At the Jan. 26 Policy in Transition forum—the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s second annual antitrust forum—various former and current antitrust practitioners, scholars, judges, and agency officials held forth on the near-term prospects for the neo-Brandeisian experiment undertaken in recent years by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). In conjunction with the forum, Mercatus also released a policy brief on 2022’s significant antitrust developments.
Below, I summarize some of the forum’s noteworthy takeaways, followed by concluding comments on the current state of the antitrust enterprise, as reflected in forum panelists’ remarks.
The consumer welfare standard is neither a recent nor an arbitrary antitrust-enforcement construct, and it should not be abandoned in order to promote a more “enlightened” interventionist antitrust.
George Mason University’s Donald Boudreaux emphasized in his introductory remarks that the standard goes back to Adam Smith, who noted in “The Wealth of Nations” nearly 250 years ago that the appropriate end of production is the consumer’s benefit. Moreover, American Antitrust Institute President Diana Moss, a leading proponent of more aggressive antitrust enforcement, argued in standalone remarks against abandoning the consumer welfare standard, as it is sufficiently flexible to justify a more interventionist agenda.
- The purported economic justifications for a far more aggressive antitrust-enforcement policy on mergers remain unconvincing.
Moss’ presentation expressed skepticism about vertical-merger efficiencies and called for more aggressive challenges to such consolidations. But Boudreaux skewered those arguments in a recent four-point rebuttal at Café Hayek. As he explains, Moss’ call for more vertical-merger enforcement ignores the fact that “no one has stronger incentives than do the owners and managers of firms to detect and achieve possible improvements in operating efficiencies – and to avoid inefficiencies.”
Moss’ complaint about chronic underenforcement mistakes by overly cautious agencies also ignores the fact that there will always be mistakes, and there is no reason to believe “that antitrust bureaucrats and courts are in a position to better predict the future [regarding which efficiencies claims will be realized] than are firm owners and managers.” Moreover, Moss provided “no substantive demonstration or evidence that vertical mergers often lead to monopolization of markets – that is, to industry structures and practices that harm consumers. And so even if vertical mergers never generate efficiencies, there is no good argument to use antitrust to police such mergers.”
And finally, Boudreaux considers Moss’ complaint that a court refused to condemn the AT&T-Time Warner merger, arguing that this does not demonstrate that antitrust enforcement is deficient:
[A]s soon as the . . . merger proved to be inefficient, the parties themselves undid it. This merger was undone by competitive market forces and not by antitrust! (Emphasis in the original.)
- The agencies, however, remain adamant in arguing that merger law has been badly unenforced. As such, the new leadership plans to charge ahead and be willing to challenge more mergers based on mere market structure, paying little heed to efficiency arguments or actual showings of likely future competitive harm.
In her afternoon remarks at the forum, Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Doha Mekki highlighted five major planks of Biden administration merger enforcement going forward.
- Clayton Act Section 7 is an incipiency statute. Thus, “[w]hen a [mere] change in market structure suggests that a firm will have an incentive to reduce competition, that should be enough [to justify a challenge].”
- “Once we see that a merger may lead to, or increase, a firm’s market power, only in very rare circumstances should we think that a firm will not exercise that power.”
- A structural presumption “also helps businesses conform their conduct to the law with more confidence about how the agencies will view a proposed merger or conduct.”
- Efficiencies defenses will be given short shrift, and perhaps ignored altogether. This is because “[t]he Clayton Act does not ask whether a merger creates a more or less efficient firm—it asks about the effect of the merger on competition. The Supreme Court has never recognized efficiencies as a defense to an otherwise illegal merger.”
- Merger settlements have often failed to preserve competition, and they will be highly disfavored. Therefore, expect a lot more court challenges to mergers than in recent decades. In short, “[w]e must be willing to litigate. . . . [W]e need to acknowledge the possibility that sometimes a court might not agree with us—and yet go to court anyway.”
Mekki’s comments suggest to me that the soon-to-be-released new draft merger guidelines may emphasize structural market-share tests, generally reject efficiencies justifications, and eschew the economic subtleties found in the current guidelines.
- The agencies—and the FTC, in particular—have serious institutional problems that undermine their effectiveness, and risk a loss of credibility before the courts in the near future.
In his address to the forum, former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic lamented the inefficient limitations on reasoned FTC deliberations imposed by the Sunshine Act, which chills informal communications among commissioners. He also pointed to our peculiarly unique global status of having two enforcers with duplicative antitrust authority, and lamented the lack of policy coherence, which reflects imperfect coordination between the agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, Kovacic raised the specter of the FTC losing credibility in a possible world where Humphrey’s Executor is overturned (see here) and the commission is granted little judicial deference. He suggested taking lessons on policy planning and formulation from foreign enforcers—the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, in particular. He also decried agency officials’ decisions to belittle prior administrations’ enforcement efforts, seeing it as detracting from the international credibility of U.S. enforcement.
- The FTC is embarking on a novel interventionist path at odds with decades of enforcement policy.
In luncheon remarks, Commissioner Christine S. Wilson lamented the lack of collegiality and consultation within the FTC. She warned that far-reaching rulemakings and other new interventionist initiatives may yield a backlash that undermines the institution.
Following her presentation, a panel of FTC experts discussed several aspects of the commission’s “new interventionism.” According to one panelist, the FTC’s new Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition (which ties “unfairness” to arbitrary and subjective terms) “will not survive in” (presumably, will be given no judicial deference by) the courts. Another panelist bemoaned rule-of-law problems arising from FTC actions, called for consistency in FTC and DOJ enforcement policies, and warned that the new merger guidelines will represent a “paradigm shift” that generates more business uncertainty.
The panel expressed doubts about the legal prospects for a proposed FTC rule on noncompete agreements, and noted that constitutional challenges to the agency’s authority may engender additional difficulties for the commission.
- The DOJ is greatly expanding its willingness to litigate, and is taking actions that may undermine its credibility in court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter has signaled a disinclination to settle, as well as an eagerness to litigate large numbers of cases (toward that end, he has hired a huge number of litigators). One panelist noted that, given this posture from the DOJ, there is a risk that judges may come to believe that the department’s litigation decisions are not well-grounded in the law and the facts. The business community may also have a reduced willingness to “buy in” to DOJ guidance.
Panelists also expressed doubts about the wisdom of DOJ bringing more “criminal Sherman Act Section 2” cases. The Sherman Act is a criminal statute, but the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal law and Due Process concerns may arise. Panelists also warned that, if new merger guidelines are ”unsound,” they may detract from the DOJ’s credibility in federal court.
- International antitrust developments have introduced costly new ex ante competition-regulation and enforcement-coordination problems.
As one panelist explained, the European Union’s implementation of the new Digital Markets Act (DMA) will harmfully undermine market forces. The DMA is a form of ex ante regulation—primarily applicable to large U.S. digital platforms—that will harmfully interject bureaucrats into network planning and design. The DMA will lead to inefficiencies, market fragmentation, and harm to consumers, and will inevitably have spillover effects outside Europe.
Even worse, the DMA will not displace the application of EU antitrust law, but merely add to its burdens. Regrettably, the DMA’s ex ante approach is being imitated by many other enforcement regimes, and the U.S. government tacitly supports it. The DMA has not been included in the U.S.-EU joint competition dialogue, which risks failure. Canada and the U.K. should also be added to the dialogue.
Other International Concerns
The international panelists also noted that there is an unfortunate lack of convergence on antitrust procedures. Furthermore, different jurisdictions manifest substantial inconsistencies in their approaches to multinational merger analysis, where better coordination is needed. There is a special problem in the areas of merger review and of criminal leniency for price fixers: when multiple jurisdictions need to “sign off” on an enforcement matter, the “most restrictive” jurisdiction has an effective veto.
Finally, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust James Rill—perhaps the most influential promoter of the adoption of sound antitrust laws worldwide—closed the international panel with a call for enhanced transnational cooperation. He highlighted the importance of global convergence on sound antitrust procedures, emphasizing due process. He also advocated bolstering International Competition Network (ICN) and OECD Competition Committee convergence initiatives, and explained that greater transparency in agency-enforcement actions is warranted. In that regard, Rill said, ICN nongovernmental advisers should be given a greater role.
Taken as a whole, the forum’s various presentations painted a rather gloomy picture of the short-term prospects for sound, empirically based, economics-centric antitrust enforcement.
In the United States, the enforcement agencies are committed to far more aggressive antitrust enforcement, particularly with respect to mergers. The agencies’ new approach downplays efficiencies and they will be quick to presume broad categories of business conduct are anticompetitive, relying far less closely on case-specific economic analysis.
The outlook is also bad overseas, as European Union enforcers are poised to implement new ex ante regulation of competition by large platforms as an addition to—not a substitute for—established burdensome antitrust enforcement. Most foreign jurisdictions appear to be following the European lead, and the U.S. agencies are doing nothing to discourage them. Indeed, they appear to fully support the European approach.
The consumer welfare standard, which until recently was the stated touchstone of American antitrust enforcement—and was given at least lip service in Europe—has more or less been set aside. The one saving grace in the United States is that the federal courts may put a halt to the agencies’ overweening ambitions, but that will take years. In the meantime, consumer welfare will suffer and welfare-enhancing business conduct will be disincentivized. The EU courts also may place a minor brake on European antitrust expansionism, but that is less certain.
Recall, however, that when evils flew out of Pandora’s box, hope remained. Let us hope, then, that the proverbial worm will turn, and that new leadership—inspired by hopeful and enlightened policy advocates—will restore principled antitrust grounded in the promotion of consumer welfare.