In February’s FTC roundup, I noted an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which Commissioner Christine Wilson announced her intent to resign from the Federal Trade Commission. Her departure, and her stated reasons therefore, were not encouraging for those of us who would prefer to see the FTC function as a stable, economically grounded, and genuinely bipartisan independent agency. Since then, Wilson has specified her departure date: March 31, two weeks hence.
With Wilson’s departure, and that of Commissioner Noah Phillips in October 2022 (I wrote about that here, and I recommend Alden Abbott’s post on Noah Phillips’ contribution to the 1-800 Contacts case), we’ll have a strictly partisan commission—one lacking any Republican commissioners or, indeed, anyone who might properly be described as a moderate or mainstream antitrust lawyer or economist. We shall see what the appointment process delivers and when; soon, I hope, but I’m not holding my breath.
Next Comes Exodus
As followers of the FTC—faithful, agnostic, skeptical, or occasional—are all aware, the commissioners have not been alone in their exodus. Not a few staffers have left the building.
In a Bloomberg column just yesterday, Dan Papscun covers the scope of the departures, “at a pace not seen in at least two decades.” Based on data obtained from a Bloomberg Freedom of Information Act request, Papscun notes the departure of “99 senior-level career attorneys” from 2021-2022, including 71 experienced GS-15 level attorneys and 28 from the senior executive service.
To put those numbers in context, this left the FTC—an agency with dual antitrust and consumer-protection authority ranging over most of domestic commerce—with some 750 attorneys at the end of 2022. That’s a decent size for a law firm that lacks global ambitions, but a little lean for the agency. Papscun quotes Debbie Feinstein, former head of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition during the Obama administration: “You lose a lot of institutional knowledge” with the departure of senior staff and career leaders. Indeed you do.
Onward and Somewhere
The commission continues to scrutinize noncompete terms in employment agreements by bringing cases, even as it entertains comments on its proposal to ban nearly all such terms by regulation (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for “a few” ToTM posts on the proposal). As I noted before, the NPRM cites three recent settlements of Section 5 cases against firms’ use of noncompetes as a means of documenting the commission’s experience with such terms. It’s important to define one’s terms clearly. By “cases,” I mean administrative complaints resolved by consent orders, with no stipulation of any antitrust violation, rather than cases litigated to their conclusion in federal court. And by “recent,” I mean settlements announced the very day before the publication of the NPRM.
Also noted was the brevity of the complaints, and the memoranda and orders memorializing the settlements. It’s entirely possible that the FTC’s allegations in one, two, or all of the matters were correct, but based on the public documents, it’s hard to tell how the noncompetes violated Section 5. Commissioner Wilson noted as much in her dissents (here and here).
On March 15, the FTC’s record on noncompete cases grew by a third; that is, the agency announced a fourth settlement (again in an administrative process, and again without a decision on the merits or a stipulation of an antitrust violation). Once again, the public documents are . . . compact, providing little by way of guidance as to how (in the commission’s view), the specific terms of the agreements violated Section 5 (of course, if—as suggested in the NPRM—all such terms violate Section 5, then there you go). Again, Commissioner Wilson noticed.
Here’s a wrinkle: the staff do seem to be building on their experience regarding the use of noncompete terms in the glass container industry. Of the four noncompete competition matters now settled (all this year), three—including the most recent—deal with firms in the glass-container industry, which, according to the allegations, is highly concentrated (at least in its labor markets). The NPRM asked for input on its sweeping proposed rule, but it also asked for input on possible regulatory alternatives. A smarter aleck than myself might suggest that they consider regulating the use of noncompetes in the glass-container industry, given the commission’s burgeoning experience in this specific labor market (or markets).
Someone Deserves a Break Today
The commission’s foray into labor matters continues, with a request for information (RFI) on “the means by which franchisors exert control over franchisees and their workers.” On the one hand, the commission has a longstanding consumer-protection interest in the marketing of franchises, enforcing its Franchise Rule, which was first adopted in 1978 and amended in 2007. The rule chiefly requires certain disclosures—23 of them—in marketing franchise opportunities to potential franchisees. Further inquiry into the operation of the rule, and recent market developments, could be part of the normal course of regulatory business.
But this is not exactly that. The RFI raises a panoply of questions about both competition and consumer-protection issues, well beyond the scope of the rule, that may pertain to franchise businesses. It asks, among other things, how the provisions of franchise agreements “affects franchisees, consumers, workers, and competition, or . . . any justifications for such provision[s].” Working its way back to noncompetes:
The FTC is currently seeking public comment on a proposed rule to ban noncompete clauses for workers in some situations. As part of that proposed rulemaking, the FTC is interested in public comments on the question of whether that proposed rule should also apply to noncompete clauses between franchisors and franchisees.
As Alden Abbott observed, franchise businesses represent a considerable engine of economic growth. That’s not to say that a given franchisor cannot run afoul of either antitrust or consumer-protection law, but it does suggest that there are considerable positive aspects to many franchisor/franchisee relationships, and not just potential harms.
If that’s right, one might wonder whether the commission’s litany of questions about “the means by which franchisors exert control over franchisees and their workers” represents a neutral inquiry into a complex class of business models employed in diverse industries. If you’re still wondering, Elizabeth Wilkins, director of the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning (full disclosure, she was my boss for a minute, and, in my opinion, a good manager) issued a spoiler alert: “This RFI will begin to unravel how the unequal bargaining power inherent in these contracts is impacting franchisees, workers, and consumers.” What could be more neutral than that?
The RFI also seeks input on the use of intra-franchise no-poach agreements, a relatively narrow but still significant issue for franchise brand development. More about us: a recent amicus brief filed by the International Center for Law & Economics and 20 scholars of antitrust law and economics (including your humble scribe, but also, and not for nothin’, a Nobel laureate), explains some of the pro-competitive potential of such agreements, both generally and with a focus on a specific case, Delandes v. McDonald’s.
It’s here, if you or the commission are interested.