Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.
This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.
The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy
Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies.
The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome.
Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy. As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures. Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.
Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration
The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.
Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.
Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so.
Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal
Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals.
This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.
In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).
President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.
The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.
The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.
Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity.
An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy
To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.
Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.
Advocates of legislative action to “reform” antitrust law have already pointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s dismissal of the state attorneys general’s case and the “conditional” dismissal of the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Facebook as evidence that federal antitrust case law is lax and demands correction. In fact, the court’s decisions support the opposite implication.
The Risks of Antitrust by Anecdote
The failure of a well-resourced federal regulator, and more than 45 state attorney-general offices, to avoid dismissal at an early stage of the litigation testifies to the dangers posed by a conclusory approach toward antitrust enforcement that seeks to unravel acquisitions consummated almost a decade ago without even demonstrating the factual predicates to support consideration of such far-reaching interventions. The dangers to the rule of law are self-evident. Irrespective of one’s views on the appropriate direction of antitrust law, this shortcut approach would substitute prosecutorial fiat, ideological predilection, and popular sentiment for decades of case law and agency guidelines grounded in the rigorous consideration of potential evidence of competitive harm.
The paucity of empirical support for the exceptional remedial action sought by the FTC is notable. As the district court observed, there was little systematic effort made to define the economically relevant market or provide objective evidence of market power, beyond the assertion that Facebook has a market share of “in excess of 60%.” Remarkably, the denominator behind that 60%-plus assertion is not precisely defined, since the FTC’s brief does not supply any clear metric by which to measure market share. As the court pointed out, this is a nontrivial task in multi-sided environments in which one side of the potentially relevant market delivers services to users at no charge.
While the point may seem uncontroversial, it is important to re-appreciate why insisting on a rigorous demonstration of market power is critical to preserving a coherent body of law that provides the market with a basis for reasonably anticipating the likelihood of antitrust intervention. At least since the late 1970s, courts have recognized that “big is not always bad” and can often yield cost savings that ultimately redound to consumers’ benefit. That is: firm size and consumer welfare do not stand in inherent opposition. If courts were to abandon safeguards against suits that cannot sufficiently define the relevant market and plausibly show market power, antitrust litigation could easily be used as a tool to punish successful firms that prevail over competitors simply by being more efficient. In other words: antitrust law could become a tool to preserve competitor welfare at the expense of consumer welfare.
The Specter of No-Fault Antitrust Liability
The absence of any specific demonstration of market power suggests deficient lawyering or the inability to gather supporting evidence. Giving the FTC litigation team the benefit of the doubt, the latter becomes the stronger possibility. If that is the case, this implies an effort to persuade courts to adopt a de facto rule of per se illegality for any firm that achieves a certain market share. (The same concept lies behind legislative proposals to bar acquisitions for firms that cross a certain revenue or market capitalization threshold.) Effectively, any firm that reached a certain size would operate under the presumption that it has market power and has secured or maintained such power due to anticompetitive practices, rather than business prowess. This would effectively convert leading digital platforms into quasi-public utilities subject to continuous regulatory intervention. Such an approach runs counter to antitrust law’s mission to preserve, rather than displace, private ordering by market forces.
Even at the high-water point of post-World War II antitrust zealotry (a period that ultimately ended in economic malaise), proposals to adopt a rule of no-fault liability for alleged monopolization were rejected. This was for good reason. Any such rule would likely injure consumers by precluding them from enjoying the cost savings that result from the “sweet spot” scenario in which the scale and scope economies of large firms are combined with sufficiently competitive conditions to yield reduced prices and increased convenience for consumers. Additionally, any such rule would eliminate incumbents’ incentives to work harder to offer consumers reduced prices and increased convenience, since any market share preserved or acquired as a result would simply invite antitrust scrutiny as a reward.
Remembering Why Market Power Matters
To be clear, this is not to say that “Big Tech” does not deserve close antitrust scrutiny, does not wield market power in certain segments, or has not potentially engaged in anticompetitive practices. The fundamental point is that assertions of market power and anticompetitive conduct must be demonstrated, rather than being assumed or “proved” based largely on suggestive anecdotes.
Perhaps market power will be shown sufficiently in Facebook’s case if the FTC elects to respond to the court’s invitation to resubmit its brief with a plausible definition of the relevant market and indication of market power at this stage of the litigation. If that threshold is satisfied, then thorough consideration of the allegedly anticompetitive effect of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions may be merited. However, given the policy interest in preserving the market’s confidence in relying on the merger-review process under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, the burden of proof on the government should be appropriately enhanced to reflect the significant time that has elapsed since regulatory decisions not to intervene in those transactions.
It would once have seemed mundane to reiterate that market power must be reasonably demonstrated to support a monopolization claim that could lead to a major divestiture remedy. Given the populist thinking that now leads much of the legislative and regulatory discussion on antitrust policy, it is imperative to reiterate the rationale behind this elementary principle.
This principle reflects the fact that, outside collusion scenarios, antitrust law is typically engaged in a complex exercise to balance the advantages of scale against the risks of anticompetitive conduct. At its best, antitrust law weighs competing facts in a good faith effort to assess the net competitive harm posed by a particular practice. While this exercise can be challenging in digital markets that naturally converge upon a handful of leading platforms or multi-dimensional markets that can have offsetting pro- and anti-competitive effects, these are not reasons to treat such an exercise as an anachronistic nuisance. Antitrust cases are inherently challenging and proposed reforms to make them easier to win are likely to endanger, rather than preserve, competitive markets.
Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints.
Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.
As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee.
The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined.
But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively.
Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.
The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.
The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC.
This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.
“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]
Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.
Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee have leaked the approach they plan to take to revise U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, with a particular focus on digital platforms.
Broadly speaking, the bills would: raise fees for larger mergers and increase appropriations to the FTC and DOJ; require data portability and interoperability; declare that large platforms can’t own businesses that compete with other businesses that use the platform; effectively ban large platforms from making any acquisitions; and generally declare that large platforms cannot preference their own products or services.
All of these are ideas that have been discussed before. They are very much in line with the EU’s approach to competition, which places more regulation-like burdens on big businesses, and which is introducing a Digital Markets Act that mirrors the Democrats’ proposals. Some Republicans are reportedly supportive of the proposals, which is surprising since they mean giving broad, discretionary powers to antitrust authorities that are controlled by Democrats who take an expansive view of antitrust enforcement as a way to achieve their other social and political goals. The proposals may also be unpopular with consumers if, for example, they would mean that popular features like integrating Maps into relevant Google Search results becomes prohibited.
The multi-bill approach here suggests that the committee is trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. It may reflect a lack of confidence among the proposers in their ability to get their proposals through wholesale, especially given that Amy Klobuchar’s CALERA bill in the Senate creates an alternative that, while still highly interventionist, does not create ex ante regulation of the Internet the same way these proposals do.
In general, the bills are misguided for three main reasons.
One, they seek to make digital platforms into narrow conduits for other firms to operate on, ignoring the value created by platforms curating their own services by, for example, creating quality controls on entry (as Apple does on its App Store) or by integrating their services with related products (like, say, Google adding events from Gmail to users’ Google Calendars).
Two, they ignore the procompetitive effects of digital platforms extending into each other’s markets and competing with each other there, in ways that often lead to far more intense competition—and better outcomes for consumers—than if the only firms that could compete with the incumbent platform were small startups.
Three, they ignore the importance of incentives for innovation. Platforms invest in new and better products when they can make money from doing so, and limiting their ability to do that means weakened incentives to innovate. Startups and their founders and investors are driven, in part, by the prospect of being acquired, often by the platforms themselves. Making those acquisitions more difficult, or even impossible, means removing one of the key ways startup founders can exit their firms, and hence one of the key rewards and incentives for starting an innovative new business.
The flagship bill, introduced by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), establishes a definition of “covered platform” used by several of the other bills. The measures would apply to platforms with at least 500,000 U.S.-based users, a market capitalization of more than $600 billion, and that is deemed a “critical trading partner” with the ability to restrict or impede the access that a “dependent business” has to its users or customers.
Cicilline’s bill would bar these covered platforms from being able to promote their own products and services over the products and services of competitors who use the platform. It also defines a number of other practices that would be regarded as discriminatory, including:
Restricting or impeding “dependent businesses” from being able to access the platform or its software on the same terms as the platform’s own lines of business;
Conditioning access or status on purchasing other products or services from the platform;
Using user data to support the platform’s own products in ways not extended to competitors;
Restricting the platform’s commercial users from using or accessing data generated on the platform from their own customers;
Restricting platform users from uninstalling software pre-installed on the platform;
Restricting platform users from providing links to facilitate business off of the platform;
Preferencing the platform’s own products or services in search results or rankings;
Interfering with how a dependent business prices its products;
Impeding a dependent business’ users from connecting to services or products that compete with those offered by the platform; and
Retaliating against users who raise concerns with law enforcement about potential violations of the act.
On a basic level, these would prohibit lots of behavior that is benign and that can improve the quality of digital services for users. Apple pre-installing a Weather app on the iPhone would, for example, run afoul of these rules, and the rules as proposed could prohibit iPhones from coming with pre-installed apps at all. Instead, users would have to manually download each app themselves, if indeed Apple was allowed to include the App Store itself pre-installed on the iPhone, given that this competes with other would-be app stores.
Apart from the obvious reduction in the quality of services and convenience for users that this would involve, this kind of conduct (known as “self-preferencing”) is usually procompetitive. For example, self-preferencing allows platforms to compete with one another by using their strength in one market to enter a different one; Google’s Shopping results in the Search page increase the competition that Amazon faces, because it presents consumers with a convenient alternative when they’re shopping online for products. Similarly, Amazon’s purchase of the video-game streaming service Twitch, and the self-preferencing it does to encourage Amazon customers to use Twitch and support content creators on that platform, strengthens the competition that rivals like YouTube face.
It also helps innovation, because it gives firms a reason to invest in services that would otherwise be unprofitable for them. Google invests in Android, and gives much of it away for free, because it can bundle Google Search into the OS, and make money from that. If Google could not self-preference Google Search on Android, the open source business model simply wouldn’t work—it wouldn’t be able to make money from Android, and would have to charge for it in other ways that may be less profitable and hence give it less reason to invest in the operating system.
This behavior can also increase innovation by the competitors of these companies, both by prompting them to improve their products (as, for example, Google Android did with Microsoft’s mobile operating system offerings) and by growing the size of the customer base for products of this kind. For example, video games published by console manufacturers (like Nintendo’s Zelda and Mario games) are often blockbusters that grow the overall size of the user base for the consoles, increasing demand for third-party titles as well.
Sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), this bill would make it illegal for covered platforms to control lines of business that pose “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” enforced through civil litigation powers granted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).
Specifically, the bill targets lines of business that create “a substantial incentive” for the platform to advantage its own products or services over those of competitors that use the platform, or to exclude or disadvantage competing businesses from using the platform. The FTC and DOJ could potentially order that platforms divest lines of business that violate the act.
This targets similar conduct as the previous bill, but involves the forced separation of different lines of business. It also appears to go even further, seemingly implying that companies like Google could not even develop services like Google Maps or Chrome because their existence would create such “substantial incentives” to self-preference them over the products of their competitors.
Apart from the straightforward loss of innovation and product developments this would involve, requiring every tech company to be narrowly focused on a single line of business would substantially entrench Big Tech incumbents, because it would make it impossible for them to extend into adjacent markets to compete with one another. For example, Apple could not develop a search engine to compete with Google under these rules, and Amazon would be forced to sell its video-streaming services that compete with Netflix and Youtube.
Introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), this bill would bar covered platforms from making essentially any acquisitions at all. To be excluded from the ban on acquisitions, the platform would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that the acquired business does not compete with the platform for any product or service, does not pose a potential competitive threat to the platform, and would not in any way enhance or help maintain the acquiring platform’s market position.
So this proposal would probably reduce investment in U.S. startups, since it makes it more difficult for them to be acquired. It would therefore reduce innovation as a result. It would also reduce inter-platform competition by banning deals that allow firms to move into new markets, like the acquisition of Beats that helped Apple to build a Spotify competitor, or the deals that helped Google, Microsoft, and Amazon build cloud-computing services that all compete with each other. It could also reduce competition faced by old industries, by preventing tech companies from buying firms that enable it to move into new markets—like Amazon’s acquisitions of health-care companies that it has used to build a health-care offering. Even Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com, which it has used to build an Amazon competitor, could have been banned under this law if Walmart had had a higher market cap at the time.
Under terms of the legislation, covered platforms would be required to allow third parties to transfer data to their users or, with the user’s consent, to a competing business. It also would require platforms to facilitate compatible and interoperable communications with competing businesses. The law directs the FTC to establish technical committees to promulgate the standards for portability and interoperability.
It can also make digital services more buggy and unreliable, by requiring that they are built in a more “open” way that may be more prone to unanticipated software mismatches. A good example is that of Windows vs iOS; Windows is far more interoperable with third-party software than iOS is, but tends to be less stable as a result, and users often prefer the closed, stable system.
Interoperability requirements also entail ongoing regulatory oversight, to make sure data is being provided to third parties reliably. It’s difficult to build an app around another company’s data without assurance that the data will be available when users want it. For a requirement as broad as this bill’s, that could mean setting up quite a large new de facto regulator.
In the UK, Open Banking (an interoperability requirement imposed on British retail banks) has suffered from significant service outages, and targets a level of uptime that many developers complain is too low for them to build products around. Nor has Open Banking yet led to any obvious competition benefits.
A bill that mirrors language in the Endless Frontier Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would significantly raise filing fees for the largest mergers. Rather than the current cap of $280,000 for mergers valued at more than $500 million, the bill—sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)–the new schedule would assess fees of $2.25 million for mergers valued at more than $5 billion; $800,000 for those valued at between $2 billion and $5 billion; and $400,000 for those between $1 billion and $2 billion.
Smaller mergers would actually see their filing fees cut: from $280,000 to $250,000 for those between $500 million and $1 billion; from $125,000 to $100,000 for those between $161.5 million and $500 million; and from $45,000 to $30,000 for those less than $161.5 million.
In addition, the bill would appropriate $418 million to the FTC and $252 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division for Fiscal Year 2022. Most people in the antitrust world are generally supportive of more funding for the FTC and DOJ, although whether this is actually good or not depends both on how it’s spent at those places.
It’s hard to object if it goes towards deepening the agencies’ capacities and knowledge, by hiring and retaining higher quality staff with salaries that are more competitive with those offered by the private sector, and on greater efforts to study the effects of the antitrust laws and past cases on the economy. If it goes toward broadening the activities of the agencies, by doing more and enabling them to pursue a more aggressive enforcement agenda, and supporting whatever of the above proposals make it into law, then it could be very harmful.
One of the key recommendations of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report which seems to have bipartisan support (see Rep. Buck’s report) is shifting evidentiary burdens of proof to defendants with “monopoly power.” These recommended changes are aimed at helping antitrust enforcers and private plaintiffs “win” more. The result may well be more convictions, more jury verdicts, more consent decrees, and more settlements, but there is a cost.
Presumption of illegality for certain classes of defendants unless they can prove otherwise is inconsistent with the American traditions of the presumption of innocence and allowing persons to dispose of their property as they wish. Forcing antitrust defendants to defend themselves from what is effectively a presumption of guilt will create an enormous burden upon them. But this will be felt far beyond just antitrust defendants. Consumers who would have benefited from mergers that are deterred or business conduct that is prevented will have those benefits foregone.
The Presumption of Liberty in American Law
The Presumption of Innocence
There is nothing wrong with presumptions in law as a general matter. For instance, one of the most important presumptions in American law is that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Prosecutors bear the burden of proof, and must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even in the civil context, plaintiffs, whether public or private, have the burden of proving a violation of the law, by the preponderance of the evidence. In either case, the defendant is not required to prove they didn’t violate the law.
Fundamentally, the presumption of innocence is about liberty. As William Blackstone put it in his Commentaries on the Law of England centuries ago: “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
In economic terms, society must balance the need to deter bad conduct, however defined, with not deterring good conduct. In a world of uncertainty, this includes the possibility that decision-makers will get it wrong. For instance, if a mere allegation of wrongdoing places the burden upon a defendant to prove his or her innocence, much good conduct would be deterred out of fear of false allegations. In this sense, the presumption of innocence is important: it protects the innocent from allegations of wrongdoing, even if that means in some cases the guilty escape judgment.
Presumptions in Property, Contract, and Corporate Law
Similarly, presumptions in other areas of law protect liberty and are against deterring the good in the name of preventing the bad. For instance, the presumption when it comes to how people dispose of their property is that unless a law says otherwise, they may do as they wish. In other words, there is no presumption that a person may not use their property in a manner they wish to do so. The presumption is liberty, unless a valid law proscribes behavior. The exceptions to this rule typically deal with situations where a use of property could harm someone else.
In contracts, the right of persons to come to a mutual agreement is the general rule, with rare exceptions. The presumption is in favor of enforcing voluntary agreements. Default rules in the absence of complete contracting supplement these agreements, but even the default rules can be contracted around in most cases.
Bringing the two together, corporate law—essentially the nexus of contract law and property law— allows persons to come together to dispose of property and make contracts, supplying default rules which can be contracted around. The presumption again is that people are free to do as they choose with their own property. The default is never that people can’t create firms to buy or sell or make agreements.
A corollary right of the above is that people may start businesses and deal with others on whatever basis they choose, unless a generally applicable law says otherwise. In fact, they can even buy other businesses. Mergers and acquisitions are generally allowed by the law.
Presumptions in Antitrust Law
Antitrust is a generally applicable set of laws which proscribe how people can use their property. But even there, the presumption is not that every merger or act by a large company is harmful.
On the contrary, antitrust laws allow groups of people to dispose of property as they wish unless it can be shown that a firm has “market power” that is likely to be exercised to the detriment of competition or consumers. Plaintiffs, whether public or private, bear the burden of proving all the elements of the antitrust violation alleged.
In particular, antitrust law has incorporated the error cost framework. This framework considers the cost of getting decisions wrong. Much like the presumption of innocence is based on the tradeoff of allowing some guilty persons to go unpunished in order to protect the innocent, the error cost framework notes there is tradeoff between allowing some anticompetitive conduct to go unpunished in order to protect procompetitive conduct. American antitrust law seeks to avoid the condemnation of procompetitive conduct more than it avoids allowing the guilty to escape condemnation.
For instance, to prove a merger or acquisition would violate the antitrust laws, a plaintiff must show the transaction will substantially lessen competition. This involves defining the market, that the defendant has power over that market, and that the transaction would lessen competition. While concentration of the market is an important part of the analysis, antitrust law must consider the effect on consumer welfare as a whole. The law doesn’t simply condemn mergers or acquisitions by large companies just because they are large.
Similarly, to prove a monopolization claim, a plaintiff must establish the defendant has “monopoly power” in the relevant market. But monopoly power isn’t enough. As stated by the Supreme Court in Trinko:
The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period— is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.
The plaintiff must also prove the defendant has engaged in the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [market] power, as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historical accident.” Antitrust law is careful to avoid mistaken inferences and false condemnations, which are especially costly because they “chill the very conduct antitrust laws are designed to protect.”
The presumption isn’t against mergers or business conduct even when those businesses are large. Antitrust law only condemns mergers or business conduct when it is likely to harm consumers.
How Changing Antitrust Presumptions will Harm Society
In light of all of this, the House Judiciary Committee’s Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets proposes some pretty radical departures from the law’s normal presumption in favor of people disposing property how they choose. Unfortunately, the minority report issued by Representative Buck agrees with the recommendations to shift burdens onto antitrust defendants in certain cases.
One of the recommendations from the Subcommittee is that Congress:
“codify bright-line rules for merger enforcement, including structural presumptions. Under a structural presumption, mergers resulting in a single firm controlling an outsized market share, or resulting in a significant increase in concentration, would be presumptively prohibited under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. This structural presumption would place the burden of proof upon the merging parties to show that the merger would not reduce competition. A showing that the merger would result in efficiencies should not be sufficient to overcome the presumption that it is anticompetitive. It is the view of Subcommittee staff that the 30% threshold established by the Supreme Court in Philadelphia National Bank is appropriate, although a lower standard for monopsony or buyer power claims may deserve consideration by the Subcommittee. By shifting the burden of proof to the merging parties in cases involving concentrated markets and high market shares, codifying the structural presumption would help promote the efficient allocation of agency resources and increase the likelihood that anticompetitive mergers are blocked. (emphasis added)
Under this proposal, in cases where concentration meets an arbitrary benchmark based upon the market definition, the presumption will be that the merger is illegal. Defendants will now bear the burden of proof to show the merger won’t reduce competition, without even getting to refer to efficiencies that could benefit consumers.
Changing the burden of proof to be against criminal defendants would lead to more convictions of guilty people, but it would also lead to a lot more false convictions of innocent defendants. Similarly, changing the burden of proof to be against antitrust defendants would certainly lead to more condemnations of anticompetitive mergers, but it would also lead to the deterrence of a significant portion of procompetitive mergers.
So yes, if adopted, plaintiffs would likely win more as a result of these proposed changes, including in cases where mergers are anticompetitive. But this does not necessarily mean it would be to the benefit of larger society.
Antitrust has evolved over time to recognize that concentration alone is not predictive of likely competitive harm in merger analysis. Both the horizontal merger guidelines and the vertical merger guidelines issued by the FTC and DOJ emphasize the importance of fact-specific inquiries into competitive effects, and not just a reliance on concentration statistics. This reflected a long-standing bipartisan consensus. The HJC’s majority report overturns this consensus by suggesting a return to the structural presumptions which have largely been rejected in antitrust law.
The HJC majority report also calls for changes in presumptions when it comes to monopolization claims. For instance, the report calls on Congress to consider creating a statutory presumption of dominance by a seller with a market share of 30% or more and a presumption of dominance by a buyer with a market share of 25% or more. The report then goes on to suggest overturning a number of precedents dealing with monopolization claims which in their view restricted claims of tying, predatory pricing, refusals to deal, leveraging, and self-preferencing. In particular, they call on Congress to “[c]larify that ‘false positives’ (or erroneous enforcement) are not more costly than ‘false negatives’ (erroneous non-enforcement), and that, when relating to conduct or mergers involving dominant firms, ‘false negatives’ are costlier.”
This again completely turns the ordinary presumptions about innocence and allowing people to dispose of the property as they see fit on their head. If adopted, defendants would largely have to prove their innocence in monopolization cases if their shares of the market are above a certain threshold.
Moreover, the report calls for Congress to consider making conduct illegal even if it “can be justified as an improvement for consumers.” It is highly likely that the changes proposed will harm consumer welfare in many cases, as the focus changes from economic efficiency to concentration.
The HJC report’s recommendations on changing antitrust presumptions should be rejected. The harms will be felt not only by antitrust defendants, who will be much more likely to lose regardless of whether they have violated the law, but by consumers whose welfare is no longer the focus. The result is inconsistent with the American tradition that presumes innocence and the ability of people to dispose of their property as they see fit.
The writing is on the wall for Big Tech: regulation is coming. At least, that is what the House Judiciary Committee’s report into competition in digital markets would like us to believe.
The Subcommittee’s Majority members, led by Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, are calling for a complete overhaul of America’s antitrust and regulatory apparatus. This would notably entail a break up of America’s largest tech firms, by prohibiting them from operating digital platforms and competing on them at the same time. Unfortunately, the report ignores the tremendous costs that such proposals would impose upon consumers and companies alike.
For several years now, there has been growing pushback against the perceived“unfairness” of America’s tech industry: of large tech platforms favoring their own products at the expense of entrepreneurs who use their platforms; of incumbents acquiring startups to quash competition; of platforms overcharging companies like Epic Games, Spotify, and the media, just because they can; and of tech companies that spy on their users and use that data to sell them things they don’t need.
But this portrayal of America’s tech industry obscures an inconvenient possibility: supposing that these perceived ills even occur, there is every chance that the House’s reforms would merely exacerbate the status quo. The House report gives short shrift to this eventuality, but it should not.
Over the last decade, the tech sector has been the crown jewel of America’s economy. And while firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, may have grown at a blistering pace, countless others have flourished in their wake.
Google and Apple’s app stores have given rise to a booming mobile software industry. Platforms like Youtube and Instagram have created new venues for advertisers and ushered in a new generation of entrepreneurs including influencers, podcasters, and marketing experts. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have disintermediated the production of news media, allowing ever more people to share their ideas with the rest of the world (mostly for better, and sometimes for worse). Amazon has opened up new markets for thousands of retailers, some of which are now going public. The recent $3.4 billion Snowflake IPO may have been the biggest public offering of a tech firm no one has heard of.
The trillion dollar question is whether it is possible to regulate this thriving industry without stifling its unparalleled dynamism. If Rep. Cicilline’s House report is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no.
Acquisition by a Big Tech firm is one way for startups to rapidly scale and reach a wider audience, while allowing early investors to make a quick exit. Self-preferencing can enable platforms to tailor their services to the needs and desires of users (Apple and Google’s pre-installed app suites are arguably what drive users to opt for their devices). Excluding bad apples from a platform is essential to gain users’ trust and build a strong reputation. Finally, in the online retail space, copying rival products via house brands provides consumers with competitively priced goods and helps new distributors enter the market.
All of these practices would either be heavily scrutinized or outright banned under the Subcommittee ’s proposed reforms. Beyond its direct impact on the quality of online goods and services, this huge shift would threaten the climate of permissionless innovation that has arguably been key to Silicon Valley’s success.
More fundamentally, these reforms would mostly protect certain privileged rivals at the expense of the wider industry. Take Apple’s App Store: Epic Games and others have complained about the 30% Commission charged by Apple for in-app purchases (as is standard throughout the industry). Yet, as things stand, roughly 80% of apps pay no commission at all. Tackling this 30% commission — for instance by allowing developers to bypass Apple’s in-app payment processing — would almost certainly result in larger fees for small developers. In short, regulation could significantly impede smaller firms.
Fortunately, there is another way. For decades, antitrust law — guided by the judge-made consumer welfare standard — has been the cornerstone of economic policy in the US. During that time, America built a tech industry that is the envy of the world. This should give pause to would-be reformers. There is a real chance overbearing regulation will permanently hamper America’s tech industry. With competition from China more intense than ever, it is a risk that the US cannot afford to take.
Speaking about his new book in a ProMarket interview, David Dayen inadvertently captures what is perhaps the essential disconnect between antitrust reformers (populists, neo-Brandeisians, hipsters, whatever you may call them) and those of us who are more comfortable with the antitrust status quo (whatever you may call us). He says: “The antitrust doctrine that we’ve seen over the last 40 years simply does not match the lived experience of people.”
Narratives of Consumer Experience of Markets
This emphasis on “lived experience” runs through Dayen’s antitrust perspective. Citing to Hal Singer’s review of the book, the interview notes that “the heart of Dayen’s book is the personal accounts of ordinary Americans—airline passengers, hospital patients, farmers, and small business owners—attempting to achieve a slice of the American dream and facing insurmountable barriers in the form of unaccountable private monopolies.” As Singer notes in his review, “Dayen’s personalized storytelling, free of any stodgy regression analysis, is more likely to move policymakers” than are traditional economic arguments.
Dayen’s focus on individual narratives — of the consumer’s lived experience — is fundamentally different than the traditional antitrust economist’s perspective on competition and the market. It is worth exploring the differences between the two. The basic argument that I make below is that Dayen is right but also that he misunderstands the purpose of competition in a capitalist economy. A robustly competitive market is a brutal rat race that places each individual on an accelerating treadmill. There is no satiation or satisfaction for the individual consumer in these markets. But it is this very lack of satisfaction, this endless thirst for more, that makes competitive markets so powerful, and ultimately beneficial, for consumers.
This is the fundamental challenge and paradox of capitalism. Satisfaction requires perspective that most consumers often don’t feel, and that many consumers never will feel. It requires the ability to step off that treadmill occasionally and to look how far society and individual welfare has come, even if individually one feels like they have not moved at all. It requires recognizing that the alternative to an uncomfortable flight to visit family isn’t a comfortable one, but an unaffordable one; that the alternative to low cost, processed foods, isn’t abundant higher-quality food but greater poverty for those who already can least afford food; that the alternative to a startup being beholden to Google’s and Amazon’s terms of service isn’t a market in which they have boundless access to these platforms’ infrastructures, but one in which each startup needs to entirely engineer its own infrastructure. In all of these cases, the fundamental tradeoff is between having something that is less perfect than an imagined ideal of it, and not having it at all.
What Dayen refers to as consumers’ “lived experience” is really their “perceived experience.” This is important to how markets work. Competition is driven by consumers’ perception that things could be better (and by entrepreneurs’ perception that they can make it so). This perception is what keeps us on the treadmill. Consumers don’t look to their past generations and say “wow, by nearly every measure my life can be better than theirs with less effort!” They focus on what they don’t have yet, on the seemingly better lives of their contemporaries.
This description of markets may sound grotesquely dehumanizing. To the extent that it really is, this is because we live in a world of scarcity. There will always be tradeoffs and in a literally real way no consumer will ever have everything that she needs, let alone that she wants.
On the flip side, this is what drives markets to make consumers better off. Consumers’ wants drive producers’ factories and innovators’ minds. There is no supply curve without a demand curve. And consumers are able to satisfy their own needs by becoming producers who work to satisfy the wants and needs of others.
A Fair Question: Are Markets Worth It?
Dayen’s perspective on this description of markets, shared with his fellow reform-minded anti-antitrust crusaders, is that the typical consumers’ perceived experience of the market demonstrates that markets don’t work — that they have been captured by monopolists seeking to extract every ounce of revenue from each individual consumer. But this is not a story of monopolies. It is more plainly the story of markets. What Dayen identifies as a problem with the markets really is just the markets working as they are supposed to.
If this is just how markets work, it is fair to ask whether they are worth it. Importantly, those of us who answer “yes” need not be blind to or dismissive of concerns such as Dayen’s — to the concerns of the typical consumer. Economists have long recognized that capitalist markets are about allocative efficiency, not distributive efficiency — about making society as a whole as wealthy as possible but not about making sure that that wealth is fairly distributed.
The antitrust reform movement is driven by advocates who long for a world in which everyone is poorer but feels more equal, as opposed to what they perceive as a world in which a few monopolists are extremely wealthy and everyone else feels poor. Their perception of this as the but-for world is not unreasonable, but it is also not accurate. The better world is the one with thriving, prosperous, markets,in which consumers broadly feel that they share in this prosperity. It may be the case that such a world has some oligopolies and even monopolies — that is what economic efficiency sometimes looks like.
But those firms’ prosperity need not be adverse to consumers’ experience of the market. The challenging question is how we achieve this outcome. But that is a question of politics and macroeconomic policy, and of corporate social policy. It is a question of national identity, whether consumers’ perception of the economic treadmill can pivot from one of perceived futility to one of recognizing their lived contributions to society. It is one that antitrust law as it exists today contributes to answering, but not one that antitrust law on its own can ever answer.
On the other hand, were we to follow the populists’ lead and turn antitrust into a remedy for the perceived maladies of the market, we would risk the engine that improves consumers’ actual lived experience. The alternative to an antitrust driven by economic analysis and that errs on the side of not disrupting markets in favor of perceived injuries is an antitrust in which markets are beholden to the whims of politicians and enforcement officials. This is a world in which litigation is used by politicians to make it appear they are delivering on impossible promises, in which litigation is used to displace blame for politicians’ policy failures, in which litigation is used to distract from socio-political events entirely unrelated to the market.
Concerns such as Dayen’s are timeless and not unreasonable. But the reflexive action is not the answer to such concerns. Rather, the response always must be to ask “opposed to what?” What is the but-for world? Here, Dayen and his peers suffer both Type I and Type II errors. They misdiagnose antitrust and non-competitive markets as the cause of their perceived problems. And they are overly confident in their proposed solutions to those problems, not recognizing the real harms that their proposed politicization of antitrust and markets poses.
The goal of US antitrust law is to ensure that competition continues to produce positive results for consumers and the economy in general. We published a letter co-signed by twenty three of the U.S.’s leading economists, legal scholars and practitioners, including one winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (full list of signatories here), to exactly that effect urging the House Judiciary Committee on the State of Antitrust Law to reject calls for radical upheaval of antitrust law that would, among other things, undermine the independence and neutrality of US antitrust law.
A critical part of maintaining independence and neutrality in the administration of antitrust is ensuring that it is insulated from politics. Unfortunately, this view is under attack from all sides. The President sees widespread misconduct among US tech firms that he believes are controlled by the “radical left” and is, apparently, happy to use whatever tools are at hand to chasten them.
Meanwhile, Senator Klobuchar has claimed, without any real evidence, that the mooted Uber/Grubhub merger is simply about monopolisation of the market, and not, for example, related to the huge changes that businesses like this are facing because of the Covid shutdown.
Both of these statements challenge the principle that the rule of law depends on being politically neutral, including in antitrust.
Our letter, contrary to the claims made by President Trump, Sen. Klobuchar and some of the claims made to the Committee, asserts that the evidence and economic theory is clear: existing antitrust law is doing a good job of promoting competition and consumer welfare in digital markets and the economy more broadly, and concludes that the Committee should focus on reforms that improve antitrust at the margin, not changes that throw out decades of practice and precedent.
The letter argues that:
The American economy—including the digital sector—is competitive, innovative, and serves consumers well, contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the public debate.
Structural changes in the economy have resulted from increased competition, and increases in national concentration have generally happened because competition at the local level has intensified and local concentration has fallen.
Lax antitrust enforcement has not allowed systematic increases in market power, and the evidence simply does not support out the idea that antitrust enforcement has weakened in recent decades.
Existing antitrust law is adequate for protecting competition in the modern economy, and built up through years of careful case-by-case scrutiny. Calls to throw out decades of precedent to achieve an antitrust “Year Zero” would throw away a huge body of learning and deliberation.
History teaches that discarding the modern approach to antitrust would harm consumers, and return to a situation where per se rules prohibited the use of economic analysis and fact-based defences of business practices.
Common sense reforms should be pursued to improve antitrust enforcement, and the reforms proposed in the letter could help to improve competition and consumer outcomes in the United States without overturning the whole system.
The reforms suggested include measures to increase transparency of the DoJ and FTC, greater scope for antitrust challenges against state-sponsored monopolies, stronger penalties for criminal cartel conduct, and more agency resources being made available to protect workers from anti-competitive wage-fixing agreements between businesses. These are suggestions for the House Committee to consider and are not supported by all the letter’s signatories.
Some of the arguments in the letter are set out in greater detail in the ICLE’s own submission to the Committee, which goes into detail about the nature of competition in modern digital markets and in traditional markets that have been changed because of the adoption of digital technologies.
[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 Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics); and Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE)]
Back in 2012, Covidien, a large health care products company and medical device manufacturer, purchased Newport Medical Instruments, a small ventilator developer and manufacturer. (Covidien itself was subsequently purchased by Medtronic in 2015).
Eight years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has just published an article revisiting the Covidien/Newport transaction, and questioning whether it might have contributed to the current shortage of ventilators.
The article speculates that Covidien’s purchase of Newport, and the subsequent discontinuation of Newport’s “Aura” ventilator — which was then being developed by Newport under a government contract — delayed US government efforts to procure mechanical ventilators until the second half of 2020 — too late to treat the first wave of COVID-19 patients:
And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.
That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up.
* * *
Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment.
The article has generated considerable interest not so much for what it suggests about government procurement policies or for its relevance to the ventilator shortages associated with the current pandemic, but rather for its purported relevance to ongoing antitrust debates and the arguments put forward by “antitrust populists” and others that merger enforcement in the US is dramatically insufficient.
Only a single sentence in the article itself points to a possible antitrust story — and it does nothing more than report unsubstantiated speculation from unnamed “government officials” and rival companies:
Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.
Nevertheless, and right on cue, various antitrust scholars quickly framed the deal as a so-called “killer acquisition” (see also here and here):
Unsurprisingly, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. David Cicilline, the powerful chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, opined that:
The public reporting on this acquisition raises important questions about the review of this deal. We should absolutely be looking back to figure out what happened.
These “hot takes” raise a crucial issue. The New York Times story opened the door to a welter of hasty conclusions offered to support the ongoing narrative that antitrust enforcement has failed us — in this case quite literally at the cost of human lives. But are any of these claims actually supportable?
Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the mechanical ventilator industry, as well as a more clear-eyed view of what was likely going on with the failed government contract at the heart of the story, simply do not support the “killer acquisition” story.
What is a “killer acquisition”…?
Let’s take a step back. Because monopoly profits are, by definition, higher than joint duopoly profits (all else equal), economists have long argued that incumbents may find it profitable to acquire smaller rivals in order to reduce competition and increase their profits. More specifically, incumbents may be tempted to acquire would-be entrants in order to prevent them from introducing innovations that might hurt the incumbent’s profits.
For this theory to have any purchase, however, a number of conditions must hold. Most importantly, as Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma put it in an influential paper:
“killer acquisitions” can only occur when the entrepreneur’s project overlaps with the acquirer’s existing product…. [W]ithout any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur… because, without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.
Moreover, the authors add that:
Successfully developing a new product draws consumer demand and profits away equally from all existing products. An acquiring incumbent is hurt more by such cannibalization when he is a monopolist (i.e., the new product draws demand away only from his own existing product) than when he already faces many other existing competitors (i.e., cannibalization losses are spread over many firms). As a result, as the number of existing competitors increases, the replacement effect decreases and the acquirer’s development decisions become more similar to those of the entrepreneur.
Finally, the “killer acquisition” terminology is appropriate only when the incumbent chooses to discontinue its rival’s R&D project:
If incumbents face significant existing competition, acquired projects are not significantly more frequently discontinued than independent projects. Thus, more competition deters incumbents from acquiring and terminating the projects of potential future competitors, which leads to more competition in the future.
…And what isn’t a killer acquisition?
What is left out of this account of killer acquisitions is the age-old possibility that an acquirer purchases a rival precisely because it has superior know-how or a superior governance structure that enables it to realize greater return and more productivity than its target. In the case of a so-called killer acquisition, this means shutting down a negative ROI project and redeploying resources to other projects or other uses — including those that may not have any direct relation to the discontinued project.
Such “synergistic” mergers are also — like allegedly “killer” mergers — likely to involve acquirers and targets in the same industry and with technological overlap between their R&D projects; it is in precisely these situations that the acquirer is likely to have better knowledge than the target’s shareholders that the target is undervalued because of poor governance rather than exogenous, environmental factors.
In other words, whether an acquisition is harmful or not — as the epithet “killer” implies it is — depends on whether it is about reducing competition from a rival, on the one hand, or about increasing the acquirer’s competitiveness by putting resources to more productive use, on the other.
As argued below, it is highly unlikely that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport could be classified as a “killer acquisition.” There is thus nothing to suggest that the merger materially impaired competition in the mechanical ventilator market, or that it measurably affected the US’s efforts to fight COVID-19.
The market realities of the ventilator market and its implications for the “killer acquisition” story
1. The mechanical ventilator market is highly competitive
As explained above, “killer acquisitions” are less likely to occur in competitive markets. Yet the mechanical ventilator industry is extremely competitive.
Medical ventilators market competition is intense.
The conclusion that the mechanical ventilator industry is highly competitive is further supported by the fact that the five largest producers combined reportedly hold only 50% of the market. In other words, available evidence suggests that none of these firms has anything close to a monopoly position.
Similarly, following preliminary investigations, neither the FTC nor the European Commission saw the need for an in-depth look at the ventilator market when they reviewed Medtronic’s subsequent acquisition of Covidien (which closed in 2015). Although Medtronic did not produce any mechanical ventilators before the acquisition, authorities (particularly the European Commission) could nevertheless have analyzed that market if Covidien’s presumptive market share was particularly high. The fact that they declined to do so tends to suggest that the ventilator market was relatively unconcentrated.
2. The value of the merger was too small
A second strong reason to believe that Covidien’s purchase of Newport wasn’t a killer acquisition is the acquisition’s value of $103 million.
Indeed, if it was clear that Newport was about to revolutionize the ventilator market, then Covidien would likely have been made to pay significantly more than $103 million to acquire it.
As noted above, the crux of the “killer acquisition” theory is that incumbents can induce welfare-reducing acquisitions by offering to acquire their rivals for significantly more than the present value of their rivals’ expected profits. Because an incumbent undertaking a “killer” takeover expects to earn monopoly profits as a result of the transaction, it can offer a substantial premium and still profit from its investment. It is this basic asymmetry that drives the theory.
[Where] a court may lack the expertise to [assess the commercial significance of acquired technology]…, the transaction value… may provide a reasonable proxy. Intuitively, if the startup is a relatively small company with relatively few sales to its name, then a very high acquisition price may reasonably suggest that the startup technology has significant promise.
The strategy only works, however, if the target firm’s shareholders agree that share value properly reflects only “normal” expected profits, and not that the target is poised to revolutionize its market with a uniquely low-cost or high-quality product. Relatively low acquisition prices relative to market size, therefore, tend to reflect low (or normal) expected profits, and a low perceived likelihood of radical innovations occurring.
We can apply this reasoning to Covidien’s acquisition of Newport:
Precise and publicly available figures concerning the mechanical ventilator market are hard to come by. Nevertheless, one estimate finds that the global ventilator market was worth $2.715 billion in 2012. Another report suggests that the global market was worth $4.30 billion in 2018; still another that it was worth $4.58 billion in 2019.
As noted above, Covidien reported to the SEC that it paid $103 million to purchase Newport (a firm that produced only ventilators and apparently had no plans to branch out).
For context, at the time of the acquisition Covidien had annual sales of $11.8 billion overall, and $743 million in sales of its existing “Airways and Ventilation Products.”
If the ventilator market was indeed worth billions of dollars per year, then the comparatively small $108 million paid by Covidien — small even relative to Covidien’s own share of the market — suggests that, at the time of the acquisition, it was unlikely that Newport was poised to revolutionize the market for mechanical ventilators (for instance, by successfully bringing its Aura ventilator to market).
The New York Times article claimed that Newport’s ventilators would be sold (at least to the US government) for $3,000 — a substantial discount from the reportedly then-going rate of $10,000. If selling ventilators at this price seemed credible at the time, then Covidien — as well as Newport’s shareholders — knew that Newport was about to achieve tremendous cost savings, enabling it to offer ventilators not only to the the US government, but to purchasers around the world, at an irresistibly attractive — and profitable — price.
Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.
“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”
If achievable, Newport thus stood to earn a substantial share of the profits in a multi-billion dollar industry.
Of course, it is necessary to apply a probability to these numbers: Newport’s ventilator was not yet on the market, and had not yet received FDA approval. Nevertheless, if the Times’ numbers seemed credible at the time, then Covidien would surely have had to offer significantly more than $108 million in order to induce Newport’s shareholders to part with their shares.
Given the low valuation, however, as well as the fact that Newport produced other ventilators — and continues to do so to this day, there is no escaping the fact that everyone involved seemed to view Newport’s Aura ventilator as nothing more than a moonshot with, at best, a low likelihood of success.
Curically, this same reasoning explains why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the project was ultimately discontinued; recourse to a “killer acquisition” theory is hardly necessary.
3. Lessons from Covidien’s ventilator product decisions
The killer acquisition claims are further weakened by at least four other important pieces of information:
Covidien initially continued to develop Newport’s Aura ventilator, and continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators.
There was little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators — or, at the very least, they were highly differentiated
Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
The Newport purchase was part of a billion dollar series of acquisitions seemingly aimed at expanding Covidien’s in-hospital (i.e., not-portable) device portfolio
Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s ventilators
For a start, while the Aura line was indeed discontinued by Covidien, the timeline is important. The acquisition of Newport by Covidien was announced in March 2012, approved by the FTC in April of the same year, and the deal was closed on May 1, 2012.
However, as the FDA’s 510(k) database makes clear, Newport submitted documents for FDA clearance of the Aura ventilator months after its acquisition by Covidien (June 29, 2012, to be precise). And the Aura received FDA 510(k) clearance on November 9, 2012 — many months after the merger.
It would have made little sense for Covidien to invest significant sums in order to obtain FDA clearance for a project that it planned to discontinue (the FDA routinely requires parties to actively cooperate with it, even after 510(k) applications are submitted).
Moreover, if Covidien really did plan to discreetly kill off the Aura ventilator, bungling the FDA clearance procedure would have been the perfect cover under which to do so. Yet that is not what it did.
Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators
Second, and just as importantly, Covidien (and subsequently Medtronic) continued to sell Newport’s other ventilators. The Newport e360 and HT70 are still sold today. Covidien also continued to improve these products: it appears to have introduced an improved version of the Newport HT70 Plus ventilator in 2013.
If eliminating its competitor’s superior ventilators was the only goal of the merger, then why didn’t Covidien also eliminate these two products from its lineup, rather than continue to improve and sell them?
At least part of the answer, as will be seen below, is that there was almost no overlap between Covidien and Newport’s product lines.
There was little overlap between Covidien’s and Newport’s ventilators
Third — and perhaps the biggest flaw in the killer acquisition story — is that there appears to have been very little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators.
This decreases the likelihood that the merger was a killer acquisition. When two products are highly differentiated (or not substitutes at all), sales of the first are less likely to cannibalize sales of the other. As Florian Ederer and his co-authors put it:
Importantly, without any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur, neither to “Acquire to Kill” nor to “Acquire to Continue.” This is because without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.
A quick search of the FDA’s 510(k) database reveals that Covidien has three approved lines of ventilators: the Puritan Bennett 980, 840, and 540 (apparently essentially the same as the PB560, the plans to which Medtronic recently made freely available in order to facilitate production during the current crisis). The same database shows that these ventilators differ markedly from Newport’s ventilators (particularly the Aura).
In particular, Covidien manufactured primarily traditional, invasive ICU ventilators (except for the PB540, which is potentially a substitute for the Newport HT70), while Newport made much-more-portable ventilators, suitable for home use (notably the Aura, HT50 and HT70 lines).
Under normal circumstances, critical care and portable ventilators are not substitutes. As the WHO website explains, portable ventilators are:
[D]esigned to provide support to patients who do not require complex critical care ventilators.
A quick glance at Medtronic’s website neatly illustrates the stark differences between these two types of devices:
This is not to say that these devices do not have similar functionalities, or that they cannot become substitutes in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. However, in normal times (as was the case when Covidien acquired Newport), hospitals likely did not view these devices as substitutes.
The conclusion that Covidien and Newport’s ventilator were not substitutes finds further support in documents and statements released at the time of the merger. For instance, Covidien’s CEO explained that:
This acquisition is consistent with Covidien’s strategy to expand into adjacencies and invest in product categories where it can develop a global competitive advantage.
Newport’s products and technology complement our current portfolio of respiratory solutions and will broaden our ventilation platform for patients around the world, particularly in emerging markets.
In short, the fact that almost all of Covidien and Newport’s products were not substitutes further undermines the killer acquisition story. It also tends to vindicate the FTC’s decision to rapidly terminate its investigation of the merger.
Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
Perhaps most tellingly: It appears that Covidien discontinued production of its own competing, portable ventilator, the Puritan Bennett 560, in 2014.
The product is reported on the company’s 2011, 2012 and 2013 annual reports:
Airway and Ventilation Products — airway, ventilator, breathing systems and inhalation therapy products. Key products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 line of ventilators; the Puritan Bennett™ 520 and 560 portable ventilator….
Surely if Covidien had intended to capture the portable ventilator market by killing off its competition it would have continued to actually sell its own, competing device. The fact that the only portable ventilators produced by Covidien by 2014 were those it acquired in the Newport deal strongly suggests that its objective in that deal was the acquisition and deployment of Newport’s viable and profitable technologies — not the abandonment of them. This, in turn, suggests that the Aura was not a viable and profitable technology.
(Admittedly we are unable to determine conclusively that either Covidien or Medtronic stopped producing the PB520/540/560 series of ventilators. But our research seems to indicate strongly that this is indeed the case).
Putting the Newport deal in context
Finally, although not dispositive, it seems important to put the Newport purchase into context. In the same year as it purchased Newport, Covidien paid more than a billion dollars to acquire five other companies, as well — all of them primarily producing in-hospital medical devices.
That 2012 spending spree came on the heels of a series of previous medical device company acquisitions, apparently totally some four billion dollars. Although not exclusively so, the acquisitions undertaken by Covidien seem to have been primarily targeted at operating room and in-hospital monitoring and treatment — making the putative focus on cornering the portable (home and emergency) ventilator market an extremely unlikely one.
By the time Covidien was purchased by Medtronic the deal easily cleared antitrust review because of the lack of overlap between the company’s products, with Covidien’s focusing predominantly on in-hospital, “diagnostic, surgical, and critical care” and Medtronic’s on post-acute care.
Newport misjudged the costs associated with its Aura project; Covidien was left to pick up the pieces
So why was the Aura ventilator discontinued?
Although it is almost impossible to know what motivated Covidien’s executives, the Aura ventilator project clearly suffered from many problems.
The Aura project was intended to meet the requirements of the US government’s BARDA program (under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). In short, the program sought to create a stockpile of next generation ventilators for emergency situations — including, notably, pandemics. The ventilator would thus have to be designed for events where
mass casualties may be expected, and when shortages of experienced health care providers with respiratory support training, and shortages of ventilators and accessory components may be expected.
The Aura ventilator would thus sit somewhere between Newport’s two other ventilators: the e360 which could be used in pediatric care (for newborns smaller than 5kg) but was not intended for home care use (or the extreme scenarios envisioned by the US government); and the more portable HT70 which could be used in home care environments, but not for newborns.
Unfortunately, the Aura failed to achieve this goal. The FDA’s 510(k) clearance decision clearly states that the Aura was not intended for newborns:
The AURA family of ventilators is applicable for infant, pediatric and adult patients greater than or equal to 5 kg (11 lbs.).
the company was unable to secure FDA approval for use in neonatal populations — a contract requirement.
And the US Government RFP confirms that this was indeed an important requirement:
The device must be able to provide the same standard of performance as current FDA pre-market cleared portable ventilators and shall have the following additional characteristics or features:
• Flexibility to accommodate a wide patient population range from neonate to adult.
Newport also seems to have been unable to deliver the ventilator at the low price it had initially forecasted — a common problem for small companies and/or companies that undertake large R&D programs. It also struggled to complete the project within the agreed-upon deadlines. As the Medtronic press release explains:
Covidien learned that Newport’s work on the ventilator design for the Government had significant gaps between what it had promised the Government and what it could deliver — both in terms of being able to achieve the cost of production specified in the contract and product features and performance. Covidien management questioned whether Newport’s ability to complete the project as agreed to in the contract was realistic.
As Jason Crawford, an engineer and tech industry commentator, put it:
Projects fail all the time. “Supplier risk” should be a standard checkbox on anyone’s contingency planning efforts. This is even more so when you deliberately push the price down to 30% of the market rate. Newport did not even necessarily expect to be profitable on the contract.
The above is mostly Covidien’s “side” of the story, of course. But other pieces of evidence lend some credibility to these claims:
Newport agreed to deliver its Aura ventilator at a per unit cost of less than $3000. But, even today, this seems extremely ambitious. For instance, the WHO has estimated that portable ventilators cost between $3,300 and $13,500. If Newport could profitably sell the Aura at such a low price, then there was little reason to discontinue it (readers will recall the development of the ventilator was mostly complete when Covidien put a halt to the project).
Covidien/Newport is not the only firm to have struggled to offer suitable ventilators at such a low price. Philips (which took Newport’s place after the government contract fell through) also failed to achieve this low price. Rather than the $2,000 price sought in the initial RFP, Philips ultimately agreed to produce the ventilators for $3,280. But it has not yet been able to produce a single ventilator under the government contract at that price.
Covidien has repeatedly been forced to recall some of its other ventilators ( here, here and here) — including the Newport HT70. And rival manufacturers have also faced these types of issues (for example, here and here).
Accordingly, Covidien may well have preferred to cut its losses on the already problem-prone Aura project, before similar issues rendered it even more costly.
In short, while it is impossible to prove that these development issues caused Covidien to pull the plug on the Aura project, it is certainly plausible that they did. This further supports the hypothesis that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport was not a killer acquisition.
Ending the Aura project might have been an efficient outcome
As suggested above, moreover, it is entirely possible that Covidien was better able to realize the poor prospects of Newport’s Aura project and also better organized to enable it to make the requisite decision to abandon the project.
Moreover, the relatively large share of revue and reputation that Newport — worth $103 million in 2012, versus Covidien’s $11.8 billion — would have realized from fulfilling a substantial US government project could well have induced it to overestimate the project’s viability and to undertake excessive risk in the (vain) hope of bringing the project to fruition.
While there is a tendency among antitrust scholars, enforcers, and practitioners to look for (and find…) antitrust-related rationales for mergers and other corporate conduct, it remains the case that most corporate control transactions (such as mergers) are driven by the acquiring firm’s expectation that it can manage more efficiently. As Henry G. Manne put it in his seminal article, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control (1965):
Since, in a world of uncertainty, profitable transactions will be entered into more often by those whose information is relatively more reliable, it should not surprise us that mergers within the same industry have been a principal form of changing corporate control. Reliable information is often available to suppliers and customers as well. Thus many vertical mergers may be of the control takeover variety rather than of the “foreclosure of competitors” or scale-economies type.
Of course, the same information that renders an acquiring firm in the same line of business knowledgeable enough to operate a target more efficiently could also enable it to effect a “killer acquisition” strategy. But the important point is that a takeover by a firm with a competing product line, after which the purchased company’s product line is abandoned, is at least as consistent with a “market for corporate control” story as with a “killer acquisition” story.
“Killer acquisitions” can have a nefarious image, but killing off a rival’s product was probably not the main purpose of the transaction, Ederer said. He raised the possibility that Covidien decided to kill Newport’s innovation upon realising that the development of the devices would be expensive and unlikely to result in profits.
In conclusion, Covidien’s acquisition of Newport offers a cautionary tale about reckless journalism, “blackboard economics,” and government failure.
Reckless journalism because the New York Times clearly failed to do the appropriate due diligence for its story. Its journalists notably missed (or deliberately failed to mention) a number of critical pieces of information — such as the hugely important fact that most of Covidien’s and Newport’s products did not overlap, or the fact that there were numerous competitors in the highly competitive mechanical ventilator industry.
And yet, that did not stop the authors from publishing their extremely alarming story, effectively suggesting that a small medical device merger materially contributed to the loss of many American lives.
What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth.
Numerouscommentators rushed to fit the story to their preconceived narratives, failing to undertake even a rudimentary examination of the underlying market conditions before they voiced their recriminations.
The only thing that Covidien and Newport’s merger ostensibly had in common with the killer acquisition theory was the fact that a large firm purchased a small rival, and that the one of the small firm’s products was discontinued. But this does not even begin to meet the stringent conditions that must be fulfilled for the theory to hold water. Unfortunately, critics appear to have completely ignored all contradicting evidence.
Finally, what the New York Times piece does offer is a chilling tale of government failure.
The inception of the US government’s BARDA program dates back to 2008 — twelve years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US.
The collapse of the Aura project is no excuse for the fact that, more than six years after the Newport contract fell through, the US government still has not obtained the necessary ventilators. Questions should also be raised about the government’s decision to effectively put all of its eggs in the same basket — twice. If anything, it is thus government failure that was the real culprit.
And yet the New York Times piece and the critics shouting “killer acquisition!” effectively give the US government’s abject failure here a free pass — all in the service of pursuing their preferred “killer story.”
Antitrust populists have a long list of complaints about competition policy, including: laws aren’t broad enough or tough enough, enforcers are lax, and judges tend to favor defendants over plaintiffs or government agencies. The populist push got a bump with the New York Times coverage of Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in which she advocated breaking up Amazon and applying public utility regulation to platforms. Khan’s ideas were picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for similar public utility regulation and promised to unwind earlier acquisitions by Amazon (Whole Foods and Zappos), Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram), and Google (Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick).
Khan, Warren, and the other Break Up Big Tech populists don’t clearly articulate how consumers, suppliers — or anyone for that matter — would be better off with their mandated spinoffs. The Khan/Warren plan, however, requires a unique alignment of many factors: Warren must win the White House, Democrats must control both houses of Congress, and judges must substantially shift their thinking. It’s like turning a supertanker on a dime in the middle of a storm. Instead of publishing manifestos and engaging in antitrust hashtag hipsterism, maybe — just maybe — the populists can do something.
The populists seem to have three main grievances:
Small firms cannot enter the market or cannot thrive once they enter;
Suppliers, including workers, are getting squeezed; and
Speculation that someday firms will wake up, realize they have a monopoly, and begin charging noncompetitive prices to consumers.
Each of these grievances can be, and has been, already addressed by antitrust and competition litigation. And, in many cases these grievances were addressed in private antitrust litigation. For example:
The European Commission’s Google Search investigation was prompted by complaints filed by a private party, Foundem.
In the US, private actions are available for a wide range of alleged anticompetitive conduct, including coordinated conduct (e.g., price-fixing), single-firm conduct (e.g., predatory pricing), and mergers that would substantially lessen competition.
If the antitrust populists are so confident that concentration is rising and firms are behaving anticompetitively and consumers/suppliers/workers are being harmed, then why don’t they organize an antitrust lawsuit against the worst of the worst violators? If anticompetitive activity is so obvious and so pervasive, finding compelling cases should be easy.
While predatory pricing technically remains illegal, it is extremely difficult to win predatory pricing claims because courts now require proof that the alleged predator would be able to raise prices and recoup its losses.
However, in her criticism of the court in the Apple e-books litigation, she lays out a clear rationale for courts to revise their thinking on predatory pricing [emphasis added]:
Judge Cote, who presided over the district court trial, refrained from affirming the government’s conclusion. Still, the government’s argument illustrates the dominant framework that courts and enforcers use to analyze predation—and how it falls short. Specifically, the government erred by analyzing the profitability of Amazon’s e-book business in the aggregate and by characterizing the conduct as “loss leading” rather than potentially predatory pricing. These missteps suggest a failure to appreciate two critical aspects of Amazon’s practices: (1) how steep discounting by a firm on a platform-based product creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power than discounting on non-platform goods and (2) the multiple ways Amazon could recoup losses in ways other than raising the price of the same e-books that it discounted.
Why not put Khan’s cross-subsidy theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? Surely there’d be a document explaining how the firm expects to recoup its losses. Or, maybe not. Maybe by the firm’s accounting, it’s not losing money on the discounted products. Without evidence, it’s just speculation.
In fairness, one can argue that recent court decisions have made pursuing private antitrust litigation more difficult. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly requires an antitrust plaintiff to show more than mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence in order to move forward to discovery. Decisions in matters such as Ashcroft v. Iqbal have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain antitrust claims. Wal-Mart v. Dukes and Comcast Corp v Behrend subject antitrust class actions to more rigorous analysis. In Ohio v. Amex the court ruled antitrust plaintiffs can’t meet the burden of proof by showing only some effect on some part of a two-sided market.
At the same time Jeld-Wen indicates third party plaintiffs can be awarded damages and obtain divestitures, even after mergers clear. In Jeld-Wen, a competitor filed suit to challenge the consummated Jeld-Wen/Craftmaster merger four years after the DOJ approved the merger without conditions. The challenge was lengthy, but successful, and a district court ordered damages and the divestiture of one of the combined firm’s manufacturing facilities six years after the merger was closed.
Despite the possible challenges of pursuing a private antitrust suit, Daniel Crane’s review of US federal court workload statistics concludes the incidence of private antitrust enforcement in the United States has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s — in the range of 600 to 900 new private antitrust filings a year. He also finds resolution by trial has been relatively stable at an average of less than 1 percent a year. Thus, it’s not clear that recent decisions have erected insurmountable barriers to antitrust plaintiffs.
In the US, third parties may fund private antitrust litigation and plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to work under a contingency fee arrangement, subject to court approval. A compelling case could be funded by deep-pocketed supporters of the populists’ agenda, big tech haters, or even investors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s takedown of Gawker. Before that, the savings and loan crisis led to a number of forced mergers which were later challenged in court, with the costs partially funded by the issuance of litigation tracking warrants.
The antitrust populist ranks are chock-a-block with economists, policy wonks, and go-getter attorneys. If they are so confident in their claims of rising concentration, bad behavior, and harm to consumers, suppliers, and workers, then they should put those ideas to the test with some slam dunk litigation. The fact that they haven’t suggests they may not have a case.
These days, lacking a coherent legal theory presents no challenge to the would-be antitrust crusader. In a previous post, we noted how Shaoul Sussman’s predatory pricing claims against Amazon lacked a serious legal foundation. Sussman has returned with a new post, trying to build out his fledgling theory, but fares little better under even casual scrutiny.
According to Sussman, Amazon’s allegedly anticompetitive
conduct not only cemented its role as the primary destination for consumers that shop online but also helped it solidify its power over brands.
Further, the company
was willing to go to great lengths to ensure brand availability and inventory, including turning to the grey market, recruiting unauthorized sellers, and even selling diverted goods and counterfeits to its customers.
Sussman is trying to make out a fairly convoluted predatory pricing case, but once again without ever truly connecting the dots in a way that develops a cognizable antitrust claim. According to Sussman:
Amazon sold products as a first-party to consumers on its platform at below average variable cost and  Amazon recently began to recoup its losses by shifting the bulk of the transactions that occur on the website to its marketplace, where millions of third-party sellers pay hefty fees that enable Amazon to take a deep cut of every transaction.
Sussman now bases this claim on an allegation that Amazon relied on “grey market” sellers on its platform, the presence of which forces legitimate brands onto the Amazon Marketplace. Moreover, Sussman claims that — somehow — these brands coming on board on Amazon’s terms forces those brands raise prices elsewhere, and the net effect of this process at scale is that prices across the economy have risen.
As we detail below, Sussman’s chimerical argument depends on conflating unrelated concepts and relies on non-public anecdotal accounts to piece together an argument that, even if you squint at it, doesn’t make out a viable theory of harm.
Conflating legal reselling and illegal counterfeit selling as the “grey market”
The biggest problem with Sussman’s new theory is that he conflates pro-consumer unauthorized reselling and anti-consumer illegal counterfeiting, erroneously labeling both the “grey market”:
Amazon had an ace up its sleeve. My sources indicate that the company deliberately turned to and empowered the “grey market“ — where both genuine, authentic goods and knockoffs are purchased and resold outside of brands’ intended distribution pipes — to dominate certain brands.
By definition, grey market goods are — as the link provided by Sussman states — “goods sold outside the authorized distribution channels by entities which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods.” Yet Sussman suggests this also encompasses counterfeit goods. This conflation is no minor problem for his argument. In general, the grey market is legal and beneficial for consumers. Brands such as Nike may try to limit the distribution of their products to channels the company controls, but they cannot legally prevent third parties from purchasing Nike products and reselling them on Amazon (or anywhere else).
This legal activity can increase consumer choice and can lead to lower prices, even though Sussman’s framing omits these key possibilities:
In the course of my conversations with former Amazon employees, some reported that Amazon actively sought out and recruited unauthorized sellers as both third-party sellers and first-party suppliers. Being unauthorized, these sellers were not bound by the brands’ policies and therefore outside the scope of their supervision.
In other words, Amazon actively courted third-party sellers who could bring legitimate goods, priced competitively, onto its platform. Perhaps this gives Amazon “leverage” over brands that would otherwise like to control the activities of legal resellers, but it’s exceedingly strange to try to frame this as nefarious or anticompetitive behavior.
Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are also potential consumer gains when Amazon tries to restrict grey market activity by partnering with brands. But it is up to Amazon and the brands to determine through a contracting process when it makes the most sense to partner and control the grey market, or when consumers are better served by allowing unauthorized resellers. The point is: there is simply no reason to assume that either of these approaches is inherently problematic.
Yet, even when Amazon tries to restrict its platform to authorized resellers, it exposes itself to a whole different set of complaints. In 2018, the company made a deal with Apple to bring the iPhone maker onto its marketplace platform. In exchange for Apple selling its products directly on Amazon, the latter agreed to remove unauthorized Apple resellers from the platform. Sussman portrays this as a welcome development in line with the policy changes he recommends.
But news reports last month indicate the FTC is reviewing this deal for potential antitrust violations. One is reminded of Ronald Coase’s famous lament that he “had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same they said it was tacit collusion.” It seems the same is true for Amazon and its relationship with the grey market.
Amazon’s incentive to remove counterfeits
What is illegal — and explicitly against Amazon’s marketplace rules — is selling counterfeit goods. Counterfeit goods destroy consumer trust in the Amazon ecosystem, which is why the company actively polices its listings for abuses. And as Sussman himself notes, when there is an illegal counterfeit listing, “Brands can then file a trademark infringement lawsuit against the unauthorized seller in order to force Amazon to suspend it.”
Sussman’s attempt to hang counterfeiting problems around Amazon’s neck belies the actual truth about counterfeiting: probably the most cost-effective way to stop counterfeiting is simply to prohibit all third-party sellers. Yet, a serious cost-benefit analysis of Amazon’s platforms could hardly support such an action (and would harm the small sellers that antitrust activists seem most concerned about).
But, more to the point, if Amazon’s strategy is to encourage piracy, it’s doing a terrible job. It engages in litigation against known pirates, and earlier this year it rolled out a suite of tools (called Project Zero) meant to help brand owners report and remove known counterfeits. As part of this program, according to Amazon, “brands provide key data points about themselves (e.g., trademarks, logos, etc.) and we scan over 5 billion daily listing update attempts, looking for suspected counterfeits.” And when a brand identifies a counterfeit listing, they can remove it using a self-service tool (without needing approval from Amazon).
Any large platform that tries to make it easy for independent retailers to reach customers is going to run into a counterfeit problem eventually. In his rush to discover some theory of predatory pricing to stick on Amazon, Sussman ignores the tradeoffs implicit in running a large platform that essentially democratizes retail:
Indeed, the democratizing effect of online platforms (and of technology writ large) should not be underestimated. While many are quick to disparage Amazon’s effect on local communities, these arguments fail to recognize that by reducing the costs associated with physical distance between sellers and consumers, e-commerce enables even the smallest merchant on Main Street, and the entrepreneur in her garage, to compete in the global marketplace.
In short, Amazon Marketplace is designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to sell their products to Amazon customers. As the WSJ reported:
Counterfeiters, though, have been able to exploit Amazon’s drive to increase the site’s selection and offer lower prices. The company has made the process to list products on its website simple—sellers can register with little more than a business name, email and address, phone number, credit card, ID and bank account—but that also has allowed impostors to create ersatz versions of hot-selling items, according to small brands and seller consultants.
The existence of counterfeits is a direct result of policies designed to lower prices and increase consumer choice. Thus, we would expect some number of counterfeits to exist as a result of running a relatively open platform. The question is not whether counterfeits exist, but — at least in terms of Sussman’s attempt to use antitrust law — whether there is any reason to think that Amazon’s conduct with respect to counterfeits is actually anticompetitive. But, even if we assume for the moment that there is some plausible way to draw a competition claim out of the existence of counterfeit goods on the platform, his theory still falls apart.
There is both theoretical and empiricalevidence for why Amazon is likely not engaged in the conduct Sussman describes. As a platform owner involved in a repeated game with customers, sellers, and developers, Amazon has an incentive to increase trust within the ecosystem. Counterfeit goods directly destroy that trust and likely decrease sales in the long run. If individuals can’t depend on the quality of goods on Amazon, they can easily defect to Walmart, eBay, or any number of smaller independent sellers. That’s why Amazon enters into agreements with companies like Apple to ensure there are only legitimate products offered. That’s also why Amazon actively sues counterfeiters in partnership with its sellers and brands, and also why Project Zero is a priority for the company.
Sussman relies on private, anecdotal claims while engaging in speculation that is entirely unsupported by public data
Much of Sussman’s evidence is “[b]ased on conversations [he] held with former employees, sellers, and brands following the publication of [his] paper”, which — to put it mildly — makes it difficult for anyone to take seriously, let alone address head on. Here’s one example:
One third-party seller, who asked to remain anonymous, was willing to turn over his books for inspection in order to illustrate the magnitude of the increase in consumer prices. Together, we analyzed a single product, of which tens of thousands of units have been sold since 2015. The minimum advertised price for this single product, at any and all outlets, has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years. Despite this fact, this seller’s margins on this product are tighter than ever due to Amazon’s fee increases.
Needless to say, sales data showing the minimum advertised price for a single product “has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years” is not sufficient to prove, well, anything. At minimum, showing an increase in prices above costs would require data from a large and representative sample of sellers. All we have to go on from the article is a vague anecdote representing — maybe — one data point.
Not only is Sussman’s own data impossible to evaluate, but he bases his allegations on speculation that is demonstrably false. For instance, he asserts that Amazon used its leverage over brands in a way that caused retail prices to rise throughout the economy. But his starting point assumption is flatly contradicted by reality:
To remedy this, Amazon once again exploited brands’ MAP policies. As mentioned, MAP policies effectively dictate the minimum advertised price of a given product across the entire retail industry. Traditionally, this meant that the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online, where consumers are charged an additional shipping fee at checkout.
Sussman presents no evidence for the claim that “the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online.” The widespread phenomenon of showrooming — when a customer examines a product at a brick-and-mortar store but then buys it for a lower price online — belies the notion that prices are higher online. One recent study by Nielsen found that “nearly 75% of grocery shoppers have used a physical store to ‘showroom’ before purchasing online.”
In fact, the company’s downward pressure on prices is so large that researchers now speculate that Amazon and other internet retailers are partially responsible for the low and stagnant inflation in the US over the last decade (dubbing this the “Amazon effect”). It is also curious that Sussman cites shipping fees as the reason prices are higher online while ignoring all the overhead costs of running a brick-and-mortar store which online retailers don’t incur. The assumption that prices are lower in brick-and-mortar stores doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Sussman can keep trying to tell a predatory pricing story about Amazon, but the more convoluted his theories get — and the less based in empirical reality they are — the less convincing they become. There is a predatory pricing law on the books, but it’s hard to bring a case because, as it turns out, it’s actually really hard to profitably operate as a predatory pricer. Speculating over complicated new theories might be entertaining, but it would be dangerous and irresponsible if these sorts of poorly supported theories were incorporated into public policy.
[This post is the seventh in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]
[This post is authored by Alec Stapp, Research Fellow at the International Center for Law & Economics]
Should we break up Microsoft?
In all the talk of breaking up “Big Tech,” no one seems to mention the biggest tech company of them all. Microsoft’s market cap is currently higher than those of Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If big is bad, then, at the moment, Microsoft is the worst.
Apart from size, antitrust activists also claim that the structure and behavior of the Big Four — Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon — is why they deserve to be broken up. But they never include Microsoft, which is curious given that most of their critiques also apply to the largest tech giant:
Microsoft is big (current market cap exceeds $1 trillion)
Microsoft is dominant in narrowly-defined markets (e.g., desktop operating systems)
Microsoft is simultaneously operating and competing on a platform (i.e., the Microsoft Store)
Microsoft is a conglomerate capable of leveraging dominance from one market into another (e.g., Windows, Office 365, Azure)
Microsoft has its own “kill zone” for startups (196 acquisitions since 1994)
Microsoft operates a search engine that preferences its own content over third-party content (i.e., Bing)
Microsoft operates a platform that moderates user-generated content (i.e., LinkedIn)
To be clear, this is not to say that an antitrust case against Microsoft is as strong as the case against the others. Rather, it is to say that the cases against the Big Four on these dimensions are as weak as the case against Microsoft, as I will show below.
Big is bad
Tim Wu published a book last year arguing for more vigorous antitrust enforcement — including against Big Tech — called “The Curse of Bigness.” As you can tell by the title, he argues, in essence, for a return to the bygone era of “big is bad” presumptions. In his book, Wu mentions “Microsoft” 29 times, but only in the context of its 1990s antitrust case. On the other hand, Wu has explicitly called for antitrust investigations of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s unclear why big should be considered bad when it comes to the latter group but not when it comes to Microsoft. Maybe bigness isn’t actually a curse, after all.
As the saying goes in antitrust, “Big is not bad; big behaving badly is bad.” This aphorism arose to counter erroneous reasoning during the era of structure-conduct-performance when big was presumed to mean bad. Thanks to an improved theoretical and empirical understanding of the nature of the competitive process, there is now a consensus that firms can grow large either via superior efficiency or by engaging in anticompetitive behavior. Size alone does not tell us how a firm grew big — so it is not a relevant metric.
Microsoft is also dominant in the “professional networking platform” market after its acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016. And the legacy tech giant is still the clear leader in the “paid productivity software” market. (Microsoft’s Office 365 revenue is roughly 10x Google’s G Suite revenue).
The problem here is obvious. These are overly-narrow market definitions for conducting an antitrust analysis. Is it true that Facebook’s platforms are the only service that can connect you with your friends? Should we really restrict the productivity market to “paid”-only options (as the EU similarly did in its Android decision) when there are so many free options available? These questions are laughable. Proper market definition requires considering whether a hypothetical monopolist could profitably impose a small but significant and non-transitory increase in price (SSNIP). If not (which is likely the case in the narrow markets above), then we should employ a broader market definition in each case.
Simultaneously operating and competing on a platform
Elizabeth Warren likes to say that if you own a platform, then you shouldn’t both be an umpire and have a team in the game. Let’s put aside the problems with that flawed analogy for now. What she means is that you shouldn’t both run the platform and sell products, services, or apps on that platform (because it’s inherently unfair to the other sellers).
Warren’s solution to this “problem” would be to create a regulated class of businesses called “platform utilities” which are “companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and that offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties.” Microsoft’s revenue last quarter was $32.5 billion, so it easily meets the first threshold. And Windows obviously qualifies as “a platform for connecting third parties.”
Just as in mobile operating systems, desktop operating systems are compatible with third-party applications. These third-party apps can be free (e.g., iTunes) or paid (e.g., Adobe Photoshop). Of course, Microsoft also makes apps for Windows (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.). But the more you think about the technical details, the blurrier the line between the operating system and applications becomes. Is the browser an add-on to the OS or a part of it (as Microsoft Edge appears to be)? The most deeply-embedded applications in an OS are simply called “features.”
Even though Warren hasn’t explicitly mentioned that her plan would cover Microsoft, it almost certainly would. Previously, she left Apple out of the Medium post announcing her policy, only to later tell a journalist that the iPhone maker would also be prohibited from producing its own apps. But what Warren fails to include in her announcement that she would break up Apple is that trying to police the line between a first-party platform and third-party applications would be a nightmare for companies and regulators, likely leading to less innovation and higher prices for consumers (as they attempt to rebuild their previous bundles).
Leveraging dominance from one market into another
The core critique in Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” is that the very structure of Amazon itself is what leads to its anticompetitive behavior. Khan argues (in spite of the data) that Amazon uses profits in some lines of business to subsidize predatory pricing in other lines of businesses. Furthermore, she claims that Amazon uses data from its Amazon Web Services unit to spy on competitors and snuff them out before they become a threat.
Of course, this is similar to the theory of harm in Microsoft’s 1990s antitrust case, that the desktop giant was leveraging its monopoly from the operating system market into the browser market. Why don’t we hear the same concern today about Microsoft? Like both Amazon and Google, you could uncharitably describe Microsoft as extending its tentacles into as many sectors of the economy as possible. Here are some of the markets in which Microsoft competes (and note how the Big Four also compete in many of these same markets):
What these potential antitrust harms leave out are the clear consumer benefits from bundling and vertical integration. Microsoft’s relationships with customers in one market might make it the most efficient vendor in related — but separate — markets. It is unsurprising, for example, that Windows customers would also frequently be Office customers. Furthermore, the zero marginal cost nature of software makes it an ideal product for bundling, which redounds to the benefit of consumers.
The “kill zone” for startups
In a recent article for The New York Times, Tim Wu and Stuart A. Thompson criticize Facebook and Google for the number of acquisitions they have made. They point out that “Google has acquired at least 270 companies over nearly two decades” and “Facebook has acquired at least 92 companies since 2007”, arguing that allowing such a large number of acquisitions to occur is conclusive evidence of regulatory failure.
Microsoft has made 196 acquisitions since 1994, but they receive no mention in the NYT article (or in most of the discussion around supposed “kill zones”). But the acquisitions by Microsoft or Facebook or Google are, in general, not problematic. They provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities (the other channel being IPOs). According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018, there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion.
By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. Making it harder for a startup to be acquired would not result in more venture capital investment (and therefore not in more IPOs), according to recent research by Gordon M. Phillips and Alexei Zhdanov. The researchers show that “the passage of a pro-takeover law in a country is associated with more subsequent VC deals in that country, while the enactment of a business combination antitakeover law in the U.S. has a negative effect on subsequent VC investment.”
As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “If the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.”
Search engine bias
Google is often accused of biasing its search results to favor its own products and services. The argument goes that if we broke them up, a thousand search engines would bloom and competition among them would lead to less-biased search results. While it is a very difficult — if not impossible — empirical question to determine what a “neutral” search engine would return, one attempt by Josh Wright found that “own-content bias is actually an infrequent phenomenon, and Google references its own content more favorably than other search engines far less frequently than does Bing.”
The report goes on to note that “Google references own content in its first results position when no other engine does in just 6.7% of queries; Bing does so over twice as often (14.3%).” Arguably, users of a particular search engine might be more interested in seeing content from that company because they have a preexisting relationship. But regardless of how we interpret these results, it’s clear this not a frequent phenomenon.
So why is Microsoft being left out of the antitrust debate now?
One potential reason why Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been singled out for criticism of practices that seem common in the tech industry (and are often pro-consumer) may be due to the prevailing business model in the journalism industry. Google and Facebook are by far the largest competitors in the digital advertising market, and Amazon is expected to be the third-largest player by next year, according to eMarketer. As Ramsi Woodcock pointed out, news publications are also competing for advertising dollars, the type of conflict of interest that usually would warrant disclosure if, say, a journalist held stock in a company they were covering.
Or perhaps Microsoft has successfully avoided receiving the same level of antitrust scrutiny as the Big Four because it is neither primarily consumer-facing like Apple or Amazon nor does it operate a platform with a significant amount of political speech via user-generated content (UGC) like Facebook or Google (YouTube). Yes, Microsoft moderates content on LinkedIn, but the public does not get outraged when deplatforming merely prevents someone from spamming their colleagues with requests “to add you to my professional network.”
Microsoft’s core areas are in the enterprise market, which allows it to sidestep the current debates about the supposed censorship of conservatives or unfair platform competition. To be clear, consumer-facing companies or platforms with user-generated content do not uniquely merit antitrust scrutiny. On the contrary, the benefits to consumers from these platforms are manifest. If this theory about why Microsoft has escaped scrutiny is correct, it means the public discussion thus far about Big Tech and antitrust has been driven by perception, not substance.