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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

Event Info

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

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

When:

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

Where:

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

Questions? - Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

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

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

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

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

About TechFreedom:

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

Today the FTC filed its complaint in federal district court in Washington against Amazon, alleging that the company’s in-app purchasing system permits children to make in-app purchases without parental “informed consent” constituting an “unfair practice” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

As I noted in my previous post on the case, in bringing this case the Commission is doubling down on the rule it introduced in Apple that effectively converts the balancing of harms and benefits required under Section 5 of the FTC Act to a per se rule that deems certain practices to be unfair regardless of countervailing benefits. Similarly, it is attempting to extend the informed consent standard it created in Apple that essentially maintains that only specific, identified practices (essentially, distinct notification at the time of purchase or opening of purchase window, requiring entry of a password to proceed) are permissible under the Act.

Such a standard is inconsistent with the statute, however. The FTC’s approach forecloses the ability of companies like Amazon to engage in meaningful design decisions and disregards their judgment about which user interface designs will, on balance, benefit consumers. The FTC Act does not empower the Commission to disregard the consumer benefits of practices that simply fail to mimic the FTC’s preconceived design preferences. While that sort of approach might be defensible in the face of manifestly harmful practices like cramming, it is wholly inappropriate in the context of app stores like Amazon’s that spend considerable resources to design every aspect of their interaction with consumers—and that seek to attract, not to defraud, consumers.

Today’s complaint occasions a few more observations:

  1. Amazon has a very strong case. Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Commission will have to prevail on all three elements required to prove unfairness under Section 5: that there is substantial injury, that consumers can’t reasonably avoid the injury and that any countervailing benefits don’t outweigh the injury. But, consistent with its complaint and consent order in Apple, the Amazon complaint focuses almost entirely on only the first of these. While that may have been enough to induce Apple to settle out of court, the FTC will actually have to make out a case on reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits at trial. It’s not at all clear that the agency will be able to do so on the facts alleged here.
  2. On reasonable avoidance, over and above Amazon’s general procedures that limit unwanted in-app purchases, the FTC will have a tough time showing that Amazon’s Kindle Free Time doesn’t provide parents with more than enough ability to avoid injury. In fact, the complaint doesn’t mention Free Time at all.
  3. Among other things, the complaint asserts that Amazon knew about issues with in-app purchasing by December of 2011 and claims that “[n]ot until June 2014 did Amazon change its in-app charge framework to obtain account holders’ informed consent for in-app charges on its newer mobile devices.” But Kindle Free Time was introduced in September of 2012. While four FTC Commissioners may believe that Free Time isn’t a sufficient response to the alleged problem, it is clearly a readily available, free and effective (read: reasonable) mechanism for parents to avoid the alleged harms. It may not be what the design mavens at the FTC would have chosen to do, but it seems certain that avoiding unauthorized in-app purchases by children was part of what motivated Amazon’s decision to create and offer Free Time.
  4. On countervailing benefits, as Commissioner Wright discussed in detail in his dissent from the Apple consent order, the Commission seems to think that it can simply assert that there are no countervailing benefits to Amazon’s design choices around in-app purchases. Here the complaint doesn’t mention 1-Click at all, which is core to Amazon’s user interface design and essential to evaluating the balance of harms and benefits required by the statute.
  5. Even if it can show that Amazon’s in-app purchase practices caused harm, the Commission will still have to demonstrate that Amazon’s conscious efforts to minimize the steps required to make purchases doesn’t benefit consumers on balance. In Apple, the FTC majority essentially (and improperly) valued these sorts of user-interface benefits at zero. It implicitly does so again here, but a court will require more than such an assertion.
  6. Given these lapses, there is even a chance that the complaint will be thrown out on a motion to dismiss. It’s a high bar, but if the court agrees that there are insufficient facts in the complaint to make out a plausible case on all three elements, Amazon could well prevail on a motion to dismiss. The FTC’s approach in the Apple consent order effectively maintains that the agency can disregard reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits in contravention of the statute. By following the same approach here in actual litigation, the FTC may well meet resistance from the courts, which have not yet so cavalierly dispensed with the statute’s requirements.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Amazon is getting — and fighting – the “Apple treatment” from the FTC for its design of its in-app purchases:

Amazon.com Inc. is bucking a request from the Federal Trade Commission that it tighten its policies for purchases made by children while using mobile applications.

In a letter to the FTC Tuesday, Amazon said it was prepared to “defend our approach in court,” rather than agree to fines and additional record keeping and disclosure requirements over the next 20 years, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

According to the documents, Amazon is facing a potential lawsuit by the FTC, which wants the Seattle retailer to accept terms similar to those that Apple Inc. agreed to earlier this year regarding so-called in-app purchases.

From what I can tell, the Commission has voted to issue a complaint, and Amazon has informed the Commission that it will not accept its proposed settlement.

I am thrilled that Amazon seems to have decided to fight the latest effort by a majority of the FTC to bring every large tech company under 20-year consent decree. I should say: I’m disappointed in the FTC, sorry for Amazon, but thrilled for consumers and the free marketplace that Amazon is choosing to fight rather than acquiesce.

As I wrote earlier this year about the FTC’s case against Apple in testimony before the House Commerce Committee:

What’s particularly notable about the Apple case – and presumably will be in future technology enforcement actions predicated on unfairness – is the unique relevance of the attributes of the conduct at issue to its product. Unlike past, allegedly similar, cases, Apple’s conduct was not aimed at deceiving consumers, nor was it incidental to its product offering. But by challenging the practice, particularly without the balancing of harms required by Section 5, the FTC majority failed to act with restraint and substituted its own judgment, not about some manifestly despicable conduct, but about the very design of Apple’s products. This is the sort of area where regulatory humility is more — not less — important.

In failing to observe common sense limits in Apple, the FTC set a dangerous precedent that, given the agency’s enormous regulatory scope and the nature of technologically advanced products, could cause significant harm to consumers.

Here that failure is even more egregious. Amazon has built its entire business around the “1-click” concept — which consumers love — and implemented a host of notification and security processes hewing as much as possible to that design choice, but nevertheless taking account of the sorts of issues raised by in-app purchases. Moreover — and perhaps most significantly — it has implemented an innovative and comprehensive parental control regime (including the ability to turn off all in-app purchases) — Kindle Free Time — that arguably goes well beyond anything the FTC required in its Apple consent order. I use Kindle Free Time with my kids and have repeatedly claimed to anyone who will listen that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Other consumers must feel similarly. Finally, regardless of all of that, Amazon has nevertheless voluntarily implemented additional notification procedures intended to comply with the Apple settlement, even though it didn’t apply to Amazon.

If the FTC asserts, in the face of all of that, that it’s own vision of what “appropriate” in-app purchase protections must look like is the only one that suffices to meet the standard required by Section 5′s Unfairness language, it is either being egregiously disingenuous, horrifically vain, just plain obtuse, or some combination of the three.

As I wrote in my testimony:

The application of Section 5’s “unfair acts and practices” prong (the statute at issue in Apple) is circumscribed by Section 45(n) of the FTC Act, which, among other things, proscribes enforcement where injury is “not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

And as Commissioner Wright noted in his dissent in the Apple case,

[T]he Commission effectively rejects an analysis of tradeoffs between the benefits of additional guidance and potential harm to some consumers or to competition from mandating guidance…. I respectfully disagree. These assumptions adopt too cramped a view of consumer benefits under the Unfairness Statement and, without more rigorous analysis to justify their application, are insufficient to establish the Commission’s burden.

We won’t know until we see the complaint whether the FTC has failed to undertake the balancing it neglected to perform in Apple and that it is required to perform under the statute. But it’s hard to believe that it could mount a case against Amazon in light of the facts if it did perform such a balancing. There’s no question that Amazon has implemented conscious and consumer-welfare-enhancing design choices here. The FTC’s effort to nevertheless mandate a different design (and put Amazon under a 20 year consent decree) based on a claim that Amazon’s choices impose greater harms than benefits on consumers seems manifestly unsupportable.

Such a claim almost certainly represents an abuse of the agency’s discretion, and I expect Amazon to trounce the FTC if this case goes to trial.

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.

 

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.

As it begins its hundredth year, the FTC is increasingly becoming the Federal Technology Commission. The agency’s role in regulating data security, privacy, the Internet of Things, high-tech antitrust and patents, among other things, has once again brought to the forefront the question of the agency’s discretion and the sources of the limits on its power.Please join us this Monday, December 16th, for a half-day conference launching the year-long “FTC: Technology & Reform Project,” which will assess both process and substance at the FTC and recommend concrete reforms to help ensure that the FTC continues to make consumers better off.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright will give a keynote luncheon address titled, “The Need for Limits on Agency Discretion and the Case for Section 5 UMC Guidelines.” Project members will discuss the themes raised in our inaugural report and how they might inform some of the most pressing issues of FTC process and substance confronting the FTC, Congress and the courts. The afternoon will conclude with a Fireside Chat with former FTC Chairmen Tim Muris and Bill Kovacic, followed by a cocktail reception.

Full Agenda:

  • Lunch and Keynote Address (12:00-1:00)
    • FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright
  • Introduction to the Project and the “Questions & Frameworks” Report (1:00-1:15)
    • Gus Hurwitz, Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka
  • Panel 1: Limits on FTC Discretion: Institutional Structure & Economics (1:15-2:30)
    • Jeffrey Eisenach (AEI | Former Economist, BE)
    • Todd Zywicki (GMU Law | Former Director, OPP)
    • Tad Lipsky (Latham & Watkins)
    • Geoffrey Manne (ICLE) (moderator)
  • Panel 2: Section 5 and the Future of the FTC (2:45-4:00)
    • Paul Rubin (Emory University Law and Economics | Former Director of Advertising Economics, BE)
    • James Cooper (GMU Law | Former Acting Director, OPP)
    • Gus Hurwitz (University of Nebraska Law)
    • Berin Szoka (TechFreedom) (moderator)
  • A Fireside Chat with Former FTC Chairmen (4:15-5:30)
    • Tim Muris (Former FTC Chairman | George Mason University) & Bill Kovacic (Former FTC Chairman | George Washington University)
  • Reception (5:30-6:30)
Our conference is a “widely-attended event.” Registration is $75 but free for nonprofit, media and government attendees. Space is limited, so RSVP today!

Working Group Members:
Howard Beales
Terry Calvani
James Cooper
Jeffrey Eisenach
Gus Hurwitz
Thom Lambert
Tad Lipsky
Geoffrey Manne
Timothy Muris
Paul Rubin
Joanna Shepherd-Bailey
Joe Sims
Berin Szoka
Sasha Volokh
Todd Zywicki