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

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

A commitment to evidence-based antitrust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A commitment to clear enforcement principles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Optimal does not mean perfect.

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

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

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

Consumer welfare is the touchstone.

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

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

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

***

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

The Federal Trade Commission’s recent enforcement actions against Amazon and Apple raise important questions about the FTC’s consumer protection practices, especially its use of economics. How does the Commission weigh the costs and benefits of its enforcement decisions? How does the agency employ economic analysis in digital consumer protection cases generally?

Join the International Center for Law and Economics and TechFreedom on Thursday, July 31 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for a lunch and panel discussion on these important issues, featuring FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics Martin Gaynor, and several former FTC officials. RSVP here.

Commissioner Wright will present a keynote address discussing his dissent in Apple and his approach to applying economics in consumer protection cases generally.

Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, will briefly discuss his recent paper on the role of economics in the FTC’s consumer protection enforcement. Berin Szoka, TechFreedom President, will moderate a panel discussion featuring:

  • Martin Gaynor, Director, FTC Bureau of Economics
  • David Balto, Fmr. Deputy Assistant Director for Policy & Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition
  • Howard Beales, Fmr. Director, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection
  • James Cooper, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Office of Policy Planning
  • Pauline Ippolito, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Bureau of Economics

Background

The FTC recently issued a complaint and consent order against Apple, alleging its in-app purchasing design doesn’t meet the Commission’s standards of fairness. The action and resulting settlement drew a forceful dissent from Commissioner Wright, and sparked a discussion among the Commissioners about balancing economic harms and benefits in Section 5 unfairness jurisprudence. More recently, the FTC brought a similar action against Amazon, which is now pending in federal district court because Amazon refused to settle.

Event Info

The “FTC: Technology and Reform” project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology. The Project’s initial report, released in December 2013, identified critical questions facing the agency, Congress, and the courts about the FTC’s future, and proposed a framework for addressing them.

The event will be live streamed here beginning at 12:15pm. Join the conversation on Twitter with the #FTCReform hashtag.

When:

Thursday, July 31
11:45 am – 12:15 pm — Lunch and registration
12:15 pm – 2:00 pm — Keynote address, paper presentation & panel discussion

Where:

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – Rehearsal Hall
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Questions? – Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

See ICLE’s and TechFreedom’s other work on FTC reform, including:

  • Geoffrey Manne’s Congressional testimony on the the FTC@100
  • Op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne, “The Second Century of the Federal Trade Commission”
  • Two posts by Geoffrey Manne on the FTC’s Amazon Complaint, here and here.

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

The International Center for Law and Economics is a non-profit, non-partisan research center aimed at fostering rigorous policy analysis and evidence-based regulation.

About TechFreedom:

TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.

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 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.

As I noted in my prior post, two weeks ago the 13th Annual Conference of the International Competition Network (ICN) released two new sets of recommended best practices.  Having focused on competition assessment in my prior blog entry, I now turn to the ICN’s predatory pricing recommendations.

Aggressive price cutting is the essence of competitive behavior, and the application of antitrust enforcement to price cuts that are mislabeled as “predatory” threatens to chill such competition on the merits and deny consumers the benefits of lower prices.

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 Brooke Group decision appropriately limited antitrust predatory pricing liability to cases where the defendant (1) priced below “an appropriate measure” of its costs and (2) had a “reasonable prospect of recouping” its investment in below cost pricing.  Brooke Group enhanced United States welfare by largely eliminating the risk of unwarranted predatory pricing suits, to the benefit of consumers and producers.  In particular, because courts generally have applied stringent cost measures (such as average variable cost, not the higher average total cost), findings of below cost pricing have been rare.  Consistent with decision theory, there is good reason to believe that whatever increase in antitrust “false negatives” (failure to challenge truly harmful behavior) it engendered has been greatly outweighed by the reduction in false positives (unwarranted challenges to procompetitive behavior).

The European Union’s test for antitrust predatory pricing is, by contrast, easier to satisfy.  Prices below average variable cost are presumed illegal, prices between average variable cost and average total cost are abusive if part of a plan to eliminate competitors (such prices would not be deemed predatory in the United States), and likelihood of recoupment need not be shown (enforcers presume that parties would not engage in below cost pricing if they did not think it would ultimately be profitable).  Europeans generally have been far more willing to carry out detailed case-specific predatory pricing evaluations, believing that they have the ability to get difficult analyses right.  Given the widespread adoption of the European approach to competition in much of the world, and the benefit for prosecutors of not having to prove recoupment, the European take on predatory pricing has seemed to be in the ascendancy.

Given this background, the ICN’s newly minted Recommended Practices on Predatory Pricing Analysis Pursuant to Unilateral Conduct Laws (RPPP) are a welcome breath of fresh air.  The RPPP are strongly grounded in economics, and they place great stress on the need to obtain solid evidence (rather than rely on mere theory) that predation is occurring in a particular case.  The following RPPP features are particularly helpful:

  • They stress up front the importance of focusing on the benefits of vigorous price competition to consumers;
  • They explain that a predatory strategy is rational only when a firm expects to acquire, maintain, or strengthen market power through its actions, which means that the predator expects not only to recoup its losses sustained during the predatory period, but also to enhance profits by holding its prices above what they otherwise would have been;
  • They urge that agencies use a sound economically-based theory of harm tied to a relevant market, and determine early on (before running difficult price-cost tests) whether the alleged predator’s prices are likely to cause competitive harm;
  • They advocate basing price-cost tests on the costs of the dominant firm, with concern centering on harm to equally efficient (not less efficient) competitors;
  • They provide an economically sophisticated summary of differences among potential measures of cost;
  • They recognize that to harm competition, low prices must deprive rivals of significant actual or potential sales in at least one market;
  • They stress that low barriers to entry and re-entry in the market render predation unlikely because recoupment is infeasible;
  • They call for examination of evidence relating to the rationale of a pricing strategy to distinguish between low pricing that harms competition and low pricing that reflects healthy competition;
  • They urge that agencies examine objective business justifications and defenses for low prices (such as promotional pricing and achieving scale economies); and
  • They support administrable and clearly communicated enforcement standards (an implicit nod to decision theory), the adoption of safe harbors that can be easily complied with, and agency cooperation early on with the alleged predator to understand the records it keeps and to facilitate price-cost comparisons.

Although the RPPP do not adopt the simple rules embodied in Brooke Group (which in my view would have been the optimal outcome), they reflect throughout a concern for economically rational evidence-based enforcement.  Such enforcement is based on a full appreciation of the welfare benefits of vigorous price competition, the possible procompetitive business justifications for price cutting, and the need for clear enforcement standards and safe harbors.

Overall, the RPPP demonstrate that the ICN remains capable of building consensus support for concise, economically-based antitrust enforcement principles, that take into account practical business justifications for certain practices.  As business deals increasingly take on a global dimension, the convergence of predatory pricing norms around a model suggested by the RPPP would be a most welcome, welfare-enhancing development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright pens an incredibly important dissent in the FTC’s recent Ardagh/Saint-Gobain merger review.

At issue is how pro-competitive efficiencies should be considered by the agency under the Merger Guidelines.

As Josh notes, the core problem is the burden of proof:

Merger analysis is by its nature a predictive enterprise. Thinking rigorously about probabilistic assessment of competitive harms is an appropriate approach from an economic perspective. However, there is some reason for concern that the approach applied to efficiencies is deterministic in practice. In other words, there is a potentially dangerous asymmetry from a consumer welfare perspective of an approach that embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other.

In the summer of 1995, I spent a few weeks at the FTC. It was the end of the summer and nearly the entire office was on vacation, so I was left dealing with the most arduous tasks. In addition to fielding calls from Joe Sims prodding the agency to finish the Turner/Time Warner merger consent, I also worked on early drafting of the efficiencies defense, which was eventually incorporated into the 1997 Merger Guidelines revision.

The efficiencies defense was added to the Guidelines specifically to correct a defect of the pre-1997 Guidelines era in which

It is unlikely that efficiencies were recognized as an antitrust defense…. Even if efficiencies were thought to have a significant impact on the outcome of the case, the 1984 Guidelines stated that the defense should be based on “clear and convincing” evidence. Appeals Court Judge and former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Ginsburg has recently called reaching this standard “well-nigh impossible.” Further, even if defendants can meet this level of proof, only efficiencies in the relevant anticompetitive market may count.

The clear intention was to ensure better outcomes by ensuring that net pro-competitive mergers wouldn’t be thwarted. But even under the 1997 (and still under the 2010) Guidelines,

the merging firms must substantiate efficiency claims so that the Agency can verify by reasonable means the likelihood and magnitude of each asserted efficiency, how and when each would be achieved (and any costs of doing so), how each would enhance the merged firm’s ability and incentive to compete, and why each would be merger-specific. Efficiency claims will not be considered if they are vague or speculative or otherwise cannot be verified by reasonable means.

The 2006 Guidelines Commentary further supports the notion that the parties bear a substantial burden of demonstrating efficiencies.

As Josh notes, however:

Efficiencies, like anticompetitive effects, cannot and should not be presumed into existence. However, symmetrical treatment in both theory and practice of evidence proffered to discharge the respective burdens of proof facing the agencies and merging parties is necessary for consumer‐welfare based merger policy

There is no economic basis for demanding more proof of claimed efficiencies than of claimed anticompetitive harms. And the Guidelines since 1997 were (ostensibly) drafted in part precisely to ensure that efficiencies were appropriately considered by the agencies (and the courts) in their enforcement decisions.

But as Josh notes, this has not really been the case, much to the detriment of consumer-welfare-enhancing merger review:

To the extent the Merger Guidelines are interpreted or applied to impose asymmetric burdens upon the agencies and parties to establish anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, respectively, such interpretations do not make economic sense and are inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare. Application of a more symmetric standard is unlikely to allow, as the Commission alludes to, the efficiencies defense to “swallow the whole of Section 7 of the Clayton Act.” A cursory read of the cases is sufficient to put to rest any concerns that the efficiencies defense is a mortal threat to agency activity under the Clayton Act. The much more pressing concern at present is whether application of asymmetric burdens of proof in merger review will swallow the efficiencies defense.

It benefits consumers to permit mergers that offer efficiencies that offset presumed anticompetitive effects. To the extent that the agencies, as in the Ardagh/Saint-Gobain merger, discount efficiencies evidence relative to their treatment of anticompetitive effects evidence, consumers will be harmed and the agencies will fail to fulfill their mandate.

This is an enormously significant issue, and Josh should be widely commended for raising it in this case. With luck it will spur a broader discussion and, someday, a more appropriate treatment in the Guidelines and by the agencies of merger efficiencies.

 

Commissioner Wright makes a powerful and important case in dissenting from the FTC’s 2-1 (Commissioner Ohlhausen was recused from the matter) decision imposing conditions on Nielsen’s acquisition of Arbitron.

Essential to Josh’s dissent is the absence of any actual existing market supporting the Commission’s challenge:

Nielsen and Arbitron do not currently compete in the sale of national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement services. In fact, there is no commercially available national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement service today. The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

* * *

[W]e…do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

* * *

To be clear, I do not base my disagreement with the Commission today on the possibility that the potential efficiencies arising from the transaction would offset any anticompetitive effect. As discussed above, I find no reason to believe the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition because the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is likely to generate anticompetitive effects in the alleged relevant market.

This is the kind of theory that seriously threatens innovation. Regulators in Washington are singularly ill-positioned to predict the course of technological evolution — that’s why they’re regulators and not billionaire innovators. To impose antitrust-based constraints on economic activity that hasn’t even yet occurred is the height of folly. As Virginia Postrel discusses in The Future and Its Enemies, this is the technocratic mindset, in all its stasist glory:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation.

* * *

By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

* * *

For technocrats, a kaleidoscope of trial-and-error innovation is not enough; decentralized experiments lack coherence. “Today, we have an opportunity to shape technology,” wrote [Newt] Gingrich in classic technocratic style. His message was that computer technology is too important to be left to hackers, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and computer buyers. “We” must shape it into a “coherent picture.” That is the technocratic notion of progress: Decide on the one best way, make a plan, and stick to it.

It should go without saying that this is the antithesis of the environment most conducive to economic advance. Whatever antitrust’s role in regulating technology markets, it must be evidence-based, grounded in economics and aware of its own limitations.

As Josh notes:

A future market case, such as the one alleged by the Commission today, presents a number of unique challenges not confronted in a typical merger review or even in “actual potential competition” cases. For instance, it is inherently more difficult in future market cases to define properly the relevant product market, to identify likely buyers and sellers, to estimate cross-elasticities of demand or understand on a more qualitative level potential product substitutability, and to ascertain the set of potential entrants and their likely incentives. Although all merger review necessarily is forward looking, it is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer these basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

* * *

When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Josh’s dissent also contains an important, related criticism of the FTC’s problematic reliance on consent agreements. It’s so good, in fact, I will quote it almost in its entirety:

Whether parties to a transaction are willing to enter into a consent agreement will often have little to do with whether the agreed upon remedy actually promotes consumer welfare. The Commission’s ability to obtain concessions instead reflects the weighing by the parties of the private costs and private benefits of delaying the transaction and potentially litigating the merger against the private costs and private benefits of acquiescing to the proposed terms. Indeed, one can imagine that where, as here, the alleged relevant product market is small relative to the overall deal size, the parties would be happy to agree to concessions that cost very little and finally permit the deal to close. Put simply, where there is no reason to believe a transaction violates the antitrust laws, a sincerely held view that a consent decree will improve upon the post-merger competitive outcome or have other beneficial effects does not justify imposing those conditions. Instead, entering into such agreements subtly, and in my view harmfully, shifts the Commission’s mission from that of antitrust enforcer to a much broader mandate of “fixing” a variety of perceived economic welfare-reducing arrangements.

Consents can and do play an important and productive role in the Commission’s competition enforcement mission. Consents can efficiently address competitive concerns arising from a merger by allowing the Commission to reach a resolution more quickly and at less expense than would be possible through litigation. However, consents potentially also can have a detrimental impact upon consumers. The Commission’s consents serve as important guidance and inform practitioners and the business community about how the agency is likely to view and remedy certain mergers. Where the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare. Because there is no judicial approval of Commission settlements, it is especially important that the Commission take care to ensure its consents are in the public interest.

This issue of the significance of the FTC’s tendency to, effectively, legislate by consent decree is of great importance, particularly in its Section 5 practice (as we discuss in our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).

As the FTC begins its 100th year next week, we need more voices like those of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen challenging the FTC’s harmful, technocratic mindset.

The Federalist Society has started a new program, The Executive Branch Review, which focuses on the myriad fields in which the Executive Branch acts outside of the constitutional and legal limits imposed on it, either by Executive Orders or by the plethora of semi-independent administrative agencies’ regulatory actions.

I recently posted on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ongoing investigations into the patent licensing business model and the actions (“consent decrees”) taken by the FTC against Bosch and Google.  These “consent decrees” constrain Bosch’s and Google’s rights in enforce patents they have committed to standard setting organizations (these patents are called “standard essential patents”). Here’s a brief taste:

One of the most prominent participants at the FTC-DOJ workshop back in December, former DOJ antitrust official and UC-Berkeley economics professor Carl Shapiro, explained in his opening speech that there was still insufficient data on patent licensing companies and their effects on the market.  This is true; for instance, a prominent study cited by Google et al. in support of their request to the FTC to investigate patent licensing companies has been described as being fundamentally flawed on both substantive and methodological grounds. Even more important, Professor Shapiro expressed skepticism at the workshop that, even if there was properly acquired, valid data, the FTC lacked the legal authority to sanction patent licensing firms for being allegedly anti-competitive.

Commentators have long noted that courts and agencies have a lousy historical track record when it comes to assessing the merits of new innovation, whether in new products or new business models. They maintain that the FTC should not continue such mistakes by letting its decision-making today be driven by rhetoric or by the widespread animus against certain commercial firms. Restraint and fact-gathering, institutional virtues reflected in a government animated by the rule of law and respect for individual rights, are key to preventing regulatory overreach and harm to future innovation.

Go read the whole thing, and, while you’re at it, check out Commissioner Joshua Wright’s similar comments on the FTC’s investigations of patent licensing companies, which the FTC calls “patent assertion entities.”

Co-authored with Berin Szoka

FTC Commissioner Wright issued today his Policy Statement on enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC)—the one he promised in April. Wright introduced the Statement in an important policy speech this morning before the Executive Committee Meeting of the New York State Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Both the Statement and the speech are essential reading, and, collectively, they present a compelling and comprehensive vision for Section 5 UMC reform at the Commission.

As we’ve been saying for some time, and as Wright notes at the outset of his Statement:

In order for enforcement of its unfair methods of competition authority to promote consistently the Commission’s mission of protecting competition, the Commission must articulate a clear framework for its application.

Significantly, in addition to offering important certainty to guide business actions, Wright bases his proposed Policy Statement on the error cost framework:

The Commission must formulate a standard that distinguishes between acceptable business practices and business practices that constitute an unfair method of competition in order to provide firms with adequate guidance as to what conduct may be unlawful.  Articulating a clear and predictable standard for what constitutes an unfair method of competition is important because the Commission’s authority to condemn unfair methods of competition allows it to break new ground and challenge conduct based upon theories not previously enshrined in Sherman Act or Clayton Act jurisprudence.

As far as we know, this Statement is the most significant effort yet to cabin FTC enforcement decisions within a coherent error-cost framework, and it is especially welcome.

Ironically, this is former Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s true legacy: His efforts to expand Section 5 to challenge conduct under novel theories, devoid of economic grounding and without proof of anticompetitive harm (in cases like Intel, N-Data and Google, among others) brought into stark relief the potential risks of an unfettered, active Section 5. Commissioner Wright’s Statement can be seen as the unintended culmination of—and backlash against—Leibowitz’s Section 5 campaign.

Particularly given the novelty of circumstances that might come within Section 5’s ambit, the error-cost minimizing structure of Commissioner Wright’s proposed Statement is enormously important. As one of us (Manne) notes in the paper, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust (co-authored with then-Professor Wright),

Both product and business innovations involve novel practices, and such practices generally result in monopoly explanations from the economics profession followed by hostility from the courts (though sometimes in reverse order) and then a subsequent, more nuanced economic understanding of the business practice usually recognizing its procompetitive virtues.

And as Wright’s Statement notes,

This is particularly true if business conduct is novel or takes place within an emerging or rapidly changing industry, and thus where there is little empirical evidence about the conduct’s potential competitive effects.

The high cost and substantial risk of over-enforcement arising from unbounded Section 5 authority counsel strongly in favor of Wright’s Statement restricting Section 5 to minimize these error costs.

Thus, while the specifics matter, of course, the real import of Commissioner Wright’s Statement is in some ways structural: If adopted, it would both bring much needed, basic guidance to the scope of the FTC’s Section 5 authority; just as important, it would constrain (an important aspect of) the FTC’s enforcement discretion within the error cost framework, bringing the sound economic grounding of antitrust law and economics to Section 5, benefiting consumers as well as commerce generally:

This Policy Statement benefits both consumers and the business community by relying on modern economics and antitrust jurisprudence to strengthen the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provide clear guidance about the contours of the Commission’s Section 5 authority.

For Wright, this is about saving Section 5 from its ill-defined and improperly deployed history. As he noted in his speech this morning,

In undertaking this task, I think it is important to recall why the Commission’s use of Section 5 has failed to date. In my view, this failure is principally because the Commission has sought to do too much with Section 5, and in so doing, called into serious question whether it has any limits whatsoever. In order to save Section 5, and to fulfill the vision Congress had for this important statute, the Commission must recast its unfair methods of competition authority with an eye toward regulatory humility in order to effectively target plainly anticompetitive conduct….. I believe that doing anything less would betray our obligation as responsible stewards of the Commission and its competition mission, and may ultimately result in the Commission having its Section 5 authority defined for it by the courts, or worse, having that authority completely revoked by Congress.

This means circumscribing the FTC’s Section 5 authority to limit enforcement to cases where the Commission shows both actual harm to competition and the absence of cognizable efficiencies.

The Status Quo

Both together and separately, we’ve discussed the problems with the Section 5 status quo in numerous places, including:

To summarize: The problem is that Section 5 enforcement standards in the unfairness context are non-existent. Former Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch, in particular, have, in several places, argued for expanded use of Section 5, both as a way around judicial limits on the scope of Sherman Act enforcement, as well as as an affirmative tool to enforce the FTC’s mandate. As the Commission’s statement in the N-Data case concluded:

We recognize that some may criticize the Commission for broadly (but appropriately) applying our unfairness authority to stop the conduct alleged in this Complaint. But the cost of ignoring this particularly pernicious problem is too high. Using our statutory authority to its fullest extent is not only consistent with the Commission’s obligations, but also essential to preserving a free and dynamic marketplace.

The problem is that neither the Commission, the courts nor Congress has defined what, exactly, the “fullest extent” of the FTC’s statutory authority is. As Commissioner Wright noted in this morning’s speech,

In practice, however, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of the commissioners believes that it is.

The Commission’s claim that it applied its authority “broadly (but appropriately)” in N-Data is unsupported and unsupportable. As Commissioner Ohlhausen put it in her dissent in In re Bosch,

I simply do not see any meaningful limiting principles in the enforcement policy laid out in these cases. The Commission statement emphasizes the context here (i.e. standard setting); however, it is not clear why the type of conduct that is targeted here (i.e. a breach of an allegedly implied contract term with no allegation of deception) would not be targeted by the Commission in any other context where the Commission believes consumer harm may result. If the Commission continues on the path begun in N-Data and extended here, we will be policing garden variety breach-of-contract and other business disputes between private parties….

It is important that government strive for transparency and predictability. Before invoking Section 5 to address business conduct not already covered by the antitrust laws (other than perhaps invitations to collude), the Commission should fully articulate its views about what constitutes an unfair method of competition, including the general parameters of unfair conduct and where Section 5 overlaps and does not overlap with the antitrust laws, and how the Commission will exercise its enforcement discretion under Section 5. Otherwise, the Commission runs a serious risk of failure in the courts and a possible hostile legislative reaction, both of which have accompanied previous FTC attempts to use Section 5 more expansively.

This consent does nothing either to legitimize the creative, yet questionable application of Section 5 to these types of cases or to provide guidance to standard-setting participants or the business community at large as to what does and does not constitute a Section 5 violation. Rather, it raises more questions about what limits the majority of the Commission would place on its expansive use of Section 5 authority.

Commissioner Wright’s proposed Policy Statement attempts to remedy these defects, and, in the process, explains why the Commission’s previous, broad applications of the statute are not, in fact, appropriate.

Requirement #1: Harm to Competition

It should go without saying that anticompetitive harm is a basic prerequisite of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Sadly, however, this has not been the case. As the FTC has, in recent years, undertaken enforcement actions intended to expand its antitrust authority, it has interpreted far too expansively the Supreme Court’s statement in FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists that Section 5 contemplates

not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons.

But “against public policy for other reasons” does not mean “without economic basis,” and there is no indication that Congress intended to give the FTC unfettered authority unbounded by economically sensible limits on what constitutes a cognizable harm. As one of us (Manne) has written,

Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has understood (and courts have demanded) that antitrust enforcement . . . requires demonstrable consumer harm to apply. But this latest effort reveals an agency pursuing an interpretation of Section 5 that would give it unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional antitrust measures — reduction in output or an output-reducing increase in price — but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.

Commissioner Wright’s Statement and its reasoning are consistent with Congressional intent on the limits of the “public policy” rationale in Section 5’s “other” unfairness authority, now enshrined in Section 45(n) of the FTC Act:

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.

While not entirely foreclosing the possibility of other indicia of harm to competition, Wright provides a clear statement of what would constitute Section 5 UMC harm under his standard:

Conduct that results in harm to competition, and in turn, in harm to consumer welfare, typically does so through increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate.

This means is that, among other things, “reduction in consumer choice” is not, by itself, a cognizable harm under Section 5, just as it is not under the antitrust laws. As one of us (Manne) has discussed previously:

Most problematically, Commissioner Rosch has suggested that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice” without requiring any evidence that conduct actually reduces consumer welfare…. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by a competitor’s conduct.

The clear limit on “consumer choice” claims contemplated by Wright’s Statement is another of its important benefits.

But Wright emphatically rejects proposals to limit Section 5 to mean only what the antitrust laws themselves mean. Section 5 does extend beyond the limits of the antitrust laws in encompassing conduct that is likely to result in harm to competition, although it hasn’t yet.

Because prospective enforcement of Section 5 against allegedly anticompetitive practices that may turn out not to be harmful imposes significant costs, Wright very nicely here also incorporates an error cost approach, requiring a showing of greater harm where the risk of harm is lower:

When the act or practice has not yet harmed competition, the Commission’s assessment must include both the magnitude and probability of competitive harm.  Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission will not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the act or practice poses a risk of substantial harm.

In this category are the uncontroversial “invitation to collude” cases long agreed by just about everyone to be within the ambit of Section 5. But Commissioner Wright also suggests Section 5 is appropriate to prevent

the use by a firm of unfair methods of competition to acquire market power that does not yet rise to the level of monopoly power necessary for a violation of the Sherman Act.

This is somewhat more controversial as it contemplates (as the Statement’s illustrative examples make clear) deception that results in the acquisition of market power.

But most important to note is that, while deception was the basis for the Commission’s enforcement action in Rambus (later reversed by the D.C. Circuit), Commissioner Wright’s Statement would codify the important limitation (partly developed in Wright’s own work) on such cases that the deception must be the cause of an acquisition of market power.

Requirement #2: Absence of Cognizable Efficiencies

The real work in Wright’s Statement is done by the limitation on UMC enforcement in cases where the complained-of practice produces cognizable efficiencies. This is not a balancing test or a rule of reason. It is a safe harbor for cases where conduct is efficient, regardless of its effect on competition otherwise:

The Commission therefore creates a clear safe harbor that provides firms with certainty that their conduct can be challenged as an unfair method of competition only in the absence of efficiencies.

As noted at the outset, this is the most important and ambitious effort we know of to incorporate the error cost framework into FTC antitrust enforcement policy. This aspect of the Statement takes seriously the harm that can arise from the agency’s discretion, uncertainty over competitive effects (especially in “likely to cause” cases) and the imbalance of power and costs inherent in the FTC’s Part III adjudication to tip the scale back toward avoidance of erroneous over-enforcement.

Importantly, Commissioner Wright called out the last of these in his speech this morning, describing the fundamental imbalance that his Statement seeks to address:

The uncertainty surrounding the scope of Section 5 is exacerbated by the administrative procedures available to the Commission for litigating unfair methods claims. This combination gives the Commission the ability to, in some cases, take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Section 5 by challenging conduct as an unfair method of competition and eliciting a settlement even though the conduct in question very likely would not violate the traditional federal antitrust laws. This is because firms typically will prefer to settle a Section 5 claim rather than going through lengthy and costly administrative litigation in which they are both shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them. Such settlements only perpetuate the uncertainty that exists as a result of ambiguity associated with the Commission’s Section 5 authority by encouraging a process by which the contours of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority are drawn without any meaningful adversarial proceeding or substantive analysis of the Commission’s authority.

In essence, by removing the threat of Section 5 enforcement where efficiencies are cognizable, Wright’s Statement avoids the risk of Type I error, prioritizing the possible realization of efficiencies over possible anticompetitive harm with a bright line rule that avoids attempting to balance the one against the other:

The Commission employs an efficiencies screen to establish a test with clear and predictable results that prevents arbitrary enforcement of the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority, to focus the agency’s resources on conduct most likely to harm consumers, and to avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing business practices.

Moreover, the FTC bears the burden of demonstrating that its enforcement meets the efficiencies test, ensuring that the screen doesn’t become simply a rule of reason balancing:

The Commission bears the ultimate burden in establishing that the act or practice lacks cognizable efficiencies. Once a firm has offered initial evidence to substantiate its efficiency claims, the Commission must demonstrate why the efficiencies are not cognizable.

Fundamentally, as Commissioner Wright explained in his speech,

Anticompetitive conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies is the most likely to harm consumers because it is without any redeeming consumer benefits. The efficiency screen also works to ensure that welfare-enhancing conduct is not inadvertently deterred…. The Supreme Court has long recognized that erroneous condemnation of procompetitive conduct significantly reduces consumer welfare by deterring investment in efficiency-enhancing business practices. To avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing conduct, my proposed Policy Statement limits the use of Section 5 to conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies.

The Big Picture

Wright’s proposed Policy Statement is well thought out and much needed. It offers clear guidance for companies navigating the FTC’s murky Section 5 waters, and it offers clear, economically grounded limits on the FTC’s UMC enforcement authority. While preserving a scope of enforcement authority for Section 5 beyond the antitrust statutes (including against deceptive conduct that harms competition without any corresponding efficiency justification), it nevertheless reins in the most troubling abuses of that authority by clearly prohibiting the agency’s unprincipled enforcement actions in cases like N-Data, Google and Rambus, all of which failed to establish a connection between the complained-of conduct and harm to competition or else ignored clear efficiencies (particularly Google).

No doubt some agency watchers will criticize the Statement, labeling it reflexively deregulatory. But remember this isn’t being proposed in a vacuum. Commissioner Wright’s Statement defines only what should be a fairly narrow set of cases beyond the antitrust statutes’ reach. The Sherman Act doesn’t disappear because Section 5 is circumscribed, and the most recent controversial Section 5 cases could all theoretically have been plead solely as Section 2 cases (although they may well have failed).

What does change is the possibility of recourse to Section 5 as a means of avoiding the standards established by the courts in enforcing and interpreting the Sherman Act.

The Statement does not represent a restriction of antitrust enforcement authority unless you take as your starting point the agency’s recent unsupported and expansive interpretation of Section 5—a version of Section 5 that was never intended to, and doesn’t, exist. Wright’s Statement is, rather, a bulwark against unprincipled regulatory expansion: a sensible grounding of a statute with a checkered past and a penchant for mischief.

Chairman Leibowitz and Commissioner Rosch, in defending the use and expansion of Section 5, argued in Intel that it was necessary to circumvent judicial limitations on the enforcement of Section 2 aimed only at private plaintiffs (like, you know, demonstration of anticompetitive harm, basic pleading standards…)—basically the FTC’s “get out of Trinko free” card. According to Leibowitz, the Court’s economically rigorous, error-cost jurisprudence in cases like linkline, Trinko, Leegin, Twombly, and Brook Group were aimed at private plaintiffs, not agency actions:

But I also believe that the result, at least in the aggregate, is that some anticompetitive behavior is not being stopped—in part because the FTC and DOJ are saddled with court-based restrictions that are designed to circumscribe private litigation. Simply put, consumers can still suffer plenty of harm for reasons not encompassed by the Sherman Act as it is currently enforced in the federal courts.

The claim is meritless (as one of us (Manne) discussed here, for example). But it helps to make clear what the problem with current Section 5 standards are: There are no standards, only post hoc rationalizations to justify pursuing Section 2 cases without the cumbersome baggage of its jurisprudential limits.

The recent Supreme Court cases mentioned above are only the most recent examples of a decades-long jurisprudential trend incorporating modern economic thinking into antitrust law and recognizing the error-cost tradeoff. These cases have served to remove certain conduct (at least without appropriate evidence and analysis) from the reach of Section 2 in a measured, accretive fashion over the last 40 years or so. They have by no means made antitrust irrelevant, and the agencies and private plaintiffs alike bring and win cases all the time—and this doesn’t even measure the conduct that is deterred by the threat of enforcement.  The limits on Section 5 suggested by Commissioner Wright’s Statement are marginal limits on the scope of antitrust beyond the Sherman Act, Clayton Act and other statutes. There is nothing in the legislative history or plain language of Section 5 to suggest adopting a more expansive approach, in effect using it to undo what the courts have methodically done.

It is also worth noting that not only the antitrust laws, but also the the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) prong of Section 5 exerts a regulatory constraint on business conduct, proscribing deception, for example, as a consumer protection matter—without having to prove the existence of market power or its abuse. This also forms a piece of the institutional backdrop against which Wright’s proposed Policy Statement must be adjudged.

Wright was a leading critic of the agency’s expansive use of Section 5 before he joined the Commission, both at Truth on the Market as well as in longer writing.  He has, correctly, seen it as a serious problem in need of remedying for quite some time. It is gratifying that Wright is continuing this work now that he is on the Commission, where he is no longer relegated merely to critiquing the agency but is in a position to try to transform it himself.

What remains needed is the political will to move this draft Policy Statement to adoption by the full Commission—something Chairman Ramirez is not likely to embrace without considerable pressure from Congress and/or the antitrust community. In the modest service of fulfilling this need, ICLE and TechFreedom intend to host later this year the first of what we hope will be several workshops on Commissioner Wright’s Statement and the broader topic of Section 5 enforcement reform. If the Commission won’t do it, the private sector will have to step in. For a taste of our perspective, check out the amicus brief we recently filed with FTC law scholars (Todd Zywicki, Paul Rubin and Gus Hurwitz) in the case of FTC v. Wyndham, which may be the first case to really test how the FTC uses is unfairness authority in consumer protection cases.