Archives For mergers & acquisitions

Levi A. Russell is Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Applied Economics, University of Georgia and a blogger at Farmer Hayek.

Though concentration seems to be an increasingly popular metric for discussing antitrust policy (a backward move in my opinion, given the theoretical work by Harold Demsetz and others many years ago in this area), contestability is still the standard for evaluating antitrust issues from an economic standpoint. Contestability theory, most closely associated with William Baumol, rests on three primary principles. A market is perfectly contestable if 1) new entrants are not at a cost disadvantage to incumbents, 2) there are no barriers to entry or exit, and 3) there are no sunk costs. In this post, I discuss these conditions in relation to recent mergers and acquisitions in the agricultural chemical and biotech industry.

Contestability is rightly understood as a spectrum. While no industry is perfectly contestable, we expect that markets in which barriers to entry or exit are low, sunk costs are low, and new entrants can easily produce at similar cost to incumbents would be more innovative and that prices would be closer to marginal costs than in other industries. Certainly the agricultural chemical and biotech space does not appear to be very contestable, given the conditions above. There are significant R&D costs associated with the creation of new chemistries and new seed traits. The production and distribution of these products are likely to be characterized by significant economies of scale. Thus, the three conditions listed above are not met, and indeed the industry seems to be characterized by very low contestability. We would expect, then, that these mergers and acquisitions would drive up the prices of the companies’ products, leading to higher monopoly profits. Indeed, one study conducted at Texas A&M University finds that, as a result of the Bayer-Monsanto acquisition and DuPont/Pioneer merger with Dow, corn, soybean, and cotton prices will rise by an estimated 2.3%, 1.9%, and 18.2%, respectively.

These estimates are certainly concerning, especially given the current state of the agricultural economy. As the authors of the Texas A&M study point out, these estimates provide a justification for antitrust authorities to examine the merger and acquisition cases further. However, our dependence on the contestability concept as it pertains to the real world should also be scrutinized. To do so, we can examine other industries in which, according to the standard model of contestability, we would expect to find high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant cost disadvantages for incumbents.

This chart, assembled by the American Enterprise Institute using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the changes in prices of several consumer goods and services from 1996 to 2016, compared with CPI inflation. Industries in which there are high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant cost disadvantages for new entrants such as automobiles, wireless service, and TVs have seen their prices plummet relative to inflation over the 20 year period. There has also been significant product innovation in these industries over the time period.

Disallowing mergers or acquisitions that will create synergies that lead to further innovation or lower cost is not an improvement in economic efficiency. The transgenic seeds created by some of these companies have allowed farmers to use less-toxic pesticides, providing both private and public benefits. Thus, the higher prices projected by the A&M study might be justified on efficiency grounds. The R&D performed by these firms has led to new pesticide chemistries that have allowed farmers to deal with changes in the behavior of insect populations and will likely allow them to handle issues of pesticide resistance in plants and insects in the future.

What does the empirical evidence on trends in prices and the value of these agricultural firms’ innovations described above imply about contestability and its relation to antitrust enforcement? Contestability should be understood not as a static concept, but as a dynamic one. Competition, more broadly, is the constant striving to outdo competitors and to capture economic profit, not a set of conditions used to analyze a market via a snapshot in time. A proper understanding of competition as a dynamic concept leads us to the following conclusion: for a market to be contestable such that incumbents are incentivized to behave in a competitive manner, the cost advantages and barriers to entry or exit enjoyed by incumbents must be equal to or less than an entrepreneur’s expectation of economic profit associated with entry.  Thus, a commitment to property rights by antitrust courts and avoidance of excessive licensure, intellectual property, and economic regulation by the legislative and executive branches is sufficient from an economic perspective to ensure a reasonable degree of contestability in markets.

In my next post I will discuss a source of disruptive technology that will likely provide some competitive pressure on the firms in these mergers and acquisitions in the near future.

Truth on the Market is pleased to announce its next blog symposium:

Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries

March 30 & 31, 2017

Earlier this week the European Commission cleared the merger of Dow and DuPont, subject to conditions including divestiture of DuPont’s “global R&D organisation.” As the Commission noted:

The Commission had concerns that the merger as notified would have reduced competition on price and choice in a number of markets for existing pesticides. Furthermore, the merger would have reduced innovation. Innovation, both to improve existing products and to develop new active ingredients, is a key element of competition between companies in the pest control industry, where only five players are globally active throughout the entire research & development (R&D) process.

In addition to the traditional focus on price effects, the merger’s presumed effect on innovation loomed large in the EC’s consideration of the Dow/DuPont merger — as it is sure to in its consideration of the other two pending mergers in the agricultural biotech and chemicals industries between Bayer and Monsanto and ChemChina and Syngenta. Innovation effects are sure to take center stage in the US reviews of the mergers, as well.

What is less clear is exactly how antitrust agencies evaluate — and how they should evaluate — mergers like these in rapidly evolving, high-tech industries.

These proposed mergers present a host of fascinating and important issues, many of which go to the core of modern merger enforcement — and antitrust law and economics more generally. Among other things, they raise issues of:

  • The incorporation of innovation effects in antitrust analysis;
  • The relationship between technological and organizational change;
  • The role of non-economic considerations in merger review;
  • The continued relevance (or irrelevance) of the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm;
  • Market definition in high-tech markets; and
  • The patent-antitrust interface

Beginning on March 30, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law & Economics will host a blog symposium discussing how some of these issues apply to these mergers per se, as well as the state of antitrust law and economics in innovative-industry mergers more broadly.

As in the past (see examples of previous TOTM blog symposia here), we’ve lined up an outstanding and diverse group of scholars to discuss these issues:

  • Allen Gibby, Senior Fellow for Law & Economics, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Shubha Ghosh, Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director of the Technology Commercialization Law Program, Syracuse University College of Law
  • Ioannis Lianos,  Chair of Global Competition Law and Public Policy, Faculty of Laws, University College London
  • John E. Lopatka (tent.), A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State Law
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Diana L. Moss, President, American Antitrust Institute
  • Nicolas Petit, Professor of Law, Faculty of Law, and Co-director, Liege Competition and Innovation Institute, University of Liege
  • Levi A. Russell, Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Applied Economics, University of Georgia
  • Joanna M. Shepherd, Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
  • Michael Sykuta, Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Director, Contracting Organizations Research Institute, University of Missouri

Initial contributions to the symposium will appear periodically on the 30th and 31st, and the discussion will continue with responsive posts (if any) next week. We hope to generate a lively discussion, and readers are invited to contribute their own thoughts in comments to the participants’ posts.

The symposium posts will be collected here.

We hope you’ll join us!

Thanks to Truth on the Market for the opportunity to guest blog, and to ICLE for inviting me to join as a Senior Scholar! I’m honoured to be involved with both of these august organizations.

In Brussels, the talk of the town is that the European Commission (“Commission”) is casting a new eye on the old antitrust conjecture that prophesizes a negative relationship between industry concentration and innovation. This issue arises in the context of the review of several mega-mergers in the pharmaceutical and AgTech (i.e., seed genomics, biochemicals, “precision farming,” etc.) industries.

The antitrust press reports that the Commission has shown signs of interest for the introduction of a new theory of harm: the Significant Impediment to Industry Innovation (“SIII”) theory, which would entitle the remediation of mergers on the sole ground that a transaction significantly impedes innovation incentives at the industry level. In a recent ICLE White Paper, I discuss the desirability and feasibility of the introduction of this doctrine for the assessment of mergers in R&D-driven industries.

The introduction of SIII analysis in EU merger policy would no doubt be a sea change, as compared to past decisional practice. In previous cases, the Commission has paid heed to the effects of a merger on incentives to innovate, but the assessment has been limited to the effect on the innovation incentives of the merging parties in relation to specific current or future products. The application of the SIII theory, however, would entail an assessment of a possible reduction of innovation in (i) a given industry as a whole; and (ii) not in relation to specific product applications.

The SIII theory would also be distinct from the innovation markets” framework occasionally applied in past US merger policy and now marginalized. This framework considers the effect of a merger on separate upstream “innovation markets,i.e., on the R&D process itself, not directly linked to a downstream current or future product market. Like SIII, innovation markets analysis is interesting in that the identification of separate upstream innovation markets implicitly recognises that the players active in those markets are not necessarily the same as those that compete with the merging parties in downstream product markets.

SIII is way more intrusive, however, because R&D incentives are considered in the abstract, without further obligation on the agency to identify structured R&D channels, pipeline products, and research trajectories.

With this, any case for an expansion of the Commission’s power to intervene against mergers in certain R&D-driven industries should rely on sound theoretical and empirical infrastructure. Yet, despite efforts by the most celebrated Nobel-prize economists of the past decades, the economics that underpin the relation between industry concentration and innovation incentives remains an unfathomable mystery. As Geoffrey Manne and Joshua Wright have summarized in detail, the existing literature is indeterminate, at best. As they note, quoting Rich Gilbert,

[a] careful examination of the empirical record concludes that the existing body of theoretical and empirical literature on the relationship between competition and innovation “fails to provide general support for the Schumpeterian hypothesis that monopoly promotes either investment in research and development or the output of innovation” and that “the theoretical and empirical evidence also does not support a strong conclusion that competition is uniformly a stimulus to innovation.”

Available theoretical research also fails to establish a directional relationship between mergers and innovation incentives. True, soundbites from antitrust conferences suggest that the Commission’s Chief Economist Team has developed a deterministic model that could be brought to bear on novel merger policy initiatives. Yet, given the height of the intellectual Everest under discussion, we remain dubious (yet curious).

And, as noted, the available empirical data appear inconclusive. Consider a relatively concentrated industry like the seed and agrochemical sector. Between 2009 and 2016, all big six agrochemical firms increased their total R&D expenditure and their R&D intensity either increased or remained stable. Note that this has taken place in spite of (i) a significant increase in concentration among the largest firms in the industry; (ii) dramatic drop in global agricultural commodity prices (which has adversely affected several agrochemical businesses); and (iii) the presence of strong appropriability devices, namely patent rights.

This brief industry example (that I discuss more thoroughly in the paper) calls our attention to a more general policy point: prior to poking and prodding with novel theories of harm, one would expect an impartial antitrust examiner to undertake empirical groundwork, and screen initial intuitions of adverse effects of mergers on innovation through the lenses of observable industry characteristics.

At a more operational level, SIII also illustrates the difficulties of using indirect proxies of innovation incentives such as R&D figures and patent statistics as a preliminary screening tool for the assessment of the effects of the merger. In my paper, I show how R&D intensity can increase or decrease for a variety of reasons that do not necessarily correlate with an increase or decrease in the intensity of innovation. Similarly, I discuss why patent counts and patent citations are very crude indicators of innovation incentives. Over-reliance on patent counts and citations can paint a misleading picture of the parties’ strength as innovators in terms of market impact: not all patents are translated into products that are commercialised or are equal in terms of commercial value.

As a result (and unlike the SIII or innovation markets approaches), the use of these proxies as a measure of innovative strength should be limited to instances where the patent clearly has an actual or potential commercial application in those markets that are being assessed. Such an approach would ensure that patents with little or no impact on innovation competition in a market are excluded from consideration. Moreover, and on pain of stating the obvious, patents are temporal rights. Incentives to innovate may be stronger as a protected technological application approaches patent expiry. Patent counts and citations, however, do not discount the maturity of patents and, in particular, do not say much about whether the patent is far from or close to its expiry date.

In order to overcome the limitations of crude quantitative proxies, it is in my view imperative to complement an empirical analysis with industry-specific qualitative research. Central to the assessment of the qualitative dimension of innovation competition is an understanding of the key drivers of innovation in the investigated industry. In the agrochemical industry, industry structure and market competition may only be one amongst many other factors that promote innovation. Economic models built upon Arrow’s replacement effect theory – namely that a pre-invention monopoly acts as a strong disincentive to further innovation – fail to capture that successful agrochemical products create new technology frontiers.

Thus, for example, progress in crop protection products – and, in particular, in pest- and insect-resistant crops – had fuelled research investments in pollinator protection technology. Moreover, the impact of wider industry and regulatory developments on incentives to innovate and market structure should not be ignored (for example, falling crop commodity prices or regulatory restrictions on the use of certain products). Last, antitrust agencies are well placed to understand that beyond R&D and patent statistics, there is also a degree of qualitative competition in the innovation strategies that are pursued by agrochemical players.

My paper closes with a word of caution. No compelling case has been advanced to support a departure from established merger control practice with the introduction of SIII in pharmaceutical and agrochemical mergers. The current EU merger control framework, which enables the Commission to conduct a prospective analysis of the parties’ R&D incentives in current or future product markets, seems to provide an appropriate safeguard against anticompetitive transactions.

In his 1974 Nobel Prize Lecture, Hayek criticized the “scientific error” of much economic research, which assumes that intangible, correlational laws govern observable and measurable phenomena. Hayek warned that economics is like biology: both fields focus on “structures of essential complexity” which are recalcitrant to stylized modeling. Interestingly, competition was one of the examples expressly mentioned by Hayek in his lecture:

[T]he social sciences, like much of biology but unlike most fields of the physical sciences, have to deal with structures of essential complexity, i.e. with structures whose characteristic properties can be exhibited only by models made up of relatively large numbers of variables. Competition, for instance, is a process which will produce certain results only if it proceeds among a fairly large number of acting persons.

What remains from this lecture is a vibrant call for humility in policy making, at a time where some constituencies within antitrust agencies show signs of interest in revisiting the relationship between concentration and innovation. And if Hayek’s convoluted writing style is not the most accessible of all, the title captures it all: “The Pretense of Knowledge.

During 2016 it became fashionable in certain circles to decry “lax” merger enforcement and to call for a more aggressive merger enforcement policy (see, for example, the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2016 paper on competition policy, critiqued by me in this blog post).  Interventionists promoting “tougher” merger enforcement have cited Professor John Kwoka’s 2015 book, Mergers, Merger Control, and Remedies in support of the proposition that U.S. antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” in analyzing proposed mergers.

In that regard, a recent paper by two outstanding FTC economists (Michael Vita and David Osinski) is well worth noting.  It makes a strong (and, in my view, persuasive) case that Kwoka’s research is fatally flawed.  The following excerpt, drawn from the introduction and conclusion of the paper (Mergers, Merger Control, and Remedies:  A Critical Review), merits close attention:

John Kwoka’s recently published Mergers, Merger Control, and Remedies (2015) has received considerable attention from both antitrust practitioners and academics. The book features a meta-analysis of retrospective studies of consummated mergers, joint ventures, and other horizontal arrangements. Based on summary statistics derived from these studies, Kwoka concludes that domestic antitrust agencies are excessively tolerant in their merger enforcement; that merger remedies are ineffective at mitigating market power; and that merger enforcement has become increasingly lax over time. We review both his evidence and his empirical methods, and conclude that serious deficiencies in both undermine the basis for these conclusions. . . .

We sympathize with the goal of using retrospective analyses to assess the performance of the antitrust agencies and to identify possible improvements. Unfortunately, Kwoka has drawn inferences and reached conclusions about contemporary merger enforcement policy that are unjustified by his data and his methods. His critique of negotiated remedies in merger cases relies on a small number of transactions; a close reading reveals that a number of them are silent on the effectiveness of the associated remedies. His data sample lacks diversity, relying heavily on a small number of studies conducted on a small and unrepresentative set of industries. His statistical methodology departs from well-established techniques for conducting meta-analyses, making it impossible for readers to assess the strength of his evidence using standard statistical tools. His conclusions about the growing permissiveness of enforcement policies lack substantiation. Overall, we are unpersuaded that his evidence can support such broad and general policy conclusions.

Hopefully, the new leadership at the Federal Trade Commission and at the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division will carefully scrutinize this and other recent research on mergers in devising their merger enforcement policy.  Additional research on the effects of mergers, including an evaluation of their static and dynamic efficiencies, is highly warranted.  Enforcers should not lose sight of the fact that disincentivizing efficient mergers could undermine a vibrant market for corporate control in general, as well as precluding the net creation of economic surplus in specific cases.

I just posted a new ICLE white paper, co-authored with former ICLE Associate Director, Ben Sperry:

When Past Is Not Prologue: The Weakness of the Economic Evidence Against Health Insurance Mergers.

Yesterday the hearing in the DOJ’s challenge to stop the Aetna-Humana merger got underway, and last week phase 1 of the Cigna-Anthem merger trial came to a close.

The DOJ’s challenge in both cases is fundamentally rooted in a timeworn structural analysis: More consolidation in the market (where “the market” is a hotly-contested issue, of course) means less competition and higher premiums for consumers.

Following the traditional structural playbook, the DOJ argues that the Aetna-Humana merger (to pick one) would result in presumptively anticompetitive levels of concentration, and that neither new entry not divestiture would suffice to introduce sufficient competition. It does not (in its pretrial brief, at least) consider other market dynamics (including especially the complex and evolving regulatory environment) that would constrain the firm’s ability to charge supracompetitive prices.

Aetna & Humana, for their part, contend that things are a bit more complicated than the government suggests, that the government defines the relevant market incorrectly, and that

the evidence will show that there is no correlation between the number of [Medicare Advantage organizations] in a county (or their shares) and Medicare Advantage pricing—a fundamental fact that the Government’s theories of harm cannot overcome.

The trial will, of course, feature expert economic evidence from both sides. But until we see that evidence, or read the inevitable papers derived from it, we are stuck evaluating the basic outlines of the economic arguments based on the existing literature.

A host of antitrust commentators, politicians, and other interested parties have determined that the literature condemns the mergers, based largely on a small set of papers purporting to demonstrate that an increase of premiums, without corresponding benefit, inexorably follows health insurance “consolidation.” In fact, virtually all of these critics base their claims on a 2012 case study of a 1999 merger (between Aetna and Prudential) by economists Leemore Dafny, Mark Duggan, and Subramaniam Ramanarayanan, Paying a Premium on Your Premium? Consolidation in the U.S. Health Insurance Industry, as well as associated testimony by Prof. Dafny, along with a small number of other papers by her (and a couple others).

Our paper challenges these claims. As we summarize:

This white paper counsels extreme caution in the use of past statistical studies of the purported effects of health insurance company mergers to infer that today’s proposed mergers—between Aetna/Humana and Anthem/Cigna—will likely have similar effects. Focusing on one influential study—Paying a Premium on Your Premium…—as a jumping off point, we highlight some of the many reasons that past is not prologue.

In short: extrapolated, long-term, cumulative, average effects drawn from 17-year-old data may grab headlines, but they really don’t tell us much of anything about the likely effects of a particular merger today, or about the effects of increased concentration in any particular product or geographic market.

While our analysis doesn’t necessarily undermine the paper’s limited, historical conclusions, it does counsel extreme caution for inferring the study’s applicability to today’s proposed mergers.

By way of reference, Dafny, et al. found average premium price increases from the 1999 Aetna/Prudential merger of only 0.25 percent per year for two years following the merger in the geographic markets they studied. “Health Insurance Mergers May Lead to 0.25 Percent Price Increases!” isn’t quite as compelling a claim as what critics have been saying, but it’s arguably more accurate (and more relevant) than the 7 percent price increase purportedly based on the paper that merger critics like to throw around.

Moreover, different markets and a changed regulatory environment alone aren’t the only things suggesting that past is not prologue. When we delve into the paper more closely we find even more significant limitations on the paper’s support for the claims made in its name, and its relevance to the current proposed mergers.

The full paper is available here.

As regulatory review of the merger between Aetna and Humana hits the homestretch, merger critics have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the deal. This is particularly true of a subset of healthcare providers concerned about losing bargaining power over insurers.

Fortunately for consumers, the merger appears to be well on its way to approval. California recently became the 16th of 20 state insurance commissions that will eventually review the merger to approve it. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently reviewing the merger and may issue its determination as early as July.

Only Missouri has issued a preliminary opinion that the merger might lead to competitive harm. But Missouri is almost certain to remain an outlier, and its analysis simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The Missouri opinion echoed the Missouri Hospital Association’s (MHA) concerns about the effect of the merger on Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. It’s important to remember, however, that hospital associations like the MHA are not consumer advocacy groups. They are trade organizations whose primary function is to protect the interests of their member hospitals.

In fact, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has mounted continuous opposition to the deal. This is itself a good indication that the merger will benefit consumers, in part by reducing hospital reimbursement costs under MA plans.

More generally, critics have argued that history proves that health insurance mergers lead to higher premiums, without any countervailing benefits. Merger opponents place great stock in a study by economist Leemore Dafny and co-authors that purports to show that insurance mergers have historically led to seven percent higher premiums.

But that study, which looked at a pre-Affordable Care Act (ACA) deal and assessed its effects only on premiums for traditional employer-provided plans, has little relevance today.

The Dafny study first performed a straightforward statistical analysis of overall changes in concentration (that is, the number of insurers in a given market) and price, and concluded that “there is no significant association between concentration levels and premium growth.” Critics never mention this finding.

The study’s secondary, more speculative, analysis took the observed effects of a single merger — the 1999 merger between Prudential and Aetna — and extrapolated for all changes in concentration (i.e., the number of insurers in a given market) and price over an eight-year period. It concluded that, on average, seven percent of the cumulative increase in premium prices between 1998 and 2006 was the result of a reduction in the number of insurers.

But what critics fail to mention is that when the authors looked at the actual consequences of the 1999 Prudential/Aetna merger, they found effects lasting only two years — and an average price increase of only one half of one percent. And these negligible effects were restricted to premiums paid under plans purchased by large employers, a critical limitation of the studies’ relevance to today’s proposed mergers.

Moreover, as the study notes in passing, over the same eight-year period, average premium prices increased in total by 54 percent. Yet the study offers no insights into what was driving the vast bulk of premium price increases — or whether those factors are still present today.  

Few sectors of the economy have changed more radically in the past few decades than healthcare has. While extrapolated effects drawn from 17-year-old data may grab headlines, they really don’t tell us much of anything about the likely effects of a particular merger today.

Indeed, the ACA and current trends in healthcare policy have dramatically altered the way health insurance markets work. Among other things, the advent of new technologies and the move to “value-based” care are redefining the relationship between insurers and healthcare providers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Medicare and Medicare Advantage market at the heart of the Aetna/Humana merger.

In an effort to stop the merger on antitrust grounds, critics claim that Medicare and MA are distinct products, in distinct markets. But it is simply incorrect to claim that Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare aren’t “genuine alternatives.”

In fact, as the Office of Insurance Regulation in Florida — a bellwether state for healthcare policy — concluded in approving the merger: “Medicare Advantage, the private market product, competes directly with Traditional Medicare.”

Consumers who search for plans at Medicare.gov are presented with a direct comparison between traditional Medicare and available MA plans. And the evidence suggests that they regularly switch between the two. Today, almost a third of eligible Medicare recipients choose MA plans, and the majority of current MA enrollees switched to MA from traditional Medicare.

True, Medicare and MA plans are not identical. But for antitrust purposes, substitutes need not be perfect to exert pricing discipline on each other. Take HMOs and PPOs, for example. No one disputes that they are substitutes, and that prices for one constrain prices for the other. But as anyone who has considered switching between an HMO and a PPO knows, price is not the only variable that influences consumers’ decisions.

The same is true for MA and traditional Medicare. For many consumers, Medicare’s standard benefits, more-expensive supplemental benefits, plus a wider range of provider options present a viable alternative to MA’s lower-cost expanded benefits and narrower, managed provider network.

The move away from a traditional fee-for-service model changes how insurers do business. It requires larger investments in technology, better tracking of preventive care and health outcomes, and more-holistic supervision of patient care by insurers. Arguably, all of this may be accomplished most efficiently by larger insurers with more resources and a greater ability to work with larger, more integrated providers.

This is exactly why many hospitals, which continue to profit from traditional, fee-for-service systems, are opposed to a merger that promises to expand these value-based plans. Significantly, healthcare providers like Encompass Medical Group, which have done the most to transition their services to the value-based care model, have offered letters of support for the merger.

Regardless of their rhetoric — whether about market definition or historic precedent — the most vocal merger critics are opposed to the deal for a very simple reason: They stand to lose money if the merger is approved. That may be a good reason for some hospitals to wish the merger would go away, but it is a terrible reason to actually stop it.

[This post was first published on June 27, 2016 in The Hill as “Don’t believe the critics, Aetna-Humana merger a good deal for consumers“]

Earlier this week I testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade regarding several proposed FTC reform bills.

You can find my written testimony here. That testimony was drawn from a 100 page report, authored by Berin Szoka and me, entitled “The Federal Trade Commission: Restoring Congressional Oversight of the Second National Legislature — An Analysis of Proposed Legislation.” In the report we assess 9 of the 17 proposed reform bills in great detail, and offer a host of suggested amendments or additional reform proposals that, we believe, would help make the FTC more accountable to the courts. As I discuss in my oral remarks, that judicial oversight was part of the original plan for the Commission, and an essential part of ensuring that its immense discretion is effectively directed toward protecting consumers as technology and society evolve around it.

The report is “Report 2.0” of the FTC: Technology & Reform Project, which was convened by the International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom with an inaugural conference in 2013. Report 1.0 lays out some background on the FTC and its institutional dynamics, identifies the areas of possible reform at the agency, and suggests the key questions/issues each of them raises.

The text of my oral remarks follow, or, if you prefer, you can watch them here:

Chairman Burgess, Ranking Member Schakowsky, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.

I’m Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics, a non-profit, non-partisan research center. I’m a former law professor, I used to work at Microsoft, and I had what a colleague once called the most illustrious FTC career ever — because, at approximately 2 weeks, it was probably the shortest.

I’m not typically one to advocate active engagement by Congress in anything (no offense). But the FTC is different.

Despite Congressional reforms, the FTC remains the closest thing we have to a second national legislature. Its jurisdiction covers nearly every company in America. Section 5, at its heart, runs just 20 words — leaving the Commission enormous discretion to make policy decisions that are essentially legislative.

The courts were supposed to keep the agency on course. But they haven’t. As Former Chairman Muris has written, “the agency has… traditionally been beyond judicial control.”

So it’s up to Congress to monitor the FTC’s processes, and tweak them when the FTC goes off course, which is inevitable.

This isn’t a condemnation of the FTC’s dedicated staff. Rather, this one way ratchet of ever-expanding discretion is simply the nature of the beast.

Yet too many people lionize the status quo. They see any effort to change the agency from the outside as an affront. It’s as if Congress was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1914 and the Perfect Platonic Agency sprang forth.

But in the real world, an agency with massive scope and discretion needs oversight — and feedback on how its legal doctrines evolve.

So why don’t the courts play that role? Companies essentially always settle with the FTC because of its exceptionally broad investigatory powers, its relatively weak standard for voting out complaints, and the fact that those decisions effectively aren’t reviewable in federal court.

Then there’s the fact that the FTC sits in judgment of its own prosecutions. So even if a company doesn’t settle and actually wins before the ALJ, FTC staff still wins 100% of the time before the full Commission.

Able though FTC staffers are, this can’t be from sheer skill alone.

Whether by design or by neglect, the FTC has become, as Chairman Muris again described it, “a largely unconstrained agency.”

Please understand: I say this out of love. To paraphrase Churchill, the FTC is the “worst form of regulatory agency — except for all the others.”

Eventually Congress had to course-correct the agency — to fix the disconnect and to apply its own pressure to refocus Section 5 doctrine.

So a heavily Democratic Congress pressured the Commission to adopt the Unfairness Policy Statement in 1980. The FTC promised to restrain itself by balancing the perceived benefits of its unfairness actions against the costs, and not acting when injury is insignificant or consumers could have reasonably avoided injury on their own. It is, inherently, an economic calculus.

But while the Commission pays lip service to the test, you’d be hard-pressed to identify how (or whether) it’s implemented it in practice. Meanwhile, the agency has essentially nullified the “materiality” requirement that it volunteered in its 1983 Deception Policy Statement.

Worst of all, Congress failed to anticipate that the FTC would resume exercising its vast discretion through what it now proudly calls its “common law of consent decrees” in data security cases.

Combined with a flurry of recommended best practices in reports that function as quasi-rulemakings, these settlements have enabled the FTC to circumvent both Congressional rulemaking reforms and meaningful oversight by the courts.

The FTC’s data security settlements aren’t an evolving common law. They’re a static statement of “reasonable” practices, repeated about 55 times over the past 14 years. At this point, it’s reasonable to assume that they apply to all circumstances — much like a rule (which is, more or less, the opposite of the common law).

Congressman Pompeo’s SHIELD Act would help curtail this practice, especially if amended to include consent orders and reports. It would also help focus the Commission on the actual elements of the Unfairness Policy Statement — which should be codified through Congressman Mullins’ SURE Act.

Significantly, only one data security case has actually come before an Article III court. The FTC trumpets Wyndham as an out-and-out win. But it wasn’t. In fact, the court agreed with Wyndham on the crucial point that prior consent orders were of little use in trying to understand the requirements of Section 5.

More recently the FTC suffered another rebuke. While it won its product design suit against Amazon, the Court rejected the Commission’s “fencing in” request to permanently hover over the company and micromanage practices that Amazon had already ended.

As the FTC grapples with such cutting-edge legal issues, it’s drifting away from the balance it promised Congress.

But Congress can’t fix these problems simply by telling the FTC to take its bedrock policy statements more seriously. Instead it must regularly reassess the process that’s allowed the FTC to avoid meaningful judicial scrutiny. The FTC requires significant course correction if its model is to move closer to a true “common law.”

On October 7, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the “Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules” (SMARTER) Act of 2015.  As former Antitrust Modernization Commission Chair (and former Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust) Deborah Garza explained in her testimony, “t]he premise of the SMARTER Act is simple:  A merger should not be treated differently depending on which antitrust enforcement agency – DOJ or the FTC – happens to review it.  Regulatory outcomes should not be determined by a flip of the merger agency coin.”

Ms. Garza is clearly correct.  Both the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforce the federal antitrust merger review provision, Section 7 of the Clayton Act, and employ a common set of substantive guidelines (last revised in 2010) to evaluate merger proposals.  Neutral “rule of law” principles indicate that private parties should expect to have their proposed mergers subject to the same methods of assessment and an identical standard of judicial review, regardless of which agency reviews a particular transaction.  (The two agencies decide by mutual agreement which agency will review any given merger proposal.)

Unfortunately, however, that is not the case today.  The FTC’s independent ability to challenge mergers administratively, combined with the difference in statutory injunctive standards that apply to FTC and DOJ merger reviews, mean that a particular merger application may face more formidable hurdles if reviewed by the FTC, rather than DOJ.  These two differences commendably would be eliminated by the SMARTER Act, which would subject the FTC to current DOJ standards.  The SMARTER Act would not deal with a third difference – the fact that DOJ merger consent decrees, but not FTC merger consent decrees, must be filed with a federal court for “public interest” review.  This commentary briefly addresses those three issues.  The first and second ones present significant “rule of law” problems, in that they involve differences in statutory language applied to the same conduct.  The third issue, the question of judicial review of settlements, is of a different nature, but nevertheless raises substantial policy concerns.

  1. FTC Administrative Authority

The first rule of law problem stems from the broader statutory authority the FTC possesses to challenge mergers.  In merger cases, while DOJ typically consolidates actions for a preliminary and permanent injunction in district court, the FTC merely seeks a preliminary injunction (which is easier to obtain than a permanent injunction) and “holds in its back pocket” the ability to challenge a merger in an FTC administrative proceeding – a power DOJ does not possess.  In short, the FTC subjects proposed mergers to a different and more onerous method of assessment than DOJ.  In Ms. Garza’s words (footnotes deleted):

“Despite the FTC’s legal ability to seek permanent relief from the district court, it prefers to seek a preliminary injunction only, to preserve the status quo while it proceeds with its administrative litigation.

This approach has great strategic significance. First, the standard for obtaining a preliminary injunction in government merger challenges is lower than the standard for obtaining a permanent injunction. That is, it is easier to get a preliminary injunction.

Second, as a practical matter, the grant of a preliminary injunction is typically sufficient to end the matter. In nearly every case, the parties will abandon their transaction rather than incur the heavy cost and uncertainty of trying to hold the merger together through further proceedings—which is why merging parties typically seek to consolidate proceedings for preliminary and permanent relief under Rule 65(a)(2). Time is of the essence. As one witness testified before the [Antitrust Modernization Commission], “it is a rare seller whose business can withstand the destabilizing effect of a year or more of uncertainty” after the issuance of a preliminary injunction.

Third, even if the court denies the FTC its preliminary injunction and the parties close their merger, the FTC can still continue to pursue an administrative challenge with an eye to undoing or restructuring the transaction. This is the “heads I win, tails you lose” aspect of the situation today. It is very difficult for the parties to get to the point of a full hearing in court given the effect of time on transactions, even with the FTC’s expedited administrative procedures adopted in about 2008. . . . 

[Moreover,] [while] [u]nder its new procedures, parties can move to dismiss an administrative proceeding if the FTC has lost a motion for preliminary injunction and the FTC will consider whether to proceed on a case-by-case basis[,] . . . th[is] [FTC] policy could just as easily change again, unless Congress speaks.”

Typically time is of the essence in proposed mergers, so substantial delays occasioned by extended reviews of those transactions may prevent many transactions from being consummated, even if they eventually would have passed antitrust muster.  Ms. Garza’s testimony, plus testimony by former Assistant Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Abbott (Tad) Lipsky, document cases of substantial delay in FTC administrative reviews of merger proposals.  (As Mr. Lipsky explained, “[a]ntitrust practitioners have long perceived that the possibility of continued administrative litigation by the FTC following a court decision constitutes a significant disincentive for parties to invest resources in transaction planning and execution.”)  Congress should weigh these delay-specific costs, as well as the direct costs of any additional burdens occasioned by FTC administrative procedures, in deciding whether to require the FTC (like DOJ) to rely solely on federal court proceedings.

  1. Differences Between FTC and DOJ Injunctive Standards

The second rule of law problem arises from the lighter burden the FTC must satisfy to obtain injunctive relief in federal court.  Under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, an injunction shall be granted the FTC “[u]pon a proper showing that, weighing the equities and considering the Commission’s likelihood of success, such action would be in the public interest.”  The D.C. Circuit (in FTC v. H.J. Heinz Co. and in FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc.) has stated that, to meet this burden, the FTC need merely have raised questions “so serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful as to make them fair ground for further investigation.”  By contrast, as Ms. Garza’s testimony points out, “under Section 15 of the Clayton Act, courts generally apply a traditional equities test requiring DOJ to show a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits—not merely that there is ‘fair ground for further investigation.’”  In a similar vein, Mr. Lipsky’s testimony stated that “[t]he cumulative effect of several recent contested merger decisions has been to allow the FTC to argue that it needn’t show likelihood of success in order to win a preliminary injunction; specifically these decisions suggest that the Commission need only show ‘serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful’ questions regarding the merits.”  Although some commentators have contended that, in reality, the two standards generally will be interpreted in a similar fashion (“whatever theoretical difference might exist between the FTC and DOJ standards has no practical significance”), there is no doubt that the language of the two standards is different – and basic principles of statutory construction indicate that differences in statutory language should be given meaning and not ignored.  Accordingly, merging parties face the real prospect that they might fare worse under federal court review of an FTC challenge to their merger proposal than they would have fared had DOJ challenged the same transaction.  Such an outcome, even if it is rare, would be at odds with neutral application of the rule of law.

  1. The Tunney Act

Finally, helpful as it is, the SMARTER Act does not entirely eliminate the disparate treatment of proposed mergers by DOJ and the FTC.  The Tunney Act, 15 U.S.C. § 16, enacted in 1974, which applies to DOJ but not to the FTC, requires that DOJ submit all proposed consent judgments under the antitrust laws (including Section 7 of the Clayton Act) to a federal district court for 60 days of public comment prior to being entered.

a.  Economic Costs (and Potential Benefits) of the Tunney Act

The Tunney Act potentially interjects uncertainty into the nature of the “deal” struck between merging parties and DOJ in merger cases.  It does this by subjecting proposed DOJ merger settlements (and other DOJ non-merger civil antitrust settlements) to a 60 day public review period, requiring federal judges to determine whether a proposed settlement is “in the public interest” before entering it, and instructing the court to consider the impact of the entry of judgment “upon competition and upon the public generally.”  Leading antitrust practitioners have noted that this uncertainty “could affect shareholders, customers, or even employees. Moreover, the merged company must devote some measure of resources to dealing with the Tunney Act review—resources that instead could be devoted to further integration of the two companies or generation of any planned efficiencies or synergies.”  More specifically:

“[W]hile Tunney Act proceedings are pending, a merged company may have to consider how its post-close actions and integration could be perceived by the court, and may feel the need to compete somewhat less aggressively, lest its more muscular competitive actions be taken by the court, amici, or the public at large to be the actions of a merged company exercising enhanced market power. Such a distortion in conduct probably was not contemplated by the Tunney Act’s drafters, but merger partners will need to be cognizant of how their post-close actions may be perceived during Tunney Act review. . . .  [And, in addition,] while Tunney Act proceedings are pending, a merged company may have to consider how its post-close actions and integration could be perceived by the court, and may feel the need to compete somewhat less aggressively, lest its more muscular competitive actions be taken by the court, amici, or the public at large to be the actions of a merged company exercising enhanced market power.”

Although the Tunney Act has been justified on traditional “public interest” grounds, even its scholarly supporters (a DOJ antitrust attorney), in praising its purported benefits, have acknowledged its potential for abuse:

“Properly interpreted and applied, the Tunney Act serves a number of related, useful functions. The disclosure provisions and judicial approval requirement for decrees can help identify, and more importantly deter, “influence peddling” and other abuses. The notice-and-comment procedures force the DOJ to explain its rationale for the settlement and provide its answers to objections, thus providing transparency. They also provide a mechanism for third-party input, and, thus, a way to identify and correct potentially unnoticed problems in a decree. Finally, the court’s public interest review not only helps ensure that the decree benefits the public, it also allows the court to protect itself against ambiguous provisions and enforcement problems and against an objectionable or pointless employment of judicial power. Improperly applied, the Tunney Act does more harm than good. When a district court takes it upon itself to investigate allegations not contained in a complaint, or attempts to “re-settle” a case to provide what it views as stronger, better relief, or permits lengthy, unfocused proceedings, the Act is turned from a useful check to an unpredictable, costly burden.”

The justifications presented by the author are open to serious question.  Whether “influence peddling” can be detected merely from the filing of proposed decree terms is doubtful – corrupt deals to settle a matter presumably would be done “behind the scenes” in a manner not available to public scrutiny.  The economic expertise and detailed factual knowledge that informs a DOJ merger settlement cannot be fully absorbed by a judge (who may fall prey to his or her personal predilections as to what constitutes good policy) during a brief review period.  “Transparency” that facilitates “third-party input” can too easily be manipulated by rent-seeking competitors who will “trump up” justifications for blocking an efficient merger.  Moreover, third parties who are opposed to mergers in general may also be expected to file objections to efficient arrangements.  In short, the “sunshine” justification for Tunney Act filings is more likely to cloud the evaluation of DOJ policy calls than to provide clarity.

b.  Constitutional Issues Raised by the Tunney Act

In addition to potential economic inefficiencies, the judicial review feature of the Tunney Act raises serious separation of powers issues, as emphasized by the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC, which advises the Attorney General and the President on questions of constitutional interpretation) in a 1989 opinion regarding qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act:

“There are very serious doubts as to the constitutionality . . . of the Tunney Act:  it intrudes into the Executive power and requires the courts to decide upon the public interest – that is, to exercise a policy discretion normally reserved to the political branches.  Three Justices of the Supreme Court questioned the constitutionality of the Tunney Act in Maryland v. United States, 460 U.S. 1001 (1983) (Rehnquist, J., joined by Burger, C.J., and White, J., dissenting).”

Notably, this DOJ critique of the Tunney Act was written before the 2004 amendments to that statute that specifically empower courts to consider the impact of proposed settlements “upon competition and upon the public generally” – language that significantly trenches upon Executive Branch prerogatives.  Admittedly, the Tunney Act has withstood judicial scrutiny – no court has ruled it unconstitutional.   Moreover, a federal judge can only accept or reject a Tunney Act settlement, not rewrite it, somewhat ameliorating its affront to the separation of powers.  In short, even though it may not be subject to serious constitutional challenge in the courts, the Tunney Act is problematic as a matter of sound constitutional policy.

c.  Congressional Reexamination of the Tunney Act

These economic and constitutional policy concerns suggest that Congress may wish to carefully reexamine the merits of the Tunney Act.  Any such reexamination, however, should be independent of, and not delay expedited consideration of, the SMARTER Act.  The Tunney Act, although of undoubted significance, is only a tangential aspect of the divergent legal standards that apply to FTC and DOJ merger reviews.  It is beyond the scope of current legislative proposals but it merits being taken up at an appropriate time – perhaps in the next Congress.  When Congress turns to the Tunney Act, it may wish to consider four options:  (1) repealing the Act in its entirety; (2) retaining the Act as is; (3) partially repealing it only with respect to merger reviews; or, (4) applying it in full force to the FTC.  A detailed evaluation of those options is beyond the scope of this commentary.

Conclusion

In sum, in order to eliminate inconsistencies between FTC and DOJ standards for reviewing proposed mergers, Congress should give serious consideration to enacting the SMARTER Act, which would both eliminate FTC administrative review of merger proposals and subject the FTC to the same injunctive standard as the DOJ in judicial review of those proposals.  Moreover, if the SMARTER Act is enacted, Congress should also consider going further and amending the Tunney Act to make it apply to FTC as well as to DOJ merger settlements – or, alternatively, to have it not apply at all to any merger settlements (a result which would better respect the constitutional separation of powers and reduce a potential source of economic inefficiency).

Last week concluded round 3 of Congressional hearings on mergers in the healthcare provider and health insurance markets. Much like the previous rounds, the hearing saw predictable representatives, of predictable constituencies, saying predictable things.

The pattern is pretty clear: The American Hospital Association (AHA) makes the case that mergers in the provider market are good for consumers, while mergers in the health insurance market are bad. A scholar or two decries all consolidation in both markets. Another interested group, like maybe the American Medical Association (AMA), also criticizes the mergers. And it’s usually left to a representative of the insurance industry, typically one or more of the merging parties themselves, or perhaps a scholar from a free market think tank, to defend the merger.

Lurking behind the public and politicized airings of these mergers, and especially the pending Anthem/Cigna and Aetna/Humana health insurance mergers, is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, the partisan politics surrounding the ACA, particularly during this election season, may be trumping the sensible economic analysis of the competitive effects of these mergers.

In particular, the partisan assessments of the ACA’s effect on the marketplace have greatly colored the Congressional (mis-)understandings of the competitive consequences of the mergers.  

Witness testimony and questions from members of Congress at the hearings suggest that there is widespread agreement that the ACA is encouraging increased consolidation in healthcare provider markets, for example, but there is nothing approaching unanimity of opinion in Congress or among interested parties regarding what, if anything, to do about it. Congressional Democrats, for their part, have insisted that stepped up vigilance, particularly of health insurance mergers, is required to ensure that continued competition in health insurance markets isn’t undermined, and that the realization of the ACA’s objectives in the provider market aren’t undermined by insurance companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have generally been inclined to imply (or outright state) that increased concentration is bad, so that they can blame increasing concentration and any lack of competition on the increased regulatory costs or other effects of the ACA. Both sides appear to be missing the greater complexities of the story, however.

While the ACA may be creating certain impediments in the health insurance market, it’s also creating some opportunities for increased health insurance competition, and implementing provisions that should serve to hold down prices. Furthermore, even if the ACA is encouraging more concentration, those increases in concentration can’t be assumed to be anticompetitive. Mergers may very well be the best way for insurers to provide benefits to consumers in a post-ACA world — that is, the world we live in. The ACA may have plenty of negative outcomes, and there may be reasons to attack the ACA itself, but there is no reason to assume that any increased concentration it may bring about is a bad thing.

Asking the right questions about the ACA

We don’t need more self-serving and/or politicized testimony We need instead to apply an economic framework to the competition issues arising from these mergers in order to understand their actual, likely effects on the health insurance marketplace we have. This framework has to answer questions like:

  • How do we understand the effects of the ACA on the marketplace?
    • In what ways does the ACA require us to alter our understanding of the competitive environment in which health insurance and healthcare are offered?
    • Does the ACA promote concentration in health insurance markets?
    • If so, is that a bad thing?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the healthcare provider market?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the health insurance market?
  • How do state regulatory regimes affect the understanding of what markets are at issue, and what competitive effects are likely, for antitrust analysis?
  • What are the potential competitive effects of increased concentration in the health care markets?
  • Does increased health insurance market concentration exacerbate or counteract those effects?

Beginning with this post, at least a few of us here at TOTM will take on some of these issues, as part of a blog series aimed at better understanding the antitrust law and economics of the pending health insurance mergers.

Today, we will focus on the ambiguous competitive implications of the ACA. Although not a comprehensive analysis, in this post we will discuss some key insights into how the ACA’s regulations and subsidies should inform our assessment of the competitiveness of the healthcare industry as a whole, and the antitrust review of health insurance mergers in particular.

The ambiguous effects of the ACA

It’s an understatement to say that the ACA is an issue of great political controversy. While many Democrats argue that it has been nothing but a boon to consumers, Republicans usually have nothing good to say about the law’s effects. But both sides miss important but ambiguous effects of the law on the healthcare industry. And because they miss (or disregard) this ambiguity for political reasons, they risk seriously misunderstanding the legal and economic implications of the ACA for healthcare industry mergers.

To begin with, there are substantial negative effects, of course. Requiring insurance companies to accept patients with pre-existing conditions reduces the ability of insurance companies to manage risk. This has led to upward pricing pressure for premiums. While the mandate to buy insurance was supposed to help bring more young, healthy people into the risk pool, so far the projected signups haven’t been realized.

The ACA’s redefinition of what is an acceptable insurance policy has also caused many consumers to lose the policy of their choice. And the ACA’s many regulations, such as the Minimum Loss Ratio requiring insurance companies to spend 80% of premiums on healthcare, have squeezed the profit margins of many insurance companies, leading, in some cases, to exit from the marketplace altogether and, in others, to a reduction of new marketplace entry or competition in other submarkets.

On the other hand, there may be benefits from the ACA. While many insurers participated in private exchanges even before the ACA-mandated health insurance exchanges, the increased consumer education from the government’s efforts may have helped enrollment even in private exchanges, and may also have helped to keep premiums from increasing as much as they would have otherwise. At the same time, the increased subsidies for individuals have helped lower-income people afford those premiums. Some have even argued that increased participation in the on-demand economy can be linked to the ability of individuals to buy health insurance directly. On top of that, there has been some entry into certain health insurance submarkets due to lower barriers to entry (because there is less need for agents to sell in a new market with the online exchanges). And the changes in how Medicare pays, with a greater focus on outcomes rather than services provided, has led to the adoption of value-based pricing from both health care providers and health insurance companies.

Further, some of the ACA’s effects have  decidedly ambiguous consequences for healthcare and health insurance markets. On the one hand, for example, the ACA’s compensation rules have encouraged consolidation among healthcare providers, as noted. One reason for this is that the government gives higher payments for Medicare services delivered by a hospital versus an independent doctor. Similarly, increased regulatory burdens have led to higher compliance costs and more consolidation as providers attempt to economize on those costs. All of this has happened perhaps to the detriment of doctors (and/or patients) who wanted to remain independent from hospitals and larger health network systems, and, as a result, has generally raised costs for payors like insurers and governments.

But much of this consolidation has also arguably led to increased efficiency and greater benefits for consumers. For instance, the integration of healthcare networks leads to increased sharing of health information and better analytics, better care for patients, reduced overhead costs, and other efficiencies. Ultimately these should translate into higher quality care for patients. And to the extent that they do, they should also translate into lower costs for insurers and lower premiums — provided health insurers are not prevented from obtaining sufficient bargaining power to impose pricing discipline on healthcare providers.

In other words, both the AHA and AMA could be right as to different aspects of the ACA’s effects.

Understanding mergers within the regulatory environment

But what they can’t say is that increased consolidation per se is clearly problematic, nor that, even if it is correlated with sub-optimal outcomes, it is consolidation causing those outcomes, rather than something else (like the ACA) that is causing both the sub-optimal outcomes as well as consolidation.

In fact, it may well be the case that increased consolidation improves overall outcomes in healthcare provider and health insurance markets relative to what would happen under the ACA absent consolidation. For Congressional Democrats and others interested in bolstering the ACA and offering the best possible outcomes for consumers, reflexively challenging health insurance mergers because consolidation is “bad,” may be undermining both of these objectives.

Meanwhile, and for the same reasons, Congressional Republicans who decry Obamacare should be careful that they do not likewise condemn mergers under what amounts to a “big is bad” theory that is inconsistent with the rigorous law and economics approach that they otherwise generally support. To the extent that the true target is not health insurance industry consolidation, but rather underlying regulatory changes that have encouraged that consolidation, scoring political points by impugning mergers threatens both health insurance consumers in the short run, as well as consumers throughout the economy in the long run (by undermining the well-established economic critiques of a reflexive “big is bad” response).

It is simply not clear that ACA-induced health insurance mergers are likely to be anticompetitive. In fact, because the ACA builds on state regulation of insurance providers, requiring greater transparency and regulatory review of pricing and coverage terms, it seems unlikely that health insurers would be free to engage in anticompetitive price increases or reduced coverage that could harm consumers.

On the contrary, the managerial and transactional efficiencies from the proposed mergers, combined with greater bargaining power against now-larger providers are likely to lead to both better quality care and cost savings passed-on to consumers. Increased entry, at least in part due to the ACA in most of the markets in which the merging companies will compete, along with integrated health networks themselves entering and threatening entry into insurance markets, will almost certainly lead to more consumer cost savings. In the current regulatory environment created by the ACA, in other words, insurance mergers have considerable upside potential, with little downside risk.

Conclusion

In sum, regardless of what one thinks about the ACA and its likely effects on consumers, it is not clear that health insurance mergers, especially in a post-ACA world, will be harmful.

Rather, assessing the likely competitive effects of health insurance mergers entails consideration of many complicated (and, unfortunately, politicized) issues. In future blog posts we will discuss (among other things): the proper treatment of efficiencies arising from health insurance mergers, the appropriate geographic and product markets for health insurance merger reviews, the role of state regulations in assessing likely competitive effects, and the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for potential competitive harms arising from the mergers.

Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.

Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedly had occasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.

The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm

To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.

But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.

The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:

Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.

The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.

Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears

First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.

It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.

It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twice rejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:

In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.

The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.

It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.

OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”

After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that

Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.

Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.

Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.

In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.

If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.

The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either

While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.

Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.

Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.

And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?

While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.

In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”

The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable

Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.

The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).

What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.

Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.

In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.

The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.

The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.

Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.

The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.

At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.

Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.

In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.