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  1. Background

On June 19, in Matal v. Tam, the U.S. Supreme Court (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case) affirmed the Federal Circuit’s ruling that the Lanham Act’s “disparagement clause” is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.  The Patent and Trademark Office denied the Slants’ (an Asian rock group) federal trademark registration, relying on the Lanham Act’s prohibition on trademarks that “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”  The Court held that trademarks are not government speech, pointing out that the government “does not dream up these marks.”  With the exception of marks scrutinized under the disparagement clause, trademarks are not reviewed for compliance with government policies.  Writing for the Court, Justice Samuel Alito (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Stephen Breyer) found unpersuasive the government’s argument that trademarks are analogous to subsidized speech.  The Alito opinion also determined that it is unnecessary to determine whether trademarks are commercial speech (subject to lesser scrutiny), because the disparagement clause cannot survive the Supreme Court’s test for such speech enunciated in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company (1980).  Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, concurred in the judgment.  The Kennedy opinion agreed that the disparagement clause constitutes viewpoint discrimination because it reflects the government’s disapproval of certain speech, and that heightened scrutiny should apply, whether or not trademarks are commercial speech.

The Tam decision continues the trend of Supreme Court cases extending First Amendment protection for offensive speech.  Perhaps less likely to be noted, however, is that this decision also promotes free market principles by enhancing the effectiveness of legal protection for a key intellectual property right.  To understand this point, a brief primer on the law and economics of federal trademark protection is in order.

  1. The Law and Economics of Federal Trademark Protection in a Nutshell

A trademark (called a service mark in the case of a service) is an intellectual property right that identifies the source of a particular producer’s goods or services.  Trademarks reduce transactions costs by enabling consumers more easily to identify and patronize particular goods and services whose attributes they associate with a trademark.  This enhances market efficiency, by lowering information costs in the market and by encouraging competing firms to develop unique attributes that they can signal to consumers.

By robustly protecting federally-registered trademarks, the federal Lanham Act (see here for Lanham Act trademark infringement remedies) creates strong incentives for each trademark holder to invest in (and promote through advertising and other means) the quality of the trademarked goods or services it produces.  Strong trademark remedies are key because they promote the market-based interest in ensuring trademark holders that their individual property rights will be protected.  As one scholar puts it, “[i]t is generally accepted that [federal trademark] infringement actions protect both the goodwill of mark owners and competition by preventing confusion.”

Shielded by firm legal protection, the trademark holder will tend not to allow the quality of its trademark-protected offerings to slip, knowing that consumers will quickly and easily associate the reduced quality with its mark and stop patronizing the trademarked product or service.  Absent strong trademark protection, however, producers of competing products and services will be tempted to “free ride” by using a competing business’s registered trademark without authorization.  This sharply reduces the original trademark owner’s incentive to invest in and continue to promote quality, because it knows that the free riders will seek to attract customers by using the trademark to sell less costly, lower quality fare.  Quality overall suffers, to the detriment of consumers.  Allowing free riding on distinctive trademarks also (and relatedly) sows confusion as to the identity of sellers and as to the attributes covered by a particular trademark, leading to a weakening of the trademark system’s role as a source identifier and as a spur to attribute-based competition.

In short, federal trademark law protection, embodied in the Lanham Act, enhances free market competitive processes by protecting a trademark’s role in identifying suppliers (reducing transaction costs); incentivizing investment in the enhancement and preservation of product quality; and spurring attribute-based competition.

  1. The Demise of Lanham Act Disparagement Enhances Trademark Rights and Promotes Free Market Principles

The disparagement clause denied federal legal protection to a broad class of trademarks, based merely on the highly subjective determination by federal bureaucrats that the marks in question “disparaged” particular individuals or institutions.  This denial undermined private parties’ incentives to invest in “disparaging” marks, and to compete vigorously by signaling to consumers the existence of novel products and services that they might find appealing.

By “constitutionally expunging” the disparagement clause, the Supreme Court in Tam has opened the gateway to more robust competition by spurring the vigorous investment in and promotion of a larger number of marks.  Consumers in the marketplace, not bureaucrats, will decide whether the products or services identified by particular marks are “problematic” and therefore not worthy of patronage.  In other words, by enhancing legal protection for a wider variety of trademarks, the Tam decision has paved the way for the expansion of mutually-beneficial marketplace transactions, to the benefit of consumers and producers alike.

To conclude, in promoting First Amendment free speech interests, the Tam Court also gave a shot in the arm to welfare-enhancing competition in markets for goods and services.  It turns out that competition in the marketplace of ideas goes hand-in-hand with competition in the commercial marketplace.

Too much ink has been spilled in an attempt to gin up antitrust controversies regarding efforts by holders of “standard essential patents” (SEPs, patents covering technologies that are adopted as part of technical standards relied upon by manufacturers) to obtain reasonable returns to their property. Antitrust theories typically revolve around claims that SEP owners engage in monopolistic “hold-up” when they threaten injunctions or seek “excessive” royalties (or other “improperly onerous” terms) from potential licensees in patent licensing negotiations, in violation of pledges (sometimes imposed by standard-setting organizations) to license on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms. As Professors Joshua Wright and Douglas Ginsburg, among others, have explained, contract law, tort law, and patent law are far better placed to handle “FRAND-related” SEP disputes than antitrust law. Adding antitrust to the litigation mix generates unnecessary costs and inefficiently devalues legitimate private property rights.

Concerns by antitrust mavens that other areas of law are insufficient to cope adequately with SEP-FRAND disputes are misplaced. A fascinating draft law review article by Koren Wrong-Ervin, Director of the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute, and Anne Layne-Farrar, Vice President of Charles River Associates, does an admirable job of summarizing key decisions by U.S. and foreign courts involved in determining FRAND rates in SEP litigation, and in highlighting key economic concepts underlying these holdings. As explained in the article’s abstract:

In the last several years, courts around the world, including in China, the European Union, India, and the United States, have ruled on appropriate methodologies for calculating either a reasonable royalty rate or reasonable royalty damages on standard-essential patents (SEPs) upon which a patent holder has made an assurance to license on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Included in these decisions are determinations about patent holdup, licensee holdout, the seeking of injunctive relief, royalty stacking, the incremental value rule, reliance on comparable licenses, the appropriate revenue base for royalty calculations, and the use of worldwide portfolio licensing. This article provides an economic and comparative analysis of the case law to date, including the landmark 2013 FRAND-royalty determination issued by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court (and affirmed by the Guangdong Province High People’s Court) in Huawei v. InterDigital; numerous U.S. district court decisions; recent seminal decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Ericsson v. D-Link and CISCO v. CSIRO; the six recent decisions involving Ericsson issued by the Delhi High Court; the European Court of Justice decision in Huawei v. ZTE; and numerous post- Huawei v. ZTE decisions by European Union member states. While this article focuses on court decisions, discussions of the various agency decisions from around the world are also included throughout.   

To whet the reader’s appetite, key economic policy and factual “takeaways” from the article, which are reflected implicitly in a variety of U.S. and foreign judicial holdings, are as follows:

  • Holdup of any form requires lock-in, i.e., standard-implementing companies with asset-specific investments locked in to the technologies defining the standard or SEP holders locked in to licensing in the context of a standard because of standard-specific research and development (R&D) leading to standard-specific patented technologies.
  • Lock-in is a necessary condition for holdup, but it is not sufficient. For holdup in any guise to actually occur, there also must be an exploitative action taken by the relevant party once lock-in has happened. As a result, the mere fact that a license agreement was signed after a patent was included in a standard is not enough to establish that the patent holder is practicing holdup—there must also be evidence that the SEP holder took advantage of the licensee’s lock-in, for example by charging supra-FRAND royalties that it could not otherwise have charged but for the lock-in.
  • Despite coming after a particular standard is published, the vast majority of SEP licenses are concluded in arm’s length, bilateral negotiations with no allegations of holdup or opportunistic behavior. This follows because market mechanisms impose a number of constraints that militate against acting on the opportunity for holdup.
  • In order to support holdup claims, an expert must establish that the terms and conditions in an SEP licensing agreement generate payments that exceed the value conveyed by the patented technology to the licensor that signed the agreement.
  • The threat of seeking injunctive relief, on its own, cannot lead to holdup unless that threat is both credible and actionable. Indeed, the in terrorem effect of filing for an injunction depends on the likelihood of its being granted. Empirical evidence shows a significant decline in the number of injunctions sought as well as in the actual rate of injunctions granted in the United States following the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay v. MercExchange LLC, which ended the prior nearly automatic granting of injunctions to patentees and instead required courts to apply a traditional four-part equitable test for granting injunctive relief.
  • The Federal Circuit has recognized that an SEP holder’s ability to seek injunctive relief is an important safeguard to help prevent potential licensee holdout, whereby an SEP infringer unilaterally refuses a FRAND royalty or unreasonably delays negotiations to the same effect.
  • Related to the previous point, seeking an injunction against a licensee who is delaying or not negotiating in good faith need not actually result in an injunction. The fact that a court finds a licensee is holding out and/or not engaging in good faith licensing discussions can be enough to spur a license agreement as opposed to a permanent injunction.
  • FRAND rates should reflect the value of the SEPs at issue, so it makes no economic sense to estimate an aggregate rate for a standard by assuming that all SEP holders would charge the same rate as the one being challenged in the current lawsuit.
  • Moreover, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held, allegations of “royalty stacking” – the allegedly “excessive” aggregate burden of high licensing fees stemming from multiple patents that cover a single product – should be backed by case-specific evidence.
  • Most importantly, when a judicial FRAND assessment is focused on the value that the SEP portfolio at issue has contributed to the standard and products embodying the standard, the resulting rates and terms will necessarily avoid both patent holdup and royalty stacking.

In sum, the Wong-Ervin and Layne-Farrar article highlights economic insights that are reflected in the sounder judicial opinions dealing with the determination of FRAND royalties.  The article points the way toward methodologies that provide SEP holders sufficient returns on their intellectual property to reward innovation and maintain incentives to invest in technologies that enhance the value of standards.  Read it and learn.

  1. Introduction

The International Competition Network (ICN), a “virtual” organization comprised of most of the world’s competition (antitrust) agencies and expert non-governmental advisors (NGAs), held its Sixteenth Annual Conference in Porto, Portugal from May 10-12. (I attended this Conference as an NGA.) Now that the ICN has turned “sweet sixteen,” a stocktaking is appropriate. The ICN can point to some significant accomplishments, but faces major future challenges. After describing those challenges, I advance four recommendations for U.S.-led initiatives to enhance the future effectiveness of the ICN.

  1. ICN Background and Successes

The ICN, whose key objective is to promote “soft convergence” among competition law regimes, has much to celebrate. It has gone from a small core of competition authorities focused on a limited set of issues to a collection of 135 agencies from 122 far-flung jurisdictions, plus a large cadre of NGA lawyers and economists who provide practical and theoretical advice. The ICN’s nature and initiatives are concisely summarized on its website:

The ICN provides competition authorities with a specialized yet informal venue for maintaining regular contacts and addressing practical competition concerns. This allows for a dynamic dialogue that serves to build consensus and convergence towards sound competition policy principles across the global antitrust community.

The ICN is unique as it is the only international body devoted exclusively to competition law enforcement and its members represent national and multinational competition authorities. Members produce work products through their involvement in flexible project-oriented and results-based working groups. Working group members work together largely by Internet, telephone, teleseminars and webinars.

Annual conferences and workshops provide opportunities to discuss working group projects and their implications for enforcement. The ICN does not exercise any rule-making function. Where the ICN reaches consensus on recommendations, or “best practices”, arising from the projects, individual competition authorities decide whether and how to implement the recommendations, through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements, as appropriate.

The Porto Conference highlighted the extent of the ICN’s influence. Representatives from key international organizations that focus on economic growth and development (and at one time were viewed as ICN “rivals”), including the OECD, the World Bank, and UNCTAD, participated in the Conference. A feature in recent years, the one-day “Pre-ICN” Forum jointly sponsored by the World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Bar Association, this year shared the spotlight with other “sidebar” events (for example, an antitrust symposium cosponsored by UNCTAD and the Japan Fair Trade Commission, an “African Competition Forum,” and a roundtable of former senior officials and academics sponsored by a journal). The Porto Conference formally adopted an impressive array of documents generated over the past year by the ICN’s various Working Groups (the Advocacy, Agency Effectiveness, Cartel, Merger, and Unilateral Conduct Working Groups) (see here and here). This work product focuses on offering practical advice to agencies, rather than theoretical academic speculation. If recent history is in any indication, a substantial portion of this advice will be incorporated within some national laws, and various agencies guidance documents, and strategic plans.

In sum, the ICN is an increasingly influential organization. More importantly, it has, on balance, been a force for the promotion of sound policies on such issues as pre-merger notifications and cartel enforcement – policies that reduce transaction costs for the private sector and tend to improve the quality of antitrust enforcement. It has produced valuable training materials for agencies. Furthermore, the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, buoyed by a growing amount of academic research (some of it supported by the World Bank), increasingly has highlighted the costs of anticompetitive government laws and regulations, and provided a template for assessing and critiquing regulatory schemes that undermine the competitive process. Most recently, the revised chapter on the “analytical framework for evaluating unilateral exclusionary conduct” issued at the 2017 Porto Conference did a solid job of describing the nature of harm to the competitive process and the need to consider error costs in evaluating such conduct. Other examples of welfare-enhancing ICN proposals abound.

  1. Grounds for Caution Going Forward

Nevertheless, despite its generally good record, one must be cautious in evaluating the ICN’s long-term prospects, for at least five reasons.

First, as the ICN tackles increasingly contentious issues (such as the assessment of vertical restraints, which are part of the 2017-2018 ICN Work Plan, and “dominant” single firm “platforms,” cited specifically by ICN Chairman Andreas Mundt in Porto), the possibility for controversy and difficulty in crafting recommendations rises.

Second, most ICN members have adopted heavily administrative competition law frameworks that draw upon an inquisitorial civil law model, as opposed to the common law adversarial legal system in which independent courts conduct full legal reviews of agency conclusions. Public choice analysis (not to mention casual empiricism and common sense) indicates that as they become established, administrative agencies will have a strong incentive to “do something” in order to expand their authority. Generally speaking, sound economic analysis (bolstered by large staffs of economists) that stresses consumer welfare has been incorporated into U.S. federal antitrust enforcement decisions and federal antitrust jurisprudence – but that is not the case in large parts of the world. As its newer member agencies grow in size and influence, the ICN may be challenged by those authorities to address “novel” practices that stray beyond well-understood competition law categories. As a result, innovative welfare-enhancing business innovations could be given unwarranted scrutiny and thereby discouraged.

Third, as various informed commentators in Porto noted, many competition laws explicitly permit consideration of non-economic welfare-based goals, such as “industrial policy” (including promotion of “national champion” competitors), “fairness,” and general “public policy.” Such ill-defined statutory goals allow competition agencies (and, of course, politicians who may exercise influence over those agencies) to apply competition statutes in an unpredictable manner that has nothing to do with (indeed, may be antithetical to) promotion of a vigorous competitive process and consumer welfare. With the proliferation of international commerce, the costly uncertainty injected into business decision-making by malleable antitrust statutes becomes increasingly significant. The ICN, which issues non-binding recommendations and advice and relies on voluntary interagency cooperation, may have little practical ability to fend off such welfare-inimical politicization of antitrust.

Fourth, for nearly a decade United States antitrust agencies have expressed concern in international forums about lack of due process in competition enforcement. Commendably, in 2015 the ICN did issue guidance regarding “key investigative principles and practices important to effective and fair investigative process”, but this guidance did not address administrative hearings and enforcement actions, which remain particularly serious concerns. The ICN’s ability to drive a “due process improvements” agenda may be inherently limited, due to differences among ICN members’ legal systems and sensitivities regarding the second-guessing of national enforcement norms associated with the concept of “due process.”

Fifth, there is “the elephant outside the room.” One major jurisdiction, China, still has not joined the ICN. Given China’s size, importance in the global economy, and vigorous enforcement of its completion law, China’s “absence from “the table” is a significant limitation on the ICN’s ability to promote economically meaningful global policy convergence. (Since Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China, has joined the ICN, one may hope that China itself will consider opting for ICN membership in the not too distant future.)

  1. What Should the U.S. Antitrust Agencies Do?

Despite the notes of caution regarding the ICN’s future initiatives and effectiveness, the ICN will remain for the foreseeable future a useful forum for “nudging” members toward improvements in their competition law systems, particularly in key areas such as cartel enforcement, merger review, and agency effectiveness (internal improvements in agency management may improve the quality of enforcement and advocacy initiatives). Thus, the U.S. federal antitrust agencies, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), should (and undoubtedly will) remain fully engaged with the ICN. DOJ and the FTC not only should remain fully engaged in the ICN’s Working Groups, they should also develop a strategy for minimizing the negative effects of the ICN’s limitations and capitalizing on its strengths. What should such a strategy entail? Four key elements come to mind.

First, the FTC and DOJ should strongly advocate against an ICN focus on expansive theories of liability for unilateral conduct (particularly involving such areas as popular Internet “platforms” (e.g., Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others) and vertical restraints), not tied to showings of harm to the competitive process. The proliferation of cases based on such theories could chill economically desirable business innovations. In countering such novel and expansive condemnations of unilateral conduct, the U.S. agencies could draw upon the extensive law and economics literature on efficiencies and unilateral conduct in speeches, publications, and presentations to ICN Working Groups. To provide further support for their advocacy, the FTC and DOJ should also consider issuing a new joint statement of unilateral conduct enforcement principles, inspired by the general lines of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (regrettably withdrawn by the Obama Administration DOJ in 2009). Relatedly, the FTC and DOJ should advocate the right of intellectual property (IP) holders legitimately to maximize returns on their holdings. The U.S. agencies also should be prepared to argue against novel theories of antitrust liability untethered from traditional concepts of antitrust harm, based on the unilateral exploitation of IP rights (see here, here, here, and here).

Second, the U.S. agencies should promote a special ICN project on decision theory and competition law enforcement (see my Heritage Foundation commentary here), under the aegis of the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group. A decision-theoretic framework aims to minimize the costs of antitrust administration and enforcement error, in order to promote cost-beneficial enforcement outcomes. ICN guidance on decision theory (which would stress the primacy of empirical analysis and the need for easily administrable rules) hopefully would encourage competition agencies to focus on clearly welfare-inimical practices, and avoid pursuing fanciful new theories of antitrust violations unmoored from robust theories of competitive harm. The FTC and DOJ should also work to inculcate decision theory into the work of the core ICN Cartel and Merger Working Groups (see here).

Third, the U.S. agencies should also encourage the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group to pursue a comprehensive “due process” initiative, focused on guaranteeing fundamental fairness to parties at all stages of a competition law proceeding.  An emphasis on basic universal notions of fairness would transcend the differences inherent in civil law and common law administrative processes. It would suggest a path forward whereby agencies could agree on the nature of basic rights owed litigants, while still preserving differences among administrative enforcement models. Administrative procedure recommendations developed by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section in 2015 (see here) offer a good template for consideration, and 2012 OECD deliberations on fairness and transparency (see here) yield valuable background analysis. Consistent with these materials, the U.S. agencies could stress that due process reforms to protect basic rights would not only improve the quality of competition authority decision-making, it would also enhance economic welfare and encourage firms from around the world to do business in reforming jurisdictions. (As discussed above, due process raises major sensitivities, and thus the push for due process improvements should be viewed as a long-term project that will have to be pursued vigorously and very patiently.)

Fourth, working through the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, the FTC and DOJ should push to substantially raise the profile of competition advocacy at the ICN. A growing body of economic research reveals the enormous economic gains that could be unlocked within individual countries by the removal of anticompetitive laws and rules, particularly those that create artificial barriers to entry and distort trade (see, for example, here and here). The U.S. agencies should emphasize the negative consequences for poorer consumers, reduced innovation, and foregone national income due to many of these anticompetitive barriers, drawing upon research by World Bank and OECD scholars (see here). (Fortunately, the ICN already works with the World Bank to promote an annual contest that showcases economic “success stories” due to agency advocacy.) The FTC and DOJ should also use the ICN as a forum to recommend that national competition authorities accord competition advocacy aimed at domestic regulatory reform relatively more resources and attention, particularly compared to investigations of vertical restraints and novel unilateral conduct. It should also work within the ICN’s guidance and oversight body, the “Steering Group,” to make far-reaching competition advocacy initiatives a top ICN priority.

  1. Conclusion

The ICN is a worthwhile international organization that stands at a crossroads. Having no permanent bureaucracy (its website is maintained by the Canadian Competition Bureau), and relying in large part on online communications among agency staff and NGAs to carry out its work, the ICN represents a very good investment of scare resources by the U.S. Government. Absent thoughtful guidance, however, there is a danger that it could drift and become less effective at promoting welfare-enhancing competition law improvements around the world. To avert such an outcome, U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies (joined by like-minded ICN members from other jurisdictions) should proactively seek to have the ICN take up new projects that hold out the promise for substantive and process-based improvements in competition policy worldwide, including far-reaching regulatory reform. A positive ICN response to such initiatives would enhance the quality of competition policy. Moreover, it could contribute in no small fashion to increased economic welfare and innovation in those jurisdictions that adopted reforms in response to the ICN’s call. American businesses operating internationally also would benefit from improvements in the global competition climate generated by ICN-incentivized reforms.

 

 

 

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.

The Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) has once again penned a trenchant law and economics-based critique of a foreign jurisdiction’s competition policy pronouncement.  On April 28, the GAI posted a comment (GAI Comment) in response to a “Communication from the [European] Commission (EC) on Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) for a European Digitalised Economy” (EC Communication).  The EC Communication centers on the regulation of SEPs, patents which cover standards that enable mobile wireless technologies (in particular, smartphones), in the context of the development and implementation of the 5th generation or “5G” broadband wireless standard.

The GAI Comment expresses two major concerns with the EC’s Communication.

  1. The Communication’s Ill-Considered Opposition to Competition in Standards Development

First, the Comment notes that the EC Communication appears to view variation in intellectual property rights (IPR) policies among standard-development organizations (SDOs) as a potential problem that may benefit from best practice recommendations.  The GAI Comment strongly urges the EC to reconsider this approach.  It argues that the EC instead should embrace the procompetitive benefits of variation among SDO policies, and avoid one-size fits all best practice recommendations that may interfere with or unduly influence choices regarding specific rules that best fit the needs of individual SDOs and their members.

  1. The Communication’s Failure to Address the Question of Market Imperfections

Second, the Comment points out that the EC Communication refers to the need for “better regulation,” without providing evidence of an identifiable market imperfection, which is a necessary but not sufficient basis for economic regulation.  The Comment stresses that the smartphone market, which is both standard and patent intensive, has experienced exponential output growth, falling market concentration, and a decrease in wireless service prices relative to the overall consumer price index.  These indicators, although not proof of causation, do suggest caution prior to potentially disrupting the carefully balanced fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) ecosystem that has emerged organically.

With respect to the three specific areas identified in the Communication (i.e., best practice recommendations on (1) “increased transparency on SEP exposure,” including “more precision and rigour into the essentiality declaration system in particular for critical standards”; (2) boundaries of FRAND and core valuation principles; and (3) enforcement in areas such as mutual obligations in licensing negotiations before recourse to injunctive relief, portfolio licensing, and the role of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms), the Comment recommends that the EC broaden the scope of its consultation to elicit specific evidence of identifiable market imperfections.

The GAI Comment also points out that, in some cases, specific concerns mentioned in the Consultation seem to be contradicted by the EC’s own published research.  For example, with respect to the asserted problems arising from over-declaration of essential patents, the EC recently published research noting the lack of “any reliable evidence that licensing costs increase significantly if SEP owners over-declare,” and concluding “that, per se the negative impact of over-declaration is likely to be minimal.”  Even assuming there is an identifiable market imperfection in this area, it is important to consider that determining essentiality is a resource and time-intensive exercise and there are likely significant transaction-cost savings from the use of blanket declarations, which also serve to avoid liability for patent-ambush (i.e., deceptive failure to disclose essential patents during the standard-setting process).

  1. Concluding Thoughts

The GAI Comment implicitly highlights a flaw inherent in the EC’s efforts to promote high tech innovation in Europe through its “Digital Agenda,” characterized as a pillar of the Europe “2020 Strategy” that sets objectives for the growth of the European Union by 2020.  The EC’s strategy emphasizes government-centric “growth through regulatory oversight,” rather than reliance on untrammeled competition.  This emphasis is at odds with the fact that detailed regulatory oversight has been associated with sluggish economic growth within the European Union.  It also ignores the fact that some of the most dynamic, innovative industries in recent decades have been those enabled by the Internet, which until recently has largely avoided significant regulation.  The EC may want to rethink its approach, if it truly wants to generate the innovation and economic gains long-promised to its consumers and producers.

Government subsidies that selectively favor a particular firm or firms may substantially distort competition within an industry, thereby skewing trading terms, reducing efficiency, and harming consumer welfare.  To its credit, the European Union (EU) seeks to stamp out distortive state aid, as explained by the EU’s administrative and law enforcement arm, the European Commission (EC):

A company which receives government support gains an advantage over its competitors. Therefore, the Treaty [governing the EU] generally prohibits State aid unless it is justified by reasons of general economic development.  To ensure that this prohibition is respected and exemptions are applied equally across the European Union, the European Commission is in charge of ensuring that State aid complies with EU rules. . . .

State aid is defined as an advantage in any form whatsoever conferred on a selective basis to undertakings [businesses] by national public authorities.  Therefore, subsidies granted to individuals or general measures open to all enterprises are not covered by this prohibition and do not constitute State aid (examples include general taxation measures or employment legislation).

A nation’s tax preferences that selectively advantage a specific firm or firms may constitute a form of state aid, and in recent years the EC has challenged various member states’ corporate tax rules that allegedly have such a preferential effect.   Particular attention has focused on an August 2016 EC finding that Apple, Inc. owed roughly $14.5 billion in back taxes to Ireland, due to an Irish tax ruling that granted the company a preferential corporate tax rate in violation of EC state aid principles.

This EC finding, which is opposed by the Irish and U.S Governments and has been appealed to the European courts, is the subject of an April 27 Heritage Foundation “Backgrounder” essay, co-authored by Heritage Senior Fellow David Burton and me.  In our essay, we point out that, whatever the legal merits of this particular holding, the EC’s recent “crusade” against low corporate taxes achieved through various national preferences raises the broader issue of “tax competition” among jurisdictions that may beneficially constrain the size of government.  Our article’s findings and policy recommendations are as follows:

High taxes, especially high marginal income tax rates, have an adverse impact on economic growth, and tax competition among governments imposes a limit on how high governments can raise tax rates and burden the private sector.  Efforts to suppress tax competition or to harmonize taxes are generally an effort to create a “tax cartel” among likeminded governments to keep taxes high. The European Union’s Apple ruling, similar to other recent EU investigations of tax reductions, may have the effect of discouraging beneficial tax competition among European nations.  The United States should reject calls by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and other multinational bodies to promote “tax harmonization,” which tends to promote overly high tax burdens that discourage economic growth.   The United States also should lead by example, reducing its economically harmful tax burdens and encouraging other countries to do likewise. 

Over the last two years, the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) has taken a leadership role in promoting sound antitrust analysis of intellectual property rights (IPRs), through its insightful analysis of IP-antitrust guidance proffered by governments around the world (including by the United States antitrust agencies).  Key concepts that inform the GAI’s IP commentaries are that IP rights are full-fledged property rights, and should be treated as such; that IP licensing typically is procompetitive and often generates substantial efficiencies; that antitrust agencies should compare the competitive effects of IP licensing restrictions against what would have happened in the “but for” world in which there is no license; and that special limiting rules should not be applied to patents that cover technologies essential to the implementation of standards (“standard-essential patents”).  The overarching theme of the GAI submissions is that IP licensing generally enhances economic welfare and promotes innovation.

On April 13, the GAI once again turned its eye to IP licensing issues, in commenting on the Draft Anti-Monopoly Guidelines on the Abuse of Intellectual Property Rights (Draft Guidelines) propounded by the Chinese Government’s State Council (see here).  This commentary is particularly timely and important, given the vast scale of the Chinese economy and the large number of major companies involved in IP licensing in China.  While the April 13 GAI commentary praises the Draft Guidelines’ stated intent of condemning only those acts that “have the effect of excluding or restricting competition,” it explains that various Draft Guidelines provisions would nevertheless undermine that desirable goal.  Specifically, the commentary makes five key points:

  1. First, the Draft Guidelines do not explicitly recognize an IPR holder’s core right to exclude. The right to exclude is a central feature of IPRs, and economic theory and empirical evidence show that IPRs incentivize the creation of inventions, ideas, and original works.  Relatedly, the Draft Guidelines also do not incorporate throughout the well-accepted methodological principle that, when assessing the possible competitive effects of the use of IPRs, agencies should compare the competitive effect of the IPR use against what would have happened in the “but for” world in which there is no license.  This important analytical approach, which has been used by the U.S. antitrust agencies for the last 20 years, is absent from the Draft Guidelines.
  2. Second, the Draft Guidelines do not incorporate throughout the point that licensing is generally procompetitive. This modern economic understanding of licensing has informed the approach of the U.S. agencies, for example, for more than 20 years. The result is an approach that, with the exception of naked restraints such as price fixing, requires an effects-based analysis under which licensing restraints will be condemned only when any anticompetitive effects outweigh any procompetitive benefits.
  3. Third, and relatedly, the Draft Guidelines appear to create a number of presumptions that certain conduct (such as charging for expired or invalid patents and prohibiting a licensee from challenging the validity of its IPR) will, or is likely to, eliminate or restrict competition. Thus the State Council would be well advised to eliminate such presumptions and to adopt instead an effects-based approach.  This approach would benefit Chinese consumers because presumptions that are not appropriately calibrated are likely to capture conduct that is procompetitive, which is likely to have a chilling effect on potentially beneficial conduct.  Adopting an approach that incorporates these revisions would best serve competition and consumers, as well as China’s goal of becoming an innovation society.
  4. Fourth, the Draft Guidelines appear to create special rules for conduct involving standard-essential patents (SEPs). The State Council would be wise to reconsider this approach.  Instead, antitrust enforcers should ask whether particular conduct involving SEPs, including evasion of a FRAND assurance, has net anticompetitive effects, and should apply the same case-by-case, fact-specific analysis that is employed for non-SEPs.  Imposing special rules for SEPs, including creating presumptions of harm based on breach of contractual commitments such as a FRAND assurance, is not only unwarranted as a matter of competition policy, but also likely to deter participation in standard setting.
  5. Lastly, the State Council should adopt a more compliance-based approach that sets forth basic principles that would allow parties to self-advise. The Draft Guidelines instead set forth a list of factors that the Chinese competition agencies will consider when analyzing specific conduct, yet do not explain the significance of each of the factors or how they will be weighed in the competition agencies’ overall decision-making process.  This approach allows the agencies broad discretion in enforcement decision-making without providing the guidance stakeholders need to protect incentives to innovate and transfer technology that could be subject to Chinese antitrust jurisdiction.  To this end, the GAI’s commentary recommends that the State Council include throughout the Guidelines examples similar to those found in other guidelines, for example the U.S. antitrust agencies’ recently updated 2017 Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property and the Canadian Bureau of Competition’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Guidelines.  Inclusion of illustrative examples will help IP holders understand how the Chinese agencies will apply the basic principles.

In sum, the Chinese Government would be well advised to adopt the April 13 commentary’s recommendations in finalizing its Guidelines.  Acceptance of the GAI’s recommendations would benefit consumers and producers, and promote innovation in the Chinese economy.  Once again (as one would expect), a GAI antitrust commentary is spot on.

  1. Introduction

For nearly two years, the Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School has filed an impressive series of comments on foreign competition laws and regulations.  The latest GAI comment, dated March 19 (“March 19 comment”), focuses on proposed revisions to the Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL) of the People’s Republic of China, currently under consideration by China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress.  The AUCL “coexists” with China’s antitrust statute, the Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The key concern raised by the March 19 comment is that the AUCL revisions not undermine the application of sound competition law principles in the analysis of bundling (a seller’s offering of several goods as part of a single package sale).  As such, the March 19 comment notes that the best way to avoid such an outcome would be for the AUCL to avoid condemning bundling as a potential “unfair” practice, leaving bundling practices to be assessed solely under the AML.  Furthermore, the March 19 comment wisely stresses that any antitrust evaluation of bundling, whether under the AML (the preferred option) or under the AUCL, should give weight to the substantial efficiencies that bundling typically engenders.

  1. Highlights of the March 19 Comment

Specifically, the March 19 comment made the following key recommendations:

  • The National People’s Congress should be commended for having deleted Article 6 of an earlier AUCL draft, which prohibited a firm from “taking advantage of its comparative advantage position.” As explained in a March 2016 GAI comment, this provision would have undermined efficient contractual negotiations that could benefited consumer as well as producer welfare.
  • With respect to the remaining draft provisions, any provisions that relate to conduct covered by China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (AML) be omitted entirely.
  • In particular, Article 11 (which provides that “[b]usiness operators selling goods must not bundle the sale of goods against buyers’ wishes, and must not attach other unreasonable conditions”) should be omitted in its entirety, as such conduct is already covered by Article 17(5) of the AML.
  • In the alternative, at the very least, Article 11 should be revised to adopt an effect-based approach under which bundling will be condemned only when: (1) the seller has market power in one of the goods included in the bundle sufficient to enable it to restrain trade in the market(s) for the other goods in the bundle; and (2) the anticompetitive effects outweigh any procompetitive benefits.  Such an approach would be consistent with Article 17(5) of the AML, which provides for an effects-based approach that applies only to firms with a dominant market position.
  • Bundling is ubiquitous and widely used by a variety of firms and for a variety of reasons (see here). In the vast majority of cases, package sales are “easily explained by economies of scope in production or by reductions in transaction and information costs, with an obvious benefit to the seller, the buyer or both.”   Those benefits can include lower prices for consumers, facilitate entry into new markets, reduce conflicting incentives between manufacturers and their distributors, and mitigate retailer free-riding and other types of agency problems.  Indeed (see here), “bundling can serve the same efficiency-enhancing vertical control functions as have been identified in the economic literature on tying, exclusive dealing, and other forms of vertical restraints.”
  • The potential to harm competition and generate anticompetitive effects arises only when bundling is practiced by a firm with market power in one of the goods included in the bundle. As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Jefferson Parrish v. Hyde (1984), “there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about package sales,” and the fact that “a purchaser is ‘forced’ to buy a product he would not have otherwise bought even from another seller” does not imply an “adverse impact on competition.”  Rather, for bundling to harm competition there would have to be an exclusionary effect on other sellers because bundling thwarts buyers’ desire to purchase substitutes for one or more of the goods in the bundle from those other sellers to an extent that harms competition in the markets for those products (see here).
  • Moreover, because of the widespread procompetitive use of bundling, by firms without and firms with market power, making bundling per se or presumptively unlawful is likely to generate many Type I (false positive) errors which, as the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Verizon v. Trinko (2004), “are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.”
  1. Conclusion

In sum, the GAI’s March 19 comment does an outstanding job of highlighting the typically procompetitive nature of bundling, and of calling for an economics-based approach to the antitrust evaluation of bundling in China.  Other competition law authorities (including, for example, the European Competition Commission) could benefit from this comment as well, when they scrutinize bundling arrangements.

On March 14, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report “by an independent group of experts it commissioned to consider U.S. responses to the inappropriate use of antitrust enforcement actions worldwide to achieve industrial policy outcomes.”  (See here and here.)  I served as rapporteur for the report, which represents the views of the experts (leading academics, practitioners, and former senior officials who specialize in antitrust and international trade), not the position of the Chamber.  In particular, the report calls for the formation of a new White House-led working group.  The working group would oversee development of a strategy for dealing with the misuse of competition policy by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies.  The denial of fundamental due process rights and the inappropriate extraterritorial application of competition remedies by foreign governments also would be within the purview of the working group.

The Chamber will hold a program on April 10 with members of the experts group to discuss the report and its conclusions.  The letter transmitting the report to the President and congressional leadership states as follows:

Today, nearly every nation in the world has some form of antitrust or competition law regulating business activities occurring within or substantially affecting its territory. The United States has long championed the promotion of global competition as the best way to ensure that businesses have a strong incentive to operate efficiently and innovate, and this approach has helped to fuel a strong and vibrant U.S. economy. But competition laws are not always applied in a transparent, accurate and impartial manner, and they can have significant adverse impacts far outside a country’s own borders. Certain of our major trading partners appear to have used their laws to actually harm competition by U.S. companies, protecting their own markets from foreign competition, promoting national champions, forcing technology transfers and, in some cases, denying U.S. companies fundamental due process.

Up to now, the United States has had some, but limited, success in addressing this problem. For that reason, in August of 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened an independent, bi-partisan group of experts in trade and competition law and economics to take a fresh look and develop recommendations for a potentially more effective and better-integrated international trade and competition law strategy.

As explained by the U.S. Chamber in announcing the formation of this group,

The United States has been, and should continue to be, a global leader in the development and implementation of sound competition law and policy. . . . When competition law is applied in a discriminatory manner or relies upon non-competition factors to engineer outcomes in support of national champions or industrial policy objectives, the impact of such instances arguably goes beyond the role of U.S. antitrust agencies. The Chamber believes it is critical for the United States to develop a coordinated trade and competition law approach to international economic policy.

The International Competition Policy Expert Group (“ICPEG”) was encouraged to develop “practical and actionable steps forward that will serve to advance sound trade and competition policy.”

The Report accompanying this letter is the result of ICPEG’s work. Although the U.S. Chamber suggested the project and recruited participants, it made no effort to steer the content of ICPEG’s recommendations.

The Report is addressed specifically to the interaction of competition law and international trade law and proposes greater coordination and cooperation between them in the formulation and implementation of U.S. international trade policy. It focuses on the use of international trade and other appropriate tools to address problems in the application of foreign competition policies through 12 concrete recommendations.

Recommendations 1 through 6 urge the Trump Administration to prioritize the coordination of international competition policy through a new, cabinet-level White House working group (the “Working Group”) to be chaired by an Assistant to the President. Among other things, the Working Group would:

  • set a government-wide, high-level strategy for articulating and promoting policies to address the misuse of competition law by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies;
  • undertake a 90-day review of existing and potential new trade policy tools available to address the challenge, culminating in a recommended “action list” for the President and Congress; and
  • address not only broader substantive concerns regarding the abuse of competition policy for protectionist and discriminatory purposes, but also the denial of fundamental process rights and the extraterritorial imposition of remedies that are not necessary to protect a country’s legitimate competition law objectives.

Recommendations 7 through 12 focus on steps that should be taken with international organizations and bilateral initiatives. For example, the United States should consider:

  • the feasibility and value of expanding the World Trade Organization’s regular assessment of each member government by the Trade Policy Review Body to include national competition policies and encourage the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to undertake specific peer reviews of national procedural or substantive policies, including of non-OECD countries;
  • encouraging the OECD and/or other multilateral bodies to adopt a code enumerating transparent, accurate, and impartial procedures; and
  • promoting the application of agreements under which nations would cooperate with and take into account legitimate interests of other nations affected by a competition investigation.

The competition and trade law issues addressed in the Report are complex and the consequences of taking any particular action vis-a-vis another country must be carefully considered in light of a number of factors beyond the scope of this Report. ICPEG does not take a view on the actions of any particular country nor propose specific steps with respect to any actual dispute or matter. In addition, reasonable minds can differ on ICPEG’s assessment and recommendations. But we hope that this Report will prompt appropriate prioritization of the issues it addresses and serve as the basis for the further development of a successful policy and action plan and improved coordination and cooperation between U.S. competition and trade agencies.

The antitrust industry never sleeps – it is always hard at work seeking new business practices to scrutinize, eagerly latching on to any novel theory of anticompetitive harm that holds out the prospect of future investigations.  In so doing, antitrust entrepreneurs choose, of course, to ignore Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase’s warning 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.”  Ambitious antitrusters also generally appear oblivious to the fact that since antitrust is an administrative system subject to substantial error and transaction costs in application (see here), decision theory counsels that enforcers should proceed with great caution before adopting novel untested theories of competitive harm.

The latest example of this regrettable phenomenon is the popular new theory that institutional investors’ common ownership of minority shares in competing firms may pose serious threats to vigorous market competition (see here, for example).  If such investors’ shareholdings are insufficient to control or substantially influence the strategies employed by the competing firms, what is the precise mechanism by which this occurs?  At the very least, this question should give enforcers pause (and cause them to carefully examine both the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of the common ownership story) before they charge ahead as knights errant seeking to vanquish new financial foes.  Yet it appears that at least some antitrust enforcers have been wasting no time in seeking to factor common ownership concerns into their modes of analysis.  (For example, The European Commission in at least one case presented a modified Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (MHHI) analysis to account for the effects of common shareholding by institutional investors, as part of a statement of objections to a proposed merger, see here.)

A recent draft paper by Bates White economists Daniel P. O’Brien and Keith Waehrer raises major questions about recent much heralded research (reported in three studies dealing with executive compensation, airlines, and banking) that has been cited to raise concerns about common minority shareholdings’ effects on competition.  The draft paper’s abstract argues that the theory underlying these concerns is insufficiently developed, and that there are serious statistical flaws in the empirical work that purports to show a relationship between price and common ownership:

“Recent empirical research purports to show that common ownership by institutional investors harms competition even when all financial holdings are minority interests. This research has received a great deal of attention, leading to both calls for and actual changes in antitrust policy. This paper examines the research on this subject to date and finds that its conclusions regarding the effects of minority shareholdings on competition are not well established. Without prejudging what more rigorous empirical work might show, we conclude that researchers and policy authorities are getting well ahead of themselves in drawing policy conclusions from the research to date. The theory of partial ownership does not yield a specific relationship between price and the MHHI. In addition, the key explanatory variable in the emerging research – the MHHI – is an endogenous measure of concentration that depends on both common ownership and market shares. Factors other than common ownership affect both price and the MHHI, so the relationship between price and the MHHI need not reflect the relationship between price and common ownership. Thus, regressions of price on the MHHI are likely to show a relationship even if common ownership has no actual causal effect on price. The instrumental variable approaches employed in this literature are not sufficient to remedy this issue. We explain these points with reference to the economic theory of partial ownership and suggest avenues for further research.”

In addition to pinpointing deficiencies in existing research, O’Brien and Waehrer also summarize serious negative implications for the financial sector that could stem from the aggressive antitrust pursuit of partial ownership for the financial sector – a new approach that would be at odds with longstanding antitrust practice (footnote citations deleted):

“While it is widely accepted that common ownership can have anticompetitive effects when the owners have control over at least one of the firms they own (a complete merger is a special case), antitrust authorities historically have taken limited interest in common ownership by minority shareholders whose control seems to be limited to voting rights. Thus, if the empirical findings and conclusions in the emerging research are correct and robust, they could have dramatic implications for the antitrust analysis of mergers and acquisitions. The findings could be interpreted to suggest that antitrust authorities should scrutinize not only situations in which a common owner of competing firms control at least one of the entities it owns, but also situations in which all of the common owner’s shareholdings are small minority positions. As [previously] noted, . . . such a policy shift is already occurring.

Institutional investors (e.g., mutual funds) frequently take positions in multiple firms in an industry in order to offer diversified portfolios to retail investors at low transaction costs. A change in antitrust or regulatory policy toward these investments could have significant negative implications for the types of investments currently available to retail investors. In particular, a recent proposal to step up antitrust enforcement in this area would seem to require significant changes to the size or composition of many investment funds that are currently offered.

Given the potential policy implications of this research and the less than obvious connections between small minority ownership interests and anticompetitive price effects, it is important to be particularly confident in the analysis and empirical findings before drawing strong policy conclusions. In our view, this requires a valid empirical test that permits causal inferences about the effects of common ownership on price. In addition, the empirical findings and their interpretation should be consistent with the observed behavior of firms and investors in the economic and legal environments in which they operate.

We find that the airline, banking, and compensation papers [that deal with minority shareholding] fall short of these criteria.”

In sum, at the very least, a substantial amount of further work is called for before significant enforcement resources are directed to common minority shareholder investigations, lest competitively non-problematic investment holdings be chilled.  More generally, the trendy antitrust pursuit of common minority shareholdings threatens to interfere inappropriately in investment decisions of institutional investors and thereby undermine efficiency.  Given the great significance of institutional investment for vibrant capital markets and a growing, dynamic economy, the negative economic welfare consequences of such unwarranted meddling would likely swamp any benefits that might accrue from an occasional meritorious prosecution.  One may hope that the Trump Administration will seriously weigh those potential consequences as it examines the minority shareholding issue, in deciding upon its antitrust policy priorities.