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Digital advertising is the economic backbone of the Internet. It allows websites and apps to monetize their userbase without having to charge them fees, while the emergence of targeted ads allows this to be accomplished affordably and with less wasted time wasted.

This advertising is facilitated by intermediaries using the “adtech stack,” through which advertisers and publishers are matched via auctions and ads ultimately are served to relevant users. This intermediation process has advanced enormously over the past three decades. Some now allege, however, that this market is being monopolized by its largest participant: Google.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display advertising business. Those 10 original state plaintiffs were joined by another four states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in March 2021, while South Carolina and Louisiana have also moved to be added as additional plaintiffs. Google also faces a pending antitrust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and 14 states (originally 11) related to the company’s distribution agreements, as well as a separate action by the State of Utah, 35 other states, and the District of Columbia related to its search design.

In recent weeks, it has been reported that the DOJ may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

​​Relevant market

The Texas complaint identifies at least five relevant markets within the adtech stack that it alleges Google either is currently monopolizing or is attempting to monopolize:

  1. Publisher ad servers;
  2. Display ad exchanges;
  3. Display ad networks;
  4. Ad-buying tools for large advertisers; and
  5. Ad-buying tools for small advertisers.

None of these constitute an economically relevant product market for antitrust purposes, since each “market” is defined according to how superficially similar the products are in function, not how substitutable they are. Nevertheless, the Texas complaint vaguely echoes how markets were conceived in the “Roadmap” for a case against Google’s advertising business, published last year by the Omidyar Network, which may ultimately influence any future DOJ complaint, as well.

The Omidyar Roadmap narrows the market from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the open supply of display ads, which comprises only 9% of the total advertising spending and less than 20% of digital advertising, as shown in the figure below. It then further narrows the defined market to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the Roadmap authors conclude that Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”

While whittling down the defined market may achieve the purposes of sketching a roadmap to prosecute Google, it also generates a mishmash of more than a dozen relevant markets for digital display and video advertising. In many of these, Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power, while, in some, Facebook is the most dominant player.

The Texas complaint adopts a non-economic approach to market definition.  It ignores potential substitutability between different kinds of advertising, both online and offline, which can serve as a competitive constraint on the display advertising market. The complaint considers neither alternative forms of display advertising, such as social media ads, nor alternative forms of advertising, such as search ads or non-digital ads—all of which can and do act as substitutes. It is possible, at the very least, that advertisers who choose to place ads on third-party websites may switch to other forms of advertising if the price of third-party website advertising was above competitive levels. To ignore this possibility, as the Texas complaint does, is to ignore the entire purpose of defining the relevant antitrust market altogether.

Offline advertising vs. online advertising

The fact that offline and online advertising employ distinct processes does not consign them to economically distinct markets. Indeed, online advertising has manifestly drawn advertisers from offline markets, just as previous technological innovations drew advertisers from other pre-existing channels.

Moreover, there is evidence that, in some cases, offline and online advertising are substitute products. For example, economists Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker demonstrate that display advertising pricing is sensitive to the availability of offline alternatives. They conclude:

We believe our studies refute the hypothesis that online and offline advertising markets operate independently and suggest a default position of substitution. Online and offline advertising markets appear to be closely related. That said, it is important not to draw any firm conclusions based on historical behavior.

Display ads vs. search ads

There is perhaps even more reason to doubt that online display advertising constitutes a distinct, economically relevant market from online search advertising.

Although casual and ill-informed claims are often made to the contrary, various forms of targeted online advertising are significant competitors of each other. Bo Xing and Zhanxi Lin report firms spread their marketing budgets across these different sources of online marketing, and “search engine optimizers”—firms that help websites to maximize the likelihood of a valuable “top-of-list” organic search placement—attract significant revenue. That is, all of these different channels vie against each other for consumer attention and offer advertisers the ability to target their advertising based on data gleaned from consumers’ interactions with their platforms.

Facebook built a business on par with Google’s thanks in large part to advertising, by taking advantage of users’ more extended engagement with the platform to assess relevance and by enabling richer, more engaged advertising than previously appeared on Google Search. It’s an entirely different model from search, but one that has turned Facebook into a competitive ad platform.

And the market continues to shift. Somewhere between 37-56% of product searches start on Amazon, according to one survey, and advertisers have noticed. This is not surprising, given Amazon’s strong ability to match consumers with advertisements, and to do so when and where consumers are more likely to make a purchase.

‘Open’ display advertising vs. ‘owned-and-operated’ display advertising

The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (like the Omidyar Roadmap report) has identified two distinct channels of display advertising, which they term “owned and operated” and “open.” The CMA concludes:

Over half of display expenditure is generated by Facebook, which owns both the Facebook platform and Instagram. YouTube has the second highest share of display advertising and is owned by Google. The open display market, in which advertisers buy inventory from many publishers of smaller scale (for example, newspapers and app providers) comprises around 32% of display expenditure.

The Texas complaint does not directly address the distinction between open and owned and operated, but it does allege anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video advertising market.” 

The CMA finds that the owned-and-operated channel mostly comprises large social media platforms, which sell their own advertising inventory directly to advertisers or media agencies through self-service interfaces, such as Facebook Ads Manager or Snapchat Ads Manager.  In contrast, in the open display channel, publishers such as online newspapers and blogs sell their inventory to advertisers through a “complex chain of intermediaries.”  Through these, intermediaries run auctions that match advertisers’ ads to publisher inventory of ad space. In both channels, nearly all transactions are run through programmatic technology.

The CMA concludes that advertisers “largely see” the open and the owned-and-operated channels as substitutes. According to the CMA, an advertiser’s choice of one channel over the other is driven by each channel’s ability to meet the key performance metrics the advertising campaign is intended to achieve.

The Omidyar Roadmap argues, instead, that the CMA too narrowly focuses on the perspective of advertisers. The Roadmap authors claim that “most publishers” do not control supply that is “owned and operated.” As a result, they conclude that publishers “such as gardenandgun.com or hotels.com” do not have any owned-and-operated supply and can generate revenues from their supply “only through the Google-dominated adtech stack.” 

But this is simply not true. For example, in addition to inventory in its print media, Garden & Gun’s “Digital Media Kit” indicates that the publisher has several sources of owned-and-operated banner and video supply, including the desktop, mobile, and tablet ads on its website; a “homepage takeover” of its website; branded/sponsored content; its email newsletters; and its social media accounts. Hotels.com, an operating company of Expedia Group, has its own owned-and-operated search inventory, which it sells through its “Travel Ads Sponsored Listing,” as well owned-and-operated supply of standard and custom display ads.

Given that both perform the same function and employ similar mechanisms for matching inventory with advertisers, it is unsurprising that both advertisers and publishers appear to consider the owned-and-operated channel and the open channel to be substitutes.

The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.

In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.

I will address the potential effects of these sections point-by-point, but both elements of the bill suffer from the same problem: a misguided assumption that “discrimination” by platforms is necessarily bad from a competition and consumer welfare point of view. On the contrary, this conduct is often exactly what consumers want from platforms, since it helps to bring order and legibility to otherwise-unwieldy parts of the Internet. Prohibiting it, as both main parts of the bill do, would make the Internet harder to use and less competitive.

Section 2(a)

Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”

As we wrote when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust bills were first announced, this prohibition on “discrimination” is so broad that, if it made it into law, it would prevent platforms from excluding or disadvantaging any product of another business that uses the platform or advantaging their own products over those of their competitors.

The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”

But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:

From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.

Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.

This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.

If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.

If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.

This is true across all the platforms the legislation proposes to regulate. Amazon prioritizes some third-party products over others on the basis of user reviews, rates of returns and complaints, and so on; Amazon provides private label products to fill gaps in certain product lines where existing offerings are expensive or unreliable; Apple pre-installs a Camera app on the iPhone that, obviously, enjoys an advantage over rival apps like Halide.

Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.

Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities. 

So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.

Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)

The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.

Section 2(b)(2)

This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.

An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.

Section 2(b)(3)

As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.

Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)

These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.

If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

Section 2(b)(5)

This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).

Section 2(b)(7)

This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.

Section 2(b)(8)

As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.

Section 2(b)(10)

Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.

Conclusion

In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.

Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.

Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.

Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee have leaked the approach they plan to take to revise U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, with a particular focus on digital platforms. 

Broadly speaking, the bills would: raise fees for larger mergers and increase appropriations to the FTC and DOJ; require data portability and interoperability; declare that large platforms can’t own businesses that compete with other businesses that use the platform; effectively ban large platforms from making any acquisitions; and generally declare that large platforms cannot preference their own products or services. 

All of these are ideas that have been discussed before. They are very much in line with the EU’s approach to competition, which places more regulation-like burdens on big businesses, and which is introducing a Digital Markets Act that mirrors the Democrats’ proposals. Some Republicans are reportedly supportive of the proposals, which is surprising since they mean giving broad, discretionary powers to antitrust authorities that are controlled by Democrats who take an expansive view of antitrust enforcement as a way to achieve their other social and political goals. The proposals may also be unpopular with consumers if, for example, they would mean that popular features like integrating Maps into relevant Google Search results becomes prohibited.

The multi-bill approach here suggests that the committee is trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. It may reflect a lack of confidence among the proposers in their ability to get their proposals through wholesale, especially given that Amy Klobuchar’s CALERA bill in the Senate creates an alternative that, while still highly interventionist, does not create ex ante regulation of the Internet the same way these proposals do.

In general, the bills are misguided for three main reasons. 

One, they seek to make digital platforms into narrow conduits for other firms to operate on, ignoring the value created by platforms curating their own services by, for example, creating quality controls on entry (as Apple does on its App Store) or by integrating their services with related products (like, say, Google adding events from Gmail to users’ Google Calendars). 

Two, they ignore the procompetitive effects of digital platforms extending into each other’s markets and competing with each other there, in ways that often lead to far more intense competition—and better outcomes for consumers—than if the only firms that could compete with the incumbent platform were small startups.

Three, they ignore the importance of incentives for innovation. Platforms invest in new and better products when they can make money from doing so, and limiting their ability to do that means weakened incentives to innovate. Startups and their founders and investors are driven, in part, by the prospect of being acquired, often by the platforms themselves. Making those acquisitions more difficult, or even impossible, means removing one of the key ways startup founders can exit their firms, and hence one of the key rewards and incentives for starting an innovative new business. 

For more, our “Joint Submission of Antitrust Economists, Legal Scholars, and Practitioners” set out why many of the House Democrats’ assumptions about the state of the economy and antitrust enforcement were mistaken. And my post, “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination”, argued that House Republicans like Ken Buck were misguided in believing they could support some of the proposals and avoid the massive regulatory oversight that they said they rejected.

Platform Anti-Monopoly Act 

The flagship bill, introduced by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), establishes a definition of “covered platform” used by several of the other bills. The measures would apply to platforms with at least 500,000 U.S.-based users, a market capitalization of more than $600 billion, and that is deemed a “critical trading partner” with the ability to restrict or impede the access that a “dependent business” has to its users or customers.

Cicilline’s bill would bar these covered platforms from being able to promote their own products and services over the products and services of competitors who use the platform. It also defines a number of other practices that would be regarded as discriminatory, including: 

  • Restricting or impeding “dependent businesses” from being able to access the platform or its software on the same terms as the platform’s own lines of business;
  • Conditioning access or status on purchasing other products or services from the platform; 
  • Using user data to support the platform’s own products in ways not extended to competitors; 
  • Restricting the platform’s commercial users from using or accessing data generated on the platform from their own customers;
  • Restricting platform users from uninstalling software pre-installed on the platform;
  • Restricting platform users from providing links to facilitate business off of the platform;
  • Preferencing the platform’s own products or services in search results or rankings;
  • Interfering with how a dependent business prices its products; 
  • Impeding a dependent business’ users from connecting to services or products that compete with those offered by the platform; and
  • Retaliating against users who raise concerns with law enforcement about potential violations of the act.

On a basic level, these would prohibit lots of behavior that is benign and that can improve the quality of digital services for users. Apple pre-installing a Weather app on the iPhone would, for example, run afoul of these rules, and the rules as proposed could prohibit iPhones from coming with pre-installed apps at all. Instead, users would have to manually download each app themselves, if indeed Apple was allowed to include the App Store itself pre-installed on the iPhone, given that this competes with other would-be app stores.

Apart from the obvious reduction in the quality of services and convenience for users that this would involve, this kind of conduct (known as “self-preferencing”) is usually procompetitive. For example, self-preferencing allows platforms to compete with one another by using their strength in one market to enter a different one; Google’s Shopping results in the Search page increase the competition that Amazon faces, because it presents consumers with a convenient alternative when they’re shopping online for products. Similarly, Amazon’s purchase of the video-game streaming service Twitch, and the self-preferencing it does to encourage Amazon customers to use Twitch and support content creators on that platform, strengthens the competition that rivals like YouTube face. 

It also helps innovation, because it gives firms a reason to invest in services that would otherwise be unprofitable for them. Google invests in Android, and gives much of it away for free, because it can bundle Google Search into the OS, and make money from that. If Google could not self-preference Google Search on Android, the open source business model simply wouldn’t work—it wouldn’t be able to make money from Android, and would have to charge for it in other ways that may be less profitable and hence give it less reason to invest in the operating system. 

This behavior can also increase innovation by the competitors of these companies, both by prompting them to improve their products (as, for example, Google Android did with Microsoft’s mobile operating system offerings) and by growing the size of the customer base for products of this kind. For example, video games published by console manufacturers (like Nintendo’s Zelda and Mario games) are often blockbusters that grow the overall size of the user base for the consoles, increasing demand for third-party titles as well.

For more, check out “Against the Vertical Discrimination Presumption” by Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer’s piece “On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective”.

Ending Platform Monopolies Act 

Sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), this bill would make it illegal for covered platforms to control lines of business that pose “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” enforced through civil litigation powers granted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).

Specifically, the bill targets lines of business that create “a substantial incentive” for the platform to advantage its own products or services over those of competitors that use the platform, or to exclude or disadvantage competing businesses from using the platform. The FTC and DOJ could potentially order that platforms divest lines of business that violate the act.

This targets similar conduct as the previous bill, but involves the forced separation of different lines of business. It also appears to go even further, seemingly implying that companies like Google could not even develop services like Google Maps or Chrome because their existence would create such “substantial incentives” to self-preference them over the products of their competitors. 

Apart from the straightforward loss of innovation and product developments this would involve, requiring every tech company to be narrowly focused on a single line of business would substantially entrench Big Tech incumbents, because it would make it impossible for them to extend into adjacent markets to compete with one another. For example, Apple could not develop a search engine to compete with Google under these rules, and Amazon would be forced to sell its video-streaming services that compete with Netflix and Youtube.

For more, check out Geoffrey Manne’s written testimony to the House Antitrust Subcommittee and “Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors” by Geoffrey and me. 

Platform Competition and Opportunity Act

Introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), this bill would bar covered platforms from making essentially any acquisitions at all. To be excluded from the ban on acquisitions, the platform would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that the acquired business does not compete with the platform for any product or service, does not pose a potential competitive threat to the platform, and would not in any way enhance or help maintain the acquiring platform’s market position. 

The two main ways that founders and investors can make a return on a successful startup are to float the company at IPO or to be acquired by another business. The latter of these, acquisitions, is extremely important. Between 2008 and 2019, 90 percent of U.S. start-up exits happened through acquisition. In a recent survey, half of current startup executives said they aimed to be acquired. One study found that countries that made it easier for firms to be taken over saw a 40-50 percent increase in VC activity, and that U.S. states that made acquisitions harder saw a 27 percent decrease in VC investment deals

So this proposal would probably reduce investment in U.S. startups, since it makes it more difficult for them to be acquired. It would therefore reduce innovation as a result. It would also reduce inter-platform competition by banning deals that allow firms to move into new markets, like the acquisition of Beats that helped Apple to build a Spotify competitor, or the deals that helped Google, Microsoft, and Amazon build cloud-computing services that all compete with each other. It could also reduce competition faced by old industries, by preventing tech companies from buying firms that enable it to move into new markets—like Amazon’s acquisitions of health-care companies that it has used to build a health-care offering. Even Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com, which it has used to build an Amazon competitor, could have been banned under this law if Walmart had had a higher market cap at the time.

For more, check out Dirk Auer’s piece “Facebook and the Pros and Cons of Ex Post Merger Reviews” and my piece “Cracking down on mergers would leave us all worse off”. 

ACCESS Act

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), would establish data portability and interoperability requirements for platforms. 

Under terms of the legislation, covered platforms would be required to allow third parties to transfer data to their users or, with the user’s consent, to a competing business. It also would require platforms to facilitate compatible and interoperable communications with competing businesses. The law directs the FTC to establish technical committees to promulgate the standards for portability and interoperability. 

Data portability and interoperability involve trade-offs in terms of security and usability, and overseeing them can be extremely costly and difficult. In security terms, interoperability requirements prevent companies from using closed systems to protect users from hostile third parties. Mandatory openness means increasing—sometimes, substantially so—the risk of data breaches and leaks. In practice, that could mean users’ private messages or photos being leaked more frequently, or activity on a social media page that a user considers to be “their” private data, but that “belongs” to another user under the terms of use, can be exported and publicized as such. 

It can also make digital services more buggy and unreliable, by requiring that they are built in a more “open” way that may be more prone to unanticipated software mismatches. A good example is that of Windows vs iOS; Windows is far more interoperable with third-party software than iOS is, but tends to be less stable as a result, and users often prefer the closed, stable system. 

Interoperability requirements also entail ongoing regulatory oversight, to make sure data is being provided to third parties reliably. It’s difficult to build an app around another company’s data without assurance that the data will be available when users want it. For a requirement as broad as this bill’s, that could mean setting up quite a large new de facto regulator. 

In the UK, Open Banking (an interoperability requirement imposed on British retail banks) has suffered from significant service outages, and targets a level of uptime that many developers complain is too low for them to build products around. Nor has Open Banking yet led to any obvious competition benefits.

For more, check out Gus Hurwitz’s piece “Portable Social Media Aren’t Like Portable Phone Numbers” and my piece “Why Data Interoperability Is Harder Than It Looks: The Open Banking Experience”.

Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act

A bill that mirrors language in the Endless Frontier Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would significantly raise filing fees for the largest mergers. Rather than the current cap of $280,000 for mergers valued at more than $500 million, the bill—sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)–the new schedule would assess fees of $2.25 million for mergers valued at more than $5 billion; $800,000 for those valued at between $2 billion and $5 billion; and $400,000 for those between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Smaller mergers would actually see their filing fees cut: from $280,000 to $250,000 for those between $500 million and $1 billion; from $125,000 to $100,000 for those between $161.5 million and $500 million; and from $45,000 to $30,000 for those less than $161.5 million. 

In addition, the bill would appropriate $418 million to the FTC and $252 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division for Fiscal Year 2022. Most people in the antitrust world are generally supportive of more funding for the FTC and DOJ, although whether this is actually good or not depends both on how it’s spent at those places. 

It’s hard to object if it goes towards deepening the agencies’ capacities and knowledge, by hiring and retaining higher quality staff with salaries that are more competitive with those offered by the private sector, and on greater efforts to study the effects of the antitrust laws and past cases on the economy. If it goes toward broadening the activities of the agencies, by doing more and enabling them to pursue a more aggressive enforcement agenda, and supporting whatever of the above proposals make it into law, then it could be very harmful. 

For more, check out my post “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination” and Thom Lambert’s post “Bad Blood at the FTC”.

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. The entire series of posts is available here.]

This post is authored by Joshua D. Wright (University Professor of Law, George Mason University and former Commissioner, FTC); Douglas H. Ginsburg (Senior Circuit Judge, US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit; Professor of Law, George Mason University; and former Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division); Tad Lipsky (Assistant Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Director, FTC Bureau of Competition; former chief antitrust counsel, Coca-Cola; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division); and John M. Yun (Associate Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Deputy Assistant Director, FTC Bureau of Economics).]

After much anticipation, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission released a draft of the Vertical Merger Guidelines (VMGs) on January 10, 2020. The Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) will be submitting formal comments to the agencies regarding the VMGs and this post summarizes our main points.

The Draft VMGs supersede the 1984 Merger Guidelines, which represent the last guidance from the agencies on the treatment of vertical mergers. The VMGs provide valuable guidance and greater clarity in terms of how the agencies will review vertical mergers going forward. While the proposed VMGs generally articulate an analytical framework based upon sound economic principles, there are several ways that the VMGs could more deeply integrate sound economics and our empirical understanding of the competitive consequences of vertical integration.

In this post, we discuss four issues: (1) incorporating the elimination of double marginalization (EDM) into the analysis of the likelihood of a unilateral price effect; (2) eliminating the role of market shares and structural analysis; (3) highlighting that the weight of empirical evidence supports the proposition that vertical mergers are less likely to generate competitive concerns than horizontal mergers; and (4) recognizing the importance of transaction cost-based efficiencies.

Elimination of double marginalization is a unilateral price effect

EDM is discussed separately from both unilateral price effects, in Section 5, and efficiencies, in Section 9, of the draft VMGs. This is notable because the structure of the VMGs obfuscates the relevant economics of internalizing pricing externalities and may encourage the misguided view that EDM is a special form of efficiency.

When separate upstream and downstream entities price their products, they do not fully take into account the impact of their pricing decision on each other — even though they are ultimately part of the same value chain for a given product. Vertical mergers eliminate a pricing externality since the post-merger upstream and downstream units are fully aligned in terms of their pricing incentives. In this sense, EDM is indistinguishable from the unilateral effects discussed in Section 5 of the VMGs that cause upward pricing pressure. Specifically, in the context of mergers, just as there is a greater incentive, under certain conditions, to foreclose or raise rivals’ costs (RRC) post-merger (although, this does not mean there is an ability to engage in these behaviors), there is also an incentive to lower prices due to the elimination of a markup along the supply chain. Consequently, we really cannot assess unilateral effects without accounting for the full set of incentives that could move prices in either direction.

Further, it is improper to consider EDM in the context of a “net effect” given that this phrase has strong connotations with weighing efficiencies against findings of anticompetitive harm. Rather, “unilateral price effects” actually includes EDM — just as a finding that a merger will induce entry properly belongs in a unilateral effects analysis. For these reasons, we suggest incorporating the discussion of EDM into the discussion of unilateral effects contained in Section 5 of the VMGs and eliminating Section 6. Otherwise, by separating EDM into its own section, the agencies are creating a type of “limbo” between unilateral effects and efficiencies — which creates confusion, particularly for courts. It is also important to emphasize that the mere existence of alternative contracting mechanisms to mitigate double marginalization does not tell us about their relative efficacy compared to vertical integration as there are costs to contracting.

Role of market shares and structural analysis

In Section 3 (“Market Participants, Market Shares, and Market Concentration”), there are two notable statements. First,

[t]he Agencies…do not rely on changes in concentration as a screen for or indicator of competitive effects from vertical theories of harm.

This statement, without further explanation, is puzzling as there are no changes in concentration for vertical mergers. Second, the VMGs then go on to state that 

[t]he Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.

The very next sentence reads:

In some circumstances, mergers with shares below the thresholds can give rise to competitive concerns.

From this, we conclude that the VMGs are adopting a prior belief that, if both the relevant product and the related product have a less than 20 percent share in the relevant market, the acquisition is either competitively neutral or benign. The VMGs make clear, however, they do not offer a safe harbor. With these statements, the agencies run the risk that the 20 percent figure will be interpreted as a trigger for competitive concern. There is no sound economic reason to believe 20 percent share in the relevant market or the related market is of any particular importance to predicting competitive effects. The VMGs should eliminate the discussion of market shares altogether. At a minimum, the final guidelines would benefit from some explanation for this threshold if it is retained.

Empirical evidence on the welfare impact of vertical mergers

In contrast to vertical mergers, horizontal mergers inherently involve a degree of competitive overlap and an associated loss of at least some degree of rivalry between actual and/or potential competitors. The price effect for vertical mergers, however, is generally theoretically ambiguous — even before accounting for efficiencies — due to EDM and the uncertainty regarding whether the integrated firm has an incentive to raise rivals’ costs or foreclose. Thus, for vertical mergers, empirically evaluating the welfare effects of consummated mergers has been and remains an important area of research to guide antitrust policy.

Consequently, what is noticeably absent from the draft guidelines is an empirical grounding. Consistent empirical findings should inform agency decision-making priors. With few exceptions, the literature does not support the view that these practices are used for anticompetitive reasons — see Lafontaine & Slade (2007) and Cooper et al. (2005). (For an update on the empirical literature from 2009 through 2018, which confirms the conclusions of the prior literature, see the GAI’s Comment on Vertical Mergers submitted during the recent FTC Hearings.) Thus, the modern antitrust approach to vertical mergers, as reflected in the antitrust literature, should reflect the empirical reality that vertical relationships are generally procompetitive or neutral.

The bottom line is that how often vertical mergers are anticompetitive should influence our framework and priors. Given the strong empirical evidence that vertical mergers do not tend to result in welfare losses for consumers, we believe the agencies should consider at least the modest statement that vertical mergers are more often than not procompetitive or, alternatively, vertical mergers tend to be more procompetitive or neutral than horizontal ones. Thus, we believe the final VMGs would benefit from language similar to the 1984 VMGs: “Although nonhorizontal mergers are less likely than horizontal mergers to create competitive problems, they are not invariably innocuous.”

Transaction cost efficiencies and merger specificity

The VMGs address efficiencies in Section 8. Under the VMGs, the Agencies will evaluate efficiency claims by the parties using the approach set forth in Section 10 of the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Thus, efficiencies must be both cognizable and merger specific to be considered by the agencies.

In general, the VMGs also adopt an approach that is consistent with the teachings of the robust literature on transaction cost economics, which recognizes the costs of using the price system to explain the boundaries of economic organizations, and the importance of incorporating such considerations into any antitrust analyses. In particular, this literature has demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, that the decision to contract or vertically integrate is often driven by the relatively high costs of contracting as well as concerns regarding the enforcement of contracts and opportunistic behavior. This literature suggests that such transactions cost efficiencies in the vertical merger context often will be both cognizable and merger-specific and rejects an approach that would presume such efficiencies are not merger specific because they can be theoretically achieved via contract.

While we agree with the overall approach set out in the VMGs, we are concerned that the application of Section 8, in practice, without more specificity and guidance, will be carried out in a way that is inconsistent with the approach set out in Section 10 of the 2010 HMGs.

Conclusion

Overall, the agencies deserve credit for highlighting the relevant factors in assessing vertical mergers and for not attempting to be overly aggressive in advancing untested merger assessment tools or theories of harm.

The agencies should seriously consider, however, refinements in a number of critical areas:

  • First, discussion of EDM should be integrated into the larger unilateral effects analysis in Section 5 of the VMGs. 
  • Second, the agencies should eliminate the role of market shares and structural analysis in the VMGs. 
  • Third, the final VMGs should acknowledge that vertical mergers are less likely to generate competitive concerns than horizontal mergers. 
  • Finally, the final VMGs should recognize the importance of transaction cost-based efficiencies. 

We believe incorporating these changes will result in guidelines that are more in conformity with sound economics and the empirical evidence.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) June 23 Workshop on Conditional Pricing Practices featured a broad airing of views on loyalty discounts and bundled pricing, popular vertical business practices that recently have caused much ink to be spilled by the antitrust commentariat.  In addition to predictable academic analyses featuring alternative theoretical anticompetitive effects stories, the Workshop commendably included presentations by Benjamin Klein that featured procompetitive efficiency explanations for loyalty programs and by Daniel Crane that stressed the importance of (1) treating discounts hospitably and (2) requiring proof of harmful foreclosure.  On balance, however, the Workshop provided additional fuel for enforcers who are enthused about applying new anticompetitive effects models to bring “problematic” discounting and bundling to heel.

Before U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies launch a new crusade against novel vertical discounting and bundling contracts, however, they may wish to ponder a few salient factors not emphasized in the Workshop.

First, the United States has the most efficient marketing and distribution system in the world, and it has been growing more efficient in recent decades (this is the one part of the American economy that has been a bright spot).  Consumers have benefited from more shopping convenience and higher quality/lower priced offerings due to the advent of  “big box” superstores, Internet sales engines (and e-commerce in general), and other improvements in both on-line and “bricks and mortar” sales methods.

Second, and relatedly, the Supreme Court’s recognition of vertical contractual efficiencies in GTE-Sylvania (1977) ushered in a period of greatly reduced potential liability for vertical restraints, undoubtedly encouraging economically beneficial marketing improvements.  A new government emphasis on investigating and litigating the merits of novel vertical practices (particularly practices that emphasize discounting, which presumptively benefits consumers) could inject costly new uncertainty into the marketing side of business planning, spawn risk aversion, and deter marketing innovations that reduce costs, thereby harming welfare.  These harms would mushroom to the extent courts mistakenly “bought into” new theories and incorrectly struck down efficient practices.

Third, in applying new theories of competitive harm, the antitrust enforcers should be mindful of Ronald Coase’s admonition that “if an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or other—that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation.  And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.”  Competition is a discovery procedure.  Entrepreneurial businesses constantly seek improvements not just in productive efficiency, but in distribution and marketing efficiencies, in order to eclipse their rivals.  As such, entrepreneurs may experiment with new contractual forms (such as bundling and loyalty discounts) in an effort to expand their market shares and grow their firms.  Business persons may not know ex ante which particular forms will work.  They may try out alternatives, sticking with those that succeed and discarding those that fail, without necessarily being able to articulate precisely the reasons for success or failure.  Real results in the market, rather than arcane economic theorems, may be expected to drive their decision-making.   Distribution and marketing methods that are successful will be emulated by others and spread.  Seen in this light (and relatedly, in light of transaction cost economics explanations for “non-standard” contracts), widespread adoption of new vertical contractual devices most likely indicates that they are efficient (they improve distribution, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), not that they represent some new competitive threat.  Since an economic model almost always can be ginned up to explain why some new practice may reduce consumer welfare in theory, enforcers should instead focus on hard empirical evidence that output and quality have been reduced due to a restraint before acting.  Unfortunately, the mere threat of costly misbegotten investigations may chill businesses’ interest in experimenting with new and potentially beneficial vertical contractual arrangements, reducing innovation and slowing welfare enhancement (consistent with point two, above).

Fourth, decision theoretic considerations should make enforcers particularly wary of pursuing conditional pricing contracts cases.  Consistent with decision theory, optimal antitrust enforcement should adopt an error cost framework that seeks to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).  Given the significant potential efficiencies flowing from vertical restraints, and the lack of empirical showing that they are harmful, antitrust enforcers should exercise extreme caution in entertaining proposals to challenge new vertical arrangements, such as conditional pricing mechanisms.  In particular, they should carefully assess the cumulative weight of the high risk of false positives in this area, the significant administrative costs that attend investigations and prosecutions, and the disincentives toward efficient business arrangements (see points two and three above).  Taken together, these factors strongly suggest that the aggressive pursuit of conditional pricing practice investigations would flunk a reasonable cost-benefit calculus.

Fifth, a new U.S. antitrust enforcement crusade against conditional pricing could be used by foreign competition agencies to justify further attacks on efficient vertical practices.  This could add to the harm suffered by companies (including, of course, U.S.-based multinationals) which would be deterred from maintaining and creating new welfare-beneficial distribution methods.  Foreign consumers, of course, would suffer as well.

My caveats should not be read to suggest that the FTC should refrain from pursuing new economic learning on loyalty discounting and bundled pricing, nor on other novel business practices.  Nor should it necessarily eschew all enforcement in the vertical restraints area – although that might not be such a bad idea, given error cost and resource constraint issues.  (Vertical restraints that are part of a cartel enforcement scheme should be treated as cartel conduct, and, as such, should be fair game, of course.)  In order optimally to allocate scarce resources, however, the FTC might benefit by devoting relatively greater attention to the most welfare-inimical competitive abuses – namely, anticompetitive arrangements instigated, shielded, or maintained by government authority.  (Hard core private cartel activity is best left to the Justice Department, which can deploy powerful criminal law tools against such schemes.)

Yale Law Journal has published my article on “The Antitrust/ Consumer Protection Paradox: Two Policies At War With One Another.”  The hat tip to Robert Bork’s classic “Antitrust Paradox” in the title will be apparent to many readers.  The primary purpose of the article is to identify an emerging and serious conflict between antitrust and consumer protection law arising out of a sharp divergence in the economic approaches embedded within antitrust law with its deep attachment to rational choice economics on the one hand, and the new behavioral economics approach of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  This intellectual rift brings with it serious – and detrimental – consumer welfare consequences.  After identifying the causes and consequences of that emerging rift, I explore the economic, legal, and political forces supporting the rift.

Here is the abstract:

The potential complementarities between antitrust and consumer protection law— collectively, “consumer law”—are well known. The rise of the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) portends a deep rift in the intellectual infrastructure of consumer law that threatens the consumer-welfare oriented development of both bodies of law. This Feature describes the emerging paradox that rift has created: a body of consumer law at war with itself. The CFPB’s behavioral approach to consumer protection rejects revealed preference— the core economic link between consumer choice and economic welfare and the fundamental building block of the rational choice approach underlying antitrust law. This Feature analyzes the economic, legal, and political institutions underlying the potential rise of an incoherent consumer law and concludes that, unfortunately, there are several reasons to believe the intellectual rift shaping the development of antitrust and consumer protection will continue for some time.

Go read the whole thing.

The American Antitrust Institute has announced plans to draft a comprehensive set of jury instructions for antitrust trials.  According to AAI president Bert Foer:

In Sherman Act Section 1 and Section 2 civil cases, judges tend to gravitate towards the ABA Model Instructions as the gold standard for impartial instructions. … The AAI believes the ABA model instructions are, in some situations, confusing, out of date, or do not adequately effectuate the goals of the antitrust laws. To provide an alternative, the AAI will develop a set of jury instructions that can be widely disseminated to lawyers and judges.

Foer is certainly right about existing jury instructions.  They’re often confusing and frequently provide so little guidance that jurors are effectively invited simply to “pick a winner.”  Crafting clearer, more concrete jury instructions would benefit the antitrust enterprise and further AAI’s stated mission “to increase the role of competition [and] assure that competition works in the interests of consumers.”

But clarity alone is not enough.  Any new jury instructions should set forth (in clear terms) liability standards whose substance enhances the effectiveness of the antitrust.  Here’s where I worry about the AAI project.

Throughout its history, AAI has shown little regard for the inherent limits of antitrust.  Those limits arise because the antitrust laws (1) embody somewhat vague standards that factfinders must flesh out ex post (e.g., they forbid “unreasonable” restraints of trade and “unreasonably” exclusionary conduct by monopolists) and (2) are privately enforceable in lawsuits giving rise to treble damages.  The former feature ensures that courts, regulators, and business planners face difficulty in evaluating the legality of business practices.  The latter guarantees that they’re regularly called upon to do so.  It also discourages borderline practices that might wrongly be deemed, after the fact, to be anticompetitive.  Antitrust therefore creates significant “decision costs” (in both adjudication and counseling) and “error costs” (in the form of either market power resulting from improper acquittals or foregone efficiencies resulting from improper convictions and the chilling of procompetitive conduct).  Those decision and error costs constitute the limits of antitrust and are inexorable:

  • you can’t decrease decision costs (by simplifying a liability rule) without increasing error costs (incorrect judgments and enhanced chilling effect);
  • you can’t decrease error costs (by making the rule more nuanced in order to better separate pro- from anticompetitive conduct) without increasing decision costs; 
  • you can’t reduce false acquittals (by easing the plaintiff’s proof burden or cutting back on affirmative defenses) without increasing false convictions, and vice-versa.

In light of this unhappy situation, antitrust liability standards should be crafted so as to minimize the sum of decision and error costs.  As I have recently explained, the Roberts Court has taken this tack in its eight major antitrust decisions.

AAI, by contrast, has shown little concern for false positives and seems to equate an effective antitrust regime with one that produces more liability.  Time and again, the Institute has advocated “pro-plaintiff” liability rules that threaten high error costs in the form of false convictions (and the chilling effect that follows).  In all but one of the Roberts Court’s antitrust decisions (which, as noted, are consistent with a “decision-theoretic” framework that would help minimize the sum of decision and error costs), AAI has advocated a pro-plaintiff position that the Supreme Court ultimately rejected.  (See AAI’s positions in Twombly, Leegin, Credit Suisse, Dagher, Weyerhaeuser, LinkLine, and Independent Ink.)  This is a stunningly bad record. 

Moreover, AAI remains out of antitrust’s mainstream (which now acknowledges antitrust’s inherent limits and the need to constrain error costs) on practices involving somewhat unsettled liability rules.  Consider, for example, AAI’s views on: 

  • Resale Price Maintenance (RPM).  Even after Leegin abrogated the per se rule against minimum RPM, AAI urged courts to adopt a rule of reason that would burden a defendant with “justifying” any instance of RPM that results in an increase in consumer prices.  Such an approach is likely to generate excessive liability because all instances of RPM — even those aimed at such procompetitive effects as the elimination of free-riding, the facilitation of new entry, or encouraging “non-free-rideable” demand-enhancing services — involve an increase in consumer prices.  AAI’s preferred rule essentially amounts to a presumption of illegality for RPM.  As I explained in this article, such an approach would involve huge error costs (and certainly wouldn’t minimize the sum of decision and error costs).
     
  • Loyalty Rebates.  Efficiency-minded antitrust scholars have generally concluded that there should be a safe harbor for single-product loyalty rebates resulting in an above-cost discounted price for the product at issue.  The leading case on loyalty rebates, the Eight Circuit’s Concord Boat decision, agrees.  The thinking behind such a safe harbor is that any equally efficient rival could match a defendant’s loyalty rebate that resulted in an above-cost discounted price; permitting liability on the basis of such a rebate would chill discounting and create a price umbrella for relatively inefficient rivals.  AAI, however, has urged courts to reject the safe harbor approved in Concord Boat.
     
  • Bundled Discounts.   Efficiency-minded antitrust scholars have also approved a safe harbor for some sorts of multi-product or “bundled”
     discounts: such a discount should be legal if each product in the bundle is priced above cost when the entire amount of the bundled discount is attributed to that single product.  The Ninth Circuit approved this safe harbor in its PeaceHealth decision.  Again, the rationale behind the safe harbor is that an equally efficient, single-product rival could meet any bundled discount resulting an above-cost pricing under this so-called “discount attribution” test.  And again, AAI has opposed this safe harbor.

These are but a few examples of AAI’s wildly pro-plaintiff view of antitrust—a view that ultimately injures consumers by ignoring the error costs (e.g., thwarted procompetitive business practices) associated with false convictions.  So in the end, I’m a bit worried about AAI’s jury instruction project.  If the Institute can simply provide clarity without pushing substantive liability standards in its preferred, pro-plaintiff (error cost-insensitive) direction, antitrust will be better off because of its efforts.  But I’m not optimistic.

Flying back from a hiking trip to spectacular Glacier National Park (see pics below the fold), I overheard a flight attendant say something that made me think of, what else?, bundled discounts.  “We also fly for Delta,” the United flight attendant told the woman in front of me.  That’s when I realized I was really flying on Skywest, a regional airline that provides service to the major airlines.

Skywest, it seems, flies between major airlines’ hub cities (Salt Lake City for Delta, Denver for United) and smaller destinations like Kalispell, Bozeman, Jackson Hole, etc.  (Full route map here.)  It does so, though, under the auspices of the major airlines, so one never buys a “Skywest” ticket, always a Delta or United ticket.  (This is pretty common.  Columbia, Missouri, where I teach, is serviced by Pinnacle Airlines, which flies back and forth between Columbia and Memphis for Delta.)

So what has this to do with bundled discounts?  Well, first recall why such discounts (price-cuts conditioned on purchasing products from multiple product markets) create anticompetitive concerns.  Courts, regulators, and scholars have worried that a multi-product seller may use bundled discounts to exclude equally or more efficient rivals that sell less extensive lines of products.  In theory, a multi-product seller who has market power over at least one of its products (i.e., the ability to charge an above-cost price for that product) could offer a bundled discount that results in an above-cost (and thus non-predatory) price for the bundle, but would still tend to exclude an equally efficient, but less diversified, rival.

The classic example of this strategy involves a bundled discount offered by a producer of shampoo and conditioner.  Suppose that manufacturer A sells both shampoo and conditioner, is a monopolist in the conditioner market, and competes in the shampoo market against manufacturer B, which sells only shampoo.  B is the more efficient shampoo manufacturer, producing shampoo at a cost of $1.25 a bottle compared to A’s cost of $1.50 per bottle.  A’s cost of producing a bottle of conditioner is $2.50.  If purchased separately, A’s per-bottle prices for shampoo and conditioner are $2.00 and $4.00, respectively.  But A offers customers a $1.00 bundled discount, charging only $5.00 for the shampoo/conditioner package.  While this discounted price is still above A’s cost for the bundle ($4.00), it could tend to exclude B.  Assuming that shampoo buyers must also buy conditioner (in equal proportions), buyers would have to pay A’s unbundled conditioner price of $4.00 if they purchased B’s shampoo and would thus be unwilling to pay more than $1.00 for the B brand of shampoo.  That price, though, is below B’s $1.25 cost.  Thus, A’s bundled discount would tend to exclude B from the market even though (1) the discounted price ($5.00) is above A’s aggregate cost for the bundle ($4.00), and (2) B is the more efficient shampoo producer.

Regional airlines like Skywest and Pinnacle find themselves in the same position as the shampoo-only manufacturer.  A significant impediment to these smaller airlines is the major carriers’ ability to offer a type of bundled discount — a price for a “bundle” of flights going from departure point to hub to destination that is significantly lower than the sum of the prices of two flights, one from departure point to hub and the other from hub to destination.  For example, a Delta flight from Columbia, Missouri to Memphis (a Delta hub) to New York City might cost $400, while purchasing separate flights from Columbia to Memphis and then from Memphis to NYC might cost a total of $500 ($200 for the Columbia to Memphis leg and $300 for the Memphis to NYC leg). This is, in effect, a bundled discount of $100.  If Pinnacle wanted to compete for passengers flying from Columbia to NYC, it would have to absorb the entire amount of the package discount on the single leg it offered (Columbia to Memphis), charging no more than $100 for the flight.  That price, though, may be below its cost.

Despite this impediment, regional airlines like Pinnacle and Skywest have not been driven out of business by the major carriers’ pricing strategies.  Instead, they have remained in business and have often delivered higher profits than their major carrier rivals.  How did they accomplish this feat?  By becoming suppliers to the major air carriers, offering to provide short-haul air service more efficiently than the majors.

So what are the implications for legal restrictions on bundled discounts?  A number of commentators have suggested that a bundled discount should be illegal if it would result in below-cost pricing on the competitive product after the entire amount of the discount is attributed to that product.  They take this position because they assume that such a discount would exclude an equally efficient, single-product rival by forcing it to price below its own cost.

The continued existence of Pinnacle, Sky West, and the other regional airlines, though, undermines this assumption.  Equally or more efficient single-product rivals confronted with the sort of bundled discount discussed above have a way to stay in business:  they can become suppliers to the bundled discounter.  If they are, in fact, more efficient than the discounter, it should jump on the opportunity to outsource production to them.  Thus, I would argue, a plaintiff complaining of exclusion by a bundled discount that does not run afoul of standard predatory pricing rules should have to show, among other things, that it could not stay in business by becoming a supplier to its discounting rival.  (It should also have to show that it could not replicate the bundle by collaborating with other product suppliers.)

For greater discussion of the appropriate liability rule for bundled discounts, see Part III of this article and Part IV of this article.  For some Glacier photos, see below the fold.  Continue Reading…

In recent years, antitrust scholars have largely agreed on a couple of propositions involving tying and bundled discounting. With respect to tying (selling one’s monopoly “tying” product only on the condition that buyers also purchase another “tied” product), scholars from both the Chicago and Harvard Schools of antitrust analysis have generally concluded that there should be no antitrust liability unless the tie-in results in substantial foreclosure of marketing opportunities in the tied product market. Absent such foreclosure, scholars have reasoned, truly anticompetitive harm is unlikely to occur. The prevailing liability rule, however, condemns tie-ins without regard to whether they occasion substantial tied market foreclosure.

With respect to bundled discounting (selling a package of products for less than the aggregate price of the products if purchased separately), scholars have generally concluded that there should be no antitrust liability if the discount at issue could be matched by an equally efficient single-product rival of the discounter. That will be the case if each product in the bundle is priced above cost after the entire bundled discount is attributed to that product. Antitrust scholars have therefore generally endorsed a safe harbor for bundled discounts that are “above cost” under a “discount attribution test.”

In an article appearing in the December 2009 Harvard Law Review, Harvard law professor Einer Elhauge challenged each of these near-consensus propositions. According to Elhauge, the conclusion that significant tied market foreclosure should be a prerequisite to tying liability stems from scholars’ naïve acceptance of the Chicago School’s “single monopoly profit” theory. Elhauge insists that the theory is infirm and that instances of tying may occasion anticompetitive “power” (i.e., price discrimination) effects even if they do not involve substantial tied market foreclosure. He maintains that the Supreme Court has deemed such effects to be anticompetitive and that it was right to do so.

With respect to bundled discounting, Elhauge calls for courts to forego price-cost comparisons in favor of a rule that asks whether the defendant seller has “coerced” consumers into buying the bundle by first raising its unbundled monopoly (“linking”) product price above the “but-for” level that would prevail absent the bundled discounting scheme and then offering a discount from that inflated level.

I have just posted to SSRN an article criticizing Elhauge’s conclusions on both tying and bundled discounting. On tying, the article argues, Elhauge makes both descriptive and normative mistakes. As a descriptive matter, Supreme Court precedent does not deem the so-called power effects (each of which was well-known to Chicago School scholars) to be anticompetitive. As a normative matter, such effects should not be regulated because they tend to enhance total social welfare, especially when one accounts for dynamic efficiency effects. Because tying can create truly anticompetitive effect only when it involves substantial tied market foreclosure, such foreclosure should be a prerequisite to liability.

On bundled discounting, I argue, Elhauge’s proposed rule would be a disaster. The rule fails to account for the fact that bundled discounts may create immediate consumer benefit even if the seller has increased unbundled linking prices above but-for levels. It is utterly inadministrable and would chill procompetitive instances of bundled discounting. It is motivated by a desire to prevent “power” effects that are not anticompetitive under governing Supreme Court precedent (and should not be deemed so). Accordingly, courts should reject Elhauge’s proposed rule in favor of an approach that first focuses on the genuine prerequisite to discount-induced anticompetitive harm—“linked” market foreclosure—and then asks whether any such foreclosure is anticompetitive in that it could not be avoided by a determined competitive rival. To implement such a rule, courts would need to apply the discount attribution test.

The paper is a work-in-progress. Herbert Hovenkamp has already given me a number of helpful comments, which I plan to incorporate shortly. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what TOTM readers think.