Archives For monopolization

I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

As Geoff posted yesterday, a group of 72 distinguished economists and law professors from across the political spectrum released a letter to Chris Christie pointing out the absurdities of New Jersey’s direct distribution ban. I’m heartened that both Governor Christie and his potential rival for the 2016 Republican nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry, have made statements, here and here, in recent days suggesting that they would support legislation to allow direct distribution. Another potential 2016 Republican contender, has also joined the anti-protectionist fray. This should not be a partisan political issue. Hopefully, thinking people from both parties will realize that these laws help no one but the car dealers.

In the midst of these encouraging developments, I came across a March 5, 2014 letter from General Motors to Ohio Governor John Kasich complaining about proposed legislation that would carve out a special direct-dealing exemption for Tesla in Ohio. I’ve gotta say that I’m sympathetic to GM’s plight. It isn’t fair that Tesla would get a special exemption from regulations applicable to other car dealers. I’m not blaming Tesla, since I assume and hope that Tesla’s legislative strategy is to ask that these laws be repealed or that Tesla be exempted, not that the laws should continue to apply to other manufacturers. But the point of our letter is that no manufacturer should be subject to these restrictions. Tesla may have special reasons to prefer direct distribution, but the laws should be general—and generally permissive of direct distribution. The last thing we need is for a continuation of the dealers’ crony capitalism through a system of selective exemptions from protectionist statutes.

What was most telling about GM’s letter was its straightforward admission that allowing Tesla to engage in direct distribution would give Tesla a “distinct competitive advantage” and would create a “significant disparate impact” on competition in the auto industry. That’s just another way of saying that direct distribution is more efficient. If Tesla will gain a competitive advantage by bypassing dealers, shouldn’t we want all car companies to have that same advantage?

To be clear, there are circumstances were exempting just select companies from a regulatory scheme would give them a competitive advantage not based on superior efficiency in a social-welfare enhancing sense. For example, if the general pollution control regulations are optimally set, then exempting some firms will allow them to externalize costs and thereby obtain a competitive advantage, reducing net social welfare. But that would only be the case if the regulated activity is socially harmful, which direct distribution is not, as our open letter explained. The take-away from GM’s letter should be even more impetus for repealing the direct distribution bans across the board so that consumers can enjoy the benefit of competition among rival manufacturers who all have the right to choose the most efficient means of distribution for them.

Earlier this month New Jersey became the most recent (but likely not the last) state to ban direct sales of automobiles. Although the rule nominally applies more broadly, it is directly aimed at keeping Tesla Motors (or at least its business model) out of New Jersey. Automobile dealers have offered several arguments why the rule is in the public interest, but a little basic economics reveals that these arguments are meritless.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics sent an open letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, urging reconsideration of the regulation and explaining why the rule is unjustified — except as rent-seeking protectionism by independent auto dealers.

The letter, which was principally written by University of Michigan law professor, Dan Crane, and based in large part on his blog posts here at Truth on the Market (see here and here), was signed by more than 70 economists and law professors.

As the letter notes:

The Motor Vehicle Commission’s regulation was aimed specifically at stopping one company, Tesla Motors, from directly distributing its electric cars. But the regulation would apply equally to any other innovative manufacturer trying to bring a new automobile to market, as well. There is no justification on any rational economic or public policy grounds for such a restraint of commerce. Rather, the upshot of the regulation is to reduce competition in New Jersey’s automobile market for the benefit of its auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers. It is protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple.

The letter explains at length the economics of retail distribution and the misguided, anti-consumer logic of the regulation.

The letter concludes:

In sum, we have not heard a single argument for a direct distribution ban that makes any sense. To the contrary, these arguments simply bolster our belief that the regulations in question are motivated by economic protectionism that favors dealers at the expense of consumers and innovative technologies. It is discouraging to see this ban being used to block a company that is bringing dynamic and environmentally friendly products to market. We strongly encourage you to repeal it, by new legislation if necessary.

Among the letter’s signatories are some of the country’s most prominent legal scholars and economists from across the political spectrum.

Read the letter here:

Open Letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the Direct Automobile Distribution Ban

Last summer I blogged here at TOTM about the protectionist statutes designed to preempt direct distribution of Tesla cars that are proliferating around the country. This week, New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission voted to add New Jersey to the list of states bowing to the politically powerful car dealers’ lobby.

Yesterday, I was on Bloomberg’s Market Makers show with Jim Appleton, the president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers. (The clip is here). Mr. Appleton advanced several “very interesting” arguments against direct distribution of cars, including that we already regulate everything else from securities sales to dogs and cats, so why not regulate car sales as well. The more we regulate, the more we should regulate. Good point. I’m stumped. But moving on, Mr. Appleton also argued that this particular regulation is necessary for actual reasons, and he gave two.

First, he argued that Tesla has a monopoly and that the direct distribution prohibition would create price competition. But, of course, Tesla does not have anything like a monopoly. A point that Mr. Appleton repeated three times over the course of our five minutes yesterday was that Tesla’s market share in New Jersey is 0.1%. Sorry, not a monopoly.

Mr. Appleton then insisted that the relevant “monopoly” is over the Tesla brand. This argument misunderstands basic economics. Every seller has a “monopoly” in its own brand to the same extent as Mr. Appleton has a “monopoly” in the tie he wore yesterday. No one but Tesla controls the Tesla brand, and no one but Mr. Appleton controls his tie. But, as economists have understood for a very long time, it would be absurd to equate monopoly power in an economic sense with the exclusive legal right to control something. Otherwise, every man, woman, child, dog, and cat is a monopolist over a whole bunch of things. The word monopoly can only make sense as capturing the absence of rivalry between sellers of different brands. A seller can have monopoly power in its brand, but only if there are not other brands that are reasonable substitutes. And, of course, there are many reasonable substitutes for Teslas.

Nor will forcing Tesla to sell through dealers create “price competition” for Teslas to the benefit of consumers. As I explained in my post last summer, Tesla maximizes its profits by minimizing its cost of distribution. If dealers can perform that function more efficiently than Tesla, Tesla has every incentive to distribute through dealers. The one thing Tesla cannot do is increase its profits by charging more for the retail distribution function than dealers would charge. Whatever the explanation for Tesla’s decision to distribute directly may be, it has nothing to do with charging consumers a monopoly price for the distribution of Teslas.

Mr. Appleton’s second argument was that the dealer protection laws are necessary for consumer safety. He then pointed to the news that GM might have prevented accidents taking 12 lives if it had recalled some of its vehicles earlier than it eventually did. But of course all of this occurred while GM was distributing through franchised dealers. To take Mr. Appleton’s logic, I should have been arguing that distribution through franchised dealers kills people.

Mr. Appleton then offered a concrete argument on car safety. He said that, to manufacturers, product recalls are a cost whereas, to dealers, they are an opportunity to earn income. But that argument is also facially absurd. Dealers don’t make the decision to issue safety recalls. Those decisions come from the manufacturer and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Dealers benefit only incidentally.

The direct distribution laws have nothing to do with enhancing price competition or car safety. They are protectionism for dealers, pure and simple. At a time when Chris Christie is trying to regain credibility with New Jersey voters in general, and New Jersey motorists in particular, this development is a real shame.

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.

The following is the third in a series of guest posts by David Balto about the FTC’s McWane case.

A particularly unsettling aspect of the FTC’s case against McWane is the complaint counsel’s heavy (and seemingly exclusive) reliance on structural factors to prove its case. The FTC has little or no direct evidence of price communications and no econometric evidence suggesting collusion, and has instead spent a good deal of time trying to show that the market is susceptible to collusion. What makes the FTC’s administrative case so unsettling is that the structural factors they rely on are true of any oligopoly and, in federal courts across the country, are insufficient as a matter of law to raise an inference of conspiracy.

When there are a small number of actors in a market they naturally act and react differently than markets with many competitors. As an example, imagine it’s the final chess tournament between two capable opponents. At one point of the game one player makes a move knowing that it will likely force her opponent to make a move that will later work to her advantage. The opponent makes this move and the referees stop the match. The referees say the opponent moved in a way that was advantageous to the player who proves this game is rigged. The referees further explain that because there are only the two of them playing and because they know each other that this game of chess is susceptible to cheating. Because the game is susceptible to cheating, the referees declare, the evidence that the opponent made a move advantageous to player is all the evidence the referees need to stop the game.

Obviously the situation described in the chess example would never occur. It is common in two party games for one player to force another player into taking a particular move. No referee would stop a match with such flimsy evidence. However, the FTC seeks to find McWane liable of collusion under similar circumstances.

Ductile iron pipe fittings (DIPF) are commodities and the DIPF market is an oligopoly with only three major players:  McWane, Sigma and Star. Each DIPF supplier constantly tries to monitor its rivals’ prices because if a competitor undercuts it, its sales volume will fall. Each DIPF supplier is also susceptible to rising costs caused by market conditions and has similar motivations to raise prices to account for rising costs. Complaint counsel argues that these characteristics make the fittings market “susceptible” or “conducive” to collusion, which shows a motive to conspire.  The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) did not find complaint counsel’s argument persuasive.

The collusion case against McWane came down to whether there was an agreement among competitors to curtail project pricing. As such, the ALJ sought to determine whether or not the evidence shows:  (1) a prior understanding among the Suppliers, including McWane, that each Supplier would curtail Project Pricing; (2) a commitment to one another to curtail Project Pricing; (3) a restricted freedom of action and sense of obligation to one another to curtail Project Pricing, and (4) an actual reduction in the amount or level of Project Pricing. Consistent with prevailing federal court caselaw, the ALJ demanded evidence indicating an “actual, manifest agreement” and found that evidence lacking.

Unfortunately for complaint counsel, the evidence it put on is also suggestive of interdependence and conscious parallelism among oligopolists, which are not violations of the law. It was in McWane’s interests to get its competitors to curtail project pricing so it could better determine the real prices it needed to “further its own legitimate business interests of increasing volume . . . in order to beat prices being offered by its competitors, which is a procompetitive purpose.”. McWane used its position as a price leader to make a move that it hoped would force McWane’s competitors to reduce project pricing. Despite large raw material cost increases, McWane refused to raise published list prices to the high levels Sigma and Star had announced, and it set its regional multipliers in such a way that would pressure those competitors to match its lower multipliers and, it hoped, to reduce their project pricing.

McWane’s strategy did not require or lead to an “actual, manifest agreement” on multipliers or project pricing, as complaint counsel alleges. The ALJ found that “If Sigma and Star declined to adopt McWane’s new multipliers, the new multipliers could be easily withdrawn or revised.” The ALJ determined that McWane’s move was not irrational because McWane could still easily react based on the behavior of its competitors. Indeed, the ALJ found that it was “undisputed that Project Pricing did not stop,” and found no evidence that Project Pricing declined at all.

On the collusion issue, the ALJ rightly found that price maneuvering in an oligopoly is not a violation without sufficient evidence to show there was an actual, manifest agreement. If the FTC were to do so it would open many markets up to additional risk. It would also be impossible to craft a remedy without grossly interfering with the normal operation of the market. In this, the ALJ reiterated the sentiment of the First Circuit – “How does one order a firm to set its prices without regard to the likely reactions of its competitors?”

The FTC Commissioners should not hold a company guilty of collusion simply for being a part of an oligopoly. As the ALJ stated – “accepting Complaint Counsel’s position that oligopolistic interdependence is a ‘plus’ factor would, in effect, foist a nefarious motive upon the Suppliers merely because they conduct their business within an oligopoly market. This is not the law.” The ALJ was right, and it would be inconsistent with well-established federal court caselaw to rule otherwise.  The FTC should not be subject to one rule in federal court, but another for its own internal administrative court.

The following is the second in a series of guest posts by David Balto about the FTC’s McWane case.

Two modest offices on the first floor of the FTC building are occupied by the FTC Administrative Law Judge and his staff.  Of all of the agencies with an ALJ, the FTC’s operation must be the smallest.  The ALJ handles only a handful of trials each year.  In the past, the FTC ALJ operation has gathered little to no attention.  But in recent years, with renewed focus on administrative litigation and tight litigation deadlines, FTC administrative litigation has become a rocket docket of sorts.

But there is renewed attention for another reason.  As I have written elsewhere the FTC is on a 19-year streak of always finding violations in its administrative litigation.  In many instances that has required it to reverse an ALJ.  When the Commission reverses on the law, that is not exceptional.  But in those cases where the Commission has taken a different view of the facts, there is far greater controversy.  Although the Commission does analyze the facts de novo, the ALJ has conducted the trial, listened to the testimony, watched the witnesses and is in the best position to assess credibility and determine the facts.  The Commission’s differing view of the facts in cases such as Rambus and Schering led appellate courts to treat the FTC decision with extreme skepticism.  If the FTC is going to second guess the ALJ’s factual findings, which are based on his first-hand observation of the witnesses and review of the documents, why do we have ALJs?

This post addresses that issue by looking at the factual findings of the ALJ in the McWane case (for an introduction of the McWane case please see my previous post). The ALJ in the McWane case wrote an extensive 235 pages of factual findings. In the interest of brevity, I will only be discussing the collusion findings.  My goal is to illustrate how difficult it will be to reverse some of these findings, and if reversed, the problems it will likely present on appeal.

To understand the FTC’s collusion claims it is important to first understand how fittings are priced. Fitting prices start with published list prices. No one buys off published prices.  The suppliers publish regional multipliers that provide discounts off the published list price. The ALJ found that “[d]istributors prefer that [f]ittings suppliers like McWane, Sigma, and Star have identical list prices because it is easier for [d]istributors to compare the suppliers’ multipliers and discounts to determine net prices.” Suppliers also have a variety of mechanisms to discount prices below the multiplier price in order to compete for bids. Chief among these is the project price, which is a discounted price for an entire project or job or for a single order. It is easy for competitors to find out each other’s list prices and multipliers from their customers which are often large and aggressive buyers who bargain down prices. However, discounts beyond the multipliers are often hidden and hard to discover by competitors.

The ALJ found the fittings market to be an oligopoly. McWane, Sigma, and Star are constantly looking for, and reacting to, changes in each other’s pricing. Much of this competitive information was received through customers and it was known that any letter sent to a customer would end up in the hands of a competitor. The ALJ found that while “[c]ustomer letters served to communicate to competitors, as well as customers[,]”the “substantial evidence” showed that the parties priced independently at all times and McWane routinely priced below its competitors.

Beginning in 2007, “the [f]ittings industry experienced a period of declining demand, increased price competition resulting in price erosion, and increased costs.” The ALJ found that during this period McWane’s main concern was to increase sales volume in order to reduce excess inventory and keep its foundries open. The ALJ also found that McWane’s net pricing was not keeping up with cost inflation. The cost of doing business overseas, primarily in China, was also increasing, which impacted all fittings suppliers equally. Every supplier was looking to increase pricing but the suppliers were also aware that any increase would have to be followed to stick.

McWane used these conditions to allegedly come up with a strategy, which later became the basis for the FTC’s complaint, to “narrow the range between the published price and actual prices and thereby give his competitors less ‘headroom,’ within which Star and Sigma could maneuver to undercut McWane on price.” Instead of following Star and Sigma on their very large list price increases, McWane kept its list prices steady and raised some its multipliers, but to a much lower amount than Sigma and Star’s list price increases. McWane also announced an intention to stop project pricing through customer letters, according to the FTC. Project pricing hides the real prices of fittings. McWane’s goal was to make prices more transparent so that it could better compete on price but “McWane knew internally that in order to meet its objectives of increasing volume and share, it would have to Project Price.”

The FTC also had a problem with the beginning of a fittings trade group called DIFRA. The FTC’s claim was that DIFRA allowed the fittings companies to share sensitive competitive data. McWane, Star and Sigma would report “tons-shipped data” to DIFRA for their fittings sales. The ALJ found that the data gathered by DIFRA’s accountants “did not distinguish between Domestic Fittings and non-domestic Fittings” and “did not include or reveal any sales Prices.” The ALJ also found that “no DIFRA member was permitted to review the tons-shipped data of any other member; the reports revealed only the aggregate total tons-shipped during the relevant reporting period.” This DIFRA data was used by each supplier to determine their market share in order to plan future business strategies.

The FTC believed that McWane’s strategy, DIFRA, and other activities were collusive actions to stabilize and raise prices. The FTC saw the alleged elimination of project pricing and sharing of aggregated volume data as mechanisms to enforce a cartel and prevent cheating. However, the ALJ did not find these activities to amount to anticompetitive behavior – there was no smoking gun that turned these activities with procompetitive justifications into an antitrust violation. The data DIFRA provided had procompetitive uses including an instance where it “helped McWane decide, in June 2008, to choose the low end of the 8% to 12% range of multiplier increases” because the report showed McWane was “continuing to lose market share.” The ALJ also found that the data did not suggest a reduction in job pricing. The expert in the trial, which the ALJ found “offered credible and persuasive expert opinion, based on actual prices,” found “no economic evidence that the price changes in January or June of 2008 were coordinated, or that there was an agreement to reduce job pricing as would be reflected in a decrease in price variance; that there was economic evidence that contradicted a conclusion that prices were raised anticompetitively in the Fittings market; and that the pattern of sales and inventory contradicts the notion of quantity withholding, as would be needed to effect a price increase.” The ALJ also found that McWane’s witness “credibly testified that McWane’s goal going into 2008 was primarily to increase volume, rather than price,” and that “[t]he decline in McWane’s pricing (F. 940), given the rise in input costs (F. 951), is inconsistent with a conspiracy and consistent with independent pricing behavior.”

The ALJ ultimately found that the government’s collusion claims amounted to nothing more than “weak” “unsupported speculation” and that its “daisy chain of assumptions fails to support or justify an evidentiary inference of any unlawful agreement involving McWane.” The FTC will have trouble overcoming these findings if it chooses to overturn the ALJ’s dismissal of the collusion claims. For the Commissioners to do so would essentially be making different credibility assessments than the ALJ, even though they weren’t present for the trial. If these ALJ findings are so easily overturned it would bring into question why an ALJ is needed in the first place.

The following is the first in a series of guests posts by David Balto about the FTC’s McWane case.

Anyone familiar with the antitrust newstream realizes there is a tremendous amount of controversy about the Federal Trade Commission’s administrative litigation process. Unlike the Antitrust Division which fights its litigation battles in Federal Court, the FTC has a distinct home court advantage. FTC antitrust cases are typically litigated administratively with a trial conducted before an FTC administrative law judge, who issues an initial decision, followed with an appeal to the full Commission for a final decision. I have authored a couple of recent articles as have others that question the fairness of the FTC acting as both prosecutor and judge. These concerns have only been amplified since for the last 19 years the FTC has always found a violation of law. As one Congressman noted the FTC has “an unbeaten streak that Perry Mason would envy.”

All of this will come to a head later this month in an FTC case against McWane, Inc., a modest firm that makes ductile iron pipe fittings (DIPF). In this case the FTC brought a complaint against McWane alleging collusion with competitors to stabilize and raise prices and exclusion of competitors in the domestically manufactured DIPF market. The case was tried like greased lightning – it went from complaint to trial in 9 months. The trial before the administrative law judge (ALJ) involved over 2,000 exhibits, 16 live witnesses and 53 total witnesses, 25 trial days, 6,045 pages of trial transcript, and culminated in a 464-page decision – possibly the longest FTC decision in history. Ultimately, the ALJ split his decision and found for McWane on the collusion counts and for the FTC on the exclusion counts. Both parties have appealed and the case is currently under consideration by the Commission. The case was argued before the Commission on August 22, 2013, and a decision by the Commission is expected by January 25.

The McWane case provides an excellent lens to examine where the FTC may be headed in administrative litigation and the policing of dominant firm conduct. For this reason I will be writing a series of posts explaining the case and why a finding of a violation may be a risky path for the development of the law on collusion and exclusion, and what proof is needed to show such violations. This first article will explain the state of the market that led to the filing of a complaint.

McWane is a producer of domestically manufactured DIPF, which are used to join pipe in pressurized water transportation systems. DIPF can join pipe in straight lines or change, divide or direct the flow of water. DIPF are usually sold to municipal and regional water authorities through independent wholesale distributors. DIPF are commodity products that are produced to American Water Works Association standards. This makes all DIPF that meet the standards, whether foreign or domestically produced, completely interchangeable.

The DIPF market used to be dominated by domestic producers; however that has changed over the past 20 years. Project managers and municipalities can stipulate on their specifications whether the fittings for a particular project are to be domestically produced, imported, or open to all bids. Since the mid-1980s cheap foreign fittings and dumping has caused most of these specifications to be flipped from domestic-only to open. The period of 2003-2008 saw the biggest decline in domestic DIPF – from about 70% to 15-20%. This led many domestic fittings producers to either dramatically reduce their production or exit the market entirely. The International Trade Commission unanimously determined in 2003 that a flood of cheap fittings from China was causing “market disruption” and “material injury” to domestic fittings producers. McWane became the last domestic DIPF producer with a full-line foundry dedicated to DIPF in the United States and that foundry is only operating at 30% capacity, which puts it in danger of being closed. McWane was previously forced to shut down its other U.S. foundry and open a foundry in China, measures taken to compete with the low cost of foreign production.

There are still some specifications that require domestically produced fittings. This may be due to preference (ex. patriotism) or legal rules, but both of these can (and did) change with frequency to permit the purchase of imported fittings. In addition, the “Buy American” provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) did create a brief increase in the demand of domestically produced fittings. However, the numerous waivers and temporary nature meant that the sale of domestic fittings only rose to about a third of all sales before falling back to their pre-ARRA levels when ARRA expired in 2010. Domestic-only specifications and the ARRA period encouraged foreign fittings companies to consider producing DIPF products domestically. Star entered shortly after the passage of ARRA and Sigma entered into a Master Distribution Agreement (MDA) with McWane to supply domestic fittings during the ARRA period. It was these conditions that produced the FTC complaint.

McWane’s actions to keep its domestic foundry open led to the FTC complaint. McWane’s rebate program, designed to help it increase production at its foundry, became the basis of the FTC’s claim that McWane was excluding Star from the market. McWane’s MDA agreement with Sigma, which also helped expand its reach to Sigma’s customer base and to increase its domestic foundry production, was seen by the FTC as excluding Sigma from the market. McWane was also charged with colluding with Star, who successfully entered the market, to raise and stabilize prices.

The FTC’s complaint is divided into two parts with counts 1-3 alleging collusion and counts 4-7 alleging exclusionary actions by McWane. The collusion counts charge conspiracy to restrain price competition in the relevant Fittings market (Count One); conspiracy to exchange competitively sensitive sales information (Count Two); and invitation to collude (Count Three). The exclusionary counts charge that the MDA was an agreement in restraint of trade (Count Four); a conspiracy between McWane and Sigma to monopolize the Domestic Fittings market (Count Five); exclusionary acts constituting willful practices to acquire, enhance, or maintain monopoly power in the relevant Domestic Fittings market (Count Six); and specific intent to monopolize the Domestic Fittings market (Count Seven). The ALJ dismissed counts 1-3, finding that the FTC’s conspiracy allegations were “weak,” “unverified,” “unpersuasive,” “strained,” and “unsupported,” amounting to a “daisy chain of assumptions.” The ALJ went on to find that Star, who was a “a less efficient supplier” than McWane, “clearly” entered the Domestic Fittings market in 2009, and that its market share went “from zero to almost 10% in 2011.” He also found that “Sigma was in a precarious position overall in financial terms” and “regardless of whether Sigma had the financial capability to produce Domestic Fittings . . . it did not have the time required to do so” before the end of the ARRA period, but nonetheless found that counts 4-7 were proven by a preponderance of the evidence.

The McWane case is unusual for several reasons as I will describe in my future posts. The FTC alleges collusion to raise and stabilize prices and exclusionary conduct but the time period of any alleged wrongful conduct seems incredibly short. The FTC alleges that the victim of McWane’s supposed exclusionary tactics, Star, also conspired with McWane to raise prices – a contradiction that FTC Commissioner Rosch had trouble with. The FTC relies heavily on a domestic market definition even though there is strong evidence that foreign competition had driven all domestic suppliers out of the market except for McWane and that any domestic only market, if it exists, does not appear to be large enough or stable enough to support an industry. Finally, The FTC relies on structural and plus factors to prove collusion rather than direct evidence of price agreements or communications or economic evidence and analyses showing any supra-competitive price effects.

In my next article I will explain the ALJ’s factual findings in relation to the alleged violations and pose some of the challenges the Commission faces.

In our recent blog symposium on Section 5 of the FTC Act, Latham & Watkins partner Tad Lipsky exposed one of antitrust’s dark little secrets: Nobody really knows what Sherman Act Section 2 forbids.  The provision bans monopolization, attempted monopolization, and conspiracies to monopolize, and courts have articulated formal elements for each claim.  But the element common to the two unilateral offenses—“exclusionary conduct”—remains essentially undefined.  Lipsky writes:

123 years of Section 2 enforcement and the best our Supreme Court can do is the Grinnell standard, defining [exclusionary conduct] as the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [monopoly] power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.”  Is this Grinnell definition that much better than [Section 5’s reference to] “unfair methods of competition”?

No, it’s not.  Nor are any of the other commonly cited judicial definitions of exclusionary conduct, such as “competition not on the merits.”  As Einer Elhauge has observed, such judicial definitions are not just vague but vacuous.

This is problematic because business planners need clarity.  On some specific unilateral practices—straightforward price cuts and aggressive input-bidding, for example—courts have provided clear liability rules and safe harbors.  But in a dynamic economy, business people are constantly coming up with new ideas for sales-enhancing practices that might have the effect of disadvantaging rivals, of “excluding” them from the market.  Absent some general understanding of what constitutes an “unreasonably exclusionary” act, business people are likely to forego novel but efficient sales-enhancing practices, to the detriment of consumers.

In the last decade or so, commentators have proposed four generally applicable definitions of unreasonably exclusionary conduct.  Judge Posner suggested that such conduct be defined as acts that could exclude an “equally efficient rival” from the perpetrator’s market (the “EER” approach).  Post-Chicago theorists would equate unreasonably exclusionary conduct with unjustifiably “raising rivals’ costs” (the “RRC” approach).  The Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise prescribes a balancing of the “consumer welfare effects” resulting from the practice at issue (“CWE-balancing”).  And the U.S. Department of Justice has called for defining unreasonably exclusionary conduct as that which would make “no economic sense” apart from its tendency to enhance market power (the “NES” test, or “NEST”).

Each of these approaches, it turns out, is troubling.  The EER approach is underdeterrent in that it fails to condemn practices that cause rivals to be less efficient than the perpetrator.  The RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches turn out to be difficult to apply—and largely indeterminate—for any exclusion-causing conduct involving “degrees.” For example, a 15% loyalty rebate conditioned upon purchasing 70% of one’s requirements from the defendant requires a certain “degree” of loyalty and provides a certain “degree” of price reduction.  It might well turn out that some degree of required loyalty (e.g., the increment from 60% to 70%) or some degree of discount (e.g., the increment from 10% to 15%) either (1) raised rivals’ costs unjustifiably (RRC) or (2) created greater consumer harm than benefit (CWE-balancing) or (3) made no economic sense but for its ability to enhance market power (NEST).  Because the RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches appear to require marginal analysis of exclusion-causing conduct, they become fairly inadministrable and indeterminate when applied to conduct involving degrees, a category that includes most of the novel conduct for which a generally applicable exclusionary conduct definition would be useful.  Because they provide little guidance and no reliable safe harbors, the RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches are likely to overdeter efficient, but novel, business practices.

In light of these and other difficulties with the proposed exclusionary conduct definitions, a number of scholars now advocate abandoning the search for a generally applicable definition and applying different liability standards to different types of behavior.  Eschewal of universal standards, though, is also troubling.  To the extent non-universalists are saying that there is no single definition of unreasonably exclusionary conduct—no common thread that runs through all instances of unreasonable exclusion—their position seems to violate rule of law norms.  After all, the Court has told us that unreasonably exclusionary conduct is an element of monopolization and attempted monopolization.  That means that the exclusionary conduct component of all Section 2 offenses must share something in common; otherwise, the “element” would consist of a non-exhaustive menu of unrelated features and would cease to be an element.

A less extreme “non-universalist” approach would concede that there is a single definition of unreasonably exclusionary conduct—that which reduces overall consumer welfare—but hold that there should be no universal test for identifying when a particular practice runs afoul of the definition.  This more defensible position resembles “rule utilitarianism” in ethical theory.  Rule utilitarians concede that morality is ultimately concerned with utility-maximization, but they would judge the morality of any particular act not on the basis of its actual consequences but instead according to whether it complies with a rule selected to maximize utility.  Similarly, “soft” non-universalists would select liability tests for particular business practices on the basis of whether those tests maximize overall consumer welfare, but they would evaluate particular instances of exclusion-causing behavior on the basis of whether they comply with applicable liability tests, not whether they actually enhance consumer welfare.

Because it reduces to a version of CWE-balancing (though at the rule level rather than the act level), “soft” non-universalism is subject to the same criticisms as CWE-balancing in general: it is difficult to apply and indeterminate.  Indeed, under a soft non-universal approach, a business planner considering a novel but efficient exclusion-causing practice would first have to predict the liability rule a reviewing court would adopt for the practice under consideration and then apply that rule.  Talk about a lack of clarity and reliable safe harbors!

I have recently authored a paper that critiques the proposed definitions of unreasonably exclusionary conduct as well as the non-universalist approaches discussed above and, finding each position deficient, proposes an alternative approach.  My approach would deem conduct to be unreasonably exclusionary if it would likely exclude from the perpetrator’s market a “competitive rival,” defined as a rival that is both as determined as the perpetrator and capable, at minimum efficient scale, of matching the perpetrator’s efficiency.  This “exclusion of a competitive rival” approach, the paper demonstrates, identifies a common thread running through instances of unreasonable exclusion, comports with prevailing intuitions about what constitutes appropriate competition, generates clear guidance and reliable safe harbors, and would minimize the sum of decision and error costs resulting from monopolization doctrine.

A draft of the paper, which is slated to appear as an article in the North Carolina Law Review, is available on SSRN.  Please download, and let me know if you have any comments.

In Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania (1977), Justice Powell observed that antitrust law should go easy on manufacturer restraints on dealer resale because manufacturers could always decide to integrate forward into distribution and bypass dealers altogether.  As anyone who has followed electric car manufacturer Tesla’s recent travails will know, Justice Powell’s observation is not true of the auto industry.  Dealer franchise laws in most states require car manufacturers to sell through independent dealers.  Tesla apparently would like to bypass the traditional dealership model and sell directly to customers, which is landing the company in legal hot waters in many states, including traditionally “free market” states like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Tesla is the offspring of the South African-American entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also brought us Pay-Pal and SpaceX.  The company’s luxury electric cars have caused a sensation in the auto industry, including a review by Consumer Reports calling Tesla’s Model S the best car it ever tested.  Extraordinarily for a startup, in the first quarter of 2013, Tesla Model S sales exceeded the top line offerings of the established German luxury brands, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.  Indeed, more Teslas were sold than BMW 7 series and Audi A8s combined.

One would imagine that Tesla’s biggest problem would be economic and technological—creating the infrastructure for battery-pack swap and charging facilities necessary to persuade customers that powering their Teslas will be as seamless as pumping gas at a filling station.  (Telsa’s recently announced 90-second battery pack swap will go a long way in that direction).  Alas, Tesla’s major stumbling block seems to be more legal than technological.  Tesla wants to open its own showrooms and sell directly to customers.  The powerful car dealers’ lobby has been invoking decades-old dealer franchising laws to block Tesla’s progress, insisting that Tesla must sell through independent, franchised dealers like other car companies do.  Tesla has been lobbying for legislative reforms at the state level, thus far with mixed success.

The basic economics of the problem are straightforward.  As Ronald Coase taught us, whether a car manufacturer keeps the distribution function in house or buys distribution services on the market is a question of the agency and transactions costs of those respective forms of distribution.  There are many reasons why manufacturers might prefer to distribute through independent dealers.  This shifts the investment in distribution to someone other than the manufacturer, allowing the manufacturer to focus on its core competence in research and development and manufacturing.  It shifts managerial decisions to managers with local market knowledge.  It may create economies of scale or scope as dealers sell several different brands under a single roof.

But there are also good reasons why a manufacturer might prefer to sell directly to consumers.  The manufacturer may be concerned that the dealers will focus more on short-term sales maximization rather than long-term investment in building the brand.  (This could be particularly concerning to a company like Tesla that is introducing a disruptive new technology that still needs to be proven in the market).  The manufacturer may worry that independent dealers will be insufficiently loyal and push other brands.  It may fret that local dealers will be unsophisticated about new technologies and that training and monitoring will be easier if retail distribution stays in house.

There is no a priori reason to favor one model or the other, and I have no idea whether Tesla is better off distributing through traditional dealer networks.  But I find it hard to fathom any good reason why the law should prohibit a car manufacturer from picking whatever distribution model it thinks best.  As a newcomer to these state dealer laws, I’ve been trying to keep an open mind that they might be supported by some legitimate policy concern and not pure protectionism.  Unfortunately, whenever a dealer-aligned speaker opens his mouth to defend these laws, the case that it’s just protectionism gets stronger.

One argument I’ve seen attributed to the auto dealers—and I sincerely hope that there’s some mistake and this is not actually an argument they’re making—is that creating “competition” in retail distribution of Tesla cars is necessary to prevent Tesla from price gouging customers. The idea that a vertically integrated manufacturer has a “monopoly” over the brand’s retail distribution that needs to be broken up by outsourcing the retail function to independent dealers is farcical.  If Tesla has market power, it will extract the full monopoly profit regardless of whether it sells to dealers or end users.  (It will be fully embedded in either the wholesale or resale price).  Since retail distribution is just a cost of doing business, Tesla will increase its monopoly profits by minimizing the cost of retail distribution since then it will sell more cars.  If anything, as economists have long recognized, outsourcing the retail distribution function to locally dominant automobile dealers could lead to double marginalization and increased prices.

A second argument is that having local dealers is necessary to ensure that customers are adequately served.  For example, Bob Glaser of the North Carolina Automobile Dealer’s Association has asserted that the restrictions are a form of “consumer protection,” since “a dealer who has invested a significant amount of capital in a community is more committed to taking care of that area’s customers.”  The obvious rejoinder is that Tesla has as much or more of an interest as the dealers in seeing that customers get the level of service they’re willing to pay for.   If Tesla gets a bad reputation for quality, it will fail.  I suppose that one might worry if  Tesla were a fly-by-night operation selling customers an expensive durable good at a high price and then fleeing with its profits and leaving customers without support.  But that’s obviously unlikely of a company that’s pouring billions of dollars into the creation of a new product and a recharging and battery swapping infrastructure.  Car manufacturers make considerably larger fixed capital investments than do dealers and I’m sure that the dealer failure and exit rate is considerably higher than that of manufacturers.

A related argument is that dealers play an important role in complying with local laws regarding titling and safety inspection.  But this argument doesn’t work either.  First, observe that at present most states only prohibit manufacturers from opening their own dealerships—they don’t prohibit online sales from outside the state.  (North Carolina recently passed a statute banning online sales as well).  There’s no reason why a manufacturer-owned dealership should be less capable of complying with local laws than an independent dealer.  Second, why should Internet sales involve evasion of state titling and safety inspection laws?  Internet sales can just as easily be subject to the same titling and inspection requirements as dealer-initiated sales.

Another argument I’ve heard is that prohibiting manufacturers from integrating forward into distribution is necessary to prevent them from competing unfairly with their own franchised dealers by undercutting them on price.  The logic of this argument is a little fuzzy. What would a manufacturer set up franchised dealers only to undercut them ruinously?  I suppose it might be some variant of the usual free-rider arguments—the manufacturer would set up independent dealers, free-ride on their local brand promotion, and then cut them out once the brand was established.  (Why the dealers can’t contractually bargain for protections from this isn’t clear).  But all of this is a lark for present purposes.  It clearly doesn’t apply to Tesla, which wants to avoid franchising altogether.  At most, if one were worried about “undercutting,” the rule should be a prohibition on manufacturer retail operations for manufacturers that also franchise, not for those that bypass franchising altogether.

Some people have quite fairly complained that Tesla shouldn’t be given special exemptions when other car companies are bound by the dealer restrictions.  For sure, but that cuts in favor of amending or repealing these laws altogether, not enforcing them against Tesla.  If anything, if it’s true that Tesla would obtain a competitive advantage by bypassing traditional dealer networks, consumers should want this advantage available to all car companies.  To put it other way, this argument is basically an admission that the dealer laws are raising car prices.

The last argument I’ve heard—and it’s a real doozy—is that independent dealers are civic bastions of local communities and therefore deserve to be specially protected.  Never mind the fact that many auto dealerships are owned and operated by large regional chains rather than local Boy Scouts troopmasters.  Why on God’s green earth should we single out automobiles for economic protectionism in order to subsidize local civic participation?  Why stop with automobiles?  Why not household appliances, twinkies, and lingerie?   And who is to say that Tesla will be any less civic minded than franchised auto dealers?  Further, if the model of direct distribution is so superior to franchised distribution that eliminating legal restrictions would put the dealers out of business, there must be something systematically inefficient about franchised distribution.  In that case, both consumers and local communities would be better served if state legislatures just levied a tax on auto sales and distributed them pro rata to local civic organizations.

Since the arguments for dealer laws are so weak, I’m left with the firm impression that this is just special interest rent-seeking of the worst kind.  It’s a real shame that Tesla—seemingly one of the most innovative, successful, and environmentally correct American industrial firms of the last decade—is going to have to spend tens of millions of dollars and may eventually have to cut shady political deals for the right to sell its own products.  I’m ordinarily a fan of federalism and states’ rights, but if the current debacle continues, it may be necessary for Congress to step in with preemptive federal legislation.