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.