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Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon have released a major rewrite of their paper comparing the U.S. and EU competitive environments. 

Although the NBER website provides an enticing title — “How European Markets Became Free: A Study of Institutional Drift” — the paper itself has a much more yawn-inducing title: “How EU Markets Became More Competitive Than US Markets: A Study of Institutional Drift.”

Having already critiqued the original paper at length (here and here), I wouldn’t normally take much interest in the do-over. However, in a recent episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Jason Furman gave a shout out to Philippon’s work on increasing concentration. So, I thought it might be worth a review.

As with the original, the paper begins with a conclusion: The EU appears to be more competitive than the U.S. The authors then concoct a theory to explain their conclusion. The theory’s a bit janky, but it goes something like this:

  • Because of lobbying pressure and regulatory capture, an individual country will enforce competition policy at a suboptimal level.
  • Because of competing interests among different countries, a “supra-national” body will be more independent and better able to foster pro-competitive policies and to engage in more vigorous enforcement of competition policy.
  • The EU’s supra-national body and its Directorate-General for Competition is more independent than the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
  • Therefore, their model explains why the EU is more competitive than the U.S. Q.E.D.

If you’re looking for what this has to do with “institutional drift,” don’t bother. The term only shows up in the title.

The original paper provided evidence from 12 separate “markets,” that they say demonstrated their conclusion about EU vs. U.S. competitiveness. These weren’t really “markets” in the competition policy sense, they were just broad industry categories, such as health, information, trade, and professional services (actually “other business sector services”). 

As pointed out in one of my earlier critiques, In all but one of these industries, the 8-firm concentration ratios for the U.S. and the EU are below 40 percent and the HHI measures reported in the original paper are at levels that most observers would presume to be competitive. 

Sending their original markets to drift in the appendices, Gutiérrez and Philippon’s revised paper focuses its attention on two markets — telecommunications and airlines — to highlight their claims that EU markets are more competitive than the U.S. First, telecoms:

To be more concrete, consider the Telecom industry and the entry of the French Telecom company Free Mobile. Until 2011, the French mobile industry was an oligopoly with three large historical incumbents and weak competition. … Free obtained its 4G license in 2011 and entered the market with a plan of unlimited talk, messaging and data for €20. Within six months, the incumbents Orange, SFR and Bouygues had reacted by launching their own discount brands and by offering €20 contracts as well. … The relative price decline was 40%: France went from being 15% more expensive than the US [in 2011] to being 25% cheaper in about two years [in 2013].

While this is an interesting story about how entry can increase competition, the story of a single firm entering a market in a single country is hardly evidence that the EU as a whole is more competitive than the U.S.

What Gutiérrez and Philippon don’t report is that from 2013 to 2019, prices declined by 12% in the U.S. and only 8% in France. In the EU as a whole, prices decreased by only 5% over the years 2013-2019.

Gutiérrez and Philippon’s passenger airline story is even weaker. Because airline prices don’t fit their narrative, they argue that increasing airline profits are evidence that the U.S. is less competitive than the EU. 

The picture above is from Figure 5 of their paper (“Air Transportation Profits and Concentration, EU vs US”). They claim that the “rise in US concentration and profits aligns closely with a controversial merger wave,” with the vertical line in the figure marking the Delta-Northwest merger.

Sure, profitability among U.S. firms increased. But, before the “merger wave,” profits were negative. Perhaps predatory pricing is pro-competitive after all.

Where Gutiérrez and Philippon really fumble is with airline pricing. Since the merger wave that pulled the U.S. airline industry out of insolvency, ticket prices (as measured by the Consumer Price Index), have decreased by 6%. In France, prices increased by 4% and in the EU, prices increased by 30%. 

The paper relies more heavily on eyeballing graphs than statistical analysis, but something about Table 2 caught my attention — the R-squared statistics. First, they’re all over the place. But, look at column (1): A perfect 1.00 R-squared. Could it be that Gutiérrez and Philippon’s statistical model has (almost) as many parameters as variables?

Notice that all the regressions with an R-squared of 0.9 or higher include country fixed effects. The two regressions with R-squareds of 0.95 and 0.96 also include country-industry fixed effects. It’s very possible that the regressions results are driven entirely by idiosyncratic differences among countries and industries. 

Gutiérrez and Philippon provide no interpretation for their results in Table 2, but it seems to work like this, using column (1): A 10% increase in the 4-firm concentration ratio (which is different from a 10 percentage point increase), would be associated with a 1.8% increase in prices four years later. So, an increase in CR4 from 20% to 22% (or an increase from 60% to 66%) would be associated with a 1.8% increase in prices over four years, or about 0.4% a year. On the one hand, I just don’t buy it. On the other hand, the effect is so small that it seems economically insignificant. 

I’m sure Gutiérrez and Philippon have put a lot of time into this paper and its revision. But there’s an old saying that the best thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels so good when it stops. Perhaps, it’s time to stop with this paper and let it “drift” into obscurity.

Last month the EU General Court annulled the EU Commission’s decision to block the proposed merger of Telefónica UK by Hutchison 3G UK. 

It what could be seen as a rebuke of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP), the court clarified the proof required to block a merger, which could have a significant effect on future merger enforcement:

In the context of an analysis of a significant impediment to effective competition the existence of which is inferred from a body of evidence and indicia, and which is based on several theories of harm, the Commission is required to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate with a strong probability the existence of significant impediments following the concentration. Thus, the standard of proof applicable in the present case is therefore stricter than that under which a significant impediment to effective competition is “more likely than not,” on the basis of a “balance of probabilities,” as the Commission maintains. By contrast, it is less strict than a standard of proof based on “being beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Over the relevant time period, there were four retail mobile network operators in the United Kingdom: (1) EE Ltd, (2) O2, (3) Hutchison 3G UK Ltd (“Three”), and (4) Vodafone. The merger would have combined O2 and Three, which would account for 30-40% of the retail market. 

The Commission argued that Three’s growth in market share over time and its classification as a “maverick” demonstrated that Three was an “important competitive force” that would be eliminated with the merger. The court was not convinced: 

The mere growth in gross add shares over several consecutive years of the smallest mobile network operator in an oligopolistic market, namely Three, which has in the past been classified as a “maverick” by the Commission (Case COMP/M.5650 — T-Mobile/Orange) and in the Statement of Objections in the present case, does not in itself constitute sufficient evidence of that operator’s power on the market or of the elimination of the important competitive constraints that the parties to the concentration exert upon each other.

While the Commission classified Three as a maverick, it also claimed that maverick status was not necessary to be an important competitive force. Nevertheless, the Commission pointed to Three’s history of maverick-y behavior by launching its “One Plan” as well as free international roaming and offering 4G at no additional cost. The court, however, noted that those initiatives were “historical in nature,” and provided no evidence of future conduct: 

The Commission’s reasoning in that regard seems to imply that an undertaking which has historically played a disruptive role will necessarily play the same role in the future and cannot reposition itself on the market by adopting a different pricing policy.

The EU General Court appears to express the same frustration with mavericks as the court in in H&R Block/TaxACT: “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.”

With the General Court’s recent decision raising the bar of proof required to block a merger, it also provided a “strong probability” that the days of maverick madness may soon be over.  

[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).]

While much of the world of competition policy has focused on mergers in the COVID-19 era. Some observers see mergers as one way of saving distressed but valuable firms. Others have called for a merger moratorium out of fear that more mergers will lead to increased concentration and market power. In the meantime, there has been a growing push for increased nationalization of a wide range of businesses and industries.

In most cases, the call for a government takeover is not a reaction to the public health and economic crises associated with coronavirus. Instead, COVID-19 is a convenient excuse to pursue long sought after policies.

Last year, well before the pandemic, New York mayor Bill de Blasio called for a government takeover of electrical grid operator ConEd because he was upset over blackouts during a heatwave. Earlier that year, he threatened to confiscate housing units from private landlords, “we will seize their buildings, and we will put them in the hands of a community nonprofit that will treat tenants with the respect they deserve.”

With that sort of track record, it should come as no surprise the mayor proposed a government takeover of key industries to address COVID-19: “This is a case for a nationalization, literally a nationalization, of crucial factories and industries that could produce the medical supplies to prepare this country for what we need.” Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative, agrees, “We should nationalize what remains of the American vaccine industry now, thereby assuring that any coronavirus vaccines produced can be made as widely available and as inexpensive soon as possible.” 

Dan Sullivan in the American Prospect suggests the U.S. should nationalize all the airlines. Some have gone so far as calling for nationalization of the U.S. oil industry.

On the one hand, it’s clear that de Blasio and Brown have no confidence in the price system to efficiently allocate resources. Alternatively, they may have overconfidence in the political/bureaucratic system to efficiently, and “equitably,” distribute resources. On the other hand, as Daniel Takash points out in an earlier post, both pharmaceuticals and oil are relatively unpopular industries with many Americans, in which case the threat of a government takeover has a big dose of populist score settling:

Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular–trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government. 

In the early days of the pandemic, France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire promised to protect “big French companies.” The minister identified a range of actions under consideration: “That can be done by recapitalization, that can be done by taking a stake, I can even use the term nationalization if necessary.” While he did not mention any specific companies, it’s been speculated Air France KLM may be a target.

The Italian government is expected to nationalize Alitalia soon. The airline has been in state administration since May 2017, and the Italian government will have 100% control of the airline by June. Last week, the German government took a 20% stake in Lufthansa, in what has been characterized as a “temporary partial nationalization.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been coy about speculation that the government might nationalize Air Canada. 

Obviously, these takeovers have “bailout” written all over them, and bailouts have their own anticompetitive consequences that can be worse than those associated with mergers. For example, RyanAir announced it will contest the aid package for Lufthansa. RyanAir chief executive Michael O’Leary claims the aid will allow Lufthansa to “engage in below-cost selling” and make it harder for RyanAir and its rival low-cost carrier EasyJet to compete. 

There is also a bit of a “national champion” aspect to the takeovers. Each of the potential targets are (or were) considered their nation’s flagship airline. World Bank economists Tanja Goodwin and Georgiana Pop highlight the risk of nationalization harming competition: 

These [sic] should avoid rescuing firms that were already failing. …  But governments should also refrain from engaging in production or service delivery in industries that can be served by the private sector. The role of SOEs [state owned enterprises] should be assessed in order to ensure that bailout packages are not exclusively and unnecessarily favoring a dominant SOE.

To be sure, COVID-19 related mergers could raise the specter of increased market power post-pandemic. But, this risk must be balanced against the risks posed by a merger moratorium. These include the risk of widespread bankruptcies (that’s another post) and/or the possibility of nationalization of firms and industries. Either option can reduce competition which can bring harm to consumers, employees, and suppliers.

[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).]

Earlier this week, merger talks between Uber and food delivery service Grubhub surfaced. House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline quickly reacted to the news:

Americans are struggling to put food on the table, and locally owned businesses are doing everything possible to keep serving people in our communities, even under great duress. Uber is a notoriously predatory company that has long denied its drivers a living wage. Its attempt to acquire Grubhub—which has a history of exploiting local restaurants through deceptive tactics and extortionate fees—marks a new low in pandemic profiteering. We cannot allow these corporations to monopolize food delivery, especially amid a crisis that is rendering American families and local restaurants more dependent than ever on these very services. This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support.

Pandemic profiteering rolls nicely off the tongue, and we’re sure to see that phrase much more over the next year or so. 

Grubhub shares jumped 29% Tuesday, the day the merger talks came to light, shown in the figure below. The Wall Street Journal reports companies are considering a deal that would value Grubhub stock at around 1.9 Uber shares, or $60-65 dollars a share, based on Thursday’s price.

But is that “pandemic profiteering?”

After Amazon announced its intended acquisition of Whole Foods, the grocer’s stock price soared by 27%. Rep. Cicilline voiced some convoluted concerns about that merger, but said nothing about profiteering at the time. Different times, different messaging.

Rep. Cicilline and others have been calling for a merger moratorium during the pandemic and used the Uber/Grubhub announcement as Exhibit A in his indictment of merger activity.

A moratorium would make things much easier for regulators. No more fighting over relevant markets, no HHI calculations, no experts debating SSNIPs or GUPPIs, no worries over consumer welfare, no failing firm defenses. Just a clear, brightline “NO!”

Even before the pandemic, it was well known that the food delivery industry was due for a shakeout. NPR reports, even as the business is growing, none of the top food-delivery apps are turning a profit, with one analyst concluding consolidation was “inevitable.” Thus, even if a moratorium slowed or stopped the Uber/Grubhub merger, at some point a merger in the industry will happen and the U.S. antitrust authorities will have to evaluate it.

First, we have to ask, “What’s the relevant market?” The government has a history of defining relevant markets so narrowly that just about any merger can be challenged. For example, for the scuttled Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger, the FTC famously narrowed the market to “premium natural and organic supermarkets.” Surely, similar mental gymnastics will be used for any merger involving food delivery services.

While food delivery has grown in popularity over the past few years, delivery represents less than 10% of U.S. food service sales. While Rep. Cicilline may be correct that families and local restaurants are “more dependent than ever” on food delivery, delivery is only a small fraction of a large market. Even a monopoly of food delivery service would not confer market power on the restaurant and food service industry.

No reasonable person would claim an Uber/Grubhub merger would increase market power in the restaurant and food service industry. But, it might convey market power in the food delivery market. Much attention is paid to the “Big Four”–DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. But, these platform delivery services are part of the larger food service delivery market, of which platforms account for about half of the industry’s revenues. Pizza accounts for the largest share of restaurant-to-consumer delivery.

This raises the big question of what is the relevant market: Is it the entire food delivery sector, or just the platform-to-consumer sector? 

Based on the information in the figure below, defining the market narrowly would place an Uber/Grubhub merger squarely in the “presumed to be likely to enhance market power” category.

  • 2016 HHI: <3,175
  • 2018 HHI: <1,474
  • 2020 HHI: <2,249 pre-merger; <4,153 post-merger

Alternatively, defining the market to encompass all food delivery would cut the platforms’ shares roughly in half and the merger would be unlikely to harm competition, based on HHI. Choosing the relevant market is, well, relevant.

The Second Measure data suggests that concentration in the platform delivery sector decreased with the entry of Uber Eats, but subsequently increased with DoorDash’s rising share–which included the acquisition of Caviar from Square.

(NB: There seems to be a significant mismatch in the delivery revenue data. Statista reports platform delivery revenues increased by about 40% from 2018 to 2020, but Second Measure indicates revenues have more than doubled.) 

Geoffrey Manne, in an earlier post points out “while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.” That may be the case here.

The figure below is a sample of platform delivery shares by city. I added data from an earlier study of 2017 shares. In all but two metro areas, Uber and Grubhub’s combined market share declined from 2017 to 2020. In Boston, the combined shares did not change and in Los Angeles, the combined shares increased by 1%.

(NB: There are some serious problems with this data, notably that it leaves out the restaurant-to-consumer sector and assumes the entire platform-to-consumer sector is comprised of only the “Big Four.”)

Platform-to-consumer delivery is a complex two-sided market in which the platforms link, and compete for, both restaurants and consumers. Platforms compete for restaurants, drivers, and consumers. Restaurants have a choice of using multiple platforms or entering into exclusive arrangements. Many drivers work for multiple platforms, and many consumers use multiple platforms. 

Fundamentally, the rise of platform-to-consumer is an evolution in vertical integration. Restaurants can choose to offer no delivery, use their own in-house delivery drivers, or use a third party delivery service. Every platform faces competition from in-house delivery, placing a limit on their ability to raise prices to restaurants and consumers.

The choice of delivery is not an either-or decision. For example, many pizza restaurants who have their own delivery drivers also use platform delivery service. Their own drivers may serve a limited geographic area, but the platforms allow the restaurant to expand its geographic reach, thereby increasing its sales. Even so, the platforms face competition from in-house delivery.

Mergers or other forms of shake out in the food delivery industry are inevitable. Mergers will raise important questions about relevant product and geographic markets as well as competition in two-sided markets. While there is a real risk of harm to restaurants, drivers, and consumers, there is also a real possibility of welfare enhancing efficiencies. These questions will never be addressed with an across-the-board merger moratorium.

[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).]

In an earlier TOTM post, we argued as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the best policy would allow properly motivated firms and households to themselves balance the benefits, costs, and risks of transitioning to “business as usual.” 

Sometimes, however, well meaning government policies disrupt the balance and realign motivations.

Our post contrasted firms who determined they could remain open by undertaking mitigation efforts with those who determined they could not safely remain open. One of these latter firms was Portland-based ChefStable, which operates more than 20 restaurants and bars. Kurt Huffman, the owner of ChefStable, shut down all the company’s properties one day before the Oregon governor issued her “Stay home, stay safe” order.

An unintended consequence

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. Huffman reports his business was able to shift to carryout and delivery, which ended up being more successful than anticipated. So successful, in fact, that he needed to bring back some of the laid-off employees. That’s when he ran into one of the stimulus package’s unintended—but not unanticipated—consequences of providing federal-level payments on top of existing state-level guarantees:

We started making the calls last week, just as our furloughed employees began receiving weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation checks of $600 under the Cares Act. When we asked our employees to come back, almost all said, “No thanks.” If they return to work, they’ll have to take a pay cut.

***

But as of this week, that same employee receives $1,016 a week, or $376 more than he made as a full time employee. Why on earth would he want to come back to work?

Mr. Huffman’s not alone. NPR reports on a Kentucky coffee shop owner who faces the same difficulty keeping her employees at work:

“The very people we hired have now asked us to be laid off,” Marietta wrote in a blog post. “Not because they did not like their jobs or because they did not want to work, but because it would cost them literally hundreds of dollars per week to be employed.”

With the federal government now offering $600 a week on top of the state’s unemployment benefits, she recognized her former employees could make more money staying home than they did on the job.

Or, a fully intended consequence

The NPR piece indicates the Trump administration opted for the relatively straightforward (if not simplistic) unemployment payments as a way to get the money to unemployed workers as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, maybe the unemployment premium was not an unintended consequence. Perhaps, there was some intention.

If the purpose of the stay-at-home orders is to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the coronavirus, then it can be argued the purpose of the stimulus spending is to mitigate some of the economic costs. 

If this is the case, it can also be argued that the unemployment premium paid by the federal government was designed to encourage people to stay at home and delay returning to work. In fact, it may be more effective than a bunch of loophole laden employment regulations that would require an army of enforcers.

Mr. Huffman seems confident his employees will be ready to return to work in August, when the premium runs out. John Cochrane, however, is not so confident, writing on his blog, “Hint to Mr. Huffman: I would not bet too much that this deadline is not extended.”

With the administration’s state-by-state phased re-opening of the economy, the unemployment premium payments could be tweaked so only residents in states in Phase 1 or 2 would be eligible to receive the premium payments.

Of course, this tweak would unleash its own unintended consequences. In particular, it would encourage some states to slow walk the re-opening of their economies as a way to extract more federal money for their residents. My wild guess: The slow walking states will be the same states who have been most affected by the state and local tax deductibility provisions in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

As with all government policies, the unemployment provisions in the COVID-19 stimulus raise the age old question: If a policy generates unintended consequences that are not unanticipated, can those consequences really be unintended?

[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.

Goodhart and Bad Policy

Eric Fruits —  18 March 2020

[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.