Search Results For RPM

The indefatigable (and highly talented) scriveners at the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) once again have offered a trenchant law and economics assessment that, if followed, would greatly improve a foreign jurisdiction’s competition law guidance. This latest assessment, which is compelling and highly persuasive, is embodied in a May 4 GAI Commentary on the Japan Fair Trade Commission’s (JFTC’s) consultation on its Draft Guidelines Concerning Distribution Systems and Business Practices Under the Antimonopoly Act (Draft Guidelines). In particular, the Commentary highlights four major concerns with the Draft Guidelines’ antitrust analysis dealing with conduct involving multi-sided platforms, resale price maintenance (RPM), refusals to deal, tying, and other vertical restraints. It also offers guidance on the appropriate analysis of network effects in multi-sided platforms. After summarizing these five key points, I offer some concluding observations on the potential benefit for competition policy worldwide offered by the GAI’s commentaries on foreign jurisdictions’ antitrust guidance.

  1. Resale price maintenance. Though the Draft Guidelines appear to apply a “rule of reason” or effects-based approach to most vertical restraints, Part I.3 and Part I, Chapter 1 carve out resale price maintenance (RPM) practices on the ground that they “usually have significant anticompetitive effects and, as a general rule, they tend to impede fair competition.” Given the economic theory and empirical evidence showing that vertical restraints, including RPM, rarely harm competition and often benefit consumers, the Commentary urges the JFTC to reconsider its approach and instead apply a rule of reason or effects-based analysis to all vertical restraints, including RPM, under which restraints are condemned only if any anticompetitive harm they cause outweighs any procompetitive benefits they create.
  2. Effects of vertical restraints. The Draft Guidelines identify two types of effects of vertical non-price restraints, “foreclosures effects” and “price maintenance effects.” The Commentary urges the JFTC to require proof of actual anticompetitive effects for both competition and unfair trade practice violations, just as it requires proof of procompetitive effects. It also recommends that the agency take cognizance only of substantial foreclosure effects, that is, “foreclosure of a sufficient share of distribution so that a manufacturer’s rivals are forced to operate at a significant cost disadvantage for a significant period of time.” The Commentary explains that a “consensus has emerged that a necessary condition for anticompetitive harm arising from allegedly exclusionary agreements is that the contracts foreclose rivals from a share of distribution sufficient to achieve minimum efficient scale.” The Commentary notes that “the critical market share foreclosure rate should depend upon the minimum efficient scale of production. Unless there are very large economies of scale in manufacturing, the minimum foreclosure of distribution necessary for an anticompetitive effect in most cases would be substantially greater than 40 percent. Therefore, 40 percent should be thought of as a useful screening device or ‘safe harbor,’ not an indication that anticompetitive effects are likely to exist above this level.”

The Commentary also strongly urges the JFTC to include an analysis of the counterfactual world, i.e., to identify “the difference between the percentage share of distribution foreclosed by the allegedly exclusionary agreements or conduct and the share of distribution in the absence of such an agreement.” It explains that such an approach to assessing foreclosure isolates any true competitive effect of the allegedly exclusionary agreement from other factors.

The Commentary also recommends that the JFTC explicitly recognize that evidence of new or expanded entry during the period of the alleged abuse can be a strong indication that the restraint at issue did not foreclose competition or have an anticompetitive effect. It stresses that, with respect to price increases, it is important to recognize and consider other factors (including changes in the product and changes in demand) that may explain higher prices.

  1. Unilateral refusals to deal and forced sharing. Part II, Chapter 3 of the Draft Guidelines would impose unfair trade practice liability for unilateral refusals to deal that “tend to make it difficult for the refused competitor to carry on normal business activities.” The Commentary strongly urges the JFTC to reconsider this vague and unclear approach and instead recognize the numerous significant concerns with forced sharing.

For example, while a firm’s competitors may want to use a particular good or technology in their own products, there are few situations, if any, in which access to a particular good is necessary to compete in a market. Indeed, one of the main reasons not to impose liability for unilateral, unconditional refusals to deal is “pragmatic in nature and concerns the limited abilities of competition authorities and courts to decide whether a facility is truly non-replicable or merely a competitive advantage.” For one thing, there are “no reliable economic or evidential techniques for testing whether a facility can be duplicated,” and it is often “difficult to distinguish situations in which customers simply have a strong preference for one facility from situations in which objective considerations render their choice unavoidable.”

Furthermore, the Commentary notes that forced competition based on several firms using the same inputs may actually preserve monopolies by removing the requesting party’s incentive to develop its own inputs. Consumer welfare is not enhanced only by price competition; it may be significantly improved by the development of new products for which there is an unsatisfied demand. If all competitors share the same facilities this will occur much less quickly if at all. In addition, if competitors can anticipate that they will be allowed to share the same facilities and technologies, the incentives to develop new products is diminished. Also, sharing of a monopoly among several competitors does not in itself increase competition unless it leads to improvements in price and output, i.e., nothing is achieved in terms of enhancing consumer welfare. Competition would be improved only if the terms upon which access is offered allow the requesting party to effectively compete with the dominant firm on the relevant downstream market. This raises the issue of whether the dominant firm is entitled to charge a monopoly rate or whether, in addition to granting access, there is a duty to offer terms that allow efficient rivals to make a profit.

  1. Fair and free competition. The Draft JFTC Guidelines refer throughout to the goal of promoting “fair and free competition.” Part I.3 in particular provides that “[i]f a vertical restraint tends to impede fair competition, such restraint is prohibited as an unfair trade practice.” The Commentary urges the JFTC to adopt an effects-based approach similar to that adopted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in its 2015 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition. Tying unfairness to antitrust principles ensures the alignment of unfairness with the economic principles underlying competition laws. Enforcement of unfair methods of competition statutes should focus on harm to competition, while taking into account possible efficiencies and business justifications. In short, while unfairness can be a useful tool in reaching conduct that harms competition but is not within the scope of the antitrust laws, it is imperative that unfairness be linked to the fundamental goals of the antitrust laws.
  2. Network effects in multi-sided platforms. With respect to multi-sided platforms in particular, the Commentary urges that the JFTC avoid any presumption that network effects create either market power or barriers to entry. In lieu of such a presumption, the Commentary recommends a fact-specific case-by-case analysis with empirical backing on the presence and effect of any network effects. Network effects occur when the value of a good or service increases as the number of people who use it grows. Network effects are generally beneficial. While there is some dispute over whether and under what conditions they might also raise exclusionary concerns, the Commentary notes that “transactions involving complementary products (indirect network effects) fully internalize the benefits of consuming complementary goods and do not present an exclusionary concern.” The Commentary explains that, “[a]s in all analysis of network effects, the standard assumption that quantity alone determines the strength of the effect is likely mistaken.” Rather, to the extent that advertisers, for example, care about end users, they care about many of their characteristics. An increase in the number of users who are looking only for information and never to purchase goods may be of little value to advertisers. “Assessing network or scale effects is extremely difficult in search engine advertising [for example], and scale may not even correlate with increased value over some ranges of size.”
  3. Concluding thoughts. Implicit in the overall approach of this latest GAI Commentary, and in many other GAI assessments of foreign jurisdictions’ proposed antitrust guidance, is the need for regulatory humility, sound empiricism, and a focus on consumer welfare. Antitrust enforcement policies that blandly accept esoteric theories of anticompetitive behavior and ignore actual economic effects are welfare reducing, not welfare enhancing. The very good analytical work carried out by GAI helps competition authorities keep this reality in mind, and merits close attention.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright is on a roll. A couple of days before his excellent Ardagh/Saint Gobain dissent addressing merger efficiencies, Wright delivered a terrific speech on minimum resale price maintenance (RPM). The speech, delivered in London to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, signaled that Wright will seek to correct the FTC’s early post-Leegin mistakes on RPM and will push for the sort of structured rule of reason that is most likely to benefit consumers.

Wright began by acknowledging that minimum RPM is, from a competitive standpoint, a mixed bag. Under certain (rarely existent) circumstances, RPM may occasion anticompetitive harm by facilitating dealer or manufacturer collusion or by acting as an exclusionary device for a dominant manufacturer or retailer. Under more commonly existing sets of circumstances, however, RPM may enhance interbrand competition by reducing dealer free-riding, facilitating the entry of new brands, or encouraging optimal production of output-enhancing dealer services that are not susceptible to free-riding.

Because instances of minimum RPM may be good or bad, liability rules may err in two directions. Overly lenient rules may fail to condemn output-reducing instances of RPM, but overly strict rules will prevent uses of RPM that would benefit consumers by enhancing distributional efficiency. Efforts to tailor a liability rule so that it makes fewer errors (i.e., produces fewer false acquittals or false convictions) will create complexity that makes the rule more difficult for business planners and courts to apply. An optimal liability rule, then, should minimize the sum of “error costs” (social losses from expected false acquittals and false convictions) and “decision costs” (costs of applying the rule).

Crafting such a rule requires judgments about (1) whether RPM is more likely to occasion harmful or beneficial effects, and (2) the magnitude of expected harms or benefits. If most instances of RPM are likely to be harmful, the harm resulting from an instance of RPM is likely to be great, and the foregone efficiencies from false convictions are likely to be minor, then the liability rule should tend toward condemnation – i.e., should be “plaintiff-friendly.” On the other hand, if most instances of RPM are likely to be beneficial, the magnitude of expected benefit is significant, and the social losses from false acquittals are likely small, then a “defendant-friendly” rule is more likely to minimize error costs.

As Commissioner Wright observed, economic theory and empirical evidence about minimum RPM’s competitive effects, as well as intuitions about the magnitude of those various effects, suggest that minimum RPM ought to be subject to a defendant-friendly liability rule that puts the burden on plaintiffs to establish actual or likely competitive harm. With respect to economic theory, procompetitive benefit from RPM is more likely because the necessary conditions for RPM’s anticompetitive effects are rarely satisfied, while the prerequisites to procompetitive benefit often exist. Not surprisingly, then, most studies of minimum RPM have concluded that it is more frequently used to enhance rather than reduce market output. (As I have elsewhere observed and Commissioner Wright acknowledged, the one recent outlier study is methodologically flawed.) In terms of the magnitude of harms from wrongly condemning or wrongly approving instances of RPM, there are good reasons to believe greater harm will result from the former sort of error. The social harm from a false acquittal – enhanced market power – is self-correcting; market power invites entry. A false condemnation, by contrast, can be corrected only by a subsequent judicial, regulatory, or legislative overruling.  Moreover, an improper conviction thwarts not just the challenged instance of RPM but also instances contemplated by business planners who would seek to avoid antitrust liability. Taken together, these considerations about the probability and magnitude of various competitive effects argue in favor of a fairly lenient liability rule for minimum RPM – certainly not per se illegality or a “quick look” approach that deems RPM to be inherently suspect and places the burden on the defendant to rebut a presumption of anticompetitive harm.

Commissioner Wright’s call for a more probing rule of reason for minimum RPM represents a substantial improvement on the approach the FTC took in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision. Shortly after Leegin abrogated the rule of per se illegality for minimum RPM, women’s shoe manufacturer Nine West petitioned the Commission to modify a pre-Leegin consent decree constraining Nine West’s use of RPM arrangements. In agreeing to modify (but not eliminate) the restrictions, the Commission endorsed a liability rule that would deem RPM to be inherently suspect (and thus presumptively illegal) unless the defendant could establish an absence of the so-called “Leegin factors” – i.e., that there was no dealer or manufacturer market power, that RPM was not widely used in the relevant market, and that the RPM at issue was not dealer-initiated.

The FTC’s fairly pro-plaintiff approach was deficient in that it simply lifted a few words from Leegin without paying close attention to the economics of RPM. As Commissioner Wright explained,

[C]ritical to any decision to structure the rule of reason for minimum RPM is that the relevant analytical factors correctly match the economic evidence. For instance, some of the factors identified by the Leegin Court as relevant for identifying whether a particular minimum RPM agreement might be anticompetitive actually shed little light on competitive effects. For example, the Leegin Court noted that “the source of the constraint might also be an important consideration” and observed that retailer-initiated restraints are more likely to be anticompetitive than manufacturer-initiated restraints. But economic evidence recognizes that because retailers in effect sell promotional services to manufacturers and benefit from such contracts, it is equally as possible that retailers will initiate minimum RPM agreements as manufacturers. Imposing a structured rule of reason standard that treats retailer-initiated minimum RPM more restrictively would thus undermine the benefits of the rule of reason.

Commissioner Wright’s remarks give me hope that the FTC will eventually embrace an economically sensible liability rule for RPM. Now, if we could only get those pesky state policy makers to modernize their outdated RPM thinking.  As Commissioner Wright recently observed, policy advocacy “is a weapon the FTC has wielded effectively and consistently over time.” Perhaps the Commission, spurred by Wright, will exercise its policy advocacy prowess on the backward states that continue to demonize minimum RPM arrangements.

The American Bar Association Antitrust Section’s Presidential Transition Report (“Report”), released on January 24, provides a helpful practitioners’ perspective on the state of federal antitrust and consumer protection enforcement, and propounds a variety of useful recommendations for marginal improvements in agency practices, particularly with respect to improving enforcement transparency and reducing enforcement-related costs.  It also makes several good observations on the interplay of antitrust and regulation, and commendably notes the importance of promoting U.S. leadership in international antitrust policy.  This is all well and good.  Nevertheless, the Report’s discussion of various substantive topics poses a number of concerns that seriously detract from its utility, which I summarize below.  Accordingly, I recommend that the new Administration accord respectful attention to the Report’s discussion of process improvements, and international developments, but ignore the Report’s discussion of novel substantive antitrust theories, vertical restraints, and intellectual property.

1.  The Big Picture: Too Much Attention Paid to Antitrust “Possibility Theorems”

In discussing substance, the Report trots out all the theoretical stories of possible anticompetitive harm raised over the last decade or so, such as “product hopping” (“minor” pharmaceutical improvements based on new patents that are portrayed as exclusionary devices), “contracts that reference rivals” (discount schemes that purportedly harm competition by limiting sourcing from a supplier’s rivals), “hold-ups” by patentees (demands by patentees for “overly high” royalties on their legitimate property rights), and so forth.  What the Report ignores is the costs that these new theories impose on the competitive system, and, in particular, on incentives to innovate.  These new theories often are directed at innovative novel business practices that may have the potential to confer substantial efficiency benefits – including enhanced innovation and economic growth – on the American economy.  Unproven theories of harm may disincentivize such practices and impose a hidden drag on the economy.  (One is reminded of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase’s lament (see here) that “[i]f an economist finds something . . . that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation. And as in this field we are rather ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on monopoly explanations frequent.”)  Although the Report generally avoids taking a position on these novel theories, the lip service it gives implicitly encourages federal antitrust agency investigations designed to deploy these shiny new antitrust toys.  This in turn leads to a misallocation of resources (unequivocally harmful activity, especially hard core cartel conduct, merits the highest priority) and generates potentially high error and administrative costs, at odds with a sensible decision-theoretic approach to antitrust administration (see here and here).  In sum, the Trump Administration should pay no attention to the Report’s commentary on new substantive antitrust theories.

2.  Vertical Contractual Restraints

The Report inappropriately (and, in my view, amazingly) suggests that antitrust enforcers should give serious attention to vertical contractual restraints:

Recognizing that the current state of RPM law in both minimum and maximum price contexts requires sophisticated balancing of pro- and anti-competitive tendencies, the dearth of guidance from the Agencies in the form of either guidelines or litigated cases leaves open important questions in an area of law that can have a direct and substantial impact on consumers. For example, it would be beneficial for the Agencies to provide guidance on how they think about balancing asserted quality and service benefits that can flow from maintaining minimum prices for certain types of products against the potential that RPM reduces competition to the detriment of consumers. Perhaps equally important, the Agencies should provide guidance on how they would analyze the vigor of interbrand competition in markets where some producers have restricted intrabrand competition among distributors of their products.    

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) largely have avoided bringing pure contractual vertical restraints cases in recent decades, and for good reason.  Although vertical restraints theoretically might be used to facilitate horizontal collusion (say, to enforce a distributors’ cartel) or anticompetitive exclusion (say, to enable a dominant manufacturer to deny rivals access to efficient distribution), such cases appear exceedingly rare.  Real world empirical research suggests vertical restraints generally are procompetitive (see, for example, here).  What’s more, a robust theoretical literature supports efficiency-based explanations for vertical restraints (see, for example, here), as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2007 Leegin decision.  An aggressive approach to vertical restraints enforcement would ignore this economic learning, likely yield high error costs, and dissuade businesses from considering efficient vertical contracts, to the detriment of social welfare.  Moreover, antitrust prosecutorial resources are limited, and optimal policy indicates they should be directed to the most serious competitive problems.  The Report’s references to “open important questions” and the need for “guidance” on vertical restraints appears oblivious to these realities.  Furthermore, the Report’s mention of “balancing” interbrand versus intrabrand effects reflects a legalistic approach to vertical contracts that is at odds with modern economic analysis.

In short, the Report’s discussion of vertical restraints should be accorded no weight by new enforcers, and antitrust prosecutors would be well advised not to include vertical restraints investigations on their list of priorities.

3.  IP Issues

The Report recommends that the DOJ and FTC (“Agencies”) devote substantial attention to issues related to the unilateral exercise of patent rights, “holdup” and “holdout”:

We . . . recommend that the Agencies gather reliable and credible information on—and propose a framework for evaluating—holdup and holdout, and the circumstances in which either may be anticompetitive. The Agencies are particularly well-suited to gather evidence and assess competitive implications of such practices, which could then inform policymaking, advocacy, and potential cases. The Agencies’ perspectives could contribute valuable insights to the larger antitrust community.

Gathering information with an eye to bringing potential antitrust cases involving the unilateral exercise of patent rights through straightforward patent licensing involves a misapplication of resources.  As Professor Josh Wright and Judge Douglas Ginsburg, among others, have pointed out, antitrust is not well-suited to dealing with disputes between patentees and licensees over licensing rates – private law remedies are best designed to handle such contractual controversies (see, for example, here).  Furthermore, using antitrust law to depress returns to unilateral patent licenses threatens to reduce dynamic efficiency and create disincentives for innovation (see FTC Commissioner (and currently Acting Chairman) Maureen Ohlhausen’s thoughtful article, here).  The Report regrettably ignores this important research.  The Report instead should have called upon the FTC and DOJ to drop their ill-conceived recent emphasis on unilateral patent exploitation, and to focus instead on problems of collusion among holders of competing patented technologies.

That is not all.  The Report’s “suggest[ion] that the [federal antitrust] Agencies consider offering guidance to the ITC [International Trade Commission] about potential SEP holdup and holdout” is a recipe for weakening legitimate U.S. patent rights that are threatened by foreign infringers.  American patentees already face challenges from over a decade’s worth of Supreme Court decisions that have constrained the value of their holdings.  As I have explained elsewhere, efforts to limit the ability of the ITC to issue exclusion orders in the face of infringement overseas further diminishes the value of American patents and disincentivizes innovation (see here).  What’s worse, the Report is not only oblivious of this reality, it goes out of its way to “put a heavy thumb on the scale” in favor of patent infringers, stating (footnote omitted):

If the ITC were to issue exclusion orders to SEP owners under circumstances in which injunctions would not be appropriate under the [Supreme Court’s] eBay standard [for patent litigation], the inconsistency could induce SEP owners to strategically use the ITC in an effort to achieve settlements of patent disputes on terms that might require payment of supracompetitive royalties.  Though it is not likely how likely this is or whether the risk has led to supracompetitive prices in the past, this dynamic could lead to holdup by SEP owners and unconscionably higher royalties.

This commentary on the possibility of “unconscionable” royalties reads like a press release authored by patent infringers.  In fact, there is a dearth of evidence of hold-up, let alone hold-up-related “unconscionable” royalties.  Moreover, it is most decidedly not the role of antitrust enforcers to rule on the “unconscionability” of the unilateral pricing decision of a patent holder (apparently the Report writers forgot to consult Justice Scalia’s Trinko opinion, which emphasizes the right of a monopolist to charge a monopoly price).  Furthermore, not only is this discussion wrong-headed, it flies in the face of concerns expressed elsewhere in the Report regarding ill-advised mandates imposed by foreign antitrust enforcement authorities.  (Recently certain foreign enforcers have shown themselves all too willing to countenance “excessive” patent royalty claims in cases involving American companies).

Finally, other IP-related references in the Report similarly show a lack of regulatory humility.  Theoretical harms from the disaggregation of complementary patents, and from “product hopping” patents (see above), among other novel practices, implicitly encourage the FTC and DOJ (not to mention private parties) to consider bringing cases based on expansive theories of liability, without regard to the costs of the antitrust system as a whole (including the chilling of innovative business activity).  Such cases might benefit the antitrust bar, but prioritizing them would be at odds with the key policy objective of antitrust, the promotion of consumer welfare.

 

Alden Abbott and I recently co-authored an article, forthcoming in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, in which we examined the degree to which the Supreme Court and the federal enforcement agencies have recognized the inherent limits of antitrust law. We concluded that the Roberts Court has admirably acknowledged those limits and has for the most part crafted liability rules that will maximize antitrust’s social value. The enforcement agencies, by contrast, have largely ignored antitrust’s intrinsic limits. In a number of areas, they have sought to expand antitrust’s reach in ways likely to reduce consumer welfare.

The bright spot in federal antitrust enforcement in the last few years has been Josh Wright. Time and again, he has bucked the antitrust establishment, reminding the mandarins that their goal should not be to stop every instance of anticompetitive behavior but instead to optimize antitrust by minimizing the sum of error costs (from both false negatives and false positives) and decision costs. As Judge Easterbrook famously explained, and as Josh Wright has emphasized more than anyone I know, inevitable mistakes (error costs) and heavy information requirements (decision costs) constrain what antitrust can do. Every liability rule, every defense, every immunity doctrine should be crafted with those limits in mind.

Josh will no doubt be remembered, and justifiably so, for spearheading the effort to provide guidance on how the Federal Trade Commission will exercise its amorphous authority to police “unfair methods of competition.” Several others have lauded Josh’s fine contribution on that matter (as have I), so I won’t gild that lily here. Instead, let me briefly highlight two other areas in which Josh has properly pushed for a recognition of antitrust’s inherent limits.

Vertical Restraints

Vertical restraints—both intrabrand restraints like resale price maintenance (RPM) and interbrand restraints like exclusive dealing—are a competitive mixed bag. Under certain conditions, such restraints may reduce overall market output, causing anticompetitive harm. Under other, more commonly occurring conditions, vertical restraints may enhance market output. Empirical evidence suggests that most vertical restraints are output-enhancing rather than output-reducing. Enforcers taking an optimizing, limits of antitrust approach will therefore exercise caution in condemning or discouraging vertical restraints.

That’s exactly what Josh Wright has done. In an early post-Leegin RPM order predating Josh’s tenure, the FTC endorsed a liability rule that placed an inappropriately heavy burden on RPM defendants. Josh later laid the groundwork for correcting that mistake, advocating a much more evidence-based (and defendant-friendly) RPM rule. In the McWane case, the Commission condemned an exclusive dealing arrangement that had been in place for long enough to cause anticompetitive harm but hadn’t done so. Josh rightly called out the majority for elevating theoretical harm over actual market evidence. (Adopting a highly deferential stance, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Commission majority, but Josh was right to criticize the majority’s implicit hostility toward exclusive dealing.) In settling the Graco case, the Commission again went beyond the evidence, requiring the defendant to cease exclusive dealing and to stop giving loyalty rebates even though there was no evidence that either sort of vertical restraint contributed to the anticompetitive harm giving rise to the action at issue. Josh rightly took the Commission to task for reflexively treating vertical restraints as suspect when they’re usually procompetitive and had an obvious procompetitive justification (avoidance of interbrand free-riding) in the case at hand.

Horizontal Mergers

Horizontal mergers, like vertical restraints, are competitive mixed bags. Any particular merger of competitors may impose some consumer harm by reducing the competition facing the merged firm. The same merger, though, may provide some consumer benefit by lowering the merged firm’s costs and thereby allowing it to compete more vigorously (most notably, by lowering its prices). A merger policy committed to minimizing the consumer welfare losses from unwarranted condemnations of net beneficial mergers and improper acquittals of net harmful ones would afford equal treatment to claims of anticompetitive harm and procompetitive benefit, requiring each to be established by the same quantum of proof.

The federal enforcement agencies’ new Horizontal Merger Guidelines, however, may put a thumb on the scale, tilting the balance toward a finding of anticompetitive harm. The Guidelines make it easier for the agencies to establish likely anticompetitive harm. Enforcers may now avoid defining a market if they point to adverse unilateral effects using the gross upward pricing pressure index (GUPPI). The merging parties, by contrast, bear a heavy burden when they seek to show that their contemplated merger will occasion efficiencies. They must: (1) prove that any claimed efficiencies are “merger-specific” (i.e., incapable of being achieved absent the merger); (2) “substantiate” asserted efficiencies; and (3) show that such efficiencies will result in the very markets in which the agencies have established likely anticompetitive effects.

In an important dissent (Ardagh), Josh observed that the agencies’ practice has evolved such that there are asymmetric burdens in establishing competitive effects, and he cautioned that this asymmetry will enhance error costs. (Geoff praised that dissent here.) In another dissent (Family Dollar/Dollar Tree), Josh acknowledged some potential problems with the promising but empirically unverified GUPPI, and he wisely advocated the creation of safe harbors for mergers generating very low GUPPI scores. (I praised that dissent here.)

I could go on and on, but these examples suffice to illustrate what has been, in my opinion, Josh’s most important contribution as an FTC commissioner: his constant effort to strengthen antitrust’s effectiveness by acknowledging its inevitable and inexorable limits. Coming on the heels of the FTC’s and DOJ’s rejection of the Section 2 Report—a document that was highly attuned to antitrust’s limits—Josh was just what antitrust needed.

Mike Sykuta and I recently co-authored a short article discussing the latest evidence on, and proper legal treatment of, minimum resale price maintenance (RPM). Following is a bit about the article (which is available here).

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s Leegin decision holding that minimum RPM must be evaluated under antitrust’s Rule of Reason, the battle over the proper legal treatment of the practice continues to rage at both the federal and state levels.

At the federal level, courts, commentators, and regulators have split over what sort of Rule of Reason should apply.  Some, like yours truly, have argued that because RPM is usually pro- rather than anticompetitive, challengers should bear the burden of proving likely anticompetitive effect (at a minimum, the structural prerequisites to such an effect) under a full-blown Rule of Reason.  Others contend that RPM should be assessed using some version of “quick look” Rule of Reason, under which a challenged instance of RPM is presumed anticompetitive if the plaintiff makes some fairly narrow showing (e.g., that consumer prices have risen, or that the RPM was dealer-initiated, or that the RPM is imposed on homogeneous products that are not sold with dealer services that are susceptible to free-riding).

At the state level, a number of states have simply decided not to follow Leegin and to retain, under state antitrust law, the per se rule of Dr. Miles (the 1911 decision overruled by Leegin).  At least nine states have taken this tack.

We advocates of a full-blown Rule of Reason for minimum RPM have generally emphasized two things.  First, we have observed that while the structural prerequisites to RPM’s potentially anticompetitive harms (facilitation of dealer-level or manufacturer-level cartels, or exclusion by a dominant dealer or manufacturer) are rarely satisfied, the necessary conditions for RPM’s procompetitive benefits (avoidance of free-riding, facilitating entry, encouraging non-free-rideable dealer services) are frequently met.  Second, we have shown that the pre-Leegin empirical evidence on RPM’s effects generally confirmed what theory would predict: Most instances of RPM that have been examined closely have proven output-enhancing.

In recent months, advocates of stricter RPM rules have pointed to an ambitious new study that they say supports their position.  The study authors, University of Chicago economics PhD candidates Alexander MacKay and David Aron Smith, purported to conduct “a natural experiment to estimate the effects of Leegin on product prices and quantity.”  In particular, MacKay & Smith compared post-Leegin changes in price and output levels in states retaining a rule of per se illegality with those in states likely to assess RPM under the Rule of Reason.  Utilizing Nielsen consumer product data for 1,083 “product modules” (i.e., narrowly defined product categories such as “vegetables-broccoli-frozen”), the authors assessed price and output changes between the six month period immediately preceding Leegin (January-June 2007) and the last six months of 2009.

With respect to price changes, MacKay & Smith found that 15% of the product modules exhibited price increases that were higher, by a statistically significant margin, in Rule of Reason states than in per se states.  In only 6.9% of modules were price increases higher, to a statistically significant degree, in per se states than in Rule of Reason states.  With respect to quantity changes, 14.7% of modules saw a statistically significant decrease in quantity in Rule of Reason states versus per se states, whereas only 3% of modules exhibited a statistically significant quantity increase in Rule of Reason states over per se states.  MacKay & Smith thus conclude that greater leniency on minimum RPM is associated with higher prices and lower output levels, a conclusion that, they say, supports the view that RPM is more frequently anticompetitive than procompetitive.

Mike and I contend that the MacKay & Smith study is flawed and does not justify restrictive RPM policies.  First, the study provides very little support for the view that RPM has caused anticompetitive harm within the group of product markets examined.  As an initial matter (and as the authors admit), the study does not demonstrate that actual RPM agreements have caused anticompetitive harm in the post-Leegin era.  To make such a showing, one would have to demonstrate that (1) minimum RPM was actually imposed on a product after the Leegin decision, (2) the RPM policy raised the price of that product from what it otherwise would have been, and (3) the quantity of the product sold fell from what it otherwise would have been.  The authors present no evidence that RPM policies were actually implemented on any of the product categories for which they identified statistically significant price increases and quantity decreases.  As they concede, their study could show only that legal environments treating RPM leniently (not RPM agreements themselves) are conducive to anticompetitive outcomes.

But the authors’ data provide little support for even that claim.  To prove anticompetitive harm stemming from an “RPM-permissive” legal environment, one would have to show that the transition from per se illegality to rule of reason treatment occasioned, for a substantial number of products, both a statistically significant price increase and a statistically significant output reduction on the same product.  An output reduction not accompanied by an increase in price suggests that something besides minimum RPM (or even a “permissive attitude” toward RPM) caused output to fall.  A price increase without a reduction in output is consistent with the view that RPM induced demand-enhancing dealer activities that mitigated the effect of the price increase, albeit by not as much as the producer may have hoped.  (A price increase without an output decrease could also indicate that demand for the product at issue was inelastic, but MacKay & Smith presented no evidence suggesting that demand for any of the product categories exhibiting price increases but not quantity decreases was particularly inelastic.)

According to the authors’ list of “modules with significant price or quantity changes” (Appendix A of their study), only 17 of the 1,083 product categories examined—a mere 1.6%—exhibited both a price increase and a quantity decrease.  And those effects were for categories of products (e.g., barbecue sauces as a whole), not necessarily particular brands of a product (e.g., KC Masterpiece or Sweet Baby Ray’s).  It could well be that within the 1.6% of categories exhibiting both an average price increase and an average output decrease, there were no individual brands exhibiting both effects at once.  Indeed, most of the seventeen product categories involve dealer and manufacturer markets that are neither cartelizable (so neither the dealer nor manufacturer collusion theory of anticompetitive harm could apply) nor dominated by a powerful manufacturer or dealer (so neither the dominant manufacturer nor dominant dealer theory could apply).  To the extent MacKay & Smith’s findings provide any evidence that RPM-permissiveness occasions anticompetitive harm in household consumer products markets, that evidence is awfully thin.

Moreover, in limiting their examination to the product categories included in the Nielsen Consumer Panel Data, MacKay & Smith excluded most products for which one of the procompetitive rationales for minimum RPM—the “avoidance of free-riding” rationale—would apply.  As the authors observe, only about “30% of household consumption is accounted for by the categories in the data.”  That 30% is comprised mainly of groceries, other consumable household products, and small appliances.  The study thus excludes data related to purchases of large appliances, complicated electronics projects, and other relatively expensive products that are frequently sold along with “free-rideable” amenities such as product demonstrations, consumer education, and set-up or repair services.  Because the MacKay & Smith study systematically disregards information on transactions likely to reflect a procompetitive use of minimum RPM, it fails to establish the authors’ conclusion that “the harm to consumers resulting from rule-of-reason treatment of minimum RPM seems to outweigh its benefits.”

In the end, then, Mike and I conclude that the new RPM evidence provides no reason to reject the persuasive theory- and evidence-based arguments in favor of lenient, full-blown Rule of Reason treatment of minimum RPM.  Of course, we welcome comments on our article.

I’ve spent the last few days in DC at the ABA Antitrust Section’s Spring Meeting. The Spring Meeting is the extravaganza of the year for antitrust lawyers, bringing together leading antitrust practitioners, enforcers, and academics for in-depth discussions about developments in the law. It’s really a terrific event. I was honored this year to have been invited (by my old law school classmate, Adam Biegel) to present the “antitrust economics” and “monopolization” sections of the Antitrust Fundamentals session. Former TOTM blogger (now FTC Commissioner) Josh Wright has taught those sections in the past, so I had some pretty big shoes to fill. It was great fun.

Two sessions yesterday really got my blood pumping, albeit for different reasons. The first was a session on counseling clients on RPM after Leegin. Leegin, of course, was the 2007 Supreme Court decision overruling the 1911 Dr. Miles precedent that declared minimum resale price maintenance (RPM) to be per se illegal. Post-Leegin, a manufacturer’s setting of the resale price its downstream dealers may charge is evaluated under the Rule of Reason, at least for purposes of federal antitrust law.

While it was a 5-4 decision, the holding of Leegin is hardly controversial among antitrust scholars. Chicago School and neo-Chicago scholars like myself, Harvard School scholars like Herb Hovenkamp, and even post-Chicago scholars like Einer Elhauge are in agreement that RPM is not always or almost always anticompetitive and thus ought to be analyzed under the Rule of Reason. (Indeed, Elhauge queried: “The puzzle is what provoked a vigorous dissent from Justice Breyer, one of the world’s most sophisticated antitrust justices…”). There’s simply no doubt about Leegin among those who have studied RPM most closely: it was correctly decided.

It was most disheartening, then, to hear a group of esteemed panelist opine that Leegin hasn’t really changed the advice one should give clients considering RPM policies. It’s still wise, the panelists stated, to advise manufacturing clients to avoid RPM and instead to implement either (1) so-called Colgate policies where the manufacturer simply announces and follows a unilateral policy of not selling to dealers who discount, or (2) consignment arrangements where the manufacturer doesn’t sell its product to dealers but instead enlists them as its sales agents and retains title to its product until the product is sold to the end-user consumer. The former approach avoids RPM liability because there is no “agreement” concerning resale prices; the latter, because there is technically no “resale.” Both approaches, though, involve costly and cumbersome methods by which manufacturers may exert control over the resale prices of their products. (See, e.g., golf club manufacturer Ping’s now-classic discussion of the difficulties involved in implementing a Colgate policy.)  So why counsel clients to adopt Colgate policies and consignment/agency arrangements when RPM is now adjudged under the Rule of Reason?

Because of the states — a number of them, at least. Maryland has adopted an explicit Leegin-repealer; California’s Cartwright Act uses language that appears to declare RPM to be per se illegal; and the Supreme Court of Kansas recently held that RPM is per se illegal under that state’s predictably unenlightened antitrust laws.  (Sorry Kansas folk. Proud Mizzou Tiger here.) In addition, a number of states lack statutes or court decisions harmonizing state antitrust law with federal precendents, and at least six have rejected certain federal precedents –chiefly, Illinois Brick — even without statutory repealers. How those states will treat RPM post-Leegin is anybody’s guess. (For an exhaustive and regularly updated list of state law treatment of RPM, see this helpful article and chart by Michael Lindsay.)

So what’s behind states’ hostility toward RPM?  At yesterday’s RPM session, California Senior Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Foote suggested that state attorneys general tend to oppose RPM because they are particularly concerned about consumer protection and because states have had actual experience with RPM under the so-called “Fair Trade” laws that for several decades allowed states to create antitrust immunity for RPM arrangements.  The empirical evidence of conditions under Fair Trade, Ms. Foote says, establishes that RPM leads to higher consumer prices and therefore tends to be anticompetitive.

But these arguments, each of which was considered and rejected in Leegin, have been soundly refuted.  A heightened concern for consumer protection in no way supports adherence to Dr. Miles, for manufacturers generally have an incentive to impose RPM only when doing so benefits consumers.  The retail mark-up — the difference between the price the retailer pays and that which it charges to consumers — is the “price” manufacturers effectively pay for product distribution.  Like consumers, they have no incentive to raise that price (i.e., to increase the mark-up through imposition of RPM) unless doing so generates retailer services that are worth more to consumers than the incremental retail mark-up.  Only then would RPM enhance a manufacturer’s profits, but in that case, it also enhances overall consumer surplus.  In short, manufacturer and consumer interests are generally aligned when it comes to RPM.

With respect to Fair Trade, Ms. Foote was playing a little fast and loose.  The Fair Trade laws did not, like Leegin, simply declare RPM arrangements not to be per se illegal; rather, they said that such arrangements were per se legal.  Hardly anyone doubts that RPM arrangements may sometimes be harmful and should be scrutinized.  But under Leegin — unlike under Fair Trade — anticompetitive instances of RPM (those that facilitate manufacturer or retailer collusion or serve as exclusionary devices for dominant manufacturers or retailers) may be condemned.  Thus, the fact that states witnessed consumer harm under Fair Trade’s regime of per se legality says nothing about how consumers will fare under Leegin’s Rule of Reason.

Finally, Ms. Foote’s reasoning that RPM is anticompetitive because the evidence shows it tends to raise prices is fallacious.  Of course RPM raises prices.  It is, after all, the imposition of a price floor.  But that price effect is beside the point.  Each one of the procompetitive, output-enhancing justifications for RPM assumes an increase in consumer prices.  The key is that the increase in retail mark-up will induce dealer services that consumers value more than the amount of the mark-up and will thereby enhance overall sales.  The fact that RPM raises prices, then, is a red herring.

If legislators, courts, and enforcement officials in states like California, Maryland, and Kansas can’t understand these fairly simple points (yes, I realize I’m asking a lot of the Kansans), then the promise of Leegin may go unfulfilled.  It was pretty clear from yesterday’s session that legal advice — and, accordingly, manufacturer practice — will look much as it did pre-Leegin unless the states get their act together.  That’s pretty depressing.

Fortunately, the session following the RPM session was a good bit more promising.  The highlight was a speech by FTC Commissioner Wright, in which he laid out his intentions to promote a more principled understanding of Section 5 of the FTC Act and to pursue the “low-hanging fruit” (his words) of public restraints.  Both developments would be warmly welcomed.

Commissioner Wright maintains that the promise of Section 5 (which enables the FTC, but not private parties, to enjoin unfair methods of competition that do not necessarily constitute antitrust violations) will remain unfulfilled until the FTC lays out the guiding and limiting principles that will govern its use of the provision.  He’s right.  Absent such articulated principles, use of Section 5 could well end up the way Robert Bork once described mid-20th Century antitrust, which he likened to a frontier sheriff who “did not sift the evidence, distinguish between suspects, and solve crimes, but merely walked the main street and every so often pistol-whipped a few people.” The evidence-based principles Commissioner Wright proposes to develop would avoid the frontier sheriff problem by bringing predictability and fairness to the Commission’s implementation of its Section 5 authority.

Even more exciting were Commissioner Wright’s remarks on public restraints.  Without doubt, competition-reducing laws and regulations are responsible for the destruction of vast amounts of consumer welfare.  State action immunity and other legal hurdles, though, make it difficult to police welfare-reducing public restraints.

But litigation isn’t the only weapon in the FTC’s arsenal.  As Commissioner Wright observed, the FTC is uniquely positioned to advocate for the removal of competition-destructive public restraints.  I was heartened to learn that the Commission recently helped persuade Colorado officials not to impose regulations that would have squelched Uber, a smart phone application that is creating much-needed competition in the taxi and private car service market.  It also took the side of the angels in St. Joseph Abbey case, helping to persuade the Fifth Circuit to strike protectionist regulations that reduced competition among casket sellers in Louisiana.  Commissioner Wright also noted that the FTC’s recent victory in the Phoebe Putney case, which narrowed somewhat the scope of state action immunity, will allow it to pursue more public restraints by state and sub-state governmental entities.  This all bodes well for consumers.

So here’s an idea for the FTC: How about using some of that advocacy prowess to convince the anti-Leegin states to bring their RPM doctrine into conformity with federal law?  It might be tough — and Kansas may be beyond help — but I’m confident that Commissioner Wright and his colleagues could help the anti-Leegin states see that they’re not helping consumers by clinging to moth-eaten Dr. Miles.  Instead, they’re just guaranteeing more jobs for lawyers charged with crafting and implementing Colgate policies, consignment relationships, etc.

From a pure antitrust perspective, the real story behind the DOJ’s Apple e-book investigation is the Division’s deep commitment to the view that Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) clauses are anticompetitive (see also here), no doubt spurred on at least in part by Chief Economist Fiona Scott-Morton’s interesting work on the topic.

Of course, there are other important stories here (see Matt Yglesias’ excellent post), like “how much should a digital book cost?” And as Yglesias writes, whether “the Justice Department’s notion that we should fear a book publishers’ cartel is borderline absurd, on par with worrying about price-fixing in the horse-and-buggy market.”

I can’t help but notice another angle here.  For those not familiar, the current dispute over e-books emerges over a shift in business models from a traditional one in which publishers sold at wholesale prices to bookstores who would, in turn, set the prices they desired — sometimes below the book’s cover price — and sell to consumers at retail.  Much of the dispute arises out of the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers with respect to the profit-maximizing price.  The WSJ describes the recent iteration of the conflict:

To build its early lead in e-books, Amazon Inc. AMZN +0.19% sold many new best sellers at $9.99 to encourage consumers to buy its Kindle electronic readers. But publishers deeply disliked the strategy, fearing consumers would grow accustomed to inexpensive e-books and limit publishers’ ability to sell pricier titles.

Apple’s proposed solution was a move to what is described as an “agency model,” in which Apple takes a 30% share of the revenues and the publisher sets the price — readers may recognize that this essentially amounts to resale price maintenance — an oft-discussed topic at TOTM.  The move to the agency-RPM model also entailed the introduction of an MFN clause stipulating that publishers could not sell to rivals at a lower price.

Whether Apple facilitated a collusive agreement among publishers or whether this industry-wide move to the agency-model is an efficient and consumer-welfare enhancing method of solving the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers remains to be seen.  What is somewhat new in this dispute about book distribution is the technology involved; but the underlying economics of vertical incentive conflict between publishers and retailers is not!

Many economists are aware Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics textbook was apparently the first commodity sold in the United States under an RPM agreement!  (HT: William Breit)  The practice apparently has deeper roots in Germany.  The RPM experiment was thought up by (later to become Sir) Frederick Macmillan.  Perhaps this will sound familiar:

In 1890 Frederick Macmillan of the Macmillan Company was casting about for a book with which to conduct an experiment in resale price maintenance.  For years it had been the practice in Great Britain for the bookselllers to give their customers discounts off the list prices; i.e. price cutting had become the general practice.  In March, 1890, Mr. Macmilan had written to The Bookseller suggesting a change from the current discount system and had inserted a form to be filled out by the dealers.

Experimentation with business models to align the incentives of publishers and sellers is nothing new; it is only wonderful coincidence that the examples involve a seminal economics text published as the Sherman Act was enacted.  Nonetheless, an interesting historical parallel and one that suggests caution in interpreting the relevant facts without understanding the pervasive nature of incentive conflicts within this particular product line between publishers and sellers.  One does not want to discourage experimentation with business models aimed at solving those incentive conflicts.  What remains to be seen is whether and why the move to the new arrangement was executed through express coordination rather than unilateral action.

The American Antitrust Institute has announced plans to draft a comprehensive set of jury instructions for antitrust trials.  According to AAI president Bert Foer:

In Sherman Act Section 1 and Section 2 civil cases, judges tend to gravitate towards the ABA Model Instructions as the gold standard for impartial instructions. … The AAI believes the ABA model instructions are, in some situations, confusing, out of date, or do not adequately effectuate the goals of the antitrust laws. To provide an alternative, the AAI will develop a set of jury instructions that can be widely disseminated to lawyers and judges.

Foer is certainly right about existing jury instructions.  They’re often confusing and frequently provide so little guidance that jurors are effectively invited simply to “pick a winner.”  Crafting clearer, more concrete jury instructions would benefit the antitrust enterprise and further AAI’s stated mission “to increase the role of competition [and] assure that competition works in the interests of consumers.”

But clarity alone is not enough.  Any new jury instructions should set forth (in clear terms) liability standards whose substance enhances the effectiveness of the antitrust.  Here’s where I worry about the AAI project.

Throughout its history, AAI has shown little regard for the inherent limits of antitrust.  Those limits arise because the antitrust laws (1) embody somewhat vague standards that factfinders must flesh out ex post (e.g., they forbid “unreasonable” restraints of trade and “unreasonably” exclusionary conduct by monopolists) and (2) are privately enforceable in lawsuits giving rise to treble damages.  The former feature ensures that courts, regulators, and business planners face difficulty in evaluating the legality of business practices.  The latter guarantees that they’re regularly called upon to do so.  It also discourages borderline practices that might wrongly be deemed, after the fact, to be anticompetitive.  Antitrust therefore creates significant “decision costs” (in both adjudication and counseling) and “error costs” (in the form of either market power resulting from improper acquittals or foregone efficiencies resulting from improper convictions and the chilling of procompetitive conduct).  Those decision and error costs constitute the limits of antitrust and are inexorable:

  • you can’t decrease decision costs (by simplifying a liability rule) without increasing error costs (incorrect judgments and enhanced chilling effect);
  • you can’t decrease error costs (by making the rule more nuanced in order to better separate pro- from anticompetitive conduct) without increasing decision costs; 
  • you can’t reduce false acquittals (by easing the plaintiff’s proof burden or cutting back on affirmative defenses) without increasing false convictions, and vice-versa.

In light of this unhappy situation, antitrust liability standards should be crafted so as to minimize the sum of decision and error costs.  As I have recently explained, the Roberts Court has taken this tack in its eight major antitrust decisions.

AAI, by contrast, has shown little concern for false positives and seems to equate an effective antitrust regime with one that produces more liability.  Time and again, the Institute has advocated “pro-plaintiff” liability rules that threaten high error costs in the form of false convictions (and the chilling effect that follows).  In all but one of the Roberts Court’s antitrust decisions (which, as noted, are consistent with a “decision-theoretic” framework that would help minimize the sum of decision and error costs), AAI has advocated a pro-plaintiff position that the Supreme Court ultimately rejected.  (See AAI’s positions in Twombly, Leegin, Credit Suisse, Dagher, Weyerhaeuser, LinkLine, and Independent Ink.)  This is a stunningly bad record. 

Moreover, AAI remains out of antitrust’s mainstream (which now acknowledges antitrust’s inherent limits and the need to constrain error costs) on practices involving somewhat unsettled liability rules.  Consider, for example, AAI’s views on: 

  • Resale Price Maintenance (RPM).  Even after Leegin abrogated the per se rule against minimum RPM, AAI urged courts to adopt a rule of reason that would burden a defendant with “justifying” any instance of RPM that results in an increase in consumer prices.  Such an approach is likely to generate excessive liability because all instances of RPM — even those aimed at such procompetitive effects as the elimination of free-riding, the facilitation of new entry, or encouraging “non-free-rideable” demand-enhancing services — involve an increase in consumer prices.  AAI’s preferred rule essentially amounts to a presumption of illegality for RPM.  As I explained in this article, such an approach would involve huge error costs (and certainly wouldn’t minimize the sum of decision and error costs).
     
  • Loyalty Rebates.  Efficiency-minded antitrust scholars have generally concluded that there should be a safe harbor for single-product loyalty rebates resulting in an above-cost discounted price for the product at issue.  The leading case on loyalty rebates, the Eight Circuit’s Concord Boat decision, agrees.  The thinking behind such a safe harbor is that any equally efficient rival could match a defendant’s loyalty rebate that resulted in an above-cost discounted price; permitting liability on the basis of such a rebate would chill discounting and create a price umbrella for relatively inefficient rivals.  AAI, however, has urged courts to reject the safe harbor approved in Concord Boat.
     
  • Bundled Discounts.   Efficiency-minded antitrust scholars have also approved a safe harbor for some sorts of multi-product or “bundled”
     discounts: such a discount should be legal if each product in the bundle is priced above cost when the entire amount of the bundled discount is attributed to that single product.  The Ninth Circuit approved this safe harbor in its PeaceHealth decision.  Again, the rationale behind the safe harbor is that an equally efficient, single-product rival could meet any bundled discount resulting an above-cost pricing under this so-called “discount attribution” test.  And again, AAI has opposed this safe harbor.

These are but a few examples of AAI’s wildly pro-plaintiff view of antitrust—a view that ultimately injures consumers by ignoring the error costs (e.g., thwarted procompetitive business practices) associated with false convictions.  So in the end, I’m a bit worried about AAI’s jury instruction project.  If the Institute can simply provide clarity without pushing substantive liability standards in its preferred, pro-plaintiff (error cost-insensitive) direction, antitrust will be better off because of its efforts.  But I’m not optimistic.

The next installment in a seemingly never-ending series (see here for earlier offenders).

This time, its the California Attorney General Kamala Harris in a press release announcing a settlement with Bioelements, Inc., a Colorado-based company which sells skin care products in salons and online.  The relevant allegation, from the Complaint (Para. 10) is the following:

Beginning in mid 2009, Bioelements entered into many dozens of written contracts, entitled either “Bioelements Agreement for Authorized Professional Account Status” or “Bioelements Internet Only Accounts Agreement,” with third-party companies -several dozen of them physically located in California -that distribute and/or sell, retail to the public, Bioelements products, where such contracts contained resale price maintenance components. The “Authorized Professional Account” contract states, in part, that “Accounts shall not charge less than the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).” The “Internet Only Accounts” contract states, in part, that “Accounts are prohibited from charging more or less than the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

Its an Resale Price Maintenance case.  No allegation of horizontal conspiracy.  Here’s AG Harris:

“Bioelements operated a blatant price-fixing scheme by requiring online retailers to sell its products at high prices,” Harris said. “Price manipulation harms consumers, competition and our business community. We will continue to be vigilant in protecting our markets from these kinds of abuses.”

The settlement is one of the first applications of California’s strict, pro-consumer antitrust law banning vertical price-fixing in the wake of a controversial 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened federal law in this area. Vertical price-fixing occurs when companies along the distribution chain conspire to set the price of a product or service at an artificially high level. In California, prices must be set independently — and competitively — by distributors and retailers.

This is highly misleading on several fronts as a matter of basic antitrust economics.  I’ve covered the difference between “price-fixing” in the general antitrust sense and the use of RPM previously.  The  difference is critical because while the former is known and well understood to have pernicious competitive consequences, the same is not true for RPM.  Indeed, the existing empirical evidence (the evidence overwhelmingly shows (see also here)) suggests that a per se rule against RPM will harm consumers — bold assertions about “protecting our markets from these kinds of abuses” notwithstanding.

Yes, a vertical agreement “fixes prices” but this is a fairly transparent attempt to obfuscate the economic issues by analogizing it to a cartel and thereby make strong claims about the enforcers generating consumer welfare benefits for its constituents.  The data simply do not support that claim.  State AG offices are known to generate these press releases from time to time — or similar ones claiming that the RPM enforcement action generated $X in consumer welfare gains.  I’m not sure if they know better.  But they should.  And perhaps they do, but that knowledge is outweighed by the desire to win in the court of public opinion, in the press, and perhaps with policy makers.

There is a reasonable discussion to be had over the appropriate rule of reason treatment for RPM post-Leegin.   But the policy discussions should take place with a solid understanding of the underlying economics and evidence.   Press releases such as these undermine those efforts in my view.  Again.  I understand that the AG’s are marketing.  But this is all the more reason why groups that think seriously about antitrust, such as the ABA Antitrust Section — who certainly knows better — shouldn’t be making the same mistakes.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.

Varney Gets It Right on RPM

Thom Lambert —  28 January 2010

Tomorrow I will be presenting my paper, A Decision-Theoretic Rule of Reason for Minimum Resale Price Maintenance, at the Next Generation of Antitrust Scholarship Conference at NYU Law School. (Kudos to Danny Sokol for co-organizing what promises to be a terrific event!) My paper criticizes four proposed approaches to evaluating RPM post-Leegin, and it sets forth an alternative approach that embodies the sort of error cost analysis Geoff and Josh have embraced in connection with monopolization doctrine. The paper largely builds on my recent William & Mary Law Review article on RPM, expanding the analysis to address recent developments in the caselaw and antitrust scholarship (e.g., I address the pending Babies-R-Us case).

In preparing for the conference, I checked Westlaw to see who (if anyone!) had cited my William & Mary article, and lo and behold, I came across a piece on post-Leegin RPM analysis by Christine Varney herself. Well guess what? It’s really quite good. We here at TOTM have occasionally been critical of Ms. Varney’s interventionist stances on antitrust (most recently here), but we must give credit where credit is due. And Ms. Varney’s article, A Post-Leegin Approach to Resale Price Maintenance Using a Structured Rule of Reason, is creditworthy.

As I do in both my William & Mary article and the paper I’m presenting tomorrow, Ms. Varney argues that plaintiffs challenging instances of RPM should bear the burden of proving that the preconditions for at least one of the theories of RPM-induced anticompetitive harm are satisfied. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s signficantly more stringent than any of the other liability rules courts, commentators, and regulators have thus far proposed.

The American Antitrust Institute and the attorneys general of 27 states, for example, would presume the illegality of any instance of RPM that raises consumer prices. That’s ridiculous, of course, for even RPM’s procompetitive potential stems from the fact that it generates output-enhancing services by raising prices and thereby enhancing retailer margins (and retailers’ incentives to promote the brand at issue).

The Babies-R-Us court, following the proposal of economists F.M. Scherer and William Comanor, deems any retailer-initiated RPM to be illegal. That’s troubling because, as I explained in this post, retailers have an incentive (and are particularly well-poised) to seek RPM for procompetitive purposes like avoiding free-riding. Retailer initiation is entirely consistent with procompetitive motivation (and effect), but it’s enough to render RPM per se illegal under the Babies-R-Us approach.

The Areeda treatise would deem illegal any RPM imposed on a homogeneous product that is not sold with services susceptible to free-riding. That’s too restrictive because, as I explain here (and as Josh has explained in a number of articles and posts), RPM has procompetitive uses besides the avoidance of free-riding. Most notably, it can act as an efficient mechanism for inducing dealers to promote a particular brand of even a homogeneous product. Thus, it may be output-enhancing even when applied to products that aren’t sold along with “free-rideable” point of sale services.

Finally, the FTC has taken the position (in deciding Nine West’s motion petition to modify an injunction) that RPM should be presumptively illegal unless the defendant makes a number of difficult showings. That’s inappropriate because theory and evidence suggest that most instances of RPM are procompetitive, and the RPM challenger therefore ought to bear the initial burden of proof.

Compared to these four proposed approaches, Ms. Varney’s proposed approach is a breath of fresh air. It correctly recognizes that anticompetitive uses of RPM are difficult to accomplish, and it properly places the initial burden on an RPM challenger to show that the preconditions for anticompetitive harm exist. (The defendant would then have a rebuttal opportunity, which is proper.) The showings necessary to state a prima facie case of illegality are quite difficult, but that’s entirely appropriate, given that most instances of RPM are procompetitive.

Ms. Varney’s article appears in the Fall 2009 issue of the ABA’s Antitrust Magazine and is available on Westlaw.

From the WSJ:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to take another look at its controversial 2007 antitrust ruling that allowed manufacturers to set retail prices for their products.  The court, without comment, rejected an appeal by the Texas boutique retailer that was on the losing end of the court’s 5-4 decision nearly four years ago, which was condemned by consumer advocates.

The ideologically divided ruling overturned nearly 100 years of legal precedent and held that manufacturers did not automatically violate federal antitrust law by imposing pricing restraints on retailers. Such restraints can bar stores from selling a manufacturer’s products at a discount.  The high court said in its 2007 ruling that pricing agreements should be judged individually to determine whether there are valid pro-competitive reasons for imposing the price restrictions.

The decision reverberated quickly as manufacturers in sectors like baby goods, consumer electronics, home furnishings and pet food blocked discounters.  Texas retailer Kay’s Kloset, which challenged the pricing policies of Brighton Inc., a maker of handbags and other accessories, said a lower court had taken the Supreme Court’s ruling too far, effectively rendering all vertical price-fixing policies legal.

The retailer enlisted the help of a noted Harvard law professor for its second effort at the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Brighton said the lower courts faithfully applied the Supreme Court’s ruling. The company said its pricing agreements were pro-competitive because higher prices for Brighton goods encouraged retailers to invest more in marketing, displays and customer service.

This is consistent with our earlier analysis here, in which we observed that “I do not think that such a ruling threatens the ability of plaintiffs, in the appropriate case with appropriate evidence, to bring a rule of reason RPM case.  Further, there does not appear to be much for the Supreme Court to do here.”