Archives For Competition law

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm reportedly requested a 30 day delay to a preliminary ruling in their ongoing dispute over the terms of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements–indicating that they may seek a settlement. The dispute raises important issues regarding the scope of so-called FRAND (“fair reasonable and non-discriminatory”) commitments in the context of standards setting bodies and whether these obligations extend to component level licensing in the absence of an express agreement to do so.

At issue is the FTC’s allegation that Qualcomm has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct” that harms its competitors. Underpinning this allegation is the FTC’s claim that Qualcomm’s voluntary contracts with two American standards bodies imply that Qualcomm is obliged to license on the same terms to rival chip makers. In this post, we examine the allegation and the claim upon which it rests.

The recently requested delay relates to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by the FTC on August 30, 2018–about which more below. But the dispute itself stretches back to January 17, 2017, when the FTC filed for a permanent injunction against Qualcomm Inc. for engaging in unfair methods of competition in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. FTC’s major claims against Qualcomm were as follows:

  • It has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct”  that taxes its competitors’ baseband processor sales, reduces competitors’ ability and incentives to innovate, and raises the prices to be paid by end consumers for cellphones and tablets.  
  • Qualcomm is causing considerable harm to competition and consumers through its “no license, no chips” policy; its refusal to license to its chipset-maker rivals; and its exclusive deals with Apple.
  • The above practices allow Qualcomm to abuse its dominant position in the supply of CDMA and premium LTE modem chips.
  • Given that Qualcomm has made a commitment to standard setting bodies to license these patents on FRAND terms, such behaviour qualifies as a breach of FRAND.

The complaint was filed on the eve of the new presidential administration, when only three of the five commissioners were in place. Moreover, the Commissioners were not unanimous. Commissioner Ohlhausen delivered a dissenting statement in which she argued:

[T]here is no robust economic evidence of exclusion and anticompetitive effects, either as to the complaint’s core “taxation” theory or to associated allegations like exclusive dealing. Instead the Commission speaks about a possibility that less than supports a vague standalone action under a Section 5 FTC claim.

Qualcomm filed a motion to dismiss on April 3, 2017. This was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court  found that the FTC has adequately alleged that Qualcomm’s conduct violates § 1 and § 2 of the Sherman Act and that it had entered into exclusive dealing arrangements with Apple. Thus, the court asserted, the FTC has adequately stated a claim under § 5 of the FTCA.

It is important to note that the core of the FTC’s arguments regarding Qualcomm’s abuse of dominant position rests on how it adopts the “no license, no chip” policy and thus breaches its FRAND obligations. However, it falls short of proving how the royalties charged by Qualcomm to OEMs exceeds the FRAND rates actually amounting to a breach, and qualifies as what FTC defines as a “tax” under the price squeeze theory that it puts forth.

(The Court did not go into whether there was a violation of § 5 of the FTC independent of a Sherman Act violation. Had it done so, this would have added more clarity to Section 5 claims, which are increasingly being invoked in antitrust cases even though its scope remains quite amorphous.)

On August 30, the FTC filed a partial summary judgement motion in relation to claims on the applicability of local California contract laws. This would leave antitrust issues to be decided in the subsequent hearing, which is set for January next year.

In a well-reasoned submission, the FTC asserts that Qualcomm is bound by voluntary agreements that it signed with two U.S. based standards development organisations (SDOs):

  1. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and
  2. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

These agreements extend to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents (SEPs) on CDMA, UMTS and LTE wireless technologies. Under these contracts, Qualcomm is obligated to license its SEPs to all applicants implementing these standards on FRAND terms.

The FTC asserts that this obligation should be interpreted to extend to Qualcomm’s rival modem chip manufacturers and sellers. It requests the Court to therefore grant a summary judgment since there are no disputed facts on such obligation. It submits that this should “streamline the trial by obviating the need for  extrinsic evidence regarding the meaning of Qualcomm’s commitments on the requirement to license to competitors, to ETSI, a third SDO.”

A review of a heavily redacted filing by FTC and a subsequent response by Qualcomm indicates that questions of fact and law continue to remain as regards Qualcomm’s licensing commitments and their scope. Thus, contrary to the FTC’s assertions, extrinsic evidence is still needed for resolution to some of the questions raised by the parties.

Indeed, the evidence produced by both parties points towards the need for resolution of ambiguities in the contractual agreements that Qualcomm has signed with ATIS and TIA. The scope and purpose of these licensing obligations lie at the core of the motion.

The IP licensing policies of the two SDOs provide for licensing of relevant patents to all applicants who implement these standards on FRAND terms. However, the key issues are whether components such as modem chips can be said to implement standards and whether component level licensing falls within this ambit. Yet, the resolution to these key issues, is unclear.

Qualcomm explains that commitments to ATIS and TIA do not require licenses to be made available for modem chips because modem chips do not implement or practice cellular standards and that standards do not define the operation of modem chips.

In contrast, the complaint by FTC raises the question of whether FRAND commitments extend to licensing at all levels. Different components needed for a device come together to facilitate the adoption and implementation of a standard. However, it does not logically follow that each individual component of the device separately practices or implements that standard even though it contributes to the implementation. While a single component may fully implement a standard, this need not always be the case.

These distinctions are significant from the point of interpreting the scope of the FRAND promise, which is commonly understood to extend to licensing of technologies incorporated in a standard to potential users of the standard. Understanding the meaning of a “user” becomes critical here and Qualcomm’s submission draws attention to this.

An important factor in the determination of a “user” of a particular standard is the extent to which the standard is practiced or implemented therein. Some standards development organisations (SDOs) have addressed this in their policies by clarifying that FRAND obligations extend to those “wholly compliant” or “fully conforming” to the specific standards. Clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy, clarifies that a patent holder’s obligation to make licenses available is limited to “methods” and “equipments”. It defines an equipment as “a system or device fully conforming to a standard.” And methods as “any method or operation fully conforming to a standard.”

It is noteworthy that the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Executive Standards Council Appeals Panel in a decision has said that there is no agreement on the definition of the phrase “wholly compliant implementation.”  

Device level licensing is the prevailing industry wide practice by companies like Ericsson, InterDigital, Nokia and others. In November 2017, the European Commission issued guidelines on licensing of SEPs and took a balanced approach on this issue by not prescribing component level licensing in its guidelines.

The former director general of ETSI, Karl Rosenbrock, adopts a contrary view, explaining ETSI’s policy, “allows every company that requests a license to obtain one, regardless of where the prospective licensee is in the chain of production and regardless of whether the prospective licensee is active upstream or downstream.”

Dr. Bertram Huber, a legal expert who personally participated in the drafting of the IPR policy of ETSI, wrote a response to Rosenbrock, in which he explains that ETSI’s IPR policies required licensing obligations for systems “fully conforming” to the standard:

[O]nce a commitment is given to license on FRAND terms, it does not necessarily extend to chipsets and other electronic components of standards-compliant end-devices. He highlights how, in adopting its IPR Policy, ETSI intended to safeguard access to the cellular standards without changing the prevailing industry practice of manufacturers of complete end-devices concluding licenses to the standard essential patents practiced in those end-devices.

Both ATIS and TIA are organizational partners of a collaboration called 3rd Generation Partnership Project along with ETSI and four other SDOs who work on development of cellular technologies. TIA and ATIS are both accredited by ANSI. Therefore, these SDOs are likely to impact one another with the policies each one adopts. In the absence of definitive guidance on interpretation of the IPR policy and contractual terms within the institutional mechanism of ATIS and TIA, at the very least, clarity is needed on the ambit of these policies with respect to component level licensing.

The non-discrimination obligation, which as per FTC, mandates Qualcomm to license to its competitors who manufacture and sell chips, would be limited by the scope of the IPR policy and contractual agreements that bind Qualcomm and depends upon the specific SDO’s policy.  As discussed, the policies of ATIS and TIA are unclear on this.

In conclusion, FTC’s filing does not obviate the need to hear extrinsic evidence on what Qualcomm’s commitments to the ETSI mean. Given the ambiguities in the policies and agreements of ATIS and TIA on whether they include component level licensing or whether the modem chips in their entirety can be said to practice the standard, it would be incorrect to say that there is no genuine dispute of fact (and law) in this instance.

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

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

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

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

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

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

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

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

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

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be participating in two excellent antitrust/consumer protection events next week in DC, both of which may be of interest to our readers:

5th Annual Public Policy Conference on the Law & Economics of Privacy and Data Security

hosted by the GMU Law & Economics Center’s Program on Economics & Privacy, in partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum, and the Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

Conference Description:

Data flows are central to an increasingly large share of the economy. A wide array of products and business models—from the sharing economy and artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles and embedded medical devices—rely on personal data. Consequently, privacy regulation leaves a large economic footprint. As with any regulatory enterprise, the key to sound data policy is striking a balance between competing interests and norms that leaves consumers better off; finding an approach that addresses privacy concerns, but also supports the benefits of technology is an increasingly complex challenge. Not only is technology continuously advancing, but individual attitudes, expectations, and participation vary greatly. New ideas and approaches to privacy must be identified and developed at the same pace and with the same focus as the technologies they address.

This year’s symposium will include panels on Unfairness under Section 5: Unpacking “Substantial Injury”, Conceptualizing the Benefits and Costs from Data Flows, and The Law and Economics of Data Security.

I will be presenting a draft paper, co-authored with Kristian Stout, on the FTC’s reasonableness standard in data security cases following the Commission decision in LabMD, entitled, When “Reasonable” Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-less Data Security Standard.

Conference Details:

  • Thursday, June 8, 2017
  • 8:00 am to 3:40 pm
  • at George Mason University, Founders Hall (next door to the Law School)
    • 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22201

Register here

View the full agenda here

 

The State of Antitrust Enforcement

hosted by the Federalist Society.

Panel Description:

Antitrust policy during much of the Obama Administration was a continuation of the Bush Administration’s minimal involvement in the market. However, at the end of President Obama’s term, there was a significant pivot to investigations and blocks of high profile mergers such as Halliburton-Baker Hughes, Comcast-Time Warner Cable, Staples-Office Depot, Sysco-US Foods, and Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna. How will or should the new Administration analyze proposed mergers, including certain high profile deals like Walgreens-Rite Aid, AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., and DraftKings-FanDuel?

Join us for a lively luncheon panel discussion that will cover these topics and the anticipated future of antitrust enforcement.

Speakers:

  • Albert A. Foer, Founder and Senior Fellow, American Antitrust Institute
  • Profesor Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Honorable Joshua D. Wright, Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law
  • Moderator: Honorable Ronald A. Cass, Dean Emeritus, Boston University School of Law and President, Cass & Associates, PC

Panel Details:

  • Friday, June 09, 2017
  • 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
  • at the National Press Club, MWL Conference Rooms
    • 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20045

Register here

Hope to see everyone at both events!

On March 14, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report “by an independent group of experts it commissioned to consider U.S. responses to the inappropriate use of antitrust enforcement actions worldwide to achieve industrial policy outcomes.”  (See here and here.)  I served as rapporteur for the report, which represents the views of the experts (leading academics, practitioners, and former senior officials who specialize in antitrust and international trade), not the position of the Chamber.  In particular, the report calls for the formation of a new White House-led working group.  The working group would oversee development of a strategy for dealing with the misuse of competition policy by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies.  The denial of fundamental due process rights and the inappropriate extraterritorial application of competition remedies by foreign governments also would be within the purview of the working group.

The Chamber will hold a program on April 10 with members of the experts group to discuss the report and its conclusions.  The letter transmitting the report to the President and congressional leadership states as follows:

Today, nearly every nation in the world has some form of antitrust or competition law regulating business activities occurring within or substantially affecting its territory. The United States has long championed the promotion of global competition as the best way to ensure that businesses have a strong incentive to operate efficiently and innovate, and this approach has helped to fuel a strong and vibrant U.S. economy. But competition laws are not always applied in a transparent, accurate and impartial manner, and they can have significant adverse impacts far outside a country’s own borders. Certain of our major trading partners appear to have used their laws to actually harm competition by U.S. companies, protecting their own markets from foreign competition, promoting national champions, forcing technology transfers and, in some cases, denying U.S. companies fundamental due process.

Up to now, the United States has had some, but limited, success in addressing this problem. For that reason, in August of 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened an independent, bi-partisan group of experts in trade and competition law and economics to take a fresh look and develop recommendations for a potentially more effective and better-integrated international trade and competition law strategy.

As explained by the U.S. Chamber in announcing the formation of this group,

The United States has been, and should continue to be, a global leader in the development and implementation of sound competition law and policy. . . . When competition law is applied in a discriminatory manner or relies upon non-competition factors to engineer outcomes in support of national champions or industrial policy objectives, the impact of such instances arguably goes beyond the role of U.S. antitrust agencies. The Chamber believes it is critical for the United States to develop a coordinated trade and competition law approach to international economic policy.

The International Competition Policy Expert Group (“ICPEG”) was encouraged to develop “practical and actionable steps forward that will serve to advance sound trade and competition policy.”

The Report accompanying this letter is the result of ICPEG’s work. Although the U.S. Chamber suggested the project and recruited participants, it made no effort to steer the content of ICPEG’s recommendations.

The Report is addressed specifically to the interaction of competition law and international trade law and proposes greater coordination and cooperation between them in the formulation and implementation of U.S. international trade policy. It focuses on the use of international trade and other appropriate tools to address problems in the application of foreign competition policies through 12 concrete recommendations.

Recommendations 1 through 6 urge the Trump Administration to prioritize the coordination of international competition policy through a new, cabinet-level White House working group (the “Working Group”) to be chaired by an Assistant to the President. Among other things, the Working Group would:

  • set a government-wide, high-level strategy for articulating and promoting policies to address the misuse of competition law by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies;
  • undertake a 90-day review of existing and potential new trade policy tools available to address the challenge, culminating in a recommended “action list” for the President and Congress; and
  • address not only broader substantive concerns regarding the abuse of competition policy for protectionist and discriminatory purposes, but also the denial of fundamental process rights and the extraterritorial imposition of remedies that are not necessary to protect a country’s legitimate competition law objectives.

Recommendations 7 through 12 focus on steps that should be taken with international organizations and bilateral initiatives. For example, the United States should consider:

  • the feasibility and value of expanding the World Trade Organization’s regular assessment of each member government by the Trade Policy Review Body to include national competition policies and encourage the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to undertake specific peer reviews of national procedural or substantive policies, including of non-OECD countries;
  • encouraging the OECD and/or other multilateral bodies to adopt a code enumerating transparent, accurate, and impartial procedures; and
  • promoting the application of agreements under which nations would cooperate with and take into account legitimate interests of other nations affected by a competition investigation.

The competition and trade law issues addressed in the Report are complex and the consequences of taking any particular action vis-a-vis another country must be carefully considered in light of a number of factors beyond the scope of this Report. ICPEG does not take a view on the actions of any particular country nor propose specific steps with respect to any actual dispute or matter. In addition, reasonable minds can differ on ICPEG’s assessment and recommendations. But we hope that this Report will prompt appropriate prioritization of the issues it addresses and serve as the basis for the further development of a successful policy and action plan and improved coordination and cooperation between U.S. competition and trade agencies.

A key issue raised by the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal from the European Union (EU) – popularly referred to as Brexit – is its implications for competition and economic welfare.  The competition issue is rather complex.  Various potentially significant UK competition policy reforms flowing from Brexit that immediately suggest themselves are briefly summarized below.  (These are merely examples – further evaluation may point to additional significant competition policy changes that Brexit is likely to inspire.)

First, UK competition policy will no longer be subject to European Commission (EC) competition law strictures, but will be guided instead solely by UK institutions, led by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).  The CMA is a free market-oriented, well-run agency that incorporates careful economic analysis into its enforcement investigations and industry studies.  It is widely deemed to be one of the world’s best competition and consumer protection enforcers, and has first-rate leadership.  (Former U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chairman William Kovacic, a very sound antitrust scholar, professor, and head of George Washington University Law School’s Competition Law Center, serves as one of the CMA’s “Non-Executive Directors,” who set the CMA’s policies.)  Post-Brexit, the CMA will no longer have to conform its policies to the approaches adopted by the EC’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) and determinations by European courts.   Despite its recent increased reliance on an “economic effects-based” analytical approach, DG-Comp still suffers from excessive formalism and an over-reliance on pure theories of harm, rather than hard empiricism.  Moreover, EU courts still tend to be overly formalistic and deferential to EC administrative determinations.  In short, CMA decision-making in the competition and consumer protection spheres, free from constraining EU influences, should (at least marginally) prove to be more welfare-enhancing within the UK post-Brexit.  (For a more detailed discussion of Brexit’s implication for EU and UK competition law, see here.)  There is a countervailing risk that Brexit might marginally worsen EU competition policy by eliminating UK pro-free market influence on EU policies, but the likelihood and scope of such a marginal effect is not readily measurable.

Second, Brexit will allow the UK to escape participation in the protectionist, wasteful, output-limiting European agricultural cartel knows as the “Common Agricultural Policy,” or CAP, which involves inefficient subsidies whose costs are borne by consumers.  This would be a clearly procompetitive and welfare-enhancing result, to the extent that it undermined the CAP.  In the near term, however, its net effects on CAP financing and on the welfare of UK farmers appear to be relatively small.

Third, the UK may be able to avoid the restrictive EU Common Fisheries Policy and exercise greater control over its coastal fisheries.  In so doing, the UK could choose to authorize the creation of a market-based tradable fisheries permit system that would enhance consumer and producer welfare and increase competition.

Fourth, Brexit will free the UK economy from one-size-fits-all supervisory regulatory frameworks in such areas as the environment, broadband policy (“digital Europe”), labor, food and consumer products, among others.  This regulatory freedom, properly handled, could prove a major force for economic flexibility, reductions in regulatory burdens, and enhanced efficiency.

Fifth, Brexit will enable the UK to enter into true free trade pacts with the United States and other nations that avoid the counterproductive bells and whistles of EU industrial policy.  For example, a “zero tariffs” agreement with the United States that featured reciprocal mutual recognition of health, safety, and other regulatory standards would avoid heavy-handed regulatory harmonization features of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Policy agreement being negotiated between the EU and the United States.  (As I explained in a previous Truth on the Market post, “a TTIP focus on ‘harmonizing’ regulations could actually lower economic freedom (and welfare) by ‘regulating upward’ through acceptance of [a] more intrusive approach, and by precluding future competition among alternative regulatory models that could lead to welfare-enhancing regulatory improvements.”)

In sum, while Brexit’s implications for other economic factors, such as macroeconomic stability, remain to be seen, Brexit will likely prove to have an economic welfare-enhancing influence on key aspects of competition policy.

P.S.  Notably, a recent excellent study by Iain Murray and Rory Broomfield of Brexit’s implications for various UK industry sectors (commissioned by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs) concluded “that in almost every area we have examined the benefit: cost trade-off [of Brexit] is positive. . . .  Overall, the UK will benefit substantially from a reduction in regulation, a better fisheries management system, a market-based immigration system, a free market in agriculture, a globally-focused free trade policy, control over extradition, and a shale gas-based energy policy.”

While we all wait on pins and needles for the DC Circuit to issue its long-expected ruling on the FCC’s Open Internet Order, another federal appeals court has pushed back on Tom Wheeler’s FCC for its unremitting “just trust us” approach to federal rulemaking.

The case, round three of Prometheus, et al. v. FCC, involves the FCC’s long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local broadcast stations and their extension by Tom Wheeler’s FCC to the use of joint sales agreements (JSAs). (For more background see our previous post here). Once again the FCC lost (it’s now only 1 for 3 in this case…), as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals took the Commission to task for failing to establish that its broadcast ownership rules were still in the public interest, as required by law, before it decided to extend those rules.

While much of the opinion deals with the FCC’s unreasonable delay (of more than 7 years) in completing two Quadrennial Reviews in relation to its diversity rules, the court also vacated the FCC’s rule expanding its duopoly rule (or local television ownership rule) to ban joint sales agreements without first undertaking the reviews.

We (the International Center for Law and Economics, along with affiliated scholars of law, economics, and communications) filed an amicus brief arguing for precisely this result, noting that

the 2014 Order [] dramatically expands its scope by amending the FCC’s local ownership attribution rules to make the rule applicable to JSAs, which had never before been subject to it. The Commission thereby suddenly declares unlawful JSAs in scores of local markets, many of which have been operating for a decade or longer without any harm to competition. Even more remarkably, it does so despite the fact that both the DOJ and the FCC itself had previously reviewed many of these JSAs and concluded that they were not likely to lessen competition. In doing so, the FCC also fails to examine the empirical evidence accumulated over the nearly two decades some of these JSAs have been operating. That evidence shows that many of these JSAs have substantially reduced the costs of operating TV stations and improved the quality of their programming without causing any harm to competition, thereby serving the public interest.

The Third Circuit agreed that the FCC utterly failed to justify its continued foray into banning potentially pro-competitive arrangements, finding that

the Commission violated § 202(h) by expanding the reach of the ownership rules without first justifying their preexisting scope through a Quadrennial Review. In Prometheus I we made clear that § 202(h) requires that “no matter what the Commission decides to do to any particular rule—retain, repeal, or modify (whether to make more or less stringent)—it must do so in the public interest and support its decision with a reasoned analysis.” Prometheus I, 373 F.3d at 395. Attribution of television JSAs modifies the Commission’s ownership rules by making them more stringent. And, unless the Commission determines that the preexisting ownership rules are sound, it cannot logically demonstrate that an expansion is in the public interest. Put differently, we cannot decide whether the Commission’s rationale—the need to avoid circumvention of ownership rules—makes sense without knowing whether those rules are in the public interest. If they are not, then the public interest might not be served by closing loopholes to rules that should no longer exist.

Perhaps this decision will be a harbinger of good things to come. The FCC — and especially Tom Wheeler’s FCC — has a history of failing to justify its rules with anything approaching rigorous analysis. The Open Internet Order is a case in point. We will all be better off if courts begin to hold the Commission’s feet to the fire and throw out their rules when the FCC fails to do the work needed to justify them.

On January 26 the Heritage Foundation hosted a one-day conference on “Antitrust Policy for a New Administration.”  Featured speakers included three former heads of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) (D.C. Circuit Senior Judge Douglas Ginsburg, James Rill, and Thomas Barnett) and a former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (keynote speaker Professor William Kovacic), among other leading experts on foreign and domestic antitrust.  The conference addressed developments at DOJ, the FTC, and overseas.  The entire program (which will be posted for viewing very shortly at Heritage.org) has generated substantial trade press coverage (see, for example, two articles published by Global Competition Review).  Four themes highlighted during the presentations are particularly worth noting.

First, the importance of the federal judiciary – and judicial selection – in the development and direction of U.S. antitrust policy.  In his opening address, Professor Bill Kovacic described the central role the federal judiciary plays in shaping American antitrust principles.  He explained how a few key judges with academic backgrounds (for example, Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner, Stephen Breyer, and Antonin Scalia) had a profound effect in reorienting American antitrust rules toward the teachings of law and economics, and added that the Reagan Administration focused explicitly on appointing free market-oriented law professors for key appellate judgeships.  Since the new President will appoint a large proportion of the federal judiciary, the outcome of the 2016 election could profoundly influence the future direction of antitrust, according to Professor Kovacic.  (Professor Kovacic also made anecdotal comments about various candidates, noting the short but successful FTC experience of Ted Cruz; Donald Trump having once been an antitrust plaintiff (when the United States Football League sued the National Football League); Hillary Clinton’s misstatement that antitrust has not been applied to anticompetitive payoffs made by big drug companies to generic producers; and Bernie Sanders’ pronouncements suggesting a possible interest in requiring the breakup of large companies.)

Second, the loss of American global economic leadership on antitrust enforcement policy.  There was a consensus that jurisdictions around the world increasingly have opted for the somewhat more interventionist European civil law approach to antitrust, in preference to the American enforcement model.  There are various explanations for this, including the fact that civil law predominates in many (though not all) nations that have adopted antitrust regimes, and the natural attraction many governments have for administrative models of economic regulation that grant the state broad enforcement discretion and authority.  Whatever the explanation, there also seemed to be some sentiment that U.S. government agencies have not been particularly aggressive in seeking to counter this trend by making the case for the U.S. approach (which relies more on flexible common law reasoning to accommodate new facts and new economic learning).  (See here for my views on a desirable approach to antitrust enforcement, rooted in error cost considerations.)

Third, the need to consider reforming current cartel enforcement programs.  Cartel enforcement programs, which are a mainstay of antitrust, received some critical evaluation by the members of the DOJ and international panels.  Judge Ginsburg noted that the pattern of imposing ever- higher fines on companies, which independently have strong incentives to avoid cartel conduct, may be counterproductive, since it is typically “rogue” employees who flout company policies and collaborate in cartels.  The focus thus should be on strong sanctions against such employees.  Others also opined that overly high corporate cartel fines may not be ideal.  Relatedly, some argued that the failure to give “good behavior” credit to companies that have corporate compliance programs may be suboptimal and welfare-reducing, since companies may find that it is not cost-beneficial to invest substantially in such programs if they receive no perceived benefit.  Also, it was pointed out that imposing very onerous and expensive internal compliance mandates would be inappropriate, since companies may avoid them if they perceive the costs of compliance programs to outweigh the expected value of antitrust penalties.  In addition, the programs by which governments grants firms leniency for informing on a cartel in which they participate – instituted by DOJ in the 1990s and widely emulated by foreign enforcement agencies – came in for some critical evaluation.  One international panelist argued that DOJ should not rely solely on leniency to ferret out cartel activity, stressing that other jurisdictions are beginning to apply econometric methods to aid cartel detection.  In sum, while there appeared to be general agreement about the value and overall success of cartel prosecutions, there also was support for consideration of new means to deter and detect cartels.

Fourth, the need to work to enhance due process in agency investigations and enforcement actions.  Concerns about due process surfaced on both the FTC and international panels.  A former FTC general counsel complained about staff’s lack of explanation of theories of violation in FTC consumer protection investigations, and limitations on access to senior level decision-makers, in cases not raising fraud.  It was argued that such investigations may promote the micromanagement of non-deceptive business behavior in areas such as data protection.  Although consumer protection is not antitrust, commentators raised the possibility that foreigner agencies would cite FTC consumer protection due process deficiencies in justifying their antitrust due process inadequacies (since the FTC enforces both antitrust and consumer protection under one statutory scheme).  The international panel discussed the fact that due process problems are particularly bad in Asia but also exist to some extent in Europe.  Particular due process issues panelists found to be pervasive overseas included, for example, documentary request abuses, lack of adequate access to counsel, and inadequate information about the nature or purpose of investigations.  The international panelists agreed that the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies, bar associations, and international organizations (such as the International Competition Network and the OECD) should continue to work to promote due process, but that there is no magic bullet and this will be require a long-term commitment.  (There was no unanimity as to whether other U.S. governmental organs, such as the State Department and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, should be called upon for assistance.)

In conclusion, the 2016 Heritage Foundation antitrust conference shed valuable light on major antitrust policy issues that the next President will have to confront.  The approach the next President takes in dealing with these issues will have major implications for a very significant branch of economic regulation, both here and abroad.

Thanks to the Truth on the Market bloggers for having me. I’m a long-time fan of the blog, and excited to be contributing.

The Third Circuit will soon review the appeal of generic drug manufacturer, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, in the latest case involving “product hopping” in the pharmaceutical industry — Mylan Pharmaceuticals v. Warner Chilcott.

Product hopping occurs when brand pharmaceutical companies shift their marketing efforts from an older version of a drug to a new, substitute drug in order to stave off competition from cheaper generics. This business strategy is the predictable business response to the incentives created by the arduous FDA approval process, patent law, and state automatic substitution laws. It costs brand companies an average of $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market, but only 20 percent of marketed brand drugs ever earn enough to recoup these costs. Moreover, once their patent exclusivity period is over, brand companies face the likely loss of 80-90 percent of their sales to generic versions of the drug under state substitution laws that allow or require pharmacists to automatically substitute a generic-equivalent drug when a patient presents a prescription for a brand drug. Because generics are automatically substituted for brand prescriptions, generic companies typically spend very little on advertising, instead choosing to free ride on the marketing efforts of brand companies. Rather than hand over a large chunk of their sales to generic competitors, brand companies often decide to shift their marketing efforts from an existing drug to a new drug with no generic substitutes.

Generic company Mylan is appealing U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond’s April decision to grant defendant and brand company Warner Chilcott’s summary judgment motion. Mylan and other generic manufacturers contend that Defendants engaged in a strategy to impede generic competition for branded Doryx (an acne medication) by executing several product redesigns and ceasing promotion of prior formulations. Although the plaintiffs generally changed their products to keep up with the brand-drug redesigns, they contend that these redesigns were intended to circumvent automatic substitution laws, at least for the periods of time before the generic companies could introduce a substitute to new brand drug formulations. The plaintiffs argue that product redesigns that prevent generic manufacturers from benefitting from automatic substitution laws violate Section 2 of the Sherman Act.

Product redesign is not per se anticompetitive. Retiring an older branded version of a drug does not block generics from competing; they are still able to launch and market their own products. Product redesign only makes competition tougher because generics can no longer free ride on automatic substitution laws; instead they must either engage in their own marketing efforts or redesign their product to match the brand drug’s changes. Moreover, product redesign does not affect a primary source of generics’ customers—beneficiaries that are channeled to cheaper generic drugs by drug plans and pharmacy benefit managers.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly concluded that “the antitrust laws…were enacted for the protection of competition not competitors” and that even monopolists have no duty to help a competitor. The district court in Mylan generally agreed with this reasoning, concluding that the brand company Defendants did not exclude Mylan and other generics from competition: “Throughout this period, doctors remained free to prescribe generic Doryx; pharmacists remained free to substitute generics when medically appropriate; and patients remained free to ask their doctors and pharmacists for generic versions of the drug.” Instead, the court argued that Mylan was a “victim of its own business strategy”—a strategy that relied on free-riding off brand companies’ marketing efforts rather than spending any of their own money on marketing. The court reasoned that automatic substitution laws provide a regulatory “bonus” and denying Mylan the opportunity to take advantage of that bonus is not anticompetitive.

Product redesign should only give rise to anticompetitive claims if combined with some other wrongful conduct, or if the new product is clearly a “sham” innovation. Indeed, Senior Judge Douglas Ginsburg and then-FTC Commissioner Joshua D. Wright recently came out against imposing competition law sanctions on product redesigns that are not sham innovations. If lawmakers are concerned that product redesigns will reduce generic usage and the cost savings they create, they could follow the lead of several states that have broadened automatic substitution laws to allow the substitution of generics that are therapeutically-equivalent but not identical in other ways, such as dosage form or drug strength.

Mylan is now asking the Third Circuit to reexamine the case. If the Third Circuit reverses the lower courts decision, it would imply that brand drug companies have a duty to continue selling superseded drugs in order to allow generic competitors to take advantage of automatic substitution laws. If the Third Circuit upholds the district court’s ruling on summary judgment, it will likely create a circuit split between the Second and Third Circuits. In July 2015, the Second Circuit court upheld an injunction in NY v. Actavis that required a brand company to continue manufacturing and selling an obsolete drug until after generic competitors had an opportunity to launch their generic versions and capture a significant portion of the market through automatic substitution laws. I’ve previously written about the duty created in this case.

Regardless of whether the Third Circuit’s decision causes a split, the Supreme Court should take up the issue of product redesign in pharmaceuticals to provide guidance to brand manufacturers that currently operate in a world of uncertainty and under the constant threat of litigation for decisions they make when introducing new products.

Last week concluded round 3 of Congressional hearings on mergers in the healthcare provider and health insurance markets. Much like the previous rounds, the hearing saw predictable representatives, of predictable constituencies, saying predictable things.

The pattern is pretty clear: The American Hospital Association (AHA) makes the case that mergers in the provider market are good for consumers, while mergers in the health insurance market are bad. A scholar or two decries all consolidation in both markets. Another interested group, like maybe the American Medical Association (AMA), also criticizes the mergers. And it’s usually left to a representative of the insurance industry, typically one or more of the merging parties themselves, or perhaps a scholar from a free market think tank, to defend the merger.

Lurking behind the public and politicized airings of these mergers, and especially the pending Anthem/Cigna and Aetna/Humana health insurance mergers, is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, the partisan politics surrounding the ACA, particularly during this election season, may be trumping the sensible economic analysis of the competitive effects of these mergers.

In particular, the partisan assessments of the ACA’s effect on the marketplace have greatly colored the Congressional (mis-)understandings of the competitive consequences of the mergers.  

Witness testimony and questions from members of Congress at the hearings suggest that there is widespread agreement that the ACA is encouraging increased consolidation in healthcare provider markets, for example, but there is nothing approaching unanimity of opinion in Congress or among interested parties regarding what, if anything, to do about it. Congressional Democrats, for their part, have insisted that stepped up vigilance, particularly of health insurance mergers, is required to ensure that continued competition in health insurance markets isn’t undermined, and that the realization of the ACA’s objectives in the provider market aren’t undermined by insurance companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have generally been inclined to imply (or outright state) that increased concentration is bad, so that they can blame increasing concentration and any lack of competition on the increased regulatory costs or other effects of the ACA. Both sides appear to be missing the greater complexities of the story, however.

While the ACA may be creating certain impediments in the health insurance market, it’s also creating some opportunities for increased health insurance competition, and implementing provisions that should serve to hold down prices. Furthermore, even if the ACA is encouraging more concentration, those increases in concentration can’t be assumed to be anticompetitive. Mergers may very well be the best way for insurers to provide benefits to consumers in a post-ACA world — that is, the world we live in. The ACA may have plenty of negative outcomes, and there may be reasons to attack the ACA itself, but there is no reason to assume that any increased concentration it may bring about is a bad thing.

Asking the right questions about the ACA

We don’t need more self-serving and/or politicized testimony We need instead to apply an economic framework to the competition issues arising from these mergers in order to understand their actual, likely effects on the health insurance marketplace we have. This framework has to answer questions like:

  • How do we understand the effects of the ACA on the marketplace?
    • In what ways does the ACA require us to alter our understanding of the competitive environment in which health insurance and healthcare are offered?
    • Does the ACA promote concentration in health insurance markets?
    • If so, is that a bad thing?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the healthcare provider market?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the health insurance market?
  • How do state regulatory regimes affect the understanding of what markets are at issue, and what competitive effects are likely, for antitrust analysis?
  • What are the potential competitive effects of increased concentration in the health care markets?
  • Does increased health insurance market concentration exacerbate or counteract those effects?

Beginning with this post, at least a few of us here at TOTM will take on some of these issues, as part of a blog series aimed at better understanding the antitrust law and economics of the pending health insurance mergers.

Today, we will focus on the ambiguous competitive implications of the ACA. Although not a comprehensive analysis, in this post we will discuss some key insights into how the ACA’s regulations and subsidies should inform our assessment of the competitiveness of the healthcare industry as a whole, and the antitrust review of health insurance mergers in particular.

The ambiguous effects of the ACA

It’s an understatement to say that the ACA is an issue of great political controversy. While many Democrats argue that it has been nothing but a boon to consumers, Republicans usually have nothing good to say about the law’s effects. But both sides miss important but ambiguous effects of the law on the healthcare industry. And because they miss (or disregard) this ambiguity for political reasons, they risk seriously misunderstanding the legal and economic implications of the ACA for healthcare industry mergers.

To begin with, there are substantial negative effects, of course. Requiring insurance companies to accept patients with pre-existing conditions reduces the ability of insurance companies to manage risk. This has led to upward pricing pressure for premiums. While the mandate to buy insurance was supposed to help bring more young, healthy people into the risk pool, so far the projected signups haven’t been realized.

The ACA’s redefinition of what is an acceptable insurance policy has also caused many consumers to lose the policy of their choice. And the ACA’s many regulations, such as the Minimum Loss Ratio requiring insurance companies to spend 80% of premiums on healthcare, have squeezed the profit margins of many insurance companies, leading, in some cases, to exit from the marketplace altogether and, in others, to a reduction of new marketplace entry or competition in other submarkets.

On the other hand, there may be benefits from the ACA. While many insurers participated in private exchanges even before the ACA-mandated health insurance exchanges, the increased consumer education from the government’s efforts may have helped enrollment even in private exchanges, and may also have helped to keep premiums from increasing as much as they would have otherwise. At the same time, the increased subsidies for individuals have helped lower-income people afford those premiums. Some have even argued that increased participation in the on-demand economy can be linked to the ability of individuals to buy health insurance directly. On top of that, there has been some entry into certain health insurance submarkets due to lower barriers to entry (because there is less need for agents to sell in a new market with the online exchanges). And the changes in how Medicare pays, with a greater focus on outcomes rather than services provided, has led to the adoption of value-based pricing from both health care providers and health insurance companies.

Further, some of the ACA’s effects have  decidedly ambiguous consequences for healthcare and health insurance markets. On the one hand, for example, the ACA’s compensation rules have encouraged consolidation among healthcare providers, as noted. One reason for this is that the government gives higher payments for Medicare services delivered by a hospital versus an independent doctor. Similarly, increased regulatory burdens have led to higher compliance costs and more consolidation as providers attempt to economize on those costs. All of this has happened perhaps to the detriment of doctors (and/or patients) who wanted to remain independent from hospitals and larger health network systems, and, as a result, has generally raised costs for payors like insurers and governments.

But much of this consolidation has also arguably led to increased efficiency and greater benefits for consumers. For instance, the integration of healthcare networks leads to increased sharing of health information and better analytics, better care for patients, reduced overhead costs, and other efficiencies. Ultimately these should translate into higher quality care for patients. And to the extent that they do, they should also translate into lower costs for insurers and lower premiums — provided health insurers are not prevented from obtaining sufficient bargaining power to impose pricing discipline on healthcare providers.

In other words, both the AHA and AMA could be right as to different aspects of the ACA’s effects.

Understanding mergers within the regulatory environment

But what they can’t say is that increased consolidation per se is clearly problematic, nor that, even if it is correlated with sub-optimal outcomes, it is consolidation causing those outcomes, rather than something else (like the ACA) that is causing both the sub-optimal outcomes as well as consolidation.

In fact, it may well be the case that increased consolidation improves overall outcomes in healthcare provider and health insurance markets relative to what would happen under the ACA absent consolidation. For Congressional Democrats and others interested in bolstering the ACA and offering the best possible outcomes for consumers, reflexively challenging health insurance mergers because consolidation is “bad,” may be undermining both of these objectives.

Meanwhile, and for the same reasons, Congressional Republicans who decry Obamacare should be careful that they do not likewise condemn mergers under what amounts to a “big is bad” theory that is inconsistent with the rigorous law and economics approach that they otherwise generally support. To the extent that the true target is not health insurance industry consolidation, but rather underlying regulatory changes that have encouraged that consolidation, scoring political points by impugning mergers threatens both health insurance consumers in the short run, as well as consumers throughout the economy in the long run (by undermining the well-established economic critiques of a reflexive “big is bad” response).

It is simply not clear that ACA-induced health insurance mergers are likely to be anticompetitive. In fact, because the ACA builds on state regulation of insurance providers, requiring greater transparency and regulatory review of pricing and coverage terms, it seems unlikely that health insurers would be free to engage in anticompetitive price increases or reduced coverage that could harm consumers.

On the contrary, the managerial and transactional efficiencies from the proposed mergers, combined with greater bargaining power against now-larger providers are likely to lead to both better quality care and cost savings passed-on to consumers. Increased entry, at least in part due to the ACA in most of the markets in which the merging companies will compete, along with integrated health networks themselves entering and threatening entry into insurance markets, will almost certainly lead to more consumer cost savings. In the current regulatory environment created by the ACA, in other words, insurance mergers have considerable upside potential, with little downside risk.

Conclusion

In sum, regardless of what one thinks about the ACA and its likely effects on consumers, it is not clear that health insurance mergers, especially in a post-ACA world, will be harmful.

Rather, assessing the likely competitive effects of health insurance mergers entails consideration of many complicated (and, unfortunately, politicized) issues. In future blog posts we will discuss (among other things): the proper treatment of efficiencies arising from health insurance mergers, the appropriate geographic and product markets for health insurance merger reviews, the role of state regulations in assessing likely competitive effects, and the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for potential competitive harms arising from the mergers.