Archives For antitrust enforcement

There are some who view a host of claimed negative social ills allegedly related to the large size of firms like Amazon as an occasion to call for the company’s break up. And, unfortunately, these critics find an unlikely ally in President Trump, whose tweet storms claim that tech platforms are too big and extract unfair rents at the expense of small businesses. But these critics are wrong: Amazon is not a dangerous monopoly, and it certainly should not be broken up.  

Of course, no one really spells out what it means for these companies to be “too big.” Even Barry Lynn, a champion of the neo-Brandeisian antitrust movement, has shied away from specifics. The best that emerges when probing his writings is that he favors something like a return to Joe Bain’s “Structure-Conduct-Performance” paradigm (but even here, the details are fuzzy).

The reality of Amazon’s impact on the market is quite different than that asserted by its critics. Amazon has had decades to fulfill a nefarious scheme to suddenly raise prices and reap the benefits of anticompetive behavior. Yet it keeps putting downward pressure on prices in a way that seems to be commoditizing goods instead of building anticompetitive moats.

Amazon Does Not Anticompetitively Exercise Market Power

Twitter rants aside, more serious attempts to attack Amazon on antitrust grounds argue that it is engaging in pricing that is “predatory.” But “predatory pricing” requires a specific demonstration of factors — which, to date, have not been demonstrated — in order to justify legal action. Absent a showing of these factors, it has long been understood that seemingly “predatory” conduct is unlikely to harm consumers and often actually benefits consumers.

One important requirement that has gone unsatisfied is that a firm engaging in predatory pricing must have market power. Contrary to common characterizations of Amazon as a retail monopolist, its market power is less than it seems. By no means does it control retail in general. Rather, less than half of all online commerce (44%) takes place on its platform (and that number represents only 4% of total US retail commerce). Of that 44 percent, a significant portion is attributable to the merchants who use Amazon as a platform for their own online retail sales. Rather than abusing a monopoly market position to predatorily harm its retail competitors, at worst Amazon has created a retail business model that puts pressure on other firms to offer more convenience and lower prices to their customers. This is what we want and expect of competitive markets.

The claims leveled at Amazon are the intellectual kin of the ones made against Walmart during its ascendancy that it was destroying main street throughout the nation. In 1993, it was feared that Walmart’s quest to vertically integrate its offerings through Sam’s Club warehouse operations meant that “[r]etailers could simply bypass their distributors in favor of Sam’s — and Sam’s could take revenues from local merchants on two levels: as a supplier at the wholesale level, and as a competitor at retail.” This is a strikingly similar accusation to those leveled against Amazon’s use of its Seller Marketplace to aggregate smaller retailers on its platform.

But, just as in 1993 with Walmart, and now with Amazon, the basic fact remains that consumer preferences shift. Firms need to alter their behavior to satisfy their customers, not pretend they can change consumer preferences to suit their own needs. Preferring small, local retailers to Amazon or Walmart is a decision for individual consumers interacting in their communities, not for federal officials figuring out how best to pattern the economy.

All of this is not to say that Amazon is not large, or important, or that, as a consequence of its success it does not exert influence over the markets it operates in. But having influence through success is not the same as anticompetitively asserting market power.

Other criticisms of Amazon focus on its conduct in specific vertical markets in which it does have more significant market share. For instance, a UK Liberal Democratic leader recently claimed that “[j]ust as Standard Oil once cornered 85% of the refined oil market, today… Amazon accounts for 75% of ebook sales … .”

The problem with this concern is that Amazon’s conduct in the ebook market has had, on net, pro-competitive, not anti-competitive, effects. Amazon’s behavior in the ebook market has actually increased demand for books overall (and expanded output), increased the amount that consumers read, and decreased the price of theses books. Amazon is now even opening physical bookstores. Lina Khan made much hay in her widely cited article last year that this was all part of a grand strategy to predatorily push competitors out of the market:

The fact that Amazon has been willing to forego profits for growth undercuts a central premise of contemporary predatory pricing doctrine, which assumes that predation is irrational precisely because firms prioritize profits over growth. In this way, Amazon’s strategy has enabled it to use predatory pricing tactics without triggering the scrutiny of predatory pricing laws.

But it’s hard to allege predation in a market when over the past twenty years Amazon has consistently expanded output and lowered overall prices in the book market. Courts and lawmakers have sought to craft laws that encourage firms to provide consumers with more choices at lower prices — a feat that Amazon repeatedly accomplishes. To describe this conduct as anticompetitive is asking for a legal requirement that is at odds with the goal of benefiting consumers. It is to claim that Amazon has a contradictory duty to both benefit consumers and its shareholders, while also making sure that all of its less successful competitors also stay in business.

But far from creating a monopoly, the empirical reality appears to be that Amazon is driving categories of goods, like books, closer to the textbook model of commodities in a perfectly competitive market. Hardly an antitrust violation.

Amazon Should Not Be Broken Up

“Big is bad” may roll off the tongue, but, as a guiding ethic, it makes for terrible public policy. Amazon’s size and success are a direct result of its ability to enter relevant markets and to innovate. To break up Amazon, or any other large firm, is to punish it for serving the needs of its consumers.

None of this is to say that large firms are incapable of causing harm or acting anticompetitively. But we should accept calls for dramatic regulatory intervention  — especially from those in a position to influence regulatory or market reactions to such calls — to be supported by substantial factual evidence and legal and economic theory.

This tendency to go after large players is nothing new. As noted above, Walmart triggered many similar concerns thirty years ago. Thinking about Walmart then, pundits feared that direct competition with Walmart was fruitless:

In the spring of 1992 Ken Stone came to Maine to address merchant groups from towns in the path of the Wal-Mart advance. His advice was simple and direct: don’t compete directly with Wal-Mart; specialize and carry harder-to-get and better-quality products; emphasize customer service; extend your hours; advertise more — not just your products but your business — and perhaps most pertinent of all to this group of Yankee individualists, work together.

And today, some think it would be similarly pointless to compete with Amazon:

Concentration means it is much harder for someone to start a new business that might, for example, try to take advantage of the cheap housing in Minneapolis. Why bother when you know that if you challenge Amazon, they will simply dump your product below cost and drive you out of business?

The interesting thing to note, of course, is that Walmart is now desperately trying to compete with Amazon. But despite being very successful in its own right, and having strong revenues, Walmart doesn’t seem able to keep up.

Some small businesses will close as new business models emerge and consumer preferences shift. This is to be expected in a market driven by creative destruction. Once upon a time Walmart changed retail and improved the lives of many Americans. If our lawmakers can resist the urge to intervene without real evidence of harm, Amazon just might do the same.

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?

On September 28, the American Antitrust Institute released a report (“AAI Report”) on the state of U.S. antitrust policy, provocatively entitled “A National Competition Policy:  Unpacking the Problem of Declining Competition and Setting Priorities for Moving Forward.”  Although the AAI Report contains some valuable suggestions, in important ways it reminds one of the drunkard who seeks his (or her) lost key under the nearest lamppost.  What it requires is greater sobriety and a broader vision of the problems that beset the American economy.

The AAI Report begins by asserting that “[n]ot since the first federal antitrust law was enacted over 120 years ago has there been the level of public concern over the concentration of economic and political power that we see today.”  Well, maybe, although I for one am not convinced.  The paper then states that “competition is now on the front pages, as concerns over rising concentration, extraordinary profits accruing to the top slice of corporations, slowing innovation, and widening income and wealth inequality have galvanized attention.”  It then goes on to call for a more aggressive federal antitrust enforcement policy, with particular attention paid to concentrated markets.  The implicit message is that dedicated antitrust enforcers during the Obama Administration, led by Federal Trade Commission Chairs Jonathan Leibowitz and Edith Ramirez, and Antitrust Division chiefs Christine Varney, Bill Baer, and Renata Hesse (Acting) have been laggard or asleep at the switch.  But where is the evidence for this?  I am unaware of any and the AAI doesn’t say.  Indeed, federal antitrust officials in the Obama Administration consistently have called for tough enforcement, and they have actively pursued vertical as well as horizontal conduct cases and novel theories of IP-antitrust liability.  Thus, the AAI Report’s contention that antitrust needs to be “reinvigorated” is unconvincing.

The AAI Report highlights three “symptoms” of declining competition:  (1) rising concentration, (2) higher profits to the few and slowing rates of start-up activity, and (3) widening income and wealth inequality.  But these concerns are not something that antitrust policy is designed to address.  Mergers that threaten to harm competition are within the purview of antitrust, but modern antitrust rightly focuses on the likely effects of such mergers, not on the mere fact that they may increase concentration.  Furthermore, antitrust assesses the effects of business agreements on the competitive process.  Antitrust does not ask whether business arrangements yield “unacceptably” high profits, or “overly low” rates of business formation, or “unacceptable” wealth and income inequality.  Indeed, antitrust is not well equipped to address such questions, nor does it possess the tools to “solve” them (even assuming they need to be solved).

In short, if American competition is indeed declining based on the symptoms flagged by the AAI Report, the key to the solution will not be found by searching under the antitrust policy lamppost for illumination.  Rather, a more thorough search, with the help of “common sense” flashlights, is warranted.

The search outside the antitrust spotlight is not, however, a difficult one.  Finding the explanation for lagging competitive conditions in the United States requires no great policy legerdemain, because sound published research already provides the answer.  And that answer centers on government failures, not private sector abuses.

Consider overregulation.  In its annual Red Tape Rising reports (see here for the latest one), the Heritage Foundation has documented the growing burden of federal regulation on the American economy.  Overregulation acts like an implicit tax on businesses and disincentivizes business start-ups.  Moreover, as regulatory requirements grow in complexity and burdensomeness, they increasingly place a premium on large size – only relatively larger businesses can better afford the fixed costs needed to establish regulatory compliance department than their smaller rivals.  Heritage Foundation Scholar Norbert Michel summarizes this phenomenon in his article Dodd-Frank and Glass-Steagall – ‘Consumer Protection for Billionaires’:

Even when it’s not by nefarious design, we end up with rules that favor the largest/best-funded firms over their smaller/less-well-funded competitors. Put differently, our massive regulatory state ends up keeping large firms’ competitors at bay.  The more detailed regulators try to be, the more complex the rules become. And the more complex the rules become, the smaller the number of people who really care. Hence, more complicated rules and regulations serve to protect existing firms from competition more than simple ones. All of this means consumers lose. They pay higher prices, they have fewer choices of financial products and services, and they pretty much end up with the same level of protection they’d have with a smaller regulatory state.

What’s worse, some of the most onerous regulatory schemes are explicitly designed to favor large competitors over small ones.  A prime example is financial services regulation, and, in particular, the rules adopted pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act (other examples could readily be provided).  As a Heritage Foundation report explains (footnote citations omitted):

The [Dodd-Frank] act was largely intended to reduce the risk of a major bank failure, but the regulatory burden is crippling community banks (which played little role in the financial crisis). According to Harvard University researchers Marshall Lux and Robert Greene, small banks’ share of U.S. commercial banking assets declined nearly twice as much since the second quarter of 2010—around the time of Dodd–Frank’s passage—as occurred between 2006 and 2010. Their share currently stands at just 22 percent, down from 41 percent in 1994.

The increased consolidation rate is driven by regulatory economies of scale—larger banks are better suited to handle increased regulatory burdens than are smaller banks, causing the average costs of community banks to rise. The decline in small bank assets spells trouble for their primary customer base—small business loans and those seeking residential mortgages.

Ironically, Dodd–Frank proponents pushed for the law as necessary to rein in the big banks and Wall Street. In fact, the regulations are giving the largest companies a competitive advantage over smaller enterprises—the opposite outcome sought by Senator Christopher Dodd (D–CT), Representative Barney Frank (D–MA), and their allies. As Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently explained: “More intense regulatory and technology requirements have raised the barriers to entry higher than at any other time in modern history. This is an expensive business to be in, if you don’t have the market share in scale.

In sum, as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.

More generally, as Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint and Heritage Action for America CEO Mike Needham have emphasized, well-connected businesses use lobbying and inside influence to benefit themselves by having government enact special subsidies, bailouts and complex regulations, including special tax preferences. Those special preferences undermine competition on the merits by firms that lack insider status, to the public detriment.  Relatedly, the hideously complex system of American business taxation, which features the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world (which can better be manipulated by very large corporate players), depresses wages and is a serious drag on the American economy, as shown by Heritage Foundation scholars Curtis Dubay and David Burton.  In a similar vein, David Burton testified before Congress in 2015 on how the various excesses of the American regulatory state (including bad tax, health care, immigration, and other regulatory policies, combined with an overly costly legal system) undermine U.S. entrepreneurship (see here).

In other words, special subsidies, regulations, and tax and regulatory programs for the well-connected are part and parcel of crony capitalism, which (1) favors large businesses, tending to raise concentration; (2) confers higher profits on the well-connected while discouraging small business entrepreneurship; and (3) promotes income and wealth inequality, with the greatest returns going to the wealthiest government cronies who know best how to play the Washington “rent seeking game.”  Unfortunately, crony capitalism has grown like topsy during the Obama Administration.

Accordingly, I would counsel AAI to turn its scholarly gaze away from antitrust and toward the true source of the American competitive ailments it spotlights:  crony capitalism enabled by the growth of big government special interest programs and increasingly costly regulatory schemes.  Let’s see if AAI takes my advice.

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.