Last month the EU General Court annulled the EU Commission’s decision to block the proposed merger of Telefónica UK by Hutchison 3G UK.
It what could be seen as a rebuke of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP), the court clarified the proof required to block a merger, which could have a significant effect on future merger enforcement:
In the context of an analysis of a significant impediment to effective competition the existence of which is inferred from a body of evidence and indicia, and which is based on several theories of harm, the Commission is required to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate with a strong probability the existence of significant impediments following the concentration. Thus, the standard of proof applicable in the present case is therefore stricter than that under which a significant impediment to effective competition is “more likely than not,” on the basis of a “balance of probabilities,” as the Commission maintains. By contrast, it is less strict than a standard of proof based on “being beyond all reasonable doubt.”
Over the relevant time period, there were four retail mobile network operators in the United Kingdom: (1) EE Ltd, (2) O2, (3) Hutchison 3G UK Ltd (“Three”), and (4) Vodafone. The merger would have combined O2 and Three, which would account for 30-40% of the retail market.
The Commission argued that Three’s growth in market share over time and its classification as a “maverick” demonstrated that Three was an “important competitive force” that would be eliminated with the merger. The court was not convinced:
The mere growth in gross add shares over several consecutive years of the smallest mobile network operator in an oligopolistic market, namely Three, which has in the past been classified as a “maverick” by the Commission (Case COMP/M.5650 — T-Mobile/Orange) and in the Statement of Objections in the present case, does not in itself constitute sufficient evidence of that operator’s power on the market or of the elimination of the important competitive constraints that the parties to the concentration exert upon each other.
While the Commission classified Three as a maverick, it also claimed that maverick status was not necessary to be an important competitive force. Nevertheless, the Commission pointed to Three’s history of maverick-y behavior by launching its “One Plan” as well as free international roaming and offering 4G at no additional cost. The court, however, noted that those initiatives were “historical in nature,” and provided no evidence of future conduct:
The Commission’s reasoning in that regard seems to imply that an undertaking which has historically played a disruptive role will necessarily play the same role in the future and cannot reposition itself on the market by adopting a different pricing policy.
The EU General Court appears to express the same frustration with mavericks as the court in in H&R Block/TaxACT: “The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a ‘maverick’ — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis.”
With the General Court’s recent decision raising the bar of proof required to block a merger, it also provided a “strong probability” that the days of maverick madness may soon be over.
[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]
While much of the world of competition policy has focused on mergers in the COVID-19 era. Some observers see mergers as one way of saving distressed but valuable firms. Others have called for a merger moratorium out of fear that more mergers will lead to increased concentration and market power. In the meantime, there has been a growing push for increased nationalization of a wide range of businesses and industries.
In most cases, the call for a government takeover is not a reaction to the public health and economic crises associated with coronavirus. Instead, COVID-19 is a convenient excuse to pursue long sought after policies.
Last year, well before the pandemic, New York mayor Bill de Blasio called for a government takeover of electrical grid operator ConEd because he was upset over blackouts during a heatwave. Earlier that year, he threatened to confiscate housing units from private landlords, “we will seize their buildings, and we will put them in the hands of a community nonprofit that will treat tenants with the respect they deserve.”
With that sort of track record, it should come as no surprise the mayor proposed a government takeover of key industries to address COVID-19: “This is a case for a nationalization, literally a nationalization, of crucial factories and industries that could produce the medical supplies to prepare this country for what we need.” Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative, agrees, “We should nationalize what remains of the American vaccine industry now, thereby assuring that any coronavirus vaccines produced can be made as widely available and as inexpensive soon as possible.”
Dan Sullivan in the American Prospect suggests the U.S. should nationalize all the airlines. Some have gone so far as calling for nationalization of the U.S. oil industry.
On the one hand, it’s clear that de Blasio and Brown have no confidence in the price system to efficiently allocate resources. Alternatively, they may have overconfidence in the political/bureaucratic system to efficiently, and “equitably,” distribute resources. On the other hand, as Daniel Takash points out in an earlier post, both pharmaceuticals and oil are relatively unpopular industries with many Americans, in which case the threat of a government takeover has a big dose of populist score settling:
Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular–trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government.
In the early days of the pandemic, France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire promised to protect “big French companies.” The minister identified a range of actions under consideration: “That can be done by recapitalization, that can be done by taking a stake, I can even use the term nationalization if necessary.” While he did not mention any specific companies, it’s been speculated Air France KLM may be a target.
The Italian government is expected to nationalize Alitalia soon. The airline has been in state administration since May 2017, and the Italian government will have 100% control of the airline by June. Last week, the German government took a 20% stake in Lufthansa, in what has been characterized as a “temporary partial nationalization.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been coy about speculation that the government might nationalize Air Canada.
Obviously, these takeovers have “bailout” written all over them, and bailouts have their own anticompetitive consequences that can be worse than those associated with mergers. For example, RyanAir announced it will contest the aid package for Lufthansa. RyanAir chief executive Michael O’Leary claims the aid will allow Lufthansa to “engage in below-cost selling” and make it harder for RyanAir and its rival low-cost carrier EasyJet to compete.
There is also a bit of a “national champion” aspect to the takeovers. Each of the potential targets are (or were) considered their nation’s flagship airline. World Bank economists Tanja Goodwin and Georgiana Pop highlight the risk of nationalization harming competition:
These [sic] should avoid rescuing firms that were already failing. … But governments should also refrain from engaging in production or service delivery in industries that can be served by the private sector. The role of SOEs [state owned enterprises] should be assessed in order to ensure that bailout packages are not exclusively and unnecessarily favoring a dominant SOE.
To be sure, COVID-19 related mergers could raise the specter of increased market power post-pandemic. But, this risk must be balanced against the risks posed by a merger moratorium. These include the risk of widespread bankruptcies (that’s another post) and/or the possibility of nationalization of firms and industries. Either option can reduce competition which can bring harm to consumers, employees, and suppliers.
[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]
Earlier this week, merger talks between Uber and food delivery service Grubhub surfaced. House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline quickly reacted to the news:
Americans are struggling to put food on the table, and locally owned businesses are doing everything possible to keep serving people in our communities, even under great duress. Uber is a notoriously predatory company that has long denied its drivers a living wage. Its attempt to acquire Grubhub—which has a history of exploiting local restaurants through deceptive tactics and extortionate fees—marks a new low in pandemic profiteering. We cannot allow these corporations to monopolize food delivery, especially amid a crisis that is rendering American families and local restaurants more dependent than ever on these very services. This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support.
Pandemic profiteering rolls nicely off the tongue, and we’re sure to see that phrase much more over the next year or so.
Grubhub shares jumped 29% Tuesday, the day the merger talks came to light, shown in the figure below. The Wall Street Journal reports companies are considering a deal that would value Grubhub stock at around 1.9 Uber shares, or $60-65 dollars a share, based on Thursday’s price.
But is that “pandemic profiteering?”
After Amazon announced its intended acquisition of Whole Foods, the grocer’s stock price soared by 27%. Rep. Cicilline voiced some convoluted concerns about that merger, but said nothing about profiteering at the time. Different times, different messaging.
Rep. Cicilline and others have been calling for a merger moratorium during the pandemic and used the Uber/Grubhub announcement as Exhibit A in his indictment of merger activity.
A moratorium would make things much easier for regulators. No more fighting over relevant markets, no HHI calculations, no experts debating SSNIPs or GUPPIs, no worries over consumer welfare, no failing firm defenses. Just a clear, brightline “NO!”
Even before the pandemic, it was well known that the food delivery industry was due for a shakeout. NPR reports, even as the business is growing, none of the top food-delivery apps are turning a profit, with one analyst concluding consolidation was “inevitable.” Thus, even if a moratorium slowed or stopped the Uber/Grubhub merger, at some point a merger in the industry will happen and the U.S. antitrust authorities will have to evaluate it.
First, we have to ask, “What’s the relevant market?” The government has a history of defining relevant markets so narrowly that just about any merger can be challenged. For example, for the scuttled Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger, the FTC famously narrowed the market to “premium natural and organic supermarkets.” Surely, similar mental gymnastics will be used for any merger involving food delivery services.
While food delivery has grown in popularity over the past few years, delivery represents less than 10% of U.S. food service sales. While Rep. Cicilline may be correct that families and local restaurants are “more dependent than ever” on food delivery, delivery is only a small fraction of a large market. Even a monopoly of food delivery service would not confer market power on the restaurant and food service industry.
No reasonable person would claim an Uber/Grubhub merger would increase market power in the restaurant and food service industry. But, it might convey market power in the food delivery market. Much attention is paid to the “Big Four”–DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. But, these platform delivery services are part of the larger food service delivery market, of which platforms account for about half of the industry’s revenues. Pizza accounts for the largest share of restaurant-to-consumer delivery.
This raises the big question of what is the relevant market: Is it the entire food delivery sector, or just the platform-to-consumer sector?
Based on the information in the figure below, defining the market narrowly would place an Uber/Grubhub merger squarely in the “presumed to be likely to enhance market power” category.
2016 HHI: <3,175
2018 HHI: <1,474
2020 HHI: <2,249 pre-merger; <4,153 post-merger
Alternatively, defining the market to encompass all food delivery would cut the platforms’ shares roughly in half and the merger would be unlikely to harm competition, based on HHI. Choosing the relevant market is, well, relevant.
The Second Measure data suggests that concentration in the platform delivery sector decreased with the entry of Uber Eats, but subsequently increased with DoorDash’s rising share–which included the acquisition of Caviar from Square.
(NB: There seems to be a significant mismatch in the delivery revenue data. Statista reports platform delivery revenues increased by about 40% from 2018 to 2020, but Second Measure indicates revenues have more than doubled.)
Geoffrey Manne, in an earlier post points out “while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.” That may be the case here.
The figure below is a sample of platform delivery shares by city. I added data from an earlier study of 2017 shares. In all but two metro areas, Uber and Grubhub’s combined market share declined from 2017 to 2020. In Boston, the combined shares did not change and in Los Angeles, the combined shares increased by 1%.
(NB: There are some serious problems with this data, notably that it leaves out the restaurant-to-consumer sector and assumes the entire platform-to-consumer sector is comprised of only the “Big Four.”)
Platform-to-consumer delivery is a complex two-sided market in which the platforms link, and compete for, both restaurants and consumers. Platforms compete for restaurants, drivers, and consumers. Restaurants have a choice of using multiple platforms or entering into exclusive arrangements. Many drivers work for multiple platforms, and many consumers use multiple platforms.
Fundamentally, the rise of platform-to-consumer is an evolution in vertical integration. Restaurants can choose to offer no delivery, use their own in-house delivery drivers, or use a third party delivery service. Every platform faces competition from in-house delivery, placing a limit on their ability to raise prices to restaurants and consumers.
The choice of delivery is not an either-or decision. For example, many pizza restaurants who have their own delivery drivers also use platform delivery service. Their own drivers may serve a limited geographic area, but the platforms allow the restaurant to expand its geographic reach, thereby increasing its sales. Even so, the platforms face competition from in-house delivery.
Mergers or other forms of shake out in the food delivery industry are inevitable. Mergers will raise important questions about relevant product and geographic markets as well as competition in two-sided markets. While there is a real risk of harm to restaurants, drivers, and consumers, there is also a real possibility of welfare enhancing efficiencies. These questions will never be addressed with an across-the-board merger moratorium.
[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Noah Phillips (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]
Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package. By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.
The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them. That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.
First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.
Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)
Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).
Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.
Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.
So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.
As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral. But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns. It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.
M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis. In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.
Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.
 The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available athttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.
 The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.
 Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.
 Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.
 As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).
 Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.
 The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.
[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics); and Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE)]
Back in 2012, Covidien, a large health care products company and medical device manufacturer, purchased Newport Medical Instruments, a small ventilator developer and manufacturer. (Covidien itself was subsequently purchased by Medtronic in 2015).
Eight years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has just published an article revisiting the Covidien/Newport transaction, and questioning whether it might have contributed to the current shortage of ventilators.
The article speculates that Covidien’s purchase of Newport, and the subsequent discontinuation of Newport’s “Aura” ventilator — which was then being developed by Newport under a government contract — delayed US government efforts to procure mechanical ventilators until the second half of 2020 — too late to treat the first wave of COVID-19 patients:
And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.
That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up.
* * *
Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment.
The article has generated considerable interest not so much for what it suggests about government procurement policies or for its relevance to the ventilator shortages associated with the current pandemic, but rather for its purported relevance to ongoing antitrust debates and the arguments put forward by “antitrust populists” and others that merger enforcement in the US is dramatically insufficient.
Only a single sentence in the article itself points to a possible antitrust story — and it does nothing more than report unsubstantiated speculation from unnamed “government officials” and rival companies:
Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.
Nevertheless, and right on cue, various antitrust scholars quickly framed the deal as a so-called “killer acquisition” (see also here and here):
Unsurprisingly, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. David Cicilline, the powerful chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, opined that:
The public reporting on this acquisition raises important questions about the review of this deal. We should absolutely be looking back to figure out what happened.
These “hot takes” raise a crucial issue. The New York Times story opened the door to a welter of hasty conclusions offered to support the ongoing narrative that antitrust enforcement has failed us — in this case quite literally at the cost of human lives. But are any of these claims actually supportable?
Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the mechanical ventilator industry, as well as a more clear-eyed view of what was likely going on with the failed government contract at the heart of the story, simply do not support the “killer acquisition” story.
What is a “killer acquisition”…?
Let’s take a step back. Because monopoly profits are, by definition, higher than joint duopoly profits (all else equal), economists have long argued that incumbents may find it profitable to acquire smaller rivals in order to reduce competition and increase their profits. More specifically, incumbents may be tempted to acquire would-be entrants in order to prevent them from introducing innovations that might hurt the incumbent’s profits.
For this theory to have any purchase, however, a number of conditions must hold. Most importantly, as Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma put it in an influential paper:
“killer acquisitions” can only occur when the entrepreneur’s project overlaps with the acquirer’s existing product…. [W]ithout any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur… because, without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.
Moreover, the authors add that:
Successfully developing a new product draws consumer demand and profits away equally from all existing products. An acquiring incumbent is hurt more by such cannibalization when he is a monopolist (i.e., the new product draws demand away only from his own existing product) than when he already faces many other existing competitors (i.e., cannibalization losses are spread over many firms). As a result, as the number of existing competitors increases, the replacement effect decreases and the acquirer’s development decisions become more similar to those of the entrepreneur.
Finally, the “killer acquisition” terminology is appropriate only when the incumbent chooses to discontinue its rival’s R&D project:
If incumbents face significant existing competition, acquired projects are not significantly more frequently discontinued than independent projects. Thus, more competition deters incumbents from acquiring and terminating the projects of potential future competitors, which leads to more competition in the future.
…And what isn’t a killer acquisition?
What is left out of this account of killer acquisitions is the age-old possibility that an acquirer purchases a rival precisely because it has superior know-how or a superior governance structure that enables it to realize greater return and more productivity than its target. In the case of a so-called killer acquisition, this means shutting down a negative ROI project and redeploying resources to other projects or other uses — including those that may not have any direct relation to the discontinued project.
Such “synergistic” mergers are also — like allegedly “killer” mergers — likely to involve acquirers and targets in the same industry and with technological overlap between their R&D projects; it is in precisely these situations that the acquirer is likely to have better knowledge than the target’s shareholders that the target is undervalued because of poor governance rather than exogenous, environmental factors.
In other words, whether an acquisition is harmful or not — as the epithet “killer” implies it is — depends on whether it is about reducing competition from a rival, on the one hand, or about increasing the acquirer’s competitiveness by putting resources to more productive use, on the other.
As argued below, it is highly unlikely that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport could be classified as a “killer acquisition.” There is thus nothing to suggest that the merger materially impaired competition in the mechanical ventilator market, or that it measurably affected the US’s efforts to fight COVID-19.
The market realities of the ventilator market and its implications for the “killer acquisition” story
1. The mechanical ventilator market is highly competitive
As explained above, “killer acquisitions” are less likely to occur in competitive markets. Yet the mechanical ventilator industry is extremely competitive.
Medical ventilators market competition is intense.
The conclusion that the mechanical ventilator industry is highly competitive is further supported by the fact that the five largest producers combined reportedly hold only 50% of the market. In other words, available evidence suggests that none of these firms has anything close to a monopoly position.
Similarly, following preliminary investigations, neither the FTC nor the European Commission saw the need for an in-depth look at the ventilator market when they reviewed Medtronic’s subsequent acquisition of Covidien (which closed in 2015). Although Medtronic did not produce any mechanical ventilators before the acquisition, authorities (particularly the European Commission) could nevertheless have analyzed that market if Covidien’s presumptive market share was particularly high. The fact that they declined to do so tends to suggest that the ventilator market was relatively unconcentrated.
2. The value of the merger was too small
A second strong reason to believe that Covidien’s purchase of Newport wasn’t a killer acquisition is the acquisition’s value of $103 million.
Indeed, if it was clear that Newport was about to revolutionize the ventilator market, then Covidien would likely have been made to pay significantly more than $103 million to acquire it.
As noted above, the crux of the “killer acquisition” theory is that incumbents can induce welfare-reducing acquisitions by offering to acquire their rivals for significantly more than the present value of their rivals’ expected profits. Because an incumbent undertaking a “killer” takeover expects to earn monopoly profits as a result of the transaction, it can offer a substantial premium and still profit from its investment. It is this basic asymmetry that drives the theory.
[Where] a court may lack the expertise to [assess the commercial significance of acquired technology]…, the transaction value… may provide a reasonable proxy. Intuitively, if the startup is a relatively small company with relatively few sales to its name, then a very high acquisition price may reasonably suggest that the startup technology has significant promise.
The strategy only works, however, if the target firm’s shareholders agree that share value properly reflects only “normal” expected profits, and not that the target is poised to revolutionize its market with a uniquely low-cost or high-quality product. Relatively low acquisition prices relative to market size, therefore, tend to reflect low (or normal) expected profits, and a low perceived likelihood of radical innovations occurring.
We can apply this reasoning to Covidien’s acquisition of Newport:
Precise and publicly available figures concerning the mechanical ventilator market are hard to come by. Nevertheless, one estimate finds that the global ventilator market was worth $2.715 billion in 2012. Another report suggests that the global market was worth $4.30 billion in 2018; still another that it was worth $4.58 billion in 2019.
As noted above, Covidien reported to the SEC that it paid $103 million to purchase Newport (a firm that produced only ventilators and apparently had no plans to branch out).
For context, at the time of the acquisition Covidien had annual sales of $11.8 billion overall, and $743 million in sales of its existing “Airways and Ventilation Products.”
If the ventilator market was indeed worth billions of dollars per year, then the comparatively small $108 million paid by Covidien — small even relative to Covidien’s own share of the market — suggests that, at the time of the acquisition, it was unlikely that Newport was poised to revolutionize the market for mechanical ventilators (for instance, by successfully bringing its Aura ventilator to market).
The New York Times article claimed that Newport’s ventilators would be sold (at least to the US government) for $3,000 — a substantial discount from the reportedly then-going rate of $10,000. If selling ventilators at this price seemed credible at the time, then Covidien — as well as Newport’s shareholders — knew that Newport was about to achieve tremendous cost savings, enabling it to offer ventilators not only to the the US government, but to purchasers around the world, at an irresistibly attractive — and profitable — price.
Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.
“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”
If achievable, Newport thus stood to earn a substantial share of the profits in a multi-billion dollar industry.
Of course, it is necessary to apply a probability to these numbers: Newport’s ventilator was not yet on the market, and had not yet received FDA approval. Nevertheless, if the Times’ numbers seemed credible at the time, then Covidien would surely have had to offer significantly more than $108 million in order to induce Newport’s shareholders to part with their shares.
Given the low valuation, however, as well as the fact that Newport produced other ventilators — and continues to do so to this day, there is no escaping the fact that everyone involved seemed to view Newport’s Aura ventilator as nothing more than a moonshot with, at best, a low likelihood of success.
Curically, this same reasoning explains why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the project was ultimately discontinued; recourse to a “killer acquisition” theory is hardly necessary.
3. Lessons from Covidien’s ventilator product decisions
The killer acquisition claims are further weakened by at least four other important pieces of information:
Covidien initially continued to develop Newport’s Aura ventilator, and continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators.
There was little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators — or, at the very least, they were highly differentiated
Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
The Newport purchase was part of a billion dollar series of acquisitions seemingly aimed at expanding Covidien’s in-hospital (i.e., not-portable) device portfolio
Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s ventilators
For a start, while the Aura line was indeed discontinued by Covidien, the timeline is important. The acquisition of Newport by Covidien was announced in March 2012, approved by the FTC in April of the same year, and the deal was closed on May 1, 2012.
However, as the FDA’s 510(k) database makes clear, Newport submitted documents for FDA clearance of the Aura ventilator months after its acquisition by Covidien (June 29, 2012, to be precise). And the Aura received FDA 510(k) clearance on November 9, 2012 — many months after the merger.
It would have made little sense for Covidien to invest significant sums in order to obtain FDA clearance for a project that it planned to discontinue (the FDA routinely requires parties to actively cooperate with it, even after 510(k) applications are submitted).
Moreover, if Covidien really did plan to discreetly kill off the Aura ventilator, bungling the FDA clearance procedure would have been the perfect cover under which to do so. Yet that is not what it did.
Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators
Second, and just as importantly, Covidien (and subsequently Medtronic) continued to sell Newport’s other ventilators. The Newport e360 and HT70 are still sold today. Covidien also continued to improve these products: it appears to have introduced an improved version of the Newport HT70 Plus ventilator in 2013.
If eliminating its competitor’s superior ventilators was the only goal of the merger, then why didn’t Covidien also eliminate these two products from its lineup, rather than continue to improve and sell them?
At least part of the answer, as will be seen below, is that there was almost no overlap between Covidien and Newport’s product lines.
There was little overlap between Covidien’s and Newport’s ventilators
Third — and perhaps the biggest flaw in the killer acquisition story — is that there appears to have been very little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators.
This decreases the likelihood that the merger was a killer acquisition. When two products are highly differentiated (or not substitutes at all), sales of the first are less likely to cannibalize sales of the other. As Florian Ederer and his co-authors put it:
Importantly, without any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur, neither to “Acquire to Kill” nor to “Acquire to Continue.” This is because without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.
A quick search of the FDA’s 510(k) database reveals that Covidien has three approved lines of ventilators: the Puritan Bennett 980, 840, and 540 (apparently essentially the same as the PB560, the plans to which Medtronic recently made freely available in order to facilitate production during the current crisis). The same database shows that these ventilators differ markedly from Newport’s ventilators (particularly the Aura).
In particular, Covidien manufactured primarily traditional, invasive ICU ventilators (except for the PB540, which is potentially a substitute for the Newport HT70), while Newport made much-more-portable ventilators, suitable for home use (notably the Aura, HT50 and HT70 lines).
Under normal circumstances, critical care and portable ventilators are not substitutes. As the WHO website explains, portable ventilators are:
[D]esigned to provide support to patients who do not require complex critical care ventilators.
A quick glance at Medtronic’s website neatly illustrates the stark differences between these two types of devices:
This is not to say that these devices do not have similar functionalities, or that they cannot become substitutes in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. However, in normal times (as was the case when Covidien acquired Newport), hospitals likely did not view these devices as substitutes.
The conclusion that Covidien and Newport’s ventilator were not substitutes finds further support in documents and statements released at the time of the merger. For instance, Covidien’s CEO explained that:
This acquisition is consistent with Covidien’s strategy to expand into adjacencies and invest in product categories where it can develop a global competitive advantage.
Newport’s products and technology complement our current portfolio of respiratory solutions and will broaden our ventilation platform for patients around the world, particularly in emerging markets.
In short, the fact that almost all of Covidien and Newport’s products were not substitutes further undermines the killer acquisition story. It also tends to vindicate the FTC’s decision to rapidly terminate its investigation of the merger.
Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
Perhaps most tellingly: It appears that Covidien discontinued production of its own competing, portable ventilator, the Puritan Bennett 560, in 2014.
The product is reported on the company’s 2011, 2012 and 2013 annual reports:
Airway and Ventilation Products — airway, ventilator, breathing systems and inhalation therapy products. Key products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 line of ventilators; the Puritan Bennett™ 520 and 560 portable ventilator….
Surely if Covidien had intended to capture the portable ventilator market by killing off its competition it would have continued to actually sell its own, competing device. The fact that the only portable ventilators produced by Covidien by 2014 were those it acquired in the Newport deal strongly suggests that its objective in that deal was the acquisition and deployment of Newport’s viable and profitable technologies — not the abandonment of them. This, in turn, suggests that the Aura was not a viable and profitable technology.
(Admittedly we are unable to determine conclusively that either Covidien or Medtronic stopped producing the PB520/540/560 series of ventilators. But our research seems to indicate strongly that this is indeed the case).
Putting the Newport deal in context
Finally, although not dispositive, it seems important to put the Newport purchase into context. In the same year as it purchased Newport, Covidien paid more than a billion dollars to acquire five other companies, as well — all of them primarily producing in-hospital medical devices.
That 2012 spending spree came on the heels of a series of previous medical device company acquisitions, apparently totally some four billion dollars. Although not exclusively so, the acquisitions undertaken by Covidien seem to have been primarily targeted at operating room and in-hospital monitoring and treatment — making the putative focus on cornering the portable (home and emergency) ventilator market an extremely unlikely one.
By the time Covidien was purchased by Medtronic the deal easily cleared antitrust review because of the lack of overlap between the company’s products, with Covidien’s focusing predominantly on in-hospital, “diagnostic, surgical, and critical care” and Medtronic’s on post-acute care.
Newport misjudged the costs associated with its Aura project; Covidien was left to pick up the pieces
So why was the Aura ventilator discontinued?
Although it is almost impossible to know what motivated Covidien’s executives, the Aura ventilator project clearly suffered from many problems.
The Aura project was intended to meet the requirements of the US government’s BARDA program (under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). In short, the program sought to create a stockpile of next generation ventilators for emergency situations — including, notably, pandemics. The ventilator would thus have to be designed for events where
mass casualties may be expected, and when shortages of experienced health care providers with respiratory support training, and shortages of ventilators and accessory components may be expected.
The Aura ventilator would thus sit somewhere between Newport’s two other ventilators: the e360 which could be used in pediatric care (for newborns smaller than 5kg) but was not intended for home care use (or the extreme scenarios envisioned by the US government); and the more portable HT70 which could be used in home care environments, but not for newborns.
Unfortunately, the Aura failed to achieve this goal. The FDA’s 510(k) clearance decision clearly states that the Aura was not intended for newborns:
The AURA family of ventilators is applicable for infant, pediatric and adult patients greater than or equal to 5 kg (11 lbs.).
the company was unable to secure FDA approval for use in neonatal populations — a contract requirement.
And the US Government RFP confirms that this was indeed an important requirement:
The device must be able to provide the same standard of performance as current FDA pre-market cleared portable ventilators and shall have the following additional characteristics or features:
• Flexibility to accommodate a wide patient population range from neonate to adult.
Newport also seems to have been unable to deliver the ventilator at the low price it had initially forecasted — a common problem for small companies and/or companies that undertake large R&D programs. It also struggled to complete the project within the agreed-upon deadlines. As the Medtronic press release explains:
Covidien learned that Newport’s work on the ventilator design for the Government had significant gaps between what it had promised the Government and what it could deliver — both in terms of being able to achieve the cost of production specified in the contract and product features and performance. Covidien management questioned whether Newport’s ability to complete the project as agreed to in the contract was realistic.
As Jason Crawford, an engineer and tech industry commentator, put it:
Projects fail all the time. “Supplier risk” should be a standard checkbox on anyone’s contingency planning efforts. This is even more so when you deliberately push the price down to 30% of the market rate. Newport did not even necessarily expect to be profitable on the contract.
The above is mostly Covidien’s “side” of the story, of course. But other pieces of evidence lend some credibility to these claims:
Newport agreed to deliver its Aura ventilator at a per unit cost of less than $3000. But, even today, this seems extremely ambitious. For instance, the WHO has estimated that portable ventilators cost between $3,300 and $13,500. If Newport could profitably sell the Aura at such a low price, then there was little reason to discontinue it (readers will recall the development of the ventilator was mostly complete when Covidien put a halt to the project).
Covidien/Newport is not the only firm to have struggled to offer suitable ventilators at such a low price. Philips (which took Newport’s place after the government contract fell through) also failed to achieve this low price. Rather than the $2,000 price sought in the initial RFP, Philips ultimately agreed to produce the ventilators for $3,280. But it has not yet been able to produce a single ventilator under the government contract at that price.
Covidien has repeatedly been forced to recall some of its other ventilators ( here, here and here) — including the Newport HT70. And rival manufacturers have also faced these types of issues (for example, here and here).
Accordingly, Covidien may well have preferred to cut its losses on the already problem-prone Aura project, before similar issues rendered it even more costly.
In short, while it is impossible to prove that these development issues caused Covidien to pull the plug on the Aura project, it is certainly plausible that they did. This further supports the hypothesis that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport was not a killer acquisition.
Ending the Aura project might have been an efficient outcome
As suggested above, moreover, it is entirely possible that Covidien was better able to realize the poor prospects of Newport’s Aura project and also better organized to enable it to make the requisite decision to abandon the project.
Moreover, the relatively large share of revue and reputation that Newport — worth $103 million in 2012, versus Covidien’s $11.8 billion — would have realized from fulfilling a substantial US government project could well have induced it to overestimate the project’s viability and to undertake excessive risk in the (vain) hope of bringing the project to fruition.
While there is a tendency among antitrust scholars, enforcers, and practitioners to look for (and find…) antitrust-related rationales for mergers and other corporate conduct, it remains the case that most corporate control transactions (such as mergers) are driven by the acquiring firm’s expectation that it can manage more efficiently. As Henry G. Manne put it in his seminal article, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control (1965):
Since, in a world of uncertainty, profitable transactions will be entered into more often by those whose information is relatively more reliable, it should not surprise us that mergers within the same industry have been a principal form of changing corporate control. Reliable information is often available to suppliers and customers as well. Thus many vertical mergers may be of the control takeover variety rather than of the “foreclosure of competitors” or scale-economies type.
Of course, the same information that renders an acquiring firm in the same line of business knowledgeable enough to operate a target more efficiently could also enable it to effect a “killer acquisition” strategy. But the important point is that a takeover by a firm with a competing product line, after which the purchased company’s product line is abandoned, is at least as consistent with a “market for corporate control” story as with a “killer acquisition” story.
“Killer acquisitions” can have a nefarious image, but killing off a rival’s product was probably not the main purpose of the transaction, Ederer said. He raised the possibility that Covidien decided to kill Newport’s innovation upon realising that the development of the devices would be expensive and unlikely to result in profits.
In conclusion, Covidien’s acquisition of Newport offers a cautionary tale about reckless journalism, “blackboard economics,” and government failure.
Reckless journalism because the New York Times clearly failed to do the appropriate due diligence for its story. Its journalists notably missed (or deliberately failed to mention) a number of critical pieces of information — such as the hugely important fact that most of Covidien’s and Newport’s products did not overlap, or the fact that there were numerous competitors in the highly competitive mechanical ventilator industry.
And yet, that did not stop the authors from publishing their extremely alarming story, effectively suggesting that a small medical device merger materially contributed to the loss of many American lives.
What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth.
Numerouscommentators rushed to fit the story to their preconceived narratives, failing to undertake even a rudimentary examination of the underlying market conditions before they voiced their recriminations.
The only thing that Covidien and Newport’s merger ostensibly had in common with the killer acquisition theory was the fact that a large firm purchased a small rival, and that the one of the small firm’s products was discontinued. But this does not even begin to meet the stringent conditions that must be fulfilled for the theory to hold water. Unfortunately, critics appear to have completely ignored all contradicting evidence.
Finally, what the New York Times piece does offer is a chilling tale of government failure.
The inception of the US government’s BARDA program dates back to 2008 — twelve years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US.
The collapse of the Aura project is no excuse for the fact that, more than six years after the Newport contract fell through, the US government still has not obtained the necessary ventilators. Questions should also be raised about the government’s decision to effectively put all of its eggs in the same basket — twice. If anything, it is thus government failure that was the real culprit.
And yet the New York Times piece and the critics shouting “killer acquisition!” effectively give the US government’s abject failure here a free pass — all in the service of pursuing their preferred “killer story.”
In antitrust lore, mavericks are magical creatures that bring order to a world on the verge of monopoly. Because they are so hard to find in the wild, some researchers have attempted to create them in the laboratory. While the alchemists couldn’t turn lead into gold, they did discover zinc. Similarly, although modern day researchers can’t turn students into mavericks, they have created a useful classroom exercise.
In a Cambridge University working paper, Donja Darai, Catherine Roux, and Frédéric Schneider develop a simple experiment to model merger activity in the face of price competition. Based on their observations they conclude (1) firms are more likely to make merger offers when prices are closer to marginal cost and (2) “maverick firms” – firms who charge a lower price – are more likely to be on the receiving end of those merger offers. Based on these conclusions, they suggest “mergers may be used to eliminate mavericks from the market and thus substitute for failed attempts at collusion between firms.”
The experiment is a set of games broken up into “market” phases and “merger” phases.
Each experiment has four subjects, with each subject representing a firm.
Each firm has marginal cost of zero and no capacity constraints.
Each experiment has nine phases: five “market” phases of 10 trading periods and a four “merger” phases.
During a trading period, firms simultaneously post their asking prices, ranging from 0 to 100 “currency units.” Subjects cannot communicate their prices to each other.
A computerized “buyer” purchases 300 units of the good at the lowest posted price. In the case of identical lowest prices, the sales are split equally among the firms with the lowest posted price.
At the end of the market phase, the firms enter a merger phase in which any firm can offer to merge with any other firm. Firms being made an offer to merge can accept or reject the offer. There are no price terms for the merger. Instead, the subject controlling the acquired firm receives an equal share of the acquiring firm’s profits in subsequent trading periods. Each firm can acquire only one other firm in each merger round.
The market-merger phases repeat, ending with a final market phase.
Subjects receive cash compensation related to the the “profits” their firm earned over the course of the experiment.
Merger to monopoly is a dominant strategy: It is the clearest path to maximizing individual and joint profits. In that way it’s a pretty boring game. Bid low, merge toward monopoly, then bid 100 every turn after that. The only real “trick” is convincing the other players to merge.
The authors attempt to make the paper more interesting by introducing the idea of the “maverick” bidder who bids low. They find that the lowest bidders are more likely to receive merger offers than the other subjects. They also find that these so-called mavericks are more reluctant to accept a merger offer.
I noted in my earlier post that modeling the “maverick” seems to be a fool’s errand. If firms are assumed to face the same cost and demand conditions, why would any single firm play the role of the maverick? In the standard prisoner’s dilemma problem, every firm has the incentive to be the maverick. If everyone’s a maverick, then no one’s a maverick. On the other hand, if one firm has unique cost or demand conditions or is assumed to have some preference for “mavericky” behavior, then the maverick model is just an ad hoc model where the conclusions are baked into the assumptions.
Darai, et al.’s experiment suffers from these same criticisms. They define the “maverick” as a low bidder who does not accept merger offers. But, they don’t have a model for why they behave the way they do. Some observations:
Another name for “low bidder” is “winner.” If the low bidders consistently win in the market phase, then they may believe that they have some special skill or luck that the other subjects don’t have. Why would a winner accept a merger bid from – and share his or her profits with – one or more “losers.”
Another name for “low bidder” could be “newbie.” The low bidder may be the subject who doesn’t understand that the dominant strategy is to merge to monopoly as fast as possible and charge the maximum price. The other players conclude the low bidder doesn’t know how to play the game. In other words, the merger might be viewed more as a hostile takeover to replace “bad” management. Because even bad managers won’t admit they’re bad, they make another bad decision and resist the merger.
About 80% of the time, the experiment ends with a monopoly, indicating that even the mavericks eventually merge.
See what I just did? I created my own ad hoc theories of the maverick. In one theory, the maverick thinks he or she has some unique ability to pick the winning asking price. In the other, the maverick is making decisions counter to its own – and other players’ – long term self-interest.
Darai, et al. have created a fun game. I played a truncated version of it with my undergraduate class earlier this week and it generated a good discussion about pricing and coordination. But, please don’t call it a model of the maverick.
On Monday evening, around 6:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, news leaked that the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York had decided to allow the T-Mobile/Sprint merger to go through, giving the companies a victory over a group of state attorneys general trying to block the deal.
Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at NYU, used this opportunity to conduct a quick-and-dirty event study on Twitter:
Short thread on T-Mobile/Sprint merger. There were 2 theories:
(A) It’s a 4-to-3 merger that will lower competition and increase markups.
(B) The new merged entity will be able to take on the industry leaders AT&T and Verizon.
(A) and (B) make clear predictions. (A) predicts the merger is good news for AT&T and Verizon’s shareholders. (B) predicts the merger is bad news for AT&T and Verizon’s shareholders. The news leaked at 6pm that the judge would approve the merger. Sprint went up 60% as expected. Let’s test the theories.
Here is Verizon’s after trading price: Up 2.5%.
Here is ATT after hours: Up 2%.
Conclusion 1: Theory B is bogus, and the merger is a transfer of at least 2%*$280B (AT&T) + 2.5%*$240B (Verizon) = $11.6 billion from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of shareholders.
Conclusion 2: I and others have argued for a long time that theory B was bogus; this was anticipated. But lobbying is very effective indeed…
Conclusion 3: US consumers already pay two or three times more than those of other rich countries for their cell phone plans. The gap will only increase.
And just a reminder: these firms invest 0% of the excess profits.
Philippon published his thread about 40 minutes prior to markets opening for regular trading on Tuesday morning. The Court’s official decision was published shortly before markets opened as well. By the time regular trading began at 9:30 AM, Verizon had completely reversed its overnight increase and opened down from the previous day’s close. While AT&T opened up slightly, it too had given back most of its initial gains. By 11:00 AM, AT&T was also in the red. When markets closed at 4:00 PM on Tuesday, Verizon was down more than 2.5 percent and AT&T was down just under 0.5 percent.
Does this mean that, in fact, theory A is the “bogus” one? Was the T-Mobile/Sprint merger decision actually a transfer of “$7.4 billion from the pockets of shareholders to the pockets of consumers,” as I suggested in my own tongue-in-cheek thread later that day? In this post, I will look at the factors that go into conducting a proper event study.
What’s the appropriate window for a merger event study?
In a response to my thread, Philippon said, “I would argue that an event study is best done at the time of the event, not 16 hours after. Leak of merger approval 6 pm Monday. AT&T up 2 percent immediately. AT&T still up at open Tuesday. Then comes down at 10am.” I don’t disagree that “an event study is best done at the time of the event.” In this case, however, we need to consider two important details: When was the “event” exactly, and what were the conditions in the financial markets at that time?
This event did not begin and end with the leak on Monday night. The official announcement came Tuesday morning when the full text of the decision was published. This additional information answered a few questions for market participants:
Were the initial news reports true?
Based on the text of the decision, what is the likelihood it gets reversed on appeal?
Wall Street: “Not all analysts are convinced this story is over just yet. In a note released immediately after the judge’s verdict, Nomura analyst Jeff Kvaal warned that ‘we expect the state AGs to appeal.’ RBC Capital analyst Jonathan Atkin noted that such an appeal, if filed, could delay closing of the merger by ‘an additional 4-5’ months — potentially delaying closure until September 2020.”
Did the Court impose any further remedies or conditions on the merger?
As stock traders digested all the information from the decision, Verizon and AT&T quickly went negative. There is much debate in the academic literature about the appropriate window for event studies on mergers. But the range in question is always one of days or weeks — not a couple hours in after hours markets. A recent paper using the event study methodology analyzed roughly 5,000 mergers and found abnormal returns of about positive one percent for competitors in the relevant market following a merger announcement. Notably for our purposes, this small abnormal return builds in the first few days following a merger announcement and persists for up to 30 days, as shown in the chart below:
As with the other studies the paper cites in its literature review, this particular research design included a window of multiple weeks both before and after the event occured. When analyzing the T-Mobile/Sprint merger decision, we should similarly expand the window beyond just a few hours of after hours trading.
How liquid is the after hours market?
More important than the length of the window, however, is the relative liquidity of the market during that time. The after hours market is much thinner than the regular hours market and may not reflect all available information. For some rough numbers, let’s look at data from NASDAQ. For the last five after hours trading sessions, total volume was between 80 and 100 million shares. Let’s call it 90 million on average. By contrast, the total volume for the last five regular trading hours sessions was between 2 and 2.5 billion shares. Let’s call it 2.25 billion on average. So, the regular trading hours have roughly 25 times as much liquidity as the after hours market.
We could also look at relative liquidity for a single company as opposed to the total market. On Wednesday during regular hours (data is only available for the most recent day), 22.49 million shares of Verizon stock were traded. In after hours trading that same day, fewer than a million shares traded hands. You could change some assumptions and account for other differences in the after market and the regular market when analyzing the data above. But the conclusion remains the same: the regular market is at least an order of magnitude more liquid than the after hours market. This is incredibly important to keep in mind as we compare the after hours price changes (as reported by Philippon) to the price changes during regular trading hours.
What are Wall Street analysts saying about the decision?
To understand the fundamentals behind these stock moves, it’s useful to see what Wall Street analysts are saying about the merger decision. Prior to the ruling, analysts were already worried about Verizon’s ability to compete with the combined T-Mobile/Sprint entity in the short- and medium-term:
Last week analysts at LightShed Partners wrote that if Verizon wins most of the first available tranche of C-band spectrum, it could deploy 60 MHz in 2022 and see capacity and speed benefits starting in 2023.
“With that timeline, C-Band still does not answer the questions of what spectrum Verizon will be using for the next three years,” wrote LightShed’s Walter Piecyk and Joe Galone at the time.
Following the news of the decision, analysts were clear in delivering their own verdict on how the decision would affect Verizon:
“Verizon looks to us to be a net loser here,” wrote the MoffettNathanson team led by Craig Moffett.
“Approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal takes not just one but two spectrum options off the table,” wrote Moffett. “Sprint is now not a seller of 2.5 GHz spectrum, and Dish is not a seller of AWS-4. More than ever, Verizon must now bet on C-band.”
LightShed also pegged Tuesday’s merger ruling as a negative for Verizon.
“It’s not great news for Verizon, given that it removes Sprint and Dish’s spectrum as an alternative, created a new competitor in Dish, and has empowered T-Mobile with the tools to deliver a superior network experience to consumers,” wrote LightShed.
In a note following news reports that the court would side with T-Mobile and Sprint, New Street analyst Johnathan Chaplin wrote, “T-Mobile will be far more disruptive once they have access to Sprint’s spectrum than they have been until now.”
AT&T, though, has been busy deploying additional spectrum, both as part of its FirstNet build and to support 5G rollouts. This has seen AT&T increase its amount of deployed spectrum by almost 60%, according to Moffett, which takes “some of the pressure off to respond to New T-Mobile.”
Still, while AT&T may be in a better position on the spectrum front compared to Verizon, it faces the “same competitive dynamics,” Moffett wrote. “For AT&T, the deal is probably a net neutral.”
The quantitative evidence from the stock market seems to agree with the qualitative analysis from the Wall Street research firms. Let’s look at the five-day window of trading from Monday morning to Friday (today). Unsurprisingly, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Dish have reacted very favorably to the news:
Consistent with the Wall Street analysis, Verizon stock remains down 2.5 percent over a five-day window while AT&T has been flat over the same period:
How do you separate beta from alpha in an event study?
Philippon argued that after market trading may be more efficient because it is dominated by hedge funds and includes less “noise trading.” In my opinion, the liquidity effect likely outweighs this factor. Also, it’s unclear why we should assume “smart money” is setting the price in the after hours market but not during regular trading when hedge funds are still active. Sophisticated professional traders often make easy profits by picking off panicked retail investors who only read the headlines. When you see a wild swing in the markets that moderates over time, the wild swing is probably the noise and the moderation is probably the signal.
And, as Karl Smith noted, since the aftermarket is thin, price moves in individual stocks might reflect changes in the broader stock market (“beta”) more than changes due to new company-specific information (“alpha”). Here are the last five days for e-mini S&P 500 futures, which track the broader market and are traded after hours:
The market trended up on Monday night and was flat on Tuesday. This slightly positive macro environment means we would need to adjust the returns downward for AT&T and Verizon. Of course, this is counter to Philippon’s conjecture that the merger decision would increase their stock prices. But to be clear, these changes are so minuscule in percentage terms, this adjustment wouldn’t make much of a difference in this case.
Lastly, let’s see what we can learn from a similar historical episode in the stock market.
The parallel to the 2016 presidential election
The type of reversal we saw in AT&T and Verizon is not unprecedented. Some commenters said the pattern reminded them of the market reaction to Trump’s election in 2016:
Much like the T-Mobile/Sprint merger news, the “event” in 2016 was not a single moment in time. It began around 9 PM Tuesday night when Trump started to overperform in early state results. Over the course of the next three hours, S&P 500 futures contracts fell about 5 percent — an enormous drop in such a short period of time. If Philippon had tried to estimate the “Trump effect” in the same manner he did the T-Mobile/Sprint case, he would have concluded that a Trump presidency would reduce aggregate future profits by about 5 percent relative to a Clinton presidency.
But, as you can see in the chart above, if we widen the aperture of the event study to include the hours past midnight, the story flips. Markets started to bounce back even before Trump took the stage to make his victory speech. The themes of his speech were widely regarded as reassuring for markets, which further pared losses from earlier in the night. When regular trading hours resumed on Wednesday, the markets decided a Trump presidency would be very good for certain sectors of the economy, particularly finance, energy, biotech, and private prisons. By the end of the day, the stock market finished up about a percentage point from where it closed prior to the election — near all time highs.
Maybe this is more noise than signal?
As a few others pointed out, these relatively small moves in AT&T and Verizon (less than 3 percent in either direction) may just be noise. That’s certainly possible given the magnitude of the changes. Contra Philippon, I think the methodology in question is too weak to rule out the pro-competitive theory of the case, i.e., that the new merged entity would be a stronger competitor to take on industry leaders AT&T and Verizon. We need much more robust and varied evidence before we can call anything “bogus.” Of course, that means this event study is not sufficient to prove the pro-competitive theory of the case, either.
Olivier Blanchard, a former chief economist of the IMF, shared Philippon’s thread on Twitter and added this comment above: “The beauty of the argument. Simple hypothesis, simple test, clear conclusion.”
This post is authored by Jonathan E. Nuechterlein (Partner, Sidley Austin LLP; former General Counsel, FTC; former Deputy General Counsel, FCC).]
[Nuechterlein: I represented AT&T in United States v. AT&T, Inc. (“AT&T/Time Warner”), and this essay is based in part on comments I prepared on AT&T’s behalf for the FTC’s recent public hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. All views expressed here are my own.]
The draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Draft Guidelines”) might well leave ordinary readers with the misimpression that U.S. antitrust authorities have suddenly come to view vertical integration with a jaundiced eye. Such readers might infer from the draft that vertical mergers are a minefield of potential competitive harms; that only sometimes do they “have the potential to create cognizable efficiencies”; and that such efficiencies, even when they exist, often are not “of a character and magnitude” to keep the merger from becoming “anticompetitive.” (Draft Guidelines § 8, at 9). But that impression would be impossible to square with the past forty years of U.S. enforcement policy and with exhaustive empirical work confirming the largely beneficial effects of vertical integration.
The Draft Guidelines should reflect those realities and thus should incorporate genuine limiting principles — rooted in concerns about two-level market power — to cabin their highly speculative theories of harm. Without such limiting principles, the Guidelines will remain more a theoretical exercise in abstract issue-spotting than what they purport to be: a source of genuine guidance for the public.
1. The presumptive benefits of vertical integration
Although the U.S. antitrust agencies (the FTC and DOJ) occasionally attach conditions to their approval of vertical mergers, they have litigated only one vertical merger case to judgment over the past forty years: AT&T/Time Warner.The reason for that paucity of cases is neither a lack of prosecutorial zeal nor a failure to understand “raising rivals’ costs” theories of harm. Instead, in the words of the FTC’s outgoing Bureau of Competition chief, Bruce Hoffman, the reason is the “broad consensus in competition policy and economic theory that the majority of vertical mergers are beneficial because they reduce costs and increase the intensity of interbrand competition.”
Two exhaustive papers confirm that conclusion with hard empirical facts. The first was published in the International Journal of Industrial Organization in 2005 by FTC economists James Cooper, Luke Froeb, Dan O’Brien, and Michael Vita, who surveyed “multiple studies of vertical mergers and restraints” and “found only one example where vertical integration harmed consumers, and multiple examples where vertical integration unambiguously benefited consumers.” The second paper is a 2007 analysis in the Journal of Economic Literature co-authored by University of Michigan Professor Francine LaFontaine (who served from 2014 to 2015 as Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics) and Professor Margaret Slade of the University of British Columbia. Professors LaFontaine and Slade “did not have a particular conclusion in mind when [they] began to collect the evidence,” “tried to be fair in presenting the empirical regularities,” and were “therefore somewhat surprised at what the weight of the evidence is telling us.” They found that:
[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical-integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. (p. 680)
Vertical mergers have this procompetitive track record for two basic reasons. First, by definition, they do not eliminate a competitor or increase market concentration in any market, and they pose fewer competitive concerns than horizontal mergers for that reason alone. Second, as Bruce Hoffman noted, “while efficiencies are often important in horizontal mergers, they are much more intrinsic to a vertical transaction” and “come with a more built-in likelihood of improving competition than horizontal mergers.”
It is widely accepted that vertical mergers often impose downward pricing pressure by eliminating double margins. Beyond that, as the Draft Guidelines observe (at § 8), vertical mergers can also play an indispensable role in “eliminate[ing] contracting frictions,” “streamlin[ing] production, inventory management, or distribution,” and “creat[ing] innovative products in ways that would have been hard to achieve through arm’s length contracts.”
2. Harm to competitors, harm to competition, and the need for limiting principles
Vertical mergers do often disadvantage rivals of the merged firm. For example, a distributor might merge with one of its key suppliers, achieve efficiencies through the combination, and pass some of the savings through to consumers in the form of lower prices. The firm’s distribution rivals will lose profits if they match the price cut and will lose market share to the merged firm if they do not. But that outcome obviously counts in favor of supporting, not opposing, the merger because it makes consumers better off and because “[t]he antitrust laws… were enacted for the protection of competition not competitors.” (Brunswick v Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat).
This distinction between harm to competition and harm to competitors is fundamental to U.S. antitrust law. Yet key passages in the Draft Guidelines seem to blur this distinction.
For example, one passage suggests that a vertical merger will be suspect if the merged firm might “chang[e] the terms of … rivals’ access” to an input, “one or more rivals would [then] lose sales,” and “some portion of those lost sales would be diverted to the merged firm.” Draft Guidelines § 5.a, at 4-5. Of course, the Guidelines’ drafters would never concede that they wish to vindicate the interests of competitors qua competitors. They would say that incremental changes in input prices, even if they do not structurally alter the competitive landscape, might nonetheless result in slightly higher overall consumer prices. And they would insist that speculation about such slight price effects should be sufficient to block a vertical merger.
That was the precise theory of harm that DOJ pursued in AT&T/Time Warner, which involved a purely vertical merger between a video programmer (Time Warner) and a pay-TV distributor (AT&T/DirecTV). DOJ ultimately conceded that Time Warner was unlikely to withhold programming from (“foreclose”) AT&T’s pay-TV rivals. Instead, using a complex economic model, DOJ tried to show that the merger would increase Time Warner’s bargaining power and induce AT&T’s pay-TV rivals to pay somewhat higher rates for Time Warner programming, some portion of which the rivals would theoretically pass through to their own retail customers. At the same time, DOJ conceded that post-merger efficiencies would cause AT&T to lower its retail rates compared to the but-for world without the merger. DOJ nonetheless asserted that the aggregate effect of the pay-TV rivals’ price increases would exceed the aggregate effect of AT&T’s own price decrease. Without deciding whether such an effect would be sufficient to block the merger — a disputed legal issue — the courts ruled for the merging parties because DOJ could not substantiate its factual prediction that the merger would lead to programming price increases in the first place.
It is unclear why DOJ picked this, of all cases, as its vehicle for litigating its first vertical merger case in decades. In an archetypal raising-rivals’-costs case, familiar from exclusive dealing law, the defendant forecloses its rivals by depriving them of a critical input or distribution channel and so marginalizes them in the process that it can profitably raise its own retail prices (see, e.g., McWane; Microsoft). AT&T/Time Warner could hardly have been further afield from that archetypal case. Again, DOJ conceded both that the merged firm would not foreclose rivals at all and that the merger would induce the firm to lower its retail prices below what it would charge if the merger were blocked. The draft Guidelines appear to double down on this odd strategy and portend more cases predicated on the same attenuated concerns about mere “chang[es in] the terms of … rivals’ access” to inputs, unaccompanied by any alleged structural changes in the competitive landscape.
Bringing such cases would be a mistake, both tactically and doctrinally.
“Changes in the terms of inputs” are a constant fact of life in nearly every market, with or without mergers, and have almost never aroused antitrust scrutiny. For example, whenever a firm enters into a long-term preferred-provider agreement with a new business partner in lieu of merging with it, the firm will, by definition, deal on less advantageous terms with the partner’s rivals than it otherwise would. That outcome is virtually never viewed as problematic, let alone unlawful, when it is accomplished through such long-term contracts. The government does not hire a team of economists to pore over documents, interview witnesses, and run abstruse models on whether the preferred-provider agreement can be projected, on balance, to produce incrementally higher downstream prices. There is no obvious reason why the government should treat such preferred provider arrangements differently if they arise through a vertical merger rather than a vertical contract — particularly given the draft Guidelines’ own acknowledgement that vertical mergers produce pro-consumer efficiencies that would be “hard to achieve through arm’s length contracts.” (Draft Guidelines § 8, at 9).
3. Towards a more useful safe harbor
Quoting then-Judge Breyer, the Supreme Court once noted that “antitrust rules ‘must be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.’” That observation rings doubly true when applied to a document by enforcement officials purporting to “guide” business decisions. Firms contemplating a vertical merger need more than assurance that their merger will be cleared two years hence if their economists vanquish the government’s economists in litigation about the fine details of Nash bargaining theory. Instead, firms need true limiting principles, which identify the circumstances where any theory of harm would be so attenuated that litigating to block the merger is not worth the candle, particularly given the empirically validated presumption that most vertical mergers are pro-consumer.
The Agencies cannot meet the need for such limiting principles with the proposed “safe harbor” as it is currently phrased in the draft Guidelines:
The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.” (Draft Guidelines § 3, at 3).
This anodyne assurance, with its arbitrarily low 20 percent thresholds phrased in the conjunctive, seems calculated more to preserve the agencies’ discretion than to provide genuine direction to industry.
Nonetheless, the draft safe harbor does at least point in the right direction because it reflects a basic insight about two-level market power: vertical mergers are unlikely to create competitive concerns unless the merged firm will have, or could readily obtain, market power in both upstream and downstream markets. (See, e.g., Auburn News v. Providence Journal (“Where substantial market power is absent at any one product or distribution level, vertical integration will not have an anticompetitive effect.”)) This point parallels tying doctrine, which, like vertical merger analysis, addresses how vertical arrangements can affect competition across adjacent markets. As Justice O’Connor noted in Jefferson Parish, tying arrangements threaten competition
primarily in the rare cases where power in the market for the tying product is used to create additional market power in the market for the tied product.… But such extension of market power is unlikely, or poses no threat of economic harm, unless…, [among other conditions, the seller has] power in the tying-product market… [and there is] a substantial threat that the tying seller will acquire market power in the tied-product market.
As this discussion suggests, the “20 percent” safe harbor in the draft Guidelines misses the mark in three respects.
First, as a proxy for the absence of market power, 20 percent is too low: courts have generally refused to infer market power when the seller’s market share was below 30% and sometimes require higher shares. Of course, market share can be a highly overinclusive measure of market power, in that many firms with greater than a 30% share will lack market power. But it is nonetheless appropriate to use market share as a screen for further analysis.
Second, the draft’s safe harbor appears illogically in the conjunctive, applying only “where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.” That “and” should be an “or” because, again, vertical arrangements can be problematic only if a firm can use existing market power in a “related products” market to create or increase market power in the “relevant market.”
Third, the phrase “the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market” is far too ambiguous to serve a useful role. For example, the “related product” sold by a merging upstream firm could be “used by” 100 percent of downstream buyers even though the firm’s sales account for only one percent of downstream purchases of that product if the downstream buyers multi-home — i.e., source their goods from many different sellers of substitutable products. The relevant proxy for “related product” market power is thus not how many customers “use” the merging firm’s product, but what percentage of overall sales of that product (including reasonable substitutes) it makes.
Of course, this observation suggests that, when push comes to shove in litigation, the government must usually define two markets: not only (1) a “relevant market” in which competitive harm is alleged to occur, but also (2) an adjacent “related product” market in which the merged firm is alleged to have market power. Requiring such dual market definition is entirely appropriate. Ultimately, any raising-rivals’-costs theory relies on a showing that a vertically integrated firm has some degree of market power in a “related products” market when dealing with its rivals in an adjacent “relevant market.” And market definition is normally an inextricable component of a litigated market power analysis.
If these three changes are made, the safe harbor would read:
The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 30 percent, or the related product sold by one of the parties accounts for less than 30 percent of the overall sales of that related product, including reasonable substitutes.
Like all safe harbors, this one would be underinclusive (in that many mergers outside of the safe harbor are unobjectionable) and may occasionally be overinclusive. But this substitute language would be more useful as a genuine safe harbor because it would impose true limiting principles. And it would more accurately reflect the ways in which market power considerations should inform vertical analysis—whether of contractual arrangements or mergers.
What’s in, what’s out — and do we need them anyway?
February 6 & 7, 2020
Welcome! We’re delighted to kick off our two-day blog symposium on the recently released Draft Joint Vertical Merger Guidelines from the DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission.
If adopted by the agencies, the guidelines would mark the first time since 1984 that U.S. federal antitrust enforcers have provided official, public guidance on their approach to the increasingly important issue of vertical merger enforcement.
As the antitrust community gears up to debate the draft guidelines, we have assembled an outstanding group of antitrust experts to weigh in with their initial thoughts on the guidelines here at Truth on the Market. We hope this symposium will provide important insights and stand as a useful resource for the ongoing discussion.
The scholars and practitioners who will participate in the symposium are:
Timothy J. Brennan (Professor, Public Policy and Economics, University of Maryland; former Chief Economist, FCC; former economist, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Steven Cernak (Partner, Bona Law PC; former antitrust counsel, GM)
Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, ICLE; Professor of Economics, Portland State University)
Herbert Hovenkamp (James G. Dinan University Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania)
Margaret Slade (Professor Emeritus, Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia)
Gregory Werden (former Senior Economic Counsel, DOJ Antitrust Division) and Luke M. Froeb (William C. Oehmig Chair in Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, Vanderbilt University; former Chief Economist, DOJ Antitrust Division; former Chief Economist, FTC)
Lawrence J. White (Robert Kavesh Professor of Economics, New York University; former Chief Economist, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Joshua D. Wright (University Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Commissioner, FTC), Douglas H. Ginsburg (Senior Circuit Judge, US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit; Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division), Tad Lipsky (Assistant Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Director, FTC Bureau of Competition; former chief antitrust counsel, Coca-Cola; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division), and John M. Yun (Associate Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Deputy Assistant Director, FTC Bureau of Economics)
The first of the participants’ initial posts will appear momentarily, with additional posts appearing throughout the day today and tomorrow. We hope to generate a lively discussion, and expect some of the participants to offer follow up posts and/or comments on their fellow participants’ posts — please be sure to check back throughout the day and be sure to check the comments. We hope our readers will join us in the comments, as well.
Truth on the Market is pleased to announce its next blog symposium:
The 2020 Draft Joint Vertical Merger Guidelines: What’s in, what’s out — and do we need them anyway?
February 6 & 7, 2020
On January 10, 2020, the DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission released Draft Joint Vertical Merger Guidelines for public comment. If adopted by the agencies, the guidelines would mark the first time since 1984 that U.S. federal antitrust enforcers have provided official, public guidance on their approach to the increasingly important issue of vertical merger enforcement:
“Challenging anticompetitive vertical mergers is essential to vigorous enforcement. The agencies’ vertical merger policy has evolved substantially since the issuance of the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and our guidelines should reflect the current enforcement approach. Greater transparency about the complex issues surrounding vertical mergers will benefit the business community, practitioners, and the courts,” said FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons.
In advance of the workshops and the imminent discussions over the draft guidelines, we have asked a number of antitrust experts to weigh in here at Truth on the Market: to preview the coming debate by exploring the economic underpinnings of the draft guidelines and their likely role in the future of merger enforcement at the agencies, as well as what is in the guidelines and — perhaps more important — what is left out.
William J. Kolasky (Partner, Hughes Hubbard & Reed; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Tad Lipsky (Assistant Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Director, FTC Bureau of Competition; former chief antitrust counsel, Coca-Cola; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Geoffrey A. Manne (President & Founder, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics)
Gregory Werden (former Senior Economic Counsel, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Lawrence J. White (Robert Kavesh Professor of Economics, New York University; former Chief Economist, DOJ Antitrust Division)
Joshua D. Wright (University Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Commissioner, FTC)
John M. Yun (Associate Professor of Law, George Mason University; former Acting Deputy Assistant Director, FTC Bureau of Economics)
We want to thank all of these excellent panelists for agreeing to take time away from their busy schedules to participate in this symposium. We are hopeful that this discussion will provide invaluable insight and perspective on the Draft Joint Vertical Merger Guidelines.
Look for the first posts starting Thursday, February 6!
Jonathan B. Baker, Nancy L. Rose, Steven C. Salop, and Fiona Scott Morton don’t like vertical mergers:
Vertical mergers can harm competition, for example, through input foreclosure or customer foreclosure, or by the creation of two-level entry barriers. … Competitive harms from foreclosure can occur from the merged firm exercising its increased bargaining leverage to raise rivals’ costs or reduce rivals’ access to the market. Vertical mergers also can facilitate coordination by eliminating a disruptive or “maverick” competitor at one vertical level, or through information exchange. Vertical mergers also can eliminate potential competition between the merging parties. Regulated firms can use vertical integration to evade rate regulation. These competitive harms normally occur when at least one of the markets has an oligopoly structure. They can lead to higher prices, lower output, quality reductions, and reduced investment and innovation.
Baker et al. go so far as to argue that any vertical merger in which the downstream firm is subject to price regulation should face a presumption that the merger is anticompetitive.
George Stigler’s well-known article on vertical integration identifies several ways in which vertical integration increases welfare by subverting price controls:
The most important of these other forces, I believe, is the failure of the price system (because of monopoly or public regulation) to clear markets at prices within the limits of the marginal cost of the product (to the buyer if he makes it) and its marginal-value product (to the seller if he further fabricates it). This phenomenon was strikingly illustrated by the spate of vertical mergers in the United States during and immediately after World War II, to circumvent public and private price control and allocations. A regulated price of OA was set (Fig. 2), at which an output of OM was produced. This quantity had a marginal value of OB to buyers, who were rationed on a nonprice basis. The gain to buyers and sellers combined from a free price of NS was the shaded area, RST, and vertical integration was the simple way of obtaining this gain. This was the rationale of the integration of radio manufacturers into cabinet manufacture, of steel firms into fabricated products, etc.
Stigler was on to something:
In 1947, Emerson Radio acquired Plastimold, a maker of plastic radio cabinets. The president of Emerson at the time, Benjamin Abrams, stated “Plastimold is an outstanding producer of molded radio cabinets and gives Emerson an assured source of supply of one of the principal components in the production of radio sets.” [emphasis added]
In the same year, the Congressional Record reported, “Admiral Corp. like other large radio manufacturers has reached out to take over a manufacturer of radio cabinets, the Chicago Cabinet Corp.”
In 1948, the Federal Trade Commission ascribed wartime price controls and shortages as reasons for vertical mergers in the textiles industry as well as distillers’ acquisitions of wineries.
While there may have been some public policy rationale for price controls, it’s clear the controls resulted in shortages and a deadweight loss in many markets. As such, it’s likely that vertical integration to avoid the price controls improved consumer welfare (if only slightly, as in the figure above) and reduced the deadweight loss.
Rather than leading to monopolization, Stigler provides examples in which vertical integration was employed to circumvent monopolization by cartel quotas and/or price-fixing: “Almost every raw-material cartel has had trouble with customers who wish to integrate backward, in order to negate the cartel prices.”
In contrast to Stigler’s analysis, Salop and Daniel P. Culley begin from an implied assumption that where price regulation occurs, the controls are good for society. Thus, they argue avoidance of the price controls are harmful or against the public interest:
Example: The classic example is the pre-divestiture behavior of AT&T, which allegedly used its purchases of equipment at inflated prices from its wholly-owned subsidiary, Western Electric, to artificially increase its costs and so justify higher regulated prices.
This claim is supported by the court in U.S. v. AT&T [emphasis added]:
The Operating Companies have taken these actions, it is said, because the existence of rate of return regulation removed from them the burden of such additional expense, for the extra cost could simply be absorbed into the rate base or expenses, allowing extra profits from the higher prices to flow upstream to Western rather than to its non-Bell competition.
Even so, the pass-through of higher costs seems only a minor concern to the court relative to the “three hats” worn by AT&T and its subsidiaries in the (1) setting of standards, (2) counseling of operating companies in their equipment purchases, and (3) production of equipment for sale to the operating companies [emphasis added]:
The government’s evidence has depicted defendants as sole arbiters of what equipment is suitable for use in the Bell System a role that carries with it a power of subjective judgment that can be and has been used to advance the sale of Western Electric’s products at the expense of the general trade. First, AT&T, in conjunction with Bell Labs and Western Electric, sets the technical standards under which the telephone network operates and the compatibility specifications which equipment must meet. Second, Western Electric and Bell Labs … serve as counselors to the Operating Companies in their procurement decisions, ostensibly helping them to purchase equipment that meets network standards. Third, Western also produces equipment for sale to the Operating Companies in competition with general trade manufacturers.
The upshot of this “wearing of three hats” is, according to the government’s evidence, a rather obviously anticompetitive situation. By setting technical or compatibility standards and by either not communicating these standards to the general trade or changing them in mid-stream, AT&T has the capacity to remove, and has in fact removed, general trade products from serious consideration by the Operating Companies on “network integrity” grounds. By either refusing to evaluate general trade products for the Operating Companies or producing biased or speculative evaluations, AT&T has been able to influence the Operating Companies, which lack independent means to evaluate general trade products, to buy Western. And the in-house production and sale of Western equipment provides AT&T with a powerful incentive to exercise its “approval” power to discriminate against Western’s competitors.
It’s important to keep in mind that rate of return regulation was not thrust upon AT&T, it was a quid pro quo in which state and federal regulators acted to eliminate AT&T/Bell competitors in exchange for price regulation. In a floor speech to Congress in 1921, Rep. William J. Graham declared:
It is believed to be better policy to have one telephone system in a community that serves all the people, even though it may be at an advanced rate, property regulated by State boards or commissions, than it is to have two competing telephone systems.
For purposes of Salop and Culley’s integration-to-evade-price-regulation example, it’s important to keep in mind that AT&T acquired Western Electric in 1882, or about two decades before telephone pricing regulation was contemplated and eight years before the Sherman Antitrust Act. While AT&T may have used vertical integration to take advantage of rate-of-return price regulation, it’s simply not true that AT&T acquired Western Electric to evade price controls.
Salop and Culley provide a more recent example:
Example: Potential evasion of regulation concerns were raised in the FTC’s analysis in 2008 of the Fresenius/Daiichi Sankyo exclusive sub-license for a Daiichi Sankyo pharmaceutical used in Fresenius’ dialysis clinics, which potentially could allow evasion of Medicare pricing regulations.
As with the AT&T example, this example is not about evasion of price controls. Rather it raises concerns about taking advantage of Medicare’s pricing formula.
At the time of the deal, Medicare reimbursed dialysis clinics based on a drug manufacturer’s Average Sales Price (“ASP”) plus six percent, where ASP was calculated by averaging the prices paid by all customers, including any discounts or rebates.
The FTC argued by setting an artificially high transfer price of the drug to Fresenius, the ASP would increase, thereby increasing the Medicare reimbursement to all clinics providing the same drug (which not only would increase the costs to Medicare but also would increase income to all clinics providing the drug). Although the FTC claims this would be anticompetitive, the agency does not describe in what ways competition would be harmed.
The FTC introduces an interesting wrinkle in noting that a few years after the deal would have been completed, “substantial changes to the Medicare program relating to dialysis services … would eliminate the regulations that give rise to the concerns created by the proposed transaction.” Specifically, payment for dialysis services would shift from fee-for-service to capitation.
This wrinkle highlights a serious problem with a presumption that any purported evasion of price controls is an antitrust violation. Namely, if the controls go away, so does the antitrust violation.
Conversely–as Salop and Culley seem to argue with their AT&T example–a vertical merger could be retroactively declared anticompetitive if price controls are imposed after the merger is completed (even decades later and even if the price regulations were never anticipated at the time of the merger).
It’s one thing to argue that avoiding price regulation runs counter to public interest, but it’s another thing to argue that avoiding price regulation is anticompetitive. Indeed, as Stigler argues, if the price controls stifle competition, then avoidance of the controls may enhance competition. Placing such mergers under heightened scrutiny, such as an anticompetitive presumption, is a solution in search of a problem.
An oft-repeated claim of conferences, media, and left-wing think tanks is that lax antitrust enforcement has led to a substantial increase in concentration in the US economy of late, strangling the economy, harming workers, and saddling consumers with greater markups in the process. But what if rising concentration (and the current level of antitrust enforcement) were an indication of more competition, not less?
By now the concentration-as-antitrust-bogeyman story is virtually conventional wisdom, echoed, of course, by political candidates such as Elizabeth Warren trying to cash in on the need for a government response to such dire circumstances:
In industry after industry — airlines, banking, health care, agriculture, tech — a handful of corporate giants control more and more. The big guys are locking out smaller, newer competitors. They are crushing innovation. Even if you don’t see the gears turning, this massive concentration means prices go up and quality goes down for everything from air travel to internet service.
But the claim that lax antitrust enforcement has led to increased concentration in the US and that it has caused economic harm has been debunked several times (for some of our own debunking, see Eric Fruits’ posts here, here, and here). Or, more charitably to those who tirelessly repeat the claim as if it is “settled science,” it has been significantly called into question.
Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.
What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.
We show that new technologies have enabled firms that adopt them to scale production over a large number of establishments dispersed across space. Firms that adopt this technology grow by increasing the number of local markets that they serve, but on average are smaller in the markets that they do serve. Unlike Henry Ford’s revolution in manufacturing more than a hundred years ago when manufacturing firms grew by concentrating production in a given location, the new industrial revolution in non-traded sectors takes the form of horizontal expansion across more locations. At the same time, multi-product firms are forced to exit industries where their productivity is low or where the new technology has had no effect. Empirically we see that top firms in the overall economy are more focused and have larger market shares in their chosen sectors, but their size as a share of employment in the overall economy has not changed. (pp. 42-43) (emphasis added).
This makes perfect sense. And it has the benefit of not second-guessing structural changes made in response to technological change. Rather, it points to technological change as doing what it regularly does: improving productivity.
The implementation of new technology seems to be conferring benefits — it’s just that these benefits are not evenly distributed across all firms and industries. But the assumption that larger firms are causing harm (or even that there is any harm in the first place, whatever the cause) is unmerited.
What the authors find is that the apparent rise in national concentration doesn’t tell the relevant story, and the data certainly aren’t consistent with assumptions that anticompetitive conduct is either a cause or a result of structural changes in the economy.
Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg point out that increased concentration is not happening everywhere, but is being driven by just three industries:
First, we show that the phenomena of rising concentration . . . is only seen in three broad sectors – services, wholesale, and retail. . . . [T]op firms have become more efficient over time, but our evidence indicates that this is only true for top firms in these three sectors. In manufacturing, for example, concentration has fallen.
Second, rising concentration in these sectors is entirely driven by an increase [in] the number of local markets served by the top firms.(p. 4) (emphasis added).
These findings are a gloss on a (then) working paper — The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms — by David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson, and John Van Reenan (now forthcoming in the QJE). Autor et al. (2019) finds that concentration is rising, and that it is the result of increased productivity:
If globalization or technological changes push sales towards the most productive firms in each industry, product market concentration will rise as industries become increasingly dominated by superstar firms, which have high markups and a low labor share of value-added.
We empirically assess seven predictions of this hypothesis: (i) industry sales will increasingly concentrate in a small number of firms; (ii) industries where concentration rises most will have the largest declines in the labor share; (iii) the fall in the labor share will be driven largely by reallocation rather than a fall in the unweighted mean labor share across all firms; (iv) the between-firm reallocation component of the fall in the labor share will be greatest in the sectors with the largest increases in market concentration; (v) the industries that are becoming more concentrated will exhibit faster growth of productivity; (vi) the aggregate markup will rise more than the typical firm’s markup; and (vii) these patterns should be observed not only in U.S. firms, but also internationally. We find support for all of these predictions. (emphasis added).
This is alone is quite important (and seemingly often overlooked). Autor et al. (2019) finds that rising concentration is a result of increased productivity that weeds out less-efficient producers. This is a good thing.
But Hsieh & Rossi-Hansberg drill down into the data to find something perhaps even more significant: the rise in concentration itself is limited to just a few sectors, and, where it is observed, it is predominantly a function of more efficient firms competing in more — and more localized — markets. This means that competition is increasing, not decreasing, whether it is accompanied by an increase in concentration or not.
No matter how may times and under how many monikers the antitrust populists try to revive it, the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm remains as moribund as ever. Indeed, on this point, as one of the new antitrust agonists’ own, Fiona Scott Morton, has written (along with co-authors Martin Gaynor and Steven Berry):
In short, there is no well-defined “causal effect of concentration on price,” but rather a set of hypotheses that can explain observed correlations of the joint outcomes of price, measured markups, market share, and concentration. As Bresnahan (1989) argued three decades ago, no clear interpretation of the impact of concentration is possible without a clear focus on equilibrium oligopoly demand and “supply,” where supply includes the list of the marginal cost functions of the firms and the nature of oligopoly competition.
Some of the recent literature on concentration, profits, and markups has simply reasserted the relevance of the old-style structure-conduct-performance correlations. For economists trained in subfields outside industrial organization, such correlations can be attractive.
Our own view, based on the well-established mainstream wisdom in the field of industrial organization for several decades, is that regressions of market outcomes on measures of industry structure like the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index should be given little weight in policy debates. Such correlations will not produce information about the causal estimates that policy demands. It is these causal relationships that will help us understand what, if anything, may be causing markups to rise. (emphasis added).
Indeed! And one reason for the enduring irrelevance of market concentration measures is well laid out in Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg’s paper:
This evidence is consistent with our view that increasing concentration is driven by new ICT-enabled technologies that ultimately raise aggregate industry TFP. It is not consistent with the view that concentration is due to declining competition or entry barriers . . . , as these forces will result in a decline in industry employment. (pp. 4-5) (emphasis added)
The net effect is that there is essentially no change in concentration by the top firms in the economy as a whole. The “super-star” firms of today’s economy are larger in their chosen sectors and have unleashed productivity growth in these sectors, but they are not any larger as a share of the aggregate economy. (p. 5) (emphasis added)
Thus, to begin with, the claim that increased concentration leads to monopsony in labor markets (and thus unemployment) appears to be false. Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg again:
[W]e find that total employment rises substantially in industries with rising concentration. This is true even when we look at total employment of the smaller firms in these industries. (p. 4)
[S]ectors with more top firm concentration are the ones where total industry employment (as a share of aggregate employment) has also grown. The employment share of industries with increased top firm concentration grew from 70% in 1977 to 85% in 2013. (p. 9)
Firms throughout the size distribution increase employment in sectors with increasing concentration, not only the top 10% firms in the industry, although by deﬁnition the increase is larger among the top firms.(p. 10) (emphasis added)
Again, what actually appears to be happening is that national-level growth in concentration is actually being driven by increased competition in certain industries at the local level:
93% of the growth in concentration comes from growth in the number of cities served by top firms, and only 7% comes from increased employment per city. . . . [A]verage employment per county and per establishment of top firms falls. So necessarily more than 100% of concentration growth has to come from the increase in the number of counties and establishments served by the top firms. (p.13)
The net effect is a decrease in the power of top firms relative to the economy as a whole, as the largest firms specialize more, and are dominant in fewer industries:
Top firms produce in more industries than the average firm, but less so in 2013 compared to 1977. The number of industries of a top 0.001% firm (relative to the average firm) fell from 35 in 1977 to 17 in 2013. The corresponding number for a top 0.01% firm is 21 industries in 1977 and 9 industries in 2013. (p. 17)
Thus, summing up, technology has led to increased productivity as well as greater specialization by large firms, especially in relatively concentrated industries (exactly the opposite of the pessimistic stories):
[T]op firms are now more specialized, are larger in the chosen industries, and these are precisely the industries that have experienced concentration growth. (p. 18)
Unsurprisingly (except to some…), the increase in concentration in certain industries does not translate into an increase in concentration in the economy as a whole. In other words, workers can shift jobs between industries, and there is enough geographic and firm mobility to prevent monopsony. (Despite rampant assumptions that increased concentration is constraining labor competition everywhere…).
Although the employment share of top firms in an average industry has increased substantially, the employment share of the top firms in the aggregate economy has not. (p. 15)
It is also simply not clearly the case that concentration is causing prices to rise or otherwise causing any harm. As Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg note:
[T]he magnitude of the overall trend in markups is still controversial . . . and . . . the geographic expansion of top firms leads to declines in local concentration . . . that could enhance competition. (p. 37)
None of this should be so surprising. Has antitrust enforcement gotten more lax, leading to greater concentration? According to Vita and Osinski (2018), not so much. And how about the stagnant rate of new firms? Are incumbent monopolists killing off new startups? The more likely — albeit mundane — explanation, according to Hopenhayn et al. (2018), is that increased average firm age is due to an aging labor force. Lastly, the paper from Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg discussed above is only the latest in a series of papers, including Bessen (2017), Van Reenen (2018), and Autor et al. (2019), that shows a rise in fixed costs due to investments in proprietary information technology, which correlates with increased concentration.
So what is the upshot of all this?
First, as noted, employment has not decreased because of increased concentration; quite the opposite. Employment has increased in the industries that have experienced the most concentration at the national level.
Second, this result suggests that the rise in concentrated industries has not led to increased market power over labor.
Third, concentration itself needs to be understood more precisely. It is not explained by a simple narrative that the economy as a whole has experienced a great deal of concentration and this has been detrimental for consumers and workers. Specific industries have experienced national level concentration, but simultaneously those same industries have become more specialized and expanded competition into local markets.
Surprisingly (because their paper has been around for a while and yet this conclusion is rarely recited by advocates for more intervention — although they happily use the paper to support claims of rising concentration), Autor et al. (2019) finds the same thing:
Our formal model, detailed below, generates superstar effects from increases in the toughness of product market competition that raise the market share of the most productive firms in each sector at the expense of less productive competitors. . . . An alternative perspective on the rise of superstar firms is that they reflect a diminution of competition, due to a weakening of U.S. antitrust enforcement (Dottling, Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018). Our findings on the similarity of trends in the U.S. and Europe, where antitrust authorities have acted more aggressively on large firms (Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018), combined with the fact that the concentrating sectors appear to be growing more productive and innovative, suggests that this is unlikely to be the primary explanation, although it may important in some specific industries (see Cooper et al, 2019, on healthcare for example). (emphasis added).
The popular narrative among Neo-Brandeisian antitrust scholars that lax antitrust enforcement has led to concentration detrimental to society is at base an empirical one. The findings of these empirical papers severely undermine the persuasiveness of that story.