Archives For exclusive dealing

Last Monday, a group of nineteen scholars of antitrust law and economics, including yours truly, urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reverse the Federal Trade Commission’s recent McWane ruling.

McWane, the largest seller of domestically produced iron pipe fittings (DIPF), would sell its products only to distributors that “fully supported” its fittings by carrying them exclusively.  There were two exceptions: where McWane products were not readily available, and where the distributor purchased a McWane rival’s pipe along with its fittings.  A majority of the FTC ruled that McWane’s policy constituted illegal exclusive dealing.

Commissioner Josh Wright agreed that the policy amounted to exclusive dealing, but he concluded that complaint counsel had failed to prove that the exclusive dealing constituted unreasonably exclusionary conduct in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.  Commissioner Wright emphasized that complaint counsel had produced no direct evidence of anticompetitive harm (i.e., an actual increase in prices or decrease in output), even though McWane’s conduct had already run its course.  Indeed, the direct evidence suggested an absence of anticompetitive effect, as McWane’s chief rival, Star, grew in market share at exactly the same rate during and after the time of McWane’s exclusive dealing.

Instead of focusing on direct evidence of competitive effect, complaint counsel pointed to a theoretical anticompetitive harm: that McWane’s exclusive dealing may have usurped so many sales from Star that Star could not achieve minimum efficient scale.  The only evidence as to what constitutes minimum efficient scale in the industry, though, was Star’s self-serving statement that it would have had lower average costs had it operated at a scale sufficient to warrant ownership of its own foundry.  As Commissioner Wright observed, evidence in the record showed that other pipe fitting producers had successfully entered the market and grown market share substantially without owning their own foundry.  Thus, actual market experience seemed to undermine Star’s self-serving testimony.

Commissioner Wright also observed that complaint counsel produced no evidence showing what percentage of McWane’s sales of DIPF might have gone to other sellers absent McWane’s exclusive dealing policy.  Only those “contestable” sales – not all of McWane’s sales to distributors subject to the full support policy – should be deemed foreclosed by McWane’s exclusive dealing.  Complaint counsel also failed to quantify sales made to McWane’s rivals under the generous exceptions to its policy.  These deficiencies prevented complaint counsel from adequately establishing the degree of market foreclosure caused by McWane’s policy – the first (but not last!) step in establishing the alleged anticompetitive harm.

In our amicus brief, we antitrust scholars take Commissioner Wright’s side on these matters.  We also observe that the Commission failed to account for an important procompetitive benefit of McWane’s policy:  it prevented rival DIPF sellers from “cherry-picking” the most popular, highest margin fittings and selling only those at prices that could be lower than McWane’s because the cherry-pickers didn’t bear the costs of producing the full line of fittings.  Such cherry-picking is a form of free-riding because every producer’s fittings are more highly valued if a full line is available.  McWane’s policy prevented the sort of free-riding that would have made its production of a full line uneconomical.

In short, the FTC’s decision made it far too easy to successfully challenge exclusive dealing arrangements, which are usually procompetitive, and calls into question all sorts of procompetitive full-line forcing arrangements.  Hopefully, the Eleventh Circuit will correct the Commission’s mistake.

Other professors signing the brief include:

  • Tom Arthur, Emory Law
  • Roger Blair, Florida Business
  • Don Boudreaux, George Mason Economics (and Café Hayek)
  • Henry Butler, George Mason Law
  • Dan Crane, Michigan Law (and occasional TOTM contributor)
  • Richard Epstein, NYU and Chicago Law
  • Ken Elzinga, Virginia Economics
  • Damien Geradin, George Mason Law
  • Gus Hurwitz, Nebraska Law (and TOTM)
  • Keith Hylton, Boston University Law
  • Geoff Manne, International Center for Law and Economics (and TOTM)
  • Fred McChesney, Miami Law
  • Tom Morgan, George Washington Law
  • Barack Orbach, Arizona Law
  • Bill Page, Florida Law
  • Paul Rubin, Emory Economics (and TOTM)
  • Mike Sykuta, Missouri Economics (and TOTM)
  • Todd Zywicki, George Mason Law (and Volokh Conspiracy)

The brief’s “Summary of Argument” follows the jump. Continue Reading…

Last week a group of startup investors wrote a letter to protest what they assume FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed, revised Open Internet NPRM will say.

Bear in mind that an NPRM is a proposal, not a final rule, and its issuance starts a public comment period. Bear in mind, as well, that the proposal isn’t public yet, presumably none of the signatories to this letter has seen it, and the devil is usually in the details. That said, the letter has been getting a lot of press.

I found the letter seriously wanting, and seriously disappointing. But it’s a perfect example of what’s so wrong with this interminable debate on net neutrality.

Below I reproduce the letter in full, in quotes, with my comments interspersed. The key take-away: Neutrality (or non-discrimination) isn’t what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is zero-cost access by content providers to broadband networks. One can surely understand why content providers and those who fund them want their costs of doing business to be lower. But the rhetoric of net neutrality is mismatched with this goal. It’s no wonder they don’t just come out and say it – it’s quite a remarkable claim.

Open Internet Investors Letter

The Honorable Tom Wheeler, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington D.C. 20554

May 8, 2014

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

We write to express our support for a free and open Internet.

We invest in entrepreneurs, investing our own funds and those of our investors (who are individuals, pension funds, endowments, and financial institutions).  We often invest at the earliest stages, when companies include just a handful of founders with largely unproven ideas. But, without lawyers, large teams or major revenues, these small startups have had the opportunity to experiment, adapt, and grow, thanks to equal access to the global market.

“Equal” access has nothing to do with it. No startup is inherently benefitted by being “equal” to others. Maybe this is just careless drafting. But frankly, as I’ll discuss, there are good reasons to think (contra the pro-net neutrality narrative) that startups will be helped by inequality (just like contra the (totally wrong) accepted narrative, payola helps new artists). It says more than they would like about what these investors really want that they advocate “equality” despite the harm it may impose on startups (more on this later).

Presumably what “equal” really means here is “zero cost”: “As long as my startup pays nothing for access to ISPs’ subscribers, it’s fine that we’re all on equal footing.” Wheeler has stated his intent that his proposal would require any prioritization to be available to any who want it, on equivalent, commercially reasonable terms. That’s “equal,” too, so what’s to complain about? But it isn’t really inequality that’s gotten everyone so upset.

Of course, access is never really “zero cost;” start-ups wouldn’t need investors if their costs were zero. In that sense, why is equality of ISP access any more important than other forms of potential equality? Why not mandate price controls on rent? Why not mandate equal rent? A cost is a cost. What’s really going on here is that, like Netflix, these investors want to lower their costs and raise their returns as much as possible, and they want the government to do it for them.

As a result, some of the startups we have invested in have managed to become among the most admired, successful, and influential companies in the world.

No startup became successful as a result of “equality” or even zero-cost access to broadband. No doubt some of their business models were predicated on that assumption. But it didn’t cause their success.

We have made our investment decisions based on the certainty of a level playing field and of assurances against discrimination and access fees from Internet access providers.

And they would make investment decisions based on the possibility of an un-level playing field if that were the status quo. More importantly, the businesses vying for investment dollars might be different ones if they built their business models in a different legal/economic environment. So what? This says nothing about the amount of investment, the types of businesses, the quality of businesses that would arise under a different set of rules. It says only that past specific investments might not have been made.

Unless the contention is that businesses would be systematically worse under a different rule, this is irrelevant. I have seen that claim made, and it’s implicit here, of course, but I’ve seen no evidence to actually support it. Businesses thrive in unequal, cost-ladened environments all the time. It costs about $4 million/30 seconds to advertise during the Super Bowl. Budweiser and PepsiCo paid multiple millions this year to do so; many of their competitors didn’t. With inequality like that, it’s a wonder Sierra Nevada and Dr. Pepper haven’t gone bankrupt.

Indeed, our investment decisions in Internet companies are dependent upon the certainty of an equal-opportunity marketplace.

Again, no they’re not. Equal opportunity is a euphemism for zero cost, or else this is simply absurd on its face. Are these investors so lacking in creativity and ability that they can invest only when there is certainty of equal opportunity? Don’t investors thrive – aren’t they most needed – in environments where arbitrage is possible, where a creative entrepreneur can come up with a risky, novel way to take advantage of differential conditions better than his competitors? Moreover, the implicit equating of “equal-opportunity marketplace” with net neutrality rules is far-fetched. Is that really all that matters?

This is a good time to make a point that is so often missed: The loudest voices for net neutrality are the biggest companies – Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc. That fact should give these investors and everyone else serious pause. Their claim rests on the idea that “equality” is needed, so big companies can’t use an Internet “fast lane” to squash them. Google is decidedly a big company. So why do the big boys want this so much?

The battle is often pitched as one of ISPs vs. (small) content providers. But content providers have far less to worry about and face far less competition from broadband providers than from big, incumbent competitors. It is often claimed that “Netflix was able to pay Comcast’s toll, but a small startup won’t have that luxury.” But Comcast won’t even notice or care about a small startup; its traffic demands will be inconsequential. Netflix can afford to pay for Internet access for precisely the same reason it came to Comcast’s attention: It’s hugely successful, and thus creates a huge amount of traffic.

Based on news reports and your own statements, we are worried that your proposed rules will not provide the necessary certainty that we need to make investment decisions and that these rules will stifle innovation in the Internet sector.

Now, there’s little doubt that legal certainty aids investment decisions. But “certainty” is not in danger here. The rules have to change because the court said so – with pretty clear certainty. And a new rule is not inherently any more or less likely to offer certainty than the previous Open Internet Order, which itself was subject to intense litigation (obviously) and would have been subject to interpretation and inconsistent enforcement (and would have allowed all kinds of paid prioritization, too!). Certainty would be good, but Wheeler’s proposed rule won’t likely do anything about the amount of certainty one way or the other.

If established companies are able to pay for better access speeds or lower latency, the Internet will no longer be a level playing field. Start-ups with applications that are advantaged by speed (such as games, video, or payment systems) will be unlikely to overcome that deficit no matter how innovative their service.

Again, it’s notable that some of the strongest advocates for net neutrality are established companies. Another letter sent out last week included signatures from a bunch of startups, but also Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo!, among others.

In truth it’s hard to see why startup investors would think this helps them. Non-neutrality offers the prospect that a startup might be able to buy priority access to overcome the inherent disadvantage of newness, and to better compete with an established company. Neutrality means that that competitive advantage is impossible, and the baseline relative advantages and disadvantages remain – which helps incumbents, not startups. With a neutral Internet – well, the advantages of the incumbent competitor can’t be dissipated by a startup buying a favorable leg-up in speed and the Netflix’s of the world will be more likely to continue to dominate.

Of course the claim is that incumbents will use their huge resources to gain even more advantage with prioritized access. Implicit in this must be the assumption that the advantage that could be gained by a startup buying priority offers less return for the startup than the cost imposed on it by the inherent disadvantages of reputation, brand awareness, customer base, etc. But that’s not plausible for all or even most startups. And investors exist precisely because they are able to provide funds for which there is a likelihood of a good return – so if paying for priority would help overcome inherent disadvantages, there would be money for it.

Also implicit is the claim that the benefits to incumbents (over and above their natural advantages) from paying for priority, in terms of hamstringing new entrants, will outweigh the cost. This is unlikely generally to be true, as well. They already have advantages. Sure, sometimes they might want to pay for more, but in precisely the cases where it would be worth it to do so, the new entrant would also be most benefited by doing so itself – ensuring, again, that investment funds will be available.

Of course if both incumbents and startups decide paying for priority is better, we’re back to a world of “equality,” so what’s to complain about, based on this letter? This puts into stark relief that what these investors really want is government-mandated, subsidized broadband access, not “equality.”

Now, it’s conceivable that that is the optimal state of affairs, but if it is, it isn’t for the reasons given here, nor has anyone actually demonstrated that it is the case.

Entrepreneurs will need to raise money to buy fast lane services before they have proven that consumers want their product. Investors will extract more equity from entrepreneurs to compensate for the risk.

Internet applications will not be able to afford to create a relationship with millions of consumers by making their service freely available and then build a business over time as they better understand the value consumers find in their service (which is what Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Dropbox and virtually other consumer Internet service did to achieve scale).

In other words: “Subsidize us. We’re worth it.” Maybe. But this is probably more revealing than intended. The Internet cost something to someone to build. (Actually, it cost more than a trillion dollars to broadband providers). This just says “we shouldn’t have to pay them for it now.” Fine, but who, then, and how do you know that forcing someone else to subsidize these startup companies will actually lead to better results? Mightn’t we get less broadband investment such that there is little Internet available for these companies to take advantage of in the first place? If broadband consumers instead of content consumers foot the bill, is that clearly preferable, either from a social welfare perspective, or even the self interest of these investors who, after all, do ultimately rely on consumer spending to earn their return?

Moreover, why is this “build for free, then learn how to monetize over time” business model necessarily better than any other? These startup investors know better than anyone that enshrining existing business models just because they exist is the antithesis of innovation and progress. But that’s exactly what they’re saying – “the successful companies of the past did it this way, so we should get a government guarantee to preserve our ability to do it, too!”

This is the most depressing implication of this letter. These investors and others like them have been responsible for financing enormously valuable innovations. If even they can’t see the hypocrisy of these claims for net neutrality – and worse, choose to propagate it further – then we really have come to a sad place. When innovators argue passionately for stagnation, we’re in trouble.

Instead, creators will have to ask permission of an investor or corporate hierarchy before they can launch. Ideas will be vetted by committees and quirky passion projects will not get a chance. An individual in dorm room or a design studio will not be able to experiment out loud on the Internet. The result will be greater conformity, fewer surprises, and less innovation.

This is just a little too much protest. Creators already have to ask “permission” – or are these investors just opening up their bank accounts to whomever wants their money? The ones that are able to do it on a shoestring, with money saved up from babysitting gigs, may find higher costs, and the need to do more babysitting. But again, there is nothing special about the Internet in this. Let’s mandate zero cost office space and office supplies and developer services and design services and . . . etc. for all – then we’ll have way more “permission-less” startups. If it’s just a handout they want, they should say so, instead of pretending there is a moral or economic welfare basis for their claims.

Further, investors like us will be wary of investing in anything that access providers might consider part of their future product plans for fear they will use the same technical infrastructure to advantage their own services or use network management as an excuse to disadvantage competitive offerings.

This is crazy. For the same reasons I mentioned above, the big access provider (and big incumbent competitor, for that matter) already has huge advantages. If these investors aren’t already wary of investing in anything that Google or Comcast or Apple or… might plan to compete with, they must be terrible at their jobs.

What’s more, Wheeler’s much-reviled proposal (what we know about it, that is), to say nothing of antitrust law, clearly contemplates exactly this sort of foreclosure and addresses it. “Pure” net neutrality doesn’t add much, if anything, to the limits those laws already do or would provide.

Policing this will be almost impossible (even using a standard of “commercial reasonableness”) and access providers do not need to successfully disadvantage their competition; they just need to create a credible threat so that investors like us will be less inclined to back those companies.

You think policing the world of non-neutrality is hard – try policing neutrality. It’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be. It’s simply never been the case that all bits at all times have been treated “neutrally” on the Internet. Any version of an Open Internet Order (just like the last one, for example) will have to recognize this.

Larry Downes compiled a list of the exceptions included in the last Open Internet Order when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the rules in 2011. There are 16 categories of exemption, covering a wide range of fundamental components of broadband connectivity, from CDNs to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. His testimony is a tour de force, and should be required reading for everyone involved in this debate.

But think about how the manifest advantages of these non-neutral aspects of broadband networks would be squared with “real” neutrality. On their face, if these investors are to be taken at their word, these arguments would preclude all of the Open Internet Order’s exemptions, too. And if any sort of inequality is going to be deemed ok, how accurately would regulators distinguish between “illegitimate” inequality and the acceptable kind that lets coffee shops subsidize broadband? How does the simplistic logic of net equality distinguish between, say, Netflix’s colocated servers and a startup like Uber being integrated into Google Maps? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, and the claims and arguments of this letter are woefully inadequate to the task.

We need simple, strong, enforceable rules against discrimination and access fees, not merely against blocking.

No, we don’t. Or, at least, no one has made that case. These investors want a handout; that is the only case this letter makes.

We encourage the Commission to consider all available jurisdictional tools at its disposal in ensuring a free and open Internet that rewards, not disadvantages, investment and entrepreneurship.

… But not investment in broadband, and not entrepreneurship that breaks with the business models of the past. In reality, this letter is simple rent-seeking: “We want to invest in what we know, in what’s been done before, and we don’t want you to do anything to make that any more costly for us. If that entails impairing broadband investment or imposing costs on others, so be it – we’ll still make our outsized returns, and they can write their own letter complaining about ‘inequality.’”

A final point I have to make. Although the investors don’t come right out and say it, many others have, and it’s implicit in the investors’ letter: “Content providers shouldn’t have to pay for broadband. Users already pay for the service, so making content providers pay would just let ISPs double dip.” The claim is deeply problematic.

For starters, it’s another form of the status quo mentality: “Users have always paid and content hasn’t, so we object to any deviation from that.” But it needn’t be that way. And of course models frequently coexist where different parties pay for the same or similar services. Some periodicals are paid for by readers and offer little or no advertising; others charge a subscription and offer paid ads; and still others are offered for free, funded entirely by ads. All of these models work. None is “better” than the other. There is no reason the same isn’t true for broadband and content.

Net neutrality claims that the only proper price to charge on the content side of the market is zero. (Congratulations: You’re in the same club as that cutting-edge, innovative technology, the check, which is cleared at par by government fiat. A subsidy that no doubt explains why checks have managed to last this long). As an economic matter, that’s possible; it could be that zero is the right price. But it most certainly needn’t be, and issues revolving around Netflix’s traffic and the ability of ISPs and Netflix cost-effectively to handle it are evidence that zero may well not be the right price.

The reality is that these sorts of claims are devoid of economic logic — which is presumably why they, like the whole net neutrality “movement” generally, appeal so gratuitously to emotion rather than reason. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope for more from a bunch of savvy financiers.

 

Commissioner Josh Wright’s dissenting statement in the Federal Trade Commission’s recent McWane proceeding is a must-read for anyone interested in the law and economics of exclusive dealing. Wright dissented from the Commission’s holding that McWane Inc.’s “full support” policy constituted unlawful monopolization of the market for domestic pipe fittings.

Under the challenged policy, McWane, the dominant producer with a 45-50% share of the market for domestic pipe fittings, would sell its products only to distributors that “fully supported” its fittings by carrying them exclusively.  There were two exceptions: where McWane products were not readily available, and where the distributor purchased a McWane rival’s pipe along with its fittings.  A majority of the Commission ruled that McWane’s policy constituted illegal exclusive dealing.  Commissioner Wright agreed that the policy amounted to exclusive dealing, but he concluded that the complainant had failed to prove that the exclusive dealing constituted unreasonably exclusionary conduct in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.

The first half of Wright’s 52-page dissent is an explanatory tour de force.  Wright first explains how and why the Supreme Court rethought its originally inhospitable rules on “vertical restraints” (i.e., trade-limiting agreements between sellers at different levels of the distribution system, such as manufacturers and distributors).  Recognizing that most such restraints enhance overall market output even if they incidentally injure some market participants, courts now condition liability on harm to competition—that is, to overall market output.  Mere harm to an individual competitor is not enough.

Wright then explains how this “harm to competition” requirement manifests itself in actions challenging exclusive dealing.  Several of the antitrust laws—Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act and Section 3 of the Clayton Act—could condemn arrangements in which a seller will deal only with those who purchase its brand exclusively.  Regardless of the particular statute invoked, though, there can be no antitrust liability absent either direct or indirect evidence of anticompetitive (not just anti-competitor) effect.  Direct evidence entails some showing that the exclusive dealing at issue led to lower market output and/or higher prices than would otherwise have prevailed.  Indirect evidence usually involves showings that (1) the exclusive dealing at issue foreclosed the defendant’s rivals from a substantial share of available marketing opportunities; (2) those rivals were therefore driven (or held) below minimum efficient scale (MES), so that their per-unit production costs were held artificially high; and (3) the defendant thereby obtained the ability to price higher than it would have absent the exclusive dealing.

The McWane complainant, Star Pipe Products, Ltd., sought to discharge its proof burden using indirect evidence. It asserted that its per-unit costs would have been lower if it owned a domestic foundry, but it maintained that its 20% market share did not entail sales sufficient to justify foundry construction.  Thus, Star concluded, McWane’s usurping of rivals’ potential sales opportunities through its exclusive dealing policy held Star below MES, raised Star’s per-unit costs, and enhanced McWane’s ability to raise prices.  Voila!  Anticompetitive harm.

Commissioner Wright was not convinced that Star had properly equated MES with sales sufficient to justify foundry construction.  The only record evidence to that effect—evidence the Commission deemed sufficient—was Star’s self-serving testimony that it couldn’t justify building a foundry at its low level of sales and would be a more formidable competitor if it could do so.  Countering that testimony were a couple of critical bits of actual market evidence.

First, the second-largest domestic seller of pipe fittings, Sigma Corp., somehow managed to enter the domestic fittings market and capture a 30% market share (as opposed to Star’s 20%), without owning any of its own production facilities.  Sigma’s entire business model was built on outsourcing, yet it managed to grow sales more than Star.  This suggests that foundry ownership – and, thus, a level of sales sufficient to support foundry construction – may not be necessary for efficient scale in this industry.

Moreover, Star’s own success in the domestic pipe fittings market undermined its suggestion that MES can be achieved only upon reaching a sales level sufficient to support a domestic foundry.  Star entered the domestic pipe fittings market in 2009, quickly grew to a 20% market share, and was on pace to continue growth when the McWane action commenced.  As Commissioner Wright observed, “for Complaint Counsel’s view of MES to make sense on the facts that exist in the record, Star would have to be operating below MES, becoming less efficient over time as McWane’s Full Support Program further raised the costs of distribution, and yet remaining in the market and growing its business.  Such a position strains credulity.”

Besides failing to establish what constitutes MES in the domestic pipe fittings industry, Commissioner Wright asserted, complainant Star also failed to prove the degree of foreclosure occasioned by McWane’s full support program.

First, both Star and the Commission reasoned that all McWane sales to distributors subject to its full support program had been “foreclosed,” via exclusive dealing, to McWane’s competitors.  That is incorrect.  The sales opportunities foreclosed by McWane’s full support policy were those that would have been made to other sellers but for the policy.  In other words, if a distributor, absent the full support policy, would have purchased 70 units from McWane and five from Star but, because of the full support program, purchased all 75 from McWane, the full support program effectively foreclosed Star from five sales opportunities, not 75.  By failing to focus on “contestable” sales—i.e., sales other than those that would have been made to McWane even absent the full support program—Star and the Commission exaggerated the degree of foreclosure resulting from McWane’s exclusive dealing.

Second, neither Star nor the Commission made any effort to quantify the sales made to McWane’s rivals under the two exceptions to McWane’s full support policy.  Such sales were obviously not foreclosed to McWane’s rivals, but both Star and the Commission essentially ignored them.  So, for example, if a distributor that carried McWane’s products (and was thus subject to the full support policy) purchased 70 domestic fittings from McWane and 30 from other producers pursuant to one of the full support program’s exceptions, Star and the Commission counted 100 foreclosed sales opportunities.  Absent information about the number of distributor purchases under exceptions to the full support program, it is simply impossible to assess the degree of foreclosure occasioned by the policy.

In sum, complainant Star – who bore the burden of establishing an anticompetitive (i.e., market output-reducing) effect of the exclusive dealing at issue – failed to show how much foreclosure McWane’s full support program actually created and to produce credible evidence (other than its own self-serving testimony) that the program raised its costs by holding it below MES.  The most Star showed was harm to a competitor – not harm to competition, a prerequisite to liability based on exclusive dealing.      

In addition, several other pieces of evidence suggested that McWane’s exclusive dealing was not anticompetitive.  First, the full support program did not require a commitment of exclusivity for any period of time. Distributors purchasing from McWane could begin carrying rival brands at any point (though doing so might cause McWane to refuse to sell to them in the future).  Courts have often held that short-duration exclusive dealing arrangements are less troubling than longer-term agreements; indeed, a number of courts presume the legality of exclusive dealing contracts of a year or less.  McWane’s policy was of no, not just short, duration.

Second, entry considerations suggested an absence of anticompetitive harm here.  If entry into a market is easy, there is little need to worry that exclusionary conduct will produce market power.  Once the monopolist begins to exercise its power by reducing output and raising price, new entrants will appear on the scene, driving price and output back to competitive levels.  The recent and successful entry of both Star and Sigma, who collectively gained about half the total market share within a short period of time, suggested that entry into the domestic pipe fittings market is easy.

Finally, evidence of actual market performance indicated that McWane’s exclusive dealing policies did not generate anticompetitive effect.  McWane enforced its full support program for the first year of Star’s participation in the domestic fittings market, but not thereafter.  Star’s growth rate, however, was identical before and after McWane stopped enforcing the program.  According to Commissioner Wright, “Neither Complaint Counsel nor the Commission attempt[ed] to explain how growth that is equal with and without the Full Support Program is consistent with Complaint Counsel’s theory of harm that the Program raised Star’s costs of distribution and impaired competition.  The most plausible inference to draw from these particular facts is that the Full Support Program had almost no impact on Star’s ability to enter and grow its business, which, under the case law, strongly counsels against holding that McWane’s conduct was exclusionary.”

***

Because antitrust exists to protect competition, not competitors, an antitrust complainant cannot base a claim of monopolization on the mere fact that its business was injured by the defendant’s conduct.  By the same token, a party complaining of unreasonably exclusionary conduct also ought not to prevail simply because it made self-serving assertions that it would have had more business but for the defendant’s action and would have had lower per-unit costs if it had more business.  If the antitrust is to remain a consumer-focused body of law, claims like Star’s should fail.  Hopefully, Commissioner Wright’s FTC colleagues will eventually see that point.

Dan’s final post responding to Steve’s latest postOther posts in the series: DanSteveDanSteveDan, and Thom.

It seems that it’s time to wind down and that a further tit-for-tat might not be productive, so I’ll close with a final comment on the first point that Steve makes—one that may undergird much of our disagreement.  Steve asserts that “the $71 payment would fail a test of comparing the rival’s price and cost, but that it is not the test.  The test compares the monopolist’s price and cost.”  That would only be true if we were applying an unmodified predatory pricing rule to loyalty rebates—a position that I’ve never advocated in these posts are elsewhere.  If we applied the attribution test that Steve and I have been assuming, the question would be whether the rival could profitably remain in the market given the price it would have to charge to neutralize the effect of the monopolist’s rebate operating at the contestable share and scale.  And, since Steve and I have now agreed that using the rival’s rather than the monopolist’s costs is admissible if we don’t insist on an EEC component, then my statement that the $71 could fail the price-cost screen is accurate.  But if the effective price the rival would have to meet were $69 and not $71, there wouldn’t be any foreclosure—which is why the screen makes sense.

Thanks, Steve, for this impromptu exchange.  I hope that both our fair points and grievous errors have been educational to ourselves and to others.

Steve’s next, perhaps final, installment, responding to Dan’s latest post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts. Other posts in the series: SteveDanSteveDan, and Thom.

My invitation comes with several hopefully final observations.

(1) Dan says, “There’s neither input foreclose nor output foreclosure if a rival can neutralize a loyalty discount without pricing unprofitably.”  My examples showed several reasons why an equally efficient rival may not be able to overcome a loyalty discount to get distribution, even if the monopolist does not violate the price-cost test.  Dan’s response to my #3(a) example is that “a discount structure that would require the entrant to pay rebates of $71 even while earning revenues of $70, then the rebate system would fail the price-cost screen.” That is not a good answer for three reasons.  First, the monopolist’s profits pre-entry absent the rebate are $200, and Dan uses the pre-entry situation as the base.  Second, the $71 payment would fail a test of comparing the rival’s price and cost, but that it is not the test.  The test compares the monopolist’s price and cost.   Third, if Dan now wants to use as the base the “but-for world” where the former-monopolist would earn only $70 because he would have lowered price in response to the entrant absent the loyalty discount, then he is accepting the “penalty price” scenario, which he elsewhere rejected as unlikely.  So, Dan has to make up his mind on this last point.  And the price-cost test is defective either way.

(2) Dan says, “Steve posits ‘that economic analysis is the same’ for loyalty discounts and contractual commitments not to buy from rivals.  Really?”  The short answer is “Yes.”  As Dan observes himself, “at a high level of generality one would say that in both cases the question is whether the price or contract forecloses competitors.”  By the way, a small rebate certainly will not always exclude.  But, see #3(b) in my previous post, which is a pretty general example of why the rival often would just give up rather than get involved in a bidding war for distribution.  Dan never explain what he thinks is wrong with this example.

(3) Dan says, “Steve presents four examples of how an auction for contractual exclusivity results in a single firm obtaining contractual exclusivity with anticompetitive effects due to asymmetry of incentives, all of which begs the question of how loyalty discounts without contractual exclusivity achieve the same effect.”  I assumed no contract.  Nor is a formal auction required.  The monopolist simply can unilaterally offer a high enough bid that the entrant walks away.  And in the #3(b) example, the unilateral bid does not even need to be very high.

(4) Dan says, “The monopolist is not saved from profit sacrifice, as Steve posits, merely by threatening a price of $105 that it never has to charge.”  Why not?  The monopolist never sells any units at $105 when the threat succeeds.  And, given Dan’s model, it will succeed against an equally efficient competitor.  With adequate information, it is neither expensive nor risky.  If Dan is going to rely on it being “expensive and risky,” then he is changing his story.  More importantly, he also is opining it should be permissible for a well-informed monopolist to exclude with penalty pricing threats because poorly informed monopolists may not follow the same strategy.  That does not make sense.   He also does not provide any evidence about how well informed most monopolists who engage in loyalty discounts typically are.

(5) Dan says, “Finally, let me underline as I did in my last post that I’m not claiming that “penalty pricing” is economically impossible.  Rather, …we should therefore not assume that it will be routinely deployed, and that the starting presumption should be that most loyalty discounts are true reductions from the but-for price.”  I do not have to assume penalties will be “routinely deployed.”   It was only one of my several fatal problems with the price-cost test.  But, in terms of the evidence, what is the evidence that the typical loyalty discount by a monopolist or firm with substantial market power are true reductions from the but-for price.  Reliable presumptions need to be more than simply reflections of one’s ideology.

(6) I want to conclude by observing that modern day courts do not need the defective price-cost test to protect monopolists.  Remember that the rival must prove consumer injury.  That is a high burden to carry and some of the factors Dan mentions might throw light on that bottom line issue.  Neither Josh nor I are claiming that loyalty discounts should be per se illegal.  So, Dan, come on over to the rule of reason.

Dan’s next installment, responding to Steve’s latest post responding to Dan’s latest post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts. Other posts in the series: SteveDan, and Thom.

I’m happy to keep going back in forth with Steve until we wear out our welcome at TOTM, or simply wear out. [Keep ‘em coming! – ed.]

(1) There’s neither input foreclose nor output foreclosure if a rival can neutralize a loyalty discount without pricing unprofitably.  The rival who can profitably compete despite the loyalty discount structure will remain in the market; there is no input exclusion.  As I understand him, Steve posits that an RRC effect would arise if the guilty firm tried to use loyalty rebates to raise the effective price the rival had to pay for “distribution services” with the effect of raising general market prices.  But that theory doesn’t work.  First, why would a firm that can profitably match a loyalty discount have to increase its price in order to “pay for” the loyalty discount?  Second, the theory requires the victimized rival to simultaneously increase its “payments” to distributors in the form of discounts even while it is increasing its prices to those same distributors in equal amount in order to offset the payments.   A rival who feels “pressured” to make a $100 loyalty payment to distributors and consequently raises his price to the distributors by $100 to offset has done . . . nothing.

(2) Steve posits “that economic analysis is the same” for loyalty discounts and contractual commitments not to buy from rivals.  Really?  I suppose at a high level of generality one would say that in both cases the question is whether the price or contract forecloses competitors, but it can’t possibly be that an exclusive dealing contract that prohibits purchases from a rival has the same effect as a 0.0001% rebate if the customer purchases exclusively from the seller.  Once an exclusive dealing contract is in place, the rival can’t compete without inducing breach of contract.  With a pure loyalty discount, the rival can always compete so long as it can profitably neutralize the loyalty discount with its own pricing terms.  You see this in the real world—customers operate in environments where multiple sellers are offering loyalty discounts.  The customers freely switch between suppliers (sometimes showing loyalty and obtaining the discounts; sometimes deciding to forgo the discounts and prefer variety).  This is not true of a market locked up with exclusive dealing agreements.

(3) Steve presents four examples of how an auction for contractual exclusivity results in a single firm obtaining contractual exclusivity with anticompetitive effects due to asymmetry of incentives, all of which begs the question of how loyalty discounts without contractual exclusivity achieve the same effect.  Moreover, all Steve shows is that if you applied unmodified predatory pricing analysis to the exclusivity auction, the contracts wouldn’t be illegal since the winning bidder could show that its revenues exceeded its costs.  He doesn’t show how, in the absence of contractual exclusivity, the winning bidder would satisfy the attribution test we’ve been assuming.  For example, in Scenario (a), if there isn’t contractual exclusivity but merely a discount structure that would require the entrant to pay rebates of $71 even while earning revenues of $70, then the rebate system would fail the price-cost screen and we could proceed to all of the foreclosure/RRC analysis that Steve has so magnificently pioneered and illustrated.  The same is true in each of Steve’s examples.  None of his examples shows a circumstance where the new entrant could obtain retailer distribution services without inducing breach of contract and without pricing below its cost and yet there would be an anticompetitive effect from a loyalty discount scheme.

(4) In his first post, Steve said that “the price-cost test is premised on the erroneous idea that only equally efficient competitors are worth protecting.”  My last post disputed that claim.  Steve now says that “the price-cost test is better framed as a measure of ‘profit-sacrifice,’ and EEC is simply a misleading way to express the test.”  So I think we’re now in agreement that one could accept a version of the price-cost screen even while believing that antitrust law should not necessarily be bounded by an EEC component.  As to profit sacrifice, more in a moment.

(5) I don’t want to get pulled into defending an EEC component in this discussion, since I think we’re now in agreement that it’s not necessary to support some version of the price-cost screen.  In any event, when I said that the test has “merit,” I wasn’t saying that it should be applied categorically to all types of exclusion claims.  For example, (and I’m not committing to this), institutional context might matter to whether an EEC test should apply.  One might reasonably believe that it’s dangerous to allow less efficient rivals to seek treble damages for their exclusion from the market for all kinds of incentives and decisional reasons but that the government should be free to mount exclusion theories that do not depend on a showing that EECs were excluded.  Again, I’m not arguing that this should be the case, only explaining the non-committal nature of my “merit” comment.

(6) (I’ll collapse my response to Steve’s points 6-8 into one).  The discount penalty theory is premised on the assumption that the monopolist increases its list price above the profit-maximizing monopoly level and then offers a concession back down to the monopoly level, combined with an onerous term restricting the customer’s freedom of choice among suppliers.  I take it that Steve accepts the point from my last post that a price of x plus loyalty restriction is effectively higher than a price of x without a loyalty restriction.  Steve says that a monopolist might choose to exceed the profit-maximizing price and thereby forego profits as a predatory investment.  In that case, the loyalty discount program must be of short duration and the monopolist has to be highly confident of recoupment, just as in conventional predation cases.  Observe that the profit sacrifice is not merely the charging of the $105 “penalty” price but also the charging of the $100 plus loyalty restriction price.  Thus, the monopolist is not saved from profit sacrifice, as Steve posits, merely by threatening a price of $105 that it never has to charge.  Also, observe that the strategy is much more risky and expensive to the monopolist than to the customer.  By definition, the monopoly price the customer is paying is one where the customer will be willing to substitute to other products at just a slightly higher price, whereas the monopolist stands to lose highly profitable sales by exceeding its monopoly profit-maximizing price.  Finally, let me underline as I did in my last post that I’m not claiming that “penalty pricing” is economically impossible.  Rather, I’m making the point that “penalty pricing” is an expensive and risky strategy for monopolists, that we should therefore not assume that it will be routinely deployed, and that the starting presumption should be that most loyalty discounts are true reductions from the but-for price.

Guest post by Steve Salop responding to Dan’s latest post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts. Other posts in the series: SteveDan, and Thom.

(1) Dan says that price-cost test should apply to “customer foreclosure” allegations.   One of my key points was that many loyalty discount claims involve “input foreclosure” or “raising rivals’ costs” effects, not plain-vanilla customer foreclosure.   In addition, loyalty agreements with distributors often involve input foreclosure because “distribution services” are an input and a rebate might be characterized as a reward payment for the (near-) exclusivity.    From his silence on the issue, I am inclined to presume that Dan would agree that the price-cost test should not be applied to such allegations.      Dan, what do you intend?

(2) Dan says that he agrees that the price-cost test should not be required for “partial exclusivity contracts” that involve contractual commitments to limit purchases from rivals.  He says that the price-cost test should apply only where the “claimed exclusionary mechanism is the price term.”  This distinction is peculiar because the economic analysis is the same in both situations.  In addition, even such voluntary exclusivity flowing from a price term can be anticompetitive, and even if the price-cost test is passed.  There are numerous reasons for this, as I explained in my original post. (I also discuss these issues in my contribution to Robert Pitofsky’s volume, “How the Chicago School Overshot the Mark.”  See also articles by Eric Rasmussen et. al., Michael Whinston and others.)

(3) Consider the following numerical examples that concretely illustrate the economic forces at work when there is competition for distribution, even in the absence of contractual commitments.

(a) Suppose that a monopolist is earning profits of $200.  If there is successful entry by an equally efficient entrant, each of the two firms will earn duopoly profits of $70.  (The duopoly profits are less than monopoly profits because of the price competition.)  Suppose that the entrant needs to obtain just non-exclusive distribution from a particular retailer in order to be viable.  In this case, the entrant would be willing to bid up to $70 per period for the non-exclusive distribution.  (In price terms, this would be a payment that led to the entrant’s costs equaling its price.)  But the monopolist would be willing to bid up to $130 for an exclusive (i.e., the difference between its monopoly and duopoly profits), in order to prevent the entrant from surviving.   Thus, the monopolist would win the bidding, say for a price of $71.   The monopolist would easily pass the price-cost test.   Why is the monopolist systematically able to outbid the entrant? This fundamental asymmetry does not arise because the entrant is less efficient.  Instead, the answer is that the monopolist is bidding to maintain its monopoly power, whereas the entrant can only obtain duopoly price.  The monopolist is “purchasing market power” in addition to distribution, whereas the entrant is only purchasing distribution.

(b) Or, consider this interesting variant with sequential bidding for multiple distributors.   Suppose there are two retailers and the entrant needs to get non-exclusive distribution at both in order to be viable.  Suppose that the negotiations at the two stores are sequential.  In this scenario, the entrant would have no incentive even to try to outbid the monopolist.   This is easy to see.   Suppose that the entrant wins the competition to get into the first store by paying the amount $B1.   In bidding for distribution at the second retailer, the monopolist would be willing to bid up to $130, as above.   At this second store, the entrant would not be willing to pay more than $70 (or $70 – $B1, if it is ignores the fact that the $B1 was an already sunk cost).  So the monopolist will win the exclusive at the second retailer and the entry will fail.   Looking back to the negotiations at the first store, the entrant would have had no incentive to throw away money by paying any positive amount $B1 to get distribution at the first store.   This is because it rationally would anticipate that it is inevitable that it will fail to gain distribution at the second retailer.  Thus, the monopolist will be able to gain the exclusive at both stores for next to nothing.   It clearly will pass the price-cost test even as it maintains its monopoly, merely by instituting the competition for distribution.

(c) If the entrant only needs to gain non-exclusive distribution at either one of the two stores, then the situation can be reversed and the entry can succeed.   The monopolist clearly would not be willing to pay $71 each at both stores (equal to a total payment of $142) in order to deter the entry and protect its “incremental” monopoly profits (equal to only $130 in the example).  Therefore, when the entrant bids for distribution at the first store, the monopolist might as well let the entrant win, which means that the entrant can gain access to both stores for next to nothing.   The entry succeeds, but again, the price-cost test would not be relevant to the analysis.

(d) There also can be elements of a “self-fulfilling equilibrium” because of lack of coordination by the distributors.  Suppose that there are 10 retailers and the entrant only needs to get distribution at 5 of them.   Suppose that the entrant offers to pay a $14 rebate for non-exclusive distribution, and it also will offer $14 again in the next period, if its entry succeeds in the first period.   Suppose the monopolist offers a lower rebate for an exclusive that will continue into the second period.   Suppose that each of the 10 retailers anticipates that the other retailers will accept the monopolist’s lower offer out of fear that the entrant will be unable to get 4 other retailers to accept its offer.  In that situation, the entry will fail.  This is not because the entrant is less efficient.  Instead, it is because the entrant faces a classic coordination problem.  If the retailers behave independently, the retailers’ fear of the entrant’s failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Again, the monopolist will easily pass the price-cost test.

(4) Dan makes the point that the price-cost test does not require adoption of an EEC antitrust standard (i.e., whereby only harm to EECs is relevant to antitrust).  I certainly agree that the price-cost screen does not necessarily rely on the EEC standard.   The price-cost test is better framed as a measure of “profit-sacrifice,” and EEC is simply a misleading way to express the test.  For example, I expect that Dan agrees that predatory pricing law uses the price-cost test as a measure of “profit-sacrifice,” not an assumption that only EECs matter.

(5) But, I was surprised that Dan also says that the EEC theory “has merit.”  In my view, the EEC standard has no merit in rigorous antitrust analysis. The example in my previous post illustrates why that is the case.  Raising the costs and possibly deterring the entry of a less efficient rival harms consumers and reduces output.

(6) Dan says that the “disloyalty penalty” price theory has problems, “including the empirical one that it doesn’t fit the pattern of almost any of the recent loyalty discount cases.”   The validity of Dan’s empirical claim is not obvious clear to me.  To evaluate whether there is a price penalty, you would need to know more than the path of prices over time.  You also would need to know what the price would be in the “but-for world.”   For example, suppose that in the absence of the loyalty discount, the incumbent would have reduced its price to $90.  This observation has two important implications.  First, this is a reason why it is not clear that loyalty discounts are “presumptively beneficial.”  Second, this is another reason why a price-cost test is not a good “screen” in loyalty discount cases.  Implementing the screen involves evaluating what prices would be absent the conduct.  But, after the competitive effects on consumers are known, what is the value of the screen?

(7) As to the question of whether Josh’s speech on loyalty discounts (and this issue of penalty prices) is inconsistent with their joint article on bundled discounts, I will leave that one for Josh and Dan to sort out, at least for the moment.   I certainly will concede the point that Wright is not always right.

(8) Dan began to suggest that the penalty price theory has a “problem of basic economics” in that the penalty price was not short-run profit-maximizing.   Dan subsequently seemed to withdraw this criticism, noticing that one could characterize the loyalty restriction as not profit-maximizing in the same way.   In any event, it is not a “problem” with the theory.  The reason why the firm is willing to sacrifice profits is because it gains the benefit of deterring entry.  By the way, it also may not even end up sacrificing profits.  The threat of the penalty price for non-exclusivity may be sufficient.  If the distributors succumb to the threat and buy exclusively from the incumbent, it never needs to actually charge them the penalty price.

Guest post by Dan Crane, responding to Steve’s post responding to Dan’s earlier post and Thom’s post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts.

Something that Thom and I both said in our earlier posts needs to be repeated at the outset:  I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with Steve and Josh that raising rivals’ costs (“RRC”) and economic analysis drawn from exclusive dealing law belong in an analysis of loyalty discounts.  There’s also no claim on the table that a loyalty discount that fails the “contestable share”/discount attribution test that Steve mentions should be treated anything like presumptively illegal.  The current debate is solely about whether there should be a price-cost screen in loyalty discount cases.  We aren’t even talking about what the measure of cost should be or how that screen should work (although, with Steve, I’m happy to assume marginal or average variable cost and the aforementioned contestable share/discount attribution approach for the sake of argument).  Josh and Steve are well justified in pointing out how aspects of RRC theory can apply in loyalty discount cases—but that doesn’t meet the objection that a screen should also apply.

It’s also important to recognize that the argument in favor of a price-cost screen for loyalty rebates does not need to entail a general argument in favor of a “profit sacrifice” theory for all monopolization offenses.  What we’re talking about here is unilaterally determined discounts to customers—something that is presumptively procompetitive, although potentially exclusionary under some circumstances.  Such discounts could be harmful if they resulted in customer foreclosure, but they would not result in customer foreclosure if the rival could profitably match the loyalty discount.  That is the point of the price-cost screen.  You might wonder why a rival would ever complain about a loyalty discount if they could profitably match it.  The reasons are many.  The rival might be losing sales because customers don’t like its product.  It might have failed for reasons completely apart from the accused firm’s loyalty discounts. It might be attempting to use antitrust law to thwart price competition, as a large body of literature suggests.  (See work by Will Baumol and Janusz Ordover, Preston McAfee and Nicholas Vakkur, and Edward Snyder and Tom Kauper, among others).

One thing I didn’t just mention—although it could often be true—is that the complaining rival isn’t an equally efficient competitor (“EEC”).  Steve is wrong to suggest that the price-cost test depends on adopting an EEC theory.  Although there is much merit to the EEC test (heck, even the Europeans have adopted it), one could formulate a version of the price-cost screen that simply requires the rival to show that the discount foreclosed a hypothetically equally efficient competitor or even this particular rival given its actual costs, as some have suggested.  The current argument is not over the formulation of the test, but whether we should dispense with a price-cost screen altogether in loyalty discount cases.

In any event, observe that the entire structure of modern predatory pricing law is premised on an EEC assumption.  If an incumbent firm with marginal costs of $50 and a current price of $100 faces entry by a new rival with marginal costs of $75 and drops its price to $74 in order to exclude the new rival, it enjoys categorical immunity under a long line of Supreme Court cases.  In another forum, Steve suggested that the difference in those cases is that the customer is getting the benefit of a lower price, so the law is hesitant to condemn the price as predatory.  But that exposes something problematic about Steve’s starting premise—he assumes that it’s uncertain whether loyalty discounts generally lower prices.  Prima facie, that seems wrong.  Customers routinely offer to trade loyalty for lower prices precisely because the prices are . . . lower.

Steve suggests that maybe loyalty discounts aren’t really discounts at all.  Maybe the seller, who was previously charging a price of $100, raises the price to $105 and then gives a discount back down to $100 in exchange for customer loyalty.  Steve notes that Thom and I didn’t consider this scenario.  That’s because Josh didn’t raise it in his speech.  It would have been very surprising if Josh had raised it in his speech, since Josh and I co-authored a paper several years ago debunking this same theory in the bundled discount context.  I discuss the “disloyalty penalty” theory at length in a forthcoming article in the Texas Law Review, really just extending the work that Josh and I started several years ago.

There are many problems with this “disloyalty penalty” theory, including the empirical one that it doesn’t fit the pattern of almost any of the recent loyalty discount cases.  But there is also a problem of basic economics.  Unless it is engaging in limit pricing, the accused firm’s $100 price is a monopoly (or market power) profit-maximizing price.  By definition, any price increase will be unprofitable to the seller.  Obviously, the $105 price would be unprofitable.  But it’s also true that a price of $100 coupled with a new obligation to buy a certain percentage of requirements from the seller to achieve that price is unprofitable because it exceeds the profit-maximizing price.  The addition of a contractual term that restricts the buyer’s freedom is economically equivalent to a price increase if the buyer valued the prior freedom from the restriction (if the buyer didn’t value the prior freedom from the restriction there’s no effective price increase but also no anticompetitive effect, since the buyer wouldn’t have bought from the rival anyway).  Hence a price of $100 with loyalty term is effectively higher than a price of $100 without a loyalty term that restricts the buyer’s purchasing freedom.  By adding a loyalty term to obtain the $100 price, the seller exceeds its profit-maximizing monopoly price.

My claim is not that “penalty pricing” for disloyalty is impossible, but that the presumption should be that loyalty discounts are true discounts off the but-for price.  Loyalty discounts belong squarely in the “hospitability” tradition for unilaterally determined pricing structures—all those judicial decisions that talk about how important it is not to chill vigorous price competition.

Steve argues that loyalty discounts may “tie up customers” before competitors arrive on the scene.  I’m not sure what Steve means by “tie up customers.”  Suppose that a monopolist, knowing that rivals are about to enter the market, goes to all of its customers and offers  them a 5% discount if they will agree to purchase 95% of their requirements from the monopolist for the next three years.  At that point we have a partial exclusive dealing contract and the cost-price screen shouldn’t be required.  But, there, the exclusionary mechanism—the thing that keeps rivals from competing—is not the loyalty discount but rather the contractual commitment not to buy any more than 5% of requirements from rivals.  Customers would have to breach their contract in order to consider even the most advantageous offers from rivals.  The point that amici made in our Meritor v. Eaton brief was that when the claimed mechanism of exclusion is a price term and not a contractual restriction on purchasing from rivals, some version of the price-cost screen should apply.

The example I’ve just attributed to Steve (and sorry Steve if this is not what you have in mind) is not what we’re talking about in almost any of the current generation of loyalty discount cases.  In Meritor, for example, the Third Circuit acknowledged that the loyalty provisions at issue did not require customers to buy any of their requirements from Eaton.  It’s just that if the customers didn’t meet the loyalty thresholds, they would lose a possible rebate.  Meritor could compete for that business by offering its own counter-rebates so long as it wouldn’t have had to price unprofitably to do so.

Steve’s point about economies of scale is one that I covered in my post and is fully accounted for by the cost-price screen.  A rival who can profitably match a loyalty discount scheme is not foreclosed from operating at any particular scale.

The same is true of Steve’s point about loyalty discount schemes foreclosing a new seller’s ability to make incremental sales that don’t reduce the accused firm’s own sales.  Again, so long the rival can profitably match the discounts, there is no reason that output should be reduced.

Finally, Steve asserts that loyalty discounts obtained by intermediaries may not be passed onto ultimate consumers.  That’s equally true of conventional single-firm price reductions that are categorically immunized from antitrust liability under a long line of precedent.  One may not like the price-cost test in any context for that reason or others, but there’s nothing special about its application to loyalty discounts. The common denominator of all of these points is that loyalty discounts aren’t exclusionary unless they force rivals to price below cost in order to match the customer’s loss of the loyalty discounts if they fail to meet the loyalty threshold.

Steve thinks the price-cost screen exhibits “formalism”—that dreaded epithet in the post-realist world—but it’s actually just an expression of economic common sense.  Steve and Josh are excellent economists and it’s hard for me to imagine a case in which they would condemn a loyalty discount if there was undisputed evidence that the allegedly excluded rival could have completely neutralized the financial inducement of the loyalty discount by offering a counter-discount of its own without pricing below cost.  If they can offer an example of a circumstance where such a loyalty discount should be condemned, I would be very interested to hear it.  If they can’t, then they have implicitly adopted a version of the price-cost screen and, to repeat a point from my earlier post, all we’re haggling over is the price.

Guest post by Steve Salop, responding to Dan’s post and Thom’s post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts.

I want to clarify some of the key issues in Commissioner Wright’s analysis of Exclusive Dealing and Loyalty Discounts as part of the raising rivals’ costs (“RRC”) paradigm. I never thought that I would have to defend Wright against Professors Lambert and Crane. But, it appears that rigorous antitrust analysis sometimes makes what some would view as strange bedfellows.

In my view, there should not be a safe harbor price-cost test used for loyalty discounts. Nor should these discounts be treated as conclusively (per se) illegal if the defendant fails the price-cost test. Either way, the test is a formalistic and unreliable screen. To explain these conclusions, and why I think the proponents of the screen are taking too narrow approach to these issues, I want to start with some discussion of the legal and economic frameworks.

In my view, there are two overarching antitrust legal paradigms for exclusionary conduct – predatory pricing and raising rivals’ costs (RRC), and conduct that falls into the RRC paradigm generally raises greater antitrust concerns. (For further details, see my 2006 Antitrust L.J. article, “Exclusionary Conduct, Effect on Consumers, and the Flawed Profit-Sacrifice Standard.”) Commissioner Wright also takes this approach in his speech of identifying and distinguishing the two paradigms.

This raises the question of which framework is better suited for addressing exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts (that is, where the conduct is not pled in the complaint as predatory pricing). Commissioner Wright’s speech articulates the view that theories of harm alleging RRC/foreclosure should be analyzed under exclusive dealing law, which is more consistent with the raising rivals’ costs approach, not under predatory pricing law (i.e., with its safe harbor for prices above cost). (Incidentally, I don’t read his speech as saying that he has abandoned Brooke Group for predatory pricing allegations. For example, it seems clear that he would support a price-cost test in a case alleging that a loyalty discount harmed competition via predatory pricing rather than RRC/foreclosure.)

To understand which legal framework – raising rivals’ costs/exclusive dealing versus predatory pricing/price-cost test – is most relevant for analyzing the relevant competitive issues, I want to begin with a primer on RRC theories of foreclosure. This will also hopefully bring everyone closer on the economics.

Input Foreclosure and Customer Foreclosure

There are two types of foreclosure theories within the RRC paradigm — “input foreclosure” and “customer foreclosure.” Both are relevant for evaluating exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts. The input foreclosure theory says that the ED literally “raises rivals’ costs” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a critical input subject to ED. The customer foreclosure theory says that ED literally “reduces rivals’ revenues” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a sufficient customer base and thereby drives the rival out of business or marginalizes it as a competitor (i.e., where it lacks the ability or incentive to move effectively beyond a niche position or to invest to grow).

Commissioner Wright’s speech tended to merge the two variants. But, it is useful to distinguish between them. (I think that this is one source of Professor Lambert being “baffled” by the speech, and more generally, is a source of confusion among commentators that leads to unnecessary disagreements.)

In the simplest presentation, one might say that customer foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with customers, while input foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with input suppliers. But, as noted below, both concerns may arise in the same case, and especially so where the “customers” are distributors rather than final consumers, and the “input” is distribution services.

Analysis of exclusive dealing (ED) often invokes the customer foreclosure theory. For example, Lorain Journal may be analyzed as customer foreclosure. However, input foreclosure is also highly relevant for analyzing ED because exclusive dealing often involves inputs. For example, Judge Posner’s famous JTC Petroleum cartel opinion can be interpreted in this way, if there were solely vertical agreements.

Cases where manufacturers have ED arrangements with wholesale or retail distributors might be thought to fall into the customer foreclosure theory because the distributors can be seen as customers of the manufacturer. However, distributors also can be seen as providing an input to the manufacturer, “distribution services.” For example, a supermarket or drug store provides shelf space to a manufacturer. If the manufacturer (say, unilaterally) sets resale prices, then the difference between this resale price and the wholesale price is the effective input price.

One reason why the input foreclosure/customer foreclosure distinction is important involves the proper roles of minimum viable scale (MVS) and minimum efficient scale (MES). The customer foreclosure theory may involve a claim that the rival likely will be driven below MVS and exit Or it may involve a claim that the rival will be driven below MES, where its costs will be so much higher or its demand so much lower that it will be marginalized as a competitor.

By contrast, and this is the key point, input foreclosure does not focus on whether the rival likely will be driven below MVS. Even if the rival remains viable, if its costs are higher, it will be led to raise the prices charged to consumers, which will cause consumer harm. And prices will not be raised only in the future. The recoupment can be simultaneous.

Another reason for the importance of the distinction is the role of the “foreclosure rate,” which often is the focus in customer foreclosure analysis. For input foreclosure, the key foreclosure issue is not the fraction of distribution input suppliers or capacity that is foreclosed, but rather whether the foreclosure will raise the rival’s distribution costs. That can occur even if a single distributor is foreclosed, if the exclusivity changes the market structure in the input market or if that distributor was otherwise critical. (For example, see Krattenmaker and Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion.”)

At the same time, it is important to note that the input/customer foreclosure distinction is not a totally bright line difference in many real world cases. A given case can raise both concerns. In addition, customer foreclosure sometimes can raise rivals costs, and input foreclosure sometimes (but not always) can cause exit.
While input foreclosure can succeed even if the rival remains viable in the market, in more extreme scenarios, significantly higher costs inflicted on the rival could drive the rival to fall below minimum viable scale, and thereby cause it to exit. I think that this is one way in which unnecessary disagreements have occurred. Commentators might erroneously focus only this more extreme scenario and overlook the impact of the exclusives or near-exclusives on the rival’s distribution costs.

Note also that customer foreclosure can raise a rival’s costs when there are economies of scale in variable costs. For this reason, even if the rival does not exit or is not marginalized, it nonetheless may become a weaker competitor as a result of the exclusivity or loyalty discount.

These points also help to explain why neither a price-cost test nor the foreclosure rate will provide sufficient reliable evidence for either customer foreclosure or input foreclosure, which I turn to next.

(For further discussion of the distinction between input foreclosure and customer foreclosure, see Riordan and Salop, Evaluating Vertical Mergers: A Post-Chicago Approach, 63 ANTITRUST L.R. 513(1995). See also the note on O’Neill v Coca Cola in Andrew Gavil, William Kovacic and Jonathan Baker, Antitrust Law in Perspective: Cases, Concepts and Problems in Competition Policy (2d ed.) at 868-69. For analysis of Lorain Journal as customer foreclosure, see Gavil et. al at 593-97.)

The Inappropriateness of a Dispositive Price-Cost Test

A price-cost test obviously is not relevant for evaluating input foreclosure concerns, even where the input is distribution services. Even if the foreclosure involves bidding up the price of the input, it can succeed in permitting the firm to achieve or maintain market power, despite the fact that the firm does not bid to the point that its costs exceed its price. (In this regard, Weyerhaeuser was a case of “predatory overbuying,” not “raising rivals’ cost overbuying.” The allegation was that Weyerhaeuser would gain market power in the timber input market, not the lumber output market.)

Nor is a price-cost test the critical focus for assessing customer foreclosure theories of competitive harm. (By the way, I think we all agree that the relevant price-cost test involves a comparison of the incremental revenue and incremental cost of the “contestable volume” at issue for the loyalty discount. So I will not delve into that issue.)

First, and most fundamentally, the price-cost test is premised on the erroneous idea that only equally efficient competitors are worth protecting. In other words, the price-cost requires the premise that the antitrust laws only protect consumers against competitive harm arising from conduct that could have excluded an equally efficient competitor. This premise makes absolutely no economic sense. One simple illustrative example is a monopolist raising the costs of a less efficient potential competitor to destroy its entry into the market. Suppose that monopolist has marginal cost of $50 and a monopoly price of $100. Suppose that there is the potential entrant has costs of $75. If the entry were to occur, the market price would fall. Entry of the less efficient rival imposes a competitive constraint on the monopolist. Thus, the entry clearly would benefit consumers. (And, it clearly often would raise total welfare as well.) It is hard to see why antitrust should permit this type of exclusionary conduct.

It is also unlikely that antitrust law would allow this conduct. For example, Lorain Journal is probably pretty close to this hypothetical. WEOL likely was not equally efficient. The hypothetical probably also fits Microsoft pretty well.

Second, the price-cost test does not make economic sense in the case of the equally efficient rival either. Even if the competitor is equally efficient, bidding for exclusives or near-exclusives through loyalty discounts often does not take place on a level playing field. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the dominant firm may tie up customers or input providers before the competitors even arrive on the scene or are in a position to counterbid. A second reason is that the exclusive may be worth more to the dominant firm because it will allow it to maintain market power, whereas the entrant would only be able to obtain more competitive profits. In this sense, the dominant firm is “purchasing market power” as well as purchasing distribution. (This point is straightforward to explain with an example. Suppose that the dominant firm is earning monopoly profits of $200, which would be maintained if it deters the entry of the new competitor. Suppose that successful entry by the equally efficient competitor would lead to the dominant firm and the entrant both earning profits of $70. In this example, the entrant would be unwilling to bid more than $70 for the distribution. But, the dominant firm would be willing to bid up to $130, the difference between its monopoly profits of $200 and the duopoly profits of $70.) A third reason is that customers may not be willing to take the risk that the entry will fail, where failure can occur not because the entrant’s product is inferior but simply because other customers take the exclusive deal from the dominant firm. In this case, a fear that the entrant would fail could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the customers cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firms’ offer. Lorain Journal may provide an illustrative example of this self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. This last point highlights a more general point Commissioner Wright made in his speech — that successful and harmful RRC does not require a below-cost price (net of discounts). When distributors cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firm’s offer, a relatively small discount might be all that is required to purchase exclusion. Thus, while large discounts might accompany RRC conduct, that need not be the case. These latter reasons also explain why there can be successful foreclosure even when contracts have short duration.

Third, as noted above, customer foreclosure may raise rivals’ costs when there are economies of scale. The higher costs of the foreclosed rivals are not well accounted for by the price-cost test.

Fourth, as stressed by Joe Farrell, the price-cost test ignores the fact that loyalty discounts triggered by market share may deter a customer’s purchases from a rival that do not even come at the expense of the dominant firm. (For example, suppose in light of the discounts, the customer is purchasing 90 units from the dominant firm and 10 from the rival in order to achieve a “reward” that comes from purchasing 90% from the dominant firm. Now suppose that entrant offers a new product that would lead the customer to wish to continue to purchase 90 units from the dominant firm but now purchase 15 units from the rival. The purchase of these additional 5 units from the rival does not come at the expense of the dominant firm. Yet, even if the entrant were to offer the 5 units at cost, these purchases would be deterred because the customer would fall below the 90% trigger for the reward.) In this way, the market share discount can directly reduce output.

Fifth, the price-cost test assumes that the price decreases will be passed on to final consumers. This may be the clear where the exclusives or loyalty discounts are true discounts given to final consumers. But, it may not be the case where the dominant firm is acquiring the loyalty from input suppliers, including distributors who then resell to final consumers. The loyalty discounts often involve lump sum payments, which raises questions about pass-on, at least in the short-run.

Finally, it is important to stress that the price-cost test for loyalty discounts assumes that price actually represents a true discount. I expect that this assumption is the starting point for commentators who give priority to the price-cost test. However, the price may not represent a true discount in fact, or the size of the discount may turn out to be smaller than it appears after the “but-for world” is evaluated. That is, the proponents of a price-cost test have the following type of scenario in mind. The dominant firm is initially charging the monopoly price of $100. In the face of competition, the dominant firm offers a lower price of (say) $95 to customers that will accept exclusivity, and the customers accept the exclusivity in order to obtain the $5 discount. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $100 for total revenue of $9000. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $95 for total revenue of $9500.
Thus, the dominant firm earns incremental revenue of $500 on the 10 incremental units, or $50 per unit. If the dominant firm’s costs are $50 or less, it will pass the price-cost test.) But, consider next the following alternative scenario. The dominant firm offers the original $100 price to those customers that will accept exclusivity, and sets a higher “penalty” price of $105 to customers that purchase non-exclusively from the competitor. In this latter scenario, the $5 discount similarly may drive customers to accept the exclusive. These prices would lead to a similar outcome of the price-cost test. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $105 for total revenue of $9450. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $100 for total revenue of $10,000. Thus, the dominant firm earns revenue of $550 on the 10 incremental units, or $55 per unit. Here, the dominant firm will pass the price-cost test, if its costs are $55 or less.) However, in this latter scenario, it is noteworthy that the use of the “penalty” price eliminates any benefits to consumers. This issue seems to be overlooked by Crane and Lambert. (For further details of the role of the penalty price in the context of bundled discounts, see Barry Nalebuff’s articles on Exclusionary Bundling and the articles of Greenlee, Reitman and Sibley.)

* * *

For all these reasons, treating loyalty discounts as analogous to predatory pricing and thereby placing over-reliance on a price-cost test represents a formalistic and unreliable antitrust approach. (It is ironic that Commissioner Wright was criticized by Professor Lambert for being formalistic, when the facts are the opposite.)

This analysis is not to say that the court should be indifferent to the lower prices, where there is a true discount. To the contrary, lower prices passed-on would represent procompetitive efficiency benefits. But, the potential for lower prices passed-on does not provide a sufficient basis for adopting a price-cost safe harbor test for loyalty discount allegations, even ones that can be confidently characterized as purely plain vanilla customer foreclosure with no effects on rivals’ costs.

Thus, the price-cost test should be one relevant evidentiary factor. But, it should not be the primary factor or a trump for either side. That is, above-cost pricing (measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be sufficient by itself for the defendant to escape liability. Nor should below-cost pricing (again, measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be a sufficient by itself for a finding of liability.

Such “Creeping Brookism” does not led to either rigorous or accurate antitrust analysis. It is a path to higher error rates, not a lower ones.

Nor should courts rely on simple-minded foreclosure rates. Gilbarco shows how a mechanical approach to measuring foreclosure leads to confusion. Microsoft makes it clear that a “total foreclosure” test also is deficient. Instead, a better approach is to require the plaintiff to prove under the Rule of Reason standard that the conduct harms the rival by reducing its ability to compete and also that it harms consumers.

I should add one other point for completeness. Some (but not Commissioner Wright or Professor Crane) might suggest that the price-cost test has administrability benefits relative to a full rule of reason analysis under the RRC paradigm. While courts are capable are evaluating prices and costs, that comparison may be more difficult than measuring the increase in the rivals’ distribution costs engendered by the conduct. Moreover, the price-cost comparison becomes an order of magnitude more complex in loyalty discount cases, relative to plain vanilla predatory pricing cases. This is because it also is necessary to determine a reasonable measure of the contestable volume to use to compare incremental revenue and incremental cost. For first-dollar discounts, there will always be some small region where incremental revenue is below incremental cost. Even aside from this situation, the two sides often will disagree about the magnitude of the volume that was at issue.

In summary, I think that Professor Wright’s speech forms the basis of moving the discussion forward into analysis of the actual evidence of benefits and harms, rather than continuing to fight the battles over whether the legal analysis used in the 1950s and 1960s failed to satisfy modern standards and thereby needed to be reined in with unreliable safe harbors.

Guest post by Michigan Law’s Dan Crane. (See also Thom’s post taking issue with FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s recent remarks on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts).

A number of people on both sides of the ideological spectrum were surprised by FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s recent speech advocating that the FTC reject the use of price-cost tests to assess the legality of loyalty discounts and instead pursue an exclusive dealing framework of analysis.  As the author of a brief (unsuccessfully) urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reverse in Z.F. Meritor v. Eaton, I want respectfully to disagree with some of what Josh had to say.  But, first, two other observations.

First, I’m delighted that Josh is charting a course as Commissioner that defies some people’s expectations (even if they sometimes happen to be my own!).  Josh has long insisted on evidence-based analysis rather than simplistic theorizing or reductionist legal rules and his position on loyalty discounts is consistent with that theme.  Early in his term on the Commission, Josh is making it clear that he will exercise independent judgment, intellectual integrity, and a principled, non-ideological approach to decision-making.  That’s a nice rejoinder to those who believe that antitrust law reduces to simplistic right-left politics.  So kudos to Josh!

Second, Josh and I probably agree on 90% of what’s important about loyalty discounts.  We agree that loyalty discounts are usually competitively benign or procompetitive, but that they can sometimes be anticompetitive when they exclude rivals and create market power.  We also agree that exclusive dealing principles and analysis can be usefully deployed in loyalty discount cases (although I would only do so after a plaintiff satisfied a price-cost screen).  Finally, we also agree that unmodified predatory pricing rules—requiring the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s sales were below average variable cost—could potentially insulate some exclusionary loyalty discounts from antitrust scrutiny.

Where we differ is on the question of whether antitrust law should ever condemn a loyalty discount that the allegedly excluded rival could have met without pricing below cost.  To say that it should not is to say that there should be some sort of price-cost screen in place in loyalty discount cases.  Josh rejects the use of such screens.

One point of clarification:  Josh asserts that one of the central claims in favor of the price-cost test is its ease of administration.  Contrary to Josh’s suggestion, that is not an argument we made in our Meritor amicus brief.  As someone who has counseled clients and litigated these issues, I can attest that the discount attribution test (the variant of the price-cost test I support for loyalty discounts) is anything but easy to apply (which Josh himself recognizes with respect to the “contestable share” idea).  The virtue of the test is not its ease of administration, but that it requires plaintiffs to show that the discount scheme actually foreclosed them from competing.  Our point was about analytical discipline, not ease of administration.

This, I think, is the crucial difference between Josh and me.  Unless a rival would have to price below cost to match a loyalty discount, it is not foreclosed from competing for the business covered by the discount.  Josh wants to apply exclusive dealing analysis that looks at foreclosure without answering a question that, in my view, is necessary to discover whether there is any foreclosure at all—whether the rival could profitably match the discount.  A rival that has a profitable “predatory counterstrategy,” to quote Frank Easterbrook, isn’t foreclosed.

A thought experiment may be helpful.  Suppose that a firm with a 90% market share offered all of its customers a 0.0001% rebate if they purchased at least 80% of their requirements from the dominant firm.  No one could imagine that such a “loyalty discount” could exclude rivals, since even small rivals could easily make up the rebates foregone if customers forewent buying the 80% from the dominant firm.  We can make the rebate 0.001% with the same result.  And we can continue to pose successive iterations of the same question, increasing the discount incrementally, until we hit a point that someone could reasonably say “well now that could be exclusionary.”  Wherever we cross that Rubicon, we cross it because what was true at 0.0001%—that the small rival could laugh it off by shelling out a few dollars in a counter-discount—is no longer true.  To play this game is to conduct a competitive response sensitivity analysis of the very kind demanded by the attribution test. For present purposes, it’s unimportant where we draw the line; it’s the fact of the line-drawing that matters. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we’ve already established what we are, now we’re just haggling over the price.

Josh is surely right that loyalty discounts can raise rivals’ costs.  That could happen in one of two ways.  First, if a small firm were prevented from reaching efficient scale, or second if a firm were forced to ramp up to an inefficiently large scale in order to meet a competitor’s loyalty discounts.  But neither of those scenarios holds if the rival is able to compete against the loyalty discounts without pricing below cost.  The small firm will not be prevented from reaching minimum efficient scale if it can increase its share by profitably competing against the loyalty discount.  And the second firm will not be rushed into increasing its scale if it can compete profitably at a smaller scale.  In either case, the RRC mechanism is forcing the firms to price below their costs.

At the end of the day, I suspect that Josh—using whatever analytical tools he associates with exclusive dealing analysis—would be highly unlikely to condemn any loyalty discount in a case where the rival could profitably match the discounts.  That gives me assurances as to Josh, but not as to all other players in the legal system, many of whom are eager to jettison the discipline of price-cost screens so that they can get onto the “real meat” of the case—like inflammatory internal e-mails employing metaphors of coercion that Judge Posner has aptly labeled “compelling evidence of predatory intent to the naïve.”  So I remain highly confident that we’re in good hands with Josh, but worry about what others may do with his words.