Archives For antitrust

Today the European Commission launched its latest salvo against Google, issuing a decision in its three-year antitrust investigation into the company’s agreements for distribution of the Android mobile operating system. The massive fine levied by the Commission will dominate the headlines, but the underlying legal theory and proposed remedies are just as notable — and just as problematic.

The nirvana fallacy

It is sometimes said that the most important question in all of economics is “compared to what?” UCLA economist Harold Demsetz — one of the most important regulatory economists of the past century — coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to critique would-be regulators’ tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances to idealized alternatives, and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between them. Wishful thinking, in other words.

The Commission’s Android decision falls prey to the nirvana fallacy. It conjures a world in which Google offers its Android operating system on unrealistic terms, prohibits it from doing otherwise, and neglects the actual consequences of such a demand.

The idea at the core of the Commission’s decision is that by making its own services (especially Google Search and Google Play Store) easier to access than competing services on Android devices, Google has effectively foreclosed rivals from effective competition. In order to correct that claimed defect, the Commission demands that Google refrain from engaging in practices that favor its own products in its Android licensing agreements:

At a minimum, Google has to stop and to not re-engage in any of the three types of practices. The decision also requires Google to refrain from any measure that has the same or an equivalent object or effect as these practices.

The basic theory is straightforward enough, but its application here reflects a troubling departure from the underlying economics and a romanticized embrace of industrial policy that is unsupported by the realities of the market.

In a recent interview, European Commission competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, offered a revealing insight into her thinking about her oversight of digital platforms, and perhaps the economy in general: “My concern is more about whether we get the right choices,” she said. Asked about Facebook, for example, she specified exactly what she thinks the “right” choice looks like: “I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy.”

Some consumers may well be sympathetic with her preference (and even share her specific vision of what Facebook should offer them). But what if competition doesn’t result in our — or, more to the point, Margrethe Vestager’s — prefered outcomes? Should competition policy nevertheless enact the idiosyncratic consumer preferences of a particular regulator? What if offering consumers the “right” choices comes at the expense of other things they value, like innovation, product quality, or price? And, if so, can antitrust enforcers actually engineer a better world built around these preferences?

Android’s alleged foreclosure… that doesn’t really foreclose anything

The Commission’s primary concern is with the terms of Google’s deal: In exchange for royalty-free access to Android and a set of core, Android-specific applications and services (like Google Search and Google Maps) Google imposes a few contractual conditions.

Google allows manufacturers to use the Android platform — in which the company has invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars — for free. It does not require device makers to include any of its core, Google-branded features. But if a manufacturer does decide to use any of them, it must include all of them, and make Google Search the device default. In another (much smaller) set of agreements, Google also offers device makers a small share of its revenue from Search if they agree to pre-install only Google Search on their devices (although users remain free to download and install any competing services they wish).

Essentially, that’s it. Google doesn’t allow device makers to pick and choose between parts of the ecosystem of Google products, free-riding on Google’s brand and investments. But manufacturers are free to use the Android platform and to develop their own competing brand built upon Google’s technology.

Other apps may be installed in addition to Google’s core apps. Google Search need not be the exclusive search service, but it must be offered out of the box as the default. Google Play and Chrome must be made available to users, but other app stores and browsers may be pre-installed and even offered as the default. And device makers who choose to do so may share in Search revenue by pre-installing Google Search exclusively — but users can and do install a different search service.

Alternatives to all of Google’s services (including Search) abound on the Android platform. It’s trivial both to install them and to set them as the default. Meanwhile, device makers regularly choose to offer these apps alongside Google’s services, and some, like Samsung, have developed entire customized app suites of their own. Still others, like Amazon, pre-install no Google apps and use Android without any of these constraints (and whose Google-free tablets are regularly ranked as the best-rated and most popular in Europe).

By contrast, Apple bundles its operating system with its devices, bypasses third-party device makers entirely, and offers consumers access to its operating system only if they pay (lavishly) for one of the very limited number of devices the company offers, as well. It is perhaps not surprising — although it is enlightening — that Apple earns more revenue in an average quarter from iPhone sales than Google is reported to have earned in total from Android since it began offering it in 2008.

Reality — and the limits it imposes on efforts to manufacture nirvana

The logic behind Google’s approach to Android is obvious: It is the extension of Google’s “advertisers pay” platform strategy to mobile. Rather than charging device makers (and thus consumers) directly for its services, Google earns its revenue by charging advertisers for targeted access to users via Search. Remove Search from mobile devices and you remove the mechanism by which Google gets paid.

It’s true that most device makers opt to offer Google’s suite of services to European users, and that most users opt to keep Google Search as the default on their devices — that is, indeed, the hoped-for effect, and necessary to ensure that Google earns a return on its investment.

That users often choose to keep using Google services instead of installing alternatives, and that device makers typically choose to engineer their products around the Google ecosystem, isn’t primarily the result of a Google-imposed mandate; it’s the result of consumer preferences for Google’s offerings in lieu of readily available alternatives.

The EU decision against Google appears to imagine a world in which Google will continue to develop Android and allow device makers to use the platform and Google’s services for free, even if the likelihood of recouping its investment is diminished.

The Commission also assessed in detail Google’s arguments that the tying of the Google Search app and Chrome browser were necessary, in particular to allow Google to monetise its investment in Android, and concluded that these arguments were not well founded. Google achieves billions of dollars in annual revenues with the Google Play Store alone, it collects a lot of data that is valuable to Google’s search and advertising business from Android devices, and it would still have benefitted from a significant stream of revenue from search advertising without the restrictions.

For the Commission, Google’s earned enough [trust me: you should follow the link. It’s my favorite joke…].

But that world in which Google won’t alter its investment decisions based on a government-mandated reduction in its allowable return on investment doesn’t exist; it’s a fanciful Nirvana.

Google’s real alternatives to the status quo are charging for the use of Android, closing the Android platform and distributing it (like Apple) only on a fully integrated basis, or discontinuing Android.

In reality, and compared to these actual alternatives, Google’s restrictions are trivial. Remember, Google doesn’t insist that Google Search be exclusive, only that it benefit from a “leg up” by being pre-installed as the default. And on this thin reed Google finances the development and maintenance of the (free) Android operating system and all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little or no revenue.

It’s hard to see how consumers, device makers, or app developers would be made better off without Google’s restrictions, but in the real world in which the alternative is one of the three manifestly less desirable options mentioned above.

Missing the real competition for the trees

What’s more, while ostensibly aimed at increasing competition, the Commission’s proposed remedy — like the conduct it addresses — doesn’t relate to Google’s most significant competitors at all.

Facebook, Instagram, Firefox, Amazon, Spotify, Yelp, and Yahoo, among many others, are some of the most popular apps on Android phones, including in Europe. They aren’t foreclosed by Google’s Android distribution terms, and it’s even hard to imagine that they would be more popular if only Android phones didn’t come with, say, Google Search pre-installed.

It’s a strange anticompetitive story that has Google allegedly foreclosing insignificant competitors while apparently ignoring its most substantial threats.

The primary challenges Google now faces are from Facebook drawing away the most valuable advertising and Amazon drawing away the most valuable product searches (and increasingly advertising, as well). The fact that Google’s challenged conduct has never shifted in order to target these competitors as their threat emerged, and has had no apparent effect on these competitive dynamics, says all one needs to know about the merits of the Commission’s decision and the value of its proposed remedy.

In reality, as Demsetz suggested, Nirvana cannot be designed by politicians, especially in complex, modern technology markets. Consumers’ best hope for something close — continued innovation, low prices, and voluminous choice — lies in the evolution of markets spurred by consumer demand, not regulators’ efforts to engineer them.

Regardless of which standard you want to apply to competition law – consumer welfare, total welfare, hipster, or redneck antitrust – it’s never good when competition/antitrust agencies are undermining innovation. Yet, this is precisely what the European Commission is doing.

Today, the agency announced a €4.34 billion fine against Alphabet (Google). It represents more than 30% of what the company invests annually in R&D (based on 2017 figures). This is more than likely to force Google to cut its R&D investments, or, at least, to slow them down.

In fact, the company says in a recent 10-K filing with the SEC that it is uncertain as to the impact of these sanctions on its financial stability. It follows that the European Commission necessarily is ignorant of such concerns, as well, which is thus clearly not reflected in the calculation of its fine.

One thing is for sure, however: In the end, consumers will suffer if the failure to account for the fine’s effect on innovation will lead to less of it from Google.

And Google is not alone in this situation. In a paper just posted by the International Center for Law & Economics, I conduct an empirical study comparing all the fines imposed by the European Commission on the basis of Article 102 TFEU over the period 2004 to 2018 (Android included) with the annual R&D investments by the targeted companies.

The results are indisputable: The European Commission’s fines are disproportionate in this regard and have the probable effect of slowing down the innovation of numerous sanctioned companies.

For this reason, an innovation protection mechanism should be incorporated into the calculation of the EU’s Article 102 fines. I propose doing so by introducing a new limit that caps Article 102 fines at a certain percentage of companies’ investment in R&D.

The full paper is available here.

Our story begins on the morning of January 9, 2007. Few people knew it at the time, but the world of wireless communications was about to change forever. Steve Jobs walked on stage wearing his usual turtleneck, and proceeded to reveal the iPhone. The rest, as they say, is history. The iPhone moved the wireless communications industry towards a new paradigm. No more physical keyboards, clamshell bodies, and protruding antennae. All of these were replaced by a beautiful black design, a huge touchscreen (3.5” was big for that time), a rear-facing camera, and (a little bit later) a revolutionary new way to consume applications: the App Store. Sales soared and Apple’s stock started an upward trajectory that would see it become one of the world’s most valuable companies.

The story could very well have ended there. If it had, we might all be using iPhones today. However, years before, Google had commenced its own march into the wireless communications space by purchasing a small startup called Android. A first phone had initially been slated for release in late 2007. But Apple’s iPhone announcement sent Google back to the drawing board. It took Google and its partners until 2010 to come up with a competitive answer – the Google Nexus One produced by HTC.

Understanding the strategy that Google put in place during this three year timespan is essential to understanding the European Commission’s Google Android decision.

How to beat one of the great innovations?

In order to overthrow — or even merely just compete with — the iPhone, Google faced the same dilemma that most second-movers have to contend with: imitate or differentiate. Its solution was a mix of both. It took the touchscreen, camera, and applications, but departed on one key aspect. Whereas Apple controls the iPhone from end-to-end, Google opted for a licensed, open-source operating system that substitutes a more-decentralized approach for Apple’s so-called “walled garden.”

Google and a number of partners founded the Open Handset Alliance (“OHA”) in November 2007. This loose association of network operators, software companies and handset manufacturers became the driving force behind the Android OS. Through the OHA, Google and its partners have worked to develop minimal specifications for OHA-compliant Android devices in order to ensure that all levels of the device ecosystem — from device makers to app developers — function well together. As its initial press release boasts, through the OHA:

Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost. Developers will have complete access to handset capabilities and tools that will enable them to build more compelling and user-friendly services, bringing the Internet developer model to the mobile space. And consumers worldwide will have access to less expensive mobile devices that feature more compelling services, rich Internet applications and easier-to-use interfaces — ultimately creating a superior mobile experience.

The open source route has a number of advantages — notably the improved division of labor — but it is not without challenges. One key difficulty lies in coordinating and incentivizing the dozens of firms that make up the alliance. Google must not only keep the diverse Android ecosystem directed toward a common, compatible goal, it also has to monetize a product that, by its very nature, is given away free of charge. It is Google’s answers to these two problems that set off the Commission’s investigation.

The first problem is a direct consequence of Android’s decentralization. Whereas there are only a small number of iPhones (the couple of models which Apple markets at any given time) running the same operating system, Android comes in a jaw-dropping array of flavors. Some devices are produced by Google itself, others are the fruit of high-end manufacturers such as Samsung and LG, there are also so-called “flagship killers” like OnePlus, and budget phones from the likes of Motorola and Honor (one of Huawei’s brands). The differences don’t stop there. Manufacturers, like Samsung, Xiaomi and LG (to name but a few) have tinkered with the basic Android setup. Samsung phones heavily incorporate its Bixby virtual assistant, while Xiaomi packs in a novel user interface. The upshot is that the Android marketplace is tremendously diverse.

Managing this variety is challenging, to say the least (preventing projects from unravelling into a myriad of forks is always an issue for open source projects). Google and the OHA have come up with an elegant solution. The alliance penalizes so-called “incompatible” devices — that is, handsets whose software or hardware stray too far from a predetermined series of specifications. When this is the case, Google may refuse to license its proprietary applications (most notably the Play Store). This minimum level of uniformity ensures that apps will run smoothly on all devices. It also provides users with a consistent experience (thereby protecting the Android brand) and reduces the cost of developing applications for Android. Unsurprisingly, Android developers have lauded these “anti-fragmentation” measures, branding the Commission’s case a disaster.

A second important problem stems from the fact that the Android OS is an open source project. Device manufacturers can thus license the software free of charge. This is no small advantage. It shaves precious dollars from the price of Android smartphones, thus opening-up the budget end of the market. Although there are numerous factors at play, it should be noted that a top of the range Samsung Galaxy S9+ is roughly 30% cheaper ($819) than its Apple counterpart, the iPhone X ($1165).

Offering a competitive operating system free of charge might provide a fantastic deal for consumers, but it poses obvious business challenges. How can Google and other members of the OHA earn a return on the significant amounts of money poured into developing, improving, and marketing and Android devices? As is often the case with open source projects, they essentially rely on complementarities. Google produces the Android OS in the hope that it will boost users’ consumption of its profitable, ad-supported services (Google Search in particular). This is sometimes referred to as a loss leader or complementary goods strategy.

Google uses two important sets of contractual provisions to cement this loss leader strategy. First, it seemingly bundles a number of proprietary applications together. Manufacturers must pre-load the Google Search and Chrome apps in order to obtain the Play Store app (the lynchpin on which the Android ecosystem sits). Second, Google has concluded a number of “revenue sharing” deals with manufacturers and network operators. These companies receive monetary compensation when the Google Search is displayed prominently on a user’s home screen. In effect, they are receiving a cut of the marginal revenue that the use of this search bar generates for Google. Both of these measures ultimately nudge users — but do not force them, as neither prevents users from installing competing apps — into using Google’s most profitable services.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a win-win situation. Users get a competitive product free of charge, while Google and other members of the OHA earn enough money to compete against Apple.

The Commission is of another mind, however.

Commission’s hubris

The European Commission believes that Google is hurting competition. Though the text of the decision is not yet available, the thrust of its argument is that Google’s anti-fragmentation measures prevent software developers from launching competing OSs, while the bundling and revenue sharing both thwart rival search engines.

This analysis runs counter to some rather obvious facts:

  • For a start, the Android ecosystem is vibrant. Numerous firms have launched forked versions of Android, both with and without Google’s apps. Amazon’s Fire line of devices is a notable example.
  • Second, although Google’s behavior does have an effect on the search engine market, there is nothing anticompetitive about it. Yahoo could very well have avoided its high-profile failure if, way back in 2005, it had understood the importance of the mobile internet. At the time, it still had a 30% market share, compared to Google’s 36%. Firms that fail to seize upon business opportunities will fall out of the market. This is not a bug; it is possibly the most important feature of market economies. It reveals the products that consumers prefer and stops resources from being allocated to less valuable propositions.
  • Last but not least, Google’s behavior does not prevent other search engines from placing their own search bars or virtual assistants on smartphones. This is essentially what Samsung has done by ditching Google’s assistant in favor of its Bixby service. In other words, Google is merely competing with other firms to place key apps on or near the home screen of devices.

Even if the Commission’s reasoning where somehow correct, the competition watchdog is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The potential repercussions for Android, the software industry, and European competition law are great:

  • For a start, the Commission risks significantly weakening Android’s competitive position relative to Apple. Android is a complex ecosystem. The idea that it is possible to bring incremental changes to its strategy without threatening the viability of the whole is a sign of the Commission’s hubris.
  • More broadly, the harsh treatment of Google could have significant incentive effects for other tech platforms. As others have already pointed out, the Commission’s decision rests on the idea that dominant firms should not be allowed to favor their own services compared to those of rivals. Taken a face value, this anti-discrimination policy will push firms to design closed platforms. If rivals are excluded from the very start, there is no one against whom to discriminate. Antitrust watchdogs are thus kept at bay (and thus the Commission is acting against Google’s marginal preference for its own services, rather than Apple’s far-more-substantial preferencing of its own services). Moving to a world of only walled gardens might harm users and innovators alike.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, many will jump to the Commission’s defense. They will see its action as a necessary step against the abstract “power” of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Rivals will feel vindicated. But when all is done and dusted, there seems to be little doubt that the decision is misguided. The Commission will have struck a blow to the heart of the most competitive offering in the smartphone space. And consumers will be the biggest losers.

This is not what the competition laws were intended to achieve.

This has been a big year for business in the courts. A U.S. district court approved the AT&T-Time Warner merger, the Supreme Court upheld Amex’s agreements with merchants, and a circuit court pushed back on the Federal Trade Commission’s vague and heavy handed policing of companies’ consumer data safeguards.

These three decisions mark a new era in the intersection of law and economics.

AT&T-Time Warner

AT&T-Time Warner is a vertical merger, a combination of firms with a buyer-seller relationship. Time Warner creates and broadcasts content via outlets such as HBO, CNN, and TNT. AT&T distributes content via services such as DirecTV.

Economists see little risk to competition from vertical mergers, although there are some idiosyncratic circumstances in which competition could be harmed. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Justice went to court to block the merger.

The last time the goverment sued to block a merger was more than 40 years ago, and the government lost. Since then, the government relied on the threat of litigation to extract settlements from the merging parties. For example, in the 1996 merger between Time Warner and Turner, the FTC required limits on how the new company could bundle HBO with less desirable channels and eliminated agreements that allowed TCI (a cable company that partially owned Turner) to carry Turner channels at preferential rates.

With AT&T-Time Warner, the government took a big risk, and lost. It was a big risk because (1) it’s a vertical merger, and (2) the case against the merger was weak. The government’s expert argued consumers would face an extra 45 cents a month on their cable bills if the merger went through, but under cross-examination, conceded it might be as little as 13 cents a month. That’s a big difference and raised big questions about the reliability of the expert’s model.

Judge Richard J. Leon’s 170+ page ruling agreed that the government’s case was weak and its expert was not credible. While it’s easy to cheer a victory of big business over big government, the real victory was the judge’s heavy reliance on facts, data, and analysis rather than speculation over the potential for consumer harm. That’s a big deal and may make the way for more vertical mergers.

Ohio v. American Express

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Amex may seem obscure. The court backed American Express Co.’s policy of preventing retailers from offering customers incentives to pay with cheaper cards.

Amex charges higher fees to merchants than do other cards, such as Visa, MasterCard, and Discover. Amex cardholders also have higher incomes and tend to spend more at stores than those associated with other networks. And, Amex offers its cardholders better benefits, services, and rewards than the other cards. Merchants don’t like Amex because of the higher fees, customers prefer Amex because of the card’s perks.

Amex, and other card companies, operate in what is known as a two-sided market. Put simply, they have two sets of customers: merchants who pay swipe fees, and consumers who pay fees and interest.

Part of Amex’s agreement with merchants is an “anti-steering” provision that bars merchants from offering discounts for using non-Amex cards. The U.S. Justice Department and a group of states sued the company, alleging the Amex rules limited merchants’ ability to reduce their costs from accepting credit cards, which meant higher retail prices. Amex argued that the higher prices charged to merchants were kicked back to its cardholders in the form of more and better perks.

The Supreme Court found that the Justice Department and states focused exclusively on one side (merchant fees) of the two-sided market. The courts says the government can’t meet its burden by showing some effect on some part of the market. Instead, they must demonstrate, “increased cost of credit card transactions … reduced number of credit card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition.” The government could not prove any of those things.

We live in a world two-sided markets. Amazon may be the biggest two-sided market in the history of the world, linking buyers and sellers. Smartphones such as iPhones and Android devices are two-sided markets, linking consumers with app developers. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Amex sets a standard for how antitrust law should treat the economics of two-sided markets.

LabMD

LabMD is another matter that seems obscure, but could have big impacts on the administrative state.

Since the early 2000s, the FTC has brought charges against more than 150 companies alleging they had bad security or privacy practices. LabMD was one of them, when its computer system was compromised by professional hackers in 2008. The FTC claimed that LabMD’s failure to adequately protect customer data was an “unfair” business practice.

Challenging the FTC can get very expensive and the agency used the threat of litigation to secure settlements from dozens of companies. It then used those settlements to convince everyone else that those settlements constituted binding law and enforceable security standards.

Because no one ever forced the FTC to defend what it was doing in court, the FTC’s assertion of legal authority became a self-fulfilling prophecy. LabMD, however, chose to challege the FTC. The fight drove LabMD out of business, but public interest law firm Cause of Action and lawyers at Ropes & Gray took the case on a pro bono basis.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the FTC’s approach to developing security standards violates basic principles of due process. The court said the FTC’s basic approach—in which the FTC tries to improve general security practices by suing companies that experience security breaches—violates the basic legal principle that the government can’t punish someone for conduct that the government hasn’t previously explained is problematic.

My colleague at ICLE observes the lesson to learn from LabMD isn’t about the illegitimacy of the FTC’s approach to internet privacy and security. Instead, it says legality of the administrative state is premised on courts placing a check on abusive regulators.

The lessons learned from these three recent cases reflect a profound shift in thinkging about the laws governing economic activity:

  • AT&T-Time Warner indicates that facts matter. Mere speculation of potential harms will not satisfy the court.
  • Amex highlights the growing role two-sided markets play in our economy and provides framework for evaluating competition in these markets.
  • LabMD is a small step in reining in the administrative state. Regulations must be scrutinized before they are imposed and enforced.

In some ways none of these decisions are revolutionary. Instead, they reflect an evolution toward greater transparency in how the law is to be applied and greater scrutiny over how the regulations are imposed.

 

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.

The EC’s Android decision is expected sometime in the next couple of weeks. Current speculation is that the EC may issue a fine exceeding last year’s huge 2.4B EU fine for Google’s alleged antitrust violations related to the display of general search results. Based on the statement of objections (“SO”), I expect the Android decision will be a muddle of legal theory that not only fails to connect to facts and marketplace realities, but also will  perversely incentivize platform operators to move toward less open ecosystems.

As has been amply demonstrated (see, e.g., here and here), the Commission has made fundamental errors with its market definition analysis in this case. Chief among its failures is the EC’s incredible decision to treat the relevant market as licensable mobile operating systems, which notably excludes the largest smartphone player by revenue, Apple.

This move, though perhaps expedient for the EC, leads the Commission to view with disapproval an otherwise competitively justifiable set of licensing requirements that Google imposes on its partners. This includes anti-fragmentation and app-bundling provisions (“Provisions”) in the agreements that partners sign in order to be able to distribute Google Mobile Services (“GMS”) with their devices. Among other things, the Provisions guarantee that a basic set of Google’s apps and services will be non-exclusively featured on partners’ devices.

The Provisions — when viewed in a market in which Apple is a competitor — are clearly procompetitive. The critical mass of GMS-flavored versions of Android (as opposed to vanilla Android Open Source Project (“AOSP”) devices) supplies enough predictability to an otherwise unruly universe of disparate Android devices such that software developers will devote the sometimes considerable resources necessary for launching successful apps on Android.

Open source software like AOSP is great, but anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Linux recognizes that the open source movement often fails to produce consumer-friendly software. In order to provide a critical mass of users that attract developers to Android, Google provides a significant service to the Android market as a whole by using the Provisions to facilitate a predictable user (and developer) experience.

Generativity on platforms is a complex phenomenon

To some extent, the EC’s complaint is rooted in a bias that Android act as a more “generative” platform such that third-party developers are relatively better able to reach users of Android devices. But this effort by the EC to undermine the Provisions will be ultimately self-defeating as it will likely push mobile platform providers to converge on similar, relatively more closed business models that provide less overall consumer choice.

Even assuming that the Provisions somehow prevent third-party app installs or otherwise develop a kind of path-dependency among users such that they never seek out new apps (which the data clearly shows is not happening), focusing on third-party developers as the sole or primary source of innovation on Android is a mistake.

The control that platform operators like Apple and Google exert over their respective ecosystems does not per se create more or less generativity on the platforms. As Gus Hurwitz has noted, “literature and experience amply demonstrate that ‘open’ platforms, or general-purpose technologies generally, can promote growth and increase social welfare, but they also demonstrate that open platforms can also limit growth and decrease welfare.” Conversely, tighter vertical integration (the Apple model) can also produce more innovation than open platforms.

What is important is the balance between control and freedom, and the degree to which third-party developers are able to innovate within the context of a platform’s constraints. The existence of constraints — either Apple’s more tightly controlled terms, or Google’s more generous Provisions — themselves facilitate generativity.

In short, it is overly simplistic to view generativity as something that happens at the edges without respect to structural constraints at the core. The interplay between platform and developer is complex and complementary, and needs to be viewed as a dynamic process.

Whither platform diversity?

I love Apple’s devices and I am quite happy living within its walled garden. But I certainly do not believe that Apple’s approach is the only one that makes sense. Yet, in its SO, the EC blesses Apple’s approach as the proper way to manage a mobile ecosystem. It explicitly excluded Apple from a competitive analysis, and attacked Google on the basis that it imposed restrictions in the context of licensing its software. Thus, had Google opted instead to create a separate walled garden of its own on the Apple model, everything it had done would have otherwise been fine. This means that Google is now subject to an antitrust investigation for attempting to develop a more open platform.

With this SO, the EC is basically asserting that Google is anticompetitively bundling without being able to plausibly assert foreclosure (because, again, third-party app installs are easy to do and are easily shown to number in the billions). I’m sure Google doesn’t want to move in the direction of having a more closed system, but the lesson of this case will loom large for tomorrow’s innovators.

In the face of eager antitrust enforcers like those in the EU, the easiest path for future innovators will be to keep everything tightly controlled so as to prevent both fragmentation and misguided regulatory intervention.

AT&T’s merger with Time Warner has lead to one of the most important, but least interesting, antitrust trials in recent history.

The merger itself is somewhat unimportant to consumers. It’s about a close to a “pure” vertical merger as we can get in today’s world and would not lead to a measurable increase in prices paid by consumers. At the same time, Richard J. Leon’s decision to approve the merger may have sent a signal regarding how the anticipated Fox-Disney (or Comcast), CVS-Aetna, and Cigna-Express Scripts mergers might proceed.

Judge Leon of the United States District Court in Washington, said the U.S. Department of Justice had not proved that AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner would lead to fewer choices for consumers and higher prices for television and internet services.

As shown in the figure below, there is virtually no overlap in services provided by Time Warner (content creation and broadcasting) and AT&T (content distribution). We say “virtually” because, through it’s ownership of DirecTV, AT&T has an ownership stake in several channels such as the Game Show Network, the MLB Network, and Root Sports. So, not a “pure” vertical merger, but pretty close. Besides no one seems to really care about GSN, MLB, or Root.

Infographic: What's at Stake in the Proposed AT&T - Time Warner Merger | Statista

The merger trial was one of the least interesting because the government’s case opposing the merger was so weak.

The Justice Department’s economic expert, University of California, Berkeley, professor Carl Shapiro, argued the merger would harm consumers and competition in three ways:

  1. AT&T would raise the price of content to other cable companies, driving up their costs which would be passed on consumers.
  2. Across more than 1,000 subscription television markets, AT&T could benefit by drawing customers away from rival content distributors in the event of a “blackout,” in which the distributor chooses not to carry Time Warner content over a pricing dispute. In addition, AT&T could also use its control over Time Warner content to retain customers by discouraging consumers from switching to providers that don’t carry the Time Warner content. Those two factors, according to Shapiro, could cause rival cable companies to lose between 9 and 14 percent of their subscribers over the long term.
  3. AT&T and competitor Comcast could coordinate to restrict access to popular Time Warner and NBC content in ways that could stifle competition from online cable alternatives such as Dish Network’s Sling TV or Sony’s PlayStation Vue. Even tacit coordination of this type would impair consumer choices, Shapiro opined.

Price increases and blackouts

Shapiro initially indicated the merger would cause consumers to pay an additional $436 million year, which amounts to an average of 45 cents a month per customer, or a 0.4 percent increase. At trial, he testified the amount might be closer to 27 cents a month and conceded it could be a low as 13 cents a month.

The government’s “blackout” arguments seemed to get lost in the shifting sands of shifting survey results. Blackouts mattered, according to Shapiro, because “Even though they don’t happen very much, that’s the key to leverage.” His testimony on the potential for price hikes relied heavily on a study commissioned by Charter Communications Inc., which opposes the merger. Stefan Bewley, a director at consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co., which produced the study, testified the report predicted Charter would lose 9 percent of its subscribers if it lost access to Turner programming.

Under cross-examination by AT&T’s lawyer, Bewley acknowledged what was described as a “final” version of the study presented to Charter in April last year put the subscriber loss estimate at 5 percent. When confronted with his own emails about the change to 9 percent, Bewley said he agreed to the update after meeting with Charter. At the time of the change from 5 percent to 9 percent, Charter was discussing its opposition to the merger with the Justice Department.

Bewley noted that the change occurred because he saw that some of the figures his team had gathered about Turner networks were outliers, with a range of subcriber losses of 5 percent on the low end and 14 percent on the high end. He indicated his team came up with a “weighted average” of 9 percent.

This 5/9/14 percent distinction seems to be critical to the government’s claim the merger would raise consumer prices. Referring to Shapiro’s analysis, AT&T-Time Warner’s lead counsel, Daniel Petrocelli, asked Bewley: “Are you aware that if he’d used 5 percent there would have been a price increase of zero?” Bewley said he was not aware.

At trial, AT&T and Turner executives testified that they couldn’t credibly threaten to withhold Turner programming from rivals because the networks’ profitability depends on wide distribution. In addition, one of AT&T’s expert witnesses, University of California, Berkeley business and economics professor Michael Katz, testified about what he said were the benefits of AT&T’s offer to use “baseball style” arbitration with rival pay TV distributors if the two sides couldn’t agree on what fees to pay for Time Warner’s Turner networks. With baseball style arbitration, both sides submit their final offer to an arbitrator, who determines which of the two offers is most appropriate.

Under the terms of the arbitration offer, AT&T has agreed not to black out its networks for the duration of negotiations with distributors. Dennis Carlton, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said Shapiro’s model was unreliable because he didn’t account for that. Shapiro conceded he did not factor that into his study, saying that he would need to use an entirely different model to study how the arbitration agreement would affect the merger.

Coordination with Comcast/NBCUniversal

The government’s contention that, after the merger, AT&T and rival Comcast could coordinate to restrict access to popular Time Warner and NBC content to harm emerging competitors was always a weak argument.

At trial, the Justice Department seemed to abandon any claim that the merged company would unilaterally restrict access to online “virtual MVPDs.” The government’s case, made by its expert Shapiro, ended up being there would be a “risk” and “danger” that AT&T and Comcast would “coordinate” to withhold programming in a way to harm emerging online multichannel distributors. However, under cross examination, he conceded that his opinions were not based on a “quantifiable model.” Shapiro testified that he had no opinion whether the odds of such coordination would be greater than 1 percent.

Doing no favors to its case, the government turned to a seemingly contradictory argument that AT&T and Comcast would coordinate to demand virtual providers take too much content. Emerging online multichannel distributors pitch their offerings as “skinny bundles” with a limited selection of the more popular channels. By forcing these providers to take more channels, the government argued, the skinny bundle business model is undermined in a version of raising rivals costs. This theory did not get much play at trial, but seems to suggest the government was trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

Except in this case, as with much of the government’s case in this matter, the cake was not completely baked.

 

A few weeks ago I posted a preliminary assessment of the relative antitrust risk of a Comcast vs Disney purchase of 21st Century Fox assets. (Also available in pdf as an ICLE Issue brief, here). On the eve of Judge Leon’s decision in the AT&T/Time Warner merger case, it seems worthwhile to supplement that assessment by calling attention to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s remarks at The Deal’s Corporate Governance Conference last week. Somehow these remarks seem to have passed with little notice, but, given their timing, they deserve quite a bit more attention.

In brief, Delrahim spent virtually the entirety of his short remarks making and remaking the fundamental point at the center of my own assessment of the antitrust risk of a possible Comcast/Fox deal: The DOJ’s challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger tells you nothing about the likelihood that the agency would challenge a Comcast/Fox merger.

To begin, in my earlier assessment I pointed out that most vertical mergers are approved by antitrust enforcers, and I quoted Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, who noted that:

[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….

* * *

Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.

I may not have made it very clear in that post, but, of course, most horizontal mergers are approved by enforcers, as well.

Well, now we have the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division making the same point:

I’d say 95 or 96 percent of mergers — horizontal or vertical — are cleared — routinely…. Most mergers — horizontal or vertical — are procompetitive, or have no adverse effect.

Delrahim reinforced the point in an interview with The Street in advance of his remarks. Asked by a reporter, “what are your concerns with vertical mergers?,” Delrahim quickly corrected the questioner: “Well, I don’t have any concerns with most vertical mergers….”

But Delrahim went even further, noting that nothing about the Division’s approach to vertical mergers has changed since the AT&T/Time Warner case was brought — despite the efforts of some reporters to push a different narrative:

I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers. Some point to our recent decision to challenge some aspects of the AT&T/Time Warner merger as a supposed bellwether for a new vertical approach. Rest assured: These concerns are misplaced…. We have long recognized that vertical integration can and does generate efficiencies that benefit consumers. Indeed, most vertical mergers are procompetitive or competitively neutral. The same is of course true in horizontal transactions. To the extent that any recent action points to a closer review of vertical mergers, it’s not new…. [But,] to reiterate, our approach to vertical mergers has not changed, and our recent enforcement efforts are consistent with the Division’s long-standing, bipartisan approach to analyzing such mergers. We’ll continue to recognize that vertical mergers, in general, can yield significant economic efficiencies and benefit to competition.

Delrahim concluded his remarks by criticizing those who assume that the agency’s future enforcement decisions can be inferred from past cases with different facts, stressing that the agency employs an evidence-based, case-by-case approach to merger review:

Lumping all vertical transactions under the same umbrella, by comparison, obscures the reality that we conduct a vigorous investigation, aided by over 50 PhD economists in these markets, to make sure that we as lawyers don’t steer too far without the benefits of their views in each of these instances.

Arguably this was a rebuke directed at those, like Disney and Fox’s board, who are quick to ascribe increased regulatory risk to a Comcast/Fox tie-up because the DOJ challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Recall that, in its proxy statement, the Fox board explained that it rejected Comcast’s earlier bid in favor of Disney’s in part because of “the regulatory risks presented by the DOJ’s unanticipated opposition to the proposed vertical integration of the AT&T / Time Warner transaction.”

I’ll likely have more to add once the AT&T/Time Warner decision is out. But in the meantime (and with apologies to Mark Twain), the takeaway is clear: Reports of the death of vertical mergers have been greatly exaggerated.

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.