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Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

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…. 

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ramsi Woodcock, (Assistant Professor of Law, University of Kentucky; Assistant Professor of Management, Gatton College of Business and Economics).]

Specialists know that the antitrust courses taught in law schools and economics departments have an alter ego in business curricula: the course on business strategy. The two courses cover the same material, but from opposite perspectives. Antitrust courses teach how to end monopolies; strategy courses teach how to construct and maintain them.

Strategy students go off and run businesses, and antitrust students go off and make government policy. That is probably the proper arrangement if the policy the antimonopolists make is domestic. We want the domestic economy to run efficiently, and so we want domestic policymakers to think about monopoly—and its allocative inefficiencies—as something to be discouraged.

The coronavirus, and the shortages it has caused, have shown us that putting the antimonopolists in charge of international policy is, by contrast, a very big mistake.

Because we do not yet have a world government. America’s position, in relation to the rest of the world, is therefore more akin to that of a business navigating a free market than it is to a government seeking to promote efficient interactions among the firms that it governs. To flourish, America must engage in international trade with a view to creating and maintaining monopoly positions for itself, rather than eschewing them in the interest of realizing efficiencies in the global economy. Which is to say: we need strategists, not antimonopolists.

For the global economy is not America, and there is no guarantee that competitive efficiencies will redound to America’s benefit, rather than to those of her competitors. Absent a world government, other countries will pursue monopoly regardless what America does, and unless America acts strategically to build and maintain economic power, America will eventually occupy a position of commercial weakness, with all of the consequences for national security that implies.

When Antimonopolists Make Trade Policy

The free traders who have run American economic policy for more than a generation are antimonopolists playing on a bigger stage. Like their counterparts in domestic policy, they are loyal in the first instance only to the efficiency of the market, not to any particular trader. They are content to establish rules of competitive trading—the antitrust laws in the domestic context, the World Trade Organization in the international context—and then to let the chips fall where they may, even if that means allowing present or future adversaries to, through legitimate means, build up competitive advantages that the United States is unable to overcome.

Strategy is consistent with competition when markets are filled with traders of atomic size, for then no amount of strategy can deliver a competitive advantage to any trader. But global markets, more even than domestic markets, are filled with traders of macroscopic size. Strategy then requires that each trader seek to gain and maintain advantages, undermining competition. The only way antimonopolists could induce the trading behemoth that is America to behave competitively, and to let the chips fall where they may, was to convince America voluntarily to give up strategy, to sacrifice self-interest on the altar of efficient markets.

And so they did.

Thus when the question arose whether to permit American corporations to move their manufacturing operations overseas, or to permit foreign companies to leverage their efficiencies to dominate a domestic industry and ensure that 90% of domestic supply would be imported from overseas, the answer the antimonopolists gave was: “yes.” Because it is efficient. Labor abroad is cheaper than labor at home, and transportation costs low, so efficiency requires that production move overseas, and our own resources be reallocated to more competitive uses.

This is the impeccable logic of static efficiency, of general equilibrium models allocating resources optimally. But it is instructive to recall that the men who perfected this model were not trying to describe a free market, much less international trade. They were trying to create a model that a central planner could use to allocate resources to a state’s subjects. What mattered to them in building the model was the good of the whole, not any particular part. And yet it is to a particular part of the global whole that the United States government is dedicated.

The Strategic Trader

Students of strategy would have taken a very different approach to international trade. Strategy teaches that markets are dynamic, and that businesses must make decisions based not only on the market signals that exist today, but on those that can be made to exist in the future. For the successful strategist, unlike the antimonopolist, identifying a product for which consumers are willing to pay the costs of production is not alone enough to justify bringing the product to market. The strategist must be able to secure a source of supply, or a distribution channel, that competitors cannot easily duplicate, before the strategist will enter.

Why? Because without an advantage in supply, or distribution, competitors will duplicate the product, compete away any markups, and leave the strategist no better off than if he had never undertaken the project at all. Indeed, he may be left bankrupt, if he has sunk costs that competition prevents him from recovering. Unlike the economist, the strategist is interested in survival, because he is a partisan of a part of the market—himself—not the market entire. The strategist understands that survival requires power, and all power rests, to a greater or lesser degree, on monopoly.

The strategist is not therefore a free trader in the international arena, at least not as a matter of principle. The strategist understands that trading from a position of strength can enrich, and trading from a position of weakness can impoverish. And to occupy that position of strength, America must, like any monopolist, control supply. Moreover, in the constantly-innovating markets that characterize industrial economies, markets in which innovation emerges from learning by doing, control over physical supply translates into control over the supply of inventions itself.

The strategist does not permit domestic corporations to offshore manufacturing in any market in which the strategist wishes to participate, because that is unsafe: foreign countries could use control over that supply to extract rents from America, to drive domestic firms to bankruptcy, and to gain control over the supply of inventions.

And, as the new trade theorists belatedly discovered, offshoring prevents the development of the dense, geographically-contiguous, supply networks that confer power over whole product categories, such as the electronics hub in Zhengzhou, where iPhone-maker Foxconn is located.

Or the pharmaceutical hub in Hubei.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Free Trade

Today, America is unprepared for the coming wave of coronavirus cases because the antimonopolists running our trade policy do not understand the importance of controlling supply. There is a shortage of masks, because China makes half of the world’s masks, and the Chinese have cut off supply, the state having forbidden even non-Chinese companies that offshored mask production from shipping home masks for which American customers have paid. Not only that, but in January China bought up most of the world’s existing supply of masks, with free-trade-obsessed governments standing idly by as the clock ticked down to their own domestic outbreaks.  

New York State, which lies at the epicenter of the crisis, has agreed to pay five times the market price for foreign supply. That’s not because the cost of making masks has risen, but because sellers are rationing with price. Which is to say: using their control over supply to beggar the state. Moreover, domestic mask makers report that they cannot ramp up production because of a lack of supply of raw materials, some of which are actually made in Wuhan, China. That’s the kind of problem that does not arise when restrictions on offshoring allow manufacturing hubs to develop domestically.

But a shortage of masks is just the beginning. Once a vaccine is developed, the race will be on to manufacture it, and America controls less than 30% of the manufacturing facilities that supply pharmaceuticals to American markets. Indeed, just about the only virus-relevant industries in which we do not have a real capacity shortage today are food and toilet paper, panic buying notwithstanding. Because fortunately for us antimonopolists could not find a way to offshore California and Oregon. If they could have, they surely would have, since both agriculture and timber are labor-intensive industries.

President Trump’s failed attempt to buy a German drug company working on a coronavirus vaccine shows just how damaging free market ideology has been to national security: as Trump should have anticipated given his resistance to the antimonopolists’ approach to trade, the German government nipped the deal in the bud. When an economic agent has market power, the agent can pick its prices, or refuse to sell at all. Only in general equilibrium fantasy is everything for sale, and at a competitive price to boot.

The trouble is: American policymakers, perhaps more than those in any other part of the world, continue to act as though that fantasy were real.

Failures Left and Right

America’s coronavirus predicament is rich with intellectual irony.

Progressives resist free trade ideology, largely out of concern for the effects of trade on American workers. But they seem not to have realized that in doing so they are actually embracing strategy, at least for the benefit of labor.

As a result, progressives simultaneously reject the approach to industrial organization economics that underpins strategic thinking in business: Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that strategic behavior by firms seeking to achieve and maintain monopolies is ultimately good for society, because it leads to a technological arms race as firms strive to improve supply, distribution, and indeed product quality, in ways that competitors cannot reproduce.

Even if progressives choose to reject Schumpeter’s argument that strategy makes society better off—a proposition that is particularly suspect at the international level, where the availability of tanks ensures that the creative destruction is not always creative—they have much to learn from his focus on the economics of survival.

By the same token, conservatives embrace Schumpeter in arguing for less antitrust enforcement in domestic markets, all the while advocating free trade at the international level and savaging governments for using dumping and tariffs—which is to say, the tools of monopoly—to strengthen their trading positions. It is deeply peculiar to watch the coronavirus expose conservative economists as pie-in-the-sky internationalists. And yet as the global market for coronavirus necessities seizes up, the ideology that urged us to dispense with producing these goods ourselves, out of faith that we might always somehow rely on the support of the rest of the world, provided through the medium of markets, looks pathetically naive.

The cynic might say that inconsistency has snuck up on both progressives and conservatives because each remains too sympathetic to a different domestic constituency.

Dodging a Bullet

America is lucky that a mere virus exposed the bankruptcy of free trade ideology. Because war could have done that instead. It is difficult to imagine how a country that cannot make medical masks—much less a Macbook—would be able to respond effectively to a sustained military attack from one of the many nations that are closing the technological gap long enjoyed by the United States.

The lesson of the coronavirus is: strategy, not antitrust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Amex held virtually the opposite:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

As the dissent noted, however:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What antitrust standing doctrine should look like after Amex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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