The UMC Watch Continues: In 2015, the FTC issued a Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition.” On July 1, 2021, the Commission withdrew the statement on a 3-2 vote, sternly rebuking its predecessors: “the 2015 Statement …abrogates the Commission’s congressionally mandated duty to use its expertise to identify and combat unfair methods of competition even if they do not violate a separate antitrust statute.”
That was surprising. First, it actually presaged a downturn in enforcement. Second, while the 2015 statement was not empty, many agreed with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s 2015 dissent that it offered relatively little new guidance on UMC enforcement. In other words, stating that conduct “will be evaluated under a framework similar to the rule of reason” seemed not much of a limiting principle to some, if far too much of one to others. Eye of the beholder.
Third, as Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine S. Wilson noted in their dissent, given that there was no replacement, it was “[h]inting at the prospect of dramatic new liability without any guide regarding what the law permits or proscribes.” The business and antitrust communities were put on watch: winter is coming. Winter is still coming. In September, Chair Lina Khan stated that one of her top priorities “has been the preparation of a policy statement on Section 5 that reflects the statutory text, our institutional structure, the history of the statute, and the case law.” Indeed. More recently, she saidshe was hopeful that the statement would be released in “the coming weeks.” Stay tuned.
There was September success, and a little mission creep at the DOJ Antitrust Division: Congrats to the U.S. Justice Department for some uncharacteristic success, and not a little creativity. In U.S. v. Nathan Nephi Zito, the defendant pleaded guilty to illegal monopolization for proposing that he and a competitor allocate markets for highway-crack-sealing services.
The odd part, and an FTC connection that was noted by Pallavi Guniganti and Gus Hurwitz: at issue was a single charge of monopolization in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. There’s long been widespread agreement that the bounds of Section 5 UMC authority exceed those of the Sherman Act, along with widespread disagreement on the extent to which that’s true, but there was consensus on invitations to collude. Agreements to fix prices or allocate markets are per se violations of Section 1. Refused invitations to collude are not, or were not. But as the FTC stated in its now-withdrawn Statement of Enforcement Principles, UMC authority extends to conduct “that, if allowed to mature or complete, could violate the Sherman or Clayton Act.” But the FTC didn’t bring the case against Zito, the competitor rejected the invitation, and nobody alleged a violation of either Sherman Section 1 or FTC Section 5.
The admitted conduct seems indefensible, under Section 5, so perhaps there’s no harm ex post, but I wonder where this is going.
DOJ also had a Halloween win when Judge Florence Y. Pan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, sitting by designation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued an order blocking the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. The opinion is still sealed. But based on the complaint, it was a relatively straightforward monopsony case, albeit one with a very narrow market definition: two market definitions, but with most of the complaint and the more convincing story about “the market for acquisition of publishing rights to anticipated top-selling books.” Steven King, Oprah Winfrey, etc.
Maybe they got it right, although Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter’s description seems a bit of puffery, if not a mountain of it: “The proposed merger would have reduced competition, decreased author compensation, diminished the breadth, depth, and diversity of our stories and ideas, and ultimately impoverished our democracy.”
At the margin? The Division did not need to prove harm to consumers downstream, although it alleged such harm. Here’s a policy question: suppose the deal would have lowered advances paid to top-selling authors—those cited in the complaint are mostly in the millions of dollars—but suppose DOJ was wrong about the larger market and downstream effects. If publisher savings were accompanied by a slight reduction in book prices, not output, would that have been a bad result?
And you thought entry was procompetitive? For some, Halloween fright does not abate with daylight. On Nov. 1, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, writing “with serious concern about emerging competition and consumer protection issues that Big Tech’s expansion into the automotive industry poses.” I gather that “emerging” is a term of art in legal French meaning “possible, maybe.” The senator writes with great imagination and not a little drama, cataloging numerous allegations about such worrisome conduct as bundling.
Of course, some tying arrangements are anticompetitive, but bundling is not necessarily or even typically anticompetitive. As an article still posted on the DOJ website explains, the “pervasiveness of tying in the economy shows that it is generally beneficial,” For instance, in the automotive industry, most consumers seem to prefer buying their cars whole rather than in parts.
It’s impossible to know that none of Warren’s myriad purported harms will come to pass in any market, but nobody has argued that the agencies ought to stop screening Hart-Scott-Rodino submissions. The need to act “quickly and decisively” on so many issues seems dubious. Perhaps there might be advantages to having technically sophisticated, data-rich, well-financed firms enter into product R&D and competition in new areas, including nascent product markets that might want more of such things for the technology that goes into vehicles that hurtle us down the highway.
The Oct. 21 Roundup highlighted the FTC’s recent flood of regulatory proposals, including the “commercial surveillance” ANPR. Three new ANPRs were mentioned that week: one regarding “Junk Fees,” one regarding “Fake Reviews and Endorsements,” and one regarding potential updates to the FTC’s “Funeral Rule.” Periodic rule review is a requirement, so a potential update is not unusual. On the others, I recommend Commissioner Wilson’s dissents for an overview of legitimate concerns. In sum, the junk-ees ANPR is “sweeping in its breadth; may duplicate, or contradict, existing laws and rules; is untethered from a solid foundation of FTC enforcement; relies on flawed assumptions and vague definitions; ignores impacts on competition; and diverts scarce agency resources from important law enforcement efforts.” And if some “junk fees” are the result of deceptive or unfair practices under established standards, the ANPR also seems to refer to potentially useful and efficient unbundling. Wilson finds the “fake reviews and endorsements” ANPR clearer and better focused, but another bridge too far, contemplating a burdensome regulatory scheme while active enforcement and guidance initiatives are underway, and may adequately address material and deceptive advertising practices.
As Wilson notes, the costs of regulating are substantial, too. New proposals spring forth while overdue projects founder. For instance, the long, long overdue “10-year” review of the FTC’s Eyeglass Rule last saw an ANPR in 2015, following a 2004 decision to leave an earlier version of the rule in place. The Contact Lens Rule, implementing the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, was initially adopted in 2004 and amended 16 years later, partly because the central provision of the rule had proved unenforceable, resulting in chronic noncompliance. The chair is also considering rulemaking on noncompete clauses. Again, there are worries that some anticompetitive conduct might prompt considerably overbroad regulation, given legitimate applications, a developing and mixed body of empirical literature, and recent activity in the states. It’s another area to wonder whether the FTC has either congressional authorization or the resources, experience, and expertise to regulate the conduct at issue–potentially, every employment agreement in the United States.
A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.
(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)
So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.
Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference
Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.
In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)
Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).
Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).
Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).
In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.
Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.
Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.
What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.
It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court.
Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out.
A recent viral video captures a prevailing sentiment in certain corners of social media, and among some competition scholars, about how mergers supposedly work in the real world: firms start competing on price, one firm loses out, that firm agrees to sell itself to the other firm and, finally, prices are jacked up.(Warning: Keep the video muted. The voice-over is painful.)
The story ends there. In this narrative, the combination offers no possible cost savings. The owner of the firm who sold doesn’t start a new firm and begin competing tomorrow, and nor does anyone else. The story ends with customers getting screwed.
And in this telling, it’s not just horizontal mergers that look like the one in the viral egg video. It is becoming a common theory of harm regarding nonhorizontal acquisitions that they are, in fact, horizontal acquisitions in disguise. The acquired party may possibly, potentially, with some probability, in the future, become a horizontal competitor. And of course, the story goes, all horizontal mergers are anticompetitive.
Therefore, we should have the same skepticism toward all mergers, regardless of whether they are horizontal or vertical. Steve Salop has argued that a problem with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) 2020 vertical merger guidelines is that they failed to adopt anticompetitive presumptions.
This perspective is not just a meme on Twitter. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are currently revising their guidelines for merger enforcement and have issued a request for information (RFI). The working presumption in the RFI (and we can guess this will show up in the final guidelines) is exactly the takeaway from the video: Mergers are bad. Full stop.
The RFI repeatedly requests information that would support the conclusion that the agencies should strengthen merger enforcement, rather than information that might point toward either stronger or weaker enforcement. For example, the RFI asks:
What changes in standards or approaches would appropriately strengthen enforcement against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor?
This framing presupposes that enforcement should be strengthened against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor.
Do Monopoly Profits Always Exceed Joint Duopoly Profits?
Should we assume enforcement, including vertical enforcement, needs to be strengthened? In a world with lots of uncertainty about which products and companies will succeed, why would an incumbent buy out every potential competitor? The basic idea is that, since profits are highest when there is only a single monopolist, that seller will always have an incentive to buy out any competitors.
The punchline for this anti-merger presumption is “monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.” The argument is laid out most completely by Salop, although the argument is not unique to him. As Salop points out:
I do not think that any of the analysis in the article is new. I expect that all the points have been made elsewhere by others and myself.
Under the model that Salop puts forward, there should, in fact, be a presumption against any acquisition, not just horizontal acquisitions. He argues that:
Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.
We see a presumption against mergers in the recent FTC challenge of Meta’s purchase of Within. While Meta owns Oculus, a virtual-reality headset and Within owns virtual-reality fitness apps, the FTC challenged the acquisition on grounds that:
The Acquisition would cause anticompetitive effects by eliminating potential competition from Meta in the relevant market for VR dedicated fitness apps.
Given the prevalence of this perspective, it is important to examine the basic model’s assumptions. In particular, is it always true that—since monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits—incumbents have an incentive to eliminate potential competition for anticompetitive reasons?
I will argue no. The notion that monopoly profits exceed joint-duopoly profits rests on two key assumptions that hinder the simple application of the “merge to monopoly” model to antitrust.
First, even in a simple model, it is not always true that monopolists have both the ability and incentive to eliminate any potential entrant, simply because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.
For the simplest complication, suppose there are two possible entrants, rather than the common assumption of just one entrant at a time. The monopolist must now pay each of the entrants enough to prevent entry. But how much? If the incumbent has already paid one potential entrant not to enter, the second could then enter the market as a duopolist, rather than as one of three oligopolists. Therefore, the incumbent must pay the second entrant an amount sufficient to compensate a duopolist, not their share of a three-firm oligopoly profit. The same is true for buying the first entrant. To remain a monopolist, the incumbent would have to pay each possible competitor duopoly profits.
Because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits, it is profitable to pay a single entrant half of the duopoly profit to prevent entry. It is not, however, necessarily profitable for the incumbent to pay both potential entrants half of the duopoly profit to avoid entry by either.
Now go back to the video. Suppose two passersby, who also happen to have chickens at home, notice that they can sell their eggs. The best part? They don’t have to sit around all day; the lady on the right will buy them. The next day, perhaps, two new egg sellers arrive.
For a simple example, consider a Cournot oligopoly model with an industry-inverse demand curve of P(Q)=1-Q and constant marginal costs that are normalized to zero. In a market with N symmetric sellers, each seller earns 1/((N+1)^2) in profits. A monopolist makes a profit of 1/4. A duopolist can expect to earn a profit of 1/9. If there are three potential entrants, plus the incumbent, the monopolist must pay each the duopoly profit of 3*1/9=1/3, which exceeds the monopoly profits of 1/4.
In the Nash/Cournot equilibrium, the incumbent will not acquire any of the competitors, since it is too costly to keep them all out. With enough potential entrants, the monopolist in any market will not want to buy any of them out. In that case, the outcome involves no acquisitions.
If we observe an acquisition in a market with many potential entrants, which any given market may or may not have, it cannot be that the merger is solely about obtaining monopoly profits, since the model above shows that the incumbent doesn’t have incentives to do that.
If our model captures the dynamics of the market (which it may or may not, depending on a given case’s circumstances) but we observe mergers, there must be another reason for that deal besides maintaining a monopoly. The presence of multiple potential entrants overturns the antitrust implications of the truism that monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits. The question turns instead to empirical analysis of the merger and market in question, as to whether it would be profitable to acquire all potential entrants.
The second simplifying assumption that restricts the applicability of Salop’s baseline model is that the incumbent has the lowest cost of production. He rules out the possibility of lower-cost entrants in Footnote 2:
Monopoly profits are not always higher. The entrant may have much lower costs or a better or highly differentiated product. But higher monopoly profits are more usually the case.
If one allows the possibility that an entrant may have lower costs (even if those lower costs won’t be achieved until the future, when the entrant gets to scale), it does not follow that monopoly profits (under the current higher-cost monopolist) necessarily exceed duopoly profits (with a lower-cost producer involved).
Although it is convenient in theoretical modeling to assume that similarly situated firms have equivalent capacities to realize profits, in reality firms vary greatly in their capabilities, and their investment and other business decisions are dependent on the firm’s managers’ expectations about their idiosyncratic abilities to recognize profit opportunities and take advantage of them—in short, they rest on the firm managers’ ability to be entrepreneurial.
Given the assumptions that all firms have identical costs and there is only one potential entrant, Salop’s framework would find that all possible mergers are anticompetitive and that there are no possible efficiency gains from any merger. That’s the thrust of the video. We assume that the whole story is two identical-seeming women selling eggs. Since the acquired firm cannot, by assumption, have lower costs of production, it cannot improve on the incumbent’s costs of production.
Many Reasons for Mergers
But whether a merger is efficiency-reducing and bad for competition and consumers needs to be proven, not just assumed.
If we take the basic acquisition model literally, every industry would have just one firm. Every incumbent would acquire every possible competitor, no matter how small. After all, monopoly profits are higher than duopoly profits, and so the incumbent both wants to and can preserve its monopoly profits. The model does not give us a way to disentangle when mergers would stop without antitrust enforcement.
Mergers do not affect the production side of the economy, under this assumption, but exist solely to gain the market power to manipulate prices. Since the model finds no downsides for the incumbent to acquiring a competitor, it would naturally acquire every last potential competitor, no matter how small, unless prevented by law.
Once we allow for the possibility that firms differ in productivity, however, it is no longer true that monopoly profits are greater than industry duopoly profits. We can see this most clearly in situations where there is “competition for the market” and the market is winner-take-all. If the entrant to such a market has lower costs, the profit under entry (when one firm wins the whole market) can be greater than the original monopoly profits. In such cases, monopoly maintenance alone cannot explain an entrant’s decision to sell.
An acquisition could therefore be both procompetitive and increase consumer welfare. For example, the acquisition could allow the lower-cost entrant to get to scale quicker. The acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, for example, brought the photo-editing technology that Instagram had developed to a much larger market of Facebook users and provided a powerful monetization mechanism that was otherwise unavailable to Instagram.
In short, the notion that incumbents can systematically and profitably maintain their market position by acquiring potential competitors rests on assumptions that, in practice, will regularly and consistently fail to materialize. It is thus improper to assume that most of these acquisitions reflect efforts by an incumbent to anticompetitively maintain its market position.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.”You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Svetlana Gans and Eugene Scalia look at three potential traps the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could trigger if it pursues the aggressive rulemaking agenda many have long been expecting. From their opening:
FTC Chairman Lina Khan has Rooseveltian ambitions for the agency. … Within weeks the FTC is expected to begin a blizzard of rule-makings that will include restrictions on employment noncompete agreements and the practices of technology companies.
If Ms. Khan succeeds, she will transform the FTC’s regulation of American business. But there’s a strong chance this regulatory blitz will fail. The FTC is a textbook case for how federal agencies could be affected by the re-examination of administrative law under way at the Supreme Court.
The first pitfall into which the FTC might fall, Gans and Scalia argue, is the “major questions” doctrine. Recently illuminated in the Supreme Court’s opinion in West Virginia v. EPAdecision, the doctrine holds that federal agencies cannot enact regulations of vast economic and political significance without clear congressional authorization. The sorts of rules the FTC appears to be contemplating “would run headlong into” major questions, Gans and Scalia write, a position shared by several contributors to Truth on the Market‘s recent symposium on the potential for FTC rulemakings on unfair methods of competition (UMC).
The second trap the authors expect might trip up an ambitious FTC is the major questions doctrine’s close cousin: the nondelegation doctrine. The nondelegation doctrine holds that there are limits to how much authority Congress can delegate to a federal agency, even if it does so clearly.
Curiously, as Gans and Scalia note, the last time the Supreme Court invoked the nondelegation doctrine involved regulations to implement “codes of fair competition”—nearly identical, on their face, to the commission’s current interest in rules to prohibit unfair methods of competition. That last case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, is more than 80 years old. The doctrine has since lain dormant for multiple generations. But in recent years, several justice have signaled their openness to reinvigorating the doctrine. As Gans and Scalia note, “[a]n aggressive FTC competition rule could be a tempting target” for them.
Finally, the authors anticipate an overly aggressive FTC may find itself entangled in yet a thorny web wrapped around the very heart of the administrative state: the constitutionality of so-called independent agencies. Again, the relevant constitutional doctrine giving rise to these agencies results from another 1935 case involving the FTC itself: Humphrey’s Executor v. United States. While the Court in that opinion upheld the notion that Congress can create agencies led by officials who operate independently of direct presidential control, conservative justices have long questioned the doctrine’s legitimacy and the Roberts court, in particularly, has trimmed its outer limits. An overly aggressive FTC might present an opportunity to further check the independence of these agencies.
While it remains unclear the precise rules the FTC seek try to develop using its UMC authority, the clearest signs are that it will focus first on labor issues, such as emerging research around labor monopsony and firms’ use of noncompete clauses. Indeed, Eric Posner, who joined the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division earlier this year as counsel on these issues, recently acknowledged that: “There is this very close and complicated relationship between labor law and antitrust law that has to be maintained.”
If the FTC were to upset this relationship, such as by using its UMC authority either to circumvent the National Labor Relations Board in addressing competition concerns or to assist the NLRB in exceeding its own statutory authority, it would be unsurprising for the courts to exercise their constitutional role as a check on a rogue agency.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
When I was a kid, I trailed behind my mother in the grocery store with a notepad and a pencil adding up the cost of each item she added to our cart. This was partly my mother’s attempt to keep my math skills sharp, but it was also a necessity. As a low-income family, there was no slack in the budget for superfluous spending. The Hostess cupcakes I longed for were a luxury item that only appeared in our cart if there was an unexpected windfall. If the antitrust populists who castigate all forms of market power succeed in their crusade to radically deconcentrate the economy, life will be much harder for low-income families like the one I grew up in.
Antitrust populists like Biden White House officialTim Wu and authorMatt Stoller decry the political influence of large firms. But instead of advocating for policies that tackle this political influence directly, they seek reforms to antitrust enforcement that aim to limit the economic advantages of these firms, believing that will translate into political enfeeblement. The economic advantages arising from scale benefit consumers, particularly low-income consumers, often at the expense of smaller economic rivals. But because the protection of small businesses is so paramount to their worldview, antitrust populists blithely ignore the harm that advancing their objectives would cause to low-income families.
This desire to protect small businesses, without acknowledging the economic consequences for low-income families, is plainly obvious in calls for reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement (a law from the 1930s for which independent businesses advocated to limit the rise of chain stores) and in plans to revise the antitrust enforcement agencies’ merger guidelines. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of listening sessions to demonstrate the need for new guidelines. During the listening session on food and agriculture, independent grocer Anthony Pena described the difficulty he has competing with larger competitors like Walmart. He stated that:
Just months ago, I was buying a 59-ounce orange juice just north of $4 a unit, where we couldn’t get the supplier to sell it to us … Meanwhile, I go to the bigger box like a Walmart or a club store. Not only do they have it fully stocked, but they have it about half the price that I would buy it for at cost.
Half the price. Anthony Pena is complaining that competitors such as Walmart are selling the same product at half the price. To protect independent grocers like Anthony Pena, antitrust populists would have consumers, including low-income families, pay twice as much for groceries.
Walmart is an important food retailer for low-income families.Nearly a fifth of all spending through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, takes place at Walmart. After housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for low-income families. The share of expenditures going toward food for low-income families (i.e., families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution) is34% higher than for high-income families (i.e., families in the highest 20% of the income distribution). This means that higher grocery prices disproportionately burden low-income families.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched theSNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at online food retailers. The pandemic led to an explosion in the number ofSNAP recipients using their benefits online—increasing from just 35,000 households in March 2020 to nearly 770,000 households just three months later. While the pilot originally only included Walmart and Amazon, thenumber of eligible retailers has expanded rapidly. In order to make grocery delivery more accessible to low-income families, an important service during the pandemic, Amazon reduced itsPrime membership fee (which helps pay for free delivery) by 50% for SNAP recipients.
The antitrust populists are not only targeting the advantages of large brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, but also of large online retailers like Amazon. Again, these advantages largely flow to consumers—particularly low-income ones.
The proposedAmerican Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and may make an appearance on the Senate floor this summer, threatens those consumer benefits. AICOA would prohibit so-called “self-preferencing” by Amazon and other large technology platforms.
Should a ban on self-preferencing come to fruition, Amazon would not be able to prominently show its own products in any capacity—even when its products are a good match for a consumer’s search. In search results, Amazon will not be able to promote its private-label products, including Amazon Basics and 365 by Whole Foods, or products for which it is a first-party seller (i.e., a reseller of another company’s product). Amazon may also have to downgrade the ranking of popular products it sells, making them harder for consumers to find. Forcing Amazon to present offers that do not correspond to products consumers want to buy or are not a good value inflicts harm on all consumers but is particularly problematic for low-income consumers. All else equal, most consumers, especially low-income ones, obviously prefer cheaper products. It is important not to take that choice away from them.
Consider the case of orange juice, the product causing so much consternation for Mr. Pena. In a recent search on Amazon for a 59-ounce orange juice, as seen in the image below, the first four “organic” search results are SNAP-eligible, first-party, or private-label products sold by Amazon and ranging in price from $3.55 to $3.79. The next two results are from third-party sellers offering two 59-ounce bottles of orange juice at $38.99 and $84.54—more than five times the unit price offered by Amazon. By prohibiting self-preferencing, Amazon would be forced to promote products to consumers that are significantly more expensive and that are not SNAP-eligible. This increases costs directly for consumers who purchase more expensive products when cheaper alternatives are available but not presented. But it also increases costs indirectly by forcing consumers to search longer for better prices and SNAP-eligible products or by discouraging them from considering timesaving, online shopping altogether. Low-income families are least able to afford these increased costs.
The upshot is that antitrust populists are choosing to support (often well-off) small-business owners at the expense of vulnerable working people. Congress should not allow them to put the squeeze on low-income families. These families are already suffering due to record-high inflation—particularly for items that constitute the largest share of their expenditures, such as transportation and food. Proposed antitrust reforms such as AICOA and reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement will only make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
If S.2992—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act or AICOA—were to become law, it would be, at the very least, an incomplete law. By design—and not for good reason, but for political expediency—AICOA is riddled with intentional uncertainty. In theory, the law’s glaring definitional deficiencies are meant to be rectified by “expert” agencies (i.e., the DOJ and FTC) after passage. But in actuality, no such certainty would ever emerge, and the law would stand as a testament to the crass political machinations and absence of rigor that undergird it. Among many other troubling outcomes, this is what the future under AICOA would hold.
Guidelines Cannot Substitute for the Law’s Lack of Legal Certainty
Two months ago, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Section published a searing critique of AICOA in which it denounced the bill for being poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles. As Lazar Radic and I discussed in a previous post, what made the ABA’s letter to Congress so eye-opening was that it was penned by a typically staid group with a reputation for independence, professionalism, and ideational heterogeneity.
One of the main issues the ABA flagged in its letter is that the introduction of vague new concepts—like “materially harm competition,” which does not exist anywhere in current antitrust law—into the antitrust mainstream will risk substantial legal uncertainty and produce swathes of unintended consequences.
According to some, however, the bill’s inherent uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. It leaves enough space for specialist agencies to define the precise meaning of key terms without unduly narrowing the scope of the bill ex ante.
In particular, supporters of the bill have pointed to the prospect of agency guidelines under the law to rescue it from the starkest of the fundamental issues identified by the ABA. Section 4 of AICOA requires the DOJ and FTC to issue “agency enforcement guidelines” no later than 270 days after the date of enactment:
outlining policies and practices relating to conduct that may materially harm competition under section 3(a), agency interpretations of the affirmative defenses under section 3(b), and policies for determining the appropriate amount of a civil penalty to be sought under section 3(c).
In pointing to the prospect of guidelines, however, supporters are inadvertently admitting defeat—and proving the ABA’s point: AICOA is not ready for prime time.
This thinking is misguided for at least three reasons:
Guidelines are not rules
As section 4(d) of AICOA recognizes, guidelines are emphatically nonbinding:
The joint guidelines issued under this section do not … operate to bind the Commission, Department of Justice, or any person, State, or locality to the approach recommended in the guidelines.
As such, the value of guidelines in dispelling legal uncertainty is modest, at best.
This is even more so in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where guidelines can be withdrawn at the tip of the ballot (we’ve just seen the FTC rescind the Vertical Merger Guidelines it put in place less than a year ago). Given how politicized the issuing agencies themselves have become, it’s a virtual certainty that the guidelines produced in response to AICOA would be steeped in partisan politics and immediately changed with a change in administration, thus providing no more lasting legal certainty than speculation by a member of Congress.
Guidelines are not the appropriate tool to define novel concepts
Regardless of this political reality, however, the mixture of vagueness and novelty inherent in the key concepts that underpin the infringements and affirmative defenses under AICOA—such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” “materiality”, or the “intrinsic” value of a product—undermine the usefulness (and legitimacy) of guidelines.
Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.
The operative terms of AICOA don’t have definitive meanings under antitrust law, either because they are wholly foreign to accepted antitrust law (as in the case of “self-preferencing”) or because the courts have never agreed on an accepted definition (as in the case of “fairness”). Nor are they technical standards, which are better left to specialized agencies rather than to legislators to define, such as in the case of, e.g., pollution (by contrast: what is the technical standard for “fairness”?).
Indeed, as Elyse Dorsey has noted, the only certainty that would emerge from this state of affairs is the certainty of pervasive rent-seeking by non-altruistic players seeking to define the rules in their favor.
As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of guidelines is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust law and not to push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice in a new direction. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.
Guidelines can’t fix a fundamentally flawed law
Expecting guidelines to provide sensible, administrable content for the bill sets the bar overly high for guidelines, and unduly low for AICOA.
The alleged harms at the heart of AICOA are foreign to antitrust law, and even to the economic underpinnings of competition policy more broadly. Indeed, as Sean Sullivan has pointed out, the law doesn’t even purport to define “harms,” but only serves to make specific conduct illegal:
Even if the conduct has no effect, it’s made illegal, unless an affirmative defense is raised. And the affirmative defense requires that it doesn’t ‘harm competition.’ But ‘harm competition’ is undefined…. You have to prove that harm doesn’t result, but it’s not really ever made clear what the harm is in the first place.”
“Self-preferencing” is not a competitive defect, and simply declaring it to be so does not make it one. As I’ve noted elsewhere:
The notion that platform entry into competition with edge providers is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true…. The theory of vertical discrimination harm is at odds not only with this platform-specific empirical evidence, it is also contrary to the long-standing evidence on the welfare effects of vertical restraints more broadly …
… [M]andating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.
Asking agencies with an expertise in competition policy to enact economically sensible guidelines to direct enforcement against such conduct is a fool’s errand. It is a recipe for purely political legislation adopted by competition agencies that does nothing to further their competition missions.
AICOA’s Catch-22 Is Its Own Doing, and Will Be Its Downfall
AICOA’s Catch-22 is that, by making the law so vague that it needs enforcement guidelines to flesh it out, AICOA renders both itself and those same guidelines irrelevant and misses the point of both legal instruments.
Ultimately, guidelines cannot resolve the fundamental rule-of-law issues raised by the bill and highlighted by the ABA in its letter. To the contrary, they confirm the ABA’s concerns that AICOA is a poorly written and indeterminate bill. Further, the contentious elements of the bill that need clarification are inherently legislative ones that—paradoxically—shouldn’t be left to competition-agency guidelines to elucidate.
The upshot is that any future under AICOA will be one marked by endless uncertainty and the extreme politicization of both competition policy and the agencies that enforce it.
Slow wage growth and rising inequality over the past few decades have pushed economists more and more toward the study of monopsony power—particularly firms’ monopsony power over workers. Antitrust policy has taken notice. For example, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) initiated the process of updating their merger guidelines, their request for information included questions about how they should respond to monopsony concerns, as distinct from monopoly concerns.
From a pure economic-theory perspective, there is no important distinction between monopsony power and monopoly power. If Armen is trading his apples in exchange for Ben’s bananas, we can call Armen the seller of apples or the buyer of bananas. The labels (buyer and seller) are kind of arbitrary. It doesn’t matter as a pure theory matter. Monopsony and monopoly are just mirrored images.
Some infer from this monopoly-monopsony symmetry, however, that extending antitrust to monopsony power will be straightforward. As a practical matter for antitrust enforcement, it becomes less clear. The moment we go slightly less abstract and use the basic models that economists use, monopsony is not simply the mirror image of monopoly. The tools that antitrust economists use to identify market power differ in the two cases.
Monopsony Requires Studying Output
Suppose that the FTC and DOJ are considering a proposed merger. For simplicity, they know that the merger will generate efficiency gains (and they want to allow it) or market power (and they want to stop it) but not both. The challenge is to look at readily available data like prices and quantities to decide which it is. (Let’s ignore the ideal case that involves being able to estimate elasticities of demand and supply.)
In a monopoly case, if there are efficiency gains from a merger, the standard model has a clear prediction: the quantity sold in the output market will increase. An economist at the FTC or DOJ with sufficient data will be able to see (or estimate) the efficiencies directly in the output market. Efficiency gains result in either greater output at lower unit cost or else product-quality improvements that increase consumer demand. Since the merger lowers prices for consumers, the agencies (assume they care about the consumer welfare standard) will let the merger go through, since consumers are better off.
In contrast, if the merger simply enhances monopoly power without efficiency gains, the quantity sold will decrease, either because the merging parties raise prices or because quality declines. Again, the empirical implication of the merger is seen directly in the market in question. Since the merger raises prices for consumers, the agencies (assume they care about the consumer welfare standard) will let not the merger go through, since consumers are worse off. In both cases, you judge monopoly power by looking directly at the market that may or may not have monopoly power.
Unfortunately, the monopsony case is more complicated. Ultimately, we can be certain of the effects of monopsony only by looking at the output market, not the input market where the monopsony power is claimed.
To see why, consider again a merger that generates either efficiency gains or market (now monopsony) power. A merger that creates monopsony power will necessarily reduce the prices and quantity purchased of inputs like labor and materials. An overly eager FTC may see a lower quantity of input purchased and jump to the conclusion that the merger increased monopsony power. After all, monopsonies purchase fewer inputs than competitive firms.
Not so fast. Fewer input purchases may be because of efficiency gains. For example, if the efficiency gain arises from the elimination of redundancies in a hospital merger, the hospital will buy fewer inputs, hire fewer technicians, or purchase fewer medical supplies. This may even reduce the wages of technicians or the price of medical supplies, even if the newly merged hospitals are not exercising any market power to suppress wages.
The key point is that monopsony needs to be treated differently than monopoly. The antitrust agencies cannot simply look at the quantity of inputs purchased in the monopsony case as the flip side of the quantity sold in the monopoly case, because the efficiency-enhancing merger can look like the monopsony merger in terms of the level of inputs purchased.
How can the agencies differentiate efficiency-enhancing mergers from monopsony mergers? The easiest way may be for the agencies to look at the output market: an entirely different market than the one with the possibility of market power. Once we look at the output market, as we would do in a monopoly case, we have clear predictions. If the merger is efficiency-enhancing, there will be an increase in the output-market quantity. If the merger increases monopsony power, the firm perceives its marginal cost as higher than before the merger and will reduce output.
In short, as we look for how to apply antitrust to monopsony-power cases, the agencies and courts cannot look to the input market to differentiate them from efficiency-enhancing mergers; they must look at the output market. It is impossible to discuss monopsony power coherently without considering the output market.
In real-world cases, mergers will not necessarily be either strictly efficiency-enhancing or strictly monopsony-generating, but a blend of the two. Any rigorous consideration of merger effects must account for both and make some tradeoff between them. The question of how guidelines should address monopsony power is inextricably tied to the consideration of merger efficiencies, particularly given the point above that identifying and evaluating monopsony power will often depend on its effects in downstream markets.
This is just one complication that arises when we move from the purest of pure theory to slightly more applied models of monopoly and monopsony power. Geoffrey Manne, Dirk Auer, Eric Fruits, Lazar Radic and I go through more of the complications in our comments summited to the FTC and DOJ on updating the merger guidelines.
What Assumptions Make the Difference Between Monopoly and Monopsony?
Now that we have shown that monopsony and monopoly are different, how do we square this with the initial observation that it was arbitrary whether we say Armen has monopsony power over apples or monopoly power over bananas?
There are two differences between the standard monopoly and monopsony models. First, in a vast majority of models of monopsony power, the agent with the monopsony power is buying goods only to use them in production. They have a “derived demand” for some factors of production. That demand ties their buying decision to an output market. For monopoly power, the firm sells the goods, makes some money, and that’s the end of the story.
The second difference is that the standard monopoly model looks at one output good at a time. The standard factor-demand model uses two inputs, which introduces a tradeoff between, say, capital and labor. We could force monopoly to look like monopsony by assuming the merging parties each produce two different outputs, apples and bananas. An efficiency gain could favor apple production and hurt banana consumers. While this sort of substitution among outputs is often realistic, it is not the standard economic way of modeling an output market.
[On Monday, June 27, Concurrenceshosted a conference on the Rulemaking Authority of the Federal Trade Commission.This conference featured the work of contributors to a new book on the subject edited by Professor Dan Crane. Several of these authors have previously contributed to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium. We are pleased to be able to share with you excerpts or condensed versions of chapters from this book prepared by authors of of those chapters. Our thanks and compliments to Dan and Concurrences for bringing together an outstanding event and set of contributors and for supporting our sharing them with you here.]
[The post below was authored by former Federal Trade Commission Acting Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen and former Assistant U.S. Attorney General James F. Rill.]
Since its founding in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has held a unique and multifaceted role in the U.S. administrative state and the economy. It possesses powerful investigative and information-gathering powers, including through compulsory processes; a multi-layered administrative-adjudication process to prosecute “unfair methods of competition (UMC)” (and later, “unfair and deceptive acts and practices (UDAP),” as well); and an important role in educating and informing the business community and the public. What the FTC cannot be, however, is a legislature with broad authority to expand, contract, or alter the laws that Congress has tasked it with enforcing.
Recent proposals for aggressive UMC rulemaking, predicated on Section 6(g) of the FTC Act, would have the effect of claiming just this sort of quasi-legislative power for the commission based on a thin statutory reed authorizing “rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of” that act. This usurpation of power would distract the agency from its core mission of case-by-case expert application of the FTC Act through administrative adjudication. It would also be inconsistent with the explicit grants of rulemaking authority that Congress has given the FTC and run afoul of the congressional and constitutional “guard rails” that cabin the commission’s authority.
FTC’s Unique Role as an Administrative Adjudicator
The FTC’s Part III adjudication authority is central to its mission of preserving fair competition in the U.S. economy. The FTC has enjoyed considerable success in recent years with its administrative adjudications, both in terms of winning on appeal and in shaping the development of antitrust law overall (not simply a separate category of UMC law) by creating citable precedent in key areas. However, as a result of its July 1, 2021, open meeting and President Joe Biden’s “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” executive order, the FTC appears to be headed for another misadventure in response to calls to claim authority for broad, legislative-style “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking out of Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. The commission recently took a significant and misguided step toward this goal by rescinding—without replacing—its bipartisan Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition” Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, divorcing (at least in the commission majority’s view) Section 5 from prevailing antitrust-law principles and leaving the business community without any current guidance as to what the commission considers “unfair.”
FTC’s Rulemaking Authority Was Meant to Complement its Case-by-Case Adjudicatory Authority, Not Supplant It
As described below, broad rulemaking of this sort would likely encounter stiff resistance in the courts, due to its tenuous statutory basis and the myriad constitutional and institutional problems it creates. But even aside from the issue of legality, such a move would distract the FTC from its fundamental function as an expert case-by-case adjudicator of competition issues. It would be far too tempting for the commission to simply regulate its way to the desired outcome, bypassing all neutral arbiters along the way. And by seeking to promulgate such rules through abbreviated notice-and-comment rulemaking, the FTC would be claiming extremely broad substantive authority to directly regulate business conduct across the economy with relatively few of the procedural protections that Congress felt necessary for the FTC’s trade-regulation rules in the consumer-protection context. This approach risks not only a diversion of scarce agency resources from meaningful adjudication opportunities, but also potentially a loss of public legitimacy for the commission should it try to exempt itself from these important rulemaking safeguards.
FTC Lacks Authority to Promulgate Legislative-Style Competition Rules
The FTC has historically been hesitant to exercise UMC rulemaking authority under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act, which simply states that FTC shall have power “[f]rom time to time to classify corporations and … to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions” of the FTC Act. Current proponents of UMC rulemaking argue for a broad interpretation of this clause, allowing for legally binding rulemaking on any issue subject to the FTC’s jurisdiction. But the FTC’s past reticence to exercise such sweeping powers is likely due to the existence of significant and unresolved questions of the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority from both a statutory and constitutional perspective.
Absence of Statutory Authority
The FTC’s authority to conduct rulemaking under Section 6(g) has been tested in court only once, in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC. In that case, the FTC succeeded in classifying the failure to post octane ratings on gasoline pumps as “an unfair method of competition.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that Section 6(g) did confer this rulemaking authority. But Congress responded two years later with the Magnuson-Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act of 1975, which created a new rulemaking scheme that applied exclusively to the FTC’s consumer-protection rules. This act expressly excluded rulemaking on unfair methods of competition from its authority. The statute’s provision that UMC rulemaking is unaffected by the legislation manifests strong congressional design that such rules would be governed not by Magnuson-Moss, but by the FTC Act itself. The reference in Magnuson-Moss to the statute not affecting “any authority” of the FTC to engage in UMC rulemaking—as opposed to “the authority”— reflects Congress’ agnostic view on whether the FTC possessed any such authority. It simply means that whatever authority exists for UMC rulemaking, the Magnuson-Moss provisions do not affect it, and Congress left the question open for the courts to resolve.
Proponents of UMC rulemaking argue that Magnuson-Moss left the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority intact and entitled to Chevrondeference. But, as has been pointed out by many commentators over the decades, that would be highly incongruous, given that National Petroleum Refiners dealt with both UMC and UDAP authority under Section 6(g), yet Congress’ reaction was to provide specific UDAP rulemaking authority and expressly take no position on UMC rulemaking. As further evidenced by the fact that the FTC has never attempted to promulgate a UMC rule in the years following enactment of Magnuson-Moss, the act is best read as declining to endorse the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority. Instead, it leaves the question open for future consideration by the courts.
Turning to the terms of the FTC Act, modern statutory interpretation takes a far different approach than the court in National Petroleum Refiners, which discounted the significance of Section 5’s enumeration of adjudication as the means for restraining UMC and UDAP, reasoning that Section 5(b) did not use limiting language and that Section 6(g) provides a source of substantive rulemaking authority. This approach is in clear tension with the elephants-in-mouseholes doctrine developed by the Supreme Court in recent years. The FTC’s recent claim of broad substantive UMC rulemaking authority based on the absence of limiting language and a vague, ancillary provision authorizing rulemaking alongside the ability to “classify corporations” stands in conflict with the Court’s admonition in Whitman v. American Trucking Association. The Court in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTCrecently applied similar principles in the context of the FTC’s authority under the FTC Act. Here,the Court emphasized “the historical importance of administrative proceedings” and declined to give the FTC a shortcut to desirable outcomes in federal court. Similarly, granting broad UMC-rulemaking authority to the FTC would permit it to circumvent the FTC Act’s defining feature of case-by-case adjudications. Applying the principles enunciated in Whitman and AMG, Section 5 is best read as specifying the sole means of UMC enforcement (adjudication), and Section 6(g) is best understood as permitting the FTC to specify how it will carry out its adjudicative, investigative, and informative functions. Thus, Section 6(g) grants ministerial, not legislative, rulemaking authority.
Notably, this reading of the FTC Act would accord with how the FTC viewed its authority until 1962, a fact that the D.C. Circuit found insignificant, but that later doctrine would weigh heavily. Courts should consider an agency’s “past approach” toward its interpretation of a statute, and an agency’s longstanding view that it lacks the authority to take a certain action is a “rather telling” clue that the agency’s newfound claim to such authority is incorrect. Conversely, even widespread judicial acceptance of an interpretation of an agency’s authority does not necessarily mean the construction of the statute is correct. In AMG, the Court gave little weight to the FTC’s argument that appellate courts “have, until recently, consistently accepted its interpretation.” It also rejected the FTC’s argument that “Congress has in effect twice ratified that interpretation in subsequent amendments to the Act.” Because the amendments did not address the scope of Section 13(b), they did not convince the Court in AMG that Congress had acquiesced in the lower courts’ interpretation.
The court in National Petroleum Refiners also lauded the benefits of rulemaking authority and emphasized that the ability to promulgate rules would allow the FTC to carry out the purpose of the act. But the Supreme Court has emphasized that “however sensible (or not)” an interpretation may be, “a reviewing court’s task is to apply the text of the statute, not to improve upon it.” Whatever benefits UMC-rulemaking authority may confer on the FTC, they cannot justify departure from the text of the FTC Act.
In sum, even Chevronrequires the agency to rely on a “permissible construction” of the statute, and it is doubtful that the current Supreme Court would see a broad assertion of substantive antitrust rulemaking as “permissible” under the vague language of Section 6(g).
The shaky foundation supporting the FTC’s claimed authority for UMC rulemaking is belied by both the potential breadth of such rules and the lack of clear guidance in Section 6(g) itself. The presence of either of these factors increases the likelihood that any rule promulgated under Section 6 runs afoul of the constitutional nondelegation doctrine.
The nondelegation doctrine requires Congress to provide “an intelligible principle” to assist the agency to which it has delegated legislative discretion. Although long considered moribund, the doctrine was recently addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gundy v. United States, which underscored the current relevance of limitations on Congress’ ability to transfer unfettered legislative-like powers to federal agencies. Although the statute in that case was ruled permissible by a plurality of justices, most of the Court’s current members have expressed concerns that the Court has long been too quick to reject nondelegation arguments, arguing for stricter controls in this area. In a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito lamented that the Court has “uniformly rejected nondelegation arguments and has upheld provisions that authorized agencies to adopt important rules pursuant to extraordinarily capacious standards,” while Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, decrying the “unbounded policy choices” Congress had bestowed, stating that it “is delegation running riot” to “hand off to the nation’s chief prosecutor the power to write his own criminal code.”
The Gundy dissent cited to A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, where the Supreme Court struck down Congress’ delegation of authority based on language very similar to Section 5 of the FTC Act. Schechter Poultry examined whether the authority that Congress granted to the president under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) violated the nondelegation clause. The offending NIRA provision gave the president authority to approve “codes of fair competition,” which comes uncomfortably close to the FTC Act’s “unfair methods of competition” grant of authority. Notably, Schechter Poultry expressly differentiated NIRA from the FTC Act based on distinctions that do not apply in the rulemaking context. Specifically, the Court stated that, despite the similar delegation of authority, unlike NIRA, actions under the FTC Act are subject to an adjudicative process. The Court observed that the commission serves as “a quasi judicial body” and assesses what constitutes unfair methods of competition “in particular instances, upon evidence, in light of particular competitive conditions.” That essential distinction disappears in the case of rulemaking, where the commission acts in a quasi-legislative role and promulgates rules of broad application.
It appears that the nondelegation doctrine may be poised for a revival and may play a significant role in the Supreme Court’s evaluation of expansive attempts by the Biden administration to exercise legislative-type authority without explicit congressional authorization and guidance. This would create a challenging backdrop for the FTC to attempt aggressive new UMC rulemaking.
Antitrust Rulemaking by FTC Is Likely to Lead to Inefficient Outcomes and Institutional Conflicts
Aside from the doubts raised by these significant statutory and constitutional issues as to the legality of competition rulemaking by the FTC, there are also several policy and institutional factors counseling against legislative-style antitrust rulemaking.
Legislative Rulemaking on Competition Issues Runs Contrary to the Purpose of Antitrust Law
The core of U.S. antitrust law is based on broadly drafted statutes that, at least for violations outside the criminal-conspiracy context, leave determinations of likely anticompetitive effects, procompetitive justifications, and ultimate liability up to factfinders charged with highly detailed, case-specific determinations. Although no factfinder is infallible, this requirement for highly fact-bound analysis helps to ensure that each case’s outcome has a high likelihood of preserving or increasing consumer welfare.
Legislative rulemaking would replace this quintessential fact-based process with one-size-fits-all bright-line rules. Competition rules would function like per se prohibitions, but based on notice-and-comment procedures, rather than the broad and longstanding legal and economic consensus usually required for per se condemnation under the Sherman Act. Past experience with similar regulatory regimes should give reason for pause here: the Interstate Commerce Commission, for example, failed to efficiently regulate the railroad industry before being abolished with bipartisan consensus in 1996, costing consumers, by some estimates, as much as several billion (in today’s) dollars annually in lost competitive benefits. As FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson observes, regulatory rules “frequently stifle innovation, raise prices, and lower output and quality without producing concomitant health, safety, and other benefits for consumers.” By sacrificing the precision of case-by-case adjudication, rulemaking advocates are also losing one of the best tools we have to account for “market dynamics, new sources of competition, and consumer preferences.”
Potential for Institutional Conflict with DOJ
In addition to these substantive concerns, UMC rulemaking by the FTC would also create institutional conflicts between the FTC and DOJ and lead to divergence between the legal standards applicable to the FTC Act, on the one hand, and the Sherman and Clayton acts, on the other. At present, courts have interpreted the FTC Act to be generally coextensive with the prohibitions on unlawful mergers and anticompetitive conduct under the Sherman and Clayton acts, with the limited exception of invitations to collude. But because the FTC alone has the authority to enforce the FTC Act, and rulemaking by the FTC would be limited to interpretations of that act (and could not directly affect or repeal caselaw interpreting the Sherman and Clayton acts), it would create two separate standards of liability. Given that the FTC and DOJ historically have divided enforcement between the agencies based on the industry at issue, this could result in different rules of conduct, depending on the industry involved. Types of conduct that have the potential for anticompetitive effects under certain circumstances but generally pass a rule-of-reason analysis could nonetheless be banned outright if the industry is subject to FTC oversight. Dissonance between the two federal enforcement agencies would be even more difficult for companies not falling firmly within either agency’s purview; those entities would lack certainty as to which guidelines to follow: rule-of-reason precedent or FTC rules.
Following its rebuke at the Supreme Court in the AMG Capital Management case, now is the time for the FTC to focus on its core, case-by-case administrative mission, taking full advantage of its unique adjudicative expertise. Broad unfair methods of competition rulemaking, however, would be an aggressive step in the wrong direction—away from FTC’s core mission and toward a no-man’s-land far afield from the FTC’s governing statutes.
The Biden administration’s antitrust reign of error continues apace. The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division has indicated in recent months that criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but refuses to provide any guidance regarding enforcement criteria.
Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers stated that “there’s ample case law out there to help inform those who have concerns or questions” regarding Section 2 criminal enforcement, conveniently ignoring the fact that criminal Section 2 cases have not been brought in almost half a century. Needless to say, those ancient Section 2 cases (which are relatively few in number) antedate the modern era of economic reasoning in antitrust analysis. What’s more, unlike Section 1 price-fixing and market-division precedents, they yield no clear rule as to what constitutes criminal unilateral behavior. Thus, DOJ’s suggestion that old cases be consulted for guidance is disingenuous at best.
It follows that DOJ criminal-monopolization prosecutions would be sheer folly. They would spawn substantial confusion and uncertainty and disincentivize dynamic economic growth.
Aggressive unilateral business conduct is a key driver of the competitive process. It brings about “creative destruction” that transforms markets, generates innovation, and thereby drives economic growth. As such, one wants to be particularly careful before condemning such conduct on grounds that it is anticompetitive. Accordingly, error costs here are particularly high and damaging to economic prosperity.
Moreover, error costs in assessing unilateral conduct are more likely than in assessing joint conduct, because it is very hard to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive single-firm conduct, as DOJ’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 explains (citations omitted):
Courts and commentators have long recognized the difficulty of determining what means of acquiring and maintaining monopoly power should be prohibited as improper. Although many different kinds of conduct have been found to violate section 2, “[d]efining the contours of this element … has been one of the most vexing questions in antitrust law.” As Judge Easterbrook observes, “Aggressive, competitive conduct by any firm, even one with market power, is beneficial to consumers. Courts should prize and encourage it. Aggressive, exclusionary conduct is deleterious to consumers, and courts should condemn it. The big problem lies in this: competitive and exclusionary conduct look alike.”
The problem is not simply one that demands drawing fine lines separating different categories of conduct; often the same conduct can both generate efficiencies and exclude competitors. Judicial experience and advances in economic thinking have demonstrated the potential procompetitive benefits of a wide variety of practices that were once viewed with suspicion when engaged in by firms with substantial market power. Exclusive dealing, for example, may be used to encourage beneficial investment by the parties while also making it more difficult for competitors to distribute their products.
If DOJ does choose to bring a Section 2 criminal case soon, would it target one of the major digital platforms? Notably, a U.S. House Judiciary Committee letter recently called on DOJ to launch a criminal investigation of Amazon (see here). Also, current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan launched her academic career with an article focusing on Amazon’s “predatory pricing” and attacking the consumer welfare standard (see here).
[DOJ’s criminal Section 2 prosecution of A&P, begun in 1944,] bear[s] an eerie resemblance to attacks today on leading online innovators. Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers—first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers—have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics across the political spectrum have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries.
Before bringing criminal Section 2 charges against Amazon, or any other “dominant” firm, DOJ leaders should read and absorb the sobering Muris and Nuechterlein assessment.
Finally, not only would DOJ Section 2 criminal prosecutions represent bad public policy—they would also undermine the rule of law. In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch succinctly summarized the importance of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement:
[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.
Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.
The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.
Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.
Bringing criminal monopolization cases now, after a half-century of inaction, would be antithetical to the stability and continuity that underlie the rule of law. What’s worse, the failure to provide prosecutorial guidance would be squarely at odds with concerns of notice and reliance that inform the rule of law. As such, a DOJ decision to target firms for Section 2 criminal charges would offend the rule of law (and, sadly, follow the FTC ‘s recent example of flouting the rule of law, see here and here).
In sum, the case against criminal Section 2 prosecutions is overwhelming. At a time when DOJ is facing difficulties winning “slam dunk” criminal Section 1 prosecutions targeting facially anticompetitive joint conduct (see here, here, and here), the notion that it would criminally pursue unilateral conduct that may generate substantial efficiencies is ludicrous. Hopefully, DOJ leadership will come to its senses and drop any and all plans to bring criminal Section 2 cases.
[The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]
The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act (CTDAA), introduced May 19 by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is the latest manifestation of the congressional desire to “do something” legislatively about big digital platforms. Although different in substance from the other antitrust bills introduced this Congress, it shares one key characteristic: it is fatally flawed and should not be enacted.
In brief, the CTDAA imposes revenue-based restrictions on the ownership structure of firms engaged in digital advertising. The CTDAA bars a firm with more than $20 billion in annual advertising revenue (adjusted annually for inflation) from:
owning a digital-advertising exchange if it owns either a sell-side ad brokerage or a buy-side ad brokerage; and
owning a sell-side brokerage if it owns a buy-side brokerage, or from owning a buy-side or sell-side brokerage if it is also a buyer or seller of advertising space.
The proposal’s ownership restrictions present the clearest harm to the future of the digital-advertising market. From an efficiency perspective, vertical integration of both sides of the market can lead to enormous gains. Since, for example, Google owns and operates an ad exchange, a sell-side broker, and a buy-side broker, there are very few frictions that exist between each side of the market. All of the systems are integrated and the supply of advertising space, demand for that space, and the marketplace conducting price-discovery auctions are automatically updated in real time.
While this instantaneous updating is not unique to Google’s system, and other buy- and sell-side firms can integrate into the system, the benefit to advertisers and publishers can be found in the cost savings that come from the integration. Since Google is able to create synergies on all sides of the market, the fees on any given transaction are lower. Further, incorporating Google’s vast trove of data allows for highly relevant and targeted ads. All of this means that advertisers spend less for the same quality of ad; publishers get more for each ad they place; and consumers see higher-quality, more relevant ads.
Without the ability to own and invest in the efficiency and transaction-cost reduction of an integrated platform, there will likely be less innovation and lower quality on all sides of the market. Further, advertisers and publishers will have to shoulder the burden of using non-integrated marketplaces and would likely pay higher fees for less-efficient brokers. Since Google is a one-stop shop for all of a company’s needs—whether that be on the advertising side or the publishing side—companies can move seamlessly from one side of the market to the other, all while paying lower costs per transaction, because of the integrated nature of the platform.
In the absence of such integration, a company would have to seek out one buy-side brokerage to place ads and another, separate sell-side brokerage to receive ads. These two brokers would then have to go to an ad exchange to facilitate the deal, bringing three different brokers into the mix. Each of these middlemen would take a proportionate cut of the deal. When comparing the situation between an integrated and non-integrated market, the fees associated with serving ads in a non-integrated market are almost certainly higher.
Additionally, under this proposal, the innovative potential of each individual firm is capped. If a firm grows big enough and gains sufficient revenue through integrating different sides of the market, they will be forced to break up their efficiency-inducing operations. Marginal improvements on each side of the market may be possible, but without integrating different sides of the market, the scale required to justify those improvements would be insurmountable.
The CTDAA assumes that:
there is a serious competitive problem in digital advertising; and
the structural separation and regulation of advertising brokerages run by huge digital-advertising platforms (as specified in the CTDAA) would enhance competition and benefit digital advertising customers and consumers.
The first assumption has not been proven and is subject to debate, while the second assumption is likely to be false.
Fundamental to the bill’s assumption that the digital-advertising market lacks competition is a misunderstanding of competitive forces and the idea that revenue and profit are inversely related to competition. While it is true that high profits can be a sign of consolidation and anticompetitive outcomes, the dynamic nature of the internet economy makes this theory unlikely.
As Christopher Kaiser and I have discussed, competition in the internet economy is incredibly dynamic. Vigorous competition can be achieved with just a handful of firms, despite claims from some quarters that four competitors is necessarily too few. Even in highly concentrated markets, there is the omnipresent threat that new entrants will emerge to usurp an incumbent’s reign. Additionally, while some studies may show unusually large profits in those markets, when adjusted for the consumer welfare created by large tech platforms, profits should actually be significantly higher than they are.
Evidence of dynamic entry in digital markets can be found in a recently announced product offering from a small (but more than $6 billion in revenue) competitor in digital advertising. Following the outcry associated with Google’s alleged abuse with Project Bernanke, the Trade Desk developed OpenPath. This allowed the Trade Desk, a buy-side broker, to handle some of the functions of a sell-side broker and eliminate harms from Google’s alleged bid-rigging to better serve its clients.
In developing the platform, the Trade Desk said it would discontinue serving any Google-based customers, effectively severing ties with the largest advertising exchange on the market. While this runs afoul of the letter of the law spelled out in CTDAA, it is well within the spirit its sponsor’s stated goal: businesses engaging in robust free-market competition. If Google’s market power was as omnipresent and suffocating as the sponsors allege, then eliminating traffic from Google would have been a death sentence for the Trade Desk.
While various theories of vertical and horizontal competitive harm have been put forward, there has not been an empirical showing that consumers and advertising customers have failed to benefit from the admittedly efficient aspects of digital-brokerage auctions administered by Google, Facebook, and a few other platforms. The rapid and dramatic growth of digital advertising and associated commerce strongly suggests that this has been an innovative and welfare-enhancing development. Moreover, the introduction of a new integrated brokerage platform by a “small” player in the advertising market indicates there is ample opportunity to increase this welfare further.
Interfering in brokerage operations under the unproven assumption that “monopoly rents” are being charged and that customers are being “exploited” is rhetoric unmoored from hard evidence. Furthermore, if specific platform practices are shown inefficiently to exclude potential entrants, existing antitrust law can be deployed on a case-specific basis. This approach is currently being pursued by a coalition of state attorneys general against Google (the merits of which are not relevant to this commentary).
Even assuming for the sake of argument that there are serious competition problems in the digital-advertising market, there is no reason to believe that the arbitrary provisions and definitions found in the CTDAA would enhance welfare. Indeed, it is likely that the act would have unforeseen consequences:
It would lead to divestitures supervised by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) that could destroy efficiencies derived from efficient targeting by brokerages integrated into platforms;
It would disincentivize improvements in advertising brokerages and likely would reduce future welfare on both the buy and sell sides of digital advertising;
It would require costly recordkeeping and disclosures by covered platforms that could have unforeseen consequences for privacy and potentially reduce the efficiency of bidding practices;
It would establish a fund for damage payments that would encourage wasteful litigation (see next two points);
It would spawn a great deal of wasteful private rent-seeking litigation that would discourage future platform and brokerage innovations; and
It would likely generate wasteful lawsuits by rent-seeking state attorneys general (and perhaps the DOJ as well).
The legislation would ultimately harm consumers who currently benefit from a highly efficient form of targeted advertising (for more on the welfare benefits of targeted advertising, see here). Since Google continually invests in creating a better search engine (to deliver ads directly to consumers) and collects more data to better target ads (to deliver ads to specific consumers), the value to advertisers of displaying ads on Google constantly increases.
Proposing a new regulatory structure that would directly affect the operations of highly efficient auction markets is the height of folly. It ignores the findings of Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (among others) that, to justify regulation, there should first be a provable serious market failure and that, even if such a failure can be shown, the net welfare costs of government intervention should be smaller than the net welfare costs of non-intervention.
Given the likely substantial costs of government intervention and the lack of proven welfare costs from the present system (which clearly has been associated with a growth in output), the second prong of the Buchanan test clearly has not been met.
While there are allegations of abuses in the digital-advertising market, it is not at all clear that these abuses have had a long-term negative economic impact. As shown in a study by Erik Brynjolfsson and his student Avinash Collis—recently summarized in the Harvard Business Review (Alden Abbott offers commentary here)—the consumer surplus generated by digital platforms has far outstripped the advertising and services revenues received by the platforms. The CTDAA proposal would seek to unwind much of these gains.
If the goal is to create a multitude of small, largely inefficient advertising companies that charge high fees and provide low-quality service, this bill will deliver. The market for advertising will have a far greater number of players but it will be far less competitive, since no companies will be willing to exceed the $20 billion revenue threshold that would leave them subject to the proposal’s onerous ownership standards.
If, however, the goal is to increase consumer welfare, increase rigorous competition, and cement better outcomes for advertisers and publishers, then it is likely to fail. Ownership requirements laid out in the proposal will lead to a stagnant advertising market, higher fees for all involved, and lower-quality, less-relevant ads. Government regulatory interference in highly successful and efficient platform markets are a terrible idea.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”
In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.
That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.
The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.
The Antitrust Section’s Comments
As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:
The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.
Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.
Departing from established antitrust-law principles
Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”
Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.
The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.
Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.
It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:
Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.
In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.
Opaque language for opaque ideas
Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.
Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.
Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.
In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:
The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors
The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.
If you wander into an undergraduate economics class on the right day at the right time, you might catch the lecturer talking about Giffen goods: the rare case where demand curves can slope upward. The Irish potato famine is often used as an example. As the story goes, potatoes were a huge part of the Irish diet and consumed a large part of Irish family budgets. A failure of the potato crop reduced the supply of potatoes and potato prices soared. Because families had to spend so much on potatoes, they couldn’t afford much else, so spending on potatoes increased despite rising prices.
It’s a great story of injustice with a nugget of economics: Demand curves can slope upward!
Follow the students around for a few days, and they’ll be looking for Giffen goods everywhere. Surely, packaged ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese are Giffen goods. So are white bread and rice. Maybe even low-end apartments.
While it’s a fun concept to consider, the potato famine story is likely apocryphal. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to find a Giffen good in the real world. My version of Greg Mankiw’s massive “Principles of Economics” textbook devotes five paragraphs to Giffen goods, but it’s not especially relevant, which is perhaps why it’s only five paragraphs.
Wander into another economics class, and you might catch the lecturer talking about monopsony—that is, a market in which a small number of buyers control the price of inputs such as labor. I say “might” because—like Giffen goods—monopsony is an interesting concept to consider, but very hard to find a clear example of in the real world. Mankiw’s textbook devotes only four paragraphs to monopsony, explaining that the book “does not present a formal model of monopsony because, in the world, monopsonies are rare.”
Even so, monopsony is a hot topic these days. It seems that monopsonies are everywhere. Walmart and Amazon are monopsonist employers. So are poultry, pork, and beef companies. Local hospitals monopsonize the market for nurses and physicians. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a monopsony employer of college athletes. Ultimate Fighting Championship has a monopsony over mixed-martial-arts fighters.
In 1994, David Card and Alan Krueger’s earthshaking study found a minimum wage increase had no measurable effect on fast-food employment and retail prices. They investigated monopsony power as one explanation but concluded that a monopsony model was not supported by their findings. They note:
[W]e find that prices of fast-food meals increased in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania, suggesting that much of the burden of the minimum-wage rise was passed on to consumers. Within New Jersey, however, we find no evidence that prices increased more in stores that were most affected by the minimum-wage rise. Taken as a whole, these findings are difficult to explain with the standard competitive model or with models in which employers face supply constraints (e.g., monopsony or equilibrium search models). [Emphasis added]
Even so, the monopsony hunt was on and it intensified during President Barack Obama’s administration. During his term, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) brought suit against several major Silicon Valley employers for anticompetitively entering into agreements not to “poach” programmers and engineers from each other. The administration also brought suit against a hospital association for an agreement to set uniform billing rates for certain nurses. Both cases settled but the Silicon Valley allegations led to a private class-action lawsuit.
In 2016, Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers published an issue brief on labor-market monopsony. The brief concluded that “evidence suggest[s] that firms may have wage-setting power in a broad range of settings.”
Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it intended to “criminally investigate naked no-poaching or wage-fixing agreements that are unrelated or unnecessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers.” The DOJ argued that no-poach agreements that allocate employees between companies are per se unlawful restraints of trade that violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.
If one believes that monopsony power is stifling workers’ wages and benefits, then this would be a good first step to build up a body of evidence and precedence. Go after the low-hanging fruit of a conspiracy that is a per se violation of the Sherman Act, secure some wins, and then start probing the more challenging cases.
After several matters that resulted in settlements, the DOJ brought its first criminal wage-fixing case in late 2020. In United States v. Jindal, the government charged two employees of a Texas health-care staffing company of colluding with another staffing company to decrease pay rates for physical therapists and physical-therapist assistants.
The defense in Jindal conceded that that price-fixing was per se illegal under the Sherman Act but argued that prices and wages are two different concepts. Therefore, the defense claimed that, even if it was engaged in wage-fixing, the conduct would not be per se illegal. That was a stretch, and the district court judge was having none of that in ruling that: “The antitrust laws fully apply to the labor markets, and price-fixing agreements among buyers … are prohibited by the Sherman Act.”
Nevertheless, the jury in Jindal found the defendants not guilty of wage-fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, and also not guilty of a related conspiracy charge.
Before trial, the defense in DaVita filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that no-poach agreements did not amount to illegal market-allocation agreements. Instead, the defense claimed that no-poach agreements were something less restrictive. Rather than a flat-out refusal to hire competitors’ employees, they were more akin to agreeing not to seek out competitors’ employees. As with Jindal, this was too much of a stretch for the judge who ruled that no-poach agreements could be an illegal market-allocation agreement.
A day after the Jindal verdict, the jury in DaVita acquitted the kidney-dialysis provider and its former CEO of charges that they conspired with competitors to suppress competition for employees through no-poach agreements.
The DaVita jurors appeared to be hung up on the definition of “meaningful competition” in the relevant market. The defense presented information showing that, despite any agreements, employees frequently changed jobs among the companies. Thus, it was argued that any agreement did not amount to an allocation of the market for employees.
The prosecution called several corporate executives who testified that the non-solicitation agreements merely required DaVita employees to tell their bosses they were looking for another job before they could be considered for positions at the three alleged co-conspirator companies. Some witnesses indicated that, by informing their bosses, they were able to obtain promotions and/or increased compensation. This was supported by expert testimony concluding that DaVita salaries changed during the alleged conspiracy period at a rate higher than the health-care industry as a whole. This finding is at-odds with a theory that the non-solicitation agreement was designed to stabilize or suppress compensation.
The Jindal and DaVita cases highlight some of the enormous challenges in mounting a labor-monopsonization case. Even if agencies can “win” or get concessions on defining the relevant markets, they still face challenges in establishing that no-poach agreements amount to a “meaningful” restraint of trade. DaVita suggests that a showing of job turnover and/or increased compensation during an alleged conspiracy period may be sufficient to convince a jury that a no-poach agreement may not be anticompetitive and—under certain circumstances—may even be pro-competitive.
For now, the hunt for a monopsony labor market continues its quest, along with the hunt for the ever-elusive Giffen good.