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This is the first in a series of TOTM blog posts discussing the Commission’s recently published Google Android decision. It draws on research from a soon-to-be published ICLE white paper.

The European Commission’s recent Google Android decision will surely go down as one of the most important competition proceedings of the past decade. And yet, an in-depth reading of the 328 page decision should leave attentive readers with a bitter taste.

One of the Commission’s most significant findings is that the Android operating system and Apple’s iOS are not in the same relevant market, along with the related conclusion that Apple’s App Store and Google Play are also in separate markets.

This blog post points to a series of flaws that undermine the Commission’s reasoning on this point. As a result, the Commission’s claim that Google and Apple operate in separate markets is mostly unsupported.

1. Everyone but the European Commission thinks that iOS competes with Android

Surely the assertion that the two predominant smartphone ecosystems in Europe don’t compete with each other will come as a surprise to… anyone paying attention: 

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Apple 10-K:

The Company believes the availability of third-party software applications and services for its products depends in part on the developers’ perception and analysis of the relative benefits of developing, maintaining and upgrading such software and services for the Company’s products compared to competitors’ platforms, such as Android for smartphones and tablets and Windows for personal computers.

Google 10-K:

We face competition from: Companies that design, manufacture, and market consumer electronics products, including businesses that have developed proprietary platforms.

This leads to a critical question: Why did the Commission choose to depart from the instinctive conclusion that Google and Apple compete vigorously against each other in the smartphone and mobile operating system market? 

As explained below, its justifications for doing so were deeply flawed.

2. It does not matter that OEMs cannot license iOS (or the App Store)

One of the main reasons why the Commission chose to exclude Apple from the relevant market is that OEMs cannot license Apple’s iOS or its App Store.

But is it really possible to infer that Google and Apple do not compete against each other because their products are not substitutes from OEMs’ point of view? 

The answer to this question is likely no.

Relevant markets, and market shares, are merely a proxy for market power (which is the appropriate baseline upon which build a competition investigation). As Louis Kaplow puts it:

[T]he entire rationale for the market definition process is to enable an inference about market power.

If there is a competitive market for Android and Apple smartphones, then it is somewhat immaterial that Google is the only firm to successfully offer a licensable mobile operating system (as opposed to Apple and Blackberry’s “closed” alternatives).

By exercising its “power” against OEMs by, for instance, degrading the quality of Android, Google would, by the same token, weaken its competitive position against Apple. Google’s competition with Apple in the smartphone market thus constrains Google’s behavior and limits its market power in Android-specific aftermarkets (on this topic, see Borenstein et al., and Klein).

This is not to say that Apple’s iOS (and App Store) is, or is not, in the same relevant market as Google Android (and Google Play). But the fact that OEMs cannot license iOS or the App Store is mostly immaterial for market  definition purposes.

 3. Google would find itself in a more “competitive” market if it decided to stop licensing the Android OS

The Commission’s reasoning also leads to illogical outcomes from a policy standpoint. 

Google could suddenly find itself in a more “competitive” market if it decided to stop licensing the Android OS and operated a closed platform (like Apple does). The direct purchasers of its products – consumers – would then be free to switch between Apple and Google’s products.

As a result, an act that has no obvious effect on actual market power — and that could have a distinctly negative effect on consumers — could nevertheless significantly alter the outcome of competition proceedings on the Commission’s theory. 

One potential consequence is that firms might decide to close their platforms (or refuse to open them in the first place) in order to avoid competition scrutiny (because maintaining a closed platform might effectively lead competition authorities to place them within a wider relevant market). This might ultimately reduce product differentiation among mobile platforms (due to the disappearance of open ecosystems) – the exact opposite of what the Commission sought to achieve with its decision.

This is, among other things, what Antonin Scalia objected to in his Eastman Kodak dissent: 

It is quite simply anomalous that a manufacturer functioning in a competitive equipment market should be exempt from the per se rule when it bundles equipment with parts and service, but not when it bundles parts with service [when the manufacturer has a high share of the “market” for its machines’ spare parts]. This vast difference in the treatment of what will ordinarily be economically similar phenomena is alone enough to call today’s decision into question.

4. Market shares are a poor proxy for market power, especially in narrowly defined markets

Finally, the problem with the Commission’s decision is not so much that it chose to exclude Apple from the relevant markets, but that it then cited the resulting market shares as evidence of Google’s alleged dominance:

(440) Google holds a dominant position in the worldwide market (excluding China) for the licensing of smart mobile OSs since 2011. This conclusion is based on: 

(1) the market shares of Google and competing developers of licensable smart mobile OSs […]

In doing so, the Commission ignored one of the critical findings of the law & economics literature on market definition and market power: Although defining a narrow relevant market may not itself be problematic, the market shares thus adduced provide little information about a firm’s actual market power. 

For instance, Richard Posner and William Landes have argued that:

If instead the market were defined narrowly, the firm’s market share would be larger but the effect on market power would be offset by the higher market elasticity of demand; when fewer substitutes are included in the market, substitution of products outside of the market is easier. […]

If all the submarket approach signifies is willingness in appropriate cases to call a narrowly defined market a relevant market for antitrust purposes, it is unobjectionable – so long as appropriately less weight is given to market shares computed in such a market.

Likewise, Louis Kaplow observes that:

In choosing between a narrower and a broader market (where, as mentioned, we are supposing that the truth lies somewhere in between), one would ask whether the inference from the larger market share in the narrower market overstates market power by more than the inference from the smaller market share in the broader market understates market power. If the lesser error lies with the former choice, then the narrower market is the relevant market; if the latter minimizes error, then the broader market is best.

The Commission failed to heed these important findings.

5. Conclusion

The upshot is that Apple should not have been automatically excluded from the relevant market. 

To be clear, the Commission did discuss this competition from Apple later in the decision. And it also asserted that its findings would hold even if Apple were included in the OS and App Store markets, because Android’s share of devices sold would have ranged from 45% to 79%, depending on the year (although this ignores other potential metrics such as the value of devices sold or Google’s share of advertising revenue

However, by gerrymandering the market definition (which European case law likely permitted it to do), the Commission ensured that Google would face an uphill battle, starting from a very high market share and thus a strong presumption of dominance. 

Moreover, that it might reach the same result by adopting a more accurate market definition is no excuse for adopting a faulty one and resting its case (and undertaking its entire analysis) on it. In fact, the Commission’s choice of a faulty market definition underpins its entire analysis, and is far from a “harmless error.” 

I shall discuss the consequences of this error in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned.

[TOTM: The following is the fifth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Douglas H. Ginsburg, Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Joshua D. Wright, University Professor, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Executive Director, Global Antitrust Institute; former U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner from 2013-15; and one of the founding bloggers at Truth on the Market.]

[Ginsburg & Wright: Professor Wright is recused from participation in the FTC litigation against Qualcomm, but has provided counseling advice to Qualcomm concerning other regulatory and competition matters. The views expressed here are our own and neither author received financial support.]

Introduction

In a recent article Joe Kattan and Tim Muris (K&M) criticize our article on the predictive power of bargaining models in antitrust, in which we used two recent applications to explore implications for uses of bargaining models in courts and antitrust agencies moving forward.  Like other theoretical models used to predict competitive effects, complex bargaining models require courts and agencies rigorously to test their predictions against data from the real world markets and institutions to which they are being applied.  Where the “real-world evidence,” as Judge Leon described such data in AT&T/Time Warner, is inconsistent with the predictions of a complex bargaining model, then the tribunal should reject the model rather than reality.

K&M, who represent Intel Corporation in connection with the FTC v. Qualcomm case now pending in the Northern District of California, focus exclusively upon, and take particular issue with, one aspect of our prior article:  We argued that, as in AT&T/Time Warner, the market realities at issue in FTC v. Qualcomm are inconsistent with the use of Dr. Carl Shapiro’s bargaining model to predict competitive effects in the relevant market.  K&M—no doubt confident in their superior knowledge of the underlying facts due to their representation in the matter—criticize our analysis for our purported failure to get our hands sufficiently dirty with the facts.  They criticize our broader analysis of bargaining models and their application for our failure to discuss specific pieces of evidence presented at trial, and offer up several quotations from Qualcomm’s customers as support for Shapiro’s economic analysis.  K&M concede that, as we argue, the antitrust laws should not condemn a business practice in the absence of robust economic evidence of actual or likely harm to competition; yet, they do not see any conflict between that concession and their position that the FTC need not, through its expert, quantify the royalty surcharge imposed by Qualcomm because the “exact size of the overcharge was not relevant to the issue of Qualcomm’s liability.” [Kattan and Muris miss the point that within the context of economic modeling, the failure to identify the magnitude of an effect with any certainty when data are available, including whether the effect is statistically different than zero, calls into question the model’s robustness more generally.]

Though our prior article was a broad one, not limited to FTC v. Qualcomm or intended to cover record evidence in detail, we welcome K&M’s critique and are happy to accept their invitation to engage further on the facts of that particular case.  We agree that accounting for market realities is very important when complex economic models are at play.  Unfortunately, K&M’s position that the evidence “supports Shapiro’s testimony overwhelmingly” ignores the sound empirical evidence employed by Dr. Aviv Nevo during trial and has not aged well in light of the internal Apple documents made public in Qualcomm’s Opening Statement following the companies’ decision to settle the case, which Apple had initiated in January 2017.

Qualcomm’s Opening Statement in the Apple litigation revealed a number of new facts that are problematic, to say the least, for K&M’s position and, even more troublesome for Shapiro’s model and the FTC’s case.  Of course, as counsel to an interested party in the FTC case, it is entirely possible that K&M were aware of the internal Apple documents cited in Qualcomm’s Opening Statement (or similar documents) and simply disagree about their significance.  On the other hand, it is quite clear the Department of Justice Antitrust Division found them to be significantly damaging; it took the rare step of filing a Statement of Interest of the United States with the district court citing the documents and imploring the court to call for additional briefing and hold a hearing on issues related to a remedy in the event that it finds Qualcomm liable on any of the FTC’s claims. The internal Apple documents cited in Qualcomm’s Opening Statement leave no doubt as to several critical market realities that call into question the FTC’s theory of harm and Shapiro’s attempts to substantiate it.

(For more on the implications of these documents, see Geoffrey Manne’s post in this series, here).

First, the documents laying out Apple’s litigation strategy clearly establish that it has a high regard for Qualcomm’s technology and patent portfolio and that Apple strategized for several years about how to reduce its net royalties and to hurt Qualcomm financially. 

Second, the documents undermine Apple’s public complaints about Qualcomm and call into question the validity of the underlying theory of harm in the FTC’s case.  In particular, the documents plainly debunk Apple’s claims that Qualcomm’s patents weakened over time as a result of a decline in the quality of the technology and that Qualcomm devised an anticompetitive strategy in order to extract value from a weakening portfolio.  The documents illustrate that in fact, Apple adopted a deliberate strategy of trying to manipulate the value of Qualcomm’s portfolio.  The company planned to “creat[e] evidence” by leveraging its purchasing power to methodically license less expensive patents in hope of making Qualcomm’s royalties appear artificially inflated. In other words, if Apple’s made-for-litigation position were correct, then it would be only because of Apple’s attempt to manipulate and devalue Qualcomm’s patent portfolio, not because there had been any real change in its value. 

Third, the documents directly refute some of the arguments K&M put forth in their critique of our prior article, in which we invoked Dr. Nevo’s empirical analysis of royalty rates over time as important evidence of historical facts that contradict Dr. Shapiro’s model.  For example, K&M attempt to discredit Nevo’s analysis by claiming he did not control for changes in the strength of Qualcomm’s patent portfolio which, they claim, had weakened over time. According to internal Apple documents, however, “Qualcomm holds a stronger position in . . . , and particularly with respect to cellular and Wi-Fi SEPs” than do Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, IDCC, and Apple. Another document states that “Qualcomm is widely considered the owner of the strongest patent portfolio for essential and relevant patents for wireless standards.” Indeed, Apple’s documents show that Apple sought artificially to “devalue SEPs” in the industry by “build[ing] favorable, arms-length ‘comp’ licenses” in an attempt to reduce what FRAND means. The ultimate goal of this pursuit was stated frankly by Apple: To “reduce Apple’s net royalty to Qualcomm” despite conceding that Qualcomm’s chips “engineering wise . . . have been the best.”

As new facts relevant to the FTC’s case and contrary to its theory of harm come to light, it is important to re-emphasize the fundamental point of our prior article: Model predictions that are inconsistent with actual market evidence should give fact finders serious pause before accepting the results as reliable.  This advice is particularly salient in a case like FTC v. Qualcomm, where intellectual property and innovation are critical components of the industry and its competitiveness, because condemning behavior that is not truly anticompetitive may have serious, unintended consequences. (See Douglas H. Ginsburg & Joshua D. Wright, Dynamic Analysis and the Limits of Antitrust Institutions, 78 Antitrust L.J. 1 (2012); Geoffrey A. Manne & Joshua D. Wright, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust, 6 J. Competition L. & Econ. 153 (2010)).

The serious consequences of a false positive, that is, the erroneous condemnation of a procompetitive or competitively neutral business practice, is undoubtedly what caused the Antitrust Division to file its Statement of Interest in the FTC’s case against Qualcomm.  That Statement correctly highlights the Apple documents as support for Government’s concern that “an overly broad remedy in this case could reduce competition and innovation in markets for 5G technology and downstream applications that rely on that technology.”

In this reply, we examine closely the market realities that with and hence undermine both Dr. Shapiro’s bargaining model and the FTC’s theory of harm in its case against Qualcomm.  We believe the “large body of evidence” offered by K&M supporting Shapiro’s theoretical analysis is insufficient to sustain his conclusions under standard antitrust analysis, including the requirement that a plaintiff alleging monopolization or attempted monopolization provide evidence of actual or likely anticompetitive effects.  We will also discuss the implications of the newly-public internal Apple documents for the FTC’s case, which remains pending at the time of this writing, and for future government investigations involving allegedly anticompetitive licensing of intellectual property.

I. Kattan and Muris Rely Upon Inconsequential Testimony and Mischaracterize Dr. Nevo’s Empirical Analysis

K&M march through a series of statements from Qualcomm’s customers asserting that the threat of Qualcomm discontinuing the supply of modem chips forced them to agree to unreasonable licensing demands.  This testimony, however, is reminiscent of Dr. Shapiro’s testimony in AT&T/Time Warner concerning the threat of a long-term blackout of CNN and other Turner channels:  Qualcomm has never cut off any customer’s supply of chips.  The assertion that companies negotiating with Qualcomm either had to “agree to the license or basically go out of business” ignores the reality that even if Qualcomm discontinued supplying chips to a customer, the customer could obtain chips from one of four rival sources.  This was not a theoretical possibility.  Indeed, Apple has been sourcing chips from Intel since 2016 and made the decision to switch to Intel specifically in order, in its own words, to exert “commercial pressure against Qualcomm.”

Further, as Dr. Nevo pointed out at trial, SEP license agreements are typically long term (e.g., 10 or 15 year agreements) and are negotiated far less frequently than chip prices, which are typically negotiated annually.  In other words, Qualcomm’s royalty rate is set prior to and independent of chip sale negotiations. 

K&M raise a number of theoretical objections to Nevo’s empirical analysis.  For example, K&M accuse Nevo of “cherry picking” the licenses he included in his empirical analysis to show that royalty rates remained constant over time, stating that he “excluded from consideration any license that had non-standard terms.” They mischaracterize Nevo’s testimony on this point.  Nevo excluded from his analysis agreements that, according to the FTC’s own theory of harm, would be unaffected (e.g., agreements that were signed subject to government supervision or agreements that have substantially different risk splitting provisions).  In any event, Nevo testified that modifying his analysis to account for Shapiro’s criticism regarding the excluded agreements would have no material effect on his conclusions.  To our knowledge, Nevo’s testimony is the only record evidence providing any empirical analysis of the effects of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements.

As previously mentioned, K&M also claim that Dr. Nevo’s analysis failed to account for the alleged weakening of Qualcomm’s patent portfolio over time.  Apple’s internal documents, however, are fatal to that claim..  K&M also pinpoint failure to control for differences among customers and changes in the composition of handsets over time as critical errors in Nevo’s analysis.  Their assertion that Nevo should have controlled for differences among customers is puzzling.  They do not elaborate upon that criticism, but they seem to believe different customers are entitled to different FRAND rates for the same license.  But Qualcomm’s standard practice—due to the enormous size of its patent portfolio—is and has always been to charge all licensees the same rate for the entire portfolio.

As to changes in the composition of handsets over time, no doubt a smartphone today has many more features than a first-generation handset that only made and received calls; those new features, however, would be meaningless without Qualcomm’s SEPs, which are implemented by mobile chips that enable cellular communication.  One must wonder why Qualcomm should have reduced the royalty rate on licenses for patents that are just as fundamental to the functioning of mobile phones today as they were to the functioning of a first-generation handset.  K&M ignore the fundamental importance of Qualcomm’s SEPs in claiming that royalty rates should have declined along with the quality adjusted/? declining prices of mobile phones.  They also, conveniently, ignore the evidence that the industry has been characterized by increasing output and quality—increases which can certainly be attributed at least in part to Qualcomm’s chips being “engineering wise . . . the best.”. 

II. Apple’s Internal Documents Eviscerate the FTC’s Theory of Harm

The FTC’s theory of harm is premised upon Qualcomm’s allegedly charging a supra-FRAND rate for its SEPs (the “royalty surcharge”), which squeezes the margins of OEMs and consequently prevents rival chipset suppliers from obtaining a sufficient return when negotiating with those OEMs. (See Luke Froeb, et al’s criticism of the FTC’s theory of harm on these and related grounds, here). To predict the effects of Qualcomm’s allegedly anticompetitive conduct, Dr. Shapiro compared the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from Qualcomm and pay Qualcomm a FRAND royalty to license its SEPs with the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from a rival manufacturer and pay a “royalty surcharge” to Qualcomm to license its SEPs.  Shapiro testified that he had “reason to believe that the royalty surcharge was substantial” and had “inevitable consequences,” for competition and for consumers, though his bargaining model did not quantify the effects of Qualcomm’s practice. 

The premise of the FTC theory requires a belief about FRAND as a meaningful, objective competitive benchmark that Qualcomm was able to evade as a result of its market power in chipsets.  But Apple manipulated negotiations as a tactic to reshape FRAND itself.  The closer look at the facts invited by K&M does nothing to improve one’s view of the FTC’s claims.  The Apple documents exposed at trial make it clear that Apple deliberately manipulated negotiations with other suppliers in order to make it appear to courts and antitrust agencies that something other than the quality of Qualcomm’s technology was driving royalty rates.  For example, Apple’s own documents show it sought artificially to “devalue SEPs” by “build[ing] favorable, arms-length ‘comp’ licenses” in an attempt to reshape what FRAND means in this industry. Simply put, Apple’s strategy was to negotiate cheap supposedly “comparable” licenses with other chipset suppliers as part of a plan to reduce its net royalties to Qualcomm. 

As part of the same strategy, Apple spent years arguing to regulators and courts that Qualcomm’s patents were no better than those of its competitors.  But their internal documents tell this very different story:

  • “Nokia’s patent portfolio is significantly weaker than Qualcomm’s.”
  • “[InterDigital] makes minimal contributions to [the 4G/LTE] standard”
  • “Compared to [Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, IDCC, and Apple], Qualcomm holds a stronger position in , and particularly with respect to cellular and Wi-Fi SEPs.”
  • “Compared to other licensors, Qualcomm has more significant holdings in key areas such as media processing, non-cellular communications and hardware.  Likewise, using patent citation analysis as a measure of thorough prosecution within the US PTO, Qualcomm patents (SEPs and non-SEPs both) on average score higher compared to the other, largely non-US based licensors.”

One internal document that is particularly troubling states that Apple’s plan was to “create leverage by building pressure” in order to  (i) hurt Qualcomm financially and (ii) put Qualcomm’s licensing model at risk. What better way to harm Qualcomm financially and put its licensing model at risk than to complain to regulators that the business model is anticompetitive and tie the company up in multiple costly litigations?  That businesses make strategic plans to harm one another is no surprise.  But it underscores the importance of antitrust institutions – with their procedural and evidentiary requirements – to separate meritorious claims from fabricated ones. They failed to do so here.

III. Lessons Learned

So what should we make of evidence suggesting one of the FTC’s key informants during its investigation of Qualcomm didn’t believe the arguments it was selling?  The exposure of Apple’s internal documents is a sobering reminder that the FTC is not immune from the risk of being hoodwinked by rent-seeking antitrust plaintiffs.  That a firm might try to persuade antitrust agencies to investigate and sue its rivals is nothing new (see, e.g., William J. Baumol & Janusz A. Ordover, Use of Antitrust to Subvert Competition, 28 J.L. & Econ. 247 (1985)), but it is a particularly high-stakes game in modern technology markets. 

Lesson number one: Requiring proof of actual anticompetitive effects rather than relying upon a model that is not robust to market realities is an important safeguard to ensure that Section 2 protects competition and not merely an individual competitor.  Yet the agencies’ staked their cases on bargaining models in AT&T/Time Warner and FTC v. Qualcomm that fell short of proving anticompetitive effects.  An agency convinced by one firm or firms to pursue an action against a rival for conduct that does not actually harm competition could have a significant and lasting anticompetitive effect on the market.  Modern antitrust analysis requires plaintiffs to substantiate their claims with more than just theory or scant evidence that rivals have been harmed.  That safeguard is particularly important when an agency is pursuing an enforcement action against a company in a market where the risks of regulatory capture and false positives are high.  With calls to move away from the consumer welfare standard—which would exacerbate both the risks and consequences of false positives–it is imperative to embrace rather than reject the requirement of proof in monopolization cases. (See Elyse Dorsey, Jan Rybnicek & Joshua D. Wright, Hipster Antitrust Meets Public Choice Economics: The Consumer Welfare Standard, Rule of Law, and Rent-Seeking, CPI Antitrust Chron. (Apr. 2018); see also Joshua D. Wright et al., Requiem For a Paradox: The Dubious Rise and Inevitable Fall of Hipster Antitrust, 51 Ariz. St. L.J. 293 (2019).) The DOJ’s Statement of Interest is a reminder of this basic tenet. 

Lesson number two: Antitrust should have a limited role in adjudicating disputes arising between sophisticated parties in bilateral negotiations of patent licenses.  Overzealous claims of harm from patent holdup and anticompetitive licensing can deter the lawful exercise of patent rights, good faith modifications of existing contracts, and more generally interfere with the outcome of arms-length negotiations (See Bruce H. Kobayashi & Joshua D. Wright, The Limits of Antitrust and Patent Holdup: A Reply To Cary et al., 78 Antitrust L.J. 701 (2012)). It is also a difficult task for an antitrust regulator or court to identify and distinguish anticompetitive patent licenses from neutral or welfare-increasing behavior.  An antitrust agency’s willingness to cast the shadow of antitrust remedies over one side of the bargaining table inevitably places the agency in the position of encouraging further rent-seeking by licensees seeking similar intervention on their behalf.

Finally, antitrust agencies intervening in patent holdup and licensing disputes on behalf of one party to a patent licensing agreement risks transforming the agency into a price regulator.  Apple’s fundamental complaint in its own litigation, and the core of the similar FTC allegation against Qualcomm, is that royalty rates are too high.  The risks to competition and consumers of antitrust courts and agencies playing the role of central planner for the innovation economy are well known, and are at the peak when the antitrust enterprise is used to set prices, mandate a particular organizational structure for the firm, or to intervene in garden variety contract and patent disputes in high-tech markets.

The current Commission did not vote out the Complaint now being litigated in the Northern District of California.  That case was initiated by an entirely different set of Commissioners.  It is difficult to imagine the new Commissioners having no reaction to the Apple documents, and in particular to the perception they create that Apple was successful in manipulating the agency in its strategy to bolster its negotiating position against Qualcomm.  A thorough reevaluation of the evidence here might well lead the current Commission to reconsider the merits of the agency’s position in the litigation and whether continuing is in the public interest.  The Apple documents, should they enter the record, may affect significantly the Ninth Circuit’s or Supreme Court’s understanding of the FTC’s theory of harm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Amex held virtually the opposite:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

As the dissent noted, however:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What antitrust standing doctrine should look like after Amex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TOTM: The following is the third in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Douglas H. Ginsburg, Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Joshua D. Wright, University Professor, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Executive Director, Global Antitrust Institute; former U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner from 2013-15; and one of the founding bloggers at Truth on the Market.]

[Ginsburg & Wright: Professor Wright is recused from participation in the FTC litigation against Qualcomm, but has provided counseling advice to Qualcomm concerning other regulatory and competition matters. The views expressed here are our own and neither author received financial support.]

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have spent a significant amount of time in federal court litigating major cases premised upon an anticompetitive foreclosure theory of harm. Bargaining models, a tool used commonly in foreclosure cases, have been essential to the government’s theory of harm in these cases. In vertical merger or conduct cases, the core theory of harm is usually a variant of the claim that the transaction (or conduct) strengthens the firm’s incentives to engage in anticompetitive strategies that depend on negotiations with input suppliers. Bargaining models are a key element of the agency’s attempt to establish those claims and to predict whether and how firm incentives will affect negotiations with input suppliers, and, ultimately, the impact on equilibrium prices and output. Application of bargaining models played a key role in evaluating the anticompetitive foreclosure theories in the DOJ’s litigation to block the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner Cable. A similar model is at the center of the FTC’s antitrust claims against Qualcomm and its patent licensing business model.

Modern antitrust analysis does not condemn business practices as anticompetitive without solid economic evidence of an actual or likely harm to competition. This cautious approach was developed in the courts for two reasons. The first is that the difficulty of distinguishing between procompetitive and anticompetitive explanations for the same conduct suggests there is a high risk of error. The second is that those errors are more likely to be false positives than false negatives because empirical evidence and judicial learning have established that unilateral conduct is usually either procompetitive or competitively neutral. In other words, while the risk of anticompetitive foreclosure is real, courts have sensibly responded by requiring plaintiffs to substantiate their claims with more than just theory or scant evidence that rivals have been harmed.

An economic model can help establish the likelihood and/or magnitude of competitive harm when the model carefully captures the key institutional features of the competition it attempts to explain. Naturally, this tends to mean that the economic theories and models proffered by dueling economic experts to predict competitive effects take center stage in antitrust disputes. The persuasiveness of an economic model turns on the robustness of its assumptions about the underlying market. Model predictions that are inconsistent with actual market evidence give one serious pause before accepting the results as reliable.

For example, many industries are characterized by bargaining between providers and distributors. The Nash bargaining framework can be used to predict the outcomes of bilateral negotiations based upon each party’s bargaining leverage. The model assumes that both parties are better off if an agreement is reached, but that as the utility of one party’s outside option increases relative to the bargain, it will capture an increasing share of the surplus. Courts have had to reconcile these seemingly complicated economic models with prior case law and, in some cases, with direct evidence that is apparently inconsistent with the results of the model.

Indeed, Professor Carl Shapiro recently used bargaining models to analyze harm to competition in two prominent cases alleging anticompetitive foreclosure—one initiated by the DOJ and one by the FTC—in which he served as the government’s expert economist. In United States v. AT&T Inc., Dr. Shapiro testified that the proposed transaction between AT&T and Time Warner would give the vertically integrated company leverage to extract higher prices for content from AT&T’s rival, Dish Network. Soon after, Dr. Shapiro presented a similar bargaining model in FTC v. Qualcomm Inc. He testified that Qualcomm leveraged its monopoly power over chipsets to extract higher royalty rates from smartphone OEMs, such as Apple, wishing to license its standard essential patents (SEPs). In each case, Dr. Shapiro’s models were criticized heavily by the defendants’ expert economists for ignoring market realities that play an important role in determining whether the challenged conduct was likely to harm competition.

Judge Leon’s opinion in AT&T/Time Warner—recently upheld on appeal—concluded that Dr. Shapiro’s application of the bargaining model was significantly flawed, based upon unreliable inputs, and undermined by evidence about actual market performance presented by defendant’s expert, Dr. Dennis Carlton. Dr. Shapiro’s theory of harm posited that the combined company would increase its bargaining leverage and extract greater affiliate fees for Turner content from AT&T’s distributor rivals. The increase in bargaining leverage was made possible by the threat of a post-merger blackout of Turner content for AT&T’s rivals. This theory rested on the assumption that the combined firm would have reduced financial exposure from a long-term blackout of Turner content and would therefore have more leverage to threaten a blackout in content negotiations. The purpose of his bargaining model was to quantify how much AT&T could extract from competitors subjected to a long-term blackout of Turner content.

Judge Leon highlighted a number of reasons for rejecting the DOJ’s argument. First, Dr. Shapiro’s model failed to account for existing long-term affiliate contracts, post-litigation offers of arbitration agreements, and the increasing competitiveness of the video programming and distribution industry. Second, Dr. Carlton had demonstrated persuasively that previous vertical integration in the video programming and distribution industry did not have a significant effect on content prices. Finally, Dr. Shapiro’s model primarily relied upon three inputs: (1) the total number of subscribers the unaffiliated distributor would lose in the event of a long-term blackout of Turner content, (2) the percentage of the distributor’s lost subscribers who would switch to AT&T as a result of the blackout, and (3) the profit margin AT&T would derive from the subscribers it gained from the blackout. Many of Dr. Shapiro’s inputs necessarily relied on critical assumptions and/or third-party sources. Judge Leon considered and discredited each input in turn. 

The parties in Qualcomm are, as of the time of this posting, still awaiting a ruling. Dr. Shapiro’s model in that case attempts to predict the effect of Qualcomm’s alleged “no license, no chips” policy. He compared the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from Qualcomm and pay Qualcomm a FRAND royalty to license its SEPs with the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from a rival manufacturer and pay a “royalty surcharge” to Qualcomm to license its SEPs. In other words, the FTC’s theory of harm is based upon the premise that Qualcomm is charging a supra-FRAND rate for its SEPs (the“royalty surcharge”) that squeezes the margins of OEMs. That margin squeeze, the FTC alleges, prevents rival chipset suppliers from obtaining a sufficient return when negotiating with OEMs. The FTC predicts the end result is a reduction in competition and an increase in the price of devices to consumers.

Qualcomm, like Judge Leon in AT&T, questioned the robustness of Dr. Shapiro’s model and its predictions in light of conflicting market realities. For example, Dr. Shapiro, argued that the

leverage that Qualcomm brought to bear on the chips shifted the licensing negotiations substantially in Qualcomm’s favor and led to a significantly higher royalty than Qualcomm would otherwise have been able to achieve.

Yet, on cross-examination, Dr. Shapiro declined to move from theory to empirics when asked if he had quantified the effects of Qualcomm’s practice on any other chip makers. Instead, Dr. Shapiro responded that he had not, but he had “reason to believe that the royalty surcharge was substantial” and had “inevitable consequences.” Under Dr. Shapiro’s theory, one would predict that royalty rates were higher after Qualcomm obtained market power.

As with Dr. Carlton’s testimony inviting Judge Leon to square the DOJ’s theory with conflicting historical facts in the industry, Qualcomm’s economic expert, Dr. Aviv Nevo, provided an analysis of Qualcomm’s royalty agreements from 1990-2017, confirming that there was no economic and meaningful difference between the royalty rates during the time frame when Qualcomm was alleged to have market power and the royalty rates outside of that time frame. He also presented evidence that ex ante royalty rates did not increase upon implementation of the CDMA standard or the LTE standard. Moreover, Dr.Nevo testified that the industry itself was characterized by declining prices and increasing output and quality.

Dr. Shapiro’s model in Qualcomm appears to suffer from many of the same flaws that ultimately discredited his model in AT&T/Time Warner: It is based upon assumptions that are contrary to real-world evidence and it does not robustly or persuasively identify anticompetitive effects. Some observers, including our Scalia Law School colleague and former FTC Chairman, Tim Muris, would apparently find it sufficient merely to allege a theoretical “ability to manipulate the marketplace.” But antitrust cases require actual evidence of harm. We think Professor Muris instead captured the appropriate standard in his important article rejecting attempts by the FTC to shortcut its requirement of proof in monopolization cases:

This article does reject, however, the FTC’s attempt to make it easier for the government to prevail in Section 2 litigation. Although the case law is hardly a model of clarity, one point that is settled is that injury to competitors by itself is not a sufficient basis to assume injury to competition …. Inferences of competitive injury are, of course, the heart of per se condemnation under the rule of reason. Although long a staple of Section 1, such truncation has never been a part of Section 2. In an economy as dynamic as ours, now is hardly the time to short-circuit Section 2 cases. The long, and often sorry, history of monopolization in the courts reveals far too many mistakes even without truncation.

Timothy J. Muris, The FTC and the Law of Monopolization, 67 Antitrust L. J. 693 (2000)

We agree. Proof of actual anticompetitive effects rather than speculation derived from models that are not robust to market realities are an important safeguard to ensure that Section 2 protects competition and not merely individual competitors.

The future of bargaining models in antitrust remains to be seen. Judge Leon certainly did not question the proposition that they could play an important role in other cases. Judge Leon closely dissected the testimony and models presented by both experts in AT&T/Time Warner. His opinion serves as an important reminder. As complex economic evidence like bargaining models become more common in antitrust litigation, judges must carefully engage with the experts on both sides to determine whether there is direct evidence on the likely competitive effects of the challenged conduct. Where “real-world evidence,” as Judge Leon called it, contradicts the predictions of a bargaining model, judges should reject the model rather than the reality. Bargaining models have many potentially important antitrust applications including horizontal mergers involving a bargaining component – such as hospital mergers, vertical mergers, and licensing disputes. The analysis of those models by the Ninth and D.C. Circuits will have important implications for how they will be deployed by the agencies and parties moving forward.

A recent tweet by Lina Khan, discussing yesterday’s American Express decision, exemplifies an unfortunate trend in contemporary antitrust discourse.  Khan wrote:

The economists cited by the Second Circuit (whose opinion SCOTUS affirms) for the analysis of ‘two-sided’ [markets] all had financial links to the credit card sector, as we point out in FN 4 [link to amicus brief].

Her implicit point—made more explicitly in the linked brief, which referred to the economists’ studies as “industry-funded”—was that economic analysis should be discounted if the author has ever received compensation from a firm that might benefit from the proffered analysis.

There are two problems with this reasoning.  First, it’s fallacious.  An ad hominem argument, one addressed “to the person” rather than to the substance of the person’s claims, is a fallacy of irrelevance, sometimes known as a genetic fallacy.  Biased people may make truthful claims, just as unbiased people may get things wrong.  An idea’s “genetics” are irrelevant.  One should assess the substance of the actual idea, not the identity of its proponent.

Second, the reasoning ignores that virtually everyone is biased in some way.  In the antitrust world, those claiming that we should discount the findings and theories of industry-connected experts urging antitrust modesty often stand to gain from having a “bigger” antitrust.

In the common ownership debate about which Mike Sykuta and I have recently been blogging, proponents of common ownership restrictions have routinely written off contrary studies by suggesting bias on the part of the studies’ authors.  All the while, they have ignored their own biases:  If their proposed policies are implemented, their expertise becomes exceedingly valuable to plaintiff lawyers and to industry participants seeking to traverse a new legal minefield.

At the end of our recent paper, The Case for Doing Nothing About Institutional Investors’ Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms, Mike and I wrote, “Such regulatory modesty will prove disappointing to those with a personal interest in having highly complex antitrust doctrines that are aggressively enforced.”  I had initially included a snarky footnote, but Mike, who is far nicer than I, convinced me to remove it.

I’ll reproduce it here in the hopes of reducing the incidence of antitrust ad hominem.

Professor Elhauge has repeatedly discounted criticisms of the common ownership studies by suggesting that critics are biased.  See, e.g., Elhauge, supra note 26, at 1 (observing that “objections to my analysis have been raised in various articles, some funded by institutional investors with large horizontal shareholdings”); id. at 3 (“My analysis of executive compensation has been critiqued in a paper by economic consultants O’Brien and Waehrer that was funded by the Investment Company Institute, which represents institutional investors and was headed for the last three years by the CEO of Vanguard.”); Elhauge, supra note 124, at 3 (observing that airline and banking studies “have been critiqued in other articles, some funded by the sort of institutional investors that have large horizontal shareholdings”); id. at 17 (“The Investment Company Institute, an association of institutional investors that for the preceding three years was headed by the CEO of Vanguard, has funded a couple of papers to critique the empirical study showing an adverse link between horizontal shareholding and airline prices.”); id. (observing that co-authors of critique “both have significant experience in the airline industry because they consulted either for the airlines or the DOJ on airline mergers that were approved notwithstanding high levels of horizontal shareholding”); id. at 19 (“The Investment Company Institute has responded by funding a second critique of the airline study.”); id. at 23-24 (“Even to the extent that such studies are not directly funded by industry, when an industry has been viewed as benign for a long time, confirmation bias is a powerful force that will incline many to interpret any data to find no adverse effects.”).  He fails, however, to acknowledge his own bias.  As a professor of antitrust law at one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, he has an interest in having antitrust be as big and complicated as possible: The more complex the doctrine, and the broader its reach, the more valuable a preeminent antitrust professor’s expertise becomes.  This is not to suggest that one should discount the assertions of Professor Elhauge or other proponents of restrictions on common ownership.  It is simply to observe that bias is unavoidable and that the best approach is therefore to evaluate claims according to their substance, not according to who is asserting them.

Excess is unflattering, no less when claiming that every evolution in legal doctrine is a slippery slope leading to damnation. In Friday’s New York Times, Lina Khan trots down this alarmist path while considering the implications for the pending Supreme Court case of Ohio v. American Express. One of the core issues in the case is the proper mode of antitrust analysis for credit card networks as two-sided markets. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with arguments, such as those that we have made, that it is important to consider the costs and benefits to both sides of a two-sided market when conducting an antitrust analysis. The Second Circuit’s opinion is under review in the American Express case.

Khan regards the Second Circuit approach of conducting a complete analysis of these markets as a mistake.

On her reading, the idea that an antitrust analysis of credit card networks should reflect their two-sided-ness would create “de facto antitrust immunity” for all platforms:

If affirmed, the Second Circuit decision would create de facto antitrust immunity for the most powerful companies in the economy. Since internet technologies have enabled the growth of platform companies that serve multiple groups of users, firms like Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber are set to be prime beneficiaries of the Second Circuit’s warped analysis. Amazon, for example, could claim status as a two-sided platform because it connects buyers and sellers of goods; Google because it facilitates a market between advertisers and search users… Indeed, the reason that the tech giants are lining up behind the Second Circuit’s approach is that — if ratified — it would make it vastly more difficult to use antitrust laws against them.

This paragraph is breathtaking. First, its basic premise is wrong. Requiring a complete analysis of the complicated economic effects of conduct undertaken in two sided markets before imposing antitrust liability would not create “de facto antitrust immunity.” It would require that litigants present, and courts evaluate, credible evidence sufficient to establish a claim upon which an enforcement action can be taken — just like in any other judicial proceeding in any area of law. Novel market structures may require novel analytical models and novel evidence, but that is no different with two-sided markets than with any other complicated issue before a court.

Second, the paragraph’s prescribed response would be, in fact, de facto antitrust liability for any firm competing in a two-sided market — that is, as Kahn notes, almost every major tech firm.

A two-sided platform competes with other platforms by facilitating interactions between the two sides of the market. This often requires a careful balancing of the market: in most of these markets too many or too few participants on one side of the market reduces participation on the other side. So these markets play the role of matchmaker, charging one side of the market a premium in order to cross-subsidize a desirable level of participation on the other. This will be discussed more below, but the takeaway for now is that most of these platforms operate by charging one side of the market (or some participants on one side of the market) an above-cost price in order to charge the other side of the market a below-cost price. A platform’s strategy on either side of the market makes no sense without the other, and it does not adopt practices on one side without carefully calibrating them with the other. If one does not consider both sides of these markets, therefore, the simplistic approach that Kahn demands will systematically fail to capture both the intent and the effect of business practices in these markets. More importantly, such an approach could be used to find antitrust violations throughout these industries — no matter the state of competition, market share, or actual consumer effects.

What are two-sided markets?

Khan notes that there is some element of two-sidedness in many (if not most) markets:

Indeed, almost all markets can be understood as having two sides. Firms ranging from airlines to meatpackers could reasonably argue that they meet the definition of “two-sided,” thereby securing less stringent review.

This is true, as far as it goes, as any sale of goods likely involves the selling party acting as some form of intermediary between chains of production and consumption. But such a definition is unworkably broad from the point of view of economic or antitrust analysis. If two-sided markets exist as distinct from traditional markets there must be salient features that define those specialized markets.

Economists have been intensively studying two-sided markets (see, e.g., here, here, and here) for the past two decades (and had recognized many of their basic characteristics even before then). As Khan notes, multi-sided platforms have indeed existed for a long time in the economy. Newspapers, for example, provide a targeted outlet for advertisers and incentives for subscribers to view advertisements; shopping malls aggregate retailers in one physical location to lower search costs for customers, while also increasing the retailers’ sales volume. Relevant here, credit card networks are two-sided platforms, facilitating credit-based transactions between merchants and consumers.

One critical feature of multi-sided platforms is the interdependent demand of platform participants. Thus, these markets require a simultaneous critical mass of users on each side in order to ensure the viability of the platform. For instance, a credit card is unlikely to be attractive to consumers if few merchants accept it; and few merchants will accept a credit card that isn’t used by a sufficiently large group of consumers. To achieve critical mass, a multi-sided platform uses both pricing and design choices, and, without critical mass on all sides, the positive feedback effects that enable the platform’s unique matching abilities might not be achieved.

This highlights the key distinction between traditional markets and multi-sided markets. Most markets have two sides (e.g., buyers and sellers), but that alone doesn’t make them meaningfully multi-sided. In a multi-sided market a key function of the platform is to facilitate the relationship between the sides of the market in order to create and maintain an efficient relationship between them. The platform isn’t merely a reseller of a manufacturer’s goods, for instance, but is actively encouraging or discouraging participation by users on both sides of the platform in order to maximize the value of the platform itself — not the underlying transaction — for those users. Consumers, for instance, don’t really care how many pairs of jeans a clothier stocks; but a merchant does care how many cardholders an issuer has on its network. This is most often accomplished by using prices charged to each side (in the case of credit cards, so-called interchange fees) to keep each side an appropriate size.

Moreover, the pricing that occurs on a two-sided platform is secondary, to a varying extent, to the pricing of the subject of the transaction. In a two-sided market, the prices charged to either side of the market are an expression of the platform’s ability to control the terms on which the different sides meet to transact and is relatively indifferent to the thing about which the parties are transacting.

The nature of two-sided markets highlights the role of these markets as more like facilitators of transactions and less like traditional retailers of goods (though this distinction is a matter of degree, and different two-sided markets can be more-or-less two-sided). Because the platform uses prices charged to each side of the market in order to optimize overall use of the platform (that is, output or volume of transactions), pricing in these markets operates differently than pricing in traditional markets. In short, the pricing on one side of the platform is often used to subsidize participation on the other side of the market, because the overall value to both sides is increased as a result. Or, conversely, pricing to one side of the market may appear to be higher than the equilibrium level when viewed for that side alone, because this funds a subsidy to increase participation on another side of the market that, in turn, creates valuable network effects for the side of the market facing the higher fees.

The result of this dynamic is that it is more difficult to assess the price and output effects in multi-sided markets than in traditional markets. One cannot look at just one side of the platform — at the level of output and price charged to consumers of the underlying product, say — but must look at the combined pricing and output of both the underlying transaction as well as the platform’s service itself, across all sides of the platform.

Thus, as David Evans and Richard Schmalensee have observed, traditional antitrust reasoning is made more complicated in the presence of a multi-sided market:

[I]t is not possible to know whether standard economic models, often relied on for antitrust analysis, apply to multi-sided platforms without explicitly considering the existence of multiple customer groups with interdependent demand…. [A] number of results for single-sided firms, which are the focus of much of the applied antitrust economics literature, do not apply directly to multi-sided platforms.

The good news is that antitrust economists have been focusing significant attention on two- and multi-sided markets for a long while. Their work has included attention to modelling the dynamics and effects of competition in these markets, including how to think about traditional antitrust concepts such as market definition, market power and welfare analysis. What has been lacking, however, has been substantial incorporation of this analysis into judicial decisions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the Second Circuit’s opinion in this case was, and why the Supreme Court’s opinion will be, so important: this work has reached the point that courts are recognizing that these markets can and should be analyzed differently than traditional markets.

Getting the two-sided analysis wrong in American Express would harm consumers

Khan describes credit card networks as a “classic case of oligopoly,” and opines that American Express’s contractual anti-steering provision is, “[a]s one might expect, the credit card companies us[ing] their power to block competition.” The initial, inherent tension in this statement should be obvious: the assertion is simultaneously that this a non-competitive, oligopolistic market and that American Express is using the anti-steering provision to harm its competitors. Indeed, rather than demonstrating a classic case of oligopoly, this demonstrates the competitive purpose that the anti-steering provision serves: facilitating competition between American Express and other card issuers.

The reality of American Express’s anti-steering provision, which prohibits merchants who choose to accept AmEx cards from “steering” their customers to pay for purchases with other cards, is that it is necessary in order for American Express to compete with other card issuers. Just like analysis of multi-sided markets needs to consider all sides of the market, platforms competing in these markets need to compete on all sides of the market.

But the use of complex pricing schemes to determine prices on each side of the market to maintain an appropriate volume of transactions in the overall market creates a unique opportunity for competitors to behave opportunistically. For instance, if one platform charges a high fee to one side of the market in order to subsidize another side of the market (say, by offering generous rewards), this creates an opportunity for a savvy competitor to undermine that balancing by charging the first side of the market a lower fee, thus attracting consumers from its competitor and, perhaps, making its pricing strategy unprofitable. This may appear to be mere price competition. But the effects of price competition on one side of a multi-sided market are more complicated to evaluate than those of traditional price competition.

Generally, price competition has the effect of lowering prices for goods, increasing output, decreasing deadweight losses, and benefiting consumers. But in a multi-sided market, the high prices charged to one side of the market can be used to benefit consumers on the other side of the market; and that consumer benefit can increase output on that side of the market in ways that create benefits for the first side of the market. When a competitor poaches a platform’s business on a single side of a multi-sided market, the effects can be negative for users on every side of that platform’s market.

This is most often seen in cases, like with credit cards, where platforms offer differentiated products. American Express credit cards are qualitatively different than Visa and Mastercard credit cards; they charge more (to both sides of the market) but offer consumers a more expansive rewards program (funded by the higher transaction fees charged to merchants) and offer merchants access to what are often higher-value customers (ensured by the higher fees charged to card holders).

If American Express did not require merchants to abide by its anti-steering rule, it wouldn’t be able to offer this form of differentiated product; it would instead be required to compete solely on price. Cardholders exist who prefer higher-status cards with a higher-tier of benefits, and there are merchants that prefer to attract a higher-value pool of customers.

But without the anti-steering provisions, the only competition available is on the price to merchants. The anti-steering rule is needed in order to prevent merchants from free-riding on American Express’s investment in attracting a unique group of card holders to its platform. American Express maintains that differentiation from other cards by providing its card holders with unique and valuable benefits — benefits that are subsidized in part by the fees charged to merchants. But merchants that attract customers by advertising that they accept American Express cards but who then steer those customers to other cards erode the basis of American Express’s product differentiation. Because of the interdependence of both sides of the platform, this ends up undermining the value that consumers receive from the platform as American Express ultimately withdraws consumer-side benefits. In the end, the merchants who valued American Express in the first place are made worse off by virtue of being permitted to selectively free-ride on American Express’s network investment.

At this point it is important to note that many merchants continue to accept American Express cards in light of both the cards’ higher merchant fees and these anti-steering provisions. Meanwhile, Visa and Mastercard have much larger market shares, and many merchants do not accept Amex. The fact that merchants who may be irritated by the anti-steering provision continue to accept Amex despite it being more costly, and the fact that they could readily drop Amex and rely on other, larger, and cheaper networks, suggests that American Express creates real value for these merchants. In other words, American Express, in fact, must offer merchants access to a group of consumers who are qualitatively different from those who use Visa or Mastercard cards — and access to this group of consumers must be valuable to those merchants.

An important irony in this case is that those who criticize American Express’s practices, who are arguing these practices limit price competition and that merchants should be able to steer customers to lower-fee cards, generally also argue that modern antitrust law focuses too myopically on prices and fails to account for competition over product quality. But that is precisely what American Express is trying to do: in exchange for a higher price it offers a higher quality card for consumers, and access to a different quality of consumers for merchants.

Anticompetitive conduct here, there, everywhere! Or nowhere.

The good news is that many on the court — and, for that matter, even Ohio’s own attorney — recognize that the effects of the anti-steering rule on the cardholder side of the market need to be considered alongside their effects on merchants:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does output include premiums or rewards to customers?
MR. MURPHY: Yeah. Output would include quality considerations as well.

The bad news is that several justices don’t seem to get it. Justice Kagan, for instance, suggested that “the effect of these anti-steering provisions means a market where we will only have high-cost/high-service products.” Justice Kagan’s assertion reveals the hubris of the would-be regulator, bringing to her evaluation of the market a preconception of what that market is supposed to look like. To wit: following her logic, one can say just as much that without the anti-steering provisions we would have a market with only low-cost/low-service products. Without an evaluation of the relative effects — which is more complicated than simple intuition suggests, especially since one can always pay cash — there is no reason to say that either of these would be a better outcome.

The reality, however, is that it is possible for the market to support both high- and low-cost, and high- and low-service products. In fact, this is the market in which we live today. As Justice Gorsuch said, “American Express’s agreements don’t affect MasterCard or Visa’s opportunity to cut their fees … or to advertise that American Express’s are higher. There is room for all kinds of competition here.” Indeed, one doesn’t need to be particularly creative to come up with competitive strategies that other card issuers could adopt, from those that Justice Gorsuch suggests, to strategies where card issuers are, in fact, “forced” to accept higher fees, which they in turn use to attract more card holders to their networks, such as through sign-up bonuses or awards for American Express customers who use non-American Express cards at merchants who accept them.

A standard response to such proposals is “if that idea is so good, why isn’t the market already doing it?” An important part of the answer in this case is that MasterCard and Visa know that American Express relies on the anti-steering provision in order to maintain its product differentiation.

Visa and Mastercard were initially defendants in this case, as well, as they used similar rules to differentiate some of their products. It’s telling that these larger market participants settled because, to some extent, harming American Express is worth more to them than their own product differentiation. After all, consumers steered away from American Express will generally use Visa or Mastercard (and their own high-priced cards may be cannibalizing from their own low-priced cards anyway, so reducing their value may not hurt so much). It is therefore a better strategy for them to try to use the courts to undermine that provision so that they don’t actually need to compete with American Express.

Without the anti-steering provision, American Express loses its competitive advantage compared to MasterCard and Visa and would be forced to compete against those much larger platforms on their preferred terms. What’s more, this would give those platforms access to American Express’s vaunted high-value card holders without the need to invest resources in competing for them. In other words, outlawing anti-steering provisions could in fact have both anti-competitive intent and effect.

Of course, card networks aren’t necessarily innocent of anticompetitive conduct, one way or the other. Showing that they are on either side of the anti-steering rule requires a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the industry and its participants’ behavior. But liability cannot be simply determined based on behavior on one side of a two-sided market. These companies can certainly commit anticompetitive mischief, and they need to be held accountable when that happens. But this case is not about letting American Express or tech companies off the hook for committing anticompetitive conduct. This case is about how we evaluate such allegations, weigh them against possible beneficial effects, and put in place the proper thorough analysis for this particular form of business.

Over the last two decades, scholars have studied the nature of multi-sided platforms, and have made a good deal of progress. We should rely on this learning, and make sure that antitrust analysis is sound, not expedient.

Over the last two decades, the United States government has taken the lead in convincing jurisdictions around the world to outlaw “hard core” cartel conduct.  Such cartel activity reduces economic welfare by artificially fixing prices and reducing the output of affected goods and services.  At the same, the United States has acted to promote international cooperation among government antitrust enforcers to detect, investigate, and punish cartels.

In 2017, however, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit (citing concerns of “international comity”) held that a Chinese export cartel that artificially raised the price of vitamin imports into the United States should be shielded from U.S. antitrust penalties—based merely on one brief from a Chinese government agency that said it approved of the conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review that decision later this year, in a case styled Animal Science Products, Inc., v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.  By overturning the Second Circuit’s ruling (and disavowing the overly broad “comity doctrine” cited by that court), the Supreme Court would reaffirm the general duty of federal courts to apply federal law as written, consistent with the constitutional separation of powers.  It would also reaffirm the importance of the global fight against cartels, which has reflected consistent U.S. executive branch policy for decades (and has enjoyed strong support from the International Competition Network, the OECD, and the World Bank).

Finally, as a matter of economic policy, the Animal Science Products case highlights the very real harm that occurs when national governments tolerate export cartels that reduce economic welfare outside their jurisdictions, merely because domestic economic interests are not directly affected.  In order to address this problem, the U.S. government should negotiate agreements with other nations under which the signatory states would agree:  (1) not to legally defend domestic exporting entities that impose cartel harm in other jurisdictions; and (2) to cooperate more fully in rooting out harmful export-cartel activity, wherever it is found.

For a more fulsome discussion of the separation of powers, international relations, and economic policy issues raised by the Animal Science Products case, see my recent Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled The Supreme Court and Animal Science Products: Sovereignty and Export Cartels.

On December 1, 2017, in granting certiorari in Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District v. SolarCity Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider “whether orders denying antitrust state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”  At first blush, this case might appear to involve little more than a narrow technical question regarding the availability of interlocutory appeals.  But more fundamentally, this matter may afford the Supreme Court yet another opportunity to weigh in on the essential nature of the antitrust state action doctrine (albeit indirectly), in deciding whether the existence of state action immunity should be decided prior to the litigation of substantive antitrust suits.

Background

The Salt River Power District (SRP) is the only supplier of traditional electrical power in Phoenix, and is a subdivision of the State of Arizona.  SRP has lobbied successfully for special governmental status and has used its longstanding ties to government to advance the interests of its private shareholders.  (This sort of tale comes as no surprise to students of public choice.)  Counsel for respondent SolarCity discussed these ties in their brief opposing certiorari:

[SRP] was created in 1903 to take advantage of a federal law that provided interest-free loans for landowners to build reclamation projects to irrigate their lands.  During the Great Depression, SRP successfully lobbied the Arizona legislature for a law denominating it a political subdivision of Arizona so the landowners who ran SRP could avoid income taxes and sell tax-free bonds. . . .  Arizona denominates SRP a public entity, but as th[e] [U.S. Supreme] Court . . . explained [in a 1981 case involving [the right of local non-landowner residents to vote on SRP policy determinations], SRP and organizations like it are “essentially business enterprises, created by and chiefly benefitting a specific group of landowners.” . . . .  Among other things, SRP lacks “the crucial powers of sovereignty typical of a general purpose unit of government” and SRP’s electric business does not implicate any traditional sovereign power. . . . 

SRP’s retail electric business is unregulated. The business answers only to its own self-interested Board, not a public utility commission or any similar independent body. . . .   42 (ER55). SRP is thus free to serve private, not public interests. . . .  SRP takes profits from electricity sales and uses them to subsidize irrigation and canal water so that, for example, certain agricultural interests can farm cheaply by a city in the desert. . . . 

 In short, [as the Supreme Court explained in 1981,] SRP makes money from electric customers and pays out dividends in the form of irrigating “private lands for personal profit.”

 

SolarCity sells and leases rooftop solar-energy panels in Arizona.  It alleges that SRP used its special government subsidies to drive it out of the market for the supply of those panels to customers in the SRP district area.  Specifically, according to counsel for SolarCity:

As solar generation increased in popularity and efficiency, SRP started to view solar as a long-term competitive threat to its electricity sales and profits. . . .  Facing competition for the first time ever, SRP had a choice between competing in the market or using its monopoly power to exclude competition. . . .  SRP first attempted to compete on the merits by developing its own solar offerings. . . .  However, consumers continued to prefer SRP’s solar competitors. . . .  Then, rather than offer consumers a better product or value, SRP used its unregulated market power to impose terms that lock customers into remaining what SRP calls “requirements” customers—those who satisfy all their electric needs from, and deal exclusively with, SRP. . . .

SRP’s plan [which imposed a large penalty on any customer who obtained power from its own solar system] worked. . . .  The new requirements it mandated for its customers had a drastic anticompetitive effect. . . .  New rooftop solar applications—from customers of any firm, not just SolarCity—dropped by about 96 percent. . . .  SolarCity was forced to stop selling in SRP territory and to relocate employees.

SolarCity sued SRP for Sherman Antitrust Act violations in Arizona federal district court.  SRP moved to dismiss under the antitrust state action doctrine, which (as Professor Herbert Hovenkamp puts it) “exempts qualifying state and local government regulation from federal antitrust [law], even if the regulation at issue compels an otherwise clear violation of the law.”  The district court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The Ninth Circuit panel opinion (Judge Michelle Friedland, joined by Judges Alex Kozinski and Ronald Lee Gilman) assessed the applicability of the “collateral order doctrine,” which allows an appeal of a non-final district court decision if it is:  (1) conclusive; (2) addresses a question separate from the merits of the underlying case; and (3) raises “some particular value of a high order” that will evade effective review if not considered immediately.  The Ninth Circuit emphasized the Supreme Court’s teaching that the collateral order doctrine is a “narrow exception” that must be “strictly applied.”  It concluded that, “because the state-action doctrine is a defense to liability and not an immunity from suit, the collateral-order doctrine does not give us jurisdiction here [footnotes omitted].”

In its brief supporting its writ of certiorari, SRP stressed that an interlocutory appeal was justified here because“[a] denial of state-action immunity, like a denial of state sovereign immunity, offends state sovereignty, dignity, and autonomy. . . .  [T]he decision below threatens the dignity and autonomy of the states, as well as the division of regulatory power between the state and federal governments, by allowing a political subdivision of a state to be subjected to prolonged litigation for engaging in conduct that was clearly authorized by the state.”

In short, the Supreme Court has been asked to take fundamental federalism principles into account in weighing the applicability of the collateral order doctrine.

Discussion

Set aside for the moment the narrow question of the applicability of specific collateral order doctrine criteria in this case.   Assuming the validity of the facts summarized above, this matter highlights the always-present anticompetitive potential of enabling private parties to exercise monopoly power under the mantle of state authority.  Let us briefly examine, then, key state action principles that apply to essentially private conduct that seeks to shelter under a governmental cloak.

Commendably, in Midcal and 324 Liquor, the Supreme Court made it clear that the state action doctrine does not enable state governments to directly authorize purely private actors to violate the Sherman Act, free from state oversight.  But should an entity such as SRP that is in essence an unregulated for-profit private enterprise, acting in an anticompetitive fashion, be free to undermine the competitive process (benefiting from government subsidies to boot) merely because a century-old state law characterized it as a state political subdivision?

The “spirit” of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence suggests that the answer should be no, and that the Court may be willing to look beyond the formality of a legislative designation (in this case, “state political subdivision”) to questions of political accountability.  In 2015, In North Carolina Dental Board, the Court rejected the claim that state action immunity applied to the self-interested actions of a state dental regulatory board stacked with dentists (the board barred competition from non-dentists in tooth whitening).  In so doing, the Court held that entities designated as state agencies are not exempt from active supervision when they are controlled by market participants, because immunizing such entities from federal antitrust challenge would pose the risk of self-dealing that the Court had warned against in prior decisions, such as Midcal.

A legal formalist might respond that a mere state board is of a lesser dignity than a state political subdivision, such as SRP, which directly exercises state sovereign power, and, as such, is not subject to “active supervision” requirements.  Functionally, however, SRP acts in all respects like a private company, except that it benefits from certain special state subsidies that assist it in undermining competition.  Recognizing that reality, the Court might be willing to say that it will look beyond formal legislative designations to the actual role of a state entity in deciding whether it is, or is not, engaging in “sovereign action.”  (State instrumentalities engaging in classic sovereign functions, such as a state supreme court or state treasury department, would not raise this sort of problem.)

More specifically, the Court might wish to consider whether federal antitrust law should be applicable when a state instrumentality that does not have the attributes of a classic private business – such as a state owned-controlled- and operated electric company, for example – engages in business activity and uses its governmental ties to subvert competition.  Such a company might, for instance, predate against competing private companies by pricing below its own cost to drive out and keep out rivals, relying on taxpayer funding to support its activities.  Activity of this sort could be made subject to a “market participant exception” to the state action doctrine (at the very least requiring state active supervision), as recommended by the Federal Trade Commission’s 2004 State Action Task Force Report.  Such an exception, which has not yet been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court, would reduce the returns to anticompetitive business activity engaged in by privileged “state” agents, thereby promoting commercial freedom and vibrant markets.  And, as two learned commentators recently pointed out, it would not offend federalism principles that underlie the antitrust state action doctrine (footnote references deleted):

[T]he state does not act within its sovereign prerogative when engaged in economic conduct.  It cannot be that the government is truly exercising sovereign powers when acting in the same way as its private citizens.  Thus, restricting the prerogative of state and local governments to engage in economic conduct does not abrogate sovereign immunity.  Therefore, the federalism concerns underpinning the . . . [state action] immunity doctrine are not in play when the State acts as an ordinary market-participant on equal-footing with private citizens.

The policy and federalism justifications for denying state action immunity to an unsupervised state agency acting as a commercial operator would apply “in spades” to SRP, which, as has been seen, in all material respects looks like a purely private actor.

Let’s return now to the specific question before the Supreme Court.  While state action doctrinal issues (including, of course, a possible market operator exception) are not directly presented in the SRP v. SolarCity case, they may well flavor the approach the Court takes in determining the availability of interlocutory appeals of state action immunity denials.  The clear and ringing invocation of federalism principles in petitioners’ brief for certiorari suggests a possible doctrinal hook.  In particular, the Court might determine that respect for the dignity and role of states as coordinate sovereigns compels a finding that denials of antitrust state action immunity should be subject to immediate review.

A ruling that state action questions should be decided “up front” might, however, prove a pyrrhic victory for petitioners.  Counsel for respondents have ably pointed out the quintessentially private commercial nature of SRP’s activities, which could amply support a judicial finding of no state action immunity – whether based on the somewhat novel “market participant” exception or because of inadequate state supervision.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s decision in SPR v. SolarCity will determine the narrow issue of the availability of interlocutory appeals to an antitrust defendant that is denied a dismissal on antitrust state action grounds.  A holding that authorizes such appeals also would have the incidental salutary effect of furthering efficiency, by eliminating a significant source of costly uncertainty affecting the litigation of cases that fall under the shadow of the “state action” umbrella.

More broadly, the facts in SPR v. SolarCity highlight a potential future clarification of the antitrust state action doctrine – establishment of a clear “market participant” exception to state action immunity.  Such an exception commendably would promote effective market processes without offending federalism.  It would also tend to diminish returns to (and thereby weaken incentives to engage in) rent seeking by those firms that seek to obtain a business advantage through special government privilege, rather than through competition on the merits.

Last week, several major drug makers marked the new year by announcing annual increases on list prices.  In addition to drug maker Allergan—which pledged last year to confine price increases below 10 percent and, true to its word, reported 2018 price increases of 9.5 percent—several other companies also stuck to single-digit increases.   Although list or “sticker” prices generally increased by around 9 percent for most drugs, after discounts negotiated with various health plans, the net prices that consumers and insurers actually pay will see much lower increases. For example, Allergan expects that payors will only see net price increases of 2 to 3 percent in 2018.

However, price increases won’t generate the same returns for brand drug companies that they once did.  As insurers and pharmacy benefit managers consolidate and increase their market share, they have been able to capture an increasing share of the money spent on drugs for themselves. Indeed, a 2017 report found that, of the money spent on prescription drugs by patients and health plans at the point of sale, brand drug makers only realized 39 percent.  Meanwhile, supply-chain participants, such as pharmacy benefit managers, realized 42 percent of these expenditures.  What’s more, year-after-year, brand drug makers have seen their share of these point-of-sale expenditures decrease while supply-chain entities have kept a growing share of expenditures for themselves.

Brand drug makers have also experienced a dramatic decline in the return on their R&D investment.  A recent Deloitte study reports that, for the large drug makers they’ve followed since 2010, R&D returns have dropped from over 10 percent to under 4 percent for the last two years.  The ability of supply-chain entities to capture an increasing share of drug expenditures is responsible for at least part of drug makers’ decreasing R&D returns; the study reports that average peak sales for drugs have slowly dropped over time, mirroring drug maker’s decreasing share of expenditures.  In addition, the decline in R&D returns can be traced to the increasing cost of bringing drugs to market; for the companies Deloitte studied, the cost to bring a drug to market has increased from just over $1.1 billion in 2010 to almost $2 billion in 2017.

Brand drug makers’ decreasing share of drug expenditures and declining R&D returns reduce incentives to innovate.  As the payoff from innovation declines, fewer companies will devote the substantial resources necessary to develop innovative new drugs.  In addition, innovation is threatened as brand companies increasingly face uncertainty about the patent rights of the drugs they do bring to market.  As I’ve discussed in a previous post,  the unbalanced inter partes review (IPR) process created under the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act in 2012 has led to significantly higher patent invalidation rates.  Compared to traditional district-court litigation, several pro-challenger provisions under IPR—including a lower standard of proof, a broader claim construction standard, and the ability of patent challengers to force patent owners into duplicative litigation—have resulted in twice as many patents deemed invalid in IPR proceedings.  Moreover, the lack of a standing requirement in IPR proceedings has given rise to “reverse patent trolling,” in which entities that are not litigation targets, or even participants in the same industry, threaten to file an IPR petition challenging the validity of a patent unless the patent holder agrees to specific settlement demands.  Even supporters of IPR proceedings recognize the flaws with the system; as Senator Orrin Hatch stated in a 2017 speech: “Such manipulation is contrary to the intent of IPR and the very purpose of intellectual property law. . . I think Congress needs to take a look at it.” Although the constitutionality of the IPR process is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, if the unbalanced process remains unchanged, the significant uncertainty it creates for drug makers’ patent rights will lead to less innovation in the pharmaceutical industry.  Drug makers will have little incentive to spend billions of dollars to bring a new drug to market when they cannot be certain if the patents for that drug can withstand IPR proceedings that are clearly stacked against them.

We are likely to see a renewed push for drug pricing reforms in 2018 as access to affordable drugs remains a top policy priority.  Although Congress has yet to come together in support of any specific proposal, several states are experimenting with reforms that aim to lower drug prices by requiring more pricing transparency and notice of price increases.  As lawmakers consider these and other reforms, they should consider the current challenges that drug makers already face as their share of drug expenditures and R&D returns decline and patent rights remain uncertain.  Reforms that further threaten drug makers’ financial incentives to innovate could reduce our access to life-saving and life-improving new drugs.

On November 27, the U.S. Supreme Court will turn once again to patent law, hearing cases addressing the constitutionality of Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) “inter partes” review (Oil States Energy v. Greene), and whether PTAB must issue a final written decision as to every claim challenged by the petitioner in an inter partes review (SAS Institute v. Matal).

As the Justices peruse the bench memos and amicus curiae briefs concerning these cases, their minds will, of course, be focused on legal questions of statutory and constitutional interpretation.  Lurking in the background of these and other patent cases, however, is an overarching economic policy issue – have recent statutory changes and case law interpretations weakened U.S. patent protection in a manner that seriously threatens future American economic growth and innovation?  In a recent Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I responded in the affirmative to this question, and argued that significant statutory reforms are needed to restore the American patent system to a position of global leadership that is key to U.S. economic prosperity.  (Among other things, I noted severe constitutional problems raised by PTAB’s actions, and urged that Congress consider passing legislation to reform PTAB, if the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of inter partes review.)

A timely opinion article published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes that the decline in American patent protection also has profound negative consequences for American international economic competitiveness.  Journalist David Kline, author of the commentary (“Fear American Complacency, Not China”), succinctly contrasts unfortunate U.S. patent policy developments with the recent strengthening of the Chinese patent system (a matter of high priority to the Chinese Government):

China’s entrepreneurs have been fueled by reforms in recent years that strengthened intellectual property rights—ironic for a country long accused of stealing trade secrets and ignoring IP protections. Today Chinese companies are filing for more patents than American ones. The patent application and examination process has been streamlined, and China has established specialized intellectual property courts and tribunals to adjudicate lawsuits and issue injunctions against infringers. “IP infringers will pay a heavy price,” President Xi Jinping warned this summer. . . .

In the U.S., by contrast, a series of legislative actions and Supreme Court rulings have weakened patent rights, especially for startups. A new way of challenging patents called “inter partes review” results in at least one patent claim being thrown out in roughly 80% of cases, according to an analysis by Adam Mossoff, a law professor at George Mason University. Unsurprisingly, many of these cases were brought by defendants facing patent infringement lawsuits in federal court.

This does not bode well for America’s global competitiveness. The U.S. used to rank first among nations in the strength of its intellectual property rights. But the 2017 edition of the Global IP Index places the U.S. 10th—tied with Hungary.

The Supreme Court may not be able to take judicial notice of this policy reality (although strong purely legal arguments would support a holding that PTAB inter partes review is unconstitutional), but Congress certainly can take legislative notice of it.  Let us hope that Congress acts decisively to strengthen the American patent system – in the interests of a strong, innovative, and internationally competitive American economy.

David Haddock is Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and a Senior Fellow Emeritus at PERC.

The day Fred McChesney departed this life, the world lost an intelligent, enthusiastic, and intellectually rigorous scholar of law & economics. A great many of us also lost one of our most trusted and generous friends.

I first met Fred when Emory University, hoping to recruit the then young scholar to the law school faculty, brought him to Atlanta to deliver a research paper. The effort was successful, and Fred joined as an assistant professor in the fall of 1983. Jon Macey joined the law school, also as an entry-level assistant professor, at about the same time. A couple of years earlier Professor Bill Carney and law school Dean Tom Morgan had enticed Henry Manne to Emory to establish a new Law & Economics Center. Although Henry did not know me, upon Armen Alchian’s recommendation he persuaded me to leave Ohio State to join the LEC soon after it commenced operation.

I was only a bit older than Fred and Jon. Each of us had training in economics in addition to our interest in law. We shared a respect for markets. We had noticed how often special interests deflected government interventions away from the public interest that was the ostensible motivation. One might say we three had large Venn diagram intersections of background, interest, and outlook. Fred, Jon and I quickly became friends both at work and – along with our respective girlfriends and eventual wives – at leisure. We began to coauthor journal articles and book chapters, sometimes in pairs and sometimes as a trio.

Alas, though Chris Curran and Matt Lindsay from the economics department shared the law school’s enthusiasm for the LEC, the university administration proved decidedly lukewarm toward Manne’s ambitious blueprint. After flashing onto the national, or rather international, stage for a few bright years, the LEC began to atrophy in the face of limitations issuing from above.

Fred, Henry, Jon and I each spent time at the International Center for Economic Research in Torino, Italy, becoming friends with ICER’s director Enrico Colombatto. Macey moved to Cornell. I spent a year at Yale before returning to join Emory’s economics department. Manne left to become dean of a humble law school in the DC suburbs that had been devoted almost exclusively to teaching. Henry quickly transformed that school into a nationally recognized research and innovative teaching institution now known as the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University, but his departure effectively ended the brief if illustrious history of the Emory LEC.

Fred and I visited the University of Chicago in 1987, and though I then moved directly to Northwestern where I finished my career, Fred returned to Emory for another ten years. The two of us continued to coauthor, sometimes with a third such as Bill Shughart, Terry Anderson, or Menahem Spiegel. I worked diligently to get Fred to Northwestern but Cornell succeeded first, though by then Macey had moved on to Yale. Two years later, Fred finally joined me at Northwestern where both he and Elaine held faculty positions until Elaine’s untimely death.

I have mentioned a number of people. Nearly all of those people have changed location, sometimes repeatedly. Through it all and across the deaths of Elaine, then Henry, and now Fred, we have all remained friends and often continued to work together, though usually at a distance.

Everyone who knew him remembers how easily Fred made friends upon meeting new people. Due to his extensive knowledge of rock music, Fred even became a telephone buddy of the late Casey Kasem, longtime host of the nationally syndicated America’s Top 40. Fred’s cordiality was not only social but extended into the work environment. He was no pushover, demanding careful thought in classroom and seminar, but he made his points calmly without endeavoring to cow or humiliate those with whom he disagreed, a trait that unfortunately is far from universal in the academic world.

Considering Fred’s passion for rock music, perhaps it is appropriate to end this remembrance with a few lightly edited lines from James Taylor’s Fire and Rain:

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.
The path laid down has put an end to you.
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,
I just can’t remember who to send it to.

Won’t you look down upon us, Jesus,
You’ve got to help us make a stand.
You’ve just got to see us through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I’d see you again.

Rest in peace, pal.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review the DC Circuit’s 2016 decision upholding the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, and Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law and ICLE affiliate, with able assistance from Kristian Stout and Allen Gibby of ICLE. Jeffrey A. Mandell of the Wisconsin law firm of Stafford Rosenbaum collaborated in drafting the brief and provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Laura Lamansky of Stafford Rosenbaum also assisted. 

The following post discussing the brief was written by Jeff Mandell (originally posted here).

Courts generally defer to agency expertise when reviewing administrative rules that regulate conduct in areas where Congress has delegated authority to specialized executive-branch actors. An entire body of law—administrative law—governs agency actions and judicial review of those actions. And at the federal level, courts grant agencies varying degrees of deference, depending on what kind of function the agency is performing, how much authority Congress delegated, and the process by which the agency adopts or enforces policies.

Should courts be more skeptical when an agency changes a policy position, especially if the agency is reversing prior policy without a corresponding change to the governing statute? Daniel Berninger v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 17-498 (U.S.), raises these questions. And this week Stafford Rosenbaum was honored to serve as counsel of record for the International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and to answer these questions.

ICLE’s amicus brief highlights new academic research suggesting that systematic problems undermine judicial review of agency changes in policy. The brief also points out that judicial review is complicated by conflicting signals from the Supreme Court about the degree of deference that courts should accord agencies in reviewing reversals of prior policy. And the brief argues that the specific policy change at issue in this case lacks a sufficient basis but was affirmed by the court below as the result of a review that was, but should not have been, “particularly deferential.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), which required Internet Service Providers to abide by a series of regulations popularly referred to as net neutrality. To support these regulations, the FCC interpreted the Communications Act of 1934 to grant it authority to heavily regulate broadband internet service. This interpretation reversed a long-standing agency understanding of the statute as permitting only limited regulation of broadband service.

The FCC ostensibly based the OIO on factual and legal analysis. However, ICLE argues, the OIO is actually based on questionable factual reinterpretations and misunderstanding of statutory interpretation adopted more in order to support radical changes in FCC policy than for their descriptive accuracy. When a variety of interested parties challenged the OIO, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the regulations. In doing so, the court afforded substantial deference to the FCC—so much that the D.C. Circuit never addressed the reasonableness of the FCC’s decisionmaking process in reversing prior policy.

ICLE’s amicus brief argues that the D.C. Circuit’s decision “is both in tension with [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and, more, raises exceptionally important and previously unaddressed questions about th[e] Court’s precedents on judicial review of agency changes of policy.” Without further guidance from the Supreme Court, the brief argues, “there is every reason to believe” the FCC will again reverse its position on broadband regulation, such that “the process will become an endless feedback loop—in the case of this regulation and others—at great cost not only to regulated entities and their consumers, but also to the integrity of the regulatory process.”

The ramifications of the Supreme Court accepting this case would be twofold. First, administrative agencies would gain guidance for their decisionmaking processes in considering changes to existing policies. Second, lower courts would gain clarity on agency deference issues, making judicial review more uniform and appropriate where agencies reverse prior policy positions.

Read the full brief here.