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(The following is adapted from a recent ICLE Issue Brief on the flawed essential facilities arguments undergirding the EU competition investigations into Amazon’s marketplace that I wrote with Geoffrey Manne.  The full brief is available here. )

Amazon has largely avoided the crosshairs of antitrust enforcers to date. The reasons seem obvious: in the US it handles a mere 5% of all retail sales (with lower shares worldwide), and it consistently provides access to a wide array of affordable goods. Yet, even with Amazon’s obvious lack of dominance in the general retail market, the EU and some of its member states are opening investigations.

Commissioner Margarethe Vestager’s probe into Amazon, which came to light in September, centers on whether Amazon is illegally using its dominant position vis-á-vis third party merchants on its platforms in order to obtain data that it then uses either to promote its own direct sales, or else to develop competing products under its private label brands. More recently, Austria and Germany have launched separate investigations of Amazon rooted in many of the same concerns as those of the European Commission. The German investigation also focuses on whether the contractual relationships that third party sellers enter into with Amazon are unfair because these sellers are “dependent” on the platform.

One of the fundamental, erroneous assumptions upon which these cases are built is the alleged “essentiality” of the underlying platform or input. In truth, these sorts of cases are more often based on stories of firms that chose to build their businesses in a way that relies on a specific platform. In other words, their own decisions — from which they substantially benefited, of course — made their investments highly “asset specific” and thus vulnerable to otherwise avoidable risks. When a platform on which these businesses rely makes a disruptive move, the third parties cry foul, even though the platform was not — nor should have been — under any obligation to preserve the status quo on behalf of third parties.

Essential or not, that is the question

All three investigations are effectively premised on a version of an “essential facilities” theory — the claim that Amazon is essential to these companies’ ability to do business.

There are good reasons that the US has tightly circumscribed the scope of permissible claims invoking the essential facilities doctrine. Such “duty to deal” claims are “at or near the outer boundary” of US antitrust law. And there are good reasons why the EU and its member states should be similarly skeptical.

Characterizing one firm as essential to the operation of other firms is tricky because “[c]ompelling [innovative] firms to share the source of their advantage… may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” Further, the classification requires “courts to act as central planners, identifying the proper price, quantity, and other terms of dealing—a role for which they are ill-suited.”

The key difficulty is that alleged “essentiality” actually falls on a spectrum. On one end is something like a true monopoly utility that is actually essential to all firms that use its service as a necessary input; on the other is a firm that offers highly convenient services that make it much easier for firms to operate. This latter definition of “essentiality” describes firms like Google and Amazon, but it is not accurate to characterize such highly efficient and effective firms as truly “essential.” Instead, companies that choose to take advantage of the benefits such platforms offer, and to tailor their business models around them, suffer from an asset specificity problem.

Geoffrey Manne noted this problem in the context of the EU’s Google Shopping case:

A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control.

Third-party sellers that rely upon Amazon without a contingency plan are engaging in a calculated risk that, as business owners, they would typically be expected to manage.  The investigations by European authorities are based on the notion that antitrust law might require Amazon to remove that risk by prohibiting it from undertaking certain conduct that might raise costs for its third-party sellers.

Implications and extensions

In the full issue brief, we consider the tensions in EU law between seeking to promote innovation and protect the competitive process, on the one hand, and the propensity of EU enforcers to rely on essential facilities-style arguments on the other. One of the fundamental errors that leads EU enforcers in this direction is that they confuse the distribution channel of the Internet with an antitrust-relevant market definition.

A claim based on some flavor of Amazon-as-essential-facility should be untenable given today’s market realities because Amazon is, in fact, just one mode of distribution among many. Commerce on the Internet is still just commerce. The only thing preventing a merchant from operating a viable business using any of a number of different mechanisms is the transaction costs it would incur adjusting to a different mode of doing business. Casting Amazon’s marketplace as an essential facility insulates third-party firms from the consequences of their own decisions — from business model selection to marketing and distribution choices. Commerce is nothing new and offline distribution channels and retail outlets — which compete perfectly capably with online — are well developed. Granting retailers access to Amazon’s platform on artificially favorable terms is no more justifiable than granting them access to a supermarket end cap, or a particular unit at a shopping mall. There is, in other words, no business or economic justification for granting retailers in the time-tested and massive retail market an entitlement to use a particular mode of marketing and distribution just because they find it more convenient.

Source: Benedict Evans

[N]ew combinations are, as a rule, embodied, as it were, in new firms which generally do not arise out of the old ones but start producing beside them; … in general it is not the owner of stagecoaches who builds railways. – Joseph Schumpeter, January 1934

Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the tech giants — Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple — claiming they have too much power and represent a danger to our democracy. As part of our response to her proposal, we shared a couple of headlines from 2007 claiming that MySpace had an unassailable monopoly in the social media market.

Tommaso Valletti, the chief economist of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) of the European Commission, said, in what we assume was a reference to our posts, “they go on and on with that single example to claim that [Facebook] and [Google] are not a problem 15 years later … That’s not what I would call an empirical regularity.”

We appreciate the invitation to show that prematurely dubbing companies “unassailable monopolies” is indeed an empirical regularity.

It’s Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future of Competition in Tech

No one is immune to this phenomenon. Antitrust regulators often take a static view of competition, failing to anticipate dynamic technological forces that will upend market structure and competition.

Scientists and academics make a different kind of error. They are driven by the need to satisfy their curiosity rather than shareholders. Upon inventing a new technology or discovering a new scientific truth, academics often fail to see the commercial implications of their findings.

Maybe the titans of industry don’t make these kinds of mistakes because they have skin in the game? The profit and loss statement is certainly a merciless master. But it does not give CEOs the power of premonition. Corporate executives hailed as visionaries in one era often become blinded by their success, failing to see impending threats to their company’s core value propositions.

Furthermore, it’s often hard as outside observers to tell after the fact whether business leaders just didn’t see a tidal wave of disruption coming or, worse, they did see it coming and were unable to steer their bureaucratic, slow-moving ships to safety. Either way, the outcome is the same.

Here’s the pattern we observe over and over: extreme success in one context makes it difficult to predict how and when the next paradigm shift will occur in the market. Incumbents become less innovative as they get lulled into stagnation by high profit margins in established lines of business. (This is essentially the thesis of Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma).

Even if the anti-tech populists are powerless to make predictions, history does offer us some guidance about the future. We have seen time and again that apparently unassailable monopolists are quite effectively assailed by technological forces beyond their control.

PCs

Source: Horace Dediu

Jan 1977: Commodore PET released

Jun 1977: Apple II released

Aug 1977: TRS-80 released

Feb 1978: “I.B.M. Says F.T.C. Has Ended Its Typewriter Monopoly Study” (NYT)

Mobile

Source: Comscore

Mar 2000: Palm Pilot IPO’s at $53 billion

Sep 2006: “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’” – David Pogue (NYT)

Apr 2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Ballmer (USA TODAY)

Jun 2007: iPhone released

Nov 2007: “Nokia: One Billion Customers—Can Anyone Catch the Cell Phone King?” (Forbes)

Sep 2013: “Microsoft CEO Ballmer Bids Emotional Farewell to Wall Street” (Reuters)

If there’s one thing I regret, there was a period in the early 2000s when we were so focused on what we had to do around Windows that we weren’t able to redeploy talent to the new device form factor called the phone.

Search

Source: Distilled

Mar 1998: “How Yahoo! Won the Search Wars” (Fortune)

Once upon a time, Yahoo! was an Internet search site with mediocre technology. Now it has a market cap of $2.8 billion. Some people say it’s the next America Online.

Sep 1998: Google founded

Instant Messaging

Sep 2000: “AOL Quietly Linking AIM, ICQ” (ZDNet)

AOL’s dominance of instant messaging technology, the kind of real-time e-mail that also lets users know when others are online, has emerged as a major concern of regulators scrutinizing the company’s planned merger with Time Warner Inc. (twx). Competitors to Instant Messenger, such as Microsoft Corp. (msft) and Yahoo! Inc. (yhoo), have been pressing the Federal Communications Commission to force AOL to make its services compatible with competitors’.

Dec 2000: “AOL’s Instant Messaging Monopoly?” (Wired)

Dec 2015: Report for the European Parliament

There have been isolated examples, as in the case of obligations of the merged AOL / Time Warner to make AOL Instant Messenger interoperable with competing messaging services. These obligations on AOL are widely viewed as having been a dismal failure.

Oct 2017: AOL shuts down AIM

Jan 2019: “Zuckerberg Plans to Integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger” (NYT)

Retail

Source: Seeking Alpha

May 1997: Amazon IPO

Mar 1998: American Booksellers Association files antitrust suit against Borders, B&N

Feb 2005: Amazon Prime launches

Jul 2006: “Breaking the Chain: The Antitrust Case Against Wal-Mart” (Harper’s)

Feb 2011: “Borders Files for Bankruptcy” (NYT)

Social

Feb 2004: Facebook founded

Jan 2007: “MySpace Is a Natural Monopoly” (TechNewsWorld)

Seventy percent of Yahoo 360 users, for example, also use other social networking sites — MySpace in particular. Ditto for Facebook, Windows Live Spaces and Friendster … This presents an obvious, long-term business challenge to the competitors. If they cannot build up a large base of unique users, they will always be on MySpace’s periphery.

Feb 2007: “Will Myspace Ever Lose Its Monopoly?” (Guardian)

Jun 2011: “Myspace Sold for $35m in Spectacular Fall from $12bn Heyday” (Guardian)

Music

Source: RIAA

Dec 2003: “The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” – Steve Jobs (Rolling Stone)

Apr 2006: Spotify founded

Jul 2009: “Apple’s iPhone and iPod Monopolies Must Go” (PC World)

Jun 2015: Apple Music announced

Video

Source: OnlineMBAPrograms

Apr 2003: Netflix reaches one million subscribers for its DVD-by-mail service

Mar 2005: FTC blocks Blockbuster/Hollywood Video merger

Sep 2006: Amazon launches Prime Video

Jan 2007: Netflix streaming launches

Oct 2007: Hulu launches

May 2010: Hollywood Video’s parent company files for bankruptcy

Sep 2010: Blockbuster files for bankruptcy

The Only Winning Move Is Not to Play

Predicting the future of competition in the tech industry is such a fraught endeavor that even articles about how hard it is to make predictions include incorrect predictions. The authors just cannot help themselves. A March 2012 BBC article “The Future of Technology… Who Knows?” derided the naysayers who predicted doom for Apple’s retail store strategy. Its kicker?

And that is why when you read that the Blackberry is doomed, or that Microsoft will never make an impression on mobile phones, or that Apple will soon dominate the connected TV market, you need to take it all with a pinch of salt.

But Blackberry was doomed and Microsoft never made an impression on mobile phones. (Half credit for Apple TV, which currently has a 15% market share).

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece for Red Herring magazine (seriously) in June 1998 with the title “Why most economists’ predictions are wrong.” Headline-be-damned, near the end of the article he made the following prediction:

The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.

Robert Metcalfe himself predicted in a 1995 column that the Internet would “go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” After pledging to “eat his words” if the prediction did not come true, “in front of an audience, he put that particular column into a blender, poured in some water, and proceeded to eat the resulting frappe with a spoon.”

A Change Is Gonna Come

Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, has the best summary of why competition in tech is especially difficult to predict:

IBM, Microsoft and Nokia were not beaten by companies doing what they did, but better. They were beaten by companies that moved the playing field and made their core competitive assets irrelevant. The same will apply to Facebook (and Google, Amazon and Apple).

Elsewhere, Evans tried to reassure his audience that we will not be stuck with the current crop of tech giants forever:

With each cycle in tech, companies find ways to build a moat and make a monopoly. Then people look at the moat and think it’s invulnerable. They’re generally right. IBM still dominates mainframes and Microsoft still dominates PC operating systems and productivity software. But… It’s not that someone works out how to cross the moat. It’s that the castle becomes irrelevant. IBM didn’t lose mainframes and Microsoft didn’t lose PC operating systems. Instead, those stopped being ways to dominate tech. PCs made IBM just another big tech company. Mobile and the web made Microsoft just another big tech company. This will happen to Google or Amazon as well. Unless you think tech progress is over and there’ll be no more cycles … It is deeply counter-intuitive to say ‘something we cannot predict is certain to happen’. But this is nonetheless what’s happened to overturn pretty much every tech monopoly so far.

If this time is different — or if there are more false negatives than false positives in the monopoly prediction game — then the advocates for breaking up Big Tech should try to make that argument instead of falling back on “big is bad” rhetoric. As for us, we’ll bet that we have not yet reached the end of history — tech progress is far from over.

 

Near the end of her new proposal to break up Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple, Senator Warren asks, “So what would the Internet look like after all these reforms?”

It’s a good question, because, as she herself notes, “Twenty-five years ago, Facebook, Google, and Amazon didn’t exist. Now they are among the most valuable and well-known companies in the world.”

To Warren, our most dynamic and innovative companies constitute a problem that needs solving.

She described the details of that solution in a blog post:

First, [my administration would restore competition to the tech sector] by passing legislation that requires large tech platforms to be designated as “Platform Utilities” and broken apart from any participant on that platform.

* * *

For smaller companies…, their platform utilities would be required to meet the same standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users, but would not be required to structurally separate….

* * *
Second, my administration would appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers….
I will appoint regulators who are committed to… unwind[ing] anti-competitive mergers, including:

– Amazon: Whole Foods; Zappos;
– Facebook: WhatsApp; Instagram;
– Google: Waze; Nest; DoubleClick

Elizabeth Warren’s brave new world

Let’s consider for a moment what this brave new world will look like — not the nirvana imagined by regulators and legislators who believe that decimating a company’s business model will deter only the “bad” aspects of the model while preserving the “good,” as if by magic, but the inevitable reality of antitrust populism.  

Utilities? Are you kidding? For an overview of what the future of tech would look like under Warren’s “Platform Utility” policy, take a look at your water, electricity, and sewage service. Have you noticed any improvement (or reduction in cost) in those services over the past 10 or 15 years? How about the roads? Amtrak? Platform businesses operating under a similar regulatory regime would also similarly stagnate. Enforcing platform “neutrality” necessarily requires meddling in the most minute of business decisions, inevitably creating unintended and costly consequences along the way.

Network companies, like all businesses, differentiate themselves by offering unique bundles of services to customers. By definition, this means vertically integrating with some product markets and not others. Why are digital assistants like Siri bundled into mobile operating systems? Why aren’t the vast majority of third-party apps also bundled into the OS? If you want utilities regulators instead of Google or Apple engineers and designers making these decisions on the margin, then Warren’s “Platform Utility” policy is the way to go.

Grocery Stores. To take one specific case cited by Warren, how much innovation was there in the grocery store industry before Amazon bought Whole Foods? Since the acquisition, large grocery retailers, like Walmart and Kroger, have increased their investment in online services to better compete with the e-commerce champion. Many industry analysts expect grocery stores to use computer vision technology and artificial intelligence to improve the efficiency of check-out in the near future.

Smartphones. Imagine how forced neutrality would play out in the context of iPhones. If Apple can’t sell its own apps, it also can’t pre-install its own apps. A brand new iPhone with no apps — and even more importantly, no App Store — would be, well, just a phone, out of the box. How would users even access a site or app store from which to download independent apps? Would Apple be allowed to pre-install someone else’s apps? That’s discriminatory, too. Maybe it will be forced to offer a menu of all available apps in all categories (like the famously useless browser ballot screen demanded by the European Commission in its Microsoft antitrust case)? It’s hard to see how that benefits consumers — or even app developers.

Source: Free Software Magazine

Internet Search. Or take search. Calls for “search neutrality” have been bandied about for years. But most proponents of search neutrality fail to recognize that all Google’s search results entail bias in favor of its own offerings. As Geoff Manne and Josh Wright noted in 2011 at the height of the search neutrality debate:

[S]earch engines offer up results in the form not only of typical text results, but also maps, travel information, product pages, books, social media and more. To the extent that alleged bias turns on a search engine favoring its own maps, for example, over another firm’s, the allegation fails to appreciate that text results and maps are variants of the same thing, and efforts to restrain a search engine from offering its own maps is no different than preventing it from offering its own search results.

Nevermind that Google with forced non-discrimination likely means Google offering only the antiquated “ten blue links” search results page it started with in 1998 instead of the far more useful “rich” results it offers today; logically it would also mean Google somehow offering the set of links produced by any and all other search engines’ algorithms, in lieu of its own. If you think Google will continue to invest in and maintain the wealth of services it offers today on the strength of the profits derived from those search results, well, Elizabeth Warren is probably already your favorite politician.

Source: Web Design Museum  

And regulatory oversight of algorithmic content won’t just result in an impoverished digital experience; it will inevitably lead to an authoritarian one, as well:

Any agency granted a mandate to undertake such algorithmic oversight, and override or reconfigure the product of online services, thereby controls the content consumers may access…. This sort of control is deeply problematic… [because it saddles users] with a pervasive set of speech controls promulgated by the government. The history of such state censorship is one which has demonstrated strong harms to both social welfare and rule of law, and should not be emulated.

Digital Assistants. Consider also the veritable cage match among the tech giants to offer “digital assistants” and “smart home” devices with ever-more features at ever-lower prices. Today the allegedly non-existent competition among these companies is played out most visibly in this multi-featured market, comprising advanced devices tightly integrated with artificial intelligence, voice recognition, advanced algorithms, and a host of services. Under Warren’s nondiscrimination principle this market disappears. Each device can offer only a connectivity platform (if such a service is even permitted to be bundled with a physical device…) — and nothing more.

But such a world entails not only the end of an entire, promising avenue of consumer-benefiting innovation, it also entails the end of a promising avenue of consumer-benefiting competition. It beggars belief that anyone thinks consumers would benefit by forcing technology companies into their own silos, ensuring that the most powerful sources of competition for each other are confined to their own fiefdoms by order of law.

Breaking business models

Beyond the product-feature dimension, Sen. Warren’s proposal would be devastating for innovative business models. Why is Amazon Prime Video bundled with free shipping? Because the marginal cost of distribution for video is close to zero and bundling it with Amazon Prime increases the value proposition for customers. Why is almost every Google service free to users? Because Google’s business model is supported by ads, not monthly subscription fees. Each of the tech giants has carefully constructed an ecosystem in which every component reinforces the others. Sen. Warren’s plan would not only break up the companies, it would prohibit their business models — the ones that both created and continue to sustain these products. Such an outcome would manifestly harm consumers.

Both of Warren’s policy “solutions” are misguided and will lead to higher prices and less innovation. Her cause for alarm is built on a multitude of mistaken assumptions, but let’s address just a few (Warren in bold):

  • “Nearly half of all e-commerce goes through Amazon.” Yes, but it has only 5% of total retail in the United States. As my colleague Kristian Stout says, “the Internet is not a market; it’s a distribution channel.”
  • “Amazon has used its immense market power to force smaller competitors like Diapers.com to sell at a discounted rate.” The real story, as the founders of Diapers.com freely admitted, is that they sold diapers as what they hoped would be a loss leader, intending to build out sales of other products once they had a base of loyal customers:

And so we started with selling the loss leader product to basically build a relationship with mom. And once they had the passion for the brand and they were shopping with us on a weekly or a monthly basis that they’d start to fall in love with that brand. We were losing money on every box of diapers that we sold. We weren’t able to buy direct from the manufacturers.

Like all entrepreneurs, Diapers.com’s founders took a calculated risk that didn’t pay off as hoped. Amazon subsequently acquired the company (after it had declined a similar buyout offer from Walmart). (Antitrust laws protect consumers, not inefficient competitors). And no, this was not a case of predatory pricing. After many years of trying to make the business profitable as a subsidiary, Amazon shut it down in 2017.

  • “In the 1990s, Microsoft — the tech giant of its time — was trying to parlay its dominance in computer operating systems into dominance in the new area of web browsing. The federal government sued Microsoft for violating anti-monopoly laws and eventually reached a settlement. The government’s antitrust case against Microsoft helped clear a path for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to emerge.” The government’s settlement with Microsoft is not the reason Google and Facebook were able to emerge. Neither company entered the browser market at launch. Instead, they leapfrogged the browser entirely and created new platforms for the web (only later did Google create Chrome).

    Furthermore, if the Microsoft case is responsible for “clearing a path” for Google is it not also responsible for clearing a path for Google’s alleged depredations? If the answer is that antitrust enforcement should be consistently more aggressive in order to rein in Google, too, when it gets out of line, then how can we be sure that that same more-aggressive enforcement standard wouldn’t have curtailed the extent of the Microsoft ecosystem in which it was profitable for Google to become Google? Warren implicitly assumes that only the enforcement decision in Microsoft was relevant to Google’s rise. But Microsoft doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If Microsoft cleared a path for Google, so did every decision not to intervene, which, all combined, created the legal, business, and economic environment in which Google operates.

Warren characterizes Big Tech as a weight on the American economy. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. These superstar companies are the drivers of productivity growth, all ranking at or near the top for most spending on research and development. And while data may not be the new oil, extracting value from it may require similar levels of capital expenditure. Last year, Big Tech spent as much or more on capex as the world’s largest oil companies:

Source: WSJ

Warren also faults Big Tech for a decline in startups, saying,

The number of tech startups has slumped, there are fewer high-growth young firms typical of the tech industry, and first financing rounds for tech startups have declined 22% since 2012.

But this trend predates the existence of the companies she criticizes, as this chart from Quartz shows:

The exact causes of the decline in business dynamism are still uncertain, but recent research points to a much more mundane explanation: demographics. Labor force growth has been declining, which has led to an increase in average firm age, nudging fewer workers to start their own businesses.

Furthermore, it’s not at all clear whether this is actually a decline in business dynamism, or merely a change in business model. We would expect to see the same pattern, for example, if would-be startup founders were designing their software for acquisition and further development within larger, better-funded enterprises.

Will Rinehart recently looked at the literature to determine whether there is indeed a “kill zone” for startups around Big Tech incumbents. One paper finds that “an increase in fixed costs explains most of the decline in the aggregate entrepreneurship rate.” Another shows an inverse correlation across 50 countries between GDP and entrepreneurship rates. Robert Lucas predicted these trends back in 1978, pointing out that productivity increases would lead to wage increases, pushing marginal entrepreneurs out of startups and into big companies.

It’s notable that many in the venture capital community would rather not have Sen. Warren’s “help”:

Arguably, it is also simply getting harder to innovate. As economists Nick Bloom, Chad Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb argue,

just to sustain constant growth in GDP per person, the U.S. must double the amount of research effort searching for new ideas every 13 years to offset the increased difficulty of finding new ideas.

If this assessment is correct, it may well be that coming up with productive and profitable innovations is simply becoming more expensive, and thus, at the margin, each dollar of venture capital can fund less of it. Ironically, this also implies that larger firms, which can better afford the additional resources required to sustain exponential growth, are a crucial part of the solution, not the problem.

Warren believes that Big Tech is the cause of our social ills. But Americans have more trust in Amazon, Facebook, and Google than in the political institutions that would break them up. It would be wise for her to reflect on why that might be the case. By punishing our most valuable companies for past successes, Warren would chill competition and decrease returns to innovation.

Finally, in what can only be described as tragic irony, the most prominent political figure who shares Warren’s feelings on Big Tech is President Trump. Confirming the horseshoe theory of politics, far-left populism and far-right populism seem less distinguishable by the day. As our colleague Gus Hurwitz put it, with this proposal Warren is explicitly endorsing the unitary executive theory and implicitly endorsing Trump’s authority to direct his DOJ to “investigate specific cases and reach specific outcomes.” Which cases will he want to have investigated and what outcomes will he be seeking? More good questions that Senator Warren should be asking. The notion that competition, consumer welfare, and growth are likely to increase in such an environment is farcical.

The dust has barely settled on the European Commission’s record-breaking €4.3 Billion Google Android fine, but already the European Commission is gearing up for its next high-profile case. Last month, Margrethe Vestager dropped a competition bombshell: the European watchdog is looking into the behavior of Amazon. Should the Commission decide to move further with the investigation, Amazon will likely join other US tech firms such as Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm and, of course, Google, who have all been on the receiving end of European competition enforcement.

The Commission’s move – though informal at this stage – is not surprising. Over the last couples of years, Amazon has become one of the world’s largest and most controversial companies. The animosity against it is exemplified in a paper by Lina Khan, which uses the example of Amazon to highlight the numerous ills that allegedly plague modern antitrust law. The paper is widely regarded as the starting point of the so-called “hipster antitrust” movement.

But is there anything particularly noxious about Amazon’s behavior, or is it just the latest victim of a European crusade against American tech companies?

Where things stand so far

As is often the case in such matters, publicly available information regarding the Commission’s “probe” (the European watchdog is yet to open a formal investigation) is particularly thin. What we know so far comes from a number of declarations made by Margrethe Vestager (here and here) and a leaked questionnaire that was sent to Amazon’s rivals. Going on this limited information, it appears that the Commission is preoccupied about the manner in which Amazon uses the data that it gathers from its online merchants. In Vestager’s own words:

The question here is about the data, because if you as Amazon get the data from the smaller merchants that you host […] do you then also use this data to do your own calculations? What is the new big thing, what is it that people want, what kind of offers do they like to receive, what makes them buy things.

These concerns relate to the fact that Amazon acts as both a retailer in its own right and a platform for other retailers, which allegedly constitutes a “conflict of interest”. As a retailer, Amazon sells a wide range of goods directly to consumers. Meanwhile, its marketplace platform enables third party merchants to offer their goods in exchange for referral fees when items are sold (these fees typically range from 8% to 15%, depending on the type of good). Merchants can either execute theses orders themselves or opt for fulfilment by Amazon, in which case it handles storage and shipping. In addition to its role as a platform operator,  As of 2017, more than 50% of units sold on the Amazon marketplace where fulfilled by third-party sellers, although Amazon derived three times more revenue from its own sales than from those of third parties (note that Amazon Web Services is still by far its largest source of profits).

Mirroring concerns raised by Khan, the Commission worries that Amazon uses the data it gathers from third party retailers on its platform to outcompete them. More specifically, the concern is that Amazon might use this data to identify and enter the most profitable segments of its online platform, excluding other retailers in the process (or deterring them from joining the platform in the first place). Although there is some empirical evidence to support such claims, it is far from clear that this is in any way harmful to competition or consumers. Indeed, the authors of the paper that found evidence in support of the claims note:

Amazon is less likely to enter product spaces that require greater seller efforts to grow, suggesting that complementors’ platform‐specific investments influence platform owners’ entry decisions. While Amazon’s entry discourages affected third‐party sellers from subsequently pursuing growth on the platform, it increases product demand and reduces shipping costs for consumers.

Thou shalt not punish efficient behavior

The question is whether Amazon using data on rivals’ sales to outcompete them should raise competition concerns? After all, this is a standard practice in the brick-and-mortar industry, where most large retailers use house brands to go after successful, high-margin third-party brands. Some, such as Costco, even eliminate some third-party products from their shelves once they have a successful own-brand product. Granted, as Khan observes, Amazon may be doing this more effectively because it has access to vastly superior data. But does that somehow make Amazon’s practice harmful to social social welfare? Absent further evidence, I believe not.

The basic problem is the following. Assume that Amazon does indeed have a monopoly in the market for online retail platforms (or, in other words, that the Amazon marketplace is a bottleneck for online retailers). Why would it move into direct retail competition against its third party sellers if it is less efficient than them? Amazon would either have to sell at a loss or hope that consumers saw something in its products that warrants a higher price. A more profitable alternative would be to stay put and increase its fees. It could thereby capture all the profits of its independent retailers. Not that Amazon would necessarily want to do so, as this could potentially deter other retailers from joining its platform. The upshot is that Amazon has little incentive to exclude more efficient retailers.

Astute readers, will have observed that this is simply a restatement of the Chicago school’s Single Monopoly Theory, which broadly holds that, absent efficiencies, a monopolist in one line of commerce cannot increase its profits by entering the competitive market for a complementary good. Although the theory has drawn some criticism, it remains a crucial starting point with which enforcers must contend before they conclude that a monopolist’s behavior is anticompetitive.

So why does Amazon move into retail segments that are already occupied by its rivals? The most likely explanation is simply that it can source and sell these goods more efficiently than them, and that these efficiencies cannot be achieved through contracts with the said rivals. Once we accept the possibility that Amazon is simply more efficient, the picture changes dramatically. The sooner it overthrows less efficient rivals the better. Doing so creates valuable surplus that can flow to either itself or its consumers. This is true regardless of whether Amazon has a marketplace monopoly or not. Even if it does have a monopoly (which is doubtful given competition from the likes of Zalando, AliExpress, Google Search and eBay), at least some of these efficiencies will likely be passed on to consumers. Such a scenario is also perfectly compatible with increased profits for Amazon. The real test is whether output increases when Amazon enters segments that were previously occupied by rivals.

Of course, the usual critiques voiced against the “Single Monopoly Profit” theory apply here. It is plausible that, by excluding its retail rivals, Amazon is simply seeking to protect its alleged platform monopoly. However, the anecdotal evidence that has been raised thus far does not support this conclusion.

But what about innovation?

Possibly sensing the weakness of the “inefficiency” line of arguments against Amazon, critics will likely put put forward a second theory of harm. The claim is that by capturing the rents of potentially innovative retailers, Amazon may hamper their incentives to innovate and will therefore harm consumer choice. Margrethe Vestager intimated this much in a Bloomberg interview. Though this framing might seem tempting at first, it falters under close inspection.

The effects of Amazon’s behavior could first be framed in terms of appropriability — that is: the extent to which an innovator captures the social benefits of its innovation. The higher its share of those benefits, the larger its incentives to innovate. By forcing out its retail rivals, it is plausible that Amazon is reducing the returns which they earn on their potential innovations.

Another potential framing is that of holdup theory. Applied to this case, one could argue that rival retailers made sunk investments (potentially innovation-related) to join the Amazon platform, and that Amazon is behaving opportunistically by capturing their surplus. With hindsight, merchants might thus have opted to stay out of the Amazon marketplace.

Unfortunately for Amazon’s critics, there are numerous objections to these two framings. For a start, the business implication of both the appropriability and holdup theories is that firms can and should take sensible steps to protect their investments. The recent empirical paper mentioned above stresses that these actions are critical for the sake of Amazon’s retailers.

Potential solutions abound. Retailers could in principle enter into long-term exclusivity agreements with their suppliers (which would keep Amazon out of the market if there are no alternative suppliers). Alternatively, they could sign non-compete clauses with Amazon, exchange assets, or even outright merge. In fact, there is at least some evidence of this last possibility occurring, as Amazon has acquired some of its online retailers. The fact that some retailers have not opted for these safety measures (or other methods of appropriability) suggests that they either don’t perceive a threat or are unwilling to make the necessary investments. It might also be due to bad business judgement on their part).

Which brings us to the big question. Should competition law step into the breach in those cases where firms have refused to take even basic steps to protect their investments? The answer is probably no.

For a start, condoning this poor judgement encourages firms to rely on competition enforcement rather than private solutions  to solve appropriability and holdup issues. This is best understood with reference to moral hazard. By insuring firms against the capture of their profits, competition authorities disincentivize all forms of risk-mitigation on the part of those firms. This will ultimately raise enforcement costs (as firms become increasingly reliant on the antitrust system for protection).

It is also informationally much more burdensome, as authorities will systematically have to rule on the appropriate share of profits between parties to a case.

Finally, overprotecting these investments would go against the philosophy of the European Court of Justice’s Huawei ruling.  Albeit in the specific context of injunctions relating to SEPs, the Court conditioned competition liability on firms showing that they have taken a series of reasonable steps to sort out their disputes privately.

Concluding remarks

This is not to say that competition intervention should categorically be proscribed. But rather that the capture of a retailer’s investments by Amazon is an insufficient condition for enforcement actions. Instead, the Commission should question whether Amazon’s actions are truly detrimental to consumer welfare and output. Absent strong evidence that an excluded retailer offered superior products, or that Amazon’s move was merely a strategic play to prevent entry, competition authorities should let the chips fall where they may.

As things stand, there is simply no evidence to indicate that anything out of the ordinary is occurring on the Amazon marketplace. By shining the spotlight on Amazon, the Commission is putting itself under tremendous political pressure to move forward with a formal investigation (all the more so, given the looming European Parliament elections). This is regrettable, as there are surely more pressing matters for the European regulator to deal with. The Commission would thus do well to recall the words of Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold”. Applied in competition circles this translates to “all that is big is not inefficient”.

On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Is Amazon’s Appetite Bottomless? The Whole Foods Merger After One Year — that looked at the concerns surrounding the closing of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, and how those concerns had played out over the last year.

The difficulty presented by the merger was, in some ways, its lack of difficulty: Even critics, while hearkening back to the Brandeisian fear of large firms, had little by way of legal objection to offer against the merger. Despite the acknowledged lack of an obvious legal basis for challenging the merger, most critics nevertheless expressed a somewhat inchoate and generalized concern that the merger would hasten the death of brick-and-mortar retail and imperil competition in the grocery industry. Critics further pointed to particular, related issues largely outside the scope of modern antitrust law — issues relating to the presumed effects of the merger on “localism” (i.e., small, local competitors), retail workers, startups with ancillary businesses (e.g., delivery services), data collection and use, and the like.

Steven Horwitz opened the symposium with an insightful and highly recommended post detailing the development of the grocery industry from its inception. Tracing through that history, Horwitz was optimistic that

Viewed from the long history of the evolution of the grocery store, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger made sense as the start of the next stage of that historical process. The combination of increased wealth that is driving the demand for upscale grocery stores, and the corresponding increase in the value of people’s time that is driving the demand for one-stop shopping and various forms of pick-up and delivery, makes clear the potential benefits of this merger.

Others in the symposium similarly acknowledged the potential transformation of the industry brought on by the merger, but challenged the critics’ despairing characterization of that transformation (Auer, Manne & Stout, Rinehart, Fruits, Atkinson).

At the most basic level, it was noted that, in the immediate aftermath of the merger, Whole Foods dropped prices across a number of categories as it sought to shore up its competitive position (Auer). Further, under relevant antitrust metrics — e.g., market share, ease of competitive entry, potential for exclusionary conduct — the merger was completely unobjectionable under existing doctrine (Fruits).

To critics’ claims that Amazon in general, and the merger in particular, was decimating the retail industry, several posts discussed the updated evidence suggesting that retail is not actually on the decline (although some individual retailers are certainly struggling to compete) (Auer, Manne & Stout). Moreover, and following from Horwitz’s account of the evolution of the grocery industry, it appears that the actual trajectory of the industry is not an either/or between online and offline, but instead a movement toward integrating both models into a single retail experience (Manne & Stout). Further, the post-merger flurry of business model innovation, venture capital investment, and new startup activity demonstrates that, confronted with entrepreneurial competitors like Walmart, Kroger, Aldi, and Instacart, Amazon’s impressive position online has not translated into an automatic domination of the traditional grocery industry (Manne & Stout).  

Symposium participants more circumspect about the merger suggested that Amazon’s behavior may be laying the groundwork for an eventual monopsony case (Sagers). Further, it was suggested, a future Section 2 case, difficult under prevailing antitrust orthodoxy, could be brought with a creative approach to market definition in light of Amazon’s conduct with its marketplace participants, its aggressive ebook contracting practices, and its development and roll-out of its own private label brands (Sagers).

Skeptics also picked up on early critics’ concerns about the aggregation of large amounts of consumer data, and worried that the merger could be part of a pattern representing a real, long-term threat to consumers that antitrust does not take seriously enough (Bona & Levitsky). Sounding a further alarm, Hal Singer noted that Amazon’s interest in pushing into new markets with data generated by, for example, devices like its Echo line could bolster its ability to exclude competitors.

More fundamentally, these contributors echoed the merger critics’ concerns that antitrust does not adequately take account of other values such as “promoting local, community-based, organic food production or ‘small firms’ in general.” (Bona & Levitsky; Singer).

Rob Atkinson, however, pointed out that these values are idiosyncratic and not likely shared by the vast majority of the population — and that antitrust law shouldn’t have anything to do with them:

In short, most of the opposition to Amazon/Whole Foods merger had little or nothing to do with economics and consumer welfare. It had everything to do with a competing vision for the kind of society we want to live in. The neo-Brandesian opponents, who Lind and I term “progressive localists”, seek an alternative economy predominantly made up of small firms, supported by big government and protected from global competition.

And Dirk Auer noted that early critics’ prophecies of foreclosure of competition through “data leveraging” and below-cost pricing hadn’t remotely come to pass, thus far.

Meanwhile, other contributors noted the paucity of evidence supporting many of these assertions, and pointed out the manifest value the merger seemed to be creating by pressuring competitors to adapt and better respond to consumers’ preferences (Horwitz, Rinehart, Auer, Fruits, Manne & Stout) — in the process shoring up, rather than killing, even smaller retailers that are willing and able to evolve with changing technology and shifting consumer preferences. “For all the talk of retail dying, the stores that are actually dying are the ones that fail to cater to their customers, not the ones that happen to be offline” (Manne & Stout).

At the same time, not all merger skeptics were moved by the Neo-Brandeisian assertions. Chris Sagers, for example, finds much of the populist antitrust objection more public relations than substance. He suggested perhaps not taking these ideas and their promoters so seriously, and instead focusing on antitrust advocates with “real ideas” (like Sagers himself, of course).

Coming from a different angle, Will Rinehart also suggested not taking the criticisms too seriously, pointing to the evolving and complicated effects of the merger as Exhibit A for the need for regulatory humility:

Finally, this deal reiterates the need for regulatory humility. Almost immediately after the Amazon-Whole Foods merger was closed, prices at the store dropped and competitors struck a flurry of deals. Investments continue and many in the grocery retail space are bracing for a wave of enhancement to take hold. Even some of the most fierce critics of deal will have to admit there is a lot of uncertainty. It is unclear what business model will make the most sense in the long run, how these technologies will ultimately become embedded into production processes, and how consumers will benefit. Combined, these features underscore the difficulty, but the necessity, in implementing dynamic insights into antitrust institutions.

Offering generous praise for this symposium (thanks, Will!) and echoing the points made by other participants regarding the dynamic and unknowable course of competition (Auer, Horwitz, Manne & Stout, Fruits), Rinehart concludes:

Retrospectives like this symposium offer a chance to understand what the discussion missed at the time and what is needed to better understand innovation and competition in markets. While it might be too soon to close the book on this case, the impact can already be felt in the positions others are taking in response. In the end, the deal probably won’t be remembered for extending Amazon’s dominance into another market because that is a phantom concern. Rather, it will probably be best remembered as the spark that drove traditional retail outlets to modernize their logistics and fulfillment efforts.  

For a complete rundown of the arguments both for and against, the full archive of symposium posts from our outstanding and diverse group of scholars, practitioners, and other experts is available at this link, and individual posts can be easily accessed by clicking on the authors’ names below.

We’d like to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions!

 

What actually happened in the year following the merger is nearly the opposite: Competition among grocery stores has been more fierce than ever. “Offline” retailers are expanding — and innovating — to meet Amazon’s challenge, and many of them are booming. Disruption is never neat and tidy, but, in addition to saving Whole Foods from potential oblivion, the merger seems to have lit a fire under the rest of the industry.
This result should not be surprising to anyone who understands the nature of the competitive process. But it does highlight an important lesson: competition often comes from unexpected quarters and evolves in unpredictable ways, emerging precisely out of the kinds of adversity opponents of the merger bemoaned.

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So why this deal, in this symposium, and why now? The best substantive reason I could think of is admittedly one that I personally find important. As I said, I think we should take it much more seriously as a general matter, especially in highly dynamic contexts like Silicon Valley. There has been a history of arguably pre-emptive, market-occupying vertical and conglomerate acquisitions, by big firms of smaller ones that are technologically or otherwise disruptive. The idea is that the big firms sit back and wait as some new market develops in some adjacent sector. When that new market ripens to the point of real promise, the big firm buys some significant incumbent player. The aim is not. just to facilitate its own benevolent, wholesome entry, but to set up hopefully prohibitive challenges to other de novo entrants. Love it or leave it, that theory plausibly characterizes lots and lots of acquisitions in recent decades that secured easy antitrust approval, precisely because they weren’t obviously, presently horizontal. Many people think that is true of some of Amazon’s many acquisitions, like its notoriously aggressive, near-hostile takeover of Diapers.com.

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Amazon offers Prime discounts to Whole Food customers and offers free delivery for Prime members. Those are certainly consumer benefits. But with those comes a cost, which may or may not be significant. By bundling its products with collective discounts, Amazon makes it more attractive for shoppers to shift their buying practices from local stores to the internet giant. Will this eventually mean that local stores will become more inefficient, based on lower volume, and will eventually close? Do most Americans care about the potential loss of local supermarkets and specialty grocers? No one, including antitrust enforcers, seems to have asked them.

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The gist of these arguments is simple. The Amazon / Whole Foods merger would lead to the exclusion of competitors, with Amazon leveraging its swaths of data and pricing below costs. All of this begs a simple question: have these prophecies come to pass?

The problem with antitrust populism is not just that it leads to unfounded predictions regarding the negative effects of a given business practice. It also ignores the significant gains which consumers may reap from these practices. The Amazon / Whole foods offers a case in point.

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Even with these caveats, it’s still worth looking at the recent trends. Whole Foods’s sales since 2015 have been flat, with only low single-digit growth, according to data from Second Measure. This suggests Whole Foods is not yet getting a lift from the relationship. However, the percentage of Whole Foods’ new customers who are Prime Members increased post-merger, from 34 percent in June 2017 to 41 percent in June 2018. This suggests that Amazon’s platform is delivering customers to Whole Foods.

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