Hovenkamp: The Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines Are an Important Step for the Economic Analysis of Mergers

Herbert Hovenkamp —  6 February 2020 — Leave a comment

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Herbert Hovenkamp (James G. Dinan University Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law and the Wharton School).]

In its 2019 AT&T/Time-Warner merger decision the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals mentioned something that antitrust enforcers have known for years: We need a new set of Agency Guidelines for vertical mergers. The vertical merger Guidelines were last revised in 1984 at the height of Chicago School hostility toward harsh antitrust treatment of vertical restraints. In January, 2020, the Agencies issued a set of draft vertical merger Guidelines for comment. At this writing the Guidelines are not final, and the Agencies are soliciting comments on the draft and will be holding at least two workshops to discuss them before they are finalized.

1. What the Guidelines contain

a. “Relevant markets” and “related products”

The draft Guidelines borrow heavily from the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines concerning general questions of market definition, entry barriers, partial acquisitions, treatment of efficiencies and the failing company defense. Both the approach to market definition and the necessity for it are treated somewhat differently than for horizontal mergers, however. First, the Guidelines do not generally speak of vertical mergers as linking two different “markets,” such as an upstream market and a downstream market. Instead, they use the term “relevant market” to speak of the market that is of competitive concern, and the term “related product” to refer to some product, service, or grouping of sales that is either upstream or downstream from this market:

A related product is a product or service that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the products and services in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market.

So, for example, if a truck trailer manufacturer should acquire a maker of truck wheels and the market of concern was trailer manufacturing, the Agencies would identify that as the relevant market and wheels as the “related product.” (Cf. Fruehauf Corp. v. FTC).

b. 20% market share threshold

The Guidelines then suggest (§3) that the Agencies would be

unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.

The choice of 20% is interesting but quite defensible as a statement of enforcement policy, and very likely represents a compromise between extreme positions. First, 20% is considerably higher than the numbers that supported enforcement during the 1960s and earlier (see, e.g., Brown Shoe (less than 4%); Bethlehem Steel (10% in one market; as little as 1.8% in another market)). Nevertheless, it is also considerably lower than the numbers that commentators such as Robert Bork would have approved (see Robert H. Bork, The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself at pp. 219, 232-33; see also Herbert Hovenkamp, Robert Bork and Vertical Integration: Leverage, Foreclosure, and Efficiency), and lower than the numbers generally used to evaluate vertical restraints such as tying or exclusive dealing (see Jefferson Parish (30% insufficient); see also 9 Antitrust Law ¶1709 (4th ed. 2018)).

The Agencies do appear to be admonished by the Second Circuit’s Fruehauf decision, now 40 years old but nevertheless the last big, fully litigated vertical merger case prior to AT&T/Time Warner: foreclosure numbers standing alone do not mean very much, at least not unless they are very large. Instead, there must be some theory about how foreclosure leads to lower output and higher prices. These draft Guidelines provide several examples and illustrations.

Significantly, the Guidelines do not state that they will challenge vertical mergers crossing the 20% threshold, but only that they are unlikely to challenge mergers that fall short of it. Even here, they leave open the possibility of challenge in unusual situations where the share numbers may understate the concern, such as where the related product “is relatively new,” and its share is rapidly growing. The Guidelines also note (§3) that if the merging parties serve different geographic areas, then the relevant share may not be measured by a firm’s gross sales everywhere, but rather by its shares in the other firm’s market in which anticompetitive effects are being tested. 

These numbers as well as the qualifications seem quite realistic, particularly in product differentiated markets where market shares tend to understate power, particularly in vertical distribution.

c. Unilateral effects

The draft Vertical Guidelines then divide the universe of adverse competitive effects into Unilateral Effects (§5) and Coordinated Effects (§7). The discussion of unilateral effects is based on bargaining theory similar to that used in the treatment of unilateral effects from horizontal mergers in the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Basically, a price increase is more profitable if the losses that accrue to one merging participant are affected by gains to the merged firm as a whole. These principles have been a relatively uncontroversial part of industrial organization economics and game theory for decades. The Draft Vertical Guidelines recognize both foreclosure and raising rivals’ costs as concerns, as well as access to competitively sensitive information (§5).

 The Draft Guidelines note:

A vertical merger may diminish competition by allowing the merged firm to profitably weaken or remove the competitive constraint from one or more of its actual or potential rivals in the relevant market by changing the terms of those rivals’ access to one or more related products. For example, the merged firm may be able to raise its rivals’ costs by charging a higher price for the related products or by lowering service or product quality. The merged firm could also refuse to supply rivals with the related products altogether (“foreclosure”).

Where sufficient data are available, the Agencies may construct economic models designed to quantify the likely unilateral price effects resulting from the merger…..

The draft Guidelines note that these models need not rely on a particular market definition. As in the case of unilateral effects horizontal mergers, they compare the firms’ predicted bargaining position before and after the merger, assuming that the firms seek maximization of profits or value. They then query whether equilibrium prices in the post-merger market will be higher than those prior to the merger. 

In making that determination the Guidelines suggest (§4a) that the Agency could look at several factors, including:

  1. The merged firm’s foreclosure of, or raising costs of, one or more rivals would cause those rivals to lose sales (for example, if they are forced out of the market, if they are deterred from innovating, entering or expanding, or cannot finance these activities, or if they have incentives to pass on higher costs through higher prices), or to otherwise compete less aggressively for customers’ business;
  2. The merged firm’s business in the relevant market would benefit (for example if some portion of those lost sales would be diverted to the merged firm);
  3. Capturing this benefit through merger may make foreclosure, or raising rivals’ costs, profitable even though it would not have been profitable prior to the merger; and,
  4. The magnitude of likely foreclosure or raising rivals’ costs is not de minimis such that it would substantially lessen competition.

This approach, which reflects important developments in empirical economics, does entail that there will be increasing reliance on economic experts to draft, interpret, and dispute the relevant economic models.

In a brief section the Draft Guidelines also state a concern for mergers that will provide a firm with access or control of sensitive business information that could be used anticompetitively. The Guidelines do not provide a great deal of elaboration on this point.

d. Elimination of double marginalization

The Vertical Guidelines also have a separate section (§6) discussing an offset for elimination of double marginalization. They note what has come to be the accepted economic wisdom that elimination of double marginalization can result in higher output and lower prices when it applies, but it does not invariably apply.

e. Coordinated effects

Finally, the draft Guidelines note (§7) a concern that certain vertical mergers may enable collusion. This could occur, for example, if the merger eliminated a maverick buyer who formerly played rival sellers off against one another. In other cases the merger may give one of the partners access to information that could be used to facilitate collusion or discipline cartel cheaters, offering this example:

Example 7: The merger brings together a manufacturer of components and a maker of final products. If the component manufacturer supplies rival makers of final products, it will have information about how much they are making, and will be better able to detect cheating on a tacit agreement to limit supplies. As a result the merger may make the tacit agreement more effective.

2. Conclusion: An increase in economic sophistication

These draft Guidelines are relatively short, but that is in substantial part because they incorporate by reference many of the relevant points from the 2010 Guidelines for horizontal mergers. In any event, they may not provide as much detail as federal courts might hope for, but they are an important step toward specifying the increasingly economic approaches that the agencies take toward merger analysis, one in which direct estimates play a larger role, with a comparatively reduced role for more traditional approaches depending on market definition and market share.

They also avoid both rhetorical extremes, which are being too hostile or too sanguine about the anticompetitive potential of vertical acquisitions. While the new draft Guidelines leave the overall burden of proof with the challenger, they have clearly weakened the presumption that vertical mergers are invariably benign, particularly in highly concentrated markets or where the products in question are differentiated. Second, the draft Guidelines emphasize approaches that are more economically sophisticated and empirical. Consistent with that, foreclosure concerns are once again taken more seriously.

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