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[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Nov. 10 Policy Statement Regarding the Scope of Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—adopted by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Christine Wilson issuing a dissenting statement—holds out the prospect of dramatic new enforcement initiatives going far beyond anything the FTC has done in the past. Of particular note, the statement abandons the antitrust “rule of reason,” rejects the “consumer welfare standard” that has long guided FTC competition cases, rejects economic analysis, rejects relevant precedent, misleadingly discusses legislative history, and cites inapposite and dated case law.

And what is the statement’s aim?  As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”

The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)

Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted

FTC Competition Rulemaking

As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022 Truth on the Market commentary):

First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.

Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.

Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.

The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.

First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”

Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).   

Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).

Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”

The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:

Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority

In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In a June 2019 FTC report to Congress on using standalone Section 5 cases to combat high pharma prices, the FTC explained:

[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.

There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.

Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.

First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.

Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.

Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.

What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?

In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.

What, then, should the FTC do?

It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:

First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.

Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.

Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.

Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.

Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.

More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2)  facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).

After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications. 

A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.     

In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).

Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.

Conclusion

The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.

If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.

In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).

The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.

The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”  

The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.  

The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).

Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.

The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end.  If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency. 

First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”

Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.

Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC (2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTCthat do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.

In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5). 

Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.

Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to have one overarching goal: find more ways to sue companies. The three Democratic commissioners (with the one Republican dissenting) issued a new policy statement earlier today that brings long-abandoned powers back into the FTC’s toolkit. Under Chair Lina Khan’s leadership, the FTC wants to bring challenges against “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” If that sounds extremely vague, that’s because it is. 

For the past few decades, antitrust violations have fallen into two categories. Actions like price-fixing with competitors are assumed to be illegal. Other actions are only considered illegal if they are proven to sufficiently restrain trade. This latter approach is called the “rule of reason.”

The FTC now wants to return to a time when they could also challenge conduct it viewed as unfair. The policy statement says the commission will go after behavior that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” Who could argue against stopping coercive behavior? The problem is what it means in practice for actual antitrust cases. No one knows: businesses or courts. It’s up to the whims of the FTC.

This is how antitrust used to be. In 1984, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals admonished the FTC and argued that “the Commission owes a duty to define the conditions under which conduct … would be unfair so that businesses will have an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.” Fairness, as the Clayton Act puts forward, proved unworkable as an antitrust standard.

The FTC’s movement to clarify what “unfair” means led to a 2015 policy statement, which the new statement supersedes. In the 2015 statement, the Obama-era FTC, with bipartisan support, issued new rules laying out what would qualify as unfair methods of competition. In doing so, they rolled “unfair methods” under the rule of reason. The consequences of the action matter.

The 2015 statement is part of a longer-run trend of incorporating more economic analysis into antitrust. For the past few decades, courts have followed in antitrust law is called the “consumer welfare standard.”  The basic idea is that the goal of antitrust decisions should be to choose whatever outcome helps consumers, or as economists would put it, whatever increases “consumer welfare.” Once those are the terms of the dispute, economic analysis can help the courts sort out whether an action is anticompetitive.

Beyond helping to settle particular cases, these features of modern antitrust—like the consumer welfare standard and the rule of reason—give market participants some sense of what is illegal and what is not. That’s necessary for the rule of law to prevail and for markets to function.

The new FTC rules explicitly reject any appeal to consumer benefits or welfare. Efficiency gains from the action—labeled “pecuniary gains” to suggest they are merely about money—do not count as a defense. The FTC makes explicit that parties cannot justify behavior based on efficiencies or cost-benefit analysis.

Instead, as Commissioner Christine S. Wilson points out in her dissent, “the Policy Statement adopts an ‘I know it when I see it’ approach premised on a list of nefarious-sounding adjectives.” If the FTC claims some conduct is unfair, why worry about studying the consequences of the conduct?

The policy statement is an attempt to roll back the clock on antitrust and return to the incoherence of 1950s and 1960s antitrust. The FTC seeks to protect other companies, not competition or consumers. As Khan herself said, “for a lot of businesses it comes down to whether they’re going to be able to sink or swim.”

But President Joe Biden’s antitrust enforcers have struggled to win traditional antitrust cases. On mergers, for example, they have challenged a smaller percentage of mergers and were less successful than the FTC and DOJ under President Donald Trump.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

[On Monday, June 27, Concurrences hosted a conference on the Rulemaking Authority of the Federal Trade Commission. This conference featured the work of contributors to a new book on the subject edited by Professor Dan Crane. Several of these authors have previously contributed to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium. We are pleased to be able to share with you excerpts or condensed versions of chapters from this book prepared by authors of of those chapters. Our thanks and compliments to Dan and Concurrences for bringing together an outstanding event and set of contributors and for supporting our sharing them with you here.]

[The post below was authored by former Federal Trade Commission Acting Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen and former Assistant U.S. Attorney General James F. Rill.]

Since its founding in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has held a unique and multifaceted role in the U.S. administrative state and the economy. It possesses powerful investigative and information-gathering powers, including through compulsory processes; a multi-layered administrative-adjudication process to prosecute “unfair methods of competition (UMC)” (and later, “unfair and deceptive acts and practices (UDAP),” as well); and an important role in educating and informing the business community and the public. What the FTC cannot be, however, is a legislature with broad authority to expand, contract, or alter the laws that Congress has tasked it with enforcing.

Recent proposals for aggressive UMC rulemaking, predicated on Section 6(g) of the FTC Act, would have the effect of claiming just this sort of quasi-legislative power for the commission based on a thin statutory reed authorizing “rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of” that act. This usurpation of power would distract the agency from its core mission of case-by-case expert application of the FTC Act through administrative adjudication. It would also be inconsistent with the explicit grants of rulemaking authority that Congress has given the FTC and run afoul of the congressional and constitutional “guard rails” that cabin the commission’s authority.

FTC’s Unique Role as an Administrative Adjudicator

The FTC’s Part III adjudication authority is central to its mission of preserving fair competition in the U.S. economy. The FTC has enjoyed considerable success in recent years with its administrative adjudications, both in terms of winning on appeal and in shaping the development of antitrust law overall (not simply a separate category of UMC law) by creating citable precedent in key areas. However, as a result of its July 1, 2021, open meeting and President Joe Biden’s “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” executive order, the FTC appears to be headed for another misadventure in response to calls to claim authority for broad, legislative-style “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking out of Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. The commission recently took a significant and misguided step toward this goal by rescinding—without replacing—its bipartisan Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition” Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, divorcing (at least in the commission majority’s view) Section 5 from prevailing antitrust-law principles and leaving the business community without any current guidance as to what the commission considers “unfair.”

FTC’s Rulemaking Authority Was Meant to Complement its Case-by-Case Adjudicatory Authority, Not Supplant It

As described below, broad rulemaking of this sort would likely encounter stiff resistance in the courts, due to its tenuous statutory basis and the myriad constitutional and institutional problems it creates. But even aside from the issue of legality, such a move would distract the FTC from its fundamental function as an expert case-by-case adjudicator of competition issues. It would be far too tempting for the commission to simply regulate its way to the desired outcome, bypassing all neutral arbiters along the way. And by seeking to promulgate such rules through abbreviated notice-and-comment rulemaking, the FTC would be claiming extremely broad substantive authority to directly regulate business conduct across the economy with relatively few of the procedural protections that Congress felt necessary for the FTC’s trade-regulation rules in the consumer-protection context. This approach risks not only a diversion of scarce agency resources from meaningful adjudication opportunities, but also potentially a loss of public legitimacy for the commission should it try to exempt itself from these important rulemaking safeguards.

FTC Lacks Authority to Promulgate Legislative-Style Competition Rules

The FTC has historically been hesitant to exercise UMC rulemaking authority under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act, which simply states that FTC shall have power “[f]rom time to time to classify corporations and … to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions” of the FTC Act. Current proponents of UMC rulemaking argue for a broad interpretation of this clause, allowing for legally binding rulemaking on any issue subject to the FTC’s jurisdiction. But the FTC’s past reticence to exercise such sweeping powers is likely due to the existence of significant and unresolved questions of the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority from both a statutory and constitutional perspective.

Absence of Statutory Authority

The FTC’s authority to conduct rulemaking under Section 6(g) has been tested in court only once, in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC. In that case, the FTC succeeded in classifying the failure to post octane ratings on gasoline pumps as “an unfair method of competition.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that Section 6(g) did confer this rulemaking authority. But Congress responded two years later with the Magnuson-Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act of 1975, which created a new rulemaking scheme that applied exclusively to the FTC’s consumer-protection rules. This act expressly excluded rulemaking on unfair methods of competition from its authority. The statute’s provision that UMC rulemaking is unaffected by the legislation manifests strong congressional design that such rules would be governed not by Magnuson-Moss, but by the FTC Act itself. The reference in Magnuson-Moss to the statute not affecting “any authority” of the FTC to engage in UMC rulemaking—as opposed to “the authority”— reflects Congress’ agnostic view on whether the FTC possessed any such authority. It simply means that whatever authority exists for UMC rulemaking, the Magnuson-Moss provisions do not affect it, and Congress left the question open for the courts to resolve.

Proponents of UMC rulemaking argue that Magnuson-Moss left the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority intact and entitled to Chevron deference. But, as has been pointed out by many commentators over the decades, that would be highly incongruous, given that National Petroleum Refiners dealt with both UMC and UDAP authority under Section 6(g), yet Congress’ reaction was to provide specific UDAP rulemaking authority and expressly take no position on UMC rulemaking. As further evidenced by the fact that the FTC has never attempted to promulgate a UMC rule in the years following enactment of Magnuson-Moss, the act is best read as declining to endorse the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority. Instead, it leaves the question open for future consideration by the courts.

Turning to the terms of the FTC Act, modern statutory interpretation takes a far different approach than the court in National Petroleum Refiners, which discounted the significance of Section 5’s enumeration of adjudication as the means for restraining UMC and UDAP, reasoning that Section 5(b) did not use limiting language and that Section 6(g) provides a source of substantive rulemaking authority. This approach is in clear tension with the elephants-in-mouseholes doctrine developed by the Supreme Court in recent years. The FTC’s recent claim of broad substantive UMC rulemaking authority based on the absence of limiting language and a vague, ancillary provision authorizing rulemaking alongside the ability to “classify corporations” stands in conflict with the Court’s admonition in Whitman v. American Trucking Association. The Court in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC recently applied similar principles in the context of the FTC’s authority under the FTC Act. Here,the Court emphasized “the historical importance of administrative proceedings” and declined to give the FTC a shortcut to desirable outcomes in federal court. Similarly, granting broad UMC-rulemaking authority to the FTC would permit it to circumvent the FTC Act’s defining feature of case-by-case adjudications. Applying the principles enunciated in Whitman and AMG, Section 5 is best read as specifying the sole means of UMC enforcement (adjudication), and Section 6(g) is best understood as permitting the FTC to specify how it will carry out its adjudicative, investigative, and informative functions. Thus, Section 6(g) grants ministerial, not legislative, rulemaking authority.

Notably, this reading of the FTC Act would accord with how the FTC viewed its authority until 1962, a fact that the D.C. Circuit found insignificant, but that later doctrine would weigh heavily. Courts should consider an agency’s “past approach” toward its interpretation of a statute, and an agency’s longstanding view that it lacks the authority to take a certain action is a “rather telling” clue that the agency’s newfound claim to such authority is incorrect. Conversely, even widespread judicial acceptance of an interpretation of an agency’s authority does not necessarily mean the construction of the statute is correct. In AMG, the Court gave little weight to the FTC’s argument that appellate courts “have, until recently, consistently accepted its interpretation.” It also rejected the FTC’s argument that “Congress has in effect twice ratified that interpretation in subsequent amendments to the Act.” Because the amendments did not address the scope of Section 13(b), they did not convince the Court in AMG that Congress had acquiesced in the lower courts’ interpretation.

The court in National Petroleum Refiners also lauded the benefits of rulemaking authority and emphasized that the ability to promulgate rules would allow the FTC to carry out the purpose of the act. But the Supreme Court has emphasized that “however sensible (or not)” an interpretation may be, “a reviewing court’s task is to apply the text of the statute, not to improve upon it.” Whatever benefits UMC-rulemaking authority may confer on the FTC, they cannot justify departure from the text of the FTC Act.

In sum, even Chevron requires the agency to rely on a “permissible construction” of the statute, and it is doubtful that the current Supreme Court would see a broad assertion of substantive antitrust rulemaking as “permissible” under the vague language of Section 6(g).

Constitutional Vulnerabilities

The shaky foundation supporting the FTC’s claimed authority for UMC rulemaking is belied by both the potential breadth of such rules and the lack of clear guidance in Section 6(g) itself. The presence of either of these factors increases the likelihood that any rule promulgated under Section 6 runs afoul of the constitutional nondelegation doctrine.

The nondelegation doctrine requires Congress to provide “an intelligible principle” to assist the agency to which it has delegated legislative discretion. Although long considered moribund, the doctrine was recently addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gundy v. United States, which underscored the current relevance of limitations on Congress’ ability to transfer unfettered legislative-like powers to federal agencies. Although the statute in that case was ruled permissible by a plurality of justices, most of the Court’s current members have expressed concerns that the Court has long been too quick to reject nondelegation arguments, arguing for stricter controls in this area. In a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito lamented that the Court has “uniformly rejected nondelegation arguments and has upheld provisions that authorized agencies to adopt important rules pursuant to extraordinarily capacious standards,” while Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, decrying the “unbounded policy choices” Congress had bestowed, stating that it “is delegation running riot” to “hand off to the nation’s chief prosecutor the power to write his own criminal code.”

The Gundy dissent cited to A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, where the Supreme Court struck down Congress’ delegation of authority based on language very similar to Section 5 of the FTC Act. Schechter Poultry examined whether the authority that Congress granted to the president under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) violated the nondelegation clause. The offending NIRA provision gave the president authority to approve “codes of fair competition,” which comes uncomfortably close to the FTC Act’s “unfair methods of competition” grant of authority. Notably, Schechter Poultry expressly differentiated NIRA from the FTC Act based on distinctions that do not apply in the rulemaking context. Specifically, the Court stated that, despite the similar delegation of authority, unlike NIRA, actions under the FTC Act are subject to an adjudicative process. The Court observed that the commission serves as “a quasi judicial body” and assesses what constitutes unfair methods of competition “in particular instances, upon evidence, in light of particular competitive conditions.” That essential distinction disappears in the case of rulemaking, where the commission acts in a quasi-legislative role and promulgates rules of broad application.

It appears that the nondelegation doctrine may be poised for a revival and may play a significant role in the Supreme Court’s evaluation of expansive attempts by the Biden administration to exercise legislative-type authority without explicit congressional authorization and guidance. This would create a challenging backdrop for the FTC to attempt aggressive new UMC rulemaking.

Antitrust Rulemaking by FTC Is Likely to Lead to Inefficient Outcomes and Institutional Conflicts

Aside from the doubts raised by these significant statutory and constitutional issues as to the legality of competition rulemaking by the FTC, there are also several policy and institutional factors counseling against legislative-style antitrust rulemaking.

Legislative Rulemaking on Competition Issues Runs Contrary to the Purpose of Antitrust Law

The core of U.S. antitrust law is based on broadly drafted statutes that, at least for violations outside the criminal-conspiracy context, leave determinations of likely anticompetitive effects, procompetitive justifications, and ultimate liability up to factfinders charged with highly detailed, case-specific determinations. Although no factfinder is infallible, this requirement for highly fact-bound analysis helps to ensure that each case’s outcome has a high likelihood of preserving or increasing consumer welfare.

Legislative rulemaking would replace this quintessential fact-based process with one-size-fits-all bright-line rules. Competition rules would function like per se prohibitions, but based on notice-and-comment procedures, rather than the broad and longstanding legal and economic consensus usually required for per se condemnation under the Sherman Act. Past experience with similar regulatory regimes should give reason for pause here: the Interstate Commerce Commission, for example, failed to efficiently regulate the railroad industry before being abolished with bipartisan consensus in 1996, costing consumers, by some estimates, as much as several billion (in today’s) dollars annually in lost competitive benefits. As FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson observes, regulatory rules “frequently stifle innovation, raise prices, and lower output and quality without producing concomitant health, safety, and other benefits for consumers.” By sacrificing the precision of case-by-case adjudication, rulemaking advocates are also losing one of the best tools we have to account for “market dynamics, new sources of competition, and consumer preferences.”

Potential for Institutional Conflict with DOJ

In addition to these substantive concerns, UMC rulemaking by the FTC would also create institutional conflicts between the FTC and DOJ and lead to divergence between the legal standards applicable to the FTC Act, on the one hand, and the Sherman and Clayton acts, on the other. At present, courts have interpreted the FTC Act to be generally coextensive with the prohibitions on unlawful mergers and anticompetitive conduct under the Sherman and Clayton acts, with the limited exception of invitations to collude. But because the FTC alone has the authority to enforce the FTC Act, and rulemaking by the FTC would be limited to interpretations of that act (and could not directly affect or repeal caselaw interpreting the Sherman and Clayton acts), it would create two separate standards of liability. Given that the FTC and DOJ historically have divided enforcement between the agencies based on the industry at issue, this could result in different rules of conduct, depending on the industry involved. Types of conduct that have the potential for anticompetitive effects under certain circumstances but generally pass a rule-of-reason analysis could nonetheless be banned outright if the industry is subject to FTC oversight. Dissonance between the two federal enforcement agencies would be even more difficult for companies not falling firmly within either agency’s purview; those entities would lack certainty as to which guidelines to follow: rule-of-reason precedent or FTC rules.

Conclusion

Following its rebuke at the Supreme Court in the AMG Capital Management case, now is the time for the FTC to focus on its core, case-by-case administrative mission, taking full advantage of its unique adjudicative expertise. Broad unfair methods of competition rulemaking, however, would be an aggressive step in the wrong direction—away from FTC’s core mission and toward a no-man’s-land far afield from the FTC’s governing statutes.

[The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumare developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency. 

This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement.  Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.

Abandoning Competitive Markets

Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes. 

In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.

Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.”  In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al. The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.

These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership. 

In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”

This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition. 

Abandoning the Rule of Reason

In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.

This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications. 

First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.  

Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.

While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.

The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”

Abandoning the Rule of Law

In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction. 

Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.  

This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC (1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority). 

It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.

From Free Markets to Administered Markets

The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice. 

In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.  

This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.

The language of the federal antitrust laws is extremely general. Over more than a century, the federal courts have applied common-law techniques to construe this general language to provide guidance to the private sector as to what does or does not run afoul of the law. The interpretive process has been fraught with some uncertainty, as judicial approaches to antitrust analysis have changed several times over the past century. Nevertheless, until very recently, judges and enforcers had converged toward relying on a consumer welfare standard as the touchstone for antitrust evaluations (see my antitrust primer here, for an overview).

While imperfect and subject to potential error in application—a problem of legal interpretation generally—the consumer welfare principle has worked rather well as the focus both for antitrust-enforcement guidance and judicial decision-making. The general stability and predictability of antitrust under a consumer welfare framework has advanced the rule of law. It has given businesses sufficient information to plan transactions in a manner likely to avoid antitrust liability. It thereby has cabined uncertainty and increased the probability that private parties would enter welfare-enhancing commercial arrangements, to the benefit of society.

In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch commented on the importance of the rule of law to principled antitrust enforcement. He noted:

[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

That is certainly not to say there has not been positive change in the antitrust laws in the past, or that we would have been better off without those changes. U.S. antitrust law has been refined, and occasionally recalibrated, with the courts playing their appropriate interpretive role. And enforcers must always be on the watch for new or evolving threats to competition.  As markets evolve and products develop over time, our analysis adapts. But as those changes occur, we pursue reliability and consistency in application in the antitrust laws as much as possible.

Indeed, we have enjoyed remarkable continuity and consensus for many years. Antitrust law in the U.S. has not been a “paradox” for quite some time, but rather a stable and valuable law enforcement regime with appropriately widespread support.

Unfortunately, policy decisions taken by the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leadership in recent weeks have rejected antitrust continuity and consensus. They have injected substantial uncertainty into the application of competition-law enforcement by the FTC. This abrupt change in emphasis undermines the rule of law and threatens to reduce economic welfare.

As of now, the FTC’s departure from the rule of law has been notable in two areas:

  1. Its rejection of previous guidance on the agency’s “unfair methods of competition” authority, the FTC’s primary non-merger-related enforcement tool; and
  2. Its new advice rejecting time limits for the review of generally routine proposed mergers.

In addition, potential FTC rulemakings directed at “unfair methods of competition” would, if pursued, prove highly problematic.

Rescission of the Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement

The FTC on July 1 voted 3-2 to rescind the 2015 FTC Policy Statement Regarding Unfair Methods of Competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act (UMC Policy Statement).

The bipartisan UMC Policy Statement has originally been supported by all three Democratic commissioners, including then-Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The policy statement generally respected and promoted the rule of law by emphasizing that, in applying the facially broad “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) language, the FTC would be guided by the well-established principles of the antitrust rule of reason (including considering any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications) and the consumer welfare standard. The FTC also explained that it would not apply “standalone” Section 5 theories to conduct that would violate the Sherman or Clayton Acts.

In short, the UMC Policy Statement sent a strong signal that the commission would apply UMC in a manner fully consistent with accepted and well-understood antitrust policy principles. As in the past, the vast bulk of FTC Section 5 prosecutions would be brought against conduct that violated the core antitrust laws. Standalone Section 5 cases would be directed solely at those few practices that harmed consumer welfare and competition, but somehow fell into a narrow crack in the basic antitrust statutes (such as, perhaps, “invitations to collude” that lack plausible efficiency justifications). Although the UMC Statement did not answer all questions regarding what specific practices would justify standalone UMC challenges, it substantially limited business uncertainty by bringing Section 5 within the boundaries of settled antitrust doctrine.

The FTC’s announcement of the UMC Policy Statement rescission unhelpfully proclaimed that “the time is right for the Commission to rethink its approach and to recommit to its mandate to police unfair methods of competition even if they are outside the ambit of the Sherman or Clayton Acts.” As a dissenting statement by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson warned, consumers would be harmed by the commission’s decision to prioritize other unnamed interests. And as Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed in his dissent, the end result would be reduced guidance and greater uncertainty.

In sum, by suddenly leaving private parties in the dark as to how to conform themselves to Section 5’s UMC requirements, the FTC’s rescission offends the rule of law.

New Guidance to Parties Considering Mergers

For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:

  1. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and
  2. An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.

Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.

Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.

Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”

The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.

Perhaps more significantly, as three prominent antitrust practitioners point out, the FTC’s warning letters states that:

[T]he FTC may challenge deals that “threaten to reduce competition and harm consumers, workers, and honest businesses.” Adding in harm to both “workers and honest businesses” implies that the FTC may be considering more ways that transactions can have an adverse impact other than just harm to competition and consumers [citation omitted].

Because consensus antitrust merger analysis centers on consumer welfare, not the protection of labor or business interests, any suggestion that the FTC may be extending its reach to these new areas is inconsistent with established legal principles and generates new business-planning risks.

More generally, the Aug. 6 FTC “blog post could be viewed as an attempt to modify the temporal framework of the HSR Act”—in effect, an effort to displace an implicit statutory understanding in favor of an agency diktat, contrary to the rule of law. Commissioner Wilson sees the blog post as a means to keep investigations open indefinitely and, thus, an attack on the decades-old HSR framework for handling most merger reviews in an expeditious fashion (see here). Commissioner Phillips is concerned about an attempt to chill legal M&A transactions across the board, particularly unfortunate when there is no reason to conclude that particular transactions are illegal (see here).

Finally, the historical record raises serious questions about the “resource constraint” justification for the FTC’s new merger review policies:

Through the end of July 2021, more than 2,900 transactions were reported to the FTC. It is not clear, however, whether these record-breaking HSR filing numbers have led (or will lead) to more deals being investigated. Historically, only about 13 percent of all deals reported are investigated in some fashion, and roughly 3 percent of all deals reported receive a more thorough, substantive review through the issuance of a Second Request. Even if more deals are being reported, for the majority of transactions, the HSR process is purely administrative, raising no antitrust concerns, and, theoretically, uses few, if any, agency resources. [Citations omitted.]

Proposed FTC Competition Rulemakings

The new FTC leadership is strongly considering competition rulemakings. As I explained in a recent Truth on the Market post, such rulemakings would fail a cost-benefit test. They raise serious legal risks for the commission and could impose wasted resource costs on the FTC and on private parties. More significantly, they would raise two very serious economic policy concerns:

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules. [Emphasis added.]

In short, common law antitrust adjudication, focused on the consumer welfare standard, has done a good job of promoting a vibrant competitive economy in an efficient fashion. FTC competition rulemaking would not.

Conclusion

Recent FTC actions have undermined consensus antitrust-enforcement standards and have departed from established merger-review procedures with respect to seemingly uncontroversial consolidations. Those decisions have imposed costly uncertainty on the business sector and are thereby likely to disincentivize efficiency-seeking arrangements. What’s more, by implicitly rejecting consensus antitrust principles, they denigrate the primacy of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement. The FTC’s pursuit of competition rulemaking would further damage the rule of law by imposing arbitrary strictures that ignore matter-specific considerations bearing on the justifications for particular business decisions.

Fortunately, these are early days in the Biden administration. The problematic initial policy decisions delineated in this comment could be reversed based on further reflection and deliberation within the commission. Chairwoman Lina Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners would benefit by consulting more closely with Commissioners Wilson and Phillips to reach agreement on substantive and procedural enforcement policies that are better tailored to promote consumer welfare and enhance vibrant competition. Such policies would benefit the U.S. economy in a manner consistent with the rule of law.

Bad Blood at the FTC

Thom Lambert —  9 June 2021

John Carreyrou’s marvelous book Bad Blood chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos, the one-time Silicon Valley darling that was revealed to be a house of cards.[1] Theranos’s Svengali-like founder, Elizabeth Holmes, convinced scores of savvy business people (mainly older men) that her company was developing a machine that could detect all manner of maladies from a small quantity of a patient’s blood. Turns out it was a fraud. 

I had a couple of recurring thoughts as I read Bad Blood. First, I kept thinking about how Holmes’s fraud might impair future medical innovation. Something like Theranos’s machine would eventually be developed, I figured, but Holmes’s fraud would likely set things back by making investors leery of blood-based, multi-disease diagnostics.

I also had a thought about the causes of Theranos’s spectacular failure. A key problem, it seemed, was that the company tried to do too many things at once: develop diagnostic technologies, design an elegant machine (Holmes was obsessed with Steve Jobs and insisted that Theranos’s machine resemble a sleek Apple device), market the product, obtain regulatory approval, scale the operation by getting Theranos machines in retail chains like Safeway and Walgreens, and secure third-party payment from insurers.

A thought that didn’t occur to me while reading Bad Blood was that a multi-disease blood diagnostic system would soon be developed but would be delayed, or possibly even precluded from getting to market, by an antitrust enforcement action based on things the developers did to avoid the very problems that doomed Theranos. 

Sadly, that’s where we are with the Federal Trade Commission’s misguided challenge to the merger of Illumina and Grail.

Founded in 1998, San Diego-based Illumina is a leading provider of products used in genetic sequencing and genomic analysis. Illumina produces “next generation sequencing” (NGS) platforms that are used for a wide array of applications (genetic tests, etc.) developed by itself and other companies.

In 2015, Illumina founded Grail for the purpose of developing a blood test that could detect cancer in asymptomatic individuals—the “holy grail” of cancer diagnosis. Given the superior efficacy and lower cost of treatments for early- versus late-stage cancers, success by Grail could save millions of lives and billions of dollars.

Illumina created Grail as a separate entity in which it initially held a controlling interest (having provided the bulk of Grail’s $100 million Series A funding). Legally separating Grail in this fashion, rather than running it as an Illumina division, offered a number of benefits. It limited Illumina’s liability for Grail’s activities, enabling Grail to take greater risks. It mitigated the Theranos problem of managers’ being distracted by too many tasks: Grail managers could concentrate exclusively on developing a viable cancer-screening test, while Illumina’s management continued focusing on that company’s core business. It made it easier for Grail to attract talented managers, who would rather come in as corporate officers than as division heads. (Indeed, Grail landed Jeff Huber, a high-profile Google executive, as its initial CEO.) Structuring Grail as a majority-owned subsidiary also allowed Illumina to attract outside capital, with the prospect of raising more money in the future by selling new Grail stock to investors.

In 2017, Grail did exactly that, issuing new shares to investors in exchange for $1 billion. While this capital infusion enabled the company to move forward with its promising technologies, the creation of new shares meant that Illumina no longer held a controlling interest in the firm. Its ownership interest dipped below 20 percent and now stands at about 14.5 percent of Grail’s voting shares.  

Setting up Grail so as to facilitate outside capital formation and attract top managers who could focus single-mindedly on product development has paid off. Grail has now developed a blood test that, when processed on Illumina’s NGS platform, can accurately detect a number of cancers in asymptomatic individuals. Grail predicts that this “liquid biopsy,” called Galleri, will eventually be able to detect up to 50 cancers before physical symptoms manifest. Grail is also developing other blood-based cancer tests, including one that confirms cancer diagnoses in patients suspected to have cancer and another designed to detect cancer recurrence in patients who have undergone treatment.

Grail now faces a host of new challenges. In addition to continuing to develop its tests, Grail needs to:  

  • Engage in widespread testing of its cancer-detection products on up to 50 different cancers;
  • Process and present the information from its extensive testing in formats that will be acceptable to regulators;
  • Navigate the pre-market regulatory approval process in different countries across the globe;
  • Secure commitments from third-party payors (governments and private insurers) to provide coverage for its tests;
  • Develop means of manufacturing its products at scale;
  • Create and implement measures to ensure compliance with FDA’s Quality System Regulation (QSR), which governs virtually all aspects of medical device production (design, testing, production, process controls, quality assurance, labeling, packaging, handling, storage, distribution, installation, servicing, and shipping); and
  • Market its tests to hospitals and health-care professionals.

These steps are all required to secure widespread use of Grail’s tests. And, importantly, such widespread use will actually improve the quality of the tests. Grail’s tests analyze the DNA in a patient’s blood to look for methylation patterns that are known to be associated with cancer. In essence, the tests work by comparing the methylation patterns in a test subject’s DNA against a database of genomic data collected from large clinical studies. With enough comparison data, the tests can indicate not only the presence of cancer but also where in the body the cancer signal is coming from. And because Grail’s tests use machine learning to hone their algorithms in response to new data collected from test usage, the greater the use of Grail’s tests, the more accurate, sensitive, and comprehensive they become.     

To assist with the various tasks needed to achieve speedy and widespread use of its tests, Grail decided to reunite with Illumina. In September 2020, the companies entered a merger agreement under which Illumina would acquire the 85.5 percent of Grail voting shares it does not already own for cash and stock worth $7.1 billion and additional contingent payments of $1.2 billion to Grail’s non-Illumina shareholders.

Recombining with Illumina will allow Grail—which has appropriately focused heretofore solely on product development—to accomplish the tasks now required to get its tests to market. Illumina has substantial laboratory capacity that Grail can access to complete the testing needed to refine its products and establish their effectiveness. As the leading global producer of NGS platforms, Illumina has unparalleled experience in navigating the regulatory process for NGS-related products, producing and marketing those products at scale, and maintaining compliance with complex regulations like FDA’s QSR. With nearly 3,000 international employees located in 26 countries, it has obtained regulatory authorizations for NGS-based tests in more than 50 jurisdictions around the world.  It also has long-standing relationships with third-party payors, health systems, and laboratory customers. Grail, by contrast, has never obtained FDA approval for any products, has never manufactured NGS-based tests at scale, has only a fledgling regulatory affairs team, and has far less extensive contacts with potential payors and customers. By remaining focused on its key objective (unlike Theranos), Grail has achieved product-development success. Recombining with Illumina will now enable it, expeditiously and efficiently, to deploy its products across the globe, generating user data that will help improve the products going forward.

In addition to these benefits, the combination of Illumina and Grail will eliminate a problem that occurs when producers of complementary products each operate in markets that are not fully competitive: double marginalization. When sellers of products that are used together each possess some market power due to a lack of competition, their uncoordinated pricing decisions may result in less surplus for each of them and for consumers of their products. Combining so that they can coordinate pricing will leave them and their customers better off.

Unlike a producer participating in a competitive market, a producer that faces little competition can enhance its profits by raising its price above its incremental cost.[2] But there are limits on its ability to do so. As the well-known monopoly pricing model shows, even a monopolist has a “profit-maximizing price” beyond which any incremental price increase would lose money.[3] Raising price above that level would hurt both consumers and the monopolist.

When consumers are deciding whether to purchase products that must be used together, they assess the final price of the overall bundle. This means that when two sellers of complementary products both have market power, there is an above-cost, profit-maximizing combined price for their products. If the complement sellers individually raise their prices so that the combined price exceeds that level, they will reduce their own aggregate welfare and that of their customers.

This unfortunate situation is likely to occur when market power-possessing complement producers are separate companies that cannot coordinate their pricing. In setting its individual price, each separate firm will attempt to capture as much surplus for itself as possible. This will cause the combined price to rise above the profit-maximizing level. If they could unite, the complement sellers would coordinate their prices so that the combined price was lower and the sellers’ aggregate profits higher.

Here, Grail and Illumina provide complementary products (cancer-detection tests and the NGS platforms on which they are processed), and each faces little competition. If they price separately, their aggregate prices are likely to exceed the profit-maximizing combined price for the cancer test and NGS platform access. If they combine into a single firm, that firm would maximize its profits by lowering prices so that the aggregate test/platform price is the profit-maximizing combined price.  This would obviously benefit consumers.

In light of the social benefits the Grail/Illumina merger offers—speeding up and lowering the cost of getting Grail’s test approved and deployed at scale, enabling improvement of the test with more extensive user data, eliminating double marginalization—one might expect policymakers to cheer the companies’ recombination. The FTC, however, is trying to block it.  In late March, the commission brought an action claiming that the merger would violate Section 7 of the Clayton Act by substantially reducing competition in a line of commerce.

The FTC’s theory is that recombining Illumina and Grail will impair competition in the market for “multi-cancer early detection” (MCED) tests. The commission asserts that the combined company would have both the opportunity and the motivation to injure rival producers of MCED tests.

The opportunity to do so would stem from the fact that MCED tests must be processed on NGS platforms, which are produced exclusively by Illumina. Illumina could charge Grail’s rivals or their customers higher prices for access to its NGS platforms (or perhaps deny access altogether) and could withhold the technical assistance rivals would need to secure both regulatory approval of their tests and coverage by third-party payors.

But why would Illumina take this tack, given that it would be giving up profits on transactions with producers and users of other MCED tests? The commission asserts that the losses a combined Illumina/Grail would suffer in the NGS platform market would be more than offset by gains stemming from reduced competition in the MCED test market. Thus, the combined company would have a motive, as well as an opportunity, to cause anticompetitive harm.

There are multiple problems with the FTC’s theory. As an initial matter, the market the commission claims will be impaired doesn’t exist. There is no MCED test market for the simple reason that there are no commercializable MCED tests. If allowed to proceed, the Illumina/Grail merger may create such a market by facilitating the approval and deployment of the first MCED test. At present, however, there is no such market, and the chances of one ever emerging will be diminished if the FTC succeeds in blocking the recombination of Illumina and Grail.

Because there is no existing market for MCED tests, the FTC’s claim that a combined Illumina/Grail would have a motivation to injure MCED rivals—potential consumers of Illumina’s NGS platforms—is rank speculation. The commission has no idea what profits Illumina would earn from NGS platform sales related to MCED tests, what profits Grail would earn on its own MCED tests, and how the total profits of the combined company would be affected by impairing opportunities for rival MCED test producers.

In the only relevant market that does exist—the cancer-detection market—there can be no question about the competitive effect of an Illumina/Grail merger: It would enhance competition by speeding the creation of a far superior offering that promises to save lives and substantially reduce health-care costs. 

There is yet another problem with the FTC’s theory of anticompetitive harm. The commission’s concern that a recombined Illumina/Grail would foreclose Grail’s rivals from essential NGS platforms and needed technical assistance is obviated by Illumina’s commitments. Specifically, Illumina has irrevocably offered current and prospective oncology customers 12-year contract terms that would guarantee them the same access to Illumina’s sequencing products that they now enjoy, with no price increase. Indeed, the offered terms obligate Illumina not only to refrain from raising prices but also to lower them by at least 43% by 2025 and to provide regulatory and technical assistance requested by Grail’s potential rivals. Illumina’s continued compliance with its firm offer will be subject to regular audits by an independent auditor.

In the end, then, the FTC’s challenge to the Illumina/Grail merger is unjustified. The initial separation of Grail from Illumina encouraged the managerial focus and capital accumulation needed for successful test development. Recombining the two firms will now expedite and lower the costs of the regulatory approval and commercialization processes, permitting Grail’s tests to be widely used, which will enhance their quality. Bringing Grail’s tests and Illumina’s NGS platforms within a single company will also benefit consumers by eliminating double marginalization. Any foreclosure concerns are entirely speculative and are obviated by Illumina’s contractual commitments.

In light of all these considerations, one wonders why the FTC challenged this merger (and on a 4-0 vote) in the first place. Perhaps it was the populist forces from left and right that are pressuring the commission to generally be more aggressive in policing mergers. Some members of the commission may also worry, legitimately, that if they don’t act aggressively on a vertical merger, Congress will amend the antitrust laws in a deleterious fashion. But the commission has picked a poor target. This particular merger promises tremendous benefit and threatens little harm. The FTC should drop its challenge and encourage its European counterparts to do the same. 


[1] If you don’t have time for Carreyrou’s book (and you should make time if you can), HBO’s Theranos documentary is pretty solid.

[2] This ability is market power.  In a perfectly competitive market, any firm that charges an above-cost price will lose sales to rivals, who will vie for business by lowering their prices down to the level of their cost.

[3] Under the model, this is the price that emerges at the output level where the producer’s marginal revenue equals its marginal cost.

One of the key recommendations of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report which seems to have bipartisan support (see Rep. Buck’s report) is shifting evidentiary burdens of proof to defendants with “monopoly power.” These recommended changes are aimed at helping antitrust enforcers and private plaintiffs “win” more. The result may well be more convictions, more jury verdicts, more consent decrees, and more settlements, but there is a cost. 

Presumption of illegality for certain classes of defendants unless they can prove otherwise is inconsistent with the American traditions of the presumption of innocence and allowing persons to dispose of their property as they wish. Forcing antitrust defendants to defend themselves from what is effectively a presumption of guilt will create an enormous burden upon them. But this will be felt far beyond just antitrust defendants. Consumers who would have benefited from mergers that are deterred or business conduct that is prevented will have those benefits foregone.

The Presumption of Liberty in American Law

The Presumption of Innocence

There is nothing wrong with presumptions in law as a general matter. For instance, one of the most important presumptions in American law is that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Prosecutors bear the burden of proof, and must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even in the civil context, plaintiffs, whether public or private, have the burden of proving a violation of the law, by the preponderance of the evidence. In either case, the defendant is not required to prove they didn’t violate the law.

Fundamentally, the presumption of innocence is about liberty. As William Blackstone put it in his Commentaries on the Law of England centuries ago: “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” 

In economic terms, society must balance the need to deter bad conduct, however defined, with not deterring good conduct. In a world of uncertainty, this includes the possibility that decision-makers will get it wrong. For instance, if a mere allegation of wrongdoing places the burden upon a defendant to prove his or her innocence, much good conduct would be deterred out of fear of false allegations. In this sense, the presumption of innocence is important: it protects the innocent from allegations of wrongdoing, even if that means in some cases the guilty escape judgment.

Presumptions in Property, Contract, and Corporate Law

Similarly, presumptions in other areas of law protect liberty and are against deterring the good in the name of preventing the bad. For instance, the presumption when it comes to how people dispose of their property is that unless a law says otherwise, they may do as they wish. In other words, there is no presumption that a person may not use their property in a manner they wish to do so. The presumption is liberty, unless a valid law proscribes behavior. The exceptions to this rule typically deal with situations where a use of property could harm someone else. 

In contracts, the right of persons to come to a mutual agreement is the general rule, with rare exceptions. The presumption is in favor of enforcing voluntary agreements. Default rules in the absence of complete contracting supplement these agreements, but even the default rules can be contracted around in most cases.

Bringing the two together, corporate law—essentially the nexus of contract law and property law— allows persons to come together to dispose of property and make contracts, supplying default rules which can be contracted around. The presumption again is that people are free to do as they choose with their own property. The default is never that people can’t create firms to buy or sell or make agreements.

A corollary right of the above is that people may start businesses and deal with others on whatever basis they choose, unless a generally applicable law says otherwise. In fact, they can even buy other businesses. Mergers and acquisitions are generally allowed by the law. 

Presumptions in Antitrust Law

Antitrust is a generally applicable set of laws which proscribe how people can use their property. But even there, the presumption is not that every merger or act by a large company is harmful. 

On the contrary, antitrust laws allow groups of people to dispose of property as they wish unless it can be shown that a firm has “market power” that is likely to be exercised to the detriment of competition or consumers. Plaintiffs, whether public or private, bear the burden of proving all the elements of the antitrust violation alleged.

In particular, antitrust law has incorporated the error cost framework. This framework considers the cost of getting decisions wrong. Much like the presumption of innocence is based on the tradeoff of allowing some guilty persons to go unpunished in order to protect the innocent, the error cost framework notes there is tradeoff between allowing some anticompetitive conduct to go unpunished in order to protect procompetitive conduct. American antitrust law seeks to avoid the condemnation of procompetitive conduct more than it avoids allowing the guilty to escape condemnation. 

For instance, to prove a merger or acquisition would violate the antitrust laws, a plaintiff must show the transaction will substantially lessen competition. This involves defining the market, that the defendant has power over that market, and that the transaction would lessen competition. While concentration of the market is an important part of the analysis, antitrust law must consider the effect on consumer welfare as a whole. The law doesn’t simply condemn mergers or acquisitions by large companies just because they are large.

Similarly, to prove a monopolization claim, a plaintiff must establish the defendant has “monopoly power” in the relevant market. But monopoly power isn’t enough. As stated by the Supreme Court in Trinko:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period— is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

The plaintiff must also prove the defendant has engaged in the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [market] power, as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historical accident.” Antitrust law is careful to avoid mistaken inferences and false condemnations, which are especially costly because they “chill the very conduct antitrust laws are designed to protect.”

The presumption isn’t against mergers or business conduct even when those businesses are large. Antitrust law only condemns mergers or business conduct when it is likely to harm consumers.

How Changing Antitrust Presumptions will Harm Society

In light of all of this, the House Judiciary Committee’s Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets proposes some pretty radical departures from the law’s normal presumption in favor of people disposing property how they choose. Unfortunately, the minority report issued by Representative Buck agrees with the recommendations to shift burdens onto antitrust defendants in certain cases.

One of the recommendations from the Subcommittee is that Congress:

“codify[] bright-line rules for merger enforcement, including structural presumptions. Under a structural presumption, mergers resulting in a single firm controlling an outsized market share, or resulting in a significant increase in concentration, would be presumptively prohibited under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. This structural presumption would place the burden of proof upon the merging parties to show that the merger would not reduce competition. A showing that the merger would result in efficiencies should not be sufficient to overcome the presumption that it is anticompetitive. It is the view of Subcommittee staff that the 30% threshold established by the Supreme Court in Philadelphia National Bank is appropriate, although a lower standard for monopsony or buyer power claims may deserve consideration by the Subcommittee. By shifting the burden of proof to the merging parties in cases involving concentrated markets and high market shares, codifying the structural presumption would help promote the efficient allocation of agency resources and increase the likelihood that anticompetitive mergers are blocked. (emphasis added)

Under this proposal, in cases where concentration meets an arbitrary benchmark based upon the market definition, the presumption will be that the merger is illegal. Defendants will now bear the burden of proof to show the merger won’t reduce competition, without even getting to refer to efficiencies that could benefit consumers. 

Changing the burden of proof to be against criminal defendants would lead to more convictions of guilty people, but it would also lead to a lot more false convictions of innocent defendants. Similarly, changing the burden of proof to be against antitrust defendants would certainly lead to more condemnations of anticompetitive mergers, but it would also lead to the deterrence of a significant portion of procompetitive mergers.

So yes, if adopted, plaintiffs would likely win more as a result of these proposed changes, including in cases where mergers are anticompetitive. But this does not necessarily mean it would be to the benefit of larger society. 

Antitrust has evolved over time to recognize that concentration alone is not predictive of likely competitive harm in merger analysis. Both the horizontal merger guidelines and the vertical merger guidelines issued by the FTC and DOJ emphasize the importance of fact-specific inquiries into competitive effects, and not just a reliance on concentration statistics. This reflected a long-standing bipartisan consensus. The HJC’s majority report overturns this consensus by suggesting a return to the structural presumptions which have largely been rejected in antitrust law.

The HJC majority report also calls for changes in presumptions when it comes to monopolization claims. For instance, the report calls on Congress to consider creating a statutory presumption of dominance by a seller with a market share of 30% or more and a presumption of dominance by a buyer with a market share of 25% or more. The report then goes on to suggest overturning a number of precedents dealing with monopolization claims which in their view restricted claims of tying, predatory pricing, refusals to deal, leveraging, and self-preferencing. In particular, they call on Congress to “[c]larify[] that ‘false positives’ (or erroneous enforcement) are not more costly than ‘false negatives’ (erroneous non-enforcement), and that, when relating to conduct or mergers involving dominant firms, ‘false negatives’ are costlier.”

This again completely turns the ordinary presumptions about innocence and allowing people to dispose of the property as they see fit on their head. If adopted, defendants would largely have to prove their innocence in monopolization cases if their shares of the market are above a certain threshold. 

Moreover, the report calls for Congress to consider making conduct illegal even if it “can be justified as an improvement for consumers.” It is highly likely that the changes proposed will harm consumer welfare in many cases, as the focus changes from economic efficiency to concentration. 

Conclusion

The HJC report’s recommendations on changing antitrust presumptions should be rejected. The harms will be felt not only by antitrust defendants, who will be much more likely to lose regardless of whether they have violated the law, but by consumers whose welfare is no longer the focus. The result is inconsistent with the American tradition that presumes innocence and the ability of people to dispose of their property as they see fit. 

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by William J. Kolasky (Partner, Hughes Hubbard & Reed; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division), and Philip A. Giordano (Partner, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP).

[Kolasky & Giordano: The authors thank Katherine Taylor, an associate at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, for her help in researching this article.]

On January 10, the Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew the 1984 DOJ Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), released new draft 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines (“DOJ/FTC draft guidelines”) on which it seeks public comment by February 26.[1] In announcing these new draft guidelines, Makan Delrahim, the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, acknowledged that while many vertical mergers are competitively beneficial or neutral, “some vertical transactions can raise serious concern.” He went on to explain that, “The revised draft guidelines are based on new economic understandings and the agencies’ experience over the past several decades and better reflect the agencies’ actual practice in evaluating proposed vertical mergers.” He added that he hoped these new guidelines, once finalized, “will provide more clarity and transparency on how we review vertical transactions.”[2]

While we agree with the DOJ and FTC that the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines are now badly outdated and that a new set of vertical merger guidelines is needed, we question whether the draft guidelines released on January 10, will provide the desired “clarity and transparency.” In our view, the proposed guidelines give insufficient recognition to the wide range of efficiencies that flow from most, if not all, vertical mergers. In addition, the guidelines fail to provide sufficiently clear standards for challenging vertical mergers, thereby leaving too much discretion in the hands of the agencies as to when they will challenge a vertical merger and too much uncertainty for businesses contemplating a vertical merger. 

What is most troubling is that this did not need to be so. In 2008, the European Commission, as part of its merger process reform initiative, issued an excellent set of non-horizontal merger guidelines that adopt basically the same analytical framework as the new draft guidelines for evaluating vertical mergers.[3] The EU guidelines, however, lay out in much more detail the factors the Commission will consider and the standards it will apply in evaluating vertical transactions. That being so, it is difficult to understand why the DOJ and FTC did not propose a set of vertical merger guidelines that more closely mirror those of the European Commission, rather than try to reinvent the wheel with a much less complete set of guidelines.

Rather than making the same mistake ourselves, we will try to summarize the EU vertical mergers and to explain why we believe they are markedly better than the draft guidelines the DOJ and FTC have proposed. We would urge the DOJ and FTC to consider revising their draft guidelines to make them more consistent with the EU vertical merger guidelines. Doing so would, among other things, promote greater convergence between the two jurisdictions, which is very much in the interest of both businesses and consumers in an increasingly global economy.

The principal differences between the draft joint guidelines and the EU vertical merger guidelines

1. Acknowledgement of the key differences between horizontal and vertical mergers

The EU guidelines begin with an acknowledgement that, “Non-horizontal mergers are generally less likely to significantly impede effective competition than horizontal mergers.” As they explain, this is because of two key differences between vertical and horizontal mergers.

  • First, unlike horizontal mergers, vertical mergers “do not entail the loss of direct competition between the merging firms in the same relevant market.”[4] As a result, “the main source of anti-competitive effect in horizontal mergers is absent from vertical and conglomerate mergers.”[5]
  • Second, vertical mergers are more likely than horizontal mergers to provide substantial, merger-specific efficiencies, without any direct reduction in competition. The EU guidelines explain that these efficiencies stem from two main sources, both of which are intrinsic to vertical mergers. The first is that, “Vertical integration may thus provide an increased incentive to seek to decrease prices and increase output because the integrated firm can capture a larger fraction of the benefits.”[6] The second is that, “Integration may also decrease transaction costs and allow for a better co-ordination in terms of product design, the organization of the production process, and the way in which the products are sold.”[7]

The DOJ/FTC draft guidelines do not acknowledge these fundamental differences between horizontal and vertical mergers. The 1984 DOJ non-horizontal guidelines, by contrast, contained an acknowledgement of these differences very similar to that found in the EU guidelines. First, the 1984 guidelines acknowledge that, “By definition, non-horizontal mergers involve firms that do not operate in the same market. It necessarily follows that such mergers produce no immediate change in the level of concentration in any relevant market as defined in Section 2 of these Guidelines.”[8] Second, the 1984 guidelines acknowledge that, “An extensive pattern of vertical integration may constitute evidence that substantial economies are afforded by vertical integration. Therefore, the Department will give relatively more weight to expected efficiencies in determining whether to challenge a vertical merger than in determining whether to challenge a horizontal merger.”[9] Neither of these acknowledgements can be found in the new draft guidelines.

These key differences have also been acknowledged by the courts of appeals for both the Second and D.C. circuits in the agencies’ two most recent litigated vertical mergers challenges: Fruehauf Corp. v. FTC in 1979[10] and United States v. AT&T in 2019.[11] In both cases, the courts held, as the D.C. Circuit explained in AT&T, that because of these differences, the government “cannot use a short cut to establish a presumption of anticompetitive effect through statistics about the change in market concentration” – as it can in a horizontal merger case – “because vertical mergers produce no immediate change in the relevant market share.”[12] Instead, in challenging a vertical merger, “the government must make a ‘fact-specific’ showing that the proposed merger is ‘likely to be anticompetitive’” before the burden shifts to the defendants “to present evidence that the prima facie case ‘inaccurately predicts the relevant transaction’s probable effect on future competition,’ or to ‘sufficiently discredit’ the evidence underlying the prima facie case.”[13]

While the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines acknowledge that a vertical merger may generate efficiencies, they propose that the parties to the merger bear the burden of identifying and substantiating those efficiencies under the same standards applied by the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Meeting those standards in the case of a horizontal merger can be very difficult. For that reason, it is important that the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines be revised to make it clear that before the parties to a vertical merger are required to establish efficiencies meeting the horizontal merger guidelines’ evidentiary standard, the agencies must first show that the merger is likely to substantially lessen competition, based on the type of fact-specific evidence the courts required in both Fruehauf and AT&T.

2. Safe harbors

Although they do not refer to it as a “safe harbor,” the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines state that, 

The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.[14] 

If we understand this statement correctly, it means that the agencies may challenge a vertical merger in any case where one party has a 20% share in a relevant market and the other party has a 20% or higher share of any “related product,” i.e., any “product or service” that is supplied by the other party to firms in that relevant market. 

By contrast, the EU guidelines state that,

The Commission is unlikely to find concern in non-horizontal mergers . . . where the market share post-merger of the new entity in each of the markets concerned is below 30% . . . and the post-merger HHI is below 2,000.[15] 

Both the EU guidelines and the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines are careful to explain that these statements do not create any “legal presumption” that vertical mergers below these thresholds will not be challenged or that vertical mergers above those thresholds are likely to be challenged.

The EU guidelines are more consistent than the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines both with U.S. case law and with the actual practice of both the DOJ and FTC. It is important to remember that the raising rivals’ costs theory of vertical foreclosure was first developed nearly four decades ago by two young economists, David Scheffman and Steve Salop, as a theory of exclusionary conduct that could be used against dominant firms in place of the more simplistic theories of vertical foreclosure that the courts had previously relied on and which by 1979 had been totally discredited by the Chicago School for the reasons stated by the Second Circuit in Fruehauf.[16] 

As the Second Circuit explained in Fruehauf, it was “unwilling to assume that any vertical foreclosure lessens competition” because 

[a]bsent very high market concentration or some other factor threatening a tangible anticompetitive effect, a vertical merger may simply realign sales patterns, for insofar as the merger forecloses some of the market from the merging firms’ competitors, it may simply free up that much of the market, in which the merging firm’s competitors and the merged firm formerly transacted, for new transactions between the merged firm’s competitors and the merging firm’s competitors.[17] 

Or, as Robert Bork put it more colorfully in The Antitrust Paradox, in criticizing the FTC’s decision in A.G. Spalding & Bros., Inc.,[18]:

We are left to imagine eager suppliers and hungry customers, unable to find each other, forever foreclosed and left languishing. It would appear the commission could have cured this aspect of the situation by throwing an industry social mixer.[19]

Since David Scheffman and Steve Salop first began developing their raising rivals’ cost theory of exclusionary conduct in the early 1980s, gallons of ink have been spilled in legal and economic journals discussing and evaluating that theory.[20] The general consensus of those articles is that while raising rivals’ cost is a plausible theory of exclusionary conduct, proving that a defendant has engaged in such conduct is very difficult in practice. It is even more difficult to predict whether, in evaluating a proposed merger, the merged firm is likely to engage in such conduct at some time in the future. 

Consistent with the Second Circuit’s decision in Fruehauf and with this academic literature, the courts, in deciding cases challenging exclusive dealing arrangements under either a vertical foreclosure theory or a raising rivals’ cost theory, have generally been willing to consider a defendant’s claim that the alleged exclusive dealing arrangements violated section 1 of the Sherman Act only in cases where the defendant had a dominant or near-dominant share of a highly concentrated market — usually meaning a share of 40 percent or more.[21] Likewise, all but one of the vertical mergers challenged by either the FTC or DOJ since 1996 have involved parties that had dominant or near-dominant shares of a highly concentrated market.[22] A majority of these involved mergers that were not purely vertical, but in which there was also a direct horizontal overlap between the two parties.

One of the few exceptions is AT&T/Time Warner, a challenge the DOJ lost in both the district court and the D.C. Circuit.[23] The outcome of that case illustrates the difficulty the agencies face in trying to prove a raising rivals’ cost theory of vertical foreclosure where the merging firms do not have a dominant or near-dominant share in either of the affected markets.

Given these court decisions and the agencies’ historical practice of challenging vertical mergers only between companies with dominant or near-dominant shares in highly concentrated markets, we would urge the DOJ and FTC to consider raising the market share threshold below which it is unlikely to challenge a vertical merger to at least 30 percent, in keeping with the EU guidelines, or to 40 percent in order to make the vertical merger guidelines more consistent with the U.S. case law on exclusive dealing.[24] We would also urge the agencies to consider adding a market concentration HHI threshold of 2,000 or higher, again in keeping with the EU guidelines.

3. Standards for applying a raising rivals’ cost theory of vertical foreclosure

Another way in which the EU guidelines are markedly better than the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines is in explaining the factors taken into consideration in evaluating whether a vertical merger will give the parties both the ability and incentive to raise their rivals’ costs in a way that will enable the merged entity to increase prices to consumers. Most importantly, the EU guidelines distinguish clearly between input foreclosure and customer foreclosure, and devote an entire section to each. For brevity, we will focus only on input foreclosure to show why we believe the more detailed approach the EU guidelines take is preferable to the more cursory discussion in the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines.

In discussing input foreclosure, the EU guidelines correctly distinguish between whether a vertical merger will give the merged firm the ability to raise rivals’ costs in a way that may substantially lessen competition and, if so, whether it will give the merged firm an incentive to do so. These are two quite distinct questions, which the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines unfortunately seem to lump together.

The ability to raise rivals’ costs

The EU guidelines identify four important conditions that must exist for a vertical merger to give the merged firm the ability to raise its rivals’ costs. First, the alleged foreclosure must concern an important input for the downstream product, such as one that represents a significant cost factor relative to the price of the downstream product. Second, the merged entity must have a significant degree of market power in the upstream market. Third, the merged entity must be able, by reducing access to its own upstream products or services, to affect negatively the overall availability of inputs for rivals in the downstream market in terms of price or quality. Fourth, the agency must examine the degree to which the merger may free up capacity of other potential input suppliers. If that capacity becomes available to downstream competitors, the merger may simple realign purchase patterns among competing firms, as the Second Circuit recognized in Fruehauf.

The incentive to foreclose access to inputs: 

The EU guidelines recognize that the incentive to foreclose depends on the degree to which foreclosure would be profitable. In making this determination, the vertically integrated firm will take into account how its supplies of inputs to competitors downstream will affect not only the profits of its upstream division, but also of its downstream division. Essentially, the merged entity faces a trade-off between the profit lost in the upstream market due to a reduction of input sales to (actual or potential) rivals and the profit gained from expanding sales downstream or, as the case may be, raising prices to consumers. This trade-off is likely to depend on the margins the merged entity obtains on upstream and downstream sales. Other things constant, the lower the margins upstream, the lower the loss from restricting input sales. Similarly, the higher the downstream margins, the higher the profit gain from increasing market share downstream at the expense of foreclosed rivals.

The EU guidelines recognize that the incentive for the integrated firm to raise rivals’ costs further depends on the extent to which downstream demand is likely to be diverted away from foreclosed rivals and the share of that diverted demand the downstream division of the integrated firm can capture. This share will normally be higher the less capacity constrained the merged entity will be relative to non-foreclosed downstream rivals and the more the products of the merged entity and foreclosed competitors are close substitutes. The effect on downstream demand will also be higher if the affected input represents a significant proportion of downstream rivals’ costs or if it otherwise represents a critical component of the downstream product.

The EU guidelines recognize that the incentive to foreclose actual or potential rivals may also depend on the extent to which the downstream division of the integrated firm can be expected to benefit from higher price levels downstream as a result of a strategy to raise rivals’ costs. The greater the market shares of the merged entity downstream, the greater the base of sales on which to enjoy increased margins. However, an upstream monopolist that is already able to fully extract all available profits in vertically related markets may not have any incentive to foreclose rivals following a vertical merger. Therefore, the ability to extract available profits from consumers does not follow immediately from a very high market share; to come to that conclusion requires a more thorough analysis of the actual and future constraints under which the monopolist operates.

Finally, the EU guidelines require the Commission to examine not only the incentives to adopt such conduct, but also the factors liable to reduce, or even eliminate, those incentives, including the possibility that the conduct is unlawful. In this regard, the Commission will consider, on the basis of a summary analysis: (i) the likelihood that this conduct would be clearly be unlawful under Community law, (ii) the likelihood that this illegal conduct could be detected, and (iii) the penalties that could be imposed.

Overall likely impact on effective competition: 

Finally, the EU guidelines recognize that a vertical merger will raise foreclosure concerns only when it would lead to increased prices in the downstream market. This normally requires that the foreclosed suppliers play a sufficiently important role in the competitive process in the downstream market. In general, the higher the proportion of rivals that would be foreclosed in the downstream market, the more likely the merger can be expected to result in a significant price increase in the downstream market and, therefore, to significantly impede effective competition. 

In making these determinations, the Commission must under the EU guidelines also assess the extent to which a vertical merger may raise barriers to entry, a criterion that is also found in the 1984 DOJ non-horizontal merger guidelines but is strangely missing from the DOJ/FTC draft guidelines. As the 1984 guidelines recognize, a vertical merger can raise entry barriers if the anticipated input foreclosure would create a need to enter at both the downstream and the upstream level in order to compete effectively in either market.

* * * * *

Rather than issue a set of incomplete vertical merger guidelines, we would urge the DOJ and FTC to follow the lead of the European Commission and develop a set of guidelines setting out in more detail the factors the agencies will consider and the standards they will use in evaluating vertical mergers. The EU non-horizontal merger guidelines provide an excellent model for doing so.


[1] U.S. Department of Justice & Federal Trade Commission, Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1233741/download (hereinafter cited as “DOJ/FTC draft guidelines”).

[2] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “DOJ and FTC Announce Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines for Public Comment,” Jan. 10, 2020, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/doj-and-ftc-announce-draft-vertical-merger-guidelines-public-comment.

[3] See European Commission, Guidelines on the assessment of non-horizontal mergers under the Council Regulation on the control of concentrations between undertakings (2008) (hereinafter cited as “EU guidelines”), available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52008XC1018(03)&from=EN.

[4] Id. at § 12.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at § 13.

[7] Id. at § 14. The insight that transactions costs are an explanation for both horizontal and vertical integration in firms first occurred to Ronald Coase in 1932, while he was a student at the London School of Economics. See Ronald H. Coase, Essays on Economics and Economists 7 (1994). Coase took five years to flesh out his initial insight, which he then published in 1937 in a now-famous article, The Nature of the Firm. See Ronald H. Coase, The Nature of the Firm, Economica 4 (1937). The implications of transactions costs for antitrust analysis were explained in more detail four decades later by Oliver Williamson in a book he published in 1975. See Oliver E. William, Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Antitrust Implications (1975) (explaining how vertical integration, either by ownership or contract, can, for example, protect a firm from free riding and other opportunistic behavior by its suppliers and customers). Both Coase and Williamson later received Nobel Prizes for Economics for their work recognizing the importance of transactions costs, not only in explaining the structure of firms, but in other areas of the economy as well. See, e.g., Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, J. Law & Econ. 3 (1960) (using transactions costs to explain the need for governmental action to force entities to internalize the costs their conduct imposes on others).

[8] U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, 1984 Merger Guidelines, § 4, available at https://www.justice.gov/archives/atr/1984-merger-guidelines.

[9] EU guidelines, at § 4.24.

[10] Fruehauf Corp. v. FTC, 603 F.2d 345 (2d Cir. 1979).

[11] United States v. AT&T, Inc., 916 F.2d 1029 (D.C. Cir. 2019).

[12] Id. at 1032; accord, Fruehauf, 603 F.2d, at 351 (“A vertical merger, unlike a horizontal one, does not eliminate a competing buyer or seller from the market . . . . It does not, therefore, automatically have an anticompetitive effect.”) (emphasis in original) (internal citations omitted).

[13] AT&T, 419 F.2d, at 1032 (internal citations omitted).

[14] DOJ/FTC draft guidelines, at 3.

[15] EU guidelines, at § 25.

[16] See Steven C. Salop & David T. Scheffman, Raising Rivals’ Costs, 73 AM. ECON. REV. 267 (1983).

[17] Fruehauf, supra note11, 603 F.2d at 353 n.9 (emphasis added).

[18] 56 F.T.C. 1125 (1960).

[19] Robert H. Bork, The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself 232 (1978).

[20] See, e.g., Alan J. Meese, Exclusive Dealing, the Theory of the Firm, and Raising Rivals’ Costs: Toward a New Synthesis, 50 Antitrust Bull., 371 (2005); David T. Scheffman and Richard S. Higgins, Twenty Years of Raising Rivals Costs: History, Assessment, and Future, 12 George Mason L. Rev.371 (2003); David Reiffen & Michael Vita, Comment: Is There New Thinking on Vertical Mergers, 63 Antitrust L.J. 917 (1995); Thomas G. Krattenmaker & Steven Salop, Anticompetitive Exclusion: Raising Rivals’ Costs to Achieve Power Over Price, 96 Yale L. J. 209, 219-25 (1986).

[21] See, e.g., United States v. Microsoft, 87 F. Supp. 2d 30, 50-53 (D.D.C. 1999) (summarizing law on exclusive dealing under section 1 of the Sherman Act); id. at 52 (concluding that modern case law requires finding that exclusive dealing contracts foreclose rivals from 40% of the marketplace); Omega Envtl, Inc. v. Gilbarco, Inc., 127 F.3d 1157, 1162-63 (9th Cir. 1997) (finding 38% foreclosure insufficient to make out prima facie case that exclusive dealing agreement violated the Sherman and Clayton Acts, at least where there appeared to be alternate channels of distribution).

[22] See, e.g., United States, et al. v. Comcast, 1:11-cv-00106 (D.D.C. Jan. 18, 2011) (Comcast had over 50% of MVPD market), available at https://www.justice.gov/atr/case-document/competitive-impact-statement-72; United States v. Premdor, Civil No.: 1-01696 (GK) (D.D.C. Aug. 3, 2002) (Masonite manufactured more than 50% of all doorskins sold in the U.S.; Premdor sold 40% of all molded doors made in the U.S.), available at https://www.justice.gov/atr/case-document/final-judgment-151.

[23] See United States v. AT&T, Inc., 916 F.2d 1029 (D.C. Cir. 2019).

[24] See Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U.S. 294, (1962) (relying on earlier Supreme Court decisions involving exclusive dealing and tying claims under section 3 of the Clayton Act for guidance as to what share of a market must be foreclosed before a vertical merger can be found unlawful under section 7).

[TOTM: The following is the third in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the politicization of antitrust. The entire series of posts is available here.]

This post is authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, president and founder of the International Center for Law & Economics, and Alec Stapp, Research Fellow at the International Center for Law & Economics.

Source: The Economist

Is there a relationship between concentrated economic power and political power? Do big firms have success influencing politicians and regulators to a degree that smaller firms — or even coalitions of small firms — could only dream of? That seems to be the narrative that some activists, journalists, and scholars are pushing of late. And, to be fair, it makes some intuitive sense (before you look at the data). The biggest firms have the most resources — how could they not have an advantage in the political arena?

The argument that corporate power leads to political power faces at least four significant challenges, however. First, the little empirical research there is does not support the claim. Second, there is almost no relationship between market capitalization (a proxy for economic power) and lobbying expenditures (a, admittedly weak, proxy for political power). Third, the absolute level of spending on lobbying is surprisingly low in the US given the potential benefits from rent-seeking (this is known as the Tullock paradox). Lastly, the proposed remedy for this supposed problem is to make antitrust more political — an intervention that is likely to make the problem worse rather than better (assuming there is a problem to begin with).

The claims that political power follows economic power

The claim that large firms or industry concentration causes political power (and thus that under-enforcement of antitrust laws is a key threat to our democratic system of government) is often repeated, and accepted as a matter of faith. Take, for example, Robert Reich’s March 2019 Senate testimony on “Does America Have a Monopoly Problem?”:

These massive corporations also possess substantial political clout. That’s one reason they’re consolidating: They don’t just seek economic power; they also seek political power.

Antitrust laws were supposed to stop what’s been going on.

* * *

[S]uch large size and gigantic capitalization translate into political power. They allow vast sums to be spent on lobbying, political campaigns, and public persuasion. (emphasis added)

Similarly, in an article in August of 2019 for The Guardian, law professor Ganesh Sitaraman argued there is a tight relationship between economic power and political power:

[R]eformers recognized that concentrated economic power — in any form — was a threat to freedom and democracy. Concentrated economic power not only allowed for localized oppression, especially of workers in their daily lives, it also made it more likely that big corporations and wealthy people wouldn’t be subject to the rule of law or democratic controls. Reformers’ answer to the concentration of economic power was threefold: break up economic power, rein it in through regulation, and tax it.

It was the reformers of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era who invented America’s antitrust laws — from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission Acts of the early 20th century. Whether it was Republican trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt or liberal supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, courageous leaders in this era understood that when companies grow too powerful they threatened not just the economy but democratic government as well. Break-ups were a way to prevent the agglomeration of economic power in the first place, and promote an economic democracy, not just a political democracy. (emphasis added)

Luigi Zingales made a similar argument in his 2017 paper “Towards a Political Theory of the Firm”:

[T]he interaction of concentrated corporate power and politics is a threat to the functioning of the free market economy and to the economic prosperity it can generate, and a threat to democracy as well. (emphasis added)

The assumption that economic power leads to political power is not a new one. Not only, as Zingales points out, have political thinkers since Adam Smith asserted versions of the same, but more modern social scientists have continued the claims with varying (but always indeterminate) degrees of quantification. Zingales quotes Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means’ 1932 book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, for example:

The rise of the modern corporation has brought a concentration of economic power which can compete on equal terms with the modern state — economic power versus political power, each strong in its own field. 

Russell Pittman (an economist at the DOJ Antitrust Division) argued in 1988 that rent-seeking activities would be undertaken only by firms in highly concentrated industries because:

if the industry in question is unconcentrated, then the firm may decide that the level of benefits accruing to the industry will be unaffected by its own level of contributions, so that the benefits may be enjoyed without incurrence of the costs. Such a calculation may be made by other firms in the industry, of course, with the result that a free-rider problem prevents firms individually from making political contributions, even if it is in their collective interest to do so.

For the most part the claims are virtually entirely theoretical and their support anecdotal. Reich, for example, supports his claim with two thin anecdotes from which he draws a firm (but, in fact, unsupported) conclusion: 

To take one example, although the European Union filed fined [sic] Google a record $2.7 billion for forcing search engine users into its own shopping platforms, American antitrust authorities have not moved against the company.

Why not?… We can’t be sure why the FTC chose not to pursue Google. After all, section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 gives the Commission broad authority to prevent unfair acts or practices. One distinct possibility concerns Google’s political power. It has one of the biggest lobbying powerhouses in Washington, and the firm gives generously to Democrats as well as Republicans.

A clearer example of an abuse of power was revealed last November when the New York Times reported that Facebook executives withheld evidence of Russian activity on their platform far longer than previously disclosed.

Even more disturbing, Facebook employed a political opposition research firm to discredit critics. How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against critics? Or before potential critics are silenced even by the possibility? As the Times’s investigation made clear, economic power cannot be separated from political power. (emphasis added)

The conclusion — that “economic power cannot be separated from political power” — simply does not follow from the alleged evidence. 

The relationship between economic power and political power is extremely weak

Few of these assertions of the relationship between economic and political power are backed by empirical evidence. Pittman’s 1988 paper is empirical (as is his previous 1977 paper looking at the relationship between industry concentration and contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign), but it is also in direct contradiction to several other empirical studies (Zardkoohi (1985); Munger (1988); Esty and Caves (1983)) that find no correlation between concentration and political influence; Pittman’s 1988 paper is indeed a response to those papers, in part. 

In fact, as one study (Grier, Muger & Roberts (1991)) summarizes the evidence:

[O]f ten empirical investigations by six different authors/teams…, relatively few of the studies find a positive, significant relation between contributions/level of political activity and concentration, though a variety of measures of both are used…. 

There is little to recommend most of these studies as conclusive one way or the other on the question of interest. Each one suffers from a sample selection or estimation problem that renders its results suspect. (emphasis added)

And, as they point out, there is good reason to question the underlying theory of a direct correlation between concentration and political influence:

[L]egislation or regulation favorable to an industry is from the perspective of a given firm a public good, and therefore subject to Olson’s collective action problem. Concentrated industries should suffer less from this difficulty, since their sparse numbers make bargaining cheaper…. [But at the same time,] concentration itself may affect demand, suggesting that the predicted correlation between concentration and political activity may be ambiguous, or even negative. 

* * *

The only conclusion that seems possible is that the question of the correct relation between the structure of an industry and its observed level of political activity cannot be resolved theoretically. While it may be true that firms in a concentrated industry can more cheaply solve the collective action problem that inheres in political action, they are also less likely to need to do so than their more competitive brethren…. As is so often the case, the interesting question is empirical: who is right? (emphasis added)

The results of Grier, Muger & Roberts (1991)’s own empirical study are ambiguous at best (and relate only to political participation, not success, and thus not actual political power):

[A]re concentrated industries more or less likely to be politically active? Numerous previous studies have addressed this topic, but their methods are not comparable and their results are flatly contradictory. 

On the side of predicting a positive correlation between concentration and political activity is the theory that Olson’s “free rider” problem has more bite the larger the number of participants and the smaller their respective individual benefits. Opposing this view is the claim that it precisely because such industries are concentrated that they have less need for government intervention. They can act on their own to gamer the benefits of cartelization that less concentrated industries can secure only through political activity. 

Our results indicate that both sides are right, over some range of concentration. The relation between political activity and concentration is a polynomial of degree 2, rising and then falling, achieving a peak at a four-firm concentration ratio slightly below 0.5. (emphasis added)

Despite all of this, Zingales (like others) explicitly claims that there is a clear and direct relationship between economic power and political power:

In the last three decades in the United States, the power of corporations to shape the rules of the game has become stronger… [because] the size and market share of companies has increased, which reduces the competition across conflicting interests in the same sector and makes corporations more powerful vis-à-vis consumers’ interest.

But a quick look at the empirical data continues to call this assertion into serious question. Indeed, if we look at the lobbying expenditures of the top 50 companies in the US by market capitalization, we see an extremely weak (at best) relationship between firm size and political power (as proxied by lobbying expenditures):

Of course, once again, this says little about the effectiveness of efforts to exercise political power, which could, in theory, correlate with market power but not expenditures. Yet the evidence on this suggests that, while concentration “increases both [political] activity and success…, [n]either firm size nor industry size has a robust influence on political activity or success.” (emphasis added). Of course there are enormous and well-known problems with measuring industry concentration, and it’s not clear that even this attribute is well-correlated with political activity or success (and, interestingly for the argument that profits are a big part of the story because firms in more concentrated industries from lax antitrust realize higher profits have more money to spend on political influence, even concentration in the Esty and Caves study is not correlated with political expenditures.)

Indeed, a couple of examples show the wide range of lobbying expenditures for a given firm size. Costco, which currently has a market cap of $130 billion, has spent only $210,000 on lobbying so far in 2019. By contrast, Amgen, which has a $144 billion market cap, has spent $8.54 million, or more than 40 times as much. As shown in the chart above, this variance is the norm. 

However, discussing the relative differences between these companies is less important than pointing out the absolute levels of expenditure. Spending eight and a half million dollars per year would not be prohibitive for literally thousands of firms in the US. If access is this cheap, what’s going on here?

Why is there so little money in US politics?

The Tullock paradox asks why, if the return to rent-seeking is so high — which it plausibly is because the government spends trillions of dollars each year — is so little money spent on influencing policymakers?

Considering the value of public policies at stake and the reputed influence of campaign contributors in policymaking, Gordon Tullock (1972) asked, why is there so little money in U.S. politics? In 1972, when Tullock raised this question, campaign spending was about $200 million. Assuming a reasonable rate of return, such an investment could have yielded at most $250-300 million over time, a sum dwarfed by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public expenditures and regulatory costs supposedly at stake.

A recent article by Scott Alexander updated the numbers for 2019 and compared the total to the $12 billion US almond industry:

[A]ll donations to all candidates, all lobbying, all think tanks, all advocacy organizations, the Washington Post, Vox, Mic, Mashable, Gawker, and Tumblr, combined, are still worth a little bit less than the almond industry.

Maybe it’s because spending money on donations, lobbying, think tanks, journalism and advocacy is ineffective on net (i.e., spending by one group is counterbalanced by spending by another group) and businesses know it?

In his paper on elections, Ansolabehere focuses on the corporate perspective. He argues that money neither makes a candidate much more likely to win, nor buys much influence with a candidate who does win. Corporations know this, which is why they don’t bother spending more. (emphasis added)

To his credit, Zingales acknowledges this issue:

To the extent that US corporations are exercising political influence, it seems that they are choosing less-visible but perhaps more effective ways. In fact, since Gordon Tullock’s (1972) famous article, it has been a puzzle in political science why there is so little money in politics (as discussed in this journal by Ansolabehere, de Figueiredo, and Snyder 2003).

So, what are these “less-visible but perhaps more effective” ways? Unfortunately, the evidence in support of this claim is anecdotal and unconvincing. As noted above, Reich offers only speculation and extremely weak anecdotal assertions. Meanwhile, Zingales tells the story of Robert (mistakenly identified in the paper as “Richard”) Rubin pushing through repeal of Glass-Steagall to benefit Citigroup, then getting hired for $15 million a year when he left the government. Assuming the implication is actually true, is that amount really beyond the reach of all but the largest companies? How many banks with an interest in the repeal of Glass-Steagall were really unlikely at the time to be able to credibly offer future compensation because they would be out of business? Very few, and no doubt some of the biggest and most powerful were arguably at greater risk of bankruptcy than some of the smaller banks.

Maybe only big companies have an interest in doing this kind of thing because they have more to lose? But in concentrated industries they also have more to lose by conferring the benefit on their competitors. And it’s hard to make the repeal or passage of a law, say, apply only to you and not everyone else in the industry. Maybe they collude? Perhaps, but is there any evidence of this? Zingales offers only pure speculation here, as well. For example, why was the US Google investigation dropped but not the EU one? Clearly because of White House visits, says Zingales. OK — but how much do these visits cost firms? If that’s the source of political power, it surely doesn’t require monopoly profits to obtain it. And it’s virtually impossible that direct relationships of this kind are beyond the reach of coalitions of smaller firms, or even small firms, full stop.  

In any case, the political power explanation turns mostly on doling out favors in exchange for individuals’ payoffs — which just aren’t that expensive, and it’s doubtful that the size of a firm correlates with the quality of its one-on-one influence brokering, except to the extent that causation might run the other way — which would be an indictment not of size but of politics. Of course, in the Hobbesian world of political influence brokering, as in the Hobbesian world of pre-political society, size alone is not determinative so long as alliances can be made or outcomes turn on things other than size (e.g., weapons in the pre-Hobbesian world; family connections in the world of political influence)

The Noerr–Pennington doctrine is highly relevant here as well. In Noerr, the Court ruled that “no violation of the [Sherman] Act can be predicated upon mere attempts to influence the passage or enforcement of laws” and “[j]oint efforts to influence public officials do not violate the antitrust laws even though intended to eliminate competition.” This would seem to explain, among other things, the existence of trade associations and other entities used by coalitions of small (and large) firms to influence the policymaking process.

If what matters for influence peddling is ultimately individual relationships and lobbying power, why aren’t the biggest firms in the world the lobbying firms and consultant shops? Why is Rubin selling out for $15 million a year if the benefit to Citigroup is in the billions? And, if concentration is the culprit, why isn’t it plausibly also the solution? It isn’t only the state that keeps the power of big companies in check; it’s other big companies, too. What Henry G. Manne said in his testimony on the Industrial Reorganization Act of 1973 remains true today: 

There is simply no correlation between the concentration ratio in an industry, or the size of its firms, and the effectiveness of the industry in the halls of Government.

In addition to the data presented earlier, this analysis would be incomplete if it did not mention the role of advocacy groups in influencing outcomes, the importance and size of large foundations, the role of unions, and the role of individual relationships.

Maybe voters matter more than money?

The National Rifle Association spends very little on direct lobbying efforts (less than $10 million over the most recent two-year cycle). The organization’s total annual budget is around $400 million. In the grand scheme of things, these are not overwhelming resources. But the NRA is widely-regarded as one of the most powerful political groups in the country, particularly within the Republican Party. How could this be? In short, maybe it’s not Sturm Ruger, Remington Outdoor, and Smith & Wesson — the three largest gun manufacturers in the US — that influence gun regulations; maybe it’s the highly-motivated voters who like to buy guns. 

The NRA has 5.5 million members, many of whom vote in primaries with gun rights as one of their top issues  — if not the top issue. And with low turnout in primaries — only 8.7% of all registered voters participated in 2018 Republican primaries — a candidate seeking the Republican nomination all but has to secure an endorsement from the NRA. On this issue at least, the deciding factor is the intensity of voter preferences, not the magnitude of campaign donations from rent-seeking corporations.

The NRA is not the only counterexample to arguments like those from Zingales. Auto dealers are a constituency that is powerful not necessarily due to its raw size but through its dispersed nature. At the state level, almost every political district has an auto dealership (and the owners are some of the wealthiest and best-connected individuals in the area). It’s no surprise then that most states ban the direct sale of cars from manufacturers (i.e., you have to go through a dealer). This results in higher prices for consumers and lower output for manufacturers. But the auto dealership industry is not highly concentrated at the national level. The dealers don’t need to spend millions of dollars lobbying federal policymakers for special protections; they can do it on the local level — on a state-by-state basis — for much less money (and without merging into consolidated national chains).

Another, more recent, case highlights the factors besides money that may affect political decisions. President Trump has been highly critical of Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post (which Bezos owns) since the beginning of his administration because he views the newspaper as a political enemy. In October, Microsoft beat out Amazon for a $10 billion contract to provide cloud infrastructure for the Department of Defense (DoD). Now, Amazon is suing the government, claiming that Trump improperly influenced the competitive bidding process and cost the company a fair shot at the contract. This case is a good example of how money may not be determinative at the margin, and also how multiple “monopolies” may have conflicting incentives and we don’t know how they net out.

Politicizing antitrust will only make this problem worse

At the FTC’s “Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute advocated using antitrust to counter the political power of economically powerful firms:

[T]he main practical goal of antimonopoly is to extend checks and balances into the political economy. The foremost goal is not and must never be efficiency. Markets are made, they do not exist in any platonic ether. The making of markets is a political and moral act.

In other words, the goal of breaking up economic power is not to increase economic benefits but to decrease political influence. 

But as the author of one of the empirical analyses of the relationship between economic and political power notes the asserted “solution” to the unsupported “problem” of excess political influence by economically powerful firms — more and easier antitrust enforcement — may actually make the alleged problem worse:

Economic rents may be obtained through the process of market competition or be obtained by resorting to governmental protection. Rational firms choose the least costly alternative. Collusion to obtain governmental protection will be less costly, the higher the concentration, ceteris paribus. However, high concentration in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to induce governmental protection.

The result that rent-seeking activity is triggered when firms are affected by government regulation has a clear implication: to reduce rent-seeking waste, governmental interference in the market place needs to be attenuated. Pittman’s suggested approach, however, is “to maintain a vigorous antitrust policy” (p. 181). In fact, a more strict antitrust policy may exacerbate rent-seeking. For example, the firms which will be affected by a vigorous application of antitrust laws would have incentive to seek moderation (or rents) from Congress or from the enforcement officials.

Rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration. And imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives (as many proponents of these arguments desire), would also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so. 

And if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? With an expanded basis for increased enforcement, the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might find that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules. All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying irony of claims that we need to diminish the economic content of antitrust in order to reduce the political power of private firms: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results.

Amazon offers Prime discounts to Whole Food customers and offers free delivery for Prime members. Those are certainly consumer benefits. But with those comes a cost, which may or may not be significant. By bundling its products with collective discounts, Amazon makes it more attractive for shoppers to shift their buying practices from local stores to the internet giant. Will this eventually mean that local stores will become more inefficient, based on lower volume, and will eventually close? Do most Americans care about the potential loss of local supermarkets and specialty grocers? No one, including antitrust enforcers, seems to have asked them.

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