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Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).

There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).

In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.

In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.

A summary of my paper follows.

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.

Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.

Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.

In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.

In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:

[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.

By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.

In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.

Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.

First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.

Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.

Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.

Conclusion

A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.

First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.

Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.

In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.

The recent launch of the international Multilateral Pharmaceutical Merger Task Force (MPMTF) is just the latest example of burgeoning cooperative efforts by leading competition agencies to promote convergence in antitrust enforcement. (See my recent paper on the globalization of antitrust, which assesses multinational cooperation and convergence initiatives in greater detail.) In what is a first, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division, offices of state Attorneys General, the European Commission’s Competition Directorate, Canada’s Competition Bureau, and the U.K.’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) jointly created the MPMTF in March 2021 “to update their approach to analyzing the effects of pharmaceutical mergers.”

To help inform its analysis, in May 2021 the MPMTF requested public comments concerning the effects of pharmaceutical mergers. The MPMTF sought submissions regarding (among other issues) seven sets of questions:   

  1. What theories of harm should enforcement agencies consider when evaluating pharmaceutical mergers, including theories of harm beyond those currently considered?
  2. What is the full range of a pharmaceutical merger’s effects on innovation? What challenges arise when mergers involve proprietary drug discovery and manufacturing platforms?
  3. In pharmaceutical merger review, how should we consider the risks or effects of conduct such as price-setting practices, reverse payments, and other ways in which pharmaceutical companies respond to or rely on regulatory processes?
  4. How should we approach market definition in pharmaceutical mergers, and how is that implicated by new or evolving theories of harm?
  5. What evidence may be relevant or necessary to assess and, if applicable, challenge a pharmaceutical merger based on any new or expanded theories of harm?
  6. What types of remedies would work in the cases to which those theories are applied?
  7. What factors, such as the scope of assets and characteristics of divestiture buyers, influence the likelihood and success of pharmaceutical divestitures to resolve competitive concerns?

My research assistant Andrew Mercado and I recently submitted comments for the record addressing the questions posed by the MPMTF. We concluded:

Federal merger enforcement in general and FTC pharmaceutical merger enforcement in particular have been effective in promoting competition and consumer welfare. Proposed statutory amendments to strengthen merger enforcement not only are unnecessary, but also would, if enacted, tend to undermine welfare and would thus be poor public policy. A brief analysis of seven questions propounded by the Multilateral Pharmaceutical Merger Task Force suggests that: (a) significant changes in enforcement policies are not warranted; and (b) investigators should employ sound law and economics analysis, taking full account of merger-related efficiencies, when evaluating pharmaceutical mergers. 

While we leave it to interested readers to review our specific comments, this commentary highlights one key issue which we stressed—the importance of giving due weight to efficiencies (and, in particular, dynamic efficiencies) in evaluating pharma mergers. We also note an important critique by FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson of the treatment accorded merger-related efficiencies by U.S. antitrust enforcers.   

Discussion

Innovation in pharmaceuticals and vaccines has immensely significant economic and social consequences, as demonstrated most recently in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, it is particularly important that public policy not stand in the way of realizing efficiencies that promote innovation in these markets. This observation applies directly, of course, to pharmaceutical antitrust enforcement, in general, and to pharma merger enforcement, in particular.

Regrettably, however, though general merger-enforcement policy has been generally sound, it has somewhat undervalued merger-related efficiencies.

Although U.S. antitrust enforcers give lip service to their serious consideration of efficiencies in merger reviews, the reality appears to be quite different, as documented by Commissioner Wilson in a 2020 speech.

Wilson’s General Merger-Efficiencies Critique: According to Wilson, the combination of finding narrow markets and refusing to weigh out-of-market efficiencies has created major “legal and evidentiary hurdles a defendant must clear when seeking to prove offsetting procompetitive efficiencies.” What’s more, the “courts [have] largely continue[d] to follow the Agencies’ lead in minimizing the importance of efficiencies.” Wilson shows that “the Horizontal Merger Guidelines text and case law appear to set different standards for demonstrating harms and efficiencies,” and argues that this “asymmetric approach has the obvious potential consequence of preventing some procompetitive mergers that increase consumer welfare.” Wilson concludes on a more positive note that this problem can be addressed by having enforcers: (1) treat harms and efficiencies symmetrically; and (2) establish clear and reasonable expectations for what types of efficiency analysis will and will not pass muster.

While our filing with the MPMTF did not discuss Wilson’s general treatment of merger efficiencies, one would hope that the task force will appropriately weigh it in its deliberations. Our filing instead briefly addressed two “informational efficiencies” that may arise in the context of pharmaceutical mergers. These include:

More Efficient Resource Reallocation: The theory of the firm teaches that mergers may be motivated by the underutilization or misallocation of assets, or the opportunity to create welfare-enhancing synergies. In the pharmaceutical industry, these synergies may come from joining complementary research and development programs, combining diverse and specialized expertise that may be leveraged for better, faster drug development and more innovation.

Enhanced R&D: Currently, much of the R&D for large pharmaceutical companies is achieved through partnerships or investment in small biotechnology and research firms specializing in a single type of therapy. Whereas large pharmaceutical companies have expertise in marketing, navigating regulation, and undertaking trials of new drugs, small, research-focused firms can achieve greater advancements in medicine with smaller budgets. Furthermore, changes within firms brought about by a merger may increase innovation.

With increases in intellectual property and proprietary data that come from the merging of two companies, smaller research firms that work with the merged entity may have access to greater pools of information, enhancing the potential for innovation without increasing spending. This change not only raises the efficiency of the research being conducted in these small firms, but also increases the probability of a breakthrough without an increase in risk.

Conclusion

U.S. pharmaceutical merger enforcement has been fairly effective in forestalling anticompetitive combinations while allowing consumer welfare-enhancing transactions to go forward. Policy in this area should remain generally the same. Enforcers should continue to base enforcement decisions on sound economic theory fully supported by case-specific facts. Enforcement agencies could benefit, however, by placing a greater emphasis on efficiencies analysis. In particular, they should treat harms and efficiencies symmetrically (as recommend by Commissioner Wilson), and fully take into account likely resource reallocation and innovation-related efficiencies. 

Admirers of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and other antitrust populists often trace the history of American anti-monopoly sentiments from the Founding Era through the Progressive Era’s passage of laws to fight the scourge of 19th century monopolists. For example, Matt Stoller of the American Economic Liberties Project, both in his book Goliath and in other writings, frames the story of America essentially as a battle between monopolists and anti-monopolists.

According to this reading, it was in the late 20th century that powerful corporations and monied interests ultimately succeeded in winning the battle in favor of monopoly power against antitrust authorities, aided by the scholarship of the “ideological” Chicago school of economics and more moderate law & economics scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

It is a framing that leaves little room for disagreements about economic theory or evidence. One is either anti-monopoly or pro-monopoly, anti-corporate power or pro-corporate power.

What this story muddles is that the dominant anti-monopoly strain from English common law, which continued well into the late 19th century, was opposed specifically to government-granted monopoly. In contrast, today’s “anti-monopolists” focus myopically on alleged monopolies that often benefit consumers, while largely ignoring monopoly power granted by government. The real monopoly problem antitrust law fails to solve is its immunization of anticompetitive government policies. Recovering the older anti-monopoly tradition would better focus activists today.

Common Law Anti-Monopoly Tradition

Scholars like Timothy Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute have written about the right to earn a living that arose out of English common law and was inherited by the United States. This anti-monopoly stance was aimed at government-granted privileges, not at successful business ventures that gained significant size or scale.

For instance, 1602’s Darcy v. Allein, better known as the “Case of Monopolies,” dealt with a “patent” originally granted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1576 to Ralph Bowes, and later bought by Edward Darcy, to make and sell playing cards. Darcy did not innovate playing cards; he merely had permission to be the sole purveyor. Thomas Allein, who attempted to sell playing cards he created, was sued for violating Darcy’s exclusive rights. Darcy’s monopoly ultimately was held to be invalid by the court, which refused to convict Allein.

Edward Coke, who actually argued on behalf of the patent in Darcy v. Allen, wrote that the case stood for the proposition that:

All trades, as well mechanical as others, which prevent idleness (the bane of the commonwealth) and exercise men and youth in labour, for the maintenance of themselves and their families, and for the increase of their substance, to serve the Queen when occasion shall require, are profitable for the commonwealth, and therefore the grant to the plaintiff to have the sole making of them is against the common law, and the benefit and liberty of the subject. (emphasis added)

In essence, Coke’s argument was more closely linked to a “right to work” than to market structures, business efficiency, or firm conduct.

The courts largely resisted royal monopolies in 17th century England, finding such grants to violate the common law. For instance, in The Case of the Tailors of Ipswich, the court cited Darcy and found:

…at the common law, no man could be prohibited from working in any lawful trade, for the law abhors idleness, the mother of all evil… especially in young men, who ought in their youth, (which is their seed time) to learn lawful sciences and trades, which are profitable to the commonwealth, and whereof they might reap the fruit in their old age, for idle in youth, poor in age; and therefore the common law abhors all monopolies, which prohibit any from working in any lawful trade. (emphasis added)

The principles enunciated in these cases were eventually codified in the Statute of Monopolies, which prohibited the crown from granting monopolies in most circumstances. This was especially the case when the monopoly prevented the right to otherwise lawful work.

This common-law tradition also had disdain for private contracts that created monopoly by restraining the right to work. For instance, the famous Dyer’s case of 1414 held that a contract in which John Dyer promised not to practice his trade in the same town as the plaintiff was void for being an unreasonable restraint on trade.The judge is supposed to have said in response to the plaintiff’s complaint that he would have imprisoned anyone who had claimed such a monopoly on his own authority.

Over time, the common law developed analysis that looked at the reasonableness of restraints on trade, such as the extent to which they were limited in geographic reach and duration, as well as the consideration given in return. This part of the anti-monopoly tradition would later constitute the thread pulled on by the populists and progressives who created the earliest American antitrust laws.

Early American Anti-Monopoly Tradition

American law largely inherited the English common law system. It also inherited the anti-monopoly tradition the common law embodied. The founding generation of American lawyers were trained on Edward Coke’s commentary in “The Institutes of the Laws of England,” wherein he strongly opposed government-granted monopolies.

This sentiment can be found in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which stated: “No monopolies shall be granted or allowed amongst us, but of such new Inventions that are profitable to the Countrie, and that for a short time.” In fact, the Boston Tea Party itself was in part a protest of the monopoly granted to the East India Company, which included a special refund from duties by Parliament that no other tea importers enjoyed.

This anti-monopoly tradition also can be seen in the debates at the Constitutional Convention. A proposal to give the federal government power to grant “charters of incorporation” was voted down on fears it could lead to monopolies. Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and several Antifederalists expressed concerns about the new national government’s ability to grant monopolies, arguing that an anti-monopoly clause should be added to the Constitution. Six states wanted to include provisions that would ban monopolies and the granting of special privileges in the Constitution.

The American anti-monopoly tradition remained largely an anti-government tradition throughout much of the 19th century, rearing its head in debates about the Bank of the United States, publicly-funded internal improvements, and government-granted monopolies over bridges and seas. Pamphleteer Lysander Spooner even tried to start a rival to the Post Office by appealing to the strong American impulse against monopoly.

Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, liberalization of corporate law made it easier for private persons to organize firms that were not simply grants of exclusive monopoly. But discontent with industrialization and other social changes contributed to the birth of a populist movement, and later to progressives like Brandeis, who focused on private combinations and corporate power rather than government-granted privileges. This is the strand of anti-monopoly sentiment that continues to dominate the rhetoric today.

What This Means for Today

Modern anti-monopoly advocates have largely forgotten the lessons of the long Anglo-American tradition that found government is often the source of monopoly power. Indeed, American law privileges government’s ability to grant favors to businesses through licensing, the tax code, subsidies, and even regulation. The state action doctrine from Parker v. Brown exempts state and municipal authorities from antitrust lawsuits even where their policies have anticompetitive effects. And the Noerr-Pennington doctrine protects the rights of industry groups to lobby the government to pass anticompetitive laws.

As a result, government is often used to harm competition, with no remedy outside of the political process that created the monopoly. Antitrust law is used instead to target businesses built by serving consumers well in the marketplace.

Recovering this older anti-monopoly tradition would help focus the anti-monopoly movement on a serious problem modern antitrust misses. While the consumer-welfare standard that modern antitrust advocates often decry has helped to focus the law on actual harms to consumers, antitrust more broadly continues to encourage rent-seeking by immunizing state action and lobbying behavior.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

It is my endeavor to scrutinize the questionable assessment articulated against default settings in the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google. Default, I will argue, is no antitrust fault. Default in the Google case drastically differs from default referred to in the Microsoft case. In Part I, I argue the comparison is odious. Furthermore, in Part II, it will be argued that the implicit prohibition of default settings echoes, as per listings, the explicit prohibition of self-preferencing in search results. Both aspects – default’s implicit prohibition and self-preferencing’s explicit prohibition – are the two legs of a novel and integrated theory of sanctioning corporate favoritism. The coming to the fore of such theory goes against the very essence of the capitalist grain. In Part III, I note the attempt to instill some corporate selflessness is at odds with competition on the merits and the spirit of fundamental economic freedoms.

When Default is No-Fault

The recent complaint filed by the DOJ and 11 state attorneys general claims that Google has abused its dominant position on the search-engine market through several ways, notably making Google the default search engine both in Google Chrome web browser for Android OS and in Apple’s Safari web browser for iOS. Undoubtedly, default setting confers a noticeable advantage for users’ attraction – it is sought and enforced on purpose. Nevertheless, the default setting confers an unassailable position unless the product remains competitive. Furthermore, the default setting can hardly be proven to be anticompetitive in the Google case. Indeed, the DOJ puts considerable effort in the complaint to make the Google case resemble the 20-year-old Microsoft case. Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman William Kovacic commented: “I suppose the Justice Department is telling the court, ‘You do not have to be scared of this case. You’ve done it before […] This is Microsoft part 2.”[1]

However, irrespective of the merits of the Microsoft case two decades ago, the Google default setting case bears minimal resemblance to the Microsoft default setting of Internet Explorer. First, as opposed to the Microsoft case, where default by Microsoft meant pre-installed software (i.e., Internet Explorer)[2], the Google case does not relate to the pre-installment of the Google search engine (since it is just a webpage) but a simple setting. This technical difference is significant: although “sticky”[3], the default setting, can be outwitted with just one click[4]. It is dissimilar to the default setting, which can only be circumvented by uninstalling software[5], searching and installing a new one[6]. Moreover, with no certainty that consumers will effectively use Google search engine, default settings come with advertising revenue sharing agreements between Google and device manufacturers, mobile phone carriers, competing browsers and Apple[7]. These mutually beneficial deals represent a significant cost with no technical exclusivity [8]. In other words, the antitrust treatment of a tie-in between software and hardware in the Microsoft case cannot be convincingly extrapolated to the default setting of a “webware”[9] as relevant in the Google case.

Second, the Google case cannot legitimately resort to extrapolating the Microsoft case for another technical (and commercial) aspect: the Microsoft case was a classic tie-in case where the tied product (Internet Explorer) was tied into the main product (Windows). As a traditional tie-in scenario, the tied product (Internet Explorer) was “consistently offered, promoted, and distributed […] as a stand-alone product separate from, and not as a component of, Windows […]”[10]. In contrast, Google has never sold Google Chrome or Android OS. It offered both Google Chrome and Android OS for free, necessarily conditional to Google search engine as default setting. The very fact that Google Chrome or Android OS have never been “stand-alone” products, to use the Microsoft case’s language, together with the absence of software installation, dramatically differentiates the features pertaining to the Google case from those of the Microsoft case. The Google case is not a traditional tie-in case: it is a case against default setting when both products (the primary and related products) are given for free, are not saleable, are neither tangible nor intangible goods but only popular digital services due to significant innovativeness and ease of usage. The Microsoft “complaint challenge[d] only Microsoft’s concerted attempts to maintain its monopoly in operating systems and to achieve dominance in other markets, not by innovation and other competition on the merits, but by tie-ins.” Quite noticeably, the Google case does not mention tie-in ,as per Google Chrome or Android OS.

The complaint only refers to tie-ins concerning Google’s app being pre-installed on Android OS. Therefore, concerning Google’s dominance on the search engine market, it cannot be said that the default setting of Google search in Android OS entails tie-in. Google search engine has no distribution channel (since it is only a website) other than through downstream partnerships (i.e., vertical deals with Android device manufacturers). To sanction default setting on downstream trading partners is tantamount to refusing legitimate means to secure distribution channels of proprietary and zero-priced services. To further this detrimental logic, it would mean that Apple may no longer offer its own apps in its own iPhones or, in offline markets, that a retailer may no longer offer its own (default) bags at the till since it excludes rivals’ sale bags. Products and services naked of any adjacent products and markets (i.e., an iPhone or Android OS with no app or a shopkeeper with no bundled services) would dramatically increase consumers’ search costs while destroying innovators’ essential distribution channels for innovative business models and providing few departures from the status quo as long as consumers will continue to value default products[11].

Default should not be an antitrust fault: the Google case makes default settings a new line of antitrust injury absent tie-ins. In conclusion, as a free webware, Google search’s default setting cannot be compared to default installation in the Microsoft case since minimal consumer stickiness entails (almost) no switching costs. As free software, Google’s default apps cannot be compared to Microsoft case either since pre-installation is the sine qua non condition of the highly valued services (Android OS) voluntarily chosen by device manufacturers. Default settings on downstream products can only be reasonably considered as antitrust injury when the dominant company is erroneously treated as a de facto essential facility – something evidenced by the similar prohibition of self-preferencing.

When Self-Preference is No Defense

Self-preferencing is to listings what the default setting is to operating systems. They both are ways to market one’s own products (i.e., alternative to marketing toward end-consumers). While default setting may come with both free products and financial payments (Android OS and advertising revenue sharing), self-preferencing may come with foregone advertising revenues in order to promote one’s own products. Both sides can be apprehended as the two sides of the same coin:[12] generating the ad-funded main product’s distribution channels – Google’s search engine. Both are complex advertising channels since both venues favor one’s own products regarding consumers’ attention. Absent both channels, the payments made for default agreements and the foregone advertising revenues in self-preferencing one’s own products would morph into marketing and advertising expenses of Google search engine toward end-consumers.

The DOJ complaint lambasts that “Google’s monopoly in general search services also has given the company extraordinary power as the gateway to the internet, which uses to promote its own web content and increase its profits.” This blame was at the core of the European Commission’s Google Shopping decision in 2017[13]: it essentially holds Google accountable for having, because of its ad-funded business model, promoted its own advertising products and demoted organic links in search results. According to which Google’s search results are no longer relevant and listed on the sole motivation of advertising revenue

But this argument is circular: should these search results become irrelevant, Google’s core business would become less attractive, thereby generating less advertising revenue. This self-inflicted inefficiency would deprive Google of valuable advertising streams and incentivize end-consumers to switch to search engine rivals such as Bing, DuckDuckGo, Amazon (product search), etc. Therefore, an ad-funded company such as Google needs to reasonably arbitrage between advertising objectives and the efficiency of its core activities (here, zero-priced organic search services). To downplay (the ad-funded) self-referencing in order to foster (the zero-priced) organic search quality would disregard the two-sidedness of the Google platform: it would harm advertisers and the viability of the ad-funded business model without providing consumers and innovation protection it aims at providing. The problematic and undesirable concept of “search neutrality” would mean algorithmic micro-management for the sake of an “objective” listing considered acceptable only to the eyes of the regulator.

Furthermore, self-preferencing entails a sort of positive discrimination toward one’s own products[14]. If discrimination has traditionally been antitrust lines of injuries, self-preferencing is an “epithet”[15] outside antitrust remits for good reasons[16]. Indeed, should self-interested (i.e., rationally minded) companies and individuals are legally complied to self-demote their own products and services? If only big (how big?) companies are legally complied to self-demote their products and services, to what extent will exempted companies involved in self-preferencing become liable to do so?

Indeed, many uncertainties, legal and economic ones, may spawn from the emerging prohibition of self-preferencing. More fundamentally, antitrust liability may clash with basic corporate governance principles where self-interestedness allows self-preferencing and command such self-promotion. The limits of antitrust have been reached when two sets of legal regimes, both applicable to companies, suggest contradictory commercial conducts. To what extent may Amazon no longer promote its own series on Amazon Video in a similar manner Netflix does? To what extent can Microsoft no longer promote Bing’s search engine to compete with Google’s search engine effectively? To what extent Uber may no longer promote UberEATS in order to compete with delivery services effectively? Not only the business of business is doing business[17], but also it is its duty for which shareholders may hold managers to account.

The self is moral; there is a corporate morality of business self-interest. In other words, corporate selflessness runs counter to business ethics since corporate self-interest yields the self’s rivalrous positioning within a competitive order. Absent a corporate self-interest, self-sacrifice may generate value destruction for the sake of some unjustified and ungrounded claims. The emerging prohibition of self-preferencing, similar to the established ban on the default setting on one’s own products into other proprietary products, materializes the corporate self’s losing. Both directions coalesce to instill the legally embedded duty of self-sacrifice for the competitor’s welfare instead of the traditional consumer welfare and the dynamics of innovation, which never unleash absent appropriabilities. In conclusion, to expect firms, however big or small, to act irrespective of their identities (i.e., corporate selflessness) would constitute an antitrust error and would be at odds with capitalism.

Toward an Integrated Theory of Disintegrating Favoritism

The Google lawsuit primarily blames Google for default settings enforced via several deals. The lawsuit also makes self-preferencing anticompetitive conduct under antitrust rules. These two charges are novel and dubious in their remits. They nevertheless represent a fundamental catalyst for the development of a new and problematic unified antitrust theory prohibiting favoritism:  companies may no longer favor their products and services, both vertically and horizontally, irrespective of consumer benefits, irrespective of superior efficiency arguments, and irrespective of dynamic capabilities enhancement. Indeed, via an unreasonably expanded vision of leveraging, antitrust enforcement is furtively banning a company to favor its own products and services based on greater consumer choice as a substitute to consumer welfare, based on the protection of the opportunities of rivals to innovate and compete as a substitute to the essence of competition and innovation, and based on limiting the outreach and size of companies as a substitute to the capabilities and efficiencies of these companies. Leveraging becomes suspicious and corporate self-favoritism under accusation. The Google lawsuit materializes this impractical trend, which further enshrines the precautionary approach to antitrust enforcement[18].


[1] Jessica Guynn, Google Justice Department antitrust lawsuit explained: this is what it means for you. USA Today, October 20, 2020.

[2] The software (Internet Explorer) was tied in the hardware (Windows PC).

[3] U.S. v Google LLC, Case A:20, October 20, 2020, 3 (referring to default settings as “especially sticky” with respect to consumers’ willingness to change).

[4] While the DOJ affirms that “being the preset default general search engine is particularly valuable because consumers rarely change the preset default”, it nevertheless provides no evidence of the breadth of such consumer stickiness. To be sure, search engine’s default status does not necessarily lead to usage as evidenced by the case of South Korea. In this country, despite Google’s preset default settings, the search engine Naver remains dominant in the national search market with over 70% of market shares. The rivalry exerted by Naver on Google demonstrates that limits of consumer stickiness to default settings. See Alesia Krush, Google vs. Naver: Why Can’t Google Dominate Search in Korea? Link-Assistant.Com, available at: https://www.link-assistant.com/blog/google-vs-naver-why-cant-google-dominate-search-in-korea/ . As dominant search engine in Korea, Naver is subject to antitrust investigations with similar leveraging practices as Google in other countries, see Shin Ji-hye, FTC sets up special to probe Naver, Google, The Korea Herald, November 19, 2019, available at :  http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191119000798 ; Kim Byung-wook, Complaint against Google to be filed with FTC, The Investor, December 14, 2020, available at : https://www.theinvestor.co.kr/view.php?ud=20201123000984  (reporting a complaint by Naver and other Korean IT companies against Google’s 30% commission policy on Google Play Store’s apps).

[5] For instance, the then complaint acknowledged that “Microsoft designed Windows 98 so that removal of Internet Explorer by OEMs or end users is operationally more difficult than it was in Windows 95”, in U.S. v Microsoft Corp., Civil Action No 98-1232, May 18, 1998, para.20.

[6] The DOJ complaint itself quotes “one search competitor who is reported to have noted consumer stickiness “despite the simplicity of changing a default setting to enable customer choice […]” (para.47). Therefore, default setting for search engine is remarkably simple to bypass but consumers do not often do so, either due to satisfaction with Google search engine and/or due to search and opportunity costs.

[7] See para.56 of the DOJ complaint.

[8] Competing browsers can always welcome rival search engines and competing search engine apps can always be downloaded despite revenue sharing agreements. See paras.78-87 of the DOJ complaint.

[9] Google search engine is nothing but a “webware” – a complex set of algorithms that work via online access of a webpage with no prior download. For a discussion on the definition of webware, see https://www.techopedia.com/definition/4933/webware .

[10] Id. para.21.

[11] Such outcome would frustrate traditional ways of offering computers and mobile devices as acknowledged by the DOJ itself in the Google complaint: “new computers and new mobile devices generally come with a number of preinstalled apps and out-of-the-box setting. […] Each of these search access points can and almost always does have a preset default general search engine”, at para. 41. Also, it appears that present default general search engine is common commercial practices since, as the DOJ complaint itself notes when discussing Google’s rivals (Microsoft’s Bing and Amazon’s Fire OS), “Amazon preinstalled its own proprietary apps and agreed to make Microsoft’s Bing the preset default general search engine”, in para.130. The complaint fails to identify alternative search engines which are not preset defaults, thus implicitly recognizing this practice as a widespread practice.

[12] To use Vesterdof’s language, see Bo Vesterdorf, Theories of Self-Preferencing and Duty to Deal – Two Sides of the Same Coin, Competition Law & Policy Debate 1(1) 4, (2015). See also Nicolas Petit, Theories of Self-Preferencing under Article 102 TFEU: A Reply to Bo Vesterdorf, 5-7 (2015).

[13] Case 39740 Google Search (Shopping). Here the foreclosure effects of self-preferencing are only speculated: « the Commission is not required to prove that the Conduct has the actual effect of decreasing traffic to competing comparison shopping services and increasing traffic to Google’s comparison-shopping service. Rather, it is sufficient for the Commission to demonstrate that the Conduct is capable of having, or likely to have, such effects.” (para.601 of the Decision). See P. Ibáñez Colomo, Indispensability and Abuse of Dominance: From Commercial Solvents to Slovak Telekom and Google Shopping, 10 Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 532 (2019); Aurelien Portuese, When Demotion is Competition: Algorithmic Antitrust Illustrated, Concurrences, no 2, May 2018, 25-37; Aurelien Portuese, Fine is Only One Click Away, Symposium on the Google Shopping Decision, Case Note, 3 Competition and Regulatory Law Review, (2017).

[14] For a general discussion on law and economics of self-preferencing, see Michael A. Salinger, Self-Preferencing, Global Antitrust Institute Report, 329-368 (2020).

[15]Pablo Ibanez Colomo, Self-Preferencing: Yet Another Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 43 World Competition (2020) (concluding that self-preferencing is « misleading as a legal category »).

[16] See, for instances, Pedro Caro de Sousa, What Shall We Do About Self-Preferencing? Competition Policy International, June 2020.

[17] Milton Friedman, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits, New York Times, September 13, 1970. This echoes Adam Smith’s famous statement that « It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self-interest » from the 1776 Wealth of Nations. In Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the only alternative to rational self-interest is to sacrifice one’s own interests either for fellowmen (altruism) or for supernatural forces (mysticism). See Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, (1964).

[18] Aurelien Portuese, European Competition Enforcement and the Digital Economy : The Birthplace of Precautionary Antitrust, Global Antitrust Institute’s Report on the Digital Economy, 597-651.

This guest post is by Jonathan M. Barnett, Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law.

State bar associations, with the backing of state judiciaries and legislatures, are typically entrusted with a largely unqualified monopoly over licensing in legal services markets. This poses an unavoidable policy tradeoff. Designating the bar as gatekeeper might protect consumers by ensuring a minimum level of service quality. Yet the gatekeeper is inherently exposed to influence by interests with an economic stake in the existing market. Any licensing requirement that might shield uninformed consumers from unqualified or opportunistic lawyers also necessarily raises an entry barrier that protects existing lawyers against more competition. A proper concern for consumer welfare therefore requires that the gatekeeper impose licensing requirements only when they ensure that the efficiency gains attributable to a minimum quality threshold outweigh the efficiency losses attributable to constraints on entry.

There is increasing reason for concern that state bar associations are falling short of this standard. In particular, under the banner of “legal ethics,” some state bar associations and courts have blocked or impeded entry by innovative “legaltech” services without a compelling consumer protection rationale.

The LegalMatch Case: A misunderstood platform

This trend is illustrated by a recent California appellate court decision interpreting state regulations pertaining to legal referral services. In Jackson v. LegalMatch, decided in late 2019, the court held that LegalMatch, a national online platform that matches lawyers and potential clients, constitutes an illegal referral service, even though it is not a “referral service” under the American Bar Association’s definition of the term, and the California legislature had previously declined to include online services within the statutory definition.

The court’s reasoning: the “marketing” fee paid by subscribing attorneys to participate in the platform purportedly runs afoul of state regulations that proscribe attorneys from paying a fee to referral services that have not been certified by the bar. (The lower court had felt differently, finding that LegalMatch was not a referral service for this purpose, in part because it did not “exercise any judgment” on clients’ legal issues.)

The court’s formalist interpretation of applicable law overlooks compelling policy arguments that strongly favor facilitating, rather than obstructing, legal matching services. In particular, the LegalMatch decision illustrates the anticompetitive outcomes that can ensue when courts and regulators blindly rely on an unqualified view of platforms as an inherent source of competitive harm.

Contrary to this presumption, legal services referral platforms enhance competition by reducing transaction-cost barriers to efficient lawyer-client relationships. These matching services benefit consumers that otherwise lack access to the full range of potential lawyers and smaller or newer law firms that do not have the marketing resources or brand capital to attract the full range of potential clients. Consistent with the well-established economics of platform markets, these services operate under a two-sided model in which the unpriced delivery of attorney information to potential clients is financed by the positively priced delivery of interested clients to subscribing attorneys. Without this two-sided fee structure, the business model collapses and the transaction-cost barriers to matching the credentials of tens of thousands of lawyers with the preferences of millions of potential clients are inefficiently restored. Some legal matching platforms also offer fixed-fee service plans that can potentially reduce legal representation costs relative to the conventional billable hour model that can saddle clients with unexpectedly or inappropriately high legal fees given the difficulty in forecasting the required quantity of legal services ex ante and measuring the quality of legal services ex post.

Blocking entry by these new business models is likely to adversely impact competition and, as observed in a 2018 report by an Illinois bar committee, to injure lower-income consumers in particular. The result is inefficient, regressive, and apparently protectionist.

Indeed, subsequent developments in this litigation are regrettably consistent with the last possibility. After the California bar prevailed in its legal interpretation of “referral service” at the appellate court, and the Supreme Court of California declined to review the decision, LegalMatch then sought to register as a certified lawyer referral service with the bar. The bar responded by moving to secure a temporary restraining order against the continuing operation of the platform. In May 2020, a lower state court judge both denied the petition and expressed disappointment in the bar’s handling of the litigation.

Bar associations’ puzzling campaign against “LegalTech” innovation

This case of regulatory overdrive is hardly unique to the LegalMatch case. Bar associations have repeatedly acted to impede entry by innovators that deploy digital technologies to enhance legal services, which can drive down prices in a field that is known for meager innovation and rigid pricing. Puzzlingly from a consumer welfare perspective, the bar associations have taken actions that impede or preclude entry by online services that expand opportunities for lawyers, increase the information available to consumers, and, in certain cases, place a cap on maximum legal fees.

In 2017, New Jersey Supreme Court legal ethics committees, following an “inquiry” by the state bar association, prohibited lawyers from partnering with referral services and legal services plans offered by Avvo, LegalZoom, and RocketLawyer. In 2018, Avvo discontinued operations due in part to opposition from multiple state bar associations (often backed up by state courts).

In some cases, bar associations have issued advisory opinions that, given the risk of disciplinary action, can have an in terrorem effect equivalent to an outright prohibition. In 2018, the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission issued a “nonbinding advisory” opinion stating that attorneys who pay “marketing fees” to online legal referral services or agree to fixed-fee arrangements with such services “risk violation of several Indiana [legal] ethics rules.”

State bar associations similarly sought to block the entry of LegalZoom, an online provider of standardized legal forms that can be more cost-efficient for “cookie-cutter” legal situations than the traditional legal services model based on bespoke document preparation. These disputes are protracted and costly: it took LegalZoom seven years to reach a settlement with the North Carolina State Bar that allowed it to continue operating in the state. In a case pending before the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida bar is seeking to shut down a smartphone application that enables drivers to contest traffic tickets at a fixed fee, a niche in which the traditional legal services model is likely to be cost-inefficient given the relatively modest amounts that are typically involved.

State bar associations, with supporting action or inaction by state courts and legislatures, have ventured well beyond the consumer protection rationale that is the only potentially publicly-interested justification for the bar’s licensing monopoly. The results sometimes border on absurdity. In 2006, the New Jersey bar issued an opinion precluding attorneys from stating in advertisements that they had appeared in an annual “Super Lawyers” ranking maintained by an independent third-party publication. In 2008, based on a 304-page report prepared by a “special master,” the bar’s ethics committee vacated the opinion but merely recommended further consideration taking into account “legitimate commercial speech activities.” In 2012, the New York legislature even changed the “unlicensed practice of law” from a misdemeanor to a felony, an enhancement proposed by . . . the New York bar (see here and here). 

In defending their actions against online referral services, the bar associations argue that these steps are necessary to defend the public’s interest in receiving legal advice free from any possible conflict of interest. This is a presumptively weak argument. The associations’ licensing and other requirements are inherently tainted throughout by a “meta” conflict of interest. Hence it is the bar that rightfully bears the burden in demonstrating that any such requirement imposes no more than a reasonably necessary impediment to competition. This is especially so given that each bar association often operates its own referral service.

The unrealized potential of North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC

Bar associations might nonetheless take the legal position that they have statutory or regulatory discretion to take these actions and therefore any antitrust scrutiny is inapposite. If that argument ever held water, that is clearly no longer the case.

In an undeservedly underapplied decision, North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, the Supreme Court held definitively in 2015 that any action by a “non-sovereign” licensing entity is subject to antitrust scrutiny unless that action is “actively supervised” by, and represents a “clearly articulated” policy of, the state. The Court emphasized that the degree of scrutiny is highest for licensing bodies administered by constituencies in the licensed market—precisely the circumstances that characterize state bar associations.

The North Carolina decision is hardly an outlier. It followed a string of earlier cases in which the Court had extended antitrust scrutiny to a variety of “hard” rules and “soft” guidance that bar associations had issued and defended on putatively publicly-interested grounds of consumer protection or legal ethics.

At the Court, the bar’s arguments did not meet with success. The Court rejected any special antitrust exemption for a state bar association’s “advisory” minimum fee schedule (Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar (1975)) and, in subsequent cases, similarly held that limitations by professional associations on advertising by members—another requirement to “protect” consumers—do not enjoy any special antitrust exemption. The latter set of cases addressed specifically both advertising restrictions on price and quality by a California dental association (California Dental Association v. FTC (1999) ) and blanket restrictions on advertising by a bar association (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (1977 )). As suggested by the bar associations’ recent actions toward online lawyer referral services, the Court’s consistent antitrust decisions in this area appear to have had relatively limited impact in disciplining potentially protectionist actions by professional associations and licensing bodies, at least in the legal services market. 

A neglected question: Is the regulation of legal services anticompetitive?

The current economic situation poses a unique historical opportunity for bar associations to act proactively by enlisting independent legal and economic experts to review each component of the current licensing infrastructure and assess whether it passes the policy tradeoff between protecting consumers and enhancing competition. If not, any such component should be modified or eliminated to elicit competition that can leverage digital technologies and managerial innovations—often by exploiting the efficiencies of multi-sided platform models—that have been deployed in other industries to reduce prices and transaction costs. These modifications would expand access to legal services consistent with the bar’s mission and, unlike existing interventions to achieve this objective through government subsidies, would do so with a cost to the taxpayer of exactly zero dollars.

This reexamination exercise is arguably demanded by the line of precedent anchored in the Goldfarb and Bates decisions in 1975 and 1977, respectively, and culminating in the North Carolina Dental decision in 2015. This line of case law is firmly grounded in antitrust law’s underlying commitment to promote consumer welfare by deterring collective action that unjustifiably constrains the free operation of competitive forces. In May 2020, the California bar took a constructive if tentative step in this direction by reviving consideration of a “regulatory sandbox” to facilitate experimental partnerships between lawyers and non-lawyers in pioneering new legal services models. This follows somewhat more decisive action by the Utah Supreme Court, which in 2019 approved commencing a staged process that may modify regulation of the legal services market, including lifting or relaxing restrictions on referral fees and partnerships between lawyers and non-lawyers.

Neither the legal profession generally nor the antitrust bar in particular has allocated substantial attention to potentially anticompetitive elements in the manner in which the practice of law has long been regulated. Restrictions on legal referral services are only one of several practices that deserve a closer look under the policy principles and legal framework set forth most recently in North Carolina Dental and previously in California Dental. A few examples can illustrate this proposition. 

Currently limitations on partnerships between lawyers and non-lawyers constrain the ability to achieve economies of scale and scope in the delivery of legal services and preclude firms from offering efficient bundles of complementary legal and non-legal services. Under a more surgical regulatory regime, legal services could be efficiently bundled with related accounting and consulting services, subject to appropriately targeted precautions against conflicts of interest. Additionally, as other commentators have observed and as “legaltech” innovations demonstrate, software could be more widely deployed to provide “direct-to-consumer” products that deliver legal services at a far lower cost than the traditional one-on-one lawyer-client model, subject to appropriately targeted precautions that reflect informational asymmetries in individual and small-business legal markets.

In another example, the blanket requirement of seven years of undergraduate and legal education raises entry costs that are not clearly justified for all areas of legal practice, some of which could potentially be competently handled by practitioners with intermediate categories of legal training. These are just two out of many possibilities that could be constructively explored under a more antitrust-sensitive approach that takes seriously the lessons of North Carolina Dental and the competitive risks inherent to lawyer self-regulation of legal services markets. (An alternative and complementary policy approach would be to move certain areas of legal services regulation out of the hands of the legal profession entirely.)

Conclusion

The LegalMatch case is indicative of a largely unexploited frontier in the application of antitrust law and principles to the practice of law itself. While commentators have called attention to the antitrust concerns raised by the current regulatory regime in legal services markets, and the evolution of federal case law has increasingly reflected these concerns, there has been little practical action by state bar associations, the state judiciary or state legislatures. This might explain why the delivery of legal services has changed relatively little during the same period in which other industries have been transformed by digital technologies, often with favorable effects for consumers in the form of increased convenience and lower costs. There is strong reason to believe a rigorous and objective examination of current licensing and related limitations imposed by bar associations in legal services markets is likely to find that many purportedly “ethical” requirements, at least when applied broadly and without qualification, do much to inhibit competition and little to protect consumers. 

[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 Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

[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 Christine S. Wilson (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).[1] The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Trade Commission or any other Commissioner.]  

I type these words while subject to a stay-at-home order issued by West Virginia Governor James C. Justice II. “To preserve public health and safety, and to ensure the healthcare system in West Virginia is capable of serving all citizens in need,” I am permitted to leave my home only for a limited and precisely enumerated set of reasons. Billions of citizens around the globe are now operating under similar shelter-in-place directives as governments grapple with how to stem the tide of infection, illness and death inflicted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the first response of many governments has been to impose severe limitations on physical movement to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The second response contemplated by many, and the one on which this blog post focuses, involves the extensive collection and analysis of data in connection with people’s movements and health. Some governments are using that data to conduct sophisticated contact tracing, while others are using the power of the state to enforce orders for quarantines and against gatherings.

The desire to use modern technology on a broad scale for the sake of public safety is not unique to this moment. Technology is intended to improve the quality of our lives, in part by enabling us to help ourselves and one another. For example, cell towers broadcast wireless emergency alerts to all mobile devices in the area to warn us of extreme weather and other threats to safety in our vicinity. One well-known type of broadcast is the Amber Alert, which enables community members to assist in recovering an abducted child by providing descriptions of the abductor, the abductee and the abductor’s vehicle. Citizens who spot individuals and vehicles that meet these descriptions can then provide leads to law enforcement authorities. A private nonprofit organization, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, coordinates with state and local public safety officials to send out Amber Alerts through privately owned wireless carriers.

The robust civil society and free market in the U.S. make partnerships between the private sector and government agencies commonplace. But some of these arrangements involve a much more extensive sharing of Americans’ personal information with law enforcement than the emergency alert system does.

For example, Amazon’s home security product Ring advertises itself not only as a way to see when a package has been left at your door, but also as a way to make communities safer by turning over video footage to local police departments. In 2018, the company’s pilot program in Newark, New Jersey, donated more than 500 devices to homeowners to install at their homes in two neighborhoods, with a big caveat. Ring recipients were encouraged to share video with police. According to Ring, home burglaries in those neighborhoods fell by more than 50% from April through July 2018 relative to the same time period a year earlier.

Yet members of Congress and privacy experts have raised concerns about these partnerships, which now number in the hundreds. After receiving Amazon’s response to his inquiry, Senator Edward Markey highlighted Ring’s failure to prevent police from sharing video footage with third parties and from keeping the video permanently, and Ring’s lack of precautions to ensure that users collect footage only of adults and of users’ own property. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy continues to investigate Ring’s police partnerships and data policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called Ring “a perfect storm of privacy threats,” while the UK surveillance camera commissioner has warned against “a very real power to understand, to surveil you in a way you’ve never been surveilled before.”

Ring demonstrates clearly that it is not new for potential breaches of privacy to be encouraged in the name of public safety; police departments urge citizens to use Ring and share the videos with police to fight crime. But emerging developments indicate that, in the fight against Covid-19, we can expect to see more and more private companies placed in the difficult position of becoming complicit in government overreach.

At least mobile phone users can opt out of receiving Amber Alerts, and residents can refuse to put Ring surveillance systems on their property. The Covid-19 pandemic has made some other technological intrusions effectively impossible to refuse. For example, online proctors who monitor students over webcams to ensure they do not cheat on exams taken at home were once something that students could choose to accept if they did not want to take an exam where and when they could be proctored face to face. With public schools and universities across the U.S. closed for the rest of the semester, students who refuse to give private online proctors access to their webcams – and, consequently, the ability to view their surroundings – cannot take exams at all.

Existing technology and data practices already have made the Federal Trade Commission sensitive to potential consumer privacy and data security abuses. For decades, this independent, bipartisan agency has been enforcing companies’ privacy policies through its authority to police unfair and deceptive trade practices. It brought its first privacy and data security cases nearly 20 years ago, while I was Chief of Staff to then-Chairman Timothy J. Muris. The FTC took on Eli Lilly for disclosing the e-mail addresses of 669 subscribers to its Prozac reminder service – many of whom were government officials, and at a time of greater stigma for mental health issues – and Microsoft for (among other things) falsely claiming that its Passport website sign-in service did not collect any personally identifiable information other than that described in its privacy policy.

The privacy and data security practices of healthcare and software companies are likely to impact billions of people during the current coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. already has many laws on the books that are relevant to practices in these areas. One notable example is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which set national standards for the protection of individually identifiable health information by health plans, health care clearinghouses and health care providers who accept non-cash payments. While the FTC does not enforce HIPAA, it does enforce the Health Breach Notification Rule, as well as the provisions in the FTC Act used to challenge the privacy missteps of Eli Lilly and many other companies.

But technological developments have created gaps in HIPAA enforcement. For example, HIPAA applies to doctors’ offices, hospitals and insurance companies, but it may not apply to wearables, smartphone apps or websites. Yet sensitive medical information is now commonly stored in places other than health care practitioners’ offices.  Your phone and watch now collect information about your blood sugar, exercise habits, fertility and heart health. 

Observers have pointed to these emerging gaps in coverage as evidence of the growing need for federal privacy legislation. I, too, have called on the U.S. Congress to enact comprehensive federal privacy legislation – not only to address these emerging gaps, but for two other reasons.  First, consumers need clarity regarding the types of data collected from them, and how those data are used and shared. I believe consumers can make informed decisions about which goods and services to patronize when they have the information they need to evaluate the costs and benefits of using those goods. Second, businesses need predictability and certainty regarding the rules of the road, given the emerging patchwork of regimes both at home and abroad.

Rules of the road regarding privacy practices will prove particularly instructive during this global pandemic, as governments lean on the private sector for data on the grounds that the collection and analysis of data can help avert (or at least diminish to some extent) a public health catastrophe. With legal lines in place, companies would be better equipped to determine when they are being asked to cross the line for the public good, and whether they should require a subpoena or inform customers before turning over data. It is regrettable that Congress has been unable to enact federal privacy legislation to guide this discussion.

Understandably, Congress does not have privacy at the top of its agenda at the moment, as the U.S. faces a public health crisis. As I write, more than 579,000 Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and more than 22,000 have perished. Sadly, those numbers will only increase. And the U.S. is not alone in confronting this crisis: governments globally have confronted more than 1.77 million cases and more than 111,000 deaths. For a short time, health and safety issues may take precedence over privacy protections. But some of the initiatives to combat the coronavirus pandemic are worrisome. We are learning more every day about how governments are responding in a rapidly developing situation; what I describe in the next section constitutes merely the tip of the iceberg. These initiatives are worth highlighting here, as are potential safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that societies around the world would be wise to embrace.

Some observers view public/private partnerships based on an extensive use of technology and data as key to fighting the spread of Covid-19. For example, Professor Jane Bambauer calls for contact tracing and alerts “to be done in an automated way with the help of mobile service providers’ geolocation data.” She argues that privacy is merely “an instrumental right” that “is meant to achieve certain social goals in fairness, safety and autonomy. It is not an end in itself.” Given the “more vital” interests in health and the liberty to leave one’s house, Bambauer sees “a moral imperative” for the private sector “to ignore even express lack of consent” by an individual to the sharing of information about him.

This proposition troubles me because the extensive data sharing that has been proposed in some countries, and that is already occurring in many others, is not mundane. In the name of advertising and product improvements, private companies have been hoovering up personal data for years. What this pandemic lays bare, though, is that while this trove of information was collected under the guise of cataloguing your coffee preferences and transportation habits, it can be reprocessed in an instant to restrict your movements, impinge on your freedom of association, and silence your freedom of speech. Bambauer is calling for detailed information about an individual’s every movement to be shared with the government when, in the United States under normal circumstances, a warrant would be required to access this information.

Indeed, with our mobile devices acting as the “invisible policeman” described by Justice William O. Douglas in Berger v. New York, we may face “a bald invasion of privacy, far worse than the general warrants prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.” Backward-looking searches and data hoards pose new questions of what constitutes a “reasonable” search. The stakes are high – both here and abroad, citizens are being asked to allow warrantless searches by the government on an astronomical scale, all in the name of public health.  

Abroad

The first country to confront the coronavirus was China. The World Health Organization has touted the measures taken by China as “the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans.” Among these measures are the “rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts,” as well as “the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to strengthen contact tracing and the management of priority populations.” An ambassador for China has said his government “optimized the protocol of case discovery and management in multiple ways like backtracking the cell phone positioning.” Much as the Communist Party’s control over China enabled it to suppress early reports of a novel coronavirus, this regime vigorously ensured its people’s compliance with the “stark” containment measures described by the World Health Organization.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong already had been testing the use of “smart wristbands” to track the movements of prisoners. The Special Administrative Region now monitors people quarantined inside their homes by requiring them to wear wristbands that send information to the quarantined individuals’ smartphones and alert the Department of Health and Police if people leave their homes, break their wristbands or disconnect them from their smartphones. When first announced in early February, the wristbands were required only for people who had been to Wuhan in the past 14 days, but the program rapidly expanded to encompass every person entering Hong Kong. The government denied any privacy concerns about the electronic wristbands, saying the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data had been consulted about the technology and agreed it could be used to ensure that quarantined individuals remain at home.

Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom has developed a system that the local CDC calls an “electronic fence.” Specifically, the government obtains the SIM card identifiers for the mobile devices of quarantined individuals and passes those identifiers to mobile network operators, which use phone signals to their cell towers to alert public health and law enforcement agencies when the phone of a quarantined individual leaves a certain geographic range. In response to privacy concerns, the National Communications Commission said the system was authorized by special laws to prevent the coronavirus, and that it “does not violate personal data or privacy protection.” In Singapore, travelers and others issued Stay-Home Notices to remain in their residency 24 hours a day for 14 days must respond within an hour if contacted by government agencies by phone, text message or WhatsApp. And to assist with contact tracing, the government has encouraged everyone in the country to download TraceTogether, an app that uses Bluetooth to identify other nearby phones with the app and tracks when phones are in close proximity.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has launched an app for mobile devices called HaMagen (the shield) to prevent the spread of coronavirus by identifying contacts between diagnosed patients and people who came into contact with them in the 14 days prior to diagnosis. In March, the prime minister’s cabinet initially bypassed the legislative body to approve emergency regulations for obtaining without a warrant the cellphone location data and additional personal information of those diagnosed with or suspected of coronavirus infection. The government will send text messages to people who came into contact with potentially infected individuals, and will monitor the potentially infected person’s compliance with quarantine. The Ministry of Health will not hold this information; instead, it can make data requests to the police and Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency. The police will enforce quarantine measures and Shin Bet will track down those who came into contact with the potentially infected.

Multiple Eastern European nations with constitutional protections for citizens’ rights of movement and privacy have superseded them by declaring a state of emergency. For example, in Hungary the declaration of a “state of danger” has enabled Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to engage in “extraordinary emergency measures” without parliamentary consent.  His ministers have cited the possibility that coronavirus will prevent a gathering of a sufficient quorum of members of Parliament as making it necessary for the government to be able to act in the absence of legislative approval.

Member States of the European Union must protect personal data pursuant to the General Data Protection Regulation, and communications data, such as mobile location, pursuant to the ePrivacy Directive. The chair of the European Data Protection Board has observed that the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security. But if those measures allow for the processing of non-anonymized location data from mobile devices, individuals must have safeguards such as a right to a judicial remedy. “Invasive measures, such as the ‘tracking’ of individuals (i.e. processing of historical non-anonymized location data) could be considered proportional under exceptional circumstances and depending on the concrete modalities of the processing.” The EDPB has announced it will prioritize guidance on these issues.

EU Member States are already implementing such public security measures. For example, the government of Poland has by statute required everyone under a quarantine order due to suspected infection to download the “Home Quarantine” smartphone app. Those who do not install and use the app are subject to a fine. The app verifies users’ compliance with quarantine through selfies and GPS data. Users’ personal data will be administered by the Minister of Digitization, who has appointed a data protection officer. Each user’s identification, name, telephone number, quarantine location and quarantine end date can be shared with police and other government agencies. After two weeks, if the user does not report symptoms of Covid-19, the account will be deactivated — but the data will be stored for six years. The Ministry of Digitization claims that it must store the data for six years in case users pursue claims against the government. However, local privacy expert and Panoptykon Foundation cofounder Katarzyna Szymielewicz has questioned this rationale.

Even other countries that are part of the Anglo-American legal tradition are ramping up their use of data and working with the private sector to do so. The UK’s National Health Service is developing a data store that will include online/call center data from NHS Digital and Covid-19 test result data from the public health agency. While the NHS is working with private partner organizations and companies including Microsoft, Palantir Technologies, Amazon Web Services and Google, it has promised to keep all the data under its control, and to require those partners to destroy or return the data “once the public health emergency situation has ended.” The NHS also has committed to meet the requirements of data protection legislation by ensuring that individuals cannot be re-identified from the data in the data store.

Notably, each of the companies partnering with the NHS at one time or another has been subjected to scrutiny for its privacy practices. Some observers have noted that tech companies, which have been roundly criticized for a variety of reasons in recent years, may seek to use this pandemic for “reputation laundering.” As one observer cautioned: “Reputations matter, and there’s no reason the government or citizens should cast bad reputations aside when choosing who to work with or what to share” during this public health crisis.

At home

In the U.S., the federal government last enforced large-scale isolation and quarantine measures during the influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic a century ago. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track diseases on a daily basis by receiving case notifications from every state. The states mandate that healthcare providers and laboratories report certain diseases to the local public health authorities using personal identifiers. In other words, if you test positive for coronavirus, the government will know. Every state has laws authorizing quarantine and isolation, usually through the state’s health authority, while the CDC has authority through the federal Public Health Service Act and a series of presidential executive orders to exercise quarantine and isolation powers for specific diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndromes (a category into which the novel coronavirus falls).

Now local governments are issuing orders that empower law enforcement to fine and jail Americans for failing to practice social distancing. State and local governments have begun arresting and charging people who violate orders against congregating in groups. Rhode Island is requiring every non-resident who enters the state to be quarantined for two weeks, with police checks at the state’s transportation hubs and borders.

How governments discover violations of quarantine and social distancing orders will raise privacy concerns. Police have long been able to enforce based on direct observation of violations. But if law enforcement authorities identify violations of such orders based on data collection rather than direct observation, the Fourth Amendment may be implicated. In Jones and Carpenter, the Supreme Court has limited the warrantless tracking of Americans through GPS devices placed on their cars and through cellphone data. But building on the longstanding practice of contact tracing in fighting infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, GPS data has proven helpful in fighting the spread of Covid-19. This same data, though, also could be used to piece together evidence of violations of stay-at-home orders. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Carpenter, “With access to [cell-site location information], the government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts… Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years.”

The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from government action, but the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test applied in Fourth Amendment cases connects the arenas of government action and commercial data collection. As Professor Paul Ohm of the Georgetown University Law Center notes, “the dramatic expansion of technologically-fueled corporate surveillance of our private lives automatically expands police surveillance too, thanks to the way the Supreme Court has construed the reasonable expectation of privacy test and the third-party doctrine.”

For example, the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network – infectious disease epidemiologists working with Facebook, Camber Systems and Cubiq – uses mobile device data to inform state and local governments about whether social distancing orders are effective. The tech companies give the researchers aggregated data sets; the researchers give daily situation reports to departments of health, but say they do not share the underlying data sets with governments. The researchers have justified this model based on users of the private companies’ apps having consented to the collection and sharing of data.

However, the assumption that consumers have given informed consent to the collection of their data (particularly for the purpose of monitoring their compliance with social isolation measures during a pandemic) is undermined by studies showing the average consumer does not understand all the different types of data that are collected and how their information is analyzed and shared with third parties – including governments. Technology and telecommunications companies have neither asked me to opt into tracking for public health nor made clear how they are partnering with federal, state and local governments. This practice highlights that data will be divulged in ways consumers cannot imagine – because no one assumed a pandemic when agreeing to a company’s privacy policy. This information asymmetry is part of why we need federal privacy legislation.

On Friday afternoon, Apple and Google announced their opt-in Covid-19 contact tracing technology. The owners of the two most common mobile phone operating systems in the U.S. said that in May they would release application programming interfaces that enable interoperability between iOS and Android devices using official contact tracing apps from public health authorities. At an unspecified date, Bluetooth-based contact tracing will be built directly into the operating systems. “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort,” the companies said in their press release.  

At this early stage, we do not yet know exactly how the proposed Google/Apple contact tracing system will operate. It sounds similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether, which is already available in the iOS and Android mobile app stores (it has a 3.3 out of 5 average rating in the former and a 4.0 out of 5 in the latter). TraceTogether is also described as a voluntary, Bluetooth-based system that avoids GPS location data, does not upload information without the user’s consent, and uses changing, encrypted identifiers to maintain user anonymity. Perhaps the most striking difference, at least to a non-technical observer, is that TraceTogether was developed and is run by the Singaporean government, which has been a point of concern for some observers. The U.S. version – like finding abducted children through Amber Alerts and fighting crime via Amazon Ring – will be a partnership between the public and private sectors.     

Recommendations

The global pandemic we now face is driving data usage in ways not contemplated by consumers. Entities in the private and public sector are confronting new and complex choices about data collection, usage and sharing. Organizations with Chief Privacy Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, and other personnel tasked with managing privacy programs are, relatively speaking, well-equipped to address these issues. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, senior management should continue to rely on the expertise and sound counsel of their CPOs and CISOs, who should continue to make decisions based on their established privacy and data security programs. Although developments are unfolding at warp speed, it is important – arguably now, more than ever – to be intentional about privacy decisions.

For organizations that lack experience with privacy and data security programs (and individuals tasked with oversight for these areas), now is a great time to pause, do some research and exercise care. It is essential to think about the longer-term ramifications of choices made about data collection, use and sharing during the pandemic. The FTC offers easily accessible resources, including Protecting Personal Information: A Guide for Business, Start with Security: A Guide for Business, and Stick with Security: A Business Blog Series. While the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB) applies only to financial institutions, the FTC’s GLB compliance blog outlines some data security best practices that apply more broadly. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) also offers security and privacy resources, including a privacy framework to help organizations identify and manage privacy risks. Private organizations such as the Center for Information Policy Leadership, the International Association of Privacy Professionals and the App Association also offer helpful resources, as do trade associations. While it may seem like a suboptimal time to take a step back and focus on these strategic issues, remember that privacy and data security missteps can cause irrevocable harm. Counterintuitively, now is actually the best time to be intentional about choices in these areas.

Best practices like accountability, risk assessment and risk management will be key to navigating today’s challenges. Companies should take the time to assess and document the new and/or expanded risks from the data collection, use and sharing of personal information. It is appropriate for these risk assessments to incorporate potential benefits and harms not only to the individual and the company, but for society as a whole. Upfront assessments can help companies establish controls and incentives to facilitate responsible behavior, as well as help organizations demonstrate that they are fully aware of the impact of their choices (risk assessment) and in control of their impact on people and programs (risk mitigation). Written assessments can also facilitate transparency with stakeholders, raise awareness internally about policy choices and assist companies with ongoing monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, these assessments will facilitate a return to “normal” data practices when the crisis has passed.  

In a similar vein, companies must engage in comprehensive vendor management with respect to the entities that are proposing to use and analyze their data. In addition to vetting proposed data recipients thoroughly, companies must be selective concerning the categories of information shared. The benefits of the proposed research must be balanced against individual protections, and companies should share only those data necessary to achieve the stated goals. To the extent feasible, data should be shared in de-identified and aggregated formats and data recipients should be subject to contractual obligations prohibiting them from re-identification. Moreover, companies must have policies in place to ensure compliance with research contracts, including data deletion obligations and prohibitions on data re-identification, where appropriate. Finally, companies must implement mechanisms to monitor third party compliance with contractual obligations.

Similar principles of necessity and proportionality should guide governments as they make demands or requests for information from the private sector. Governments must recognize the weight with which they speak during this crisis and carefully balance data collection and usage with civil liberties. In addition, governments also have special obligations to ensure that any data collection done by them or at their behest is driven by the science of Covid-19; to be transparent with citizens about the use of data; and to provide due process for those who wish to challenge limitations on their rights. Finally, government actors should apply good data hygiene, including regularly reassessing the breadth of their data collection initiatives and incorporating data retention and deletion policies. 

In theory, government’s role could be reduced as market-driven responses emerge. For example, assuming the existence of universally accessible daily coronavirus testing with accurate results even during the incubation period, Hal Singer’s proposal for self-certification of non-infection among private actors is intriguing. Thom Lambert identified the inability to know who is infected as a “lemon problem;” Singer seeks a way for strangers to verify each other’s “quality” in the form of non-infection.

Whatever solutions we may accept in a pandemic, it is imperative to monitor the coronavirus situation as it improves, to know when to lift the more dire measures. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and other observers have called for maintaining surveillance because of concerns about a resurgence of the virus later this year. For any measures that conflict with Americans’ constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of movement, there should be metrics set in advance for the conditions that will indicate when such measures are no longer justified. In the absence of pre-determined metrics, governments may feel the same temptation as Hungary’s prime minister to keep renewing a “state of danger” that overrides citizens’ rights. As Slovak lawmaker Tomas Valasek has said, “It doesn’t just take the despots and the illiberals of this world, like Orbán, to wreak damage.” But privacy is not merely instrumental to other interests, and we do not have to sacrifice our right to it indefinitely in exchange for safety.

I recognize that halting the spread of the virus will require extensive and sustained effort, and I credit many governments with good intentions in attempting to save the lives of their citizens. But I refuse to accept that we must sacrifice privacy to reopen the economy. It seems a false choice to say that I must sacrifice my Constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of association and free exercise of religion for another’s freedom of movement. Society should demand that equity, fairness and autonomy be respected in data uses, even in a pandemic. To quote Valasek again: “We need to make sure that we don’t go a single inch further than absolutely necessary in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting for public health.” History has taught us repeatedly that sweeping security powers granted to governments during an emergency persist long after the crisis has abated. To resist the gathering momentum toward this outcome, I will continue to emphasize the FTC’s learning on appropriate data collection and use. But my remit as an FTC Commissioner is even broader – when I was sworn in on Sept. 26, 2018, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” – and so I shall.


[1] Many thanks to my Attorney Advisors Pallavi Guniganti and Nina Frant for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

[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 Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics); and Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE)]

Back in 2012, Covidien, a large health care products company and medical device manufacturer, purchased Newport Medical Instruments, a small ventilator developer and manufacturer. (Covidien itself was subsequently purchased by Medtronic in 2015).

Eight years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has just published an article revisiting the Covidien/Newport transaction, and questioning whether it might have contributed to the current shortage of ventilators.

The article speculates that Covidien’s purchase of Newport, and the subsequent discontinuation of Newport’s “Aura” ventilator — which was then being developed by Newport under a government contract — delayed US government efforts to procure mechanical ventilators until the second half of 2020 — too late to treat the first wave of COVID-19 patients:

And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.

That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up.

* * *

Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment.

The article has generated considerable interest not so much for what it suggests about government procurement policies or for its relevance to the ventilator shortages associated with the current pandemic, but rather for its purported relevance to ongoing antitrust debates and the arguments put forward by “antitrust populists” and others that merger enforcement in the US is dramatically insufficient. 

Only a single sentence in the article itself points to a possible antitrust story — and it does nothing more than report unsubstantiated speculation from unnamed “government officials” and rival companies: 

Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.

Nevertheless, and right on cue, various antitrust scholars quickly framed the deal as a so-called “killer acquisition” (see also here and here):

Unsurprisingly, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. David Cicilline, the powerful chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, opined that:

And FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter quickly called for a retrospective review of the deal:

The public reporting on this acquisition raises important questions about the review of this deal. We should absolutely be looking back to figure out what happened.

These “hot takes” raise a crucial issue. The New York Times story opened the door to a welter of hasty conclusions offered to support the ongoing narrative that antitrust enforcement has failed us — in this case quite literally at the cost of human lives. But are any of these claims actually supportable?

Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the mechanical ventilator industry, as well as a more clear-eyed view of what was likely going on with the failed government contract at the heart of the story, simply do not support the “killer acquisition” story.

What is a “killer acquisition”…?

Let’s take a step back. Because monopoly profits are, by definition, higher than joint duopoly profits (all else equal), economists have long argued that incumbents may find it profitable to acquire smaller rivals in order to reduce competition and increase their profits. More specifically, incumbents may be tempted to acquire would-be entrants in order to prevent them from introducing innovations that might hurt the incumbent’s profits.

For this theory to have any purchase, however, a number of conditions must hold. Most importantly, as Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma put it in an influential paper

“killer acquisitions” can only occur when the entrepreneur’s project overlaps with the acquirer’s existing product…. [W]ithout any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur… because, without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

Moreover, the authors add that:

Successfully developing a new product draws consumer demand and profits away equally from all existing products. An acquiring incumbent is hurt more by such cannibalization when he is a monopolist (i.e., the new product draws demand away only from his own existing product) than when he already faces many other existing competitors (i.e., cannibalization losses are spread over many firms). As a result, as the number of existing competitors increases, the replacement effect decreases and the acquirer’s development decisions become more similar to those of the entrepreneur

Finally, the “killer acquisition” terminology is appropriate only when the incumbent chooses to discontinue its rival’s R&D project:

If incumbents face significant existing competition, acquired projects are not significantly more frequently discontinued than independent projects. Thus, more competition deters incumbents from acquiring and terminating the projects of potential future competitors, which leads to more competition in the future.

…And what isn’t a killer acquisition?

What is left out of this account of killer acquisitions is the age-old possibility that an acquirer purchases a rival precisely because it has superior know-how or a superior governance structure that enables it to realize greater return and more productivity than its target. In the case of a so-called killer acquisition, this means shutting down a negative ROI project and redeploying resources to other projects or other uses — including those that may not have any direct relation to the discontinued project. 

Such “synergistic” mergers are also — like allegedly “killer” mergers — likely to involve acquirers and targets in the same industry and with technological overlap between their R&D projects; it is in precisely these situations that the acquirer is likely to have better knowledge than the target’s shareholders that the target is undervalued because of poor governance rather than exogenous, environmental factors.  

In other words, whether an acquisition is harmful or not — as the epithet “killer” implies it is — depends on whether it is about reducing competition from a rival, on the one hand, or about increasing the acquirer’s competitiveness by putting resources to more productive use, on the other.

As argued below, it is highly unlikely that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport could be classified as a “killer acquisition.” There is thus nothing to suggest that the merger materially impaired competition in the mechanical ventilator market, or that it measurably affected the US’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

The market realities of the ventilator market and its implications for the “killer acquisition” story

1. The mechanical ventilator market is highly competitive

As explained above, “killer acquisitions” are less likely to occur in competitive markets. Yet the mechanical ventilator industry is extremely competitive. 

A number of reports conclude that there is significant competition in the industry. One source cites at least seven large producers. Another report cites eleven large players. And, in the words of another report:

Medical ventilators market competition is intense. 

The conclusion that the mechanical ventilator industry is highly competitive is further supported by the fact that the five largest producers combined reportedly hold only 50% of the market. In other words, available evidence suggests that none of these firms has anything close to a monopoly position. 

This intense competition, along with the small market shares of the merging firms, likely explains why the FTC declined to open an in-depth investigation into Covidien’s acquisition of Newport.

Similarly, following preliminary investigations, neither the FTC nor the European Commission saw the need for an in-depth look at the ventilator market when they reviewed Medtronic’s subsequent acquisition of Covidien (which closed in 2015). Although Medtronic did not produce any mechanical ventilators before the acquisition, authorities (particularly the European Commission) could nevertheless have analyzed that market if Covidien’s presumptive market share was particularly high. The fact that they declined to do so tends to suggest that the ventilator market was relatively unconcentrated.

2. The value of the merger was too small

A second strong reason to believe that Covidien’s purchase of Newport wasn’t a killer acquisition is the acquisition’s value of $103 million

Indeed, if it was clear that Newport was about to revolutionize the ventilator market, then Covidien would likely have been made to pay significantly more than $103 million to acquire it. 

As noted above, the crux of the “killer acquisition” theory is that incumbents can induce welfare-reducing acquisitions by offering to acquire their rivals for significantly more than the present value of their rivals’ expected profits. Because an incumbent undertaking a “killer” takeover expects to earn monopoly profits as a result of the transaction, it can offer a substantial premium and still profit from its investment. It is this basic asymmetry that drives the theory.

Indeed, as a recent article by Kevin Bryan and Erik Hovenkamp notes, an acquisition value out of line with current revenues may be an indicator of the significance of a pending acquisition in which enforcers may not actually know the value of the target’s underlying technology: 

[Where] a court may lack the expertise to [assess the commercial significance of acquired technology]…, the transaction value… may provide a reasonable proxy. Intuitively, if the startup is a relatively small company with relatively few sales to its name, then a very high acquisition price may reasonably suggest that the startup technology has significant promise.

The strategy only works, however, if the target firm’s shareholders agree that share value properly reflects only “normal” expected profits, and not that the target is poised to revolutionize its market with a uniquely low-cost or high-quality product. Relatively low acquisition prices relative to market size, therefore, tend to reflect low (or normal) expected profits, and a low perceived likelihood of radical innovations occurring.

We can apply this reasoning to Covidien’s acquisition of Newport: 

  • Precise and publicly available figures concerning the mechanical ventilator market are hard to come by. Nevertheless, one estimate finds that the global ventilator market was worth $2.715 billion in 2012. Another report suggests that the global market was worth $4.30 billion in 2018; still another that it was worth $4.58 billion in 2019.
  • As noted above, Covidien reported to the SEC that it paid $103 million to purchase Newport (a firm that produced only ventilators and apparently had no plans to branch out). 
  • For context, at the time of the acquisition Covidien had annual sales of $11.8 billion overall, and $743 million in sales of its existing “Airways and Ventilation Products.”

If the ventilator market was indeed worth billions of dollars per year, then the comparatively small $108 million paid by Covidien — small even relative to Covidien’s own share of the market — suggests that, at the time of the acquisition, it was unlikely that Newport was poised to revolutionize the market for mechanical ventilators (for instance, by successfully bringing its Aura ventilator to market). 

The New York Times article claimed that Newport’s ventilators would be sold (at least to the US government) for $3,000 — a substantial discount from the reportedly then-going rate of $10,000. If selling ventilators at this price seemed credible at the time, then Covidien — as well as Newport’s shareholders — knew that Newport was about to achieve tremendous cost savings, enabling it to offer ventilators not only to the the US government, but to purchasers around the world, at an irresistibly attractive — and profitable — price.

Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.

“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”

If achievable, Newport thus stood to earn a substantial share of the profits in a multi-billion dollar industry. 

Of course, it is necessary to apply a probability to these numbers: Newport’s ventilator was not yet on the market, and had not yet received FDA approval. Nevertheless, if the Times’ numbers seemed credible at the time, then Covidien would surely have had to offer significantly more than $108 million in order to induce Newport’s shareholders to part with their shares.

Given the low valuation, however, as well as the fact that Newport produced other ventilators — and continues to do so to this day, there is no escaping the fact that everyone involved seemed to view Newport’s Aura ventilator as nothing more than a moonshot with, at best, a low likelihood of success. 

Curically, this same reasoning explains why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the project was ultimately discontinued; recourse to a “killer acquisition” theory is hardly necessary.

3. Lessons from Covidien’s ventilator product decisions  

The killer acquisition claims are further weakened by at least four other important pieces of information: 

  1.  Covidien initially continued to develop Newport’s Aura ventilator, and continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators.
  2. There was little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators — or, at the very least, they were highly differentiated
  3. Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
  4. The Newport purchase was part of a billion dollar series of acquisitions seemingly aimed at expanding Covidien’s in-hospital (i.e., not-portable) device portfolio

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s ventilators

For a start, while the Aura line was indeed discontinued by Covidien, the timeline is important. The acquisition of Newport by Covidien was announced in March 2012, approved by the FTC in April of the same year, and the deal was closed on May 1, 2012.

However, as the FDA’s 510(k) database makes clear, Newport submitted documents for FDA clearance of the Aura ventilator months after its acquisition by Covidien (June 29, 2012, to be precise). And the Aura received FDA 510(k) clearance on November 9, 2012 — many months after the merger.

It would have made little sense for Covidien to invest significant sums in order to obtain FDA clearance for a project that it planned to discontinue (the FDA routinely requires parties to actively cooperate with it, even after 510(k) applications are submitted). 

Moreover, if Covidien really did plan to discreetly kill off the Aura ventilator, bungling the FDA clearance procedure would have been the perfect cover under which to do so. Yet that is not what it did.

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators

Second, and just as importantly, Covidien (and subsequently Medtronic) continued to sell Newport’s other ventilators. The Newport e360 and HT70 are still sold today. Covidien also continued to improve these products: it appears to have introduced an improved version of the Newport HT70 Plus ventilator in 2013.

If eliminating its competitor’s superior ventilators was the only goal of the merger, then why didn’t Covidien also eliminate these two products from its lineup, rather than continue to improve and sell them? 

At least part of the answer, as will be seen below, is that there was almost no overlap between Covidien and Newport’s product lines.

There was little overlap between Covidien’s and Newport’s ventilators

Third — and perhaps the biggest flaw in the killer acquisition story — is that there appears to have been very little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators. 

This decreases the likelihood that the merger was a killer acquisition. When two products are highly differentiated (or not substitutes at all), sales of the first are less likely to cannibalize sales of the other. As Florian Ederer and his co-authors put it:

Importantly, without any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur, neither to “Acquire to Kill” nor to “Acquire to Continue.” This is because without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

A quick search of the FDA’s 510(k) database reveals that Covidien has three approved lines of ventilators: the Puritan Bennett 980, 840, and 540 (apparently essentially the same as the PB560, the plans to which Medtronic recently made freely available in order to facilitate production during the current crisis). The same database shows that these ventilators differ markedly from Newport’s ventilators (particularly the Aura).

In particular, Covidien manufactured primarily traditional, invasive ICU ventilators (except for the PB540, which is potentially a substitute for the Newport HT70), while Newport made much-more-portable ventilators, suitable for home use (notably the Aura, HT50 and HT70 lines). 

Under normal circumstances, critical care and portable ventilators are not substitutes. As the WHO website explains, portable ventilators are:

[D]esigned to provide support to patients who do not require complex critical care ventilators.

A quick glance at Medtronic’s website neatly illustrates the stark differences between these two types of devices:

This is not to say that these devices do not have similar functionalities, or that they cannot become substitutes in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. However, in normal times (as was the case when Covidien acquired Newport), hospitals likely did not view these devices as substitutes.

The conclusion that Covidien and Newport’s ventilator were not substitutes finds further support in documents and statements released at the time of the merger. For instance, Covidien’s CEO explained that:

This acquisition is consistent with Covidien’s strategy to expand into adjacencies and invest in product categories where it can develop a global competitive advantage.

And that:

Newport’s products and technology complement our current portfolio of respiratory solutions and will broaden our ventilation platform for patients around the world, particularly in emerging markets.

In short, the fact that almost all of Covidien and Newport’s products were not substitutes further undermines the killer acquisition story. It also tends to vindicate the FTC’s decision to rapidly terminate its investigation of the merger.

Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014

Perhaps most tellingly: It appears that Covidien discontinued production of its own competing, portable ventilator, the Puritan Bennett 560, in 2014.

The product is reported on the company’s 2011, 2012 and 2013 annual reports:

Airway and Ventilation Products — airway, ventilator, breathing systems and inhalation therapy products. Key products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 line of ventilators; the Puritan Bennett™ 520 and 560 portable ventilator….

(The PB540 was launched in 2009; the updated PB560 in 2010. The PB520 was the EU version of the device, launched in 2011).

But in 2014, the PB560 was no longer listed among the company’s ventilator products:  

Airway & Ventilation, which primarily includes sales of airway, ventilator and inhalation therapy products and breathing systems.

Key airway & ventilation products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 and 980 ventilators, the Newport™ e360 and HT70 ventilators….

Nor — despite its March 31 and April 1 “open sourcing” of the specifications and software necessary to enable others to produce the PB560 — did Medtronic appear to have restarted production, and the company did not mention the device in its March 18 press release announcing its own, stepped-up ventilator production plans.

Surely if Covidien had intended to capture the portable ventilator market by killing off its competition it would have continued to actually sell its own, competing device. The fact that the only portable ventilators produced by Covidien by 2014 were those it acquired in the Newport deal strongly suggests that its objective in that deal was the acquisition and deployment of Newport’s viable and profitable technologies — not the abandonment of them. This, in turn, suggests that the Aura was not a viable and profitable technology.

(Admittedly we are unable to determine conclusively that either Covidien or Medtronic stopped producing the PB520/540/560 series of ventilators. But our research seems to indicate strongly that this is indeed the case).

Putting the Newport deal in context

Finally, although not dispositive, it seems important to put the Newport purchase into context. In the same year as it purchased Newport, Covidien paid more than a billion dollars to acquire five other companies, as well — all of them primarily producing in-hospital medical devices. 

That 2012 spending spree came on the heels of a series of previous medical device company acquisitions, apparently totally some four billion dollars. Although not exclusively so, the acquisitions undertaken by Covidien seem to have been primarily targeted at operating room and in-hospital monitoring and treatment — making the putative focus on cornering the portable (home and emergency) ventilator market an extremely unlikely one. 

By the time Covidien was purchased by Medtronic the deal easily cleared antitrust review because of the lack of overlap between the company’s products, with Covidien’s focusing predominantly on in-hospital, “diagnostic, surgical, and critical care” and Medtronic’s on post-acute care.

Newport misjudged the costs associated with its Aura project; Covidien was left to pick up the pieces

So why was the Aura ventilator discontinued?

Although it is almost impossible to know what motivated Covidien’s executives, the Aura ventilator project clearly suffered from many problems. 

The Aura project was intended to meet the requirements of the US government’s BARDA program (under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). In short, the program sought to create a stockpile of next generation ventilators for emergency situations — including, notably, pandemics. The ventilator would thus have to be designed for events where

mass casualties may be expected, and when shortages of experienced health care providers with respiratory support training, and shortages of ventilators and accessory components may be expected.

The Aura ventilator would thus sit somewhere between Newport’s two other ventilators: the e360 which could be used in pediatric care (for newborns smaller than 5kg) but was not intended for home care use (or the extreme scenarios envisioned by the US government); and the more portable HT70 which could be used in home care environments, but not for newborns. 

Unfortunately, the Aura failed to achieve this goal. The FDA’s 510(k) clearance decision clearly states that the Aura was not intended for newborns:

The AURA family of ventilators is applicable for infant, pediatric and adult patients greater than or equal to 5 kg (11 lbs.).

A press release issued by Medtronic confirms that

the company was unable to secure FDA approval for use in neonatal populations — a contract requirement.

And the US Government RFP confirms that this was indeed an important requirement:

The device must be able to provide the same standard of performance as current FDA pre-market cleared portable ventilators and shall have the following additional characteristics or features: 

Flexibility to accommodate a wide patient population range from neonate to adult.

Newport also seems to have been unable to deliver the ventilator at the low price it had initially forecasted — a common problem for small companies and/or companies that undertake large R&D programs. It also struggled to complete the project within the agreed-upon deadlines. As the Medtronic press release explains:

Covidien learned that Newport’s work on the ventilator design for the Government had significant gaps between what it had promised the Government and what it could deliverboth in terms of being able to achieve the cost of production specified in the contract and product features and performance. Covidien management questioned whether Newport’s ability to complete the project as agreed to in the contract was realistic.

As Jason Crawford, an engineer and tech industry commentator, put it:

Projects fail all the time. “Supplier risk” should be a standard checkbox on anyone’s contingency planning efforts. This is even more so when you deliberately push the price down to 30% of the market rate. Newport did not even necessarily expect to be profitable on the contract.

The above is mostly Covidien’s “side” of the story, of course. But other pieces of evidence lend some credibility to these claims:

  • Newport agreed to deliver its Aura ventilator at a per unit cost of less than $3000. But, even today, this seems extremely ambitious. For instance, the WHO has estimated that portable ventilators cost between $3,300 and $13,500. If Newport could profitably sell the Aura at such a low price, then there was little reason to discontinue it (readers will recall the development of the ventilator was mostly complete when Covidien put a halt to the project).
  • Covidien/Newport is not the only firm to have struggled to offer suitable ventilators at such a low price. Philips (which took Newport’s place after the government contract fell through) also failed to achieve this low price. Rather than the $2,000 price sought in the initial RFP, Philips ultimately agreed to produce the ventilators for $3,280. But it has not yet been able to produce a single ventilator under the government contract at that price.
  • Covidien has repeatedly been forced to recall some of its other ventilators ( here, here and here) — including the Newport HT70. And rival manufacturers have also faced these types of issues (for example, here and here). 

Accordingly, Covidien may well have preferred to cut its losses on the already problem-prone Aura project, before similar issues rendered it even more costly. 

In short, while it is impossible to prove that these development issues caused Covidien to pull the plug on the Aura project, it is certainly plausible that they did. This further supports the hypothesis that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport was not a killer acquisition. 

Ending the Aura project might have been an efficient outcome

As suggested above, moreover, it is entirely possible that Covidien was better able to realize the poor prospects of Newport’s Aura project and also better organized to enable it to make the requisite decision to abandon the project.

A small company like Newport faces greater difficulties abandoning entrepreneurial projects because doing so can impair a privately held firm’s ability to raise funds for subsequent projects.

Moreover, the relatively large share of revue and reputation that Newport — worth $103 million in 2012, versus Covidien’s $11.8 billion — would have realized from fulfilling a substantial US government project could well have induced it to overestimate the project’s viability and to undertake excessive risk in the (vain) hope of bringing the project to fruition.  

While there is a tendency among antitrust scholars, enforcers, and practitioners to look for (and find…) antitrust-related rationales for mergers and other corporate conduct, it remains the case that most corporate control transactions (such as mergers) are driven by the acquiring firm’s expectation that it can manage more efficiently. As Henry G. Manne put it in his seminal article, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control (1965): 

Since, in a world of uncertainty, profitable transactions will be entered into more often by those whose information is relatively more reliable, it should not surprise us that mergers within the same industry have been a principal form of changing corporate control. Reliable information is often available to suppliers and customers as well. Thus many vertical mergers may be of the control takeover variety rather than of the “foreclosure of competitors” or scale-economies type.

Of course, the same information that renders an acquiring firm in the same line of business knowledgeable enough to operate a target more efficiently could also enable it to effect a “killer acquisition” strategy. But the important point is that a takeover by a firm with a competing product line, after which the purchased company’s product line is abandoned, is at least as consistent with a “market for corporate control” story as with a “killer acquisition” story.

Indeed, as Florian Ederer himself noted with respect to the Covidien/Newport merger, 

“Killer acquisitions” can have a nefarious image, but killing off a rival’s product was probably not the main purpose of the transaction, Ederer said. He raised the possibility that Covidien decided to kill Newport’s innovation upon realising that the development of the devices would be expensive and unlikely to result in profits.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, Covidien’s acquisition of Newport offers a cautionary tale about reckless journalism, “blackboard economics,” and government failure.

Reckless journalism because the New York Times clearly failed to do the appropriate due diligence for its story. Its journalists notably missed (or deliberately failed to mention) a number of critical pieces of information — such as the hugely important fact that most of Covidien’s and Newport’s products did not overlap, or the fact that there were numerous competitors in the highly competitive mechanical ventilator industry. 

And yet, that did not stop the authors from publishing their extremely alarming story, effectively suggesting that a small medical device merger materially contributed to the loss of many American lives.

The story also falls prey to what Ronald Coase called “blackboard economics”:

What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth. 

Numerous commentators rushed to fit the story to their preconceived narratives, failing to undertake even a rudimentary examination of the underlying market conditions before they voiced their recriminations. 

The only thing that Covidien and Newport’s merger ostensibly had in common with the killer acquisition theory was the fact that a large firm purchased a small rival, and that the one of the small firm’s products was discontinued. But this does not even begin to meet the stringent conditions that must be fulfilled for the theory to hold water. Unfortunately, critics appear to have completely ignored all contradicting evidence. 

Finally, what the New York Times piece does offer is a chilling tale of government failure.

The inception of the US government’s BARDA program dates back to 2008 — twelve years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. 

The collapse of the Aura project is no excuse for the fact that, more than six years after the Newport contract fell through, the US government still has not obtained the necessary ventilators. Questions should also be raised about the government’s decision to effectively put all of its eggs in the same basket — twice. If anything, it is thus government failure that was the real culprit. 

And yet the New York Times piece and the critics shouting “killer acquisition!” effectively give the US government’s abject failure here a free pass — all in the service of pursuing their preferred “killer story.”

[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 Daniel Takash,(Regulatory policy fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the manager of Niskanen’s Captured Economy Project, https://capturedeconomy.com, and you can follow him @danieltakash or @capturedecon).]

The pharmaceutical industry should be one of the most well-regarded industries in America. It helps bring drugs to market that improve, and often save, people’s lives. Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular– trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government. The opioid crisis dominated the headlines for the past few years, but the high price of drugs is a top-of-mind issue that generates significant animosity toward the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of high drug prices are felt not just at every trip to the pharmacy, but also by those who are priced out of life-saving treatments. Many Americans simply can’t afford what their doctors prescribe. The pharmaceutical industry helps save lives, but it’s also been credibly accused of anticompetitive behavior–not just from generics, but even other brand manufacturers.

These extraordinary times are an opportunity to right the ship. AbbVie, roundly criticized for building a patent thicket around Humira, has donated its patent rights to a promising COVID-19 treatment. This is to be celebrated– yet pharma’s bad reputation is defined by its worst behaviors and the frequent apologetics for overusing the patent system. Hopefully corporate social responsibility will prevail, and such abuses will cease in the future.

The most effective long-term treatment for COVID-19 will be a vaccine. We also need drugs to treat those afflicted with COVID-19 to improve recovery and lower mortality rates for those that get sick before a vaccine is developed and widely available. This requires rapid drug development through effective public-private partnerships to bring these treatments to market.

Without a doubt, these solutions will come from the pharmaceutical industry. Increased funding for the National Institutes for Health, nonprofit research institutions, and private pharmaceutical researchers are likely needed to help accelerate the development of these treatments. But we must be careful to ensure whatever necessary upfront public support is given to these entities results in a fair trade-off for Americans. The U.S. taxpayer is one of the largest investors in early to mid-stage drug research, and we need to make sure that we are a good investor.

Basic research into the costs of drug development, especially when taxpayer subsidies are involved, is a necessary start. This is a feature of the We PAID Act, introduced by Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Medicine to figure the reasonable price of drugs developed with taxpayer support. This reasonable price would include a suitable reward to the private companies that did the important work of finishing drug development and gaining FDA approval. This is important, as setting a price too low would reduce investments in indispensable research and development. But this must be balanced with the risk of using patents to charge prices above and beyond those necessary to finance research, development, and commercialization.

A little sunshine can go a long way. We should trust that pharmaceutical companies will develop a vaccine and treatments or coronavirus, but we must also verify these are affordable and accessible through public scrutiny. Take the drug manufacturer Gilead Science’s about-face on its application for orphan drug status on the possible COVID-19 treatment remdesivir. Remedesivir, developed in part with public funds and already covered by three Gilead patents, technically satisfied the definition of “orphan drug,” as COVID-19 (at the time of the application) afflicted fewer than 200,000 patents. In a pandemic that could infect tens of millions of Americans, this designation is obviously absurd, and public outcry led to Gilead to ask the FDA to rescind the application. Gilead claimed it sought the designation to speed up FDA review, and that might be true. Regardless, public attention meant that the FDA will give Gilead’s drug Remdesivir expedited review without Gilead needing a designation that looks unfair to the American people.

The success of this isolated effort is absolutely worth celebrating. But we need more research to better comprehend the pharmaceutical industry’s needs, and this is just what the study provisions of We PAID would provide.

There is indeed some existing research on this front. For example,the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) estimates it costs an average of $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market, and research from the Journal of the American Medical Association finds this average to be closer to $1.3 billion, with the median cost of development to be $985 million.

But a thorough analysis provided under We PAID is the best way for us to fully understand just how much support the pharmaceutical industry needs, and just how successful it has been thus far. The NIH, one of the major sources of publicly funded research, invests about $41.7 billion annually in medical research. We need to better understand how these efforts link up, and how the torch is passed from public to private efforts.

Patents are essential to the functioning of the pharmaceutical industry by incentivizing drug development through temporary periods of exclusivity. But it is equally essential, in light of the considerable investment already made by taxpayers in drug research and development, to make sure we understand the effects of these incentives and calibrate them to balance the interests of patients and pharmaceutical companies. Most drugs require research funding from both public and private sources as well as patent protection. And the U.S. is one of the biggest investors of drug research worldwide (even compared to drug companies), yet Americans pay the highest prices in the world. Are these prices justified, and can we improve patent policy to bring these costs down without harming innovation?

Beyond a thorough analysis of drug pricing, what makes We PAID one of the most promising solutions to the problem of excessively high drug prices are the accountability mechanisms included. The bill, if made law, would establish a Drug Access and Affordability Committee. The Committee would use the methodology from the joint HHS and NAM study to determine a reasonable price for affected drugs (around 20 percent of drugs currently on the market, if the bill were law today). Any companies that price drugs granted exclusivity by a patent above the reasonable price would lose their exclusivity.

This may seem like a price control at first blush, but it isn’t–for two reasons. First, this only applies to drugs developed with taxpayer dollars, which any COVID-19 treatments or cures almost certainly would be considering the $785 million spent by the NIH since 2002 researching coronaviruses. It’s an accountability mechanism that would ensure the government is getting its money’s worth. This tool is akin to ensuring that a government contractor is not charging more than would be reasonable, lest it loses its contract.

Second, it is even less stringent than pulling a contract with a private firm overcharging the government for the services provided. Why? Losing a patent does not mean losing the ability to make a drug, or any other patented invention for that matter.This basic fact is often lost in the patent debate, but it cannot be stressed enough.

If patents functioned as licenses, then every patent expiration would mean another product going off the market. In reality, that means that any other firm can compete and use the patented design. Even if a firm violated the price regulations included in the bill and lost its patent, it could continue manufacturing the drug. And so could any other firm, bringing down prices for all consumers by opening up market competition.

The We PAID Act could be a dramatic change for the drug industry, and because of that many in Congress may want to first debate the particulars of the bill. This is fine, assuming  this promising legislation isn’t watered down beyond recognition. But any objections to the Drug Affordability and Access Committee and reasonable pricing regulations aren’t an excuse to not, at a bare minimum, pass the study included in the bill as part of future coronavirus packages, if not sooner. It is an inexpensive way to get good information in a single, reputable source that would allow us to shape good policy.

Good information is needed for good policy. When the government lays the groundwork for future innovations by financing research and development, it can be compared to a venture capitalist providing the financing necessary for an innovative product or service. But just like in the private sector, the government should know what it’s getting for its (read: taxpayers’) money and make recipients of such funding accountable to investors.

The COVID-19 outbreak will be the most pressing issue for the foreseeable future, but determining how pharmaceuticals developed with public research are priced is necessary in good times and bad. The final prices for these important drugs might be fair, but the public will never know without a trusted source examining this information. Trust, but verify. The pharmaceutical industry’s efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic might be the first step to improving Americans’ relationship with the industry. But we need good information to make that happen. Americans need to know when they are being treated fairly, and that policymakers are able to protect them when they are treated unfairly. The government needs to become a better-informed investor, and that won’t happen without something like the We PAID Act.

[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 Ramsi Woodcock, (Assistant Professor of Law, University of Kentucky; Assistant Professor of Management, Gatton College of Business and Economics).]

Specialists know that the antitrust courses taught in law schools and economics departments have an alter ego in business curricula: the course on business strategy. The two courses cover the same material, but from opposite perspectives. Antitrust courses teach how to end monopolies; strategy courses teach how to construct and maintain them.

Strategy students go off and run businesses, and antitrust students go off and make government policy. That is probably the proper arrangement if the policy the antimonopolists make is domestic. We want the domestic economy to run efficiently, and so we want domestic policymakers to think about monopoly—and its allocative inefficiencies—as something to be discouraged.

The coronavirus, and the shortages it has caused, have shown us that putting the antimonopolists in charge of international policy is, by contrast, a very big mistake.

Because we do not yet have a world government. America’s position, in relation to the rest of the world, is therefore more akin to that of a business navigating a free market than it is to a government seeking to promote efficient interactions among the firms that it governs. To flourish, America must engage in international trade with a view to creating and maintaining monopoly positions for itself, rather than eschewing them in the interest of realizing efficiencies in the global economy. Which is to say: we need strategists, not antimonopolists.

For the global economy is not America, and there is no guarantee that competitive efficiencies will redound to America’s benefit, rather than to those of her competitors. Absent a world government, other countries will pursue monopoly regardless what America does, and unless America acts strategically to build and maintain economic power, America will eventually occupy a position of commercial weakness, with all of the consequences for national security that implies.

When Antimonopolists Make Trade Policy

The free traders who have run American economic policy for more than a generation are antimonopolists playing on a bigger stage. Like their counterparts in domestic policy, they are loyal in the first instance only to the efficiency of the market, not to any particular trader. They are content to establish rules of competitive trading—the antitrust laws in the domestic context, the World Trade Organization in the international context—and then to let the chips fall where they may, even if that means allowing present or future adversaries to, through legitimate means, build up competitive advantages that the United States is unable to overcome.

Strategy is consistent with competition when markets are filled with traders of atomic size, for then no amount of strategy can deliver a competitive advantage to any trader. But global markets, more even than domestic markets, are filled with traders of macroscopic size. Strategy then requires that each trader seek to gain and maintain advantages, undermining competition. The only way antimonopolists could induce the trading behemoth that is America to behave competitively, and to let the chips fall where they may, was to convince America voluntarily to give up strategy, to sacrifice self-interest on the altar of efficient markets.

And so they did.

Thus when the question arose whether to permit American corporations to move their manufacturing operations overseas, or to permit foreign companies to leverage their efficiencies to dominate a domestic industry and ensure that 90% of domestic supply would be imported from overseas, the answer the antimonopolists gave was: “yes.” Because it is efficient. Labor abroad is cheaper than labor at home, and transportation costs low, so efficiency requires that production move overseas, and our own resources be reallocated to more competitive uses.

This is the impeccable logic of static efficiency, of general equilibrium models allocating resources optimally. But it is instructive to recall that the men who perfected this model were not trying to describe a free market, much less international trade. They were trying to create a model that a central planner could use to allocate resources to a state’s subjects. What mattered to them in building the model was the good of the whole, not any particular part. And yet it is to a particular part of the global whole that the United States government is dedicated.

The Strategic Trader

Students of strategy would have taken a very different approach to international trade. Strategy teaches that markets are dynamic, and that businesses must make decisions based not only on the market signals that exist today, but on those that can be made to exist in the future. For the successful strategist, unlike the antimonopolist, identifying a product for which consumers are willing to pay the costs of production is not alone enough to justify bringing the product to market. The strategist must be able to secure a source of supply, or a distribution channel, that competitors cannot easily duplicate, before the strategist will enter.

Why? Because without an advantage in supply, or distribution, competitors will duplicate the product, compete away any markups, and leave the strategist no better off than if he had never undertaken the project at all. Indeed, he may be left bankrupt, if he has sunk costs that competition prevents him from recovering. Unlike the economist, the strategist is interested in survival, because he is a partisan of a part of the market—himself—not the market entire. The strategist understands that survival requires power, and all power rests, to a greater or lesser degree, on monopoly.

The strategist is not therefore a free trader in the international arena, at least not as a matter of principle. The strategist understands that trading from a position of strength can enrich, and trading from a position of weakness can impoverish. And to occupy that position of strength, America must, like any monopolist, control supply. Moreover, in the constantly-innovating markets that characterize industrial economies, markets in which innovation emerges from learning by doing, control over physical supply translates into control over the supply of inventions itself.

The strategist does not permit domestic corporations to offshore manufacturing in any market in which the strategist wishes to participate, because that is unsafe: foreign countries could use control over that supply to extract rents from America, to drive domestic firms to bankruptcy, and to gain control over the supply of inventions.

And, as the new trade theorists belatedly discovered, offshoring prevents the development of the dense, geographically-contiguous, supply networks that confer power over whole product categories, such as the electronics hub in Zhengzhou, where iPhone-maker Foxconn is located.

Or the pharmaceutical hub in Hubei.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Free Trade

Today, America is unprepared for the coming wave of coronavirus cases because the antimonopolists running our trade policy do not understand the importance of controlling supply. There is a shortage of masks, because China makes half of the world’s masks, and the Chinese have cut off supply, the state having forbidden even non-Chinese companies that offshored mask production from shipping home masks for which American customers have paid. Not only that, but in January China bought up most of the world’s existing supply of masks, with free-trade-obsessed governments standing idly by as the clock ticked down to their own domestic outbreaks.  

New York State, which lies at the epicenter of the crisis, has agreed to pay five times the market price for foreign supply. That’s not because the cost of making masks has risen, but because sellers are rationing with price. Which is to say: using their control over supply to beggar the state. Moreover, domestic mask makers report that they cannot ramp up production because of a lack of supply of raw materials, some of which are actually made in Wuhan, China. That’s the kind of problem that does not arise when restrictions on offshoring allow manufacturing hubs to develop domestically.

But a shortage of masks is just the beginning. Once a vaccine is developed, the race will be on to manufacture it, and America controls less than 30% of the manufacturing facilities that supply pharmaceuticals to American markets. Indeed, just about the only virus-relevant industries in which we do not have a real capacity shortage today are food and toilet paper, panic buying notwithstanding. Because fortunately for us antimonopolists could not find a way to offshore California and Oregon. If they could have, they surely would have, since both agriculture and timber are labor-intensive industries.

President Trump’s failed attempt to buy a German drug company working on a coronavirus vaccine shows just how damaging free market ideology has been to national security: as Trump should have anticipated given his resistance to the antimonopolists’ approach to trade, the German government nipped the deal in the bud. When an economic agent has market power, the agent can pick its prices, or refuse to sell at all. Only in general equilibrium fantasy is everything for sale, and at a competitive price to boot.

The trouble is: American policymakers, perhaps more than those in any other part of the world, continue to act as though that fantasy were real.

Failures Left and Right

America’s coronavirus predicament is rich with intellectual irony.

Progressives resist free trade ideology, largely out of concern for the effects of trade on American workers. But they seem not to have realized that in doing so they are actually embracing strategy, at least for the benefit of labor.

As a result, progressives simultaneously reject the approach to industrial organization economics that underpins strategic thinking in business: Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that strategic behavior by firms seeking to achieve and maintain monopolies is ultimately good for society, because it leads to a technological arms race as firms strive to improve supply, distribution, and indeed product quality, in ways that competitors cannot reproduce.

Even if progressives choose to reject Schumpeter’s argument that strategy makes society better off—a proposition that is particularly suspect at the international level, where the availability of tanks ensures that the creative destruction is not always creative—they have much to learn from his focus on the economics of survival.

By the same token, conservatives embrace Schumpeter in arguing for less antitrust enforcement in domestic markets, all the while advocating free trade at the international level and savaging governments for using dumping and tariffs—which is to say, the tools of monopoly—to strengthen their trading positions. It is deeply peculiar to watch the coronavirus expose conservative economists as pie-in-the-sky internationalists. And yet as the global market for coronavirus necessities seizes up, the ideology that urged us to dispense with producing these goods ourselves, out of faith that we might always somehow rely on the support of the rest of the world, provided through the medium of markets, looks pathetically naive.

The cynic might say that inconsistency has snuck up on both progressives and conservatives because each remains too sympathetic to a different domestic constituency.

Dodging a Bullet

America is lucky that a mere virus exposed the bankruptcy of free trade ideology. Because war could have done that instead. It is difficult to imagine how a country that cannot make medical masks—much less a Macbook—would be able to respond effectively to a sustained military attack from one of the many nations that are closing the technological gap long enjoyed by the United States.

The lesson of the coronavirus is: strategy, not antitrust.

[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 Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The Wall Street Journal reports congressional leaders have agreed to impose limits on stock buybacks and dividend payments for companies receiving aid under the COVID-19 disaster relief package. 

Rather than a flat-out ban, the draft legislation forbids any company taking federal emergency loans or loan guarantees from repurchasing its own stock or paying shareholder dividends. The ban lasts for the term of the loans, plus one year after the aid had ended.

In theory, under a strict set of conditions, there is no difference between dividends and buybacks. Both approaches distribute cash from the corporation to shareholders. In practice, there are big differences between dividends and share repurchases.

  • Dividends are publicly visible actions and require authorization by the board of directors. Shareholders have expectations of regular, stable dividends. Buybacks generally lack such transparency. Firms have flexibility in choosing the timing and the amount of repurchases, subject to the details of their repurchase programs.
  • Cash dividends have no effect on the number of shares outstanding. In contrast, share repurchases reduce the number of shares outstanding. By reducing the number of shares outstanding, buybacks increase earnings per share, all other things being equal. 

Over the past 15 years, buybacks have outpaced dividend payouts. The figure above, from Seeking Alpha, shows that while dividends have grown relatively smoothly over time, the aggregate value of buybacks are volatile and vary with the business cycle. In general, firms increase their repurchases relative to dividends when the economy booms and reduce them when the economy slows or shrinks. 

This observation is consistent with a theory that buybacks are associated with periods of greater-than-expected financial performance. On the other hand, dividends are associated with expectations of long-term profitability. Dividends can decrease, but only when profits are expected to be “permanently” lower. 

During the Great Recession, the figure above shows that dividends declined by about 10%, the amount of share repurchases plummeted by approximately 85%. The flexibility afforded by buybacks provided stability in dividends.

There is some logic to dividend and buyback limits imposed by the COVID-19 disaster relief package. If a firm has enough cash on hand to pay dividends or repurchase shares, then it doesn’t need cash assistance from the federal government. Similarly, if a firm is so desperate for cash that it needs a federal loan or loan guarantee, then it doesn’t have enough cash to provide a payout to shareholders. Surely managers understand this and sophisticated shareholders should too.

Because of this understanding, the dividend and buyback limits may be a non-binding constraint. It’s not a “good look” for a corporation to accept millions of dollars in federal aid, only to turn around and hand out those taxpayer dollars to the company’s shareholders. That’s a sure way to get an unflattering profile in the New York Times and an invitation to attend an uncomfortable hearing at the U.S. Capitol. Even if a distressed firm could repurchase its shares, it’s unlikely that it would.

The logic behind the plus-one-year ban on dividends and buybacks is less clear. The relief package is meant to get the U.S. economy back to normal as fast as possible. That means if a firm repays its financial assistance early, the company’s shareholders should be rewarded with a cash payout rather than waiting a year for some arbitrary clock to run out.

The ban on dividends and buybacks may lead to an unintended consequence of increased merger and acquisition activity. Vox reports an email to Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division says Goldman expects to see an increase in hostile takeovers and shareholder activism as the prices of public companies fall. Cash rich firms who are subject to the ban and cannot get that cash to their existing shareholders may be especially susceptible takeover targets.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and these are desperate times. Buyback backlash has been brewing for sometime and the COVID-19 relief package presents a perfect opportunity to ban buybacks. With the pressures businesses are under right now, it’s unlikely there’ll be many buybacks over the next few months. The concern should be over the unintended consequences facing firms once the economy recovers.