Archives For doj

From a pure antitrust perspective, the real story behind the DOJ’s Apple e-book investigation is the Division’s deep commitment to the view that Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) clauses are anticompetitive (see also here), no doubt spurred on at least in part by Chief Economist Fiona Scott-Morton’s interesting work on the topic.

Of course, there are other important stories here (see Matt Yglesias’ excellent post), like “how much should a digital book cost?” And as Yglesias writes, whether “the Justice Department’s notion that we should fear a book publishers’ cartel is borderline absurd, on par with worrying about price-fixing in the horse-and-buggy market.”

I can’t help but notice another angle here.  For those not familiar, the current dispute over e-books emerges over a shift in business models from a traditional one in which publishers sold at wholesale prices to bookstores who would, in turn, set the prices they desired — sometimes below the book’s cover price — and sell to consumers at retail.  Much of the dispute arises out of the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers with respect to the profit-maximizing price.  The WSJ describes the recent iteration of the conflict:

To build its early lead in e-books, Amazon Inc. AMZN +0.19% sold many new best sellers at $9.99 to encourage consumers to buy its Kindle electronic readers. But publishers deeply disliked the strategy, fearing consumers would grow accustomed to inexpensive e-books and limit publishers’ ability to sell pricier titles.

Apple’s proposed solution was a move to what is described as an “agency model,” in which Apple takes a 30% share of the revenues and the publisher sets the price — readers may recognize that this essentially amounts to resale price maintenance — an oft-discussed topic at TOTM.  The move to the agency-RPM model also entailed the introduction of an MFN clause stipulating that publishers could not sell to rivals at a lower price.

Whether Apple facilitated a collusive agreement among publishers or whether this industry-wide move to the agency-model is an efficient and consumer-welfare enhancing method of solving the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers remains to be seen.  What is somewhat new in this dispute about book distribution is the technology involved; but the underlying economics of vertical incentive conflict between publishers and retailers is not!

Many economists are aware Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics textbook was apparently the first commodity sold in the United States under an RPM agreement!  (HT: William Breit)  The practice apparently has deeper roots in Germany.  The RPM experiment was thought up by (later to become Sir) Frederick Macmillan.  Perhaps this will sound familiar:

In 1890 Frederick Macmillan of the Macmillan Company was casting about for a book with which to conduct an experiment in resale price maintenance.  For years it had been the practice in Great Britain for the bookselllers to give their customers discounts off the list prices; i.e. price cutting had become the general practice.  In March, 1890, Mr. Macmilan had written to The Bookseller suggesting a change from the current discount system and had inserted a form to be filled out by the dealers.

Experimentation with business models to align the incentives of publishers and sellers is nothing new; it is only wonderful coincidence that the examples involve a seminal economics text published as the Sherman Act was enacted.  Nonetheless, an interesting historical parallel and one that suggests caution in interpreting the relevant facts without understanding the pervasive nature of incentive conflicts within this particular product line between publishers and sellers.  One does not want to discourage experimentation with business models aimed at solving those incentive conflicts.  What remains to be seen is whether and why the move to the new arrangement was executed through express coordination rather than unilateral action.

Judge Ginsburg and I are working on a project for an upcoming festschrift in honor of Bill Kovacic.  The project involves the role of settlements in the pursuit of the goals of antitrust.  In particular, we are looking for examples of antitrust settlements between competition agencies and private parties — in the U.S. or internationally — involving conditions either: (1) clearly antithetical to consumer welfare, or (2) that arguably disserve consumer welfare.  In the former category, examples might include conditions requiring firms to make employment commitments.  The second category might include conditions placing the agency in an ongoing regulatory role or restricting the firm’s ability to engage in consumer-welfare increasing price or non-price competition.

I turn to our learned TOTM readership for help.  Please feel free to leave examples in the comments here — or email me.  Cites and links appreciated.

In the wake of the announcement that AT&T and T-Mobile are walking away from their proposed merger, there will be ample time to discuss whether the deal would have passed muster in federal court, and to review the various strategic maneuvers by the parties, the DOJ, and the FCC.  But now is a good time to take a look at what the market is predicting — and what that has to say about the various theories offered concerning the merger.  In prior blog posts, we’ve examined the stock market reaction to various events surrounding the merger — and in particular, the announcement that the DOJ would challenge it in federal court.

For a brief review, there are two primary theories that the merger would reduce competition and harm consumers.  Horizontal theories predict that the post-merger firm would gain market power, raise market prices and reduce output.  On these theories, Sprint and other rivals’ stock prices should increase in response to the merger; thus, if the DOJ announcement to challenge the merger reduces the probability of the post-merger acquisition of market power, Sprint stock should fall in response.  We know that it didn’t.  It surged.   That is consistent with a procompetitive merger because the challenge increases the probability that the rival will not face more intense competition post-merger.  Thus, Sprint’s surge in reaction to the DOJ announcement is consistent with the simple explanation that the merger was procompetitive and the market anticipated more intense competition post-merger.

Of course, as AAI and others have pointed out, Sprint’s stock price surge in response to the merger challenge was also consistent with “exclusionary” theories of the merger that posit that the post-merger firm would be able to foreclose Sprint from access to critical inputs (in particular, handsets) required to compete.  Richard Brunell (AAI) made this point in the comments to our earlier blog post, relying upon the fact that Verizon’s stock fell 1.2% (compared to market drop of .7%) to emphasize the applicability of the exclusion theory.   The importance of Verizon’s stock price reaction, the argument goes, is that while Sprint has to fear exclusion by a combined ATT/TMo, Verizon does not.  Thus, proponents of the exclusion theories assert, the combined surge in Sprint stock with Verizon’s relative non-movement is consistent with that anticompetitive theory.

Not so fast.  As I’ve pointed out, this conclusion relies upon an incomplete exposition of the economics of exclusion and one that should be difficult to square with your intuition.  If Verizon has nothing to fear from the post-merger firm excluding Sprint, it should greatly benefit from the merger!   Consider that if the exclusion theories are correct, Verizon gets the benefit of free-riding upon AT&T’s $39 billion investment in eliminating or weakening one of its rivals.   Surely, the $39 billion investment to exclude Sprint and other smaller rivals — as the exclusion proponents argue is the motive for merger here — provides considerable benefits to Verizon who doesn’t pay a dime.  Thus, rather than holding constant, Verizon’s stock price should fall significantly in response to the lost opportunity to appropriate these exclusionary gains for free.  Verizon’s stock non-reaction to the announcement that DOJ would challenge the merger was, in my view, inconsistent with the exclusion theories.   In sum, the market did not appear to anticipate the acquisition of market power as a result of the merger.

We now have a new event to use to evaluate the market’s reaction: AT&T and T-Mobile abandoning the merger.   It appears that, once again, Sprint’s stock price surged in reaction to the news (and now up about 8% in the last 24 hours).  Again, Verizon doesn’t move much at all.

Stock market reactions and event studies — and I’m not claiming I’ve done a full blown event study here,  just a simple comparison of stock price reactions to the market trends — produce valuable information.  They are obviously not dispositive.  The market can be wrong.  But so can regulators.  And as my colleague Bruce Kobayashi said in an interview (which I cannot find online) in Fortune Magazine evaluating the market reaction to the Staples-Office Depot merger in light of the FTC’s challenge: “It boils down to whether you trust the agencies or the stock market. I’ll take the stock market any day.”

Markets provide information.  The information provided here gives no reason to celebrate the withdraw on the behalf of consumers, or even the ever-present “public interest.”  Celebratory announcements to the contrary should be read with at least a healthy dose of skepticism in light of information above (and see also Hal’s excellent post) that the market did not anticipate the merger to facilitate the acquisition of market power via the combination of AT&T and T-Mobile or through the exclusion of Sprint.   Media reports that the merger was a “slam-dunk” in terms of the economics or that this is a tale of dispassionate economic analysis defeating the monopolist lobbying machine are misleading at best.   More importantly for the future, abandoning this merger does not repeal the spectrum capacity constraints facing the wireless industry, the ever-increasing demand for data, or the dearth of alternative options (despite the FCC’s claims that non-merger alternatives abound) for acquiring spectrum efficiently.

This will be a very interesting space to watch as the agencies deal with what will undoubtedly be other attempts to consolidate spectrum assets — especially in light of the FCC Report and the framework it lays down for evaluating future mergers.

Tomorrow is the deadline for Eric Schmidt to send his replies to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s follow up questions from his appearance at a hearing on Google antitrust issues last month.  At the hearing, not surprisingly, search neutrality was a hot topic, with representatives from the likes of Yelp and Nextag, as well as Expedia’s lawyer, Tom Barnett (that’s Tom Barnett (2011), not Tom Barnett (2006-08)), weighing in on Google’s purported bias.  One serious problem with the search neutrality/search bias discussions to date has been the dearth of empirical evidence concerning so-called search bias and its likely impact upon consumers.  Hoping to remedy this, I posted a study this morning at the ICLE website both critiquing one of the few, existing pieces of empirical work on the topic (by Ben Edelman, Harvard economist) as well as offering up my own, more expansive empirical analysis.  Chris Sherman at Search Engine Land has a great post covering the study.  The title of his article pretty much says it all:  “Bing More Biased Than Google; Google Not Behaving Anti-competitively.” Continue Reading…

One of the most controversial merger policy decisions during the Bush administration was the DOJ’s failure to bring a complaint against the Whirlpool/Maytag merger.  Indeed, the decision was even criticized by Carl Shapiro, the economic expert retained by the DOJ on the case.   Jonathan Baker and Carl Shapiro summarize this conclusion as follows:  “The March 2006 decision by the DOJ not to challenge Whirlpool’s acquisition of Maytag was a highly visible instance of underenforcement.”   Orley Ashenfelter, Daniel Hosken and Matthew Weinberg have now posted a working paper that estimates the price effects of the merger.  Using scanner data, the authors compare the prices of Whirlpool and Maytag appliances to price changes in the appliance markets most affected by the merger to other markets less or not affected.  They find large significant price increases for clothes dryers and dishwashers, but not for refrigerators and washing machine.

First, Google had the audacity to include a map in search queries suggesting a user wanted a map.  Consumers liked it.  Then came video.  Then, they came for the beer:

Google’s first attempt at brewing has resulted in a beer that taps ingredients from all across the globe. They teamed up with Delaware craft brewery Dogfish Head to make “URKontinent,” a Belgian Dubbel style beer with flavors from five different continents.

No word yet from the Google’s antitrust-wielding critics whether integration into beer will exclude rivals who vertical search engines who, without access to the beer, have no chance to compete.  Yes, there are specialized beer search sites if you must know (or local beer search).  Or small breweries who, because of Google’s market share in search, cannot compete against Dogfish Head’s newest product.  But before we start the new antitrust investigation, Google has offered some new facts to clarify matters:

Similarly, the project with Dogfish Head brewery was a Googler-driven project organized by a group of craftbrewery aficionados across the company. While our Googlers had fun advising on the creation of a beer recipe, we aren’t receiving any proceeds from the sale of the beer and we have no plans to enter the beer business.

Whew.  What a relief.  But, I’m sure the critics will be watching just in case to see if Dogfish Head jumps in the search rankings.  Donating time and energy to the creation of beer is really just a gateway to more serious exclusionary conduct, right?  And Section 5 of the FTC Act applies to incipient conduct in the beer market, clearly.  Or did the DOJ get beer-related Google activities in the clearance arrangement between the agencies?

The DOJ has announced that it will close 4 Antitrust Division Field Offices.  From the DOJ press release:

Consolidate Antitrust Division field office space in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia into the Chicago, New York and San Francisco field offices as well as the division’s Washington, D.C.-based section.   Ninety-four positions will be reassigned to the remaining field offices and to the Washington, D.C., section in order to provide additional staffing resources to larger investigations.   A savings of nearly $8 million is expected.

The field offices are a significant part of Division’s criminal enforcement efforts (amongst other things).  While the consolidation plan offers relocation to the 94 lawyers and staff willing to move to Chicago, NY, San Francisco or to Washington, there are quite a few career Division lawyers who have no interest in doing so.   The Washington Post reports:

But career antitrust lawyers affected by the plans said they were caught off guard, and they think the plans will result in de facto layoffs as colleagues decide to quit because they are unable or unwilling to move to another city.  “There aren’t a lot of people who’ve been with the division a long time who can pick up and move,” said an antitrust attorney based in the Philadelphia office. “Many people have families and spouses with jobs where they’re already located. And there’s no assurances that in two years there won’t be further cuts, and then we’ll lose a job we picked up and moved for.”  Veteran antitrust attorneys from all four targeted offices contacted The Federal Eye and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

I suspect there will be a lot more written about this in the days and weeks to come.

As I have posted before, I was disappointed that the DOJ filed against AT&T in its bid to acquire T-Mobile.  The efficacious provision of mobile broadband service is a complicated business, but it has become even more so by government’s meddling.  Responses like this merger are both inevitable and essential.  And Sprint and Cellular South piling on doesn’t help — and, as Josh has pointed out, further suggests that the merger is actually pro-competitive.

Tomorrow, along with a great group of antitrust attorneys, I am going to pick up where I left off in that post during a roundtable discussion hosted by the American Bar Association.  If you are in the DC area you should attend in person, or you can call in to listen to the discussion–but either way, you will need to register here.  There should be a couple of people live tweeting the event, so keep up with the conversation by following #ABASAL.

Panelists:
Richard Brunell, Director of Legal Advocacy, American Antitrust Institute, Boston
Allen Grunes, Partner, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Washington
Glenn Manishin, Partner, Duane Morris LLP, Washington
Geoffrey Manne, Lecturer in Law, Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland
Patrick Pascarella, Partner, Tucker Ellis & West, Cleveland

Location: 
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. 1700 K St. N.W. Fifth Floor Washington, D.C. 20006

For more information, check out the flyer here.

Yale’s George Priest authored an op-ed in the WSJ on September 6th in which he raised a few of the arguments discussed here at TOTM over the past several weeks regarding the proposed AT&T / T-Mobile merger.  For example, we’ve focused upon the tension between the DOJ complaint’s theories of competitive harm (coordinated and unilateral effects) and the reaction of Sprint’s stock price.  Along these lines, Priest writes:

If the acquisition would lead to increased prices and lower quality products as the Justice Department has claimed, Sprint would be better off after the acquisition. Sprint would be able to add subscribers, not lose them, because of AT&T’s higher prices and lower quality. Sprint would oppose the acquisition—as it has—only if it thought that the merger would put it in a worse position by increasing the competitive pressures that it already faces.

The market—though not the Obama administration—understands this point. On the day that the Justice Department announced its opposition to the acquisition, Sprint’s share price rose 5.9%, reflecting investors’ belief that Sprint will be in a better competitive position without the acquisition.

As we’ve pointed out, Sprint’s stock price reaction is simply not consistent with the DOJ theories.  To find a theory of harm more consistent with the market reaction, critics of the merger have abandoned the DOJ’s theories in favor for a new one — that the merger will facilitate future exclusion of rivals from access to critical inputs like backhaul or handsets.

The AAI’s Rick Brunell makes this point in our comments.  The basic point is that under an exclusion theory Sprint benefits from the challenge to the merger because it prevents its future exclusion.   Brunell also argued in that comment that Verizon’s stock price movement supported exclusion theories of the merger, pointing out that its stock price fell 1.2% (with a .7% drop in the S&P 500) upon announcement of the challenge.

We challenged the economic logic of Brunell’s claim that Verizon’s non-reaction was consistent with exclusionary theories in a follow up post.  Put simply, assuming the merger will result in successful exclusion of rivals in the future, Verizon would be a gigantic winner from its successful completion:

The relevant economics here are not limited to the possibility that post-merger AT&T would successfully exclude Verizon.  Think about it: both Verizon and the post-merger firm would benefit from the exclusionary efforts and reduced competition.  However, Verizon would stand to gain even more!  After all, it isn’t paying the $39 billion purchase price for the acquisition (or any of the other costs of implementing an expensive exclusion campaign).  Thus, an announcement to block the would-be exclusionary merger — the one that would allow Verizon to outsource the exclusion of its rivals to AT&T on the cheap — wouldn’t happen.  Verizon stock should fall relative to the market in response to this lost opportunity.  The unilateral and coordinated effects theories in the DOJ complaint are at significant tension with the stock market reactions of firms like Sprint (and its affiliated venture, Clearwire).  The exclusion theory predicts a large decrease in stock price for Verizon with the announcement.  None of these comfortably fit the facts.  Verizon more or less tracks the S&P with a slight drop.  What about the smaller carriers?  Take a look at the chart.  MetroPCS barely moved relative to the market (in fact, may have increased relative to the market over the relevant time period); Leap is down a bit more than the market.  Here, with the smaller carriers there is not a lot of movement in any direction.  But, contra NB’s comment (“Verizon, a larger and far more significant competitor, had its stock drop sharply in that same period you show Sprint “surging”. MetroPCS’s stock also dropped.”), Verizon’s small fall relative to the market is nowhere near the magnitude of the positive effect on Sprint and Clearwire.

In other words, contra Brunell and other proponents of the exclusion theory, its not just that Verizon has “nothing to fear” from exclusion but that it has much to gain from it.  If the merger is likely to exclude Verizon’s rivals at a price tag of at least $39 billion paid with its chief competitor’s dollars, the announcement of a challenge should have resulted in a substantial loss for Verizon not one barely detectable beyond market trends. Excluding rivals and gaining market power with other people’s money is good work if you can get it.  If proponents of the exclusionary theory believe exclusion is worth $39 billion for AT&T and is the purpose of the merger, surely they also believe it is worth something quite significant to Verizon who would reap the benefits of exclusion and get it for free.

Unfortunately, AAI (through Brunell) ignores this point in a Letter to the Editor to the WSJ filed in response to Priest’s op-ed:

Mr. Priest ignores the fact that Sprint would be harmed if the merger enhanced AT&T’s (and Verizon’s) ability to exclude Sprint from the market (or raise its costs) through increased control over the best handsets, roaming and backhaul services that Sprint needs to compete effectively in the market, as Sprint alleges in its own lawsuit challenging the merger. Sprint also benefits, from the merger’s demise, as a potential acquirer of T-Mobile.

Mr. Priest also ignores the stock-price movement of Verizon, AT&T’s chief rival, which has no reason to fear exclusion from the market, and would be harmed the most if the merger made AT&T a more efficient competitor. In the two days following the merger announcement in March, Verizon’s stock price jumped 3.1% (compared to the S&P 500′s increase of only 1.1%), while in the two days after the Justice Department’s suit was announced, Verizon’s stock fell by 1.2% (compared to a .7% drop in the S&P 500). Verizon has not opposed the merger.

Event studies of stock-price movements are notoriously inconclusive. However, the data here are entirely consistent with investors’ expectation that the merger will result in less price and quality competition in the industry and higher costs for AT&T’s smaller rivals, all to the detriment of consumers.

If you are keeping score at home: Priest 1  -  AAI 0.  Once again, the exclusion theories don’t seem to hold up to these data.  On the other hand, the DOJ theories are embarrassingly confronted by the response of the rival’ stock price surging upon the announcement of a challenge.  For what its worth, I agree with Brunell that event studies are not dispositive of a merger’s likely effects — though query what data available to predict merger outcomes are?  But event studies and stock-price movements produce valuable information.  In this case, financial market responses cut against the the exclusionary theory favored by AAI and Sprint and the conventional DOJ theories.

So, the AT&T / T-Mobile transaction gets more and more interesting.  Sprint has filed a complaint challenging the transaction.  I’ve been commenting on the weakness of the DOJ complaint and in particular, its heavy reliance on market structure to make inferences about competitive effects. The heavy dose of structural presumption in the DOJ complaint — especially in light of the DOJ / FTC’s new Horizontal Merger Guidelines which stress reducing that emphasis because it is grounded in outdated economic thinking in favor of analysis of actual competitive effects — reads more like a 1960s complaint than a modern post-2010 Guidelines approach.

There is a question that jumps out here.  What does Sprint get for jumping into full litigation mode rather than free-riding upon the DOJ’s case?  They could certainly free-ride and retain some influence over the DOJ case with economic submissions.   The DOJ is not a passive plaintiff.  This is the DOJ of “reinvigorated” antitrust enforcement.  There is an even more obvious cost to getting involved.  The conventional antitrust wisdom requires skepticism of private suits by rivals for the reasons I discussed here.   Rivals often have a financial incentive to sue more efficient competitors.  Various substantive and procedural stands of antitrust attempt to minimize the costs of providing rivals with generous remedies and a private right of action under the antitrust laws.  Suffice it to say, a rival suit doesn’t get the same attention as one brought by the DOJ or FTC.

So why do it?

I think the answer is pretty clear.  There are at least two important inferences to draw from Sprint’s complaint.

The first is that it is a sign that the DOJ’s structure-based complaint is pretty weak sauce.  David Balto described the complaint as missing “the red meat.”   Its heavy on reliance on outdated structural presumptions, strays far from the intellectual foundations of the new Merger Guidelines, doesn’t acknowledge efficiencies, and has been embarrassingly shown up by the market reaction.   I certainly agree with Balto that the DOJ complaint isn’t the agency’s best work.  So, apparently did the market  — with Sprint’s stock price surging instead of the decline predicted by various theories of competitive harm posited in the complaint.

Sprint, by filing this claim, reveals its view that the DOJ is not likely to prevail on the merits on those claims.   Or at a minimum that Sprint’s involvement increases the likelihood.  Given the skepticism about rival suits, I’m skeptical.  To reconcile these views one must read the Sprint complaint.  It heavily pushes an “exclusionary theory” of the merger (i.e. “vertical effects”) omitted by the DOJ in its own complaint.  The basic theory is that the post-merger firm will deprive rivals from access to backhaul or handsets.  I’ve argued that the exclusionary theory doesn’t fare much better in explaining the market reaction to the DOJ’s challenge.  But it at least has going for it that it can explain the Sprint’s stock price reaction: if the merger successfully prevents exclusion, it should improve outcomes for rivals.  The problem is that this explanation doesn’t square too nicely with the market reaction of other rivals likely to suffer from exclusion (smaller carriers) and big guys like Verizon who would benefit from watching AT&T bear the full cost of excluding rivals (an expensive strategy) while it reaped the benefits.

Thus, I think the second lesson is that its pretty clear that Sprint views the omission of these exclusionary theories as a critical weakness in the DOJ’s complaint — critical enough to take the relatively rare step of filing a separate private challenge.  Given large increase in Sprint’s stock in reaction to the news of challenge — its got a lot at stake here and its willing to spend some of that rather than free-riding on the DOJ challenge for the chance to prove it is right.  I remain skeptical; but its an interesting development nonetheless.