AMC Releases Tentative Recommendations

Josh Wright —  27 January 2007

The tentative recommendations of the Antitrust Modernization Committee are out, and include Commissioner vote counts for various propositions. The recommendations largely take the form of propositions that the AMC Commissioners joined, did not join, or were undetermined. Here are a few that caught my eye on an initial read-through (note that 2-5 apply to merger analysis).

  1. A price above marginal cost, by itself, does not suggest market power in a
    relevant antitrust market. Firms with low marginal costs but large fixed
    costs, particularly for research and development and other innovative
    activity, may need to price significantly above marginal costs simply to
    earn a competitive return in the long run.
  2. No substantial changes to merger enforcement policy are necessary to account for
    industries in which innovation, intellectual property, and technological change are
    central features (Commissioner Delrahim did not join, Commissioner Valentine undetermined).
  3. The agencies should increase the weight they place on certain types of
    efficiencies. For example, the agencies and courts should give greater
    credit for fixed-cost efficiencies, particularly in dynamic, innovation driven
    industries where marginal costs are low relative to typical prices (five commissioners did not join).
  4. The agencies should update the Merger Guidelines to explain more
    extensively how they evaluate the potential impact of a merger on
    innovation (five commissioners do not join)
  5. The agencies should update the Merger Guidelines to include an
    explanation of how the agencies evaluate non-horizontal mergers (two commissioners do not join).
  6. In particular, the existing standards regarding bundling, as expressed in cases such
    as LePage’s, may prohibit conduct that is procompetitive or competitively neutral
    and thus these standards may actually harm long-term consumer welfare (Commissioner Shenefield does not join).
  7. Congress should repeal the Robinson-Patman Act in its entirety (two commissioners do not join).
  8. Congress should not legislatively amend Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Standards
    currently employed by U.S. courts for determining whether single-firm conduct is
    unlawfully exclusionary are generally appropriate. Although it is possible to
    disagree with the decisions of particular cases, in general, the courts have
    appropriately recognized that vigorous competition, the aggressive pursuit of
    business objectives, and the realization of efficiencies not available to competitors
    are generally not improper, even for a “dominant” firm and even where
    competitors might be disadvantaged.

There is a lot to digest in the AMC recommendations. My overall impression is that the recommendations are quite sensible all the way around. I am particularly interested in the support for guidelines on innovation and non-horizontal mergers, though there is apparently less support for the former. The 1984 Merger Guidelines may provide a hint as to what non-horizontal merger guidelines might look like, though there have been a number of developments in the economic analysis of vertical contractual restraints and mergers since then (both theoretically and empirically) and so a new set of guidelines might look very different. Guidelines for innovation mergers might be very useful in terms of transparency, but my first reaction is that I don’t know quite what they would say. While it is clear that the AMC believes that innovation effects should “count” for merger analysis, and I agree, it seems like there is still much to learn about the basic economic forces at work with mergers involving innovation effects both theoretically and empirically. All of this is putting aside issues associated with how one might engage in the necessary welfare tradeoffs that might arise between say, higher prices and greater innovation from a particular merger. It seems like there is a threshhold level of knowledge that is necessary prior to drafting a set of Guidelines committing to a particular analytical approach that is sure to influence how federal courts handle these issues.

In any event, the AMC recommendations are well worth reading and are likely to spark a good deal of discussion in antitrust circles in the coming months and years. Looking forward, it will also be interesting to compare and contrast the AMC recommendations regarding monopolization and vertical conduct (see, e.g., 6-8 above) with any consensus that emerges from the FTC/DOJ Section 2 hearings.

4 responses to AMC Releases Tentative Recommendations

  1. 

    Josh & Keith — I think Josh’s interpretation has to be right. In my limited interactions with AMC members, they express skepticism that much if any of their legislative agenda will be enacted. But in the weird world of antitrust cases, pronouncements of this sort can actually be influential in defining the boundaries of the law. As I told my students last semester, antitrust law and economics signed a deal with the devil in the SCP era, and it comes home to roost in interesting ways: (1) at a purely doctrinal level, we see the marriage continuing even when the dominant paradigm shifts to Chicago post-Director/Levy, etc.; (2) more subtly but equally important, the marriage of antitrust and economics rendered the entire specialty far more subject to abstract reasoning and theorizing than other common-law or quasi-common law disciplines. In such a world, AMC recommendations can have an effect.

    Paul

  2. 

    Keith, You’re absolutely right. The AMC also recommends in other parts that Congress not amend Section 2 to handle these problems and instead, leave improvements in the clarity of these standards to common law evolution. Maybe the goal is for the recommendations to influence how judges respond to the private bundling claims you mention?

  3. 

    Very intersting, Josh. Most of these recommendations make sense to me. But I don’t understand recommendation #6 concerning the LePage’s rule on bundling. The Supreme Court has already declined to overturn LePage’s. So what exactly is being recommended? There’s no apparent suggestion for Congress to roll back judicial implementations of the rule of reason. The agencies can refrain from pursuing bundling claims. But there’s little that they can do to prevent private bundling claims from going forward.

    Contrast that with the recommendation on the Robinson-Patman Act. Here there’s a receptive Supreme Court to scale things back (as in the Volvo decision last term). And it’s conceivable that Congress if it wishes could do something about Robinson-Patman without doing violence to antitrust jurisprudence more generally–something that’s much less feasible for bundling, which isn’t regulated by a discrete statutory provision.

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