Archives For cartels

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) June 23 Workshop on Conditional Pricing Practices featured a broad airing of views on loyalty discounts and bundled pricing, popular vertical business practices that recently have caused much ink to be spilled by the antitrust commentariat.  In addition to predictable academic analyses featuring alternative theoretical anticompetitive effects stories, the Workshop commendably included presentations by Benjamin Klein that featured procompetitive efficiency explanations for loyalty programs and by Daniel Crane that stressed the importance of (1) treating discounts hospitably and (2) requiring proof of harmful foreclosure.  On balance, however, the Workshop provided additional fuel for enforcers who are enthused about applying new anticompetitive effects models to bring “problematic” discounting and bundling to heel.

Before U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies launch a new crusade against novel vertical discounting and bundling contracts, however, they may wish to ponder a few salient factors not emphasized in the Workshop.

First, the United States has the most efficient marketing and distribution system in the world, and it has been growing more efficient in recent decades (this is the one part of the American economy that has been a bright spot).  Consumers have benefited from more shopping convenience and higher quality/lower priced offerings due to the advent of  “big box” superstores, Internet sales engines (and e-commerce in general), and other improvements in both on-line and “bricks and mortar” sales methods.

Second, and relatedly, the Supreme Court’s recognition of vertical contractual efficiencies in GTE-Sylvania (1977) ushered in a period of greatly reduced potential liability for vertical restraints, undoubtedly encouraging economically beneficial marketing improvements.  A new government emphasis on investigating and litigating the merits of novel vertical practices (particularly practices that emphasize discounting, which presumptively benefits consumers) could inject costly new uncertainty into the marketing side of business planning, spawn risk aversion, and deter marketing innovations that reduce costs, thereby harming welfare.  These harms would mushroom to the extent courts mistakenly “bought into” new theories and incorrectly struck down efficient practices.

Third, in applying new theories of competitive harm, the antitrust enforcers should be mindful of Ronald Coase’s admonition that “if an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or other—that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation.  And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.”  Competition is a discovery procedure.  Entrepreneurial businesses constantly seek improvements not just in productive efficiency, but in distribution and marketing efficiencies, in order to eclipse their rivals.  As such, entrepreneurs may experiment with new contractual forms (such as bundling and loyalty discounts) in an effort to expand their market shares and grow their firms.  Business persons may not know ex ante which particular forms will work.  They may try out alternatives, sticking with those that succeed and discarding those that fail, without necessarily being able to articulate precisely the reasons for success or failure.  Real results in the market, rather than arcane economic theorems, may be expected to drive their decision-making.   Distribution and marketing methods that are successful will be emulated by others and spread.  Seen in this light (and relatedly, in light of transaction cost economics explanations for “non-standard” contracts), widespread adoption of new vertical contractual devices most likely indicates that they are efficient (they improve distribution, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), not that they represent some new competitive threat.  Since an economic model almost always can be ginned up to explain why some new practice may reduce consumer welfare in theory, enforcers should instead focus on hard empirical evidence that output and quality have been reduced due to a restraint before acting.  Unfortunately, the mere threat of costly misbegotten investigations may chill businesses’ interest in experimenting with new and potentially beneficial vertical contractual arrangements, reducing innovation and slowing welfare enhancement (consistent with point two, above).

Fourth, decision theoretic considerations should make enforcers particularly wary of pursuing conditional pricing contracts cases.  Consistent with decision theory, optimal antitrust enforcement should adopt an error cost framework that seeks to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).  Given the significant potential efficiencies flowing from vertical restraints, and the lack of empirical showing that they are harmful, antitrust enforcers should exercise extreme caution in entertaining proposals to challenge new vertical arrangements, such as conditional pricing mechanisms.  In particular, they should carefully assess the cumulative weight of the high risk of false positives in this area, the significant administrative costs that attend investigations and prosecutions, and the disincentives toward efficient business arrangements (see points two and three above).  Taken together, these factors strongly suggest that the aggressive pursuit of conditional pricing practice investigations would flunk a reasonable cost-benefit calculus.

Fifth, a new U.S. antitrust enforcement crusade against conditional pricing could be used by foreign competition agencies to justify further attacks on efficient vertical practices.  This could add to the harm suffered by companies (including, of course, U.S.-based multinationals) which would be deterred from maintaining and creating new welfare-beneficial distribution methods.  Foreign consumers, of course, would suffer as well.

My caveats should not be read to suggest that the FTC should refrain from pursuing new economic learning on loyalty discounting and bundled pricing, nor on other novel business practices.  Nor should it necessarily eschew all enforcement in the vertical restraints area – although that might not be such a bad idea, given error cost and resource constraint issues.  (Vertical restraints that are part of a cartel enforcement scheme should be treated as cartel conduct, and, as such, should be fair game, of course.)  In order optimally to allocate scarce resources, however, the FTC might benefit by devoting relatively greater attention to the most welfare-inimical competitive abuses – namely, anticompetitive arrangements instigated, shielded, or maintained by government authority.  (Hard core private cartel activity is best left to the Justice Department, which can deploy powerful criminal law tools against such schemes.)

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) longstanding cartel-like arrangements once again are facing serious legal scrutiny.  On June 9 a federal antitrust trial opened in Oakland featuring college athletes’ attempt to enjoin the NCAA from exploiting the athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (“rights of publicity”) for profitRights of publicity are a well-recognized form of intellectual property.  Although the factual details concerning the means by which NCAA institutions may have extracted those rights (for example, from signed waivers that may have been required as a condition for receipt of athletic scholarships) remain to be developed, a concerted NCAA effort to exploit the athletes’ IP, if proven, would be highly anticompetitive.  Consistent with the TOTM tradition of highlighting challenges to NCAA competitive arrangements, let’s look at what’s at stake.

The NCAA is involved in major sports-related revenue-producing projects with its corporate partners, such as Electronic Arts (EA), a $4 billion company that produces video games.  The money is big – EA’s NCAA Football game alone is reported to bring in over $200 million a year in gross revenues.  Although the NCAA has denied using player likenesses in video games, the creators of the NCAA Football series have indicated that actual athletes’ jersey numbers and attributes are used, a fact apparently known to NCAA executives.  Moreover, recent separate $20 million and $40 million settlements agreed to by the NCAA and EA in suits brought by college athletes provide additional indications that the NCAA may be aware that it has exploited college players’ rights of publicity.

So what is the antitrust angle?  In dealing with student athletes, the NCAA, which represents the interests of its member colleges, acts like a monopsony cartel, as Judge Posner has noted, and as Blair and Harrison have explained in detail.  Anticompetitive monopsony buyer agreements have long been struck down by the courts as Sherman Act violations, as in Mandeville Farms and in National Macaroni Manufacturers v. FTC, and occasionally have been the subject of criminal prosecution.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that all restrictions the NCAA places on student athletes run afoul of the antitrust laws.  As the Supreme Court made clear in the 1984 NCAA case, the federal antitrust laws apply to the NCAA, but competitive restraints may pass muster if they are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams, such as uniform rules defining the conditions of a sports contest, the eligibility of participants, or the sharing of responsibilities and benefits integral to the NCAA’s joint venture.

Like the anticompetitive restrictions on member colleges’ separate television contracts struck down by the Supreme Court in NCAA, however, the NCAA’s profiting from student athletes’ rights of publicity is not vital to the preservation of balanced collegiate amateur competition.   Likewise, it is not needed to avoid the payment of student salaries that some might argue smacks of disfavored “professionalism” (although others would argue it promotes healthy competition and avoids exploitation of athletes).  In contrast, a policy of vindicating athletes’ right of publicity enables them to capture the value of the intellectual property generated by their accomplishments, and thus incentivizes outstanding athletic achievements, consistent with the legitimate ends of NCAA competitions.  Proof of a concerted effort by the NCAA to deny this benefit to student athletes and instead to share the IP-generated proceeds only with member institutions would, if shown, appear to lack any cognizable efficiency justification, and thus be ripe for antitrust condemnation.

Whatever the outcome of the current rights of publicity litigation, the NCAA may expect to face antitrust scrutiny on a number of fronts.  This is as it should be.  While the organization clearly yields efficiencies that benefit consumers (such as establishing and overseeing rules and standards for many collegiate sports), its inherent temptation to act as a classic cartel for the financial benefit of its members will not disappear.  Indeed, its incentive to seek monopoly profits may rise, as the money generated by organized athletics and related entertainment offshoots continues to grow.  Accordingly, antitrust enforcers should remain vigilant, and efforts to obtain NCAA-specific statutory antitrust exemptions, even if well-meaning, should be resisted.

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia:  China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy.  These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States.  This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics.  The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.

With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices.  Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress.  Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress.  (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)

While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.

In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm.  (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.)  On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions.  The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers.  Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.

The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface.  She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines.  In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements.  Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars.  (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.)  I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents.  In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities.  I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.

If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents.  As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth.  As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.

On May 9, 2014, in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Ninth Circuit struck a blow against economic liberty by denying two California raisin growers’ efforts to recover penalties imposed against them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The growers’ heinous offense was their refusal to continue participating in a highly anticompetitive cartel.  In order to understand this bizarre miscarriage of justice, which turns orthodox anti-cartel policy on its head, a bit of background is in order.  

Perhaps the most serious affront to a sound consumer welfare-based American antitrust policy is the persistence of federal government-sponsored agricultural cartels.  In a form of bureaucratic schizophrenia, while the Justice Department works hard to send private cartelists to jail, and grants leniency to informers who undermine cartels, the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) seeks to punish individuals who undercut USDA-sponsored cartels created pursuant to Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act marketing orders.  Those orders establish antitrust-exempt government-approved frameworks under which private industry members restrict output and raise the price of specific crops, in the name of ensuring “orderly” markets.  (Various scholars, such as Mario Loyola, have explored the public choice explanations for the private-public collusion that leads to marketing orders and other government-supported cartels.)    

A particularly notorious USDA cartel is the California Raisin Marketing Order (“Raisin Order”), in operation since 1949, which establishes a Raisin Administrative Committee (“RAC”).  The RAC is comprised almost entirely of self-interested raisin growers and packers (it is comprised of 47 growers and packers, plus a public member).  The RAC sets annual raisin “reserve tonnage” requirements as a percentage of the overall crop, with the remainder comprising “free raisins.”  “Reserve raisins” are diverted from the market but may be released when supplies are low.  Under the Raisin Order, raisin producers convey their entire crop to raisin packer-distributors known as “handlers,” with producers receiving a pre-negotiated price for the free tonnage.  Handlers sell free tonnage raisins on the open market, and divert the RAC-required percentage of each producer’s crop to the account of the RAC.  The RAC tracks how many raisins each producer contributes to the reserve pool, and has a regulatory duty to sell them in a way that maximizes producer returns.  The RAC finances its activities from reserve raisin sales proceeds, and disburses whatever net income remains to producers.  Reserve raisins are diverted to “low value” markets, such as the export sector, while American consumers typically buy free raisins.  The Raisin Order imposes substantial harm on American consumers:  for example, in 2001 free raisins sold for $877.50 per ton compared to $250 per ton for reserve raisins, and the free raisins/reserve raisins price ration approached 10/1 in 1984 and 1991

California raisin producers Marvin and Laura Horne sought to evade these cartel strictures by handling their own raisin crop, rather than selling it to traditional handlers, against whom the reserve requirement of the Raisin Order clearly operated.  Similarly, by buying and handling other producers’ raisins for a per-pound fee, the Hornes believed that they could avoid the Raisin Order’s definition of “handler” with respect to those purchased raisins.  A USDA judicial officer disagreed, finding the Hornes liable for numerous Order violations and fining them over $695,000, including an assessment of nearly $484,000 for the dollar value of the raisins not held in reserve. 

The Hornes challenged this USDA order in federal district court, arguing that they were not “handlers” within the meaning of the Raisin Order and that the order violated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines.  The district court granted summary judgment for USDA on all counts.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the application of the Raisin Order and the denial of the Eighth Amendment claim, but held that the Court of Federal Claims rather than the district court had jurisdiction over the takings claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on the jurisdictional issue only, holding that the Hornes could assert their takings claim in district court.  The Supreme Court remanded for a determination of the merits of the takings claim, and on May 9 the Ninth Circuit, applying de novo review, affirmed the district court’s rejection of that claim.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that USDA linked a monetary exaction (the penalty imposed for failure to comply with the Raisin Order) to specific property (the reserved raisins) and that the Hornes faced a choice – give the RAC the raisins or face a penalty.  Because the government did not literally seize raisins from the Holmes’ land or remove money from their bank account, the court held that the USDA’s action had to be analyzed as a potential regulatory taking.  The court then noted that the Takings Clause affords less protection to personal property than to real property, and that the Hornes did not lose all economically valuable use of their property.  The court asserted that the Hornes’ rights with respect to the reserved raisins were not extinguished because they retained a claim on certain future proceeds from reserved raisin sales (even though, as the Hornes pointed out, the “equitable distribution” of reserved sales might be zero).  The court reasoned that even though the Hornes might not receive cash distributions in some years, the reserved raisins were not “permanently occupied,” and that the RAC’s diversion of reserved raisins inured to the Hornes’ benefit by stabilizing raisin prices.  The court viewed the raisin diversion program as granting a conditional government benefit in exchange for an exaction.  In short, by smoothing price fluctuations in the raisin industry, the Raisin Order made “market conditions predictable” and thereby bore a “sufficient nexus” to a legitimate interest the government sought to protect.  (The court never asked why the reduction of consumer welfare and the imposition of deadweight losses through industry cartelization is a legitimate government interest.)  Moreover, the RAC’s imposition of a reserve requirement on all producers was roughly proportional to the USDA’s market stabilizing goal as reflected in the Raisin Order.  Thus, applying the nexus/proportionaliy test of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, the Ninth Circuit held that the application of the Marketing Order to the Hornes’ activities did not constitute a taking.

Stripped of its convoluted reasoning and highly selective application of Supreme Court precedents, the Ninth Circuit’s holding indicates that industrious and entrepreneurial individuals will not be allowed to avoid and thereby undermine agricultural cartels through creative commercial innovations.  It means that individuals engaging in a legitimate business activity who wish not to contribute their product to a cartel that is imposed on them may suffer loss of their property, merely because the government approves of the cartel and wishes to protect it by punishing “cheaters.”  But when the government is the ringmaster, odious cartels are miraculously transformed into praiseworthy citizens who promote the public interest by “stabilizing” markets. 

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Hornes’ legal saga, the Ninth Circuit’s crabbed analysis highlights the absurdity of imposing government financial exactions on private commercial conduct that unequivocally raises consumer welfare and enhances competition.  The egregiousness of this conduct is amplified when the government penalizes a business for refusing to transfer some of its property to a third party (here, the RAC), without assurance of being compensated.  Whether the business chooses to incur the penalty or instead accedes to the transfer, basic logic demonstrates that its property is being taken.  Hopefully, future courts will keep this in mind and be willing to apply the Takings Clause to analogous scenarios. 

If faced by a serious possibility of having to pay “just compensation” under the Takings Clause, the USDA may become less willing to sanction cartel avoiders through overly expansive interpretations of its agricultural marketing orders.  That in turn could encourage additional businesses to seek creative ways to opt out of these arrangements.  The end result could be the gradual weakening and ultimate dismantling of the marketing order framework.  Even better, the USDA could choose to act unilaterally tomorrow and move to rescind marketing order regulations.  (That might be asking too much, of course.)

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

William & Mary’s Alan Meese has posted a terrific tribute to Robert Bork, who passed away this week.  Most of the major obituaries, Alan observes, have largely ignored the key role
Bork played in rationalizing antitrust, a body of law that veered sharply off course in the middle of the last century.  Indeed, Bork began his 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, by comparing the then-prevailing antitrust regime to the sheriff of a frontier town:  “He 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.”  Bork went on to explain how antitrust, if focused on consumer welfare (which equated with allocative efficiency), could be reconceived in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Bork’s book and his earlier writings on which it was based.  Chastened by Bork’s observations, the Supreme Court began correcting its antitrust mistakes in the mid-1970s.  The trend began with the 1977 Sylvania decision, which overruled a precedent making it per se illegal for manufacturers to restrict the territories in which their dealers could operate.  (Manufacturers seeking to enhance sales of their brand may wish to give dealers exclusive sales territories to protect them against “free-riding” on their demand-enhancing customer services; pre-Sylvania precedent made it hard for manufacturers to do this.)  Sylvania was followed by:

  • Professional Engineers (1978), which helpfully clarified that antitrust’s theretofore unwieldy “Rule of Reason” must be focused exclusively on competition;
  • Broadcast Music, Inc. (1979), which held that competitors’ price-tampering arrangements that reduce costs and enhance output may be legal;
  • NCAA (1984), which recognized that trade restraints among competitors may be necessary to create new products and services and thereby made it easier for competitors to enter into output-enhancing joint ventures;
  • Khan (1997), which abolished the ludicrous per se rule against maximum resale price maintenance;
  • Trinko (2004), which recognized that some monopoly pricing may aid consumers in the long run (by enhancing the incentive to innovate) and narrowly circumscribed the situations in which a firm has a duty to assist its rivals; and
  • Leegin (2007), which overruled a 96 year-old precedent declaring minimum resale price maintenance–a practice with numerous potential procompetitive benefits–to be per se illegal.

Bork’s fingerprints are all over these decisions.  Alan’s terrific post discusses several of them and provides further detail on Bork’s influence.

And while you’re checking out Alan’s Bork tribute, take a look at his recent post discussing my musings on the AALS hiring cartel.  Alan observes that AALS’s collusive tendencies reach beyond the lateral hiring context.  Who’d have guessed?

Michael McCann (Vermont, CNNSI) has a very interesting column on developments in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA.   O’Bannon is challenging the NCAA’s licensing of the names, images and likenesses of former Division I college athletes for commercial purposes without compensation or consent.  McCann discusses the implications of O’Bannon’s motion to expand the class to include current players:

The prospect of O’Bannon v. NCAA radically reshaping college sports is real. If O’Bannon ultimately prevails, “student-athletes” and “amateurism” would take on new meanings in the context of D-I sports. While college athletes would still not obtain compensation for their labor, they would be compensated for the licensing of their identity. If O’Bannon instead extracts a favorable settlement from the NCAA, these athletes would likely be compensated as well.

Still, it’s early in the litigation process and, besides, the NCAA has a good record in court. The NCAA is sure to raise concerns about the new world of D-I college sports as envisioned by O’Bannon. For one, how a fund for current student-athletes is distributed and how former student-athletes are compensated will spark questions. Should star players get more? Would Title IX be implicated if male student-athletes receive more licensing revenue because they might generate more revenue than female student-athletes? Also expect some colleges and universities to bemoan that they cannot afford to contribute to player trusts unless they eliminate most of their teams and give pay cuts to coaches and staff. Along those lines, schools with large endowments or those with high revenue-generating teams may only become “richer” in a college sports world where certain schools have the financial wherewithal to compensate student-athletes while others do not.

Go read the whole thing.

 

 

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.

Competition Policy International has published an interview with Judge Douglas Ginsburg and me following up on our 2010 article “Antitrust Sanctions.”  The interview ranges from topics such as whether the Occupy movements impact our proposal for use of debarment as an antitrust sanction in the United States to fairness concerns and global trends in antitrust penalties.  I believe one must be a subscriber to read the interview or listen to the audio.   The issue also contains an interview with Don Klawiter discussing the relationship between the evolution of executive penalties in antitrust, the Ginsburg & Wright proposal, and compliance programs.  Check it out.

Apple has filed its response to the DOJ Complaint in the e-books case.  Here is the first paragraph of the Answer:

The Government’s Complaint against Apple is fundamentally flawed as a matter of fact and law. Apple has not “conspired” with anyone, was not aware of any alleged “conspiracy” by others, and never “fixed prices.” Apple individually negotiated bilateral agreements with book publishers that allowed it to enter and compete in a new market segment – eBooks. The iBookstore offered its customers a new outstanding, innovative eBook reading experience, an expansion of categories and titles of eBooks, and competitive prices.

And the last paragraph of the Answer’s introduction:

The Supreme Court has made clear that the antitrust laws are not a vehicle for Government intervention in the economy to impose its view of the “best” competitive outcome, or the “optimal” means of competition, but rather to address anticompetitive conduct. Apple’s entry into eBook distribution is classic procompetitive conduct, and for Apple to be subject to hindsight legal attack for a business strategy well-recognized as perfectly proper sends the wrong message to the market, and will discourage competitive entry and innovation and harm consumers.

A theme that runs throughout the Answer is that the “pre-Apple” world of e-books was characterized by little or no competition and that the agency agreements were necessary for its entry, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic increase in output.  The Answer is available here.  While commentary has focused primarily upon the important question of the competitive effects of the move to the agency model, including Geoff’s post here, my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The Complaint sets forth the evidence the DOJ purports to have on this score.  But my hunch — and it is no more than that — is that this portion of the case will prove more important than any battle between economic experts on the relevant competitive effects.