Archives For Efficiencies

A number of blockbuster mergers have received (often negative) attention from media and competition authorities in recent months. From the recently challenged Staples-Office Depot merger to the abandoned Comcast-Time Warner merger to the heavily scrutinized Aetna-Humana merger (among many others), there has been a wave of potential mega-mergers throughout the economy—many of them met with regulatory resistance. We’ve discussed several of these mergers at TOTM (see, e.g., here, here, here and here).

Many reporters, analysts, and even competition authorities have adopted various degrees of the usual stance that big is bad, and bigger is even badder. But worse yet, once this presumption applies, agencies have been skeptical of claimed efficiencies, placing a heightened burden on the merging parties to prove them and often ignoring them altogether. And, of course (and perhaps even worse still), there is the perennial problem of (often questionable) market definition — which tanked the Sysco/US Foods merger and which undergirds the FTC’s challenge of the Staples/Office Depot merger.

All of these issues are at play in the proposed acquisition of British aluminum can manufacturer Rexam PLC by American can manufacturer Ball Corp., which has likewise drawn the attention of competition authorities around the world — including those in Brazil, the European Union, and the United States.

But the Ball/Rexam merger has met with some important regulatory successes. Just recently the members of CADE, Brazil’s competition authority, unanimously approved the merger with limited divestitures. The most recent reports also indicate that the EU will likely approve it, as well. It’s now largely down to the FTC, which should approve the merger and not kill it or over-burden it with required divestitures on the basis of questionable antitrust economics.

The proposed merger raises a number of interesting issues in the surprisingly complex beverage container market. But this merger merits regulatory approval.

The International Center for Law & Economics recently released a research paper entitled, The Ball-Rexam Merger: The Case for a Competitive Can Market. The white paper offers an in-depth assessment of the economics of the beverage packaging industry; the place of the Ball-Rexam merger within this remarkably complex, global market; and the likely competitive effects of the deal.

The upshot is that the proposed merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects, and any competitive concerns that do arise can be readily addressed by a few targeted divestitures.

The bottom line

The production and distribution of aluminum cans is a surprisingly dynamic industry, characterized by evolving technology, shifting demand, complex bargaining dynamics, and significant changes in the costs of production and distribution. Despite the superficial appearance that the proposed merger will increase concentration in aluminum can manufacturing, we conclude that a proper understanding of the marketplace dynamics suggests that the merger is unlikely to have actual anticompetitive effects.

All told, and as we summarize in our Executive Summary, we found at least seven specific reasons for this conclusion:

  1. Because the appropriately defined product market includes not only stand-alone can manufacturers, but also vertically integrated beverage companies, as well as plastic and glass packaging manufacturers, the actual increase in concentration from the merger will be substantially less than suggested by the change in the number of nationwide aluminum can manufacturers.
  2. Moreover, in nearly all of the relevant geographic markets (which are much smaller than the typically nationwide markets from which concentration numbers are derived), the merger will not affect market concentration at all.
  3. While beverage packaging isn’t a typical, rapidly evolving, high-technology market, technological change is occurring. Coupled with shifting consumer demand (often driven by powerful beverage company marketing efforts), and considerable (and increasing) buyer power, historical beverage packaging market shares may have little predictive value going forward.
  4. The key importance of transportation costs and the effects of current input prices suggest that expanding demand can be effectively met only by expanding the geographic scope of production and by economizing on aluminum supply costs. These, in turn, suggest that increasing overall market concentration is consistent with increased, rather than decreased, competitiveness.
  5. The markets in which Ball and Rexam operate are dominated by a few large customers, who are themselves direct competitors in the upstream marketplace. These companies have shown a remarkable willingness and ability to invest in competing packaging supply capacity and to exert their substantial buyer power to discipline prices.
  6. For this same reason, complaints leveled against the proposed merger by these beverage giants — which are as much competitors as they are customers of the merging companies — should be viewed with skepticism.
  7. Finally, the merger should generate significant managerial and overhead efficiencies, and the merged firm’s expanded geographic footprint should allow it to service larger geographic areas for its multinational customers, thus lowering transaction costs and increasing its value to these customers.

Distinguishing Ardagh: The interchangeability of aluminum and glass

An important potential sticking point for the FTC’s review of the merger is its recent decision to challenge the Ardagh-Saint Gobain merger. The cases are superficially similar, in that they both involve beverage packaging. But Ardagh should not stand as a model for the Commission’s treatment of Ball/Rexam. The FTC made a number of mistakes in Ardagh (including market definition and the treatment of efficiencies — the latter of which brought out a strenuous dissent from Commissioner Wright). But even on its own (questionable) terms, Ardagh shouldn’t mean trouble for Ball/Rexam.

As we noted in our December 1st letter to the FTC on the Ball/Rexam merger, and as we discuss in detail in the paper, the situation in the aluminum can market is quite different than the (alleged) market for “(1) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Brewers; and (2) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Distillers” at issue in Ardagh.

Importantly, the FTC found (almost certainly incorrectly, at least for the brewers) that other container types (e.g., plastic bottles and aluminum cans) were not part of the relevant product market in Ardagh. But in the markets in which aluminum cans are a primary form of packaging (most notably, soda and beer), our research indicates that glass, plastic, and aluminum are most definitely substitutes.

The Big Four beverage companies (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and MillerCoors), which collectively make up 80% of the U.S. market for Ball and Rexam, are all vertically integrated to some degree, and provide much of their own supply of containers (a situation significantly different than the distillers in Ardagh). These companies exert powerful price discipline on the aluminum packaging market by, among other things, increasing (or threatening to increase) their own container manufacturing capacity, sponsoring new entry, and shifting production (and, via marketing, consumer demand) to competing packaging types.

For soda, Ardagh is obviously inapposite, as soda packaging wasn’t at issue there. But the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that aluminum cans (which in fact make up 56% of the beer packaging market) don’t compete with glass bottles for beer packaging is also suspect.

For aluminum can manufacturers Ball and Rexam, aluminum can’t be excluded from the market (obviously), and much of the beer in the U.S. that is packaged in aluminum is quite clearly also packaged in glass. The FTC claimed in Ardagh that glass and aluminum are consumed in distinct situations, so they don’t exert price pressure on each other. But that ignores the considerable ability of beer manufacturers to influence consumption choices, as well as the reality that consumer preferences for each type of container (whether driven by beer company marketing efforts or not) are merging, with cost considerations dominating other factors.

In fact, consumers consume beer in both packaging types largely interchangeably (with a few limited exceptions — e.g., poolside drinking demands aluminum or plastic), and beer manufacturers readily switch between the two types of packaging as the relative production costs shift.

Craft brewers, to take one important example, are rapidly switching to aluminum from glass, despite a supposed stigma surrounding canned beers. Some craft brewers (particularly the larger ones) do package at least some of their beers in both types of containers, or simultaneously package some of their beers in glass and some of their beers in cans, while for many craft brewers it’s one or the other. Yet there’s no indication that craft beer consumption has fallen off because consumers won’t drink beer from cans in some situations — and obviously the prospect of this outcome hasn’t stopped craft brewers from abandoning bottles entirely in favor of more economical cans, nor has it induced them, as a general rule, to offer both types of packaging.

A very short time ago it might have seemed that aluminum wasn’t in the same market as glass for craft beer packaging. But, as recent trends have borne out, that differentiation wasn’t primarily a function of consumer preference (either at the brewer or end-consumer level). Rather, it was a function of bottling/canning costs (until recently the machinery required for canning was prohibitively expensive), materials costs (at various times glass has been cheaper than aluminum, depending on volume), and transportation costs (which cut against glass, but the relative attractiveness of different packaging materials is importantly a function of variable transportation costs). To be sure, consumer preference isn’t irrelevant, but the ease with which brewers have shifted consumer preferences suggests that it isn’t a strong constraint.

Transportation costs are key

Transportation costs, in fact, are a key part of the story — and of the conclusion that the Ball/Rexam merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects. First of all, transporting empty cans (or bottles, for that matter) is tremendously inefficient — which means that the relevant geographic markets for assessing the competitive effects of the Ball/Rexam merger are essentially the largely non-overlapping 200 mile circles around the companies’ manufacturing facilities. Because there are very few markets in which the two companies both have plants, the merger doesn’t change the extent of competition in the vast majority of relevant geographic markets.

But transportation costs are also relevant to the interchangeability of packaging materials. Glass is more expensive to transport than aluminum, and this is true not just for empty bottles, but for full ones, of course. So, among other things, by switching to cans (even if it entails up-front cost), smaller breweries can expand their geographic reach, potentially expanding sales enough to more than cover switching costs. The merger would further lower the costs of cans (and thus of geographic expansion) by enabling beverage companies to transact with a single company across a wider geographic range.

The reality is that the most important factor in packaging choice is cost, and that the packaging alternatives are functionally interchangeable. As a result, and given that the direct consumers of beverage packaging are beverage companies rather than end-consumers, relatively small cost changes readily spur changes in packaging choices. While there are some switching costs that might impede these shifts, they are readily overcome. For large beverage companies that already use multiple types and sizes of packaging for the same product, the costs are trivial: They already have packaging designs, marketing materials, distribution facilities and the like in place. For smaller companies, a shift can be more difficult, but innovations in labeling, mobile canning/bottling facilities, outsourced distribution and the like significantly reduce these costs.  

“There’s a great future in plastics”

All of this is even more true for plastic — even in the beer market. In fact, in 2010, 10% of the beer consumed in Europe was sold in plastic bottles, as was 15% of all beer consumed in South Korea. We weren’t able to find reliable numbers for the U.S., but particularly for cheaper beers, U.S. brewers are increasingly moving to plastic. And plastic bottles are the norm at stadiums and arenas. Whatever the exact numbers, clearly plastic holds a small fraction of the beer container market compared to glass and aluminum. But that number is just as clearly growing, and as cost considerations impel them (and technology enables them), giant, powerful brewers like AB InBev and MillerCoors are certainly willing and able to push consumers toward plastic.

Meanwhile soda companies like Coca-cola and Pepsi have successfully moved their markets so that today a majority of packaged soda is sold in plastic containers. There’s no evidence that this shift came about as a result of end-consumer demand, nor that the shift to plastic was delayed by a lack of demand elasticity; rather, it was primarily a function of these companies’ ability to realize bigger profits on sales in plastic containers (not least because they own their own plastic packaging production facilities).

And while it’s not at issue in Ball/Rexam because spirits are rarely sold in aluminum packaging, the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that

[n]on-glass packaging materials, such as plastic containers, are not in this relevant product market because not enough spirits customers would switch to non-glass packaging materials to make a SSNIP in glass containers to spirits customers unprofitable for a hypothetical monopolist

is highly suspect — which suggests the Commission may have gotten it wrong in other ways, too. For example, as one report notes:

But the most noteworthy inroads against glass have been made in distilled liquor. In terms of total units, plastic containers, almost all of them polyethylene terephthalate (PET), have surpassed glass and now hold a 56% share, which is projected to rise to 69% by 2017.

True, most of this must be tiny-volume airplane bottles, but by no means all of it is, and it’s clear that the cost advantages of plastic are driving a shift in distilled liquor packaging, as well. Some high-end brands are even moving to plastic. Whatever resistance (and this true for beer, too) that may have existed in the past because of glass’s “image,” is breaking down: Don’t forget that even high-quality wines are now often sold with screw-tops or even in boxes — something that was once thought impossible.

The overall point is that the beverage packaging market faced by can makers like Ball and Rexam is remarkably complex, and, crucially, the presence of powerful, vertically integrated customers means that past or current demand by end-users is a poor indicator of what the market will look like in the future as input costs and other considerations faced by these companies shift. Right now, for example, over 50% of the world’s soda is packaged in plastic bottles, and this margin is set to increase: The global plastic packaging market (not limited to just beverages) is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% between 2014 and 2020, while aluminum packaging is expected to grow at just 2.9%.

A note on efficiencies

As noted above, the proposed Ball/Rexam merger also holds out the promise of substantial efficiencies (estimated at $300 million by the merging parties, due mainly to decreased transportation costs). There is a risk, however, that the FTC may effectively disregard those efficiencies, as it did in Ardagh (and in St. Luke’s before it), by saddling them with a higher burden of proof than it requires of its own prima facie claims. If the goal of antitrust law is to promote consumer welfare, competition authorities can’t ignore efficiencies in merger analysis.

In his Ardagh dissent, Commissioner Wright noted that:

Even when the same burden of proof is applied to anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, of course, reasonable minds can and often do differ when identifying and quantifying cognizable efficiencies as appears to have occurred in this case.  My own analysis of cognizable efficiencies in this matter indicates they are significant.   In my view, a critical issue highlighted by this case is whether, when, and to what extent the Commission will credit efficiencies generally, as well as whether the burden faced by the parties in establishing that proffered efficiencies are cognizable under the Merger Guidelines is higher than the burden of proof facing the agencies in establishing anticompetitive effects. After reviewing the record evidence on both anticompetitive effects and efficiencies in this case, my own view is that it would be impossible to come to the conclusions about each set forth in the Complaint and by the Commission — and particularly the conclusion that cognizable efficiencies are nearly zero — without applying asymmetric burdens.

The Commission shouldn’t make the same mistake here. In fact, here, where can manufacturers are squeezed between powerful companies both upstream (e.g., Alcoa) and downstream (e.g., AB InBev), and where transportation costs limit the opportunities for expanding the customer base of any particular plant, the ability to capitalize on economies of scale and geographic scope is essential to independent manufacturers’ abilities to efficiently meet rising demand.

Read our complete assessment of the merger’s effect here.

On April 17, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted three-to-two to enter into a consent agreement In the Matter of Cardinal Health, Inc., requiring Cardinal Health to disgorge funds as part of the settlement in this monopolization case.  As ably explained by dissenting Commissioners Josh Wright and Maureen Ohlhausen, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wrongly required the disgorgement of funds in this case.  The settlement reflects an overzealous application of antitrust enforcement to unilateral conduct that may well be efficient.  It also manifests a highly inappropriate application of antitrust monetary relief that stands to increase private uncertainty, to the detriment of economic welfare.

The basic facts and allegations in this matter, drawn from the FTC’s statement accompanying the settlement, are as follows.  Through separate acquisitions in 2003 and 2004, Cardinal Health became the largest operator of radiopharmacies in the United States and the sole radiopharmacy operator in 25 relevant markets addressed by this settlement.  Radiopharmacies distribute and sell radiopharmaceuticals, which are drugs containing radioactive isotopes, used by hospitals and clinics to diagnose and treat diseases.  Notably, they typically derive at least of 60% of their revenues from the sale of heart perfusion agents (“HPAs”), a type of radiopharmaceutical that healthcare providers use to conduct heart stress tests.  A practical consequence is that radiopharmacies cannot operate a financially viable and competitive business without access to an HPA.  Between 2003 and 2008, Cardinal allegedly employed various tactics to induce the only two manufacturers of HPAs in the United States, BMS and GEAmersham, to withhold HPA distribution rights from would-be radiopharmacy market entrants in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.  Through these tactics Cardinal allegedly maintained exclusive dealing rights, denied its customers the benefits of competition, and profited from the monopoly prices it charged for all radiopharmaceuticals, including HPAs, in the relevant markets.  Importantly, according to the FTC, there was no efficiency benefit or legitimate business justification for Cardinal simultaneously maintaining exclusive distribution rights to the only two HPAs then available in the relevant markets.

This settlement raises two types of problems.

First, this was a single firm conduct exclusive dealing case involving (at best) questionable anticompetitive effectsAs Josh Wright (citing the economics literature) pointed out in his dissent, “there are numerous plausible efficiency justifications for such [exclusive dealing] restraints.”  (Moreover, as Josh Wright and I stressed in an article on tying and exclusive dealing, “[e]xisting empirical evidence of the impact of exclusive dealing is scarce but generally favors the view that exclusive dealing is output‐enhancing”, suggesting that a (rebuttable) presumption of legality would be appropriate in this area.)  Indeed, in this case, Commissioner Wright explained that “[t]he tactics the Commission challenges could have been output-enhancing” in various markets.  Furthermore, Commissioner Wright emphasized that the data analysis showing that Cardinal charged higher prices in monopoly markets was “very fragile.  The data show that the impact of a second competitor on Cardinal’s prices is small, borderline statistically significant, and not robust to minor changes in specification.”  Commissioner Ohlhausen’s dissent reinforced Commissioner Wright’s critique of the majority’s exclusive dealing theory.  As she put it:

“[E]even if the Commission could establish that Cardinal achieved some type of de facto exclusivity with both Bristol-Myers Squibb and General Electric Co. during the relevant time period (and that is less than clear), it is entirely unclear that such exclusivity – rather than, for example, insufficient demand for more than one radiopharmacy – caused the lack of entry within each of the relevant markets. That alternative explanation seems especially likely in the six relevant markets in which ‘Cardinal remains the sole or dominant radiopharmacy,’ notwithstanding the fact that whatever exclusivity Cardinal may have achieved admittedly expired in early 2008.  The complaint provides no basis for the assertion that Cardinal’s conduct during the 2003-2008 period has caused the lack of entry in those six markets during the past seven years.”

Furthermore, Commissioner Ohlhausen underscored Commissioner Wright’s critique of the empirical evidence in this case:  “[T]he evidence of anticompetitive effects in the relevant markets at issue is significantly lacking.  It is largely based on non-market-specific documentary evidence. The market-specific empirical evidence we do have implies very small (i.e. low single-digit) and often statistically insignificant price increases or no price increases at all.”

Second, the FTC’s requirement that Cardinal Health disgorge $26.8 million into a fund for allegedly injured consumers is unmeritorious and inappropriately chills potentially procompetitive behavior.  Commissioner Ohlhausen focused on how this case ran afoul of the FTC’s 2003 Policy Statement on Monetary Equitable Remedies in Competition Cases (Policy Statement) (withdrawn by the FTC in 2012, over Commissioner Ohlhausen’s dissent), which reserves disgorgement for cases in which the underlying violation is clear and there is a reasonable basis for calculating the amount of a remedial payment.  As Ohlhausen explained, this case violates those principles because (1) it does not involve a clear violation of the antitrust laws (see above) and, given the lack of anticompetitive effects evidence (see above), (2) there is no reasonable basis for calculating the disgorgement amount (indeed, there is “the real possibility of no ill-gotten gains for Cardinal”).  Furthermore:

“The lack of guidance from the Commission on the use of its disgorgement authority [following withdrawal of the Policy Statement] makes any such use inherently unpredictable and thus unfair. . . .  The Commission therefore ought to   reinstate the Policy Statement – either in its original form or in some modified form that the current Commissioners can agree on – or provide some additional guidance on when it plans to seek the extraordinary remedy of disgorgement in antitrust cases.”

In his critique of disgorgement, Commissioner Wright deployed law and economics analysis (and, in particular, optimal deterrence theory).  He explained that regulators should be primarily concerned with over-deterrence in single-firm conduct cases such as this one, which raise the possibility of private treble damage actions.  Wright stressed:

“I would . . . pursue disgorgement only against naked price fixing agreements among competitors or, in the case of single-firm conduct, only if the monopolist’s conduct violates the Sherman Act and has no plausible efficiency justification. . . .  This case does not belong in that category. Declining to pursue disgorgement in most cases involving vertical restraints has the virtue of taking the remedy off the table – and thus reducing the risk of over-deterrence – in the cases that present the most difficulty in distinguishing between anticompetitive conduct that harms consumers and procompetitive conduct that benefits them, such as the present case.”

Commissioner Wright also shared Commissioner Ohlhausen’s concern about the lack of meaningful FTC guidance regarding when and whether it will seek disgorgement, and agreed with her that the FTC should reinstate the Policy Statement or provide new specific guidance in this area.  (See my 2012 ABA Antitrust Source article for a more fulsome critique of the antitrust error costs, chilling effects, and harmful international ramifications associated with the withdrawal of the Policy Statement.)

In sum, one may hope that in the future the FTC:  (1) will be more attentive to the potential efficiencies of exclusive dealing; (2) will proceed far more cautiously before proposing an enforcement action in the exclusive dealing area; (3) will avoid applying disgorgement in exclusive dealing cases; and (4) will promulgate a new disgorgement policy statement that reserves disgorgement for unequivocally illegal antitrust offenses in which economic harm can readily be calculated with a high degree of certainty.

Earlier this week the International Center for Law & Economics, along with a group of prominent professors and scholars of law and economics, filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit seeking rehearing en banc of the court’s FTC, et al. v. St Luke’s case.

ICLE, joined by the Medicaid Defense Fund, also filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit panel that originally heard the case.

The case involves the purchase by St. Luke’s Hospital of the Saltzer Medical Group, a multi-specialty physician group in Nampa, Idaho. The FTC and the State of Idaho sought to permanently enjoin the transaction under the Clayton Act, arguing that

[T]he combination of St. Luke’s and Saltzer would give it the market power to demand higher rates for health care services provided by primary care physicians (PCPs) in Nampa, Idaho and surrounding areas, ultimately leading to higher costs for health care consumers.

The district court agreed and its decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit panel.

Unfortunately, in affirming the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit made several errors in its treatment of the efficiencies offered by St. Luke’s in defense of the merger. Most importantly:

  • The court refused to recognize St. Luke’s proffered quality efficiencies, stating that “[i]t is not enough to show that the merger would allow St. Luke’s to better serve patients.”
  • The panel also applied the “less restrictive alternative” analysis in such a way that any theoretically possible alternative to a merger would discount those claimed efficiencies.
  • Finally, the Ninth Circuit panel imposed a much higher burden of proof for St. Luke’s to prove efficiencies than it did for the FTC to make out its prima facie case.

As we note in our brief:

If permitted to stand, the Panel’s decision will signal to market participants that the efficiencies defense is essentially unavailable in the Ninth Circuit, especially if those efficiencies go towards improving quality. Companies contemplating a merger designed to make each party more efficient will be unable to rely on an efficiencies defense and will therefore abandon transactions that promote consumer welfare lest they fall victim to the sort of reasoning employed by the panel in this case.

The following excerpts from the brief elaborate on the errors committed by the court and highlight their significance, particularly in the health care context:

The Panel implied that only price effects can be cognizable efficiencies, noting that the District Court “did not find that the merger would increase competition or decrease prices.” But price divorced from product characteristics is an irrelevant concept. The relevant concept is quality-adjusted price, and a showing that a merger would result in higher product quality at the same price would certainly establish cognizable efficiencies.

* * *

By placing the ultimate burden of proving efficiencies on the defendants and by applying a narrow, impractical view of merger specificity, the Panel has wrongfully denied application of known procompetitive efficiencies. In fact, under the Panel’s ruling, it will be nearly impossible for merging parties to disprove all alternatives when the burden is on the merging party to address any and every untested, theoretical less-restrictive structural alternative.

* * *

Significantly, the Panel failed to consider the proffered significant advantages that health care acquisitions may have over contractual alternatives or how these advantages impact the feasibility of contracting as a less restrictive alternative. In a complex integration of assets, “the costs of contracting will generally increase more than the costs of vertical integration.” (Benjamin Klein, Robert G. Crawford, and Armen A. Alchian, Vertical Integration, Appropriable Rents, and the Competitive Contracting Process, 21 J. L. & ECON. 297, 298 (1978)). In health care in particular, complexity is a given. Health care is characterized by dramatically imperfect information, and myriad specialized and differentiated products whose attributes are often difficult to measure. Realigning incentives through contract is imperfect and often unsuccessful. Moreover, the health care market is one of the most fickle, plagued by constantly changing market conditions arising from technological evolution, ever-changing regulations, and heterogeneous (and shifting) consumer demand. Such uncertainty frequently creates too many contingencies for parties to address in either writing or enforcing contracts, making acquisition a more appropriate substitute.

* * *

Sound antitrust policy and law do not permit the theoretical to triumph over the practical. One can always envision ways that firms could function to achieve potential efficiencies…. But this approach would harm consumers and fail to further the aims of the antitrust laws.

* * *

The Panel’s approach to efficiencies in this case demonstrates a problematic asymmetry in merger analysis. As FTC Commissioner Wright has cautioned:

Merger analysis is by its nature a predictive enterprise. Thinking rigorously about probabilistic assessment of competitive harms is an appropriate approach from an economic perspective. However, there is some reason for concern that the approach applied to efficiencies is deterministic in practice. In other words, there is a potentially dangerous asymmetry from a consumer welfare perspective of an approach that embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other. (Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Joshua D. Wright at 5, In the Matter of Ardagh Group S.A., and Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc., and Compagnie de Saint-Gobain)

* * *

In this case, the Panel effectively presumed competitive harm and then imposed unduly high evidentiary burdens on the merging parties to demonstrate actual procompetitive effects. The differential treatment and evidentiary burdens placed on St. Luke’s to prove competitive benefits is “unjustified and counterproductive.” (Daniel A. Crane, Rethinking Merger Efficiencies, 110 MICH. L. REV. 347, 390 (2011)). Such asymmetry between the government’s and St. Luke’s burdens is “inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare.” (Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Joshua D. Wright at 7, In the Matter of Ardagh Group S.A., and Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc., and Compagnie de Saint-Gobain).

* * *

In reaching its decision, the Panel dismissed these very sorts of procompetitive and quality-enhancing efficiencies associated with the merger that were recognized by the district court. Instead, the Panel simply decided that it would not consider the “laudable goal” of improving health care as a procompetitive efficiency in the St. Luke’s case – or in any other health care provider merger moving forward. The Panel stated that “[i]t is not enough to show that the merger would allow St. Luke’s to better serve patients.” Such a broad, blanket conclusion can serve only to harm consumers.

* * *

By creating a barrier to considering quality-enhancing efficiencies associated with better care, the approach taken by the Panel will deter future provider realignment and create a “chilling” effect on vital provider integration and collaboration. If the Panel’s decision is upheld, providers will be considerably less likely to engage in realignment aimed at improving care and lowering long-term costs. As a result, both patients and payors will suffer in the form of higher costs and lower quality of care. This can’t be – and isn’t – the outcome to which appropriate antitrust law and policy aspires.

The scholars joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • George Bittlingmayer, Wagnon Distinguished Professor of Finance and Otto Distinguished Professor of Austrian Economics, University of Kansas
  • Henry Butler, George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center, George Mason University
  • Daniel A. Crane, Associate Dean for Faculty and Research and Professor of Law, University of Michigan
  • Harold Demsetz, UCLA Emeritus Chair Professor of Business Economics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Bernard Ganglmair, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Gus Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Keith Hylton, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, Boston University
  • Thom Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri
  • John Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Pennsylvania State University
  • Geoffrey Manne, Founder and Executive Director of the International Center for Law and Economics and Senior Fellow at TechFreedom
  • Stephen Margolis, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor, North Carolina State University
  • Fred McChesney, de la Cruz-Mentschikoff Endowed Chair in Law and Economics, University of Miami
  • Tom Morgan, Oppenheim Professor Emeritus of Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law, George Washington University
  • David Olson, Associate Professor of Law, Boston College
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University
  • D. Daniel Sokol, Professor of Law, University of Florida
  • Mike Sykuta, Associate Professor and Director of the Contracting and Organizations Research Institute, University of Missouri

The amicus brief is available here.

Joshua Wright is a Commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission

I’d like to thank Geoff and Thom for organizing this symposium and creating a forum for an open and frank exchange of ideas about the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority under Section 5.  In offering my own views in a concrete proposed Policy Statement and speech earlier this summer, I hoped to encourage just such a discussion about how the Commission can define its authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition in a way that both strengthens the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provides much needed guidance to the business community.  During the course of this symposium, I have enjoyed reading the many thoughtful posts providing feedback on my specific proposal, as well as offering other views on how guidance and limits can be imposed on the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority.  Through this marketplace of ideas, I believe the Commission can develop a consensus position and finally accomplish the long overdue task of articulating its views on the application of the agency’s signature competition statute.  As this symposium comes to a close, I’d like to make a couple quick observations and respond to a few specific comments about my proposal.

There Exists a Vast Area of Agreement on Section 5

Although conventional wisdom may suggest it will be impossible to reach any meaningful consensus with respect to Section 5, this symposium demonstrates that there actually already exists a vast area of agreement on the subject.  In fact, it appears safe to draw at least two broad conclusions from the contributions that have been offered as part of this symposium.

First, an overwhelming majority of commentators believe that we need guidance on the scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority.  This is not surprising.  The absence of meaningful limiting principles distinguishing lawful conduct from unlawful conduct under Section 5 and the breadth of the Commission’s authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition creates significant uncertainty among the business community.  Moreover, without a coherent framework for applying Section 5, the Commission cannot possibly hope to fulfill Congress’s vision that Section 5 would play a key role in helping the FTC leverage its unique research and reporting functions to develop evidence-based competition policy.

Second, there is near unanimity that the FTC should challenge only conduct as an unfair method of competition if it results in “harm to competition” as the phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws.  Harm to competition is a concept that is readily understandable and has been deeply embedded into antitrust jurisprudence.  Incorporating this concept would require that any conduct challenged under Section 5 must both harm the competitive process and harm consumers.  Under this approach, the FTC should not consider non-economic factors, such as whether the practice harms small business or whether it violates public morals, in deciding whether to prosecute conduct as an unfair method of competition.  This is a simple commitment, but one that is not currently enshrined in the law.  By tethering the definition of unfair methods of competition to modern economics and to the understanding of competitive harm articulated in contemporary antitrust jurisprudence, we would ensure Section 5 enforcement focuses upon conduct that actually is anticompetitive.

While it is not surprising that commentators offering a diverse set of perspectives on the appropriate scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority would agree on these two points, I think it is important to note that this consensus covers much of the Section 5 debate while leaving some room for debate on the margins as to how the FTC can best use its unfair methods of competition authority to complement its mission of protecting competition.

Some Clarifications Regarding My Proposed Policy Statement

In the spirit of furthering the debate along those margins, I also briefly would like to correct the record, or at least provide some clarification, on a few aspects of my proposed Policy Statement.

First, contrary to David Balto’s suggestion, my proposed Policy Statement acknowledges the fact that Congress envisioned Section 5 to be an incipiency statute.  Indeed, the first element of my proposed definition of unfair methods of competition requires the FTC to show that the act or practice in question “harms or is likely to harm competition significantly.”  In fact, it is by prosecuting practices that have not yet resulted in harm to competition, but are likely to result in anticompetitive effects if allowed to continue, that my definition reaches “invitations to collude.”  Paul Denis raises an interesting question about how the FTC should assess the likelihood of harm to competition, and suggests doing so using an expected value test.  My proposed policy statement does just that by requiring the FTC to assess both the magnitude and probability of the competitive harm when determining whether a practice that has not yet harmed competition, but potentially is likely to, is an unfair method of competition under Section 5.  Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission should not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the conduct poses a substantial harm.  Moreover, by requiring the FTC to show that the conduct in question results in “harm to competition” as that phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws, my proposal also incorporates all the temporal elements of harm discussed in the antitrust case law and therefore puts the Commission on the same footing as the courts.

Second, both Dan Crane and Marina Lao have suggested that the efficiencies screen I have proposed results in a null (or very small) set of cases because there is virtually no conduct for which some efficiencies cannot be claimed.  This suggestion stems from an apparent misunderstanding of the efficiencies screen.  What these comments fail to recognize is that the efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines.  As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service.  Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted.  Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.

Third, Marina Lao further argues that permitting the FTC to challenge conduct as an unfair method of competition only when there are no cognizable efficiencies is too strict a standard and that it would be better to allow the agency to balance the harms against the efficiencies.  The current formulation of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition enforcement has proven unworkable in large part because it lacks clear boundaries and is both malleable and ambiguous.  In my view, in order to make Section 5 a meaningful statute, and one that can contribute productively to the Commission’s competition enforcement mission as envisioned by Congress, the Commission must first confine its unfair methods of competition authority to those areas where it can leverage its unique institutional capabilities to target the conduct most harmful to consumers.  This in no way requires the Commission to let anticompetitive conduct run rampant.  Where the FTC identifies and wants to challenge conduct with both harms and benefits, it is fully capable of doing so successfully in federal court under the traditional antitrust laws.

I cannot think of a contribution the Commission can make to the FTC’s competition mission that is more important than issuing a Policy Statement articulating the appropriate application of Section 5.  I look forward to continuing to exchange ideas with those both inside and outside the agency regarding how the Commission can provide guidance about its unfair methods of competition authority.  Thank you once again to Truth on the Market for organizing and hosting this symposium and to the many participants for their thoughtful contributions.

*The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the Commission or any other Commissioner.

Tad Lipsky is a partner in the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP.

The FTC’s struggle to provide guidance for its enforcement of Section 5’s Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC) clause (or not – some oppose the provision of forward guidance by the agency, much as one occasionally heard opposition to the concept of merger guidelines in 1968 and again in 1982) could evoke a much broader long-run issue: is a federal law regulating single-firm conduct worth the trouble?  Antitrust law has its hard spots and its soft spots: I imagine that most antitrust lawyers think they can define “naked” price-fixing and other hard-core cartel conduct, and they would defend having a law that prohibits it.  Similarly with a law that prohibits anticompetitive mergers.  Monopolization perhaps not so much: 123 years of Section 2 enforcement and the best our Supreme Court can do is the Grinnell standard, defining monopolization as the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [monopoly] power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.”  Is this Grinnell definition that much better than “unfair methods of competition”?

The Court has created a few specific conduct categories within the Grinnell rubric: sham petitioning (objectively and subjectively baseless appeals for government action), predatory pricing (pricing below cost with a reasonable prospect of recoupment through the exercise of power obtained by achieving monopoly or disciplining competitors), and unlawful tying (using market power over one product to force the purchase of a distinct product – you probably know the rest).  These categories are neither perfectly clear (what measure of cost indicates a predatory price?) nor guaranteed to last (the presumption that a patent bestows market power within the meaning of the tying rule was abandoned in 2005).  At least the more specific categories give some guidance to lower courts, prosecutors, litigants and – most important of all – compliance-inclined businesses.  They provide more useful guidance than Grinnell.

The scope for differences of opinion regarding the definition of monopolization is at an historical zenith.  Some of the least civilized disagreements between the FTC and the Antitrust Division – the Justice Department’s visible contempt for the FTC’s ReaLemon decision in the early 1980’s, or the three-Commissioner vilification of the Justice Department’s 2008 report on unilateral conduct – concern these differences.  The 2009 Justice Department theatrically withdrew the 2008 Justice Department’s report, claiming (against clear objective evidence to the contrary) that the issue was settled in its favor by Lorain Journal, Aspen Skiing, and the D.C. Circuit decision in the main case involving Microsoft.

Although less noted in the copious scholarly output concerning UMC, disputes about the meaning of Section 5 are encouraged by the lack of definitive guidance on monopolization.  For every clarification provided by the Supreme Court, the FTC’s room for maneuver under UMC is reduced.  The FTC could not define sham litigation inconsistently with Professional Real Estate Investors v. Columbia Pictures Industries; it could not read recoupment out of the Brooke Group v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. definition of predatory pricing.

The fact remains that there has been less-than-satisfactory clarification of single-firm conduct standards under either statute.  Grinnell remains the only “guideline” for the vast territory of Section 2 enforcement (aside from the specific mentioned categories), especially since the Supreme Court has shown no enthusiasm for either of the two main appellate-court approaches to a general test for unlawful unilateral conduct under Section 2, the “intent test” and the “essential facilities doctrine.”  (It has not rejected them, either.)  The current differences of opinion – even within the Commission itself, leave aside the appellate courts – are emblematic of a similar failure with regard to UMC.  Failure to clarify rules of such universal applicability has obvious costs and adverse impacts: creative and competitively benign business conduct is deterred (with corresponding losses in innovation, productivity and welfare), and the costs, delays, disruption and other burdens of litigation are amplified.  Are these costs worth bearing?

Years ago I heard it said that a certain old-line law firm had tightened its standards of partner performance: whereas formerly the firm would expel a partner who remained drunk for ten years, the new rule was that a partner could remain drunk only for five years.  The antitrust standards for unilateral conduct have vacillated for over a century.  For a time (as exemplified by United States v. United Shoe Machinery Corp.) any act of self-preservation by a monopolist – even if “honestly industrial” – was presumptively unlawful if not compelled by outside circumstances.  Even Grinnell looks good compared to that, but Grinnell still fails to provide much help in most Section 2 cases; and the debate over UMC says the same about Section 5.  I do not advocate the repeal of either statute, but shouldn’t we expect that someone might want to tighten our standards?  Maybe we can allow a statute a hundred years to be clarified through common-law application.  Section 2 passed that milepost twenty-three years ago, and Section 5 reaches that point next year.  We shouldn’t be surprised if someone wants to pull the plug beyond that point.

Paul Denis is a partner at Dechert LLP and Deputy Chair of the Firm’s Global Litigation Practice.  His views do not necessarily reflect those of his firm or its clients.

Deterrence ought to be an important objective of enforcement policy.  Some might argue it should be THE objective.  But it is difficult to know what is being deterred by a law if the agency enforcing the law cannot or will not explain its boundaries.  Commissioner Wright’s call for a policy statement on the scope of Section 5 enforcement is a welcome step toward Section 5 achieving meaningful deterrence of competitively harmful conduct.

The draft policy statement has considerable breadth.  I will limit myself to three concepts that I see as important to its application, the temporal dimension (applicable to both harm and efficiencies), the concept of harm to competition, and the concept of cognizable efficiencies.

Temporal Dimension

Commissioner Wright offers a compelling framework, but it is missing an important element — the temporal dimension.  Over what time period must likely harm to competition be felt in order to be actionable?  Similarly, over what time period must efficiencies be realized in order to be cognizable?  On page 8 of the draft policy statement he notes that the Commission may challenge “practices that have not yet resulted in harm to competition but are likely to result in anticompetitive effects if allowed to continue.”  When must those effects be felt?  How good is the Commission’s crystal ball for predicting harm to competition when the claim is that the challenged conduct precluded some future competition from coming to market?  Doesn’t that crystal ball get a bit murky when you are looking further into the future?  Doesn’t it get particularly murky when the future effect depends on one more other things happening between now and the time of feared anticompetitive effects?

We often hear from the Commission that arguments about future entry are too remote in time (although the bright line test of 2 years for entry to have an effect was pulled from the Horizontal Merger Guidelines).  Shouldn’t similar considerations be applied to claims of harm to competition?  The Commission has engaged in considerable innovation to try to get around the potential competition doctrine developed by the courts and the Commission under Section 7 of the Clayton Act.  The policy statement should consider whether there can be some temporal limit to Section 5 claims.  Perhaps the concept of likely harm to competition could be interpreted in an expected value sense, considering both probability of harm and timing of harm, but it is not obvious to me how that interpretation, whatever its theoretical appeal, could be made operational.  Bright line tests or presumptive time periods may be crude but may also be more easily applied.

Harm to Competition

On the “harm to competition” element, I was left unclear if this was a unified concept or whether there were two subparts to it.  Commissioner Wright paraphrases Chicago Board of Trade and concludes that “Conduct challenged under Section 5 must harm competition and cause an anticompetitive effect.” (emphasis supplied).  He then quotes Microsoft for the proposition that conduct “must harm the competitive process and thereby harm consumers.” (emphasis supplied).  The indicators referenced at the bottom of page 18 of his speech strike me as indicators of harm to consumers rather than indicators of harm to the competitive process.  Is there anything more to “harm to competition” than “harm to consumers?”  If so, what is it?  I think there probably should be something more than harm to consumers.  If I develop a new product that drives from the market all rivals, the effect may be to increase prices and reduce output.  But absent some bad act – some harm to the competitive process – my development of the new product should not expose me to a Section 5 claim or even the obligation to argue cognizable efficiencies.

On the subject of indicators, the draft policy statement notes that perhaps most relevant are price or output effects.  But Commissioner Wright’s speech goes on to note that increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate are also indicators (Speech at 19).  Shouldn’t this list be limited to output (or quality-adjusted output)?  If price goes up but output rises, isn’t that evidence that consumers have been benefitted?  Why should I have to defend myself by arguing that there are obvious efficiencies (as evidenced by the increased output)?  The reference to innovation is particularly confusing. I don’t believe there is a well developed theoretical or empirical basis for assessing innovation. The structural inferences that we make about price (often dubious themselves) don’t apply to innovation.  We don’t really know what leads to more or less innovation.  How is it that the Commission can see this indicator?  What is it that they are observing?

Cognizable Efficiencies

On cognizable efficiencies, there is a benefit in that the draft policy statement ties this element to the analogous concept used in merger enforcement.  But there is a disadvantage in that the FTC staff usually finds that efficiencies advanced by the parties in mergers are not cognizable for one reason or another.  Perhaps most of what the parties in mergers advance is not cognizable.  But it strikes me as implausible that after so many years of applying this concept that the Commission still rarely sees an efficiencies argument that is cognizable.  Are merging parties and their counsel really that dense?  Or is it that the goal posts keeping moving to ensure that no one ever scores?  Based on the history in mergers, I’m not sure this second element will amount to much.  The respondent will assert cognizable efficiencies, the staff will reject them, and we will be back in the litigation morass that the draft policy statement was trying to avoid, limited only by the Commission’s need to show harm to competition.

Regulating the Regulators: Guidance for the FTC’s Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Authority

August 1, 2013

Truthonthemarket.com

We’ve had a great day considering the possibility, and potential contours, of guidelines for implementing the FTC’s “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority.  Many thanks to our invited participants and to TOTM readers who took the time to follow today’s posts.  There’s lots of great stuff here, so be sure to read anything you missed.  And please continue to comment on posts.  A great thing about a blog symposium is that the discussion need not end immediately.  We hope to continue the conversation over the next few days.

I’m tempted to make some observations about general themes, points of (near) consensus, open questions, etc., but I won’t do that because we’re not quite finished.  We’re expecting to receive an additional post or two tomorrow, and to hear a response from Commissioner Josh Wright.  We hope you’ll join us tomorrow for final posts and Commissioner Wright’s response.

Here are links to the posts so far: