Nuechterlein: Guidelines without Guidance on Vertical Mergers

Jonathan E. Nuechterlein —  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 Jonathan E. Nuechterlein (Partner, Sidley Austin LLP; former General Counsel, FTC; former Deputy General Counsel, FCC).

[Nuechterlein: I represented AT&T in United States v. AT&T, Inc. (“AT&T/Time Warner”), and this essay is based in part on comments I prepared on AT&T’s behalf for the FTC’s recent public hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. All views expressed here are my own.]

The draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Draft Guidelines”) might well leave ordinary readers with the misimpression that U.S. antitrust authorities have suddenly come to view vertical integration with a jaundiced eye. Such readers might infer from the draft that vertical mergers are a minefield of potential competitive harms; that only sometimes do they “have the potential to create cognizable efficiencies”; and that such efficiencies, even when they exist, often are not “of a character and magnitude” to keep the merger from becoming “anticompetitive.” (Draft Guidelines § 8, at 9). But that impression would be impossible to square with the past forty years of U.S. enforcement policy and with exhaustive empirical work confirming the largely beneficial effects of vertical integration. 

The Draft Guidelines should reflect those realities and thus should incorporate genuine limiting principles — rooted in concerns about two-level market power — to cabin their highly speculative theories of harm. Without such limiting principles, the Guidelines will remain more a theoretical exercise in abstract issue-spotting than what they purport to be: a source of genuine guidance for the public

1. The presumptive benefits of vertical integration

Although the U.S. antitrust agencies (the FTC and DOJ) occasionally attach conditions to their approval of vertical mergers, they have litigated only one vertical merger case to judgment over the past forty years: AT&T/Time Warner. The reason for that paucity of cases is neither a lack of prosecutorial zeal nor a failure to understand “raising rivals’ costs” theories of harm. Instead, in the words of the FTC’s outgoing Bureau of Competition chief, Bruce Hoffman, the reason is the “broad consensus in competition policy and economic theory that the majority of vertical mergers are beneficial because they reduce costs and increase the intensity of interbrand competition.” 

Two exhaustive papers confirm that conclusion with hard empirical facts. The first was published in the International Journal of Industrial Organization in 2005 by FTC economists James Cooper, Luke Froeb, Dan O’Brien, and Michael Vita, who surveyed “multiple studies of vertical mergers and restraints” and “found only one example where vertical integration harmed consumers, and multiple examples where vertical integration unambiguously benefited consumers.” The second paper is a 2007 analysis in the Journal of Economic Literature co-authored by University of Michigan Professor Francine LaFontaine (who served from 2014 to 2015 as Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics) and Professor Margaret Slade of the University of British Columbia. Professors LaFontaine and Slade “did not have a particular conclusion in mind when [they] began to collect the evidence,” “tried to be fair in presenting the empirical regularities,” and were “therefore somewhat surprised at what the weight of the evidence is telling us.” They found that:

[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical-integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. (p. 680) 

Vertical mergers have this procompetitive track record for two basic reasons. First, by definition, they do not eliminate a competitor or increase market concentration in any market, and they pose fewer competitive concerns than horizontal mergers for that reason alone. Second, as Bruce Hoffman noted, “while efficiencies are often important in horizontal mergers, they are much more intrinsic to a vertical transaction” and “come with a more built-in likelihood of improving competition than horizontal mergers.”

It is widely accepted that vertical mergers often impose downward pricing pressure by eliminating double margins. Beyond that, as the Draft Guidelines observe (at § 8), vertical mergers can also play an indispensable role in “eliminate[ing] contracting frictions,” “streamlin[ing] production, inventory management, or distribution,” and “creat[ing] innovative products in ways that would have been hard to achieve through arm’s length contracts.”

2. Harm to competitors, harm to competition, and the need for limiting principles

Vertical mergers do often disadvantage rivals of the merged firm. For example, a distributor might merge with one of its key suppliers, achieve efficiencies through the combination, and pass some of the savings through to consumers in the form of lower prices. The firm’s distribution rivals will lose profits if they match the price cut and will lose market share to the merged firm if they do not. But that outcome obviously counts in favor of supporting, not opposing, the merger because it makes consumers better off and because “[t]he antitrust laws… were enacted for the protection of competition not competitors.” (Brunswick v Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat). 

This distinction between harm to competition and harm to competitors is fundamental to U.S. antitrust law. Yet key passages in the Draft Guidelines seem to blur this distinction

For example, one passage suggests that a vertical merger will be suspect if the merged firm might “chang[e] the terms of … rivals’ access” to an input, “one or more rivals would [then] lose sales,” and “some portion of those lost sales would be diverted to the merged firm.” Draft Guidelines § 5.a, at 4-5. Of course, the Guidelines’ drafters would never concede that they wish to vindicate the interests of competitors qua competitors. They would say that incremental changes in input prices, even if they do not structurally alter the competitive landscape, might nonetheless result in slightly higher overall consumer prices. And they would insist that speculation about such slight price effects should be sufficient to block a vertical merger. 

That was the precise theory of harm that DOJ pursued in AT&T/Time Warner, which involved a purely vertical merger between a video programmer (Time Warner) and a pay-TV distributor (AT&T/DirecTV). DOJ ultimately conceded that Time Warner was unlikely to withhold programming from (“foreclose”) AT&T’s pay-TV rivals. Instead, using a complex economic model, DOJ tried to show that the merger would increase Time Warner’s bargaining power and induce AT&T’s pay-TV rivals to pay somewhat higher rates for Time Warner programming, some portion of which the rivals would theoretically pass through to their own retail customers. At the same time, DOJ conceded that post-merger efficiencies would cause AT&T to lower its retail rates compared to the but-for world without the merger. DOJ nonetheless asserted that the aggregate effect of the pay-TV rivals’ price increases would exceed the aggregate effect of AT&T’s own price decrease. Without deciding whether such an effect would be sufficient to block the merger — a disputed legal issue — the courts ruled for the merging parties because DOJ could not substantiate its factual prediction that the merger would lead to programming price increases in the first place. 

It is unclear why DOJ picked this, of all cases, as its vehicle for litigating its first vertical merger case in decades. In an archetypal raising-rivals’-costs case, familiar from exclusive dealing law, the defendant forecloses its rivals by depriving them of a critical input or distribution channel and so marginalizes them in the process that it can profitably raise its own retail prices (see, e.g., McWane; Microsoft). AT&T/Time Warner could hardly have been further afield from that archetypal case. Again, DOJ conceded both that the merged firm would not foreclose rivals at all and that the merger would induce the firm to lower its retail prices below what it would charge if the merger were blocked. The draft Guidelines appear to double down on this odd strategy and portend more cases predicated on the same attenuated concerns about mere “chang[es in] the terms of … rivals’ access” to inputs, unaccompanied by any alleged structural changes in the competitive landscape

Bringing such cases would be a mistake, both tactically and doctrinally

“Changes in the terms of inputs” are a constant fact of life in nearly every market, with or without mergers, and have almost never aroused antitrust scrutiny. For example, whenever a firm enters into a long-term preferred-provider agreement with a new business partner in lieu of merging with it, the firm will, by definition, deal on less advantageous terms with the partner’s rivals than it otherwise would. That outcome is virtually never viewed as problematic, let alone unlawful, when it is accomplished through such long-term contracts. The government does not hire a team of economists to pore over documents, interview witnesses, and run abstruse models on whether the preferred-provider agreement can be projected, on balance, to produce incrementally higher downstream prices. There is no obvious reason why the government should treat such preferred provider arrangements differently if they arise through a vertical merger rather than a vertical contract — particularly given the draft Guidelines’ own acknowledgement that vertical mergers produce pro-consumer efficiencies that would be “hard to achieve through arm’s length contracts.” (Draft Guidelines § 8, at 9).

3. Towards a more useful safe harbor

Quoting then-Judge Breyer, the Supreme Court once noted that “antitrust rules ‘must be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.’” That observation rings doubly true when applied to a document by enforcement officials purporting to “guide” business decisions. Firms contemplating a vertical merger need more than assurance that their merger will be cleared two years hence if their economists vanquish the government’s economists in litigation about the fine details of Nash bargaining theory. Instead, firms need true limiting principles, which identify the circumstances where any theory of harm would be so attenuated that litigating to block the merger is not worth the candle, particularly given the empirically validated presumption that most vertical mergers are pro-consumer.

The Agencies cannot meet the need for such limiting principles with the proposed “safe harbor” as it is currently phrased in the draft Guidelines: 

The Agencies are 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.” (Draft Guidelines § 3, at 3). 

This anodyne assurance, with its arbitrarily low 20 percent thresholds phrased in the conjunctive, seems calculated more to preserve the agencies’ discretion than to provide genuine direction to industry. 

Nonetheless, the draft safe harbor does at least point in the right direction because it reflects a basic insight about two-level market power: vertical mergers are unlikely to create competitive concerns unless the merged firm will have, or could readily obtain, market power in both upstream and downstream markets. (See, e.g., Auburn News v. Providence Journal (“Where substantial market power is absent at any one product or distribution level, vertical integration will not have an anticompetitive effect.”)) This point parallels tying doctrine, which, like vertical merger analysis, addresses how vertical arrangements can affect competition across adjacent markets. As Justice O’Connor noted in Jefferson Parish, tying arrangements threaten competition 

primarily in the rare cases where power in the market for the tying product is used to create additional market power in the market for the tied product.… But such extension of market power is unlikely, or poses no threat of economic harm, unless…, [among other conditions, the seller has] power in the tying-product market… [and there is] a substantial threat that the tying seller will acquire market power in the tied-product market.

As this discussion suggests, the “20 percent” safe harbor in the draft Guidelines misses the mark in three respects

First, as a proxy for the absence of market power, 20 percent is too low: courts have generally refused to infer market power when the seller’s market share was below 30% and sometimes require higher shares. Of course, market share can be a highly overinclusive measure of market power, in that many firms with greater than a 30% share will lack market power. But it is nonetheless appropriate to use market share as a screen for further analysis.

Second, the draft’s safe harbor appears illogically in the conjunctive, applying only “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.” That “and” should be an “or” because, again, vertical arrangements can be problematic only if a firm can use existing market power in a “related products” market to create or increase market power in the “relevant market.” 

Third, the phrase “the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market” is far too ambiguous to serve a useful role. For example, the “related product” sold by a merging upstream firm could be “used by” 100 percent of downstream buyers even though the firm’s sales account for only one percent of downstream purchases of that product if the downstream buyers multi-home — i.e., source their goods from many different sellers of substitutable products. The relevant proxy for “related product” market power is thus not how many customers “use” the merging firm’s product, but what percentage of overall sales of that product (including reasonable substitutes) it makes. 

Of course, this observation suggests that, when push comes to shove in litigation, the government must usually define two markets: not only (1) a “relevant market” in which competitive harm is alleged to occur, but also (2) an adjacent “related product” market in which the merged firm is alleged to have market power. Requiring such dual market definition is entirely appropriate. Ultimately, any raising-rivals’-costs theory relies on a showing that a vertically integrated firm has some degree of market power in a “related products” market when dealing with its rivals in an adjacent “relevant market.” And market definition is normally an inextricable component of a litigated market power analysis.

If these three changes are made, the safe harbor would read: 

The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 30 percent, or the related product sold by one of the parties accounts for less than 30 percent of the overall sales of that related product, including reasonable substitutes.

Like all safe harbors, this one would be underinclusive (in that many mergers outside of the safe harbor are unobjectionable) and may occasionally be overinclusive. But this substitute language would be more useful as a genuine safe harbor because it would impose true limiting principles. And it would more accurately reflect the ways in which market power considerations should inform vertical analysis—whether of contractual arrangements or mergers.

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