorporated into the price of securities traded on public exchanges.  Private misinformation, by contrast, usually is not – even when such misinformation results in large trades that significantly alter the quantity demanded or quantity supplied of the relevant stock.  The reason private misinformation is not taken to affect a security’s price, even when it results in substantial changes in quantities demanded or supplied, is because the relevant market is not the stock of that particular company but is instead the universe of stocks offering a similar package of risk and reward.  Because a private misinformation-induced increase in demand for a single company’s stock – even if large relative to the  number of shares outstanding – is likely to be tiny compared to the number of available shares of close substitutes for that company’s stock, private misinformation about a company is unlikely to be reflected in the price of the company’s stock.  Public misinformation, by contrast, affects a stock’s price because it not only changes quantities demanded and supplied but also causes investors to adjust their willingness-to-pay or willingness-to-accept.  Accordingly, both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic assume that only public misinformation can be assured to affect stock prices.  That’s why, as the Halliburton majority observes, there is a presumption of price effect only if the plaintiff proves public misinformation, materiality, and an efficient market.  (For a nice explanation of this idea in the context of a real case, see Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in West v. Prudential Securities.)

The paradox, then, is that Basic and the semi-strong ECMH, in requiring public misinformation, assume that the relevant market is not company specific.  But for purposes of determining whether the “market” is efficient, the market is assumed to consist of trades of a single company’s stock.

The Supreme Court could have avoided both the practical difficulties in assessing market efficiency and the theoretical paradox identified herein had it altered Basic to require plaintiffs to establish not an efficient market but an actual price impact. Alas.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny.  In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”

So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion.  May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees?  That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide.  As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter:  Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?

In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law.  Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views.  The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form.  Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.

In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons.  Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.

Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:

  • Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.

Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe.  Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them.  “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise.  When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”

  • Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.

This claim is simply false.  First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation.  Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations.  Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise.  Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):

A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960.  For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly.  A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law.  Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays.  A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law.  Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture.  New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday.  A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups.  A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food.  Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores.  The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice.  Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.

As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.

  • Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.

The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons.  They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.”  In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”

But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms.  As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing:  Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections.  From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise.  A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations.   Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.”  Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”

  • Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.

The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity.  They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.  A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”

As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations.  Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated.  The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.”  But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith.  “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held.  Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”

***

In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act.  I’ll let you read that one on your own.

I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue.  Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’  amicus brief.  Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.

Read it all before SCOTUS rules!

Mike Sykuta and I, both proud Missourians, recently took to the opinion section of the Kansas City Star to discuss pending state legislation that would bar automobile manufacturers from operating their own retail outlets in the Show Me state.  The immediate target of the bill is Tesla, but the bigger concern of the auto dealers, who drafted the statutory language we criticize, is that the big carmakers will bypass independent dealers and start running their own retail outlets.

The arguments in our op-ed will be familiar to TOTM readers.  We begin with three fundamental points:  (1) Distribution is an “input” for carmakers.  (2) Producers, if left to their own devices, will choose the more efficient option when deciding whether to “buy” the distribution input (i.e., to sell through independent dealers, who pay a discounted wholesale price) or “make” it (i.e., to operate their own retail outlets and charge the higher retail price).  (3) Consumers — who ultimately pay all input costs, including the cost of distribution — will benefit if the most efficient option is selected.  In short, the interests of carmakers and consumers are aligned here: both benefit from implementation of the most efficient distribution scheme.

We then rebut the arguments that a direct distribution ban is needed to break up monopoly power, to assure adequate aftermarket servicing of vehicles, or to encourage appropriate safety recalls.  (On these points, we draw heavily from International Center for Law & Economics’ letter to Gov. Chris Christie regarding New Jersey’s proposed anti-Tesla legislation.)

Go read the whole thing.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright is on a roll. A couple of days before his excellent Ardagh/Saint Gobain dissent addressing merger efficiencies, Wright delivered a terrific speech on minimum resale price maintenance (RPM). The speech, delivered in London to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, signaled that Wright will seek to correct the FTC’s early post-Leegin mistakes on RPM and will push for the sort of structured rule of reason that is most likely to benefit consumers.

Wright began by acknowledging that minimum RPM is, from a competitive standpoint, a mixed bag. Under certain (rarely existent) circumstances, RPM may occasion anticompetitive harm by facilitating dealer or manufacturer collusion or by acting as an exclusionary device for a dominant manufacturer or retailer. Under more commonly existing sets of circumstances, however, RPM may enhance interbrand competition by reducing dealer free-riding, facilitating the entry of new brands, or encouraging optimal production of output-enhancing dealer services that are not susceptible to free-riding.

Because instances of minimum RPM may be good or bad, liability rules may err in two directions. Overly lenient rules may fail to condemn output-reducing instances of RPM, but overly strict rules will prevent uses of RPM that would benefit consumers by enhancing distributional efficiency. Efforts to tailor a liability rule so that it makes fewer errors (i.e., produces fewer false acquittals or false convictions) will create complexity that makes the rule more difficult for business planners and courts to apply. An optimal liability rule, then, should minimize the sum of “error costs” (social losses from expected false acquittals and false convictions) and “decision costs” (costs of applying the rule).

Crafting such a rule requires judgments about (1) whether RPM is more likely to occasion harmful or beneficial effects, and (2) the magnitude of expected harms or benefits. If most instances of RPM are likely to be harmful, the harm resulting from an instance of RPM is likely to be great, and the foregone efficiencies from false convictions are likely to be minor, then the liability rule should tend toward condemnation – i.e., should be “plaintiff-friendly.” On the other hand, if most instances of RPM are likely to be beneficial, the magnitude of expected benefit is significant, and the social losses from false acquittals are likely small, then a “defendant-friendly” rule is more likely to minimize error costs.

As Commissioner Wright observed, economic theory and empirical evidence about minimum RPM’s competitive effects, as well as intuitions about the magnitude of those various effects, suggest that minimum RPM ought to be subject to a defendant-friendly liability rule that puts the burden on plaintiffs to establish actual or likely competitive harm. With respect to economic theory, procompetitive benefit from RPM is more likely because the necessary conditions for RPM’s anticompetitive effects are rarely satisfied, while the prerequisites to procompetitive benefit often exist. Not surprisingly, then, most studies of minimum RPM have concluded that it is more frequently used to enhance rather than reduce market output. (As I have elsewhere observed and Commissioner Wright acknowledged, the one recent outlier study is methodologically flawed.) In terms of the magnitude of harms from wrongly condemning or wrongly approving instances of RPM, there are good reasons to believe greater harm will result from the former sort of error. The social harm from a false acquittal – enhanced market power – is self-correcting; market power invites entry. A false condemnation, by contrast, can be corrected only by a subsequent judicial, regulatory, or legislative overruling.  Moreover, an improper conviction thwarts not just the challenged instance of RPM but also instances contemplated by business planners who would seek to avoid antitrust liability. Taken together, these considerations about the probability and magnitude of various competitive effects argue in favor of a fairly lenient liability rule for minimum RPM – certainly not per se illegality or a “quick look” approach that deems RPM to be inherently suspect and places the burden on the defendant to rebut a presumption of anticompetitive harm.

Commissioner Wright’s call for a more probing rule of reason for minimum RPM represents a substantial improvement on the approach the FTC took in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision. Shortly after Leegin abrogated the rule of per se illegality for minimum RPM, women’s shoe manufacturer Nine West petitioned the Commission to modify a pre-Leegin consent decree constraining Nine West’s use of RPM arrangements. In agreeing to modify (but not eliminate) the restrictions, the Commission endorsed a liability rule that would deem RPM to be inherently suspect (and thus presumptively illegal) unless the defendant could establish an absence of the so-called “Leegin factors” – i.e., that there was no dealer or manufacturer market power, that RPM was not widely used in the relevant market, and that the RPM at issue was not dealer-initiated.

The FTC’s fairly pro-plaintiff approach was deficient in that it simply lifted a few words from Leegin without paying close attention to the economics of RPM. As Commissioner Wright explained,

[C]ritical to any decision to structure the rule of reason for minimum RPM is that the relevant analytical factors correctly match the economic evidence. For instance, some of the factors identified by the Leegin Court as relevant for identifying whether a particular minimum RPM agreement might be anticompetitive actually shed little light on competitive effects. For example, the Leegin Court noted that “the source of the constraint might also be an important consideration” and observed that retailer-initiated restraints are more likely to be anticompetitive than manufacturer-initiated restraints. But economic evidence recognizes that because retailers in effect sell promotional services to manufacturers and benefit from such contracts, it is equally as possible that retailers will initiate minimum RPM agreements as manufacturers. Imposing a structured rule of reason standard that treats retailer-initiated minimum RPM more restrictively would thus undermine the benefits of the rule of reason.

Commissioner Wright’s remarks give me hope that the FTC will eventually embrace an economically sensible liability rule for RPM. Now, if we could only get those pesky state policy makers to modernize their outdated RPM thinking.  As Commissioner Wright recently observed, policy advocacy “is a weapon the FTC has wielded effectively and consistently over time.” Perhaps the Commission, spurred by Wright, will exercise its policy advocacy prowess on the backward states that continue to demonize minimum RPM arrangements.