Archives For doj

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.

Judge Douglas Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; NYU Law) and I have posted “Dynamic Antitrust and the Limits of Antitrust Institutions” to SSRN.  Our article is forthcoming in Volume 78 (2) of the Antitrust Law Journal.  We offer a cautionary note – from an institutional perspective – concerning the ever-increasing and influential calls for greater incorporation of models of dynamic competition and innovation into antitrust analysis by courts and agencies.

Here is the abstract:

The static model of competition, which dominates modern antitrust analysis, has served antitrust law well.  Nonetheless, as commentators have observed, the static model ignores the impact that competitive (or anti-competitive) activities undertaken today will have upon future market conditions.  An increased focus upon dynamic competition surely has the potential to improve antitrust analysis and, thus, to benefit consumers.  The practical value of proposals to increase the use of dynamic analysis must, however, be evaluated with an eye to the institutional limitations that antitrust agencies and courts face when engaged in predictive fact-finding.  We explain and evaluate both the current state of dynamic antitrust analysis and some recent proposals that agencies and courts incorporate dynamic considerations more deeply into their analyses.  We show antitrust analysis is not willfully ignorant of the limitations of static analysis; on the contrary, when reasonably confident predictions can be made, they are readily incorporated into the analysis.  We also argue agencies and courts should view current proposals for a more dynamic approach with caution because the theories underpinning those proposals lie outside the agencies’ expertise in industrial organization economics, do not consistently yield determinate results, and would place significant demands upon reviewing courts to question predictions based upon those theories.  Considering the current state of economic theory and empirical knowledge, we conclude that competition agencies and courts have appropriately refrained from incorporating dynamic features into antitrust analysis to make predictions beyond what can be supported by a fact-intensive analysis.

You can download the paper here.

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.

The pending wireless spectrum deal between Verizon Wireless and a group of cable companies (the SpectrumCo deal, for short) continues to attract opprobrium from self-proclaimed consumer advocates and policy scolds.  In the latest salvo, Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld (and other critics of the deal) aren’t happy that Verizon seems to be working to appease the regulators by selling off some of its spectrum in an effort to secure approval for its deal.  Critics are surely correct that appeasement is what’s going on here—but why this merits their derision is unclear.

For starters, whatever the objections to the “divestiture,” the net effect is that Verizon will hold less spectrum than it would under the original terms of the deal and its competitors will hold more.  That this is precisely what Public Knowledge and other critics claim to want couldn’t be more clear—and thus neither is the hypocrisy of their criticism.

Note that “divestiture” is Feld’s term, and I think it’s apt, although he uses it derisively.  His derision seems to stem from his belief that it is a travesty that such a move could dare be undertaken by a party acting on its own instead of under direct diktat from the FCC (with Public Knowledge advising, of course).  Such a view—that condemns the private transfer of spectrum into the very hands Public Knowledge would most like to see holding it for the sake of securing approval for a deal that simultaneously improves Verizon’s spectrum position because it is better for the public to suffer (by Public Knowledge’s own standard) than for Verizon to benefit—seems to betray the organization’s decidedly non-public-interested motives.

But Feld amasses some more specific criticisms.  Each falls flat.

For starters, Feld claims that the spectrum licenses Verizon proposes to sell off (Lower (A and B block) 700 MHz band licenses) would just end up in AT&T’s hands—and that doesn’t further the scolds’ preferred vision of Utopia in which smaller providers end up with the spectrum (apparently “small” now includes T-Mobile and Sprint, presumably because they are fair-weather allies in this fight).  And why will the spectrum inevitably end up in AT&T’s hands?  Writes Feld:

AT&T just has too many advantages to reasonably expect someone else to get the licenses. For starters, AT&T has deeper pockets and can get more financing on better terms. But even more importantly, AT&T has a network plan based on the Lower 700 MHz A &B Block licenses it acquired in auction 2008 (and from Qualcomm more recently). It has towers, contracts for handsets, and everything else that would let it plug in Verizon’s licenses. Other providers would need to incur these expenses over and above the cost of winning the auction in the first place.

Allow me to summarize:  AT&T will win the licenses because it can make the most efficient, effective and timely use of the spectrum.  The horror!

Feld has in one paragraph seemingly undermined his whole case.  If approval of the deal turns on its effect on the public interest, stifling the deal in an explicit (and Quixotic) effort to ensure that the spectrum ends up in the hands of providers less capable of deploying it would seem manifestly to harm, not help, consumers.

And don’t forget that, whatever his preferred vision of the world, the most immediate effect of stopping the SpectrumCo deal will be that all of the spectrum that would have been transferred to—and deployed by—Verizon in the deal will instead remain in the hands of the cable companies where it now sits idly, helping no one relieve the spectrum crunch.

But let’s unpack the claims further.  First, a few factual matters.  AT&T holds no 700 MHz block A spectrum.  It bought block B spectrum in the 2008 auction and acquired spectrum in blocks D and E from Qualcomm.

Second, the claim that this spectrum is essentially worthless, especially  to any carrier except AT&T, is betrayed by reality.  First, despite the claimed interference problems from TV broadcasters for A block spectrum, carriers are in fact deploying on the A block and have obtained devices to facilitate doing so effectively.

Meanwhile, Verizon had already announced in November of last year that it planned to transfer 12 MHz of A block spectrum in Chicago to Leap (note for those keeping score at home: Leap is notAT&T) in exchange for other spectrum around the country, and Cox recently announced that it is selling its own A and B block 700 MHz licenses (yes, eight B block licenses would go to AT&T, but four A block licenses would go to US Cellular).

Pretty clearly these A and B block 700 MHz licenses have value, and not just to AT&T.

Feld does actually realize that his preferred course of action is harmful.  According to Feld, even though the transfer would increase spectrum holdings by companies that aren’t AT&T or Verizon, the fact that it might also facilitate the SpectrumCo deal and thus increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings is reason enough to object.  For Feld and other critics of the deal the concern is over concentrationin spectrum holdings, and thus Verizon’s proposed divestiture is insufficient because the net effect of the deal, even with the divestiture, would be to increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings.  Feld writes:

Verizon takes a giant leap forward in its spectrum holding and overall spectrum efficiency, whereas the competitors improve only marginally in absolute terms. Yes, compared to their current level of spectrum constraint, it would improve the ability of competitors [to compete] . . . [b]ut in absolute terms . . . the difference is so marginal it is not helpful.

Verizon has already said that they have no plans (assuming they get the AWS spectrum) to actually use the Lower MHz 700 A & B licenses, so selling those off does not reduce Verizon’s lead in the spectrum gap. So if we care about the spectrum gap, we need to take into account that this divestiture still does not alleviate the overall problem of spectrum concentration, even if it does improve spectrum efficiency.

But Feld is using a fantasy denominator to establish his concentration ratio.  The divestiture only increases concentration when compared to a hypothetical world in which self-proclaimed protectors of the public interest get to distribute spectrum according to their idealized notions of a preferred market structure.  But the relevant baseline for assessing the divestiture, even on Feld’s own concentration-centric terms, is the distribution of licenses under the deal without the divestiture—against which the divestiture manifestly reduces concentration, even if only “marginally.”

Moreover, critics commit the same inappropriate fantasizing when criticizing the SpectrumCo deal itself.  Again, even if Feld’s imaginary world would be preferable to the post-deal world (more on which below), that imaginary world simply isn’t on the table.  What is on the table if the deal falls through is the status quo—that is, the world in which Verizon is stuck with spectrum it is willing to sell and foreclosed from access to spectrum it wants to buy; US Cellular, AT&T and other carriers are left without access to Verizon’s lower-block 700 MHz spectrum; and the cable companies are saddled with spectrum they won’t use.

Perhaps, compared to this world, the deal does increase concentration.  More importantly, compared to this world the deal increases spectrum deployment.  Significantly.  But never mind:  The benefits of actual and immediate deployment of spectrum can never match up in the scolds’ minds to the speculative and theoretical harms from increased concentration, especially when judged against a hypothetical world that does not and will not ever exist.

But what is most appalling about critics’ efforts to withhold valuable spectrum from consumers for the sake of avoiding increased concentration is the reality that increased concentration doesn’t actually cause any harm.

In fact, it is simply inappropriate to assess the likely competitive effects of this or any other transaction in this industry by assessing concentration based on spectrum holdings.  Of key importance here is the reality that spectrum alone—though essential to effective competitiveness—is not enough to amass customers, let alone confer market power.  In this regard it is well worth noting that the very spectrum holdings at issue in the SpectrumCo deal, although significant in size, produce precisely zero market share for their current owners.

Even the FCC recognizes the weakness of reliance upon market structure as an indicator of market competitiveness in its most recent Wireless Competition Report, where the agency notes that highly concentrated markets may nevertheless be intensely competitive.

And the DOJ, in assessing “Economic Issues in Broadband Competition,” has likewise concluded both that these markets are likely to be concentrated and that such concentration does not raisecompetitive concerns.  In large-scale networks “with differentiated products subject to large economies of scale (relative to the size of the market), the Department does not expect to see a large number of suppliers.”  Rather, the DOJ cautions against “striving for broadband markets that look like textbook markets of perfect competition, with many price-taking firms.  That market structure is unsuitable for the provision of broadband services.”

Although commonly trotted out as a conclusion in support of monopolization, the fact that a market may be concentrated is simply not a reliable indicator of anticompetitive effect, and naked reliance on such conclusions is inconsistent with modern understandings of markets and competition.

As it happens, there is detailed evidence in the Fifteenth Wireless Competition Report on actual competitive dynamics; market share analysis is unlikely to provide any additional insight.  And the available evidence suggests that the tide toward concentration has resulted in considerable benefits and certainly doesn’t warrant a presumption of harm in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary specific to this license transfer.  Instead, there is considerable evidence of rapidly falling prices, quality expansion, capital investment, and a host of other characteristics inconsistent with a monopoly assumption that might otherwise be erroneously inferred from a structural analysis like that employed by Feld and other critics.

In fact, as economists Gerald Faulhaber, Robert Hahn & Hal Singer point out, a simple plotting of cellular prices against market concentration shows a strong inverse relationship inconsistent with an inference of monopoly power from market shares:

Today’s wireless market is an arguably concentrated but remarkably competitive market.  Concentration of resources in the hands of the largest wireless providers has not slowed the growth of the market; rather the central problem is one of spectrum scarcity.  According to the Fifteenth Report, “mobile broadband growth is likely to outpace the ability of technology and network improvements to keep up by an estimated factor of three, leading to a spectrum deficit that is likely to approach 300 megahertz within the next five years.”

Feld and his friends can fret about the phantom problem of concentration all they like—it doesn’t change the reality that the real problem is the lack of available spectrum to meet consumer demand.  It’s bad enough that they are doing whatever they can to stop the SpectrumCo deal itself which would ensure that spectrum moves from the cable companies, where it sits unused, to Verizon, where it would be speedily deployed.  But when they contort themselves to criticize even the re-allocation of spectrum under the so-called divestiture, which would directly address the very issue they hold so dear, it is clear that these “protectors of consumer rights” are not really protecting consumers at all.

[Cross-posted at Forbes]

From the WSJ:

Publishers argue that the agency model promotes competition by allowing more booksellers to thrive. They say Amazon had sold e-books below cost and that agency pricing saved book publishers from the fate suffered by record companies.

But the Justice Department believes it has a strong case that Apple and the five publishers colluded to raise the price of e-books, people familiar with the matter say.

Apple and the publishers deny that.

The Justice Department isn’t taking aim at agency pricing itself. The department objects to, people familiar with the case say, coordination among companies that simultaneously decided to change their pricing policies.

“We don’t pick business models—that’s not our job,” Ms. Pozen says, without mentioning the case explicitly. “But when you see collusive behavior at the highest levels of companies, you know something’s wrong. And you’ve got to do something about it.”

For related posts, see here.  The case increasingly appears to focus on whether the DOJ can prove coordination among rivals with respect to the shift to the agency model and e-book prices.

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.