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The CPI Antitrust Chronicle published Geoffrey Manne’s and my recent paperThe Problems and Perils of Bootstrapping Privacy and Data into an Antitrust Framework as part of a symposium on Big Data in the May 2015 issue. All of the papers are worth reading and pondering, but of course ours is the best ;).

In it, we analyze two of the most prominent theories of antitrust harm arising from data collection: privacy as a factor of non-price competition, and price discrimination facilitated by data collection. We also analyze whether data is serving as a barrier to entry and effectively preventing competition. We argue that, in the current marketplace, there are no plausible harms to competition arising from either non-price effects or price discrimination due to data collection online and that there is no data barrier to entry preventing effective competition.

The issues of how to regulate privacy issues and what role competition authorities should in that, are only likely to increase in importance as the Internet marketplace continues to grow and evolve. The European Commission and the FTC have been called on by scholars and advocates to take greater consideration of privacy concerns during merger review and encouraged to even bring monopolization claims based upon data dominance. These calls should be rejected unless these theories can satisfy the rigorous economic review of antitrust law. In our humble opinion, they cannot do so at this time.

Excerpts:

PRIVACY AS AN ELEMENT OF NON-PRICE COMPETITION

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application.

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist.

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

PRICE DISCRIMINATION AS A PRIVACY HARM

If non-price effects cannot be relied upon to establish competitive injury (as explained above), then what can be the basis for incorporating privacy concerns into antitrust? One argument is that major data collectors (e.g., Google and Facebook) facilitate price discrimination.

The argument can be summed up as follows: Price discrimination could be a harm to consumers that antitrust law takes into consideration. Because companies like Google and Facebook are able to collect a great deal of data about their users for analysis, businesses could segment groups based on certain characteristics and offer them different deals. The resulting price discrimination could lead to many consumers paying more than they would in the absence of the data collection. Therefore, the data collection by these major online companies facilitates price discrimination that harms consumer welfare.

This argument misses a large part of the story, however. The flip side is that price discrimination could have benefits to those who receive lower prices from the scheme than they would have in the absence of the data collection, a possibility explored by the recent White House Report on Big Data and Differential Pricing.

While privacy advocates have focused on the possible negative effects of price discrimination to one subset of consumers, they generally ignore the positive effects of businesses being able to expand output by serving previously underserved consumers. It is inconsistent with basic economic logic to suggest that a business relying on metrics would want to serve only those who can pay more by charging them a lower price, while charging those who cannot afford it a larger one. If anything, price discrimination would likely promote more egalitarian outcomes by allowing companies to offer lower prices to poorer segments of the population—segments that can be identified by data collection and analysis.

If this group favored by “personalized pricing” is as big as—or bigger than—the group that pays higher prices, then it is difficult to state that the practice leads to a reduction in consumer welfare, even if this can be divorced from total welfare. Again, the question becomes one of magnitudes that has yet to be considered in detail by privacy advocates.

DATA BARRIER TO ENTRY

Either of these theories of harm is predicated on the inability or difficulty of competitors to develop alternative products in the marketplace—the so-called “data barrier to entry.” The argument is that upstarts do not have sufficient data to compete with established players like Google and Facebook, which in turn employ their data to both attract online advertisers as well as foreclose their competitors from this crucial source of revenue. There are at least four reasons to be dubious of such arguments:

  1. Data is useful to all industries, not just online companies;
  2. It’s not the amount of data, but how you use it;
  3. Competition online is one click or swipe away; and
  4. Access to data is not exclusive

CONCLUSION

Privacy advocates have thus far failed to make their case. Even in their most plausible forms, the arguments for incorporating privacy and data concerns into antitrust analysis do not survive legal and economic scrutiny. In the absence of strong arguments suggesting likely anticompetitive effects, and in the face of enormous analytical problems (and thus a high risk of error cost), privacy should remain a matter of consumer protection, not of antitrust.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the FTC Bureau of Competition staff report to the commissioners in the Google antitrust investigation recommended that the Commission approve an antitrust suit against the company.

While this is excellent fodder for a few hours of Twitter hysteria, it takes more than 140 characters to delve into the nuances of a 20-month federal investigation. And the bottom line is, frankly, pretty ho-hum.

As I said recently,

One of life’s unfortunate certainties, as predictable as death and taxes, is this: regulators regulate.

The Bureau of Competition staff is made up of professional lawyers — many of them litigators, whose existence is predicated on there being actual, you know, litigation. If you believe in human fallibility at all, you have to expect that, when they err, FTC staff errs on the side of too much, rather than too little, enforcement.

So is it shocking that the FTC staff might recommend that the Commission undertake what would undoubtedly have been one of the agency’s most significant antitrust cases? Hardly.

Nor is it surprising that the commissioners might not always agree with staff. In fact, staff recommendations are ignored all the time, for better or worse. Here are just a few examples: R.J Reynolds/Brown & Williamson merger, POM Wonderful , Home Shopping Network/QVC merger, cigarette advertising. No doubt there are many, many more.

Regardless, it also bears pointing out that the staff did not recommend the FTC bring suit on the central issue of search bias “because of the strong procompetitive justifications Google has set forth”:

Complainants allege that Google’s conduct is anticompetitive because if forecloses alternative search platforms that might operate to constrain Google’s dominance in search and search advertising. Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission issue a complaint against Google for this conduct.

But this caveat is enormous. To report this as the FTC staff recommending a case is seriously misleading. Here they are forbearing from bringing 99% of the case against Google, and recommending suit on the marginal 1% issues. It would be more accurate to say, “FTC staff recommends no case against Google, except on a couple of minor issues which will be immediately settled.”

And in fact it was on just these minor issues that Google agreed to voluntary commitments to curtail some conduct when the FTC announced it was not bringing suit against the company.

The Wall Street Journal quotes some other language from the staff report bolstering the conclusion that this is a complex market, the conduct at issue was ambiguous (at worst), and supporting the central recommendation not to sue:

We are faced with a set of facts that can most plausibly be accounted for by a narrative of mixed motives: one in which Google’s course of conduct was premised on its desire to innovate and to produce a high quality search product in the face of competition, blended with the desire to direct users to its own vertical offerings (instead of those of rivals) so as to increase its own revenues. Indeed, the evidence paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors, and likely helped to entrench Google’s monopoly power over search and search advertising.

On a global level, the record will permit Google to show substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.

This is exactly when you want antitrust enforcers to forbear. Predicting anticompetitive effects is difficult, and conduct that could be problematic is simultaneously potentially vigorous competition.

That the staff concluded that some of what Google was doing “harmed competitors” isn’t surprising — there were lots of competitors parading through the FTC on a daily basis claiming Google harmed them. But antitrust is about protecting consumers, not competitors. Far more important is the staff finding of “substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.”

Indeed, the combination of “substantial innovation,” “intense competition from Microsoft and others,” and “Google’s strong procompetitive justifications” suggests a well-functioning market. It similarly suggests an antitrust case that the FTC would likely have lost. The FTC’s litigators should probably be grateful that the commissioners had the good sense to vote to close the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal also reports that the FTC’s Bureau of Economics simultaneously recommended that the Commission not bring suit at all against Google. It is not uncommon for the lawyers and the economists at the Commission to disagree. And as a general (though not inviolable) rule, we should be happy when the Commissioners side with the economists.

While the press, professional Google critics, and the company’s competitors may want to make this sound like a big deal, the actual facts of the case and a pretty simple error-cost analysis suggests that not bringing a case was the correct course.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama criticized the Bush Administration for “the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century” and promised “to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.”  In particular, he singled out allegedly lax monopolization and merger enforcement as areas needing improvement, and also vowed “aggressive action to curb the growth of international cartels.”

The Obama Administration has now been in office for six years.  Has its antitrust enforcement record been an improvement over the Bush record, more of the same, or is its record worse?  Most importantly, have the Obama Administration’s enforcement initiatives been good or bad for the free market system, and the overall American economy?

On January 29 a Heritage Foundation Conference will address these questions.  You can register to attend this conference in person or watch it live at Heritage’s website.

The conference will feature an all start lineup of top antitrust enforcers and scholars, including four former Justice Department Assistant Attorneys General for Antitrust; a former Federal Trade Commission Chairman; two current Federal Trade Commissioners; five former senior antitrust enforcement officials; a distinguished federal appellate judge famous for his antitrust opinions; and a leading comparative antitrust law expert.  Separate panels will address FTC, Justice Department, and international developments.  Our leadoff speaker will be GWU Law School Professor and former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic.

As an added bonus, around the time of the conference Heritage will be releasing a new paper by Professor Thom Lambert that analyzes recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and federal antitrust enforcement applying a “limits of antitrust” decision-theoretic framework.  Stay tuned.

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.