REGISTER HERE for the much-anticipated 2018 ICLE/Leeds competition law conference, this Friday and Saturday in Washington, DC.
NB: We’ve been approved for 8 credit hours of VA MCLE
The conference agenda is below. We hope to see you there!
Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).
Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.
I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.
The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.
These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.
Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform
In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.
Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.
Drug pricing and distribution innovations
To begin with, the CVS/Aetna deal, along with the also recently approved Cigna-Express Scripts deal, solidifies the vertical integration of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) with insurers.
But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.
Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.
Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.
Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.
At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.
While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).
Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.
Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.
Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.
And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.
Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,
[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.
More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner
In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.
This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.
While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.
As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:
But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.
In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”
What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.
We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.
A few weeks ago I posted a preliminary assessment of the relative antitrust risk of a Comcast vs Disney purchase of 21st Century Fox assets. (Also available in pdf as an ICLE Issue brief, here). On the eve of Judge Leon’s decision in the AT&T/Time Warner merger case, it seems worthwhile to supplement that assessment by calling attention to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s remarks at The Deal’s Corporate Governance Conference last week. Somehow these remarks seem to have passed with little notice, but, given their timing, they deserve quite a bit more attention.
In brief, Delrahim spent virtually the entirety of his short remarks making and remaking the fundamental point at the center of my own assessment of the antitrust risk of a possible Comcast/Fox deal: The DOJ’s challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger tells you nothing about the likelihood that the agency would challenge a Comcast/Fox merger.
To begin, in my earlier assessment I pointed out that most vertical mergers are approved by antitrust enforcers, and I quoted Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, who noted that:
[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….
* * *
Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.
I may not have made it very clear in that post, but, of course, most horizontal mergers are approved by enforcers, as well.
Well, now we have the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division making the same point:
I’d say 95 or 96 percent of mergers — horizontal or vertical — are cleared — routinely…. Most mergers — horizontal or vertical — are procompetitive, or have no adverse effect.
Delrahim reinforced the point in an interview with The Street in advance of his remarks. Asked by a reporter, “what are your concerns with vertical mergers?,” Delrahim quickly corrected the questioner: “Well, I don’t have any concerns with most vertical mergers….”
But Delrahim went even further, noting that nothing about the Division’s approach to vertical mergers has changed since the AT&T/Time Warner case was brought — despite the efforts of some reporters to push a different narrative:
I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers. Some point to our recent decision to challenge some aspects of the AT&T/Time Warner merger as a supposed bellwether for a new vertical approach. Rest assured: These concerns are misplaced…. We have long recognized that vertical integration can and does generate efficiencies that benefit consumers. Indeed, most vertical mergers are procompetitive or competitively neutral. The same is of course true in horizontal transactions. To the extent that any recent action points to a closer review of vertical mergers, it’s not new…. [But,] to reiterate, our approach to vertical mergers has not changed, and our recent enforcement efforts are consistent with the Division’s long-standing, bipartisan approach to analyzing such mergers. We’ll continue to recognize that vertical mergers, in general, can yield significant economic efficiencies and benefit to competition.
Delrahim concluded his remarks by criticizing those who assume that the agency’s future enforcement decisions can be inferred from past cases with different facts, stressing that the agency employs an evidence-based, case-by-case approach to merger review:
Lumping all vertical transactions under the same umbrella, by comparison, obscures the reality that we conduct a vigorous investigation, aided by over 50 PhD economists in these markets, to make sure that we as lawyers don’t steer too far without the benefits of their views in each of these instances.
Arguably this was a rebuke directed at those, like Disney and Fox’s board, who are quick to ascribe increased regulatory risk to a Comcast/Fox tie-up because the DOJ challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Recall that, in its proxy statement, the Fox board explained that it rejected Comcast’s earlier bid in favor of Disney’s in part because of “the regulatory risks presented by the DOJ’s unanticipated opposition to the proposed vertical integration of the AT&T / Time Warner transaction.”
I’ll likely have more to add once the AT&T/Time Warner decision is out. But in the meantime (and with apologies to Mark Twain), the takeaway is clear: Reports of the death of vertical mergers have been greatly exaggerated.
Today would have been Henry Manne’s 90th birthday. When he passed away in 2015 he left behind an immense and impressive legacy. In 1991, at the inaugural meeting of the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA), Manne was named a Life Member of ALEA and, along with Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, and federal appeals court judges Richard Posner and Guido Calabresi, one of the four Founders of Law and Economics. The organization I founded, the International Center for Law & Economics is dedicated to his memory, along with that of his great friend and mentor, UCLA economist Armen Alchian.
Manne is best known for his work in corporate governance and securities law and regulation, of course. But sometimes forgotten is that his work on the market for corporate control was motivated by concerns about analytical flaws in merger enforcement. As former FTC commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Joshua Wright noted in a 2015 dissenting statement:
The notion that the threat of takeover would induce current managers to improve firm performance to the benefit of shareholders was first developed by Henry Manne. Manne’s pathbreaking work on the market for corporate control arose out of a concern that antitrust constraints on horizontal mergers would distort its functioning. See Henry G. Manne, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, 73 J. POL. ECON. 110 (1965).
But Manne’s focus on antitrust didn’t end in 1965. Moreover, throughout his life he was a staunch critic of misguided efforts to expand the power of government, especially when these efforts claimed to have their roots in economic reasoning — which, invariably, was hopelessly flawed. As his obituary notes:
In his teaching, his academic writing, his frequent op-eds and essays, and his work with organizations like the Cato Institute, the Liberty Fund, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Mont Pèlerin Society, among others, Manne advocated tirelessly for a clearer understanding of the power of markets and competition and the importance of limited government and economically sensible regulation.
Thus it came to be, in 1974, that Manne was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, on Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart’s proposed Industrial Reorganization Act. His testimony is a tour de force, and a prescient rejoinder to the faddish advocates of today’s “hipster antitrust”— many of whom hearken longingly back to the antitrust of the 1960s and its misguided “gurus.”
Henry Manne’s trenchant testimony critiquing the Industrial Reorganization Act and its (ostensible) underpinnings is reprinted in full in this newly released ICLE white paper (with introductory material by Geoffrey Manne):
Sen. Hart proposed the Industrial Reorganization Act in order to address perceived problems arising from industrial concentration. The bill was rooted in the belief that industry concentration led inexorably to monopoly power; that monopoly power, however obtained, posed an inexorable threat to freedom and prosperity; and that the antitrust laws (i.e., the Sherman and Clayton Acts) were insufficient to address the purported problems.
That sentiment — rooted in the reflexive application of the (largely-discredited structure-conduct-performance (SCP) paradigm) — had already become largely passé among economists in the 70s, but it has resurfaced today as the asserted justification for similar (although less onerous) antitrust reform legislation and the general approach to antitrust analysis commonly known as “hipster antitrust.”
The critiques leveled against the asserted economic underpinnings of efforts like the Industrial Reorganization Act are as relevant today as they were then. As Henry Manne notes in his testimony:
To be successful in this stated aim [“getting the government out of the market”] the following dreams would have to come true: The members of both the special commission and the court established by the bill would have to be satisfied merely to complete their assigned task and then abdicate their tremendous power and authority; they would have to know how to satisfactorily define and identify the limits of the industries to be restructured; the Government’s regulation would not sacrifice significant efficiencies or economies of scale; and the incentive for new firms to enter an industry would not be diminished by the threat of a punitive response to success.
The lessons of history, economic theory, and practical politics argue overwhelmingly against every one of these assumptions.
Both the subject matter of and impetus for the proposed bill (as well as Manne’s testimony explaining its economic and political failings) are eerily familiar. The preamble to the Industrial Reorganization Act asserts that
competition… preserves a democratic society, and provides an opportunity for a more equitable distribution of wealth while avoiding the undue concentration of economic, social, and political power; [and] the decline of competition in industries with oligopoly or monopoly power has contributed to unemployment, inflation, inefficiency, an underutilization of economic capacity, and the decline of exports….
The echoes in today’s efforts to rein in corporate power by adopting structural presumptions are unmistakable. Compare, for example, this language from Sen. Klobuchar’s Consolidation Prevention and Competition Promotion Act of 2017:
[C]oncentration that leads to market power and anticompetitive conduct makes it more difficult for people in the United States to start their own businesses, depresses wages, and increases economic inequality;
undue market concentration also contributes to the consolidation of political power, undermining the health of democracy in the United States; [and]
the anticompetitive effects of market power created by concentration include higher prices, lower quality, significantly less choice, reduced innovation, foreclosure of competitors, increased entry barriers, and monopsony power.
Remarkably, Sen. Hart introduced his bill as “an alternative to government regulation and control.” Somehow, it was the antithesis of “government control” to introduce legislation that, in Sen. Hart’s words,
involves changing the life styles of many of our largest corporations, even to the point of restructuring whole industries. It involves positive government action, not to control industry but to restore competition and freedom of enterprise in the economy
Like today’s advocates of increased government intervention to design the structure of the economy, Sen. Hart sought — without a trace of irony — to “cure” the problem of politicized, ineffective enforcement by doubling down on the power of the enforcers.
Henry Manne was having none of it. As he pointedly notes in his testimony, the worst problems of monopoly power are of the government’s own making. The real threat to democracy, freedom, and prosperity is the political power amassed in the bureaucratic apparatus that frequently confers monopoly, at least as much as the monopoly power it spawns:
[I]t takes two to make that bargain [political protection and subsidies in exchange for lobbying]. And as we look around at various industries we are constrained to ask who has not done this. And more to the point, who has not succeeded?
It is unhappily almost impossible to name a significant industry in the United States that has not gained some degree of protection from the rigors of competition from Federal, State or local governments.
* * *
But the solution to inefficiencies created by Government controls cannot lie in still more controls. The politically responsible task ahead for Congress is to dismantle our existing regulatory monster before it strangles us.
We have spawned a gigantic bureaucracy whose own political power threatens the democratic legitimacy of government.
We are rapidly moving toward the worst features of a centrally planned economy with none of the redeeming political, economic, or ethical features usually claimed for such systems.
The new white paper includes Manne’s testimony in full, including his exchange with Sen. Hart and committee staffers following his prepared remarks.
It is, sadly, nearly as germane today as it was then.
One final note: The subtitle for the paper is a reference to the song “What Is Hip?” by Tower of Power. Its lyrics are decidedly apt:
You done went and found you a guru,
In your effort to find you a new you,
And maybe even managed
To raise your conscious level.
While you’re striving to find the right road,
There’s one thing you should know:
What’s hip today
Might become passé.
— Tower of Power, What Is Hip? (Emilio Castillo, John David Garibaldi & Stephen M. Kupka, What Is Hip? (Bob-A-Lew Songs 1973), from the album TOWER OF POWER (Warner Bros. 1973))
And here’s the song, in all its glory:
Following is the (slightly expanded and edited) text of my remarks from the panel, Antitrust and the Tech Industry: What Is at Stake?, hosted last Thursday by CCIA. Bruce Hoffman (keynote), Bill Kovacic, Nicolas Petit, and Christine Caffarra also spoke. If we’re lucky Bruce will post his remarks on the FTC website; they were very good.
(NB: Some of these comments were adapted (or lifted outright) from a forthcoming Cato Policy Report cover story co-authored with Gus Hurwitz, so Gus shares some of the credit/blame.)
The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife capable of correcting all manner of social and economic ills is apparently difficult for some to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, many recent calls for regulation of industry — and the tech industry in particular — are framed in antitrust terms. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example:
[T]oday, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.
And she is not alone. A growing chorus of advocates are now calling for invasive, “public-utility-style” regulation or even the dissolution of some of the world’s most innovative companies essentially because they are “too big.”
According to critics, these firms impose all manner of alleged harms — from fake news, to the demise of local retail, to low wages, to the veritable destruction of democracy — because of their size. What is needed, they say, is industrial policy that shackles large companies or effectively mandates smaller firms in order to keep their economic and political power in check.
But consider the relationship between firm size and political power and democracy.
Say you’re successful in reducing the size of today’s largest tech firms and in deterring the creation of new, very-large firms: What effect might we expect this to have on their political power and influence?
For the critics, the effect is obvious: A re-balancing of wealth and thus the reduction of political influence away from Silicon Valley oligarchs and toward the middle class — the “rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.”
But consider a few (and this is by no means all) countervailing points:
To begin, at the margin, if you limit firm growth as a means of competing with rivals, you make correspondingly more important competition through political influence. Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions, and rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration.
Next, by imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives, you also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so.
And finally, if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? All of a sudden the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might even find, again, that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules.
All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying problem: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results — precisely the opposite of what proponents claim to want.
Then there’s democracy, and calls to break up tech in order to save it. Calls to do so are often made with reference to the original intent of the Sherman Act and Louis Brandeis and his “curse of bigness.” But intentional or not, these are rallying cries for the assertion, not the restraint, of political power.
The Sherman Act’s origin was ambivalent: although it was intended to proscribe business practices that harmed consumers, it was also intended to allow politically-preferred firms to maintain high prices in the face of competition from politically-disfavored businesses.
The years leading up to the adoption of the Sherman Act in 1890 were characterized by dramatic growth in the efficiency-enhancing, high-tech industries of the day. For many, the purpose of the Sherman Act was to stem this growth: to prevent low prices — and, yes, large firms — from “driving out of business the small dealers and worthy men whose lives have been spent therein,” in the words of Trans-Missouri Freight, one of the early Supreme Court decisions applying the Act.
Left to the courts, however, the Sherman Act didn’t quite do the trick. By 1911 (in Standard Oil and American Tobacco) — and reflecting consumers’ preferences for low prices over smaller firms — only “unreasonable” conduct was actionable under the Act. As one of the prime intellectual engineers behind the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, Brandeis played a significant role in the (partial) legislative and administrative overriding of the judiciary’s excessive support for economic efficiency.
Brandeis was motivated by the belief that firms could become large only by illegitimate means and by deceiving consumers. But Brandeis was no advocate for consumer sovereignty. In fact, consumers, in Brandeis’ view, needed to be saved from themselves because they were, at root, “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.”
There’s a lot that today we (many of us, at least) would find anti-democratic in the underpinnings of progressivism in US history: anti-consumerism; racism; elitism; a belief in centrally planned, technocratic oversight of the economy; promotion of social engineering, including through eugenics; etc. The aim of limiting economic power was manifestly about stemming the threat it posed to powerful people’s conception of what political power could do: to mold and shape the country in their image — what economist Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”
That may sound great when it’s your vision being implemented, but today’s populist antitrust resurgence comes while Trump is in the White House. It’s baffling to me that so many would expand and then hand over the means to design the economy and society in their image to antitrust enforcers in the executive branch and presidentially appointed technocrats.
Throughout US history, it is the courts that have often been the bulwark against excessive politicization of the economy, and it was the courts that shepherded the evolution of antitrust away from its politicized roots toward rigorous, economically grounded policy. And it was progressives like Brandeis who worked to take antitrust away from the courts. Now, with efforts like Senator Klobuchar’s merger bill, the “New Brandeisians” want to rein in the courts again — to get them out of the way of efforts to implement their “big is bad” vision.
But the evidence that big is actually bad, least of all on those non-economic dimensions, is thin and contested.
While Zuckerberg is grilled in Congress over perceived, endemic privacy problems, politician after politician and news article after news article rushes to assert that the real problem is Facebook’s size. Yet there is no convincing analysis (maybe no analysis of any sort) that connects its size with the problem, or that evaluates whether the asserted problem would actually be cured by breaking up Facebook.
Barry Lynn claims that the origins of antitrust are in the checks and balances of the Constitution, extended to economic power. But if that’s right, then the consumer welfare standard and the courts are the only things actually restraining the disruption of that order. If there may be gains to be had from tweaking the minutiae of the process of antitrust enforcement and adjudication, by all means we should have a careful, lengthy discussion about those tweaks.
But throwing the whole apparatus under the bus for the sake of an unsubstantiated, neo-Brandeisian conception of what the economy should look like is a terrible idea.
Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.
Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.
What didn’t happen
In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:
- Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
- Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
- Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
- Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
- The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
- Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
- Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
- Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
- Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.
Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.
Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance
The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:
In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)
As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.
Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.
The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision
Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.
So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).
Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.
The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.
Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:
[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).
As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:
The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))
The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare
Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.
Following its finding that
[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),
the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:
So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))
Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.
Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.
This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.
The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.
Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.
As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.
The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.
The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018 — alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.
But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.
According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:
[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.
The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.
Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:
We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.
But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.
The antitrust issues
To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that
this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.
True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:
- United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
- South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
- Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.
Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.
As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:
Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.
The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:
The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.
Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.
The Yelp Claim
Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”
While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:
Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.
In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:
make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….
The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.
Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).
The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.
It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.
Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.
To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.
For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.
The privacy issues
The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”
Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.
The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:
- “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
- “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
- “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to  address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
- Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports  from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”
What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?
Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?
And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?
Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.
That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.
So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?
While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).
To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.
Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?
Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:
[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.
AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.
Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”
It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.
It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.
Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.
Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.
But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):
Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.
Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.
The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:
As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.
Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”