Archives For consumer welfare

[The 14th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a guest post from Bill MacLeod, a former Federal Trade Commission bureau director and currently a partner with Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, where he chairs the firm’s antitrust practice and co-chairs its consumer protection practice. Bill gratefully acknowledges the research and analysis of Jacob Hopkins in preparing this article, which does not represent the views of any firm or client. 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.]

Introduction

In November 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2022-2026 that previewed its vision for enforcement without the rule of reason guiding the analysis and without consumer welfare defining the objective. The draft plan dropped a longstanding commitment from the FTC’s previous strategic plans to foster “vigorous competition” and replaced it with a pledge to police “fair competition.”

The commission also broadened its focus beyond consumers. Instead of dedicating competition enforcement to them, the FTC would see to it that competition would serve the general public. Clues as to the nature of the public interest appeared among the plan’s more specific objectives. For example, to advance “all forms of equity, and support underserved and marginalized communities through the FTC’s competition mission.” The draft plan emphasized an objective to protect employees from unfair competition. Gone from the draft entirely was a previous vow to avoid “unduly burdening legitimate business activity.”

Additional details of the agenda emerged in December 2021, when the commission announced a statement of regulatory priorities describing plans to develop unfair-methods-of-competition (UMC) rulemakings. The annual regulatory plan, also released in December 2021, reiterated the list of practices that could be targeted for competition rules, prompting a dissent from Commissioner Christine S. Wilson, who saw in the plan “the foundation for an avalanche of problematic rulemakings.” Referring to the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission and Civil Aeronautics Board, she noted “the disastrous regulatory frameworks in the transportation industry teach the attentive student that rules stifle innovation, increase costs, raise prices, limit choice, and decrease output, frequently harming the very parties they are intended to benefit, and the benefits that flowed to consumers when competition replaced regulation in transportation.”

The Courts on Competition Rulemaking Authority

Whether the FTC has the authority to promulgate the rules it now contemplates has been a 50-year-old debate among legal scholars. Section 6(g) of the FTC Act authorizes the commission: “From time to time to classify corporations and to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of sections 41 to 46 and 47 to 58 of this title.”[1] Before 1964, this rulemaking power was directed to the FTC’s administrative functions. Since then, rulemaking has typically addressed consumer-protection concerns, the authority for which was codified in Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act in 1975, incorporated in Section 18 of the FTC Act.

Only once has the commission’s power to promulgate a competition rule under Section 6(g) been tested in the courts. That test played out in 1972 and 1973 in a case involving a rule the FTC issued requiring the posting of octane ratings on pumps at gas stations.[2] Failure to post was declared a UMC and an unfair or deceptive practice (UDAP). Petroleum refiners and retailers challenged various aspects of the rules, including the commission’s authority to issue them, and the case came to Judge Aubrey Robinson in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. He held that the FTC lacked such authority.

The opinion began with a review of the legislative history, which was “clear” to the court.[3] Section 6(g) was intended “only as an authorization for internal rules of organization, practice, and procedure [and] to insure that the FTC had the power to require reports from all corporations.”[4] Buttressing the history were subsequent occasions in which Congress had explicitly granted FTC authority for regulations confined to specific practices, which would have been unnecessary if the power already resided in Section 6(g). That section had not changed since 1914, and the FTC for approximately 50 years had not asserted rulemaking authority under it.

The commission urged the court to apply the definitions of regulation in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to the FTC Act. The proposition that words written in 1946 had the same meaning as words written in 1914 was “inconceivable” without any indication that they were related. Further undermining the commission’s argument were amendments to other legislation after APA to authorize rulemaking at other agencies. The absence of a similar amendment to the FTC Act implied that the “rulemaking power in Section 6(g) of the FTCA remains unchanged by Congress to date, and conveys only the authority to make such rules and regulations in connection with its housekeeping chore and investigative responsibilities.”[5] Indeed, Congress considered an amendment that would have authorized the commission to “make, alter, or repeal regulations further defining more particularly unfair trade practices or unfair or oppressive competition.”[6] That legislation died.

Also rejected was the argument that the FTC’s authority under Section 5 to “prevent” UMC includes the power to regulate. The proposition ignored “the very next paragraph of the statute that requires the Commission to conduct adjudicative proceedings.”[7] Until recently, the court noted, the commission itself had repeatedly admitted it possessed no power to promulgate substantive rules,[8] and that the Supreme Court had impliedly rejected the existence of such power.[9] In his conclusion, Judge Robinson quoted Justice Louis Brandeis:

What the Government asks is not a construction of the statute, but, in effect, an enlargement of it by the court, so that what was omitted, presumably by inadvertence, may be included within its scope. To supply omissions transcends the judicial function.[10]

The FTC appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed.[11] In an opinion by Judge J. Skelly Wright, the court cautioned:

Our duty here is not simply to make a policy judgment as to what mode of procedure…best accommodates the need for effective enforcement of the Commission’s mandate…. The extent of its powers can be decided only by considering the powers Congress specifically granted it in the light of the statutory language and background.[12]

But the legislative history that was clear to the lower court became opaque on appeal. Judge Wright acknowledged that Rep. J. Harry Covington (D-Md)—the floor manager of the bill that became the FTC Act—assured his colleagues that Congress was not granting the FTC the power for legislative rulemaking. That would have been unconstitutional, in Covington’s view, although a delegation of administrative rulemaking was not.[13] As he assured his colleagues:

The Federal trade commission will have no power to prescribe the methods of competition to be used in future. In issuing its orders it will not be exercising power of a legislative nature….

The function of the Federal trade commission will be to determine whether an existing method of competition is unfair, and, if it finds it to be unfair, to order the discontinuance of its use. In doing this it will exercise power of a judicial nature….[14]

Supporting Covington was a colloquy between two other congressmen, also quoted by the court:

Mr. SHERLEY. If the gentleman will permit, the Federal trade commission differs from the Interstate Commerce Commission in that it has no affirmative power to say what shall be done in the future?

Mr. STEVENS of Minnesota. Certainly.

Mr. SHERLEY. In other words, it exercises in no sense a legislative function such as is exercised by the Interstate Commerce Commission?

Mr. STEVENS of Minnesota. Yes. The gentleman is entirely right. We desired clearly to exclude that authority from the power of the commission. We did not know as we could grant it anyway. But the time has not arrived to consider or discuss such a question.[15]

But this legislative history, which concededly “carefully differentiated” the FTC’s power from the ICC’s power[16] was “utterly unhelpful” to Judge Wright, who somehow could not square synonymous assurances that the FTC would have “no power to prescribe methods of competition” and would exercise “in no sense a legislative function.” The judge found an easier approach:

If one ignores the “legislative” — “administrative” technical distinction which influenced Covington and utilizes a more practical, broader conception of “legislative” type activity prevalent today, they can be read to support substantive rule-making of the kind asserted by the [FTC].

Freed from the background of the 1914 act, the judge adopted a judicial philosophy popular in the early 1970s. Notions of practicality and fairness allowed courts to realize unexpressed purposes, which in the case of FTC rulemaking meant “specifically the advisability of utilizing the Administrative Procedure Act’s rule-making procedures to provide an agency about to embark on legal innovation with all relevant arguments and information.” Similar decisions supporting rulemaking powers “indisputably flesh out the contemporary legal framework in which both the FTC and this court operate and which we must recognize.”[17] For example, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could regulate, the FTC should be able to do so, as well. It did not bother the judge that the NLRB and other agencies had received explicit rulemaking authority, or that commission officials had often admitted that they lacked that power. 

The Supreme Court declined to review the Petroleum Refiners holdings, but its interpretation of the FTC Act last year casts serious doubt on the validity of Judge Wright’s decision today. In AMG Capital Management LLC v. Federal Trade Commission, the FTC used many of the same arguments that had worked in 1972. This time, however, the agency was unable to persuade a single justice that the act conferred an unexpressed power.

The question in AMG concerned whether the agency could bypass administrative adjudication and bring a cause of action directly in federal court for monetary relief. Section 13(b) of the FTC Act authorizes the agency to seek injunctions without administrative proceedings, but a different section of the act creates a cause of action for redress. Section 19(b) prescribes the procedure whereby the commission can seek money. An action to do so may commence only after the agency has concluded an administrative proceeding that finds a violation of Section 5. For decades, the commission shunned the cumbersome two-step procedure and resorted almost exclusively to consolidated Section 13(b) actions to obtain monetary relief. And for decades, courts affirmed these cases, but the Supreme Court had never weighed in.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Stephen Breyer found it highly unlikely “that Congress, without mentioning the matter, would have granted the Commission authority so readily to circumvent its traditional §5 administrative proceedings.”[18] Other statutes might merit broader construction, but not when the powers granted were as clearly expressed as in the FTC Act. The court rejected the commission’s arguments that Congress had intended to allow the commission to choose between alternative enforcement avenues. Congress had not acquiesced in the commission’s use of both approaches (even though Section 19 preserved “any authority of the Commission under any other provision of law”). Addressing the arguments that violators would keep billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains if the commission had to adjudicate first and litigate afterward, the court responded that the agency could ask Congress for the more efficient power. It appeared nowhere in the text of the FTC Act, and “Congress…does not…hide elephants in mouseholes.”[19]

Rules of Fair Competition Fail in the Supreme Court

Long before AMG, the Supreme Court had addressed the limits of the FTC’s authority. Judge Robinson in Petroleum Refiners cited five decisions dating from 1920 to 1965 supporting his conclusion that the court had impliedly rejected rulemaking power. One of those decisions came on May 27, 1935, when the Supreme Court used the limitations of FTC authority to deal a fatal blow to the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The centerpiece of the New Deal, NIRA authorized the federal government to adopt regulations intended to achieve “fair competition.” Those regulations normalized working conditions, wages, products, and prices in many trades. Their purpose was to stem the forces that were depressing wages and prices in the early years of the Great Depression. Vigorous competition was regarded as one of those forces.

Appeals of convictions for violating one of the codes gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to opine on the meaning of “fair competition” and the appropriate process by which competition should be assessed.[20] The court sought to reconcile fair competition and unfair methods of competition, as the terms were respectively defined in NIRA and the FTC Act. A provision in NIRA deemed a violation of “fair competition” to constitute an “unfair method of competition” under the FTC Act, but the dichotomy made no sense to the Court. The difference between the concepts “lies not only in procedure, but in subject matter.”

On substance, the court held:

We cannot regard the “fair competition” of the codes as antithetical to the “unfair methods of competition” of the FTCA. The “fair competition” of the codes has a much broader range, and a “new significance….for the protection of consumers, competitors, employees, and others, and in furtherance of the public interest… [21]

Such power was the province of Congress, not a regulatory agency.

The court then examined the procedures prescribed for rulemaking under NIRA and adjudicating under FTC Act. Fair competition codes were proposed by industry associations, reviewed by agencies, and adopted by executive orders. By contrast, the FTC had to prove violations in adjudicatory proceedings:

What are “unfair methods of competition” are thus to be determined in particular instances, upon evidence, in the light of particular competitive conditions and of what is found to be a specific and substantial public interest.…To make this possible, Congress set up a special procedure. A Commission, a quasi-judicial body, was created. Provision was made [for] formal complaint, for notice and hearing, for appropriate findings of fact supported by adequate evidence, and for judicial review to give assurance that the action of the Commission is taken within its statutory authority.[22]

In 1935, Congress could not constitutionally delegate the power to issue rules advancing undefined interests of consumers, competitors, employees, and the public to an agency of general jurisdiction. The Congress that passed the FTC Act was well aware of that constraint. That was why the bill’s floor manager assured his colleagues the FTC “will have no power to prescribe the methods of competition to be used in future [or] power of a legislative nature…it will exercise power of a judicial nature.”

Conclusion

A regulatory regime intended to replace vigorous competition with fair competition, to benefit interest groups other than customers, to be implemented while giving short shrift to costs and benefits is unprecedented (at least since NIRA). The mission that the FTC has previewed anticipates rules that can be expected to impose undue costs on legitimate businesses in markets far larger than the sectors once regulated by the ICC and CAB. If history is any guide, the commission’s agenda could cost U.S. consumers hundreds of billions of dollars.

But first, the agency will have to persuade the courts that Congress gave it the power to do so, and if precedent is any guide, the commission will fail. After AMG, courts will be reluctant to extract a phrase in Section 6(g) from the framework of the FTC Act. The power to prevent UMC is specified in the Act, and adjudication is the sole procedure described to exercise that power. If the commission argues that “rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of” the act include vast powers outside those provisions, the agency will end up asking the courts to find another elephant hiding in a mousehole.


[1] 15 U.S.C. §46 (An amendment excepted section 57a(a)(2) from its scope. The amendment specifically authorized consumer protection rules but declined to “affect any authority” the FTC to promulgate other rules.)

[2] National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC, 340 F. Supp. 1343 (D.D.C. 1972) (rev’d National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC, 482 F.2d 672 (D.C. Cir., 1973); cert. denied, 415 U.S. 915 (1974).

[3] 340 F. Supp. at 1345.

[4] Id. (citation omitted).

[5] Id. at 1348-49.

[6] Id. at 1346 (citation omitted).

[7] Id. at 1349.

[8] Id at 1350 (citing Congressional hearings from the 1960s and 1970s).

[9] Id. at 1350 (Federal Trade Commission v. Colgate Palmolive Co., 380 U.S. 374, 385, 85 S.Ct. 1035, 13 L.Ed.2d 904 (1965); Addison v. Holly Hill Fruit Products, Inc., 322 U.S. 607, 617-618, 64 S.Ct. 1215, 88 L.Ed. 1488 (1944); Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 532-533, 55 S.Ct. 837, 79 L.Ed. 1570 (1935); Federal Trade Commission v. Raladam Co., 283 U.S. 643, 648, 51 S.Ct. 587, 75 L.Ed. 1324 (1931); Federal Trade Commission v. Gratz, 253 U.S. 421, 427, 40 S.Ct. 572, 64 L.Ed. 993 (1920)).

[10] Id. at 1350 (citing Iselin v. United States, 270 U.S. 245, 251 (1926).

[11] National Petroleum Refiners Ass’n v. F.T.C., 482 F.2d 672 (D.C. Cir., 1973) (Since the passage of Section 18, Section 6 no longer authorizes consumer protection rules.).

[12] 482 F.2d at 674.

[13] Id. at 708 (stating, “This view of Congressman Covington’s remarks is buttressed by a reading of one of the cases on which he relied to rebut arguments that the grant of power to the commission to enforce and elaborate the standard of illegality was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. United States v. Grimaud, 220 U.S. 506, 55 L. Ed. 563, 31 S.C.t. 480 (1911).”)

[14] Id. (citations omitted).

[15] Id. at 708, n 19 (citations omitted).

[16] Id. at 702 (citations omitted).

[17] Id. at 683.

[18] Id. (citing D. FitzGerald, The Genesis of Consumer Protection Remedies Under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act 1–2, Paper at FTC 90th Anniversary Symposium, Sept. 23, 2004, arguing that, in the mid-1970s, “no one imagined that Section 13(b) of the [FTC] Act would become an important part of the Commission’s consumer protection program”).

[19]  Id. (citing Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001)).

[20] Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935).

[21] Id at 534 (Citing Title I) (of no help was that the codes could “provide such exceptions to and exemptions from the provisions of such code as the President in his discretion deems necessary to effectuate the policy herein declared.” (quotation marks omitted).)

[22] Id. at 533-344 (citing Federal Trade Comm’n v. Beech-Nut Packing Co., 257 U. S. 441, 257 U. S. 453; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Klesner, 280 U. S. 19, 280 U. S. 27, 280 U. S. 28; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Raladam Co., supra; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Keppel & Bro., supra; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Algoma Lumber Co., 291 U. S. 67, 291 U. S. 73.) Federal Trade Comm’n v. Klesner, supra.)

On March 31, I and several other law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in Epic Games v. Apple, which is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit.  In this post, I summarize the central arguments of the brief, which was joined by Alden Abbott, Henry Butler, Alan Meese, Aurelien Portuese, and John Yun and prepared with the assistance of Don Falk of Schaerr Jaffe LLP.

First, some background for readers who haven’t followed the case.

Epic, maker of the popular Fortnite video game, brought antitrust challenges against two policies Apple enforces against developers of third-party apps that run on iOS, the mobile operating system for Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads.  One policy requires that all iOS apps be distributed through Apple’s own App Store.  The other requires that any purchases of digital goods made while using an iOS app utilize Apple’s In App Purchase system (IAP).  Apple collects a share of the revenue from sales made through its App Store and using IAP, so these two policies provide a way for it to monetize its innovative app platform.   

Epic maintains that Apple’s app policies violate the federal antitrust laws.  Following a trial, the district court disagreed, though it condemned another of Apple’s policies under California state law.  Epic has appealed the antitrust rulings against it. 

My fellow amici and I submitted our brief in support of Apple to draw the Ninth Circuit’s attention to a distinction that is crucial to ensuring that antitrust promotes long-term consumer welfare: the distinction between the mere extraction of surplus through the exercise of market power and the enhancement of market power via the weakening of competitive constraints.

The central claim of our brief is that Epic’s antitrust challenges to Apple’s app store policies should fail because Epic has not shown that the policies enhance Apple’s market power in any market.  Moreover, condemnation of the practices would likely induce Apple to use its legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus in a different way that would leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.   

Mere Surplus Extraction vs. Market Power Extension

As the Supreme Court has observed, “Congress designed the Sherman Act as a ‘consumer welfare prescription.’”  The Act endeavors to protect consumers from harm resulting from “market power,” which is the ability of a firm lacking competitive constraints to enhance its profits by reducing its output—either quantitively or qualitatively—from the level that would persist if the firm faced vigorous competition.  A monopolist, for example, might cut back on the quantity it produces (to drive up market price) or it might skimp on quality (to enhance its per-unit profit margin).  A firm facing vigorous competition, by contrast, couldn’t raise market price simply by reducing its own production, and it would lose significant sales to rivals if it raised its own price or unilaterally cut back on product quality.  Market power thus stems from deficient competition.

As Dennis Carlton and Ken Heyer have observed, two different types of market power-related business behavior may injure consumers and are thus candidates for antitrust prohibition.  One is an exercise of market power: an action whereby a firm lacking competitive constraints increases its returns by constricting its output so as to raise price or otherwise earn higher profit margins.  When a firm engages in this sort of conduct, it extracts a greater proportion of the wealth, or “surplus,” generated by its transactions with its customers.

Every voluntary transaction between a buyer and seller creates surplus, which is the difference between the subjective value the consumer attaches to an item produced and the cost of producing and distributing it.  Price and other contract terms determine how that surplus is allocated between the buyer and the seller.  When a firm lacking competitive constraints exercises its market power by, say, raising price, it extracts for itself a greater proportion of the surplus generated by its sale.

The other sort of market power-related business behavior involves an effort by a firm to enhance its market power by weakening competitive constraints.  For example, when a firm engages in unreasonably exclusionary conduct that drives its rivals from the market or increases their costs so as to render them less formidable competitors, its market power grows.

U.S. antitrust law treats these two types of market power-related conduct differently.  It forbids behavior that enhances market power and injures consumers, but it permits actions that merely exercise legitimately obtained market power without somehow enhancing it.  For example, while charging a monopoly price creates immediate consumer harm by extracting for the monopolist a greater share of the surplus created by the transaction, the Supreme Court observed in Trinko that “[t]he mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not . . . unlawful.”  (See also linkLine: “Simply possessing monopoly power and charging monopoly prices does not violate [Sherman Act] § 2….”)

Courts have similarly refused to condemn mere exercises of market power in cases involving surplus-extractive arrangements more complicated than simple monopoly pricing.  For example, in its Independent Ink decision, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly declined to adopt a rule that would have effectively banned “metering” tie-ins.

In a metering tie-in, a seller with market power on some unique product that is used with a competitively supplied complement that is consumed in varying amounts—say, a highly unique printer that uses standard ink—reduces the price of its unique product (the printer), requires buyers to also purchase from it their requirements of the complement (the ink), and then charges a supracompetitive price for the latter product.  This allows the seller to charge higher effective prices to high-volume users of its unique tying product (buyers who use lots of ink) and lower prices to lower-volume users. 

Assuming buyers’ use of the unique product correlates with the value they ascribe to it, a metering tie-in allows the seller to price discriminate, charging higher prices to buyers who value its unique product more.  This allows the seller to extract more of the surplus generated by sales of its product, but it in no way extends the seller’s market power.

In refusing to adopt a rule that would have condemned most metering tie-ins, the Independent Ink Court observed that “it is generally recognized that [price discrimination] . . . occurs in fully competitive markets” and that tying arrangements involving requirements ties may be “fully consistent with a free, competitive market.” The Court thus reasoned that mere price discrimination and surplus extraction, even when accomplished through some sort of contractual arrangement like a tie-in, are not by themselves anticompetitive harms warranting antitrust’s condemnation.    

The Ninth Circuit has similarly recognized that conduct that exercises market power to extract surplus but does not somehow enhance that power does not create antitrust liability.  In Qualcomm, the court refused to condemn the chipmaker’s “no license, no chips” policy, which enabled it to enhance its profits by earning royalties on original equipment manufacturers’ sales of their high-priced products.

In reversing the district court’s judgment in favor of the FTC, the Ninth Circuit conceded that Qualcomm’s policies were novel and that they allowed it to enhance its profits by extracting greater surplus.  The court refused to condemn the policies, however, because they did not injure competition by weakening competitive constraints:

This is not to say that Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy is not “unique in the industry” (it is), or that the policy is not designed to maximize Qualcomm’s profits (Qualcomm has admitted as much). But profit-seeking behavior alone is insufficient to establish antitrust liability. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, the opportunity to charge monopoly prices “is an important element of the free-market system” and “is what attracts ‘business acumen’ in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.”

The Qualcomm court’s reference to Trinko highlights one reason courts should not condemn exercises of market power that merely extract surplus without enhancing market power: allowing such surplus extraction furthers dynamic efficiency—welfare gain that accrues over time from the development of new and improved products and services.

Dynamic efficiency results from innovation, which entails costs and risks.  Firms are more willing to incur those costs and risks if their potential payoff is higher, and an innovative firm’s ability to earn supracompetitive profits off its “better mousetrap” enhances its payoff. 

Allowing innovators to extract such profits also helps address the fact most of the benefits of product innovation inure to people other than the innovator.  Private actors often engage in suboptimal levels of behaviors that produce such benefit spillovers, or “positive externalities,”  because they bear all the costs of those behaviors but capture just a fraction of the benefit produced.  By enhancing the benefits innovators capture from their innovative efforts, allowing non-power-enhancing surplus extraction helps generate a closer-to-optimal level of innovative activity.

Not only do supracompetitive profits extracted through the exercise of legitimately obtained market power motivate innovation, they also enable it by helping to fund innovative efforts.  Whereas businesses that are forced by competition to charge prices near their incremental cost must secure external funding for significant research and development (R&D) efforts, firms collecting supracompetitive returns can finance R&D internally.  Indeed, of the top fifteen global spenders on R&D in 2018, eleven were either technology firms accused of possessing monopoly power (#1 Apple, #2 Alphabet/Google, #5 Intel, #6 Microsoft, #7 Apple, and #14 Facebook) or pharmaceutical companies whose patent protections insulate their products from competition and enable supracompetitive pricing (#8 Roche, #9 Johnson & Johnson, #10 Merck, #12 Novartis, and #15 Pfizer).

In addition to fostering dynamic efficiency by motivating and enabling innovative efforts, a policy acquitting non-power-enhancing exercises of market power allows courts to avoid an intractable question: which instances of mere surplus extraction should be precluded?

Precluding all instances of surplus extraction by firms with market power would conflict with precedents like Trinko and linkLine (which say that legitimate monopolists may legally charge monopoly prices) and would be impracticable given the ubiquity of above-cost pricing in niche and brand-differentiated markets.

A rule precluding surplus extraction when accomplished by a practice more complicated that simple monopoly pricing—say, some practice that allows price discrimination against buyers who highly value a product—would be both arbitrary and backward.  The rule would be arbitrary because allowing supracompetitive profits from legitimately obtained market power motivates and enables innovation regardless of the means used to extract surplus. The rule would be backward because, while simple monopoly pricing always reduces overall market output (as output-reduction is the very means by which the producer causes price to rise), more complicated methods of extracting surplus, such as metering tie-ins, often enhance market output and overall social welfare.

A third possibility would be to preclude exercising market power to extract more surplus than is necessary to motivate and enable innovation.  That position, however, would require courts to determine how much surplus extraction is required to induce innovative efforts.  Courts are poorly positioned to perform such a task, and their inevitable mistakes could significantly chill entrepreneurial activity.

Consider, for example, a firm contemplating a $5 million investment that might return up to $50 million.  Suppose the managers of the firm weighed expected costs and benefits and decided the risky gamble was just worth taking.  If the gamble paid off but a court stepped in and capped the firm’s returns at $20 million—a seemingly generous quadrupling of the firm’s investment—future firms in the same position would not make similar investments.  After all, the firm here thought this gamble was just barely worth taking, given the high risk of failure, when available returns were $50 million.

In the end, then, the best policy is to draw the line as both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have done: Whereas enhancements of market power are forbidden, merely exercising legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus is permitted.

Apple’s Policies Do Not Enhance Its Market Power

Under the legal approach described above, the two Apple policies Epic has challenged do not give rise to antitrust liability.  While the policies may boost Apple’s profits by facilitating its extraction of surplus from app transactions on its mobile devices, they do not enhance Apple’s market power in any conceivable market.

As the creator and custodian of the iOS operating system, Apple has the ability to control which applications will run on its iPhones and iPads.  Developers cannot produce operable iOS apps unless Apple grants them access to the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) required to enable the functionality of the operating system and hardware. In addition, Apple can require developers to obtain digital certificates that will enable their iOS apps to operate.  As the district court observed, “no certificate means the code will not run.”

Because Apple controls which apps will work on the operating system it created and maintains, Apple could collect the same proportion of surplus it currently extracts from iOS app sales and in-app purchases on iOS apps even without the policies Epic is challenging.  It could simply withhold access to the APIs or digital certificates needed to run iOS apps unless developers promised to pay it 30% of their revenues from app sales and in-app purchases of digital goods.

This means that the challenged policies do not give Apple any power it doesn’t already possess in the putative markets Epic identified: the markets for “iOS app distribution” and “iOS in-app payment processing.” 

The district court rejected those market definitions on the ground that Epic had not established cognizable aftermarkets for iOS-specific services.  It defined the relevant market instead as “mobile gaming transactions.”  But no matter.  The challenged policies would not enhance Apple’s market power in that broader market either.

In “mobile gaming transactions” involving non-iOS (e.g., Android) mobile apps, Apple’s policies give it no power at all.  Apple doesn’t distribute non-iOS apps or process in-app payments on such apps.  Moreover, even if Apple were to being doing so—say, by distributing Android apps in its App Store or allowing producers of Android apps to include IAP as their in-app payment system—it is implausible that Apple’s policies would allow it to gain new market power.  There are giant, formidable competitors in non-iOS app distribution (e.g., Google’s Play Store) and in payment processing for non-iOS in-app purchases (e.g., Google Play Billing).  It is inconceivable that Apple’s policies would allow it to usurp so much scale from those rivals that Apple could gain market power over non-iOS mobile gaming transactions.

That leaves only the iOS segment of the mobile gaming transactions market.  And, as we have just seen, Apple’s policies give it no new power to extract surplus from those transactions; because it controls access to iOS, it could do so using other means.

Nor do the challenged policies enable Apple to maintain its market power in any conceivable market.  This is not a situation like Microsoft where a firm in a market adjacent to a monopolist’s could somehow pose a challenge to that monopolist, and the monopolist nips the potential competition in the bud by reducing the potential rival’s scale.  There is no evidence in the record to support the (implausible) notion that rival iOS app stores or in-app payment processing systems could ever evolve in a manner that would pose a challenge to Apple’s position in mobile devices, mobile operating systems, or any other market in which it conceivably has market power. 

Epic might retort that but for the challenged policies, rivals could challenge Apple’s market share in iOS app distribution and in-app purchase processing.  Rivals could not, however, challenge Apple’s market power in such markets, as that power stems from its control of iOS.  The challenged policies therefore do not enable Apple to shore up any existing market power.

Alternative Means of Extracting Surplus Would Likely Reduce Consumer Welfare

Because the policies Epic has challenged are not the source of Apple’s ability to extract surplus from iOS app transactions, judicial condemnation of the policies would likely induce Apple to extract surplus using different means.  Changing how it earns profits off iOS app usage, however, would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.

Apple could simply charge third-party app developers a flat fee for access to the APIs needed to produce operable iOS apps but then allow them to distribute their apps and process in-app payments however they choose.  Such an approach would allow Apple to monetize its innovative app platform while permitting competition among providers of iOS app distribution and in-app payment processing services.  Relative to the status quo, though, such a model would likely reduce consumer welfare by:

  • Reducing the number of free and niche apps,as app developers could no longer avoid a fee to Apple by adopting a free (likely ad-supported) business model, and producers of niche apps may not generate enough revenue to justify Apple’s flat fee;
  • Raising business risks for app developers, who, if Apple cannot earn incremental revenue off sales and use of their apps, may face a greater likelihood that the functionality of those apps will be incorporated into future versions of iOS;
  • Reducing Apple’s incentive to improve iOS and its mobile devices, as eliminating Apple’s incremental revenue from app usage reduces its motivation to make costly enhancements that keep users on their iPhones and iPads;
  • Raising the price of iPhones and iPads and generating deadweight loss, as Apple could no longer charge higher effective prices to people who use apps more heavily and would thus likely hike up its device prices, driving marginal consumers from the market; and
  • Reducing user privacy and security, as jettisoning a closed app distribution model (App Store only) would impair Apple’s ability to screen iOS apps for features and bugs that create security and privacy risks.

An alternative approach—one that would avoid many of the downsides just stated by allowing Apple to continue earning incremental revenue off iOS app usage—would be for Apple to charge app developers a revenue-based fee for access to the APIs and other amenities needed to produce operable iOS apps.  That approach, however, would create other costs that would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.

The policies Epic has challenged allow Apple to collect a share of revenues from iOS app transactions immediately at the point of sale.  Replacing those policies with a revenue-based  API license system would require Apple to incur additional costs of collecting revenues and ensuring that app developers are accurately reporting them.  In order to extract the same surplus it currently collects—and to which it is entitled given its legitimately obtained market power—Apple would have to raise its revenue-sharing percentage above its current commission rate to cover its added collection and auditing costs.

The fact that Apple has elected not to adopt this alternative means of collecting the revenues to which it is entitled suggests that the added costs of moving to the alternative approach (extra collection and auditing costs) would exceed any additional consumer benefit such a move would produce.  Because Apple can collect the same revenue percentage from app transactions two different ways, it has an incentive to select the approach that maximizes iOS app transaction revenues.  That is the approach that creates the greatest value for consumers and also for Apple. 

If Apple believed that the benefits to app users of competition in app distribution and in-app payment processing would exceed the extra costs of collection and auditing, it would have every incentive to switch to a revenue-based licensing regime and increase its revenue share enough to cover its added collection and auditing costs.  As such an approach would enhance the net value consumers receive when buying apps and making in-app purchases, it would raise overall app revenues, boosting Apple’s bottom line.  The fact that Apple has not gone in this direction, then, suggests that it does not believe consumers would receive greater benefit under the alternative system.  Apple might be wrong, of course.  But it has a strong motivation to make the consumer welfare-enhancing decision here, as doing so maximizes its own profits.

The policies Epic has challenged do not enhance or shore up Apple’s market power, a salutary pre-requisite to antitrust liability.  Furthermore, condemning the policies would likely lead Apple to monetize its innovative app platform in a manner that would reduce consumer welfare relative to the status quo.  The Ninth Circuit should therefore affirm the district court’s rejection of Epic’s antitrust claims.  

[This post adapts elements of “Technology Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control,” forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review.]

In recent years, a growing chorus of voices has argued that existing merger rules fail to apprehend competitively significant mergers, either because they fall below existing merger-filing thresholds or because they affect innovation in ways that are purportedly ignored.

These fears are particularly acute in the pharmaceutical and tech industries, where several high-profile academic articles and reports claim to have identified important gaps in current merger-enforcement rules, particularly with respect to acquisitions involving nascent and potential competitors (here, here, and here, among many others).

Such fears have led activists, lawmakers, and enforcers to call for tougher rules, including the introduction of more stringent merger-filing thresholds and other substantive changes, such as the inversion of the burden of proof when authorities review mergers and acquisitions involving digital platforms.

However, as we discuss in a recent working paper—forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review and available on SSRN—these proposals tend to overlook the important tradeoffs that would ensue from attempts to decrease the number of false positives under existing merger rules and thresholds.

The paper draws from two key strands of economic literature that are routinely overlooked (or summarily dismissed) by critics of the status quo.

For a start, antitrust enforcement is not costless. In the case of merger enforcement, not only is it expensive for agencies to detect anticompetitive deals but, more importantly, overbearing rules may deter beneficial merger activity that creates value for consumers.

Second, critics tend to overlook the possibility that incumbents’ superior managerial or other capabilities (i.e., what made them successful in the first place) makes them the ideal acquisition partners for entrepreneurs and startup investors looking to sell.

The result is a body of economic literature that focuses almost entirely on hypothetical social costs, while ignoring the redeeming benefits of corporate acquisitions, as well as the social cost of enforcement.

Kill Zones

One of the most significant allegations leveled against large tech firms is that their very presence in a market may hinder investments, entry, and innovation, creating what some have called a “kill zone.” The strongest expression in the economic literature of this idea of a kill zone stems from a working paper by Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan, and Luigi Zingales.

The paper makes two important claims, one theoretical and one empirical. From a theoretical standpoint, the authors argue that the prospect of an acquisition by a dominant platform deters consumers from joining rival platforms, and that this, in turn, hampers the growth of these rivals. The authors then test a similar hypothesis empirically. They find that acquisitions by a dominant platform—such as Google or Facebook—decrease investment levels and venture capital deals in markets that are “similar” to that of the target firm.

But both findings are problematic. For a start, Zingales and his co-authors’ theoretical model is premised on questionable assumptions about the way in which competition develops in the digital space. The first is that early adopters of new platforms—called “techies” in the authors’ parlance—face high switching costs because of their desire to learn these platforms in detail. As an initial matter, it would appear facially contradictory that “techies” both are the group with the highest switching costs and that they switch the most. The authors further assume that “techies” would incur lower adoption costs if they remained on the incumbent platform and waited for the rival platform to be acquired.

Unfortunately, while these key behavioral assumptions drive the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support their presence in real-world settings. In that sense, the authors commit the same error as previous theoretical work concerning externalities, which have tended to overestimate their frequency.

Second, the empirical analysis put forward in the paper is unreliable for policymaking purposes. The authors notably find that:

[N]ormalized VC investments in start-ups in the same space as the company acquired by Google and Facebook drop by over 40% and the number of deals falls by over 20% in the three years following an acquisition.

However, the results of this study are derived from the analysis of only nine transactions. The study also fails to clearly show that firms in the treatment and controls are qualitatively similar. In a nutshell, the study compares industry acquisitions exceeding $500 million to Facebook and Google’s acquisitions that exceed that amount. This does not tell us whether the mergers in both groups involved target companies with similar valuations or similar levels of maturity. This does not necessarily invalidate the results, but it does suggest that policymakers should be circumspect in interpreting those results.

Finally, the paper fails to demonstrate evidence that existing antitrust regimes fail to achieve an optimal error-cost balance. The central problem is that the paper has indeterminate welfare implications. For instance, as the authors note, the declines in investment in spaces adjacent to the incumbent platforms occurred during a time of rapidly rising venture capital investment, both in terms of the number of deals and dollars invested. It is entirely plausible that venture capital merely shifted to other sectors.

Put differently, on its own terms, the evidence merely suggests that acquisitions by Google and Facebook affected the direction of innovation, not its overall rate. And there is little to suggest that this shift was suboptimal, from a welfare standpoint.

In short, as the authors themselves conclude: “[i]t would be premature to draw any policy conclusion on antitrust enforcement based solely on our model and our limited evidence.”

Mergers and Potential Competition

Scholars have also posited more direct effects from acquisitions of startups or nascent companies by incumbent technology market firms.

Some scholars argue that incumbents might acquire rivals that do not yet compete with them directly, in order to reduce the competitive pressure they will face in the future. In his paper “Potential Competition and Antitrust Analysis: Monopoly Profits Exceed Duopoly Profits,” Steven Salop argues:

Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.

However, these antitrust theories of harm suffer from several important flaws. They rest upon several restrictive assumptions that are not certain to occur in real-world settings. Most are premised on the notion that, in a given market, monopoly profits generally exceed joint duopoly profits. This allegedly makes it profitable, and mutually advantageous, for an incumbent to protect its monopoly position by preemptively acquiring potential rivals.

Accordingly, under these theories, anticompetitive mergers are only possible when the acquired rival could effectively challenge the incumbent. But these are, of course, only potential challengers; there is no guarantee that any one of them could or would mount a viable competitive threat.

Less obviously, it must be the case that the rival can hope to share only duopoly profits, as opposed to completely overthrowing the incumbent or surpassing them with a significantly larger share of the market. Where competition is “for the market” itself, monopoly maintenance would fail to explain a rival’s decision to sell.  Because there would be no asymmetry between the expected profits of the incumbent and the rival, monopoly maintenance alone would not give rise to mutually advantageous deals.

Second, potential competition does not always increase consumer welfare.  Indeed, while the presence of potential competitors might increase price competition, it can also have supply-side effects that cut in the opposite direction.

For example, as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz observed, a monopolist threatened by potential competition may invest in socially wasteful R&D efforts or entry-deterrence mechanisms, and it may operate at below-optimal scale in anticipation of future competitive entry.

There are also pragmatic objections. Analyzing a merger’s effect on potential competition would compel antitrust authorities and courts to make increasingly speculative assessments concerning the counterfactual setting of proposed acquisitions.

In simple terms, it is far easier to determine whether a merger between McDonald’s and Burger King would lead to increased hamburger prices in the short run than it is to determine whether a gaming platform like Steam or the Epic Games Store might someday compete with video-streaming or music-subscription platforms like Netflix or Spotify. It is not that the above models are necessarily wrong, but rather that applying them to practical cases would require antitrust enforcers to estimate mostly unknowable factors.

Finally, the real test for regulators is not just whether they can identify possibly anticompetitive mergers, but whether they can do so in a cost-effective manner. Whether it is desirable to implement a given legal test is not simply a function of its accuracy, the cost to administer it, and the respective costs of false positives and false negatives. It also critically depends on how prevalent the conduct is that adjudicators would be seeking to foreclose.

Consider two hypothetical settings. Imagine there are 10,000 tech mergers in a given year, of which either 1,000 or 2,500 are anticompetitive (the remainder are procompetitive or competitively neutral). Suppose that authorities can either attempt to identify anticompetitive mergers with 75% accuracy, or perform no test at all—i.e., letting all mergers go through unchallenged.

If there are 1,000 anticompetitive mergers, applying the test would result in 7,500 correct decisions and 2,500 incorrect ones (2,250 false positives and 250 false negatives). Doing nothing would lead to 9,000 correct decisions and 1,000 false negatives. If the number of anticompetitive deals were 2,500, applying the test would lead to the same number of incorrect decisions as not applying it (1,875 false positives and 625 false negatives, versus 2,500 false negatives). The advantage would tilt toward applying the test if anticompetitive mergers were even more widespread.

This hypothetical example holds a simple lesson for policymakers: the rarer the conduct that they are attempting to identify, the more accurate their identification method must be, and the more costly false negatives must be relative to false positives.

As discussed below, current empirical evidence does not suggest that anticompetitive mergers of this sort are particularly widespread, nor does it offer accurate heuristics to detect the ones that are. Finally, there is little sense that the cost of false negatives significantly outweighs that of false positives. In short, there is currently little evidence to suggest that tougher enforcement would benefit consumers.

Killer Acquisitions

Killer acquisitions are, effectively, a subset of the “potential competitor” mergers discussed in the previous section. As defined by Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma, they are those deals where “an incumbent firm may acquire an innovative target and terminate the development of the target’s innovations to preempt future competition.”

Cunningham, Ederer, and Ma’s highly influential paper on killer acquisitions has been responsible for much of the recent renewed interest in the effect that mergers exert on innovation. The authors studied thousands of pharmaceutical mergers and concluded that between 5.3% and 7.4% of them were killer acquisitions. As they write:

[W]e empirically compare development probabilities of overlapping acquisitions, which are, in our theory, motivated by a mix of killer and development intentions, and non-overlapping acquisitions, which are motivated only by development intentions. We find an increase in acquisition probability and a decrease in post-acquisition development for overlapping acquisitions and interpret that as evidence for killer acquisitions. […]

[W]e find that projects acquired by an incumbent with an overlapping drug are 23.4% less likely to have continued development activity compared to drugs acquired by non-overlapping incumbents.

From a policy standpoint, the question is what weight antitrust authorities, courts, and legislators should give to these findings. Stated differently, does the paper provide sufficient evidence to warrant reform of existing merger-filing thresholds and review standards? There are several factors counseling that policymakers should proceed with caution.

To start, the study’s industry-specific methodology means that it may not be a useful guide to understand acquisitions in other industries, like the tech sector, for example.

Second, even if one assumes that the findings of Cunningham, et al., are correct and apply with equal force in the tech sector (as some official reports have), it remains unclear whether the 5.3–7.4% of mergers they describe warrant a departure from the status quo.

Antitrust enforcers operate under uncertainty. The critical policy question is thus whether this subset of anticompetitive deals can be identified ex-ante. If not, is there a heuristic that would enable enforcers to identify more of these anticompetitive deals without producing excessive false positives?

The authors focus on the effect that overlapping R&D pipelines have on project discontinuations. In the case of non-overlapping mergers, acquired projects continue 17.5% of the time, while this number is 13.4% when there are overlapping pipelines. The authors argue that this gap is evidence of killer acquisitions. But it misses the bigger picture: under the authors’ own numbers and definition of a “killer acquisition,” a vast majority of overlapping acquisitions are perfectly benign; prohibiting them would thus have important social costs.

Third, there are several problems with describing this kind of behavior as harmful. Indeed, Cunningham, et al., acknowledge that this kind of behavior could increase innovation by boosting the returns to innovation.

And even if one ignores incentives to innovate, product discontinuations can improve consumer welfare. This question ultimately boils down to identifying the counterfactual to a merger. As John Yun writes:

For instance, an acquisition that results in a discontinued product is not per se evidence of either consumer harm or benefit. The answer involves comparing the counterfactual world without the acquisition with the world with the acquisition. The comparison includes potential efficiencies that were gained from the acquisition, including integration of intellectual property, the reduction of transaction costs, economies of scope, and better allocation of skilled labor.

One of the reasons R&D project discontinuation may be beneficial is simply cost savings. R&D is expensive. Pharmaceutical firms spend up to 27.8% of their annual revenue on R&D. Developing a new drug has an estimated median cost of $985.3 million. Cost-cutting—notably as it concerns R&D—is thus a critical part of pharmaceutical (as well as tech) companies’ businesses. As a report by McKinsey concludes:

The recent boom in M&A in the pharma industry is partly the result of attempts to address short-term productivity challenges. An acquiring or merging company typically designs organization-wide integration programs to capture synergies, especially in costs. Such programs usually take up to three years to complete and deliver results.

Another report finds that:

Maximizing the efficiency of production labor and equipment is one important way top-quartile drugmakers break out of the pack. Their rates of operational-equipment effectiveness are more than twice those of bottom-quartile companies (Exhibit 1), and when we looked closely we found that processes account for two-thirds of the difference.

In short, pharmaceutical companies do not just compete along innovation-related parameters, though these are obviously important, but also on more traditional grounds such as cost-rationalization. Accordingly, as the above reports suggest, pharmaceutical mergers are often about applying an incumbent’s superior managerial efficiency to the acquired firm’s assets through operation of the market for corporate control.

This cost-cutting (and superior project selection) ultimately enables companies to offer lower prices, thereby benefiting consumers and increasing their incentives to invest in R&D in the first place by making successfully developed drugs more profitable.

In that sense, Henry Manne’s seminal work relating to mergers and the market for corporate control sheds at least as much light on pharmaceutical (and tech) mergers as the killer acquisitions literature. And yet, it is hardly ever mentioned in modern economic literature on this topic.

While Colleen Cunningham and her co-authors do not entirely ignore these considerations, as we discuss in our paper, their arguments for dismissing them are far from watertight.

A natural extension of the killer acquisitions work is to question whether mergers of this sort also take place in the tech industry. Interest in this question is notably driven by the central role that digital markets currently occupy in competition-policy discussion, but also by the significant number of startup acquisitions that take place in the tech industry. However, existing studies provide scant evidence that killer acquisitions are a common occurrence in these markets.

This is not surprising. Unlike in the pharmaceutical industry—where drugs need to go through a lengthy and visible regulatory pipeline before they can be sold—incumbents in digital industries will likely struggle to identify their closest rivals and prevent firms from rapidly pivoting to seize new commercial opportunities. As a result, the basic conditions for killer acquisitions to take place (i.e., firms knowing they are in a position to share monopoly profits) are less likely to be present; it also would be harder to design research methods to detect these mergers.

The empirical literature on killer acquisitions in the tech sector is still in its infancy. But, as things stand, no study directly examines whether killer acquisitions actually take place in digital industries (i.e., whether post-merger project discontinuations are more common in overlapping than non-overlapping tech mergers). This is notably the case for studies by Axel Gautier & Joe Lamesch, and Elena Argentesi and her co-authors. Instead, these studies merely show that product discontinuations are common after an acquisition by a big tech company.

To summarize, while studies of this sort might suggest that the clearance of certain mergers might not have been optimal, it is hardly a sufficient basis on which to argue that enforcement should be tightened.

The reason for this is simple. The fact that some anticompetitive mergers may have escaped scrutiny and/or condemnation is never a sufficient basis to tighten rules. For that, it is also necessary to factor in the administrative costs of increased enforcement, as well as potential false convictions to which it might give rise. As things stand, economic research on killer acquisitions in the tech sector does not warrant tougher antitrust enforcement, though it does show the need for further empirical research on the topic.

Conclusion

Many proposed merger-enforcement reforms risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Mergers are largely beneficial to society (here, here and here); anticompetitive ones are rare; and there is little way, at the margin, to tell good from bad. To put it mildly, there is a precious baby that needs to be preserved and relatively little bathwater to throw out.

Take the fulcrum of policy debates that is the pharmaceutical industry. It is not hard to point to pharmaceutical mergers (or long-term agreements) that have revolutionized patient outcomes. Most recently, Pfizer and BioNTech’s efforts to successfully market an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 offers a case in point.

The deal struck by both firms could naïvely be construed as bearing hallmarks of a killer acquisition or an anticompetitive agreement (long-term agreements can easily fall into either of these categories). Pfizer was a powerful incumbent in the vaccine industry; BioNTech threatened to disrupt the industry with new technology; and the deal likely caused Pfizer to forgo some independent R&D efforts. And yet, it also led to the first approved COVID-19 vaccine and groundbreaking advances in vaccine technology.

Of course, the counterfactual is unclear, and the market might be more competitive absent the deal, just as there might be only one approved mRNA vaccine today instead of two—we simply do not know. More importantly, this counterfactual was even less knowable at the time of the deal. And much the same could be said about countless other pharmaceutical mergers.

The key policy question is how authorities should handle this uncertainty. Critics of the status quo argue that current rules and thresholds leave certain anticompetitive deals unchallenged. But these calls for tougher enforcement fail to satisfy the requirements of the error-cost framework. Critics have so far failed to show that, on balance, mergers harm social welfare—even overlapping ones or mergers between potential competitors—just as they are yet to suggest alternative institutional arrangements that would improve social welfare.

In other words, they mistakenly analyze purported false negatives of merger-enforcement regimes in isolation. In doing so, they ignore how measures that aim to reduce such judicial errors may lead to other errors, as well as higher enforcement costs. In short, they paint a world where policy decisions involve facile tradeoffs, and this undermines their policy recommendations.

Given these significant limitations, this body of academic research should be met with an appropriate degree of caution. For all the criticism it has faced, the current merger-review system is mostly a resounding success. It is administrable, predictable, and timely. Yet it also eliminates a vast majority of judicial errors: even its critics concede that false negatives make up only a tiny fraction of decisions. Policymakers must decide whether the benefits from catching the very few arguably anticompetitive mergers that currently escape prosecution outweigh the significant costs that are required to achieve this goal. There is currently little evidence to suggest that this is, indeed, the case.

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.

The Biden Administration’s July 9 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy is very much a mixed bag—some positive aspects, but many negative ones.

It will have some positive effects on economic welfare, to the extent it succeeds in lifting artificial barriers to competition that harm consumers and workers—such as allowing direct sales of hearing aids in drug stores—and helping to eliminate unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions, to name just two of several examples.

But it will likely have substantial negative effects on economic welfare as well. Many aspects of the order appear to emphasize new regulation—such as Net Neutrality requirements that may reduce investment in broadband by internet service providers—and imposing new regulatory requirements on airlines, pharmaceutical companies, digital platforms, banks, railways, shipping, and meat packers, among others. Arbitrarily imposing new rules in these areas, without a cost-beneficial appraisal and a showing of a market failure, threatens to reduce innovation and slow economic growth, hurting producers and consumer. (A careful review of specific regulatory proposals may shed greater light on the justifications for particular regulations.)

Antitrust-related proposals to challenge previously cleared mergers, and to impose new antitrust rulemaking, are likely to raise costly business uncertainty, to the detriment of businesses and consumers. They are a recipe for slower economic growth, not for vibrant competition.

An underlying problem with the order is that it is based on the false premise that competition has diminished significantly in recent decades and that “big is bad.” Economic analysis found in the February 2020 Economic Report of the President, and in other economic studies, debunks this flawed assumption.

In short, the order commits the fundamental mistake of proposing intrusive regulatory solutions for a largely nonexistent problem. Competitive issues are best handled through traditional well-accepted antitrust analysis, which centers on promoting consumer welfare and on weighing procompetitive efficiencies against anticompetitive harm on a case-by-case basis. This approach:

  1. Deals effectively with serious competitive problems; while at the same time
  2. Cabining error costs by taking into account all economically relevant considerations on a case-specific basis.

Rather than using an executive order to direct very specific regulatory approaches without a strong economic and factual basis, the Biden administration would have been better served by raising a host of competitive issues that merit possible study and investigation by expert agencies. Such an approach would have avoided imposing the costs of unwarranted regulation that unfortunately are likely to stem from the new order.

Finally, the order’s call for new regulations and the elimination of various existing legal policies will spawn matter-specific legal challenges, and may, in many cases, not succeed in court. This will impose unnecessary business uncertainty in addition to public and private resources wasted on litigation.

What happened

Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.

Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.

Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.

What didn’t happen

In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:

  • Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
  • Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
  • Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
  • Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
  • The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
  • Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
  • Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
  • Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
  • Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.

Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.

Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance

The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:

In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)

As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.

Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.

The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision

Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.

So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).

Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.

The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.

Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:

[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).

As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:

The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))

The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare

Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.

Following its finding that

[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),

the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:

So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))

Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.

Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.

This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.

The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.

Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.

Conclusion

As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.