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Hardly a day goes by without news of further competition-related intervention in the digital economy. The past couple of weeks alone have seen the European Commission announce various investigations into Apple’s App Store (here and here), as well as reaffirming its desire to regulate so-called “gatekeeper” platforms. Not to mention the CMA issuing its final report regarding online platforms and digital advertising.

While the limits of these initiatives have already been thoroughly dissected (e.g. here, here, here), a fundamental question seems to have eluded discussions: What are authorities trying to achieve here?

At first sight, the answer might appear to be extremely simple. Authorities want to “bring more competition” to digital markets. Furthermore, they believe that this competition will not arise spontaneously because of the underlying characteristics of digital markets (network effects, economies of scale, tipping, etc). But while it may have some intuitive appeal, this answer misses the forest for the trees.

Let us take a step back. Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

To draw a parallel with evolution, in the late 18th century, botanists discovered an orchid with an unusually long spur (above). This made its nectar incredibly hard to reach for insects. Rational observers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that this plant made no sense, that its design was suboptimal. And yet, decades later, Darwin conjectured that the plant could be explained by a (yet to be discovered) species of moth with a proboscis that was long enough to reach the orchid’s nectar. Decades after his death, the discovery of the xanthopan moth proved him right.

Returning to the digital economy, we thus need to ask why the platform business models that authorities desire are not the ones that emerge organically. Unfortunately, this complex question is mostly overlooked by policymakers and commentators alike.

Competition law on a spectrum

To understand the above point, let me start with an assumption: the digital platforms that have been subject to recent competition cases and investigations can all be classified along two (overlapping) dimensions: the extent to which they are open (or closed) to “rivals” and the extent to which their assets are propertized (as opposed to them being shared). This distinction borrows heavily from Jonathan Barnett’s work on the topic. I believe that by applying such a classification, we would obtain a graph that looks something like this:

While these classifications are certainly not airtight, this would be my reasoning:

In the top-left quadrant, Apple and Microsoft, both operate closed platforms that are highly propertized (Apple’s platform is likely even more closed than Microsoft’s Windows ever was). Both firms notably control who is allowed on their platform and how they can interact with users. Apple notably vets the apps that are available on its App Store and influences how payments can take place. Microsoft famously restricted OEMs freedom to distribute Windows PCs as they saw fit (notably by “imposing” certain default apps and, arguably, limiting the compatibility of Microsoft systems with servers running other OSs). 

In the top right quadrant, the business models of Amazon and Qualcomm are much more “open”, yet they remain highly propertized. Almost anyone is free to implement Qualcomm’s IP – so long as they conclude a license agreement to do so. Likewise, there are very few limits on the goods that can be sold on Amazon’s platform, but Amazon does, almost by definition, exert a significant control on the way in which the platform is monetized. Retailers can notably pay Amazon for product placement, fulfilment services, etc. 

Finally, Google Search and Android sit in the bottom left corner. Both of these services are weakly propertized. The Android source code is shared freely via an open source license, and Google’s apps can be preloaded by OEMs free of charge. The only limit is that Google partially closes its platform, notably by requiring that its own apps (if they are pre-installed) receive favorable placement. Likewise, Google’s search engine is only partially “open”. While any website can be listed on the search engine, Google selects a number of specialized results that are presented more prominently than organic search results (weather information, maps, etc). There is also some amount of propertization, namely that Google sells the best “real estate” via ad placement. 

Enforcement

Readers might ask what is the point of this classification? The answer is that in each of the above cases, competition intervention attempted (or is attempting) to move firms/platforms towards more openness and less propertization – the opposite of their original design.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation, both sought/seek to bring more openness and less propetization to these respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and open up its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness). The same applies to Apple. Available information suggests that the Commission is seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as ensuring that it cannot exclude rival mobile payment solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and US authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property. The European Amazon investigation centers on the way in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and ultimately the distribution of revenue between them and Amazon). In both of these cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which these firms propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the Google cases, in the EU, sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals. And the Android decision notably sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing investigations in the US.

What is striking about these decisions/investigations is that authorities are pushing back against the distinguishing features of the platforms they are investigating. Closed -or relatively closed- platforms are being opened-up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

The empty quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be very few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems – both in the mobile and desktop segments. For the most part, these have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, again they have not been met with success. The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay despite the latter being more open and less propertized – Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the way they sell their goods. This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile internet industry, few if any of these have taken off (5G and WiFi are the best examples of this trend). That pattern is repeated in other highly-standardized industries, like digital video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format. 

This is not to say there haven’t been any successful ventures in this space – the internet, blockchain and Wikipedia all spring to mind – or that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of open and shared platforms. And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase and Blockchain, or Android and Linux).

An evolutionary explanation?

The preceding paragraphs have posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities are trying to to bring about are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. This begs the question: why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success at consumers’ end of the market? 

I can see at least three potential explanations:

  1. Closed/propertized platforms have systematically -and perhaps anticompetitively- thwarted their open/shared rivals;
  2. Shared platforms have failed to emerge because they are much harder to monetize (and there is thus less incentive to invest in them);
  3. Consumers have opted for closed systems precisely because they are closed.

I will not go into details over the merits of the first conjecture. Current antitrust debates have endlessly rehashed this proposition. However, it is worth mentioning that many of today’s dominant platforms overcame open/shared rivals well before they achieved their current size (Unix is older than Windows, Linux is older than iOs, eBay and Amazon are basically the same age, etc). It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was down to anticompetitive behavior.

Much more interesting is the fact that options (2) and (3) are almost systematically overlooked – especially by antitrust authorities. And yet, if true, both of them would strongly cut against current efforts to regulate digital platforms and ramp-up antitrust enforcement against them. 

For a start, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highly propertized platforms are generally easier to monetize than shared ones (2). For example, open-source platforms often rely on complementarities for monetization, but this tends to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding. If this is true, then there is a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platforms’ ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should at the very least reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design (3)

For instance, it is striking that the European Commission has a long track record of seeking to open-up digital platforms (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept on using the very business model that the Commission reprimanded. Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones, Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices, Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default. But this has not deterred consumers. A sizable share of them notably opted for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). 

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities are anything but unmitigated successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unprecedented flop – it sold a paltry 1,787 copies. Likewise, the internet browser ballot box imposed by the Commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the Commission’s decision. 

There are many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them. Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform. 

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Furthermore, forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire. 

To conclude, consumers and firms appear to gravitate towards both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the Commission and many other competition authorities favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. This post certainly does not purport to answer the complex question of “the origin of platforms”, but it does suggest that what some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said this best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they fail to understand. The digital economy might just be the latest in this unfortunate trend.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Mark Jamison, (Director and Gunter Professor, Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida and Visiting Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.).]

The economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and of the government responses to it, are significant and could be staggering, especially for small businesses. Goldman Sachs estimates a potential 24% drop in US GDP for the second quarter of 2020 and a 4% decline for the year. Its small business survey found that a little over half of small businesses might last for less than three months in this economic downturn. Small business employs nearly 60 million people in the US. How many will be out of work this year is anyone’s guess, but the number will be large.

What should small businesses do? First, focus on staying in business because their customers and employees need them to be healthy when the economy begins to recover. That will certainly mean slowing down business activity and decreasing payroll to manage losses, and managing liquidity.

Second, look for opportunities in the present crisis. Consumers are slowing their spending, but they will spend for things they still need and need now. And there will be new demand for things they didn’t need much before, like more transportation of food, support for health needs, and crisis management. Which business sectors will recover first? Those whose downturns represented delayed demand, such as postponed repairs and business travel, rather than evaporated demand, such as luxury items.

Third, they can watch for and take advantage of government support programs. Many programs simply provide low-cost loans, which do not solve the small-business problem of customers not buying: Borrowing money to meet payroll for idle workers simply delays business closure and makes bankruptcy more likely. But some grants and tax breaks are under discussion (see below).

Fourth, they can renegotiate loans and contracts. One of the mistakes lenders made in the past is holding stressed borrowers’ feet to the fire, which only led to more, and more costly loan defaults. At least some lenders have learned. So lenders and some suppliers might be willing to receive some payments rather than none.

What should government do? Unfortunately, Washington seems to think that so-called stimulus spending is the cure for any economic downturn. This isn’t true. I’ll explain why below, but let me first get to what is more productive. 

The major problem is that customers are unable to buy and businesses are unable to produce because of the responses to the coronavirus. Sometimes transactions are impossible, but there are times where buying and selling is simply made more costly by the pandemic and the government responses. So government support for the economy should address these problems directly.

For buyers, government officials should recognize that buying is hard and costly for them. So policies should include improving their abilities to buy during this time. Sales tax holidays, especially on healthcare, food, and transportation would be helpful. 

Waivers of postal fees would make e-commerce cheaper. And temporary support for fixed costs, such as mortgages, would free money for other things. Tax breaks for the gig economy would lower service costs and provide new employment opportunities. And tax credits for durables like home improvements would lower costs of social distancing.

But the better opportunities for government impact are on the business side because small business affects both the supply of services and the incomes of consumers.

For small business policy, my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Glenn Hubbard and Michael Strain have done the most thoughtful work that I have seen. They note that the problems for small businesses are that they do not have enough business activity to meet payroll and other bills. This means that “(t)he goal should be to replace a large portion of the revenue (not just the payroll expenses) those businesses would have generated in the absence of being shut down due to the coronavirus.” 

They suggest policies to replace 80 percent of the small business revenue loss. How? By providing grants in the form of government-backed commercial loans that are forgiven if the business continues and maintains payroll, subject to workers being allowed to quit if they find better opportunities. 

What else might work? Tax breaks that lower business costs. These can be breaks in payroll taxes, marginal income tax rates, equipment purchases, permitting, etc., including tax holidays. Rollback of current business losses would trigger tax refunds that improve businesses finances. 

One of the least useful ideas for small businesses is interest-free loans. These might be great for large businesses who are largely managing their financial positions. But such loans fail to address the basic small business problem of keeping the doors open when customers aren’t buying.

Finally, why doesn’t traditional stimulus work, even in other times of economic downturn? Traditional spending-based stimulus assumes that the economic problem is that people want to build things, but not buy them. That’s not a very good assumption. Especially today, where the problems are the higher cost of buying, or perhaps the impossibility of buying with social distancing, and the higher costs of doing businesses. Keeping businesses in business is the key to supporting the economy. 

Today, Reuters reports that Germany-based ThyssenKrupp has received bids from three bidding groups for a majority stake in the firm’s elevator business. Finland’s Kone teamed with private equity firm CVC to bid on the company. Private equity firms Blackstone and Carlyle joined with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board to submit a bid. A third bid came from Advent, Cinven, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Also today — in anticipation of the long-rumored and much-discussed sale of ThyssenKrupp’s elevator business — the International Center for Law & Economics released The Antitrust Risks of Four To Three Mergers: Heightened Scrutiny of a Potential ThyssenKrupp/Kone Merger, by Eric Fruits and Geoffrey A. Manne. This study examines the heightened scrutiny of four to three mergers by competition authorities in the current regulatory environment, using a potential ThyssenKrupp/Kone merger as a case study. 

In recent years, regulators have become more aggressive in merger enforcement in response to populist criticisms that lax merger enforcement has led to the rise of anticompetitive “big business.” In this environment, it is easy to imagine regulators intensely scrutinizing and challenging or conditioning nearly any merger that substantially increases concentration. 

This potential deal provides an opportunity to highlight the likely challenges, complexity, and cost that regulatory scrutiny of such mergers actually entails — and it is likely to be a far cry from the lax review and permissive decisionmaking of antitrust critics’ imagining.

In the case of a potential ThyssenKrupp/Kone merger, the combined entity would face lengthy, costly, and duplicative review in multiple jurisdictions, any one of which could effectively block the merger or impose onerous conditions. It would face the automatic assumption of excessive concentration in several of these, including the US, EU, and Canada. In the US, the deal would also face heightened scrutiny based on political considerations, including the perception that the deal would strengthen a foreign firm at the expense of a domestic supplier. It would also face the risk of politicized litigation from state attorneys general, and potentially the threat of extractive litigation by competitors and customers.

Whether the merger would actually entail anticompetitive risk may, unfortunately, be of only secondary importance in determining the likelihood and extent of a merger challenge or the imposition of onerous conditions.

A “highly concentrated” market

In many jurisdictions, the four to three merger would likely trigger a “highly concentrated” market designation. With the merging firms having a dominant share of the market for elevators, the deal would be viewed as problematic in several areas:

  • The US (share > 35%, HHI > 3,000, HHI increase > 700), 
  • Canada (share of approximately 50%, HHI > 2,900, HHI increase of 1,000), 
  • Australia (share > 40%, HHI > 3,100, HHI increase > 500), 
  • Europe (shares of 33–65%, HHIs in excess of 2,700, and HHI increases of 270 or higher in Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Austria, France, and Luxembourg).

As with most mergers, a potential ThyssenKrupp/Kone merger would likely generate “hot docs” that would be used to support the assumption of anticompetitive harm from the increase in concentration, especially in light of past allegations of price fixing in the industry and a decision by the European Commission in 2007 to fine certain companies in the industry for alleged anticompetitive conduct.

Political risks

The merger would also surely face substantial political risks in the US and elsewhere from the perception the deal would strengthen a foreign firm at the expense of a domestic supplier. President Trump’s administration has demonstrated a keen interest in protecting what it sees as US interests vis-à-vis foreign competition. As a high-rise and hotel developer who has shown a willingness to intervene in antitrust enforcement to protect his interests, President Trump may have a heightened personal interest in a ThyssenKrupp/Kone merger. 

To the extent that US federal, state, and local governments purchase products from the merging parties, the deal would likely be subjected to increased attention from federal antitrust regulators as well as states’ attorneys general. Indeed, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has created a “Procurement Collusion Strike Force” focused on “deterring, detecting, investigating and prosecuting antitrust crimes . . . which undermine competition in government procurement. . . .”

The deal may also face scrutiny from EC, UK, Canadian, and Australian competition authorities, each of which has exhibited increased willingness to thwart such mergers. For example, the EU recently blocked a proposed merger between the transport (rail) services of EU firms, Siemens and Alstom. The UK recently blocked a series of major deals that had only limited competitive effects on the UK. In one of these, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s proposed acquisition of Roper Technologies’ Gatan subsidiary was not challenged in the US, but the deal was abandoned after the UK CMA decided to block the deal despite its limited connections to the UK.

Economic risks

In addition to the structural and political factors that may lead to blocking a four to three merger, several economic factors may further exacerbate the problem. While these, too, may be wrongly deemed problematic in particular cases by reviewing authorities, they are — relatively at least — better-supported by economic theory in the abstract. Moreover, even where wrongly applied, they are often impossible to refute successfully given the relevant standards. And such alleged economic concerns can act as an effective smokescreen for blocking a merger based on the sorts of political and structural considerations discussed above. Some of these economic factors include:

  • Barriers to entry. IBISWorld identifies barriers to entry to include economies of scale, long-standing relationships with existing buyers, as well as long records of safety and reliability. Strictly speaking, these are not costs borne only by a new entrant, and thus should not be deemed competitively-relevant entry barriers. Yet merger review authorities the world over fail to recognize this distinction, and routinely scuttle mergers based simply on the costs faced by additional competitors entering the market.
  • Potential unilateral effects. The extent of direct competition between the products and services sold by the merging parties is a key part of the evaluation of unilateral price effects. Competition authorities would likely consider a significant range of information to evaluate the extent of direct competition between the products and services sold by ThyssenKrupp and its merger partner. In addition to “hot docs,” this information could include won/lost bid reports as well as evidence from discount approval processes and customer switching patterns. Because the purchase of elevator and escalator products and services involves negotiation by sophisticated and experienced buyers, it is likely that this type of bid information would be readily available for review.
  • A history of coordinated conduct involving ThyssenKrupp and Kone. Competition authorities will also consider the risk that a four to three merger will increase the ability and likelihood for the remaining, smaller number of firms to collude. In 2007 the European Commission imposed a €992 million cartel fine on five elevator firms: ThyssenKrupp, Kone, Schindler, United Technologies, and Mitsubishi. At the time, it was the largest-ever cartel fine. Several companies, including Kone and UTC, admitted wrongdoing.

Conclusion

As “populist” antitrust gains more traction among enforcers aiming to stave off criticisms of lax enforcement, superficial and non-economic concerns have increased salience. The simple benefit of a resounding headline — “The US DOJ challenges increased concentration that would stifle the global construction boom” — signaling enforcers’ efforts to thwart further increases in concentration and save blue collar jobs is likely to be viewed by regulators as substantial. 

Coupled with the arguably more robust, potential economic arguments involving unilateral and coordinated effects arising from such a merger, a four to three merger like a potential ThyssenKrupp/Kone transaction would be sure to attract significant scrutiny and delay. Any arguments that such a deal might actually decrease prices and increase efficiency are — even if valid — less likely to gain as much traction in today’s regulatory environment.

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

Mnuchin. Is. Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real destroyer of retail

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

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

It might surprise some readers to learn that we think the Court’s decision today in Apple v. Pepper reaches — superficially — the correct result. But, we hasten to add, the Court’s reasoning (and, for that matter, the dissent’s) is completely wrongheaded. It would be an understatement to say that the Court reached the right result for the wrong reason; in fact, the Court’s analysis wasn’t even in the same universe as the correct reasoning.

Below we lay out our assessment, in a post drawn from an article forthcoming in the Nebraska Law Review.

Did the Court forget that, just last year, it decided Amex, the most significant U.S. antitrust case in ages?

What is most remarkable about the decision (and the dissent) is that neither mentions Ohio v. Amex, nor even the two-sided market context in which the transactions at issue take place.

If the decision in Apple v. Pepper hewed to the precedent established by Ohio v. Amex it would start with the observation that the relevant market analysis for the provision of app services is an integrated one, in which the overall effect of Apple’s conduct on both app users and app developers must be evaluated. A crucial implication of the Amex decision is that participants on both sides of a transactional platform are part of the same relevant market, and the terms of their relationship to the platform are inextricably intertwined.

Under this conception of the market, it’s difficult to maintain that either side does not have standing to sue the platform for the terms of its overall pricing structure, whether the specific terms at issue apply directly to that side or not. Both end users and app developers are “direct” purchasers from Apple — of different products, but in a single, inextricably interrelated market. Both groups should have standing.

More controversially, the logic of Amex also dictates that both groups should be able to establish antitrust injury — harm to competition — by showing harm to either group, as long as it establishes the requisite interrelatedness of the two sides of the market.

We believe that the Court was correct to decide in Amex that effects falling on the “other” side of a tightly integrated, two-sided market from challenged conduct must be addressed by the plaintiff in making its prima facie case. But that outcome entails a market definition that places both sides of such a market in the same relevant market for antitrust analysis.

As a result, the Court’s holding in Amex should also have required a finding in Apple v. Pepper that an app user on one side of the platform who transacts with an app developer on the other side of the market, in a transaction made possible and directly intermediated by Apple’s App Store, should similarly be deemed in the same market for standing purposes.

Relative to a strict construction of the traditional baseline, the former entails imposing an additional burden on two-sided market plaintiffs, while the latter entails a lessening of that burden. Whether the net effect is more or fewer successful cases in two-sided markets is unclear, of course. But from the perspective of aligning evidentiary and substantive doctrine with economic reality such an approach would be a clear improvement.

Critics accuse the Court of making antitrust cases unwinnable against two-sided market platforms thanks to Amex’s requirement that a prima facie showing of anticompetitive effect requires assessment of the effects on both sides of a two-sided market and proof of a net anticompetitive outcome. The critics should have been chastened by a proper decision in Apple v. Pepper. As it is, the holding (although not the reasoning) still may serve to undermine their fears.

But critics should have recognized that a necessary corollary of Amex’s “expanded” market definition is that, relative to previous standing doctrine, a greater number of prospective parties should have standing to sue.

More important, the Court in Apple v. Pepper should have recognized this. Although nominally limited to the indirect purchaser doctrine, the case presented the Court with an opportunity to grapple with this logical implication of its Amex decision. It failed to do so.

On the merits, it looks like Apple should win. But, for much the same reason, the Respondents in Apple v. Pepper should have standing

This does not, of course, mean that either party should win on the merits. Indeed, on the merits of the case, the Petitioner in Apple v. Pepper appears to have the stronger argument, particularly in light of Amex which (assuming the App Store is construed as some species of a two-sided “transaction” market) directs that Respondent has the burden of considering harms and efficiencies across both sides of the market.

At least on the basis of the limited facts as presented in the case thus far, Respondents have not remotely met their burden of proving anticompetitive effects in the relevant market.

The actual question presented in Apple v. Pepper concerns standing, not whether the plaintiffs have made out a viable case on the merits. Thus it may seem premature to consider aspects of the latter in addressing the former. But the structure of the market considered by the court should be consistent throughout its analysis.

Adjustments to standing in the context of two-sided markets must be made in concert with the nature of the substantive rule of reason analysis that will be performed in a case. The two doctrines are connected not only by the just demands for consistency, but by the error-cost framework of the overall analysis, which runs throughout the stages of an antitrust case.

Here, the two-sided markets approach in Amex properly understands that conduct by a platform has relevant effects on both sides of its interrelated two-sided market. But that stems from the actual economics of the platform; it is not merely a function of a judicial construct. It thus holds true at all stages of the analysis.

The implication for standing is that users on both sides of a two-sided platform may suffer similarly direct (or indirect) injury as a result of the platform’s conduct, regardless of the side to which that conduct is nominally addressed.

The consequence, then, of Amex’s understanding of the market is that more potential plaintiffs — specifically, plaintiffs on both sides of a two-sided market — may claim to suffer antitrust injury.

Why the myopic focus of the holding (and dissent) on Illinois Brick is improper: It’s about the market definition, stupid!

Moreover, because of the Amex understanding, the problem of analyzing the pass-through of damages at issue in Illinois Brick (with which the Court entirely occupies itself in Apple v. Pepper) is either mitigated or inevitable.

In other words, either the users on the different sides of a two-sided market suffer direct injury without pass-through under a proper definition of the relevant market, or else their interrelatedness is so strong that, complicated as it may be, the needs of substantive accuracy trump the administrative costs in sorting out the incidence of the costs, and courts cannot avoid them.

Illinois Brick’s indirect purchaser doctrine was designed for an environment in which the relationship between producers and consumers is mediated by a distributor in a direct, linear supply chain; it was not designed for platforms. Although the question presented in Apple v. Pepper is explicitly about whether the Illinois Brick “indirect purchaser” doctrine applies to the Apple App Store, that determination is contingent on the underlying product market definition (whether the product market is in fact well-specified by the parties and the court or not).

Particularly where intermediaries exist precisely to address transaction costs between “producers” and “consumers,” the platform services they provide may be central to the underlying claim in a way that the traditional direct/indirect filters — and their implied relevant markets — miss.

Further, the Illinois Brick doctrine was itself based not on the substantive necessity of cutting off liability evaluations at a particular level of distribution, but on administrability concerns. In particular, the Court was concerned with preventing duplicative recovery when there were many potential groups of plaintiffs, as well as preventing injustices that would occur if unknown groups of plaintiffs inadvertently failed to have their rights adequately adjudicated in absentia. It was also concerned with avoiding needlessly complicated damages calculations.

But, almost by definition, the tightly coupled nature of the two sides of a two-sided platform should mitigate the concerns about duplicative recovery and unknown parties. Moreover, much of the presumed complexity in damages calculations in a platform setting arise from the nature of the platform itself. Assessing and apportioning damages may be complicated, but such is the nature of complex commercial relationships — the same would be true, for example, of damages calculations between vertically integrated companies that transact simultaneously at multiple levels, or between cross-licensing patent holders/implementers. In fact, if anything, the judicial efficiency concerns in Illinois Brick point toward the increased importance of properly assessing the nature of the product or service of the platform in order to ensure that it accurately encompasses the entire relevant transaction.

Put differently, under a proper, more-accurate market definition, the “direct” and “indirect” labels don’t necessarily reflect either business or antitrust realities.

Where the Court in Apple v. Pepper really misses the boat is in its overly formalistic claim that the business model (and thus the product) underlying the complained-of conduct doesn’t matter:

[W]e fail to see why the form of the upstream arrangement between the manufacturer or supplier and the retailer should determine whether a monopolistic retailer can be sued by a downstream consumer who has purchased a good or service directly from the retailer and has paid a higher-than-competitive price because of the retailer’s unlawful monopolistic conduct.

But Amex held virtually the opposite:

Because “[l]egal presumptions that rest on formalistic distinctions rather than actual market realities are generally disfavored in antitrust law,” courts usually cannot properly apply the rule of reason without an accurate definition of the relevant market.

* * *

Price increases on one side of the platform likewise do not suggest anticompetitive effects without some evidence that they have increased the overall cost of the platform’s services. Thus, courts must include both sides of the platform—merchants and cardholders—when defining the credit-card market.

In the face of novel business conduct, novel business models, and novel economic circumstances, the degree of substantive certainty may be eroded, as may the reasonableness of the expectation that typical evidentiary burdens accurately reflect competitive harm. Modern technology — and particularly the platform business model endemic to many modern technology firms — presents a need for courts to adjust their doctrines in the face of such novel issues, even if doing so adds additional complexity to the analysis.

The unlearned market-definition lesson of the Eighth Circuit’s Campos v. Ticketmaster dissent

The Eight Circuit’s Campos v. Ticketmaster case demonstrates the way market definition shapes the application of the indirect purchaser doctrine. Indeed, the dissent in that case looms large in the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Apple v. Pepper. [Full disclosure: One of us (Geoff) worked on the dissent in Campos v. Ticketmaster as a clerk to Eighth Circuit judge Morris S. Arnold]

In Ticketmaster, the plaintiffs alleged that Ticketmaster abused its monopoly in ticket distribution services to force supracompetitve charges on concert venues — a practice that led to anticompetitive prices for concert tickets. Although not prosecuted as a two-sided market, the business model is strikingly similar to the App Store model, with Ticketmaster charging fees to venues and then facilitating ticket purchases between venues and concert goers.

As the dissent noted, however:

The monopoly product at issue in this case is ticket distribution services, not tickets.

Ticketmaster supplies the product directly to concert-goers; it does not supply it first to venue operators who in turn supply it to concert-goers. It is immaterial that Ticketmaster would not be supplying the service but for its antecedent agreement with the venues.

But it is quite relevant that the antecedent agreement was not one in which the venues bought some product from Ticketmaster in order to resell it to concert-goers.

More important, and more telling, is the fact that the entirety of the monopoly overcharge, if any, is borne by concert-goers.

In contrast to the situations described in Illinois Brick and the literature that the court cites, the venues do not pay the alleged monopoly overcharge — in fact, they receive a portion of that overcharge from Ticketmaster. (Emphasis added).

Thus, if there was a monopoly overcharge it was really borne entirely by concert-goers. As a result, apportionment — the complexity of which gives rise to the standard in Illinois Brick — was not a significant issue. And the antecedent transaction that allegedly put concertgoers in an indirect relationship with Ticketmaster is one in which Ticketmaster and concert venues divvied up the alleged monopoly spoils, not one in which the venues absorb their share of the monopoly overcharge.

The analogy to Apple v. Pepper is nearly perfect. Apple sits between developers on one side and consumers on the other, charges a fee to developers for app distribution services, and facilitates app sales between developers and users. It is possible to try to twist the market definition exercise to construe the separate contracts between developers and Apple on one hand, and the developers and consumers on the other, as some sort of complicated version of the classical manufacturing and distribution chains. But, more likely, it is advisable to actually inquire into the relevant factual differences that underpin Apple’s business model and adapt how courts consider market definition for two-sided platforms.

Indeed, Hanover Shoe and Illinois Brick were born out of a particular business reality in which businesses structured themselves in what are now classical production and distribution chains. The Supreme Court adopted the indirect purchaser rule as a prudential limitation on antitrust law in order to optimize the judicial oversight of such cases. It seems strangely nostalgic to reflexively try to fit new business methods into old legal analyses, when prudence and reality dictate otherwise.

The dissent in Ticketmaster was ahead of its time insofar as it recognized that the majority’s formal description of the ticket market was an artifact of viewing what was actually something much more like a ticket-services platform operated by Ticketmaster through the poor lens of the categories established decades earlier.

The Ticketmaster dissent’s observations demonstrate that market definition and antitrust standing are interrelated. It makes no sense to adhere to a restrictive reading of the latter if it connotes an economically improper understanding of the former. Ticketmaster provided an intermediary service — perhaps not quite a two-sided market, but something close — that stands outside a traditional manufacturing supply chain. Had it been offered by the venues themselves and bundled into the price of concert tickets there would be no question of injury and of standing (nor would market definition matter much, as both tickets and distribution services would be offered as a joint product by the same parties, in fixed proportions).

What antitrust standing doctrine should look like after Amex

There are some clear implications for antitrust doctrine that (should) follow from the preceding discussion.

A plaintiff has a choice to allege that a defendant operates either as a two-sided market or in a more traditional, linear chain during the pleading stage. If the plaintiff alleges a two-sided market, then, to demonstrate standing, it need only be shown that injury occurred to some subset of platform users with which the plaintiff is inextricably interrelated. The plaintiff would not need to demonstrate injury to him or herself, nor allege net harm, nor show directness.

In response, a defendant can contest standing by challenging the interrelatedness of the plaintiff and the group of platform users with whom the plaintiff claims interrelatedness. If the defendant does not challenge the allegation that it operates a two-sided market, it could not challenge standing by showing indirectness, that plaintiff had not alleged personal injury, or that plaintiff hasn’t alleged a net harm.

Once past a determination of standing, however, a plaintiff who pleads a two-sided market would not be able to later withdraw this allegation in order to lessen the attendant legal burdens.

If the court accepts that the defendant is operating a two-sided market, both parties would be required to frame their allegations and defenses in accordance with the nature of the two-sided market and thus the holding in Amex. This is critical because, whereas alleging a two-sided market may make it easier for plaintiffs to demonstrate standing, Amex’s requirement that net harm be demonstrated across interrelated sets of users makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to present a viable prima facie case. Further, defendants would not be barred from presenting efficiencies defenses based on benefits that interrelated users enjoy.

Conclusion: The Court in Apple v. Pepper should have acknowledged the implications of its holding in Amex

After Amex, claims against two-sided platforms might require more evidence to establish anticompetitive harm, but that business model also means that firms should open themselves up to a larger pool of potential plaintiffs. The legal principles still apply, but the relative importance of those principles to judicial outcomes shifts (or should shift) in line with the unique economic position of potential plaintiffs and defendants in a platform environment.

Whether a priori the net result is more or fewer cases and more or fewer victories for plaintiffs is not the issue; what matters is matching the legal and economic theory to the relevant facts in play. Moreover, decrying Amex as the end of antitrust was premature: the actual affect on injured parties can’t be known until other changes (like standing for a greater number of plaintiffs) are factored into the analysis. The Court’s holding in Apple v. Pepper sidesteps this issue entirely, and thus fails to properly move antitrust doctrine forward in line with its holding in Amex.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that platforms and courts might be inundated with expensive and difficult to manage lawsuits. There may be reasons of administrability for limiting standing (as Illinois Brick perhaps prematurely did for fear of the costs of courts’ managing suits). But then that should have been the focus of the Court’s decision.

Allowing standing in Apple v. Pepper permits exactly the kind of legal experimentation needed to enable the evolution of antitrust doctrine along with new business realities. But in some ways the Court reached the worst possible outcome. It announced a rule that permits more plaintiffs to establish standing, but it did not direct lower courts to assess standing within the proper analytical frame. Instead, it just expands standing in a manner unmoored from the economic — and, indeed, judicial — context. That’s not a recipe for the successful evolution of antitrust doctrine.

As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.

In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.

In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.

As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,

Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.

Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.

In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.

Summary of the Proposed Deal

Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.

The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:

  • Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
  • Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
  • FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
  • The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.

Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger

According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.

The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.

Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk

A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:

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

There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.

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

On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.

This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.

The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).

Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.

Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:

I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.

The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge

Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.

Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.

A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.  

A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.

In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):

The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.

Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.

Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.

Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.

And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.

In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.

A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger

As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.

The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated

The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.

Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.

Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).

There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.

In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.

At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.     

Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.

While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.

The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected

While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.

Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.

Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.

While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.

Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.   

Finally, it must be noted that licensing of consumer products is an even bigger driver of revenue from filmed entertainment than is theatrical release. No other company comes close to Disney in this space.

Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.

Conclusion

Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.

Unexpectedly, on the day that the white copy of the upcoming repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order was published, a mobile operator in Portugal with about 7.5 million subscribers is garnering a lot of attention. Curiously, it’s not because Portugal is a beautiful country (Iker Casillas’ Instagram feed is dope) nor because Portuguese is a beautiful romance language.

Rather it’s because old-fashioned misinformation is being peddled to perpetuate doomsday images that Portuguese ISPs have carved the Internet into pieces — and if the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order passes, the same butchery is coming to an AT&T store near you.

Much ado about data

This tempest in the teacup is about mobile data plans, specifically the ability of mobile subscribers to supplement their data plan (typically ranging from 200 MB to 3 GB per month) with additional 10 GB data packages containing specific bundles of apps – messaging apps, social apps, video apps, music apps, and email and cloud apps. Each additional 10 GB data package costs EUR 6.99 per month and Meo (the mobile operator) also offers its own zero rated apps. Similar plans have been offered in Portugal since at least 2012.

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These data packages are a clear win for mobile subscribers, especially pre-paid subscribers who tend to be at a lower income level than post-paid subscribers. They allow consumers to customize their plan beyond their mobile broadband subscription, enabling them to consume data in ways that are better attuned to their preferences. Without access to these data packages, consuming an additional 10 GB of data would cost each user an additional EUR 26 per month and require her to enter into a two year contract.

These discounted data packages also facilitate product differentiation among mobile operators that offer a variety of plans. Keeping with the Portugal example, Vodafone Portugal offers 20 GB of additional data for certain apps (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Skype, among others) with the purchase of a 3 GB mobile data plan. Consumers can pick which operator offers the best plan for them.

In addition, data packages like the ones in question here tend to increase the overall consumption of content, reduce users’ cost of obtaining information, and allow for consumers to experiment with new, less familiar apps. In short, they are overwhelmingly pro-consumer.

Even if Portugal actually didn’t have net neutrality rules, this would be the furthest thing from the apocalypse critics make it out to be.

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Net Neutrality in Portugal

But, contrary to activists’ misinformation, Portugal does have net neutrality rules. The EU implemented its net neutrality framework in November 2015 as a regulation, meaning that the regulation became the law of the EU when it was enacted, and national governments, including Portugal, did not need to transpose it into national legislation.

While the regulation was automatically enacted in Portugal, the regulation and the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow sponsored data and zero rating plans (the Regulation likely classifies data packages at issue here to be zero rated plans because they give users a lot of data for a low price) in the hands of national regulators. While Portugal is still formulating the standard it will use to evaluate sponsored data and zero rating under the EU’s framework, there is little reason to think that this common practice would be disallowed in Portugal.

On average, in fact, despite its strong net neutrality regulation, the EU appears to be softening its stance toward zero rating. This was evident in a recent EC competition policy authority (DG-Comp) study concluding that there is little reason to believe that such data practices raise concerns.

The activists’ willful misunderstanding of clearly pro-consumer data plans and purposeful mischaracterization of Portugal as not having net neutrality rules are inflammatory and deceitful. Even more puzzling for activists (but great for consumers) is their position given there is nothing in the 2015 Open Internet Order that would prevent these types of data packages from being offered in the US so long as ISPs are transparent with consumers.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) released a study updating our 2014 analysis of the economic effects of the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act.

The new paper, Unreasonable and Disproportionate: How the Durbin Amendment Harms Poorer Americans and Small Businesses, by ICLE scholars, Todd J. Zywicki, Geoffrey A. Manne, and Julian Morris, can be found here; a Fact Sheet highlighting the paper’s key findings is available here.

Introduced as part of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, the Durbin Amendment sought to reduce the interchange fees assessed by large banks on debit card transactions. In the words of its primary sponsor, Sen. Richard Durbin, the Amendment aspired to help “every single Main Street business that accepts debit cards keep more of their money, which is a savings they can pass on to their consumers.”

Unfortunately, although the Durbin Amendment did generate benefits for big-box retailers, ICLE’s 2014 analysis found that it had actually harmed many other merchants and imposed substantial net costs on the majority of consumers, especially those from lower-income households.

In the current study, we analyze a welter of new evidence and arguments to assess whether time has ameliorated or exacerbated the Amendment’s effects. Our findings in this report expand upon and reinforce our findings from 2014:

Relative to the period before the Durbin Amendment, almost every segment of the interrelated retail, banking, and consumer finance markets has been made worse off as a result of the Amendment.

Predictably, the removal of billions of dollars in interchange fee revenue has led to the imposition of higher bank fees and reduced services for banking consumers.

In fact, millions of households, regardless of income level, have been adversely affected by the Durbin Amendment through higher overdraft fees, increased minimum balances, reduced access to free checking, higher ATM fees, and lost debit card rewards, among other things.

Nor is there any evidence that merchants have lowered prices for retail consumers; for many small-ticket items, in fact, prices have been driven up.

Contrary to Sen. Durbin’s promises, in other words, increased banking costs have not been offset by lower retail prices.

At the same time, although large merchants continue to reap a Durbin Amendment windfall, there remains no evidence that small merchants have realized any interchange cost savings — indeed, many have suffered cost increases.

And all of these effects fall hardest on the poor. Hundreds of thousands of low-income households have chosen (or been forced) to exit the banking system, with the result that they face higher costs, difficulty obtaining credit, and complications receiving and making payments — all without offset in the form of lower retail prices.

Finally, the 2017 study also details a new trend that was not apparent when we examined the data three years ago: Contrary to our findings then, the two-tier system of interchange fee regulation (which exempts issuing banks with under $10 billion in assets) no longer appears to be protecting smaller banks from the Durbin Amendment’s adverse effects.

This week the House begins consideration of the Amendment’s repeal as part of Rep. Hensarling’s CHOICE Act. Our study makes clear that the Durbin price-control experiment has proven a failure, and that repeal is, indeed, the only responsible option.

Click on the following links to read:

Full Paper

Fact Sheet

Summary

On Friday the the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments with the FCC in response to Chairman Wheeler’s NPRM (proposed rules) to “unlock” the MVPD (i.e., cable and satellite subscription video, essentially) set-top box market. Plenty has been written on the proposed rulemaking—for a few quick hits (among many others) see, e.g., Richard Bennett, Glenn Manishin, Larry Downes, Stuart Brotman, Scott Wallsten, and me—so I’ll dispense with the background and focus on the key points we make in our comments.

Our comments explain that the proposal’s assertion that the MVPD set-top box market isn’t competitive is a product of its failure to appreciate the dynamics of the market (and its disregard for economics). Similarly, the proposal fails to acknowledge the complexity of the markets it intends to regulate, and, in particular, it ignores the harmful effects on content production and distribution the rules would likely bring about.

“Competition, competition, competition!” — Tom Wheeler

“Well, uh… just because I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t mean I’m lying.” — Claude Elsinore

At root, the proposal is aimed at improving competition in a market that is already hyper-competitive. As even Chairman Wheeler has admitted,

American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.

Of course, much of this competition comes from outside the MVPD market, strictly speaking—most notably from OVDs like Netflix. It’s indisputable that the statute directs the FCC to address the MVPD market and the MVPD set-top box market. But addressing competition in those markets doesn’t mean you simply disregard the world outside those markets.

The competitiveness of a market isn’t solely a function of the number of competitors in the market. Even relatively constrained markets like these can be “fully competitive” with only a few competing firms—as is the case in every market in which MVPDs operate (all of which are presumed by the Commission to be subject to “effective competition”).

The truly troubling thing, however, is that the FCC knows that MVPDs compete with OVDs, and thus that the competitiveness of the “MVPD market” (and the “MVPD set-top box market”) isn’t solely a matter of direct, head-to-head MVPD competition.

How do we know that? As I’ve recounted before, in a recent speech FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet approvingly explained that Commission staff recommended rejecting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger precisely because of the alleged threat it posed to OVD competitors. In essence, Sallet argued that Comcast sought to undertake a $45 billion merger primarily—if not solely—in order to ameliorate the competitive threat to its subscription video services from OVDs:

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.…

Thus, at least when it suits it, the Chairman’s office appears not only to believe that this competitive threat is real, but also that Comcast, once the largest MVPD in the country, believes so strongly that the OVD competitive threat is real that it was willing to pay $45 billion for a mere “increased ability” to limit it.

UPDATE 4/26/2016

And now the FCC has approved the Charter/Time Warner Cable, imposing conditions that, according to Wheeler,

focus on removing unfair barriers to video competition. First, New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps. Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm OVDs and protects OVDs from retaliation—an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today.

If MVPDs and OVDs don’t compete, why would such terms be necessary? And even if the threat is merely potential competition, as we note in our comments (citing to this, among other things),

particularly in markets characterized by the sorts of technological change present in video markets, potential competition can operate as effectively as—or even more effectively than—actual competition to generate competitive market conditions.

/UPDATE

Moreover, the proposal asserts that the “market” for MVPD set-top boxes isn’t competitive because “consumers have few alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from their MVPDs, and the vast majority of MVPD subscribers lease boxes from their MVPD.”

But the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket—a secondary market; no one buys set-top boxes without first buying MVPD service—and always or almost always the two are purchased at the same time. As Ben Klein and many others have shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive.

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

The competitiveness of the MVPD market in which the antecedent choice of provider is made incorporates consumers’ preferences regarding set-top boxes, and makes the secondary market competitive.

The proposal’s superficial and erroneous claim that the set-top box market isn’t competitive thus reflects bad economics, not competitive reality.

But it gets worse. The NPRM doesn’t actually deny the importance of OVDs and app-based competitors wholesale — it only does so when convenient. As we note in our Comments:

The irony is that the NPRM seeks to give a leg up to non-MVPD distribution services in order to promote competition with MVPDs, while simultaneously denying that such competition exists… In order to avoid triggering [Section 629’s sunset provision,] the Commission is forced to pretend that we still live in the world of Blockbuster rentals and analog cable. It must ignore the Netflix behind the curtain—ignore the utter wealth of video choices available to consumers—and focus on the fact that a consumer might have a remote for an Apple TV sitting next to her Xfinity remote.

“Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?” — Jules Winnfield

The NPRM proposes to create a world in which all of the content that MVPDs license from programmers, and all of their own additional services, must be provided to third-party device manufacturers under a zero-rate compulsory license. Apart from the complete absence of statutory authority to mandate such a thing (or, I should say, apart from statutory language specifically prohibiting such a thing), the proposed rules run roughshod over the copyrights and negotiated contract rights of content providers:

The current rulemaking represents an overt assault on the web of contracts that makes content generation and distribution possible… The rules would create a new class of intermediaries lacking contractual privity with content providers (or MVPDs), and would therefore force MVPDs to bear the unpredictable consequences of providing licensed content to third-parties without actual contracts to govern those licenses…

Because such nullification of license terms interferes with content owners’ right “to do and to authorize” their distribution and performance rights, the rules may facially violate copyright law… [Moreover,] the web of contracts that support the creation and distribution of content are complicated, extensively negotiated, and subject to destabilization. Abrogating the parties’ use of the various control points that support the financing, creation, and distribution of content would very likely reduce the incentive to invest in new and better content, thereby rolling back the golden age of television that consumers currently enjoy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious acknowledgement in the NPRM that its rules could have any effect on content providers, apart from this gem:

We do not currently have evidence that regulations are needed to address concerns raised by MVPDs and content providers that competitive navigation solutions will disrupt elements of service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replace or alter advertising, or improperly manipulate content…. We also seek comment on the extent to which copyright law may protect against these concerns, and note that nothing in our proposal will change or affect content creators’ rights or remedies under copyright law.

The Commission can’t rely on copyright to protect against these concerns, at least not without admitting that the rules require MVPDs to violate copyright law and to breach their contracts. And in fact, although it doesn’t acknowledge it, the NPRM does require the abrogation of content owners’ rights embedded in licenses negotiated with MVPD distributors to the extent that they conflict with the terms of the rule (which many of them must).   

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya

Finally, the NPRM derives its claimed authority for these rules from an interpretation of the relevant statute (Section 629 of the Communications Act) that is absurdly unreasonable. That provision requires the FCC to enact rules to assure the “commercial availability” of set-top boxes from MVPD-unaffiliated vendors. According to the NPRM,

we cannot assure a commercial market for devices… unless companies unaffiliated with an MVPD are able to offer innovative user interfaces and functionality to consumers wishing to access that multichannel video programming.

This baldly misconstrues a term plainly meant to refer to the manner in which consumers obtain their navigation devices, not how those devices should function. It also contradicts the Commission’s own, prior readings of the statute:

As structured, the rules will place a regulatory thumb on the scale in favor of third-parties and to the detriment of MVPDs and programmers…. [But] Congress explicitly rejected language that would have required unbundling of MVPDs’ content and services in order to promote other distribution services…. Where Congress rejected language that would have favored non-MVPD services, the Commission selectively interprets the language Congress did employ in order to accomplish exactly what Congress rejected.

And despite the above noted problems (and more), the Commission has failed to do even a cursory economic evaluation of the relative costs of the NPRM, instead focusing narrowly on one single benefit it believes might occur (wider distribution of set-top boxes from third-parties) despite the consistent failure of similar FCC efforts in the past.

All of the foregoing leads to a final question: At what point do the costs of these rules finally outweigh the perceived benefits? On the one hand are legal questions of infringement, inducements to violate agreements, and disruptions of complex contractual ecosystems supporting content creation. On the other hand are the presence of more boxes and apps that allow users to choose who gets to draw the UI for their video content…. At some point the Commission needs to take seriously the costs of its actions, and determine whether the public interest is really served by the proposed rules.

Our full comments are available here.

Shanker Singham of the Babson Global Institute (formerly a leading international trade lawyer and author of the most comprehensive one-volume work on the interplay between competition and international trade policy) has published a short article introducing the concept of “enterprise cities.”  This article, which outlines an incentives-based, market-oriented approach to spurring economic development, is well worth reading.  A short summary follows.

Singham points out that the transition away from socialist command-and-control economies, accompanied by international trade liberalization, too often failed to create competitive markets within developing countries.  Anticompetitive market distortions imposed by government and generated by politically-connected domestic rent-seekers continue to thrive – measures such as entry barriers that favor entrenched incumbent firms, and other regulatory provisions that artificially favor specific powerful domestic business interests (“crony capitalists”).  Such widespread distortions reduce competition and discourage inward investment, thereby retarding innovation and economic growth and reducing consumer welfare.  Political influence exercised by the elite beneficiaries of the distortions may prevent legal reforms that would remove these regulatory obstacles to economic development.  What, then, can be done to disturb this welfare-inimical state of affairs, when sweeping, nationwide legal reforms are politically impossible?

One incremental approach, advanced by Professor Paul Romer and others, is the establishment of “charter cities” – geographic zones within a country that operate under government-approved free market-oriented charters, rather than under restrictive national laws.  Building on this concept, Babson Global Institute has established a “Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project” (CEDP) designed to promote the notion of “Enterprise Cities” (ECs) – geographically demarcated zones of regulatory autonomy within countries, governed by a Board.  ECs would be created through negotiations between a national government and a third party group, such as CEDP.  The negotiations would establish “Regulatory Framework Agreements” embodying legal rules (implemented through statutory or constitutional amendments by the host country) that would apply solely within the EC.  Although EC legal regimes would differ with respect to minor details (reflecting local differences that would affect negotiations), they would be consistent in stressing freedom of contract, flexible labor markets, and robust property rights, and in prohibiting special regulatory/legal favoritism (so as to avoid anticompetitive market distortions).  Protecting foreign investment through third party arbitration and related guarantees would be key to garnering foreign investor interest in ECs.   The goal would be to foster a business climate favorable to investment, job creation, innovation, and economic growth.  The EC Board would ensure that agreed-to rules would be honored and enforced by EC-specific legal institutions, such as courts.

Because market-oriented EC rules will not affect market-distortive laws elsewhere within the host country, well-organized rent-seeking elites may not have as strong an incentive to oppose creating ECs.  Indeed, to the extent that a share of EC revenues is transferred to the host country government (depending upon the nature of the EC’s charter), elites might directly benefit, using their political connections to share in the profits.  In short, although setting up viable ECs is no easy matter, their establishment need not be politically unfeasible.  Indeed, the continued success of Hong Kong as a free market island within China (Hong Kong places first in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom), operating under the Basic Law of Hong Kong, suggests the potential for ECs to thrive, despite having very different rules than the parent state’s legal regime.  (Moreover, the success of Hong Kong may have proven contagious, as China is now promoting a new Shanghai Free Trade Zone thaw would compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.)

The CEDP is currently negotiating the establishment of ECs with a number of governments.  As Singham explains, successful launch of an EC requires:  (1) a committed developer; (2) land that can be used for a project; (3) a good external infrastructure connecting the EC with the rest of the country; and (4) “a government that recognizes the benefits to its reform agenda and to its own economic plan of such a designation of regulatory autonomy and is willing to confront its own challenges by thinking outside the box.”  While the fourth prerequisite may be the most difficult to achieve, internal pressures for faster economic growth and increased investment may lead jurisdictions with burdensome regulatory regimes to consider ECs.

Furthermore, as Singham stresses, by promoting competition on the merits, free from favoritism, a successful EC could stimulate successful entrepreneurship.  Scholarly work points to the importance of entrepreneurship to economic development.

Finally, the beneficial economic effects of ECs could give additional ammunition to national competition authorities as they advocate for less restrictive regulatory frameworks within their jurisdictions.  It could thereby render more effective the efforts of the many new national competition authorities, whose success in enhancing competitive conditions within their jurisdictions has been limited at best.

ECs are no panacea – they will not directly affect restrictive national regulatory laws that benefit privileged special interests but harm the overall economy.  However, to the extent they prove financial successes, over time they could play a crucial indirect role in enhancing competition, reducing inefficiency, and spurring economic growth within their host countries.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has a terrific essay in the Review section of today’s Wall Street Journal.  The essay, Competition Is for Losers, is adapted from Mr. Thiel’s soon-to-be-released book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.  Based on the title of the book, I assume it is primarily a how-to guide for entrepreneurs.  But if the rest of the book is anything like the essay in today’s Journal, it will also offer lots of guidance to policy makers–antitrust officials in particular.

We antitrusters usually begin with the assumption that monopoly is bad and perfect competition is good. That’s the starting point for most antitrust courses: the professor lays out the model of perfect competition, points to all the wealth it creates and how that wealth is distributed (more to consumers than to producers), and contrasts it to the monopoly pricing model, with its steep marginal revenue curve, hideous “deadweight loss” triangle, and unseemly redistribution of surplus from consumers to producers. Which is better, kids?  Why, perfect competition, of course!

Mr. Thiel makes the excellent and oft-neglected point that monopoly power is not necessarily a bad thing. First, monopolists can do certain good things that perfect competitors can’t do:

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto–“Don’t be evil”–is in part a branding ploy, but it is also characteristic of a kind of business that is successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence.  In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

Fair enough, Thiel. But what about consumers? That model we learned shows us that they’re worse off under monopoly.  And what about the deadweight loss triangle–don’t forget about that ugly thing! 

So a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsize profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: Profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputations–but only in a world where nothing changes.

Wait a minute, Thiel. Why do you think things are different when we inject “change” into the analysis?

In a static world, a monopolist is just a rent collector. If you corner the market for something, you can jack up the price; others will have no choice but to buy from you. Think of the famous board game: Deeds are shuffled around from player to player, but the board never changes. There is no way to win by inventing a better kind of real estate development. The relative values of the properties are fixed for all time, so all you can do is try to buy them up.

But the world we live in is dynamic: We can invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.

Even the government knows this: That is why one of the departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It is possible to question whether anyone should really be rewarded a monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design. But something like Apple’s monopoly profits from designing, producing and marketing the iPhone were clearly the reward for creating greater abundance, not artificial scarcity: Customers were happy to finally have the choice of paying high prices to get a smartphone that actually works. The dynamism of new monopolies itself explains why old monopolies don’t strangle innovation. With Apple’s iOS at the forefront, the rise of mobile computing has dramatically reduced Microsoft’s decadeslong operating system dominance.

…If the tendency of monopoly businesses was to hold back progress, they would be dangerous, and we’d be right to oppose them. But the history of progress is a history of better monopoly businesses replacing incumbents. Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Geez, Thiel.  You know who you sound like?  Justice Scalia. Here’s how he once explained your idea (to shrieks and howls from many in the antitrust establishment!):

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place. It induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Sounds like you and Scalia are calling for us antitrusters to update our models.  Is that it?

So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It is a relic of history. Economists copied their mathematics from the work of 19th-century physicists: They see individuals and businesses as interchangeable atoms, not as unique creators. Their theories describe an equilibrium state of perfect competition because that is what’s easy to model, not because it represents the best of business.

C’mon now, Thiel. Surely you don’t expect us antitrusters to defer to you over all these learned economists when it comes to business.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny.  In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”

So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion.  May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees?  That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide.  As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter:  Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?

In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law.  Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views.  The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form.  Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.

In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons.  Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.

Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:

  • Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.

Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe.  Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them.  “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise.  When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”

  • Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.

This claim is simply false.  First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation.  Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations.  Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise.  Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):

A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960.  For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly.  A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law.  Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays.  A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law.  Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture.  New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday.  A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups.  A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food.  Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores.  The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice.  Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.

As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.

  • Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.

The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons.  They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.”  In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”

But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms.  As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing:  Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections.  From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise.  A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations.   Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.”  Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”

  • Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.

The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity.  They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.  A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”

As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations.  Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated.  The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.”  But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith.  “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held.  Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”

***

In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act.  I’ll let you read that one on your own.

I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue.  Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’  amicus brief.  Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.

Read it all before SCOTUS rules!