Archives For merger guidelines

There is always a temptation for antitrust agencies and plaintiffs to center a case around so-called “hot” documents — typically company documents with a snippet or sound-bites extracted, some times out of context. Some practitioners argue that “[h]ot document can be crucial to the outcome of any antitrust matter.” Although “hot” documents can help catch the interest of the public, a busy judge or an unsophisticated jury, they often can lead to misleading results. But more times than not, antitrust cases are resolved on economics and what John Adams called “hard facts,” not snippets from emails or other corporate documents. Antitrust case books are littered with cases that initially looked promising based on some supposed hot documents, but ultimately failed because the foundations of a sound antitrust case were missing.

As discussed below this is especially true for a recent case brought by the FTC, FTC v. St. Luke’s, currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the FTC at each pleading stage has consistently relied on “hot” documents to make its case.

The crafting and prosecution of civil antitrust cases by federal regulators is a delicate balancing act. Regulators must adhere to well-defined principles of antitrust enforcement, and on the other hand appeal to the interests of a busy judge. The simple way of doing this is using snippets of documents to attempt to show the defendants knew they were violating the law.

After all, if federal regulators merely had to properly define geographic and relevant product markets, show a coherent model of anticompetitive harm, and demonstrate that any anticipated harm would outweigh any procompetitive benefits, where is the fun in that? The reality is that antitrust cases typically rely on economic analysis, not snippets of hot documents. Antitrust regulators routinely include internal company documents in their cases to supplement the dry mechanical nature of antitrust analysis. However, in isolation, these documents can create competitive concerns when they simply do not exist.

With this in mind, it is vital that antitrust regulators do not build an entire case around what seem to be inflammatory documents. Quotes from executives, internal memoranda about competitors, and customer presentations are the icing on the cake after a proper antitrust analysis. As the International Center for Law and Economics’ Geoff Manne once explained,

[t]he problem is that these documents are easily misunderstood, and thus, while the economic significance of such documents is often quite limited, their persuasive value is quite substantial.

Herein lies the problem illustrated by the Federal Trade Commission’s use of provocative documents in its suit against the vertical acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group, an independent physician group comprised of 41 doctors, by St. Luke’s Health System. The FTC seeks to stop the acquisition involving these two Idaho based health care providers, a $16 million transaction, and a number comparatively small to other health care mergers investigated by the antitrust agencies. The transaction would give St. Luke’s a total of 24 primary care physicians operating in and around Nampa, Idaho.

In St. Luke’s the FTC used “hot” documents in each stage of its pleadings, from its complaint through its merits brief on appeal. Some of the statements pulled from executives’ emails, notes and memoranda seem inflammatory suggesting St. Luke’s intended to increase prices and to control market share all in order to further its strength relative to payer contracting. These statements however have little grounding in the reality of health care competition.

The reliance by the FTC on these so-called hot documents is problematic for several reasons. First, the selective quoting of internal documents paints the intention of the merger solely to increase profit for St. Luke’s at the expense of payers, when the reality is that the merger is premised on the integration of health care services and the move from the traditional fee-for-service model to a patient-centric model. St Luke’s intention of incorporating primary care into its system is in-line with the goals of the Affordable Care Act to promote over all well-being through integration. The District Court in this case recognized that the purpose of the merger was “primarily to improve patient outcomes.” And, in fact, underserved and uninsured patients are already benefitting from the transaction.

Second, the selective quoting suggested a narrow geographic market, and therefore an artificially high level of concentration in Nampa, Idaho. The suggestion contradicts reality, that nearly one-third of Nampa residents seek primary care physician services outside of Nampa. The geographic market advanced by the FTC is not a proper market, regardless of whether selected documents appear to support it. Without a properly defined geographic market, it is impossible to determine market share and therefore prove a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act.

The DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC have acknowledged that markets can not properly be defined solely on spicy documents. Writing in their 2006 commentary on the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the agencies noted that

[t]he Agencies are careful, however, not to assume that a ‘market’ identified for business purposes is the same as a relevant market defined in the context of a merger analysis. … It is unremarkable that ‘markets’ in common business usage do not always coincide with ‘markets’ in an antitrust context, inasmuch as the terms are used for different purposes.

Third, even if St. Luke’s had the intention of increasing prices, just because one wants to do something such as raise prices above a competitive level or scale back research and development expenses — even if it genuinely believes it is able — does not mean that it can. Merger analysis is not a question of mens rea (or subjective intent). Rather, the analysis must show that such behavior will be likely as a result of diminished competition. Regulators must not look at evidence of this subjective intent and then conclude that the behavior must be possible and that a merger is therefore likely to substantially lessen competition. This would be the tail wagging the dog. Instead, regulators must first determine whether, as a matter of economic principle, a merger is likely to have a particular effect. Then, once the analytical tests have been run, documents can support these theories. But without sound support for the underlying theories, documents (however condemning) cannot bring the case across the goal line.

Certainly, documents suggesting intent to raise prices should bring an antitrust plaintiff across the goal line? Not so, as Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook has explained:

Almost all evidence bearing on “intent” tends to show both greed and desire to succeed and glee at a rival’s predicament. … [B]ut drive to succeed lies at the core of a rivalrous economy. Firms need not like their competitors; they need not cheer them on to success; a desire to extinguish one’s rivals is entirely consistent with, often is the motive behind competition.

As Harvard Law Professor Phil Areeda observed, relying on documents describing intent is inherently risky because

(1) the businessperson often uses a colorful and combative vocabulary far removed from the lawyer’s linguistic niceties, and (2) juries and judges may fail to distinguish a lawful competitive intent from a predatory state of mind. (7 Phillip E. Areeda & Herbert Hovenkamp, Antitrust Law § 1506 (2d ed. 2003).)

So-called “hot” documents may help guide merger analysis, but served up as a main course make a paltry meal. Merger cases rise or fall on hard facts and economics, and next week we will see if the Ninth Circuit recognizes this as both St. Luke’s and the FTC argue their cases.

A century ago Congress enacted the Clayton Act, which prohibits acquisitions that may substantially lessen competition. For years, the antitrust enforcement Agencies looked at only one part of the ledger – the potential for price increases. Agencies didn’t take into account the potential efficiencies in cost savings, better products, services, and innovation. One of the major reforms of the Clinton Administration was to fully incorporate efficiencies in merger analysis, helping to develop sound enforcement standards for the 21st Century.

But the current approach of the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), especially in hospital mergers, appears to be taking a major step backwards by failing to fully consider efficiencies and arguing for legal thresholds inconsistent with sound competition policy. The FTC’s approach used primarily in hospital mergers seems uniquely misguided since there is a tremendous need for smart hospital consolidation to help bend the cost curve and improve healthcare delivery.

The FTC’s backwards analysis of efficiencies is juxtaposed in two recent hospital-physician alliances.

As I discussed in my last post, no one would doubt the need for greater integration between hospitals and physicians – the debate during the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) detailed how the current siloed approach to healthcare is the worst of all worlds, leading to escalating costs and inferior care. In FTC v. St. Luke’s Health System, Ltd., the FTC challenged Boise-based St. Luke’s acquisition of a physician practice in neighboring Nampa, Idaho.

In the case, St. Luke’s presented a compelling case for efficiencies.

As noted by the St. Luke’s court, one of the leading factors in rising healthcare costs is the use of the ineffective fee-for-service system. In their attempt to control costs and abandon fee-for-service payment, the merging parties effectively demonstrated to the court that the combined entity would offer a high level of coordinated and patient-centered care. Therefore, along with integrating electronic records and increasing access for under-privileged patients, the merged entity can also successfully manage population health and offer risk-based payment initiatives to all employed physicians. Indeed, the transaction consummated several months ago has already shown significant cost savings and consumer benefits especially for underserved patients. The court recognized

[t]he Acquisition was intended by St. Luke’s and Saltzer primarily to improve patient outcomes. The Court believes that it would have that effect if left intact.

(Appellants’ Reply Brief at 22, FTC v. St. Luke’s Health Sys., No 14-35173 (9th Cir. Sept. 2, 2014).)

But the court gave no weight to the efficiencies primarily because the FTC set forward the wrong legal roadmap.

Under the FTC’s current roadmap for efficiencies, the FTC may prove antitrust harm via predication and presumption while defendants are required to decisively prove countervailing procompetitive efficiencies. Such asymmetric burdens of proof greatly favor the FTC and eliminate a court’s ability to properly analyze the procompetitive nature of efficiencies against the supposed antitrust harm.

Moreover, the FTC basically claims that any efficiencies can only be considered “merger-specific” if the parties are able to demonstrate there are no less anticompetitive means to achieve them. It is not enough that they result directly from the merger.

In the case of St. Luke’s, the court determined the defendants’ efficiencies would “improve the quality of medical care” in Nampa, Idaho, but were not merger-specific. The court relied on the FTC’s experts to find that efficiencies such as “elimination of fee-for-service reimbursement” and the movement “to risk-based reimbursement” were not merger-specific, because other entities had potentially achieved similar efficiencies within different provider “structures.” The FTC and their experts did not indicate the success of these other models nor dispute that St. Luke’s would achieve their stated efficiencies. Instead, the mere possibility of potential, alternative structures was enough to overcome merger efficiencies purposed to “move the focus of health care back to the patient.” (The case is currently on appeal and hopefully the Ninth Circuit can correct the lower court’s error).

In contrast to the St. Luke’s case is the recent FTC advisory letter to the Norman Physician Hospital Organization (“Norman PHO”). The Norman PHO proposed a competitive collaboration serving to integrate care between the Norman Physician Association’s 280 physicians and Norman Regional Health System, the largest health system in Norman, Oklahoma. In its analysis of the Norman PHO, the FTC found that the groups could not “quantify… the likely overall efficiency benefits of its proposed program” nor “provide direct evidence of actual efficiencies or competitive effects.” Furthermore, such an arrangement had the potential to “exercise market power.” Nonetheless, the FTC permitted the collaboration. Its decision was instead decided on the basis of Norman PHO’s non-exclusive physician contracting provisions.

It seems difficult if not impossible to reconcile the FTC’s approaches in Boise and Norman. In Norman the FTC relied on only theoretical efficiencies to permit an alliance with significant market power. The FTC was more than willing to accept Norman PHO’s “potential to… generate significant efficiencies.” Such an even-handed approach concerning efficiencies was not applied in analyzing efficiencies in St. Luke’s merger.

The starting point for understanding the FTC’s misguided analysis of efficiencies in St. Luke’s and other merger cases stems from the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines (“Guidelines”).

A recent dissent by FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright outlines the problem – there are asymmetric burdens placed on the plaintiff and defendant. Using the Guidelines, FTC’s merger analysis

embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other.

Relying on the structural presumption established in United States v. Philadelphia Nat’l Bank, the FTC need only illustrate that a merger will substantially lessen competition, typically demonstrated through a showing of undue concentration in a relevant market, not actual anticompetitive effects. If this low burden is met, the burden is then shifted to the defendants to rebut the presumption of competitive harm.

As part of their defense, defendants must then prove that any proposed efficiencies are cognizable, meaning “merger-specific,” and have been “verified and do not arise from anticompetitive reductions in output or service.” Furthermore, merging parties must demonstrate “by reasonable means the likelihood and magnitude of each asserted efficiency, how and when each would be achieved…, how each would enhance the merged firm’s ability and incentive to compete, and why each would be merger-specific.”

As stated in a recent speech by FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright,

the critical lesson of the modern economic approach to mergers is that post-merger changes in pricing incentives and competitive effects are what matter.

The FTC’s merger policy “has long been dominated by a focus on only one side of the ledger—anticompetitive effects.” In other words the defendants must demonstrate efficiencies with certainty, while the government can condemn a merger based on a prediction. This asymmetric enforcement policy favors the FTC while requiring defendants meet stringent, unyielding standards.

As the ICLE amicus brief in St. Luke’s discusses, not satisfied with the asymmetric advantage, the plaintiffs in St. Luke’s attempt to “guild the lily” by claiming that efficiencies can only be considered in cases where there is a presumption of competitive harm, perhaps based solely on “first order” evidence, such as increased market shares. Of course, nothing in the law, Guidelines, or sound competition policy limits the defense in that fashion.

The court should consider efficiencies regardless of the level of economic harm. The question is whether the efficiencies will outweigh that harm. As Geoff recently pointed out:

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

With presumptions that strongly benefit the FTC, it is clear that efficiencies are often overlooked or ignored. From 1997-2007, FTC’s Bureau of Competition staff deliberated on a total of 342 efficiencies claims. Of the 342 efficiency claims, only 29 were accepted by FTC staff whereas 109 were rejected and 204 received “no decision.” The most common concerns among FTC staff were that stated efficiencies were not verifiable or were not merger specific.

Both “concerns” come directly from the Guidelines requiring plaintiffs provide significant and oftentimes impossible foresight and information to overcome evidentiary burdens. As former FTC Chairman Tim Muris observed

too often, the [FTC] found no cognizable efficiencies when anticompetitive effects were determined to be likely and seemed to recognize efficiency only when no adverse effects were predicted.

Thus, in situations in which the FTC believes the dominant issue is market concentration, plaintiffs’ attempts to demonstrate procompetitive reasoning are outright dismissed.

The FTC’s efficiency arguments are also not grounded in legal precedent. Courts have recognized that asymmetric burdens are inconsistent with the intent of the Act. As then D.C. Circuit Judge Clarence Thomas observed,

[i]mposing a heavy burden of production on a defendant would be particularly anomalous where … it is easy to establish a prima facie case.

Courts have recognized that efficiencies can be “speculative” or be “based on a prediction backed by sound business judgment.” And in Sherman Act cases the law places the burden on the plaintiff to demonstrate that there are less restrictive alternatives to a potentially illegal restraint – unlike the requirement applied by the FTC that the defendant prove there are no less restrictive alternatives to a merger to achieve efficiencies.

The FTC and the courts should deem worthy efficiencies wherein there is a reasonable likelihood that procompetitive effects will take place post-merger. Furthermore, the courts should not look at efficiencies inside a vacuum. In healthcare, policies and laws, such as the effects of the ACA, must be taken into account. The ACA promotes coordination among providers and incentivizes entities that can move away from fee-for-service payment. In the past, courts relying on the role of health policy in merger analysis have found that efficiencies leading to integrated medicine and “better medical care” are relevant.

In St. Luke’s the court observed that “the existing law seemed to hinder innovation and resist creative solutions” and that “flexibility and experimentation” are “two virtues that are not emphasized in the antitrust law.” Undoubtedly, the current approach to efficiencies makes it near impossible for providers to demonstrate efficiencies.

As Commissioner Wright has observed, these asymmetric evidentiary burdens

do not make economic sense and are inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare.

In the context of St. Luke’s and other healthcare provider mergers, appropriate efficiency analysis is a keystone of determining a merger’s total effects. Dismissal of efficiencies on the basis of a rigid, incorrect legal procedural structure is not aligned with current economic thinking or a sound approach to incorporate competition analysis into the drive for healthcare reform. It is time for the FTC to set efficiency analysis in the right direction.

There is a consensus in America that we need to control health care costs and improve the delivery of health care. After a long debate on health care reform and careful scrutiny of health care markets, there seems to be agreement that the unintegrated, “siloed approach” to health care is inefficient, costly, and contrary to the goal of improving care. But some antitrust enforcers — most notably the FTC — are standing in the way.

Enlightened health care providers are responding to this consensus by entering into transactions that will lead to greater clinical and financial integration, facilitating a movement from volume-based to value-based delivery of care. Any many aspects of the Affordable Care Act encourage this path to integration. Yet when the market seeks to address these critical concerns about our health care system, the FTC and some state Attorneys General take positions diametrically opposed to sound national health care policy as adopted by Congress and implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services.

To be sure, not all state antitrust enforcers stand in the way of health care reform. For example, many states including New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, seem to be willing to permit hospital mergers even in concentrated markets with an agreement for continued regulation. At the same time, however, the FTC has been aggressively challenging integration, taking the stance that hospital mergers will raise prices by giving those hospitals greater leverage in negotiations.

The distance between HHS and the FTC in DC is about 6 blocks, but in healthcare policy they seem to be are miles apart.

The FTC’s skepticism about integration is an old story. As I have discussed previously, during the last decade the agency challenged more than 30 physician collaborations even though those cases lacked any evidence that the collaborations led to higher prices. And, when physicians asked for advice on collaborations, it took the Commission on average more than 436 days to respond to those requests (about as long as it took Congress to debate and enact the Affordable Care Act).

The FTC is on a recent winning streak in challenging hospital mergers. But those were primarily simple cases with direct competition between hospitals in the same market with very high levels of concentration. The courts did not struggle long in these cases, because the competitive harm appeared straightforward.

Far more controversial is when a hospital acquires a physician practice. This type of vertical integration seems precisely what the advocates for health care reform are crying out for. The lack of integration between physicians and hospitals is a core to the problems in health care delivery. But the antitrust law is entirely solicitous of these types of vertical mergers. There has not been a vertical merger successfully challenged in the courts since 1980 – the days of reruns of the TV show Dr. Kildare. And even the supposedly pro-enforcement Obama Administration has not gone to court to challenge a vertical merger, and the Obama FTC has not even secured a merger consent under a vertical theory.

The case in which the FTC has decided to “bet the house” is its challenge to St. Luke’s Health System’s acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group in Nampa, Idaho.

St. Luke’s operates the largest hospital in Boise, and Saltzer is the largest physician practice in Nampa, roughly 20-miles away. But rather than recognizing that this was a vertical affiliation designed to integrate care and to promote a transition to a system in which the provider takes the risk of overutilization, the FTC characterized the transaction as purely horizontal – no different from the merger of two hospitals. In that manner, the FTC sought to paint concentration levels it designed to assure victory.

But back to the reasons why integration is essential. It is undisputed that provider integration is the key to improving American health care. Americans pay substantially more than any other industrialized nation for health care services, 17.2 percent of gross domestic product. Furthermore, these higher costs are not associated with better overall care or greater access for patients. As noted during the debate on the Affordable Care Act, the American health care system’s higher costs and lower quality and access are mostly associated with the usage of a fee-for-service system that pays for each individual medical service, and the “siloed approach” to medicine in which providers work autonomously and do not coordinate to improve patient outcomes.

In order to lower health care costs and improve care, many providers have sought to transform health care into a value-based, patient-centered approach. To institute such a health care initiative, medical staff, physicians, and hospitals must clinically integrate and align their financial incentives. Integrated providers utilize financial risk, share electronic records and data, and implement quality measures in order to provide the best patient care.

The most effective means of ensuring full-scale integration is through a tight affiliation, most often achieved through a merger. Unlike contractual arrangements that are costly, time-sensitive, and complicated by an outdated health care regulatory structure, integrated affiliations ensure that entities can effectively combine and promote structural change throughout the newly formed organization.

For nearly five weeks of trial in Boise St. Luke’s and the FTC fought these conflicting visions of integration and health care policy. Ultimately, the court decided the supposed Nampa primary care physician market posited by the FTC would become far more concentrated, and the merger would substantially lessen competition for “Adult Primary Care Services” by raising prices in Nampa. As such, the district court ordered an immediate divestiture.

Rarely, however, has an antitrust court expressed such anguish at its decision. The district court readily “applauded [St. Luke’s] for its efforts to improve the delivery of healthcare.” It acknowledged the positive impact the merger would have on health care within the region. The court further noted that Saltzer had attempted to coordinate with other providers via loose affiliations but had failed to reap any benefits. Due to Saltzer’s lack of integration, Saltzer physicians had limited “the number of Medicaid or uninsured patients they could accept.”

According to the district court, the combination of St. Luke’s and Saltzer would “improve the quality of medical care.” Along with utilizing the same electronic medical records system and giving the Saltzer physicians access to sophisticated quality metrics designed to improve their practices, the parties would improve care by abandoning fee-for-service payment for all employed physicians and institute population health management reimbursing the physicians via risk-based payment initiatives.

As noted by the district court, these stated efficiencies would improve patient outcomes “if left intact.” Along with improving coordination and quality of care, the merger, as noted by an amicus brief submitted by the International Center for Law & Economics and the Medicaid Defense Fund to the Ninth Circuit, has also already expanded access to Medicaid and uninsured patients by ensuring previously constrained Saltzer physicians can offer services to the most needy.

The court ultimately was not persuaded by the demonstrated procompetitive benefits. Instead, the district court relied on the FTC’s misguided arguments and determined that the stated efficiencies were not “merger-specific,” because such efficiencies could potentially be achieved via other organizational structures. The district court did not analyze the potential success of substitute structures in achieving the stated efficiencies; instead, it relied on the mere existence of alternative provider structures. As a result, as ICLE and the Medicaid Defense Fund point out:

By placing the ultimate burden of proving efficiencies on the Appellants and applying a narrow, impractical view of merger specificity, the court has wrongfully denied application of known procompetitive efficiencies. In fact, under the court’s ruling, it will be nearly impossible for merging parties to disprove all alternatives when the burden is on the merging party to oppose untested, theoretical less restrictive structural alternatives.

Notably, the district court’s divestiture order has been stayed by the Ninth Circuit. The appeal on the merits is expected to be heard some time this autumn. Along with reviewing the relevant geographic market and usage of divestiture as a remedy, the Ninth Circuit will also analyze the lower court’s analysis of the merger’s procompetitive efficiencies. For now, the stay order is a limited victory for underserved patients and the merging defendants. While such a ruling is not determinative of the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the merits, it does demonstrate that the merging parties have at least a reasonable possibility of success.

As one might imagine, the Ninth Circuit decision is of great importance to the antitrust and health care reform community. If the district court’s ruling is upheld, it could provide a deterrent to health care providers from further integrating via mergers, a precedent antithetical to the very goals of health care reform. However, if the Ninth Circuit finds the merger does not substantially lessen competition, then precompetitive vertical integration is less likely to be derailed by misapplication of the antitrust laws. The importance and impact of such a decision on American patients cannot be understated.

Credit where it’s due — the FTC has closed its investigation of the Men’s Warehouse/Jos. A. Bank merger. I previously wrote about the investigation here, where I said:

I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

The FTC’s blog post on closing the investigation notes that:

Despite limited competition from the Internet, the transaction is not likely to harm consumers because of significant competition from other sources. As in all transactions, FTC staff examined which product markets were likely to be affected and what the competitive landscape looks like in those markets. There were two such markets in this matter: (1) the retail sale of men’s suits and (2) tuxedo rentals. With respect to men’s suits, there are numerous competitors that sell suits across the range of prices of the suits the merging parties offer, including Macy’s, Kohl’s, JC Penney’s, Nordstrom, and Brooks Brothers, among others. The two firms also have different product assortments that reflect their different customer bases. Men’s Wearhouse, which sells branded and private-label suits, has a younger, trendier customer set, while Jos. A. Bank, which sells private-label suits only, has an older, more traditional customer base.

Sounds right — and good to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Josh notes, however:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Last month the Wall Street Journal raised the specter of an antitrust challenge to the proposed Jos. A. Bank/Men’s Warehouse merger.

Whether a challenge is forthcoming appears to turn, of course, on market definition:

An important question in the FTC’s review will be whether it believes the two companies compete in a market that is more specialized than the broad men’s apparel market. If the commission concludes the companies do compete in a different space than retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, then the merger partners could face a more-difficult government review.

You’ll be excused for recalling that the last time you bought a suit you shopped at Jos. A. Bank and Macy’s before making your purchase at Nordstrom Rack, and for thinking that the idea of a relevant market comprising Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse to the exclusion of the others is absurd.  Because, you see, as the article notes (quoting Darren Tucker),

“The FTC sometimes segments markets in ways that can appear counterintuitive to the public.”

“Ah,” you say to yourself. “In other words, if the FTC’s rigorous econometric analysis shows that prices at Macy’s don’t actually affect pricing decisions at Men’s Warehouse, then I’d be surprised, but so be it.”

But that’s not what he means by “counterintuitive.” Rather,

The commission’s analysis, he said, will largely turn on how the companies have viewed the market in their own ordinary-course business documents.

According to this logic, even if Macy’s does exert pricing pressure on Jos. A Bank, if Jos. A. Bank’s business documents talk about Men’s Warehouse as its only real competition, or suggest that the two companies “dominate” the “mid-range men’s apparel market,” then FTC may decide to challenge the deal.

I don’t mean to single out Darren here; he just happens to be who the article quotes, and this kind of thinking is de rigeur.

But it’s just wrong. Or, I should say, it may be descriptively accurate — it may be that the FTC will make its enforcement decision (and the court would make its ruling) on the basis of business documents — but it’s just wrong as a matter of economics, common sense, logic and the protection of consumer welfare.

One can’t help but think of the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger and the FTC’s ridiculous “premium, natural and organic supermarkets” market. As I said of that market definition:

In other words, there is a serious risk of conflating a “market” for business purposes with an actual antitrust-relevant market. Whole Foods and Wild Oats may view themselves as operating in a different world than Wal-Mart. But their self-characterization is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether customers who shop at Whole Foods would shop elsewhere for substitute products if Whole Food’s prices rose too much. The implicit notion that the availability of organic foods at Wal-Mart (to say nothing of pretty much every other grocery store in the US today!) exerts little or no competitive pressure on prices at Whole Foods seems facially silly.

I don’t know for certain what an econometric analysis would show, but I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

As Josh notes:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the abstract:

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

You can download the paper here.

The DOJ’s recent press release on the Google/Motorola, Rockstar Bidco, and Apple/ Novell transactions struck me as a bit odd when I read it.  As I’ve now had a bit of time to digest it, I’ve grown to really dislike it.  For those who have not followed Jorge Contreras had an excellent summary of events at Patently-O.

For those of us who have been following the telecom patent battles, something remarkable happened a couple of weeks ago.  On February 7, the Wall St. Journal reported that, back in November, Apple sent a letter[1] to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) setting forth Apple’s position regarding its commitment to license patents essential to ETSI standards.  In particular, Apple’s letter clarified its interpretation of the so-called “FRAND” (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing terms that ETSI participants are required to use when licensing standards-essential patents.  As one might imagine, the actual scope and contours of FRAND licenses have puzzled lawyers, regulators and courts for years, and past efforts at clarification have never been very successful.  The next day, on February 8, Google released a letter[2] that it sent to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), ETSI and several other standards organizations.  Like Apple, Google sought to clarify its position on FRAND licensing.  And just hours after Google’s announcement, Microsoft posted a statement of “Support for Industry Standards”[3] on its web site, laying out its own gloss on FRAND licensing.  For those who were left wondering what instigated this flurry of corporate “clarification”, the answer arrived a few days later when, on February 13, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its decision[4] to close the investigation of three significant patent-based transactions:  the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google, the acquisition of a large patent portfolio formerly held by Nortel Networks by “Rockstar Bidco” (a group including Microsoft, Apple, RIM and others), and the acquisition by Apple of certain Linux-related patents formerly held by Novell.  In its decision, the DOJ noted with approval the public statements by Apple and Microsoft, while expressing some concern with Google’s FRAND approach.  The European Commission approved Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility on the same day.

To understand the significance of the Apple, Microsoft and Google FRAND statements, some background is in order.  The technical standards that enable our computers, mobile phones and home entertainment gear to communicate and interoperate are developed by corps of “volunteers” who get together in person and virtually under the auspices of standards-development organizations (SDOs).  These SDOs include large, international bodies such as ETSI and IEEE, as well as smaller consortia and interest groups.  The engineers who do the bulk of the work, however, are not employees of the SDOs (which are usually thinly-staffed non-profits), but of the companies who plan to sell products that implement the standards: the Apples, Googles, Motorolas and Microsofts of the world.  Should such a company obtain a patent covering the implementation of a standard, it would be able to exert significant leverage over the market for products that implemented the standard.  In particular, if a patent holder were to obtain, or even threaten to obtain, an injunction against manufacturers of competing standards-compliant products, either the standard would become far less useful, or the market would experience significant unanticipated costs.  This phenomenon is what commentators have come to call “patent hold-up”.  Due to the possibility of hold-up, most SDOs today require that participants in the standards-development process disclose their patents that are necessary to implement the standard and/or commit to license those patents on FRAND terms.

As Contreras notes, an important part of these FRAND commitments offered by Google, Motorola, and Apple related to the availability of injunctive relief (do go see the handy chart in Contreras’ post laying out the key differences in the commitments).  Contreras usefully summarizes the three statements’ positions on injunctive relief:

In their February FRAND statements, Apple and Microsoft each commit not to seek injunctions on the basis of their standards-essential patents.  Google makes a similar commitment, but qualifies it in typically lawyerly fashion (Google’s letter is more than 3 single-spaced pages in length, while Microsoft’s simple statement occupies about a quarter of a page).  In this case, Google’s careful qualifications (injunctive relief might be possible if the potential licensee does not itself agree to refrain from seeking an injunction, if licensing negotiations extended beyond a reasonable period, and the like) worked against it.  While the DOJ applauds Apple’s and Microsoft’s statements “that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products form the market”, it views Google’s commitments as “less clear”.  The DOJ thus “continues to have concerns about the potential inappropriate use of [standards-essential patents] to disrupt competition”.

Its worth reading the DOJ’s press release on this point — specifically, that while the DOJ found that none of the three transactions itself raised competitive concerns or was substantially likely to lessen the competition, the DOJ expressed general concerns about the relationship between these firms’ market positions and ability to use the threat of injunctive relief to hold up rivals:

Apple’s and Google’s substantial share of mobile platforms makes it more likely that as the owners of additional SEPs they could hold up rivals, thus harming competition and innovation.  For example, Apple would likely benefit significantly through increased sales of its devices if it could exclude Android-based phones from the market or raise the costs of such phones through IP-licenses or patent litigation.  Google could similarly benefit by raising the costs of, or excluding, Apple devices because of the revenues it derives from Android-based devices.

The specific transactions at issue, however, are not likely to substantially lessen competition.  The evidence shows that Motorola Mobility has had a long and aggressive history of seeking to capitalize on its intellectual property and has been engaged in extended disputes with Apple, Microsoft and others.  As Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility is unlikely to materially alter that policy, the division concluded that transferring ownership of the patents would not substantially alter current market dynamics.  This conclusion is limited to the transfer of ownership rights and not the exercise of those transferred rights.

With respect to Apple/Novell, the division concluded that the acquisition of the patents from CPTN, formerly owned by Novell, is unlikely to harm competition.  While the patents Apple would acquire are important to the open source community and to Linux-based software in particular, the OIN, to which Novell belonged, requires its participating patent holders to offer a perpetual, royalty-free license for use in the “Linux-system.”  The division investigated whether the change in ownership would permit Apple to avoid OIN commitments and seek royalties from Linux users.  The division concluded it would not, a conclusion made easier by Apple’s commitment to honor Novell’s OIN licensing commitments.

In its analysis of the transactions, the division took into account the fact that during the pendency of these investigations, Apple, Google and Microsoft each made public statements explaining their respective SEP licensing practices.  Both Apple and Microsoft made clear that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products from the market in exercising their SEP rights.

What’s problematic about a competition enforcement agency extracting promises not to enforce lawfully obtained property rights during merger review, outside the formal consent process, and in transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves?  For starters, the DOJ’s expression about competitive concerns about “hold up” obfuscate an important issue.  In Rambus the D.C. Circuit clearly held that not all forms of what the DOJ describes here as patent holdup violate the antitrust laws in the first instance.  Both appellate courts discussion patent holdup as an antitrust violation have held the patent holder must deceptively induce the SSO to adopt the patented technology.  Rambus makes clear – as I’ve discussed — that a firm with lawfully acquired monopoly power who merely raises prices does not violate the antitrust laws.  The proposition that all forms of patent holdup are antitrust violations is dubious.  For an agency to extract concessions that go beyond the scope of the antitrust laws at all, much less through merger review of transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves, raises serious concerns.

Here is what the DOJ says about Google’s commitment:

If adhered to in practice, these positions could significantly reduce the possibility of a hold up or use of an injunction as a threat to inhibit or preclude innovation and competition.

Google’s commitments have been less clear.  In particular, Google has stated to the IEEE and others on Feb. 8, 2012, that its policy is to refrain from seeking injunctive relief for the infringement of SEPs against a counter-party, but apparently only for disputes involving future license revenues, and only if the counterparty:  forgoes certain defenses such as challenging the validity of the patent; pays the full disputed amount into escrow; and agrees to a reciprocal process regarding injunctions.  Google’s statement therefore does not directly provide the same assurance as the other companies’ statements concerning the exercise of its newly acquired patent rights.  Nonetheless, the division determined that the acquisition of the patents by Google did not substantially lessen competition, but how Google may exercise its patents in the future remains a significant concern.

No doubt the DOJ statement is accurate and the DOJ’s concerns about patent holdup are genuine.  But that’s not the point.

The question of the appropriate role for injunctions and damages in patent infringement litigation is a complex one.  While many scholars certainly argue that the use of injunctions facilitates patent hold up and threatens innovation.  There are serious debates to be had about whether more vigorous antitrust enforcement of the contractual relationships between patent holders and standard setting organization (SSOs) would spur greater innovation.   The empirical evidence suggesting patent holdup is a pervasive problem is however, at best, quite mixed.  Further, others argue that the availability of injunctions is not only a fundamental aspect of our system of property rights, but also from an economic perspective, that the power of the injunctions facilitates efficient transacting by the parties.  For example, some contend that the power to obtain injunctive relief for infringement within the patent thicket results in a “cold war” of sorts in which the threat is sufficient to induce cross-licensing by all parties.  Surely, this is not first best.  But that isn’t the relevant question.

There are other more fundamental problems with the notion of patent holdup as an antitrust concern.  Kobayashi & Wright also raise concerns with the theoretical case for antitrust enforcement of patent holdup on several grounds.  One is that high probability of detection of patent holdup coupled with antitrust’s treble damages makes overdeterrence highly likely.  Another is that alternative remedies such as contract and the patent doctrine of equitable estoppel render the marginal benefits of antitrust enforcement trivial or negative in this context.  Froeb, Ganglmair & Werden raise similar points.   Suffice it to say that the debate on the appropriate scope of antitrust enforcement in patent holdup is ongoing as a general matter; there is certainly no consensus with regard to economic theory or empirical evidence that stripping the availability of injunctive relief from patent holders entering into contractual relationships with SSOs will enhance competition or improve consumer welfare.  It is quite possible that such an intervention would chill competition, participation in SSOs, and the efficient contracting process potentially facilitated by the availability of injunctive relief.

The policy debate I describe above is an important one.  Many of the questions at the center of that complex debate are not settled as a matter of economic theory, empirics, or law.  This post certainly has no ambitions to resolve them here; my goal is a much more modest one.  The DOJs policymaking efforts through the merger review process raise serious issues.  I would hope that all would agree — regardless of where they stand on the patent holdup debate — that the idea that these complex debates be hammered out in merger review at the DOJ because the DOJ happens to have a number of cases involving patent portfolios is a foolish one for several reasons.

First, it is unclear the DOJ could have extracted these FRAND concessions through proper merger review.  The DOJ apparently agreed that the transactions did not raise serious competitive concerns.   The pressure imposed by the DOJ upon the parties to make the commitments to the SSOs not to pursue injunctive relief as part of a FRAND commitment outside of the normal consent process raises serious concerns.  The imposition of settlement conditions far afield from the competitive consequences of the merger itself is something we do see from antitrust enforcement agencies in other countries quite frequently, but this sort of behavior burns significant reputational capital with the rest of the world when our agencies go abroad to lecture on the importance of keeping antitrust analysis consistent, predictable, and based upon the economic fundamentals of the transaction at hand.

Second, the DOJ Antitrust Division does not alone have comparative advantage in determining the optimal use of injunctions versus damages in the patent system.

Third, appearances here are quite problematic.  Given that the DOJ did not appear to have significant competitive concerns with the transactions, one can create the following narrative of events without too much creative effort: (1) the DOJ team has theoretical priors that injunctive relief is a significant competitive problem, (2) the DOJ happens to have these mergers in front of it pending review from a couple of firms likely to be repeat players in the antitrust enforcement game, (3) the DOJ asks the firms to make these concessions despite the fact that they have little to do with the conventional antitrust analysis of the transactions, under which they would have been approved without condition.

The more I think about the use of the merger review process to extract concessions from patent holders in the form of promises not to enforce property rights which they would otherwise be legally entitled to, the more the DOJ’s actions appear inappropriate.  The stakes are high here both in terms of identifying patent and competition rules that will foster rather than hamper innovation, but also with respect to compromising the integrity of merger review through the imposition of non-merger related conditions we are more akin to seeing from the FCC, states, or less well-developed antitrust regimes.