Archives For Section 5

In a prior post, I made the important if wholly unoriginal point that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent policy statement regarding unfair methods of competition (UMC)—perhaps a form of “soft law”—has neither legal force nor precedential value. Gus Hurwitz offers a more thorough discussion of the issue here

But policy statements may still have value as guidance documents for industry and the bar. They can also inform the courts, providing a framework for the commission’s approach to the specific facts and circumstances that underlie a controversy. That is, as the 12th century sage Maimonides endeavored in his own “Guide for the Perplexed,” they can elucidate rationales for particular principles and decisions of law. 

I also pointed out (also unoriginally) that the statement’s guidance value might be undermined by its own vagueness. Or as former FTC Commissioner and Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen put it:

While ostensibly intended to provide such guidance, the new Policy Statement contains few specifics about the particular conduct that the Commission might deem to be unfair, and suggests that the FTC has broad discretion to challenge nearly any conduct with which it disagrees.

There’s so much going on at (or being announced by) my old agency that it’s hard to keep up. One recent development reaches back into FTC history—all the way to late 2021—to find an initiative at the boundary of soft and hard law: that is, the issuance to more than 700 U.S. firms of notices of penalty offenses about “fake reviews and other misleading endorsements.” 

A notice of penalty offenses is supposed to provide a sort of firm-specific guidance: a recipient is informed that certain sorts of conduct have been deemed to violate the FTC Act. It’s not a decision or even an allegation that the firm has engaged in such prohibited conduct. In that way, it’s like soft law. 

On the other hand, it’s not entirely anemic. In AMG Capital, the Supreme Court held that the FTC cannot obtain equitable monetary remedies for violations of the FTC Act in the first instance—at least, not under Section 13b of the FTC Act. But there are circumstances under which the FTC can get statutory penalties (up to just over $50,000 per violation, and a given course of conduct might entail many violations) for, e.g., violating a regulation that implements Section 5.

That serves as useful background to observe that, among the FTC’s recent advanced notices of proposed rulemakings (ANPRs) is one about regulating fake reviews. (Commissioner Christine S. Wilson’s dissent in the matter is here.) 

Here it should be noted that Section 5(m) of the FTC Act also permits monetary penalties if “the Commission determines in a proceeding . . . that any act or practice is unfair or deceptive, and issues a final cease and desist order” and the firm has “actual knowledge that such act or practice is unfair or deceptive and is unlawful.”  

What does that mean? In brief, if there’s an agency decision (not a consent order, but not a federal court decision either) that a certain type of conduct by one firm is “unfair or deceptive” under Section 5, then another firm can be assessed statutory monetary penalties if the Commission determines that it has undertaken the same type of conduct and if, because the firm has received a notice of penalty offenses, it has “actual knowledge that such act or practice is unfair or deceptive.” 

So, now we’re back to monetary penalties for violations of Section 5 in the first instance if a very special form of mens rea can be established. A notice of penalty offenses provides guidance, but it also carries real legal risk. 

Back to pesky questions and details. Do the letters provide notice? What might 700-plus disparate contemporary firms all do that fits a given course of unlawful conduct (at least as determined by administrative process)? To grab just a few examples among companies that begin with the letter “A”: what problematic conduct might be common to, e.g., Abbott Labs, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Adobe, Albertson’s, Altria, Amazon, and Annie’s (the organic-food company)?

Well, the letter (or the sample posted) points to all sorts of potentially helpful guidance about not running afoul of the law. But more specifically, the FTC points to eight administrative decisions that model the conduct (by other firms) already found to be unfair or deceptive. That, surely, is where the rubber hits the road and the details are specified. Or is it? 

The eight administrative decisions are an odd lot. Most of the matters have to do with manufacturers or packagers (or service providers) making materially false or misleading statements in advertising their products or services. 

The most recent case is In the Matter of Cliffdale Associates, a complaint filed in 1981 and decided by the commission in 1984. For those unfamiliar with Cliffdale (nearly everyone?), the defendant sold something “variously known as the Ball-Matic, the Ball-Matic Gas Saver Valve and the Gas Saver Valve.” The oldest decision, Wilbert W. Haase, was filed in 1939 and decided in 1941 (one of two decided during World War II).

The decisions make for interesting reading. For example, in R.J. Reynolds, we learn that:

…while as a general proposition the smoking of cigarettes in moderation by individuals not allergic nor hypersensitive to cigarette smoking, who are accustomed to smoking and are in normal good health, with no existing pathology of any of the bodily systems, is not appreciably harmful-what is normal for one person may be excessive for another.

I’ll confess: In my misspent youth, I did some research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but I did not know that.

Interesting reading but, dare I suggest, not super helpful from the standpoint of notice or guidance. R.J. Reynolds manufactured, advertised, and sold cigarettes and other tobacco products; and they advertised that “the effect that the smoking of its cigarettes was either beneficial to or not injurious to a particular bodily system.” So, “not appreciably harmful,” but that doesn’t mean therapeutic.

A few things stand out. First, all of the complaints were brought prior to the birth of the internet. Second, five of the eight complaints were brought before the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Act amendments to the FTC Act that, among other things, revised the standards for finding conduct “unfair or deceptive” under Section 5.  Third, having read the cases, I have no idea how the old cases are supposed to provide notice to the myriad recipients of these letters. 

Section 5 provides that “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce” are unlawful. Section 5(n)—courtesy of the 1975 amendments—qualifies the prohibition: 

The Commission shall have no authority under this section … to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. … the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

As Geoff Manne and I have noted, the amendment was adopted by a Congress that thought the FTC had been overreaching in its application of Section 5. Others have made (and expanded upon) the same observation: former FTC Chairman William Kovacic’s 2010 Senate testimony is one excellent example among many. Continued congressional frustration actually briefly led to a shutdown of the FTC. 

Here’s my take on the notice provided by the Notices of Penalty Authority: they might as well tell firms that the FTC has found that violating Section 5’s prohibition of unfair or deceptive acts or practices violates Section 5’s prohibition of unfair or deceptive acts or practices and (b) we’re not saying you violated Section 5, and we’re not saying you didn’t, but if you do violate Section 5, you’re subject to statutory monetary penalties, statutory and judicial impediments to monetary penalties notwithstanding.     

What sort of notice is that? Might the federal courts see this as an attempt at an end-run around statutory limits on the FTC’s authority? Might Congress? If you’re perplexed by the FTC’s mass notice action, which authority will provide you a guide?     

Under a recently proposed rule, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would ban the use of noncompete terms in employment agreements nationwide. Noncompetes are contracts that workers sign saying they agree to not work for the employer’s competitors for a certain period. The FTC’s rule would be a major policy change, regulating future contracts and retroactively voiding current ones. With limited exceptions, it would cover everyone in the United States.

When I scan academic economists’ public commentary on the ban over the past few weeks (which basically means people on Twitter), I see almost universal support for the FTC’s proposed ban. You see similar support if you expand to general econ commentary, like Timothy Lee at Full Stack Economics. Where you see pushback, it is from people at think tanks (like me) or hushed skepticism, compared to the kind of open disagreement you see on most policy issues.

The proposed rule grew out of an executive order by President Joe Biden in 2021, which I wrote about at the time. My argument was that there is a simple economic rationale for the contract: noncompetes encourage both parties to invest in the employee-employer relationship, just like marriage contracts encourage spouses to invest in each other.

Somehow, reposting my newsletter on the economic rationale for noncompetes has turned me into a “pro-noncompete guy” on Twitter.

The discussions have been disorienting. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! If you ask me, “what new thing should policymakers do to address labor market power?” I would probably say something about noncompetes! Employers abuse them. The stories are devastating about people unable to find a new job because noncompetes bind them.

Yet, while recognizing the problems with noncompetes, I do not support the complete ban.

That puts me out of step with most vocal economics commentators. Where does this disagreement come from? How do I think about policy generally, and why am I the odd one out?

My Interpretation of the Research

One possibility is that I’m not such a lonely voice, and that the sample of vocal Twitter users is biased toward particular policy views. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Initiative on Global Markets recently conducted a poll of academic economists  about noncompetes, which mostly finds differing opinions and levels of certainty about the effects of a ban. For example, 43% were uncertain that a ban would generate a “substantial increase in wages in the affected industries.” However, maybe that is because the word substantial is unclear. That’s a problem with these surveys.

Still, more economists surveyed agreed than disagreed. I would answer “disagree” to that statement, as worded.

Why do I differ? One cynical response would be that I don’t know the recent literature, and my views are outdated. From the research I’ve done for a paper that I’m writing on labor-market power, I’m fairly well-versed in the noncompete literature. I don’t know it better than the active researchers in the field, but better than the average economists responding to the FTC’s proposal and definitely better than most lawyers. My disagreement also isn’t about me being some free-market fanatic. I’m not, and some other free-market types are skeptical of noncompetes. My priors are more complicated (critics might say “confused”) than that, as I will explain below.

After much soul-searching, I’ve concluded that the disagreement is real and results from my—possibly weird—understanding of how we should go from the science of economics to the art of policy. That’s what I want to explain today and get us to think more about.

Let’s start with the literature and the science of economics. First, we need to know “the facts.” The original papers focused a lot on collecting data and facts about noncompetes. We don’t have amazing data on the prevalence of noncompetes, but we know something, which is more than we could say a decade ago. For example, Evan Starr, J.J. Prescott, & Norman Bishara (2021) conducted a large survey in which they found that “18 percent of labor force participants are bound by noncompetes, with 38 percent having agreed to at least one in the past.”[1] We need to know these things and thank the researchers for collecting data.

With these facts, we can start running regressions. In addition to the paper above, many papers develop indices of noncompete “enforceability” by state. Then we can regress things like wages on an enforceability index. Many papers—like Starr, Prescott, & Bishara above—run cross-state regressions and find that wages are higher in states with higher noncompete enforceability. They also find more training with noncompete enforceability. But that kind of correlation is littered with selection issues. High-income workers are more likely to sign noncompetes. That’s not causal. The authors carefully explain this, but sometimes correlations are the best we have—e.g., if we want to study noncompetes on doctors’ wages and their poaching of clients.

Some people will simply point to California (which has banned noncompetes for decades) and say, “see, noncompete bans don’t destroy an economy.” Unfortunately, many things make California unique, so while that is evidence, it’s hardly causal.

The most credible results come from recent changes in state policy. These allow us to run simple difference-in-difference types of analysis to uncover causal estimates. These results are reasonably transparent and easy to understand.

Michael Lipsitz & Evan Starr (2021) (are you starting to recognize that Starr name?) study a 2008 Oregon ban on noncompetes for hourly workers. They find the ban increased hourly wages overall by 2 to 3%, which implies that those signing noncompetes may have seen wages rise as much as 14 to 21%. This 3% number is what the FTC assumes will apply to the whole economy when they estimate a $300 billion increase in wages per year under their ban. It’s a linear extrapolation.

Similarly, in 2015, Hawaii banned noncompetes for new hires within tech industries. Natarajan Balasubramanian et al. (2022) find that the ban increased new-hire wages by 4%. They also estimate that the ban increased worker mobility by 11%. Labor economists generally think of worker turnover as a good thing. Still, it is tricky here when the whole benefit of the agreement is to reduce turnover and encourage a better relationship between workers and firms.

The FTC also points to three studies that find that banning noncompetes increases innovation, according to a few different measures. I won’t say anything about these because you can infer my reaction based on what I will say below on wage studies. If anything, I’m more skeptical of innovation studies, simply because I don’t think we have a good understanding of what causes innovation generally, let alone how to measure the impact of noncompetes on innovation. You can read what the FTC cites on innovation and make up your own mind.

From Academic Research to an FTC Ban

Now that we understand some of the papers, how do we move to policy?

Let’s assume I read the evidence basically as the FTC does. I don’t, and will explain as much in a future paper, but that’s not the debate for this post. How do we think about the optimal policy response, given the evidence?

There are two main reasons I am not ready to extrapolate from the research to the proposed ban. Every economist knows them: the dreaded pests of external validity and general equilibrium effects.

Let’s consider external validity through the Oregon ban paper and the Hawaii tech ban paper. Again, these are not critiques of the papers, but of how the FTC wants to move from them to a national ban.

Notice above that I said the Oregon ban went into effect in 2008, which means it happened as the whole country was entering a major recession and financial crisis. The authors do their best to deal with differential responses to the recession, but every state in their data went through a recession. Did the recession matter for the results? It seems plausible to me.

Another important detail about the Oregon ban is that it only applied to hourly workers, while the FTC rule would apply to all workers. You can’t just confidently assume hourly workers are just like salaried workers. Hourly workers who sign noncompetes are less likely to read them, less likely to consult with their family about them, and less likely to negotiate over them. If part of the problem with noncompetes is that people don’t understand them until it is too late, you will overstate the harm if you just look at hourly workers who understand noncompetes even less than salaried workers. Also, with a partial ban, Lipsitz & Starr recognize that spillovers matter and firms respond in different ways, such as converting workers to salaried to keep the noncompete, which won’t exist with a national ban. It’s not the same experiment at a national scale. Which way will it change? How confident are we?

The effects of the Hawaii ban are likely not the same as the FTC one would be. First of all, Hawaii is weird. It has a small population, and tech is a small part of the state’s economy. The ban even excluded telecom from within the tech sector. We are talking about a targeted ban. What does the Hawaii experiment tell us about a ban on noncompetes for tech workers in a non-island location like Boston? What does it tell us about a national ban on all noncompetes, like the FTC is proposing? Maybe these things do not matter. To further complicate things, the policy change included a ban on nonsolicitation clauses. Maybe the nonsolicitation clause was unimportant. But I’d want more research and more policy experimentation to tease out these details.

As you dig into these papers, you find more and more of these issues. That’s not a knock on the papers but an inherent difficulty in moving from research to policy. It’s further compounded by the fact that this empirical literature is still relatively new.

What will happen when we scale these bans up to the national level? That’s a huge question for any policy change, especially one as large as a national ban. The FTC seems confident in what will happen, but moving from micro to macro is not trivial. Macroeconomists are starting to really get serious about how the micro adds up to the macro, but it takes work.

I want to know more. Which effects are amplified when scaled? Which effects drop off? What’s the full National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) accounting? I don’t know. No one does, because we don’t have any of that sort of price-theoretic, general equilibrium research. There are lots of margins that firms will adjust on. There’s always another margin that firms will adjust that we are not capturing. Instead, what the FTC did is a simple linear extrapolation from the state studies to a national ban. Studies find a 3% wage effect here. Multiply that by the number of workers.

When we are doing policy work, we would also like some sort of welfare analysis. It’s not just about measuring workers in isolation. We need a way to think about the costs and benefits and how to trade them off. All the diff-in-diff regressions in the world won’t get at it; we need a model.

Luckily, we have one paper that blends empirics and theory to do welfare analysis.[2] Liyan Shi has a paper forthcoming in Econometrica—which is no joke to publish in—titled “Optimal Regulation of Noncompete Contracts.” In it, she studies a model meant to capture the tradeoff between encouraging a firm’s investment in workers and reducing labor mobility. To bring the theory to data, she scrapes data on U.S. public firms from Securities and Exchange Commission filings and merges those with firm-level data from Compustat, plus some others, to get measures of firm investment in intangibles. She finds that when she brings her model to the data and calibrates it, the optimal policy is roughly a ban on noncompetes.

It’s an impressive paper. Again, I’m unsure how much to take from it to extrapolate to a ban on all workers. First, as I’ve written before, we know publicly traded firms are different from private firms, and that difference has changed over time. Second, it’s plausible that CEOs are different from other workers, and the relationship between CEO noncompetes and firm-level intangible investment isn’t identical to the relationship between mid-level engineers and investment in that worker.

Beyond particular issues of generalizing Shi’s paper, the larger concern is that this is the paper that does a welfare analysis. That’s troubling to me as a basis for a major policy change.

I think an analogy to taxation is helpful here. I’ve published a few papers about optimal taxation, so it’s an area I’ve thought more about. Within optimal taxation, you see this type of paper a lot. Here’s a formal model that captures something that theorists find interesting. Here’s a simple approach that takes the model to the data.

My favorite optimal-taxation papers take this approach. Take this paper that I absolutely love, “Optimal Taxation with Endogenous Insurance Markets” by Mikhail Golosov & Aleh Tsyvinski.[3] It is not a price-theory paper; it is a Theory—with a capital T—paper. I’m talking lemmas and theorems type of stuff. A bunch of QEDs and then calibrate their model to U.S. data.

How seriously should we take their quantitative exercise? After all, it was in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and my professors were assigning it, so it must be an important paper. But people who know this literature will quickly recognize that it’s not the quantitative result that makes that paper worthy of the QJE.

I was very confused by this early in my career. If we find the best paper, why not take the result completely seriously? My first publication, which was in the Journal of Economic Methodology, grew out of my confusion about how economists were evaluating optimal tax models. Why did professors think some models were good? How were the authors justifying that their paper was good? Sometimes papers are good because they closely match the data. Sometimes papers are good because they quantify an interesting normative issue. Sometimes papers are good because they expose an interesting means-ends analysis. Most of the time, papers do all three blended together, and it’s up to the reader to be sufficiently steeped in the literature to understand what the paper is really doing. Maybe I read the Shi paper wrong, but I read it mostly as a theory paper.

One difference between the optimal-taxation literature and the optimal-noncompete policy world is that the Golosov & Tsyvinski paper is situated within 100 years of formal optimal-taxation models. The knowledgeable scholar of public economics can compare and contrast. The paper has a lot of value because it does one particular thing differently than everything else in the literature.

Or think about patent policies, which was what I compared noncompetes to in my original post. There is a tradeoff between encouraging innovation and restricting monopoly. This takes a model and data to quantify the trade-off. Rafael Guthmann & David Rahman have a new paper on the optimal length of patents that Rafael summarized at Rafael’s Commentary. The basic structure is very similar to the Shi or Golosov &Tsyvinski papers: interesting models supplemented with a calibration exercise to put a number on the optimal policy. Guthmann & Rahman find four to eight years, instead of the current system of 20 years.

Is that true? I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t want the FTC to unilaterally put the number at four years because of the paper. But I am certainly glad for their contribution to the literature and our understanding of the tradeoffs and that I can position that number in a literature asking similar questions.

I’m sorry to all the people doing great research on noncompetes, but we are just not there yet with them, by my reading. For studying optimal-noncompete policy in a model, we have one paper. It was groundbreaking to tie this theory to novel data, but it is still one welfare analysis.

My Priors: What’s Holding Me Back from the Revolution

In a world where you start without any thoughts about which direction is optimal (a uniform prior) and you observe one paper that says bans are net positive, you should think that bans are net positive. Some information is better than none and now you have some information. Make a choice.

But that’s not the world we live in. We all come to a policy question with prior beliefs that affect how much we update our beliefs.

For me, I have three slightly weird priors that I will argue you should also have but currently place me out of step with most economists.

First, I place more weight on theoretical arguments than most. No one sits back and just absorbs the data without using theory; that’s impossible. All data requires theory. Still, I think it is meaningful to say some people place more weight on theory. I’m one of those people.

To be clear, I also care deeply about data. But I write theory papers and a theory-heavy newsletter. And I think these theories matter for how we think about data. The theoretical justification for noncompetes has been around for a long time, as I discussed in my original post, so I won’t say more.

The second way that I differ from most economists is even weirder. I place weight on the benefits of existing agreements or institutions. The longer they have been in place, the more weight I place on the benefits. Josh Hendrickson and I have a paper with Alex Salter that basically formalized the argument from George Stigler that “every long-lasting institution is efficient.” When there are feedback mechanisms, such as with markets or democracy, the resulting institutions are the result of an evolutionary process that slowly selects more and more gains from trade. If they were so bad, people would get rid of them eventually. That’s not a free-market bias, since it also means that I think something like the Medicare system is likely an efficient form of social insurance and intertemporal bargaining for people in the United States.

Back to noncompetes, many companies use noncompetes in many different contexts. Many workers sign them. My prior is that they do so because a noncompete is a mutually beneficial contract that allows them to make trades in a world with transaction costs. As I explained in a recent post, Yoram Barzel taught us that, in a world with transaction costs, people will “erect social institutions to impose and enforce the restraints.”

One possible rebuttal is that noncompetes, while existing for a long time, have only become common in the past few decades. That is not very long-lasting, and so the FTC ban is a natural policy response to a new challenge that arose and the discovery that these contracts are actually bad. That response would persuade me more if this were a policy response brought about by a democratic bargain instead of an ideological agenda pushed by the chair of the FTC, which I think is closer to reality. That is Earl Thompson and Charlie Hickson’s spin on Stigler’s efficient institutions point. Ideology gets in the way.

Finally, relative to most economists, I place more weight on experimentation and feedback mechanisms. Most economists still think of the world through the lens of the benevolent planner doing a cost-benefit analysis. I do that sometimes, too, but I also think we need to really take our own informational limitations seriously. That’s why we talk about limited information all the time on my newsletter. Again, if we started completely agnostic, this wouldn’t point one way or another. We recognize that we don’t know much, but a slight signal pushes us either way. But when paired with my previous point about evolution, it means I’m hesitant about a national ban.

I don’t think the science is settled on lots of things that people want to tell us the science is settled on. For example, I’m not convinced we know markups are rising. I’m not convinced market concentration has skyrocketed, as others want to claim.

It’s not a free-market bias, either. I’m not convinced the Jones Act is bad. I’m not convinced it’s good, but Josh has convinced me that the question is complicated.

Because I’m not ready to easily say the science is settled, I want to know how we will learn if we are wrong. In a prior Truth on the Market post about the FTC rule, I quoted Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions:

In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it—through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.

A national ban bypasses this and severely cuts off our ability to learn if we are wrong. That worries me.

Maybe this all means that I am too conservative and need to be more open to changing my mind. Maybe I’m inconsistent in how I apply these ideas. After all, “there’s always another margin” also means that the harm of a policy will be smaller than anticipated since people will adjust to avoid the policy. I buy that. There are a lot more questions to sort through on this topic.

Unfortunately, the discussion around noncompetes has been short-circuited by the FTC. Hopefully, this post gave you tools to think about a variety of policies going forward.


[1] The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now collects data on noncompetes. Since 2017, we’ve had one question on noncompetes in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. Donna S. Rothstein and Evan Starr (2021) also find that noncompetes cover around 18% of workers. It is very plausible this is an understatement, since noncompetes are complex legal documents, and workers may not understand that they have one.

[2] Other papers combine theory and empirics. Kurt Lavetti, Carol Simon, & William D. White (2023), build a model to derive testable implications about holdups. They use data on doctors and find noncompetes raise returns to tenure and lower turnover.

[3] It’s not exactly the same. The Golosov & Tsyvinski paper doesn’t even take the calibration seriously enough to include the details in the published version. Shi’s paper is a more serious quantitative exercise.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Gene Scalia games out the future of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently proposed rule that would ban the use of most noncompete clauses in today’s Wall Street Journal. He writes that: 

The Federal Trade Commission’s ban on noncompete agreements may be the most audacious federal rule ever proposed. If finalized, it would outlaw terms in 30 million contracts and pre-empt laws in virtually every state. It would also, by the FTC’s own account, reduce capital investment, worker training and possibly job growth, while increasing the wage gap. The commission says the rule would deliver a meager 2.3% wage increase for hourly workers, versus a 9.4% increase for CEOs.

Three phases lie ahead for the proposal: rule-making, litigation and compliance. … The FTC is likely to finalize the rule within a year, to ensure the Biden administration can begin the task of defending it in the litigation phase. The proposal’s legal vulnerabilities are legion. …

Sketching the likely future of the proposed rule in this way is helpful. Most of those affected by this rule are unlikely to be familiar with the rulemaking process or the judicial process for reviewing agency rules; indeed, many are likely to hear coverage of the proposed rule and mistake it for a regulation that’s already in effect. The cost of that confusion is made clear by Scalia’s ultimate takeaway: that the courts are very likely to reject the rule (and perhaps the FTC’s authority to adopt these types of competition rules), but only after a protracted and lengthy judicial review process (including, quite possibly, a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court).

As Scalia explains, many employers will act upon this likely ill-fated rule out of fear or confusion, altering their employment contacts in ways that will be hard to later amend: 

Unfortunately, some employers may now reduce the benefits they offer in exchange for noncompetes, for fear the rule may eventually render the agreement unenforceable. But because the FTC may change aspects of the rule—and because the courts are likely to invalidate it—American businesses don’t need to invest now in complying with this deeply flawed proposal.

This should raise serious concern about the FTC’s approach to this issue. It is very likely that the Commission is aware of the rocky shoals that lie ahead. But it is also likely that the Commission knows that its posturing will affect the conduct of the business community. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that the Commission—that is, its three-member majority—is using its rulemaking process, not its substantive legal authority, as a norm entrepreneur, to jawbone the business community and move the Overton window that frames discussion of noncompete clauses. I feel dirty writing a sentence as jargon-filled as that one, but no dirtier than the Commission should feel for abusing rulemaking procedures to achieve substantive ends beyond its legal authority.

This concern resembles an issue currently before the Supreme Court: Axon Enterprises v. FTC, another case that involves the FTC. Generally, agency actions cannot be challenged in federal court until the agency has finalized its action and affected parties have exhausted their appeals before the agency. Indeed, the statutes that govern some agencies (including the FTC) have provisions that have been interpreted as preventing challenges to the agency’s authority from being brought before a federal district court.

In Axon, the Supreme Court is considering whether a company subject to administrative proceedings before the Commission can challenge the constitutionality of those proceedings in district court prior to their completion. Oral arguments were heard this past November and, while reading tea leaves based upon oral arguments is a fraught endeavor, those arguments did not seem to go well for the FTC. It seems likely that the Court will allow firms to raise such challenges prior to final agency action in adjudication, precisely because not allowing them allows the Commission to cause non-redressable harms to the firms it investigates; several years of unconstitutional litigation can be devastating to a business.

The Axon case involves adjudication against a single firm, which raises some different issues from those raised when an agency is developing rules that will affect an entire industry. Most notably, constitutional Due Process protections are implicated when the government takes action against a single firm. It is unlikely that the outcome in Axon—even if as adverse to the FTC as foreseeably possible—would extend to allow firms to challenge an agency rulemaking process on the ground that it exceeds the agency’s statutory (not even constitutional) authority.

But the Commission should nonetheless take the concerns at issue in Axon to heart. If the Supreme Court rules against the Commission in Axon, it will be a strong signal that the Court has concerns about how the Commission is using the authority that Congress has given it. One could even say that it will be the latest in a series of such signals, given that the Court recently struck down the Commission’s Section 13(b) civil-penalty authority. As Scalia notes, the Commission is already pushing the outermost limits of its statutory authority with the rule that it has proposed. The extent of the coming judicial (or congressional) rebuke will be greatly expanded if the courts feel that the agency has abused the rulemaking process to achieve substantive goals that exceed that outermost limit.

Happy New Year? Right, Happy New Year! 

The big news from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is all about noncompetes. From what were once the realms of labor and contract law, noncompetes are terms in employment contracts that limit in various ways the ability of an employee to work at a competing firm after separation from the signatory firm. They’ve been a matter of increasing interest to economists, policymakers, and enforcers for several reasons. For one, there have been prominent news reports of noncompetes used in dubious places; the traditional justifications for noncompetes seem strained when applied to low-wage workers, so why are we reading about noncompetes binding sandwich-makers at Jimmy John’s? 

For another, there’s been increased interest in the application of antitrust to labor markets more generally. One example among many: a joint FTC/U.S. Justice Department workshop in December 2021.

Common-law cases involving one or another form of noncompete go back several hundred years. So, what’s new? First, on Jan. 4, the FTC announced settlements with three firms regarding their use of noncompetes, which the FTC had alleged to violate Section 5. These are consent orders, not precedential decisions. The complaints were, presumably, based on rule-of-reason analyses of facts, circumstances, and effects. On the other hand, the Commission’s recent Section 5 policy statement seemed to disavow the time-honored (and Supreme-Court-affirmed) application of the rule of reason. I wrote about it here, and with Gus Hurwitz here. My ICLE colleagues Dirk Auer, Brian Albrecht, and Jonathan Barnett did too, among others. 

The Commission’s press release seemed awfully general:

Noncompete restrictions harm both workers and competing businesses. For workers, noncompete restrictions lead to lower wages and salaries, reduced benefits, and less favorable working conditions. For businesses, these restrictions block competitors from entering and expanding their businesses.

Always? Distinct facts and circumstances? Commissioner Christine Wilson noted the brevity of the statement in her dissent

…each Complaint runs three pages, with a large percentage of the text devoted to boilerplate language. Given how brief they are, it is not surprising that the complaints are woefully devoid of details that would support the Commission’s allegations. In short, I have seen no evidence of anticompetitive effects that would give me reason to believe that respondents have violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. 

She did not say that the noncompetes were fine. In a separate statement regarding one of the matters, she noted that various aspects of noncompetes imposed on security guards (running two years from termination of employment, with $10,000 liquidated damages for breach) had been found unreasonable by a state court, and therefore unenforceable under Michigan law. That seemed to her “reasonable.” I’m no expert on Michigan state law, but those terms seem to me suspect under general standards of reasonability. Whether there was a federal antitrust violation is far less clear.    

One more clue–and even bigger news–came the very next day: the Commission published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to ban the use of noncompetes in general. Subject to a limited exception for the sale of a business, noncompetes would be deemed violative of Section 5 across occupations, income levels, and industries. That is, the FTC proposed to regulate the terms of employment agreements for nearly the whole of the U.S. labor force. Step aside federal and state labor law (and the U.S. Labor Department and Congress); and step aside ongoing and active statutory experimentation on noncompete enforcement in the states. 

So many questions. There are reasons to wonder about many noncompetes. They do have the potential to solve holdup problems for firms that might otherwise underinvest in employee training and might undershare trade secrets or other proprietary information. But that’s not much of an explanation for restrictions on a counter person at a sub shop, and I’m pretty suspicious of the liquidated damages provision in the security-guards matter. Credible economic studies raise concerns, as well. 

Still, this is an emerging area of study, and many positive contributions to it (like the one linked just now, and this) illustrate research challenges that remain. An FTC Bureau of Economics working paper (oddly not cited in the 215-page NPRM) reviews the body of literature, observing that results are mixed, and that many of the extant studies have shortcomings. 

For similar reasons, comments submitted to an FTC workshop on noncompetes by the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association said that cross-state variations in noncompete law “are seemingly justified, as the views and literature on non-compete clauses (and restrictive covenants in employment contracts generally) are mixed.”

So here are a few more questions that cannot possibly be resolved in a single blog post:

  1. Does the FTC have the authority to issue substantive (“legislative”) competition regulations? 
  2. Would a regulation restricting a common contracting practice across all occupations, industries, and income levels raise the major questions doctrine? (Ok, skipping ahead: Yes.)
  3. Does it matter, for the major questions doctrine or otherwise, that there’s a substantial body of federal statutory law regarding labor and employment and a federal agency (a good deal larger than the FTC) charged to enforce the law?
  4. Does it matter that the FTC simply doesn’t have the personnel (or congressionally appropriated budget) to enforce such a sweeping regulation?
    • Is the number of experienced labor lawyers currently employed as staff in the FTC’s Bureau of Competition nonzero? If so, what is it? 
  5. Does it matter that this is an active area of state-level legislation and enforcement?
  6. Do the effects of noncompetes vary as the terms of noncompetes vary, as suggested in the ABA comments linked above? And if so, on what dimensions?
    • Do the effects vary according to the market power of the employer in local (or other geographically relevant) labor markets and, if so, should that matter to an antitrust enforcer?
    • If the effects vary significantly, is a one-size-fits-all regulation the best path forward?
  7. Many published studies seem to report average effects of policy changes on, e.g., wages or worker mobility for some class of workers. Should we know more about the distribution of those effects before the FTC (or anyone else) adopts uniform federal regulations? 
  8. How well do we know the answer to the myriad questions raised by noncompetes? As the FTC working paper observes, many published studies seem to rely heavily on survey evidence on the incidence of noncompetes. Prior to adopting  a sweeping competition regulation, should the FTC use its 6b subpoena authority to gather direct evidence? Why hasn’t it?
  9. The FTC’s Bureau of Economics employs a large expert staff of research economists. Given the questions raised by the FTC Working Paper, how else might the FTC contribute to the state of knowledge of noncompete usage and effects before adopting a sweeping, nationwide prohibition? Are there lacunae in the literature that the FTC could fill? For example, there seem to be very few papers regarding the downstream effects on consumers, which might matter to consumers. And while we’re in labor markets, what about the relationship between noncompetes and employment? 

Well, that’s a lot. In my defense, I’ll  note that the FTC’s November 2022 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on “commercial surveillance” enumerated 95 complex questions for public comment. Which is more than nine. 

I didn’t even get to the once-again dismal ratings of FTC’s senior agency leadership in the 2022 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Last year’s results were terrible—a precipitous drop from 2020. This year’s results were worse. Worse yet, they show that last year’s results were not mere transient deflation in morale. But a discussion will have to wait for another blog post.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Jan. 5 “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Non-Compete Clauses” (NPRMNCC) is the first substantive FTC Act Section 6(g) “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking initiative following the release of the FTC’s November 2022 Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement. Any final rule based on the NPRMNCC stands virtually no chance of survival before the courts. What’s more, this FTC initiative also threatens to have a major negative economic-policy impact. It also poses an institutional threat to the Commission itself. Accordingly, the NPRMNCC should be withdrawn, or as a “second worst” option, substantially pared back and recast.

The NPRMNCC is succinctly described, and its legal risks ably summarized, in a recent commentary by Gibson Dunn attorneys: The proposal is sweeping in its scope. The NPRMNCC states that it “would, among other things, provide that it is an unfair method of competition for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; to maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or, under certain circumstances, to represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause.”

The Gibson Dunn commentary adds that it “would require employers to rescind all existing non-compete provisions within 180 days of publication of the final rule, and to provide current and former employees notice of the rescission.‎ If employers comply with these two requirements, the rule would provide a safe harbor from enforcement.”‎

As I have explained previously, any FTC Section 6(g) rulemaking is likely to fail as a matter of law. Specifically, the structure of the FTC Act indicates that Section 6(g) is best understood as authorizing procedural regulations, not substantive rules. What’s more, Section 6(g) rules raise serious questions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s nondelegation and major questions doctrines (given the breadth and ill-defined nature of “unfair methods of competition”) and under administrative law (very broad unfair methods of competition rules may be deemed “arbitrary and capricious” and raise due process concerns). The cumulative weight of these legal concerns “makes it highly improbable that substantive UMC rules will ultimately be upheld.

The legal concerns raised by Section 6(g) rulemaking are particularly acute in the case of the NPRMNCC, which is exceedingly broad and deals with a topic—employment-related noncompete clauses—with which the FTC has almost no experience. FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson highlights this legal vulnerability in her dissenting statement opposing issuance of the NPRMNCC.

As Andrew Mercado and I explained in our commentary on potential FTC noncompete rulemaking: “[a] review of studies conducted in the past two decades yields no uniform, replicable results as to whether such agreements benefit or harm workers.” In a comprehensive literature review made available online at the end of 2019, FTC economist John McAdams concluded that “[t]here is little evidence on the likely effects of broad prohibitions of non-compete agreements.” McAdams also commented on the lack of knowledge regarding the effects that noncompetes may have on ultimate consumers. Given these realities, the FTC would be particularly vulnerable to having a court hold that a final noncompete rule (even assuming that it somehow surmounted other legal obstacles) lacked an adequate factual basis, and thus was arbitrary and capricious.

The poor legal case for proceeding with the NPRMNCC is rendered even weaker by the existence of robust state-law provisions concerning noncompetes in almost every state (see here for a chart comparing state laws). Differences in state jurisprudence may enable “natural experimentation,” whereby changes made to state law that differ across jurisdictions facilitate comparisons of the effects of different approaches to noncompetes. Furthermore, changes to noncompete laws in particular states that are seen to cause harm, or generate benefits, may allow “best practices” to emerge and thereby drive welfare-enhancing reforms in multiple jurisdictions.

The Gibson Dunn commentary points out that, “[a]s a practical matter, the proposed [FTC noncompete] rule would override existing non-compete requirements and practices in the vast majority of states.” Unfortunately, then, the NPRMNCC would largely do away with the potential benefits of competitive federalism in the area of noncompetes. In light of that, federal courts might well ask whether Congress meant to give the FTC preemptive authority over a legal field traditionally left to the states, merely by making a passing reference to “mak[ing] rules and regulations” in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Federal judges would likely conclude that the answer to this question is “no.”

Economic Policy Harms

How much economic harm could an FTC rule on noncompetes cause, if the courts almost certainly would strike it down? Plenty.

The affront to competitive federalism, which would prevent optimal noncompete legal regimes from developing (see above), could reduce the efficiency of employment contracts and harm consumer welfare. It would be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to measure such harms, however, because there would be no alternative “but-for” worlds with differing rules that could be studied.

The broad ban on noncompetes predictably will prevent—or at least chill—the use of noncompete clauses to protect business-property interests (including trade secrets and other intellectual-property rights) and to protect value-enhancing investments in worker training. (See here for a 2016 U.S. Treasury Department Office of Economic Policy Report that lists some of the potential benefits of noncompetes.) The NPRMNCC fails to account for those and other efficiencies, which may be key to value-generating business-process improvements that help drive dynamic economic growth. Once again, however, it would be difficult to demonstrate the nature or extent of such foregone benefits, in the absence of “but-for” world comparisons.

Business-litigation costs would also inevitably arise, as uncertainties in the language of a final noncompete rule were worked out in court (prior to the rule’s legal demise). The opportunity cost of firm resources directed toward rule-related issues, rather than to business-improvement activities, could be substantial. The opportunity cost of directing FTC resources to wasteful noncompete-related rulemaking work, rather than potential welfare-enhancing endeavors (such as anti-fraud enforcement activity), also should not be neglected.

Finally, the substantial error costs that would attend designing and seeking to enforce a final FTC noncompete rule, and the affront to the rule of law that would result from creating a substantial new gap between FTC and U.S. Justice Department competition-enforcement regimes, merits note (see here for my discussion of these costs in the general context of UMC rulemaking).

Conclusion

What, then, should the FTC do? It should withdraw the NPRMNCC.

If the FTC is concerned about the effects of noncompete clauses, it should commission appropriate economic research, and perhaps conduct targeted FTC Act Section 6(b) studies directed at noncompetes (focused on industries where noncompetes are common or ubiquitous). In light of that research, it might be in position to address legal policy toward noncompetes in competition advocacy before the states, or in testimony before Congress.

If the FTC still wishes to engage in some rulemaking directed at noncompete clauses, it should consider a targeted FTC Act Section 18 consumer-protection rulemaking (see my discussion of this possibility, here). Unlike Section 6(g), the legality of Section 18 substantive rulemaking (which is directed at “unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) is well-established. Categorizing noncompete-clause-related practices as “deceptive” is plainly a nonstarter, so the Commission would have to bases its rulemaking on defining and condemning specified “unfair acts or practices.”

Section 5(n) of the FTC Act specifies that the Commission may not declare an act or practice to be unfair unless it “causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.” This is a cost-benefit test that plainly does not justify a general ban on noncompetes, based on the previous discussion. It probably could, however, justify a properly crafted narrower rule, such as a requirement that an employer notify its employees of a noncompete agreement before they accept a job offer (see my analysis here).  

Should the FTC nonetheless charge forward and release a final competition rule based on the NPRMNCC, it will face serious negative institutional consequences. In the previous Congress, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced legislation that would strip the FTC of its antitrust authority (leaving all federal antitrust enforcement in DOJ hands). Such legislation could gain traction if the FTC were perceived as engaging in massive institutional overreach. An unprecedented Commission effort to regulate one aspect of labor contracts (noncompete clauses) nationwide surely could be viewed by Congress as a prime example of such overreach. The FTC should keep that in mind if it values maintaining its longstanding role in American antitrust-policy development and enforcement.

One of my favorite books is Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions, in which he builds on Friedrich Hayek’s insight that knowledge is dispersed throughout society. Hayek’s insight that markets can bring dispersed but important knowledge to bear with substantial effectiveness is one that many of us, especially economists, pay lip service to, but it often gets lost in day-to-day debates about policy. Sowell uses Hayek’s insight to understand and critique social, economic, and political institutions, which he judges in terms of “what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness.” 

I’m reminded of Sowell in witnessing the current debate surrounding the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposed rule to enact a nationwide ban on noncompetes in employment agreements. A major policy change like this obviously sets off debate. Among economists, the discussion surrounds economic arguments and empirical evidence on the effects of noncompetes. Among lawyers, it largely centers on the legality of the rule.

But all of the discussion seems to ignore Sowell’s insights. He writes:

In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it—through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong. (emphasis added)

Once we recognize that knowledge doesn’t simply exist out in the ether for us all to grab, but depends instead on the institutions within which we operate, the outcome is going to hinge on who gets to decide and how their knowledge evolves. How easily can the decision maker respond to new information and update their beliefs? How easily can they make incremental changes to incremental information?

To take two extremes, stock markets are institutions where decision makers take account of new information by the minute, allowing for rapid and marginal changes in decisions. At the other extreme is the Supreme Court, where precedents take years or decades to overturn if they are based on information that becomes outdated.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that all of the best experts today agree that noncompetes are a net negative for society. We have to deal with the fact that we can be proven wrong in the future, and different regimes will deal with that future change differently.

If implemented, the FTC’s total ban of noncompetes replaces the decision making of businesses and workers, as well as the oversight of state governments, with a one-size-fits-all approach. Under that new regime, we need to ask: How quickly will they respond to new information—for example, that it had destructive implications? How easily can they make incremental changes?

One may hope the FTC, as an expert-led agency, could easily adjust to incoming evidence. They will just follow the science! But that response would be self-contradictory here. The FTC just showed that it is happy to go from 0 to 100 with its rules. It went from doing hardly any work on noncompetes to a total ban. In no optimal policy model where the benevolent regulator is responding to information is that how a regulator would process and act on information.

This is part of a long-run trend in politics. Sowell again:

Even within democratic nations, the locus of decision making has drifted away from the individual, the family, and voluntary associations of various sorts, and toward government. And within government, it has moved away from elected officials subject to voter feedback, and toward more insulated governmental institutions, such as bureaucracies and the appointed judiciary.

We may want that. Not every decision should be left up to the individual. We have rights and policies that constrain individuals. The U.S. Constitution, for example, doesn’t allow states to regulate interstate commerce. But the takeaway is not that decentralization is always better. Rather, the point is that we need to consider the tradeoff.

[The following was prepared as a Gibson Dunn client alert by Rachel Brass, Svetlana Gans, Kristen Limarzi, Ilissa Samplin, Katherine V. A. Smith, Stephen Weissman, Chris Wilson, Jamie France, and Connor Leydecker. It is reprinted with permission here.]

On Jan. 5, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to prohibit employers from entering non-compete clauses with workers.[1] The proposed rule would extend to all workers, whether paid or unpaid, and would require companies to rescind existing non-compete agreements within 180 days of publication of the final rule.[2] The FTC will soon publish the NPRM in the Federal Register, triggering a 60-day public comment period.‎ The rule could be finalized by the end of the year; court challenges to the final rule are likely to follow.

The rule proposal follows recent FTC settlements with three companies and two individuals for allegedly illegal non-compete agreements imposed on workers—the first time the FTC has claimed that non-compete agreements constitute unfair methods of competition (UMC) under Section 5 of the FTC Act.‎

The Proposed Rule Would Broadly Ban Non-Compete Agreements

The proposed rule provides:

(a) Unfair methods of competition.  It is an unfair method of competition for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause where the employer has no good faith basis to believe that the worker is subject to an enforceable non-compete clause.‎[5]

The proposed rule broadly defines non-compete agreements as: “a contractual term between an employer and a worker that prevents the worker from seeking or accepting employment with a person, or operating a business, after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employer.”‎ It proposes a functional test to determine if a clause is a non-compete provision: to qualify, the provision would have “the effect of prohibiting the worker from seeking or accepting employment with a person or operating a business after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employer.”‎ The proposed rule identifies two types of agreements that would constitute impermissible “non-competes”:

  • A nondisclosure agreement between an employer and a worker that is written so broadly that it effectively precludes the worker from working in the same field after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employer; and
  • A contractual term between an employer and a worker that requires the worker to pay the employer or a third-party entity for training costs if the worker’s employment terminates within a specified time period, where the required payment is not reasonably related to the costs the employer incurred for training the worker.‎

While the proposed rule would not expressly prohibit nondisclosure and intellectual-property agreements with employees, those agreements could be deemed impermissible non-competes if, pursuant to the provision excerpted above, they are deemed to be written “so broadly” that they “effectively preclude[ ] the worker from working in the same field.”‎ Further, the term “worker” would be defined as “a natural person who works, whether paid or unpaid, for an employer,” but would not include a franchisee in a franchisee/franchisor relationship.‎

Rescission Requirement, Safe Harbors, and Federal Preemption

The proposed rule would require employers to rescind all existing non-compete provisions within 180 days of publication of the final rule, and to provide current and former employees notice of the rescission.‎ If employers comply with these two requirements, the rule would provide a safe harbor from enforcement.‎ Further, the proposed rule would exempt from its scope certain non-competes entered in connection with the sale of businesses.‎ This exception also applies under California law, recognizing the need to protect the goodwill of a business.‎

The proposed rule would preempt all state and local rules inconsistent with its provisions, but not preempt State laws or regulations that provide greater protections.‎ As a practical matter, the proposed rule would override existing non-compete requirements and practices in the vast majority of states.

Concerned Parties Should Submit Public Comments

A 60-day public comment period will begin once the FTC publishes the NPRM in the Federal Register. After the notice-and-comment period concludes, the FTC will consider the comments and then publish a final version of the rule. Enforcement may begin 180 days after publication of the final rule (although, as discussed below, the final rule is likely to be challenged in court).

The final rule’s terms will depend in part on the FTC’s response to comments submitted by interested parties during this notice-and-comment period, including legal and practical objections raised to the rule. Thus, concerned parties are advised to submit robust comments thoroughly explaining their concerns, including potential costs and adverse effects.

Legal Challenges to the Rule Are Likely Once It Is Finalized

The proposed rule represents a significant expansion of the FTC’s regulatory reach in two respects: First, the Commission had not previously held non-compete agreements to be unfair methods of competition under the Federal Trade Commission Act, until its recently announced settlements. Second, substantial doubt exists that the FTC possesses rulemaking authority in this area.‎ As Gibson Dunn partners have explained and Commissioner Christine S. Wilson notes in her statement dissenting to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, any final rule is likely subject to several potentially significant legal challenges.  Commissioner Wilson notes three concerns:

  1. Congress did not intend to grant authority to promulgate substantive competition rules under the FTC Act provisions on which the FTC purports to rely to promulgate the proposed rule.‎
  2. The rule may exceed the limits imposed by the Supreme Court’s major questions‎ doctrine.
  3. The rule may exceed the limits imposed by the Supreme Court’s nondelegation doctrine.

Takeaways

This new proposed rule is part of a larger trend toward more vigorous federal regulation of the employment relationship, including by the FTC, National Labor Relations Board, and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), as we have noted in previous client alerts addressing the FTC’s approach to no-poach and nonsolicit agreements, the DOL’s rulemaking on who qualifies as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the FTC’s broader vision of its authority to address unfair methods of competition under Section 5.


[1] See also, the joint statement of Chair Lina Khan and Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro M. Bedoya, and the dissenting statement of Commissioner Christine S. Wilson.

[2] Notably, prior FTC workshops on this subject focused on low-wage employees, but this proposed rule goes beyond that scope. 

The lame duck is not yet dead, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is supposed to be an independent agency. Work continues. The Commission has announced a partly open oral argument in the Illumina-Grail matter.  That is, parts of the argument will be open to the public, via webcast, and parts won’t. This is what’s known as translucency in government.

Enquiring minds: I have several questions about Illumina-Grail. First, for anyone reading this column, am I the only one who cannot think of the case without thinking of Monty Python’s grail-shaped beacon? Asking for a friend who worries about me.

Second, why seek to unwind this merger? My ICLE colleagues Geoff Manne and Gus Hurwitz are members of a distinguished group of law & economics scholars who filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief in the matter. They question the merits of the case on a number of grounds.

Pertinent, not dispositive: this is a vertical merger. Certainly, it’s possible for vertical mergers to harm competition but theory suggests that they entail at least some efficiencies, and the empirical evidence from Francine Lafontaine and others tends to suggest that most have been beneficial for firms and consumers alike. One might wonder about the extent to which this case is built on analysis of the facts and circumstances rather than on Chair Lina Khan’s well-publicized antipathy to vertical mergers.

Recall that the FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) jointly issued updated vertical-merger guidelines in June 2020. (The Global Antitrust Institute’s 2018 comments are worth review). The FTC—but not DOJ—promptly withdrew them in 2021, with a new majority, a partisan vote, and a questionable rationale for going it alone. Carl Shapiro and Herbert Hovenkamp minced no words, saying that the Commission’s justification rested on “specious economic arguments.”

There’s also a question of whether FTC’s likely foreclosure argument is all that likely. Illumina, which created Grail and had retained a substantial interest in it all along, would have strong commercial incentives against barring Grail’s future competitors from its platform. Moreover, Illumina made an open offer—contractually binding—to continue providing access for 12 years to its NGS platform and other products, on terms substantially similar to those available pre-merger. That would seem to undercut the possibility of foreclosure. Complaint counsel discounts this as a remedy (with behavioral remedies disfavored), but it is relatively straightforward and not really a remedy at all, with terms both private parties and the FTC might enforce. Thom Lambert and Jonathan Barnett both have interesting posts on the matter.

This is about a future market and potential (presumed) competitors. And it’s an area of biologics commerce where the deep pockets and regulatory sophistication necessary for development and approval frequently militate in favor of acquisition of a small innovator by a larger, established firm. As I noted in a prior column, “[p]otential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established.” It can be hard to second-guess rule-of-reason cases from the outside, but there are reasons to think this is one of those matters where the preconditions to a strong potential competition argument are absent, but merger-related efficiencies real.  

What else is going on at the FTC? Law360 reports on a staff brief urging the Commission not to pitch a new standard of review in Altria-Juul on what look to be sensible grounds, independent of the merits of their Section I case. The Commission had asked to be briefed on the possibility of switching to a claim of a per se violation or, in the alternative, quick look, and the staff brief recommends maintaining the rule-of-reason approach that the Commission’s ALJ found unpersuasive in dismissing the Commission’s case, which will now be heard by the Commission itself. I have no non-public information on the matter. There’s a question of whether this signals any real tension between the staff’s analysis and the Commission’s preferred approach or simply the Commission’s interest in asking questions about pushing boundaries and the staff providing good counsel. I don’t know, but it could be business as usual.

And just this week, FTC announced that it is bringing a case to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. More on that to follow.

What’s pressing is not so clear. The Commission announced the agenda for a Dec. 14 open meeting. On it is a vote on regulatory review of the “green guides,” which provide guidance on environmental-marketing claims. But there’s nothing further on the various ANPRs announced in September, or about rulemaking that the Chair has hinted at for noncompete clauses in employment contracts. And, of course, we’re still waiting for merger guidelines to replace the ones that have been withdrawn—likely joint FTC/DOJ guidelines that will likely range over both horizontal and vertical mergers.

There’s the Altria matter, Meta, Meta-Within, the forthcoming Supreme Court opinion in Axon, etc. The FTC’s request for an injunction in Meta-Within will be heard in federal district court in California over the next couple of weeks. It’s a novel (read, speculative) complaint. I had a few paragraphs on Meta-Within in my first roundup column; Gus Hurwitz covered it, as well. We shall see. 

Wandering up Pennsylvania Avenue onto the Hill, various bills seem not so much lame ducks as dead ones. But perhaps one or more is not dead yet. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) might be one such bill, its conspicuous defects notwithstanding. “Might be.” First, a bit of FTC history. Way back in 2010, the FTC held a series of workshops on the Future of Journalism. There were many interesting issues there, if no obvious room for antitrust. I reveal no secrets in saying THOSE WORKSHOPS WERE NOT THE STAFF’S IDEA. We failed to recommend any intervention, although the staff did publish a clarification of its discussion draft:

The FTC has not endorsed the idea of making any policy recommendation or recommended any of the proposals in the discussion draft

My own take at the time: many newspapers were struggling, and that was unfortunate, but much of the struggle had to do with the papers’ loss of local print-advertising monopolies, which tended to offer high advertising prices but not high quality. Remember the price of classified ads? For decades, many of the holders of market power happened to turn large portions of their rents over to their news divisions. Then came the internet, then Craigslist, etc., etc., and down went the rents. Antitrust intervention seemed no answer at all.

Back to the bill. In brief, as currently drafted, the JCPA would permit certain “digital journalism providers” to form cartels to negotiate prices with large online platforms, and to engage in group boycotts, without being liable to the federal antitrust laws, at least for four years. Dirk Auer and Ben Sperry have an overview here.

This would be an exemption for some sources of journalism, but not all, and its benefits would not be equally distributed. I am a paying consumer of digital (and even print) journalism. On the one hand, I enjoy it when others subsidize my preferences. On the other, I’m not sure why they should. As I said in a prior column, “antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.”  

Moreover, as Brian Albrecht points out, the bill’s mandatory final arbitration provision is likely to lead to a form of price regulation.

England v. France on Saturday. Allez les bleus or we few, we happy few? Cheers.  

[The final post in Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition” comes from Joshua Wright, the executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University and the architect, in his time as a member of the Federal Trade Commission, of the FTC’s prior 2015 UMC statement. You can find all of the posts in this series at the symposium page here.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released Policy Statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) has a number of profound problems, which I will detail below. But first, some praise: if the FTC does indeed plan to bring many lawsuits challenging conduct as a standalone UMC (I am dubious it will), then the public ought to have notice about the change. Providing such notice is good government, and the new Statement surely provides that notice. And providing notice in this way was costly to the FTC: the contents of the statement make surviving judicial review harder, not easier (I will explain my reasons for this view below). Incurring that cost to provide notice deserves some praise.

Now onto the problems. I see four major ones.

First, the Statement seems to exist in a fantasy world; the FTC majority appears to wish away the past problems associated with UMC enforcement. Those problems have not, in fact, gone away and pretending they don’t exist—as this Statement does—is unlikely to help the Commission’s prospects for success in court.

Second, the Statement provides no guidance whatsoever about how a potential respondent might avoid UMC liability, which stands in sharp contrast to other statements and guidance documents issued by the Commission.

Third, the entire foundation of the statement is that, in 1914, Congress intended the FTC Act to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act. Fair enough. But the coverage of the Sherman Act isn’t fixed to what the Supreme Court thought it was in 1914: It’s a moving target that, in fact, has moved dramatically over the last 108 years. Congress in 1914 could not have intended UMC to be broader than how the courts would interpret the Sherman Act in the future (whether that future is 1918, much less 1970 or 2023).

And fourth, Congress has passed other statutes since it passed the FTC Act in 1914, one of which is the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA unambiguously and explicitly directs administrative agencies to engage in reasoned decision making. In a nutshell, this means that the actions of such agencies must be supported by substantial record evidence and can be set aside by a court on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious. “Congress intended to give the FTC broad authority in 1914” is not an argument to address the fact that, 32 years later, Congress also intended to limit the FTC’s authority (as well as other agencies’) by requiring reasoned decision making.

Each of these problems on its own would be enough to doom almost any case the Commission might bring to apply the statement. Together, they are a death knell.

A Record of Failure

As I have explained elsewhere, there are a number of reasons the FTC has pursued few standalone UMC cases in recent decades. The late-1970s effort to reinvigorate UMC enforcement via bringing cases was a total failure: the Commission did not lose the game on a last-second buzzer beater; it got blown out by 40 points. According to William Kovacic and Mark Winerman, in each of those UMC cases, “the tribunal recognized that Section 5 allows the FTC to challenge behavior beyond the reach of the other antitrust laws. In each instance, the court found that the Commission had failed to make a compelling case for condemning the conduct in question.”

Since these losses, the Commission hasn’t successfully litigated a UMC case in federal court. This, in my view, is because of a (very plausible) concern that, when presented with such a case, Article III courts would either define the Commission’s UMC authority on their own terms—i.e., restricting the Commission’s authority—or ultimately decide that the space beyond the Sherman Act that Congress in 1914 intended Section 5 to occupy exists only in theory and not in the real world, and declare the two statutes functionally equivalent. Those reasons—and not Chair Lina Khan’s preferred view that the Commission has been feckless, weak, or captured by special interests since 1981—explain why Section 5 has been used so sparingly over the last 40 years (and mostly just to extract settlements from parties under investigation). The majority’s effort to put all its eggs in the “1914 legislative history” basket simply ignores this reality.

Undefined Harms

The second problem is evident when one compares this statement with other policy statements or guidance documents issued by the Commission over the years. On the antitrust side of the house, these include the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the (now-withdrawn by the FTC) Vertical Merger Guidelines, the Guidelines for Collaboration Among Competitors, the IP Licensing Guidelines, the Health Care Policy Statement, and the Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals.

Each of these documents is designed (at least in part) to help market participants understand what conduct might or might not violate one or more laws enforced by the FTC, and for that reason, each document provides specific examples of conduct that would violate the law, and conduct that would not.

The new UMC Policy Statement provides no such examples. Instead, we are left with the conclusory statement that, if the Commission can characterize the conduct as “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” then the conduct can be a UMC.

What does this salad of words mean? I have no idea, and the Commission doesn’t even bother to try and define them. If a lawyer is asked, “based upon the Commission’s new UMC Statement, what conduct might be a violation?” the only defensible advice to give is “anything three Commissioners think.”

Ahistorical Jurisprudence

The third problem is the majority’s fictitious belief that Sherman Act jurisprudence is frozen in 1914—the year Congress passed the FTC Act. The Statement states that “Congress passed the FTC Act to push back against the judiciary’s open-ended rule of reason for analyzing Sherman Act claims” and cites the Supreme Court’s opinion in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States from 1911.

It’s easy to understand why Congress in 1914 was dissatisfied with the opinion in Standard Oil; reading Standard Oil in 2022 is also a dissatisfying experience. The opinion takes up 106 pages in the U.S. Reporter, and individual paragraphs are routinely three pages long; it meanders between analyzing Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act without telling the reader; and is generally inscrutable. I have taught antitrust for almost 20 years and, though we cover Standard Oil because of its historical importance, I don’t teach the opinion, because the opinion does not help modern students understand how to practice antitrust law.

This stands in sharp contrast to Justice Louis Brandeis’s opinion in Chicago Board of Trade (issued four years after Congress passed the FTC Act), which I do teach consistently, because it articulates the beginning of the modern rule of reason. Although the majority of the FTC is on solid ground when it points out that Congress in 1914 intended the FTC’s UMC authority to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act, the coverage of the Sherman Act has changed since 1914.

This point is well-known, of course: Kovacic and Winerman explain that “[p]robably the most important” reason “Section 5 has played so small a role in the development of U.S. competition policy principles” “is that the Sherman Act proved to be a far more flexible tool for setting antitrust rules than Congress expected in the early 20th century.” The 10 pages in the Statement devoted to century-old legislative history just pretend like Sherman Act jurisprudence hasn’t changed in that same amount of time. The federal courts are going to see right through that.

What About the APA?

The fourth problem with the majority’s trip back to 1914 is that, since then, Congress has passed other statutes limiting the Commission’s authority. The most prominent of these is the Administrative Procedure Act, which was passed in 1946 (for those counting, 1946 is more than 30 years after 1914).

There are hundreds of opinions interpreting the APA, and indeed, an entire body of law has developed pursuant to those cases. These cases produce many lessons, but one of them is that it is not enough for an agency to have the legal authority to act: “Congress gave me this power. I am exercising this power. Therefore, my exercise of this power is lawful,” is, by definition, insufficient justification under the APA. An agency has the obligation to engage in reasoned decision making and must base its actions on substantial evidence. Its enforcement efforts will be set aside on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious.

By failing to explain how a company can avoid UMC liability—other than by avoiding conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” without defining those terms—the majority is basically shouting to the federal courts that its UMC enforcement program is going to be arbitrary and capricious. That’s going to fail for many reasons. A simple one is that 1946 is later in time than 1914, which is why the Commission putting all its eggs in the 1914 legislative history basket is not going to work once its actions are challenged in federal court.

Conclusion

These problems with the majority’s statement are so significant, so obvious, and so unlikely to be overcome, that I don’t anticipate that the Commission will pursue many UMC enforcement actions. Instead, I suspect UMC rulemaking is on the agenda, which has its own set of problems (not to mention the fact that the 1914 legislative history points away from Congress intending that the Commission has legislative rulemaking authority). Rather, I think the value of this statement is symbolic for Chair Khan and her supporters.

When one considers the record of the Khan Commission—many policy statements, few enforcement actions, and even fewer successful enforcement actions—it all makes more sense. The audience for this Statement is Chair Khan’s friends working on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, as well as her followers on Twitter. They might be impressed by it. The audience she should be concerned about is Article III judges, who surely won’t be. 

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Nov. 10 Policy Statement Regarding the Scope of Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—adopted by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Christine Wilson issuing a dissenting statement—holds out the prospect of dramatic new enforcement initiatives going far beyond anything the FTC has done in the past. Of particular note, the statement abandons the antitrust “rule of reason,” rejects the “consumer welfare standard” that has long guided FTC competition cases, rejects economic analysis, rejects relevant precedent, misleadingly discusses legislative history, and cites inapposite and dated case law.

And what is the statement’s aim?  As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”

The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)

Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted

FTC Competition Rulemaking

As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022 Truth on the Market commentary):

First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.

Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.

Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.

The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.

First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”

Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).   

Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).

Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”

The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:

Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority

In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In a June 2019 FTC report to Congress on using standalone Section 5 cases to combat high pharma prices, the FTC explained:

[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.

There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.

Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.

First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.

Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.

Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.

What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?

In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.

What, then, should the FTC do?

It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:

First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.

Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.

Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.

Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.

Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.

More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2)  facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).

After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications. 

A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.     

In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).

Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.

Conclusion

The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.

If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.

In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

When Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, it charged the agency with condemning “unfair methods of competition.” That’s not the language Congress used in writing America’s primary antitrust statute, the Sherman Act, which prohibits “monopoliz[ation]” and “restraint[s] of trade.”

Ever since, the question has lingered whether the FTC has the authority to go beyond the Sherman Act to condemn conduct that is unfair, but not necessarily monopolizing or trade-restraining.

According to a new policy statement, the FTC’s current leadership seems to think that the answer is “yes.” But the peculiar strand of progressivism that is currently running the agency lacks the intellectual foundation needed to tell us what conduct that is unfair but not monopolizing might actually be—and misses an opportunity to bring about an expansion of its powers that courts might actually accept.

Better to Keep the Rule of Reason but Eliminate the Monopoly-Power Requirement

The FTC’s policy statement reads like a thesaurus. What is unfair competition? Answer: conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature.”

In other words: the FTC has no idea. Presumably, the agency thinks, like Justice Potter Stewart did of obscenity, it will know it when it sees it. Given the courts’ long history of humiliating the FTC by rejecting its cases, even when the agency is able to provide a highly developed account of why challenged conduct is bad for America, one shudders to think of the reception such an approach to fairness will receive.

The one really determinate proposal in the policy statement is to attack bad conduct regardless whether the defendant has monopoly power. “Section 5 does not require a separate showing of market power or market definition when the evidence indicates that such conduct tends to negatively affect competitive conditions,” writes the FTC.

If only the agency had proposed this change alone, instead of cracking open the thesaurus to try to redefine bad conduct as well. Dropping the monopoly-power requirement would, by itself, greatly increase the amount of conduct subject to the FTC’s writ without forcing the agency to answer the metaphysical question: what is fair?

Under the present rule-of-reason approach, the courts let consumers answer the question of what constitutes bad conduct. Or to be precise, the courts assume that the only thing consumers care about is the product—its quality and price—and they try to guess whether consumers prefer the changes that the defendant’s conduct had on products in the market. If a court thinks consumers don’t prefer the changes, then the court condemns the conduct. But only if the defendant happens to have monopoly power in the market for those products.

Preserving this approach to identifying bad conduct would let the courts continue to maintain the pretense that they are doing the bidding of consumers—a role they will no doubt prefer to deciding what is fair as an absolute matter.

The FTC can safely discard the monopoly-power requirement without disturbing the current test for bad conduct because—as I argue in a working paper and as Timothy J. Brennen has long insisted—the monopoly-power requirement is directed at the wrong level of the supply chain: the market in which the defendant has harmed competition rather than the input market through which the defendant causes harm.

Power, not just in markets but in all social life, is rooted in one thing only: control over what others need. Harm to competition depends not on how much a defendant can produce relative to competitors but on whether a defendant controls an input that competitors need, but which the defendant can deny to them.

What others need, they do not buy from the market for which they produce. They buy what they need from other markets: input markets. It follows that the only power that should matter for antitrust—the only power that determines whether a firm can harm competition—is power over input markets, not power in the market in which competition is harmed.

And yet, apart from vertical-merger and contracting cases, where an inquiry into foreclosure of inputs still occasionally makes an appearance, antitrust today never requires systematic proof of power in input markets. The efforts of economists are wasted on the proof of power at the wrong level of the supply chain.

That represents an opportunity for the FTC, which can at one stroke greatly expand its authority to encompass conduct by firms having little power in the markets in which they harm competition.

To be sure, really getting the rule of reason right would require that proof of monopoly power continue to be required, only now at the input level instead of in the downstream market in which competition is harmed. But the courts have traditionally required only informal proof of power over inputs. The FTC could probably eliminate the economics-intensive process of formal proof of monopoly power entirely, instead of merely kicking it up one level in the supply chain.

That is surely an added plus for a current leadership so fearful of computation that it was at pains in the policy statement specifically to forswear “numerical” cost-benefit analysis.

Whatever Happened to No Fault?  

The FTC’s interest in expanding enforcement by throwing off the monopoly-power requirement is a marked departure from progressive antimonopolisms of the past. Mid-20th century radicals did not attack the monopoly-power side of antitrust’s two-part test, but rather the anticompetitive-conduct side.

For more than two decades, progressives mooted establishing a “no-fault” monopolization regime in which the only requirement for liability was size. By contrast, the present movement has sought to focus on conduct, rather than size, its own anti-concentration rhetoric notwithstanding.

Anti-Economism

That might, in part, be a result of the movement’s hostility toward economics. Proof of monopoly power is a famously economics-heavy undertaking.

The origin of contemporary antimonopolism is in activism by journalists against the social-media companies that are outcompeting newspapers for ad revenue, not in academia. As a result, the best traditions of the left, which involve intellectually outflanking opponents by showing how economic theory supports progressive positions, are missing here.

Contemporary antimonopolism has no “Capital” (Karl Marx), no “Progress and Poverty” (Henry George), and no “Freedom through Law” (Robert Hale). The most recent installment in this tradition of left-wing intellectual accomplishment is “Capital in the 21st Century” (Thomas Piketty). Unfortunately for progressive antimonopolists, it states: “pure and perfect competition cannot alter . . . inequality[.]’”

The contrast with the last revolution to sweep antitrust—that of the Chicago School—could not be starker. That movement was born in academia and its triumph was a triumph of ideas, however flawed they may in fact have been.

If one wishes to understand how Chicago School thinking put an end to the push for “no-fault” monopolization, one reads the Airlie House conference volume. In the conversations reproduced therein, one finds the no-faulters slowly being won over by the weight of data and theory deployed against them in support of size.

No equivalent watershed moment exists for contemporary antimonopolism, which bypassed academia (including the many progressive scholars doing excellent work therein) and went straight to the press and the agencies.

There is an ongoing debate about whether recent increases in markups result from monopolization or scarcity. It has not been resolved.

Rather than occupy economics, contemporary antimonopolists—and, perhaps, current FTC leadership—recoil from it. As one prominent antimonopolist lamented to a New York Times reporter, merger cases should be a matter of counting to four, and “[w]e don’t need economists to help us count to four.”

As the policy statement puts it: “The unfair methods of competition framework explicitly contemplates a variety of non-quantifiable harms, and justifications and purported benefits may be unquantifiable as well.”

Moralism

Contemporary antimonopolism’s focus on conduct might also be due to moralism—as reflected in the litany of synonyms for “bad” in the FTC’s policy statement.

For earlier progressives, antitrust was largely a means to an end—a way of ensuring that wages were high, consumer prices were low, and products were safe and of good quality. The fate of individual business entities within markets was of little concern, so long as these outcomes could be achieved.

What mattered were people. While contemporary antimonopolism cares about people, too, it differs from earlier antimonopolisms in that it personifies the firm.

If the firm dies, we are to be sad. If the firm is treated roughly by others, starved of resources or denied room to grow and reach its full potential, we are to be outraged, just as we would be if a child were starved. And, just as in the case of a child, we are to be outraged even if the firm would not have grown up to contribute anything of worth to society.

The irony, apparently lost on antimonopolists, is that the same personification of the firm as a rights-bearing agent, operating in other areas of law, undermines progressive policies.

The firm personified not only has a right to be treated gently by competing firms but also to be treated well by other people. But that means that people no longer come first relative to firms. When the Supreme Court holds that a business firm has a First Amendment right to influence politics, the Court takes personification of the firm to its logical extreme.

The alternative is not to make the market a morality play among firms, but to focus instead on market outcomes that matter to people—wages, prices, and product quality. We should not care whether a firm is “coerc[ed], exploitat[ed], collu[ded against], abus[ed], dece[ived], predate[ed], or [subjected to] economic power of a similar nature” except insofar as such treatment fails to serve people.

If one firm wishes to hire away the talent of another, for example, depriving the target of its lifeblood and killing it, so much the better if the result is better products, lower prices, or higher wages.

Antitrust can help maintain this focus on people only in part—by stopping unfair conduct that degrades products. I have argued elsewhere that the rest is for price regulation, taxation, and direct regulation to undertake.  

Can We Be Fairer and Still Give Product-Improving Conduct a Pass?

The intellectual deficit in contemporary antimonopolism is also evident in the care that the FTC’s policy statement puts into exempting behavior that creates superior products.

For one cannot expand the FTC’s powers to reach bad conduct without condemning product-improving conduct when the major check on enforcement today under the rule of reason (apart from the monopoly-power requirement) is precisely that conduct that improves products is exempt.

Under the rule of reason, bad conduct is a denial of inputs to a competitor that does not help consumers, meaning that the denial degrades the competitor’s products without improving the defendant’s products. Bad conduct is, in other words, unfairness that does not improve products.

If the FTC’s goal is to increase fairness relative to a regime that already pursues it, except when unfairness improves products, the additional fairness must come at the cost of product improvement.

The reference to superior products in the policy statement may be an attempt to compromise with the rule of reason. Unlike the elimination of the monopoly-power requirement, it is not a coherent compromise.

The FTC doesn’t need an economist to grasp this either.  

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

On Nov. 10, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a new statement explaining how it will exercise its standalone FTC Act Section 5 authority. Despite the length of the statement and the accompanying commentaries from most of the commissioners, there is less guidance than one might expect from so many words. One thing is clear, however: Expect more antitrust enforcement from the FTC in ways we have not seen in years, if ever.

The FTC enforces the antitrust laws through Section 5’s prohibition of unfair methods of competition (UMC). Courts and commentators alike have long agreed that Section 5’s prohibition covers everything covered by the other antitrust laws, such as the Sherman and Clayton Act, plus something more.

How far that extra standalone authority extends has been a point of contention for decades. In the early 1980s, several appellate courts admonished the FTC for an expansive interpretation of that authority, leaving parties uncertain of which actions would be challenged. Or, as the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put it: “the Commission owes a duty to define the conditions under which conduct … would be unfair so that businesses will have an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”

In recent decades, the FTC has interpreted its authority much more narrowly. In 2015, a bipartisan collection of commissioners approved a short statement saying that the FTC would interpret its standalone authority consistently with the consumer welfare standard of the other antitrust laws and use the well-known rule of reason to judge any actions. Last year, the Democratic majority of commissioners voted to rescind that 2015 statement. Last week’s statement is the replacement.

Antitrust Fun, Little Guidance

The 16 pages of guidance and the accompanying commentary from three commissioners—two Democrats in support, one Republican in opposition—can be a fun read for antitrust geeks. There is plenty of well-written antitrust history. I learned something. Also, there are arguments about old FTC and appellate court cases that I had not read in 30 years.

But that history lesson did not give as much guidance about future enforcement as it should have. Most of the seven pages the guidance spends on its historical review is dedicated to showing that the FTC’s standalone authority extends beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts. But that contention is in little dispute.

The more helpful historical question for parties today is how this Commission plans to respond to appellate court cases such as Boise Cascade, OAG, and the above-cited Ethyl that criticized the old Commission for, to paraphrase the statement, insufficient facts of unfairness, oppressiveness, or negative effects on the market. Chair Lina Khan’s commentary does mention the “trifecta” of cases, describing them as cases where courts found that the Commission “had not met its factual or evidentiary burden.” What would have been more helpful is some “inkling” of what kinds of facts this Commission will rely on to avoid the same types of “stinging” losses suffered by those earlier Commissions. Instead, we get multiple references to the Commission as a body of experts with the unstated assumption that, in the future, at least three commissioners will offer enough facts of some kind to convince any appellate court.

After the history section, the statement offers plenty of words on what the FTC majority think will be a standalone violation. All of those words add up, however, to much less guidance than the very brief 2015 statement. That prior statement said that the FTC would use its Section 5 standalone authority to pursue a single goal—consumer welfare—and would use a well-known analytical method to pursue it: the rule of reason. While even that statement left some ambiguity for businesses, and freedom for the Commission, at least it pursued only one goal with an analysis used in decades worth of antitrust cases.

The new statement does not list one goal but instead several, namely that it will challenge conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature … that negatively affect[s] competitive conditions [and thereby negatively affects] consumers, workers, or other market participants.”

But mathematically, you cannot maximize more than one variable. Nowhere in this statement is there any attempt to explain the analytical method to be used to balance pursuit of these different goals. What if a challenged action helps workers but harms consumers? What if an action helps workers at some competitors but not others? What if an action helps all competitors but harms workers at some of them? Merely combining all those goals into a single term, “competitive conditions,” does not provide any guidance as to how the FTC will balance all these named (and any unnamed) elements of “competitive conditions.” Again, there is an unstated assumption that three commissioners will expertly balance those competing goals.

Incomplete Lessons from the Past

The new statement does try to provide some guidance at the end of the document when it points to past cases that, perhaps, will be the types of cases that the Commission will now bring under Section 5. One such large category is actions that do not meet the standards for antitrust illegality now but, somehow, violate the “spirit of the antitrust laws.” The statement lists several examples.

To take one, what if a tying case does not meet the standards embodied in Jefferson Parish and its progeny? How will the Commission determine what the statement calls “de facto tying”? Which one or more of the elements expounded in Jefferson Parish will be eased? How? Will the same action by the same parties be subject to different substantive standards if a private plaintiff—or the U.S. Justice Department—is the plaintiff? If so, then parties wanting to avoid any antitrust challenge will need to default to the law of tying laid down by the then-current FTC, not by dozens of court cases over decades. And how will the FTC determine what violates the “spirit” of its own particular law of tying? Again, the unstated assumption is that the decisions of three expert commissioners will set the new law, at least until three new expert commissioners gain control.

Conclusion

To be (slightly) fairer to the new statement, it does confirm what has seemed obvious since the Biden administration started staffing the FTC: this Commission will more aggressively pursue antitrust challenges and will use any tool, including Section 5 standalone authority, to do it. Also, while the statement injects uncertainty into the thinking of businesses, which likely will lead to fewer and less-aggressive business actions, that result would be seen as a feature, not a bug, by the statement’s authors.

Finally, the statement does correctly point out that Section 5 was written at a time when Congress might have thought that the decisions of three expert commissioners would lead to “better” results for the economy, however defined, than decisions of dozens of juries and judges in dozens of cases. That Progressive Era confidence in the decisions of a few government-employed experts has not always worked out for the best, as some would claim from study of the Whiz Kids (Robert McNamara, not Robin Roberts) or recent pandemic policy.

Like it or not, the statement is another step toward a government of men (and women), not laws, and an economy dictated by a handful of experts in Washington, not millions of consumers across the country. Expect aggressive antitrust enforcement from the FTC in ways that many businesses and antitrust practitioners have only read about — about that, the new statement’s guidance is clear.