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Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan missed the mark once again in her May 6 speech on merger policy, delivered at the annual meeting of the International Competition Network (ICN). At a time when the FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are presumably evaluating responses to the agencies’ “request for information” on possible merger-guideline revisions (see here, for example), Khan’s recent remarks suggest a predetermination that merger policy must be “toughened” significantly to disincentivize a larger portion of mergers than under present guidance. A brief discussion of Khan’s substantively flawed remarks follows.

Discussion

Khan’s remarks begin with a favorable reference to the tendentious statement from President Joe Biden’s executive order on competition that “broad government inaction has allowed far too many markets to become uncompetitive, with consolidation and concentration now widespread across our economy, resulting in higher prices, lower wages, declining entrepreneurship, growing inequality, and a less vibrant democracy.” The claim that “government inaction” has enabled increased market concentration and reduced competition has been shown to be  inaccurate, and therefore cannot serve as a defensible justification for a substantive change in antitrust policy. Accordingly, Khan’s statement that the executive order “underscores a deep mandate for change and a commitment to creating the enabling environment for reform” rests on foundations of sand.

Khan then shifts her narrative to a consideration of merger policy, stating:

Merger investigations invite us to make a set of predictive assessments, and for decades we have relied on models that generally assumed markets are self-correcting and that erroneous enforcement is more costly than erroneous non-enforcement. Both the experience of the U.S. antitrust agencies and a growing set of empirical research is showing that these assumptions appear to have been at odds with market realities.

Digital Markets

Khan argues, without explanation, that “the guidelines must better account for certain features of digital markets—including zero-price dynamics, the competitive significance of data, and the network externalities that can swiftly lead markets to tip.” She fails to make any showing that consumer welfare has been harmed by mergers involving digital markets, or that the “zero-price” feature is somehow troublesome. Moreover, the reference to “data” as being particularly significant to antitrust analysis appears to ignore research (see here) indicating there is an insufficient basis for having an antitrust presumption involving big data, and that big data (like R&D) may be associated with innovation, which enhances competitive vibrancy.

Khan also fails to note that network externalities are beneficial; when users are added to a digital platform, the platform’s value to other users increases (see here, for example). What’s more (see here), “gateways and multihoming can dissipate any monopoly power enjoyed by large networks[,] … provid[ing] another reason” why network effects may not raise competitive problems. In addition, the implicit notion that “tipping” is a particular problem is belied by the ability of new competitors to “knock off” supposed entrenched digital monopolists (think, for example, of Yahoo being displaced by Google, and Myspace being displaced by Facebook). Finally, a bit of regulatory humility is in order. Given the huge amount of consumer surplus generated by digital platforms (see here, for example), enforcers should be particularly cautious about avoiding more aggressive merger (and antitrust in general) policies that could detract from, rather than enhance, welfare.

Labor Markets

Khan argues that guidelines drafters should “incorporate new learning” embodied in “empirical research [that] has shown that labor markets are highly concentrated” and a “U.S. Treasury [report] recently estimating that a lack of competition may be costing workers up to 20% of their wages.” Unfortunately for Khan’s argument, these claims have been convincingly debunked (see here) in a new study by former FTC economist Julie Carlson (see here). As Carlson carefully explains, labor markets are not highly concentrated and labor-market power is largely due to market frictions (such as occupational licensing), rather than concentration. In a similar vein, a recent article by Richard Epstein stresses that heightened antitrust enforcement in labor markets would involve “high administrative and compliance costs to deal with a largely nonexistent threat.” Epstein points out:

[T]raditional forms of antitrust analysis can perfectly deal with labor markets. … What is truly needed is a close examination of the other impediments to labor, including the full range of anticompetitive laws dealing with minimum wage, overtime, family leave, anti-discrimination, and the panoply of labor union protections, where the gains to deregulation should be both immediate and large.

Nonhorizontal Mergers

Khan notes:

[W]e are looking to sharpen our insights on non-horizontal mergers, including deals that might be described as ecosystem-driven, concentric, or conglomerate. While the U.S. antitrust agencies energetically grappled with some of these dynamics during the era of industrial-era conglomerates in the 1960s and 70s, we must update that thinking for the current economy. We must examine how a range of strategies and effects, including extension strategies and portfolio effects, may warrant enforcement action.

Khan’s statement on non-horizontal mergers once again is fatally flawed.

With regard to vertical mergers (not specifically mentioned by Khan), the FTC abruptly withdrew, without explanation, its approval of the carefully crafted 2020 vertical-merger guidelines. That action offends the rule of law, creating unwarranted and costly business-sector confusion. Khan’s lack of specific reference to vertical mergers does nothing to solve this problem.

With regard to other nonhorizontal mergers, there is no sound economic basis to oppose mergers involving unrelated products. Threatening to do so would have no procompetitive rationale and would threaten to reduce welfare by preventing the potential realization of efficiencies. In a 2020 OECD paper drafted principally by DOJ and FTC economists, the U.S. government meticulously assessed the case for challenging such mergers and rejected it on economic grounds. The OECD paper is noteworthy in its entirely negative assessment of 1960s and 1970s conglomerate cases which Khan implicitly praises in suggesting they merely should be “updated” to deal with the current economy (citations omitted):

Today, the United States is firmly committed to the core values that antitrust law protect competition, efficiency, and consumer welfare rather than individual competitors. During the ten-year period from 1965 to 1975, however, the Agencies challenged several mergers of unrelated products under theories that were antithetical to those values. The “entrenchment” doctrine, in particular, condemned mergers if they strengthened an already dominant firm through greater efficiencies, or gave the acquired firm access to a broader line of products or greater financial resources, thereby making life harder for smaller rivals. This approach is no longer viewed as valid under U.S. law or economic theory. …

These cases stimulated a critical examination, and ultimate rejection, of the theory by legal and economic scholars and the Agencies. In their Antitrust Law treatise, Phillip Areeda and Donald Turner showed that to condemn conglomerate mergers because they might enable the merged firm to capture cost savings and other efficiencies, thus giving it a competitive advantage over other firms, is contrary to sound antitrust policy, because cost savings are socially desirable. It is now recognized that efficiency and aggressive competition benefit consumers, even if rivals that fail to offer an equally “good deal” suffer loss of sales or market share. Mergers are one means by which firms can improve their ability to compete. It would be illogical, then, to prohibit mergers because they facilitate efficiency or innovation in production. Unless a merger creates or enhances market power or facilitates its exercise through the elimination of competition—in which case it is prohibited under Section 7—it will not harm, and more likely will benefit, consumers.

Given the well-reasoned rejection of conglomerate theories by leading antitrust scholars and modern jurisprudence, it would be highly wasteful for the FTC and DOJ to consider covering purely conglomerate (nonhorizontal and nonvertical) mergers in new guidelines. Absent new legislation, challenges of such mergers could be expected to fail in court. Regrettably, Khan appears oblivious to that reality.

Khan’s speech ends with a hat tip to internationalism and the ICN:

The U.S., of course, is far from alone in seeing the need for a course correction, and in certain regards our reforms may bring us in closer alignment with other jurisdictions. Given that we are here at ICN, it is worth considering how we, as an international community, can or should react to the shifting consensus.

Antitrust laws have been adopted worldwide, in large part at the urging of the United States (see here). They remain, however, national laws. One would hope that the United States, which in the past was the world leader in developing antitrust economics and enforcement policy, would continue to seek to retain this role, rather than merely emulate other jurisdictions to join an “international community” consensus. Regrettably, this does not appear to be the case. (Indeed, European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager made specific reference to a “coordinated approach” and convergence between U.S. and European antitrust norms in a widely heralded October 2021 speech at the annual Fordham Antitrust Conference in New York. And Vestager specifically touted European ex ante regulation as well as enforcement in a May 5 ICN speech that emphasized multinational antitrust convergence.)

Conclusion

Lina Khan’s recent ICN speech on merger policy sends all the wrong signals on merger guidelines revisions. It strongly hints that new guidelines will embody pre-conceived interventionist notions at odds with sound economics. By calling for a dramatically new direction in merger policy, it interjects uncertainty into merger planning. Due to its interventionist bent, Khan’s remarks, combined with prior statements by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter (see here) may further serve to deter potentially welfare-enhancing consolidations. Whether the federal courts will be willing to defer to a drastically different approach to mergers by the agencies (one at odds with several decades of a careful evolutionary approach, rooted in consumer welfare-oriented economics) is, of course, another story. Stay tuned.