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

This post is authored by Steve Cernak, (Partner, Bona Law).]

The antitrust laws have not been suspended during the current COVID-19 crisis. But based on questions received from clients plus others discussed with other practitioners, the changed economic conditions have raised some new questions and put a new slant on some old ones. 

Under antitrust law’s flexible rule of reason standard, courts and enforcers consider the competitive effect of most actions under current and expected economic conditions. Because those conditions have changed drastically, at least temporarily, perhaps the antitrust assessments of certain actions will be different. Also, in a crisis, good businesses consider new options and reconsider others that had been rejected under the old conditions. So antitrust practitioners and enforcers need to be prepared for new questions and reconsiderations of others under new facts. Here are some that might cross their desks.

Benchmarking

Benchmarking had its antitrust moment a few years ago as practitioners discovered and began to worry about this form of communication with competitors. Both before and since then, the comparison of processes and metrics to industry bests to determine where improvement efforts should be concentrated has not raised serious antitrust issues – if done properly. Appropriate topic choice and implementation, often involving counsel review and third-party collection, should stay the same during this crisis. Companies implementing new processes might be tempted to reach out to competitors to learn best practices. Any of those companies unfamiliar with the right way to benchmark should get up to speed. Counsel must be prepared to help clients quickly, but properly, benchmark some suddenly important activities, like methods for deep-cleaning workplaces.

Joint ventures

Joint ventures where competitors work together to accomplish a task that neither could alone, or accomplish it more efficiently, have always received a receptive antitrust review. Often, those joint efforts have been temporary. Properly structured ones have always required the companies to remain competitors outside the joint venture. Joint efforts among competitors that did not make sense before the crisis might make perfect sense during it. For instance, a company whose distribution warehouse has been shut down by a shelter in place order might be able to use a competitor’s distribution assets to continue to get goods to the market. 

Some joint ventures of competitors have received special antitrust assurances for decades. The National Cooperative Research and Production Act of 1993 was originally passed in 1984 to protect research joint ventures of competitors. It was later extended to certain joint production efforts and standard development organizations. The law confirms that certain joint ventures of competitors will be judged under the rule of reason. If the parties file a very short notice with the DOJ Antitrust Division and FTC, they also will receive favorable treatment regarding damages and attorney’s fees in any antitrust lawsuit. For example, competitors cooperating on the development of new virus treatments might be able to use NCRPA to protect joint research and even production of the cure. 

Mergers

Horizontal mergers that permanently combine the assets of two competitors are unlikely to be justified under the antitrust laws by small transitory blips in the economic landscape. A huge crisis, however, might be so large and create such long-lasting effects that certain mergers suddenly might make sense, both on business and antitrust grounds. That rationale was used during the most recent economic crisis to justify several large mergers of banks although other large industrial mergers considered at the same time were abandoned for various reasons. It is not yet clear if that reasoning is present in any industry now. 

Remote communication among competitors

On a much smaller but more immediate scale, the new forms of communication being used while so many of us are physically separated have raised questions about the usual antitrust advice regarding communication with competitors. Antitrust practitioners have long advised clients about how to prepare and conduct an in-person meeting of competitors, say at a trade association convention. That same advice would seem to apply if, with the in-person convention cancelled, the meeting will be held via Teams or Zoom. And don’t forget: The reminders that the same rules apply to the cocktail party at the bar after the meeting should also be given for the virtual version conducted via Remo.co

Pricing and brand Management

Since at least the time when the Dr. Miles Medical Co. was selling its “restorative nervine,” manufacturers have been concerned about how their products were resold by retailers. Antitrust law has provided manufacturers considerable freedom for some time to impose non-price restraints on retailers to protect brand reputations; however, manufacturers must consider and impose those restraints before a crisis hits. For instance, a “no sale for resale” provision in place before the crisis would give a manufacturer of hand sanitizer another tool to use now to try to prevent bulk sales of the product that will be immediately resold on the street. 

Federal antitrust law has provided manufacturers considerable freedom to impose maximum price restraints. Even the states whose laws prevent minimum price restraints do not seem as concerned about maximum ones. But again, if a manufacturer is concerned that some consumer will blame it, not just the retailer, for a sudden skyrocketing price for a product in short supply, some sort of restraints must be in place before the crisis. Certain platforms are invoking their standard policies to prevent such actions by resellers on their platforms. 

Regulatory hurdles

While antitrust law is focused on actions by private parties that might prevent markets from properly working to serve consumers, the same rationales apply to unnecessary government interference in the market. The current health crisis has turned the spotlight back on certificate of need laws, a form of “brother may I?” government regulation that can allow current competitors to stifle entry by new competitors. Similarly, regulations that have slowed the use of telemedicine have been at least temporarily waived

Conclusion

Solving the current health crisis and rebuilding the economy will take the best efforts of both our public institutions and private companies. Antitrust law as currently written and enforced can and should continue to play a role in aligning incentives so we need not rely on “the benevolence of the butcher” for our dinner and other necessities. Instead, proper application of antitrust law can allow companies to do their part to (reviving a slogan helpful in a prior national crisis) keep America rolling.

Since the LabMD decision, in which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals told the FTC that its orders were unconstitutionally vague, the FTC has been put on notice that it needs to reconsider how it develops and substantiates its claims in data security enforcement actions brought under Section 5. 

Thus, on January 6, the FTC announced on its blog that it will have “New and improved FTC data security orders: Better guidance for companies, better protection for consumers.” However, the changes the Commission highlights only get to a small part of what we have previously criticized when it comes to their “common law” of data security (see here and here). 

While the new orders do list more specific requirements to help explain what the FTC believes is a “comprehensive data security program”, there is still no legal analysis in either the orders or the complaints that would give companies fair notice of what the law requires. Furthermore, nothing about the underlying FTC process has changed, which means there is still enormous pressure for companies to settle rather than litigate the contours of what “reasonable” data security practices look like. Thus, despite the Commission’s optimism, the recent orders and complaints do little to nothing to remedy the problems that plague the Commission’s data security enforcement program.

The changes

In his blog post, the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC describes how new orders in data security enforcement actions are more specific, with one of the main goals being more guidance to businesses trying to follow the law.

Since the early 2000s, our data security orders had contained fairly standard language. For example, these orders typically required a company to implement a comprehensive information security program subject to a biennial outside assessment. As part of the FTC’s Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, we held a hearing in December 2018 that specifically considered how we might improve our data security orders. We were also mindful of the 11th Circuit’s 2018 LabMD decision, which struck down an FTC data security order as unenforceably vague.

Based on this learning, in 2019 the FTC made significant improvements to its data security orders. These improvements are reflected in seven orders announced this year against an array of diverse companies: ClixSense (pay-to-click survey company), i-Dressup (online games for kids), DealerBuilt (car dealer software provider), D-Link (Internet-connected routers and cameras), Equifax (credit bureau), Retina-X (monitoring app), and Infotrax (service provider for multilevel marketers)…

[T]he orders are more specific. They continue to require that the company implement a comprehensive, process-based data security program, and they require the company to implement specific safeguards to address the problems alleged in the complaint. Examples have included yearly employee training, access controls, monitoring systems for data security incidents, patch management systems, and encryption. These requirements not only make the FTC’s expectations clearer to companies, but also improve order enforceability.

Why the FTC’s data security enforcement regime fails to provide fair notice or develop law (and is not like the common law)

While these changes are long overdue, it is just one step in the direction of a much-needed process reform at the FTC in how it prosecutes cases with its unfairness authority, particularly in the realm of data security. It’s helpful to understand exactly why the historical failures of the FTC process are problematic in order to understand why the changes it is undertaking are insufficient.

For instance, Geoffrey Manne and I previously highlighted  the various ways the FTC’s data security consent order regime fails in comparison with the common law: 

In Lord Mansfield’s characterization, “the common law ‘does not consist of particular cases, but of general principles, which are illustrated and explained by those cases.’” Further, the common law is evolutionary in nature, with the outcome of each particular case depending substantially on the precedent laid down in previous cases. The common law thus emerges through the accretion of marginal glosses on general rules, dictated by new circumstances. 

The common law arguably leads to legal rules with at least two substantial benefits—efficiency and predictability or certainty. The repeated adjudication of inefficient or otherwise suboptimal rules results in a system that generally offers marginal improvements to the law. The incentives of parties bringing cases generally means “hard cases,” and thus judicial decisions that have to define both what facts and circumstances violate the law and what facts and circumstances don’t. Thus, a benefit of a “real” common law evolution is that it produces a body of law and analysis that actors can use to determine what conduct they can undertake without risk of liability and what they cannot. 

In the abstract, of course, the FTC’s data security process is neither evolutionary in nature nor does it produce such well-defined rules. Rather, it is a succession of wholly independent cases, without any precedent, narrow in scope, and binding only on the parties to each particular case. Moreover it is generally devoid of analysis of the causal link between conduct and liability and entirely devoid of analysis of which facts do not lead to liability. Like all regulation it tends to be static; the FTC is, after all, an enforcement agency, charged with enforcing the strictures of specific and little-changing pieces of legislation and regulation. For better or worse, much of the FTC’s data security adjudication adheres unerringly to the terms of the regulations it enforces with vanishingly little in the way of gloss or evolution. As such (and, we believe, for worse), the FTC’s process in data security cases tends to reject the ever-evolving “local knowledge” of individual actors and substitutes instead the inherently limited legislative and regulatory pronouncements of the past. 

By contrast, real common law, as a result of its case-by-case, bottom-up process, adapts to changing attributes of society over time, largely absent the knowledge and rent-seeking problems of legislatures or administrative agencies. The mechanism of constant litigation of inefficient rules allows the common law to retain a generally efficient character unmatched by legislation, regulation, or even administrative enforcement. 

Because the common law process depends on the issues selected for litigation and the effects of the decisions resulting from that litigation, both the process by which disputes come to the decision-makers’ attention, as well as (to a lesser extent, because errors will be corrected over time) the incentives and ability of the decision-maker to render welfare-enhancing decisions, determine the value of the common law process. These are decidedly problematic at the FTC.

In our analysis, we found the FTC’s process to be wanting compared to the institution of the common law. The incentives of the administrative complaint process put a relatively larger pressure on companies to settle data security actions brought by the FTC compared to private litigants. This is because the FTC can use its investigatory powers as a public enforcer to bypass the normal discovery process to which private litigants are subject, and over which independent judges have authority. 

In a private court action, plaintiffs can’t engage in discovery unless their complaint survives a motion to dismiss from the defendant. Discovery costs remain a major driver of settlements, so this important judicial review is necessary to make sure there is actually a harm present before putting those costs on defendants. 

Furthermore, the FTC can also bring cases in a Part III adjudicatory process which starts in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) but is then appealable to the FTC itself. Former Commissioner Joshua Wright noted in 2013 that “in the past nearly twenty years… after the administrative decision was appealed to the Commission, the Commission ruled in favor of FTC staff. In other words, in 100 percent of cases where the ALJ ruled in favor of the FTC, the Commission affirmed; and in 100 percent of the cases in which the ALJ ruled against the FTC, the Commission reversed.” In other words, the FTC nearly always rules in favor of itself on appeal if the ALJ finds there is no case, as it did in LabMD. The combination of investigation costs before any complaint at all and the high likelihood of losing through several stages of litigation makes the intelligent business decision to simply agree to a consent decree.

The results of this asymmetrical process show the FTC has not really been building a common law. In all but two cases (Wyndham and LabMD), the companies who have been targeted for investigation by the FTC on data security enforcement have settled. We also noted how the FTC’s data security orders tended to be nearly identical from case-to-case, reflecting the standards of the FTC’s Safeguards Rule. Since the orders were giving nearly identical—and as LabMD found, vague—remedies in each case, it cannot be said there was a common law developing over time.  

What LabMD addressed and what it didn’t

In its decision, the Eleventh Circuit sidestepped fundamental substantive problems with the FTC’s data security practice (which we have made in both our scholarship and LabMD amicus brief) about notice or substantial injury. Instead, the court decided to assume the FTC had proven its case and focused exclusively on the remedy. 

We will assume arguendo that the Commission is correct and that LabMD’s negligent failure to design and maintain a reasonable data-security program invaded consumers’ right of privacy and thus constituted an unfair act or practice.

What the Eleventh Circuit did address, though, was that the remedies the FTC had been routinely applying to businesses through its data enforcement actions lacked the necessary specificity in order to be enforceable through injunctions or cease and desist orders.

In the case at hand, the cease and desist order contains no prohibitions. It does not instruct LabMD to stop committing a specific act or practice. Rather, it commands LabMD to overhaul and replace its data-security program to meet an indeterminable standard of reasonableness. This command is unenforceable. Its unenforceability is made clear if we imagine what would take place if the Commission sought the order’s enforcement…

The Commission moves the district court for an order requiring LabMD to show cause why it should not be held in contempt for violating the following injunctive provision:

[T]he respondent shall … establish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive information security program that is reasonably designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of personal information collected from or about consumers…. Such program… shall contain administrative, technical, and physical safeguards appropriate to respondent’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of respondent’s activities, and the sensitivity of the personal information collected from or about consumers….

The Commission’s motion alleges that LabMD’s program failed to implement “x” and is therefore not “reasonably designed.” The court concludes that the Commission’s alleged failure is within the provision’s language and orders LabMD to show cause why it should not be held in contempt.

At the show cause hearing, LabMD calls an expert who testifies that the data-security program LabMD implemented complies with the injunctive provision at issue. The expert testifies that “x” is not a necessary component of a reasonably designed data-security program. The Commission, in response, calls an expert who disagrees. At this point, the district court undertakes to determine which of the two equally qualified experts correctly read the injunctive provision. Nothing in the provision, however, indicates which expert is correct. The provision contains no mention of “x” and is devoid of any meaningful standard informing the court of what constitutes a “reasonably designed” data-security program. The court therefore has no choice but to conclude that the Commission has not proven — and indeed cannot prove — LabMD’s alleged violation by clear and convincing evidence.

In other words, the Eleventh Circuit found that an order requiring a reasonable data security program is not specific enough to make it enforceable. This leaves questions as to whether the FTC’s requirement of a “reasonable data security program” is specific enough to survive a motion to dismiss and/or a fair notice challenge going forward.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must provide “a short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), including “enough facts to state a claim . . . that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements” will not suffice. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In FTC v. D-Link, for instance, the Northern District of California dismissed the unfairness claims because the FTC did not sufficiently plead injury. 

[T]hey make out a mere possibility of injury at best. The FTC does not identify a single incident where a consumer’s financial, medical or other sensitive personal information has been accessed, exposed or misused in any way, or whose IP camera has been compromised by unauthorized parties, or who has suffered any harm or even simple annoyance and inconvenience from the alleged security flaws in the DLS devices. The absence of any concrete facts makes it just as possible that DLS’s devices are not likely to substantially harm consumers, and the FTC cannot rely on wholly conclusory allegations about potential injury to tilt the balance in its favor. 

The fair notice question wasn’t reached in LabMD, though it was in FTC v. Wyndham. But the Third Circuit did not analyze the FTC’s data security regime under the “ascertainable certainty” standard applied to agency interpretation of a statute.

Wyndham’s position is unmistakable: the FTC has not yet declared that cybersecurity practices can be unfair; there is no relevant FTC rule, adjudication or document that merits deference; and the FTC is asking the federal courts to interpret § 45(a) in the first instance to decide whether it prohibits the alleged conduct here. The implication of this position is similarly clear: if the federal courts are to decide whether Wyndham’s conduct was unfair in the first instance under the statute without deferring to any FTC interpretation, then this case involves ordinary judicial interpretation of a civil statute, and the ascertainable certainty standard does not apply. The relevant question is not whether Wyndham had fair notice of the FTC’s interpretation of the statute, but whether Wyndham had fair notice of what the statute itself requires.

In other words, Wyndham boxed itself into a corner arguing that they did not have fair notice that the FTC could bring a data security enforcement action against the under Section 5 unfairness. LabMD, on the other hand, argued they did not have fair notice as to how the FTC would enforce its data security standards. Cf. ICLE-Techfreedom Amicus Brief at 19. The Third Circuit even suggested that under an “ascertainable certainty” standard, the FTC failed to provide fair notice: “we agree with Wyndham that the guidebook could not, on its own, provide ‘ascertainable certainty’ of the FTC’s interpretation of what specific cybersecurity practices fail § 45(n).” Wyndham, 799 F.3d at 256 n.21

Most importantly, the Eleventh Circuit did not actually get to the issue of whether LabMD actually violated the law under the factual record developed in the case. This means there is still no caselaw (aside from the ALJ decision in this case) which would allow a company to learn what is and what is not reasonable data security, or what counts as a substantial injury for the purposes of Section 5 unfairness in data security cases. 

How FTC’s changes fundamentally fail to address its failures of process

The FTC’s new approach to its orders is billed as directly responsive to what the Eleventh Circuit did reach in the LabMD decision, but it leaves so much of what makes the process insufficient in place.

First, it is notable that while the FTC highlights changes to its orders, there is still a lack of legal analysis in the orders that would allow a company to accurately predict whether its data security practices are enough under the law. A listing of what specific companies under consent orders are required to do is helpful. But these consent decrees do not require companies to admit liability or contain anything close to the reasoning that accompanies court opinions or normal agency guidance on complying with the law. 

For instance, the general formulation in these 2019 orders is that the company must “establish, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information/software security program that is designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of such personal information. To satisfy this requirement, Respondent/Defendant must, at a minimum…” (emphasis added), followed by a list of pretty similar requirements with variation depending on the business. Even if a company does all of the listed requirements but a breach occurs, the FTC is not obligated to find the data security program was legally sufficient. There is no safe harbor or presumptive reasonableness that attaches even for the business subject to the order, nonetheless companies looking for guidance. 

While the FTC does now require more specific things, like “yearly employee training, access controls, monitoring systems for data security incidents, patch management systems, and encryption,” there is still no analysis on how to meet the standard of reasonableness the FTC relies upon. In other words, it is not clear that this new approach to orders does anything to increase fair notice to companies as to what the FTC requires under Section 5 unfairness.

Second, nothing about the underlying process has really changed. The FTC can still investigate and prosecute cases through administrative law courts with itself as initial court of appeal. This makes the FTC the police, prosecutor, and judge in its own case. In the case of LabMD, who actually won after many appeals, this process ended in bankruptcy. It is no surprise that since the LabMD decision, each of the FTC’s data security enforcement cases have been settled with consent orders, just as they were before the Eleventh Circuit opinion. 

Unfortunately, if the FTC really wants to evolve its data security process like the common law, it needs to engage in an actual common law process. Without caselaw on the facts necessary to establish substantial injury, “unreasonable” data security practices, and causation, there will continue to be more questions than answers about what the law requires. And without changes to the process, the FTC will continue to be able to strong-arm companies into consent decrees.

Last Thursday and Friday, Truth on the Market hosted a symposium analyzing the Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines from the FTC and DOJ. The relatively short draft guidelines provided ample opportunity for discussion, as evidenced by the stellar roster of authors thoughtfully weighing in on the topic. 

We want to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions. All of the posts are collected here, and below I briefly summarize each in turn. 

Symposium Day 1

Herbert Hovenkamp on the important advance of economic analysis in the draft guidelines

Hovenkamp views the draft guidelines as a largely positive development for the state of antitrust enforcement. Beginning with an observation — as was common among participants in the symposium — that the existing guidelines are outdated, Hovenkamp believes that the inclusion of 20% thresholds for market share and related product use represent a reasonable middle position between the extremes of zealous antitrust enforcement and non-enforcement.

Hovenkamp also observes that, despite their relative brevity, the draft guidelines contain much by way of reference to the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Ultimately Hovenkamp believes that, despite the relative lack of detail in some respects, the draft guidelines are an important step in elaborating the “economic approaches that the agencies take toward merger analysis, one in which direct estimates play a larger role, with a comparatively reduced role for more traditional approaches depending on market definition and market share.”

Finally, he notes that, while the draft guidelines leave the current burden of proof in the hands of challengers, the presumption that vertical mergers are “invariably benign, particularly in highly concentrated markets or where the products in question are differentiated” has been weakened.

Full post.

Jonathan E. Neuchterlein on the lack of guidance in the draft vertical merger guidelines

Neuchterlein finds it hard to square elements of the draft vertical merger guidelines with both the past forty years of US enforcement policy as well as the empirical work confirming the largely beneficial nature of vertical mergers. Related to this, the draft guidelines lack genuine limiting principles when describing speculative theories of harm. Without better specificity, the draft guidelines will do little as a source of practical guidance.

One criticism from Neuchterlein is that the draft guidelines blur the distinction between “harm to competition” and “harm to competitors” by, for example, focusing on changes to rivals’ access to inputs and lost sales.

Neuchterlein also takes issue with what he characterizes as the “arbitrarily low” 20 percent thresholds. In particular, he finds the fact that the two separate 20 percent thresholds (relevant market and related product) being linked leads to a too-small set of situations in which firms might qualify for the safe harbor. Instead, by linking the two thresholds, he believes the provision does more to facilitate the agencies’ discretion, and little to provide clarity to firms and consumers.

Full post.

William J. Kolasky and Philip A. Giordano discuss the need to look to the EU for a better model for the draft guidelines

While Kolasky and Giordano believe that the 1984 guidelines are badly outdated, they also believe that the draft guidelines fail to recognize important efficiencies, and fail to give sufficiently clear standards for challenging vertical mergers.

By contrast, Kolasky and Giordano believe that the 2008 EU vertical merger guidelines provide much greater specificity and, in some cases, the 1984 guidelines were better aligned with the 2008 EU guidelines. Losing that specificity in the new draft guidelines sets back the standards. As such, they recommend that the DOJ and FTC adopt the EU vertical merger guidelines as a model for the US.

To take one example, the draft guidelines lose some of the important economic distinctions between vertical and horizontal mergers and need to be clarified, in particular with respect to burdens of proof related to efficiencies. The EU guidelines also provide superior guidance on how to distinguish between a firm’s ability and its incentive to raise rivals’ costs.

Full post.

Margaret Slade believes that the draft guidelines are a step in the right direction, but uneven on critical issues

Slade welcomes the new draft guidelines and finds them to be a good effort, if in need of some refinement.  She believes the agencies were correct to defer to the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines for the the conceptual foundations of market definition and concentration, but believes that the 20 percent thresholds don’t reveal enough information. She believes that it would be helpful “to have a list of factors that could be used to determine which mergers that fall below those thresholds are more likely to be investigated, and vice versa.”

Slade also takes issue with the way the draft guidelines deal with EDM. Although she does not believe that EDM should always be automatically assumed, the guidelines do not offer enough detail to determine the cases where it should not be.

For Slade, the guidelines also fail to include a wide range of efficiencies that can arise from vertical integration. For instance “organizational efficiencies, such as mitigating contracting, holdup, and renegotiation costs, facilitating specific investments in physical and human capital, and providing appropriate incentives within firms” are important considerations that the draft guidelines should acknowledge.

Slade also advises caution when simulating vertical mergers. They are much more complex than horizontal simulations, which means that “vertical merger simulations have to be carefully crafted to fit the markets that are susceptible to foreclosure and that a one-size-fits-all model can be very misleading.”

Full post.

Joshua D. Wright, Douglas H. Ginsburg, Tad Lipsky, and John M. Yun on how to extend the economic principles present in the draft vertical merger guidelines

Wright et al. commend the agencies for highlighting important analytical factors while avoiding “untested merger assessment tools or theories of harm.”

They do, however, offer some points for improvement. First, EDM should be clearly incorporated into the unilateral effects analysis. The way the draft guidelines are currently structured improperly leaves the role of EDM in a sort of “limbo” between effects analysis and efficiencies analysis that could confuse courts and lead to an incomplete and unbalanced assessment of unilateral effects.

Second, Wright et al. also argue that the 20 percent thresholds in the draft guidelines do not have any basis in evidence or theory, nor are they of “any particular importance to predicting competitive effects.”

Third, by abandoning the 1984 guidelines’ acknowledgement of the generally beneficial effects of vertical mergers, the draft guidelines reject the weight of modern antitrust literature and fail to recognize “the empirical reality that vertical relationships are generally procompetitive or neutral.”

Finally, the draft guidelines should be more specific in recognizing that there are transaction costs associated with integration via contract. Properly conceived, the guidelines should more readily recognize that efficiencies arising from integration via merger are cognizable and merger specific.

Full post.

Gregory J. Werden and Luke M. Froeb on the the conspicuous silences of the proposed vertical merger guidelines

A key criticism offered by Werden and Froeb in their post is that “the proposed Guidelines do not set out conditions necessary or sufficient for the agencies to conclude that a merger likely would substantially lessen competition.” The draft guidelines refer to factors the agencies may consider as part of their deliberation, but ultimately do not give an indication as to how those different factors will be weighed. 

Further, Werden and Froeb believe that the draft guidelines fail even to communicate how the agencies generally view the competitive process — in particular, how the agencies’ views regard the critical differences between horizontal and vertical mergers. 

Full post.

Jonathan M. Jacobson and Kenneth Edelson on the missed opportunity to clarify merger analysis in the draft guidelines

Jacobson and Edelson begin with an acknowledgement that the guidelines are outdated and that there is a dearth of useful case law, thus leading to a need for clarified rules. Unfortunately, they do not feel that the current draft guidelines do nearly enough to satisfy this need for clarification. 

Generally positive about the 20% thresholds in the draft guidelines, Jacobson and Edelson nonetheless feel that this “loose safe harbor” leaves some problematic ambiguity. For example, the draft guidelines endorse a unilateral foreclosure theory of harm, but leave unspecified what actually qualifies as a harm. Also, while the Baker Hughes burden shifting framework is widely accepted, the guidelines fail to specify how burdens should be allocated in vertical merger cases. 

The draft guidelines also miss an important opportunity to specify whether or not EDM should be presumed to exist in vertical mergers, and whether it should be presumptively credited as merger-specific.

Full post.

Symposium Day 2

Timothy Brennan on the complexities of enforcement for “pure” vertical mergers

Brennan’s post focused on what he referred to as “pure” vertical mergers that do not include concerns about expansion into upstream or downstream markets. Brennan notes the highly complex nature of speculative theories of vertical harms that can arise from vertical mergers. Consequently, he concludes that, with respect to blocking pure vertical mergers, 

“[I]t is not clear that we are better off expending the resources to see whether something is bad, rather than accepting the cost of error from adopting imperfect rules — even rules that imply strict enforcement. Pure vertical merger may be an example of something that we might just want to leave be.”

Full post.

Steven J. Cernak on the burden of proof for EDM

Cernak’s post examines the absences and ambiguities in the draft guidelines as compared to the 1984 guidelines. He notes the absence of some theories of harm — for instance, the threat of regulatory evasion. And then moves on to point out the ambiguity in how the draft guidelines deal with pleading and proving EDM.

Specifically, the draft guidelines are unclear as to how EDM should be treated. Is EDM an affirmative defense, or is it a factor that agencies are required to include as part of their own analysis? In Cernak’s opinion, the agencies should be clearer on the point. 

Full post.

Eric Fruits on messy mergers and muddled guidelines

Fruits observes that the attempt of the draft guidelines to clarify how the Agencies think about mergers and competition actually demonstrates how complex markets, related products, and dynamic competition actually are.

Fruits goes on to describe how the nature of assumptions necessary to support the speculative theories of harm that the draft guidelines may rely upon are vulnerable to change. Ultimately, relying on such theories and strong assumptions may make market definition of even “obvious” markets and products a fraught exercise that devolves into a battle of experts. 

Full post.

Pozen, Cornell, Concklin, and Van Arsdall on the missed opportunity to harmonize with international law

Pozen et al. believe that the draft guidelines inadvisably move the US away from accepted international standards. The 20 percent threshold in the draft guidelines   is “arbitrarily low” given the generally pro competitive nature of vertical combinations. 

Instead, DOJ and the FTC should consider following the approaches taken by the EU, Japan and Chile by favoring a 30 percent threshold for challenges along with a post-merger  HHI measure below 2000.

Full post.

Scott Sher and Mattew McDonald write about the implications of the Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines for vertical mergers involving technology start-ups

Sher and McDonald describe how the draft Vertical guidelines miss a valuable opportunity to clarify speculative theories harm based on “potential competition.” 

In particular, the draft guidelines should address the literature that demonstrates that vertical acquisition of small tech firms by large tech firms is largely complementary and procompetitive. Large tech firms are good at process innovation and the smaller firms are good at product innovation leading to specialization and the realization of efficiencies through acquisition. 

Further, innovation in tech markets is driven by commercialization and exit strategy. Acquisition has become an important way for investors and startups to profit from their innovation. Vertical merger policy that is biased against vertical acquisition threatens this ecosystem and the draft guidelines should be updated to reflect this reality.

Full post.

Rybnicek on how the draft vertical merger guidelines might do more harm than good

Rybnicek notes the common calls to withdraw the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines, but is skeptical that replacing them will be beneficial. Particularly, he believes there are major flaws in the draft guidelines that would lead to suboptimal merger policy at the Agencies.

One concern is that the draft guidelines could easily lead to the impression that vertical mergers are as likely to lead to harm as horizontal mergers. But that is false and easily refuted by economic evidence and logic. By focusing on vertical transactions more than the evidence suggests is necessary, the Agencies will waste resources and spend less time pursuing enforcement of actually anticompetitive transactions.

Rybicek also notes that, in addition to the 20 percent threshold “safe harbor” being economically unsound, they will likely create a problematic “sufficient condition” for enforcement.

Rybnicek believes that the draft guidelines minimize the significant role of EDM and efficiencies by pointing to the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines for analytical guidance. In the horizontal context, efficiencies are exceedingly difficult to prove, and it is unwarranted to apply the same skeptical treatment of efficiencies in the vertical merger context.

Ultimately, Rybnicek concludes that the draft guidelines do little to advance an understanding of how the agencies will look at a vertical transaction, while also undermining the economics and theory that have guided antitrust law. 

Full post.

Lawrence J. White on the missing market definition standard in the draft vertical guidelines

White believes that there is a gaping absence in the draft guidelines insofar as they lack an adequate  market definition paradigm. White notes that markets need to be defined in a way that permits a determination of market power (or not) post-merger, but the guidelines refrain from recommending a vertical-specific method for drawing market definition. 

Instead, the draft guidelines point to the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines for a market definition paradigm. Unfortunately, that paradigm is inapplicable in the vertical merger context. The way that markets are defined in the horizontal and vertical contexts is very different. There is a significant chance that an improperly drawn market definition based on the Horizontal Guidelines could understate the risk of harm from a given vertical merger.

Full post.

Manne & Stout 1 on the important differences between integration via contract and integration via merger

Manne & Stout believe that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the proposed guidelines that could lead either to uncertainty as to how the agencies will exercise their discretion, or, more troublingly, could lead courts to take seriously speculative theories of harm. 

Among these, Manne & Stout believe that the Agencies should specifically address the alleged equivalence of integration via contract and integration via merger. They  need to either repudiate this theory, or else more fully explain the extremely complex considerations that factor into different integration decisions for different firms.

In particular, there is no reason to presume in any given situation that the outcome from contracting would be the same as from merging, even where both are notionally feasible. It would be a categorical mistake for the draft guidelines to permit an inference that simply because an integration could be achieved by contract, it follows that integration by merger deserves greater scrutiny per se.

A whole host of efficiency and non-efficiency related goals are involved in a choice of integration methods. But adopting a presumption against integration via merger necessary leads to (1) an erroneous assumption that efficiencies are functionally achievable in both situations and (2) a more concerning creation of discretion in the hands of enforcers to discount the non-efficiency reasons for integration.

Therefore, the agencies should clarify in the draft guidelines that the mere possibility of integration via contract or the inability of merging parties to rigorously describe and quantify efficiencies does not condemn a proposed merger.

Full post.

Manne & Stout 2 on the problematic implication of incorporating a contract/merger equivalency assumption into the draft guidelines

Manne & Stout begin by observing that, while Agencies have the opportunity to enforce in either the case of merger or contract, defendants can frequently only realize efficiencies in the case of merger. Therefore, calling for a contract/merger equivalency amounts to a preference for more enforcement per se, and is less solicitous of concerns about loss of procompetitive arrangements. Moreover, Manne & Stout point out that there is currently no empirical basis for justifying the weighting of enforcement so heavily against vertical mergers. 

Manne & Stout further observe that vertical merger enforcement is more likely to thwart procompetitive than anticompetitive arrangements relative to the status quo ante because we lack fundamental knowledge about the effects of market structure and firm organization on innovation and dynamic competition. 

Instead, the draft guidelines should adopt Williamson’s view of economic organizations: eschew the formal orthodox neoclassical economic lens in favor of organizational theory that focuses on complex contracts (including vertical mergers). Without this view, “We are more likely to miss it when mergers solve market inefficiencies, and more likely to see it when they impose static costs — even if the apparent costs actually represent a move from less efficient contractual arrangements to more efficient integration.”

Critically, Manne & Stout argue that the guidelines focus on market share thresholds leads to an overly narrow view of competition. Instead of looking at static market analyses, the Agencies should include a richer set of observations, including those that involve “organizational decisions made to facilitate the coordination of production and commercialization when they are dependent upon intangible assets.”

Ultimately Manne & Stout suggest that the draft guidelines should be clarified to guide the Agencies and courts away from applying inflexible, formalistic logic that will lead to suboptimal enforcement.

Full post.

In our first post, we discussed the weaknesses of an important theoretical underpinning of efforts to expand vertical merger enforcement (including, possibly, the proposed guidelines): the contract/merger equivalency assumption.

In this post we discuss the implications of that assumption and some of the errors it leads to — including some incorporated into the proposed guidelines.

There is no theoretical or empirical justification for more vertical enforcement

Tim Brennan makes a fantastic and regularly overlooked point in his post: If it’s true, as many claim (see, e.g., Steve Salop), that firms can generally realize vertical efficiencies by contracting instead of merging, then it’s also true that they can realize anticompetitive outcomes the same way. While efficiencies have to be merger-specific in order to be relevant to the analysis, so too do harms. But where the assumption is that the outcomes of integration can generally be achieved by the “less-restrictive” means of contracting, that would apply as well to any potential harms, thus negating the transaction-specificity required for enforcement. As Dennis Carlton notes:

There is a symmetry between an evaluation of the harms and benefits of vertical integration. Each must be merger-specific to matter in an evaluation of the merger’s effects…. If transaction costs are low, then vertical integration creates neither benefits nor harms, since everything can be achieved by contract. If transaction costs exist to prevent the achievement of a benefit but not a harm (or vice-versa), then that must be accounted for in a calculation of the overall effect of a vertical merger. (Dennis Carlton, Transaction Costs and Competition Policy)

Of course, this also means that those (like us) who believe that it is not so easy to accomplish by contract what may be accomplished by merger must also consider the possibility that a proposed merger may be anticompetitive because it overcomes an impediment to achieving anticompetitive goals via contract.

There’s one important caveat, though: The potential harms that could arise from a vertical merger are the same as those that would be cognizable under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Indeed, for a vertical merger to cause harm, it must be expected to result in conduct that would otherwise be illegal under Section 2. This means there is always the possibility of a second bite at the apple when it comes to thwarting anticompetitive conduct. 

The same cannot be said of procompetitive conduct that can arise only through merger if a merger is erroneously prohibited before it even happens

Interestingly, Salop himself — the foremost advocate today for enhanced vertical merger enforcement — recognizes the issue raised by Brennan: 

Exclusionary harms and certain efficiency benefits also might be achieved with vertical contracts and agreements without the need for a vertical merger…. It [] might be argued that the absence of premerger exclusionary contracts implies that the merging firms lack the incentive to engage in conduct that would lead to harmful exclusionary effects. But anticompetitive vertical contracts may face the same types of impediments as procompetitive ones, and may also be deterred by potential Section 1 enforcement. Neither of these arguments thus justify a more or less intrusive vertical merger policy generally. Rather, they are factors that should be considered in analyzing individual mergers. (Salop & Culley, Potential Competitive Effects of Vertical Mergers)

In the same article, however, Salop also points to the reasons why it should be considered insufficient to leave enforcement to Sections 1 and 2, instead of addressing them at their incipiency under Clayton Section 7:

While relying solely on post-merger enforcement might have appealing simplicity, it obscures several key facts that favor immediate enforcement under Section 7.

  • The benefit of HSR review is to prevent the delays and remedial issues inherent in after-the-fact enforcement….
  • There may be severe problems in remedying the concern….
  • Section 1 and Section 2 legal standards are more permissive than Section 7 standards….
  • The agencies might well argue that anticompetitive post-merger conduct was caused by the merger agreement, so that it would be covered by Section 7….

All in all, failure to address these kinds of issues in the context of merger review could lead to significant consumer harm and underdeterrence.

The points are (mostly) well-taken. But they also essentially amount to a preference for more and tougher enforcement against vertical restraints than the judicial interpretations of Sections 1 & 2 currently countenance — a preference, in other words, for the use of Section 7 to bolster enforcement against vertical restraints of any sort (whether contractual or structural).

The problem with that, as others have pointed out in this symposium (see, e.g., Nuechterlein; Werden & Froeb; Wright, et al.), is that there’s simply no empirical basis for adopting a tougher stance against vertical restraints in the first place. Over and over again the empirical research shows that vertical restraints and vertical mergers are unlikely to cause anticompetitive harm: 

In reviewing this literature, two features immediately stand out: First, there is a paucity of support for the proposition that vertical restraints/vertical integration are likely to harm consumers. . . . Second, a far greater number of studies found that the use of vertical restraints in the particular context studied improved welfare unambiguously. (Cooper, et al, Vertical Restrictions and Antitrust Policy: What About the Evidence?)

[W]e did not have a particular conclusion in mind when we began to collect the evidence, and we… are therefore somewhat surprised at what the weight of the evidence is telling us. It says that, under most circumstances, profit-maximizing, vertical-integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view…. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked. (Francine Lafontaine & Margaret Slade, Vertical Integration and Firm Boundaries: The Evidence)

[Table 1 in this paper] indicates that voluntarily adopted restraints are associated with lower costs, greater consumption, higher stock returns, and better chances of survival. (Daniel O’Brien, The Antitrust Treatment of Vertical Restraint: Beyond the Beyond the Possibility Theorems)

In sum, these papers from 2009-2018 continue to support the conclusions from Lafontaine & Slade (2007) and Cooper et al. (2005) that consumers mostly benefit from vertical integration. While vertical integration can certainly foreclose rivals in theory, there is only limited empirical evidence supporting that finding in real markets. (GAI Comment on Vertical Mergers)

To the extent that the proposed guidelines countenance heightened enforcement relative to the status quo, they fall prey to the same defect. And while it is unclear from the fairly terse guidelines whether this is animating them, the removal of language present in the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines acknowledging the relative lack of harm from vertical mergers (“[a]lthough non-horizontal mergers are less likely than horizontal mergers to create competitive problems…”) is concerning.  

The shortcomings of orthodox economics and static formal analysis

There is also a further reason to think that vertical merger enforcement may be more likely to thwart procompetitive than anticompetitive arrangements relative to the status quo ante (i.e., where arrangements among vertical firms are by contract): Our lack of knowledge about the effects of market structure and firm organization on innovation and dynamic competition, and the relative hostility to nonstandard contracting, including vertical integration:

[T]he literature addressing how market structure affects innovation (and vice versa) in the end reveals an ambiguous relationship in which factors unrelated to competition play an important role. (Katz & Shelanski, Mergers and Innovation)

The fixation on the equivalency of the form of vertical integration (i.e., merger versus contract) is likely to lead enforcers to focus on static price and cost effects, and miss the dynamic organizational and informational effects that lead to unexpected, increased innovation across and within firms. 

In the hands of Oliver Williamson, this means that understanding firms in the real world entails taking an organization theory approach, in contrast to the “orthodox” economic perspective:

The lens of contract approach to the study of economic organization is partly complementary but also partly rival to the orthodox [neoclassical economic] lens of choice. Specifically, whereas the latter focuses on simple market exchange, the lens of contract is predominantly concerned with the complex contracts. Among the major differences is that non‐standard and unfamiliar contractual practices and organizational structures that orthodoxy interprets as manifestations of monopoly are often perceived to serve economizing purposes under the lens of contract. A major reason for these and other differences is that orthodoxy is dismissive of organization theory whereas organization theory provides conceptual foundations for the lens of contract. (emphasis added)

We are more likely to miss it when mergers solve market inefficiencies, and more likely to see it when they impose static costs — even if the apparent costs actually represent a move from less efficient contractual arrangements to more efficient integration.

The competition that takes place in the real world and between various groups ultimately depends upon the institution of private contracts, many of which, including the firm itself, are nonstandard. Innovation includes the discovery of new organizational forms and the application of old forms to new contexts. Such contracts prevent or attenuate market failure, moving the market toward what economists would deem a more competitive result. Indeed, as Professor Coase pointed out, many markets deemed “perfectly competitive” are in fact the end result of complex contracts limiting rivalry between competitors. This contractual competition cannot produce perfect results — no human institution ever can. Nonetheless, the result is superior to that which would obtain in a (real) world without nonstandard contracting. These contracts do not depend upon the creation or enhancement of market power and thus do not produce the evils against which antitrust law is directed. (Alan Meese, Price Theory Competition & the Rule of Reason)

Or, as Oliver Williamson more succinctly puts it:

[There is a] rebuttable presumption that nonstandard forms of contracting have efficiency purposes. (Oliver Williamson, The Economic Institutions of Capitalism)

The pinched focus of the guidelines on narrow market definition misses the bigger picture of dynamic competition over time

The proposed guidelines (and the theories of harm undergirding them) focus upon indicia of market power that may not be accurate if assessed in more realistic markets or over more relevant timeframes, and, if applied too literally, may bias enforcement against mergers with dynamic-innovation benefits but static-competition costs.  

Similarly, the proposed guidelines’ enumeration of potential efficiencies doesn’t really begin to cover the categories implicated by the organization of enterprise around dynamic considerations

The proposed guidelines’ efficiencies section notes that:

Vertical mergers bring together assets used at different levels in the supply chain to make a final product. A single firm able to coordinate how these assets are used may be able to streamline production, inventory management, or distribution, or create innovative products in ways that would have been hard to achieve though arm’s length contracts. (emphasis added)

But it is not clear than any of these categories encompasses organizational decisions made to facilitate the coordination of production and commercialization when they are dependent upon intangible assets.

As Thomas Jorde and David Teece write:

For innovations to be commercialized, the economic system must somehow assemble all the relevant complementary assets and create a dynamically-efficient interactive system of learning and information exchange. The necessary complementary assets can conceivably be assembled by either administrative or market processes, as when the innovator simply licenses the technology to firms that already own or are willing to create the relevant assets. These organizational choices have received scant attention in the context of innovation. Indeed, the serial model relies on an implicit belief that arm’s-length contracts between unaffiliated firms in the vertical chain from research to customer will suffice to commercialize technology. In particular, there has been little consideration of how complex contractual arrangements among firms can assist commercialization — that is, translating R&D capability into profitable new products and processes….

* * *

But in reality, the market for know-how is riddled with imperfections. Simple unilateral contracts where technology is sold for cash are unlikely to be efficient. Complex bilateral and multilateral contracts, internal organization, or various hybrid structures are often required to shore up obvious market failures and create procompetitive efficiencies. (Jorde & Teece, Rule of Reason Analysis of Horizontal Arrangements: Agreements Designed to Advance Innovation and Commercialize Technology) (emphasis added)

When IP protection for a given set of valuable pieces of “know-how” is strong — easily defendable, unique patents, for example — firms can rely on property rights to efficiently contract with vertical buyers and sellers. But in cases where the valuable “know how” is less easily defended as IP — e.g. business process innovation, managerial experience, distributed knowledge, corporate culture, and the like — the ability to partially vertically integrate through contract becomes more difficult, if not impossible. 

Perhaps employing these assets is part of what is meant in the draft guidelines by “streamline.” But the very mention of innovation only in the technological context of product innovation is at least some indication that organizational innovation is not clearly contemplated.  

This is a significant lacuna. The impact of each organizational form on knowledge transfers creates a particularly strong division between integration and contract. As Enghin Atalay, Ali Hortaçsu & Chad Syverson point out:

That vertical integration is often about transfers of intangible inputs rather than physical ones may seem unusual at first glance. However, as observed by Arrow (1975) and Teece (1982), it is precisely in the transfer of nonphysical knowledge inputs that the market, with its associated contractual framework, is most likely to fail to be a viable substitute for the firm. Moreover, many theories of the firm, including the four “elemental” theories as identified by Gibbons (2005), do not explicitly invoke physical input transfers in their explanations for vertical integration. (Enghin Atalay, et al., Vertical Integration and Input Flows) (emphasis added)

There is a large economics and organization theory literature discussing how organizations are structured with respect to these sorts of intangible assets. And the upshot is that, while we start — not end, as some would have it — with the Coasian insight that firm boundaries are necessarily a function of production processes and not a hard limit, we quickly come to realize that it is emphatically not the case that integration-via-contract and integration-via-merger are always, or perhaps even often, viable substitutes.

Conclusion

The contract/merger equivalency assumption, coupled with a “least-restrictive alternative” logic that favors contract over merger, puts a thumb on the scale against vertical mergers. While the proposed guidelines as currently drafted do not necessarily portend the inflexible, formalistic application of this logic, they offer little to guide enforcers or courts away from the assumption in the important (and perhaps numerous) cases where it is unwarranted.   

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

This post is authored by Geoffrey A. Manne (President & Founder, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics ); and Kristian Stout (Associate Director, ICLE).]

As many in the symposium have noted — and as was repeatedly noted during the FTC’s Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century — there is widespread dissatisfaction with the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines

Although it is doubtless correct that the 1984 guidelines don’t reflect the latest economic knowledge, it is by no means clear that this has actually been a problem — or that a new set of guidelines wouldn’t create even greater problems. Indeed, as others have noted in this symposium, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the proposed guidelines that could lead either to uncertainty as to how the agencies will exercise their discretion, or, more troublingly, could lead courts to take seriously speculative theories of harm

We can do little better in expressing our reservations that new guidelines are needed than did the current Chairman of the FTC, Joe Simons, writing on this very blog in a symposium on what became the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines. In a post entitled, Revisions to the Merger Guidelines: Above All, Do No Harm, Simons writes:

My sense is that there is no need to revise the DOJ/FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines, with one exception…. The current guidelines lay out the general framework quite well and any change in language relative to that framework are likely to create more confusion rather than less. Based on my own experience, the business community has had a good sense of how the agencies conduct merger analysis…. If, however, the current administration intends to materially change the way merger analysis is conducted at the agencies, then perhaps greater revision makes more sense. But even then, perhaps the best approach is to try out some of the contemplated changes (i.e. in actual investigations) and publicize them in speeches and the like before memorializing them in a document that is likely to have some substantial permanence to it.

Wise words. Unless, of course, “the current [FTC] intends to materially change the way [vertical] merger analysis is conducted.” But the draft guidelines don’t really appear to portend a substantial change, and in several ways they pretty accurately reflect agency practice.

What we want to draw attention to, however, is an implicit underpinning of the draft guidelines that we believe the agencies should clearly disavow (or at least explain more clearly the complexity surrounding): the extent and implications of the presumed functional equivalence of vertical integration by contract and by merger — the contract/merger equivalency assumption.   

Vertical mergers and their discontents

The contract/merger equivalency assumption has been gaining traction with antitrust scholars, but it is perhaps most clearly represented in some of Steve Salop’s work. Salop generally believes that vertical merger enforcement should be heightened. Among his criticisms of current enforcement is his contention that efficiencies that can be realized by merger can often also be achieved by contract. As he discussed during his keynote presentation at last year’s FTC hearing on vertical mergers:

And, finally, the key policy issue is the issue is not about whether or not there are efficiencies; the issue is whether the efficiencies are merger-specific. As I pointed out before, Coase stressed that you can get vertical integration by contract. Very often, you can achieve the vertical efficiencies if they occur, but with contracts rather than having to merge.

And later, in the discussion following his talk:

If there is vertical integration by contract… it meant you could get all the efficiencies from vertical integration with a contract. You did not actually need the vertical integration. 

Salop thus argues that because the existence of a “contract solution” to firm problems can often generate the same sorts of efficiencies as when firms opt to merge, enforcers and courts should generally adopt a presumption against vertical mergers relative to contracting:

Coase’s door swings both ways: Efficiencies often can be achieved by vertical contracts, without the potential anticompetitive harms from merger

In that vertical restraints are characterized as “just” vertical integration “by contract,” then claimed efficiencies in problematical mergers might be achieved with non-merger contracts that do not raise the same anticompetitive concerns. (emphasis in original)

(Salop isn’t alone in drawing such a conclusion, of course; Carl Shapiro, for example, has made a similar point (as have others)).

In our next post we explore the policy errors implicated by this contract/merger equivalency assumption. But here we want to consider whether it makes logical sense in the first place

The logic of vertical integration is not commutative 

It is true that, where contracts are observed, they are likely as (or more, actually)  efficient than merger. But, by the same token, it is also true that where mergers are observed they are likely more efficient than contracts. Indeed, the entire reason for integration is efficiency relative to what could be done by contract — this is the essence of the so-called “make-or-buy” decision. 

For example, a firm that decides to buy its own warehouse has determined that doing so is more efficient than renting warehouse space. Some of these efficiencies can be measured and quantified (e.g., carrying costs of ownership vs. the cost of rent), but many efficiencies cannot be easily measured or quantified (e.g., layout of the facility or site security). Under the contract/merger equivalency assumption, the benefits of owning a warehouse can be achieved “very often” by renting warehouse space. But the fact that many firms using warehouses own some space and rent some space indicates that the make-or-buy decision is often unique to each firm’s idiosyncratic situation. Moreover, the distinctions driving those differences will not always be readily apparent, and whether contracting or integrating is preferable in any given situation may not be inferred from the existence of one or the other elsewhere in the market — or even in the same firm!

There is no reason to presume in any given situation that the outcome from contracting would be the same as from merging, even where both are notionally feasible. The two are, quite simply, different bargaining environments, each with a different risk and cost allocation; accounting treatment; effect on employees, customers, and investors; tax consequence, etc. Even if the parties accomplished nominally “identical” outcomes, they would not, in fact, be identical.

Meanwhile, what if the reason for failure to contract, or the reason to prefer merger, has nothing to do with efficiency? What if there were no anticompetitive aim but there were a tax advantage? What if one of the parties just wanted a larger firm in order to satisfy the CEO’s ego? That these are not cognizable efficiencies under antitrust law is clear. But the adoption of a presumption of equivalence between contract and merger would — ironically — entail their incorporation into antitrust law just the same — by virtue of their effective prohibition under antitrust law

In other words, if the assumption is that contract and merger are equally efficient unless proven otherwise, but the law adopts a suspicion (or, even worse, a presumption) that vertical mergers are anticompetitive which can be rebutted only with highly burdensome evidence of net efficiency gain, this effectively deputizes antitrust law to enforce a preconceived notion of “merger appropriateness” that does not necessarily turn on efficiencies. There may (or may not) be sensible policy reasons for adopting such a stance, but they aren’t antitrust reasons.

More fundamentally, however, while there are surely some situations in which contractual restraints might be able to achieve similar organizational and efficiency gains as a merger, the practical realities of achieving not just greater efficiency, but a whole host of non-efficiency-related, yet nonetheless valid, goals, are rarely equivalent between the two

It may be that the parties don’t know what they don’t know to such an extent that a contract would be too costly because it would be too incomplete, for example. But incomplete contracts and ambiguous control and ownership rights aren’t (as much of) an issue on an ongoing basis after a merger. 

As noted, there is no basis for assuming that the structure of a merger and a contract would be identical. In the same way, there is no basis for assuming that the knowledge transfer that would result from a merger would be the same as that which would result from a contract — and in ways that the parties could even specify or reliably calculate in advance. Knowing that the prospect for knowledge “synergies” would be higher with a merger than a contract might be sufficient to induce the merger outcome. But asked to provide evidence that the parties could not engage in the same conduct via contract, the parties would be unable to do so. The consequence, then, would be the loss of potential gains from closer integration.

At the same time, the cavalier assumption that parties would be able — legally — to enter into an analogous contract in lieu of a merger is problematic, given that it would likely be precisely the form of contract (foreclosing downstream or upstream access) that is alleged to create problems with the merger in the first place.

At the FTC hearings last year, Francine LaFontaine highlighted this exact concern

I want to reemphasize that there are also rules against vertical restraints in antitrust laws, and so to say that the firms could achieve the mergers outcome by using vertical restraints is kind of putting them in a circular motion where we are telling them you cannot merge because you could do it by contract, and then we say, but these contract terms are not acceptable.

Indeed, legal risk is one of the reasons why a merger might be preferable to a contract, and because the relevant markets here are oligopoly markets, the possibility of impermissible vertical restraints between large firms with significant market share is quite real.

More important, the assumptions underlying the contention that contracts and mergers are functionally equivalent legal devices fails to appreciate the importance of varied institutional environments. Consider that one reason some takeovers are hostile is because incumbent managers don’t want to merge, and often believe that they are running a company as well as it can be run — that a change of corporate control would not improve efficiency. The same presumptions may also underlie refusals to contract and, even more likely, may explain why, to the other firm, a contract would be ineffective.

But, while there is no way to contract without bilateral agreement, there is a corporate control mechanism to force a takeover. In this institutional environment a merger may be easier to realize than a contract (and that applies even to a consensual merger, of course, given the hostile outside option). In this case, again, the assumption that contract should be the relevant baseline and the preferred mechanism for coordination is misplaced — even if other firms in the industry are successfully accomplishing the same thing via contract, and even if a contract would be more “efficient” in the abstract.

Conclusion

Properly understood, the choice of whether to contract or merge derives from a host of complicated factors, many of which are difficult to observe and/or quantify. The contract/merger equivalency assumption — and the species of “least-restrictive alternative” reasoning that would demand onerous efficiency arguments to permit a merger when a contract was notionally possible — too readily glosses over these complications and unjustifiably embraces a relative hostility to vertical mergers at odds with both theory and evidence

Rather, as has long been broadly recognized, there can be no legally relevant presumption drawn against a company when it chooses one method of vertical integration over another in the general case. The agencies should clarify in the draft guidelines that the mere possibility of integration via contract or the inability of merging parties to rigorously describe and quantify efficiencies does not condemn a proposed merger.

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

This post is authored by Lawrence J. White (Robert Kavesh Professor of Economics, New York University; former Chief Economist, DOJ Antitrust Division).]

The DOJ/FTC Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines establish a “safe harbor” of a 20% market share for each of the merging parties. But the issue of defining the relevant “market” to which the 20% would apply is not well addressed.

Although reference is made to the market definition paradigm that is offered by the DOJ’s and FTC’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines (“HMGs”), what is neglected is the following: Under the “unilateral effects” theory of competitive harm of the HMGs, the horizontal merger of two firms that sell differentiated products that are imperfect substitutes could lead to significant price increases if the second-choice product for a significant fraction of each of the merging firms’ customers is sold by the partner firm. Such unilateral-effects instances are revealed by examining detailed sales and substitution data with respect to the customers of only the two merging firms.

In such instances, the true “relevant market” is simply the products that are sold by the two firms, and the merger is effectively a “2-to-1” merger. Under these circumstances, any apparently broader market (perhaps based on physical or functional similarities of products) is misleading, and the “market” shares of the merging parties that are based on that broader market are under-representations of the potential for their post-merger exercise of market power.

With a vertical merger, the potential for similar unilateral effects* would have to be captured by examining the detailed sales and substitution patterns of each of the merging firms with all of their significant horizontal competitors. This will require a substantial, data-intensive effort. And, of course, if this effort is not undertaken and an erroneously broader market is designated, the 20% “market” share threshold will understate the potential for competitive harm from a proposed vertical merger.

* With a vertical merger, such “unilateral effects” could arise post-merger in two ways: (a) The downstream partner could maintain a higher price, since some of the lost profits from some of the lost sales could be recaptured by the upstream partner’s profits on the sales of components to the downstream rivals (which gain some of the lost sales); and (b) the upstream partner could maintain a higher price to the downstream rivals, since some of the latter firms’ customers (and the concomitant profits) would be captured by the downstream partner.

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

This post is authored by Scott Sher (Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati) and Matthew McDonald (Associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati).]

On January 10, 2020, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) (collectively, “the Agencies”) released their joint draft guidelines outlining their “principal analytical techniques, practices and enforcement policy” with respect to vertical mergers (“Draft Guidelines”). While the Draft Guidelines describe and formalize the Agencies’ existing approaches when investigating vertical mergers, they leave several policy questions unanswered. In particular, the Draft Guidelines do not address how the Agencies might approach the issue of acquisition of potential or nascent competitors through vertical mergers. As many technology mergers are motivated by the desire to enter new industries or add new tools or features to an existing platform (i.e., the Buy-Versus-Build dilemma), the omission leaves a significant hole in the Agencies’ enforcement policy agenda, and leaves the tech industry, in particular, without adequate guidance as to how the Agencies may address these issues.

This is notable, given that the Horizontal Merger Guidelines explicitly address potential competition theories of harm (e.g., at § 1 (referencing mergers and acquisitions “involving actual or potential competitors”); § 2 (“The Agencies consider whether the merging firms have been, or likely will become absent the merger, substantial head-to-head competitors.”). Indeed, the Agencies have recently challenged several proposed horizontal mergers based on nascent competition theories of harm. 

Further, there has been much debate regarding whether increased antitrust scrutiny of vertical acquisitions of nascent competitors, particularly in technology markets, is warranted (See, e.g., Open Markets Institute, The Urgent Need for Strong Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Enforcers should be vigilant toward dominant platforms’ acquisitions of seemingly small or marginal firms and be ready to block acquisitions that may be part of a monopoly protection strategy. Dominant firms should not be permitted to expand through vertical acquisitions and cut off budding threats before they have a chance to bloom.”); Caroline Holland, Taking on Big Tech Through Merger Enforcement (“Vertical mergers that create market power capable of stifling competition could be particularly pernicious when it comes to digital platforms.”)). 

Thus, further policy guidance from the Agencies on this issue is needed. As the Agencies formulate guidance, they should take note that vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally promote efficiency and innovation, and that any potential competitive harm almost always can be addressed with easy-to-implement behavioral remedies.

The agencies’ draft vertical merger guidelines

The Draft Guidelines outline the following principles that the Agencies will apply when analyzing vertical mergers:

  • Market definition. The Agencies will identify a relevant market and one or more “related products.” (§ 2) This is a product that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the product in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market. (§ 2)
  • Safe harbor. Unlike horizontal merger cases, the Agencies cannot rely on changes in concentration in the relevant market as a screen for competitive effects. Instead, the Agencies consider measures of the competitive significance of the related product. (§ 3) The Draft Guidelines propose a safe harbor, stating that the Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger “where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.” (§ 3) However, shares exceeding the thresholds, taken alone, do not support an inference that the vertical merger is anticompetitive. (§ 3)
  • Theories of unilateral harm. Vertical mergers can result in unilateral competitive effects, including raising rivals’ costs (charging rivals in the relevant market a higher price for the related product) or foreclosure (refusing to supply rivals with the related product altogether). (§ 5.a) Another potential unilateral effect is access to competitively sensitive information: The combined firm may, through the acquisition, gain access to sensitive business information about its upstream or downstream rivals that was unavailable to it before the merger (for example, a downstream rival of the merged firm may have been a premerger customer of the upstream merging party). (§ 5.b)
  • Theories of coordinated harm. Vertical mergers can also increase the likelihood of post-merger coordinated interaction. For example, a vertical merger might eliminate or hobble a maverick firm that would otherwise play an important role in limiting anticompetitive coordination. (§ 7)
  • Procompetitive effects. Vertical mergers can have procompetitive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization (“EDM”). A merger of vertically related firms can create an incentive for the combined entity to lower prices on the downstream product, because it will capture the additional margins from increased sales on the upstream product. (§ 6) EDM thus may benefit both the merged firm and buyers of the downstream product. (§ 6)
  • Efficiencies. Vertical mergers have the potential to create cognizable efficiencies; the Agencies will evaluate such efficiencies using the standards set out in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. (§ 8)

Implications for vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups

At present, the Draft Guidelines do not address theories of nascent or potential competition. To the extent the Agencies provide further guidance regarding the treatment of vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups, they should take note of the following facts:

First, empirical evidence from strategy literature indicates that technology-related vertical mergers are likely to be efficiency-enhancing. In a survey of the strategy literature on vertical integration, Professor D. Daniel Sokol observed that vertical acquisitions involving technology start-ups are “largely complementary, combining the strengths of the acquiring firm in process innovation with the product innovation of the target firms.” (p. 1372) The literature shows that larger firms tend to be relatively poor at developing new and improved products outside of their core expertise, but are relatively strong at process innovation (developing new and improved methods of production, distribution, support, and the like). (Sokol, p. 1373) Larger firms need acquisitions to help with innovation; acquisition is more efficient than attempting to innovate through internal efforts. (Sokol, p. 1373)

Second, vertical merger policy towards nascent competitor acquisitions has important implications for the rate of start-up formation, and the innovation that results. Entrepreneurship in technology markets is motivated by the opportunity for commercialization and exit. (Sokol, p. 1362 (“[T]he purpose of such investment [in start-ups] is to reap the rewards of scaling a venture to exit.”))

In recent years, as IPO activity has declined, vertical mergers have become the default method of entrepreneurial exit. (Sokol, p. 1376) Increased vertical merger enforcement against start-up acquisitions thus closes off the primary exit strategy for entrepreneurs. As Prof. Sokol concluded in his study of vertical mergers:

When antitrust agencies, judges, and legislators limit the possibility of vertical mergers as an exit strategy for start-up firms, it creates risk for innovation and entrepreneurship…. it threatens entrepreneurial exits, particularly for tech companies whose very business model is premised upon vertical mergers for purposes of a liquidity event. (p. 1377)

Third, to the extent that the vertical acquisition of a start-up raises competitive concerns, a behavioral remedy is usually preferable to a structural one. As explained above, vertical acquisitions typically result in substantial efficiencies, and these efficiencies are likely to overwhelm any potential competitive harm. Further, a structural remedy is likely infeasible in the case of a start-up acquisition. Thus, behavioral relief is the only way of preserving the deal’s efficiencies while remedying the potential competitive harm. (Which the Agencies have recognized, see DOJ Antitrust Division, Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, p. 20 (“Stand-alone conduct relief is only appropriate when a full-stop prohibition of the merger would sacrifice significant efficiencies and a structural remedy would similarly eliminate such efficiencies or is simply infeasible.”)) Appropriate behavioral remedies for vertical acquisitions of start-ups would include firewalls (restricting the flow of competitively sensitive information between the upstream and downstream units of the combined firm) or a fair dealing or non-discrimination remedy (requiring the merging firm to supply an input or grant customer access to competitors in a non-discriminatory way) with clear benchmarks to ensure compliance. (See Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, pp. 22-24)

To be sure, some vertical mergers may cause harm to competition, and there should be enforcement when the facts justify it. But vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally enhance efficiency and promote innovation. Antitrust’s goals of promoting competition and innovation are thus best served by taking a measured approach towards vertical mergers involving technology start-ups. (Sokol, pp. 1362–63) (“Thus, a general inference that makes vertical acquisitions, particularly in tech, more difficult to approve leads to direct contravention of antitrust’s role in promoting competition and innovation.”)

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

This post is authored by Sharis Pozen (Partner, Clifford Chance; former Vice President of Global Competition Law and Policy, GE; former Acting Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division); with Timothy Cornell (Partner, Clifford Chance); Brian Concklin (Counsel, Clifford Chance); and Michael Van Arsdall (Counsel, Clifford Chance).]

The draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Guidelines”) miss a real opportunity to provide businesses with consistent guidance across jurisdictions and to harmonize the international approach to vertical merger review

As drafted, the Guidelines indicate the agencies will evaluate market shares and concentration — measured using the same methodology described in the long-standing Horizontal Merger Guidelines — but not use these metrics as a “rigid screen.” On that basis the Guidelines establish a “soft” 20 percent threshold, where the U.S. Agencies are “unlikely to challenge a vertical merger” if the merging parties have less than a 20 percent share of the relevant market and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.

We suggest, instead, that the Guidelines be aligned with those of other jurisdictions, namely the EU non-horizontal merger guidelines [for an extended discussion of which, see Bill Kolaasky’s symposium post here —ed.]. The European Commission’s guidelines state the European Commission is “unlikely to find concern” with a vertical merger affecting less than 30 percent of the relevant markets and the post-merger HHIs fall below 2000. Among others, Japan and Chile employ a similarly higher bar than the Guidelines. A discrepancy between the U.S. and other international guidelines causes unnecessary uncertainty within the business and legal communities and could lead to inconsistent enforcement outcomes.In any event, beyond the dangers created by a lack of international harmonization, setting the threshold at 20 percent seems arbitrarily low given the pro-competitive nature of most vertical mergers. Setting the threshold so low fails to recognize the inherently procompetitive nature of the majority of vertical combinations, and could result in false positives, and undue cost and delay.

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

This post is authored by Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics and Professor of Economics, Portland State University).]

Vertical mergers are messy. They’re messy for the merging firms and they’re especially messy for regulators charged with advancing competition without advantaging competitors. Firms rarely undertake a vertical merger with an eye toward monopolizing a market. Nevertheless, competitors and competition authorities excel at conjuring up complex models that reveal potentially harmful consequences stemming from vertical mergers. In their post, Gregory J. Werden and Luke M. Froeb highlight the challenges in evaluating vertical mergers:

[V]ertical mergers produce anticompetitive effects only through indirect mechanisms with many moving parts, which makes the prediction of competitive effects from vertical mergers more complex and less certain.  

There’s a recurring theme throughout this symposium: The current Vertical Merger Guidelines should be updated; the draft Guidelines are a good start, but they raise more questions than they answer. Other symposium posts have hit on the key ups and downs of the draft Guidelines. 

In this post, I use the draft Guidelines’ examples to highlight how messy vertical mergers can be. The draft Guidelines’ examples are meant to clarify the government’s thinking on markets and mergers. In the end, however, they demonstrate the complexity in identifying relevant markets, related products, and the dynamic interaction of competition. I will focus on two examples provided in the draft Guidelines. Warning: you’re going to read a lot about oranges.

In the following example from the draft Guidelines, the relevant market is the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X and Company B’s supply of oranges is the related product

Example 2: Company A is a wholesale supplier of orange juice. It seeks to acquire Company B, an owner of orange orchards. The Agencies may consider whether the merger would lessen competition in the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X (the relevant market). The Agencies may identify Company B’s supply of oranges as the related product. Company B’s oranges are used in fifteen percent of the sales in the relevant market for wholesale supply of orange juice. The Agencies may consider the share of fifteen percent as one indicator of the competitive significance of the related product to participants in the relevant market.

The figure below illustrates one hypothetical structure. Company B supplies an equal amount of oranges to Company A and two other wholesalers, C and D, totalling 15 percent of orange juice sales in region X. Orchards owned by others account for the remaining 85 percent. For the sake of argument, assume all the wholesalers are the same size in which case Company B’s orchard would supply 20 percent of the oranges used by wholesalers A, C, and D.

Orange juice sold in a particular region is just one of many uses for oranges. The juice can be sold as fresh liquid, liquid from concentrate, or frozen concentrate. The fruit can be sold as fresh produce or it can be canned, frozen, or processed into marmalade. Many of these products can be sold outside of a particular region and can be sold outside of the United States. This is important in considering the next example from the draft Guidelines.

Example 3: In Example 2, the merged firm may be able to profitably stop supplying oranges (the related product) to rival orange juice suppliers (in the relevant market). The merged firm will lose the margin on the foregone sales of oranges but may benefit from increased sales of orange juice if foreclosed rivals would lose sales, and some of those sales were diverted to the merged firm. If the benefits outweighed the costs, the merged firm would find it profitable to foreclose. If the likely effect of the foreclosure were to substantially lessen competition in the orange juice market, the merger potentially raises significant competitive concerns and may warrant scrutiny.

This is the classic example of raising rivals’ costs. Under the standard formulation, the merged firm will produce oranges at the orchard’s marginal cost — in theory, the price it pays for oranges would be the same both pre- and post-merger. If orchard B does not sell its oranges to the non-integrated wholesalers C, D, and E, the other orchards will be able to charge a price greater than their marginal cost of production and greater than the pre-merger market price for oranges. The higher price of oranges used by non-integrated wholesalers will then be reflected in higher prices for orange juice sold by the wholesalers. 

The merged firm’s juice prices will be higher post-merger because its unintegrated rivals’ juice prices will be higher, thus increasing the merged firm’s profits. The merged firm and unintegrated orchards would be the “winners;” unintegrated wholesalers and consumers would be the “losers.” Under a consumer welfare standard the result could be deemed anticompetitive. Under a total welfare standard, anything goes.

But, the classic example of raising rivals’ costs is based on some strong assumptions. It assumes that, pre-merger, all upstream firms price at marginal cost, which means there is no double marginalization. It assumes all the upstream firm’s products are perfectly identical. It assumes unintegrated firms don’t respond by integrating themselves. If one or more of these assumptions is not correct, more complex models — with additional (potentially unprovable) assumptions — must be employed. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a battle of which expert’s models best fit the facts and best predicts the likely outcome. 

In the draft Guidelines’ raising rivals’ costs example, it’s assumed the merged firm would refuse to sell oranges to rival downstream wholesalers. However, if rival orchards charge a sufficiently high price, the merged firm would profit from undercutting its rivals’ orange prices, while still charging a price greater than marginal cost. Thus, it’s not obvious that the merged firm has an incentive to cut off supply to downstream competitors. The extent of the pricing pressure on the merged firm to cheat on itself is an empirical matter that depends on how upstream and downstream firms react, or might react.

For example, using the figure above, if the merged firm stopped supplying oranges to rival wholesalers, then the merged firm’s orchard would supply 60 percent of the oranges used in the firm’s juice. Although wholesalers C and D would not get oranges from B’s orchards, they could obtain oranges from other orchards that are no longer supplying wholesaler A. In this case, the merged firm’s attempt at foreclosure would have no effect and there would be no harm to competition.

It’s possible the merged firm would divert some or all of its oranges to a “secondary” market, removing those oranges from the juice market. Rather than juicing oranges, the merged firm may decide to sell them as fresh produce; fresh citrus fruits account for 7 percent of Florida’s crop and 75% of California’s. This diversion would lead to a decline in the supply of oranges for juice and the price of this key input would rise. 

But, as noted in the Guidelines’ example, this strategy would raise the merged firm’s costs along with its rivals. Moreover, rival orchards can respond to this strategy by diverting their own oranges from “secondary” markets to the juice market, in which case there may be no significant effect on the price of juice oranges. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a complicated empirical matter. Or worse, it may just be a battle over which expert is the most convincing fortune teller.

Moreover, the merged firm may have legitimate business reasons for the merger and legitimate business reasons for reducing the supply of oranges to juice wholesalers. For example “citrus greening,” an incurable bacterial disease, has caused severe damage to Florida’s citrus industry, significantly reducing crop yields. A vertical merger could be one way to reduce supply risks. On the demand side, an increase in the demand for fresh oranges would guide firms to shift from juice and processed markets to the fresh market. What some would see as anticompetitive conduct, others would see as a natural and expected response to price signals.Because of the many alternative uses for oranges, it’s overly simplistic to declare that the supply of orange juice in a specific region is “the” relevant market. Orchards face a myriad of options in selling their products. Misshapen fruit can be juiced fresh or as frozen concentrate; smaller fruit can be canned or jellied. “Perfect” fruit can be sold as fresh produce, juice, canned, or jellied. Vertical integration with a juice wholesaler adds just one factor to the myriad factors affecting how and where an upstream supplier sells its products. Just as there is no single relevant market, in many cases there is no single related product — a fact that is especially relevant in vertical relationships. Unfortunately the draft Guidelines provide little guidance in these important areas.

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

This post is authored by Steven J. Cernak (Partner, Bona Law; Adjunct Professor, University of Michigan Law School and Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School; former antitrust counsel, GM).] 

[Cernak: This paper represents the current views of the author alone and not necessarily the views of any past, present, or future employer or client.]

What should we make of Cmr. Chopra’s and Cmr. Slaughter’s dissents?

When I first heard that the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division issued the draft Vertical Merger Guidelines late on Friday January 10, I did not rush out and review them to form an opinion, antitrust geek though I am. The issuance was not a surprise, given that the 1984 Guidelines were more than 35 years old and described as outdated by all observers, including those at an FTC hearing more than a year earlier. So I was surprised when I saw some pundits, especially on Twitter, immediately found the new draft controversial and I learned that two of the FTC Commissioners had not supported the release. Surely nobody was a big 1984 supporter other than fans of Orwell, Bowie, and Morris, right? 

Some of my confusion dissipated as I had a chance to read and analyze the draft guidelines and the accompanying statements of Commissioners Wilson, Slaughter, and Chopra. First, Commissioners Slaughter and Chopra only abstained from the decision to release the draft for public comment. In their statements, they explained their actions as necessary to register their disagreement with the terms of this particular draft but that they too joined the chorus calling for repudiation of the 1984 Guidelines. 

But some of my confusion remained as I went over Commissioner Chopra’s statement again. Instead of objections to particular provisions of the draft guidelines, the statement is more of a litany of complaints on all that is wrong with today’s economy and antitrust policy’s role in it. Those complaints are ones we have heard from Commissioner Chopra before. They certainly should be part of the general policy debate; however, they seem to go well beyond competitive issues that might be raised by vertical mergers and that should be part of a set of guidelines. 

As the first sentence and footnote of the draft guidelines make clear, the draft guidelines are meant to “outline the principal analytical techniques, practices and enforcement policy of … the Agencies” and “reflect the ongoing accumulation of experience at the Agencies.” They are written to provide some guidance to potential merging parties and their advisers as to how the Agencies are likely to analyze a merger and, so, provide some greater level of certainty. That does not mean that the guidelines are meant to capture the techniques of the Agencies in amber forever – or even 35 years. As that same first footnote makes clear, the guidelines may be revised to “reflect significant changes in enforcement policy…or to reflect new learning.” But guidelines designed to provide some clarity on how vertical mergers have been and will be reviewed are not the forum for a broad exchange of views on antitrust policy. Those comments are more helpful in FTC hearings, speeches, or enforcement actions that the Commissioners might participate in, not guidelines for practitioners. 

Commissioner Slaughter’s statement, on the other hand, stays focused on vertical mergers and the issues that she has with these draft guidelines. She and other early commentators raise at least some questions about the current draft that I hope will be addressed in the final version. For instance, the 1984 version of the guidelines included as potential anticompetitive effects from vertical mergers 1) regulatory evasion and 2) the creation of the need for potential entrants to enter at multiple stages of the market. As Commissioner Slaughter points out, the current draft guidelines drop those two and instead focus on 1) foreclosure; 2) raising rivals’ costs; and 3) the exchange of competitively sensitive information. 

Should we take the absence of the two 1984 harms as an indication that those types of harms are no longer important to the Agencies? Or that they have not been important in recent Agency action, and so did not make this draft, but would still be considered if the correct facts were found? Some other option? While the new guidelines would become too long and unwieldy if they recited and rejected all potential theories of harm, I join Commissioner Slaughter in thinking it would be helpful to include an explanation regarding these particular changes from the prior guidance. 

Who bears the burden on elimination of double marginalization?

Finally, both Commissioner Wilson’s and Commissioner Slaughter’s statements specifically request public comments regarding certain features of the draft guidelines’ handling of the elimination of double marginalization (“EDM”). While they raise good questions, I want to focus on a more fundamental question raised by the draft guidelines and a recent speech by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim. 

The draft guidelines provide a concise, cogent description of EDM, the usual analysis of it during vertical mergers, and some special factors that might make it less likely to occur. Some commentators have pointed out that EDM gets its own section of the draft guidelines, signaling its importance. I think it even more significant, perhaps, that that separate section is placed in between the sections on unilateral and coordinated competitive effects. Does that placement signal that the analysis of EDM is part of the Agencies’ analysis of the overall predicted competitive effects of the merger? That hypothesis also is supported by this statement at the end of the EDM section: “The Agencies will not challenge a merger if the net effect of elimination of double marginalization means that the merger is unlikely to be anticompetitive in any relevant market.” 

Because the Agencies would have the ultimate burden of showing in court that the effect of the proposed merger “may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly,” it seems to follow that the Agencies would have the burden to factor EDM into the rest of their competitive analysis to show what the potential overall net effect of the merger would be. 

Unfortunately, earlier in the EDM section of the draft guidelines, the Agencies state that they “generally rely on the parties to identify and demonstrate whether and how the merger eliminates double marginalization.” (emphasis added) Does that statement merely mean that the parties must cooperate with the Agencies and provide relevant information, as required on all points under Hart-Scott-Rodino? Or is it an attempt to shift to the parties the ultimate burden of proving this part of the competitive analysis? That is, is it a signal that, despite the separate section placed in the middle of the discussion of competitive effects analysis, the Agencies are skeptical of EDM and plan to treat it more like a defense as they treat certain cognizable efficiencies? 

That latter position is supported by comments by AAG Delrahim in a recent speech: “as the law requires for the advancement of any affirmative defense, the burden is on the parties in a vertical merger to put forward evidence to support and quantify EDM as a defense.” So is EDM a defense to an otherwise anticompetitive vertical merger or just part of the overall analysis of competitive effects? Before getting to the pertinent but more detailed questions posed by Commissioners Wilson and Slaughter, these draft guidelines would further their goal of providing clarity by answering that more basic EDM question. 

Despite those concerns, the draft guidelines seem consistent with the antitrust community’s consensus today on the proper analysis of vertical mergers. As such, they would seem to be consistent with how the Agencies evaluate such mergers today and so provide helpful guidance to parties considering such a merger. I hope the final version considers all the comments and remains helpful – and is released on a Monday so we can all more easily and intelligently start commenting. 

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

This post is authored by Timothy J. Brennan (Professor, Public Policy and Economics, University of Maryland; former Chief Economist, FCC; former economist, DOJ Antitrust Division).

The DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC have issued draft proposed Vertical Merger Guidelines (VMGs). These have been long-desired in some quarters, and long-dreaded in others. The controversy remains, although those who long desired them may dread what they got, and vice versa. 

I’ve accepted Geoff’s invitation to offer some short thoughts on this blessedly short draft. I’ll focus on what one might call “pure” vertical mergers, as opposed to those based on concerns regarding potential entry or expansion by a vertically integrated firm into its upstream or downstream market. After looking at what the draft classifies as unilateral effects, I’ll then turn briefly to coordinated effects, burden of proof, and the whether we want to go there at all

A notable omission

It’s useful to think of pure vertical mergers mergers in a reverse direction; that is, not the harms they would create, but the benefits of blocking the merger even if it were harmful. The usual argument against prosecuting such mergers is that one would be left with separate firms charging above-competitive prices at one end or the other — and if they do it at both ends, creating double marginalization. 

In that regard, the draft has a notable omission: a skeptical eye toward mergers when a firm with market power is unable to charge a consequently high price. The usual justification is price regulation of a monopoly. Concern about the harm of vertical integration as a means to evade such regulation was the basis for the divestiture by AT&T of its then-regulated, then-monopoly local telephone companies, the mirror image of blocking a vertical merger. This concern also formed the basis of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission orders (here and here) separating control of regulated electricity transmission lines from ownership of unregulated generation.

More controversially, one could apply this in contexts where pricing is limited by something other than explicit regulation. TOTM has recently featured a debate between Geoff Manne and Dirk Auer on one side and Mark Lemley, Doug Melamed, and Steve Salop regarding the FTC’s case against Qualcomm’s licensing practices, where the issue (I think) is about whether FRAND licensing requirements limit Qualcomm’s ability to extract the full rental value of its patents. Perhaps even more out there, I’ve suggested that transaction costs keeping Google from charging directly for search could justify concern with discrimination in favor of its offerings in other markets, without having to reject a consumer welfare standard and where “free” search could justify rather than impede an antitrust case. Whether non-regulatory restrictions on price should justify vertical concerns is, to say the least, complicated. You’ll see that word often, and I’ll come back to it at the end

Raising rivals’ costs and foreclosure: Why would the merger matter?

The seeming truism of raising rivals’ costs is that to raise someone’s costs, you have to raise the price of an input they use or a complement they need. If a merger (or vertical restraint) extends control over an input or complement, the competitive risk arises because that complement market is being monopolized. Accordingly, enforcers need to ensure they are looking at competition and ease of entry in the market that’s being monopolized, not the market in which the bad guy who benefits might operate. For example, in the case involving Intel’s loyalty rebates to computer makers that allegedly excluded AMD’s processing chips, the relevant market was not chips but computers, and it is necessary to explain why AMD couldn’t get new computer makers to use its chips or vertically integrate itself into computers. 

With a “pure” vertical merger, however, the raising rivals’ cost or foreclosure story depends not on the creation or expansion of market power over an input or complement. It must depend on how vertical integration leads to the exercise of power in that market that was not being exercised before. That requires that vertical integration changes the strategic interactions determining price and quality. 

If this is the story, however, the agencies should make clear that they bear an obligation to explain how vertical integration matters, rather than assume a competitive outcome otherwise. The recent (failed) Justice Department challenge to AT&T’s vertical acquisition of Time Warner programming bears this out. DOJ’s core claim was that post-merger, Time Warner program services (HBO, CNN) would strike tougher deals with other video distributors, leading to higher licensing fees, because they would know that a failed negotiation would increase subscribership to AT&T. However, once a program service licenses to any video distributor, it realizes that if other video distributors don’t take their service, it will increase subscribers and profits from its initial deal. If that change in bargaining position benefits whoever gets the first deal, distributors presumably can cut a deal to be the first, without vertical merger being necessary. 

Might vertical merger still matter? Perhaps, but plaintiffs should have to explain what transaction costs prevent such a nominally anticompetitive deal. Critics of indifference to vertical mergers, and the draft VMGs, point out that double marginalization might be eliminated without vertical integration, through use of contracts that include fixed fees and sales at marginal cost. A similar skepticism regarding the need for vertical integration to achieve anticompetitive ends is similarly appropriate. Establishing that need may be, well, complicated

Coordination and symmetry

I have less to say about coordinated effects. Knowing when firms decide to switch from competing to cooperating is probably a matter of psychology and sociology as much as economics. However, economics does suggest that collusion is more likely the more symmetric are the positions of the potential colluders, to help find a mutually agreeable tactic and reduce the need for side payments and the like. To the extent symmetry is relevant, a pure vertical merger will facilitate collusion only if other market participants were similarly integrated. And absent market-wide collusion to integrate, this integration of the other participants could be reasonably interpreted as evidence of efficiencies of vertical integration. This would make a coordinated effects vertical merger case, well, complicated.

The burden of proof

As part of a widely voiced dissatisfaction with the last few decades of antitrust enforcement, some commentators have suggested that vertical mergers deserve no more of a presumption of being good than horizontal mergers. I would argue that the strength of evidence necessary to block a vertical merger should remain greater than that for horizontal mergers. This is not (just) because mergers between complements are more likely to lead prices to fall — eliminating double marginalization being an example — while horizontal mergers are likely to bring about upward pricing pressure. It is that the behavior that warrants concern with horizontal mergers, joint price setting, is illegal. Thus, the horizontal merger might be the only way to enable that conduct. 

Contracting alternatives to vertical merger abound, as two-part pricing to eliminate double marginalization and sequential per-subscriber pricing in video markets illustrate. Absent regulation, the transaction costs necessary to create and exercise market power but for vertical integration will be lower than those necessary to create and exercise that power but for horizontal merger. This difference in transaction costs means that horizontal merger is more likely to be necessary for harm than vertical merger. Thus, proving that the latter are harmful should be, well, more complicated.

So, are pure vertical mergers worth the trouble to prosecute?

Vertical mergers might be problematic, but cases are necessarily going to be complicated. This raises the question of whether the benefits of prosecuting such mergers are worth the costs, at least outside the regulated industry context. These costs are not just the cost of litigation but the costs to companies of having to hire antitrust counsel and consultants to try to determine whether their merger is likely to be challenged, how much negotiation with the agencies will be entailed, and what the likelihood of loss in court will be. Some aspects of antitrust enforcement, primarily determining who competes with whom and how much, are inevitably complicated. But it is not clear that we are better off expending the resources to see whether something is bad, rather than accepting the cost of error from adopting imperfect rules — even rules that imply strict enforcement. Pure vertical merger may be an example of something that we might just want to leave be.

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

This post is authored by Jonathan M. Jacobson (Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati), and Kenneth Edelson (Associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati).]

So we now have 21st Century Vertical Merger Guidelines, at least in draft. Yay. Do they tell us anything? Yes! Do they tell us much? No. But at least it’s a start.

* * * * *

In November 2018, the FTC held hearings on vertical merger analysis devoted to the questions of whether the agencies should issue new guidelines, and what guidance those guidelines should provide. And, indeed, on January 10, 2020, the DOJ and FTC issued their new Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Draft Guidelines”). That new guidance has finally been issued is a welcome development. The antitrust community has been calling for new vertical merger guidelines for some time. The last vertical merger guidelines were issued in 1984, and there is broad consensus in the antitrust community – despite vigorous debate on correct legal treatment of vertical mergers – that the ’84 Guidelines are outdated and should be withdrawn. Despite disagreement on the best enforcement policy, there is general recognition that the legal rules applicable to vertical mergers need clarification. New guidelines are especially important in light of recent high-visibility merger challenges, including the government’s challenge to the ATT/Time Warner merger, the first vertical merger case litigated since the 1970s. These merger challenges have occurred in an environment in which there is little up-to-date case law to guide courts or agencies and the ’84 Guidelines have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in economics. 

The discussion here focuses on what the new Draft Guidelines do say, key issues on which they do not weigh in, and where additional guidance would be desirable

What the Draft Guidelines do say

The Draft Guidelines start with a relevant market requirement – making clear that the agencies will identify at least one relevant market in which a vertical merger may foreclose competition. However, the Draft Guidelines do not require a market definition for the vertically related upstream or downstream market(s) in the merger. Rather, the agencies’ proposed policy is to identify one or more “related products.” The Draft Guidelines define a related product as

a product or service that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the products and services in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market.

The Draft Guidelines’ most significant (and most concrete) proposal is a loose safe harbor based on market share and the percentage of use of the related product in the relevant market of interest. The Draft Guidelines suggest that agencies are not likely to challenge mergers if two conditions are met: (1) the merging company has less than 20% market share in the relevant market, and (2) less than 20% of the relevant market uses the related product identified by the agencies. 

This proposed safe harbor is welcome. Generally, in order for a vertical merger to have anticompetitive effects, both the upstream and downstream markets involved need to be concentrated, and the merging firms’ shares of both markets have to be substantial – although the Draft Guidelines do not contain any such requirements. Mergers in which the merging company has less than a 20% market share of the relevant market, and in which less than 20% of the market uses the vertically related product are unlikely to have serious anticompetitive effects.

However, the proposed safe harbor does not provide much certainty. After describing the safe harbor, the Draft Guidelines offer a caveat: meeting the proposed 20% thresholds will not serve as a “rigid screen” for the agencies to separate out mergers that are unlikely to have anticompetitive effects. Accordingly, the guidelines as currently drafted do not guarantee that vertical mergers in which market share and related product use fall below 20% would be immune from agency scrutiny. So, while the proposed safe harbor is a welcome statement of good policy that may guide agency staff and courts in analyzing market share and share of relevant product use, it is not a true safe harbor. This ambiguity limits the safe harbor’s utility for the purpose of counseling clients on market share issues.

The Draft Guidelines also identify a number of specific unilateral anticompetitive effects that, in the agencies’ view, may result from vertical mergers (the Draft Guidelines note that coordinated effects will be evaluated consistent with the Horizontal Merger Guidelines). Most importantly, the guidelines name raising rivals’ costs, foreclosure, and access to competitively sensitive information as potential unilateral effects of vertical mergers. The Draft Guidelines indicate that the agency may consider the following issues: would foreclosure or raising rivals’ costs (1) cause rivals to lose sales; (2) benefit the post-merger firm’s business in the relevant market; (3) be profitable to the firm; and (4) be beyond a de minimis level, such that it could substantially lessen competition? Mergers where all four conditions are met, the Draft Guidelines say, often warrant competitive scrutiny. While the big picture guidance about what agencies find concerning is helpful, the Draft Guidelines are short on details that would make this a useful statement of enforcement policy, or sufficiently reliable to guide practitioners in counseling clients. Most importantly, the Draft guidelines give no indication of what the agencies will consider a de minimis level of foreclosure.

The Draft Guidelines also articulate a concern with access to competitively sensitive information, as in the recent Staples/Essendant enforcement action. There, the FTC permitted the merger after imposing a firewall that blocked Staples from accessing certain information about its rivals held by Essendant. This contrasts with the current DOJ approach of hostility to behavioral remedies.

What the Draft Guidelines don’t say

The Draft Guidelines also decline to weigh in on a number of important issues in the debates over vertical mergers. Two points are particularly noteworthy.

First, the Draft Guidelines decline to allocate the parties’ proof burdens on key issues. The burden-shifting framework established in U.S. v. Baker Hughes is regularly used in horizontal merger cases, and was recently adopted in AT&T/Time-Warner in a vertical context. The framework has three phases: (1) the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case that the merger will substantially lessen competition in the relevant market; (2) the defendant bears the burden of producing evidence to demonstrate that the merger’s procompetitive effects outweigh the alleged anticompetitive effects; and (3) the plaintiff bears the burden of countering the defendant’s rebuttal, and bears the ultimate burden of persuasion. Virtually everyone agrees that this or some similar structure should be used. However, the Draft Guidelines’ silence on the appropriate burden is consistent with the agencies’ historical practice: The 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines allocate no burdens and the 1997 Merger Guidelines explicitly decline to assign the burden of proof or production on any issue.

Second, the Draft Guidelines take an unclear approach to elimination of double marginalization (EDM). The appropriate treatment of EDM has been one of the key topics in the debates on the law and economics of vertical mergers, but the Draft Guidelines take no position on the key issues in the conversation about EDM: whether it should be presumed in a vertical merger, and whether it should be presumed to be merger-specific.

EDM may occur if two vertically related firms merge and the new firm captures the margins of both the upstream and downstream firms. After the merger, the downstream firm gets its input at cost, allowing the merged firm to eliminate one party’s markup. This makes price reduction profitable for the merged firm where it would not have been for either firm before the merger. 

The Draft Guidelines state that the agencies will not challenge vertical mergers where EDM means that the merger is unlikely to be anticompetitive. OK. Duh. However, they also claim that in some situations, EDM may not occur, or its benefits may be offset by other incentives for the merged firm to raise prices. The Draft Guidelines do not weigh in on whether it should be presumed that vertical mergers will result in EDM, or whether it should be presumed that EDM is merger-specific. 

These are the most important questions in the debate over EDM. Some economists take the position that EDM is not guaranteed, and not necessarily merger-specific. Others take the position that EDM is basically inevitable in a vertical merger, and is unlikely to be achieved without a merger. That is: if there is EDM, it should be presumed to be merger-specific. Those who take the former view would put the burden on the merging parties to establish pricing benefits of EDM and its merger-specificity. 

Our own view is that this efficiency is pervasive and significant in vertical mergers. The defense should therefore bear only a burden of producing evidence, and the agencies should bear the burden of disproving the significance of EDM where shown to exist. This would depart from the typical standard in a merger case, under which defendants must prove the reality, magnitude, and merger-specific character of the claimed efficiencies (the Draft Guidelines adopt this standard along with the approach of the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines on efficiencies). However, it would more closely reflect the economic reality of most vertical mergers. 

Conclusion

While the Draft Guidelines are a welcome step forward in the debates around the law and economics of vertical mergers, they do not guide very much. The fact that the Draft Guidelines highlight certain issues is a useful indicator of what the agencies find important, but not a meaningful statement of enforcement policy. 

On a positive note, the Draft Guidelines’ explanations of certain economic concepts important to vertical mergers may serve to illuminate these issues for courts

However, the agencies’ proposals are not specific enough to create predictability for business or the antitrust bar or provide meaningful guidance for enforcers to develop a consistent enforcement policy. This result is not surprising given the lack of consensus on the law and economics of vertical mergers and the best approach to enforcement. But the antitrust community — and all of its participants — would be better served by a more detailed document that commits to positions on key issues in the relevant debates.