Archives For Efficiencies

Yesterday Learfield and IMG College inked their recently announced merger. Since the negotiations were made public several weeks ago, the deal has garnered some wild speculation and potentially negative attention. Now that the merger has been announced, it’s bound to attract even more attention and conjecture.

On the field of competition, however, the market realities that support the merger’s approval are compelling. And, more importantly, the features of this merger provide critical lessons on market definition, barriers to entry, and other aspects of antitrust law related to two-sided and advertising markets that can be applied to numerous matters vexing competition commentators.

First, some background

Learfield and IMG specialize in managing multimedia rights (MMRs) for intercollegiate sports. They are, in effect, classic advertising intermediaries, facilitating the monetization by colleges of radio broadcast advertising and billboard, program, and scoreboard space during games (among other things), and the purchase by advertisers of access to these valuable outlets.

Although these transactions can certainly be (and very often are) entered into by colleges and advertisers directly, firms like Learfield and IMG allow colleges to outsource the process — as one firm’s tag line puts it, “We Work | You Play.” Most important, by bringing multiple schools’ MMRs under one roof, these firms can reduce the transaction costs borne by advertisers in accessing multiple outlets as part of a broad-based marketing plan.

Media rights and branding are a notable source of revenue for collegiate athletic departments: on average, they account for about 3% of these revenues. While they tend to pale in comparison to TV rights, ticket sales, and fundraising, for major programs, MMRs may be the next most important revenue source after these.

Many collegiate programs retain some or all of their multimedia rights and use in-house resources to market them. In some cases schools license MMRs through their athletic conference. In other cases, schools ink deals to outsource their MMRs to third parties, such as Learfield, IMG, JMI Sports, Outfront Media, and Fox Sports, among several others. A few schools even use professional sports teams to manage their MMRs (the owner of the Red Sox manages Boston College’s MMRs, for example).

Schools switch among MMR managers with some regularity, and, in most cases apparently, not among the merging parties. Michigan State, for example, was well known for handling its MMRs in-house. But in 2016 the school entered into a 15-year deal with Fox Sports, estimated at minimum guaranteed $150 million. In 2014 Arizona State terminated its MMR deal with IMG and took it MMRs in-house. Then, in 2016, the Sun Devils entered into a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the Pac 12 in which the school manages and sells its own marketing and media rights while the conference handles core business functions for the sales and marketing team (like payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits). The most successful new entrant on the block, JMI Sports, won Kentucky, Clemson, and the University of Pennsylvania from Learfield or IMG. Outfront Media was spun off from CBS in 2014 and has become one of the strongest MMR intermediary competitors, handling some of the biggest names in college sports, including LSU, Maryland, and Virginia. All told, eight recent national Division I champions are served by MMR managers other than IMG and Learfield.

The supposed problem

As noted above, the most obvious pro-competitive benefit of the merger is in the reduction in transaction costs for firms looking to advertise in multiple markets. But, in order to confer that benefit (which, of course, also benefits the schools, whose marketing properties become easier to access), that also means a dreaded increase in size, measured by number of schools’ MMRs managed. So is this cause for concern?

Jason Belzer, a professor at Rutgers University and founder of sports consulting firm, GAME, Inc., has said that the merger will create a juggernaut — yes, “a massive inexorable force… that crushes whatever is in its path” — that is likely to invite antitrust scrutiny. The New York Times opines that the deal will allow Learfield to “tighten its grip — for nearly total control — on this niche but robust market,” “surely” attracting antitrust scrutiny. But these assessments seem dramatically overblown, and insufficiently grounded in the dynamics of the market.

Belzer’s concerns seem to be merely the size of the merging parties — again, measured by the number of schools’ rights they manage — and speculation that the merger would bring to an end “any” opportunity for entry by a “major” competitor. These are misguided concerns.

To begin, the focus on the potential entry of a “major” competitor is an odd standard that ignores the actual and potential entry of many smaller competitors that are able to win some of the most prestigious and biggest schools. In fact, many in the industry argue — rightly — that there are few economies of scale for colleges. Most of these firms’ employees are dedicated to a particular school and those costs must be incurred for each school, no matter the number, and borne by new entrants and incumbents alike. That means a small firm can profitably compete in the same market as larger firms — even “juggernauts.” Indeed, every college that brings MMR management in-house is, in fact, an entrant — and there are some big schools in big conferences that manage their MMRs in-house.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to in-house MMR management indicate that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

Indeed, from the perspective of the school, the true relevant market is no broader than each school’s own rights. Even after the merger there will be at least five significant firms competing for those rights, not to mention each school’s conference, new entrants, and the school itself.

The two-sided market that isn’t really two-sided

Standard antitrust analysis, of course, focuses on consumer benefits: Will the merger make consumers better off (or no worse off)? But too often casual antitrust analysis of two-sided markets trips up on identifying just who the consumer is — and what the relevant market is. For a shopping mall, is the consumer the retailer or the shopper? For newspapers and search engines, is the customer the advertiser or the reader? For intercollegiate sports multimedia rights licensing, is the consumer the college or the advertiser?

Media coverage of the anticipated IMG/Learfield merger largely ignores advertisers as consumers and focuses almost exclusively on the the schools’ relationship with intermediaries — as purchasers of marketing services, rather than sellers of advertising space.

Although it’s difficult to identify the source of this odd bias, it seems to be based on the notion that, while corporations like Coca-Cola and General Motors have some sort of countervailing market power against marketing intermediaries, universities don’t. With advertisers out of the picture, media coverage suggests that, somehow, schools may be worse off if the merger were to proceed. But missing from this assessment are two crucial facts that undermine the story: First, schools actually have enormous market power; and, second, schools compete in the business of MMR management.

This second factor suggests, in fact, that sometimes there may be nothing special about two-sided markets sufficient to give rise to a unique style of antitrust analysis.

Much of the antitrust confusion seems to be based on confusion over the behavior of two-sided markets. A two-sided market is one in which two sets of actors interact through an intermediary or platform, which, in turn, facilitates the transactions, often enabling transactions to take place that otherwise would be too expensive absent the platform. A shopping mall is a two-sided market where shoppers can find their preferred stores. Stores would operate without the platform, but perhaps not as many, and not as efficiently. Newspapers, search engines, and other online platforms are two-sided markets that bring together advertisers and eyeballs that might not otherwise find each other absent the platform. And a collegiate multimedia rights management firms is a two-sided market where colleges that want to sell advertising space get together with firms that want to advertise their goods and services.

Yet there is nothing particularly “transformative” about the outsourcing of MMR management. Credit cards, for example are qualitatively different than in-store credit operations. They are two-sided platforms that substitute for in-house operations — but they also create an entirely new product and product market. MMR marketing firms do lower some transaction costs and reduce risk for collegiate sports marketing, but the product is not substantially changed — in fact, schools must have the knowledge and personnel to assess and enter into the initial sale of MMRs to an intermediary and, because of ongoing revenue-sharing and coordination with the intermediary, must devote ongoing resources even after the initial sale.

But will a merged entity have “too much” power? Imagine if a single firm owned the MMRs for nearly all intercollegiate competitors. How would it be able to exercise its supposed market power? Because each deal is negotiated separately, and, other than some mundane, fixed back-office expenses, the costs of rights management must be incurred whether a firm negotiates one deal or 100, there are no substantial economies of scale in the purchasing of MMRs. As a result, the existence of deals with other schools won’t automatically translate into better deals with subsequent schools.

Now, imagine if one school retained its own MMRs, but decided it might want to license them to an intermediary. Does it face anticompetitive market conditions if there is only a single provider of such services? To begin with, there is never only a single provider, as each school can provide the services in-house. This is not even the traditional monopoly constraint of simply “not buying,” which makes up the textbook “deadweight loss” from monopoly: In this case “not buying” does not mean going without; it simply means providing for oneself.

More importantly, because the school has a monopoly on access to its own marketing rights (to say nothing of access to its own physical facilities) unless and until it licenses them, its own bargaining power is largely independent of an intermediary’s access to other schools’ rights. If it were otherwise, each school would face anticompetitive market conditions simply by virtue of other schools’ owning their own rights!

It is possible that a larger, older firm will have more expertise and will be better able to negotiate deals with other schools — i.e., it will reap the benefits of learning by doing. But the returns to learning by doing derive from the ability to offer higher-quality/lower-cost services over time — which are a source of economic benefit, not cost. At the same time, the bulk of the benefits of experience may be gained over time with even a single set of MMRs, given the ever-varying range of circumstances even a single school will create: There may be little additional benefit (and, to be sure, there is additional cost) from managing multiple schools’ MMRs. And whatever benefits specialized firms offer, they also come with agency costs, and an intermediary’s specialized knowledge about marketing MMRs may or may not outweigh a school’s own specialized knowledge about the nuances of its particular circumstances. Moreover, because of knowledge spillovers and employee turnover this marketing expertise is actually widely distributed; not surprisingly, JMI Sports’ MMR unit, one of the most recent and successful entrants into the business was started by a former employee of IMG. Several other firms started out the same way.

The right way to begin thinking about the issue is this: Imagine if MMR intermediaries didn’t exist — what would happen? In this case, the answer is readily apparent because, for a significant number of schools (about 37% of Division I schools, in fact) MMR licensing is handled in-house, without the use of intermediaries. These schools do, in fact, attract advertisers, and there is little indication that they earn less net profit for going it alone. Schools with larger audiences, better targeted to certain advertisers’ products, command higher prices. Each school enjoys an effective monopoly over advertising channels around its own games, and each has bargaining power derived from its particular attractiveness to particular advertisers.

In effect, each school faces a number of possible options for MMR monetization — most notably a) up-front contracting to an intermediary, which then absorbs the risk, expense, and possible up-side of ongoing licensing to advertisers, or b) direct, ongoing licensing to advertisers. The presence of the intermediary doesn’t appreciably change the market, nor the relative bargaining power of sellers (schools) and buyers (advertisers) of advertising space any more than the presence of temp firms transforms the fundamental relationship between employers and potential part-time employees.

In making their decisions, schools always have the option of taking their MMR management in-house. In facing competing bids from firms such as IMG or Learfield, from their own conferences, or from professional sports teams, the opening bid, in a sense, comes from the school itself. Even the biggest intermediary in the industry must offer the school a deal that is at least as good as managing the MMRs in-house.

The true relevant market: Advertising

According to economist Andy Schwarz, if the relevant market is “college-based marketing services to Power 5 schools, the antitrust authorities may have more concerns than if it’s marketing services in sports.” But this entirely misses the real market exchange here. Sure, marketing services are purchased by schools, but their value to the schools is independent of the number of other schools an intermediary also markets.

Advertisers always have the option of deploying their ad dollars elsewhere. If Coca-Cola wants to advertise on Auburn’s stadium video board, it’s because Auburn’s video board is a profitable outlet for advertising, not because the Auburn ads are bundled with advertising at dozens of other schools (although that bundling may reduce the total cost of advertising on Auburn’s scoreboard as well as other outlets). Similarly, Auburn is seeking the highest bidder for space on its video board. It does not matter to Auburn that the University of Georgia is using the same intermediary to sell ads on its stadium video board.

The willingness of purchasers — say, Coca-Cola or Toyota — to pay for collegiate multimedia advertising is a function of the school that licenses it (net transaction costs) — and MMR agents like IMG and Learfield commit substantial guaranteed sums and a share of any additional profits for the rights to sell that advertising: For example, IMG recently agreed to pay $150 million over 10 years to renew its MMR contract at UCLA. But this is the value of a particular, niche form of advertising, determined within the context of the broader advertising market. How much pricing power over scoreboard advertising does any university, or even any group of universities under the umbrella of an intermediary have, in a world in which Coke and Toyota can advertise virtually anywhere — including during commercial breaks in televised intercollegiate games, which are licensed separately from the MMRs licensed by companies like IMG and Learfield?

There is, in other words, a hard ceiling on what intermediaries can charge schools for MMR marketing services: The schools’ own cost of operating a comparable program in-house.

To be sure, for advertisers, large MMR marketing firms lower the transaction costs of buying advertising space across a range of schools, presumably increasing demand for intercollegiate sports advertising and sponsorship. But sponsors and advertisers have a wide range of options for spending their marketing dollars. Intercollegiate sports MMRs are a small slice of the sports advertising market, which, in turn, is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even if one were to incorrectly describe the combined entity as a “juggernaut” in intercollegiate sports, the MMR rights it sells would still be a flyspeck in the broader market of multimedia advertising.

According to one calculation (by MoffettNathanson), total ad spending in the U.S. was about $191 billion in 2016 (Pew Research Center estimates total ad revenue at $240 billion) and the global advertising market was estimated to be worth about $493 billion. The intercollegiate MMR segment represents a minuscule fraction of that. According to Jason Belzer, “[a]t the time of its sale to WME in 2013, IMG College’s yearly revenue was nearly $500 million….” Another source puts it at $375 million. Either way, it’s a fraction of one percent of the total market, and even combined with Learfield it will remain a minuscule fraction. Even if one were to define a far narrower sports sponsorship market, which a Price Waterhouse estimate puts at around $16 billion, the combined companies would still have a tiny market share.

As sellers of MMRs, colleges are competing with each other, professional sports such as the NFL and NBA, and with non-sports marketing opportunities. And it’s a huge and competitive market.

Barriers to entry

While capital requirements and the presence of long-term contracts may present challenges to potential entrants into the business of marketing MMRs, these potential entrants face virtually no barriers that are not, or have not been, faced by incumbent providers. In this context, one should keep in mind two factors. First, barriers to entry are properly defined as costs incurred by new entrants that are not incurred by incumbents (no matter what Joe Bain says; Stigler always wins this dispute…). Every firm must bear the cost of negotiating and managing each schools’ MMRs, and, as noted, these costs don’t vary significantly with the number of schools being managed. And every entrant needs approximately the same capital and human resources per similarly sized school as every incumbent. Thus, in this context, neither the need for capital nor dedicated employees is properly construed as a barrier to entry.

Second, as the DOJ and FTC acknowledge in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, any merger can be lawful under the antitrust laws, no matter its market share, where there are no significant barriers to entry:

The prospect of entry into the relevant market will alleviate concerns about adverse competitive effects… if entry into the market is so easy that the merged firm and its remaining rivals in the market, either unilaterally or collectively, could not profitably raise price or otherwise reduce competition compared to the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

As noted, there are low economies of scale in the business, with most of the economies occurring in the relatively small “back office” work of payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits. Since the 2000s, the entry of several significant competitors — many entering with only one or two schools or specializing in smaller or niche markets — strongly suggests that there are no economically important barriers to entry. And these firms have entered and succeeded with a wide range of business models and firm sizes:

  • JMI Sports — a “rising boutique firm” — hired Tom Stultz, the former senior vice president and managing director of IMG’s MMR business, in 2012. JMI won its first (and thus, at the time, only) MMR bid in 2014 at the University of Kentucky, besting IMG to win the deal.
  • Peak Sports MGMT, founded in 2012, is a small-scale MMR firm that focuses on lesser Division I and II schools in Texas and the Midwest. It manages just seven small properties, including Southland Conference schools like the University of Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana University.
  • Fox Sports entered the business in 2008 with a deal with the University of Florida. It now handles MMRs for schools like Georgetown, Auburn, and Villanova. Fox’s entry suggests that other media companies — like ESPN — that may already own TV broadcast rights are also potential entrants.
  • In 2014 the sports advertising firm, Van Wagner, hired three former Nelligan employees to make a play for the college sports space. In 2015 the company won its first MMR bid at Florida International University, reportedly against seven other participants. It now handles more than a dozen schools including Georgia State (which it won from IMG), Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Stony Brook, and Santa Clara.
  • In 2001 Fenway Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, entered into an MMR agreement with Boston College. And earlier this year the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team began handling multimedia marketing for the University of South Florida.

Potential new entrants abound. Most obviously, sports networks like ESPN could readily follow Fox Sports’ lead and advertising firms could follow Van Wagner’s. These companies have existing relationships and expertise that position them for easy entry into the MMR business. Moreover, there are already several companies that handle the trademark licensing for schools, any of which could move into the MMR management business, as well; both IMG and Learfield already handle licensing for a number of schools. Most notably, Fermata Partners, founded in 2012 by former IMG employees and acquired in 2015 by CAA Sports (a division of Creative Artists Agency), has trademark licensing agreements with Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, Notre Dame, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It could easily expand into selling MMR rights for these and other schools. Other licensing firms like Exemplar (which handles licensing at Columbia) and 289c (which handles licensing at Texas and Ohio State) could also easily expand into MMR.

Given the relatively trivial economies of scale, the minimum viable scale for a new entrant appears to be approximately one school — a size that each school’s in-house operations, of course, automatically meets. Moreover, the Peak Sports, Fenway, and Tampa Bay Lightning examples suggest that there may be particular benefits to local, regional, or category specialization, suggesting that innovative, new entry is not only possible, but even likely, as the business continues to evolve.

Conclusion

A merger between IMG and Learfield should not raise any antitrust issues. College sports is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even a so-called “juggernaut” in college sports multimedia rights is a small bit in the broader market of multimedia marketing.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to bringing MMR management in-house, indicates that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

The term “juggernaut” entered the English language because of misinterpretation and exaggeration of actual events. Fears of the IMG/Learfield merger crushing competition is similarly based on a misinterpretation of two-sided markets and misunderstanding of the reality of the of the market for college multimedia rights management. Importantly, the case is also a cautionary tale for those who would identify narrow, contract-, channel-, or platform-specific relevant markets in circumstances where a range of intermediaries and direct relationships can compete to offer the same service as those being scrutinized. Antitrust advocates have a long and inglorious history of defining markets by channels of distribution or other convenient, yet often economically inappropriate, combinations of firms or products. Yet the presence of marketing or other intermediaries does not automatically transform a basic, commercial relationship into a novel, two-sided market necessitating narrow market definitions and creative economics.

In recent years, the European Union’s (EU) administrative body, the European Commission (EC), increasingly has applied European competition law in a manner that undermines free market dynamics.  In particular, its approach to “dominant” firm conduct disincentivizes highly successful companies from introducing product and service innovations that enhance consumer welfare and benefit the economy – merely because they threaten to harm less efficient competitors.

For example, the EC fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for its failure to adhere to an order that it offer a version of its Window software suite that did not include its popular Windows Media Player (WMP) – despite the lack of consumer demand for a “dumbed down” Windows without WMP.  This EC intrusion into software design has been described as a regulatory “quagmire.”

In June 2017 the EC fined Google 2.42 billion euros for allegedly favoring its own comparison shopping service over others favored in displaying Google search results – ignoring economic research that shows Google’s search policies benefit consumers.  Google also faces potentially higher EC antitrust fines due to alleged abuses involving android software (bundling of popular Google search and Chrome apps), a product that has helped spur dynamic smartphone innovations and foster new markets.

Furthermore, other highly innovative single firms, such as Apple and Amazon (favorable treatment deemed “state aids”), Qualcomm (alleged anticompetitive discounts), and Facebook (in connection with its WhatsApp acquisition), face substantial EC competition law penalties.

Underlying the EC’s current enforcement philosophy is an implicit presumption that innovations by dominant firms violate competition law if they in any way appear to disadvantage competitors.  That presumption forgoes considering the actual effects on the competitive process of dominant firm activities.  This is a recipe for reduced innovation, as successful firms “pull their competitive punches” to avoid onerous penalties.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) implicitly recognized this problem in its September 6, 2017 decision setting aside the European General Court’s affirmance of the EC’s 2009 1.06 billion euro fine against Intel.  Intel involved allegedly anticompetitive “loyalty rebates” by Intel, which allowed buyers to achieve cost savings in Intel chip purchases.  In remanding the Intel case to the General Court for further legal and factual analysis, the ECJ’s opinion stressed that the EC needed to do more than find a dominant position and categorize the rebates in order to hold Intel liable.  The EC also needed to assess the “capacity of [Intel’s] . . . practice to foreclose competitors which are at least as efficient” and whether any exclusionary effect was outweighed by efficiencies that also benefit consumers.  In short, evidence-based antitrust analysis was required.  Mere reliance on presumptions was not enough.  Why?  Because competition on the merits is centered on the recognition that the departure of less efficient competitors is part and parcel of consumer welfare-based competition on the merits.  As the ECJ cogently put it:

[I]t must be borne in mind that it is in no way the purpose of Article 102 TFEU [which prohibits abuse of a dominant position] to prevent an undertaking from acquiring, on its own merits, the dominant position on a market.  Nor does that provision seek to ensure that competitors less efficient than the undertaking with the dominant position should remain on the market . . . .  [N]ot every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation[.]

Although the ECJ’s recent decision is commendable, it does not negate the fact that Intel had to wait eight years to have its straightforward arguments receive attention – and the saga is far from over, since the General Court has to address this matter once again.  These sorts of long-term delays, during which firms face great uncertainty (and the threat of further EC investigations and fines), are antithetical to innovative activity by enterprises deemed dominant.  In short, unless and until the EC changes its competition policy perspective on dominant firm conduct (and there are no indications that such a change is imminent), innovation and economic dynamism will suffer.

Even if the EC dithers, the United Kingdom’s (UK) imminent withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) provides it with a unique opportunity to blaze a new competition policy trail – and perhaps in so doing influence other jurisdictions.

In particular, Brexit will enable the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to adopt an outlook on competition policy in general – and on single firm conduct in particular – that is more sensitive to innovation and economic dynamism.  What might such a CMA enforcement policy look like?  It should reject the EC’s current approach.  It should focus instead on the actual effects of competitive activity.  In particular, it should incorporate the insights of decision theory (see here, for example) and place great weight on efficiencies (see here, for example).

Let us hope that the CMA acts boldly – carpe diem.  Such action, combined with other regulatory reforms, could contribute substantially to the economic success of Brexit (see here).

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) Antitrust and Consumer Protection Research Program released a new white paper by Geoffrey A. Manne and Allen Gibby entitled:

A Brief Assessment of the Procompetitive Effects of Organizational Restructuring in the Ag-Biotech Industry

Over the past two decades, rapid technological innovation has transformed the industrial organization of the ag-biotech industry. These developments have contributed to an impressive increase in crop yields, a dramatic reduction in chemical pesticide use, and a substantial increase in farm profitability.

One of the most striking characteristics of this organizational shift has been a steady increase in consolidation. The recent announcements of mergers between Dow and DuPont, ChemChina and Syngenta, and Bayer and Monsanto suggest that these trends are continuing in response to new market conditions and a marked uptick in scientific and technological advances.

Regulators and industry watchers are often concerned that increased consolidation will lead to reduced innovation, and a greater incentive and ability for the largest firms to foreclose competition and raise prices. But ICLE’s examination of the underlying competitive dynamics in the ag-biotech industry suggests that such concerns are likely unfounded.

In fact, R&D spending within the seeds and traits industry increased nearly 773% between 1995 and 2015 (from roughly $507 million to $4.4 billion), while the combined market share of the six largest companies in the segment increased by more than 550% (from about 10% to over 65%) during the same period.

Firms today are consolidating in order to innovate and remain competitive in an industry replete with new entrants and rapidly evolving technological and scientific developments.

According to ICLE’s analysis, critics have unduly focused on the potential harms from increased integration, without properly accounting for the potential procompetitive effects. Our brief white paper highlights these benefits and suggests that a more nuanced and restrained approach to enforcement is warranted.

Our analysis suggests that, as in past periods of consolidation, the industry is well positioned to see an increase in innovation as these new firms unite complementary expertise to pursue more efficient and effective research and development. They should also be better able to help finance, integrate, and coordinate development of the latest scientific and technological developments — particularly in rapidly growing, data-driven “digital farming” —  throughout the industry.

Download the paper here.

And for more on the topic, revisit TOTM’s recent blog symposium, “Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries,” here.

Geoffrey A. Manne is Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics

Dynamic versus static competition

Ever since David Teece and coauthors began writing about antitrust and innovation in high-tech industries in the 1980s, we’ve understood that traditional, price-based antitrust analysis is not intrinsically well-suited for assessing merger policy in these markets.

For high-tech industries, performance, not price, is paramount — which means that innovation is key:

Competition in some markets may take the form of Schumpeterian rivalry in which a succession of temporary monopolists displace one another through innovation. At any one time, there is little or no head-to-head price competition but there is significant ongoing innovation competition.

Innovative industries are often marked by frequent disruptions or “paradigm shifts” rather than horizontal market share contests, and investment in innovation is an important signal of competition. And competition comes from the continual threat of new entry down the road — often from competitors who, though they may start with relatively small market shares, or may arise in different markets entirely, can rapidly and unexpectedly overtake incumbents.

Which, of course, doesn’t mean that current competition and ease of entry are irrelevant. Rather, because, as Joanna Shepherd noted, innovation should be assessed across the entire industry and not solely within merging firms, conduct that might impede new, disruptive, innovative entry is indeed relevant.

But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.

In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”

What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.

We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.

As Katz and Shelanski note:

To assess fully the impact of a merger on market performance, merger authorities and courts must examine how a proposed transaction changes market participants’ incentives and abilities to undertake investments in innovation.

At the same time, they point out that

Innovation can dramatically affect the relationship between the pre-merger marketplace and what is likely to happen if the proposed merger is consummated…. [This requires consideration of] how innovation will affect the evolution of market structure and competition. Innovation is a force that could make static measures of market structure unreliable or irrelevant, and the effects of innovation may be highly relevant to whether a merger should be challenged and to the kind of remedy antitrust authorities choose to adopt. (Emphasis added).

Dynamic competition in the ag-biotech industry

These dynamics seem to be playing out in the ag-biotech industry. (For a detailed look at how the specific characteristics of innovation in the ag-biotech industry have shaped industry structure, see, e.g., here (pdf)).  

One inconvenient truth for the “concentration reduces innovation” crowd is that, as the industry has experienced more consolidation, it has also become more, not less, productive and innovative. Between 1995 and 2015, for example, the market share of the largest seed producers and crop protection firms increased substantially. And yet, over the same period, annual industry R&D spending went up nearly 750 percent. Meanwhile, the resulting innovations have increased crop yields by 22%, reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

In her discussion of the importance of considering the “innovation ecosystem” in assessing the innovation effects of mergers in R&D-intensive industries, Joanna Shepherd noted that

In many consolidated firms, increases in efficiency and streamlining of operations free up money and resources to source external innovation. To improve their future revenue streams and market share, consolidated firms can be expected to use at least some of the extra resources to acquire external innovation. This increase in demand for externally-sourced innovation increases the prices paid for external assets, which, in turn, incentivizes more early-stage innovation in small firms and biotech companies. Aggregate innovation increases in the process!

The same dynamic seems to play out in the ag-biotech industry, as well:

The seed-biotechnology industry has been reliant on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as sources of new innovation. New SME startups (often spinoffs from university research) tend to specialize in commercial development of a new research tool, genetic trait, or both. Significant entry by SMEs into the seed-biotechnology sector began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a second wave of new entrants in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, exits have outnumbered entrants, and by 2008 just over 30 SMEs specializing in crop biotechnology were still active. The majority of the exits from the industry were the result of acquisition by larger firms. Of 27 crop biotechnology SMEs that were acquired between 1985 and 2009, 20 were acquired either directly by one of the Big 6 or by a company that itself was eventually acquired by a Big 6 company.

While there is more than one way to interpret these statistics (and they are often used by merger opponents, in fact, to lament increasing concentration), they are actually at least as consistent with an increase in innovation through collaboration (and acquisition) as with a decrease.

For what it’s worth, this is exactly how the startup community views the innovation ecosystem in the ag-biotech industry, as well. As the latest AgFunder AgTech Investing Report states:

The large agribusinesses understand that new innovation is key to their future, but the lack of M&A [by the largest agribusiness firms in 2016] highlighted their uncertainty about how to approach it. They will need to make more acquisitions to ensure entrepreneurs keep innovating and VCs keep investing.

It’s also true, as Diana Moss notes, that

Competition maximizes the potential for numerous collaborations. It also minimizes incentives to refuse to license, to impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or to tacitly “agree” not to compete…. All of this points to the importance of maintaining multiple, parallel R&D pipelines, a notion that was central to the EU’s decision in Dow-DuPont.

And yet collaboration and licensing have long been prevalent in this industry. Examples are legion, but here are just a few significant ones:

  • Monsanto’s “global licensing agreement for the use of the CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology in agriculture with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.”
  • Dow and Arcadia Biosciences’ “strategic collaboration to develop and commercialize new breakthrough yield traits and trait stacks in corn.”
  • Monsanto and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “licensing agreement to develop crops tolerant to the broadleaf herbicide dicamba. This agreement is based on discoveries by UNL plant scientists.”

Both large and small firms in the ag-biotech industry continually enter into new agreements like these. See, e.g., here and here for a (surely incomplete) list of deals in 2016 alone.

At the same time, across the industry, new entry has been rampant despite increased M&A activity among the largest firms. Recent years have seen venture financing in AgTech skyrocket — from $400 million in 2010 to almost $5 billion in 2015 — and hundreds of startups now enter the industry annually.

The pending mergers

Today’s pending mergers are consistent with this characterization of a dynamic market in which structure is being driven by incentives to innovate, rather than monopolize. As Michael Sykuta points out,

The US agriculture sector has been experiencing consolidation at all levels for decades, even as the global ag economy has been growing and becoming more diverse. Much of this consolidation has been driven by technological changes that created economies of scale, both at the farm level and beyond.

These deals aren’t fundamentally about growing production capacity, expanding geographic reach, or otherwise enhancing market share; rather, each is a fundamental restructuring of the way the companies do business, reflecting today’s shifting agricultural markets, and the advanced technology needed to respond to them.

Technological innovation is unpredictable, often serendipitous, and frequently transformative of the ways firms organize and conduct their businesses. A company formed to grow and sell hybrid seeds in the 1920s, for example, would either have had to evolve or fold by the end of the century. Firms today will need to develop (or purchase) new capabilities and adapt to changing technology, scientific knowledge, consumer demand, and socio-political forces. The pending mergers seemingly fit exactly this mold.

As Allen Gibby notes, these mergers are essentially vertical combinations of disparate, specialized pieces of an integrated whole. Take the proposed Bayer/Monsanto merger, for example. Bayer is primarily a chemicals company, developing advanced chemicals to protect crops and enhance crop growth. Monsanto, on the other hand, primarily develops seeds and “seed traits” — advanced characteristics that ensure the heartiness of the seeds, give them resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and speed their fertilization and growth. In order to translate the individual advances of each into higher yields, it is important that these two functions work successfully together. Doing so enhances crop growth and protection far beyond what, say, spreading manure can accomplish — or either firm could accomplish working on its own.

The key is that integrated knowledge is essential to making this process function. Developing seed traits to work well with (i.e., to withstand) certain pesticides requires deep knowledge of the pesticide’s chemical characteristics, and vice-versa. Processing huge amounts of data to determine when to apply chemical treatments or to predict a disease requires not only that the right information is collected, at the right time, but also that it is analyzed in light of the unique characteristics of the seeds and chemicals. Increased communications and data-sharing between manufacturers increases the likelihood that farmers will use the best products available in the right quantity and at the right time in each field.

Vertical integration solves bargaining and long-term planning problems by unifying the interests (and the management) of these functions. Instead of arm’s length negotiation, a merged Bayer/Monsanto, for example, may better maximize R&D of complicated Ag/chem products through fully integrated departments and merged areas of expertise. A merged company can also coordinate investment decisions (instead of waiting up to 10 years to see what the other company produces), avoid duplication of research, adapt to changing conditions (and the unanticipated course of research), pool intellectual property, and bolster internal scientific capability more efficiently. All told, the merged company projects spending about $16 billion on R&D over the next six years. Such coordinated investment will likely garner far more than either company could from separately spending even the same amount to develop new products. 

Controlling an entire R&D process and pipeline of traits for resistance, chemical treatments, seeds, and digital complements would enable the merged firm to better ensure that each of these products works together to maximize crop yields, at the lowest cost, and at greater speed. Consider the advantages that Apple’s tightly-knit ecosystem of software and hardware provides to computer and device users. Such tight integration isn’t the only way to compete (think Android), but it has frequently proven to be a successful model, facilitating some functions (e.g., handoff between Macs and iPhones) that are difficult if not impossible in less-integrated systems. And, it bears noting, important elements of Apple’s innovation have come through acquisition….

Conclusion

As LaFontaine and Slade have made clear, theoretical concerns about the anticompetitive consequences of vertical integrations are belied by the virtual absence of empirical support:

Under most circumstances, profit–maximizing vertical–integration and merger decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view.

Other antitrust scholars are skeptical of vertical-integration fears because firms normally have strong incentives to deal with providers of complementary products. Bayer and Monsanto, for example, might benefit enormously from integration, but if competing seed producers seek out Bayer’s chemicals to develop competing products, there’s little reason for the merged firm to withhold them: Even if the new seeds out-compete Monsanto’s, Bayer/Monsanto can still profit from providing the crucial input. Its incentive doesn’t necessarily change if the merger goes through, and whatever “power” Bayer has as an input is a function of its scientific know-how, not its merger with Monsanto.

In other words, while some competitors could find a less hospitable business environment, consumers will likely suffer no apparent ill effects, and continue to receive the benefits of enhanced product development and increased productivity.

That’s what we’d expect from innovation-driven integration, and antitrust enforcers should be extremely careful before thwarting or circumscribing these mergers lest they end up thwarting, rather than promoting, consumer welfare.

Michael Sykuta is Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Director, Contracting Organizations Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

The US agriculture sector has been experiencing consolidation at all levels for decades, even as the global ag economy has been growing and becoming more diverse. Much of this consolidation has been driven by technological changes that created economies of scale, both at the farm level and beyond.

Likewise, the role of technology has changed the face of agriculture, particularly in the past 20 years since the commercial introduction of the first genetically modified (GMO) crops. However, biotechnology itself comprises only a portion of the technology change. The development of global positioning systems (GPS) and GPS-enabled equipment have created new opportunities for precision agriculture, whether for the application of crop inputs, crop management, or yield monitoring. The development of unmanned and autonomous vehicles and remote sensing technologies, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. UAVs, or “drones”), have created new opportunities for field scouting, crop monitoring, and real-time field management. And currently, the development of Big Data analytics is promising to combine all of the different types of data associated with agricultural production in ways intended to improve the application of all the various technologies and to guide production decisions.

Now, with the pending mergers of several major agricultural input and life sciences companies, regulators are faced with a challenge: How to evaluate the competitive effects of such mergers in the face of such a complex and dynamic technology environment—particularly when these technologies are not independent of one another? What is the relevant market for considering competitive effects and what are the implications for technology development? And how does the nature of the technology itself implicate the economic efficiencies underlying these mergers?

Before going too far, it is important to note that while the three cases currently under review (i.e., ChemChina/Syngenta, Dow/DuPont, and Bayer/Monsanto) are frequently lumped together in discussions, the three present rather different competitive cases—particularly within the US. For instance, ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta will not, in itself, meaningfully change market concentration. However, financial backing from ChemChina may allow Syngenta to buy up the discards from other deals, such as the parts of DuPont that the EU Commission is requiring to be divested or the seed assets Bayer is reportedly looking to sell to preempt regulatory concerns, as well as other smaller competitors.

Dow-DuPont is perhaps the most head-to-head of the three mergers in terms of R&D and product lines. Both firms are in the top five in the US for pesticide manufacturing and for seeds. However, the Dow-DuPont merger is about much more than combining agricultural businesses. The Dow-DuPont deal specifically aims to create and spin-off three different companies specializing in agriculture, material science, and specialty products. Although agriculture may be the business line in which the companies most overlap, it represents just over 21% of the combined businesses’ annual revenues.

Bayer-Monsanto is yet a different sort of pairing. While both companies are among the top five in US pesticide manufacturing (with combined sales less than Syngenta and about equal to Dow without DuPont), Bayer is a relatively minor player in the seed industry. Likewise, Monsanto is focused almost exclusively on crop production and digital farming technologies, offering little overlap to Bayer’s human health or animal nutrition businesses.

Despite the differences in these deals, they tend to be lumped together and discussed almost exclusively in the context of pesticide manufacturing or crop protection more generally. In so doing, the discussion misses some important aspects of these deals that may mitigate traditional competitive concerns within the pesticide industry.

Mergers as the Key to Unlocking Innovation and Value

First, as the Dow-DuPont merger suggests, mergers may be the least-cost way of (re)organizing assets in ways that maximize value. This is especially true for R&D-intensive industries where intellectual property and innovation are at the core of competitive advantage. Absent the protection of common ownership, neither party would have an incentive to fully disclose the nature of its IP and innovation pipeline. In this case, merging interests increases the efficiency of information sharing so that managers can effectively evaluate and reorganize assets in ways that maximize innovation and return on investment.

Dow and DuPont each have a wide range of areas of application. Both groups of managers recognize that each of their business lines would be stronger as focused, independent entities; but also recognize that the individual elements of their portfolios would be stronger if combined with those of the other company. While the EU Commission argues that Dow-DuPont would reduce the incentive to innovate in the pesticide industry—a dubious claim in itself—the commission seems to ignore the potential increases in efficiency, innovation and ability to serve customer interests across all three of the proposed new businesses. At a minimum, gains in those industries should be weighed against any alleged losses in the agriculture industry.

This is not the first such agricultural and life sciences “reorganization through merger”. The current manifestation of Monsanto is the spin-off of a previous merger between Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn in 2000 that created today’s Pharmacia. At the time of the Pharmacia transaction, Monsanto had portfolios in agricultural products, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. After reorganizing assets within Pharmacia, three business lines were created: agricultural products (the current Monsanto), pharmaceuticals (now Pharmacia, a subsidiary of Pfizer), and chemicals (now Solutia, a subsidiary of Eastman Chemical Co.). Merging interests allowed Monsanto and Pharmacia & Upjohn to create more focused business lines that were better positioned to pursue innovations and serve customers in their respective industries.

In essence, Dow-DuPont is following the same playbook. Although such intentions have not been announced, Bayer’s broad product portfolio suggests a similar long-term play with Monsanto is likely.

Interconnected Technologies, Innovation, and the Margins of Competition

As noted above, regulatory scrutiny of these three mergers focuses on them in the context of pesticide or agricultural chemical manufacturing. However, innovation in the ag chemicals industry is intricately interwoven with developments in other areas of agricultural technology that have rather different competition and innovation dynamics. The current technological wave in agriculture involves the use of Big Data to create value using the myriad data now available through GPS-enabled precision farming equipment. Monsanto and DuPont, through its Pioneer subsidiary, are both players in this developing space, sometimes referred to as “digital farming”.

Digital farming services are intended to assist farmers’ production decision making and increase farm productivity. Using GPS-coded field maps that include assessments of soil conditions, combined with climate data for the particular field, farm input companies can recommend the types of rates of applications for soil conditioning pre-harvest, seed types for planting, and crop protection products during the growing season. Yield monitors at harvest provide outcomes data for feedback to refine and improve the algorithms that are used in subsequent growing seasons.

The integration of digital farming services with seed and chemical manufacturing offers obvious economic benefits for farmers and competitive benefits for service providers. Input manufacturers have incentive to conduct data analytics that individual farmers do not. Farmers have limited analytic resources and relatively small returns to investing in such resources, while input manufacturers have broad market potential for their analytic services. Moreover, by combining data from a broad cross-section of farms, digital farming service companies have access to the data necessary to identify generalizable correlations between farm plot characteristics, input use, and yield rates.

But the value of the information developed through these analytics is not unidirectional in its application and value creation. While input manufacturers may be able to help improve farmers’ operations given the current stock of products, feedback about crop traits and performance also enhances R&D for new product development by identifying potential product attributes with greater market potential. By combining product portfolios, agricultural companies can not only increase the value of their data-driven services for farmers, but more efficiently target R&D resources to their highest potential use.

The synergy between input manufacturing and digital farming notwithstanding, seed and chemical input companies are not the only players in the digital farming space. Equipment manufacturer John Deere was an early entrant in exploiting the information value of data collected by sensors on its equipment. Other remote sensing technology companies have incentive to develop data analytic tools to create value for their data-generating products. Even downstream companies, like ADM, have expressed interest in investing in digital farming assets that might provide new revenue streams with their farmer-suppliers as well as facilitate more efficient specialty crop and identity-preserved commodity-based value chains.

The development of digital farming is still in its early stages and is far from a sure bet for any particular player. Even Monsanto has pulled back from its initial foray into prescriptive digital farming (call FieldScripts). These competitive forces will affect the dynamics of competition at all stages of farm production, including seed and chemicals. Failure to account for those dynamics, and the potential competitive benefits input manufacturers may provide, could lead regulators to overestimate any concerns of competitive harm from the proposed mergers.

Conclusion

Farmers are concerned about the effects of these big-name tie-ups. Farmers may be rightly concerned, but for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, the role of the farmer continues to be diminished in the agricultural value chain. As precision agriculture tools and Big Data analytics reduce the value of idiosyncratic or tacit knowledge at the farm level, the managerial human capital of farmers becomes relatively less important in terms of value-added. It would be unwise to confuse farmers’ concerns regarding the competitive effects of the kinds of mergers we’re seeing now with the actual drivers of change in the agricultural value chain.

A number of blockbuster mergers have received (often negative) attention from media and competition authorities in recent months. From the recently challenged Staples-Office Depot merger to the abandoned Comcast-Time Warner merger to the heavily scrutinized Aetna-Humana merger (among many others), there has been a wave of potential mega-mergers throughout the economy—many of them met with regulatory resistance. We’ve discussed several of these mergers at TOTM (see, e.g., here, here, here and here).

Many reporters, analysts, and even competition authorities have adopted various degrees of the usual stance that big is bad, and bigger is even badder. But worse yet, once this presumption applies, agencies have been skeptical of claimed efficiencies, placing a heightened burden on the merging parties to prove them and often ignoring them altogether. And, of course (and perhaps even worse still), there is the perennial problem of (often questionable) market definition — which tanked the Sysco/US Foods merger and which undergirds the FTC’s challenge of the Staples/Office Depot merger.

All of these issues are at play in the proposed acquisition of British aluminum can manufacturer Rexam PLC by American can manufacturer Ball Corp., which has likewise drawn the attention of competition authorities around the world — including those in Brazil, the European Union, and the United States.

But the Ball/Rexam merger has met with some important regulatory successes. Just recently the members of CADE, Brazil’s competition authority, unanimously approved the merger with limited divestitures. The most recent reports also indicate that the EU will likely approve it, as well. It’s now largely down to the FTC, which should approve the merger and not kill it or over-burden it with required divestitures on the basis of questionable antitrust economics.

The proposed merger raises a number of interesting issues in the surprisingly complex beverage container market. But this merger merits regulatory approval.

The International Center for Law & Economics recently released a research paper entitled, The Ball-Rexam Merger: The Case for a Competitive Can Market. The white paper offers an in-depth assessment of the economics of the beverage packaging industry; the place of the Ball-Rexam merger within this remarkably complex, global market; and the likely competitive effects of the deal.

The upshot is that the proposed merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects, and any competitive concerns that do arise can be readily addressed by a few targeted divestitures.

The bottom line

The production and distribution of aluminum cans is a surprisingly dynamic industry, characterized by evolving technology, shifting demand, complex bargaining dynamics, and significant changes in the costs of production and distribution. Despite the superficial appearance that the proposed merger will increase concentration in aluminum can manufacturing, we conclude that a proper understanding of the marketplace dynamics suggests that the merger is unlikely to have actual anticompetitive effects.

All told, and as we summarize in our Executive Summary, we found at least seven specific reasons for this conclusion:

  1. Because the appropriately defined product market includes not only stand-alone can manufacturers, but also vertically integrated beverage companies, as well as plastic and glass packaging manufacturers, the actual increase in concentration from the merger will be substantially less than suggested by the change in the number of nationwide aluminum can manufacturers.
  2. Moreover, in nearly all of the relevant geographic markets (which are much smaller than the typically nationwide markets from which concentration numbers are derived), the merger will not affect market concentration at all.
  3. While beverage packaging isn’t a typical, rapidly evolving, high-technology market, technological change is occurring. Coupled with shifting consumer demand (often driven by powerful beverage company marketing efforts), and considerable (and increasing) buyer power, historical beverage packaging market shares may have little predictive value going forward.
  4. The key importance of transportation costs and the effects of current input prices suggest that expanding demand can be effectively met only by expanding the geographic scope of production and by economizing on aluminum supply costs. These, in turn, suggest that increasing overall market concentration is consistent with increased, rather than decreased, competitiveness.
  5. The markets in which Ball and Rexam operate are dominated by a few large customers, who are themselves direct competitors in the upstream marketplace. These companies have shown a remarkable willingness and ability to invest in competing packaging supply capacity and to exert their substantial buyer power to discipline prices.
  6. For this same reason, complaints leveled against the proposed merger by these beverage giants — which are as much competitors as they are customers of the merging companies — should be viewed with skepticism.
  7. Finally, the merger should generate significant managerial and overhead efficiencies, and the merged firm’s expanded geographic footprint should allow it to service larger geographic areas for its multinational customers, thus lowering transaction costs and increasing its value to these customers.

Distinguishing Ardagh: The interchangeability of aluminum and glass

An important potential sticking point for the FTC’s review of the merger is its recent decision to challenge the Ardagh-Saint Gobain merger. The cases are superficially similar, in that they both involve beverage packaging. But Ardagh should not stand as a model for the Commission’s treatment of Ball/Rexam. The FTC made a number of mistakes in Ardagh (including market definition and the treatment of efficiencies — the latter of which brought out a strenuous dissent from Commissioner Wright). But even on its own (questionable) terms, Ardagh shouldn’t mean trouble for Ball/Rexam.

As we noted in our December 1st letter to the FTC on the Ball/Rexam merger, and as we discuss in detail in the paper, the situation in the aluminum can market is quite different than the (alleged) market for “(1) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Brewers; and (2) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Distillers” at issue in Ardagh.

Importantly, the FTC found (almost certainly incorrectly, at least for the brewers) that other container types (e.g., plastic bottles and aluminum cans) were not part of the relevant product market in Ardagh. But in the markets in which aluminum cans are a primary form of packaging (most notably, soda and beer), our research indicates that glass, plastic, and aluminum are most definitely substitutes.

The Big Four beverage companies (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and MillerCoors), which collectively make up 80% of the U.S. market for Ball and Rexam, are all vertically integrated to some degree, and provide much of their own supply of containers (a situation significantly different than the distillers in Ardagh). These companies exert powerful price discipline on the aluminum packaging market by, among other things, increasing (or threatening to increase) their own container manufacturing capacity, sponsoring new entry, and shifting production (and, via marketing, consumer demand) to competing packaging types.

For soda, Ardagh is obviously inapposite, as soda packaging wasn’t at issue there. But the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that aluminum cans (which in fact make up 56% of the beer packaging market) don’t compete with glass bottles for beer packaging is also suspect.

For aluminum can manufacturers Ball and Rexam, aluminum can’t be excluded from the market (obviously), and much of the beer in the U.S. that is packaged in aluminum is quite clearly also packaged in glass. The FTC claimed in Ardagh that glass and aluminum are consumed in distinct situations, so they don’t exert price pressure on each other. But that ignores the considerable ability of beer manufacturers to influence consumption choices, as well as the reality that consumer preferences for each type of container (whether driven by beer company marketing efforts or not) are merging, with cost considerations dominating other factors.

In fact, consumers consume beer in both packaging types largely interchangeably (with a few limited exceptions — e.g., poolside drinking demands aluminum or plastic), and beer manufacturers readily switch between the two types of packaging as the relative production costs shift.

Craft brewers, to take one important example, are rapidly switching to aluminum from glass, despite a supposed stigma surrounding canned beers. Some craft brewers (particularly the larger ones) do package at least some of their beers in both types of containers, or simultaneously package some of their beers in glass and some of their beers in cans, while for many craft brewers it’s one or the other. Yet there’s no indication that craft beer consumption has fallen off because consumers won’t drink beer from cans in some situations — and obviously the prospect of this outcome hasn’t stopped craft brewers from abandoning bottles entirely in favor of more economical cans, nor has it induced them, as a general rule, to offer both types of packaging.

A very short time ago it might have seemed that aluminum wasn’t in the same market as glass for craft beer packaging. But, as recent trends have borne out, that differentiation wasn’t primarily a function of consumer preference (either at the brewer or end-consumer level). Rather, it was a function of bottling/canning costs (until recently the machinery required for canning was prohibitively expensive), materials costs (at various times glass has been cheaper than aluminum, depending on volume), and transportation costs (which cut against glass, but the relative attractiveness of different packaging materials is importantly a function of variable transportation costs). To be sure, consumer preference isn’t irrelevant, but the ease with which brewers have shifted consumer preferences suggests that it isn’t a strong constraint.

Transportation costs are key

Transportation costs, in fact, are a key part of the story — and of the conclusion that the Ball/Rexam merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects. First of all, transporting empty cans (or bottles, for that matter) is tremendously inefficient — which means that the relevant geographic markets for assessing the competitive effects of the Ball/Rexam merger are essentially the largely non-overlapping 200 mile circles around the companies’ manufacturing facilities. Because there are very few markets in which the two companies both have plants, the merger doesn’t change the extent of competition in the vast majority of relevant geographic markets.

But transportation costs are also relevant to the interchangeability of packaging materials. Glass is more expensive to transport than aluminum, and this is true not just for empty bottles, but for full ones, of course. So, among other things, by switching to cans (even if it entails up-front cost), smaller breweries can expand their geographic reach, potentially expanding sales enough to more than cover switching costs. The merger would further lower the costs of cans (and thus of geographic expansion) by enabling beverage companies to transact with a single company across a wider geographic range.

The reality is that the most important factor in packaging choice is cost, and that the packaging alternatives are functionally interchangeable. As a result, and given that the direct consumers of beverage packaging are beverage companies rather than end-consumers, relatively small cost changes readily spur changes in packaging choices. While there are some switching costs that might impede these shifts, they are readily overcome. For large beverage companies that already use multiple types and sizes of packaging for the same product, the costs are trivial: They already have packaging designs, marketing materials, distribution facilities and the like in place. For smaller companies, a shift can be more difficult, but innovations in labeling, mobile canning/bottling facilities, outsourced distribution and the like significantly reduce these costs.  

“There’s a great future in plastics”

All of this is even more true for plastic — even in the beer market. In fact, in 2010, 10% of the beer consumed in Europe was sold in plastic bottles, as was 15% of all beer consumed in South Korea. We weren’t able to find reliable numbers for the U.S., but particularly for cheaper beers, U.S. brewers are increasingly moving to plastic. And plastic bottles are the norm at stadiums and arenas. Whatever the exact numbers, clearly plastic holds a small fraction of the beer container market compared to glass and aluminum. But that number is just as clearly growing, and as cost considerations impel them (and technology enables them), giant, powerful brewers like AB InBev and MillerCoors are certainly willing and able to push consumers toward plastic.

Meanwhile soda companies like Coca-cola and Pepsi have successfully moved their markets so that today a majority of packaged soda is sold in plastic containers. There’s no evidence that this shift came about as a result of end-consumer demand, nor that the shift to plastic was delayed by a lack of demand elasticity; rather, it was primarily a function of these companies’ ability to realize bigger profits on sales in plastic containers (not least because they own their own plastic packaging production facilities).

And while it’s not at issue in Ball/Rexam because spirits are rarely sold in aluminum packaging, the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that

[n]on-glass packaging materials, such as plastic containers, are not in this relevant product market because not enough spirits customers would switch to non-glass packaging materials to make a SSNIP in glass containers to spirits customers unprofitable for a hypothetical monopolist

is highly suspect — which suggests the Commission may have gotten it wrong in other ways, too. For example, as one report notes:

But the most noteworthy inroads against glass have been made in distilled liquor. In terms of total units, plastic containers, almost all of them polyethylene terephthalate (PET), have surpassed glass and now hold a 56% share, which is projected to rise to 69% by 2017.

True, most of this must be tiny-volume airplane bottles, but by no means all of it is, and it’s clear that the cost advantages of plastic are driving a shift in distilled liquor packaging, as well. Some high-end brands are even moving to plastic. Whatever resistance (and this true for beer, too) that may have existed in the past because of glass’s “image,” is breaking down: Don’t forget that even high-quality wines are now often sold with screw-tops or even in boxes — something that was once thought impossible.

The overall point is that the beverage packaging market faced by can makers like Ball and Rexam is remarkably complex, and, crucially, the presence of powerful, vertically integrated customers means that past or current demand by end-users is a poor indicator of what the market will look like in the future as input costs and other considerations faced by these companies shift. Right now, for example, over 50% of the world’s soda is packaged in plastic bottles, and this margin is set to increase: The global plastic packaging market (not limited to just beverages) is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% between 2014 and 2020, while aluminum packaging is expected to grow at just 2.9%.

A note on efficiencies

As noted above, the proposed Ball/Rexam merger also holds out the promise of substantial efficiencies (estimated at $300 million by the merging parties, due mainly to decreased transportation costs). There is a risk, however, that the FTC may effectively disregard those efficiencies, as it did in Ardagh (and in St. Luke’s before it), by saddling them with a higher burden of proof than it requires of its own prima facie claims. If the goal of antitrust law is to promote consumer welfare, competition authorities can’t ignore efficiencies in merger analysis.

In his Ardagh dissent, Commissioner Wright noted that:

Even when the same burden of proof is applied to anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, of course, reasonable minds can and often do differ when identifying and quantifying cognizable efficiencies as appears to have occurred in this case.  My own analysis of cognizable efficiencies in this matter indicates they are significant.   In my view, a critical issue highlighted by this case is whether, when, and to what extent the Commission will credit efficiencies generally, as well as whether the burden faced by the parties in establishing that proffered efficiencies are cognizable under the Merger Guidelines is higher than the burden of proof facing the agencies in establishing anticompetitive effects. After reviewing the record evidence on both anticompetitive effects and efficiencies in this case, my own view is that it would be impossible to come to the conclusions about each set forth in the Complaint and by the Commission — and particularly the conclusion that cognizable efficiencies are nearly zero — without applying asymmetric burdens.

The Commission shouldn’t make the same mistake here. In fact, here, where can manufacturers are squeezed between powerful companies both upstream (e.g., Alcoa) and downstream (e.g., AB InBev), and where transportation costs limit the opportunities for expanding the customer base of any particular plant, the ability to capitalize on economies of scale and geographic scope is essential to independent manufacturers’ abilities to efficiently meet rising demand.

Read our complete assessment of the merger’s effect here.

In Collins Inkjet Corp. v. Eastman Kodak Co. (2015) (subsequently settled, leading to a withdrawal of Kodak’s petition for certiorari), the Sixth Circuit elected to apply the Cascade Health Solutions v. PeaceHealth “bundled discount attribution price-cost” methodology in upholding a preliminary injunction against Kodak’s policy of discounting the price of refurbished Kodak printheads to customers who purchased ink from Kodak, rather than from Collins.  This case illustrates the incoherence and economic irrationality of current tying doctrine, and the need for Supreme Court guidance – hopefully sooner rather than later.

The key factual and legal findings in this case, set forth by the Sixth Circuit, were as follows:

Collins is Kodak’s competitor for selling ink for Versamark printers manufactured by Kodak. Users of Versamark printers must periodically replace a printer component called a printhead; Kodak is the only provider of replacement “refurbished printheads” for such printers. In July 2013, Kodak adopted a pricing policy that raised the cost of replacing Versamark printheads, but only for customers not purchasing Kodak ink. Collins filed suit, arguing that this amounts to a tying arrangement prohibited under § 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, because it is designed to monopolize the Versamark ink market. Collins sought a preliminary injunction barring Kodak from charging Collins’ customers a higher price for refurbished printheads. The district court issued the preliminary injunction, finding a strong likelihood that Kodak’s pricing policy was a non-explicit tie that coerced Versamark owners into buying Kodak ink and that Kodak possessed sufficient market power in the market for refurbished printheads to make the tie effective.

On appeal, Kodak challenges both the legal standard the district court applied to find whether customers were coerced into using Kodak ink and the district court’s preliminary factual findings. In evaluating the likelihood of success on the merits, the district court applied a standard that unduly favored Collins to determine whether customers were coerced into buying Kodak ink. The court examined whether the policy made it likely that all or almost all customers would switch to Kodak ink, but did not examine whether this would be the result of unreasonable conduct on Kodak’s part. A tying arrangement enforced entirely through differential pricing of the tying product contravenes the Sherman Act only if the pricing policy is economically equivalent to selling the tied product below cost. The record makes it difficult to determine conclusively Kodak’s ink production costs, but the available evidence suggests that Kodak was worse off when customers bought both products, meaning that it was in effect selling ink at a loss. Thus, Collins was likely to succeed on the merits even under the correct standard.  Furthermore, the district court was correct in its consideration of the other factors for a preliminary injunction. Accordingly, the preliminary injunction was not an abuse of discretion.

The Sixth Circuit’s Collins Inkjet opinion nicely illustrates the current unsatisfactory state of tying law from an economic perspective.  Unlike in various other areas of antitrust law, such as vertical restraints, exclusionary conduct, and enforcement, the Supreme Court has failed to apply a law and economics standard to tying.  It came close on two occasions, with four Justices supporting a rule of reason standard for tying in Jefferson Parish, and with a Supreme Court majority acknowledging that “[m]any tying arrangements . . . are fully consistent with a free, competitive market” in Independent Ink (which held that it should not be presumed that a patented tying product conveyed market power).  Nevertheless, despite the broad scholarly recognition that tying may generate major economic efficiencies (even when the tying product conveys substantial market power), tying still remains subject to a peculiar rule of limited per se illegality, which is triggered when:  (1) two separate products or services are involved; (2) the sale or agreement to sell one is conditioned on the purchase of the other; (3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the market for the tying product to enable it to restrain trade in the market for the tied product; and (4) a “not insubstantial amount” of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected.  Unfortunately, it is quite possible for plaintiffs to shoehorn much welfare-enhancing conduct into this multipart test, creating a welfare-inimical disincentive for efficiency-seeking businesses to engage in such conduct.  (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit refused to apply the per se rule to platform software in United States v. Microsoft, but other appellate courts have not been similarly inclined to flout Supreme Court precedent.)

Courts that are concerned with the efficient application of antitrust may nonetheless evade the confines of the per se rule in appropriate instances, by applying economic reasoning to the factual context presented and finding particular test conditions not met.  The Sixth Circuit’s Collins Inkjet opinion, unfortunately, failed to do so.  It is seriously problematic, in at least four respects.

First, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion agreed with the district court that “coercive” behavior created an “implicit tie,” despite the absence of formal contractual provisions that explicitly tied Kodak’s ink to sale of its refurbished printheads.

Second, it ignored potential vigorous and beneficial ex ante competition among competing producers of printers to acquire customers, which would have negated a finding of significant economic power in the printer market and thereby precluded per se condemnation.

Third, it incorrectly applied the PeaceHealth standard to the facts at hand due to faulty economic reasoning.  For a finding of anticompetitive (“exclusionary”) bundled discounting, PeaceHealth requires that, after all discounts are applied to the “competitive” product, “the resulting price of the competitive product or products is below the defendant’s incremental cost to produce them”.  In Collins Inkjet, all that was known was that Kodak “stood to make more money if customers bought ink from Collins and paid Kodak’s unmatched printhead refurbishment price than if they bought Kodak ink and paid the matched printhead refurbishment price.”  Absent additional information, however, this merely supported a finding that Kodak’s tied ink was priced below its average total cost, not below its (far lower) incremental cost.  (Applying PeaceHealth, the Collins Inkjet court attributed the printhead discount entirely to Kodak’s ink, the tied product.)  In short, absent this error in reasoning (ironically, the court justified its flawed cost analysis “as a matter of formal logic”), the Sixth Circuit could not have based a finding of anticompetitive conduct on the PeaceHealth precedent.

Fourth, and more generally, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, in its blinkered search for a “modern” (PeaceHealth) finely-calibrated test to apply in this instance, lost sight of the Supreme Court’s broad teaching in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. that antitrust law was designed to be “a consumer welfare prescription.”  Kodak’s pricing policy that offered discounts to buyers of its printheads and ink yielded lower prices to consumers.  There was no showing that Collins Inkjet would likely be driven out of business, or, even if it were, that consumers would eventually be harmed.  Absent any showing of likely anticompetitive effects, vertical contractual provisions, including tying, should not be subject to antitrust challenge.  Indeed, as Professor (and former Federal Trade Commissioner) Joshua Wright and I have pointed out:

[T]he potential efficiencies associated with . . . tying . . . and the fact that [tying is] prevalent in markets without significant antitrust market power, lead most commentators to believe that [it is] . . . generally procompetitive and should be analyzed under some form of rule of reason analysis. . . .  [T]he adoption of a rule of reason for tying and presumptions of legality for [tying] . . . under certain circumstances may be long overdue.  

In sum, it is high time for the Supreme Court to take an appropriate case and clarify that tying arrangements (whether explicit or “coerced”) are subject to the rule of reason, with full recognition of tying’s efficiencies.  Such a holding would enable businesses to engage in a wider variety of efficient contracts, thereby promoting consumer welfare.

Finally, while it is at it, the Court should also consider taking a loyalty discount case, to reduce harmful uncertainty in this important area (caused by such economically irrational precedents as LePage’s, Inc. v. 3M) and establish a clear standard to guide the business community.  If it takes a loyalty discount case, the Court could beneficially draw upon Wright’s observation that “economic theory and evidence suggest[s] that instances of anticompetitive loyalty discounts will be relatively rare,” and his recommendation that “an exclusive dealing framework . . . be applied in such cases.”

Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.

Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedly had occasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.

The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm

To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.

But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.

The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:

Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.

The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.

Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears

First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.

It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.

It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twice rejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:

In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.

The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.

It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.

OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”

After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that

Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.

Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.

Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.

In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.

If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.

The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either

While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.

Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.

Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.

And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?

While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.

In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”

The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable

Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.

The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).

What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.

Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.

In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.

The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.

The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.

Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.

The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.

At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.

Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.

In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.

Alden Abbott and I recently co-authored an article, forthcoming in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, in which we examined the degree to which the Supreme Court and the federal enforcement agencies have recognized the inherent limits of antitrust law. We concluded that the Roberts Court has admirably acknowledged those limits and has for the most part crafted liability rules that will maximize antitrust’s social value. The enforcement agencies, by contrast, have largely ignored antitrust’s intrinsic limits. In a number of areas, they have sought to expand antitrust’s reach in ways likely to reduce consumer welfare.

The bright spot in federal antitrust enforcement in the last few years has been Josh Wright. Time and again, he has bucked the antitrust establishment, reminding the mandarins that their goal should not be to stop every instance of anticompetitive behavior but instead to optimize antitrust by minimizing the sum of error costs (from both false negatives and false positives) and decision costs. As Judge Easterbrook famously explained, and as Josh Wright has emphasized more than anyone I know, inevitable mistakes (error costs) and heavy information requirements (decision costs) constrain what antitrust can do. Every liability rule, every defense, every immunity doctrine should be crafted with those limits in mind.

Josh will no doubt be remembered, and justifiably so, for spearheading the effort to provide guidance on how the Federal Trade Commission will exercise its amorphous authority to police “unfair methods of competition.” Several others have lauded Josh’s fine contribution on that matter (as have I), so I won’t gild that lily here. Instead, let me briefly highlight two other areas in which Josh has properly pushed for a recognition of antitrust’s inherent limits.

Vertical Restraints

Vertical restraints—both intrabrand restraints like resale price maintenance (RPM) and interbrand restraints like exclusive dealing—are a competitive mixed bag. Under certain conditions, such restraints may reduce overall market output, causing anticompetitive harm. Under other, more commonly occurring conditions, vertical restraints may enhance market output. Empirical evidence suggests that most vertical restraints are output-enhancing rather than output-reducing. Enforcers taking an optimizing, limits of antitrust approach will therefore exercise caution in condemning or discouraging vertical restraints.

That’s exactly what Josh Wright has done. In an early post-Leegin RPM order predating Josh’s tenure, the FTC endorsed a liability rule that placed an inappropriately heavy burden on RPM defendants. Josh later laid the groundwork for correcting that mistake, advocating a much more evidence-based (and defendant-friendly) RPM rule. In the McWane case, the Commission condemned an exclusive dealing arrangement that had been in place for long enough to cause anticompetitive harm but hadn’t done so. Josh rightly called out the majority for elevating theoretical harm over actual market evidence. (Adopting a highly deferential stance, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Commission majority, but Josh was right to criticize the majority’s implicit hostility toward exclusive dealing.) In settling the Graco case, the Commission again went beyond the evidence, requiring the defendant to cease exclusive dealing and to stop giving loyalty rebates even though there was no evidence that either sort of vertical restraint contributed to the anticompetitive harm giving rise to the action at issue. Josh rightly took the Commission to task for reflexively treating vertical restraints as suspect when they’re usually procompetitive and had an obvious procompetitive justification (avoidance of interbrand free-riding) in the case at hand.

Horizontal Mergers

Horizontal mergers, like vertical restraints, are competitive mixed bags. Any particular merger of competitors may impose some consumer harm by reducing the competition facing the merged firm. The same merger, though, may provide some consumer benefit by lowering the merged firm’s costs and thereby allowing it to compete more vigorously (most notably, by lowering its prices). A merger policy committed to minimizing the consumer welfare losses from unwarranted condemnations of net beneficial mergers and improper acquittals of net harmful ones would afford equal treatment to claims of anticompetitive harm and procompetitive benefit, requiring each to be established by the same quantum of proof.

The federal enforcement agencies’ new Horizontal Merger Guidelines, however, may put a thumb on the scale, tilting the balance toward a finding of anticompetitive harm. The Guidelines make it easier for the agencies to establish likely anticompetitive harm. Enforcers may now avoid defining a market if they point to adverse unilateral effects using the gross upward pricing pressure index (GUPPI). The merging parties, by contrast, bear a heavy burden when they seek to show that their contemplated merger will occasion efficiencies. They must: (1) prove that any claimed efficiencies are “merger-specific” (i.e., incapable of being achieved absent the merger); (2) “substantiate” asserted efficiencies; and (3) show that such efficiencies will result in the very markets in which the agencies have established likely anticompetitive effects.

In an important dissent (Ardagh), Josh observed that the agencies’ practice has evolved such that there are asymmetric burdens in establishing competitive effects, and he cautioned that this asymmetry will enhance error costs. (Geoff praised that dissent here.) In another dissent (Family Dollar/Dollar Tree), Josh acknowledged some potential problems with the promising but empirically unverified GUPPI, and he wisely advocated the creation of safe harbors for mergers generating very low GUPPI scores. (I praised that dissent here.)

I could go on and on, but these examples suffice to illustrate what has been, in my opinion, Josh’s most important contribution as an FTC commissioner: his constant effort to strengthen antitrust’s effectiveness by acknowledging its inevitable and inexorable limits. Coming on the heels of the FTC’s and DOJ’s rejection of the Section 2 Report—a document that was highly attuned to antitrust’s limits—Josh was just what antitrust needed.

by Dan Crane, Associate Dean for Faculty and Research and Frederick Paul Furth, Sr. Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

The FTC was the brain child of Progressive Era technocrats who believed that markets could be made to run more effectively if distinguished experts in industry and economics were just put in charge. Alas, as former FTC Chair Bill Kovacic has chronicled, over the Commission’s first century precious few of the Commissioners have been distinguished economists or business leaders. Rather, the Commissioners have been largely drawn from the ranks of politically connected lawyers, often filling patronage appointments.

How refreshing it’s been to have Josh Wright, highly distinguished both as an economist and as a law professor, serve on the Commission. Much of the media attention to Josh has focused on his bold conservatism in antitrust and consumer protection matters. But Josh has made at least as much of a mark in advocating for the importance of economists and rigorous economic analysis at the Commission.

Josh has long proclaimed that his enforcement philosophy is evidence-based rather than a priori or ideological. He has argued that the Commission should bring enforcement actions when the economic facts show objective harm to consumers, and not bring actions when the facts don’t show harm to consumers. A good example of Josh’s perspective in action is his dissenting statement in the McWane case, where the Commission staff may have had a reasonable theory of foreclosure, but not enough economic evidence to back it up.

Among other things, Josh has eloquently advocated for the institutional importance of the economist’s role in FTC decision making. Just a few weeks ago, he issued a statement on the Bureau of Economics, Independence, and Agency Performance. Josh began with the astute observation that, in disputes within large bureaucratic organizations, the larger group usually wins. He then observed that the lopsided ratio of lawyers in the Bureau of Competition to economists in the Bureau of Economics has led to lawyers holding the whip hand within the organization. This structural bias toward legal rather than economic reasoning has important implications for the substance of Commission decisions. For example, Malcolm Coate and Andrew Heimert’s study of merger efficiencies claims at the FTC showed that economists in BE were far more likely than lawyers in BC to credit efficiencies claims. Josh’s focus on the institutional importance of economists deserves careful consideration in future budgetary and resource allocation discussions.

In considering Josh’s legacy, it’s also important to note that Josh’s prescriptions in favor of economic analysis were not uniformly “conservative” in the trite political or ideological sense. In 2013, Josh gave a speech arguing against the application of the cost-price test in loyalty discount cases. This surprised lots of people in the antitrust community, myself included. The gist of Josh’s argument was that a legalistic cost-price test would be insufficiently attentive to the economic facts of a particular case and potentially immunize exclusionary behavior. I disagreed (and still disagree) with Josh’s analysis and said so at the time. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that Josh was acting consistently with his evidence-based philosophy, asking for proof of economic facts rather than reliance on legal short-cuts. To his great credit, Josh followed his philosophy regardless of whether it supported more or less intervention.

In sum, though his service was relatively short, Josh has left an important mark on the Commission, founded in his distinctive perspective as an economist. It is to be hoped that his appointment and service will set a precedent for more economist Commissioners in the future.