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[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The Wall Street Journal reports congressional leaders have agreed to impose limits on stock buybacks and dividend payments for companies receiving aid under the COVID-19 disaster relief package. 

Rather than a flat-out ban, the draft legislation forbids any company taking federal emergency loans or loan guarantees from repurchasing its own stock or paying shareholder dividends. The ban lasts for the term of the loans, plus one year after the aid had ended.

In theory, under a strict set of conditions, there is no difference between dividends and buybacks. Both approaches distribute cash from the corporation to shareholders. In practice, there are big differences between dividends and share repurchases.

  • Dividends are publicly visible actions and require authorization by the board of directors. Shareholders have expectations of regular, stable dividends. Buybacks generally lack such transparency. Firms have flexibility in choosing the timing and the amount of repurchases, subject to the details of their repurchase programs.
  • Cash dividends have no effect on the number of shares outstanding. In contrast, share repurchases reduce the number of shares outstanding. By reducing the number of shares outstanding, buybacks increase earnings per share, all other things being equal. 

Over the past 15 years, buybacks have outpaced dividend payouts. The figure above, from Seeking Alpha, shows that while dividends have grown relatively smoothly over time, the aggregate value of buybacks are volatile and vary with the business cycle. In general, firms increase their repurchases relative to dividends when the economy booms and reduce them when the economy slows or shrinks. 

This observation is consistent with a theory that buybacks are associated with periods of greater-than-expected financial performance. On the other hand, dividends are associated with expectations of long-term profitability. Dividends can decrease, but only when profits are expected to be “permanently” lower. 

During the Great Recession, the figure above shows that dividends declined by about 10%, the amount of share repurchases plummeted by approximately 85%. The flexibility afforded by buybacks provided stability in dividends.

There is some logic to dividend and buyback limits imposed by the COVID-19 disaster relief package. If a firm has enough cash on hand to pay dividends or repurchase shares, then it doesn’t need cash assistance from the federal government. Similarly, if a firm is so desperate for cash that it needs a federal loan or loan guarantee, then it doesn’t have enough cash to provide a payout to shareholders. Surely managers understand this and sophisticated shareholders should too.

Because of this understanding, the dividend and buyback limits may be a non-binding constraint. It’s not a “good look” for a corporation to accept millions of dollars in federal aid, only to turn around and hand out those taxpayer dollars to the company’s shareholders. That’s a sure way to get an unflattering profile in the New York Times and an invitation to attend an uncomfortable hearing at the U.S. Capitol. Even if a distressed firm could repurchase its shares, it’s unlikely that it would.

The logic behind the plus-one-year ban on dividends and buybacks is less clear. The relief package is meant to get the U.S. economy back to normal as fast as possible. That means if a firm repays its financial assistance early, the company’s shareholders should be rewarded with a cash payout rather than waiting a year for some arbitrary clock to run out.

The ban on dividends and buybacks may lead to an unintended consequence of increased merger and acquisition activity. Vox reports an email to Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division says Goldman expects to see an increase in hostile takeovers and shareholder activism as the prices of public companies fall. Cash rich firms who are subject to the ban and cannot get that cash to their existing shareholders may be especially susceptible takeover targets.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and these are desperate times. Buyback backlash has been brewing for sometime and the COVID-19 relief package presents a perfect opportunity to ban buybacks. With the pressures businesses are under right now, it’s unlikely there’ll be many buybacks over the next few months. The concern should be over the unintended consequences facing firms once the economy recovers.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]




Wells Fargo faces billions of dollars of fines for creating millions of fraudulent savings, checking, credit, and insurance accounts on behalf of their clients without their customers’ consent. Last weekend, tens of thousands of travelers were likely exposed to coronavirus while waiting hours for screening at crowded airports. Consumers and businesses around the world pay higher energy prices as their governments impose costly programs to reduce carbon emissions.

These seemingly unrelated observations have something in common: They are all victims of some version of Goodhart’s Law.

Being a central banker, Charles Goodhart’s original statement was a bit more dense: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

The simple version of the law is: “When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.”

Economist Charles Munger puts it more succinctly: “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.”

The Wells Fargo scandal is a case study in Goodhart’s Law. It came from a corporate culture pushed by the CEO, Dick Kovacevich, that emphasized “cross-selling” products to existing customers, as related in a Vanity Fair profile.

As Kovacevich told me in a 1998 profile of him I wrote for Fortune magazine, the key question facing banks was “How do you sell money?” His answer was that financial instruments—A.T.M. cards, checking accounts, credit cards, loans—were consumer products, no different from, say, screwdrivers sold by Home Depot. In Kovacevich’s lingo, bank branches were “stores,” and bankers were “salespeople” whose job was to “cross-sell,” which meant getting “customers”—not “clients,” but “customers”—to buy as many products as possible. “It was his business model,” says a former Norwest executive. “It was a religion. It very much was the culture.”

It was underpinned by the financial reality that customers who had, say, lines of credit and savings accounts with the bank were far more profitable than those who just had checking accounts. In 1997, prior to Norwest’s merger with Wells Fargo, Kovacevich launched an initiative called “Going for Gr-Eight,” which meant getting the customer to buy eight products from the bank. The reason for eight? “It rhymes with GREAT!” he said.

The concept makes sense. It’s easier to get sales from existing customers than trying to find new customers. Also, if revenues are rising, there’s less pressure to reduce costs. 

Kovacevich came to Wells Fargo in the late 1990s by way of its merger with Norwest, where he was CEO. After the merger, he noticed that the Wells unit was dragging down the merged firm’s sales-per-customer numbers. So, Wells upped the pressure. 

One staffer reported that every morning, they’d have a conference call with their managers. Staff were supposed to to explain how they’d make their sales goal for the day. If the goal wasn’t hit at the end of the day, staff had to explain why they missed the goal and how they planned to fix it. Bonuses were offered for hitting their targets, and staffers were let go for missing their targets.

Wells Fargo had rules against “gaming” the system. Yes, it was called “gaming.” But the incentives were so strongly aligned in favor of gaming, that the rules were ignored.

Wells Fargo’s internal investigation estimated between 2011 and 2015 its employees had opened more than 1.5 million deposit accounts and more than 565,000 credit-card accounts that may not have been authorized. Customers were charged fees on the accounts, some accounts were sent to collections over unpaid fees, cars were repossessed, and homes went into foreclosure.

Some customers were charged fees on accounts they didn’t know they had, and some customers had collection agencies calling them due to unpaid fees on accounts they didn’t know existed.

Goodhart’s Law hit Wells Fargo hard. Cross-selling was the bank’s target. Once management placed pressure to hit the target, cross-selling became not just a bad target, it corrupted the entire retail side of the business.

Last Friday, my son came home from his study abroad in Spain. He landed less than eight hours before the travel ban went into effect. He was lucky–he got out of the airport less than an hour after landing. 

The next day was pandemonium. In addition to the travel ban, the U.S. imposed health screening on overseas arrivals. Over the weekend, travelers reported being forced into crowded terminals for up to eight hours to go through customs and receive screening. 

The screening process resulted in exactly the opposite of what health officials are advising, to avoid close contact and large crowds. We still don’t know if the screenings have helped reduce the spread of the coronavirus or if the forced crowding fostered the spread.

The government seemed to forget Goodhart’s Law. Public demand for enhanced screenings made screening the target. Screenings were implemented hastily without any thought of the consequences of clustering potentially infected flyers with the uninfected. Someday, we may learn that a focus on screening came at the expense of slowing the spread.

More and more we’re being told climate change presents an existential threat to our planet. We’re told the main culprit is carbon emissions from economic activity. Toward that end, governments around the world are trying to take extraordinary measures to reduce carbon emissions. 

In Oregon, the legislature has been trying for more than a decade to implement a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions in the state. A state that accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Oregon went to zero GHG emissions, the world would never know.

Legislators pushing cap-and-trade want the state to address climate change immediately. But, when the microphones are turned off, they admit their cap-and-trade program would do nothing to slow global climate change.

In yet another case of Goodhart’s Law, Oregon and other jurisdictions have made carbon emissions the target. As a consequence, if cap-and-trade were ever to become law in the state, businesses and consumers would be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars of dollars a year more in energy prices, with zero effect on global temperatures. Those dollars could be better spent on acknowledging the consequences of climate change and making investments to deal with those consequences.

The funny thing about Goodhart’s Law is that once you know about it, you see it everywhere. And, it’s not just some quirky observation. It’s a failure that can have serious consequences on our health, our livelihoods, and our economy.

In antitrust lore, mavericks are magical creatures that bring order to a world on the verge of monopoly. Because they are so hard to find in the wild, some researchers have attempted to create them in the laboratory. While the alchemists couldn’t turn lead into gold, they did discover zinc. Similarly, although modern day researchers can’t turn students into mavericks, they have created a useful classroom exercise.

In a Cambridge University working paper, Donja Darai, Catherine Roux, and Frédéric Schneider develop a simple experiment to model merger activity in the face of price competition. Based on their observations they conclude (1) firms are more likely to make merger offers when prices are closer to marginal cost and (2) “maverick firms” – firms who charge a lower price – are more likely to be on the receiving end of those merger offers. Based on these conclusions, they suggest “mergers may be used to eliminate mavericks from the market and thus substitute for failed attempts at collusion between firms.”

The experiment is a set of games broken up into “market” phases and “merger” phases.

  • Each experiment has four subjects, with each subject representing a firm.
  • Each firm has marginal cost of zero and no capacity constraints.
  • Each experiment has nine phases: five “market” phases of 10 trading periods and a four “merger” phases.
  • During a trading period, firms simultaneously post their asking prices, ranging from 0 to 100 “currency units.” Subjects cannot communicate their prices to each other.
  • A computerized “buyer” purchases 300 units of the good at the lowest posted price. In the case of identical lowest prices, the sales are split equally among the firms with the lowest posted price.
  • At the end of the market phase, the firms enter a merger phase in which any firm can offer to merge with any other firm. Firms being made an offer to merge can accept or reject the offer. There are no price terms for the merger. Instead, the subject controlling the acquired firm receives an equal share of the acquiring firm’s profits in subsequent trading periods. Each firm can acquire only one other firm in each merger round.
  • The market-merger phases repeat, ending with a final market phase.
  • Subjects receive cash compensation related to the the “profits” their firm earned over the course of the experiment.

Merger to monopoly is a dominant strategy: It is the clearest path to maximizing individual and joint profits. In that way it’s a pretty boring game. Bid low, merge toward monopoly, then bid 100 every turn after that. The only real “trick” is convincing the other players to merge.

The authors attempt to make the paper more interesting by introducing the idea of the “maverick” bidder who bids low. They find that the lowest bidders are more likely to receive merger offers than the other subjects. They also find that these so-called mavericks are more reluctant to accept a merger offer. 

I noted in my earlier post that modeling the “maverick” seems to be a fool’s errand. If firms are assumed to face the same cost and demand conditions, why would any single firm play the role of the maverick? In the standard prisoner’s dilemma problem, every firm has the incentive to be the maverick. If everyone’s a maverick, then no one’s a maverick. On the other hand, if one firm has unique cost or demand conditions or is assumed to have some preference for “mavericky” behavior, then the maverick model is just an ad hoc model where the conclusions are baked into the assumptions.

Darai, et al.’s experiment suffers from these same criticisms. They define the “maverick” as a low bidder who does not accept merger offers. But, they don’t have a model for why they behave the way they do. Some observations:

  • Another name for “low bidder” is “winner.” If the low bidders consistently win in the market phase, then they may believe that they have some special skill or luck that the other subjects don’t have. Why would a winner accept a merger bid from – and share his or her profits with – one or more “losers.”  
  • Another name for “low bidder” could be “newbie.” The low bidder may be the subject who doesn’t understand that the dominant strategy is to merge to monopoly as fast as possible and charge the maximum price. The other players conclude the low bidder doesn’t know how to play the game. In other words, the merger might be viewed more as a hostile takeover to replace “bad” management. Because even bad managers won’t admit they’re bad, they make another bad decision and resist the merger.
  • About 80% of the time, the experiment ends with a monopoly, indicating that even the mavericks eventually merge. 

See what I just did? I created my own ad hoc theories of the maverick. In one theory, the maverick thinks he or she has some unique ability to pick the winning asking price. In the other, the maverick is making decisions counter to its own – and other players’ – long term self-interest. 

Darai, et al. have created a fun game. I played a truncated version of it with my undergraduate class earlier this week and it generated a good discussion about pricing and coordination. But, please don’t call it a model of the maverick.

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics and Professor of Economics, Portland State University).]

Vertical mergers are messy. They’re messy for the merging firms and they’re especially messy for regulators charged with advancing competition without advantaging competitors. Firms rarely undertake a vertical merger with an eye toward monopolizing a market. Nevertheless, competitors and competition authorities excel at conjuring up complex models that reveal potentially harmful consequences stemming from vertical mergers. In their post, Gregory J. Werden and Luke M. Froeb highlight the challenges in evaluating vertical mergers:

[V]ertical mergers produce anticompetitive effects only through indirect mechanisms with many moving parts, which makes the prediction of competitive effects from vertical mergers more complex and less certain.  

There’s a recurring theme throughout this symposium: The current Vertical Merger Guidelines should be updated; the draft Guidelines are a good start, but they raise more questions than they answer. Other symposium posts have hit on the key ups and downs of the draft Guidelines. 

In this post, I use the draft Guidelines’ examples to highlight how messy vertical mergers can be. The draft Guidelines’ examples are meant to clarify the government’s thinking on markets and mergers. In the end, however, they demonstrate the complexity in identifying relevant markets, related products, and the dynamic interaction of competition. I will focus on two examples provided in the draft Guidelines. Warning: you’re going to read a lot about oranges.

In the following example from the draft Guidelines, the relevant market is the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X and Company B’s supply of oranges is the related product

Example 2: Company A is a wholesale supplier of orange juice. It seeks to acquire Company B, an owner of orange orchards. The Agencies may consider whether the merger would lessen competition in the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X (the relevant market). The Agencies may identify Company B’s supply of oranges as the related product. Company B’s oranges are used in fifteen percent of the sales in the relevant market for wholesale supply of orange juice. The Agencies may consider the share of fifteen percent as one indicator of the competitive significance of the related product to participants in the relevant market.

The figure below illustrates one hypothetical structure. Company B supplies an equal amount of oranges to Company A and two other wholesalers, C and D, totalling 15 percent of orange juice sales in region X. Orchards owned by others account for the remaining 85 percent. For the sake of argument, assume all the wholesalers are the same size in which case Company B’s orchard would supply 20 percent of the oranges used by wholesalers A, C, and D.

Orange juice sold in a particular region is just one of many uses for oranges. The juice can be sold as fresh liquid, liquid from concentrate, or frozen concentrate. The fruit can be sold as fresh produce or it can be canned, frozen, or processed into marmalade. Many of these products can be sold outside of a particular region and can be sold outside of the United States. This is important in considering the next example from the draft Guidelines.

Example 3: In Example 2, the merged firm may be able to profitably stop supplying oranges (the related product) to rival orange juice suppliers (in the relevant market). The merged firm will lose the margin on the foregone sales of oranges but may benefit from increased sales of orange juice if foreclosed rivals would lose sales, and some of those sales were diverted to the merged firm. If the benefits outweighed the costs, the merged firm would find it profitable to foreclose. If the likely effect of the foreclosure were to substantially lessen competition in the orange juice market, the merger potentially raises significant competitive concerns and may warrant scrutiny.

This is the classic example of raising rivals’ costs. Under the standard formulation, the merged firm will produce oranges at the orchard’s marginal cost — in theory, the price it pays for oranges would be the same both pre- and post-merger. If orchard B does not sell its oranges to the non-integrated wholesalers C, D, and E, the other orchards will be able to charge a price greater than their marginal cost of production and greater than the pre-merger market price for oranges. The higher price of oranges used by non-integrated wholesalers will then be reflected in higher prices for orange juice sold by the wholesalers. 

The merged firm’s juice prices will be higher post-merger because its unintegrated rivals’ juice prices will be higher, thus increasing the merged firm’s profits. The merged firm and unintegrated orchards would be the “winners;” unintegrated wholesalers and consumers would be the “losers.” Under a consumer welfare standard the result could be deemed anticompetitive. Under a total welfare standard, anything goes.

But, the classic example of raising rivals’ costs is based on some strong assumptions. It assumes that, pre-merger, all upstream firms price at marginal cost, which means there is no double marginalization. It assumes all the upstream firm’s products are perfectly identical. It assumes unintegrated firms don’t respond by integrating themselves. If one or more of these assumptions is not correct, more complex models — with additional (potentially unprovable) assumptions — must be employed. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a battle of which expert’s models best fit the facts and best predicts the likely outcome. 

In the draft Guidelines’ raising rivals’ costs example, it’s assumed the merged firm would refuse to sell oranges to rival downstream wholesalers. However, if rival orchards charge a sufficiently high price, the merged firm would profit from undercutting its rivals’ orange prices, while still charging a price greater than marginal cost. Thus, it’s not obvious that the merged firm has an incentive to cut off supply to downstream competitors. The extent of the pricing pressure on the merged firm to cheat on itself is an empirical matter that depends on how upstream and downstream firms react, or might react.

For example, using the figure above, if the merged firm stopped supplying oranges to rival wholesalers, then the merged firm’s orchard would supply 60 percent of the oranges used in the firm’s juice. Although wholesalers C and D would not get oranges from B’s orchards, they could obtain oranges from other orchards that are no longer supplying wholesaler A. In this case, the merged firm’s attempt at foreclosure would have no effect and there would be no harm to competition.

It’s possible the merged firm would divert some or all of its oranges to a “secondary” market, removing those oranges from the juice market. Rather than juicing oranges, the merged firm may decide to sell them as fresh produce; fresh citrus fruits account for 7 percent of Florida’s crop and 75% of California’s. This diversion would lead to a decline in the supply of oranges for juice and the price of this key input would rise. 

But, as noted in the Guidelines’ example, this strategy would raise the merged firm’s costs along with its rivals. Moreover, rival orchards can respond to this strategy by diverting their own oranges from “secondary” markets to the juice market, in which case there may be no significant effect on the price of juice oranges. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a complicated empirical matter. Or worse, it may just be a battle over which expert is the most convincing fortune teller.

Moreover, the merged firm may have legitimate business reasons for the merger and legitimate business reasons for reducing the supply of oranges to juice wholesalers. For example “citrus greening,” an incurable bacterial disease, has caused severe damage to Florida’s citrus industry, significantly reducing crop yields. A vertical merger could be one way to reduce supply risks. On the demand side, an increase in the demand for fresh oranges would guide firms to shift from juice and processed markets to the fresh market. What some would see as anticompetitive conduct, others would see as a natural and expected response to price signals.Because of the many alternative uses for oranges, it’s overly simplistic to declare that the supply of orange juice in a specific region is “the” relevant market. Orchards face a myriad of options in selling their products. Misshapen fruit can be juiced fresh or as frozen concentrate; smaller fruit can be canned or jellied. “Perfect” fruit can be sold as fresh produce, juice, canned, or jellied. Vertical integration with a juice wholesaler adds just one factor to the myriad factors affecting how and where an upstream supplier sells its products. Just as there is no single relevant market, in many cases there is no single related product — a fact that is especially relevant in vertical relationships. Unfortunately the draft Guidelines provide little guidance in these important areas.

Conspiracies and collusion often (always?) get a bad rap. Adam Smith famously derided “people of the same trade” for their inclination to conspire against the public or contrive to raise prices. Today, such conspiracies and contrivances are per se illegal and felonies punishable under the Sherman Act.

It is well known and widely accepted that collusion to suppress competition is associated with an increase in price, a transfer of consumer surplus to producers, and a deadweight loss. It seems that nothing good comes from anticompetitive collusion.

But what if there was some good from a conspiracy in restraint of trade?

Using data from the formation and breakup of illegal cartels, Hyo Kang finds higher levels of innovation—measured by patents and R&D spending—during the cartel period than in the period before the formation of the cartel or the period after the breakup of the cartel. 

By Kang’s measures, during the cartel period, colluding firms increased the annual number of patent applications by about 50% or more and their R&D expenditures by more than 20% relative to the pre-cartel period. After the breakup of the cartel, patent applications and R&D spending return to approximately pre-cartel levels.

These findings are consistent with ICLE’s review of research on four-to-three mergers in the telecom industry. The review found that, of those studies that considered the effect on investment in four-to-three mergers, all of them demonstrated that capital expenditures, a proxy for investment, increased post-merger.

If Kang’s conclusions are correct they contradict John Hicks’ quip that “the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life.” Instead of silently collecting the profits of price fixing and other forms of collusion, cartel conspirators seem to be aggressively innovating. So what gives?

Kang’s paper points to Joseph Schumpeter, who argued that some degree of market power can promote innovation by providing firms with the financial resources and predictability required for innovative activities:

Thus it is true that there is or may be an element of genuine monopoly gain in those entrepreneurial profits which are the prizes offered by capitalist society to the successful innovator. But the quantitative importance of that clement, its volatile nature and its function in the process in which it emerges put it in a class by itself. The main value to a concern of a single seller position that is secured by patent or monopolistic strategy does not consist so much in the opportunity to behave temporarily according to the monopolist schema, as in the protection it affords against temporary disorganization of the market and the space it secures for long-range planning.

Along this line, Kang argues that the reduced competition afforded by the cartel provides both an incentive to innovate and an ability to innovate. Incentives include the potential for higher returns from innovation and the reduction of duplicative R&D investment. Increased profits from collusion provide increased resources available for R&D, thereby improving a firm’s ability to innovate. In some ways, it can be argued that the cartel arrangement reduces price competition, while increasing competition along other dimensions.

A seemingly unrelated working paper by R. Andrew Butters and Thomas N. Hubbard come to a similar conclusion. They note that over time, hotels have increased competition along nonprice dimensions, trading improved room size and in-room amenities for reduced out-of-room amenities such full-service restaurants, swimming pools, and meeting spaces. 

Butters & Hubbard note that many out-of-room amenities are typified by fixed costs that do not vary (much) with hotel size, while room-size and in-room amenities are largely variable costs with respect to hotel size. With the shift from out-of-room amenities to in-room amenities, the market has shifted from one of larger hotels with many rooms, to smaller hotels with fewer rooms. Thus with the shift in the dimensions of competition, the structure of the industry has shifted along with it.

The research of Kang and Butters & Hubbard raise important issues about competition policy. A single-minded focus on price ignores the other many dimensions across which firms compete. While a cartel’s consumers may face higher prices, they may also benefit from increased innovation. Similarly, while hotel guests may experience reduced price competition among hotels, they are also experiencing a better in-room experience. Although increased concentration and outright collusion may harm consumers along the price dimension, they may also benefit along other dimensions that are not so easily quantified or quantifiable.

Jonathan B. Baker, Nancy L. Rose, Steven C. Salop, and Fiona Scott Morton don’t like vertical mergers:

Vertical mergers can harm competition, for example, through input foreclosure or customer foreclosure, or by the creation of two-level entry barriers.  … Competitive harms from foreclosure can occur from the merged firm exercising its increased bargaining leverage to raise rivals’ costs or reduce rivals’ access to the market. Vertical mergers also can facilitate coordination by eliminating a disruptive or “maverick” competitor at one vertical level, or through information exchange. Vertical mergers also can eliminate potential competition between the merging parties. Regulated firms can use vertical integration to evade rate regulation. These competitive harms normally occur when at least one of the markets has an oligopoly structure. They can lead to higher prices, lower output, quality reductions, and reduced investment and innovation.

Baker et al. go so far as to argue that any vertical merger in which the downstream firm is subject to price regulation should face a presumption that the merger is anticompetitive.

George Stigler’s well-known article on vertical integration identifies several ways in which vertical integration increases welfare by subverting price controls:

The most important of these other forces, I believe, is the failure of the price system (because of monopoly or public regulation) to clear markets at prices within the limits of the marginal cost of the product (to the buyer if he makes it) and its marginal-value product (to the seller if he further fabricates it). This phenomenon was strikingly illustrated by the spate of vertical mergers in the United States during and immediately after World War II, to circumvent public and private price control and allocations. A regulated price of OA was set (Fig. 2), at which an output of OM was produced. This quantity had a marginal value of OB to buyers, who were rationed on a nonprice basis. The gain to buyers  and sellers combined from a free price of NS was the shaded area, RST, and vertical integration was the simple way of obtaining this gain. This was the rationale of the integration of radio manufacturers into cabinet manufacture, of steel firms into fabricated products, etc.

Stigler was on to something:

  • In 1947, Emerson Radio acquired Plastimold, a maker of plastic radio cabinets. The president of Emerson at the time, Benjamin Abrams, stated “Plastimold is an outstanding producer of molded radio cabinets and gives Emerson an assured source of supply of one of the principal components in the production of radio sets.” [emphasis added] 
  • In the same year, the Congressional Record reported, “Admiral Corp. like other large radio manufacturers has reached out to take over a manufacturer of radio cabinets, the Chicago Cabinet Corp.” 
  • In 1948, the Federal Trade Commission ascribed wartime price controls and shortages as reasons for vertical mergers in the textiles industry as well as distillers’ acquisitions of wineries.

While there may have been some public policy rationale for price controls, it’s clear the controls resulted in shortages and a deadweight loss in many markets. As such, it’s likely that vertical integration to avoid the price controls improved consumer welfare (if only slightly, as in the figure above) and reduced the deadweight loss.

Rather than leading to monopolization, Stigler provides examples in which vertical integration was employed to circumvent monopolization by cartel quotas and/or price-fixing: “Almost every raw-material cartel has had trouble with customers who wish to integrate backward, in order to negate the cartel prices.”

In contrast to Stigler’s analysis, Salop and Daniel P. Culley begin from an implied assumption that where price regulation occurs, the controls are good for society. Thus, they argue avoidance of the price controls are harmful or against the public interest:

Example: The classic example is the pre-divestiture behavior of AT&T, which allegedly used its purchases of equipment at inflated prices from its wholly-owned subsidiary, Western Electric, to artificially increase its costs and so justify higher regulated prices.

This claim is supported by the court in U.S. v. AT&T [emphasis added]:

The Operating Companies have taken these actions, it is said, because the existence of rate of return regulation removed from them the burden of such additional expense, for the extra cost could simply be absorbed into the rate base or expenses, allowing extra profits from the higher prices to flow upstream to Western rather than to its non-Bell competition.

Even so, the pass-through of higher costs seems only a minor concern to the court relative to the “three hats” worn by AT&T and its subsidiaries in the (1) setting of standards, (2) counseling of operating companies in their equipment purchases, and (3) production of equipment for sale to the operating companies [emphasis added]:

The government’s evidence has depicted defendants as sole arbiters of what equipment is suitable for use in the Bell System a role that carries with it a power of subjective judgment that can be and has been used to advance the sale of Western Electric’s products at the expense of the general trade. First, AT&T, in conjunction with Bell Labs and Western Electric, sets the technical standards under which the telephone network operates and the compatibility specifications which equipment must meet. Second, Western Electric and Bell Labs … serve as counselors to the Operating Companies in their procurement decisions, ostensibly helping them to purchase equipment that meets network standards. Third, Western also produces equipment for sale to the Operating Companies in competition with general trade manufacturers.

The upshot of this “wearing of three hats” is, according to the government’s evidence, a rather obviously anticompetitive situation. By setting technical or compatibility standards and by either not communicating these standards to the general trade or changing them in mid-stream, AT&T has the capacity to remove, and has in fact removed, general trade products from serious consideration by the Operating Companies on “network integrity” grounds. By either refusing to evaluate general trade products for the Operating Companies or producing biased or speculative evaluations, AT&T has been able to influence the Operating Companies, which lack independent means to evaluate general trade products, to buy Western. And the in-house production and sale of Western equipment provides AT&T with a powerful incentive to exercise its “approval” power to discriminate against Western’s competitors.

It’s important to keep in mind that rate of return regulation was not thrust upon AT&T, it was a quid pro quo in which state and federal regulators acted to eliminate AT&T/Bell competitors in exchange for price regulation. In a floor speech to Congress in 1921, Rep. William J. Graham declared:

It is believed to be better policy to have one telephone system in a community that serves all the people, even though it may be at an advanced rate, property regulated by State boards or commissions, than it is to have two competing telephone systems.

For purposes of Salop and Culley’s integration-to-evade-price-regulation example, it’s important to keep in mind that AT&T acquired Western Electric in 1882, or about two decades before telephone pricing regulation was contemplated and eight years before the Sherman Antitrust Act. While AT&T may have used vertical integration to take advantage of rate-of-return price regulation, it’s simply not true that AT&T acquired Western Electric to evade price controls.

Salop and Culley provide a more recent example:

Example: Potential evasion of regulation concerns were raised in the FTC’s analysis in 2008 of the Fresenius/Daiichi Sankyo exclusive sub-license for a Daiichi Sankyo pharmaceutical used in Fresenius’ dialysis clinics, which potentially could allow evasion of Medicare pricing regulations.

As with the AT&T example, this example is not about evasion of price controls. Rather it raises concerns about taking advantage of Medicare’s pricing formula. 

At the time of the deal, Medicare reimbursed dialysis clinics based on a drug manufacturer’s Average Sales Price (“ASP”) plus six percent, where ASP was calculated by averaging the prices paid by all customers, including any discounts or rebates. 

The FTC argued by setting an artificially high transfer price of the drug to Fresenius, the ASP would increase, thereby increasing the Medicare reimbursement to all clinics providing the same drug (which not only would increase the costs to Medicare but also would increase income to all clinics providing the drug). Although the FTC claims this would be anticompetitive, the agency does not describe in what ways competition would be harmed.

The FTC introduces an interesting wrinkle in noting that a few years after the deal would have been completed, “substantial changes to the Medicare program relating to dialysis services … would eliminate the regulations that give rise to the concerns created by the proposed transaction.” Specifically, payment for dialysis services would shift from fee-for-service to capitation.

This wrinkle highlights a serious problem with a presumption that any purported evasion of price controls is an antitrust violation. Namely, if the controls go away, so does the antitrust violation. 

Conversely–as Salop and Culley seem to argue with their AT&T example–a vertical merger could be retroactively declared anticompetitive if price controls are imposed after the merger is completed (even decades later and even if the price regulations were never anticipated at the time of the merger). 

It’s one thing to argue that avoiding price regulation runs counter to public interest, but it’s another thing to argue that avoiding price regulation is anticompetitive. Indeed, as Stigler argues, if the price controls stifle competition, then avoidance of the controls may enhance competition. Placing such mergers under heightened scrutiny, such as an anticompetitive presumption, is a solution in search of a problem.

Antitrust populists have a long list of complaints about competition policy, including: laws aren’t broad enough or tough enough, enforcers are lax, and judges tend to favor defendants over plaintiffs or government agencies. The populist push got a bump with the New York Times coverage of Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in which she advocated breaking up Amazon and applying public utility regulation to platforms. Khan’s ideas were picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for similar public utility regulation and promised to unwind earlier acquisitions by Amazon (Whole Foods and Zappos), Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram), and Google (Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick).

Khan, Warren, and the other Break Up Big Tech populists don’t clearly articulate how consumers, suppliers — or anyone for that matter — would be better off with their mandated spinoffs. The Khan/Warren plan, however, requires a unique alignment of many factors: Warren must win the White House, Democrats must control both houses of Congress, and judges must substantially shift their thinking. It’s like turning a supertanker on a dime in the middle of a storm. Instead of publishing manifestos and engaging in antitrust hashtag hipsterism, maybe — just maybe — the populists can do something.

The populists seem to have three main grievances:

  • Small firms cannot enter the market or cannot thrive once they enter;
  • Suppliers, including workers, are getting squeezed; and
  • Speculation that someday firms will wake up, realize they have a monopoly, and begin charging noncompetitive prices to consumers.

Each of these grievances can be, and has been, already addressed by antitrust and competition litigation. And, in many cases these grievances were addressed in private antitrust litigation. For example:

In the US, private actions are available for a wide range of alleged anticompetitive conduct, including coordinated conduct (e.g., price-fixing), single-firm conduct (e.g., predatory pricing), and mergers that would substantially lessen competition. 

If the antitrust populists are so confident that concentration is rising and firms are behaving anticompetitively and consumers/suppliers/workers are being harmed, then why don’t they organize an antitrust lawsuit against the worst of the worst violators? If anticompetitive activity is so obvious and so pervasive, finding compelling cases should be easy.

For example, earlier this year, Shaoul Sussman, a law student at Fordham University, published “Prime Predator: Amazon and the Rationale of Below Average Variable Cost Pricing Strategies Among Negative-Cash Flow Firms” in the Journal of Antitrust Enforcement. Why not put Sussman’s theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? The discovery process would unleash a treasure trove of cost data and probably more than a few “hot docs.”

Khan argues:

While predatory pricing technically remains illegal, it is extremely difficult to win predatory pricing claims because courts now require proof that the alleged predator would be able to raise prices and recoup its losses. 

However, in her criticism of the court in the Apple e-books litigation, she lays out a clear rationale for courts to revise their thinking on predatory pricing [emphasis added]:

Judge Cote, who presided over the district court trial, refrained from affirming the government’s conclusion. Still, the government’s argument illustrates the dominant framework that courts and enforcers use to analyze predation—and how it falls short. Specifically, the government erred by analyzing the profitability of Amazon’s e-book business in the aggregate and by characterizing the conduct as “loss leading” rather than potentially predatory pricing. These missteps suggest a failure to appreciate two critical aspects of Amazon’s practices: (1) how steep discounting by a firm on a platform-based product creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power than discounting on non-platform goods and (2) the multiple ways Amazon could recoup losses in ways other than raising the price of the same e-books that it discounted.

Why not put Khan’s cross-subsidy theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? Surely there’d be a document explaining how the firm expects to recoup its losses. Or, maybe not. Maybe by the firm’s accounting, it’s not losing money on the discounted products. Without evidence, it’s just speculation.

In fairness, one can argue that recent court decisions have made pursuing private antitrust litigation more difficult. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly requires an antitrust plaintiff to show more than mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence in order to move forward to discovery. Decisions in matters such as Ashcroft v. Iqbal have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain antitrust claims. Wal-Mart v. Dukes and Comcast Corp v Behrend subject antitrust class actions to more rigorous analysis. In Ohio v. Amex the court ruled antitrust plaintiffs can’t meet the burden of proof by showing only some effect on some part of a two-sided market.

At the same time Jeld-Wen indicates third party plaintiffs can be awarded damages and obtain divestitures, even after mergers clear. In Jeld-Wen, a competitor filed suit to challenge the consummated Jeld-Wen/Craftmaster merger four years after the DOJ approved the merger without conditions. The challenge was lengthy, but successful, and a district court ordered damages and the divestiture of one of the combined firm’s manufacturing facilities six years after the merger was closed.

Despite the possible challenges of pursuing a private antitrust suit, Daniel Crane’s review of US federal court workload statistics concludes the incidence of private antitrust enforcement in the United States has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s — in the range of 600 to 900 new private antitrust filings a year. He also finds resolution by trial has been relatively stable at an average of less than 1 percent a year. Thus, it’s not clear that recent decisions have erected insurmountable barriers to antitrust plaintiffs.

In the US, third parties may fund private antitrust litigation and plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to work under a contingency fee arrangement, subject to court approval. A compelling case could be funded by deep-pocketed supporters of the populists’ agenda, big tech haters, or even investors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s takedown of Gawker. Before that, the savings and loan crisis led to a number of forced mergers which were later challenged in court, with the costs partially funded by the issuance of litigation tracking warrants.

The antitrust populist ranks are chock-a-block with economists, policy wonks, and go-getter attorneys. If they are so confident in their claims of rising concentration, bad behavior, and harm to consumers, suppliers, and workers, then they should put those ideas to the test with some slam dunk litigation. The fact that they haven’t suggests they may not have a case.

Wall Street Journal commentator, Greg Ip, reviews Thomas Philippon’s forthcoming book, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets. Ip describes a “growing mountain” of research on industry concentration in the U.S. and reports that Philippon concludes competition has declined over time, harming U.S. consumers.

In one example, Philippon points to air travel. He notes that concentration in the U.S. has increased rapidly—spiking since the Great Recession—while concentration in the EU has increased modestly. At the same time, Ip reports “U.S. airlines are now far more profitable than their European counterparts.” (Although it’s debatable whether a five percentage point difference in net profit margin is “far more profitable”). 

On first impression, the figures fit nicely with the populist antitrust narrative: As concentration in the U.S. grew, so did profit margins. Closer inspection raises some questions, however. 

For example, the U.S. airline industry had a negative net profit margin in each of the years prior to the spike in concentration. While negative profits may be good for consumers, it would be a stretch to argue that long-run losses are good for competition as a whole. At some point one or more of the money losing firms is going to pull the ripcord. Which raises the issue of causation.

Just looking at the figures from the WSJ article, one could argue that rather than concentration driving profit margins, instead profit margins are driving concentration. Indeed, textbook IO economics would indicate that in the face of losses, firms will exit until economic profit equals zero. Paraphrasing Alfred Marshall, “Which blade of the scissors is doing the cutting?”

While the concentration and profits story fits the antitrust populist narrative, other observations run contrary to Philippon’s conclusion. For example, airline prices, as measured by price indexes, show that changes in U.S. and EU airline prices have fairly closely tracked each other until 2014, when U.S. prices began dropping. Sure, airlines have instituted baggage fees, but the CPI includes taxes, fuel surcharges, airport, security, and baggage fees. It’s not obvious that U.S. consumers are worse off in the so-called era of rising concentration.

Regressing U.S. air fare price index against Philippon’s concentration information in the figure above (and controlling for general inflation) finds that if U.S. concentration in 2015 was the same as in 1995, U.S. airfares would be about 2.8% lower. That a 1,250 point increase in HHI would be associated with a 2.8% increase in prices indicates that the increased concentration in U.S. airlines has led to no significant increase in consumer prices.

Also, if consumers are truly worse off, one would expect to see a drop off or slow down in the use of air travel. An eyeballing of passenger data does not fit the populist narrative. Instead, we see airlines are carrying more passengers and consumers are paying lower prices on average.

While it’s true that low-cost airlines have shaken up air travel in the EU, the differences are not solely explained by differences in market concentration. For example, U.S. regulations prohibit foreign airlines from operating domestic flights while EU carriers compete against operators from other parts of Europe. While the WSJ’s figures tell an interesting story of concentration, prices, and profits, they do not provide a compelling case of anticompetitive conduct.

In the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on competition policy in the 21st century, Georgetown professor Steven Salop urged greater scrutiny of vertical mergers. He argued that regulators should be skeptical of the claim that vertical integration tends to produce efficiencies that can enhance consumer welfare. In his presentation to the FTC, Professor Salop provided what he viewed as exceptions to this long-held theory.

Also, vertical merger efficiencies are not inevitable. I mean, vertical integration is common, but so is vertical non-integration. There is an awful lot of companies that are not vertically integrated. And we have lots of examples in which vertical integration has failed. Pepsi’s acquisition of KFC and Pizza Hut; you know, of course Coca-Cola has not merged with McDonald’s . . . .

Aside from the logical fallacy of cherry picking examples (he also includes Betamax/VHS and the split up of Alcoa and Arconic, as well as “integration and disintegration” “in cable”), Professor Salop misses the fact that PepsiCo’s 20 year venture into restaurants had very little to do with vertical integration.

Popular folklore says PepsiCo got into fast food because it was looking for a way to lock up sales of its fountain sodas. Soda is considered one of the highest margin products sold by restaurants. Vertical integration by a soda manufacturer into restaurants would eliminate double marginalization with the vertically integrated firm reaping most of the gains. The folklore fits nicely with economic theory. But, the facts may not fit the theory.

PepsiCo acquired Pizza Hut in 1977, Taco Bell in 1978, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1986. Prior to PepsiCo’s purchase, KFC had been owned by spirits company Heublein and conglomerate RJR Nabisco. This was the period of conglomerates—Pillsbury owned Burger King and General Foods owned Burger Chef (or maybe they were vertically integrated into bun distribution).

In the early 1990s Pepsi also bought California Pizza Kitchen, Chevys Fresh Mex, and D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches.

In 1997, PepsiCo exited the restaurant business. It spun off Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC to Tricon Global Restaurants, which would later be renamed Yum! Brands. CPK and Chevy’s were purchased by private equity investors. D’Angelo was sold to Papa Gino’s Holdings, a restaurant chain. Since then, both Chevy’s and Papa Gino’s have filed for bankruptcy and Chevy’s has had some major shake-ups.

Professor Salop’s story focuses on the spin-off as an example of the failure of vertical mergers. But there is also a story of success. PepsiCo was in the restaurant business for two decades. More importantly, it continued its restaurant acquisitions over time. If PepsiCo’s restaurants strategy was a failure, it seems odd that the company would continue acquisitions into the early 1990s.

It’s easy, and largely correct, to conclude that PepsiCo’s restaurant acquisitions involved some degree of vertical integration, with upstream PepsiCo selling beverages to downstream restaurants. At the time PepsiCo bought Kentucky Fried Chicken, the New York Times reported KFC was Coke’s second-largest fountain account, behind McDonald’s.

But, what if vertical efficiencies were not the primary reason for the acquisitions?

Growth in U.S. carbonated beverage sales began slowing in the 1970s. It was also the “decade of the fast-food business.” From 1971 to 1977, Pizza Hut’s profits grew an average of 40% per year. Colonel Sanders sold his ownership in KFC for $2 million in 1964. Seven years later, the company was sold to Heublein for $280 million; PepsiCo paid $850 million in 1986.

Although KFC was Coke’s second largest customer at the time, about 20% of KFC’s stores served Pepsi products, “PepsiCo stressed that the major reason for the acquisition was to expand its restaurant business, which last year accounted for 26 percent of its revenues of $8.1 billion,” according to the New York Times.

Viewed in this light, portfolio diversification goes a much longer way toward explaining PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases than hoped-for vertical efficiencies. In 1997, former PepsiCo chairman Roger Enrico explained to investment analysts that the company entered the restaurant business in the first place, “because it didn’t see future growth in its soft drink and snack” businesses and thought diversification into restaurants would provide expansion opportunities.

Prior to its Pizza Hut and Taco Bell acquisitions, PepsiCo owned companies as diverse as Frito-Lay, North American Van Lines, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Rheingold Brewery. This further supports a diversification theory rather than a vertical integration theory of PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases. 

The mid 1990s and early 2000s were tough times for restaurants. Consumers were demanding healthier foods and fast foods were considered the worst of the worst. This was when Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded as KFC. Debt hangovers from the leveraged buyout era added financial pressure. Many restaurant groups were filing for bankruptcy and competition intensified among fast food companies. PepsiCo’s restaurants could not cover their cost of capital, and what was once a profitable diversification strategy became a financial albatross, so the restaurants were spun off.

Thus, it seems more reasonable to conclude PepsiCo’s exit from restaurants was driven more by market exigencies than by a failure to achieve vertical efficiencies. While the folklore of locking up distribution channels to eliminate double marginalization fits nicely with theory, the facts suggest a more mundane model of a firm scrambling to deliver shareholder wealth through diversification in the face of changing competition.

The Department of Justice announced it has approved the $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Once completed, the deal will create a mobile carrier with around 136 million customers in the U.S., putting it just behind Verizon (158 million) and AT&T (156 million).

While all the relevant federal government agencies have now approved the merger, it still faces a legal challenge from state attorneys general. At the very least, this challenge is likely to delay the merger; if successful, it could scupper it. In this blog post, we evaluate the state AG’s claims (and find them wanting).

Four firms good, three firms bad?

The state AG’s opposition to the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is based on a claim that a competitive mobile market requires four national providers, as articulated in their redacted complaint:

The Big Four MNOs [mobile network operators] compete on many dimensions, including price, network quality, network coverage, and features. The aggressive competition between them has resulted in falling prices and improved quality. The competition that currently takes place across those dimensions, and others, among the Big Four MNOs would be negatively impacted if the Merger were consummated. The effects of the harm to competition on consumers will be significant because the Big Four MNOs have wireless service revenues of more than $160 billion.

. . . 

Market consolidation from four to three MNOs would also serve to increase the possibility of tacit collusion in the markets for retail mobile wireless telecommunications services.

But there are no economic grounds for the assertion that a four firm industry is on a competitive tipping point. Four is an arbitrary number, offered up in order to squelch any further concentration in the industry.

A proper assessment of this transaction—as well as any other telecom merger—requires accounting for the specific characteristics of the markets affected by the merger. The accounting would include, most importantly, the dynamic, fast-moving nature of competition and the key role played by high fixed costs of production and economies of scale. This is especially important given the expectation that the merger will facilitate the launch of a competitive, national 5G network.

Opponents claim this merger takes us from four to three national carriers. But Sprint was never a serious participant in the launch of 5G. Thus, in terms of future investment in general, and the roll-out of 5G in particular, a better characterization is that it this deal takes the U.S. from two to three national carriers investing to build out next-generation networks.

In the past, the capital expenditures made by AT&T and Verizon have dwarfed those of T-Mobile and Sprint. But a combined T-Mobile/Sprint would be in a far better position to make the kinds of large-scale investments necessary to develop a nationwide 5G network. As a result, it is likely that both the urban-rural digital divide and the rich-poor digital divide will decline following the merger. And this investment will drive competition with AT&T and Verizon, leading to innovation, improving service and–over time–lowering the cost of access.

Is prepaid a separate market?

The state AGs complain that the merger would disproportionately affect consumers of prepaid plans, which they claim constitutes a separate product market:

There are differences between prepaid and postpaid service, the most notable being that individuals who cannot pass a credit check and/or who do not have a history of bill payment with a MNO may not be eligible for postpaid service. Accordingly, it is informative to look at prepaid mobile wireless telecommunications services as a separate segment of the market for mobile wireless telecommunications services.

Claims that prepaid services constitute a separate market are questionable, at best. While at one time there might have been a fairly distinct divide between pre and postpaid markets, today the line between them is at least blurry, and may not even be a meaningful divide at all.

To begin with, the arguments regarding any expected monopolization in the prepaid market appear to assume that the postpaid market imposes no competitive constraint on the prepaid market. 

But that can’t literally be true. At the very least, postpaid plans put a ceiling on prepaid prices for many prepaid users. To be sure, there are some prepaid consumers who don’t have the credit history required to participate in the postpaid market at all. But these are inframarginal consumers, and they will benefit from the extent of competition at the margins unless operators can effectively price discriminate in ways they have not in the past, and which has not been demonstrated is possible or likely.

One source of this competition will come from Dish, which has been a vocal critic of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Under the deal with DOJ, T-Mobile and Sprint must spin-off Sprint’s prepaid businesses to Dish. The divested products include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Sprint prepaid. Moreover the deal requires Dish be allowed to use T-Mobile’s network during a seven-year transition period. 

Will the merger harm low-income consumers?

While the states’ complaint alleges that low-income consumers will suffer, it pays little attention to the so-called “digital divide” separating urban and rural consumers. This seems curious given the attention it was given in submissions to the federal agencies. For example, the Communication Workers of America opined:

the data in the Applicants’ Public Interest Statement demonstrates that even six years after a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, “most of New T-Mobile’s rural customers would be forced to settle for a service that has significantly lower performance than the urban and suburban parts of the network.” The “digital divide” is likely to worsen, not improve, post-merger.

This is merely an assertion, and a misleading assertion. To the extent the “digital divide” would grow following the merger, it would be because urban access will improve more rapidly than rural access would improve. 

Indeed, there is no real suggestion that the merger will impede rural access relative to a world in which T-Mobile and Sprint do not merge. 

And yet, in the absence of a merger, Sprint would be less able to utilize its own spectrum in rural areas than would the merged T-Mobile/Sprint, because utilization of that spectrum would require substantial investment in new infrastructure and additional, different spectrum. And much of that infrastructure and spectrum is already owned by T-Mobile. 

It likely that the combined T-Mobile/Sprint will make that investment, given the cost savings that are expected to be realized through the merger. So, while it might be true that urban customers will benefit more from the merger, rural customers will also benefit. It is impossible to know, of course, by exactly how much each group will benefit. But, prima facie, the prospect of improvement in rural access seems a strong argument in favor of the merger from a public interest standpoint.

The merger is also likely to reduce another digital divide: that between wealthier and poorer consumers in more urban areas. The proportion of U.S. households with access to the Internet has for several years been rising faster among those with lower incomes than those with higher incomes, thereby narrowing this divide. Since 2011, access by households earning $25,000 or less has risen from 52% to 62%, while access among the U.S. population as a whole has risen only from 72% to 78%. In part, this has likely resulted from increased mobile access (a greater proportion of Americans now access the Internet from mobile devices than from laptops), which in turn is the result of widely available, low-cost smartphones and the declining cost of mobile data.

Concluding remarks

By enabling the creation of a true, third national mobile (phone and data) network, the merger will almost certainly drive competition and innovation that will lead to better services at lower prices, thereby expanding access for all and, if current trends hold, especially those on lower incomes. Beyond its effect on the “digital divide” per se, the merger is likely to have broadly positive effects on access more generally.

There’s always a reason to block a merger:

  • If a firm is too big, it will be because it is “a merger for monopoly”;
  • If the firms aren’t that big, it will be for “coordinated effects”;
  • If a firm is small, then it will be because it will “eliminate a maverick”.

It’s a version of Ronald Coase’s complaint about antitrust, as related by William Landes:

Ronald said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down, they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same, they said it was tacit collusion.

Of all the reasons to block a merger, the maverick notion is the weakest, and it’s well past time to ditch it.

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines define a “maverick” as “a firm that plays a disruptive role in the market to the benefit of customers.” According to the Guidelines, this includes firms:

  1. With a new technology or business model that threatens to disrupt market conditions;
  2. With an incentive to take the lead in price cutting or other competitive conduct or to resist increases in industry prices;
  3. That resist otherwise prevailing industry norms to cooperate on price setting or other terms of competition; and/or
  4. With an ability and incentive to expand production rapidly using available capacity to “discipline prices.”

There appears to be no formal model of maverick behavior that does not rely on some a priori assumption that the firm is a maverick.

For example, John Kwoka’s 1989 model assumes the maverick firm has different beliefs about how competing firms would react if the maverick varies its output or price. Louis Kaplow and Carl Shapiro developed a simple model in which the firm with the smallest market share may play the role of a maverick. They note, however, that this raises the question—in a model in which every firm faces the same cost and demand conditions—why would there be any variation in market shares? The common solution, according to Kaplow and Shapiro, is cost asymmetries among firms. If that is the case, then “maverick” activity is merely a function of cost, rather than some uniquely maverick-like behavior.

The idea of the maverick firm requires that the firm play a critical role in the market. The maverick must be the firm that outflanks coordinated action or acts as a bulwark against unilateral action. By this loosey goosey definition of maverick, a single firm can make the difference between success or failure of anticompetitive behavior by its competitors. Thus, the ability and incentive to expand production rapidly is a necessary condition for a firm to be considered a maverick. For example, Kaplow and Shapiro explain:

Of particular note is the temptation of one relatively small firm to decline to participate in the collusive arrangement or secretly to cut prices to serve, say, 4% rather than 2% of the market. As long as price cuts by a small firm are less likely to be accurately observed or inferred by the other firms than are price cuts by larger firms, the presence of small firms that are capable of expanding significantly is especially disruptive to effective collusion.

A “maverick” firm’s ability to “discipline prices” depends crucially on its ability to expand output in the face of increased demand for its products. Similarly, the other non-maverick firms can be “disciplined” by the maverick only in the face of a credible threat of (1) a noticeable drop in market share that (2) leads to lower profits.

The government’s complaint in AT&T/T-Mobile’s 2011 proposed merger alleges:

Relying on its disruptive pricing plans, its improved high-speed HSPA+ network, and a variety of other initiatives, T-Mobile aimed to grow its nationwide share to 17 percent within the next several years, and to substantially increase its presence in the enterprise and government market. AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile would eliminate the important price, quality, product variety, and innovation competition that an independent T-Mobile brings to the marketplace.

At the time of the proposed merger, T-Mobile accounted for 11% of U.S. wireless subscribers. At the end of 2016, its market share had hit 17%. About half of the increase can be attributed to its 2012 merger with MetroPCS. Over the same period, Verizon’s market share increased from 33% to 35% and AT&T market share remained stable at 32%. It appears that T-Mobile’s so-called maverick behavior did more to disrupt the market shares of smaller competitors Sprint and Leap (which was acquired by AT&T). Thus, it is not clear, ex post, that T-Mobile posed any threat to AT&T or Verizon’s market shares.

Geoffrey Manne raised some questions about the government’s maverick theory which also highlights a fundamental problem with the willy nilly way in which firms are given the maverick label:

. . . it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price—there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price. I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.

While T-Mobile had a reputation for lower mobile prices, in 2011, the firm was lagging behind Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T in the rollout of 4G technology. In other words, T-Mobile was offering an inferior product at a lower price. That’s not a maverick, that’s product differentiation with hedonic pricing.

More recently, in his opposition to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge asserts that both firms are mavericks and their combination would cause their maverick magic to disappear:

Sprint, also, can be seen as a maverick. It has offered “unlimited” plans and simplified its rate plans, for instance, driving the rest of the industry forward to more consumer-friendly options. As Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure stated, “Sprint and T-Mobile have similar DNA and have eliminated confusing rate plans, converging into one rate plan: Unlimited.” Whether both or just one of the companies can be seen as a “maverick” today, in either case the newly combined company would simply have the same structural incentives as the larger carriers both Sprint and T-Mobile today work so hard to differentiate themselves from.

Kimmelman provides no mechanism by which the magic would go missing, but instead offers a version of an adversity-builds-character argument:

Allowing T-Mobile to grow to approximately the same size as AT&T, rather than forcing it to fight for customers, will eliminate the combined company’s need to disrupt the market and create an incentive to maintain the existing market structure.

For 30 years, the notion of the maverick firm has been a concept in search of a model. If the concept cannot be modeled decades after being introduced, maybe the maverick can’t be modeled.

What’s left are ad hoc assertions mixed with speculative projections in hopes that some sympathetic judge can be swayed. However, some judges seem to be more skeptical than sympathetic, as in H&R Block/TaxACT :

The parties have spilled substantial ink debating TaxACT’s maverick status. The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a “maverick” — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis. The government even put forward as supposed evidence a TaxACT promotional press release in which the company described itself as a “maverick.” This type of evidence amounts to little more than a game of semantic gotcha. Here, the record is clear that while TaxACT has been an aggressive and innovative competitor in the market, as defendants admit, TaxACT is not unique in this role. Other competitors, including HRB and Intuit, have also been aggressive and innovative in forcing companies in the DDIY market to respond to new product offerings to the benefit of consumers.

It’s time to send the maverick out of town and into the sunset.

 

The once-mighty Blockbuster video chain is now down to a single store, in Bend, Oregon. It appears to be the only video rental store in Bend, aside from those offering “adult” features. Does that make Blockbuster a monopoly?

It seems almost silly to ask if the last firm in a dying industry is a monopolist. But, it’s just as silly to ask if the first firm in an emerging industry is a monopolist. They’re silly questions because they focus on the monopoly itself, rather than the alternative—what if the firm, and therefore the industry—did not exist at all.

A recent post on CEPR’s Vox blog points out something very obvious, but often forgotten: “The deadweight loss from a monopolist’s not producing at all can be much greater than from charging too high a price.”

The figure below is from the post, by Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder, and Albert Chen. With monopoly pricing (and no price discrimination), consumer surplus is given by CS, profit is given by ∏, and a deadweight loss given by H.

The authors point out if fixed costs (or entry costs) are so high that the firm does not enter the market, the deadweight loss is equal to CS + H.

Too often, competition authorities fall for the Nirvana Fallacy, a tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances today to idealized potential alternatives and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between the real world and some alternative perfect (or near-perfect) world.

In 2005, Blockbuster dropped its bid to acquire competing Hollywood Entertainment Corporation, the then-second-largest video rental chain. Blockbuster said it expected the Federal Trade Commission would reject the deal on antitrust grounds. The merged companies would have made up more than 50 percent of the home video rental market.

Five years later Blockbuster, Hollywood, and third-place Movie Gallery had all filed for bankruptcy.

Blockbuster’s then-CEO, John Antioco, has been ridiculed for passing up an opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2005. But, Blockbuster knew its retail world was changing and had thought a consolidation might help it survive that change.

But, just as Antioco can be chided for undervaluing Netflix, so should the FTC. The regulators were so focused on Blockbuster-Hollywood market share that they undervalued the competitive pressure Netflix and other services were bringing. With hindsight, it seems obvious that the Blockbuster’s post-merger market share would not have conveyed any significant power over price. What’s not known is whether the merger would have put off the bankruptcy of the three largest video rental retailers.

Also, what’s not known is the extent to which consumers are better or worse off with the exit of Blockbuster, Hollywood, and Movie Gallery.

Nevertheless, the video rental business highlights a key point in an earlier TOTM post: A great deal of competition comes from the flanks, rather than head-on. Head-on competition from rental kiosks, such as Redbox, nibbled at the sales and margins of Blockbuster, Hollywood, and Movie Gallery. But, the real killer of the bricks-and-mortar stores came from a wide range of streaming services.

The lesson for regulators is that competition is nearly always and everywhere present, even if it’s standing on the sidelines.