Archives For cartels

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

Amazingly enough, at a time when legislative proposals for new antitrust restrictions are rapidly multiplying—see the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), for example—Congress simultaneously is seriously considering granting antitrust immunity to a price-fixing cartel among members of the newsmedia. This would thereby authorize what the late Justice Antonin Scalia termed “the supreme evil of antitrust: collusion.” What accounts for this bizarre development?

Discussion

The antitrust exemption in question, embodied in the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021, was introduced March 10 simultaneously in the U.S. House and Senate. The press release announcing the bill’s introduction portrayed it as a “good government” effort to help struggling newspapers in their negotiations with large digital platforms, and thereby strengthen American democracy:

We must enable news organizations to negotiate on a level playing field with the big tech companies if we want to preserve a strong and independent press[.] …

A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. …

Nearly 90 percent of Americans now get news while on a smartphone, computer, or tablet, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, dwarfing the number of Americans who get news via television, radio, or print media. Facebook and Google now account for the vast majority of online referrals to news sources, with the two companies also enjoying control of a majority of the online advertising market. This digital ad duopoly has directly contributed to layoffs and consolidation in the news industry, particularly for local news.

This legislation would address this imbalance by providing a safe harbor from antitrust laws so publishers can band together to negotiate with large platforms. It provides a 48-month window for companies to negotiate fair terms that would flow subscription and advertising dollars back to publishers, while protecting and preserving Americans’ right to access quality news. These negotiations would strictly benefit Americans and news publishers at-large; not just one or a few publishers.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act only allows coordination by news publishers if it (1) directly relates to the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, and interoperability of news; (2) benefits the entire industry, rather than just a few publishers, and are non-discriminatory to other news publishers; and (3) is directly related to and reasonably necessary for these negotiations.

Lurking behind this public-spirited rhetoric, however, is the specter of special interest rent seeking by powerful media groups, as discussed in an insightful article by Thom Lambert. The newspaper industry is indeed struggling, but that is true overseas as well as in the United States. Competition from internet websites has greatly reduced revenues from classified and non-classified advertising. As Lambert notes, in “light of the challenges the internet has created for their advertising-focused funding model, newspapers have sought to employ the government’s coercive power to increase their revenues.”

In particular, media groups have successfully lobbied various foreign governments to impose rules requiring that Google and Facebook pay newspapers licensing fees to display content. The Australian government went even further by mandating that digital platforms share their advertising revenue with news publishers and give the publishers advance notice of any algorithm changes that could affect page rankings and displays. Media rent-seeking efforts took a different form in the United States, as Lambert explains (citations omitted):

In the United States, news publishers have sought to extract rents from digital platforms by lobbying for an exemption from the antitrust laws. Their efforts culminated in the introduction of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2018. According to a press release announcing the bill, it would allow “small publishers to band together to negotiate with dominant online platforms to improve the access to and the quality of news online.” In reality, the bill would create a four-year safe harbor for “any print or digital news organization” to jointly negotiate terms of trade with Google and Facebook. It would not apply merely to “small publishers” but would instead immunize collusive conduct by such major conglomerates as Murdoch’s News Corporation, the Walt Disney Corporation, the New York Times, Gannet Company, Bloomberg, Viacom, AT&T, and the Fox Corporation. The bill would permit news organizations to fix prices charged to digital platforms as long as negotiations with the platforms were not limited to price, were not discriminatory toward similarly situated news organizations, and somehow related to “the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, and interoperability of news.” Given the ease of meeting that test—since news organizations could always claim that higher payments were necessary to ensure journalistic quality—the bill would enable news publishers in the United States to extract rents via collusion rather than via direct government coercion, as in Australia.

The 2021 version of the JCPA is nearly identical to the 2018 version discussed by Thom. The only substantive change is that the 2021 version strengthens the pro-cartel coalition by adding broadcasters (it applies to “any print, broadcast, or news organization”). While the JCPA plainly targets Facebook and Google (“online content distributors” with “not fewer than 1,000,000,000 monthly active users, in the aggregate, on its website”), Microsoft President Brad Smith noted in a March 12 House Antitrust Subcommittee Hearing on the bill that his company would also come under its collective-bargaining terms. Other online distributors could eventually become subject to the proposed law as well.

Purported justifications for the proposal were skillfully skewered by John Yun in a 2019 article on the substantively identical 2018 JCPA. Yun makes several salient points. First, the bill clearly shields price fixing. Second, the claim that all news organizations (in particular, small newspapers) would receive the same benefit from the bill rings hollow. The bill’s requirement that negotiations be “nondiscriminatory as to similarly situated news content creators” (emphasis added) would allow the cartel to negotiate different terms of trade for different “tiers” of organizations. Thus The New York Times and The Washington Post, say, might be part of a top tier getting the most favorable terms of trade. Third, the evidence does not support the assertion that Facebook and Google are monopolistic gateways for news outlets.

Yun concludes by summarizing the case against this legislation (citations omitted):

Put simply, the impact of the bill is to legalize a media cartel. The bill expressly allows the cartel to fix the price and set the terms of trade for all market participants. The clear goal is to transfer surplus from online platforms to news organizations, which will likely result in higher content costs for these platforms, as well as provisions that will stifle the ability to innovate. In turn, this could negatively impact quality for the users of these platforms.

Furthermore, a stated goal of the bill is to promote “quality” news and to “highlight trusted brands.” These are usually antitrust code words for favoring one group, e.g., those that are part of the News Media Alliance, while foreclosing others who are not “similarly situated.” What about the non-discrimination clause? Will it protect non-members from foreclosure? Again, a careful reading of the bill raises serious questions as to whether it will actually offer protection. The bill only ensures that the terms of the negotiations are available to all “similarly situated” news organizations. It is very easy to carve out provisions that would favor top tier members of the media cartel.

Additionally, an unintended consequence of antitrust exemptions can be that it makes the beneficiaries lax by insulating them from market competition and, ultimately, can harm the industry by delaying inevitable and difficult, but necessary, choices. There is evidence that this is what occurred with the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which provided antitrust exemption to geographically proximate newspapers for joint operations.

There are very good reasons why antitrust jurisprudence reserves per se condemnation to the most egregious anticompetitive acts including the formation of cartels. Legislative attempts to circumvent the federal antitrust laws should be reserved solely for the most compelling justifications. There is little evidence that this level of justification has been met in this present circumstance.

Conclusion

Statutory exemptions to the antitrust laws have long been disfavored, and with good reason. As I explained in my 2005 testimony before the Antitrust Modernization Commission, such exemptions tend to foster welfare-reducing output restrictions. Also, empirical research suggests that industries sheltered from competition perform less well than those subject to competitive forces. In short, both economic theory and real-world data support a standard that requires proponents of an exemption to bear the burden of demonstrating that the exemption will benefit consumers.

This conclusion applies most strongly when an exemption would specifically authorize hard-core price fixing, as in the case with the JCPA. What’s more, the bill’s proponents have not borne the burden of justifying their pro-cartel proposal in economic welfare terms—quite the opposite. Lambert’s analysis exposes this legislation as the product of special interest rent seeking that has nothing to do with consumer welfare. And Yun’s evaluation of the bill clarifies that, not only would the JCPA foster harmful collusive pricing, but it would also harm its beneficiaries by allowing them to avoid taking steps to modernize and render themselves more efficient competitors.

In sum, though the JCPA claims to fly a “public interest” flag, it is just another private interest bill promoted by well-organized rent seekers would harm consumer welfare and undermine innovation.

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

This post is authored by John Newman, Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law; Advisory Board Member, American Antitrust Institute; Affiliated Fellow, Thurman Arnold Project, Yale; Former Trial Attorney, DOJ Antitrust Division.)

Cooperation is the basis of productivity. The war of all against all is not a good model for any economy.

Who said it—a rose-emoji Twitter Marxist, or a card-carrying member of the laissez faire Chicago School of economics? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. Frank Easterbrook penned these words in an antitrust decision written shortly after he left the University of Chicago to become a federal judge. Easterbrook’s opinion, now a textbook staple, wholeheartedly endorsed a cooperative agreement between two business owners not to compete with each another.

But other enforcers and judges have taken a far less favorable view of cooperation—particularly when workers are the ones cooperating. A few years ago, in an increasingly rare example of interagency agreement, the DOJ and FTC teamed up to argue against a Seattle ordinance that would have permitted drivers to cooperatively bargain with Uber and Lyft. Why the hostility from enforcers? “Competition is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy,” explained Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

Should workers be able to cooperate to counter concentrated corporate power? Or is bellum omnium contra omnes truly the “lynchpin” of our industrial policy?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this question into sharper relief than ever before. Low-income workers—many of them classified as independent contractors—have launched multiple coordinated boycotts in an effort to improve working conditions. The antitrust agencies, once quick to condemn similar actions by Uber and Lyft drivers, have fallen conspicuously silent.

Why? Why should workers be allowed to negotiate cooperatively for a healthier workplace, yet not for a living wage? In a society largely organized around paying for basic social services, money is health—and even life itself.

Unraveling the Double Standard

Antitrust law, like the rest of industrial policy, involves difficult questions over which members of society can cooperate with one another. These laws allocate “coordination rights”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, industrial policy seemed generally to favor allocating these rights to corporations, while simultaneously denying them to workers and class-action plaintiffs. But, as the antitrust agencies’ apparent about-face on workplace organizing suggests, the times may be a-changing.

Some of today’s most existential threats to societal welfare—pandemics, climate change, pollution—will best be addressed via cooperation, not atomistic rivalry. On-the-ground stakeholders certainly seem to think so. Absent a coherent, unified federal policy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, state governors have reportedly begun to consider cooperating to provide a coordinated regional response. Last year, a group of auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to increase fuel-efficiency standards and reduce emissions. They did attract an antitrust investigation, but it was subsequently dropped—a triumph for pro-social cooperation. It was perhaps also a reminder that corporations, each of which is itself a cooperative enterprise, can still play the role they were historically assigned: serving the public interest.

Going forward, policy-makers should give careful thought to how their actions and inactions encourage or stifle cooperation. Judge Easterbrook praised an agreement between business owners because it “promoted enterprise”. What counts as legitimate “enterprise”, though, is an eminently contestable proposition.

The federal antitrust agencies’ anti-worker stance in particular seems ripe for revisiting. Its modern origins date back to the 1980s, when President Reagan’s FTC challenged a coordinated boycott among D.C.-area criminal-defense attorneys. The boycott was a strike of sorts, intended to pressure the city into increasing court-appointed fees to a level that would allow for adequate representation. (The mayor’s office, despite being responsible for paying the fees, actually encouraged the boycott.) As the sole buyer of this particular type of service, the government wielded substantial power in the marketplace. A coordinated front was needed to counter it. Nonetheless, the FTC condemned the attorneys’ strike as per se illegal—a label supposedly reserved for the worst possible anticompetitive behavior—and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

Reviving Cooperation

In the short run, the federal antitrust agencies should formally reverse this anti-labor course. When workers cooperate in an attempt to counter employers’ power, antitrust intervention is, at best, a misallocation of scarce agency resources. Surely there are (much) bigger fish to fry. At worst, hostility to such cooperation directly contravenes Congress’ vision for the antitrust laws. These laws were intended to protect workers from concentrated downstream power, not to force their exposure to it—as the federal agencies themselves have recognized elsewhere.

In the longer run, congressional action may be needed. Supreme Court antitrust case law condemning worker coordination should be legislatively overruled. And, in a sharp departure from the current trend, we should be making it easier, not harder, for workers to form cooperative unions. Capital can be combined into a legal corporation in just a few hours, while it takes more than a month to create an effective labor union. None of this is to say that competition should be abandoned—much the opposite, in fact. A market that pits individual workers against highly concentrated cooperative entities is hardly “competitive”.

Thinking more broadly, antitrust and industrial policy may need to allow—or even encourage—cooperation in a number of sectors. Automakers’ and other manufacturers’ voluntary efforts to fight climate change should be lauded and protected, not investigated. Where cooperation is already shielded and even incentivized, as is the case with corporations, affirmative steps may be needed to ensure that the public interest is being furthered.

The current moment is without precedent. Industrial policy is destined, and has already begun, to change. Although competition has its place, it cannot serve as the sole lynchpin for a just economy. Now more than ever, a revival of cooperation is needed.