Search Results For RPM

Today, the Commission announced a consent decree with Transitions Optical in an exclusionary conduct case.  Here’s the FTC description:

Transitions Optical, Inc., the nation’s leading manufacturer of photochromic treatments that darken corrective lenses used in eyeglasses, has agreed to stop using allegedly anticompetitive practices to maintain its monopoly and increase prices, under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission announced today. Photochromic treatments are applied to eyeglass lenses to protect the eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. Treated lenses darken when exposed to UV light and fade back to clear when the UV light diminishes….

The FTC charges that the company illegally maintained its monopoly by engaging in exclusive dealing at nearly every level of the photochromic lens distribution chain. First, Transitions refused to deal with manufacturers of corrective lenses, known as “lens casters,” if they sold a competing photochromic lens. Further down the supply chain, Transitions used exclusive and other agreements with optical retail chains and wholesale optical labs that restricted their ability to sell competing lenses.  According to the FTC’s complaint, Transitions’ exclusionary tactics locked out rivals from approximately 85 percent of the lens caster market, and partially or completely locked out rivals from up to 40 percent or more of the retailer and wholesale lab market.

In settling the agency’s charges, Transitions has agreed to a range of restrictions, including an agreement to stop all exclusive dealing practices that pose a threat to competition. These provisions will end its allegedly anticompetitive conduct and make it easier for competitors to enter the market.

The Complaint is here.   And the analysis to aid public comment is available here.  A few quick observations and reactions, with the obvious caveat that these comments have only the benefit of the public information linked above and not more.

1. In light of a certain high-profile loyalty / market-share discount case that the Commission has on its plate, the analysis here is interesting not only on its own merits, but to the extent it might inform about how the Commission would pursue other cases involving similar conduct, i.e. exclusive dealing and discounts conditioned on full or partial exclusivity or threshold purchase requirements.   I note, for example, that the order prohibits Transitions from both exclusive dealing and partial exclusives/ loyalty discounts.  It will be interesting to see if the Commission adopts a similar approach of bearing the burden of demonstrating substantial foreclosure as a necessary but not sufficient condition in other cases involving allegedly exclusionary contracts aimed at depriving rivals of access to distribution sufficient to achieve minimum efficient scale.

2. The alleged foreclosure percentages are very high, over 85 percent with lens casters and “as much as 40 percent or more” with retailers and wholesale labs.  Under a straight Section 2 analysis, which the Commission discusses in the aid to public comment, and assuming the accuracy of these calculations, these foreclosure levels are likely to raise significant concerns where monopoly power is present and the contracts are difficult to terminate (both are alleged).

3. I found one passage in the aid to public comment troublesome, and in my view, incorrect.  With respect to pro-competitive efficiencies flowing from the arrangement, the Commission appears to be taking an overly narrow stance about cognizable justifications. Here’s what the FTC says about efficiencies from exclusives:

No procompetitive efficiencies justify Transitions’ exclusionary and anticompetitive conduct. Transitions cannot show that the exclusive arrangements were reasonably necessary to achieve a procompetitive benefit, such as protecting Transitions’ intellectual property or technical know-how, or preventing interbrand free-riding.5 Transitions does not transfer substantial intellectual property or technical know-how to its customers, and even if it did, any such transfer would likely be protected by existing confidentiality agreements. A concern about interbrand free-riding also does not justify the substantial anticompetitive effects found here. The vast majority of Transitions’ promotional efforts are brand specific, reducing the significance of any free-riding concern.6 While Transitions’ marketing efforts may generate some consumer interest in the product category as a whole – and not just in Transitions’ own products – this is a part of the natural competitive process. This type of consumer response does not raise a free-riding concern sufficient to justify the substantial anticompetitive effects found here.

As a conceptual matter, the Commission at least appears to reject the idea of distributional / promotional efficiencies in the absence of inter-retailer free-riding.  Footnote 6 of the analysis seems to support that conclusion.   As readers of this blog will know, I’ve done some work in this area arguing that this interbrand free-riding conception is too narrow and does not reflect the benefits of vertical restraints in resolving pervasive incentive conflicts between manufacturers and retailers even in the absence of free-riding.

Thom has a great post on this summarizing Ben Klein’s work on RPM which is in a similar vein.  But the fundamental economic facts are that under a set of conditions frequently satisfied in conventional differentiated products markets (manufacturer margins > retailer margins; manufacturer-specific retailer promotional efforts lack significant inter-retailer effects), manufacturers will have to compensate retailers for promotional effort.  These payments can take a lot of different forms: discounts, RPM, slotting contracts, etc.  The promotional sales generated are output increasing and so, from an antitrust perspective, vertical restraints resolving these incentive conflicts provide an important efficiency justification for restraints such as RPM, as I note here, and as the majority in Leegin recognizes.  Or see Ben Klein’s latest on RPM for an excellent explanation of the economics at work here, extending the analysis in Klein and Murphy (1988).

The next key step, and the one relevant for exclusive dealing, is that the very fact that dealers are compensated by manufacturers for supplying promotion on the basis of all their sales also opens the door to a type of free-riding that might undermine these promotional efforts that does not involve switching sales to a rival.  The manufacturer and dealer can be thought of as having an implicit contact to supply the contracted-for level of promotional services, with the manufacturer paying a premium for this performance and monitoring its retailers, terminating for non-performance where necessary.   However, dealers can free-ride by taking the compensation but reducing costly promotional effort.  Even if inter-brand free-riding is not possible, the vertical chain faces this incentive conflict.  Exclusive dealing and reduce the incentive to free-ride and facilitate performance by increasing the incentives for the retailer to perform.

Klein and Lerner (2007) present this analysis is significant detail and readers are referred there.  The fundamental point is that, as the authors write:

In particular, the presence of free-rideable manufacturer investments and dealer switching, the conditions focused upon by the court in Dentsply, are not necessary conditions for determining whether a prevention of free-riding justification for exclusive dealing makes economic sense. All that is required for exclusive dealing to be used to prevent dealer free-riding is that dealers have a significant economic role in the promotion of the manufacturer’s product, that manufacturers are compensating dealers for the supply of additional promotion and that exclusive dealing encourages such extra dealer promotion by facilitating manufacturer enforcement of its implicit contract for dealer promotion.

Note that I am not arguing that these potential efficiencies were present in Transitions as a factual matter.  Rather, I am just saying that to the extent that the passage endorses the position that exclusive dealing cannot prevent free-riding in the absence of free-rideable investments by the manufacturer, it is overly restrictive.  I should also note that my view is not only consistent with much of the case law recognizing a “dealer loyalty” explanation for exclusive dealing, it is also the case that Commission itself has discussed this type of efficiency in the past!  See, for example, this advocacy filing (signed by BC, BE and OPP) concerning potential legislation restricting vertical restaints in the wine industry.  The filing (and there are others), signed ecognizes that in addition to preventing inter-brand free-riding (and citing Klein) “exclusive dealing can be used to assure that suppliers receive the sales-generating effort that they have bargained for from distributors (e.g., through direct payment or through increased revenue that comes with exclusive territories), rather than distributors focusing their efforts on competing brands.”

Because the Commission makes reference only to the inter-brand free-riding, and does not discuss other free-riding justifications, this seemed worth comment.  Of course, even if such a pro-competitive justification fit the facts, it also does not mean it would outweigh any potential anticompetitive effects, but I do find the omission at least mildly troublesome.

More settling economic debates by declaration and without regard to the evidence.  When you make declarations like this it is best to do your homework.  Consider the following:

  • The Post-Chicago theoretical advances are well known to be built upon the foundation laid by Chicago School founders like Aaron Director — it is simply misleading to argue that Chicago School economists did not understand that certain business practices could lead to inefficient outcomes.  Rather, the Chicago version of these models was that they were empirically irrelevant.
  • Speaking of empirical evidence, it is instructive to note that it is Chicagoan (or at least Chicago friendly) authors like Ben Klein (on Standard Oil) and Tom Hazlett (on predation) who have offered two of the only existing real world empirical accounts of the Post-Chicago “raising rivals’ cost” phenomenon, not to mention fundamental contributions to its theoretical development by Chicagoan Dennis Carlton.
  • There is no attempt in the article to distinguish between the Chicago School generally and the Chicago School of antitrust economics.  Apparently, because Alan Greenspan abandoned “the Chicago School theory” and now rejects it, and because of a financial crisis over which substantial debate still exists as to its causes, we are to believe that the substantial body of theory and evidence supporting Chicagoan views of predation, vertical restraints, exclusive dealing, tying, shelf space contracts, and other business practices is now irrelevant to modern antitrust enforcement (tell me again why Fannie Mae and asset bubbles are relevant to monopolization policy and the economics of exclusive dealing?).
  • Once more on the actual evidence, recent comprehensive literature surveys from folks who are not Chicagoans (that shouldn’t matter but maybe it does) conclude that most forms of single firm conduct are (as hypothesized by Chicagoans) predominantly pro-competitive in practice (See great slides here from Lafontaine & Slade, Dan O’Brien or the paper from Froeb, et al — btw, the last two are by enforcement agency economists!).
  • The consensus on these issues is easily observed from recent economist amicus briefs on issues like predatory pricing, price squeezes, refusal to deal and RPM which consistently reveal views that are consistent with a constrained approach to antitrust enforcement of these business practices but represent a mix of economists.

The irresponsible use and mischaracterization of the Chicago School in antitrust has been somewhat of a pet peeve of mine (see, e.g. here):

I do not claim any authority or special ability to describe what “Chicago School” price theory is.  There are more worthy authorities for that.  But I had thought that the “Chicago School” stood for the proposition that microeconomic theory should be applied rigorously, with care and attention to institutional detail, and with an eye towards producing testable implications.  These are qualities, especially empiricism, that do not lend themselves to a reflexive “faith” that markets will produce only efficient behavior.  That faith, where it exists, is earned by persuasive theory and evidence.

The focus on empiricism embedded in the Chicago approach, by the way, was not merely lip service.  George Stigler, a Chicago economist if ever there was one, described what is now known as industrial organization economics as “Microeconomics-with-evidence.”  I love this description.  And I would like to think that it is still represents what is the most interesting work being done in industrial organization today — though the editors of the top journals may disagree with me.

But we all agree, don’t we, that predictive power matters?  “Conservative economists” have always highly valued empirical evidence and predictive power.  Post-Chicago economists who have contributed game theoretic models of unilateral conduct, collusion, and mergers generally motivate these models with the notion that they will improve predictive power relative to the simple Chicago approach — much like the behavioral models now popular in the L&E literature.  The respective models either improve our understanding of real world economic phenomena or they do not.  They are either consistent with the evidence or they are not.

And with all due respect to the Commissioner, an intellectually honest survey of the state of evidence concerning the actual competitive effects of antitrust-relevant business practices reveals that the Chicago School isn’t close to dead.  In fact, Chicago School principles are alive as ever in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.  Perhaps this disappoints the Commissioner and others who might like economics (and particularly Chicago School antitrust economics) to be a lesser constraint on antitrust enforcement decisions.  But it’s the state of play in both the federal courts and in the empirical antitrust literature.  The debate over whether to deviate from the state of play should be determined by the quality of theory and evidence.   A rigorous review of the empirical evidence suggests not only that the Chicago School of antitrust is alive, but in my view, that it is the “best available” mode of analysis for understanding many business practices relevant to antitrust enforcement.

The search for evidence-based antitrust cannot be conducted by assertion.  Instead, if it is to be fruitful, it must take a more scientific approach.

I’ve been reading the papers for the FTC RPM Workshops, though I cannot attend.  On the procompetitive side, I especially recommend Ben Klein’s explanation of how RPM facilitates the supply of promotional services in the absence of dealer free-riding.  Critics of RPM, in my view, generally do not understand the fundamental economic point that retailer competition alone is not sufficient to guarantee the supply of promotional services because of incentive conflicts between manufacturers and retailers.  Klein and Wright (JLE, 2007) explains this incentive conflict in great detail, and how fixed per unit time payments (slotting contracts) can be used to solve this common incentive problem and are part of the normal competitive process.  Klein’s newest RPM explains how RPM contracts can be used to achieve the same effect, that is, solving the incentive conflict between manufacturers and retailers to facilitate the supply of efficient promotional services.

The most common argument raised by defenders of the Dr. Miles rule, including Justice Breyer in Leegin, is that Telser’s (1960) classic discount dealer free-riding story for RPM (RPM solves the problem of consumption of promotional services at the full service retailer before buying the product at the discounter — and thus unraveling the supply of services in equilibrium) does not apply to a number of products where we observe RPM used.  This is where Klein & Murphy’s (1988) seminal explanation comes into play, documenting how the incentive conflict is a real economic problem solved by these vertical restraints, and part of the normal competitive process.  The Klein’s RPM Workshop piece builds on and updates that analysis.

One of the other issues that I’ve been keeping my eye on during the hearings is the evaluation of the current empirical evidence.  I’ve written before that in my own evaluation of the evidence, “the evidence overwhelmingly shows (see also here) [that RPM agreements] are highly likely to make consumers better off in practice.”  I also wrote that I hoped the RPM Workshops would take a hands on and rigorous approach to evaluating the state of evidence in order to design appropriate antitrust enforcement approaches to RPM and vertical restraints generally:

In my view, while there is still a lot to learn about precisely how RPM works, when and by whom it is adopted, and to what effect, there is simply no empirical evidence that its effects warrant per se illegality…. Its my sincere hope that the policy debate to be had on RPM with the pending legislation and FTC Workshops upcoming will be fought on this margin rather than on marketing.

In this light, it caught my eye that Patrick Rey’s slides and paper, which offers yet another possibility theorem of how RPM “could” result in anticompetitive outcomes.   The possibility theorem paper is nothing new in the sense that there are a ton of these around.  But the claim of empirical support is.  Indeed, my views on this matter are well known that there is not much empirical support at all for the anticompetitive theories of vertical restraints including RPM (see also the Lafontaine & Slade and Cooper et al literatuer surveys).  So I did some digging.  Here’s the claim from Rey’s paper with Thibaud Verge:

Our analysis supports this claim and shows that RPM can actually eliminate competition, not only among competing fascias, but also among competing brands. This possibility has been validated by recent empirical studies. Using data about retail prices of food products in French retail chains during the period 1994-1999, Biscourp, Boutin and Vergé (2008) find that the correlation between retail prices and the concentration of local retail markets was important before 1997 and no longer significant after that date. This suggests that the price increases that occurred after 1997 were indeed due to the impact of the new legislation on intrabrand competition.

So what does the Biscourp et al. study actually analyze?  You might think from the context that BBV (2008) studies Minimum RPM contracts.  But you would be wrong.  What did they actually study?  Get this: a set of French laws that make it illegal for retailers to sell “below cost.”  The Loi Galland came into force in 1997 and clarified a pre-existing ban on below-cost sales.  In other words, the Loi Galland set mandatory government enforced minimum price floors that apply to all retailers.  Boutin & Guerrero provide some details on the 1996 Loi Galland:

The Loi Galland gave a simple, precise definition of the actual purchase price and hence of the below-cost retail price floor: `The actual purchase price is the unit price stated on the invoice plus taxes on sales, specific taxes applied to the resale, and transportation costs.’  Since 1997, the definition of purchase price has thus been restricted to the price stated on the invoice, with no deductions such as year-end discounts. The Act also tightened official verification and raised fines. Only the margins formally applied at the invoice date and shown on the invoice the “upfront margins” can be passed on to final consumers through reductions in the final selling price. By contrast, all other discounts are described as “hidden margins” and therefore excluded from the below-cost retail price floor. Examples include margins linked to an annual sales volume, to the retailer’s display of the product on a minimum shelf length, to business cooperation, or simply to the respect of mutual commitments over a certain period. Consequently, hidden margins can in no way be passed on to consumers.

The law in other words, is similar to sales below costs laws i the US that are designed to anticompetitive raise prices, are binding on all sellers, and enforced by the government with significant fines.  Unsurprisingly, a law designed to prevent price-cutting achieves its intended effect and is found to have an anticompetitive effect.  But I’m frankly lost as to how Rey & Verge claim from this study of government imposed sales below cost laws that there is empirical support for the proposition that voluntary, privately negotiated RPM contracts are likely to be anticompetitive.  Note that Lafontaine & Slade’s leading survey of the literature argues that this distinction is quite important — concluding that mandatory restraints are far more likely to generate anticompetitive outcomes.

There is more.

Rey and Verge also claim that another paper from Bonnet and Dubois (2008) “supports his analysis of RPM.”  Curious, I took a closer look at this paper.  Does this second paper actually study RPM agreements?  Again, the answer is no.  B&D (2008) do something different: (1) they get retail prices and quantities for branded and unbranded bottles of water, (2) estimate a random coefficients logit model for the demand for bottled water (no data on costs or markups except for general input price indices), (3) infer wholesale and retail markups under a variety of assumptions about the nature of wholesale and retail competition which amount to 12 different models, and (4) from these estimated markups, estimate marginal costs (e.g. 12 different cost equations).  From these cost equations, they conduct a series of non-nested hypothesis tests, comparing the 12 different models against each other (table7, p. 34 at link above).  The authors conclude that “the results finally show that the best model appears to be model 10, that is the case where manufacturers use two part tariffs with resale price maintenance.”  From this series of assumptions and steps, the authors conclude that the branded water sellers are actually using RPM and two-part tariffs (“Our empirical analysis allows it to be concluded that manufacturers and retailers use nonlinear pricing
contracts and in particular two part tariff contracts with resale price maintenance.”)!  Further, the authors simulate the effect of moving from model 10 to other models of pricing and find that pricing is lower in other models and therefore conclude that RPM has anticompetitive effects.

There are some problems with this analysis.  First, suffice it to say that it is difficult to make confident policy statements about the effects of RPM contracts without studying actual RPM contracts.  There is no actual evidence that the water sellers are using RPM.  Indeed, RPM is illegal in France.  The inference is generated because the non-nested hypothesis test (which is notoriously weak) implies the model best fits the data.   Second, my understanding of merger simulations at the FTC is that when marginal costs are inferred from equilibrium conditions, attempts are made to verify the validity of the inference by comparing the inferred level to some actual measure (so that the model can be tossed if they don’t correspond to one another).

Evaluating the empirical evidence in favor of the various pro- and anti-competitive theories is an incredibly important step in the process of identifying the appropriate legal test to apply to resale price maintenance (and other vertical restraints). While the Rey & Verge piece offers an interesting theoretical effect of RPM, the key issue identified by Justice Breyer’s Leegin dissent is understanding how RPM contracts work in practice. In my view, Rey & Verge’s claim that there is empirical support for their model is unfounded. To the contrary, neither the BBV or BD papers add any empirical contribution to the debate over the appropriate antitrust treatment of privately and voluntarily adopted RPM contracts.

I want to second Josh’s commendation of Ben Klein’s submission to the recent FTC Hearings on Resale Price Maintenance. Klein’s paper, which bears the same title as this post, is lucidly written (blissfully free of equations, Greek letters, etc.) and makes a point that, at this juncture in antitrust’s history, is absolutely crucial.

In the pre-Leegin era, commentators who were critical of Dr. Miles‘s per se rule (including yours truly) usually emphasized the so-called free-rider rationale for minimum RPM. According to that rationale, manufacturers frequently set minimum resale prices for their products in order to encourage demand-enhancing point-of-sale services upon which retailers could free-ride. Golf club manufacturer Ping, for example, tried to control its dealers’ resale prices because it wanted dealers to expend great effort helping customers find the perfect set of highly customizable clubs. It worried that the ability to compete on resale price would lead some dealers to cut their own customizing services (and thus their costs), direct their customers to high-service dealers for the necessary customization, and then offer a discount to those customers on the clubs selected by the high service (and thus higher cost) dealers, who couldn’t afford to match the discount. If such free-riding were pervasive, Ping dealers would eventually stop providing the sort of customizing services that enhance demand for Ping clubs.

In the pre-Leegin era, it made sense for critics of Dr. Miles to emphasize the free-rider rationale because (1) it’s easy to explain, and (2) it applies often enough that we can say with confidence that RPM — often motivated by a desire to avoid free-riding on output-enhancing services — is not “always or almost always anticompetitive.” That, of course, is all we Dr. Miles critics needed to establish in order to undermine the per se rule against minimum RPM. (Per se illegality is appropriate only for practices that are always or almost always anticompetitive.)

It’s now a new day in antitrust. Dr. Miles is dead, and the key question for courts, commentators, and the regulatory agencies is how particular instances of RPM should be evaluated to determine their legality. Answering that question requires more than a simple showing that RPM can, under a fairly common set of circumstances, lead to higher output. Indeed, if our rule of reason focuses exclusively on the free-rider rationale for RPM, it may well lead to condemnation of procompetitive instances of RPM in circumstances in which the free-rider rationale does not apply. For example, the highly influential Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise proposes a rule of reason that would automatically condemn RPM arrangements on “homogeneous products,” for which there are unlikely to be any point-of-sale services that are susceptible to free-riding. (See par. 1633c of the Second Edition.) The assumption here is that RPM’s only significant procompetitive effect is the elimination of free-riding.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s Leegin decision recognized that RPM may be output enhancing even in the absence of free-riding. The Court explained (page 12):

Resale price maintenance can also increase interbrand competition by encouraging retailer services that would not be provided even absent free riding. It may be difficult and inefficient for a manufacturer to make and enforce a contract with a retailer specifying the different services the retailer must perform. Offering the retailer a guaranteed margin and threatening termination if it does not live up to expectations may be the most efficient way to expand the manufacturer’s market share by inducing the retailer’s performance and allowing it to use its own initiative and experience in providing valuable services.

The idea here — developed fully in Klein & Murphy (1988) — is that RPM, which guarantees retailers a healthy margin on sales of the product at issue, can be used to generate retailer services that are hard to secure contractually. Exhaustively specifying ex ante all the services a retailer should provide would be quite difficult for a manufacturer. In addition, monitoring and enforcing a dealer’s performance obligations along multiple service dimensions would require substantial effort. RPM coupled with a liberal right of termination can provide an alternative means of securing the retailer services(attractive product placement, etc.) that enhance demand for the manufacturer’s products. If the manufacturer generally observes its retailers’ performance, retains an unfettered right to terminate underperformers, and provides an attractive retail margin as an incentive to avoid termination, then the manufacturer can motivate its retailers to provide demand-enhancing point of sale services without specifying them exhauastively.

While the Leegin majority nicely explained how RPM can be used to enhance demand-enhancing retailer services even when those services are not subject to free-riding, it failed to address one crucial question: Why would a manufacturer need to use RPM to encourage these services, since retailers themselves would also benefit from increasing the sales of their manufacturers’ products?

Justice Breyer pounced on this omission in his Leegin dissent. Referring to the majority’s contention that RPM “may be the most efficient way to expand the manufacturer’s market share by inducing the retailer’s performance and allowing it to use its own initiative and experience in providing valuable services,” Justice Breyer stated (pages 14-15):

…I do not understand how, in the absence of free-riding (and assuming competitiveness), an established producer would need resale price maintenance. Why, on these assumptions, would a dealer not “expand” its “market share” as best that dealer sees fit, obtaining appropriate payment from consumers in the process? There may be an answer to this question. But I have not seen it.

Klein’s submission to the FTC’s RPM hearings provides a straightforward answer to Justice Breyer’s question. RPM may be necessary, Klein contends, because a manufacturer and its dealers often have divergent incentives when it comes to services that expand demand for the manufacturer’s products. Frequently, a manufacturer will stand to gain much more from its dealers’ promotional efforts than the dealers themselves. Thus, “RPM plus a liberal right of termination” may be needed to incentivize dealers to provide the services that will maximize sales of the manufacturer’s products. Klein points to three commonly present economic factors that create the sort of incentive divergence that warrants RPM:

(1) Manufacturers often enjoy a larger per-unit profit margin than do their retailers. Because manufacturers’ products tend to be more highly differentiated than the services retailers provide, and because the ability to charge prices in excess of one’s costs is a function of the uniqueness of whatever one is providing, manufacturers will generally earn higher per-unit profits on their products than will the retailers who resell those products. Accordingly, manufacturers stand to gain more from incremental sales of their products than do their retailers, and they may therefore need a way to give their retailers an extra incentive to promote their products.

(2) Many manufacturer-specific retailer promotional efforts lack significant inter-retailer demand effects. While some retailer promotional efforts, such convenient free parking or extended store hours, would provide competitive benefits for both the manufacturers whose products are carried by the retailer and the retailer itself, other retailer promotional efforts, such as prominent placement of the manufacturer’s product within the “impulse buy” section of the retailer’s store, would really benefit only the manufacturer without enhancing demand for the retailer’s services over those of its competitors. Absent some nudge from the manufacturer, retailers won’t be adequately incentivized to perform these sorts of services. RPM can provide the needed nudge.

(3) Manufacturer-specific retailer promotional efforts may cannibalize a multi-brand retailer’s sales of other brands. Many retailer services that would promote a manufacturer’s brand of a product would merely reduce the retailer’s sales of competing brands of the same product and would thus provide little, if any, net benefit to the retailer. Granting favored shelf space to one brand, for example, may require moving a competing brand to less favorable shelf space, thus reducing the sales of that brand. A manufacturer can induce its retailers to provide it with “cannibalizing” promotional services by employing RPM to guarantee the retailer a higher markup on sales of the manufacturer’s brand.

These sources of divergence between manufacturers’ and retailers’ incentives are discussed in more detail in Josh’s 2007 collaboration with Klein, The Economics of Slotting Contracts, 50 J. L. & Econ. 421 (2007). Taken together, the various sources of divergence make it in the interest of many manufacturers to adopt some sort of RPM policy, even when the product at issue is not one that is sold along with services that are susceptible to free-riding. The RPM policies manufacturers adopt to address incentive divergence enhance the manufacturers’ overall output and should thus be assumed to be procompetitive. Accordingly, liability rules such as that proposed in the Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise, which maintains that “[p]roduct homogeneity is an easily observable fact that is inconsistent with known legitimate uses of RPM” (Par. 1633c, at 334 (2d ed.)), are unsound and should be rejected.

Answer: not by a long shot.  Not in the Supreme Court.  Not in the empirical economics literature.  But perhaps according to at least one FTC Commissioner in the new FTC annual report:

Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch believes the current financial crisis has undermined the Chicago school of economics that has so heavily influenced antitrust enforcement over the past forty years and has broad implications for the FTC’s mission. Markets are not perfect; imperfect markets do not always correct themselves, and business people do not always behave rationally. Commissioner Rosch believes the Commission may need to move more towards “behavioral economics” and must provide competition law enforcement at least as strict as during times of prosperity.

This is a variant of Commissioner Rosch’s earlier pronouncement that “the orthodox and unvarnished Chicago School of economic theory is on life support, if not dead.”

While these sorts of claims are increasingly popular in the current financial climate, repetition does not make the claim any more correct.  As I’ve blogged previously, reports of the death of the Chicago School of antitrust economics have been, as they say, greatly exaggerated.

A few responses:

  1. Does the financial crisis really say anything about microeconomics?  As a commenter to this post points out, while debate abounds about the causes of the current financial crisis, the appropriate share of blame to be placed on market failure versus government failure, and what it tells us about the merits of various macroeconomic theories — there’s just not much of a substantive argument to be made that it tells us anything about the applied microeconomics relevant to antitrust analysis.  I suspect that attempts to link the financial crisis to calls for greater antitrust fall into the “you never want to waste a good crisis” category.  Historically, of course, poor economic conditions have been correlated with imposition of impediments to vigorous competition.
  2. The Chicago Roots of the Post-Chicago Movement.  The Post-Chicago theoretical advances are well known to be built upon the foundation laid by Chicago School founders like Aaron Director — it is simply misleading to argue that Chicago School economists did not understand that certain business practices could lead to inefficient outcomes.  Not to mention that the foundation of modern coordinated effects theories, to the best of my knowledge, is still Stigler (1968).
  3. “Markets are Perfect”.   Did anybody really argue this?  The contributions of Stigler and Director and others suggest otherwise though they did often argue that some of these concerns were either empirically irrelevant, policy irrelevant (i.e. we could not identify and distinguish them from pro-competitive conduct), or that both markets and governments failed but that the latter errors were more costly.  This is decidedly different from the caricature offer by the Commissioner.  Of course, not only did Chicagoans anticipate many of the anticompetitive theories prevalent in the more interventionist literature today, but it is instructive to note that it is economists like Ben Klein (on Standard Oil) and Tom Hazlett (on predation) who have offered two of the only existing real world empirical accounts of the Post-Chicago “raising rivals’ cost” phenomenon, not to mention fundamental contributions to its theoretical development by Chicagoan Dennis Carlton.
  4. What about behavioral economics anyway?  It remains unclear to me why the observation that firms might act irrationally in markets leads to a conclusion that more interventionist antitrust is appropriate.  Perhaps entry will not occur when it would otherwise be profitable and so a monopolist can exercise monopoly power longer than if one supposed free entry.  But that’s not the only story one can tell about behavioral quirks.  What about the firm that irrationally chooses not to exercise monopoly power when it would be profitable to do so?  This is not to say that behavioral economic theories of firm behavior should be irrelevant.  Like the other theories, whether Chicago, Post-Chicago, behavioral or otherwise, the key question is one of model selection, i.e. which theories have the best empirical support and should guide policy decisions.
  5. Empirical Evidence.   Recent comprehensive literature surveys from folks very well respected IO economists, including some who have spent significant time at the enforcement agencies, conclude that the best available empirical evidence is that most forms of single firm conductare  predominantly pro-competitive in practice (See great slides here from Lafontaine & Slade, Dan O’Brien or the paper from Froeb, et al).
  6. Is It All Wrong?  If the Chicago School of the “past 40 years” has been undermined, where do we go from here?  Are folks that are arguing that the entire Chicago School antitrust revolution was folly because it was based on erroneous assumptions about markets working taking the position that everything based on that notion is wrong?  Are we willing to talk about which theories are right and which might be more suspect?  Can we agree that testing competing theories against the existing evidence is the right way to resolve these disputes?  Calling the past 40 years undermined sounds like we are making some serious claims about re-writing antitrust and not just tinkering with the margins. This is not a rhetorical question.  Which cases are wrong because they are “Chicago-based” and where is the evidence in support of the claim?

We should continue to have the debate over which models present the best empirical and theoretical basis from which to build antitrust policy that will help consumers.  The debate should be one that is determined, as much as possible, by the quality of theory and evidence —- not t-shirt slogans and assertions.  In my view, a rigorous review of the empirical evidence suggests not only that the Chicago School of antitrust is not only alive, but in my view, that it is the “best available” mode of analysis for understanding many business practices relevant to antitrust enforcement.

What I hope is taken as my first contribution to this debate, including a fuller discussion of the available theory and evidence with respect to RPM and exclusive dealing, appears in my forthcoming book review: Overshot the Mark?  A Simple Explanation of the Chicago School’s Influence.

Dan Crane and Thom (who has promised more remarks!) have now both posted their prepared remarks for the Section 2 hearings panel on bundled discounts. Both call for bright-line, administrable liability rules for all forms of unilateral exclusionary conduct, and have important things to say about designing antitrust rules for bundled discounts. Both are worth reading in their entirety. Administrable rules that sensibly balance Type I and II errors are certainly an indisputably admirable goal for antitrust analysis and bundled discounts have proven to be a particularly tricky form of conduct for Section 2 analysis. Despite all of the agreement around here between Thom, Dan and I on the design of antitrust rules in a world of costly Type I errors, I think I have found a topic upon which I can at least offer a mild dissent (or at least a different perspective) regarding the usefulness of the analogy of various anticompetitive theories of bundled discounting practices to exclusive dealing.

The overlap between exclusive dealing and bundled/ loyalty discounts is frequently addressed by commentators, and is a topic of newfound interest in what has become the quest for a “holy grail’, one size fits all standard for Section 2 analysis of exclusionary conduct. At times, I detect a tension between the analysis of bundled discounts and exclusive dealing contracts which both purport to exclude exclude by depriving rivals from the opportunity to compete for distribution sufficient to support minimum efficient scale. For example, I discuss what I perceive to be a tension in Professor Hovenkamp’s very sensible analysis of bundled discounts and exclusive dealing in this post:

Hovenkamp concludes that adminstrative costs justify a predatory pricing-type rule in the context of for bundled discounts where the anticompetitive mechanism is de facto “foreclosure” or deprivation from distribution resources (i.e. shelf space) that would prevent rivals from achieving minimum efficient scale and extend the duration of monopoly by increasing barriers to entry. One would think that it would follow from Hovenkamp’s position that a predatory pricing-type rule would also be sensible for exclusive dealing and tying arrangements where the anticompetitive mechanism is the economic equivalent. To the contrary, Hovenkamp advocates rule of reason analysis (p. 201) for exclusive dealing and tying, noting that “foreclosure concerns can be assessed meaningfully only via the rule of reason” and that “the antitrust law of exclusive dealing,” which generally requires proof of substantial foreclosure as a necessary condition of competitive harm, “seems to be on the right track.”

The basic tension here is that the anticompetitive theories underlying both forms of conduct require foreclosure of a rival sufficient to deprive the opportunity to compete for minimum efficient scale. Of course, the pro-competitive side of the ledger differs. One might sensibly believe that the standard for the two forms of exclusion should be different because lower prices are inherently pro-competitive whereas exclusive dealing may not invoke the same immediate consumer benefits. This is certainly a sensible position. But it only suggests that the standard for bundled discounts ought to be more difficult to satisfy than the exclusive dealing standard given equal administrative costs and the same anticompetitive mechanism. This point is not sufficient to render the exclusive dealing analogy fruitless. I offer below some tentative thoughts on the usefulness of the exclusive dealing analogy to bundled discounts.

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Professor Bainbridge offers a correction to Keith’s Starbucks analysis by pointing out that Starbucks does not have franchisees. I don’t think the franchise/ franchisee distinction has much to do with Keith’s conclusion that whatever is going on is not an antitrust problem. But the Professor is on to a really cool question about franchising and vertical integration. Professor Bainbridge presents the contrasting franchising decisions by Starbucks and Subway as a transactions cost puzzle and links to a fuller analysis of this problem here:

What bugs me about the Subway v. Starbucks problem is that I can’t see any reason to believe that Subway’s transaction cost schedule is going to differ from that of Starbucks.

Bainbridge continues with the conventional account of the economics of franchising, focusing primarily on monitoring costs:

Franchising gives a residual claimant-like status to the local franchisee, while the franchise contract gives the franchisee incentives to ensure that the local employees comply with brand requirements. Franchising thus can be understood as an adaptive response to the problem of monitoring numerous employees in countless locations.

If this analysis is correct, one would expect to see corporate ownership in settings where monitoring via a vertically integrated management structure can be effected at low cost (relative to situations in which franchising dominates). But does Starbucks really face lower monitoring costs than Subway? If not, did Starbucks make an economic error by not going the franchise route?

The comments to Professor Bainbridge’s prior analysis from the folks at Marginal Revolution (and others) following the post hint at cross-store cannibalization as the key to the economic explanation. This is basically right, or at least, on the right track. But I think all this talk about “monitoring” and “transactions costs” is covering up some really interesting economics that shed some light on vertical contracting more generally. Don’t get me wrong, the critical variable that should influence the vertical integration decision here is indeed (as Professor Bainbridge says) the monitoring costs of franchisor owned outlets relative to franchised oulets. But I think these rather vague labels are blurring some important underlying economics.

So what’s going on with Starbucks’ decision to vertically integrate its outlets? I offer some analysis below the fold.

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