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A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.

Their aggressive enforcement statements draw headlines, but will the administration’s neo-Brandeisians actually notch enforcement successes? The prospects are cloudy, to say the least.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has lost some cartel cases in court this year (what was the last time that happened?) and, on Sept. 19, a federal judge rejected the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin United Health’s $13.8 billion bid for Change Healthcare. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently lost two merger challenges before its in-house administrative law judge. It now faces a challenge to its administrative-enforcement processes before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Axon case, to be argued in November).

(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)

So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.

Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference

Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.

In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)

Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).

Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).

In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.

Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.

Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.

Conclusion

What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.

It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court. 

Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited,  the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”

This latest FTC decision is inherently hyper-regulatory, anti-free market, and contrary to the rule of law. It also is profoundly anti-consumer.

Like other large digital-platform companies, Meta has conferred enormous benefits on consumers (net of payments to platforms) that are not reflected in gross domestic product statistics. In a December 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis reported research finding that Facebook:

…generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. … [I]ncluding the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.

The acquisition of complementary digital assets—like the popular fitness app produced by Within—enables Meta to continually enhance the quality of its offerings to consumers and thereby expand consumer surplus. It reflects the benefits of economic specialization, as specialized assets are made available to enhance the quality of Meta’s offerings. Requiring Meta to develop complementary assets in-house, when that is less efficient than a targeted acquisition, denies these benefits.

Furthermore, in a recent editorial lambasting the FTC’s challenge to a Meta-Within merger as lacking a principled basis, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the challenge also removes incentive for venture-capital investments in promising startups, a result at odds with free markets and innovation:

Venture capitalists often fund startups on the hope that they will be bought by larger companies. [FTC Chair Lina] Khan is setting down the marker that the FTC can block acquisitions merely to prevent big companies from getting bigger, even if they don’t reduce competition or harm consumers. This will chill investment and innovation, and it deserves a burial in court.

This is bad enough. But the commission’s proposal to require blanket preapprovals of all future Meta mergers (including tiny acquisitions well under regulatory pre-merger reporting thresholds) greatly compounds the harm from its latest ill-advised merger challenge. Indeed, it poses a blatant challenge to free-market principles and the rule of law, in at least three ways.

  1. It substitutes heavy-handed ex ante regulatory approval for a reliance on competition, with antitrust stepping in only in those limited instances where the hard facts indicate a transaction will be anticompetitive. Indeed, in one key sense, it is worse than traditional economic regulation. Empowering FTC staff to carry out case-by-case reviews of all proposed acquisitions inevitably will generate arbitrary decision-making, perhaps based on a variety of factors unrelated to traditional consumer-welfare-based antitrust. FTC leadership has abandoned sole reliance on consumer welfare as the touchstone of antitrust analysis, paving the wave for potentially abusive and arbitrary enforcement decisions. By contrast, statutorily based economic regulation, whatever its flaws, at least imposes specific standards that staff must apply when rendering regulatory determinations.
  2. By abandoning sole reliance on consumer-welfare analysis, FTC reviews of proposed Meta acquisitions may be expected to undermine the major welfare benefits that Meta has previously bestowed upon consumers. Given the untrammeled nature of these reviews, Meta may be expected to be more cautious in proposing transactions that could enhance consumer offerings. What’s more, the general anti-merger bias by current FTC leadership would undoubtedly prompt them to reject some, if not many, procompetitive transactions that would confer new benefits on consumers.
  3. Instituting a system of case-by-case assessment and approval of transactions is antithetical to the normal American reliance on free markets, featuring limited government intervention in market transactions based on specific statutory guidance. The proposed review system for Meta lacks statutory warrant and (as noted above) could promote arbitrary decision-making. As such, it seriously flouts the rule of law and threatens substantial economic harm (sadly consistent with other ill-considered initiatives by FTC Chair Khan, see here and here).

In sum, internet-based industries, and the big digital platforms, have thrived under a system of American technological freedom characterized as “permissionless innovation.” Under this system, the American people—consumers and producers—have been the winners.

The FTC’s efforts to micromanage future business decision-making by Meta, prompted by the challenge to a routine merger, would seriously harm welfare. To the extent that the FTC views such novel interventionism as a bureaucratic template applicable to other disfavored large companies, the American public would be the big-time loser.

[This post is an entry in Truth on the Market’s FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Aug. 22 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security (ANPRM) is breathtaking in its scope. For an overview summary, see this Aug. 11 FTC press release.

In their dissenting statements opposing ANPRM’s release, Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson expertly lay bare the notice’s serious deficiencies. Phillips’ dissent stresses that the ANPRM illegitimately arrogates to the FTC legislative power that properly belongs to Congress:

[The [A]NPRM] recast[s] the Commission as a legislature, with virtually limitless rulemaking authority where personal data are concerned. It contemplates banning or regulating conduct the Commission has never once identified as unfair or deceptive. At the same time, the ANPR virtually ignores the privacy and security concerns that have animated our [FTC] enforcement regime for decades. … [As such, the ANPRM] is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate. That’s not “democratizing” the FTC or using all “the tools in the FTC’s toolbox.” It’s a naked power grab.

Wilson’s complementary dissent critically notes that the 2021 changes to FTC rules of practice governing consumer-protection rulemaking decrease opportunities for public input and vest significant authority solely with the FTC chair. She also echoed Phillips’ overarching concern with FTC overreach (footnote citations omitted):

Many practices discussed in this ANPRM are presented as clearly deceptive or unfair despite the fact that they stretch far beyond practices with which we are familiar, given our extensive law enforcement experience. Indeed, the ANPRM wanders far afield of areas for which we have clear evidence of a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive practices. … [R]egulatory and enforcement overreach increasingly has drawn sharp criticism from courts. Recent Supreme Court decisions indicate FTC rulemaking overreach likely will not fare well when subjected to judicial review.

Phillips and Wilson’s warnings are fully warranted. The ANPRM contemplates a possible Magnuson-Moss rulemaking pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act,[1] which authorizes the commission to promulgate rules dealing with “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The questions that the ANPRM highlights center primarily on concerns of unfairness.[2] Any unfairness-related rulemaking provisions eventually adopted by the commission will have to satisfy a strict statutory cost-benefit test that defines “unfair” acts, found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. As explained below, the FTC will be hard-pressed to justify addressing most of the ANPRM’s concerns in Section 5(n) cost-benefit terms.

Discussion

The requirements imposed by Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis

Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority … to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

In other words, a practice may be condemned as unfair only if it causes or is likely to cause “(1) substantial injury to consumers (2) which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (3) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

This is a demanding standard. (For scholarly analyses of the standard’s legal and economic implications authored by former top FTC officials, see here, here, and here.)

First, the FTC must demonstrate that a practice imposes a great deal of harm on consumers, which they could not readily have avoided. This requires detailed analysis of the actual effects of a particular practice, not mere theoretical musings about possible harms that may (or may not) flow from such practice. Actual effects analysis, of course, must be based on empiricism: consideration of hard facts.

Second, assuming that this formidable hurdle is overcome, the FTC must then acknowledge and weigh countervailing welfare benefits that might flow from such a practice. In addition to direct consumer-welfare benefits, other benefits include “benefits to competition.” Those may include business efficiencies that reduce a firm’s costs, because such efficiencies are a driver of vigorous competition and, thus, of long-term consumer welfare. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has explained (see OECD Background Note on Efficiencies, 2012, at 14), dynamic and transactional business efficiencies are particularly important in driving welfare enhancement.

In sum, under Section 5(n), the FTC must show actual, fact-based, substantial harm to consumers that they could not have escaped, acting reasonably. The commission must also demonstrate that such harm is not outweighed by consumer and (procompetitive) business-efficiency benefits. What’s more, Section 5(n) makes clear that the FTC cannot “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and interject other “public policy” considerations as key factors in the rulemaking  calculus (“[s]uch [other] public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for … [a] determination [of unfairness]”).

It ineluctably follows as a matter of law that a Section 18 FTC rulemaking sounding in unfairness must be based on hard empirical cost-benefit assessments, which require data grubbing and detailed evidence-based economic analysis. Mere anecdotal stories of theoretical harm to some consumers that is alleged to have resulted from a practice in certain instances will not suffice.

As such, if an unfairness-based FTC rulemaking fails to adhere to the cost-benefit framework of Section 5(n), it inevitably will be struck down by the courts as beyond the FTC’s statutory authority. This conclusion is buttressed by the tenor of the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in AMG Capital v. FTC, which rejected the FTC’s claim that its statutory injunctive authority included the ability to obtain monetary relief for harmed consumers (see my discussion of this case here).

The ANPRM and Section 5(n)

Regrettably, the tone of the questions posed in the ANPRM indicates a lack of consideration for the constraints imposed by Section 5(n). Accordingly, any future rulemaking that sought to establish “remedies” for many of the theorized abuses found in the ANPRM would stand very little chance of being upheld in litigation.

The Aug. 11 FTC press release cited previously addresses several broad topical sources of harms: harms to consumers; harms to children; regulations; automated systems; discrimination; consumer consent; notice, transparency, and disclosure; remedies; and obsolescence. These categories are chock full of questions that imply the FTC may consider restrictions on business conduct that go far beyond the scope of the commission’s authority under Section 5(n). (The questions are notably silent about the potential consumer benefits and procompetitive efficiencies that may arise from the business practices called here into question.)

A few of the many questions set forth under just four of these topical listings (harms to consumers, harms to children, regulations, and discrimination) are highlighted below, to provide a flavor of the statutory overreach that categorizes all aspects of the ANPRM. Many other examples could be cited. (Phillips’ dissenting statement provides a cogent and critical evaluation of ANPRM questions that embody such overreach.) Furthermore, although there is a short discussion of “costs and benefits” in the ANPRM press release, it is wholly inadequate to the task.

Under the category “harms to consumers,” the ANPRM press release focuses on harm from “lax data security or surveillance practices.” It asks whether FTC enforcement has “adequately addressed indirect pecuniary harms, including potential physical harms, psychological harms, reputational injuries, and unwanted intrusions.” The press release suggests that a rule might consider addressing harms to “different kinds of consumers (e.g., young people, workers, franchisees, small businesses, women, victims of stalking or domestic violence, racial minorities, the elderly) in different sectors (e.g., health, finance, employment) or in different segments or ‘stacks’ of the internet economy.”

These laundry lists invite, at best, anecdotal public responses alleging examples of perceived “harm” falling into the specified categories. Little or no light is likely to be shed on the measurement of such harm, nor on the potential beneficial effects to some consumers from the practices complained of (for example, better targeted ads benefiting certain consumers). As such, a sound Section 5(n) assessment would be infeasible.

Under “harms to children,” the press release suggests possibly extending the limitations of the FTC-administered Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to older teenagers, thereby in effect rewriting COPPA and usurping the role of Congress (a clear statutory overreach). The press release also asks “[s]hould new rules set out clear limits on personalized advertising to children and teenagers irrespective of parental consent?” It is hard (if not impossible) to understand how this form of overreach, which would displace the supervisory rights of parents (thereby imposing impossible-to-measure harms on them), could be shoe-horned into a defensible Section 5(n) cost-benefit assessment.

Under “regulations,” the press release asks whether “new rules [should] require businesses to implement administrative, technical, and physical data security measures, including encryption techniques, to protect against risks to the security, confidentiality, or integrity of covered data?” Such new regulatory strictures (whose benefits to some consumers appear speculative) would interfere significantly in internal business processes. Specifically, they could substantially diminish the efficiency of business-security measures, diminish business incentives to innovate (for example, in encryption), and reduce dynamic competition among businesses.

Consumers also would be harmed by a related slowdown in innovation. Those costs undoubtedly would be high but hard, if not impossible, to measure. The FTC also asks whether a rule should limit “companies’ collection, use, and retention of consumer data.” This requirement, which would seemingly bypass consumers’ decisions to make their data available, would interfere with companies’ ability to use such data to improve business offerings and thereby enhance consumers’ experiences. Justifying new requirements such as these under Section 5(n) would be well-nigh impossible.

The category “discrimination” is especially problematic. In addressing “algorithmic discrimination,” the ANPRM press release asks whether the FTC should “consider new trade regulation rules that bar or somehow limit the deployment of any system that produces discrimination, irrespective of the data or processes on which those outcomes are based.” In addition, the press release asks “if the Commission [should] consider harms to other underserved groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination (e.g., unhoused people or residents of rural communities)?”

The FTC cites no statutory warrant for the authority to combat such forms of “discrimination.” It is not a civil-rights agency. It clearly is not authorized to issue anti-discrimination rules dealing with “groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination.” Any such rules, if issued, would be summarily struck down in no uncertain terms by the judiciary, even without regard to Section 5(n).

In addition, given the fact that “economic discrimination” often is efficient (and procompetitive) and may be beneficial to consumer welfare (see, for example, here), more limited economic anti-discrimination rules almost certainly would not pass muster under the Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework.     

Finally, while the ANPRM press release does contain a very short section entitled “costs and benefits,” that section lacks any specific reference to the required Section 5(n) evaluation framework. Phillips’ dissent points out that the ANPRM:

…simply fail[s] to provide the detail necessary for commenters to prepare constructive responses” on cost-benefit analysis. He stresses that the broad nature of requests for commenters’ view on costs and benefits renders the inquiry “not conducive to stakeholders submitting data and analysis that can be compared and considered in the context of a specific rule. … Without specific questions about [the costs and benefits of] business practices and potential regulations, the Commission cannot hope for tailored responses providing a full picture of particular practices.

In other words, the ANPRM does not provide the guidance needed to prompt the sorts of responses that might assist the FTC in carrying out an adequate Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis.

Conclusion

The FTC would face almost certain defeat in court if it promulgated a broad rule addressing many of the perceived unfairness-based “ills” alluded to in the ANPRM. Moreover, although its requirements would (I believe) not come into effect, such a rule nevertheless would impose major economic costs on society.

Prior to final judicial resolution of its status, the rule would disincentivize businesses from engaging in a variety of data-related practices that enhance business efficiency and benefit many consumers. Furthermore, the FTC resources devoted to developing and defending the rule would not be applied to alternative welfare-enhancing FTC activities—a substantial opportunity cost.

The FTC should take heed of these realities and opt not to carry out a rulemaking based on the ANPRM. It should instead devote its scarce consumer protection resources to prosecuting hard core consumer fraud and deception—and, perhaps, to launching empirical studies into the economic-welfare effects of data security and commercial surveillance practices. Such studies, if carried out, should focus on dispassionate economic analysis and avoid policy preconceptions. (For example, studies involving digital platforms should take note of the existing economic literature, such as a paper indicating that digital platforms have generated enormous consumer-welfare benefits not accounted for in gross domestic product.)

One can only hope that a majority of FTC commissioners will apply common sense and realize that far-flung rulemaking exercises lacking in statutory support are bad for the rule of law, bad for the commission’s reputation, bad for the economy, and bad for American consumers.


[1] The FTC states specifically that it “is issuing this ANPR[M] pursuant to Section 18 of the Federal Trade Commission Act”.

[2] Deceptive practices that might be addressed in a Section 18 trade regulation rule would be subject to the “FTC Policy Statement on Deception,” which states that “the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.” A court reviewing an FTC Section 18 rule focused on “deceptive acts or practices” undoubtedly would consult this Statement, although it is not clear, in light of recent jurisprudential trends, that the court would defer to the Statement’s analysis in rendering an opinion. In any event, questions of deception, which focus on acts or practices that mislead consumers, would in all likelihood have little relevance to the evaluation of any rule that might be promulgated in light of the ANPRM.    

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

A highly competitive economy is characterized by strong, legally respected property rights. A failure to afford legal protection to certain types of property will reduce individual incentives to participate in market transactions, thereby reducing the effectiveness of market competition. As the great economist Armen Alchian put it, “[w]ell-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means.”

In particular, strong and well-defined intellectual-property rights complement and enhance market competition, thereby promoting innovation. As the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division put it in 2012: “[t]he successful promotion of innovation and creativity requires a [sic] both competitive markets and strong intellectual property rights.”

In the realm of intellectual property, patent rights are particularly effective in driving innovation by supporting a market for invention in several critical ways, as Northwestern University’s Daniel F. Spulber has explained:

Patents support the establishment of the market [for invention] in several key ways. First, patents provide a system of intellectual property (IP) rights that increases transaction efficiencies and stimulates competition by offering exclusion, transferability, disclosure, certification, standardization, and divisibility. Second, patents provide efficient incentives for invention, innovation, and investment in complementary assets so that the market for inventions is a market for innovative control. Third, patents as intangible real assets promote the financing of invention and innovation.

It thus follows that weak, ill-defined patent rights create confusion, thereby undermining effective competition and innovation.

The Supreme Court’s Undermining of Patentability

Regrettably, the U.S. Supreme Court has, of late, been oblivious to this reality. Over roughly the past decade, several Court decisions have weakened incentives to patent by engendering confusion regarding the core question of what subject matter is patentable. Those decisions represent an abrupt retreat from decades of textually based case law that recognized the broad scope of patentable subject matter.

As I explained in a 2019 Speech to the IP Watchdog Institute Patent Masters Symposium (footnotes omitted):

Confusion about what is patentable lies at the heart of recent discussions of reform to Section 101 of the Patent Act [35 U.S. Code § 101] – the statutory provision that describes patentable subject matter. Section 101 plainly states that “[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the [other] conditions and requirements of this title.” This language basically says that patentable subject matter covers everything new and useful that is invented or discovered. For many years, however, the Supreme Court has recognized three judicially created exceptions to patent eligibility, providing that you cannot patent: (1) laws of nature, (2) natural phenomena, or (3) abstract ideas. Even with these exceptions, the scope for patentability was quite broad from 1952 (when the modern version of the Patent Act was codified) until roughly 2010.

But over the past decade, the Supreme Court has cut back significantly on what it deems patent eligible, particularly in such areas as biotechnology, computer-implemented inventions, and software. As a result, today “there are many other parts of the world that have more expansive views of what can be patented, including Europe, Australia, and even China.” A key feature of the changes has been the engrafting of case law requirements that patentable eligible subject matter meet before a patent is granted, found in other sections of the Patent Act, onto the previously very broad language of Section 101.

As IPWatchdog President and CEO Gene Quinn explained in a 2019 article, “the real mischief” of recent Supreme Court case law (and, in particular, the 2012 Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus decision) is that it reads requirements of other Patent Act provisions (dealing with novelty, obviousness, and description) into Section 101. That approach defies the plain expansive language of Section 101 and is at odds with earlier Supreme Court case law, which had deemed such an approach totally inappropriate. As such, according to Quinn:

Today, thanks to Mayo, decision makers consider whether claims are new, nonobvious and even properly described all under a Section 101 patent eligibility analysis, which makes the remainder of the patentability sections of the statute superfluous. Indeed, with Mayo, the Supreme Court has usurped Congressional authority over patentability; an authority that is explicitly granted to Congress in the Constitution itself. This usurpation of power is not only wreaking havoc on American innovation, but it has wrought havoc on the delicate balance of power between the Supreme Court and Congress.

Another Supreme Court decision on Section 101 deserves mention. In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (2014), the Court construed Mayo as establishing a two-part Section 101 test for patentable subject matter, which involved:

  1. Determining whether the patent claims are directed to a patent-ineligible concept; and
  2. Determining whether the claim’s elements, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, transform the nature of the claims into a patent-eligible application.

This “test,” which was pulled out of thin air, went far beyond the text of Section 101, and involved considerations properly assigned to other provisions of the Patent Act.

Flash forward to last week. The  Supreme Court on June 30 denied certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings, a case raising the question whether  a patent that claims a process for manufacturing an automobile driveshaft that simultaneously reduces two types of driveshaft vibration is patent-eligible under Section 101. Underlying the uncertainty (one might say vacuity) of the Mayo-Alice “principle,” a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (with six judges unsuccessfully voting in favor of rehearing en banc) had found the patent claim ineligible, given the Supreme Court’s Mayo and Alice decisions. Amazingly, a classic type of mechanical invention, at the very heart of traditional notions of patenting, somehow had failed the patent-eligibility test, a result no patent-law observer would have dreamed of prior to the Mayo-Alice duet.

Commendably, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar in May 2022 filed a brief in support of the grant of certiorari in American Axle. In short:

The SG’s brief sa[id] that inventions like the one at issue in American Axle have “[h]istorically…long been viewed as paradigmatic examples of the ‘arts’ or ‘processes’ that may receive patent protection if other statutory criteria are satisfied” and that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit “erred in reading this Court’s precedents to dictate a contrary conclusion.”

The brief explain[ed] in no uncertain terms that claim 22 of the patent at issue in the case does not “simply describe or recite” a natural law and ultimately should have been held patent eligible.

In light of Solicitor General Prelogar’s filing, the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in American Axle can only be read as a clear signal to the bar that it does not intend to back down from or clarify the application of Mayo and Alice. This has serious negative ramifications for the health of the U.S. patent system. As Michael Borella—a computer scientist and chair of the Software and Business Methods Practice Group at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP—explains:

In denying certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, the Supreme Court has in essence told the patent community to “deal with it.” That operative ‘it’ is the obtuse and uncertain state of patent-eligibility, where even tangible inventions like garage door openers, electric vehicle charging stations, and mobile phones are too abstract for patenting. The Court has created a system that favors large companies over startups and individual inventors by making the fundamental decision of whether even to seek patent protection akin to shaking a Magic 8 Ball for guidance.

The solution, according to former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel, is prompt congressional action:

The Supreme Court’s decisions in the last decade have confused and distorted the law of eligibility. … From 1981 to 2012 … the law was stable and yielded good outcomes in specific cases. Then came Mayo and later, Alice. Now, it is a mess: illogical, unpredictable, chaotic. Bad policy for important innovation including for promoting human health. Congress needs to rescue the innovation economy from the courts which have left it a disaster. Let’s hope Congress rises to the need and acts before China and other nations surpass US technology.

Conclusion

It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court continues to miss the mark on patent rights. Its failure to heed the clearly expressed statutory language on patent eligibility is badly out of synch with the respect for textualism that it has shown in handing down recent landmark decisions on the free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, and limitations on the administrative state. Given the sad reality that the Court is unlikely to change its tune, Congress should act promptly to amend Section 101 and thereby reaffirm the clear and broad patent-eligibility standard that had stood our country in good stead from the mid-20th century to a decade ago. Such an outcome would strengthen the U.S. patent system, thereby promoting innovation and competition.  

[On Monday, June 27, Concurrences hosted a conference on the Rulemaking Authority of the Federal Trade Commission. This conference featured the work of contributors to a new book on the subject edited by Professor Dan Crane. Several of these authors have previously contributed to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium. We are pleased to be able to share with you excerpts or condensed versions of chapters from this book prepared by authors of of those chapters. Our thanks and compliments to Dan and Concurrences for bringing together an outstanding event and set of contributors and for supporting our sharing them with you here.]

[The post below was authored by Alden F. Abbott.]

I. Introduction

In over a century of existence, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been a policy leader in developing American thinking about and in enforcing antitrust and consumer protection laws pursuant to several specific statutory mandates. It has also promulgated a substantial number of consumer protection rules, dealing with a wide variety of practices. It has almost never, however, enacted substantive rules seeking to regulate specified forms of business conduct that affect competition in the marketplace.    

In 2021, however, the prospects for FTC competition rulemaking changed dramatically. A new Biden administration FTC chair, Lina Khan, publicly emphasized that the Commission should undertake “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) rulemakings. In December 2021, the FTC issued a “Statement of Regulatory Priorities” (SRP) stating that “the Commission in the coming year will consider developing both unfair-methods-of competition [UMC] rulemakings as well as rulemakings to define with specificity unfair or deceptive acts or practices [UDAPs].” The SRP also summarized the status of FTC rules and guides that are subject to periodic review.

With regard to UDAP rules, the SRP highlighted for consideration “rules that allow the agency to recover redress for consumers who have been defrauded and seek penalties for firms that engage in data abuses.” The SRP also explained that “the abuses stemming from surveillance-based business models are particularly alarming,” and thus the FTC would consider a possible rulemaking focused on “curbing lax security practices, limiting intrusive surveillance, and ensuring that algorithmic decision-making does not result in unlawful discrimination.”

With respect to UMC rules, the FTC painted with a broad brush, and referenced President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Competition:

Over the coming year, the Commission will also explore whether rules defining certain “unfair methods of competition” prohibited by section 5 of the FTC Act would promote competition and provide greater clarity to the market. A recent Executive Order encouraged the Commission to consider competition rulemakings relating to non-compete clauses, surveillance, the right to repair, pay-for-delay pharmaceutical agreements, unfair competition in online marketplaces, occupational licensing, real-estate listing and brokerage, and industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition. The Commission will explore the benefits and costs of these and other competition rulemaking ideas.

Recently, the Commission published in the Federal Register a “Request for Public Comment Regarding Contract Terms that May Harm Fair Competition,” which included for reference two public petitions for competition rulemaking the Commission has received. One of those petitions was to curtail the use of non-compete clauses, and the other was to limit exclusionary contracting by dominant firms, but the Commission also solicited additional examples of unfair terms. Members of the public filed thousands of comments, which the Commission’s staff are carefully reviewing.

In short, significant FTC competition-related rulemaking initiatives are to be expected in 2022. The prospect that those initiatives will yield binding rules that survive legal scrutiny is, however, vanishingly small.

This commentary (which is an abridged chapter in a book on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences) will explore legal doctrines that seriously constrain the FTC’s ability to enact competition rules. After summarizing the FTC’s authority to engage in rulemaking, it will turn to five major legal impediments to successful competition rulemaking that the FTC must confront. Each of these impediments creates substantial competition rulemaking legal risks for the Commission. Considered collectively, these impediments point to a very low likelihood of competition rulemaking success. Accordingly, the FTC should reconsider its bold competition rulemaking agenda and focus instead on devoting those rulemaking resources to other initiatives within its purview, including competition enforcement actions and policy studies. Such a reset of FTC priorities would likely yield a far better allocation of scarce governmental resources to initiatives that benefit consumers and avoid the imposition of unwarranted costs on private actors and the competitive process.

II. Discussion

1.      FTC Rulemaking: An Overview

The Federal Trade Commission is an independent federal agency created pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. The FTC’s mission is to protect consumers and promote competition (see generally here). It does this primarily through enforcement actions, directed at practices that violate section 5 of the FTC’s Act’s prohibitions on “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” While the FTC has also promulgated binding rules and non-binding enforcement guides throughout the course of its history, its principal means for advancing its mission has been enforcement, not regulation. As the FTC explains:

The basic statute enforced by the FTC, Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, empowers the agency to investigate and prevent unfair methods of competition, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce. This creates the Agency’s two primary missions: protecting competition and protecting consumers. The statute gives the FTC authority to seek relief for consumers, including injunctions and restitution, and in some instances to seek civil penalties from wrongdoers. The FTC has the ability to implement trade regulation rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive and the Commission can publish reports and make legislative recommendations to Congress about issues affecting the economy. The Commission enforces various antitrust laws under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act as well as the Clayton Act. The FTC monitors all its orders to ensure compliance. 

FTC rules may be divided into three categories: section 6(g) rules, section 18 rules, and rules promulgated pursuant to statutes other than the FTC Act.

2.      Section 6(g) Rules

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act (“section 6(g)”) is a very short provision that empowers the FTC to “classify corporations” and also authorizes the Commission “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter [embodying the statutory authorities bestowed on the FTC].” Section 6(g) is a very tiny part of section 6 of the FTC Act, which delineates FTC powers to conduct investigations, issue reports, make criminal referrals to the Justice Department, cooperate with foreign enforcers, and expend funds for meetings with foreign officials and law enforcement groups. Section 6(g) primarily has been used by the Commission to enact procedural rules governing investigations and internal processes, not substantive rules dealing with business conduct.

Section 6(g) substantive rules today are subject to the informal rulemaking requirements of section 553 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings. Informal rulemaking involves publication of a proposed rule, followed by public comment (at least 30 days), followed by publication of a final rule.

In 1971, the FTC enacted a section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that section 6(g) authorized only nonsubstantive regulations regarding the FTC’s nonadjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in section 6. Notably, however, the FTC has not enacted any 6(g) competition rules in the nearly fifty years since the National Petroleum Refiners case was decided.

3.      Section 18 Rules

In 1975, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added section 18 to the Federal Trade Commission Act (“section 18”). Section 18 imposes hearing-type requirements that are not found in APA informal rulemakings. As the FTC explains, once the Commission has promulgated a trade regulation rule, anyone who violates the rule “with actual knowledge or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances that such act is unfair or deceptive and is prohibited by such rule” is liable for civil penalties for each violation. 

Section 18 consumer protection rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, as noted above, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for knowing violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated. Since 1975, the FTC has promulgated only seven Magnuson-Moss rules, reflecting the “slow and cumbersome” nature of those rulemakings, according to some scholarly critics. The FTC has nevertheless issued a wide variety of substantive consumer protection rules in recent decades under various special statutes directed at specific consumer protection problems identified by Congress.

4.      Non-FTC Act Rules

Over the years, Congress has passed a variety of statutes empowering the FTC to address particularized problems, through FTC enforcement and rulemaking initiatives, as appropriate. There are 82 such statutes currently in force, and only 16 deal solely with competition matters. FTC rules adopted pursuant to the many specialized consumer protection statutes (most of which were adopted in recent decades) largely obviated the need for and displaced section 6(g) consumer protection rulemaking initiatives of the 1960s.

The specialized competition laws (“special competition statutes”) involve such targeted substantive and procedural topics as, for example, fisheries conservation and management, litigation settlements between patented and generic drug makers, research and production joint ventures, outer continental shelf oil and gas leases, export trade associations, and international antitrust cooperation. Any FTC rules enacted under those laws inevitably are closely tied to and limited by the specific grant of congressional authority. Only one of the competition-related statutory grants, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976 (HSR), involves rulemaking that is highly significant to antitrust enforcement across the board. Those rules, which were first promulgated in the 1970s and have been tweaked over time, directly carry out the statutory mandate and yield finely honed guidance to the private sector (similar to the detailed guidance that non-antitrust primarily regulatory agencies typically provide). In marked contrast to HSR, the section 6(g) reference to rulemaking is an extremely short and general provision that provides no framework to guide the development of possible substantive competition rules.

5.      Legal Impediments to FTC Competition Rulemaking

In order to promulgate new FTC competition rules falling outside the ambit of specialized statutes, the FTC would have to rely primarily on section 6(g). Such rulemaking endeavors would face at least five legal doctrinal obstacles.

  • First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.
  • Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.
  • Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
  • Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.
  • Fifth, any attempt by the FTC to rely on its more specific section 18 rulemaking powers to reach anticompetitive practices would be cabined by the limited statutory scope of those powers.

Considering these obstacles collectively, it is exceptionally unlikely that FTC competition rules will survive legal challenge.

A. Non-Delegation Doctrine

Although the non-delegation doctrine has been largely moribund over the last century, it may nevertheless be revived in an appropriate case, as five current Supreme Court Justices have spoken favorably of it in recent years. Moreover, although it seldom has been applied directly to strike down regulatory schemes, it has sometimes led the Supreme Court to narrowly construe the scope of a statutory delegation to strike down sweeping agency actions without invoking the doctrine. What’s more, the Supreme Court has held that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. As such, The Court could well decide it appropriate to strike down far-reaching FTC rules that are based on broad and novel constructions of the vague yet expansive term “unfair methods of competition.”

B. Principles of Statutory Construction

The structure of the Federal Trade Commission Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism and appears dated. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.”

C. Administrative Law Principles Precluding “Arbitrary and Capricious” Agency Action

The FTC would have to provide a sufficient basis to justify a determination that a particular practice barred by rule is inevitably anticompetitive. Doing so might prove difficult, because it would be in tension with the traditional “rule of reason” analysis of antitrust litigation, which evaluates particular practices on a fact-specific, case-by-case basis. If a reviewing court were to find that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potential procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice, for example, it might decide that the rule is arbitrary and strike it down. This risk would appear to be substantial, particularly given the lack of a preexisting competition rulemaking tradition that could help guide rulemaking review by the courts. Relatedly, a novel FTC construction of “unfair methods of competition” through rulemaking that was at odds with antitrust case law could raise due process of law objections.

D. Court Deference to FTC Interpretations of “Unfair Methods of Competition” Is Unlikely

The courts would be unlikely to accord “Chevron deference” to FTC Section 6(g) rules that construed the term “unfair methods of competition” to apply to specific competitive practices. The Supreme Court has avoided applying agency regulatory interpretations to various “major questions” of great “economic and political significance” (such as, for example, disputes involving the Affordable Care Act and the application of food and drug law to tobacco products)—either by determining from the start not to apply Chevron or by finding Chevron applies but electing nevertheless to reject agency statutory constructions.  Given this background, the Supreme Court could readily determine that whether a broad array of hitherto unregulated commercial practices should be newly regulated on grounds of “unfairness” poses a “major question” for Congress that is beyond the scope of the FTC’s authority, rendering Chevron inapplicable. In addition, because “unfair methods of competition” rules could implicate the substantive content of antitrust law, such rules could interfere with Justice Department antitrust prosecutorial principles. This would solidify the conclusion that FTC competition rules implicate “major questions” of antitrust policy and interagency jurisdiction that should be left to Congress, and are outside the purview of the FTC’s interpretive authority.

E. Section 18 Rulemakings and Anticompetitive Practices

Given the substantial legal risks that confront section 6(g) rulemaking, the FTC might turn to section 18 (“unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) as a possible vehicle for the promulgation of new competition rules. The scope of possible application of section 18 to competition questions is, however, quite limited at best (see here). A “deceptive act or practice,” which the FTC defines as a “misrepresentation, omission, or other practice” that misleads consumers, is naturally directed to concerns about harm directly imposed on consumers by a business practice. It does not, however, fit naturally into concerns about business behavior that harms the process of competition. As such, a “deception” theory would not appear to be a good vehicle for a competition rule. Section 5(n) of the FTC Act, required that an “unfair act or practice” must impose measurable harm on consumers who acted reasonably. Second, such harm must be greater than any countervailing benefits to competition or consumers—in short, the conduct must on net be harmful, that is, it must fail a cost-benefit test. The FTC would have a very hard time jumping through the Section 18 evidentiary hoops to show that particular business practices met this test. In addition, courts might well conclude that Congress Section 18 was not designed by Congress to apply to “unfair method of competition.” Finally, two of the five current FTC Commissioners have criticized recent FTC revisions of the Commission’s rules of practice (see here) as undermining the goals of participation and transparency that Congress sought to advance when it enacted and amended Section 18. This could make judges even more reluctant to hold that Section 18 authorized novel competition rulemaking powers.

III. Conclusion

The current FTC leadership may be expected (at least initially) to proceed with competition rulemaking efforts, given Chair Khan’s strong support for this initiative. Rulemaking, of course, requires the gathering of evidence and the taking of testimony. Moreover, new competition rules imposing limitations on specified business practices or industry sectors would likely be appealed to U.S. courts of appeal. Eventually, one would expect the Supreme Court to step in to review the legal status of a particular competition rule and, most likely, the legality of FTC competition rulemaking itself. All of this would entail a substantial commitment of scarce public and private resources and take a considerable amount of time—the current FTC leadership likely would be long gone before a final legal resolution by the Supreme Court. Yet the end result would be in all likelihood a ruling that the FTC lacked substantive competition rulemaking authority. In short, the FTC rulemaking saga would almost surely entail pure waste, to the detriment of consumer welfare, producer welfare, and sound government.

The fate of the badly misnamed American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992 (AICOA), may be decided by the August congressional recess. AICOA’s serious flaws have been ably dissected by numerous commentators (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Moreover, respected former senior Democratic antitrust enforcers who have advocated more aggressive antitrust enforcement have also come out against the bill. For example, Stanford professor and former Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Douglas Melamed (who oversaw the Microsoft case for the Clinton Administration) very recently authored an article stressing that AICOA “is likely to impair innovation by the platforms.” The case has ably been made that the perverse welfare-reducing effects of multiple AICOA provisions, which impose inordinate costs (stemming, for instance, from interoperability requirements and prohibitions on “self-preferencing,” “discrimination,” and data usage) and discourage efficient vertical integration (see here), among other defects.

One aspect of AICOA that perhaps has garnered less attention is its affront to the rule of law. That deficiency in and of itself is sufficient to justify the summary rejection of this legislation by the Congress. Let’s examine it more closely.

A core element of the rule of law is that the government should apply the law neutrally to similarly situated entities. This principle is mocked, however, by the AICOA. The AICOA’s convoluted definition of “covered platform,” found in section 2(a)(5)(B) of S. 2992, focuses on rather arbitrary “monthly user,” capitalization, and sales value thresholds. Although the definitional elements were clearly designed to capture only the largest current digital platforms (all American) that have been in the public spotlight – Amazon, Facebook (now Meta), Apple, Google (now Alphabet), and Microsoft (possibly) – companies could fall within or outside the bill’s scope based on unpredictable changes in financial and user data in the future. This would lead to uncertainty as to whether particular firms were covered by the bill. It would also encourage corporate gamesmanship by specific firms as they sought to avoid the AICOA’s reach. As such, business planning would be rendered more difficult and less efficient, and the rule of law would be frayed.

A related rule of law concern is that parties be informed of the conduct they must adopt in order to avoid violating a particular law. Contemporary antitrust law does a far better job than the AICOA in satisfying this concern.

Contemporary American antitrust law has identified a few types of actions that are inherently anticompetitive, and therefore are “per se illegal” under all circumstances (bid rigging and naked horizontal price fixing and market division). Most business behavior, however, is assessed on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust “rule of reason,” which only condemns behavior whose anticompetitive effects outweigh its procompetitive effects. Rule of reason analysis prohibits  behavior that inefficiently weakens the competitive process and excludes rivals for no legitimate business reason, and thereby tends to reduce consumer welfare. Mere harm to individual competitors (due say to more efficient or innovative production techniques) is not condemned. Specific enforcement agency guidance through speeches, enforcement actions, and enforcement guidelines have developed over time on a bipartisan basis to clarify what competition on the merits means in particular circumstances. As former Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch explained in a 2017 speech, enforcers’ emphasis has been giving notice about enforcement principles that allows private parties to reasonably predict the legal consequences of their actions:

[S]tability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished.

In comparison with existing antitrust law, however, AICOA, does a very poor job of fostering predictability regarding what is prohibited. As Professor Melamed explains, it makes it unclear what it means when it uses the key term “material harm to competition”— whose absence a covered platform must demonstrate in order to avoid liability under the bill. Specifically, as Melamed stresses:

[T]he bill does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. . . . The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

Rule of law predictability is further undermined by other ambiguous AICOA terms, which also threaten to harm competition and innovation, as Professor Dan Spulber points out (citations omitted):

The new [proposed platform-related] antitrust laws may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology. The American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section expressed concerns about “ambiguous terminology in the [AICOA] Bill regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms.” The Section recommended that “these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process.”

Finally, AICOA also is in tension with the rule of law by placing the onus first on private parties to show that they have not violated the law (have not caused “material harm to competition”) when they have engaged in certain types of specified behavior deemed “problematic” under the bill. This is at odds with the approach under the antitrust rule of reason, in which the government first must show harm to competition before the defendant is required to justify its behavior as having procompetitive welfare-enhancing features. The AICOA’s placing of the initial burden on parties is troublesome, because the particular actions that trigger an initial presumption of illegality (self-preferencing, limitations on competitor access to the covered platform, certain “discriminatory” acts, certain restrictions on interoperability, certain use of nonpublic data, and so forth) are efficient and welfare-enhancing in many situations. Thus, AICOA undoubtedly would lead to the presumptive condemnation of much procompetitive conduct. Platforms that fell just outside AICOA’s coverage would not face this risk, because their similar conduct would be under the rule of reason. In short, the AICOA would lead to disparate treatment of identical conduct by similar firms, based on the bill’s arbitrary jurisdictional line-drawing. In conclusion, the AICOA sows confusion and undermines legal stability, continuity, and predictability. As such, it is an affront to the rule of law and should not be enacted, without regard to its substantive policy merits.   

The Biden administration’s antitrust reign of error continues apace. The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division has indicated in recent months that criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but refuses to provide any guidance regarding enforcement criteria.

Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers stated that “there’s ample case law out there to help inform those who have concerns or questions” regarding Section 2 criminal enforcement, conveniently ignoring the fact that criminal Section 2 cases have not been brought in almost half a century. Needless to say, those ancient Section 2 cases (which are relatively few in number) antedate the modern era of economic reasoning in antitrust analysis. What’s more, unlike Section 1 price-fixing and market-division precedents, they yield no clear rule as to what constitutes criminal unilateral behavior. Thus, DOJ’s suggestion that old cases be consulted for guidance is disingenuous at best. 

It follows that DOJ criminal-monopolization prosecutions would be sheer folly. They would spawn substantial confusion and uncertainty and disincentivize dynamic economic growth.

Aggressive unilateral business conduct is a key driver of the competitive process. It brings about “creative destruction” that transforms markets, generates innovation, and thereby drives economic growth. As such, one wants to be particularly careful before condemning such conduct on grounds that it is anticompetitive. Accordingly, error costs here are particularly high and damaging to economic prosperity.

Moreover, error costs in assessing unilateral conduct are more likely than in assessing joint conduct, because it is very hard to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive single-firm conduct, as DOJ’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 explains (citations omitted):

Courts and commentators have long recognized the difficulty of determining what means of acquiring and maintaining monopoly power should be prohibited as improper. Although many different kinds of conduct have been found to violate section 2, “[d]efining the contours of this element … has been one of the most vexing questions in antitrust law.” As Judge Easterbrook observes, “Aggressive, competitive conduct by any firm, even one with market power, is beneficial to consumers. Courts should prize and encourage it. Aggressive, exclusionary conduct is deleterious to consumers, and courts should condemn it. The big problem lies in this: competitive and exclusionary conduct look alike.”

The problem is not simply one that demands drawing fine lines separating different categories of conduct; often the same conduct can both generate efficiencies and exclude competitors. Judicial experience and advances in economic thinking have demonstrated the potential procompetitive benefits of a wide variety of practices that were once viewed with suspicion when engaged in by firms with substantial market power. Exclusive dealing, for example, may be used to encourage beneficial investment by the parties while also making it more difficult for competitors to distribute their products.

If DOJ does choose to bring a Section 2 criminal case soon, would it target one of the major digital platforms? Notably, a U.S. House Judiciary Committee letter recently called on DOJ to launch a criminal investigation of Amazon (see here). Also, current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan launched her academic career with an article focusing on Amazon’s “predatory pricing” and attacking the consumer welfare standard (see here).

Khan’s “analysis” has been totally discredited. As a trenchant scholarly article by Timothy Muris and Jonathan Nuechterlein explains:

[DOJ’s criminal Section 2 prosecution of A&P, begun in 1944,] bear[s] an eerie resemblance to attacks today on leading online innovators. Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers—first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers—have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics across the political spectrum have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries. 

Before bringing criminal Section 2 charges against Amazon, or any other “dominant” firm, DOJ leaders should read and absorb the sobering Muris and Nuechterlein assessment. 

Finally, not only would DOJ Section 2 criminal prosecutions represent bad public policy—they would also undermine the rule of law. In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch succinctly summarized the importance of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement:

[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

Bringing criminal monopolization cases now, after a half-century of inaction, would be antithetical to the stability and continuity that underlie the rule of law. What’s worse, the failure to provide prosecutorial guidance would be squarely at odds with concerns of notice and reliance that inform the rule of law. As such, a DOJ decision to target firms for Section 2 criminal charges would offend the rule of law (and, sadly, follow the FTC ‘s recent example of flouting the rule of law, see here and here).

In sum, the case against criminal Section 2 prosecutions is overwhelming. At a time when DOJ is facing difficulties winning “slam dunk” criminal Section 1  prosecutions targeting facially anticompetitive joint conduct (see here, here, and here), the notion that it would criminally pursue unilateral conduct that may generate substantial efficiencies is ludicrous. Hopefully, DOJ leadership will come to its senses and drop any and all plans to bring criminal Section 2 cases.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan recently joined with FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter to file a “written submission on the public interest” in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) Section 337 proceeding concerning imports of certain cellular-telecommunications equipment covered by standard essential patents (SEPs). SEPs are patents that “read on” technology adopted for inclusion in a standard. Regrettably, the commissioners’ filing embodies advice that, if followed, would effectively preclude Section 337 relief to SEP holders. Such a result would substantially reduce the value of U.S. SEPs and thereby discourage investments in standards that help drive American innovation.

Section 337 of the Tariff Act authorizes the ITC to issue “exclusion orders” blocking the importation of products that infringe U.S. patents, subject to certain “public interest” exceptions. Specifically, before issuing an exclusion order, the ITC must consider:

  1. the public health and welfare;
  2. competitive conditions in the U.S. economy;
  3. production of like or directly competitive articles in the United States; and
  4. U.S. consumers.

The Khan-Slaughter filing urges the ITC to consider the impact that issuing an exclusion order against a willing licensee implementing a standard would have on competition and consumers in the United States. The filing concludes that “where a complainant seeks to license and can be made whole through remedies in a different U.S. forum [a federal district court], an exclusion order barring standardized products from the United States will harm consumers and other market participants without providing commensurate benefits.”

Khan and Slaughter’s filing takes a one-dimensional view of the competitive effects of SEP rights. In short, it emphasizes that:

  1. standardization empowers SEP owners to “hold up” licensees by demanding more for a technology than it would have been worth, absent the standard;
  2. “hold ups” lead to higher prices and may discourage standard-setting activities and collaboration, which can delay innovation;
  3. many standard-setting organizations require FRAND (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) licensing commitments from SEP holders to preclude hold-up and encourage standards adoption;
  4. FRAND commitments ensure that SEP licenses will be available at rates limited to the SEP’s “true” value;
  5. the threat of ITC exclusion orders would empower SEP holders to coerce licensees into paying “anticompetitively high” supra-FRAND licensing rates, discouraging investments in standard-compliant products;
  6. inappropriate exclusion orders harm consumers in the short term by depriving them of desired products and, in the longer run, through reduced innovation, competition, quality, and choice;
  7. thus, where the standard implementer is a “willing licensee,” an exclusion order would be contrary to the public interest; and
  8. as a general matter, exclusionary relief is incongruent and against the public interest where a court has been asked to resolve FRAND terms and can make the SEP holder whole.

In essence, Khan and Slaughter recite a parade of theoretical horribles, centered on anticompetitive hold-ups, to call-for denying exclusion orders to SEP owners on public-interest grounds. Their filing’s analysis, however, fails as a matter of empirics, law, and sound economics. 

First, the filing fails to note that there is a lack of empirical support for anticompetitive hold-up being a problem at all (see, for example, here, here, and here). Indeed, a far more serious threat is “hold-out,” whereby the ability of implementers to infringe SEPs without facing serious consequences leads to an inefficient undervaluation of SEP rights (see, for example, here). (At worst, implementers will have to pay at some future time a “reasonable” licensing fee if held to be infringers in court, since U.S. case law (unlike foreign case law) has essentially eliminated SEP holders’ ability to obtain an injunction.)  

Second, as a legal matter, the filing’s logic would undercut the central statutory purpose of Section 337, which is to provide all U.S. patent holders a right to exclude infringing imports. Section 337 does not distinguish between SEPs and other patents—all are entitled to full statutory protection. Former ITC Chair Deanna Tanner Okun, in critiquing a draft administration policy statement that would severely curtail the rights of SEP holders, assessed the denigration of Section 337 statutory protections in a manner that is equally applicable to the Khan-Slaughter filing:

The Draft Policy Statement also circumvents Congress by upending the statutory framework and purpose of Section 337, which includes the ITC’s practice of evaluating all unfair acts equally. Although the draft disclaims any “unique set of legal rules for SEPs,” it does, in fact, create a special and unequal analysis for SEPs. The draft also implies that the ITC should focus on whether the patents asserted are SEPs when judging whether an exclusion order would adversely affect the public interest. The draft fundamentally misunderstands the ITC’s purpose, statutory mandates, and overriding consideration of safeguarding the U.S. public interest and would — again, without statutory approval — elevate SEP status of a single patent over other weighty public interest considerations. The draft also overlooks Presidential review requirements, agency consultation opportunities and the ITC’s ability to issue no remedies at all.

[Notable,] Section 337’s statutory language does not distinguish the types of relief available to patentees when SEPs are asserted.

Third, Khan and Slaughter not only assert theoretical competitive harms from hold-ups that have not been shown to exist (while ignoring the far more real threat of hold-out), they also ignore the foregone dynamic economic gains that would stem from limitations on SEP rights (see, generally, here). Denying SEP holders the right to obtain a Section 337 exclusion order, as advocated by the filing, deprives them of a key property right. It thereby establishes an SEP “liability rule” (SEP holder relegated to seeking damages), as opposed to a “property rule” (SEP holder may seek injunctive relief) as the SEP holder’s sole means to obtain recompense for patent infringement. As my colleague Andrew Mercado and I have explained, a liability-rule approach denies society the substantial economic benefits achievable through an SEP property rule:

[U]nder a property rule, as contrasted to a liability rule, innovation will rise and drive an increase in social surplus, to the benefit of innovators, implementers, and consumers. 

Innovators’ welfare will rise. … First, innovators already in the market will be able to receive higher licensing fees due to their improved negotiating position. Second, new innovators enticed into the market by the “demonstration effect” of incumbent innovators’ success will in turn engage in profitable R&D (to them) that brings forth new cycles of innovation.

Implementers will experience welfare gains as the flood of new innovations enhances their commercial opportunities. New technologies will enable implementers to expand their product offerings and decrease their marginal cost of production. Additionally, new implementers will enter the market as innovation accelerates. Seeing the opportunity to earn high returns, new implementers will be willing to pay innovators a high licensing fee in order to produce novel and improved products.

Finally, consumers will benefit from expanded product offerings and lower quality-adjusted prices. Initial high prices for new goods and services entering the market will fall as companies compete for customers and scale economies are realized. As such, more consumers will have access to new and better products, raising consumers’ surplus.

In conclusion, the ITC should accord zero weight to Khan and Slaughter’s fundamentally flawed filing in determining whether ITC exclusion orders should be available to SEP holders. Denying SEP holders a statutorily provided right to exclude would tend to undermine the value of their property, diminish investment in improved standards, reduce innovation, and ultimately harm consumers—all to the detriment, not the benefit, of the public interest.  

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan missed the mark once again in her May 6 speech on merger policy, delivered at the annual meeting of the International Competition Network (ICN). At a time when the FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are presumably evaluating responses to the agencies’ “request for information” on possible merger-guideline revisions (see here, for example), Khan’s recent remarks suggest a predetermination that merger policy must be “toughened” significantly to disincentivize a larger portion of mergers than under present guidance. A brief discussion of Khan’s substantively flawed remarks follows.

Discussion

Khan’s remarks begin with a favorable reference to the tendentious statement from President Joe Biden’s executive order on competition that “broad government inaction has allowed far too many markets to become uncompetitive, with consolidation and concentration now widespread across our economy, resulting in higher prices, lower wages, declining entrepreneurship, growing inequality, and a less vibrant democracy.” The claim that “government inaction” has enabled increased market concentration and reduced competition has been shown to be  inaccurate, and therefore cannot serve as a defensible justification for a substantive change in antitrust policy. Accordingly, Khan’s statement that the executive order “underscores a deep mandate for change and a commitment to creating the enabling environment for reform” rests on foundations of sand.

Khan then shifts her narrative to a consideration of merger policy, stating:

Merger investigations invite us to make a set of predictive assessments, and for decades we have relied on models that generally assumed markets are self-correcting and that erroneous enforcement is more costly than erroneous non-enforcement. Both the experience of the U.S. antitrust agencies and a growing set of empirical research is showing that these assumptions appear to have been at odds with market realities.

Digital Markets

Khan argues, without explanation, that “the guidelines must better account for certain features of digital markets—including zero-price dynamics, the competitive significance of data, and the network externalities that can swiftly lead markets to tip.” She fails to make any showing that consumer welfare has been harmed by mergers involving digital markets, or that the “zero-price” feature is somehow troublesome. Moreover, the reference to “data” as being particularly significant to antitrust analysis appears to ignore research (see here) indicating there is an insufficient basis for having an antitrust presumption involving big data, and that big data (like R&D) may be associated with innovation, which enhances competitive vibrancy.

Khan also fails to note that network externalities are beneficial; when users are added to a digital platform, the platform’s value to other users increases (see here, for example). What’s more (see here), “gateways and multihoming can dissipate any monopoly power enjoyed by large networks[,] … provid[ing] another reason” why network effects may not raise competitive problems. In addition, the implicit notion that “tipping” is a particular problem is belied by the ability of new competitors to “knock off” supposed entrenched digital monopolists (think, for example, of Yahoo being displaced by Google, and Myspace being displaced by Facebook). Finally, a bit of regulatory humility is in order. Given the huge amount of consumer surplus generated by digital platforms (see here, for example), enforcers should be particularly cautious about avoiding more aggressive merger (and antitrust in general) policies that could detract from, rather than enhance, welfare.

Labor Markets

Khan argues that guidelines drafters should “incorporate new learning” embodied in “empirical research [that] has shown that labor markets are highly concentrated” and a “U.S. Treasury [report] recently estimating that a lack of competition may be costing workers up to 20% of their wages.” Unfortunately for Khan’s argument, these claims have been convincingly debunked (see here) in a new study by former FTC economist Julie Carlson (see here). As Carlson carefully explains, labor markets are not highly concentrated and labor-market power is largely due to market frictions (such as occupational licensing), rather than concentration. In a similar vein, a recent article by Richard Epstein stresses that heightened antitrust enforcement in labor markets would involve “high administrative and compliance costs to deal with a largely nonexistent threat.” Epstein points out:

[T]raditional forms of antitrust analysis can perfectly deal with labor markets. … What is truly needed is a close examination of the other impediments to labor, including the full range of anticompetitive laws dealing with minimum wage, overtime, family leave, anti-discrimination, and the panoply of labor union protections, where the gains to deregulation should be both immediate and large.

Nonhorizontal Mergers

Khan notes:

[W]e are looking to sharpen our insights on non-horizontal mergers, including deals that might be described as ecosystem-driven, concentric, or conglomerate. While the U.S. antitrust agencies energetically grappled with some of these dynamics during the era of industrial-era conglomerates in the 1960s and 70s, we must update that thinking for the current economy. We must examine how a range of strategies and effects, including extension strategies and portfolio effects, may warrant enforcement action.

Khan’s statement on non-horizontal mergers once again is fatally flawed.

With regard to vertical mergers (not specifically mentioned by Khan), the FTC abruptly withdrew, without explanation, its approval of the carefully crafted 2020 vertical-merger guidelines. That action offends the rule of law, creating unwarranted and costly business-sector confusion. Khan’s lack of specific reference to vertical mergers does nothing to solve this problem.

With regard to other nonhorizontal mergers, there is no sound economic basis to oppose mergers involving unrelated products. Threatening to do so would have no procompetitive rationale and would threaten to reduce welfare by preventing the potential realization of efficiencies. In a 2020 OECD paper drafted principally by DOJ and FTC economists, the U.S. government meticulously assessed the case for challenging such mergers and rejected it on economic grounds. The OECD paper is noteworthy in its entirely negative assessment of 1960s and 1970s conglomerate cases which Khan implicitly praises in suggesting they merely should be “updated” to deal with the current economy (citations omitted):

Today, the United States is firmly committed to the core values that antitrust law protect competition, efficiency, and consumer welfare rather than individual competitors. During the ten-year period from 1965 to 1975, however, the Agencies challenged several mergers of unrelated products under theories that were antithetical to those values. The “entrenchment” doctrine, in particular, condemned mergers if they strengthened an already dominant firm through greater efficiencies, or gave the acquired firm access to a broader line of products or greater financial resources, thereby making life harder for smaller rivals. This approach is no longer viewed as valid under U.S. law or economic theory. …

These cases stimulated a critical examination, and ultimate rejection, of the theory by legal and economic scholars and the Agencies. In their Antitrust Law treatise, Phillip Areeda and Donald Turner showed that to condemn conglomerate mergers because they might enable the merged firm to capture cost savings and other efficiencies, thus giving it a competitive advantage over other firms, is contrary to sound antitrust policy, because cost savings are socially desirable. It is now recognized that efficiency and aggressive competition benefit consumers, even if rivals that fail to offer an equally “good deal” suffer loss of sales or market share. Mergers are one means by which firms can improve their ability to compete. It would be illogical, then, to prohibit mergers because they facilitate efficiency or innovation in production. Unless a merger creates or enhances market power or facilitates its exercise through the elimination of competition—in which case it is prohibited under Section 7—it will not harm, and more likely will benefit, consumers.

Given the well-reasoned rejection of conglomerate theories by leading antitrust scholars and modern jurisprudence, it would be highly wasteful for the FTC and DOJ to consider covering purely conglomerate (nonhorizontal and nonvertical) mergers in new guidelines. Absent new legislation, challenges of such mergers could be expected to fail in court. Regrettably, Khan appears oblivious to that reality.

Khan’s speech ends with a hat tip to internationalism and the ICN:

The U.S., of course, is far from alone in seeing the need for a course correction, and in certain regards our reforms may bring us in closer alignment with other jurisdictions. Given that we are here at ICN, it is worth considering how we, as an international community, can or should react to the shifting consensus.

Antitrust laws have been adopted worldwide, in large part at the urging of the United States (see here). They remain, however, national laws. One would hope that the United States, which in the past was the world leader in developing antitrust economics and enforcement policy, would continue to seek to retain this role, rather than merely emulate other jurisdictions to join an “international community” consensus. Regrettably, this does not appear to be the case. (Indeed, European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager made specific reference to a “coordinated approach” and convergence between U.S. and European antitrust norms in a widely heralded October 2021 speech at the annual Fordham Antitrust Conference in New York. And Vestager specifically touted European ex ante regulation as well as enforcement in a May 5 ICN speech that emphasized multinational antitrust convergence.)

Conclusion

Lina Khan’s recent ICN speech on merger policy sends all the wrong signals on merger guidelines revisions. It strongly hints that new guidelines will embody pre-conceived interventionist notions at odds with sound economics. By calling for a dramatically new direction in merger policy, it interjects uncertainty into merger planning. Due to its interventionist bent, Khan’s remarks, combined with prior statements by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter (see here) may further serve to deter potentially welfare-enhancing consolidations. Whether the federal courts will be willing to defer to a drastically different approach to mergers by the agencies (one at odds with several decades of a careful evolutionary approach, rooted in consumer welfare-oriented economics) is, of course, another story. Stay tuned.  

Biden administration enforcers at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prioritized labor-market monopsony issues for antitrust scrutiny (see, for example, here and here). This heightened interest comes in light of claims that labor markets are highly concentrated and are rife with largely neglected competitive problems that depress workers’ income. Such concerns are reflected in a March 2022 U.S. Treasury Department report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.”

Monopsony is the “flip side” of monopoly and U.S. antitrust law clearly condemns agreements designed to undermine the “buyer side” competitive process (see, for example, this U.S. government submission to the OECD). But is a special new emphasis on labor markets warranted, given that antitrust enforcers ideally should seek to allocate their scarce resources to the most pressing (highest valued) areas of competitive concern?

A May 2022 Information Technology & Innovation (ITIF) study from ITIF Associate Director (and former FTC economist) Julie Carlson indicates that the degree of emphasis the administration’s antitrust enforcers are placing on labor issues may be misplaced. In particular, the ITIF study debunks the Treasury report’s findings of high levels of labor-market concentration and the claim that workers face a “decrease in wages [due to labor market power] at roughly 20 percent relative to the level in a fully competitive market.” Furthermore, while noting the importance of DOJ antitrust prosecutions of hard-core anticompetitive agreements among employers (wage-fixing and no-poach agreements), the ITIF report emphasizes policy reforms unrelated to antitrust as key to improving workers’ lot.

Key takeaways from the ITIF report include:

  • Labor markets are not highly concentrated. Local labor-market concentration has been declining for decades, with the most concentrated markets seeing the largest declines.
  • Labor-market power is largely due to labor-market frictions, such as worker preferences, search costs, bargaining, and occupational licensing, rather than concentration.
  • As a case study, changes in concentration in the labor market for nurses have little to no effect on wages, whereas nurses’ preferences over job location are estimated to lead to wage markdowns of 50%.
  • Firms are not profiting at the expense of workers. The decline in the labor share of national income is primarily due to rising home values, not increased labor-market concentration.
  • Policy reform should focus on reducing labor-market frictions and strengthening workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Policies targeting concentration are misguided and will be ineffective at improving outcomes for workers.

The ITIF report also throws cold water on the notion of emphasizing labor-market issues in merger reviews, which was teed up in the January 2022 joint DOJ/FTC request for information (RFI) on merger enforcement. The ITIF report explains:

Introducing the evaluation of labor market effects unnecessarily complicates merger review and needlessly ties up agency resources at a time when the agencies are facing severe resource constraints.48 As discussed previously, labor markets are not highly concentrated, nor is labor market concentration a key factor driving down wages.

A proposed merger that is reportable to the agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant labor market is also likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant product market. … Evaluating mergers for labor market effects is unnecessary and costly for both firms and the agencies. The current merger guidelines adequately address competition concerns in input markets, so any contemplated revision to the guidelines should not incorporate a “framework to analyze mergers that may lessen competition in labor markets.” [Citation to Request for Information on Merger Enforcement omitted.]

In sum, the administration’s recent pronouncements about highly anticompetitive labor markets that have resulted in severely underpaid workers—used as the basis to justify heightened antitrust emphasis on labor issues—appear to be based on false premises. As such, they are a species of government misinformation, which, if acted upon, threatens to misallocate scarce enforcement resources and thereby undermine efficient government antitrust enforcement. What’s more, an unnecessary overemphasis on labor-market antitrust questions could impose unwarranted investigative costs on companies and chill potentially efficient business transactions. (Think of a proposed merger that would reduce production costs and benefit consumers but result in a workforce reduction by the merged firm.)

Perhaps the administration will take heed of the ITIF report and rethink its plans to ramp up labor-market antitrust-enforcement initiatives. Promoting pro-market regulatory reforms that benefit both labor and consumers (for instance, excessive occupational-licensing restrictions) would be a welfare-superior and cheaper alternative to misbegotten antitrust actions.

A new scholarly study of economic concentration sheds further light on the flawed nature of the Neo-Brandeisian claim that the United States has a serious “competition problem” due to decades of increasing concentration and ineffective antitrust enforcement (see here and here, for example). In a recent article, economist Yueran Ma—assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business—found that economies of scale (an efficiency) were associated with a U.S. economy-wide rise in concentration in economic activities (not antitrust markets) and a growth in output over the last century. In particular, Ma explained (emphasis added):

New research observing 100 years of concentration in economic activities and investment in research and development shows that the dominance of large businesses has been increasing for at least a century and, as Marx conjectured, may be a feature of the increasingly stronger economies of scale that accompany industrial development. . . .

To understand the broad historical currents of concentration, we collected financial information of all US corporations by size groups for the past 100 years. . . .

To be clear, our focus is not market concentration for a particular product, which would require defining markets based on consumption activities. Instead, our focus is the business size distribution in the US, namely the extent to which larger businesses dominate in the total volume of production activities across the economy. . . .

The data reveals a persistent rise in the dominance of the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent of businesses in the US. From 1918 to 1975, the SOI provided size groups sorted by net income (green line with circles). Starting in 1959, the SOI also provided size groups sorted by sales (red line with diamonds). The longest and most comprehensive size groups are sorted by assets, available since 1931 (blue line with triangles). No matter the measure you choose, the long-run increase in corporate concentration is clear. . . .

Just as Stigler, Marx and Lenin had predicted, the reason for increased concentration appears to be economies of scale. Among different industries, we find that the timing and the degree of rising concentration align closely with rising investment in research and development (R&D) and information technology (IT), measured using additional data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). These types of investments usually require a certain degree of scale due to upfront spending, while also producing technological changes that enhance economies of scale. Accordingly, we use investment intensity in R&D and IT as a general indicator of firms exploiting economies of scale. . . .

We also find that increases in concentration are positively associated with industry growth. In particular, over the medium term (e.g., twenty years), industries that experience higher increases in concentration are also the ones that experience higher growth in real gross output. Correspondingly, their shares of economic output expand as well. . . .

A[ ] natural question is whether regulatory policies and antitrust enforcement drive the main trends we find. For instance, regulatory restrictions on interstate banking could have a direct impact on the size of banks (and we indeed observe rising concentration in banking when these restrictions were lifted). In most other sectors, we are not aware of policies that align with the patterns of rising concentration in our data. The past century witnessed several regimes of antitrust enforcement—however, rising corporate concentration has been a secular trend throughout these different antitrust regimes. We do not observe a significant relationship between corporate concentration in our data and standard aggregate antitrust enforcement measures, such as the number of antitrust cases filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the budget of the DOJ’s antitrust division. Overall, we do not find evidence that antitrust shapes the economy-wide business size distribution, although it could have a more visible impact on the market for a particular product (which is closer to the domain of antitrust analyses).

Even if higher concentration in production activities comes from economies of scale, some contemporary observers fear that economies of scale will ultimately weaken competition and cultivate monopoly power (Lenin highlighted such concerns as well). Analyzing this question requires reliable measurement of market power. So far, most studies do not find rising markups (the standard measure of market power) before the 1980s, and some argue that markups have increased since the 1980s. Combined with our findings, the evidence suggests that stronger economies of scale does not always lead to stronger market power. It is possible that such a link may exist under certain conditions, and future research could shed more light on this topic.

In broad terms, Ma’s study describes a long-term rise in economic concentration (again, something entirely different from antitrust-relevant market concentration) in tandem with substantial increases in economies of scale and output expansion—overall, a story of long-term welfare enhancement. Antitrust-enforcement levels are not portrayed as significantly related to this trend, and there is no showing that rising economies of scale inevitably enhance market power. (Even possible increases in markups, whose existence has been contested, do not necessarily reflect an increase in market power, see here and here.)

Admittedly, Ma was engaged in a positive analysis of concentration, not a normative assessment. But her research certainly lends no support to the normative neo-Brandeisian notion that a drastic interventionist-minded overhaul of antitrust is required to address major competitive ills. To the contrary, one could logically infer that a dramatic rise in antitrust interventionism is not only uncalled for, but it could threaten the beneficial nature of rising economies of scale and output that have been shown to characterize the U.S. economy. One would hope that this inference would give Congress and U.S. antitrust enforcers pause before they embark on a novel interventionist path.