Appropriate Liability Rules for Tying and Bundled Discounting: A Response to Professor Elhauge

Thom Lambert —  11 March 2011

In recent years, antitrust scholars have largely agreed on a couple of propositions involving tying and bundled discounting. With respect to tying (selling one’s monopoly “tying” product only on the condition that buyers also purchase another “tied” product), scholars from both the Chicago and Harvard Schools of antitrust analysis have generally concluded that there should be no antitrust liability unless the tie-in results in substantial foreclosure of marketing opportunities in the tied product market. Absent such foreclosure, scholars have reasoned, truly anticompetitive harm is unlikely to occur. The prevailing liability rule, however, condemns tie-ins without regard to whether they occasion substantial tied market foreclosure.

With respect to bundled discounting (selling a package of products for less than the aggregate price of the products if purchased separately), scholars have generally concluded that there should be no antitrust liability if the discount at issue could be matched by an equally efficient single-product rival of the discounter. That will be the case if each product in the bundle is priced above cost after the entire bundled discount is attributed to that product. Antitrust scholars have therefore generally endorsed a safe harbor for bundled discounts that are “above cost” under a “discount attribution test.”

In an article appearing in the December 2009 Harvard Law Review, Harvard law professor Einer Elhauge challenged each of these near-consensus propositions. According to Elhauge, the conclusion that significant tied market foreclosure should be a prerequisite to tying liability stems from scholars’ naïve acceptance of the Chicago School’s “single monopoly profit” theory. Elhauge insists that the theory is infirm and that instances of tying may occasion anticompetitive “power” (i.e., price discrimination) effects even if they do not involve substantial tied market foreclosure. He maintains that the Supreme Court has deemed such effects to be anticompetitive and that it was right to do so.

With respect to bundled discounting, Elhauge calls for courts to forego price-cost comparisons in favor of a rule that asks whether the defendant seller has “coerced” consumers into buying the bundle by first raising its unbundled monopoly (“linking”) product price above the “but-for” level that would prevail absent the bundled discounting scheme and then offering a discount from that inflated level.

I have just posted to SSRN an article criticizing Elhauge’s conclusions on both tying and bundled discounting. On tying, the article argues, Elhauge makes both descriptive and normative mistakes. As a descriptive matter, Supreme Court precedent does not deem the so-called power effects (each of which was well-known to Chicago School scholars) to be anticompetitive. As a normative matter, such effects should not be regulated because they tend to enhance total social welfare, especially when one accounts for dynamic efficiency effects. Because tying can create truly anticompetitive effect only when it involves substantial tied market foreclosure, such foreclosure should be a prerequisite to liability.

On bundled discounting, I argue, Elhauge’s proposed rule would be a disaster. The rule fails to account for the fact that bundled discounts may create immediate consumer benefit even if the seller has increased unbundled linking prices above but-for levels. It is utterly inadministrable and would chill procompetitive instances of bundled discounting. It is motivated by a desire to prevent “power” effects that are not anticompetitive under governing Supreme Court precedent (and should not be deemed so). Accordingly, courts should reject Elhauge’s proposed rule in favor of an approach that first focuses on the genuine prerequisite to discount-induced anticompetitive harm—“linked” market foreclosure—and then asks whether any such foreclosure is anticompetitive in that it could not be avoided by a determined competitive rival. To implement such a rule, courts would need to apply the discount attribution test.

The paper is a work-in-progress. Herbert Hovenkamp has already given me a number of helpful comments, which I plan to incorporate shortly. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what TOTM readers think.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.