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[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 Jan Rybnicek (Counsel at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer US LLP in Washington, D.C. and Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Global Antitrust Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University).]

In an area where it may seem that agreement is rare, there is near universal agreement on the benefits of withdrawing the DOJ’s 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The 1984 Guidelines do not reflect current agency thinking on vertical mergers and are not relied upon by businesses or practitioners to anticipate how the agencies may review a vertical transaction. The more difficult question is whether the agencies should now replace the 1984 Guidelines and, if so, what the modern guidelines should say.

There are several important reasons that counsel against issuing new vertical merger guidelines (VMGs). Most significantly, we likely are better off without new VMGs because they invariably will (1) send the wrong message to agency staff about the relative importance of vertical merger enforcement compared to other agency priorities, (2) create new sufficient conditions that tend to trigger wasteful investigations and erroneous enforcement actions, and (3) add very little, if anything, to our understanding of when the agencies will or will not pursue an in-depth investigation or enforcement action of a vertical merger.

Unfortunately, these problems are magnified rather than mitigated by the draft VMGs. But it is unlikely at this point that the agencies will hit the brakes and not issue new VMGs. The agencies therefore should make several key changes that would help prevent the final VMGs from causing more harm than good.

What is the Purpose of Agency Guidelines? 

Before we can have a meaningful conversation about whether the draft VMGs are good or bad for the world, or how they can be improved to ensure they contribute positively to antitrust law, it is important to identify, and have a shared understanding about, the purpose of guidelines and their potential benefits.

In general, I am supportive of guidelines. In fact, I helped urge the FTC to issue its 2015 Policy Statement articulating the agency’s enforcement principles under its Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition authority. As I have written before, guidelines can be useful if they accomplish two important goals: (1) provide insight and transparency to businesses and practitioners about the agencies’ analytical approach to an issue and (2) offer agency staff direction as to agency priorities while cabining the agencies’ broad discretion by tethering investigational or enforcement decisions to those guidelines. An additional benefit may be that the guidelines also could prove useful to courts interpreting or applying the antitrust laws.

Transparency is important for the obvious reason that it allows the business community and practitioners to know how the agencies will apply the antitrust laws and thereby allows them to evaluate if a specific merger or business arrangement is likely to receive scrutiny. But guidelines are not only consumed by the public. They also are used by agency staff. As a result, guidelines invariably influence how staff approaches a matter, including whether to open an investigation, how in-depth that investigation is, and whether to recommend an enforcement action. Lastly, for guidelines to be meaningful, they also must accurately reflect agency practice, which requires the agencies’ analysis to be tethered to an analytical framework.

As discussed below, there are many reasons to doubt that the draft VMGs can deliver on these goals.

Draft VMGs Will Lead to Bad Enforcement Policy While Providing Little Benefit

 A chief concern with VMGs is that they will inadvertently usher in a new enforcement regime that treats horizontal and vertical mergers as co-equal enforcement priorities despite the mountain of evidence, not to mention simple logic, that mergers among competitors are a significantly greater threat to competition than are vertical mergers. The draft VMGs exacerbate rather than mitigate this risk by creating a false equivalence between vertical and horizontal merger enforcement and by establishing new minimum conditions that are likely to lead the agencies to pursue wasteful investigations of vertical transactions. And the draft VMGs do all this without meaningfully advancing our understanding of the conditions under which the agencies are likely to pursue investigations and enforcement against vertical mergers.

1. No Recognition of the Differences Between Horizontal and Vertical Mergers

One striking feature of the draft VMGs is that they fail to contextualize vertical mergers in the broader antitrust landscape. As a result, it is easy to walk away from the draft VMGs with the impression that vertical mergers are as likely to lead to anticompetitive harm as are horizontal mergers. That is a position not supported by the economic evidence or logic. It is of course true that vertical mergers can result in competitive harm; that is not a seriously contested point. But it is important to acknowledge and provide background for why that harm is significantly less likely than in horizontal cases. That difference should inform agency enforcement priorities. Potentially due to this the lack of framing, the draft VMGs tend to speak more about when the agencies may identify competitive harm rather than when they will not.

The draft VMGs would benefit greatly from a more comprehensive approach to understanding vertical merger transactions. The agencies should add language explaining that, whereas a consensus exists that eliminating a direct competitor always tends to increase the risk of unilateral effects (although often trivially), there is no such consensus that harm will result from the combination of complementary assets. In fact, the current evidence shows such vertical transactions tend to be procompetitive. Absent such language, the VMGs will over time misguidedly focus more agency resources into investigating vertical mergers where there is unlikely to be harm (with inevitably more enforcement errors) and less time on more important priorities, such as pursuing enforcement of anticompetitive horizontal transactions.

2. The 20% Safe Harbor Provides No Harbor and Will Become a Sufficient Condition

The draft VMGs attempt to provide businesses with guidance about the types of transactions the agencies will not investigate by articulating a market share safe harbor. But that safe harbor does not (1) appear to be grounded in any evidence, (2) is surprisingly low in comparison to the EU vertical merger guidelines, and (3) is likely to become a sufficient condition to trigger an in-depth investigation or enforcement. 

The draft VMGs state:

The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20%, and the related product is used in less than 20% of the relevant market.

But in the very next sentence the draft VMGs render the safe harbor virtually meaningless, stating:

In some circumstance, mergers with shares below the threshold can give rise to competitive concerns.

This caveat comes despite the fact that the 20% threshold is low compared to other jurisdictions. Indeed, the EU’s guidelines create a 30% safe harbor. Nor is it clear what the basis is for the 20% threshold, either in economics or law. While it is important for the agencies to remain flexible, too much flexibility will render the draft VMGs meaningless. The draft VMGs should be less equivocal about the types of mergers that will not receive significant scrutiny and are unlikely to be the subject of enforcement action.

What may be most troubling about the market share safe harbor is the likelihood that it will establish general enforcement norms that did not previously exist. It is likely that agency staff will soon interpret (despite language stating otherwise) the 20% market share as the minimum necessary condition to open an in-depth investigation and to pursue an enforcement action. We have seen other guidelines’ tools have similar effects on agency analysis before (see, GUPPIs). This risk is only exacerbated where the safe harbor is not a true safe harbor that provides businesses with clarity on enforcement priorities.

3. Requirements for Proving EDM and Efficiencies Fails to Recognize Vertical Merger Context

The draft VMGs minimize the significant role of EDM and efficiencies in vertical mergers. The agencies frequently take a skeptical approach to efficiencies in the context of horizontal mergers and it is well-known that the hurdle to substantiate efficiencies is difficult, if not impossible, to meet. The draft VMGs oddly continue this skeptical approach by specifically referencing the standards discussed in the horizontal merger guidelines for efficiencies when discussing EDM and vertical merger efficiencies. The draft VMGs do not recognize that the combination of complementary products is inherently more likely to generate efficiencies than in horizontal mergers between competitors. The draft VMGs also oddly discuss EDM and efficiencies in separate sections and spend a trivial amount of time on what is the core motivating feature of vertical mergers. Even the discussion of EDM is as much about where there may be exceptions to EDM as it is about making clear the uncontroversial view that EDM is frequent in vertical transactions. Without acknowledging the inherent nature of EDM and efficiencies more generally, the final VMGs will send the wrong message that vertical merger enforcement should be on par with horizontal merger enforcement.

4. No New Insights into How Agencies Will Assess Vertical Mergers

Some might argue that the costs associated with the draft VMGs nevertheless are tolerable because the guidelines offer significant benefits that far outweigh their costs. But that is not the case here. The draft VMGs provide no new information about how the agencies will review vertical merger transactions and under what circumstances they are likely to seek enforcement actions. And that is because it is a difficult if not impossible task to identify any such general guiding principles. Indeed, unlike in the context of horizontal transactions where an increase in market power informs our thinking about the likely competitive effects, greater market power in the context of a vertical transaction that combines complements creates downward pricing pressure that often will dominate any potential competitive harm.

The draft VMGs do what they can, though, which is to describe in general terms several theories of harm. But the benefits from that exercise are modest and do not outweigh the significant risks discussed above. The theories described are neither novel or unknown to the public today. Nor do the draft VMGs explain any significant new thinking on vertical mergers, likely because there has been none that can provide insight into general enforcement principles. The draft VMGs also do not clarify changes to statutory text (because it has not changed) or otherwise clarify judicial rulings or past enforcement actions. As a result, the draft VMGs do not offer sufficient benefits that would outweigh their substantial cost.

Conclusion

Despite these concerns, it is worth acknowledging the work the FTC and DOJ have put into preparing the draft VMGs. It is no small task to articulate a unified position between the two agencies on an issue such as vertical merger enforcement where so many have such strong views. To the agencies’ credit, the VMGs are restrained in not including novel or more adventurous theories of harm. I anticipate the DOJ and FTC will engage with commentators and take the feedback seriously as they work to improve the final VMGs.