Some Good News (Maybe?) from DOJ’s Antitrust Division

Thom Lambert —  17 November 2017 — Leave a comment

I remain deeply skeptical of any antitrust challenge to the AT&T/Time Warner merger.  Vertical mergers like this one between a content producer and a distributor are usually efficiency-enhancing.  The theories of anticompetitive harm here rely on a number of implausible assumptions — e.g., that the combined company would raise content prices (currently set at profit-maximizing levels so that any price increase would reduce profits on content) in order to impair rivals in the distribution market and enhance profits there.  So I’m troubled that DOJ seems poised to challenge the merger.

I am, however, heartened — I think — by a speech Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim recently delivered at the ABA’s Antitrust Fall Forum. The crux of the speech, which is worth reading in its entirety, was that behavioral remedies — effectively having the government regulate a merged company’s day-to-day business decisions — are almost always inappropriate in merger challenges.

That used to be DOJ’s official position.  The Antitrust Division’s 2004 Remedies Guide proclaimed that “[s]tructural remedies are preferred to conduct remedies in merger cases because they are relatively clean and certain, and generally avoid costly government entanglement in the market.”

During the Obama administration, DOJ changed its tune.  Its 2011 Remedies Guide removed the statement quoted above as well as an assertion that behavioral remedies would be appropriate only in limited circumstances.  The 2011 Guide instead remained neutral on the choice between structural and conduct remedies, explaining that “[i]n certain factual circumstances, structural relief may be the best choice to preserve competition.  In a different set of circumstances, behavioral relief may be the best choice.”  The 2011 Guide also deleted the older Guide’s discussion of the limitations of conduct remedies.

Not surprisingly in light of the altered guidance, several of the Obama DOJ’s merger challenges—Ticketmaster/Live Nation, Comcast/NBC Universal, and Google/ITA Software, for example—resulted in settlements involving detailed and significant regulation of the combined firm’s conduct.  The settlements included mandatory licensing requirements, price regulation, compulsory arbitration of pricing disputes with recipients of mandated licenses, obligations to continue to develop and support certain products, the establishment of informational firewalls between divisions of the merged companies, prohibitions on price and service discrimination among customers, and various reporting requirements.

Settlements of such sort move antitrust a long way from the state of affairs described by then-professor Stephen Breyer, who wrote in his classic book Regulation and Its Reform:

[I]n principle the antitrust laws differ from classical regulation both in their aims and in their methods.  The antitrust laws seek to create or maintain the conditions of a competitive marketplace rather than replicate the results of competition or correct for the defects of competitive markets.  In doing so, they act negatively, through a few highly general provisions prohibiting certain forms of private conduct.  They do not affirmatively order firms to behave in specified ways; for the most part, they tell private firms what not to do . . . .  Only rarely do the antitrust enforcement agencies create the detailed web of affirmative legal obligations that characterizes classical regulation.

I am pleased to see Delrahim signaling a move away from behavioral remedies.  As Alden Abbott and I explained in our article, Recognizing the Limits of Antitrust: The Roberts Court Versus the Enforcement Agencies,

[C]onduct remedies present at least four difficulties from a limits of antitrust perspective.  First, they may thwart procompetitive conduct by the regulated firm.  When it comes to regulating how a firm interacts with its customers and rivals, it is extremely difficult to craft rules that will ban the bad without also precluding the good.  For example, requiring a merged firm to charge all customers the same price, a commonly imposed conduct remedy, may make it hard for the firm to serve clients who impose higher costs and may thwart price discrimination that actually enhances overall market output.  Second, conduct remedies entail significant direct implementation costs.  They divert enforcers’ attention away from ferreting out anticompetitive conduct elsewhere in the economy and require managers of regulated firms to focus on appeasing regulators rather than on meeting their customers’ desires.  Third, conduct remedies tend to grow stale.  Because competitive conditions are constantly changing, a conduct remedy that seems sensible when initially crafted may soon turn out to preclude beneficial business behavior.  Finally, by transforming antitrust enforcers into regulatory agencies, conduct remedies invite wasteful lobbying and, ultimately, destructive agency capture.

The first three of these difficulties are really aspects of F.A. Hayek’s famous knowledge problem.  I was thus particularly heartened by this part of Delrahim’s speech:

The economic liberty approach to industrial organization is also good economic policy.  F. A. Hayek won the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on the problems of central planning and the benefits of a decentralized free market system.  The price system of the free market, he explained, operates as a mechanism for communicating disaggregated information.  “[T]he ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with the[] circumstances.”  Regulation, I humbly submit in contrast, involves an arbiter unfamiliar with the circumstances that cannot possibly account for the wealth of information and dynamism that the free market incorporates.

So why the reservation in my enthusiasm?  Because eschewing conduct remedies may result in barring procompetitive mergers that might have been allowed with behavioral restraints.  If antitrust enforcers are going to avoid conduct remedies on Hayekian and Public Choice grounds, then they should challenge a merger only if they are pretty darn sure it presents a substantial threat to competition.

Delrahim appears to understand the high stakes of a “no behavioral remedies” approach to merger review:  “To be crystal clear, [having a strong presumption against conduct remedies] cuts both ways—if a merger is illegal, we should only accept a clean and complete solution, but if the merger is legal we should not impose behavioral conditions just because we can do so to expand our power and because the merging parties are willing to agree to get their merger through.”

The big question is whether the Trump DOJ will refrain from challenging mergers that do not pose a clear and significant threat to competition and consumer welfare.  On that matter, the jury is out.

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.

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