by Jonathan Jacobson, partner & Ryan Maddock, associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati
Excluding the much talked about Section 5 policy statement, Commissioner Wright’s tenure at the FTC was highlighted by his numerous dissents. If there is one unifying theme in those dissents it is his insistence that rigorous economic analysis be at the very core of all the Commission’s decisions. This theme was perhaps most evident in his decision to dissent in the Ardaugh/Saint-Gobain and Sysco/US Foods mergers, two cases that presented interesting questions about how the Commission and courts should balance a merger’s likely anticompetitive effects with its procompetitive efficiencies.
In April of 2014 the Commission announced that it had accepted a consent decree in Ardaugh/Saint-Gobain that remedied its competitive concerns related to the merger of the second and third largest firms in the market for “glass containers sold to beer and wine distributors in the United States.” The majority, which consisted of Commissioners Ramirez, Ohlhausen, and Brill, argued that the merger would lead to both coordinated and unilateral anticompetitive effects in the market and further stated that “the parties put forward insufficient evidence showing that the level of synergies that could be substantiated and verified would outweigh the clear evidence of consumer harm.” Commissioner Wright, who was the lone dissenter, strongly disagreed with the majority’s conclusions and found that the merger’s cognizable efficiencies were “up to six times greater than any likely unilateral price effect,” and thus the merger should have been approved without requiring a remedy.
Commissioner Wright also used his Ardaugh dissent to discuss whether the merging parties and Commission face asymmetric burdens of proof regarding competitive effects. Specifically, Commissioner Wright asked whether the “merging parties [must] overcome a greater burden of proof on efficiencies in practice than does the FTC to satisfy its prima facie burden of establishing anticompetitive effects?” Commissioner Wright stated that the Commission has acknowledged that in theory the burdens of proof should be uniform; however, he argued that the only way the majority could have found that the Ardaugh/Saint-Gobain merger would generate almost no cognizable efficiencies is by applying asymmetric burdens. He explained that the majority’s approach “embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other.”
Commissioner Wright, who was joined by Commissioner Ohlhausen, also dissented from the Commission’s decision to challenge the Sysco/US Foods merger. While the Commissioners did not issue a formal dissent because of the FTC’s then pending litigation, Commissioner Wright tweeted that he had “no reason to believe the proposed Sysco/US Foods transaction violated the Clayton Act.” The lack of a formal dissent makes it challenging to ascertain all of Commissioner Wright’s objections, but a reading of the Commission’s administrative complaint provides insight on his likely positions. For example, Commissioner Wright undoubtedly disagreed with the complaint’s treatment the parties’ proffered efficiencies:
Extraordinary Merger-specific efficiencies are necessary to outweigh the Merger’s likely significant harm to competition in the relevant markets. Respondents cannot demonstrate cognizable efficiencies that would be sufficient to rebut the strong presumption and evidence that the Merger likely would substantially lessen competition in the relevant markets.
Commissioner Wright’s Ardaugh dissent makes it clear that he does not believe that the balancing of anticompetitive effects and efficiencies should be an afterthought to the agency’s merger analysis, which is how the majority’s complaint appears to treat it. This case likely represents another instance where Commissioner Wright believed that the majority of commissioners applied asymmetric burdens of proof when balancing the merger’s competitive effects.
Commissioner Wright is not the first person to ask whether current merger analysis favors anticompetitive effects over efficiencies; however, that does not detract from the question’s importance. His views reflect a belief shared by others that antitrust policy should be based on an aggregate welfare standard, rather than the consumer welfare standard that the agencies and the courts have for the most applied over the past few decades. In Commissioner Wright’s view, by applying asymmetric burdens–which is functionally the same as discounting efficiencies–antitrust agencies could harm both total welfare and consumers by increasing the chance that a procompetitive merger might be blocked. It stands in contrast to the majority view that a merger that raises prices requires efficiencies, specific to the merger, of a magnitude sufficient to defeat any increase in consumer prices–and that, because the efficiency information is in the hands of the proponents, shifting the burden to them is appropriate.
While his tenure at the FTC has come to an end, expect to continue to see Commissioner Wright at the front and center of this and many other important antitrust issues.