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The Federal Trade Commission will soon hold hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century.  The topics to be considered include:

  1. The state of antitrust and consumer protection law and enforcement, and their development, since the [1995] Pitofsky hearings;
  2. Competition and consumer protection issues in communication, information and media technology networks;
  3. The identification and measurement of market power and entry barriers, and the evaluation of collusive, exclusionary, or predatory conduct or conduct that violates the consumer protection statutes enforced by the FTC, in markets featuring “platform” businesses;
  4. The intersection between privacy, big data, and competition;
  5. The Commission’s remedial authority to deter unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters;
  6. Evaluating the competitive effects of corporate acquisitions and mergers;
  7. Evidence and analysis of monopsony power, including but not limited to, in labor markets;
  8. The role of intellectual property and competition policy in promoting innovation;
  9. The consumer welfare implications associated with the use of algorithmic decision tools, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics;
  10. The interpretation and harmonization of state and federal statutes and regulations that prohibit unfair and deceptive acts and practices; and
  11. The agency’s investigation, enforcement and remedial processes.

The Commission has solicited comments on each of these main topics and a number of subtopics.  Initial comments are due today, but comments will also be accepted at two other times.  First, before each scheduled hearing on a topic, the Commission will accept comments on that particular matter.  In addition, the Commission will accept comments at the end of all the hearings.

Over the weekend, Mike Sykuta and I submitted a comment on topic 6, “evaluating the competitive effects of corporate acquisitions and mergers.”  We addressed one of the subtopics the FTC will consider: “the analysis of acquisitions and holding of a non-controlling ownership interest in competing companies.”

Here’s our comment, with a link to our working paper on the topic of common ownership by institutional investors:

To Whom It May Concern:

We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s request for comment on its upcoming hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. We are professors of law (Lambert) and economics (Sykuta) at the University of Missouri. We wish to comment on Topic 6, “evaluating the competitive effects of corporate acquisitions and mergers” and specifically on Subtopic 6(c), “the analysis of acquisitions and holding of a non-controlling ownership interest in competing companies.”

Recent empirical research purports to demonstrate that institutional investors’ “common ownership” of small stakes in competing firms causes those firms to compete less aggressively, injuring consumers. A number of prominent antitrust scholars have cited this research as grounds for limiting the degree to which institutional investors may hold stakes in multiple firms that compete in any concentrated market. In our recent working paper, The Case for Doing Nothing About Institutional Investors’ Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms, which we submit along with these comments, we contend that the purported competitive problem is overblown and that the proposed solutions would reduce overall social welfare.

With respect to the purported problem, our paper shows that the theory of anticompetitive harm from institutional investors’ common ownership is implausible and that the empirical studies supporting the theory are methodologically unsound. The theory fails to account for the fact that intra-industry diversified institutional investors are also inter-industry diversified, and it rests upon unrealistic assumptions about managerial decision-making. The empirical studies purporting to demonstrate anticompetitive harm from common ownership are deficient because they inaccurately assess institutional investors’ economic interests and employ an endogenous measure that precludes causal inferences.

Even if institutional investors’ common ownership of competing firms did soften market competition somewhat, the proposed policy solutions would themselves create welfare losses that would overwhelm any social benefits they secured. The proposed policy solutions would create tremendous new decision costs for business planners and adjudicators and would raise error costs by eliminating welfare-enhancing investment options and/or exacerbating corporate agency costs.

In light of these problems with the purported problem and shortcomings of the proposed solutions, the optimal regulatory approach—at least, on the current empirical record—is to do nothing about institutional investors’ common ownership of small stakes in competing firms.

Thank you for considering these comments and our attached paper. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Sincerely,

Thomas A. Lambert, Wall Family Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School;
Michael E. Sykuta, Associate Professor, Division of Applied Social Sciences, University of Missouri; Director, Contracting and Organizations Research Institute (CORI)

Kudos to the Commission for holding this important set of hearings.

One of the hottest topics in antitrust these days is institutional investors’ common ownership of the stock of competing firms. Large investment companies like BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, and Fidelity offer index and actively managed mutual funds that are invested in thousands of companies. In many concentrated industries, these institutional investors are “intra-industry diversified,” meaning that they hold stakes in all the significant competitors within the industry.

Recent empirical studies (e.g., here and here) purport to show that this intra-industry diversification has led to a softening of competition in concentrated markets. The theory is that firm managers seek to maximize the profits of their largest and most powerful shareholders, all of which hold stakes in all the major firms in the market and therefore prefer maximization of industry, not firm-specific, profits. (For example, an investor that owns stock in all the airlines servicing a route would not want those airlines to engage in aggressive price competition to win business from each other. Additional sales to one airline would come at the expense of another, and prices—and thus profit margins—would be lower.)

The empirical studies on common ownership, which have received a great deal of attention in the academic literature and popular press and have inspired antitrust scholars to propose a number of policy solutions, have employed a complicated measurement known as “MHHI delta” (MHHI∆). MHHI∆ is a component of the “modified Herfindahl–Hirschman Index” (MHHI), which, as the name suggests, is an adaptation of the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index (HHI).

HHI, which ranges from near zero to 10,000 and is calculated by summing the squares of the market shares of the firms competing in a market, assesses the degree to which a market is concentrated and thus susceptible to collusion or oligopolistic coordination. MHHI endeavors to account for both market concentration (HHI) and the reduced competition incentives occasioned by common ownership of the firms within a market. MHHI∆ is the part of MHHI that accounts for common ownership incentives, so MHHI = HHI + MHHI∆.  (Notably, neither MHHI nor MHHI∆ is bounded by the 10,000 upper limit applicable to HHI.  At the end of this post, I offer an example of a market in which MHHI and MHHI∆ both exceed 10,000.)

In the leading common ownership study, which looked at the airline industry, the authors first calculated the MHHI∆ on each domestic airline route from 2001 to 2014. They then examined, for each route, how changes in the MHHI∆ over time correlated with changes in airfares on that route. To control for route-specific factors that might influence both fares and the MHHI∆, the authors ran a number of regressions. They concluded that common ownership of air carriers resulted in a 3%–7% increase in fares.

As should be apparent, it is difficult to understand the common ownership issue—the extent to which there is a competitive problem and the propriety of proposed solutions—without understanding MHHI∆. Unfortunately, the formula for the metric is extraordinarily complex. Posner et al. express it as follows:

Where:

  • βij is the fraction of shares in firm j controlled by investor I,
  • the shares are both cash flow and control shares (so control rights are assumed to be proportionate to the investor’s share of firm profits), and
  • sj is the market share of firm j.

The complexity of this formula is, for less technically oriented antitrusters (like me!), a barrier to entry into the common ownership debate.  In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to lower that entry barrier by describing the overall process for determining MHHI∆, cataloguing the specific steps required to calculate the measure, and offering a concrete example.

Overview of the Process for Calculating MHHI∆

Determining the MHHI∆ for a market involves three primary tasks. The first is to assess, for each coupling of competing firms in the market (e.g., Southwest Airlines and United Airlines), the degree to which the investors in one of the competitors would prefer that it not attempt to win business from the other by lowering prices, etc. This assessment must be completed twice for each coupling. With the Southwest and United coupling, for example, one must assess both the degree to which United’s investors would prefer that the company not win business from Southwest and the degree to which Southwest’s investors would prefer that the company not win business from United. There will be different answers to those two questions if, for example, United has a significant shareholder who owns no Southwest stock (and thus wants United to win business from Southwest), but Southwest does not have a correspondingly significant shareholder who owns no United stock (and would thus want Southwest to win business from United).

Assessing the incentive of one firm, Firm J (to correspond to the formula above), to pull its competitive punches against another, Firm K, requires calculating a fraction that compares the interest of the first firm’s owners in “coupling” profits (the combined profits of J and K) to their interest in “own-firm” profits (J profits only). The numerator of that fraction is based on data from the coupling—i.e., the firm whose incentive to soften competition one is assessing (J) and the firm with which it is competing (K). The fraction’s denominator is based on data for the single firm whose competition-reduction incentive one is assessing (J). Specifically:

  • The numerator assesses the degree to which the firms in the coupling are commonly owned, such that their owners would not benefit from price-reducing, head-to-head competition and would instead prefer that the firms compete less vigorously so as to maximize coupling profits. To determine the numerator, then, one must examine all the investors who are invested in both firms; for each, multiply their ownership percentages in the two firms; and then sum those products for all investors with common ownership. (If an investor were invested in only one firm in the coupling, its ownership percentage would be multiplied by zero and would thus drop out; after all, an investor in only one of the firms has no interest in maximization of coupling versus own-firm profits.)
  • The denominator assesses the degree to which the investor base (weighted by control) of the firm whose competition-reduction incentive is under consideration (J) would prefer that it maximize its own profits, not the profits of the coupling. Determining the denominator requires summing the squares of the ownership percentages of investors in that firm. Squaring means that very small investors essentially drop out and that the denominator grows substantially with large ownership percentages by particular investors. Large ownership percentages suggest the presence of shareholders that are more likely able to influence management, whether those shareholders also own shares in the second company or not.

Having assessed, for each firm in a coupling, the incentive to soften competition with the other, one must proceed to the second primary task: weighing the significance of those firms’ incentives not to compete with each other in light of the coupling’s shares of the market. (The idea here is that if two small firms reduced competition with one another, the effect on overall market competition would be less significant than if two large firms held their competitive fire.) To determine the significance to the market of the two coupling members’ incentives to reduce competition with each other, one must multiply each of the two fractions determined above (in Task 1) times the product of the market shares of the two firms in the coupling. This will generate two “cross-MHHI deltas,” one for each of the two firms in the coupling (e.g., one cross-MHHI∆ for Southwest/United and another for United/Southwest).

The third and final task is to aggregate the effect of common ownership-induced competition-softening throughout the market as a whole by summing the softened competition metrics (i.e., two cross-MHHI deltas for each coupling of competitors within the market). If decimals were used to account for the firms’ market shares (e.g., if a 25% market share was denoted 0.25), the sum should be multiplied by 10,000.

Following is a detailed list of instructions for assessing the MHHI∆ for a market (assuming proportionate control—i.e., that investors’ control rights correspond to their shares of firm profits).

A Nine-Step Guide to Calculating the MHHI∆ for a Market

  1. List the firms participating in the market and the market share of each.
  2. List each investor’s ownership percentage of each firm in the market.
  3. List the potential pairings of firms whose incentives to compete with each other must be assessed. There will be two such pairings for each coupling of competitors in the market (e.g., Southwest/United and United/Southwest) because one must assess the incentive of each firm in the coupling to compete with the other, and that incentive may differ for the two firms (e.g., United may have less incentive to compete with Southwest than Southwest with United). This implies that the number of possible pairings will always be n(n-1), where n is the number of firms in the market.
  4. For each investor, perform the following for each pairing of firms: Multiply the investor’s percentage ownership of the two firms in each pairing (e.g., Institutional Investor 1’s percentage ownership in United * Institutional Investor 1’s percentage ownership in Southwest for the United/Southwest pairing).
  5. For each pairing, sum the amounts from item four across all investors that are invested in both firms. (This will be the numerator in the fraction used in Step 7 to determine the pairing’s cross-MHHI∆.)
  6. For the first firm in each pairing (the one whose incentive to compete with the other is under consideration), sum the squares of the ownership percentages of that firm held by each investor. (This will be the denominator of the fraction used in Step 7 to determine the pairing’s cross-MHHI∆.)
  7. Figure the cross-MHHI∆ for each pairing of firms by doing the following: Multiply the market shares of the two firms, and then multiply the resulting product times a fraction consisting of the relevant numerator (from Step 5) divided by the relevant denominator (from Step 6).
  8. Add together the cross-MHHI∆s for each pairing of firms in the market.
  9. Multiply that amount times 10,000.

I will now illustrate this nine-step process by working through a concrete example.

An Example

Suppose four airlines—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—service a particular market. American and Delta each have 30% of the market; Southwest and United each have a market share of 20%.

Five funds are invested in the market, and each holds stock in all four airlines. Fund 1 owns 1% of each airline’s stock. Fund 2 owns 2% of American and 1% of each of the others. Fund 3 owns 2% of Delta and 1% of each of the others. Fund 4 owns 2% of Southwest and 1% of each of the others. And Fund 4 owns 2% of United and 1% of each of the others. None of the airlines has any other significant stockholder.

Step 1: List firms and market shares.

  1. American – 30% market share
  2. Delta – 30% market share
  3. Southwest – 20% market share
  4. United – 20% market share

Step 2: List investors’ ownership percentages.

Step 3: Catalogue potential competitive pairings.

  1. American-Delta (AD)
  2. American-Southwest (AS)
  3. American-United (AU)
  4. Delta-American (DA)
  5. Delta-Southwest (DS)
  6. Delta-United (DU)
  7. Southwest-American (SA)
  8. Southwest-Delta (SD)
  9. Southwest-United (SU)
  10. United-American (UA)
  11. United-Delta (UD)
  12. United-Southwest (US)

Steps 4 and 5: Figure numerator for determining cross-MHHI∆s.

Step 6: Figure denominator for determining cross-MHHI∆s.

Steps 7 and 8: Determine cross-MHHI∆s for each potential pairing, and then sum all.

  1. AD: .09(.0007/.0008) = .07875
  2. AS: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  3. AU: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  4. DA: .09(.0007/.0008) = .07875
  5. DS: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  6. DU: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  7. SA: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  8. SD: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  9. SU: .04(.0007/.0008) = .035
  10. UA: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  11. UD: .06(.0007/.0008) = .0525
  12. US: .04(.0007/.0008) = .035
    SUM = .6475

Step 9: Multiply by 10,000.

MHHI∆ = 6475.

(NOTE: HHI in this market would total (30)(30) + (30)(30) + (20)(20) + (20)(20) = 2600. MHHI would total 9075.)

***

I mentioned earlier that neither MHHI nor MHHI∆ is subject to an upper limit of 10,000. For example, if there are four firms in a market, five institutional investors that each own 5% of the first three firms and 1% of the fourth, and no other investors holding significant stakes in any of the firms, MHHI∆ will be 15,500 and MHHI 18,000.  (Hat tip to Steve Salop, who helped create the MHHI metric, for reminding me to point out that MHHI and MHHI∆ are not limited to 10,000.)

Ours is not an age of nuance.  It’s an age of tribalism, of teams—“Yer either fer us or agin’ us!”  Perhaps I should have been less surprised, then, when I read the unfavorable review of my book How to Regulate in, of all places, the Federalist Society Review.

I had expected some positive feedback from reviewer J. Kennerly Davis, a contributor to the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  The “About” section of the Project’s website states:

In the ultra-complex and interconnected digital age in which we live, government must issue and enforce regulations to protect public health and safety.  However, despite the best of intentions, government regulation can fail, stifle innovation, foreclose opportunity, and harm the most vulnerable among us.  It is for precisely these reasons that we must be diligent in reviewing how our policies either succeed or fail us, and think about how we might improve them.

I might not have expressed these sentiments in such pro-regulation terms.  For example, I don’t think government should regulate, even “to protect public health and safety,” absent (1) a market failure and (2) confidence that systematic governmental failures won’t cause the cure to be worse than the disease.  I agree, though, that regulation is sometimes appropriate, that government interventions often fail (in systematic ways), and that regulatory policies should regularly be reviewed with an eye toward reducing the combined costs of market and government failures.

Those are, in fact, the central themes of How to Regulate.  The book sets forth an overarching goal for regulation (minimize the sum of error and decision costs) and then catalogues, for six oft-cited bases for regulating, what regulatory tools are available to policymakers and how each may misfire.  For every possible intervention, the book considers the potential for failure from two sources—the knowledge problem identified by F.A. Hayek and public choice concerns (rent-seeking, regulatory capture, etc.).  It ends up arguing:

  • for property rights-based approaches to environmental protection (versus the command-and-control status quo);
  • for increased reliance on the private sector to produce public goods;
  • that recognizing property rights, rather than allocating usage, is the best way to address the tragedy of the commons;
  • that market-based mechanisms, not shareholder suits and mandatory structural rules like those imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, are the best way to constrain agency costs in the corporate context;
  • that insider trading restrictions should be left to corporations themselves;
  • that antitrust law should continue to evolve in the consumer welfare-focused direction Robert Bork recommended;
  • against the FCC’s recently abrogated net neutrality rules;
  • that occupational licensure is primarily about rent-seeking and should be avoided;
  • that incentives for voluntary disclosure will usually obviate the need for mandatory disclosure to correct information asymmetry;
  • that the claims of behavioral economics do not justify paternalistic policies to protect people from themselves; and
  • that “libertarian-paternalism” is largely a ruse that tends to morph into hard paternalism.

Given the congruence of my book’s prescriptions with the purported aims of the Regulatory Transparency Project—not to mention the laundry list of specific market-oriented policies the book advocates—I had expected a generally positive review from Mr. Davis (whom I sincerely thank for reading and reviewing the book; book reviews are a ton of work).

I didn’t get what I’d expected.  Instead, Mr. Davis denounced my book for perpetuating “progressive assumptions about state and society” (“wrongheaded” assumptions, the editor’s introduction notes).  He responded to my proposed methodology with a “meh,” noting that it “is not clearly better than the status quo.”  His one compliment, which I’ll gladly accept, was that my discussion of economic theory was “generally accessible.”

Following are a few thoughts on Mr. Davis’s critiques.

Are My Assumptions Progressive?

According to Mr. Davis, my book endorses three progressive concepts:

(i) the idea that market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources, (ii) the idea that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that can correct private ordering market failures and optimize the allocation of resources, and (iii) the idea that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.

I agree with Mr. Davis that these are progressive ideas.  If my book embraced them, it might be fair to label it “progressive.”  But it doesn’t.  Not one of them.

  1. Market Failure

Nothing in my book suggests that “market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources.”  I do say that “markets sometimes fail to work well,” and I explain how, in narrow sets of circumstances, market failures may emerge.  Understanding exactly what may happen in those narrow sets of circumstances helps to identify the least restrictive option for addressing problems and would thus would seem a pre-requisite to effective policymaking for a conservative or libertarian.  My mere invocation of the term “market failure,” however, was enough for Mr. Davis to kick me off the team.

Mr. Davis ignored altogether the many points where I explain how private ordering fixes situations that could lead to poor market performance.  At the end of the information asymmetry chapter, for example, I write,

This chapter has described information asymmetry as a problem, and indeed it is one.  But it can also present an opportunity for profit.  Entrepreneurs have long sought to make money—and create social value—by developing ways to correct informational imbalances and thereby facilitate transactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

I then describe the advent of companies like Carfax, AirBnb, and Uber, all of which offer privately ordered solutions to instances of information asymmetry that might otherwise create lemons problems.  I conclude:

These businesses thrive precisely because of information asymmetry.  By offering privately ordered solutions to the problem, they allow previously under-utilized assets to generate heretofore unrealized value.  And they enrich the people who created and financed them.  It’s a marvelous thing.

That theme—that potential market failures invite privately ordered solutions that often obviate the need for any governmental fix—permeates the book.  In the public goods chapter, I spend a great deal of time explaining how privately ordered devices like assurance contracts facilitate the production of amenities that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  In discussing the tragedy of the commons, I highlight Elinor Ostrom’s work showing how “groups of individuals have displayed a remarkable ability to manage commons goods effectively without either privatizing them or relying on government intervention.”  In the chapter on externalities, I spend a full seven pages explaining why Coasean bargains are more likely than most people think to prevent inefficiencies from negative externalities.  In the chapter on agency costs, I explain why privately ordered solutions like the market for corporate control would, if not precluded by some ill-conceived regulations, constrain agency costs better than structural rules from the government.

Disregarding all this, Mr. Davis chides me for assuming that “markets routinely fail.”  And, for good measure, he explains that government interventions are often a bigger source of failure, a point I repeatedly acknowledge, as it is a—perhaps the—central theme of the book.

  1. Trust in Experts

In what may be the strangest (and certainly the most misleading) part of his review, Mr. Davis criticizes me for placing too much confidence in experts by giving short shrift to the Hayekian knowledge problem and the insights of public choice.

          a.  The Knowledge Problem

According to Mr. Davis, the approach I advocate “is centered around fully functioning experts.”  He continues:

This progressive trust in experts is misplaced.  It is simply false to suppose that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that effectively improve upon private arrangements and optimize the allocation of resources.  Friedrich Hayek and other classical liberals have persuasively argued, and everyday experience has repeatedly confirmed, that the information needed to allocate resources efficiently is voluminous and complex and widely dispersed.  So much so that government experts acting through top down directives can never hope to match the efficiency of resource allocation made through countless voluntary market transactions among private parties who actually possess the information needed to allocate the resources most efficiently.

Amen and hallelujah!  I couldn’t agree more!  Indeed, I said something similar when I came to the first regulatory tool my book examines (and criticizes), command-and-control pollution rules.  I wrote:

The difficulty here is an instance of a problem that afflicts regulation generally.  At the end of the day, regulating involves centralized economic planning:  A regulating “planner” mandates that productive resources be allocated away from some uses and toward others.  That requires the planner to know the relative value of different resource uses.  But such information, in the words of Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, “is not given to anyone in its totality.”  The personal preferences of thousands or millions of individuals—preferences only they know—determine whether there should be more widgets and fewer gidgets, or vice-versa.  As Hayek observed, voluntary trading among resource owners in a free market generates prices that signal how resources should be allocated (i.e., toward the uses for which resource owners may command the highest prices).  But centralized economic planners—including regulators—don’t allocate resources on the basis of relative prices.  Regulators, in fact, generally assume that prices are wrong due to the market failure the regulators are seeking to address.  Thus, the so-called knowledge problem that afflicts regulation generally is particularly acute for command-and-control approaches that require regulators to make refined judgments on the basis of information about relative costs and benefits.

That was just the first of many times I invoked the knowledge problem to argue against top-down directives and in favor of market-oriented policies that would enable individuals to harness local knowledge to which regulators would not be privy.  The index to the book includes a “knowledge problem” entry with no fewer than nine sub-entries (e.g., “with licensure regimes,” “with Pigouvian taxes,” “with mandatory disclosure regimes”).  There are undoubtedly more mentions of the knowledge problem than those listed in the index, for the book assesses the degree to which the knowledge problem creates difficulties for every regulatory approach it considers.

Mr. Davis does mention one time where I “acknowledge[] the work of Hayek” and “recognize[] that context specific information is vitally important,” but he says I miss the point:

Having conceded these critical points [about the importance of context-specific information], Professor Lambert fails to follow them to the logical conclusion that private ordering arrangements are best for regulating resources efficiently.  Instead, he stops one step short, suggesting that policymakers defer to the regulator most familiar with the regulated party when they need context-specific information for their analysis.  Professor Lambert is mistaken.  The best information for resource allocation is not to be found in the regional office of the regulator.  It resides with the persons who have long been controlled and directed by the progressive regulatory system.  These are the ones to whom policymakers should defer.

I was initially puzzled by Mr. Davis’s description of how my approach would address the knowledge problem.  It’s inconsistent with the way I described the problem (the “regional office of the regulator” wouldn’t know people’s personal preferences, etc.), and I couldn’t remember ever suggesting that regulatory devolution—delegating decisions down toward local regulators—was the solution to the knowledge problem.

When I checked the citation in the sentences just quoted, I realized that Mr. Davis had misunderstood the point I was making in the passage he cited (my own fault, no doubt, not his).  The cited passage was at the very end of the book, where I was summarizing the book’s contributions.  I claimed to have set forth a plan for selecting regulatory approaches that would minimize the sum of error and decision costs.  I wanted to acknowledge, though, the irony of promulgating a generally applicable plan for regulating in a book that, time and again, decries top-down imposition of one-size-fits-all rules.  Thus, I wrote:

A central theme of this book is that Hayek’s knowledge problem—the fact that no central planner can possess and process all the information needed to allocate resources so as to unlock their greatest possible value—applies to regulation, which is ultimately a set of centralized decisions about resource allocation.  The very knowledge problem besetting regulators’ decisions about what others should do similarly afflicts pointy-headed academics’ efforts to set forth ex ante rules about what regulators should do.  Context-specific information to which only the “regulator on the spot” is privy may call for occasional departures from the regulatory plan proposed here.

As should be obvious, my point was not that the knowledge problem can generally be fixed by regulatory devolution.  Rather, I was acknowledging that the general regulatory approach I had set forth—i.e., the rules policymakers should follow in selecting among regulatory approaches—may occasionally misfire and should thus be implemented flexibly.

           b.  Public Choice Concerns

A second problem with my purported trust in experts, Mr. Davis explains, stems from the insights of public choice:

Actual policymakers simply don’t live up to [Woodrow] Wilson’s ideal of the disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat.  To the contrary, a vast amount of research related to public choice theory has convincingly demonstrated that decisions of regulatory agencies are frequently shaped by politics, institutional self-interest and the influence of the entities the agencies regulate.

Again, huzzah!  Those words could have been lifted straight out of the three full pages of discussion I devoted to public choice concerns with the very first regulatory intervention the book considered.  A snippet from that discussion:

While one might initially expect regulators pursuing the public interest to resist efforts to manipulate regulation for private gain, that assumes that government officials are not themselves rational, self-interest maximizers.  As scholars associated with the “public choice” economic tradition have demonstrated, government officials do not shed their self-interested nature when they step into the public square.  They are often receptive to lobbying in favor of questionable rules, especially since they benefit from regulatory expansions, which tend to enhance their job status and often their incomes.  They also tend to become “captured” by powerful regulatees who may shower them with personal benefits and potentially employ them after their stints in government have ended.

That’s just a slice.  Elsewhere in those three pages, I explain (1) how the dynamic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs allows inefficient protectionist policies to persist, (2) how firms that benefit from protectionist regulation are often assisted by “pro-social” groups that will make a public interest case for the rules (Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists syndrome), and (3) the “[t]wo types of losses [that] result from the sort of interest-group manipulation public choice predicts.”  And that’s just the book’s initial foray into public choice.  The entry for “public choice concerns” in the book’s index includes eight sub-entries.  As with the knowledge problem, I addressed the public choice issues that could arise from every major regulatory approach the book considered.

For Mr. Davis, though, that was not enough to keep me out of the camp of Wilsonian progressives.  He explains:

Professor Lambert devotes a good deal of attention to the problem of “agency capture” by regulated entities.  However, he fails to acknowledge that a symbiotic relationship between regulators and regulated is not a bug in the regulatory system, but an inherent feature of a system defined by extensive and continuing government involvement in the allocation of resources.

To be honest, I’m not sure what that last sentence means.  Apparently, I didn’t recite some talismanic incantation that would indicate that I really do believe public choice concerns are a big problem for regulation.  I did say this in one of the book’s many discussions of public choice:

A regulator that has both regular contact with its regulatees and significant discretionary authority over them is particularly susceptible to capture.  The regulator’s discretionary authority provides regulatees with a strong motive to win over the regulator, which has the power to hobble the regulatee’s potential rivals and protect its revenue stream.  The regular contact between the regulator and the regulatee provides the regulatee with better access to those in power than that available to parties with opposing interests.  Moreover, the regulatee’s preferred course of action is likely (1) to create concentrated benefits (to the regulatee) and diffuse costs (to consumers generally), and (2) to involve an expansion of the regulator’s authority.  The upshot is that that those who bear the cost of the preferred policy are less likely to organize against it, and regulators, who benefit from turf expansion, are more likely to prefer it.  Rate-of-return regulation thus involves the precise combination that leads to regulatory expansion at consumer expense: broad and discretionary government power, close contact between regulators and regulatees, decisions that generally involve concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and regular opportunities to expand regulators’ power and prestige.

In light of this combination of features, it should come as no surprise that the history of rate-of-return regulation is littered with instances of agency capture and regulatory expansion.

Even that was not enough to convince Mr. Davis that I reject the Wilsonian assumption of “disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat[s].”  I don’t know what more I could have said.

  1. Social Welfare

Mr. Davis is right when he says, “Professor Lambert’s ultimate goal for his book is to provide policymakers with a resource that will enable them to make regulatory decisions that produce greater social welfare.”  But nowhere in my book do I suggest, as he says I do, “that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.”  What I mean by “social welfare” is the aggregate welfare of all the individuals in a society.  And I’m careful to point out that only they know what makes them better off.  (At one point, for example, I write that “[g]overnment planners have no way of knowing how much pleasure regulatees derive from banned activities…or how much displeasure they experience when they must comply with an affirmative command…. [W]ith many paternalistic policies and proposals…government planners are really just guessing about welfare effects.”)

I agree with Mr. Davis that “[t]here is no single generally accepted methodology that anyone can use to determine objectively how and to what extent the welfare of society will be affected by a particular regulatory directive.”  For that reason, nowhere in the book do I suggest any sort of “metes and bounds” measurement of social welfare.  (I certainly do not endorse the use of GDP, which Mr. Davis rightly criticizes; that term appears nowhere in the book.)

Rather than prescribing any sort of precise measurement of social welfare, my book operates at the level of general principles:  We have reasons to believe that inefficiencies may arise when conditions are thus; there is a range of potential government responses to this situation—from doing nothing, to facilitating a privately ordered solution, to mandating various actions; based on our experience with these different interventions, the likely downsides of each (stemming from, for example, the knowledge problem and public choice concerns) are so-and-so; all things considered, the aggregate welfare of the individuals within this group will probably be greatest with policy x.

It is true that the thrust of the book is consequentialist, not deontological.  But it’s a book about policy, not ethics.  And its version of consequentialism is rule, not act, utilitarianism.  Is a consequentialist approach to policymaking enough to render one a progressive?  Should we excise John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty from the classical liberal canon?  I surely hope not.

Is My Proposed Approach an Improvement?

Mr. Davis’s second major criticism of my book—that what it proposes is “just the status quo”—has more bite.  By that, I mean two things.  First, it’s a more painful criticism to receive.  It’s easier for an author to hear “you’re saying something wrong” than “you’re not saying anything new.”

Second, there may be more merit to this criticism.  As Mr. Davis observes, I noted in the book’s introduction that “[a]t times during the drafting, I … wondered whether th[e] book was ‘original’ enough.”  I ultimately concluded that it was because it “br[ought] together insights of legal theorists and economists of various stripes…and systematize[d] their ideas into a unified, practical approach to regulating.”  Mr. Davis thinks I’ve overstated the book’s value, and he may be right.

The current regulatory landscape would suggest, though, that my book’s approach to selecting among potential regulatory policies isn’t “just the status quo.”  The approach I recommend would generate the specific policies catalogued at the outset of this response (in the bullet points).  The fact that those policies haven’t been implemented under the existing regulatory approach suggests that what I’m recommending must be something different than the status quo.

Mr. Davis observes—and I acknowledge—that my recommended approach resembles the review required of major executive agency regulations under Executive Order 12866, President Clinton’s revised version of President Reagan’s Executive Order 12291.  But that order is quite limited in its scope.  It doesn’t cover “minor” executive agency rules (those with expected costs of less than $100 million) or rules from independent agencies or from Congress or from courts or at the state or local level.  Moreover, I understand from talking to a former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is charged with implementing the order, that it has actually generated little serious consideration of less restrictive alternatives, something my approach emphasizes.

What my book proposes is not some sort of governmental procedure; indeed, I emphasize in the conclusion that the book “has not addressed … how existing regulatory institutions should be reformed to encourage the sort of analysis th[e] book recommends.”  Instead, I propose a way to think through specific areas of regulation, one that is informed by a great deal of learning about both market and government failures.  The best audience for the book is probably law students who will someday find themselves influencing public policy as lawyers, legislators, regulators, or judges.  I am thus heartened that the book is being used as a text at several law schools.  My guess is that few law students receive significant exposure to Hayek, public choice, etc.

So, who knows?  Perhaps the book will make a difference at the margin.  Or perhaps it will amount to sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But I don’t think a classical liberal could fairly say that the analysis it counsels “is not clearly better than the status quo.”

A Truly Better Approach to Regulating

Mr. Davis ends his review with a stirring call to revamp the administrative state to bring it “in complete and consistent compliance with the fundamental law of our republic embodied in the Constitution, with its provisions interpreted to faithfully conform to their original public meaning.”  Among other things, he calls for restoring the separation of powers, which has been erased in agencies that combine legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and for eliminating unchecked government power, which results when the legislature delegates broad rulemaking and adjudicatory authority to politically unaccountable bureaucrats.

Once again, I concur.  There are major problems—constitutional and otherwise—with the current state of administrative law and procedure.  I’d be happy to tear down the existing administrative state and begin again on a constitutionally constrained tabula rasa.

But that’s not what my book was about.  I deliberately set out to write a book about the substance of regulation, not the process by which rules should be imposed.  I took that tack for two reasons.  First, there are numerous articles and books, by scholars far more expert than I, on the structure of the administrative state.  I could add little value on administrative process.

Second, the less-addressed substantive question—what, as a substantive matter, should a policy addressing x do?—would exist even if Mr. Davis’s constitutionally constrained regulatory process were implemented.  Suppose that we got rid of independent agencies, curtailed delegations of rulemaking authority to the executive branch, and returned to a system in which Congress wrote all rules, the executive branch enforced them, and the courts resolved any disputes.  Someone would still have to write the rule, and that someone (or group of people) should have some sense of the pros and cons of one approach over another.  That is what my book seeks to provide.

A hard core Hayekian—one who had immersed himself in Law, Legislation, and Liberty—might respond that no one should design regulation (purposive rules that Hayek would call thesis) and that efficient, “purpose-independent” laws (what Hayek called nomos) will just emerge as disputes arise.  But that is not Mr. Davis’s view.  He writes:

A system of governance or regulation based on the rule of law attains its policy objectives by proscribing actions that are inconsistent with those objectives.  For example, this type of regulation would prohibit a regulated party from discharging a pollutant in any amount greater than the limiting amount specified in the regulation.  Under this proscriptive approach to regulation, any and all actions not specifically prohibited are permitted.

Mr. Davis has thus contemplated a purposive rule, crafted by someone.  That someone should know the various policy options and the upsides and downsides of each.  How to Regulate could help.

Conclusion

I’m not sure why Mr. Davis viewed my book as no more than dressed-up progressivism.  Maybe he was triggered by the book’s cover art, which he says “is faithful to the progressive tradition,” resembling “the walls of public buildings from San Francisco to Stalingrad.”  Maybe it was a case of Sunstein Derangement Syndrome.  (Progressive legal scholar Cass Sunstein had nice things to say about the book, despite its criticisms of a number of his ideas.)  Or perhaps it was that I used the term “market failure.”  Many conservatives and libertarians fear, with good reason, that conceding the existence of market failures invites all sorts of government meddling.

At the end of the day, though, I believe we classical liberals should stop pretending that market outcomes are always perfect, that pure private ordering is always and everywhere the best policy.  We should certainly sing markets’ praises; they usually work so well that people don’t even notice them, and we should point that out.  We should continually remind people that government interventions also fail—and in systematic ways (e.g., the knowledge problem and public choice concerns).  We should insist that a market failure is never a sufficient condition for a governmental fix; one must always consider whether the cure will be worse than the disease.  In short, we should take and promote the view that government should operate “under a presumption of error.”

That view, economist Aaron Director famously observed, is the essence of laissez faire.  It’s implicit in the purpose statement of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  And it’s the central point of How to Regulate.

So let’s go easy on the friendly fire.

A recent tweet by Lina Khan, discussing yesterday’s American Express decision, exemplifies an unfortunate trend in contemporary antitrust discourse.  Khan wrote:

The economists cited by the Second Circuit (whose opinion SCOTUS affirms) for the analysis of ‘two-sided’ [markets] all had financial links to the credit card sector, as we point out in FN 4 [link to amicus brief].

Her implicit point—made more explicitly in the linked brief, which referred to the economists’ studies as “industry-funded”—was that economic analysis should be discounted if the author has ever received compensation from a firm that might benefit from the proffered analysis.

There are two problems with this reasoning.  First, it’s fallacious.  An ad hominem argument, one addressed “to the person” rather than to the substance of the person’s claims, is a fallacy of irrelevance, sometimes known as a genetic fallacy.  Biased people may make truthful claims, just as unbiased people may get things wrong.  An idea’s “genetics” are irrelevant.  One should assess the substance of the actual idea, not the identity of its proponent.

Second, the reasoning ignores that virtually everyone is biased in some way.  In the antitrust world, those claiming that we should discount the findings and theories of industry-connected experts urging antitrust modesty often stand to gain from having a “bigger” antitrust.

In the common ownership debate about which Mike Sykuta and I have recently been blogging, proponents of common ownership restrictions have routinely written off contrary studies by suggesting bias on the part of the studies’ authors.  All the while, they have ignored their own biases:  If their proposed policies are implemented, their expertise becomes exceedingly valuable to plaintiff lawyers and to industry participants seeking to traverse a new legal minefield.

At the end of our recent paper, The Case for Doing Nothing About Institutional Investors’ Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms, Mike and I wrote, “Such regulatory modesty will prove disappointing to those with a personal interest in having highly complex antitrust doctrines that are aggressively enforced.”  I had initially included a snarky footnote, but Mike, who is far nicer than I, convinced me to remove it.

I’ll reproduce it here in the hopes of reducing the incidence of antitrust ad hominem.

Professor Elhauge has repeatedly discounted criticisms of the common ownership studies by suggesting that critics are biased.  See, e.g., Elhauge, supra note 26, at 1 (observing that “objections to my analysis have been raised in various articles, some funded by institutional investors with large horizontal shareholdings”); id. at 3 (“My analysis of executive compensation has been critiqued in a paper by economic consultants O’Brien and Waehrer that was funded by the Investment Company Institute, which represents institutional investors and was headed for the last three years by the CEO of Vanguard.”); Elhauge, supra note 124, at 3 (observing that airline and banking studies “have been critiqued in other articles, some funded by the sort of institutional investors that have large horizontal shareholdings”); id. at 17 (“The Investment Company Institute, an association of institutional investors that for the preceding three years was headed by the CEO of Vanguard, has funded a couple of papers to critique the empirical study showing an adverse link between horizontal shareholding and airline prices.”); id. (observing that co-authors of critique “both have significant experience in the airline industry because they consulted either for the airlines or the DOJ on airline mergers that were approved notwithstanding high levels of horizontal shareholding”); id. at 19 (“The Investment Company Institute has responded by funding a second critique of the airline study.”); id. at 23-24 (“Even to the extent that such studies are not directly funded by industry, when an industry has been viewed as benign for a long time, confirmation bias is a powerful force that will incline many to interpret any data to find no adverse effects.”).  He fails, however, to acknowledge his own bias.  As a professor of antitrust law at one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, he has an interest in having antitrust be as big and complicated as possible: The more complex the doctrine, and the broader its reach, the more valuable a preeminent antitrust professor’s expertise becomes.  This is not to suggest that one should discount the assertions of Professor Elhauge or other proponents of restrictions on common ownership.  It is simply to observe that bias is unavoidable and that the best approach is therefore to evaluate claims according to their substance, not according to who is asserting them.

Even if institutional investors’ common ownership of small stakes in competing firms did cause some softening of market competition—a claim that is both suspect as a theoretical matter and empirically shaky—the policy solutions common ownership critics have proposed would do more harm than good.

Einer Elhauge has called for public and private lawsuits against institutional investors under Clayton Act Section 7, which is primarily used to police anticompetitive mergers but which literally forbids any stock acquisition that substantially lessens competition in a market. Eric Posner, Fiona Scott Morton, and Glen Weyl have called on the federal antitrust enforcement agencies (FTC and DOJ) to promulgate an enforcement policy that would discourage institutional investors from investing and voting shares in multiple firms within any oligopolistic industry.

As Mike Sykuta and I explain in our recent paper on common ownership, both approaches would create tremendous decision costs for business planners and adjudicators and would likely entail massive error costs as institutional investors eliminated welfare-enhancing product offerings and curtailed activities that reduce agency costs.

Decision Costs

The touchstone for liability under Elhauge’s Section 7 approach would be a pattern of common ownership that caused, or likely would cause, market prices to rise. Elhauge would identify suspect patterns of common ownership using MHHI∆, a measure that assesses incentives to reduce competition based on, among other things, the extent to which investors own stock in multiple firms within a market and the market shares of the commonly owned firms. (Mike described MHHI∆ here.) Specifically, Elhauge says, liability would result from “any horizontal stock acquisitions that have created, or would create, a ∆MHHI of over 200 in a market with an MHHI over 2500,” if “those horizontal stock acquisitions raised prices or are likely to do so.”

The administrative burden this approach would place on business planners would be tremendous. Because an institutional investor can’t directly control market prices, the only way it could avoid liability would be to ensure either that the markets in which it was invested did not have an MHHI greater than 2500 or that its acquisitions’ own contribution to MHHI∆ in those markets was less than 200. MHHI and MHHI∆, though, are largely determined by others’ investments and by commonly owned firms’ market shares, both of which change constantly. This implies that business planners could ensure against liability only by continually monitoring others’ activities and general market developments.

Adjudicators would also face high decision costs under Elhauge’s Section 7 approach. First, they would have to assess complicated econometric studies to determine whether adverse price effects were actually caused by patterns of common ownership. Then, if they decided common ownership had caused a rise in prices, they would have to answer a nearly intractable question: How should the economic harm from common ownership be allocated among the investors holding stakes in multiple firms in the industry? As Posner et al. have observed, “MHHI∆ is a collective responsibility of the holding pattern” in markets in which there are multiple intra-industry diversified investors. It would not work to assign liability only to those diversified investors who could substantially reduce MHHI∆ by divesting, for oftentimes the unilateral divestment of each institutional investor from the market would occasion only a small reduction in MHHI∆. An aggressive court might impose joint liability on all intra-industry diversified investors, but the investor(s) from whom plaintiffs collected would likely seek contribution from the other intra-industry diversified investors. Denying contribution seems intolerably inequitable, but how would a court apportion damages?

In light of these administrative difficulties, Posner et al. advocate a more determinate, rule-based approach. They would have the federal antitrust enforcement agencies compile annual lists of oligopolistic industries and then threaten enforcement action against any institutional investor holding more than one percent of the stock in such an industry if the investor (1) held stock in more than one firm within the industry, and (2) either voted its shares or engaged firm managers.

On first glance, this enforcement policy approach might appear to reduce decision costs: Business planners would have to do less investigation to avoid liability if they could rely on trustworthy, easily identifiable safe harbors; adjudicators’ decision costs would fall if the enforcement policy made it easier to identify illicit investment patterns. But the approach saddles antitrust enforcers with the herculean task of compiling, and annually updating, lists of oligopolistic industries. Given that the antitrust agencies frequently struggle with the far more modest task of defining markets in the small number of merger challenges they file each year, there is little reason to believe enforcers could perform their oligopoly-designating duties at a reasonable cost.

Error Costs

Even greater than the proposed policy solutions’ administrative costs are their likely error costs—i.e., the welfare losses that would stem from wrongly deterring welfare-enhancing arrangements. Such costs would result if, as is likely, institutional investors were to respond to the policy solutions by making one of the two changes proponents of the solutions appear to prefer: either refraining from intra-industry diversification or remaining fully passive in the industries in which they hold stock of multiple competitors.

If institutional investors were to seek to avoid liability by investing in only one firm per concentrated industry, retail investors would lose access to a number of attractive investment opportunities. Passive index funds, which offer retail investors instant diversification with extremely low fees (due to the lack of active management), would virtually disappear, as most major stock indices include multiple firms per industry.

Moreover, because critics of common ownership maintain that intra-industry diversification at the institutional investor level is sufficient to induce competition-softening in concentrated markets, each institutional investor would have to settle on one firm per concentrated industry for all its funds. That requirement would impede institutional investors’ ability to offer a variety of actively managed funds organized around distinct investment strategies—e.g., growth, value, income etc. If, for example, Southwest Airlines were a growth stock and United Airlines a value stock, an institutional investor could not offer both a growth fund including Southwest and a value fund including United.

Finally, institutional investors could not offer funds designed to bet on an industry while limiting exposure to company-specific risks within that industry. Suppose, for example, that a financial crisis led to a precipitous drop in the stock prices of all commercial banks. A retail investor might reasonably conclude that the market had overreacted with respect to the industry as a whole, that the industry would likely rebound, but that some commercial banks would probably fail. Such an investor would wish to invest in the commercial banking sector but to hold a diversified portfolio within that sector. A legal regime that drove fund families to avoid intra-industry diversification would prevent them from offering the sort of fund this investor would prefer.

Of course, if institutional investors were to continue intra-industry diversification and seek to avoid liability by remaining passive in industries in which they were diversified, the funds described above could still be offered to investors. In that case, though, another set of significant error costs would arise: increased agency costs in the form of managerial misfeasance.

Unlike most individual shareholders, institutional investors often hold significant stakes in public companies and have the resources to become informed on corporate matters. They have a stronger motive and more opportunity to monitor firm managers and are thus particularly well-poised to keep managers on their toes. Institutional investors with long-term investor horizons—including all index funds, which cannot divest from their portfolio companies if firm performance suffers—have proven particularly beneficial to firm performance.

Indeed, a recent study by Jarrad Harford, Ambrus Kecskés, & Sattar Mansi found that investment by long-term institutional investors enhanced the quality of corporate managers, reduced measurable instances of managerial misbehavior, boosted innovation, decreased debt maturity (causing firms to become more exposed to financial market discipline), and increased shareholder returns. It strains credulity to suppose that this laundry list of benefits could similarly be achieved by long-term institutional investors that had no ability to influence managerial decision-making by voting their shares or engaging managers. Opting for passivity to avoid antitrust risk, then, would prevent institutional investors from achieving their agency cost-reducing potential.

In the end, proponents of additional antitrust intervention to police common ownership have not made their case. Their theory as to why current levels of intra-industry diversification would cause consumer harm is implausible, and the empirical evidence they say demonstrates such harm is both scant and methodologically suspect. The policy solutions they have proposed for dealing with the purported problem would radically rework an industry that has provided substantial benefits to investors, raising the costs of portfolio diversification and enhancing agency costs at public companies. Courts and antitrust enforcers should reject their calls for additional antitrust intervention to police common ownership.

Mike Sykuta and I have been blogging about our new paper responding to scholars who contend that institutional investors’ common ownership of small stakes in competing firms significantly reduces market competition and should be restricted.  (FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips cited the paper yesterday in his excellent prepared remarks on common ownership.)  Mike first described the purported competitive problem.  I then set forth some problems with the anticompetitive theory common ownership critics have asserted.

When confronted with criticisms of their theory, common ownership critics have pointed to the empirical evidence Mike mentioned. In the most high-profile study, researchers correlated changes in commercial air fares with changes in “MHHI∆”, an index designed to measure the degree to which common ownership has reduced the incentive to compete. They concluded that common ownership has increased airfares by three to seven percent. A similar study of the commercial banking industry correlated banking fees and interest on deposit accounts with “GHHI”, a metric similar to MHHI∆. That study concluded that common ownership has led to higher fees and lower interest rates for depositors.

Common ownership critics have treated these studies as a trump card. The authors of the airline study, for example, brushed off a criticism of their anticompetitive theory with the following retort: “This argument falls short of explaining why, empirically, taking into account shareholders’ economic interests does help to explain firms’ product market behavior.”

Of course, to demonstrate “empirically” that institutional investors’ “economic interests” influence their portfolio companies’ “product market behavior” (i.e., cause the companies to charge higher prices, etc.), researchers would need to (1) correctly identify institutional investors’ economic interests with respect to their portfolio firms’ product market behavior, and (2) establish that those interests cause firms to act as they do. On those crucial tasks, the airline and banking studies fall short.

In assessing institutional investors’ economic interests, the studies have assumed that if an institutional investor reports holding a similar percentage of each firm in a market—say, five percent of the stock of each major airline—then it must have an “economic interest” in maximizing industry rather than own-firm profits. Such an assumption is unwarranted. That is because each institutional investor’s reported holdings, set forth on forms it must submit under Section 13(f) of the Securities Exchange Act, aggregate its holdings across all its funds. Such aggregation paints a misleading picture of the institutional investor’s actual economic interest.

For example, while Vanguard’s Section 13(f) filing reports ownership of a similar percentage of American, Delta, Southwest, and United Airlines—suggesting an economic interest in industry profit maximization—the picture looks very different at the individual fund level:

  • Vanguard’s Value Index Fund (VIVAX) holds significant stakes in American, Delta, and United (0.46%, 0.45%, and 0.42%, respectively) but holds no Southwest stock. VIVAX does best if United, American, and Delta usurp business from Southwest.
  • Vanguard’s Growth Index Fund (VIGRX) holds a significant stake in Southwest (0.59%) but holds no stake in American, Delta, or United. Investors in VIGRX would prefer that Southwest win business from American, Delta, and United.
  • Vanguard’s Mid-Cap Index Fund (VIMSX) and Mid-Cap Value Index Fund (VMVIX) hold significant stakes in United (1.00% and 0.321%, respectively) but hold no stock in American, Delta, or Southwest. Investors in VIMSX and VMVIX would prefer that United win business from American, Delta, and Southwest.
  • Vanguard’s PRIMECAP Core Fund (VPCCX) holds stakes in all four major airlines, but its share of Southwest (1.49%) is twice its share of American (0.72%), nearly four times its share of United (0.38%), and seven-and-a-half times its share of Delta (0.198%). Investors in VPCCX would prefer that Southwest grow at the expense of American, United, and Delta. They would also prefer that American win business from United and Delta, and that United win business from Delta.

We could go on, but the point should be clear: Because returns to retail investors in the funds of Vanguard and similar institutions turn on fund performance, the competitive outcome that maximizes retail investors’ profits will differ among funds.

Proponents of restrictions on common ownership might respond that even if an institutional investor’s individual funds have conflicting preferences, the institutional investor as an entity must have some preference about whether to maximize industry profits or the profits of a particular company. Because it cannot honor all its individual funds’ conflicting preferences with respect to competitive outcomes, the institutional investor will settle on the compromise strategy that maximizes its individual funds’ aggregate returns: industry profit maximization.  Such a strategy would be the first choice of the institution’s funds holding relatively equal shares of all firms within a market.  And, while the first choice of the institution’s funds that are disproportionately invested in one firm would be to maximize that firm’s profits, those funds would do better with industry profit maximization than with the first-choice strategy of other of the institution’s funds, i.e., those that are disproportionately invested in a different firm.

But even if maximization of industry profits leads to the greatest aggregate returns for an institutional investor’s funds, such a strategy may not be the best outcome for the institutional investor itself. An institutional investor typically wants to maximize its profits, which will grow as it attracts retail investors into its funds versus those of its competitors and steers those investors toward the funds that earn it the greatest profits (fees less costs). To assess an institutional investor’s preferences with regard to the returns of its different funds, then, one must know (1) the degree to which each fund’s attractiveness vis-à-vis rivals’ similar funds turns on portfolio returns, and (2) the profit margin each fund delivers to the institutional investor.

For funds tracking popular stock indices, portfolio returns play little role in winning business from rival fund sponsors.  (For example, higher returns on the stocks in the S&P 500 are unlikely to attract investors to BlackRock’s S&P 500 index fund over Fidelity’s or Vanguard’s.) Moreover, the fees charged on such funds, and thus the institutional investor’s potential profit margins, are extraordinarily low. For actively managed funds, portfolio returns are far more significant in attracting investors, and management fees are higher. The upshot is that an institutional investor, in determining what competitive outcome it prefers, will attach little weight to the competitive preferences of passive index funds and more weight to the preferences of actively managed funds, with that weight growing as the funds provide the institutional investor with higher profit margins.

It is quite possible, then, for an intra-industry diversified institutional investor to prefer a competitive outcome other than the maximization of industry profits, even if industry profit maximization would maximize the aggregate returns of its individual funds. Consider, for example, an institutional investor that offers funds similar to the following Vanguard funds:

  • Vanguard’s 500 Index Fund (VFIAX) holds near equivalent interests in American, Delta, Southwest, and United and would thus do best with a strategy of industry profit maximization. Its expense ratio (annual fees divided by total fund amount) is 0.04 percent.
  • Vanguard’s Value Index Fund (VIVAX) holds similar stakes in American, Delta, and United but does not hold Southwest stock. Its expense ratio is 0.18 percent.
  • Vanguard’s PRIMECAP Core Fund (VPCCX) holds a much higher stake in Southwest than in the other airlines and has an expense ratio of 0.46 percent, 2.5 times as great as the no-Southwest VIVAX fund and 11.5 times as high as the fully diversified VFIAX fund.
  • Vanguard’s Capital Opportunity Fund (VHCAX) holds significantly higher shares of Southwest and United (1.74% and 1.55%, respectively) than of Delta and American (0.65% and 1.16%, respectively). Its expense ratio is 0.38, more than twice as great as the no-Southwest VIVAX fund and 9.5 times the fully diversified VFIAX fund.

This institutional investor’s Southwest-heavy funds (those resembling Vanguard’s VPCCX and VHCAX funds) charge much higher fees than its fully diversified index fund (the one resembling VFIAX, for which fund returns are unimportant) and significantly higher fees than its funds that are more heavily invested in airlines besides Southwest (those resembling VIVAX).  Thus, despite being intra-industry diversified at the institutional level, this institutional investor may do best if Southwest maximizes own-firm profits.

The point here is that discerning an institutional investor’s actual economic interest requires drilling down to the level of its individual funds, something the common ownership studies have not done. Thus, contrary to the assertion of the airline study’s authors, the common ownership studies have not shown “empirically” that “taking into account shareholders’ economic interests does help to explain firms’ product market behavior.” Indeed, they have never established what those economic interests are.

Even if institutional investors’ aggregated holdings accurately revealed their economic interests with respect to competitive outcomes, the common ownership studies would still be deficient because they fail to show that those economic interests caused portfolio firms’ “product market behavior.” As explained above, the common ownership studies employ MHHI∆ (or a similar measure) to assess institutional investors’ interests in competition-softening. They then correlate changes in that metric with changes in portfolio firms’ pricing behavior. The problem is that MHHI∆ is itself affected by factors that independently influence market prices. It is thus improper to infer that changes in MHHI∆ caused changes in portfolio firms’ pricing practices; the pricing changes could have resulted from the very factors that changed MHHI∆. In other words, MHHI∆ is an endogenous measure.

To see why this is so, consider the three-step process involved in calculating MHHI∆ (which Mike described). The first step is to assess, for every coupling of competing firms in the market (e.g., Southwest/Delta, United/American, Southwest/United, etc.), the degree to which the controlling investors in each of the firms would prefer that it avoid competing with the other. The second step considers the market shares of the two firms in the coupling to determine the competitive significance of their incentives not to compete with each other. (The idea is that reduced head-to-head competition by bit players matters less for overall market competition than does reduced competition by major players.) The final step is to aggregate the effect of common ownership-induced competition-softening throughout the overall market by summing the softened competition metrics for each coupling of competitors within the market.

Given this process for calculating MHHI∆, there are at least two sources of endogeneity in the metric. One arises because of the second step. To assess the significance to market competition of any two firms’ incentives to reduce competition between themselves, the market shares of those two firms must be incorporated into the metric. But factors that influence market shares may also influence market prices apart from any common ownership effect.

Suppose, for example, that five institutional investors hold significant and equal stakes (say, 3%) in each of the four airlines servicing a particular air route and that none of the airlines has another significant shareholder. The air route at issue is subject to seasonal demand fluctuations. In the low season, the market is divided among the four airlines so that one has 40% of the business and the other three have 20% each. The MHHI∆ for this market would be 7200. When the high season rolls around, demand for flights along the route increases, but the leading airline is capacity constrained, so additional ticket sales go to the other airlines.  The market shares of the airlines in the high season are equal: 25% each.

On these facts, the increase in demand causes MHHI∆ to rise from 7200 to 7500.  But the increase in demand is also likely to raise ticket prices. We thus see an increase in MHHI∆ that correlates with an increase in ticket prices, but the price change is not caused by the change in MHHI∆. Instead, the two changes have a common, independent cause.

Endogeneity also creeps in during the third step in calculating MHHI∆.  In that step, the “cross MHHI∆s” of all the couplings in the market—the metrics assessing for each coupling the extent to which common ownership will cause the two firms to compete less vigorously—are summed. Thus, as the number of firms participating in the market (and thus the number of couplings) increases, the MHHI∆ will tend to rise. While HHI (the market concentration measure) will decrease as the number of competing firms rises, MHHI∆ (the measure of common ownership pricing incentives) will increase.

For example, suppose again that five institutional investors hold equal stakes (say, 3%) of each airline servicing a market and that the airlines have no other significant shareholders. If there are two airlines servicing the market and their market shares are equivalent, HHI will be 5000, MHHI∆ will be 5000, and MHHI (HHI + MHHI∆) will be 10000. If a third airline enters and grows so that the three airlines have equal market shares, HHI will drop to 3333, MHHI∆ will rise to 6667, and MHHI will remain constant at 10000. If a fourth airline enters and the airlines split the market evenly, HHI will fall to 2500, MHHI∆ will rise further to 7500, and MHHI will again total 10000.

This is problematic, because the number of participants in the market is affected by consumer demand, which also affects market prices. In the market described above, for example, the third or fourth airline might enter the market in response to an increase in demand, and that increase might simultaneously cause market price to rise. We would see, then, a price increase that is correlated with, but not caused by, an increase in MHHI∆; increased demand would be the cause of both the higher prices and the increase in MHHI∆.

In the end, then, the empirical evidence of competition-softening from common ownership is not the trump card proponents of common ownership restrictions proclaim it to be.

Mike Sykuta and I have been blogging about our recent paper on so-called “common ownership” by institutional investors like Vanguard, BlackRock, Fidelity, and State Street. Following my initial post, Mike described the purported problem with institutional investors’ common ownership of small stakes in competing firms.

As Mike explained, the theory of anticompetitive harm holds that small-stakes common ownership causes firms in concentrated industries to compete less vigorously, since each firm’s top shareholders are also invested in that firm’s rivals.  Proponents of restrictions on common ownership (e.g., Einer Elhauge and Eric Posner, et al.) say that empirical studies from the airline and commercial banking industries support this theory of anticompetitive harm. The cited studies correlate price changes with changes in “MHHI∆,” a complicated index designed to measure the degree to which common ownership encourages competition-softening.

We’ll soon have more to say about MHHI∆ (admirably described by Mike!) and the shortcomings of the airline and banking studies.  (Look for a “Problems With the Evidence” post.)  First, though, a few words on why the theory of anticompetitive harm from small-stakes common ownership is implausible.

Common ownership critics’ theoretical argument proceeds as follows:

  • Premise 1:    Because institutional investors are intra-industry diversified, they benefit if their portfolio firms seek to maximize industry, rather than own-firm, profits.
  • Premise 2:    Corporate managers seek to maximize the returns of their corporations’ largest shareholders—intra-industry diversified institutional investors—and will thus pursue maximization of industry profits.
  • Premise 3:    Industry profits, unlike own-firm profits, are maximized when producers refrain from underpricing their rivals to win business.

Ergo:

  • Conclusion:  Intra-industry diversification by institutional investors reduces price competition and should be restricted.

The first two premises of this argument are, at best, questionable.

With respect to Premise 1, it is unlikely that intra-industry diversified institutional investors benefit from, and thus prefer, maximization of industry rather than own-firm profits. That is because intra-industry diversified mutual funds tend also to be inter-industry diversified. Maximizing one industry’s profits requires supracompetitive pricing that tends to reduce the profits of firms in complementary industries.

Vanguard’s Value Index Fund, for example, holds around 2% of each major airline (1.85% of United, 2.07% of American, 2.15% of Southwest, and 1.99% of Delta) but also holds:

  • 1.88% of Expedia Inc. (a major retailer of airline tickets),
  • 2.20% of Boeing Co. (a manufacturer of commercial jets),
  • 2.02% of United Technologies Corp. (a jet engine producer),
  • 3.14% of AAR Corp. (the largest domestic provider of commercial aircraft maintenance and repair),
  • 1.43% of Hertz Global Holdings Inc. (a major automobile rental company), and
  • 2.17% of Accenture (a consulting firm for which air travel is a significant cost component).

Each of those companies—and many others—perform worse when airlines engage in the sort of supracompetitive pricing (and corresponding reduction in output) that maximizes profits in the airline industry. The very logic suggesting that intra-industry diversification causes investors to prefer less competition necessarily suggests that inter-industry diversification would counteract that incentive.

Of course, whether any particular investment fund will experience enhanced returns from reduced price competition in the industries in which it is intra-industry diversified ultimately depends on the composition of its portfolio. For widely diversified funds, however, it is unlikely that fund returns will be maximized by rampant competition-softening. As the well-known monopoly pricing model depicts, every instance of supracompetitive pricing entails a deadweight loss—i.e., an allocative inefficiency stemming from the failure to produce units that create greater value than they cost to produce. To the extent an index fund is designed to reflect gains in the economy generally, it will perform best if such allocative inefficiencies are minimized. It seems, then, that Premise 1—the claim that intra-industry diversified institutional investors prefer competition-softening so as to maximize industry profits—is dubious.

So is Premise 2, the claim that corporate managers will pursue industry rather than own-firm profits when their largest shareholders prefer that outcome. For nearly all companies in which intra-industry diversified institutional investors collectively hold a significant proportion of outstanding shares, a majority of the stock is still held by shareholders who are not intra-industry diversified. Those shareholders would prefer that managers seek to maximize own-firm profits, an objective that would encourage the sort of aggressive competition that grows market share.

There are several reasons to doubt that corporate managers would routinely disregard the interests of shareholders owning the bulk of the company’s stock. For one thing, favoring intra-industry diversified investors holding a minority interest could subject managers to legal liability. The fiduciary duties of corporate managers require that they attempt to maximize firm profits for the benefit of shareholders as a whole; favoring even a controlling shareholder (much less a minority shareholder) at the expense of other shareholders can result in liability.

More importantly, managers’ personal interests usually align with those of the majority when it comes to the question of whether to maximize own-firm or industry profits. As sellers in the market for managerial talent, corporate managers benefit from reputations for business success, and they can best burnish such reputations by beating—i.e., winning business from—their industry rivals. In addition, most corporate managers receive some compensation in the form of company stock. They maximize the value of that stock by maximizing own-firm, not industry, profits. It thus seems unlikely that corporate managers would ignore the interests of stockholders owning a majority of shares and cause their corporations to refrain from business-usurping competition.

In the end, then, two key premises of common ownership critics’ theoretical argument are suspect.  And if either is false, the argument is unsound.

When confronted with criticisms of their theory of anticompetitive harm, proponents of common ownership restrictions generally point to the empirical evidence described above. We’ll soon have some thoughts on that.  Stay tuned!

One of the hottest antitrust topics of late has been institutional investors’ “common ownership” of minority stakes in competing firms.  Writing in the Harvard Law Review, Einer Elhauge proclaimed that “[a]n economic blockbuster has recently been exposed”—namely, “[a] small group of institutions has acquired large shareholdings in horizontal competitors throughout our economy, causing them to compete less vigorously with each other.”  In the Antitrust Law Journal, Eric Posner, Fiona Scott Morton, and Glen Weyl contended that “the concentration of markets through large institutional investors is the major new antitrust challenge of our time.”  Those same authors took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that “[t]he great, but mostly unknown, antitrust story of our time is the astonishing rise of the institutional investor … and the challenge that it poses to market competition.”

Not surprisingly, these scholars have gone beyond just identifying a potential problem; they have also advocated policy solutions.  Elhauge has called for allowing government enforcers and private parties to use Section 7 of the Clayton Act, the provision primarily used to prevent anticompetitive mergers, to police institutional investors’ ownership of minority positions in competing firms.  Posner et al., concerned “that private litigation or unguided public litigation could cause problems because of the interactive nature of institutional holdings on competition,” have proposed that federal antitrust enforcers adopt an enforcement policy that would encourage institutional investors either to avoid common ownership of firms in concentrated industries or to limit their influence over such firms by refraining from voting their shares.

The position of these scholars is thus (1) that common ownership by institutional investors significantly diminishes competition in concentrated industries, and (2) that additional antitrust intervention—beyond generally applicable rules on, say, hub-and-spoke conspiracies and anticompetitive information exchanges—is appropriate to prevent competitive harm.

Mike Sykuta and I have recently posted a paper taking issue with this two-pronged view.  With respect to the first prong, we contend that there are serious problems with both the theory of competitive harm stemming from institutional investors’ common ownership and the empirical evidence that has been marshalled in support of that theory.  With respect to the second, we argue that even if competition were softened by institutional investors’ common ownership of small minority interests in competing firms, the unintended negative consequences of an antitrust fix would outweigh any benefits from such intervention.

Over the next few days, we plan to unpack some of the key arguments in our paper, The Case for Doing Nothing About Institutional Investors’ Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms.  In the meantime, we encourage readers to download the paper and send us any comments.

The paper’s abstract is below the fold. Continue Reading…

Just in time for tomorrow’s FCC vote on repeal of its order classifying Internet Service Providers as common carriers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has published my op-ed entitled The FCC Should Abandon Title II and Return to Antitrust.

Here’s the full text:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon vote on whether to repeal an Obama-era rule classifying Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as “common carriers.” That rule was put in place to achieve net neutrality, an attractive-sounding goal that many Americans—millennials especially—reflexively support.

In Missouri, voices as diverse as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Joplin Globe, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis have opposed repeal of the Obama-era rule.

Unfortunately, few people who express support for net neutrality understand all it entails. Even fewer recognize the significant dangers of pursuing net neutrality using the means the Obama-era FCC selected. All many know is that they like neutrality generally and that smart-sounding celebrities like John Oliver support the Obama-era rule. They really need to know more.

First, it’s important to understand what a policy of net neutrality entails. In essence, it prevents ISPs from providing faster or better transmission of some Internet content, even where the favored content provider is willing to pay for prioritization.

That sounds benign—laudable, even—until one considers all that such a policy prevents. Under strict net neutrality, an ISP couldn’t prioritize content transmission in which congestion delays ruin the user experience (say, an Internet videoconference between a telemedicine system operated by the University of Missouri hospital and a rural resident of Dent County) over transmissions in which delays are less detrimental (say, downloads from a photo-sharing site).
Strict net neutrality would also preclude a mobile broadband provider from exempting popular content providers from data caps. Indeed, T-Mobile was hauled before the FCC to justify its popular “Binge On” service, which offered cost-conscious subscribers unlimited access to Netflix, ESPN, and HBO.

The fact is, ISPs have an incentive to manage their traffic in whatever way most pleases subscribers. The vast majority of Americans have a choice of ISPs, so managing content in any manner that adversely affects the consumer experience would hurt business. ISPs are also motivated to design subscription packages that consumers most desire. They shouldn’t have to seek government approval of innovative offerings.

For evidence that competition protects consumers from harmful instances of non-neutral network management, consider the record. The commercial Internet was born, thrived, and became the brightest spot in the American economy without formal net neutrality rules. History provides little reason to believe that the parade of horribles net neutrality advocates imagine will ever materialize.

Indeed, in seeking to justify its net neutrality policies, the Obama era FCC could come up with only four instances of harmful non-neutral network management over the entire history of the commercial Internet. That should come as no surprise. Background antitrust rules, in place long before the Internet was born, forbid the speculative harms net neutrality advocates envision.

Even if net neutrality regulation were desirable as a policy matter, the means by which the FCC secured it was entirely inappropriate. Before it adopted the current approach, which reclassified ISPs as common carriers subject to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the FCC was crafting a narrower approach using authority granted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

It abruptly changed course after President Obama, reeling from a shellacking in the 2014 midterm elections, sought to shore up his base by posting a video calling for “the strongest possible rules” on net neutrality, including Title II reclassification. Prodded by the President, the supposedly independent commissioners abandoned their consensus that Title II was too extreme and voted along party lines to treat the Internet as a utility.

Title II reclassification has resulted in the sort of “Mother, may I?” regulatory approach that impedes innovation and investment. In the first half of 2015, as the Commission was formulating its new Title II approach, spending by ISPs on capital equipment fell by an average of 8%. That was only the third time in the history of the commercial Internet that infrastructure investment fell from the previous year. The other two times were in 2001, following the dot.com bust, and 2009, after the 2008 financial crash and ensuing recession. For those remote communities in Missouri still looking for broadband to reach their doorsteps, government policies need to incentivize more investment, not restrict it.

To enhance innovation and encourage broadband deployment, the FCC should reverse its damaging Title II order and leave concerns about non-neutral network management to antitrust law. It was doing just fine.

As I explain in my new book, How to Regulate, sound regulation requires thinking like a doctor.  When addressing some “disease” that reduces social welfare, policymakers should catalog the available “remedies” for the problem, consider the implementation difficulties and “side effects” of each, and select the remedy that offers the greatest net benefit.

If we followed that approach in deciding what to do about the way Internet Service Providers (ISPs) manage traffic on their networks, we would conclude that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is exactly right:  The FCC should reverse its order classifying ISPs as common carriers (Title II classification) and leave matters of non-neutral network management to antitrust, the residual regulator of practices that may injure competition.

Let’s walk through the analysis.

Diagnose the Disease.  The primary concern of net neutrality advocates is that ISPs will block some Internet content or will slow or degrade transmission from content providers who do not pay for a “fast lane.”  Of course, if an ISP’s non-neutral network management impairs the user experience, it will lose business; the vast majority of Americans have access to multiple ISPs, and competition is growing by the day, particularly as mobile broadband expands.

But an ISP might still play favorites, despite the threat of losing some subscribers, if it has a relationship with content providers.  Comcast, for example, could opt to speed up content from HULU, which streams programming of Comcast’s NBC subsidiary, or might slow down content from Netflix, whose streaming video competes with Comcast’s own cable programming.  Comcast’s losses in the distribution market (from angry consumers switching ISPs) might be less than its gains in the content market (from reducing competition there).

It seems, then, that the “disease” that might warrant a regulatory fix is an anticompetitive vertical restraint of trade: a business practice in one market (distribution) that could restrain trade in another market (content production) and thereby reduce overall output in that market.

Catalog the Available Remedies.  The statutory landscape provides at least three potential remedies for this disease.

The simplest approach would be to leave the matter to antitrust, which applies in the absence of more focused regulation.  In recent decades, courts have revised the standards governing vertical restraints of trade so that antitrust, which used to treat such restraints in a ham-fisted fashion, now does a pretty good job separating pro-consumer restraints from anti-consumer ones.

A second legally available approach would be to craft narrowly tailored rules precluding ISPs from blocking, degrading, or favoring particular Internet content.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act empowered the FCC to adopt targeted net neutrality rules, even if ISPs are not classified as common carriers.  The court insisted the that rules not treat ISPs as common carriers (if they are not officially classified as such), but it provided a road map for tailored net neutrality rules. The FCC pursued this targeted, rules-based approach until President Obama pushed for a third approach.

In November 2014, reeling from a shellacking in the  midterm elections and hoping to shore up his base, President Obama posted a video calling on the Commission to assure net neutrality by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.  Such reclassification would subject ISPs to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, giving the FCC broad power to assure that their business practices are “just and reasonable.”  Prodded by the President, the nominally independent commissioners abandoned their targeted, rules-based approach and voted to regulate ISPs like utilities.  They then used their enhanced regulatory authority to impose rules forbidding the blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of Internet content.

Assess the Remedies’ Limitations, Implementation Difficulties, and Side Effects.   The three legally available remedies — antitrust, tailored rules under Section 706, and broad oversight under Title II — offer different pros and cons, as I explained in How to Regulate:

The choice between antitrust and direct regulation generally (under either Section 706 or Title II) involves a tradeoff between flexibility and determinacy. Antitrust is flexible but somewhat indeterminate; it would condemn non-neutral network management practices that are likely to injure consumers, but it would permit such practices if they would lower costs, improve quality, or otherwise enhance consumer welfare. The direct regulatory approaches are rigid but clearer; they declare all instances of non-neutral network management to be illegal per se.

Determinacy and flexibility influence decision and error costs.  Because they are more determinate, ex ante rules should impose lower decision costs than would antitrust. But direct regulation’s inflexibility—automatic condemnation, no questions asked—will generate higher error costs. That’s because non-neutral network management is often good for end users. For example, speeding up the transmission of content for which delivery lags are particularly detrimental to the end-user experience (e.g., an Internet telephone call, streaming video) at the expense of content that is less lag-sensitive (e.g., digital photographs downloaded from a photo-sharing website) can create a net consumer benefit and should probably be allowed. A per se rule against non-neutral network management would therefore err fairly frequently. Antitrust’s flexible approach, informed by a century of economic learning on the output effects of contractual restraints between vertically related firms (like content producers and distributors), would probably generate lower error costs.

Although both antitrust and direct regulation offer advantages vis-à-vis each other, this isn’t simply a wash. The error cost advantage antitrust holds over direct regulation likely swamps direct regulation’s decision cost advantage. Extensive experience with vertical restraints on distribution have shown that they are usually good for consumers. For that reason, antitrust courts in recent decades have discarded their old per se rules against such practices—rules that resemble the FCC’s direct regulatory approach—in favor of structured rules of reason that assess liability based on specific features of the market and restraint at issue. While these rules of reason (standards, really) may be less determinate than the old, error-prone per se rules, they are not indeterminate. By relying on past precedents and the overarching principle that legality turns on consumer welfare effects, business planners and adjudicators ought to be able to determine fairly easily whether a non-neutral network management practice passes muster. Indeed, the fact that the FCC has uncovered only four instances of anticompetitive network management over the commercial Internet’s entire history—a period in which antitrust, but not direct regulation, has governed ISPs—suggests that business planners are capable of determining what behavior is off-limits. Direct regulation’s per se rule against non-neutral network management is thus likely to add error costs that exceed any reduction in decision costs. It is probably not the remedy that would be selected under this book’s recommended approach.

In any event, direct regulation under Title II, the currently prevailing approach, is certainly not the optimal way to address potentially anticompetitive instances of non-neutral network management by ISPs. Whereas any ex ante   regulation of network management will confront the familiar knowledge problem, opting for direct regulation under Title II, rather than the more cabined approach under Section 706, adds adverse public choice concerns to the mix.

As explained earlier, reclassifying ISPs to bring them under Title II empowers the FCC to scrutinize the “justice” and “reasonableness” of nearly every aspect of every arrangement between content providers, ISPs, and consumers. Granted, the current commissioners have pledged not to exercise their Title II authority beyond mandating network neutrality, but public choice insights would suggest that this promised forbearance is unlikely to endure. FCC officials, who remain self-interest maximizers even when acting in their official capacities, benefit from expanding their regulatory turf; they gain increased power and prestige, larger budgets to manage, a greater ability to “make or break” businesses, and thus more opportunity to take actions that may enhance their future career opportunities. They will therefore face constant temptation to exercise the Title II authority that they have committed, as of now, to leave fallow. Regulated businesses, knowing that FCC decisions are key to their success, will expend significant resources lobbying for outcomes that benefit them or impair their rivals. If they don’t get what they want because of the commissioners’ voluntary forbearance, they may bring legal challenges asserting that the Commission has failed to assure just and reasonable practices as Title II demands. Many of the decisions at issue will involve the familiar “concentrated benefits/diffused costs” dynamic that tends to result in underrepresentation by those who are adversely affected by a contemplated decision. Taken together, these considerations make it unlikely that the current commissioners’ promised restraint will endure. Reclassification of ISPs so that they are subject to Title II regulation will probably lead to additional constraints on edge providers and ISPs.

It seems, then, that mandating net neutrality under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act is the least desirable of the three statutorily available approaches to addressing anticompetitive network management practices. The Title II approach combines the inflexibility and ensuing error costs of the Section 706 direct regulation approach with the indeterminacy and higher decision costs of an antitrust approach. Indeed, the indeterminacy under Title II is significantly greater than that under antitrust because the “just and reasonable” requirements of the Communications Act, unlike antitrust’s reasonableness requirements (no unreasonable restraint of trade, no unreasonably exclusionary conduct) are not constrained by the consumer welfare principle. Whereas antitrust always protects consumers, not competitors, the FCC may well decide that business practices in the Internet space are unjust or unreasonable solely because they make things harder for the perpetrator’s rivals. Business planners are thus really “at sea” when it comes to assessing the legality of novel practices.

All this implies that Internet businesses regulated by Title II need to court the FCC’s favor, that FCC officials have more ability than ever to manipulate government power to private ends, that organized interest groups are well-poised to secure their preferences when the costs are great but widely dispersed, and that the regulators’ dictated outcomes—immune from market pressures reflecting consumers’ preferences—are less likely to maximize net social welfare. In opting for a Title II solution to what is essentially a market power problem, the powers that be gave short shrift to an antitrust approach, even though there was no natural monopoly justification for direct regulation. They paid little heed to the adverse consequences likely to result from rigid per se rules adopted under a highly discretionary (and politically manipulable) standard. They should have gone back to basics, assessing the disease to be remedied (market power), the full range of available remedies (including antitrust), and the potential side effects of each. In other words, they could’ve used this book.

How to Regulate‘s full discussion of net neutrality and Title II is here:  Net Neutrality Discussion in How to Regulate.