Dan Crane: Fact Checking Kessler’s “Fact Checking” on Direct Distribution

Dan Crane —  25 February 2015

The following post was authored by Dan Crane, the Frederick Paul Furth, Sr. Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and an occasional TOTM contributor.

Last week, I released a public interest group open letter in support of Tesla’s right to distribute its cars directly.   The letter attracted quite a bit of media attention because of its “strange bedfellows” coalition.  Signatories included pro-consumer and pro-competition groups (American Antitrust Institute, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety), pro-business or free market groups (Americans for Prosperity, Institute for Justice, and Mackinac Center), environmental groups (Sierra Club and Environment America), and a pro-technology group (The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation).  The diversity of this coalition—joining scores of prominent economists and law professors and the staff of the Federal Trade Commission, among others—in supporting direct distribution, is a powerful testament to the fact that the appeal of the right to engage in direct distribution is not, and should not be, a partisan political issue.  It should have broad appeal whatever one’s political inclinations.

Yesterday, the Media and Public Relations Director for the National Automobile Dealers Association (“NADA”) forwarded me a link to a blog post by Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post blogger who runs a “Fact Checker” blog, entitled Key Report in battle over car dealer sales is bizarrely outdated.  The thrust of Mr. Kessler’s blog is that a 2009 paper on direct distribution published by Gerald Bodisch, then of the DOJ’s Economic Analysis Group, contains an inaccuracy.  Mr. Kessler finds it “astonishing” that the report has nonetheless featured “prominently” in much of the public advocacy in favor of direct distribution.  (One of the places that Mr. Kessler identifies it being featured is in a “Cato Institute Report,” which is actually not a Cato Institute Report, but an article I wrote in Regulation Magazine which is published by the Cato Institute. Kessler mentions the article being cited in a news story, although he omits to mention another news story in which the article was favorably cited . . . perhaps because it was in the Washington Post?).

Here’s the inaccuracy that Kessler reports, quoting from the Bodisch paper: “Since 2000, customers in Brazil can order the Celta over the Internet from a site that links them with GM’s assembly plant and 470 dealers nationwide.”  Kessler’s blog points out that the statement was no longer true in 2009 when the Bodisch paper was published, since GM discontinued online sales in Brazil in 2006, six years after launching the program.

Kessler is well within his rights to correct an inaccuracy in the Bodisch paper.  But the emphasis and tone of his blog post are bizarre.  He seems to suggest that any citation of the Bodisch paper on the possible cost savings from direct distribution is inherently flawed.  That’s way off base for two reasons.

First, the Bodisch paper did not make claims solely based on GM’s Brazilian experience.  It also made claims from general economic principles and from other empirical studies, such as a 2000 Goldman Sachs report on the potential cost savings from direct distribution.  The Kessler blog gives the impression that all of the recent citations to the Bodisch paper are repeating specific claims about GM in Brazil, whereas most of them are simply citing the Bodisch paper for the general proposition that direct distribution could result in cost savings to consumers.

Second, Kessler seems to assume that GM’s discontinuation of the Internet sales program in Brazil in 2006, after running it for six years, disproves all of the ostensible virtues of the program identified by GM at the time.  That Bodisch neglected to mention that GM had discontinued the program after six years would hardly be worth featuring in a “fact checking” blog unless the fact of the discontinuation undermined the reason the GM program was discussed in the first place.  So why did GM discontinue the program?  Kessler cites a GM spokesman who identifies two reasons, “federal and state tax changes in the country” and “the infrastructure costs to maintain distribution centers.”  The blog post then goes on to talk about how “wildly complicated” the Brazilian tax code is, including an obligation of paying a VAT based on the location of the merchant rather than the location of the customer.

I’m certainly no expert on GM’s Brazilian distribution strategy or the Brazilian tax code, but I can’t for the life of me understand Kessler’s point here.  If GM launched a direct distribution model that created the efficiencies cited in the article and was successful for six years (involving hundreds of thousands of Internet sales) until Brazil made changes to its tax code that resulted in unfavorable tax treatment for Internet sales, how does that remotely show that direct distribution doesn’t result in consumer benefits?  To the extent that the Brazilian tax changes killed the Internet distribution model, this would be just one more example of poor regulation killing an efficient model, not the model being inefficient.

Given that his own account of what happened seems to defeat his central point, I’m left perplexed by why Kessler decided to run this “fact-checking” story.  I’m not perplexed by NADA’s use of it—they no doubt see this as somehow undermining the recent momentum in favor of direct distribution.  As I’ve explained above, it does little to the basic thrust of the Bodisch paper.  But it’s also important to understand that argument in favor of the right to engage in direct distribution is by no means predicated on any particular claim in the Bodisch paper.

Here’s a quick recap of the debate.  In the many fora in which I’ve advocated in favor of the right to engage in direct distribution, I’ve never argued that direct distribution is in fact preferable to dealer distribution as a general matter.  Rather, the argument has always been that consumers benefit when manufacturers can choose the most efficient distribution method for them given their position in in the market.  The dealers have repeatedly made the absurd argument that laws mandating dealer distribution are necessary to break the manufacturer’s “monopoly” over distribution of their cars and hence lower prices to consumers.  As scores of outstanding economists have explained many times—without rebuttal from a single credible economist—that argument misunderstands that a manufacturer cannot increase its profits by charging a retail mark-up over and above whatever market power premium it embeds in the wholesale price.

Further, proponents of the right to engage in direct distribution have argued that, if anything, direct distribution would lower rather than increase consumer prices.  The core of this argument is that vertical integration eliminates double marginalization.  A second part of this argument is that there could be marginal cost savings to the manufacturer from direct distribution—as suggested in the Goldman Sachs report and elsewhere.  A third point is that the dealers themselves are fully aware—and have conceded—that the general effect of direct distribution is to lower rather than raise market prices.  When the dealers have sued to block Tesla in places like Massachusetts, they have alleged that direct distribution leads to “inequitable pricing.”  What they mean, of course, is that it leads to prices that are too low.  (If inequitable pricing meant prices that were too high, the dealers wouldn’t suffer injury and therefore wouldn’t have standing).

In sum, let me repeat that Mr. Kessler is well within his rights to “fact check” whatever he wants and to point out any inaccuracies that he observes.  The thrust of his blog post, however, is way off base.  It is his blog post, not citation to the Bodisch article, that is bizarre.