Archives For antitrust

On November 10, at the University of Southern California Law School, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim delivered an extremely important policy address on the antitrust treatment of standard setting organizations (SSOs).  Delrahim’s remarks outlined a dramatic shift in the Antitrust Division’s approach to controversies concerning the licensing of standard essential patents (SEPs, patents that “read on” SSO technical standards) that are often subject to “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) licensing obligations imposed by SSOs.  In particular, while Delrahim noted the theoretical concerns of possible “holdups” by SEP holders (when SEP holders threaten to delay licensing until their royalty demands are met), he cogently explained why the problem of “holdouts” by implementers of SEP technologies (when implementers threaten to under-invest in the implementation of a standard, or threaten not to take a license at all, until their royalty demands are met) is a far more serious antitrust concern.  More generally, Delrahim stressed the centrality of patents as property rights, and the need for enforcers not to interfere with the legitimate unilateral exploitation of those rights (whether through licensing, refusals to license, or the filing of injunctive actions).  Underlying Delrahim’s commentary is the understanding that innovation is vitally important to the American economy, and the concern that antitrust enforcers’ efforts in recent years have threatened to undermine innovation by inappropriately interfering in free market licensing negotiations between patentees and licensees.

Important “takeaways” from Delrahim’s speech (with key quotations) are set forth below.

  • Thumb on the scale in favor of implementers: “In particular, I worry that we as enforcers have strayed too far in the direction of accommodating the concerns of technology implementers who participate in standard setting bodies, and perhaps risk undermining incentives for IP creators, who are entitled to an appropriate reward for developing break-through technologies.”
  • Striking the right balance through market forces (as opposed to government-issued best practices): “The dueling interests of innovators and implementers always are in tension, and the tension is resolved through the free market, typically in the form of freely negotiated licensing agreements for royalties or reciprocal licenses.”
  • Holdup as theoretical concern with no evidence that it’s a systemic or widespread problem: He praises Professor Carl Shapiro for his theoretical model of holdup, but stresses that “many of the proposed [antitrust] ‘solutions’ to the hold-up problem are often anathema to the policies underlying the intellectual property system envisioned by our forefathers.”
  • Rejects prior position that antitrust is only concerned with the patent-holder side of the holdup equation, stating that he’s more concerned with holdout given the nature of investments: “Too often lost in the debate over the hold-up problem is recognition of a more serious risk:  the hold-out problem. . . . I view the collective hold-out problem as a more serious impediment to innovation.  Here is why: most importantly, the hold-up and hold-out problems are not symmetric.  What do I mean by that?  It is important to recognize that innovators make an investment before they know whether that investment will ever pay off.  If the implementers hold out, the innovator has no recourse, even if the innovation is successful.  In contrast, the implementer has some buffer against the risk of hold-up because at least some of its investments occur after royalty rates for new technology could have been determined.  Because this asymmetry exists, under-investment by the innovator should be of greater concern than under-investment by the implementer.”
  • What’s at stake: “Every incremental shift in bargaining leverage toward implementers of new technologies acting in concert can undermine incentives to innovate.  I therefore view policy proposals with a one-sided focus on the hold-up issue with great skepticism because they can pose a serious threat to the innovative process.”
  • Breach of FRAND as primarily a contract or fraud, not antitrust issue: “There is a growing trend supporting what I would view as a misuse of antitrust or competition law, purportedly motivated by the fear of so-called patent hold-up, to police private commitments that IP holders make in order to be considered for inclusion in a standard.  This trend is troublesome.  If a patent holder violates its commitments to an SSO, the first and best line of defense, I submit, is the SSO itself and its participants. . . . If a patent holder is alleged to have violated a commitment to a standard setting organization, that action may have some impact on competition.  But, I respectfully submit, that does not mean the heavy hand of antitrust necessarily is the appropriate remedy for the would-be licensee—or the enforcement agency.  There are perfectly adequate and more appropriate common law and statutory remedies available to the SSO or its members.”
  • Recommends that unilateral refusals to license should be per se lawful: “The enforcement of valid patent rights should not be a violation of antitrust law.  A patent holder cannot violate the antitrust laws by properly exercising the rights patents confer, such as seeking an injunction or refusing to license such a patent.  Set aside whether taking these actions might violate the common law.  Under the antitrust laws, I humbly submit that a unilateral refusal to license a valid patent should be per se legal.  Indeed, just this Monday, Chief Judge Diane Wood, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Antitrust Division, stated that “[e]ven monopolists are almost never required to assist their competitors.”
  • Intent to investigate buyers’ cartel behavior in SSOs: “The prospect of hold-out offers implementers a crucial bargaining chip.  Unlike the unilateral hold-up problem, implementers can impose this leverage before they make significant investments in new technology.  . . . The Antitrust Division will carefully scrutinize what appears to be cartel-like anticompetitive behavior among SSO participants, either on the innovator or implementer side.  The old notion that ‘openness’ alone is sufficient to guard against cartel-like behavior in SSOs may be outdated, given the evolution of SSOs beyond strictly objective technical endeavors. . . . I likewise urge SSOs to be proactive in evaluating their own rules, both at the inception of the organization, and routinely thereafter.  In fact, SSOs would be well advised to implement and maintain internal antitrust compliance programs and regularly assess whether their rules, or the application of those rules, are or may become anticompetitive.”
  • Basing royalties on the “smallest salable component” as a requirement by a concerted agreement of implementers is a possible antitrust violation: “If an SSO pegs its definition of “reasonable” royalties to a single Georgia-Pacific factor that heavily favors either implementers or innovators, then the process that led to such a rule deserves close antitrust scrutiny.  While the so-called ‘smallest salable component’ rule may be a useful tool among many in determining patent infringement damages for multi-component products, its use as a requirement by a concerted agreement of implementers as the exclusive determinant of patent royalties may very well warrant antitrust scrutiny.”
  • Right to Injunctive Relief and holdout incentives: “Patents are a form of property, and the right to exclude is one of the most fundamental bargaining rights a property owner possesses.  Rules that deprive a patent holder from exercising this right—whether imposed by an SSO or by a court—undermine the incentive to innovate and worsen the problem of hold-out.  After all, without the threat of an injunction, the implementer can proceed to infringe without a license, knowing that it is only on the hook only for reasonable royalties.”
  • Seeking or Enforcing Injunctive Relief Generally a Contract Not Antitrust Issue: “It is just as important to recognize that a violation by a patent holder of an SSO rule that restricts a patent-holder’s right to seek injunctive relief should be appropriately the subject of a contract or fraud action, and rarely if ever should be an antitrust violation.”
  • FRAND is Not a Compulsory Licensing Scheme: “We should not transform commitments to license on FRAND terms into a compulsory licensing scheme.  Indeed, we have had strong policies against compulsory licensing, which effectively devalues intellectual property rights, including in most of our trade agreements, such as the TRIPS agreement of the WTO.  If an SSO requires innovators to submit to such a scheme as a condition for inclusion in a standard, we should view the SSO’s rule and the process leading to it with suspicion, and certainly not condemn the use of such injunctive relief as an antitrust violation where a contract remedy is perfectly adequate.”

Yesterday Learfield and IMG College inked their recently announced merger. Since the negotiations were made public several weeks ago, the deal has garnered some wild speculation and potentially negative attention. Now that the merger has been announced, it’s bound to attract even more attention and conjecture.

On the field of competition, however, the market realities that support the merger’s approval are compelling. And, more importantly, the features of this merger provide critical lessons on market definition, barriers to entry, and other aspects of antitrust law related to two-sided and advertising markets that can be applied to numerous matters vexing competition commentators.

First, some background

Learfield and IMG specialize in managing multimedia rights (MMRs) for intercollegiate sports. They are, in effect, classic advertising intermediaries, facilitating the monetization by colleges of radio broadcast advertising and billboard, program, and scoreboard space during games (among other things), and the purchase by advertisers of access to these valuable outlets.

Although these transactions can certainly be (and very often are) entered into by colleges and advertisers directly, firms like Learfield and IMG allow colleges to outsource the process — as one firm’s tag line puts it, “We Work | You Play.” Most important, by bringing multiple schools’ MMRs under one roof, these firms can reduce the transaction costs borne by advertisers in accessing multiple outlets as part of a broad-based marketing plan.

Media rights and branding are a notable source of revenue for collegiate athletic departments: on average, they account for about 3% of these revenues. While they tend to pale in comparison to TV rights, ticket sales, and fundraising, for major programs, MMRs may be the next most important revenue source after these.

Many collegiate programs retain some or all of their multimedia rights and use in-house resources to market them. In some cases schools license MMRs through their athletic conference. In other cases, schools ink deals to outsource their MMRs to third parties, such as Learfield, IMG, JMI Sports, Outfront Media, and Fox Sports, among several others. A few schools even use professional sports teams to manage their MMRs (the owner of the Red Sox manages Boston College’s MMRs, for example).

Schools switch among MMR managers with some regularity, and, in most cases apparently, not among the merging parties. Michigan State, for example, was well known for handling its MMRs in-house. But in 2016 the school entered into a 15-year deal with Fox Sports, estimated at minimum guaranteed $150 million. In 2014 Arizona State terminated its MMR deal with IMG and took it MMRs in-house. Then, in 2016, the Sun Devils entered into a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the Pac 12 in which the school manages and sells its own marketing and media rights while the conference handles core business functions for the sales and marketing team (like payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits). The most successful new entrant on the block, JMI Sports, won Kentucky, Clemson, and the University of Pennsylvania from Learfield or IMG. Outfront Media was spun off from CBS in 2014 and has become one of the strongest MMR intermediary competitors, handling some of the biggest names in college sports, including LSU, Maryland, and Virginia. All told, eight recent national Division I champions are served by MMR managers other than IMG and Learfield.

The supposed problem

As noted above, the most obvious pro-competitive benefit of the merger is in the reduction in transaction costs for firms looking to advertise in multiple markets. But, in order to confer that benefit (which, of course, also benefits the schools, whose marketing properties become easier to access), that also means a dreaded increase in size, measured by number of schools’ MMRs managed. So is this cause for concern?

Jason Belzer, a professor at Rutgers University and founder of sports consulting firm, GAME, Inc., has said that the merger will create a juggernaut — yes, “a massive inexorable force… that crushes whatever is in its path” — that is likely to invite antitrust scrutiny. The New York Times opines that the deal will allow Learfield to “tighten its grip — for nearly total control — on this niche but robust market,” “surely” attracting antitrust scrutiny. But these assessments seem dramatically overblown, and insufficiently grounded in the dynamics of the market.

Belzer’s concerns seem to be merely the size of the merging parties — again, measured by the number of schools’ rights they manage — and speculation that the merger would bring to an end “any” opportunity for entry by a “major” competitor. These are misguided concerns.

To begin, the focus on the potential entry of a “major” competitor is an odd standard that ignores the actual and potential entry of many smaller competitors that are able to win some of the most prestigious and biggest schools. In fact, many in the industry argue — rightly — that there are few economies of scale for colleges. Most of these firms’ employees are dedicated to a particular school and those costs must be incurred for each school, no matter the number, and borne by new entrants and incumbents alike. That means a small firm can profitably compete in the same market as larger firms — even “juggernauts.” Indeed, every college that brings MMR management in-house is, in fact, an entrant — and there are some big schools in big conferences that manage their MMRs in-house.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to in-house MMR management indicate that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

Indeed, from the perspective of the school, the true relevant market is no broader than each school’s own rights. Even after the merger there will be at least five significant firms competing for those rights, not to mention each school’s conference, new entrants, and the school itself.

The two-sided market that isn’t really two-sided

Standard antitrust analysis, of course, focuses on consumer benefits: Will the merger make consumers better off (or no worse off)? But too often casual antitrust analysis of two-sided markets trips up on identifying just who the consumer is — and what the relevant market is. For a shopping mall, is the consumer the retailer or the shopper? For newspapers and search engines, is the customer the advertiser or the reader? For intercollegiate sports multimedia rights licensing, is the consumer the college or the advertiser?

Media coverage of the anticipated IMG/Learfield merger largely ignores advertisers as consumers and focuses almost exclusively on the the schools’ relationship with intermediaries — as purchasers of marketing services, rather than sellers of advertising space.

Although it’s difficult to identify the source of this odd bias, it seems to be based on the notion that, while corporations like Coca-Cola and General Motors have some sort of countervailing market power against marketing intermediaries, universities don’t. With advertisers out of the picture, media coverage suggests that, somehow, schools may be worse off if the merger were to proceed. But missing from this assessment are two crucial facts that undermine the story: First, schools actually have enormous market power; and, second, schools compete in the business of MMR management.

This second factor suggests, in fact, that sometimes there may be nothing special about two-sided markets sufficient to give rise to a unique style of antitrust analysis.

Much of the antitrust confusion seems to be based on confusion over the behavior of two-sided markets. A two-sided market is one in which two sets of actors interact through an intermediary or platform, which, in turn, facilitates the transactions, often enabling transactions to take place that otherwise would be too expensive absent the platform. A shopping mall is a two-sided market where shoppers can find their preferred stores. Stores would operate without the platform, but perhaps not as many, and not as efficiently. Newspapers, search engines, and other online platforms are two-sided markets that bring together advertisers and eyeballs that might not otherwise find each other absent the platform. And a collegiate multimedia rights management firms is a two-sided market where colleges that want to sell advertising space get together with firms that want to advertise their goods and services.

Yet there is nothing particularly “transformative” about the outsourcing of MMR management. Credit cards, for example are qualitatively different than in-store credit operations. They are two-sided platforms that substitute for in-house operations — but they also create an entirely new product and product market. MMR marketing firms do lower some transaction costs and reduce risk for collegiate sports marketing, but the product is not substantially changed — in fact, schools must have the knowledge and personnel to assess and enter into the initial sale of MMRs to an intermediary and, because of ongoing revenue-sharing and coordination with the intermediary, must devote ongoing resources even after the initial sale.

But will a merged entity have “too much” power? Imagine if a single firm owned the MMRs for nearly all intercollegiate competitors. How would it be able to exercise its supposed market power? Because each deal is negotiated separately, and, other than some mundane, fixed back-office expenses, the costs of rights management must be incurred whether a firm negotiates one deal or 100, there are no substantial economies of scale in the purchasing of MMRs. As a result, the existence of deals with other schools won’t automatically translate into better deals with subsequent schools.

Now, imagine if one school retained its own MMRs, but decided it might want to license them to an intermediary. Does it face anticompetitive market conditions if there is only a single provider of such services? To begin with, there is never only a single provider, as each school can provide the services in-house. This is not even the traditional monopoly constraint of simply “not buying,” which makes up the textbook “deadweight loss” from monopoly: In this case “not buying” does not mean going without; it simply means providing for oneself.

More importantly, because the school has a monopoly on access to its own marketing rights (to say nothing of access to its own physical facilities) unless and until it licenses them, its own bargaining power is largely independent of an intermediary’s access to other schools’ rights. If it were otherwise, each school would face anticompetitive market conditions simply by virtue of other schools’ owning their own rights!

It is possible that a larger, older firm will have more expertise and will be better able to negotiate deals with other schools — i.e., it will reap the benefits of learning by doing. But the returns to learning by doing derive from the ability to offer higher-quality/lower-cost services over time — which are a source of economic benefit, not cost. At the same time, the bulk of the benefits of experience may be gained over time with even a single set of MMRs, given the ever-varying range of circumstances even a single school will create: There may be little additional benefit (and, to be sure, there is additional cost) from managing multiple schools’ MMRs. And whatever benefits specialized firms offer, they also come with agency costs, and an intermediary’s specialized knowledge about marketing MMRs may or may not outweigh a school’s own specialized knowledge about the nuances of its particular circumstances. Moreover, because of knowledge spillovers and employee turnover this marketing expertise is actually widely distributed; not surprisingly, JMI Sports’ MMR unit, one of the most recent and successful entrants into the business was started by a former employee of IMG. Several other firms started out the same way.

The right way to begin thinking about the issue is this: Imagine if MMR intermediaries didn’t exist — what would happen? In this case, the answer is readily apparent because, for a significant number of schools (about 37% of Division I schools, in fact) MMR licensing is handled in-house, without the use of intermediaries. These schools do, in fact, attract advertisers, and there is little indication that they earn less net profit for going it alone. Schools with larger audiences, better targeted to certain advertisers’ products, command higher prices. Each school enjoys an effective monopoly over advertising channels around its own games, and each has bargaining power derived from its particular attractiveness to particular advertisers.

In effect, each school faces a number of possible options for MMR monetization — most notably a) up-front contracting to an intermediary, which then absorbs the risk, expense, and possible up-side of ongoing licensing to advertisers, or b) direct, ongoing licensing to advertisers. The presence of the intermediary doesn’t appreciably change the market, nor the relative bargaining power of sellers (schools) and buyers (advertisers) of advertising space any more than the presence of temp firms transforms the fundamental relationship between employers and potential part-time employees.

In making their decisions, schools always have the option of taking their MMR management in-house. In facing competing bids from firms such as IMG or Learfield, from their own conferences, or from professional sports teams, the opening bid, in a sense, comes from the school itself. Even the biggest intermediary in the industry must offer the school a deal that is at least as good as managing the MMRs in-house.

The true relevant market: Advertising

According to economist Andy Schwarz, if the relevant market is “college-based marketing services to Power 5 schools, the antitrust authorities may have more concerns than if it’s marketing services in sports.” But this entirely misses the real market exchange here. Sure, marketing services are purchased by schools, but their value to the schools is independent of the number of other schools an intermediary also markets.

Advertisers always have the option of deploying their ad dollars elsewhere. If Coca-Cola wants to advertise on Auburn’s stadium video board, it’s because Auburn’s video board is a profitable outlet for advertising, not because the Auburn ads are bundled with advertising at dozens of other schools (although that bundling may reduce the total cost of advertising on Auburn’s scoreboard as well as other outlets). Similarly, Auburn is seeking the highest bidder for space on its video board. It does not matter to Auburn that the University of Georgia is using the same intermediary to sell ads on its stadium video board.

The willingness of purchasers — say, Coca-Cola or Toyota — to pay for collegiate multimedia advertising is a function of the school that licenses it (net transaction costs) — and MMR agents like IMG and Learfield commit substantial guaranteed sums and a share of any additional profits for the rights to sell that advertising: For example, IMG recently agreed to pay $150 million over 10 years to renew its MMR contract at UCLA. But this is the value of a particular, niche form of advertising, determined within the context of the broader advertising market. How much pricing power over scoreboard advertising does any university, or even any group of universities under the umbrella of an intermediary have, in a world in which Coke and Toyota can advertise virtually anywhere — including during commercial breaks in televised intercollegiate games, which are licensed separately from the MMRs licensed by companies like IMG and Learfield?

There is, in other words, a hard ceiling on what intermediaries can charge schools for MMR marketing services: The schools’ own cost of operating a comparable program in-house.

To be sure, for advertisers, large MMR marketing firms lower the transaction costs of buying advertising space across a range of schools, presumably increasing demand for intercollegiate sports advertising and sponsorship. But sponsors and advertisers have a wide range of options for spending their marketing dollars. Intercollegiate sports MMRs are a small slice of the sports advertising market, which, in turn, is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even if one were to incorrectly describe the combined entity as a “juggernaut” in intercollegiate sports, the MMR rights it sells would still be a flyspeck in the broader market of multimedia advertising.

According to one calculation (by MoffettNathanson), total ad spending in the U.S. was about $191 billion in 2016 (Pew Research Center estimates total ad revenue at $240 billion) and the global advertising market was estimated to be worth about $493 billion. The intercollegiate MMR segment represents a minuscule fraction of that. According to Jason Belzer, “[a]t the time of its sale to WME in 2013, IMG College’s yearly revenue was nearly $500 million….” Another source puts it at $375 million. Either way, it’s a fraction of one percent of the total market, and even combined with Learfield it will remain a minuscule fraction. Even if one were to define a far narrower sports sponsorship market, which a Price Waterhouse estimate puts at around $16 billion, the combined companies would still have a tiny market share.

As sellers of MMRs, colleges are competing with each other, professional sports such as the NFL and NBA, and with non-sports marketing opportunities. And it’s a huge and competitive market.

Barriers to entry

While capital requirements and the presence of long-term contracts may present challenges to potential entrants into the business of marketing MMRs, these potential entrants face virtually no barriers that are not, or have not been, faced by incumbent providers. In this context, one should keep in mind two factors. First, barriers to entry are properly defined as costs incurred by new entrants that are not incurred by incumbents (no matter what Joe Bain says; Stigler always wins this dispute…). Every firm must bear the cost of negotiating and managing each schools’ MMRs, and, as noted, these costs don’t vary significantly with the number of schools being managed. And every entrant needs approximately the same capital and human resources per similarly sized school as every incumbent. Thus, in this context, neither the need for capital nor dedicated employees is properly construed as a barrier to entry.

Second, as the DOJ and FTC acknowledge in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, any merger can be lawful under the antitrust laws, no matter its market share, where there are no significant barriers to entry:

The prospect of entry into the relevant market will alleviate concerns about adverse competitive effects… if entry into the market is so easy that the merged firm and its remaining rivals in the market, either unilaterally or collectively, could not profitably raise price or otherwise reduce competition compared to the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

As noted, there are low economies of scale in the business, with most of the economies occurring in the relatively small “back office” work of payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits. Since the 2000s, the entry of several significant competitors — many entering with only one or two schools or specializing in smaller or niche markets — strongly suggests that there are no economically important barriers to entry. And these firms have entered and succeeded with a wide range of business models and firm sizes:

  • JMI Sports — a “rising boutique firm” — hired Tom Stultz, the former senior vice president and managing director of IMG’s MMR business, in 2012. JMI won its first (and thus, at the time, only) MMR bid in 2014 at the University of Kentucky, besting IMG to win the deal.
  • Peak Sports MGMT, founded in 2012, is a small-scale MMR firm that focuses on lesser Division I and II schools in Texas and the Midwest. It manages just seven small properties, including Southland Conference schools like the University of Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana University.
  • Fox Sports entered the business in 2008 with a deal with the University of Florida. It now handles MMRs for schools like Georgetown, Auburn, and Villanova. Fox’s entry suggests that other media companies — like ESPN — that may already own TV broadcast rights are also potential entrants.
  • In 2014 the sports advertising firm, Van Wagner, hired three former Nelligan employees to make a play for the college sports space. In 2015 the company won its first MMR bid at Florida International University, reportedly against seven other participants. It now handles more than a dozen schools including Georgia State (which it won from IMG), Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Stony Brook, and Santa Clara.
  • In 2001 Fenway Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, entered into an MMR agreement with Boston College. And earlier this year the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team began handling multimedia marketing for the University of South Florida.

Potential new entrants abound. Most obviously, sports networks like ESPN could readily follow Fox Sports’ lead and advertising firms could follow Van Wagner’s. These companies have existing relationships and expertise that position them for easy entry into the MMR business. Moreover, there are already several companies that handle the trademark licensing for schools, any of which could move into the MMR management business, as well; both IMG and Learfield already handle licensing for a number of schools. Most notably, Fermata Partners, founded in 2012 by former IMG employees and acquired in 2015 by CAA Sports (a division of Creative Artists Agency), has trademark licensing agreements with Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, Notre Dame, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It could easily expand into selling MMR rights for these and other schools. Other licensing firms like Exemplar (which handles licensing at Columbia) and 289c (which handles licensing at Texas and Ohio State) could also easily expand into MMR.

Given the relatively trivial economies of scale, the minimum viable scale for a new entrant appears to be approximately one school — a size that each school’s in-house operations, of course, automatically meets. Moreover, the Peak Sports, Fenway, and Tampa Bay Lightning examples suggest that there may be particular benefits to local, regional, or category specialization, suggesting that innovative, new entry is not only possible, but even likely, as the business continues to evolve.

Conclusion

A merger between IMG and Learfield should not raise any antitrust issues. College sports is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even a so-called “juggernaut” in college sports multimedia rights is a small bit in the broader market of multimedia marketing.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to bringing MMR management in-house, indicates that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

The term “juggernaut” entered the English language because of misinterpretation and exaggeration of actual events. Fears of the IMG/Learfield merger crushing competition is similarly based on a misinterpretation of two-sided markets and misunderstanding of the reality of the of the market for college multimedia rights management. Importantly, the case is also a cautionary tale for those who would identify narrow, contract-, channel-, or platform-specific relevant markets in circumstances where a range of intermediaries and direct relationships can compete to offer the same service as those being scrutinized. Antitrust advocates have a long and inglorious history of defining markets by channels of distribution or other convenient, yet often economically inappropriate, combinations of firms or products. Yet the presence of marketing or other intermediaries does not automatically transform a basic, commercial relationship into a novel, two-sided market necessitating narrow market definitions and creative economics.

In recent years, the European Union’s (EU) administrative body, the European Commission (EC), increasingly has applied European competition law in a manner that undermines free market dynamics.  In particular, its approach to “dominant” firm conduct disincentivizes highly successful companies from introducing product and service innovations that enhance consumer welfare and benefit the economy – merely because they threaten to harm less efficient competitors.

For example, the EC fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for its failure to adhere to an order that it offer a version of its Window software suite that did not include its popular Windows Media Player (WMP) – despite the lack of consumer demand for a “dumbed down” Windows without WMP.  This EC intrusion into software design has been described as a regulatory “quagmire.”

In June 2017 the EC fined Google 2.42 billion euros for allegedly favoring its own comparison shopping service over others favored in displaying Google search results – ignoring economic research that shows Google’s search policies benefit consumers.  Google also faces potentially higher EC antitrust fines due to alleged abuses involving android software (bundling of popular Google search and Chrome apps), a product that has helped spur dynamic smartphone innovations and foster new markets.

Furthermore, other highly innovative single firms, such as Apple and Amazon (favorable treatment deemed “state aids”), Qualcomm (alleged anticompetitive discounts), and Facebook (in connection with its WhatsApp acquisition), face substantial EC competition law penalties.

Underlying the EC’s current enforcement philosophy is an implicit presumption that innovations by dominant firms violate competition law if they in any way appear to disadvantage competitors.  That presumption forgoes considering the actual effects on the competitive process of dominant firm activities.  This is a recipe for reduced innovation, as successful firms “pull their competitive punches” to avoid onerous penalties.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) implicitly recognized this problem in its September 6, 2017 decision setting aside the European General Court’s affirmance of the EC’s 2009 1.06 billion euro fine against Intel.  Intel involved allegedly anticompetitive “loyalty rebates” by Intel, which allowed buyers to achieve cost savings in Intel chip purchases.  In remanding the Intel case to the General Court for further legal and factual analysis, the ECJ’s opinion stressed that the EC needed to do more than find a dominant position and categorize the rebates in order to hold Intel liable.  The EC also needed to assess the “capacity of [Intel’s] . . . practice to foreclose competitors which are at least as efficient” and whether any exclusionary effect was outweighed by efficiencies that also benefit consumers.  In short, evidence-based antitrust analysis was required.  Mere reliance on presumptions was not enough.  Why?  Because competition on the merits is centered on the recognition that the departure of less efficient competitors is part and parcel of consumer welfare-based competition on the merits.  As the ECJ cogently put it:

[I]t must be borne in mind that it is in no way the purpose of Article 102 TFEU [which prohibits abuse of a dominant position] to prevent an undertaking from acquiring, on its own merits, the dominant position on a market.  Nor does that provision seek to ensure that competitors less efficient than the undertaking with the dominant position should remain on the market . . . .  [N]ot every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation[.]

Although the ECJ’s recent decision is commendable, it does not negate the fact that Intel had to wait eight years to have its straightforward arguments receive attention – and the saga is far from over, since the General Court has to address this matter once again.  These sorts of long-term delays, during which firms face great uncertainty (and the threat of further EC investigations and fines), are antithetical to innovative activity by enterprises deemed dominant.  In short, unless and until the EC changes its competition policy perspective on dominant firm conduct (and there are no indications that such a change is imminent), innovation and economic dynamism will suffer.

Even if the EC dithers, the United Kingdom’s (UK) imminent withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) provides it with a unique opportunity to blaze a new competition policy trail – and perhaps in so doing influence other jurisdictions.

In particular, Brexit will enable the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to adopt an outlook on competition policy in general – and on single firm conduct in particular – that is more sensitive to innovation and economic dynamism.  What might such a CMA enforcement policy look like?  It should reject the EC’s current approach.  It should focus instead on the actual effects of competitive activity.  In particular, it should incorporate the insights of decision theory (see here, for example) and place great weight on efficiencies (see here, for example).

Let us hope that the CMA acts boldly – carpe diem.  Such action, combined with other regulatory reforms, could contribute substantially to the economic success of Brexit (see here).

Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:

Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).

I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.

It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed two years ago:

It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.

From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.

Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.

“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).

But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.

As my colleagues and I noted in a paper responding to a methodologically questionable report by Tim Wu and Yelp leveling analogous “search bias” charges in the context of local search results:

Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).

And as Josh Wright noted in an earlier paper responding to yet another set of such “search bias” charges (in that case leveled in a similarly methodologically questionable report by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood):

[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).

We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:

The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.

This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).

Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.

Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.

Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.

Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:

[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.

In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.

Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:

No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.

Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:

According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”

Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.

But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.

Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily search results at all, but paid advertising:

[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”

The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.

The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:

Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.

But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.

And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.

More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.

Today over half of product searches in the US start on Amazon. The majority of web page referrals come from Facebook. Yelp’s most engaged users now access it via its app (which has seen more than 3x growth in the past five years). And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing on both Android and iOS now takes place inside the Facebook app.

Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.

In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.

All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.

The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.

Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.

Regardless of the merits and soundness (or lack thereof) of this week’s European Commission Decision in the Google Shopping case — one cannot assess this until we have the text of the decision — two comments really struck me during the press conference.

First, it was said that Google’s conduct had essentially reduced innovation. If I heard correctly, this is a formidable statement. In 2016, another official EU service published stats that described Alphabet as increasing its R&D by 22% and ranked it as the world’s 4th top R&D investor. Sure it can always be better. And sure this does not excuse everything. But still. The press conference language on incentives to innovate was a bit of an oversell, to say the least.

Second, the Commission views this decision as a “precedent” or as a “framework” that will inform the way dominant Internet platforms should display, intermediate and market their services and those of their competitors. This may fuel additional complaints by other vertical search rivals against (i) Google in relation to other product lines, but also against (ii) other large platform players.

Beyond this, the Commission’s approach raises a gazillion questions of law and economics. Pending the disclosure of the economic evidence in the published decision, let me share some thoughts on a few (arbitrarily) selected legal issues.

First, the Commission has drawn the lesson of the Microsoft remedy quagmire. The Commission refrains from using a trustee to ensure compliance with the decision. This had been a bone of contention in the 2007 Microsoft appeal. Readers will recall that the Commission had imposed on Microsoft to appoint a monitoring trustee, who was supposed to advise on possible infringements in the implementation of the decision. On appeal, the Court eventually held that the Commission was solely responsible for this, and could not delegate those powers. Sure, the Commission could “retai[n] its own external expert to provide advice when it investigates the implementation of the remedies.” But no more than that.

Second, we learn that the Commission is no longer in the business of software design. Recall the failed untying of WMP and Windows — Windows Naked sold only 11,787 copies, likely bought by tech bootleggers willing to acquire the first piece of software ever designed by antitrust officials — or the browser “Choice Screen” compliance saga which eventually culminated with a €561 million fine. Nothing of this can be found here. The Commission leaves remedial design to the abstract concept of “equal treatment”.[1] This, certainly, is a (relatively) commendable approach, and one that could inspire remedies in other unilateral conduct cases, in particular, exploitative conduct ones where pricing remedies are both costly, impractical, and consequentially inefficient.

On the other hand, readers will also not fail to see the corollary implication of “equal treatment”: search neutrality could actually cut both ways, and lead to a lawful degradation in consumer welfare if Google were ever to decide to abandon rich format displays for both its own shopping services and those of rivals.

Third, neither big data nor algorithmic design is directly vilified in the case (“The Commission Decision does not object to the design of Google’s generic search algorithms or to demotions as such, nor to the way that Google displays or organises its search results pages”). In fact, the Commission objects to the selective application of Google’s generic search algorithms to its own products. This is an interesting, and subtle, clarification given all the coverage that this topic has attracted in recent antitrust literature. We are in fact very close to a run of the mill claim of disguised market manipulation, not causally related to data or algorithmic technology.

Fourth, Google said it contemplated a possible appeal of the decision. Now, here’s a challenging question: can an antitrust defendant effectively exercise its right to judicial review of an administrative agency (and more generally its rights of defense), when it operates under the threat of antitrust sanctions in ongoing parallel cases investigated by the same agency (i.e., the antitrust inquiries related to Android and Ads)? This question cuts further than the Google Shopping case. Say firm A contemplates a merger with firm B in market X, while it is at the same time subject to antitrust investigations in market Z. And assume that X and Z are neither substitutes nor complements so there is little competitive relationship between both products. Can the Commission leverage ongoing antitrust investigations in market Z to extract merger concessions in market X? Perhaps more to the point, can the firm interact with the Commission as if the investigations are completely distinct, or does it have to play a more nuanced game and consider the ramifications of its interactions with the Commission in both markets?

Fifth, as to the odds of a possible appeal, I don’t believe that arguments on the economic evidence or legal theory of liability will ever be successful before the General Court of the EU. The law and doctrine in unilateral conduct cases are disturbingly — and almost irrationally — severe. As I have noted elsewhere, the bottom line in the EU case-law on unilateral conduct is to consider the genuine requirement of “harm to competition” as a rhetorical question, not an empirical one. In EU unilateral conduct law, exclusion of every and any firm is a per se concern, regardless of evidence of efficiency, entry or rivalry.

In turn, I tend to opine that Google has a stronger game from a procedural standpoint, having been left with (i) the expectation of a settlement (it played ball three times by making proposals); (ii) a corollary expectation of the absence of a fine (settlement discussions are not appropriate for cases that could end with fines); and (iii) a full seven long years of an investigatory cloud. We know from the past that EU judges like procedural issues, but like comparably less to debate the substance of the law in unilateral conduct cases. This case could thus be a test case in terms of setting boundaries on how freely the Commission can U-turn a case (the Commissioner said “take the case forward in a different way”).

On Thursday, March 30, Friday March 31, and Monday April 3, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries — discussing three proposed agricultural/biotech industry mergers awaiting judgment by antitrust authorities around the globe. These proposed mergers — Bayer/Monsanto, Dow/DuPont and ChemChina/Syngenta — present a host of fascinating issues, many of which go to the core of merger enforcement in innovative industries — and antitrust law and economics more broadly.

The big issue for the symposium participants was innovation (as it was for the European Commission, which cleared the Dow/DuPont merger last week, subject to conditions, one of which related to the firms’ R&D activities).

Critics of the mergers, as currently proposed, asserted that the increased concentration arising from the “Big 6” Ag-biotech firms consolidating into the Big 4 could reduce innovation competition by (1) eliminating parallel paths of research and development (Moss); (2) creating highly integrated technology/traits/seeds/chemicals platforms that erect barriers to new entry platforms (Moss); (3) exploiting eventual network effects that may result from the shift towards data-driven agriculture to block new entry in input markets (Lianos); or (4) increasing incentives to refuse to license, impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or tacitly “agree” not to compete (Moss).

Rather than fixating on horizontal market share, proponents of the mergers argued that innovative industries are often marked by disruptions and that investment in innovation is an important signal of competition (Manne). An evaluation of the overall level of innovation should include not only the additional economies of scale and scope of the merged firms, but also advancements made by more nimble, less risk-averse biotech companies and smaller firms, whose innovations the larger firms can incentivize through licensing or M&A (Shepherd). In fact, increased efficiency created by economies of scale and scope can make funds available to source innovation outside of the large firms (Shepherd).

In addition, innovation analysis must also account for the intricately interwoven nature of agricultural technology across seeds and traits, crop protection, and, now, digital farming (Sykuta). Combined product portfolios generate more data to analyze, resulting in increased data-driven value for farmers and more efficiently targeted R&D resources (Sykuta).

While critics voiced concerns over such platforms erecting barriers to entry, markets are contestable to the extent that incumbents are incentivized to compete (Russell). It is worth noting that certain industries with high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant costs disadvantages for new entrants (including automobiles, wireless service, and cable networks) have seen their prices decrease substantially relative to inflation over the last 20 years — even as concentration has increased (Russell). Not coincidentally, product innovation in these industries, as in ag-biotech, has been high.

Ultimately, assessing the likely effects of each merger using static measures of market structure is arguably unreliable or irrelevant in dynamic markets with high levels of innovation (Manne).

Regarding patents, critics were skeptical that combining the patent portfolios of the merging companies would offer benefits beyond those arising from cross-licensing, and would serve to raise rivals’ costs (Ghosh). While this may be true in some cases, IP rights are probabilistic, especially in dynamic markets, as Nicolas Petit noted:

There is no certainty that R&D investments will lead to commercially successful applications; (ii) no guarantee that IP rights will resist to invalidity proceedings in court; (iii) little safety to competition by other product applications which do not practice the IP but provide substitute functionality; and (iv) no inevitability that the environmental, toxicological and regulatory authorization rights that (often) accompany IP rights will not be cancelled when legal requirements change.

In spite of these uncertainties, deals such as the pending ag-biotech mergers provide managers the opportunity to evaluate and reorganize assets to maximize innovation and return on investment in such a way that would not be possible absent a merger (Sykuta). Neither party would fully place its IP and innovation pipeline on the table otherwise.

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

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

John E. Lopatka is A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law at Penn State Law School

People need to eat. All else equal, the more food that can be produced from an acre of land, the better off they’ll be. Of course, people want to pay as little as possible for their food to boot. At heart, the antitrust analysis of the pending agribusiness mergers requires a simple assessment of their effects on food production and price. But making that assessment raises difficult questions about institutional competence.

Each of the three mergers – Dow/DuPont, ChemChina/Syngenta, and Bayer/Monsanto – involves agricultural products, such as different kinds of seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. All of these products are inputs in the production of food – the better and cheaper are these products, the more food is produced. The array of products these firms produce invites potentially controversial market definition determinations, but these determinations are standard fare in antitrust law and economics, and conventional analysis handles them tolerably well. Each merger appears to pose overlaps in some product markets, though they seem to be relatively small parts of the firms’ businesses. Traditional merger analysis would examine these markets in properly defined geographic markets, some of which are likely international. The concern in these markets seems to be coordinated interaction, and the analysis of potential anticompetitive coordination would thus focus on concentration and entry barriers. Much could be said about the assumption that product markets perform less competitively as concentration increases, but that is an issue for others or at least another day.

More importantly for my purposes here, to the extent that any of these mergers creates concentration in a market that is competitively problematic and not likely to be cured by new entry, a fix is fairly easy. These are mergers in which asset divestiture is feasible, in which the parties seem willing to divest assets, and in which interested and qualified asset buyers are emerging. To be sure, firms may be willing to divest assets at substantial cost to appease regulators even when competitive problems are illusory, and the cost of a cure in search of an illness is a real social cost. But my concern lies elsewhere.

The parties in each of these mergers have touted innovation as a beneficial byproduct of the deal if not its raison d’être. Innovation effects have made their way into merger analysis, but not smoothly. Innovation can be a kind of efficiency, distinguished from most other efficiencies by its dynamic nature. The benefits of using a plant to its capacity are immediate: costs and prices decrease now. Any benefits of innovation will necessarily be experienced in the future, and the passage of time makes benefits both less certain and less valuable, as people prefer consumption now rather than later. The parties to these mergers in their public statements, to the extent they intend to address antitrust concerns, are implicitly asserting innovation as a defense, a kind of efficiency defense. They do not concede, of course, that their deals will be anticompetitive in any product market. But for antitrust purposes, an accelerated pace of innovation is irrelevant unless the merger appears to threaten competition.

Recognizing increased innovation as a merger defense raises all of the issues that any efficiencies defense raises, and then some. First, can efficiencies be identified?  For instance, patent portfolios can be combined, and the integration of patent rights can lower transaction costs relative to a contractual allocation of rights just as any integration can. In theory, avenues of productive research may not even be recognized until the firms’ intellectual property is combined. A merger may eliminate redundant research efforts, but identifying that which is truly duplicative is often not easy. In all, identifying efficiencies related to research and development is likely to be more difficult than identifying many other kinds of efficiencies. Second, are the efficiencies merger-specific?  The less clearly research and development efficiencies can be identified, the weaker is the claim that they cannot be achieved absent the merger. But in this respect, innovation efficiencies can be more important than most other kinds of efficiencies, because intellectual property sometimes cannot be duplicated as easily as physical property can. Third, can innovation efficiencies be quantified?  If innovation is expected to take the form of an entirely new product, such as a new pesticide, estimating its value is inherently speculative. Fourth, when will efficiencies save a merger that would otherwise be condemned?  An efficiencies defense implies a comparison between the expected harm a merger will cause and the expected benefits it will produce. Arguably those benefits have to be realized by consumers to count at all, but, in any event, a comparison between expected immediate losses of customers in an input market and expected future gains from innovation may be nearly impossible to make. The Merger Guidelines acknowledge that innovation efficiencies can be considered and note many of the concerns just listed. The takeaway is a healthy skepticism of an innovation defense. The defense should generally fail unless the model of anticompetitive harm in product (or service) markets is dubious or the efficiency claim is unusually specific and the likely benefits substantial.

Innovation can enter merger analysis in an even more troublesome way, however: as a club rather than a shield. The Merger Guidelines contemplate that a merger may have unilateral anticompetitive effects if it results in a “reduced incentive to continue with an existing product-development effort or reduced incentive to initiate development of new products.”  The stark case is one in which a merger poses no competitive problem in a product market but would allegedly reduce innovation competition. The best evidence that the elimination of innovation competition might be a reason to oppose one or more of the agribusiness mergers is the recent decision of the European Commission approving the Dow/DuPont merger, subject to various asset divestitures. The Commission, echoing the Guidelines, concluded that the merger would significantly reduce “innovation competition for pesticides” by “[r]emoving the parties’ incentives to continue to pursue ongoing parallel innovation efforts” and by “[r]emoving the parties’ incentives to develop and bring to market new pesticides.”  The agreed upon fix requires DuPont to divest most of its research and development organization.

Enforcement claims that a merger will restrict innovation competition should be met with every bit the skepticism due defense claims that innovation efficiencies save a merger. There is nothing inconsistent in this symmetry. The benefits of innovation, though potentially immense – large enough to dwarf the immediate allocative harm from a lessening of competition in product markets – is speculative. In discounted utility terms, the expected harm will usually exceed the expected benefits, given our limited ability to predict the future. But the potential gains from innovation are immense, and unless we are confident that a merger will reduce innovation, antitrust law should not intervene. We rarely are, at least we rarely should be.

As Geoffrey Manne points out, we still do not know a great deal about the optimal market structure for innovation. Evidence suggests that moderate concentration is most conducive to innovation, but it is not overwhelming, and more importantly no one is suggesting a merger policy that single-mindedly pursues a particular market structure. An examination of incentives to continue existing product development projects or to initiate projects to develop new products is superficially appealing, but its practical utility is elusive. Any firm has an incentive to develop products that increase demand. The Merger Guidelines suggest that a merger will reduce incentives to innovate if the introduction of a new product by one merging firm will capture substantial revenues from the other. The E.C. likely had this effect in mind in concluding that the merged entity would have “lower incentives . . . to innovate than Dow and DuPont separately.”  The Commission also observed that the merged firm would have “a lower ability to innovate” than the two firms separately, but just how a combination of research assets could reduce capability is utterly obscure.

In any event, whether a merger reduces incentives depends not only on the welfare of the merging parties but also on the development activities of actual and would-be competitors. A merged firm cannot afford to have its revenue captured by a new product introduced by a competitor. Of course, innovation by competitors will not spur a firm to develop new products if those competitors do not have the resources needed to innovate. One can imagine circumstances in which resources necessary to innovate in a product market are highly specialized; more realistically, the lack of specialized resources will decrease the pace of innovation. But the concept of specialized resources cannot mean resources a firm has developed that are conducive to innovate and that could be, but have not yet been, developed by other firms. It cannot simply mean a head start, unless it is very long indeed. If the first two firms in an industry build a plant, the fact that a new entrant would have to build a plant is not a sufficient reason to prevent the first two from merging. In any event, what resources are essential to innovation in an area can be difficult to determine.

Assuming essential resources can be identified, how many firms need to have them to create a competitive environment? The Guidelines place the number at “very small” plus one. Elsewhere, the federal antitrust agencies suggest that four firms other than the merged firm are sufficient to maintain innovation competition. We have models, whatever their limitations, that predict price effects in oligopolies. The Guidelines are based on them. But determining the number of firms necessary for competitive innovation is another matter. Maybe two is enough. We know for sure that innovation competition is non-existent if only one firm has the capacity to innovate, but not much else. We know that duplicative research efforts can be wasteful. If two firms would each spend $1 million to arrive at the same place, a merged firm might be able to invest $2 million and go twice as far or reach the first place at half the total cost. This is only to say that a merger can increase innovation efficiency, a possibility that is not likely to justify an otherwise anticompetitive merger but should usually protect from condemnation a merger that is not otherwise anticompetitive.

In the Dow/DuPont merger, the Commission found “specific evidence that the merged entity would have cut back on the amount they spent on developing innovative products.”  Executives of the two firms stated that they expected to reduce research and development spending by around $300 million. But a reduction in spending does not tell us whether innovation will suffer. The issue is innovation efficiency. If the two firms spent, say, $1 billion each on research, $300 million of which was duplicative of the other firm’s research, the merged firm could invest $1.7 billion without reducing productive effort. The Commission complained that the merger would reduce from five to four the number of firms that are “globally active throughout the entire R&D process.”  As noted above, maybe four firms competing are enough. We don’t know. But the Commission also discounts firms with “more limited R&D capabilities,” and the importance to successful innovation of multi-level integration in this industry is not clear.

When a merger is challenged because of an adverse effect on innovation competition, a fix can be difficult. Forced licensing might work, but that assumes that the relevant resource necessary to carry on research and development is intellectual property. More may be required. If tangible assets related to research and development are required, a divestiture might cripple the merged firm. The Commission remedy was to require the merged firm to divest “DuPont’s global R&D organization” that is related to the product operations that must be divested. The firm is permitted to retain “a few limited [R&D] assets that support the part of DuPont’s pesticide business” that is not being divested. In this case, such a divestiture may or may not hobble the merged firm, depending on whether the divested assets would have contributed to the research and development efforts that it will continue to pursue. That the merged firm was willing to accept the research and development divestiture to secure Commission approval does not mean that the divestiture will do no harm to the firm’s continuing research and development activities. Moreover, some product markets at issue in this merger are geographically limited, whereas the likely benefits of innovation are largely international. The implication is that increased concentration in product markets can be avoided by divesting assets to other large agribusinesses that do not operate in the relevant geographic market. But if the Commission insists on preserving five integrated firms active in global research and development activities, DuPont’s research and development activities cannot be divested to one of the other major players, which the Commission identifies as BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta, or firms with which any of them are attempting to merge, namely Monsanto and ChemChina. These are the five firms, of course, that are particularly likely to be interested buyers.

Innovation is important. No one disagrees. But the role of competition in stimulating innovation is not well understood. Except in unusual cases, antitrust institutions are ill-equipped either to recognize innovation efficiencies that save a merger threatening competition in product markets or to condemn mergers that threaten only innovation competition. Indeed, despite maintaining their prerogative to challenge mergers solely on the ground of a reduction in innovation competition, the federal agencies have in fact complained about an adverse effect on innovation in cases that also raise competitive issues in product markets. Innovation is at the heart of the pending agribusiness mergers. How regulators and courts analyze innovation in these cases will say something about whether they perceive their limitations.

Geoffrey A. Manne is Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics

Dynamic versus static competition

Ever since David Teece and coauthors began writing about antitrust and innovation in high-tech industries in the 1980s, we’ve understood that traditional, price-based antitrust analysis is not intrinsically well-suited for assessing merger policy in these markets.

For high-tech industries, performance, not price, is paramount — which means that innovation is key:

Competition in some markets may take the form of Schumpeterian rivalry in which a succession of temporary monopolists displace one another through innovation. At any one time, there is little or no head-to-head price competition but there is significant ongoing innovation competition.

Innovative industries are often marked by frequent disruptions or “paradigm shifts” rather than horizontal market share contests, and investment in innovation is an important signal of competition. And competition comes from the continual threat of new entry down the road — often from competitors who, though they may start with relatively small market shares, or may arise in different markets entirely, can rapidly and unexpectedly overtake incumbents.

Which, of course, doesn’t mean that current competition and ease of entry are irrelevant. Rather, because, as Joanna Shepherd noted, innovation should be assessed across the entire industry and not solely within merging firms, conduct that might impede new, disruptive, innovative entry is indeed relevant.

But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.

In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”

What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.

We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.

As Katz and Shelanski note:

To assess fully the impact of a merger on market performance, merger authorities and courts must examine how a proposed transaction changes market participants’ incentives and abilities to undertake investments in innovation.

At the same time, they point out that

Innovation can dramatically affect the relationship between the pre-merger marketplace and what is likely to happen if the proposed merger is consummated…. [This requires consideration of] how innovation will affect the evolution of market structure and competition. Innovation is a force that could make static measures of market structure unreliable or irrelevant, and the effects of innovation may be highly relevant to whether a merger should be challenged and to the kind of remedy antitrust authorities choose to adopt. (Emphasis added).

Dynamic competition in the ag-biotech industry

These dynamics seem to be playing out in the ag-biotech industry. (For a detailed look at how the specific characteristics of innovation in the ag-biotech industry have shaped industry structure, see, e.g., here (pdf)).  

One inconvenient truth for the “concentration reduces innovation” crowd is that, as the industry has experienced more consolidation, it has also become more, not less, productive and innovative. Between 1995 and 2015, for example, the market share of the largest seed producers and crop protection firms increased substantially. And yet, over the same period, annual industry R&D spending went up nearly 750 percent. Meanwhile, the resulting innovations have increased crop yields by 22%, reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

In her discussion of the importance of considering the “innovation ecosystem” in assessing the innovation effects of mergers in R&D-intensive industries, Joanna Shepherd noted that

In many consolidated firms, increases in efficiency and streamlining of operations free up money and resources to source external innovation. To improve their future revenue streams and market share, consolidated firms can be expected to use at least some of the extra resources to acquire external innovation. This increase in demand for externally-sourced innovation increases the prices paid for external assets, which, in turn, incentivizes more early-stage innovation in small firms and biotech companies. Aggregate innovation increases in the process!

The same dynamic seems to play out in the ag-biotech industry, as well:

The seed-biotechnology industry has been reliant on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as sources of new innovation. New SME startups (often spinoffs from university research) tend to specialize in commercial development of a new research tool, genetic trait, or both. Significant entry by SMEs into the seed-biotechnology sector began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a second wave of new entrants in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, exits have outnumbered entrants, and by 2008 just over 30 SMEs specializing in crop biotechnology were still active. The majority of the exits from the industry were the result of acquisition by larger firms. Of 27 crop biotechnology SMEs that were acquired between 1985 and 2009, 20 were acquired either directly by one of the Big 6 or by a company that itself was eventually acquired by a Big 6 company.

While there is more than one way to interpret these statistics (and they are often used by merger opponents, in fact, to lament increasing concentration), they are actually at least as consistent with an increase in innovation through collaboration (and acquisition) as with a decrease.

For what it’s worth, this is exactly how the startup community views the innovation ecosystem in the ag-biotech industry, as well. As the latest AgFunder AgTech Investing Report states:

The large agribusinesses understand that new innovation is key to their future, but the lack of M&A [by the largest agribusiness firms in 2016] highlighted their uncertainty about how to approach it. They will need to make more acquisitions to ensure entrepreneurs keep innovating and VCs keep investing.

It’s also true, as Diana Moss notes, that

Competition maximizes the potential for numerous collaborations. It also minimizes incentives to refuse to license, to impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or to tacitly “agree” not to compete…. All of this points to the importance of maintaining multiple, parallel R&D pipelines, a notion that was central to the EU’s decision in Dow-DuPont.

And yet collaboration and licensing have long been prevalent in this industry. Examples are legion, but here are just a few significant ones:

  • Monsanto’s “global licensing agreement for the use of the CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology in agriculture with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.”
  • Dow and Arcadia Biosciences’ “strategic collaboration to develop and commercialize new breakthrough yield traits and trait stacks in corn.”
  • Monsanto and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “licensing agreement to develop crops tolerant to the broadleaf herbicide dicamba. This agreement is based on discoveries by UNL plant scientists.”

Both large and small firms in the ag-biotech industry continually enter into new agreements like these. See, e.g., here and here for a (surely incomplete) list of deals in 2016 alone.

At the same time, across the industry, new entry has been rampant despite increased M&A activity among the largest firms. Recent years have seen venture financing in AgTech skyrocket — from $400 million in 2010 to almost $5 billion in 2015 — and hundreds of startups now enter the industry annually.

The pending mergers

Today’s pending mergers are consistent with this characterization of a dynamic market in which structure is being driven by incentives to innovate, rather than monopolize. As Michael Sykuta points out,

The US agriculture sector has been experiencing consolidation at all levels for decades, even as the global ag economy has been growing and becoming more diverse. Much of this consolidation has been driven by technological changes that created economies of scale, both at the farm level and beyond.

These deals aren’t fundamentally about growing production capacity, expanding geographic reach, or otherwise enhancing market share; rather, each is a fundamental restructuring of the way the companies do business, reflecting today’s shifting agricultural markets, and the advanced technology needed to respond to them.

Technological innovation is unpredictable, often serendipitous, and frequently transformative of the ways firms organize and conduct their businesses. A company formed to grow and sell hybrid seeds in the 1920s, for example, would either have had to evolve or fold by the end of the century. Firms today will need to develop (or purchase) new capabilities and adapt to changing technology, scientific knowledge, consumer demand, and socio-political forces. The pending mergers seemingly fit exactly this mold.

As Allen Gibby notes, these mergers are essentially vertical combinations of disparate, specialized pieces of an integrated whole. Take the proposed Bayer/Monsanto merger, for example. Bayer is primarily a chemicals company, developing advanced chemicals to protect crops and enhance crop growth. Monsanto, on the other hand, primarily develops seeds and “seed traits” — advanced characteristics that ensure the heartiness of the seeds, give them resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and speed their fertilization and growth. In order to translate the individual advances of each into higher yields, it is important that these two functions work successfully together. Doing so enhances crop growth and protection far beyond what, say, spreading manure can accomplish — or either firm could accomplish working on its own.

The key is that integrated knowledge is essential to making this process function. Developing seed traits to work well with (i.e., to withstand) certain pesticides requires deep knowledge of the pesticide’s chemical characteristics, and vice-versa. Processing huge amounts of data to determine when to apply chemical treatments or to predict a disease requires not only that the right information is collected, at the right time, but also that it is analyzed in light of the unique characteristics of the seeds and chemicals. Increased communications and data-sharing between manufacturers increases the likelihood that farmers will use the best products available in the right quantity and at the right time in each field.

Vertical integration solves bargaining and long-term planning problems by unifying the interests (and the management) of these functions. Instead of arm’s length negotiation, a merged Bayer/Monsanto, for example, may better maximize R&D of complicated Ag/chem products through fully integrated departments and merged areas of expertise. A merged company can also coordinate investment decisions (instead of waiting up to 10 years to see what the other company produces), avoid duplication of research, adapt to changing conditions (and the unanticipated course of research), pool intellectual property, and bolster internal scientific capability more efficiently. All told, the merged company projects spending about $16 billion on R&D over the next six years. Such coordinated investment will likely garner far more than either company could from separately spending even the same amount to develop new products. 

Controlling an entire R&D process and pipeline of traits for resistance, chemical treatments, seeds, and digital complements would enable the merged firm to better ensure that each of these products works together to maximize crop yields, at the lowest cost, and at greater speed. Consider the advantages that Apple’s tightly-knit ecosystem of software and hardware provides to computer and device users. Such tight integration isn’t the only way to compete (think Android), but it has frequently proven to be a successful model, facilitating some functions (e.g., handoff between Macs and iPhones) that are difficult if not impossible in less-integrated systems. And, it bears noting, important elements of Apple’s innovation have come through acquisition….

Conclusion

As LaFontaine and Slade have made clear, theoretical concerns about the anticompetitive consequences of vertical integrations are belied by the virtual absence of empirical support:

Under most circumstances, profit–maximizing vertical–integration and merger decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view.

Other antitrust scholars are skeptical of vertical-integration fears because firms normally have strong incentives to deal with providers of complementary products. Bayer and Monsanto, for example, might benefit enormously from integration, but if competing seed producers seek out Bayer’s chemicals to develop competing products, there’s little reason for the merged firm to withhold them: Even if the new seeds out-compete Monsanto’s, Bayer/Monsanto can still profit from providing the crucial input. Its incentive doesn’t necessarily change if the merger goes through, and whatever “power” Bayer has as an input is a function of its scientific know-how, not its merger with Monsanto.

In other words, while some competitors could find a less hospitable business environment, consumers will likely suffer no apparent ill effects, and continue to receive the benefits of enhanced product development and increased productivity.

That’s what we’d expect from innovation-driven integration, and antitrust enforcers should be extremely careful before thwarting or circumscribing these mergers lest they end up thwarting, rather than promoting, consumer welfare.

Ioannis Lianos is Professor of Global Competition Law and Public Policy, UCL Faculty of Laws and Chief Researcher, HSE-Skolkovo Institute for Law and Development

The recently notified mergers in the seed and agro-chem industry raise difficult questions that competition authorities around the world would need to tackle in the following months. Because of the importance of their markets’ size, the decision reached by US and EU competition authorities would be particularly significant for the merging parties, but the perspective of a number of other competition authorities in emerging and developing economies, in particular the BRICS, will also play an important role if the transactions are to move forward.

The factors of production segment of the food value chain, which has been the focus of most recent merger activity, has been marked by profound transformations the last three decades. One may note the development of new technologies, starting with deliberate hybridization to marker-assisted breeding and the most recent advances in genetic engineering or genetic editing with CRISPR/Cas technology, as well as the advent of “digital agriculture” and “precision farming”. These technologies are of course protected by IP rights consisting of patents, plant variety rights, trademarks, trade secrets, and geographical indications.

These IP rights enable seed companies to prevent farmers from saving seeds of the protected variety, sharing it with their neighbours or selling it informally (“brown bagging”), but also to prevent competing plant breeders from using a protected variety in the development of a new variety (cumulative innovation), as well as to prevent competing seed producers from multiplying and marketing the protected variety without a license or using a protected product name and logos. Seed laws requiring compulsory seed certification with the aim to police seed quality also offer some form of protection to breeders, in the absence of IPRs.

Technology-driven growth has not been the only major transformation of this economic sector. Its consolidation, in particular in the factors of production segment, has been particularly important in recent years.

The consolidation of the factors of production segment

Concentration in the world and EU markets for seeds

In the seeds sector, a number of merger waves, starting in the mid-1980s, have led to the emergence of a relatively concentrated market structure of 6 big players thirty years later (Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, BASF, Bayer, and Dow).

The most recent merger wave started in July 2014 when Monsanto made a number of acquisition offers to Syngenta. These offers were rejected, but the Monsanto bid triggered a number of other M&A transactions that were announced in 2015 and 2016 between the various market leaders in the factors of production segment. In November 2015, Syngenta accepted the offer of ChemChina (which owns ADAMA, one of the largest agrochemical companies in the world). In December 2015, Dupont and Dow announced their merger. In September 2016, Bayer put forward a merger deal with Monsanto. During the same month, a deal was announced between two of the leaders in the market for fertilizers, Potash Corp and Agrium. In November 2015, it was reported that Deere & Co. (the leader in agricultural machinery) had agreed to buy Monsanto’s precision farming business. This deal was opposed by the US Department of Justice as it would have led Deere to control a significant part of the already highly concentrated US high-speed precision planting systems market.

The level of concentration varies according to the geographical market and the type of crop. If one looks at the situation in Europe, with regard to the sale of seeds, the market appears to be less concentrated than the global seed market. The picture is also slightly different for certain types of crop. For instance, it is reported that the seed market for sugar beets shows the largest concentration, with the first three companies (CR3) controlling a staggering 79% of the market (HHI: 2444), while for Maize seeds CR3 is 56% (HHI: 1425). High levels of concentration are also noted in the market for tomato seeds with Monsanto controlling 20% of registered seed varieties. What is more striking, however, is the speed of this consolidation process, as the bulk of this increase in the concentration level of the industry occurred in the last twenty years, the levels of concentration in the mid-1990s being close to those in 1985.

But the existence of a relatively concentrated market constitutes the tip of a much bigger consolidation iceberg between the market leaders that takes various forms: joint ventures, various cross-licensing and trait licensing agreements between the “Big Six”, distribution agreements, collaborations, research agreements and R&D strategic alliances, patent litigation settlements, to which one may add the recently concluded post-patent genetic trait agreements. Furthermore, one may not exclude the possibility of consolidation by stealth, in view of the important growth in common ownership in various sectors of the economy, as institutional investors simultaneously hold large blocks of other same-industry firms.

Which concentration level will be considered for merger purposes?

Market structure and concentration is, of course, just one step in the assessment of mergers and should be followed by a more thorough analysis of the possible anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, if the level of concentration resulting from the merger raises concerns. While the EU market for seeds could not be characterized as highly concentrated before this most recent merger wave, if one applies the conventional HHI measure, it remains possible that if the mergers first notified to the European Commission are approved without conditions with regard to seed markets, the concentration level that the Commission will consider when assessing the following notified merger will respectively increase. One may project that, as the Dow/Dupont merger has been recently cleared without conditions relating to the seed industry, it will be more difficult for the ChemChina/Syngenta merger to be approved without conditions, and even more so for the Bayer/Monsanto merger that will be the last one examined. Indeed, as the Commission made clear in its press release announcing its decision on the Dow/Dupont transaction,

The Commission examines each case on its own merits. In line with its case practice, the Commission assesses parallel transactions according to the so-called “priority rule” – first come, first served. The assessment of the merger between Dow and DuPont has been based on the currently prevailing market situation.

The assessment as to whether a merger would give rise to a Significant Impediment of Effective Competition (SIEC) is based on a counterfactual analysis where the post-merger scenario is compared to a hypothetical scenario absent the merger in question. The latter is normally taken to be the same as the situation before the merger is consummated. However, the Commission may take into account future changes to the market that can “reasonably be foreseen”. The identification of the proper counterfactual can be complicated by the fact that there can be more than one merger occurring in parallel in the same relevant market. Under the mandatory notification regime, the Commission does not factor into the counterfactual analysis a merger notified after the one under assessment. On the basis of the identified counterfactual, the Commission then proceeds with the definition of the relevant product and geographic market. That means that when assessing the Dow/Dupont merger, the Commission did not take into account the (future) market situation that would result from the notified merger between ChemChina and Syngenta, which was a known fact during the period of the assessment of the Dow/Dupont merger, as this was notified a few months after the notification of the Dow/Dupont transaction.

Explaining concentration levels

The consolidation of the industry may be explained by various factors at play. One may put forward a “natural” causes explanation, in view of the existence of endogenous sunk costs that may lead to a reduction in the number of firms active in this industry. John Sutton has famously argued that high concentration may persist in many manufacturing industries, even in the presence of a substantial increase in demand and output, when firms in the industry decide to incur, in addition to “exogenous sunk costs”, that is the costs that any firm will have to incur upon entry into the market, “endogenous sunk costs”, which include cost for R&D and other process innovations, with the aim to increase their price-cost margin. If all firms invest in endogenous sunk costs, in the long run this investment will produce little or no profit, as the competitive advantage gained by each firm’s investment will be largely ineffective if all other firms make a similar investment. This may lead to a fall in the industry’s profitability in the long-term and to a concentrated market. The recent consolidation movement in the industry may also be understood as a way to deal with externalities arising out of the expansion of the IP protection in recent decades.

Consolidation may also occur because of the merging companies’ quest for market share by purchasing potential competition, acquiring local market leaders or companies with diversified distribution networks and an established customer base. Market leaders may also strive to constitute one-stop shop platforms for farmers, combining an offering of seeds, traits, and chemicals, that would enhance the farmers’ technological dependence vis-à-vis large agrochemical and seed companies.

These large agro-chem groups forming a tight oligopoly will be able to exploit eventual network effects that may result from the shift towards data-driven agriculture and to block new entry in the factors of production markets. It is increasingly clear that market players in this industry have made the choice of positioning themselves as fully integrated providers, or the orchestrators/partners of an established network, offering a package of genetic transformation technology and genomics, traits, seeds, and chemicals. One may argue that this package of ‘complementary’ products and technologies may form a system competing with other systems (‘systems competition’). A question that would need to be tackled, when assessing the plausibility of the “system competition” thesis, would be to determine the existence of distinct relevant markets affected by the mergers. Could research, breeding and development/marketing of the various kinds of seeds be considered as part of the same or of different relevant markets? I address this question and the effects of these mergers on output, prices, and consumer choice in more detail in a separate paper (I. Lianos & D. Katalevsky, Merger Activity in the Factors of Production Segments of the Food Value Chain: A Critical Assessment (forthcoming)).

Theories and assessment of harm to innovation

Because of space constraints, I will only focus here on the assessment of the possible effects of these mergers on innovation. The emergence of integrated technology/traits/seeds/chemicals platforms may place barriers to new entry, as companies wishing to enter the market(s) would need to offer an integrated solution to farmers. This may stifle disruptive innovation if, in the absence of the merger, firms were able to enter one or two segments of the market (e.g. research and breeding) without the need to offer an “integrated” platform product. One should also take note of the fact that although traditional breeding methods required important resources and a considerable investment of time (because of long breeding cycles) and thus provided large economies of scale leading to the emergence of large market players, the latest genome-editing technologies, particularly CRISPR/Cas, may constitute more efficient and less resource intensive and time-consuming breeding methods, that offer opportunities for the emergence of more competitive and less integrated market structures in the traits/seeds segment(s).

Assessing the effects on innovation will be a crucial part of the merger assessment, for the European Commission as well as for all other competition authorities with jurisdiction to examine the specific merger(s). It is true that the EU market is mainly a conventional seed market, and not a GM seeds market, but it is also clear that all of the Big Six have an integrated strategy for R&D for all types of crops, working on “traditional” marker-assisted breeding, or the more recent forms of predictive breeding that have become commercially possible with the reduction of the cost of genome sequencing and the use of IT, but also on genetically engineered seeds. Assessing the possible effects of each merger on innovation will be a quite complex exercise in view of the need to focus not only on existing technologies but also on the possibility of new technologies emerging in the future.

Competition authorities may use different methodologies to assess these future effects: the definition of innovation markets as it is the case in the US, or a more general assessment of the existence of an effect on innovation constituting a SIEC in Europe. In its recent decision on the Dow/Dupont merger, the European Commission found that the merger may have reduced innovation competition for pesticides by looking to the ability and the incentive of the parties to innovate. The Commission emphasised that this analysis was not general but was based on “specific evidence that the merged entity would have lower incentives and a lower ability to innovate than Dow and DuPont separately” and “that the merged entity would have cut back on the amount they spent on developing innovative products”. That said, the Commission also mentioned the following, which I think may be of relevance to the competition assessment of the other pending mergers:

Only five companies (BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and the merging parties) are globally active throughout the entire R&D process, from discovery of new active ingredients (molecules producing the desired biological effect), their development, testing and regulatory registration, to the manufacture and sale of final formulated products through national distribution channels. Other competitors have no or more limited R&D capabilities (e.g. as regards geographic focus or product range). After the merger, only three global integrated players would remain to compete with the merged company, in an industry with very high barriers to entry. The number of players active in specific innovation areas would be even lower than at the overall industry level.

This type of assessment looks close to the filter of the existence of at least four independent technologies that constitute a commercially viable alternative, in addition to the licensed technology controlled by the parties to the agreement, that the Commission usually employs in its Transfer of Technology Guidelines in order to exclude the possibility that a licensing agreement may restrict competition and thus infringe Article 101 TFEU. There is no reason why the Commission would apply a different approach in the context of merger control. The above indicate that the Commission may view more negatively mergers that lead to less than four or three independent technologies in the relevant market(s).

Hidden/Not usually considered social costs

One may also assess the mergers in the seeds and agro-chem market from a public interest perspective, in view of the broader concerns animating public policy in this context and the existence of a nexus of international commitments with regard to biodiversity, sustainability, the right to food, as well as the emphasis put by some competition law regimes on public interest analysis (e.g. South Africa). The aim will be to assess the full social costs of these transactions, to the extent, of course, this is practically possible. This may be more achievable in merger control regimes where it is not courts that make the final decisions to clear, or not to clear, the merger, as there may be limits to the adjudication of certain broader public interest concerns, but integrated competition law agencies, or branches of the executive power, as it is formally the case in the EU.

Although public interest considerations do not form part of the substantive test of EU merger control, Article 21(4) EUMR includes a legitimate interest clause, which provides that Member States may take appropriate measures to protect three specified legitimate interests: public security, plurality of the media and prudential rules, and other unspecified public interests that are recognised by the Commission after notification by the Member State. If a Member State wishes to claim an additional legitimate interest, other than the ones listed above, it shall communicate this to the Commission. And the Commission must then decide, within 25 working days, whether the additional interest is compatible with EU law, and qualifies as an article 21(4) legitimate interest. This should not be excluded a priori, in particular in view of the importance of biodiversity, environmental protection, and employment in the EU treaties as well as broader international commitments to the right to food.

Food production is, of course, an area of great economic and geopolitical importance. According to UN estimates, by 2050 the world population will increase to nine billion, and catering to this additional demand would require an increase of 70% more food. This puts a strong pressure to increase output, which intensifies even more environmental impact, given increasing sustainability challenges (degradation of soil and reduction of arable land due to urban sprawl, water scarcity, biofuel consumption, climate change, etc.). Food security becomes an increasingly important issue on the agenda of the developing world.

The projected mergers in the seed and agro-chem industry will greatly affect the future control of food production and innovation in order to improve yields and feed the world. One may ask if such important decisions should be based on a narrowly confined test that mostly focuses on effects on output, price and to a certain extent innovation, or if one should adopt a broader consideration of the full social costs of such transactions, to the extent that these may be assessed and eventually quantified.

This may have the additional benefit to enable the participation in the merger process as third parties of a number of NGOs representing broader citizens’ interests in environmental protection and biodiversity, which is currently impossible with the quite narrow procedural requirements for third party intervenors in EU merger control (as the test for admission as third party intervenors is usually met only by competitors, suppliers, and customers). I think that all the affected interests and stakeholders should be offered an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, thus increasing its efficiency (if one takes a participation-centred approach) and legitimacy, in particular for matters of major social importance as is the control of the global food supply chain(s).

It may be argued, if one takes a pessimistic, Malthusian perspective, that we are doomed to face famine and malnutrition, unless considerable amounts of investment are made in R&D in this sector. In view of the fall of public investments and the important role private investments have played in this area, one may argue that higher levels of consolidation in the sector could lead to higher profitability (at the expense of farmers) without necessarily leading to immediate effects on food prices, as the farming segment is driven by atomistic competition in most markets, and therefore farmers will not have the ability to pass on, at least in the short term, the eventual overcharges to the final consumers. Of course, such an approach may not factor in the effects of these mergers to the livelihood of around half a billion farmers in the world and their families, most of whom do not benefit from subsidies guaranteeing an acceptable standard of living.

It also assumes that higher profitability would lead to higher investments in R&D, a claim that has been recently questioned by research indicating that large firms prefer to retain earnings and distribute them to shareholders and the management rather than invest them in R&D. But, more generally, a simple question that one may ask is “are the projected mergers necessary in order to promote innovation in this sector”? Answering this question may bring a great sense of clarity as to the various dimensions of these mergers competition authorities would need to take into account. And the burden of proof to provide a convincing answer to this question remains on the notifying parties!

Diana L. Moss is President of the American Antitrust Institute

Innovation Competition in the Spotlight

Innovation is more and more in the spotlight as questions grow about concentration and declining competition in the U.S. economy. These questions come not only from advocates for more vigorous competition enforcement but also, increasingly, from those who adhere to the school of thought that consolidation tends to generate procompetitive efficiencies. On March 27th, the European Commission issued its decision approving the Dow-DuPont merger, subject to divestitures of DuPont’s global R&D agrichemical assets to preserve price and innovation competition.

Before we read too much into what the EU decision in Dow-DuPont means for merger review in the U.S., remember that agriculture differs markedly across regions. Europe uses very little genetically modified (or transgenic) seed, whereas row crop acreage in the U.S. is planted mostly with it. This cautions against drawing major implications of the EU’s decision across jurisdictions.

This post unpacks the mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer in the U.S. and what they mean for innovation competition.

A Troubled Landscape? Past Consolidation in Agricultural Biotechnology

If approved as proposed, the mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer would reduce the field of Big 6 agricultural biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms to the Big 4. This has raised concerns about potentially higher prices for traits, seeds, and agrichemicals, less choice, and less innovation. The two mergers would make a 3rd wave of consolidation in the industry since the mid-1980s, when transgenic technology first emerged. Past consolidation has materially affected the structure of the markets. This is particularly true in crop seed, where relative to other agricultural input sectors, the level of concentration (and increases in concentration) over time is the highest.

Growers and consumers feel the effects of these changes. Consumers pay attention to their choices at the grocery store, which have arguably diminished and for which they pay prices that have risen at rates in excess of inflation. And the states in which agriculture is a major economic activity worry about their growers and the prices they pay for transgenic seed, agrichemicals, and fertilizers. Farmers we spoke to note, for example, that weeds that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup have evolved over time, making it no longer as effective as it once was. Dependence on seed and chemical cropping systems with declining effectiveness (due to resistance) has been met by the industry with newer and more expensive traited seed and different agrichemicals. With consolidation, these alternatives have dwindled.

These are not frivolous concerns. Empirical evidence shows that “technology fees” on transgenic corn, soybean, and cotton seed make up a significant proportion of total seed costs. The USDA notes that the prices of farm inputs, led by crop seed, generally have risen faster over the last 20 years than the prices farmers have received for their commodities. Moreover, seed price increases have outpaced yield increases over time. And finally, the USDA has determined that increasing levels of concentration in agricultural input markets (including crop seed) are no longer generally associated with higher R&D or a permanent rise in R&D intensity.

Putting the Squeeze on Growers and Consumers

The “squeeze” on growers and consumers highlights the fact that ag-biotech innovation comes at an increasingly higher price – a price that many worry will increase if the Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer mergers go through. These concerns are magnified by the structure of the food supply chain where we see a lot of growers and consumers at either end but not a lot of competition in the middle. In the middle are the ag-biotech firms that innovate traits, seeds, and agrichemicals; food processors such as grain millers and meatpackers; food manufacturers; distributors; and retail grocers.

Almost every sector has been affected by significant consolidation over the last two decades, some of which has been blocked, but a lot of which has not. For example, U.S. antitrust enforcers stopped the mergers of beef packers JBS and National Beef and broadline food distributors Sysco and USFoods. But key mergers that many believed raised significant competitive concerns went through, including Tyson-Hillshire Brands (pork), ConAgra-Horizon Mills (flour), Monsanto-Delta & Pine Land (cotton), and Safeway-Albertsons (grocery).

Aside from concerns over price, quality, and innovation, consolidation in “hourglass” shaped supply chains raises other issues. For example, it is often motivated by incentives to bulk up to bargain more effectively vis-a-vis more powerful input suppliers or customers. As we have seen with health care providers and health insurers, mergers for this purpose can trigger further consolidation, creating a domino effect. A bottlenecked supply chain also decreases resiliency. With less competition, it is more exposed to exogenous shocks such as bioterrorism or food-borne disease. That’s a potential food security problem.

Innovation Competition and the Agricultural Biotechnology Mergers

The Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer merger proposals raise a number of issues. One is significant overlap in seed, likely to result in a duopoly in corn and soybeans and a dominant firm (Monsanto) in cotton. A second concern is that the mergers would create or enhance substantial vertical integration. Where some arguments for integration can carry weight in a Guidelines analysis, here there is economic evidence from soybeans and cotton indicating that prices tend to be higher under vertical integration than under cross-licensing arrangements.

Moreover, the “platforms” resulting from the mergers are likely to be engineered for the purpose of creating exclusive packages of traits, seeds, and agrichemicals that are less likely to interoperate with rival products. This could raise entry barriers for smaller innovators and reduce or cut off access to resources needed to compete effectively. Indeed, one farmer noted the constraint of being locked into a single traits-seeds-chemicals platform in a market with already limited competition “[I] can’t mix chemicals with other companies’ products to remedy Roundup resistance.”

A third concern raised by the mergers is the potential elimination of competition in innovation markets. The DOJ/FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (§6.4) note that a merger may diminish innovation competition through curtailment of “innovative efforts below the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.” This is especially the case when the merging firms are each other’s close competitors (e.g., as in the DOJ’s case against Applied Materials and Tokyo Electron). Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer are four of only six ag-biotech rivals.

Preserving Parallel Path R&D Pipelines

In contrast to arguments that the mergers would combine only complementary assets, the R&D pipelines for all four firms show overlaps in major areas of traits, seeds, and crop protection. This supports the notion that the R&D pipelines compete head-to-head for technology intended for commercialization in U.S. markets. Maintaining competition in R&D ensures incentives remain strong to continue existing and prospective product development programs. This is particularly true in industries like ag-biotech (and pharma) where R&D is risky, regulatory approvals take time, and commercial success depends on crop planning and switching costs.

Maintaining Pro-Competitive Incentives to Cross-License Traits

Perhaps more important is that innovation in ag-biotech depends on maintaining a field of rivals, each with strong pro-competitive incentives to collaborate to form new combined (i.e., “stacked”) trait profiles. Farmers benefit most when there are competing stacks to choose from. About 60% of all stacks on the market in 2009 were the result of joint venture cross-licensing collaborations across firms. And the traits innovated by Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer account for over 80% of traits in those stacks. That these companies are important innovators is apparent in GM Crop Database data for genetic corn, soybean and cotton “events” approved in the U.S. From 1991-2014, for example, the four companies account for a significant proportion of innovation in important genetic events.

Competition maximizes the potential for numerous collaborations. It also minimizes incentives to refuse to license, to impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or to tacitly “agree” not to compete. Such agreements could range from deciding which firms specialize in certain crops or traits, to devising market “rules,” such as cross-licensing terms and conditions. All of this points to the importance of maintaining multiple, parallel R&D pipelines, a notion that was central to the EU’s decision in Dow-DuPont.

Remedies or Not? Preserving Innovation Competition

The DOJ has permitted two major ag-biotech mergers in the last decade, Monsanto’s mergers with DeKalb (corn) and Delta & Pine Land (cotton). In crafting remedies in both cases, the DOJ recognized the importance of innovation markets by fashioning remedies that focused on licensing or divesting patented technologies. The proposed mergers of Dow-DuPont and Monsanto-Bayer appear to be a different animal. They would reduce an already small field of large, integrated competitors, raise competitive concerns that have more breadth and complexity than in previous mergers, and are superimposed on growing evidence that transgenic technology has come at a higher and higher a price.Add to this the fact that a viable buyer of any divestiture R&D asset would be difficult to find outside the Big 6. Such a buyer would need to be national, if not global, in scale and scope in order to compete effectively

Add to this the fact that a viable buyer of any divestiture R&D asset would be difficult to find outside the Big 6. Such a buyer would need to be national, if not global, in scale and scope in order to compete effectively post-merger. Lack of scale and scope in R&D, financing, marketing, and distribution would necessitate cobbling together a package of assets to create and potentially prop up a national competitor. While the EU managed to pull this off, it is unclear whether the fact pattern in the U.S. would support a similar outcome. What we do know is that past mergers in the food and agriculture space have squeezed growers and consumers. Unless adequately addressed, these mega-deals stand to squeeze them even more.