Archives For antitrust

In the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on competition policy in the 21st century, Georgetown professor Steven Salop urged greater scrutiny of vertical mergers. He argued that regulators should be skeptical of the claim that vertical integration tends to produce efficiencies that can enhance consumer welfare. In his presentation to the FTC, Professor Salop provided what he viewed as exceptions to this long-held theory.

Also, vertical merger efficiencies are not inevitable. I mean, vertical integration is common, but so is vertical non-integration. There is an awful lot of companies that are not vertically integrated. And we have lots of examples in which vertical integration has failed. Pepsi’s acquisition of KFC and Pizza Hut; you know, of course Coca-Cola has not merged with McDonald’s . . . .

Aside from the logical fallacy of cherry picking examples (he also includes Betamax/VHS and the split up of Alcoa and Arconic, as well as “integration and disintegration” “in cable”), Professor Salop misses the fact that PepsiCo’s 20 year venture into restaurants had very little to do with vertical integration.

Popular folklore says PepsiCo got into fast food because it was looking for a way to lock up sales of its fountain sodas. Soda is considered one of the highest margin products sold by restaurants. Vertical integration by a soda manufacturer into restaurants would eliminate double marginalization with the vertically integrated firm reaping most of the gains. The folklore fits nicely with economic theory. But, the facts may not fit the theory.

PepsiCo acquired Pizza Hut in 1977, Taco Bell in 1978, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1986. Prior to PepsiCo’s purchase, KFC had been owned by spirits company Heublein and conglomerate RJR Nabisco. This was the period of conglomerates—Pillsbury owned Burger King and General Foods owned Burger Chef (or maybe they were vertically integrated into bun distribution).

In the early 1990s Pepsi also bought California Pizza Kitchen, Chevys Fresh Mex, and D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches.

In 1997, PepsiCo exited the restaurant business. It spun off Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC to Tricon Global Restaurants, which would later be renamed Yum! Brands. CPK and Chevy’s were purchased by private equity investors. D’Angelo was sold to Papa Gino’s Holdings, a restaurant chain. Since then, both Chevy’s and Papa Gino’s have filed for bankruptcy and Chevy’s has had some major shake-ups.

Professor Salop’s story focuses on the spin-off as an example of the failure of vertical mergers. But there is also a story of success. PepsiCo was in the restaurant business for two decades. More importantly, it continued its restaurant acquisitions over time. If PepsiCo’s restaurants strategy was a failure, it seems odd that the company would continue acquisitions into the early 1990s.

It’s easy, and largely correct, to conclude that PepsiCo’s restaurant acquisitions involved some degree of vertical integration, with upstream PepsiCo selling beverages to downstream restaurants. At the time PepsiCo bought Kentucky Fried Chicken, the New York Times reported KFC was Coke’s second-largest fountain account, behind McDonald’s.

But, what if vertical efficiencies were not the primary reason for the acquisitions?

Growth in U.S. carbonated beverage sales began slowing in the 1970s. It was also the “decade of the fast-food business.” From 1971 to 1977, Pizza Hut’s profits grew an average of 40% per year. Colonel Sanders sold his ownership in KFC for $2 million in 1964. Seven years later, the company was sold to Heublein for $280 million; PepsiCo paid $850 million in 1986.

Although KFC was Coke’s second largest customer at the time, about 20% of KFC’s stores served Pepsi products, “PepsiCo stressed that the major reason for the acquisition was to expand its restaurant business, which last year accounted for 26 percent of its revenues of $8.1 billion,” according to the New York Times.

Viewed in this light, portfolio diversification goes a much longer way toward explaining PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases than hoped-for vertical efficiencies. In 1997, former PepsiCo chairman Roger Enrico explained to investment analysts that the company entered the restaurant business in the first place, “because it didn’t see future growth in its soft drink and snack” businesses and thought diversification into restaurants would provide expansion opportunities.

Prior to its Pizza Hut and Taco Bell acquisitions, PepsiCo owned companies as diverse as Frito-Lay, North American Van Lines, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Rheingold Brewery. This further supports a diversification theory rather than a vertical integration theory of PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases. 

The mid 1990s and early 2000s were tough times for restaurants. Consumers were demanding healthier foods and fast foods were considered the worst of the worst. This was when Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded as KFC. Debt hangovers from the leveraged buyout era added financial pressure. Many restaurant groups were filing for bankruptcy and competition intensified among fast food companies. PepsiCo’s restaurants could not cover their cost of capital, and what was once a profitable diversification strategy became a financial albatross, so the restaurants were spun off.

Thus, it seems more reasonable to conclude PepsiCo’s exit from restaurants was driven more by market exigencies than by a failure to achieve vertical efficiencies. While the folklore of locking up distribution channels to eliminate double marginalization fits nicely with theory, the facts suggest a more mundane model of a firm scrambling to deliver shareholder wealth through diversification in the face of changing competition.

These days, lacking a coherent legal theory presents no challenge to the would-be antitrust crusader. In a previous post, we noted how Shaoul Sussman’s predatory pricing claims against Amazon lacked a serious legal foundation. Sussman has returned with a new post, trying to build out his fledgling theory, but fares little better under even casual scrutiny.

According to Sussman, Amazon’s allegedly anticompetitive 

conduct not only cemented its role as the primary destination for consumers that shop online but also helped it solidify its power over brands.

Further, the company 

was willing to go to great lengths to ensure brand availability and inventory, including turning to the grey market, recruiting unauthorized sellers, and even selling diverted goods and counterfeits to its customers.

Sussman is trying to make out a fairly convoluted predatory pricing case, but once again without ever truly connecting the dots in a way that develops a cognizable antitrust claim. According to Sussman: 

Amazon sold products as a first-party to consumers on its platform at below average variable cost and [] Amazon recently began to recoup its losses by shifting the bulk of the transactions that occur on the website to its marketplace, where millions of third-party sellers pay hefty fees that enable Amazon to take a deep cut of every transaction.

Sussman now bases this claim on an allegation that Amazon relied on  “grey market” sellers on its platform, the presence of which forces legitimate brands onto the Amazon Marketplace. Moreover, Sussman claims that — somehow — these brands coming on board on Amazon’s terms forces those brands raise prices elsewhere, and the net effect of this process at scale is that prices across the economy have risen. 

As we detail below, Sussman’s chimerical argument depends on conflating unrelated concepts and relies on non-public anecdotal accounts to piece together an argument that, even if you squint at it, doesn’t make out a viable theory of harm.

Conflating legal reselling and illegal counterfeit selling as the “grey market”

The biggest problem with Sussman’s new theory is that he conflates pro-consumer unauthorized reselling and anti-consumer illegal counterfeiting, erroneously labeling both the “grey market”: 

Amazon had an ace up its sleeve. My sources indicate that the company deliberately turned to and empowered the “grey market“ — where both genuine, authentic goods and knockoffs are purchased and resold outside of brands’ intended distribution pipes — to dominate certain brands.

By definition, grey market goods are — as the link provided by Sussman states — “goods sold outside the authorized distribution channels by entities which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods.” Yet Sussman suggests this also encompasses counterfeit goods. This conflation is no minor problem for his argument. In general, the grey market is legal and beneficial for consumers. Brands such as Nike may try to limit the distribution of their products to channels the company controls, but they cannot legally prevent third parties from purchasing Nike products and reselling them on Amazon (or anywhere else).

This legal activity can increase consumer choice and can lead to lower prices, even though Sussman’s framing omits these key possibilities:

In the course of my conversations with former Amazon employees, some reported that Amazon actively sought out and recruited unauthorized sellers as both third-party sellers and first-party suppliers. Being unauthorized, these sellers were not bound by the brands’ policies and therefore outside the scope of their supervision.

In other words, Amazon actively courted third-party sellers who could bring legitimate goods, priced competitively, onto its platform. Perhaps this gives Amazon “leverage” over brands that would otherwise like to control the activities of legal resellers, but it’s exceedingly strange to try to frame this as nefarious or anticompetitive behavior.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are also potential consumer gains when Amazon tries to restrict grey market activity by partnering with brands. But it is up to Amazon and the brands to determine through a contracting process when it makes the most sense to partner and control the grey market, or when consumers are better served by allowing unauthorized resellers. The point is: there is simply no reason to assume that either of these approaches is inherently problematic. 

Yet, even when Amazon tries to restrict its platform to authorized resellers, it exposes itself to a whole different set of complaints. In 2018, the company made a deal with Apple to bring the iPhone maker onto its marketplace platform. In exchange for Apple selling its products directly on Amazon, the latter agreed to remove unauthorized Apple resellers from the platform. Sussman portrays this as a welcome development in line with the policy changes he recommends. 

But news reports last month indicate the FTC is reviewing this deal for potential antitrust violations. One is reminded of Ronald Coase’s famous lament that he “had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same they said it was tacit collusion.” It seems the same is true for Amazon and its relationship with the grey market.

Amazon’s incentive to remove counterfeits

What is illegal — and explicitly against Amazon’s marketplace rules  — is selling counterfeit goods. Counterfeit goods destroy consumer trust in the Amazon ecosystem, which is why the company actively polices its listings for abuses. And as Sussman himself notes, when there is an illegal counterfeit listing, “Brands can then file a trademark infringement lawsuit against the unauthorized seller in order to force Amazon to suspend it.”

Sussman’s attempt to hang counterfeiting problems around Amazon’s neck belies the actual truth about counterfeiting: probably the most cost-effective way to stop counterfeiting is simply to prohibit all third-party sellers. Yet, a serious cost-benefit analysis of Amazon’s platforms could hardly support such an action (and would harm the small sellers that antitrust activists seem most concerned about).

But, more to the point, if Amazon’s strategy is to encourage piracy, it’s doing a terrible job. It engages in litigation against known pirates, and earlier this year it rolled out a suite of tools (called Project Zero) meant to help brand owners report and remove known counterfeits. As part of this program, according to Amazon, “brands provide key data points about themselves (e.g., trademarks, logos, etc.) and we scan over 5 billion daily listing update attempts, looking for suspected counterfeits.” And when a brand identifies a counterfeit listing, they can remove it using a self-service tool (without needing approval from Amazon). 

Any large platform that tries to make it easy for independent retailers to reach customers is going to run into a counterfeit problem eventually. In his rush to discover some theory of predatory pricing to stick on Amazon, Sussman ignores the tradeoffs implicit in running a large platform that essentially democratizes retail:

Indeed, the democratizing effect of online platforms (and of technology writ large) should not be underestimated. While many are quick to disparage Amazon’s effect on local communities, these arguments fail to recognize that by reducing the costs associated with physical distance between sellers and consumers, e-commerce enables even the smallest merchant on Main Street, and the entrepreneur in her garage, to compete in the global marketplace.

In short, Amazon Marketplace is designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to sell their products to Amazon customers. As the WSJ reported

Counterfeiters, though, have been able to exploit Amazon’s drive to increase the site’s selection and offer lower prices. The company has made the process to list products on its website simple—sellers can register with little more than a business name, email and address, phone number, credit card, ID and bank account—but that also has allowed impostors to create ersatz versions of hot-selling items, according to small brands and seller consultants.

The existence of counterfeits is a direct result of policies designed to lower prices and increase consumer choice. Thus, we would expect some number of counterfeits to exist as a result of running a relatively open platform. The question is not whether counterfeits exist, but — at least in terms of Sussman’s attempt to use antitrust law — whether there is any reason to think that Amazon’s conduct with respect to counterfeits is actually anticompetitive. But, even if we assume for the moment that there is some plausible way to draw a competition claim out of the existence of counterfeit goods on the platform, his theory still falls apart. 

There is both theoretical and empirical evidence for why Amazon is likely not engaged in the conduct Sussman describes. As a platform owner involved in a repeated game with customers, sellers, and developers, Amazon has an incentive to increase trust within the ecosystem. Counterfeit goods directly destroy that trust and likely decrease sales in the long run. If individuals can’t depend on the quality of goods on Amazon, they can easily defect to Walmart, eBay, or any number of smaller independent sellers. That’s why Amazon enters into agreements with companies like Apple to ensure there are only legitimate products offered. That’s also why Amazon actively sues counterfeiters in partnership with its sellers and brands, and also why Project Zero is a priority for the company.

Sussman relies on private, anecdotal claims while engaging in speculation that is entirely unsupported by public data 

Much of Sussman’s evidence is “[b]ased on conversations [he] held with former employees, sellers, and brands following the publication of [his] paper”, which — to put it mildly — makes it difficult for anyone to take seriously, let alone address head on. Here’s one example:

One third-party seller, who asked to remain anonymous, was willing to turn over his books for inspection in order to illustrate the magnitude of the increase in consumer prices. Together, we analyzed a single product, of which tens of thousands of units have been sold since 2015. The minimum advertised price for this single product, at any and all outlets, has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years. Despite this fact, this seller’s margins on this product are tighter than ever due to Amazon’s fee increases.

Needless to say, sales data showing the minimum advertised price for a single product “has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years” is not sufficient to prove, well, anything. At minimum, showing an increase in prices above costs would require data from a large and representative sample of sellers. All we have to go on from the article is a vague anecdote representing — maybe — one data point.

Not only is Sussman’s own data impossible to evaluate, but he bases his allegations on speculation that is demonstrably false. For instance, he asserts that Amazon used its leverage over brands in a way that caused retail prices to rise throughout the economy. But his starting point assumption is flatly contradicted by reality: 

To remedy this, Amazon once again exploited brands’ MAP policies. As mentioned, MAP policies effectively dictate the minimum advertised price of a given product across the entire retail industry. Traditionally, this meant that the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online, where consumers are charged an additional shipping fee at checkout.

Sussman presents no evidence for the claim that “the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online.” The widespread phenomenon of showrooming — when a customer examines a product at a brick-and-mortar store but then buys it for a lower price online — belies the notion that prices are higher online. One recent study by Nielsen found that “nearly 75% of grocery shoppers have used a physical store to ‘showroom’ before purchasing online.”

In fact, the company’s downward pressure on prices is so large that researchers now speculate that Amazon and other internet retailers are partially responsible for the low and stagnant inflation in the US over the last decade (dubbing this the “Amazon effect”). It is also curious that Sussman cites shipping fees as the reason prices are higher online while ignoring all the overhead costs of running a brick-and-mortar store which online retailers don’t incur. The assumption that prices are lower in brick-and-mortar stores doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Conclusion

Sussman can keep trying to tell a predatory pricing story about Amazon, but the more convoluted his theories get — and the less based in empirical reality they are — the less convincing they become. There is a predatory pricing law on the books, but it’s hard to bring a case because, as it turns out, it’s actually really hard to profitably operate as a predatory pricer. Speculating over complicated new theories might be entertaining, but it would be dangerous and irresponsible if these sorts of poorly supported theories were incorporated into public policy.

Ursula von der Leyen has just announced the composition of the next European Commission. For tech firms, the headline is that Margrethe Vestager will not only retain her job as the head of DG Competition, she will also oversee the EU’s entire digital markets policy in her new role as Vice-President in charge of digital policy. Her promotion within the Commission as well as her track record at DG Competition both suggest that the digital economy will continue to be the fulcrum of European competition and regulatory intervention for the next five years.

The regulation (or not) of digital markets is an extremely important topic. Not only do we spend vast swaths of both our professional and personal lives online, but firms operating in digital markets will likely employ an ever-increasing share of the labor force in the near future

Likely recognizing the growing importance of the digital economy, the previous EU Commission intervened heavily in the digital sphere over the past five years. This resulted in a series of high-profile regulations (including the GDPR, the platform-to-business regulation, and the reform of EU copyright) and competition law decisions (most notably the Google cases). 

Lauded by supporters of the administrative state, these interventions have drawn flak from numerous corners. This includes foreign politicians (especially  Americans) who see in these measures an attempt to protect the EU’s tech industry from its foreign rivals, as well as free market enthusiasts who argue that the old continent has moved further in the direction of digital paternalism. 

Vestager’s increased role within the new Commission, the EU’s heavy regulation of digital markets over the past five years, and early pronouncements from Ursula von der Leyen all suggest that the EU is in for five more years of significant government intervention in the digital sphere.

Vestager the slayer of Big Tech

During her five years as Commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager has repeatedly been called the most powerful woman in Brussels (see here and here), and it is easy to see why. Yielding the heavy hammer of European competition and state aid enforcement, she has relentlessly attacked the world’s largest firms, especially American’s so-called “Tech Giants”. 

The record-breaking fines imposed on Google were probably her most high-profile victory. When Vestager entered office, in 2014, the EU’s case against Google had all but stalled. The Commission and Google had spent the best part of four years haggling over a potential remedy that was ultimately thrown out. Grabbing the bull by the horns, Margrethe Vestager made the case her own. 

Five years, three infringement decisions, and 8.25 billion euros later, Google probably wishes it had managed to keep the 2014 settlement alive. While Vestager’s supporters claim that justice was served, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, among others, branded her a protectionist (although, as Geoffrey Manne and I have noted, the evidence for this is decidedly mixed). Critics also argued that her decisions would harm innovation and penalize consumers (see here and here). Regardless, the case propelled Vestager into the public eye. It turned her into one of the most important political forces in Brussels. Cynics might even suggest that this was her plan all along.

But Google is not the only tech firm to have squared off with Vestager. Under her watch, Qualcomm was slapped with a total of €1.239 Billion in fines. The Commission also opened an investigation into Amazon’s operation of its online marketplace. If previous cases are anything to go by, the probe will most probably end with a headline-grabbing fine. The Commission even launched a probe into Facebook’s planned Libra cryptocurrency, even though it has yet to be launched, and recent talk suggests it may never be. Finally, in the area of state aid enforcement, the Commission ordered Ireland to recover €13 Billion in allegedly undue tax benefits from Apple.   

Margrethe Vestager also initiated a large-scale consultation on competition in the digital economy. The ensuing report concluded that the answer was more competition enforcement. Its findings will likely be cited by the Commission as further justification to ramp up its already significant competition investigations in the digital sphere.

Outside of the tech sector, Vestager has shown that she is not afraid to adopt controversial decisions. Blocking the proposed merger between Siemens and Alstom notably drew the ire of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, as the deal would have created a European champion in the rail industry (a key political demand in Germany and France). 

These numerous interventions all but guarantee that Vestager will not be pushing for light touch regulation in her new role as Vice-President in charge of digital policy. Vestager is also unlikely to put a halt to some of the “Big Tech” investigations that she herself launched during her previous spell at DG Competition. Finally, given her evident political capital in Brussels, it’s a safe bet that she will be given significant leeway to push forward landmark initiatives of her choosing. 

Vestager the prophet

Beneath these attempts to rein-in “Big Tech” lies a deeper agenda that is symptomatic of the EU’s current zeitgeist. Over the past couple of years, the EU has been steadily blazing a trail in digital market regulation (although much less so in digital market entrepreneurship and innovation). Underlying this push is a worldview that sees consumers and small startups as the uninformed victims of gigantic tech firms. True to form, the EU’s solution to this problem is more regulation and government intervention. This is unlikely to change given the Commission’s new (old) leadership.

If digital paternalism is the dogma, then Margrethe Vestager is its prophet. As Thibault Schrepel has shown, her speeches routinely call for digital firms to act “fairly”, and for policymakers to curb their “power”. According to her, it is our democracy that is at stake. In her own words, “you can’t sensibly talk about democracy today, without appreciating the enormous power of digital technology”. And yet, if history tells us one thing, it is that heavy-handed government intervention is anathema to liberal democracy. 

The Commission’s Google decisions neatly illustrate this worldview. For instance, in Google Shopping, the Commission concluded that Google was coercing consumers into using its own services, to the detriment of competition. But the Google Shopping decision focused entirely on competitors, and offered no evidence showing actual harm to consumers (see here). Could it be that users choose Google’s products because they actually prefer them? Rightly or wrongly, the Commission went to great lengths to dismiss evidence that arguably pointed in this direction (see here, §506-538).

Other European forays into the digital space are similarly paternalistic. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) assumes that consumers are ill-equipped to decide what personal information they share with online platforms. Queue a deluge of time-consuming consent forms and cookie-related pop-ups. The jury is still out on whether the GDPR has improved users’ privacy. But it has been extremely costly for businesses — American S&P 500 companies and UK FTSE 350 companies alone spent an estimated total of $9 billion to comply with the GDPR — and has at least temporarily slowed venture capital investment in Europe. 

Likewise, the recently adopted Regulation on platform-to-business relations operates under the assumption that small firms routinely fall prey to powerful digital platforms: 

Given that increasing dependence, the providers of those services [i.e. digital platforms] often have superior bargaining power, which enables them to, in effect, behave unilaterally in a way that can be unfair and that can be harmful to the legitimate interests of their businesses users and, indirectly, also of consumers in the Union. For instance, they might unilaterally impose on business users practices which grossly deviate from good commercial conduct, or are contrary to good faith and fair dealing. 

But the platform-to-business Regulation conveniently overlooks the fact that economic opportunism is a two-way street. Small startups are equally capable of behaving in ways that greatly harm the reputation and profitability of much larger platforms. The Cambridge Analytica leak springs to mind. And what’s “unfair” to one small business may offer massive benefits to other businesses and consumers

Make what you will about the underlying merits of these individual policies, we should at least recognize that they are part of a greater whole, where Brussels is regulating ever greater aspects of our online lives — and not clearly for the benefit of consumers. 

With Margrethe Vestager now overseeing even more of these regulatory initiatives, readers should expect more of the same. The Mission Letter she received from Ursula von der Leyen is particularly enlightening in that respect: 

I want you to coordinate the work on upgrading our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products as part of a new Digital Services Act…. 

I want you to focus on strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors. 

A hard rain’s a gonna fall… on Big Tech

Today’s announcements all but confirm that the EU will stay its current course in digital markets. This is unfortunate.

Digital firms currently provide consumers with tremendous benefits at no direct charge. A recent study shows that median users would need to be paid €15,875 to give up search engines for a year. They would also require €536 in order to forgo WhatsApp for a month, €97 for Facebook, and €59 to drop digital maps for the same duration. 

By continuing to heap ever more regulations on successful firms, the EU risks killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This is not just a theoretical possibility. The EU’s policies have already put technology firms under huge stress, and it is not clear that this has always been outweighed by benefits to consumers. The GDPR has notably caused numerous foreign firms to stop offering their services in Europe. And the EU’s Google decisions have forced it to start charging manufacturers for some of its apps. Are these really victories for European consumers?

It is also worth asking why there are so few European leaders in the digital economy. Not so long ago, European firms such as Nokia and Ericsson were at the forefront of the digital revolution. Today, with the possible exception of Spotify, the EU has fallen further down the global pecking order in the digital economy. 

The EU knows this, and plans to invest €100 Billion in order to boost European tech startups. But these sums will be all but wasted if excessive regulation threatens the long-term competitiveness of European startups. 

So if more of the same government intervention isn’t the answer, then what is? Recognizing that consumers have agency and are responsible for their own decisions might be a start. If you don’t like Facebook, close your account. Want a search engine that protects your privacy? Try DuckDuckGo. If YouTube and Spotify’s suggestions don’t appeal to you, create your own playlists and turn off the autoplay functions. The digital world has given us more choice than we could ever have dreamt of; but this comes with responsibility. Both Margrethe Vestager and the European institutions have often seemed oblivious to this reality. 

If the EU wants to turn itself into a digital economy powerhouse, it will have to switch towards light-touch regulation that allows firms to experiment with disruptive services, flexible employment options, and novel monetization strategies. But getting there requires a fundamental rethink — one that the EU’s previous leadership refused to contemplate. Margrethe Vestager’s dual role within the next Commission suggests that change isn’t coming any time soon.

FTC v. Qualcomm

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and twelve noted law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in FTC v. Qualcomm, in support of appellant (Qualcomm) and urging reversal of the district court’s decision. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, President & founder of ICLE, and Ben Sperry, Associate Director, Legal Research of ICLE. Jarod M. Bona and Aaron R. Gott of Bona Law PC collaborated in drafting the brief and they and their team provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Signatories on the brief are listed at the end of this post.

We’ve written about the case several times on Truth on the Market, as have a number of guest bloggers, in our ongoing blog series on the case here.   

The ICLE amicus brief focuses on the ways that the district court exceeded the “error cost” guardrails erected by the Supreme Court to minimize the risk and cost of mistaken antitrust decisions, particularly those that wrongly condemn procompetitive behavior. As the brief notes at the outset:

The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result subverts the economic rationale guiding monopolization jurisprudence. The decision—if it stands—will undercut the competitive values antitrust law was designed to protect.  

The antitrust error cost framework was most famously elaborated by Frank Easterbrook in his seminal article, The Limits of Antitrust (1984). It has since been squarely adopted by the Supreme Court—most significantly in Brooke Group (1986), Trinko (2003), and linkLine (2009).  

In essence, the Court’s monopolization case law implements the error cost framework by (among other things) obliging courts to operate under certain decision rules that limit the use of inferences about the consequences of a defendant’s conduct except when the circumstances create what game theorists call a “separating equilibrium.” A separating equilibrium is a 

solution to a game in which players of different types adopt different strategies and thereby allow an uninformed player to draw inferences about an informed player’s type from that player’s actions.

Baird, Gertner & Picker, Game Theory and the Law

The key problem in antitrust is that while the consequence of complained-of conduct for competition (i.e., consumers) is often ambiguous, its deleterious effect on competitors is typically quite evident—whether it is actually anticompetitive or not. The question is whether (and when) it is appropriate to infer anticompetitive effect from discernible harm to competitors. 

Except in the narrowly circumscribed (by Trinko) instance of a unilateral refusal to deal, anticompetitive harm under the rule of reason must be proven. It may not be inferred from harm to competitors, because such an inference is too likely to be mistaken—and “mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” (Brooke Group (quoting yet another key Supreme Court antitrust error cost case, Matsushita (1986)). 

Yet, as the brief discusses, in finding Qualcomm liable the district court did not demand or find proof of harm to competition. Instead, the court’s opinion relies on impermissible inferences from ambiguous evidence to find that Qualcomm had (and violated) an antitrust duty to deal with rival chip makers and that its conduct resulted in anticompetitive foreclosure of competition. 

We urge you to read the brief (it’s pretty short—maybe the length of three blogs posts) to get the whole argument. Below we draw attention to a few points we make in the brief that are especially significant. 

The district court bases its approach entirely on Microsoft — which it misinterprets in clear contravention of Supreme Court case law

The district court doesn’t stay within the strictures of the Supreme Court’s monopolization case law. In fact, although it obligingly recites some of the error cost language from Trinko, it quickly moves away from Supreme Court precedent and bases its approach entirely on its reading of the D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft (2001) decision. 

Unfortunately, the district court’s reading of Microsoft is mistaken and impermissible under Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit make clear that a finding of illegal monopolization may not rest on an inference of anticompetitive harm.

The district court cites Microsoft for the proposition that

Where a government agency seeks injunctive relief, the Court need only conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct made a “significant contribution” to Qualcomm’s maintenance of monopoly power. The plaintiff is not required to “present direct proof that a defendant’s continued monopoly power is precisely attributable to its anticompetitive conduct.”

It’s true Microsoft held that, in government actions seeking injunctions, “courts [may] infer ‘causation’ from the fact that a defendant has engaged in anticompetitive conduct that ‘reasonably appears capable of making a significant contribution to maintaining monopoly power.’” (Emphasis added). 

But Microsoft never suggested that anticompetitiveness itself may be inferred.

“Causation” and “anticompetitive effect” are not the same thing. Indeed, Microsoft addresses “anticompetitive conduct” and “causation” in separate sections of its decision. And whereas Microsoft allows that courts may infer “causation” in certain government actions, it makes no such allowance with respect to “anticompetitive effect.” In fact, it explicitly rules it out:

[T]he plaintiff… must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct indeed has the requisite anticompetitive effect…; no less in a case brought by the Government, it must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct harmed competition, not just a competitor.”

The D.C. Circuit subsequently reinforced this clear conclusion of its holding in Microsoft in Rambus

Deceptive conduct—like any other kind—must have an anticompetitive effect in order to form the basis of a monopolization claim…. In Microsoft… [t]he focus of our antitrust scrutiny was properly placed on the resulting harms to competition.

Finding causation entails connecting evidentiary dots, while finding anticompetitive effect requires an economic assessment. Without such analysis it’s impossible to distinguish procompetitive from anticompetitive conduct, and basing liability on such an inference effectively writes “anticompetitive” out of the law.

Thus, the district court is correct when it holds that it “need not conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct is the sole reason for its rivals’ exits or impaired status.” But it is simply wrong to hold—in the same sentence—that it can thus “conclude that Qualcomm’s practices harmed competition and consumers.” The former claim is consistent with Microsoft; the latter is emphatically not.

Under Trinko and Aspen Skiing the district court’s finding of an antitrust duty to deal is impermissible 

Because finding that a company operates under a duty to deal essentially permits a court to infer anticompetitive harm without proof, such a finding “comes dangerously close to being a form of ‘no-fault’ monopolization,” as Herbert Hovenkamp has written. It is also thus seriously disfavored by the Court’s error cost jurisprudence.

In Trinko the Supreme Court interprets its holding in Aspen Skiing to identify essentially a single scenario from which it may plausibly be inferred that a monopolist’s refusal to deal with rivals harms consumers: the existence of a prior, profitable course of dealing, and the termination and replacement of that arrangement with an alternative that not only harms rivals, but also is less profitable for the monopolist.

In an effort to satisfy this standard, the district court states that “because Qualcomm previously licensed its rivals, but voluntarily stopped licensing rivals even though doing so was profitable, Qualcomm terminated a voluntary and profitable course of dealing.”

But it’s not enough merely that the prior arrangement was profitable. Rather, Trinko and Aspen Skiing hold that when a monopolist ends a profitable relationship with a rival, anticompetitive exclusion may be inferred only when it also refuses to engage in an ongoing arrangement that, in the short run, is more profitable than no relationship at all. The key is the relative value to the monopolist of the current options on offer, not the value to the monopolist of the terminated arrangement. In a word, what the Court requires is that the defendant exhibit behavior that, but-for the expectation of future, anticompetitive returns, is irrational.

It should be noted, as John Lopatka (here) and Alan Meese (here) (both of whom joined the amicus brief) have written, that even the Supreme Court’s approach is likely insufficient to permit a court to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive conduct. 

But what is certain is that the district court’s approach in no way permits such an inference.

“Evasion of a competitive constraint” is not an antitrust-relevant refusal to deal

In order to infer anticompetitive effect, it’s not enough that a firm may have a “duty” to deal, as that term is colloquially used, based on some obligation other than an antitrust duty, because it can in no way be inferred from the evasion of that obligation that conduct is anticompetitive.

The district court bases its determination that Qualcomm’s conduct is anticompetitive on the fact that it enables the company to avoid patent exhaustion, FRAND commitments, and thus price competition in the chip market. But this conclusion is directly precluded by the Supreme Court’s holding in NYNEX

Indeed, in Rambus, the D.C. Circuit, citing NYNEX, rejected the FTC’s contention that it may infer anticompetitive effect from defendant’s evasion of a constraint on its monopoly power in an analogous SEP-licensing case: “But again, as in NYNEX, an otherwise lawful monopolist’s end-run around price constraints, even when deceptive or fraudulent, does not alone present a harm to competition.”

As Josh Wright has noted:

[T]he objection to the “evasion” of any constraint approach is… that it opens the door to enforcement actions applied to business conduct that is not likely to harm competition and might be welfare increasing.

Thus NYNEX and Rambus (and linkLine) reinforce the Court’s repeated holding that an inference of harm to competition is permissible only where conduct points clearly to anticompetitive effect—and, bad as they may be, evading obligations under other laws or violating norms of “business morality” do not suffice.

The district court’s elaborate theory of harm rests fundamentally on the claim that Qualcomm injures rivals—and the record is devoid of evidence demonstrating actual harm to competition. Instead, the court infers it from what it labels “unreasonably high” royalty rates, enabled by Qualcomm’s evasion of competition from rivals. In turn, the court finds that that evasion of competition can be the source of liability if what Qualcomm evaded was an antitrust duty to deal. And, in impermissibly circular fashion, the court finds that Qualcomm indeed evaded an antitrust duty to deal—because its conduct allowed it to sustain “unreasonably high” prices. 

The Court’s antitrust error cost jurisprudence—from Brooke Group to NYNEX to Trinko & linkLine—stands for the proposition that no such circular inferences are permitted.

The district court’s foreclosure analysis also improperly relies on inferences in lieu of economic evidence

Because the district court doesn’t perform a competitive effects analysis, it fails to demonstrate the requisite “substantial” foreclosure of competition required to sustain a claim of anticompetitive exclusion. Instead the court once again infers anticompetitive harm from harm to competitors. 

The district court makes no effort to establish the quantity of competition foreclosed as required by the Supreme Court. Nor does the court demonstrate that the alleged foreclosure harms competition, as opposed to just rivals. Foreclosure per se is not impermissible and may be perfectly consistent with procompetitive conduct.

Again citing Microsoft, the district court asserts that a quantitative finding is not required. Yet, as the court’s citation to Microsoft should have made clear, in its stead a court must find actual anticompetitive effect; it may not simply assert it. As Microsoft held: 

It is clear that in all cases the plaintiff must… prove the degree of foreclosure. This is a prudential requirement; exclusivity provisions in contracts may serve many useful purposes. 

The court essentially infers substantiality from the fact that Qualcomm entered into exclusive deals with Apple (actually, volume discounts), from which the court concludes that Qualcomm foreclosed rivals’ access to a key customer. But its inference that this led to substantial foreclosure is based on internal business statements—so-called “hot docs”—characterizing the importance of Apple as a customer. Yet, as Geoffrey Manne and Marc Williamson explain, such documentary evidence is unreliable as a guide to economic significance or legal effect: 

Business people will often characterize information from a business perspective, and these characterizations may seem to have economic implications. However, business actors are subject to numerous forces that influence the rhetoric they use and the conclusions they draw….

There are perfectly good reasons to expect to see “bad” documents in business settings when there is no antitrust violation lurking behind them.

Assuming such language has the requisite economic or legal significance is unsupportable—especially when, as here, the requisite standard demands a particular quantitative significance.

Moreover, the court’s “surcharge” theory of exclusionary harm rests on assumptions regarding the mechanism by which the alleged surcharge excludes rivals and harms consumers. But the court incorrectly asserts that only one mechanism operates—and it makes no effort to quantify it. 

The court cites “basic economics” via Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics text for its conclusion:

The surcharge affects demand for rivals’ chips because as a matter of basic economics, regardless of whether a surcharge is imposed on OEMs or directly on Qualcomm’s rivals, “the price paid by buyers rises, and the price received by sellers falls.” Thus, the surcharge “places a wedge between the price that buyers pay and the price that sellers receive,” and demand for such transactions decreases. Rivals see lower sales volumes and lower margins, and consumers see less advanced features as competition decreases.

But even assuming the court is correct that Qualcomm’s conduct entails such a surcharge, basic economics does not hold that decreased demand for rivals’ chips is the only possible outcome. 

In actuality, an increase in the cost of an input for OEMs can have three possible effects:

  1. OEMs can pass all or some of the cost increase on to consumers in the form of higher phone prices. Assuming some elasticity of demand, this would mean fewer phone sales and thus less demand by OEMs for chips, as the court asserts. But the extent of that effect would depend on consumers’ demand elasticity and the magnitude of the cost increase as a percentage of the phone price. If demand is highly inelastic at this price (i.e., relatively insensitive to the relevant price change), it may have a tiny effect on the number of phones sold and thus the number of chips purchased—approaching zero as price insensitivity increases.
  2. OEMs can absorb the cost increase and realize lower profits but continue to sell the same number of phones and purchase the same number of chips. This would not directly affect demand for chips or their prices.
  3. OEMs can respond to a price increase by purchasing fewer chips from rivals and more chips from Qualcomm. While this would affect rivals’ chip sales, it would not necessarily affect consumer prices, the total number of phones sold, or OEMs’ margins—that result would depend on whether Qualcomm’s chips cost more or less than its rivals’. If the latter, it would even increase OEMs’ margins and/or lower consumer prices and increase output.

Alternatively, of course, the effect could be some combination of these.

Whether any of these outcomes would substantially exclude rivals is inherently uncertain to begin with. But demonstrating a reduction in rivals’ chip sales is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving anticompetitive foreclosure. The FTC didn’t even demonstrate that rivals were substantially harmed, let alone that there was any effect on consumers—nor did the district court make such findings. 

Doing so would entail consideration of whether decreased demand for rivals’ chips flows from reduced consumer demand or OEMs’ switching to Qualcomm for supply, how consumer demand elasticity affects rivals’ chip sales, and whether Qualcomm’s chips were actually less or more expensive than rivals’. Yet the court determined none of these. 

Conclusion

Contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, the district court’s decision relies on mere inferences to establish anticompetitive effect. The decision, if it stands, would render a wide range of potentially procompetitive conduct presumptively illegal and thus harm consumer welfare. It should be reversed by the Ninth Circuit.

Joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Kenneth G. Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, University of Virginia
  • Janice Hauge, Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law; Director of Law & Economics Programs, ICLE
  • Thomas A. Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
  • John E. Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State University Law School
  • Daniel Lyons, Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
  • Alan J. Meese, Ball Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
  • Vernon L. Smith, George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics, Chapman University School of Business; Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2002
  • Michael Sykuta, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri


[This post is the seventh in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Alec Stapp, Research Fellow at the International Center for Law & Economics]

Should we break up Microsoft? 

In all the talk of breaking up “Big Tech,” no one seems to mention the biggest tech company of them all. Microsoft’s market cap is currently higher than those of Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If big is bad, then, at the moment, Microsoft is the worst.

Apart from size, antitrust activists also claim that the structure and behavior of the Big Four — Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon — is why they deserve to be broken up. But they never include Microsoft, which is curious given that most of their critiques also apply to the largest tech giant:

  1. Microsoft is big (current market cap exceeds $1 trillion)
  2. Microsoft is dominant in narrowly-defined markets (e.g., desktop operating systems)
  3. Microsoft is simultaneously operating and competing on a platform (i.e., the Microsoft Store)
  4. Microsoft is a conglomerate capable of leveraging dominance from one market into another (e.g., Windows, Office 365, Azure)
  5. Microsoft has its own “kill zone” for startups (196 acquisitions since 1994)
  6. Microsoft operates a search engine that preferences its own content over third-party content (i.e., Bing)
  7. Microsoft operates a platform that moderates user-generated content (i.e., LinkedIn)

To be clear, this is not to say that an antitrust case against Microsoft is as strong as the case against the others. Rather, it is to say that the cases against the Big Four on these dimensions are as weak as the case against Microsoft, as I will show below.

Big is bad

Tim Wu published a book last year arguing for more vigorous antitrust enforcement — including against Big Tech — called “The Curse of Bigness.” As you can tell by the title, he argues, in essence, for a return to the bygone era of “big is bad” presumptions. In his book, Wu mentions “Microsoft” 29 times, but only in the context of its 1990s antitrust case. On the other hand, Wu has explicitly called for antitrust investigations of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s unclear why big should be considered bad when it comes to the latter group but not when it comes to Microsoft. Maybe bigness isn’t actually a curse, after all.

As the saying goes in antitrust, “Big is not bad; big behaving badly is bad.” This aphorism arose to counter erroneous reasoning during the era of structure-conduct-performance when big was presumed to mean bad. Thanks to an improved theoretical and empirical understanding of the nature of the competitive process, there is now a consensus that firms can grow large either via superior efficiency or by engaging in anticompetitive behavior. Size alone does not tell us how a firm grew big — so it is not a relevant metric.

Dominance in narrowly-defined markets

Critics of Google say it has a monopoly on search and critics of Facebook say it has a monopoly on social networking. Microsoft is similarly dominant in at least a few narrowly-defined markets, including desktop operating systems (Windows has a 78% market share globally): 

Source: StatCounter

Microsoft is also dominant in the “professional networking platform” market after its acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016. And the legacy tech giant is still the clear leader in the “paid productivity software” market. (Microsoft’s Office 365 revenue is roughly 10x Google’s G Suite revenue).

The problem here is obvious. These are overly-narrow market definitions for conducting an antitrust analysis. Is it true that Facebook’s platforms are the only service that can connect you with your friends? Should we really restrict the productivity market to “paid”-only options (as the EU similarly did in its Android decision) when there are so many free options available? These questions are laughable. Proper market definition requires considering whether a hypothetical monopolist could profitably impose a small but significant and non-transitory increase in price (SSNIP). If not (which is likely the case in the narrow markets above), then we should employ a broader market definition in each case.

Simultaneously operating and competing on a platform

Elizabeth Warren likes to say that if you own a platform, then you shouldn’t both be an umpire and have a team in the game. Let’s put aside the problems with that flawed analogy for now. What she means is that you shouldn’t both run the platform and sell products, services, or apps on that platform (because it’s inherently unfair to the other sellers). 

Warren’s solution to this “problem” would be to create a regulated class of businesses called “platform utilities” which are “companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and that offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties.” Microsoft’s revenue last quarter was $32.5 billion, so it easily meets the first threshold. And Windows obviously qualifies as “a platform for connecting third parties.”

Just as in mobile operating systems, desktop operating systems are compatible with third-party applications. These third-party apps can be free (e.g., iTunes) or paid (e.g., Adobe Photoshop). Of course, Microsoft also makes apps for Windows (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.). But the more you think about the technical details, the blurrier the line between the operating system and applications becomes. Is the browser an add-on to the OS or a part of it (as Microsoft Edge appears to be)? The most deeply-embedded applications in an OS are simply called “features.”

Even though Warren hasn’t explicitly mentioned that her plan would cover Microsoft, it almost certainly would. Previously, she left Apple out of the Medium post announcing her policy, only to later tell a journalist that the iPhone maker would also be prohibited from producing its own apps. But what Warren fails to include in her announcement that she would break up Apple is that trying to police the line between a first-party platform and third-party applications would be a nightmare for companies and regulators, likely leading to less innovation and higher prices for consumers (as they attempt to rebuild their previous bundles).

Leveraging dominance from one market into another

The core critique in Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” is that the very structure of Amazon itself is what leads to its anticompetitive behavior. Khan argues (in spite of the data) that Amazon uses profits in some lines of business to subsidize predatory pricing in other lines of businesses. Furthermore, she claims that Amazon uses data from its Amazon Web Services unit to spy on competitors and snuff them out before they become a threat.

Of course, this is similar to the theory of harm in Microsoft’s 1990s antitrust case, that the desktop giant was leveraging its monopoly from the operating system market into the browser market. Why don’t we hear the same concern today about Microsoft? Like both Amazon and Google, you could uncharitably describe Microsoft as extending its tentacles into as many sectors of the economy as possible. Here are some of the markets in which Microsoft competes (and note how the Big Four also compete in many of these same markets):

What these potential antitrust harms leave out are the clear consumer benefits from bundling and vertical integration. Microsoft’s relationships with customers in one market might make it the most efficient vendor in related — but separate — markets. It is unsurprising, for example, that Windows customers would also frequently be Office customers. Furthermore, the zero marginal cost nature of software makes it an ideal product for bundling, which redounds to the benefit of consumers.

The “kill zone” for startups

In a recent article for The New York Times, Tim Wu and Stuart A. Thompson criticize Facebook and Google for the number of acquisitions they have made. They point out that “Google has acquired at least 270 companies over nearly two decades” and “Facebook has acquired at least 92 companies since 2007”, arguing that allowing such a large number of acquisitions to occur is conclusive evidence of regulatory failure.

Microsoft has made 196 acquisitions since 1994, but they receive no mention in the NYT article (or in most of the discussion around supposed “kill zones”). But the acquisitions by Microsoft or Facebook or Google are, in general, not problematic. They provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities (the other channel being IPOs). According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018, there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion

By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. Making it harder for a startup to be acquired would not result in more venture capital investment (and therefore not in more IPOs), according to recent research by Gordon M. Phillips and Alexei Zhdanov. The researchers show that “the passage of a pro-takeover law in a country is associated with more subsequent VC deals in that country, while the enactment of a business combination antitakeover law in the U.S. has a negative effect on subsequent VC investment.”

As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “If the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” 

Search engine bias

Google is often accused of biasing its search results to favor its own products and services. The argument goes that if we broke them up, a thousand search engines would bloom and competition among them would lead to less-biased search results. While it is a very difficult — if not impossible — empirical question to determine what a “neutral” search engine would return, one attempt by Josh Wright found that “own-content bias is actually an infrequent phenomenon, and Google references its own content more favorably than other search engines far less frequently than does Bing.” 

The report goes on to note that “Google references own content in its first results position when no other engine does in just 6.7% of queries; Bing does so over twice as often (14.3%).” Arguably, users of a particular search engine might be more interested in seeing content from that company because they have a preexisting relationship. But regardless of how we interpret these results, it’s clear this not a frequent phenomenon.

So why is Microsoft being left out of the antitrust debate now?

One potential reason why Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been singled out for criticism of practices that seem common in the tech industry (and are often pro-consumer) may be due to the prevailing business model in the journalism industry. Google and Facebook are by far the largest competitors in the digital advertising market, and Amazon is expected to be the third-largest player by next year, according to eMarketer. As Ramsi Woodcock pointed out, news publications are also competing for advertising dollars, the type of conflict of interest that usually would warrant disclosure if, say, a journalist held stock in a company they were covering.

Or perhaps Microsoft has successfully avoided receiving the same level of antitrust scrutiny as the Big Four because it is neither primarily consumer-facing like Apple or Amazon nor does it operate a platform with a significant amount of political speech via user-generated content (UGC) like Facebook or Google (YouTube). Yes, Microsoft moderates content on LinkedIn, but the public does not get outraged when deplatforming merely prevents someone from spamming their colleagues with requests “to add you to my professional network.”

Microsoft’s core areas are in the enterprise market, which allows it to sidestep the current debates about the supposed censorship of conservatives or unfair platform competition. To be clear, consumer-facing companies or platforms with user-generated content do not uniquely merit antitrust scrutiny. On the contrary, the benefits to consumers from these platforms are manifest. If this theory about why Microsoft has escaped scrutiny is correct, it means the public discussion thus far about Big Tech and antitrust has been driven by perception, not substance.


[This post is the sixth in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Thibault Schrepel, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center at Harvard University and Assistant Professor in European Economic Law at Utrecht University School of Law.]

The pretense of ignorance

Over the last few years, I have published a series of antitrust conversations with Nobel laureates in economics. I have discussed big tech dominance with most of them, and although they have different perspectives, all of them agreed on one thing: they do not know what the effect of breaking up big tech would be. In fact, I have never spoken with any economist who was able to show me convincing empirical evidence that breaking up big tech would on net be good for consumers. The same goes for political scientists; I have never read any article that, taking everything into consideration, proves empirically that breaking up tech companies would be good for protecting democracies, if that is the objective (please note that I am not even discussing the fact that using antitrust law to do that would violate the rule of law, for more on the subject, click here).

This reminds me of Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel memorial lecture, in which he discussed the “pretense of knowledge.” He argued that some issues will always remain too complex for humans (even helped by quantum computers and the most advanced AI; that’s right!). Breaking up big tech is one such issue; it is simply impossible simultaneously to consider the micro and macro-economic impacts of such an enormous undertaking, which would affect, literally, billions of people. Not to mention the political, sociological and legal issues, all of which combined are beyond human understanding.

Ignorance + fear = fame

In the absence of clear-cut conclusions, here is why (I think), some officials are arguing for breaking up big tech. First, it may be possible that some of them actually believe that it would be great. But I am sure we agree that beliefs should not be a valid basis for such actions. More realistically, the answer can be found in the work of another Nobel laureate, James Buchanan, and in particular his 1978 lecture in Vienna entitled “Politics Without Romance.”

In his lecture and the paper that emerged from it, Buchanan argued that while markets fail, so do governments. The latter is especially relevant insofar as top officials entrusted with public power may, occasionally at least, use that power to benefit their personal interests rather than the public interest. Thus, the presumption that government-imposed corrections for market failures always accomplish the desired objectives must be rejected. Taking that into consideration, it follows that the expected effectiveness of public action should always be established as precisely and scientifically as possible before taking action. Integrating these insights from Hayek and Buchanan, we must conclude that it is not possible to know whether the effects of breaking up big tech would on net be positive.

The question then is why, in the absence of positive empirical evidence, are some officials arguing for breaking up tech giants then? Well, because defending such actions may help them achieve their personal goals. Often, it is more important for public officials to show their muscle and take action, rather showing great care about reaching a positive net result for society. This is especially true when it is practically impossible to evaluate the outcome due to the scale and complexity of the changes that ensue. That enables these officials to take credit for being bold while avoiding blame for the harms.

But for such a call to be profitable for the public officials, they first must legitimize the potential action in the eyes of the majority of the public. Until now, most consumers evidently like the services of tech giants, which is why it is crucial for the top officials engaged in such a strategy to demonize those companies and further explain to consumers why they are wrong to enjoy them. Only then does defending the breakup of tech giants becomes politically valuable.

Some data, one trend

In a recent paper entitled “Antitrust Without Romance,” I have analyzed the speeches of the five current FTC commissioners, as well as the speeches of the current and three previous EU Competition Commissioners. What I found is an increasing trend to demonize big tech companies. In other words, public officials increasingly seek to prepare the general public for the idea that breaking up tech giants would be great.

In Europe, current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has sought to establish an opposition between the people (referred under the pronoun “us”) and tech companies (referred under the pronoun “them”) in more than 80% of her speeches. She further describes these companies as engaging in manipulation of the public and unleashing violence. She says they, “distort or fabricate information, manipulate people’s views and degrade public debate” and help “harmful, untrue information spread faster than ever, unleashing violence and undermining democracy.” Furthermore, she says they cause, “danger of death.” On this basis, she mentions the possibility of breaking them up (for more data about her speeches, see this link).

In the US, we did not observe a similar trend. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who has responsibility for antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice, describes the relationship between people and companies as being in opposition in fewer than 10% of his speeches. The same goes for most of the FTC commissioners (to see all the data about their speeches, see this link). The exceptions are FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons, who describes companies’ behavior as “bad” from time to time (and underlines that consumers “deserve” better) and Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who describes the relationship between companies and the people as being in opposition to one another in 30% of his speeches. Chopra also frequently labels companies as “bad.” These are minor signs of big tech demonization compared to what is currently done by European officials. But, unfortunately, part of the US doctrine (which does not hide political objectives) pushes for demonizing big tech companies. One may have reason to fear that such a trend will grow in the US as it has in Europe, especially considering the upcoming presidential campaign in which far-right and far-left politicians seem to agree about the need to break up big tech.

And yet, let’s remember that no-one has any documented, tangible, and reproducible evidence that breaking up tech giants would be good for consumers, or societies at large, or, in fact, for anyone (even dolphins, okay). It might be a good idea; it might be a bad idea. Who knows? But the lack of evidence either way militates against taking such action. Meanwhile, there is strong evidence that these discussions are fueled by a handful of individuals wishing to benefit from such a call for action. They do so, first, by depicting tech giants as representing the new elite in opposition to the people and they then portray themselves as the only saviors capable of taking action.

Epilogue: who knows, life is not a Tarantino movie

For the last 30 years, antitrust law has been largely immune to strategic takeover by political interests. It may now be returning to a previous era in which it was the instrument of a few. This transformation is already happening in Europe (it is expected to hit case law there quite soon) and is getting real in the US, where groups display political goals and make antitrust law a Trojan horse for their personal interests.The only semblance of evidence they bring is a few allegedly harmful micro-practices (see Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox), which they use as a basis for defending the urgent need of macro, structural measures, such as breaking up tech companies. This is disproportionate, but most of all and in the absence of better knowledge, purely opportunistic and potentially foolish. Who knows at this point whether antitrust law will come out intact of this populist and moralist episode? And who knows what the next idea of those who want to use antitrust law for purely political purposes will be. Life is not a Tarantino movie; it may end up badly.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin recently claimed that Amazon has “destroyed the retail industry across the United States” and should be investigated for antitrust violations. The claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. What’s more, the allegation might more rightly be levelled at Mnuchin himself. 

Mnuchin. Is. Wrong.

First, while Amazon’s share of online retail in the U.S. is around 38 percent, that still only represents around 4 percent of total retail sales. It is unclear how Mnuchin imagines a company with a market share of 4 percent can have “destroyed” its competitors.

Second, nearly 60 percent of Amazon’s sales come from third party vendors — i.e. other retailers — many of whom would not exist but for Amazon’s platform. So, far from destroying U.S. retail, Amazon arguably has enabled U.S. online retail to thrive.

Third, even many of the brick-and-mortar retailers allegedly destroyed by Amazon have likely actually benefited from its innovative, cost-cutting approaches, which have reduced the cost of inputs. For example, in its Business Prime Program, Amazon offers discounts on a large array of goods, as well as incentives for bulk purchases, and flexible financing offers. Along with those direct savings, it also allows small businesses to use its analytics capabilities to track and manage the supply chain inputs they purchase through Amazon.

It’s no doubt true that many retailers are unhappy about the price-cutting and retail price visibility that Amazon (and many other online retailers) offer to consumers. But, fortunately, online competition is a fact that will not go away even if Amazon does. Meanwhile, investigating Amazon for antitrust violations — presumably with the objective of imposing some structural remedy? — would harm a truly great American innovator. And to what end? To protect inefficient, overpriced retailers? 

Indeed, the better response, for retailers, is not to gripe about Amazon but to invest in better ways to serve consumers in order more effectively to compete. And that’s what many retailers are doing: Walmart, Target and Kroger are investing billions to improve both their brick-and-mortar retail businesses and their online businesses. As a result, each of them still sell more, individually, than Amazon

In fact, Walmart has about 23% of grocery retail sales. By Mnuchin’s logic, Walmart must be destroying the grocery industry too. 

The real destroyer of retail

It is ironic that Steve Mnuchin should claim that Amazon has “destroyed” U.S. retail, given his support for the administration’s tariff policy, which is actually severely harming U.S. retailers. In the apparel industry, “[b]usinesses have barely been able to survive the 10 percent tariff. [The administration’s proposed] 25 percent is not survivable.” Low-margin retailers like Dollar Tree suffered punishing hits to stock value in the wake of the tariff announcements. And small producers and retailers would face, at best, dramatic income losses and, at worst, the need to fold up in the face of the current proposals. 

So, if Mr Mnuchin is actually concerned about the state of U.S. retail, perhaps he should try to persuade his boss to stop with the tariff war instead of attacking a great American retailer.

The Department of Justice announced it has approved the $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Once completed, the deal will create a mobile carrier with around 136 million customers in the U.S., putting it just behind Verizon (158 million) and AT&T (156 million).

While all the relevant federal government agencies have now approved the merger, it still faces a legal challenge from state attorneys general. At the very least, this challenge is likely to delay the merger; if successful, it could scupper it. In this blog post, we evaluate the state AG’s claims (and find them wanting).

Four firms good, three firms bad?

The state AG’s opposition to the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is based on a claim that a competitive mobile market requires four national providers, as articulated in their redacted complaint:

The Big Four MNOs [mobile network operators] compete on many dimensions, including price, network quality, network coverage, and features. The aggressive competition between them has resulted in falling prices and improved quality. The competition that currently takes place across those dimensions, and others, among the Big Four MNOs would be negatively impacted if the Merger were consummated. The effects of the harm to competition on consumers will be significant because the Big Four MNOs have wireless service revenues of more than $160 billion.

. . . 

Market consolidation from four to three MNOs would also serve to increase the possibility of tacit collusion in the markets for retail mobile wireless telecommunications services.

But there are no economic grounds for the assertion that a four firm industry is on a competitive tipping point. Four is an arbitrary number, offered up in order to squelch any further concentration in the industry.

A proper assessment of this transaction—as well as any other telecom merger—requires accounting for the specific characteristics of the markets affected by the merger. The accounting would include, most importantly, the dynamic, fast-moving nature of competition and the key role played by high fixed costs of production and economies of scale. This is especially important given the expectation that the merger will facilitate the launch of a competitive, national 5G network.

Opponents claim this merger takes us from four to three national carriers. But Sprint was never a serious participant in the launch of 5G. Thus, in terms of future investment in general, and the roll-out of 5G in particular, a better characterization is that it this deal takes the U.S. from two to three national carriers investing to build out next-generation networks.

In the past, the capital expenditures made by AT&T and Verizon have dwarfed those of T-Mobile and Sprint. But a combined T-Mobile/Sprint would be in a far better position to make the kinds of large-scale investments necessary to develop a nationwide 5G network. As a result, it is likely that both the urban-rural digital divide and the rich-poor digital divide will decline following the merger. And this investment will drive competition with AT&T and Verizon, leading to innovation, improving service and–over time–lowering the cost of access.

Is prepaid a separate market?

The state AGs complain that the merger would disproportionately affect consumers of prepaid plans, which they claim constitutes a separate product market:

There are differences between prepaid and postpaid service, the most notable being that individuals who cannot pass a credit check and/or who do not have a history of bill payment with a MNO may not be eligible for postpaid service. Accordingly, it is informative to look at prepaid mobile wireless telecommunications services as a separate segment of the market for mobile wireless telecommunications services.

Claims that prepaid services constitute a separate market are questionable, at best. While at one time there might have been a fairly distinct divide between pre and postpaid markets, today the line between them is at least blurry, and may not even be a meaningful divide at all.

To begin with, the arguments regarding any expected monopolization in the prepaid market appear to assume that the postpaid market imposes no competitive constraint on the prepaid market. 

But that can’t literally be true. At the very least, postpaid plans put a ceiling on prepaid prices for many prepaid users. To be sure, there are some prepaid consumers who don’t have the credit history required to participate in the postpaid market at all. But these are inframarginal consumers, and they will benefit from the extent of competition at the margins unless operators can effectively price discriminate in ways they have not in the past, and which has not been demonstrated is possible or likely.

One source of this competition will come from Dish, which has been a vocal critic of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Under the deal with DOJ, T-Mobile and Sprint must spin-off Sprint’s prepaid businesses to Dish. The divested products include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Sprint prepaid. Moreover the deal requires Dish be allowed to use T-Mobile’s network during a seven-year transition period. 

Will the merger harm low-income consumers?

While the states’ complaint alleges that low-income consumers will suffer, it pays little attention to the so-called “digital divide” separating urban and rural consumers. This seems curious given the attention it was given in submissions to the federal agencies. For example, the Communication Workers of America opined:

the data in the Applicants’ Public Interest Statement demonstrates that even six years after a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, “most of New T-Mobile’s rural customers would be forced to settle for a service that has significantly lower performance than the urban and suburban parts of the network.” The “digital divide” is likely to worsen, not improve, post-merger.

This is merely an assertion, and a misleading assertion. To the extent the “digital divide” would grow following the merger, it would be because urban access will improve more rapidly than rural access would improve. 

Indeed, there is no real suggestion that the merger will impede rural access relative to a world in which T-Mobile and Sprint do not merge. 

And yet, in the absence of a merger, Sprint would be less able to utilize its own spectrum in rural areas than would the merged T-Mobile/Sprint, because utilization of that spectrum would require substantial investment in new infrastructure and additional, different spectrum. And much of that infrastructure and spectrum is already owned by T-Mobile. 

It likely that the combined T-Mobile/Sprint will make that investment, given the cost savings that are expected to be realized through the merger. So, while it might be true that urban customers will benefit more from the merger, rural customers will also benefit. It is impossible to know, of course, by exactly how much each group will benefit. But, prima facie, the prospect of improvement in rural access seems a strong argument in favor of the merger from a public interest standpoint.

The merger is also likely to reduce another digital divide: that between wealthier and poorer consumers in more urban areas. The proportion of U.S. households with access to the Internet has for several years been rising faster among those with lower incomes than those with higher incomes, thereby narrowing this divide. Since 2011, access by households earning $25,000 or less has risen from 52% to 62%, while access among the U.S. population as a whole has risen only from 72% to 78%. In part, this has likely resulted from increased mobile access (a greater proportion of Americans now access the Internet from mobile devices than from laptops), which in turn is the result of widely available, low-cost smartphones and the declining cost of mobile data.

Concluding remarks

By enabling the creation of a true, third national mobile (phone and data) network, the merger will almost certainly drive competition and innovation that will lead to better services at lower prices, thereby expanding access for all and, if current trends hold, especially those on lower incomes. Beyond its effect on the “digital divide” per se, the merger is likely to have broadly positive effects on access more generally.

There’s always a reason to block a merger:

  • If a firm is too big, it will be because it is “a merger for monopoly”;
  • If the firms aren’t that big, it will be for “coordinated effects”;
  • If a firm is small, then it will be because it will “eliminate a maverick”.

It’s a version of Ronald Coase’s complaint about antitrust, as related by William Landes:

Ronald said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down, they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same, they said it was tacit collusion.

Of all the reasons to block a merger, the maverick notion is the weakest, and it’s well past time to ditch it.

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines define a “maverick” as “a firm that plays a disruptive role in the market to the benefit of customers.” According to the Guidelines, this includes firms:

  1. With a new technology or business model that threatens to disrupt market conditions;
  2. With an incentive to take the lead in price cutting or other competitive conduct or to resist increases in industry prices;
  3. That resist otherwise prevailing industry norms to cooperate on price setting or other terms of competition; and/or
  4. With an ability and incentive to expand production rapidly using available capacity to “discipline prices.”

There appears to be no formal model of maverick behavior that does not rely on some a priori assumption that the firm is a maverick.

For example, John Kwoka’s 1989 model assumes the maverick firm has different beliefs about how competing firms would react if the maverick varies its output or price. Louis Kaplow and Carl Shapiro developed a simple model in which the firm with the smallest market share may play the role of a maverick. They note, however, that this raises the question—in a model in which every firm faces the same cost and demand conditions—why would there be any variation in market shares? The common solution, according to Kaplow and Shapiro, is cost asymmetries among firms. If that is the case, then “maverick” activity is merely a function of cost, rather than some uniquely maverick-like behavior.

The idea of the maverick firm requires that the firm play a critical role in the market. The maverick must be the firm that outflanks coordinated action or acts as a bulwark against unilateral action. By this loosey goosey definition of maverick, a single firm can make the difference between success or failure of anticompetitive behavior by its competitors. Thus, the ability and incentive to expand production rapidly is a necessary condition for a firm to be considered a maverick. For example, Kaplow and Shapiro explain:

Of particular note is the temptation of one relatively small firm to decline to participate in the collusive arrangement or secretly to cut prices to serve, say, 4% rather than 2% of the market. As long as price cuts by a small firm are less likely to be accurately observed or inferred by the other firms than are price cuts by larger firms, the presence of small firms that are capable of expanding significantly is especially disruptive to effective collusion.

A “maverick” firm’s ability to “discipline prices” depends crucially on its ability to expand output in the face of increased demand for its products. Similarly, the other non-maverick firms can be “disciplined” by the maverick only in the face of a credible threat of (1) a noticeable drop in market share that (2) leads to lower profits.

The government’s complaint in AT&T/T-Mobile’s 2011 proposed merger alleges:

Relying on its disruptive pricing plans, its improved high-speed HSPA+ network, and a variety of other initiatives, T-Mobile aimed to grow its nationwide share to 17 percent within the next several years, and to substantially increase its presence in the enterprise and government market. AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile would eliminate the important price, quality, product variety, and innovation competition that an independent T-Mobile brings to the marketplace.

At the time of the proposed merger, T-Mobile accounted for 11% of U.S. wireless subscribers. At the end of 2016, its market share had hit 17%. About half of the increase can be attributed to its 2012 merger with MetroPCS. Over the same period, Verizon’s market share increased from 33% to 35% and AT&T market share remained stable at 32%. It appears that T-Mobile’s so-called maverick behavior did more to disrupt the market shares of smaller competitors Sprint and Leap (which was acquired by AT&T). Thus, it is not clear, ex post, that T-Mobile posed any threat to AT&T or Verizon’s market shares.

Geoffrey Manne raised some questions about the government’s maverick theory which also highlights a fundamental problem with the willy nilly way in which firms are given the maverick label:

. . . it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price—there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price. I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.

While T-Mobile had a reputation for lower mobile prices, in 2011, the firm was lagging behind Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T in the rollout of 4G technology. In other words, T-Mobile was offering an inferior product at a lower price. That’s not a maverick, that’s product differentiation with hedonic pricing.

More recently, in his opposition to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge asserts that both firms are mavericks and their combination would cause their maverick magic to disappear:

Sprint, also, can be seen as a maverick. It has offered “unlimited” plans and simplified its rate plans, for instance, driving the rest of the industry forward to more consumer-friendly options. As Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure stated, “Sprint and T-Mobile have similar DNA and have eliminated confusing rate plans, converging into one rate plan: Unlimited.” Whether both or just one of the companies can be seen as a “maverick” today, in either case the newly combined company would simply have the same structural incentives as the larger carriers both Sprint and T-Mobile today work so hard to differentiate themselves from.

Kimmelman provides no mechanism by which the magic would go missing, but instead offers a version of an adversity-builds-character argument:

Allowing T-Mobile to grow to approximately the same size as AT&T, rather than forcing it to fight for customers, will eliminate the combined company’s need to disrupt the market and create an incentive to maintain the existing market structure.

For 30 years, the notion of the maverick firm has been a concept in search of a model. If the concept cannot be modeled decades after being introduced, maybe the maverick can’t be modeled.

What’s left are ad hoc assertions mixed with speculative projections in hopes that some sympathetic judge can be swayed. However, some judges seem to be more skeptical than sympathetic, as in H&R Block/TaxACT :

The parties have spilled substantial ink debating TaxACT’s maverick status. The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a “maverick” — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis. The government even put forward as supposed evidence a TaxACT promotional press release in which the company described itself as a “maverick.” This type of evidence amounts to little more than a game of semantic gotcha. Here, the record is clear that while TaxACT has been an aggressive and innovative competitor in the market, as defendants admit, TaxACT is not unique in this role. Other competitors, including HRB and Intuit, have also been aggressive and innovative in forcing companies in the DDIY market to respond to new product offerings to the benefit of consumers.

It’s time to send the maverick out of town and into the sunset.

 

More than a century of bad news

Bill Gates recently tweeted the image below, commenting that he is “always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us.”

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D8zWfENUYAAvK5I.png

Of course, this chart and Gates’s observation are nothing new – there has long been an accuracy gap between what the news covers (and therefore what Americans believe is important) and what is actually important. As discussed in one academic article on the subject:

The line between journalism and entertainment is dissolving even within traditional news formats. [One] NBC executive [] decreed that every news story should “display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end.” … This has happened both in broadcast and print journalism. … Roger Ailes … explains this phenomenon with an Orchestra Pit Theory: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

Matters of policy get increasingly short shrift. In 1968, the network newscasts generally showed presidential candidates speaking, and on the average a candidate was shown speaking uninterrupted for forty-two seconds. Over the next twenty years, these sound bites had shrunk to an average of less than ten seconds. This phenomenon is by no means unique to broadcast journalism; there has been a parallel decline in substance in print journalism as well. …

The fusing of news and entertainment is not accidental. “I make no bones about it—we have to be entertaining because we compete with entertainment options as well as other news stories,” says the general manager of a Florida TV station that is famous, or infamous, for boosting the ratings of local newscasts through a relentless focus on stories involving crime and calamity, all of which are presented in a hyperdramatic tone (the so-called “If It Bleeds, It Leads” format). There was a time when news programs were content to compete with other news programs, and networks did not expect news divisions to be profit centers, but those days are over.

That excerpt feels like it could have been written today. It was not: it was published in 1996. The “if it bleeds, it leads” trope is often attributed to a 1989 New York magazine article – and once introduced into the popular vernacular it grew quickly in popularity:

Of course, the idea that the media sensationalizes its reporting is not a novel observation. “If it bleeds, it leads” is just the late-20th century term for what had been “sex sells” – and the idea of yellow journalism before then. And, of course, “if it bleeds” is the precursor to our more modern equivalent of “clickbait.”

The debate about how to save the press from Google and Facebook … is the wrong debate to have

We are in the midst of a debate about how to save the press in the digital age. The House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on the relationship between online platforms and the press; and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission recently released a preliminary report on the same topic.

In general, these discussions focus on concerns that advertising dollars have shifted from analog-era media in the 20th century to digital platforms in the 21st century – leaving the traditional media underfunded and unable to do its job. More specifically, competition authorities are being urged (by the press) to look at this through the lens of antitrust, arguing that Google and Facebook are the dominant two digital advertising platforms and have used their market power to harm the traditional media.

I have previously explained that this is bunk; as has John Yun, critiquing current proposals. I won’t rehash those arguments here, beyond noting that traditional media’s revenues have been falling since the advent of the Internet – not since the advent of Google or Facebook. The problem that the traditional media face is not that monopoly platforms are engaging in conduct that is harmful to them – it is that the Internet is better both as an advertising and information-distribution platform such that both advertisers and information consumers have migrated to digital platforms (and away from traditional news media).

This is not to say that digital platforms are capable of, or well-suited to, the production and distribution of the high-quality news and information content that we have historically relied on the traditional media to produce. Yet, contemporary discussions about whether traditional news media can survive in an era where ad revenue accrues primarily to large digital platforms have been surprisingly quiet on the question of the quality of content produced by the traditional media.

Actually, that’s not quite true. First, as indicated by the chart tweeted by Gates, digital platforms may be providing consumers with information that is more relevant to them.

Second, and more important, media advocates argue that without the ad revenue that has been diverted (by advertisers, not by digital platforms) to firms like Google and Facebook they lack the resources to produce high quality content. But that assumes that they would produce high quality content if they had access to those resources. As Gates’s chart – and the last century of news production – demonstrates, that is an ill-supported claim. History suggests that, left to its own devices and not constrained for resources by competition from digital platforms, the traditional media produces significant amounts of clickbait.

It’s all about the Benjamins

Among critics of the digital platforms, there is a line of argument that the advertising-based business model is the original sin of the digital economy. The ad-based business model corrupts digital platforms and turns them against their users – the user, that is, becomes the product in the surveillance capitalism state. We would all be much better off, the argument goes, if the platforms operated under subscription- or micropayment-based business models.

It is noteworthy that press advocates eschew this line of argument. Their beef with the platforms is that they have “stolen” the ad revenue that rightfully belongs to the traditional media. The ad revenue, of course, that is the driver behind clickbait, “if it bleeds it leads,” “sex sells,” and yellow journalism. The original sin of advertising-based business models is not original to digital platforms – theirs is just an evolution of the model perfected by the traditional media.

I am a believer in the importance of the press – and, for that matter, for the efficacy of ad-based business models. But more than a hundred years of experience makes clear that mixing the two into the hybrid bastard that is infotainment should prompt concern and discussion about the business model of the traditional press (and, indeed, for most of the past 30 years or so it has done so).

When it comes to “saving the press” the discussion ought not be about how to restore traditional media to its pre-Facebook glory days of the early aughts, or even its pre-modern Internet gold age of the late 1980s. By that point, the media was well along the slippery slope to where it is today. We desperately need a strong, competitive market for news and information. We should use the crisis that that market currently is in to discuss solutions for the future, not how to preserve the past.

Thomas Wollmann has a new paper — “Stealth Consolidation: Evidence from an Amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act” — in American Economic Review: Insights this month. Greg Ip included this research in an article for the WSJ in which he claims that “competition has declined and corporate concentration risen through acquisitions often too small to draw the scrutiny of antitrust watchdogs.” In other words, “stealth consolidation”.

Wollmann’s study uses a difference-in-differences approach to examine the effect on merger activity of the 2001 amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (15 U.S.C. 18a). The amendment abruptly increased the pre-merger notification threshold from $15 million to $50 million in deal size. Strictly on those terms, the paper shows that raising the pre-merger notification threshold increased merger activity.

However, claims about “stealth consolidation” are controversial because they connote nefarious intentions and anticompetitive effects. As Wollmann admits in the paper, due to data limitations, he is unable to show that the new mergers are in fact anticompetitive or that the social costs of these mergers exceed the social benefits. Therefore, more research is needed to determine the optimal threshold for pre-merger notification rules, and claiming that harmful “stealth consolidation” is occurring is currently unwarranted.

Background: The “Unscrambling the Egg” Problem

In general, it is more difficult to unwind a consummated anticompetitive merger than it is to block a prospective anticompetitive merger. As Wollmann notes, for example, “El Paso Natural Gas Co. acquired its only potential rival in a market” and “the government’s challenge lasted 17 years and involved seven trips to the Supreme Court.”

Rolling back an anticompetitive merger is so difficult that it came to be known as “unscrambling the egg.” As William J. Baer, a former director of the Bureau of Competition at the FTC, described it, “there were strong incentives for speedily and surreptitiously consummating suspect mergers and then protracting the ensuing litigation” prior to the implementation of a pre-merger notification rule. These so-called “midnight mergers” were intended to avoid drawing antitrust scrutiny.

In response to this problem, Congress passed the Hart–Scott–Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, which required companies to notify antitrust authorities of impending mergers if they exceeded certain size thresholds.

2001 Hart–Scott–Rodino Amendment

In 2001, Congress amended the HSR Act and effectively raised the threshold for premerger notification from $15 million in acquired firm assets to $50 million. This sudden and dramatic change created an opportunity to use a difference-in-differences technique to study the relationship between filing an HSR notification and merger activity.

According to Wollmann, here’s what notifications look like for never-exempt mergers (>$50M):

And here’s what notifications for newly-exempt ($15M < X < $50M) mergers look like:

So what does that mean for merger investigations? Here is the number of investigations into never-exempt mergers:

We see a pretty consistent relationship between number of mergers and number of investigations. More mergers means more investigations.  

How about for newly-exempt mergers?

Here, investigations go to zero while merger activity remains relatively stable. In other words, it appears that some mergers that would have been investigated had they required an HSR notification were not investigated.

Wollmann then uses four-digit SIC code industries to sort mergers into horizontal and non-horizontal categories. Here are never-exempt mergers:

He finds that almost all of the increase in merger activity (relative to the counterfactual in which the notification threshold were unchanged) is driven by horizontal mergers. And here are newly-exempt mergers:

Policy Implications & Limitations

The charts show a stark change in investigations and merger activity. The difference-in-differences methodology is solid and the author addresses some potential confounding variables (such as presidential elections). However, the paper leaves the broader implications for public policy unanswered.

Furthermore, given the limits of the data in this analysis, it’s not possible for this approach to explain competitive effects in the relevant antitrust markets, for three reasons:

Four-digit SIC code industries are not antitrust markets

Wollmann chose to classify mergers “as horizontal or non-horizontal based on whether or not the target and acquirer operate in the same four-digit SIC code industry, which is common convention.” But as Werden & Froeb (2018) notes, four-digit SIC code industries are orders of magnitude too large in most cases to be useful for antitrust analysis:

The evidence from cartel cases focused on indictments from 1970–80. Because the Justice Department prosecuted many local cartels, for 52 of the 80 indictments examined, the Commerce Quotient was less than 0.01, i.e., the SIC 4-digit industry was at least 100 times the apparent scope of the affected market.  Of the 80 indictments, 19 involved SIC 4-digit industries that had been thought to comport well with markets, so these were the most instructive. For  16 of the 19, the SIC 4-digit industry was at least 10 times the apparent scope of the affected market (i.e., the Commerce Quotient was less than 0.1).

Antitrust authorities do not rely on SIC 4-digit industry codes and instead establish a market definition based on the facts of each case. It is not possible to infer competitive effects from census data as Wollmann attempts to do.

The data cannot distinguish between anticompetitive mergers and procompetitive mergers

As Wollmann himself notes, the results tell us nothing about the relative costs and benefits of the new HSR policy:

Even so, these findings do not on their own advocate for one policy over another. To do so requires equating industry consolidation to a specific amount of economic harm and then comparing the resulting figure to the benefits derived from raising thresholds, which could be large. Even if the agencies ignore the reduced regulatory burden on firms, introducing exemptions can free up agency resources to pursue other cases (or reduce public spending). These and related issues require careful consideration but simply fall outside the scope of the present work.

For instance, firms could be reallocating merger activity to targets below the new threshold to avoid erroneous enforcement or they could be increasing merger activity for small targets due to reduced regulatory costs and uncertainty.

The study is likely underpowered for effects on blocked mergers

While the paper provides convincing evidence that investigations of newly-exempt mergers decreased dramatically following the change in the notification threshold, there is no equally convincing evidence of an effect on blocked mergers. As Wollmann points out, blocked mergers were exceedingly rare both before and after the Amendment (emphasis added):

Over 57,000 mergers comprise the sample, which spans eighteen years. The mean number of mergers each year is 3,180. The DOJ and FTC receive 31,464 notifications over this period, or 1,748 per year. Also, as stated above, blocked mergers are very infrequent: there are on average 13 per year pre-Amendment and 9 per-year post-Amendment.

Since blocked mergers are such a small percentage of total mergers both before and after the Amendment, we likely cannot tell from the data whether actual enforcement action changed significantly due to the change in notification threshold.

Greg Ip’s write-up for the WSJ includes some relevant charts for this issue. Ironically for a piece about the problems of lax merger review, the accompanying graphs show merger enforcement actions slightly increasing at both the FTC and the DOJ since 2001:

Source: WSJ

Overall, Wollmann’s paper does an effective job showing how changes in premerger notification rules can affect merger activity. However, due to data limitations, we cannot conclude anything about competitive effects or enforcement intensity from this study.

In an amicus brief filed last Friday, a diverse group of antitrust scholars joined the Washington Legal Foundation in urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to vacate the Federal Trade Commission’s misguided 1-800 Contacts decision. Reasoning that 1-800’s settlements of trademark disputes were “inherently suspect,” the FTC condemned the settlements under a cursory “quick look” analysis. In so doing, it improperly expanded the category of inherently suspect behavior and ignored an obvious procompetitive justification for the challenged settlements.  If allowed to stand, the Commission’s decision will impair intellectual property protections that foster innovation.

A number of 1-800’s rivals purchased online ad placements that would appear when customers searched for “1-800 Contacts.” 1-800 sued those rivals for trademark infringement, and the lawsuits settled. As part of each settlement, 1-800 and its rival agreed not to bid on each other’s trademarked terms in search-based keyword advertising. (For example, EZ Contacts could not bid on a placement tied to a search for 1-800 Contacts, and vice-versa). Each party also agreed to employ “negative keywords” to ensure that its ads would not appear in response to a consumer’s online search for the other party’s trademarks. (For example, in bidding on keywords, 1-800 would have to specify that its ad must not appear in response to a search for EZ Contacts, and vice-versa). Notably, the settlement agreements didn’t restrict the parties’ advertisements through other media such as TV, radio, print, or other forms of online advertising. Nor did they restrict paid search advertising in response to any search terms other than the parties’ trademarks.

The FTC concluded that these settlement agreements violated the antitrust laws as unreasonable restraints of trade. Although the agreements were not unreasonable per se, as naked price-fixing is, the Commission didn’t engage in the normally applicable rule of reason analysis to determine whether the settlements passed muster. Instead, the Commission condemned the settlements under the truncated analysis that applies when, in the words of the Supreme Court, “an observer with even a rudimentary understanding of economics could conclude that the arrangements in question would have an anticompetitive effect on customers and markets.” The Commission decided that no more than a quick look was required because the settlements “restrict the ability of lower cost online sellers to show their ads to consumers.”

That was a mistake. First, the restraints in 1-800’s settlements are far less extensive than other restraints that the Supreme Court has said may not be condemned under a cursory quick look analysis. In California Dental, for example, the Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit decision that employed the quick look analysis to condemn a de facto ban on all price and “comfort” advertising by members of a dental association. In light of the possibility that the ban could reduce misleading ads, enhance customer trust, and thereby stimulate demand, the Court held that the restraint must be assessed under the more probing rule of reason. A narrow limit on the placement of search ads is far less restrictive than the all-out ban for which the California Dental Court prescribed full-on rule of reason review.

1-800’s settlements are also less likely to be anticompetitive than are other settlements that the Supreme Court has said must be evaluated under the rule of reason. The Court’s Actavis decision rejected quick look and mandated full rule of reason analysis for reverse payment settlements of pharmaceutical patent litigation. In a reverse payment settlement, the patent holder pays an alleged infringer to stay out of the market for some length of time. 1-800’s settlements, by contrast, did not exclude its rivals from the market, place any restrictions on the content of their advertising, or restrict the placement of their ads except on webpages responding to searches for 1-800’s own trademarks. If the restraints in California Dental and Actavis required rule of reason analysis, then those in 1-800’s settlements surely must as well.

In addition to disregarding Supreme Court precedents that limit when mere quick look is appropriate, the FTC gave short shrift to a key procompetitive benefit of the restrictions in 1-800’s settlements. 1-800 spent millions of dollars convincing people that they could save money by ordering prescribed contact lenses from a third party rather than buying them from prescribing optometrists. It essentially built the online contact lens market in which its rivals now compete. In the process, it created a strong trademark, which undoubtedly boosts its own sales. (Trademarks point buyers to a particular seller and enhance consumer confidence in the seller’s offering, since consumers know that branded sellers will not want to tarnish their brands with shoddy products or service.)

When a rival buys ad space tied to a search for 1-800 Contacts, that rival is taking a free ride on 1-800’s investments in its own brand and in the online contact lens market itself. A rival that has advertised less extensively than 1-800—primarily because 1-800 has taken the lead in convincing consumers to buy their contact lenses online—will incur lower marketing costs than 1-800 and may therefore be able to underprice it.  1-800 may thus find that it loses sales to rivals who are not more efficient than it is but have lower costs because they have relied on 1-800’s own efforts.

If market pioneers like 1-800 cannot stop this sort of free-riding, they will have less incentive to make the investments that create new markets and develop strong trade names. The restrictions in the 1-800 settlements were simply an effort to prevent inefficient free-riding while otherwise preserving the parties’ freedom to advertise. They were a narrowly tailored solution to a problem that hurt 1-800 and reduced incentives for future investments in market-developing activities that inure to the benefit of consumers.

Rule of reason analysis would have allowed the FTC to assess the full market effects of 1-800’s settlements. The Commission’s truncated assessment, which was inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on when a quick look will suffice, condemned conduct that was likely procompetitive. The Second Circuit should vacate the FTC’s order.

The full amicus brief, primarily drafted by WLF’s Corbin Barthold and joined by Richard Epstein, Keith Hylton, Geoff Manne, Hal Singer, and me, is here.