As I noted in January, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposal to ban nearly all noncompete agreements raises many questions. To be sure, there are contexts—perhaps many contexts—in which noncompete agreements raise legitimate policy concerns. But there also are contexts in which they can serve a useful procompetitive function. A per se ban across all industries and occupations, as the FTC’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) contemplates, seems at the least overly broad, and potentially a dubious and costly policy initiative.
Yesterday was the deadline to submit comments on the noncompete NPRM, and the International Center for Law & Economics and 30 distinguished scholars of law & economics—including leading academics and past FTC officials—did just that. I commend the comments to you, and not just because I drafted a good portion of them.
Still, given that we had about 75 pages of things to say about the proposal, an abridged treatment may be in order. The bottom line:
[W]e cannot recommend that the Commission adopt the proposed Non-compete Clause Rule (‘Proposed Rule’). It is not supported by the Commission’s experience, authority, or resources; neither is it supported by the evidence—empirical and otherwise—that is reviewed in the NPRM.
In no particular order, I will summarize some of our comments on key issues.
Not All Policy Concerns Are Antitrust Concerns
As the NPRM acknowledges, litigation over noncompetes focuses mostly on state labor and contract-law issues. And the federal and state cases that do consider specific noncompetes under the antitrust laws have nearly all found them to be lawful.
That’s not to say that there cannot be specific noncompetes in specific labor markets that run afoul of the Sherman Act (or the FTC Act). But antitrust is not a Swiss Army Knife, and it shouldn’t be twisted to respond to every possible policy concern.
Will Firms Invest Less in Employees?
While the NPRM amply catalogs potential problems associated with non-competes, [non-competes], like other vertical restrictions in labor agreements, are not necessarily inefficient, anticompetitive, or harmful to either labor or consumer welfare; they can be efficiency-enhancing and pro-competitive . . . [and] can solve a range of potential hold-up problems in labor contracting.
For example, there are circumstances in which both firms and their employees might benefit from additional employee training. But employees may lack the resources needed to acquire the right training on their own. Their employers might be better resourced, but might worry about their returns on investments in employee training.
Labor is alienable; that is, employees can walk out the door, and they can do so before firm-sponsored training has paid adequate dividends. Hence, they might renegotiate their compensation before it has paid for itself; or they might bring their enhanced skills to a competing firm. Knowing this, firms might tend to underinvest in employee training, which would lower their productivity. Noncompetes can mitigate this hold-up problem, and there is empirical evidence that they do just that.
The Available Literature Is Decidedly Mixed
A per se ban under the antitrust laws would seem to require considerable case law and a settled, and relatively comprehensive body of literature demonstrating that noncompetes pose significant harms to competition and consumers in nearly all cases. There isn’t.
First, “there appear to be numerous and broad gaps in the literature.” For example, most policy options, industries, and occupations haven’t been studied at all. And there’s only a single paper looking at downstream price effects in goods and services markets—one that doesn’t appear to be at all generalizable.
In addition, the available results don’t all impugn noncompetes; they’re mixed. For example, while some studies suggest certain classes of workers see increased wages, on average, when noncompete “enforceability” is reduced, others report contexts in which enforcement is associated with rising wages, depending on the occupation (there are studies of physicians, CEOs, and financial advisors) or even the timing with which workers are made aware of noncompetes.
It’s complicated. But as a 2019 working paper from the FTC’s own Bureau of Economics observed, the…
more credible empirical studies tend to be narrow in scope, focusing on a limited number of specific occupations . . . or potentially idiosyncratic policy changes with uncertain and hard-to-quantify generalizability.
So, for example, a study of the effects of an idiosyncratic statutory change regarding noncompetes in certain parts of the tech sector, but not others, in Hawaii (which doesn’t have much of a tech sector) might tell us rather little about our policy options more broadly.
Being the Primary Federal Labor Regulator Requires Resources
There are also reasons to question the FTC’s drive to be the federal regulator of noncompetes and other vertical restraints in labor agreements. For one thing, the commission has very little experience with noncompetes, although it did (rush to?) settle three complaints involving noncompetes the day before they issued the NPRM.
All three (plus a fourth settled since) involved very specific facts and circumstances. Three of the four were situated in a single industry: the glass-container industry. And, as recently resigned Commissioner Christine Wilson explained in dissent, the opinions and orders settling the matters did little to explain how the conduct at issue violated the antitrust laws. In one complaint, the alleged restrictions on security guards seemed excessive and unreasonable (as a state court found them to be, under state law), but that doesn’t mean that they violated the FTC Act.
Moreover, this would be a sweeping regulation involving, based on the commission’s own estimates, some 30 million current labor agreements and several hundred billion dollars in annual wage effects. Just this week, the commission once again testified to Congress that it lacks adequate personnel and other resources to execute the laws it plainly is charged to enforce already. So, for example:
[w]hile we constantly strive to enforce the law to the best of our capabilities, there is no doubt that—despite the much-needed increased appropriations Congress has provided in recent years—we continue to lack sufficient funding.
Given these limitations, it’s hard to understand the pitch to regulate labor terms across the entire economy without any congressional charge to do so. And that’s leaving aside the FTC’s recent and problematic proposal to issue sweeping regulations for digital privacy, as well. Not incidentally, this is an active area of state policy reform, and an issue that’s currently before Congress.
A Flimsy Basis for Authority
In the end, the FTC’s claimed authority to issue competition regulations under its general “unfair methods of competition” authority (Section 5 of the FTC Act) and a single clause about regulations (for some purpose) in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is both contentious and dubious.
While it’s not baseless, administrative-law scholars doubt the FTC’s position, which rests on a dated opinion from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that’s plainly out of step with recent Supreme Court decisions, which show less deference to agency authority (like the Axon decision just last week, or last year’s West Virginia v. EPA), as well as more general trends in statutory construction.
All in all, the commission’s proposed rule would be a bridge too far—or several of them. The agency isn’t just risking the economic costs of a spectacularly overbroad rule and its own much-needed agency resources. Court challenges to such a rule are inevitable, and place both the substance of a noncompete rule and the FTC’s own authority at risk.