Archives For Exclusive dealing

The Biden administration’s antitrust reign of error continues apace. The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division has indicated in recent months that criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but refuses to provide any guidance regarding enforcement criteria.

Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers stated that “there’s ample case law out there to help inform those who have concerns or questions” regarding Section 2 criminal enforcement, conveniently ignoring the fact that criminal Section 2 cases have not been brought in almost half a century. Needless to say, those ancient Section 2 cases (which are relatively few in number) antedate the modern era of economic reasoning in antitrust analysis. What’s more, unlike Section 1 price-fixing and market-division precedents, they yield no clear rule as to what constitutes criminal unilateral behavior. Thus, DOJ’s suggestion that old cases be consulted for guidance is disingenuous at best. 

It follows that DOJ criminal-monopolization prosecutions would be sheer folly. They would spawn substantial confusion and uncertainty and disincentivize dynamic economic growth.

Aggressive unilateral business conduct is a key driver of the competitive process. It brings about “creative destruction” that transforms markets, generates innovation, and thereby drives economic growth. As such, one wants to be particularly careful before condemning such conduct on grounds that it is anticompetitive. Accordingly, error costs here are particularly high and damaging to economic prosperity.

Moreover, error costs in assessing unilateral conduct are more likely than in assessing joint conduct, because it is very hard to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive single-firm conduct, as DOJ’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 explains (citations omitted):

Courts and commentators have long recognized the difficulty of determining what means of acquiring and maintaining monopoly power should be prohibited as improper. Although many different kinds of conduct have been found to violate section 2, “[d]efining the contours of this element … has been one of the most vexing questions in antitrust law.” As Judge Easterbrook observes, “Aggressive, competitive conduct by any firm, even one with market power, is beneficial to consumers. Courts should prize and encourage it. Aggressive, exclusionary conduct is deleterious to consumers, and courts should condemn it. The big problem lies in this: competitive and exclusionary conduct look alike.”

The problem is not simply one that demands drawing fine lines separating different categories of conduct; often the same conduct can both generate efficiencies and exclude competitors. Judicial experience and advances in economic thinking have demonstrated the potential procompetitive benefits of a wide variety of practices that were once viewed with suspicion when engaged in by firms with substantial market power. Exclusive dealing, for example, may be used to encourage beneficial investment by the parties while also making it more difficult for competitors to distribute their products.

If DOJ does choose to bring a Section 2 criminal case soon, would it target one of the major digital platforms? Notably, a U.S. House Judiciary Committee letter recently called on DOJ to launch a criminal investigation of Amazon (see here). Also, current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan launched her academic career with an article focusing on Amazon’s “predatory pricing” and attacking the consumer welfare standard (see here).

Khan’s “analysis” has been totally discredited. As a trenchant scholarly article by Timothy Muris and Jonathan Nuechterlein explains:

[DOJ’s criminal Section 2 prosecution of A&P, begun in 1944,] bear[s] an eerie resemblance to attacks today on leading online innovators. Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers—first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers—have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics across the political spectrum have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries. 

Before bringing criminal Section 2 charges against Amazon, or any other “dominant” firm, DOJ leaders should read and absorb the sobering Muris and Nuechterlein assessment. 

Finally, not only would DOJ Section 2 criminal prosecutions represent bad public policy—they would also undermine the rule of law. In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch succinctly summarized the importance of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement:

[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.

Bringing criminal monopolization cases now, after a half-century of inaction, would be antithetical to the stability and continuity that underlie the rule of law. What’s worse, the failure to provide prosecutorial guidance would be squarely at odds with concerns of notice and reliance that inform the rule of law. As such, a DOJ decision to target firms for Section 2 criminal charges would offend the rule of law (and, sadly, follow the FTC ‘s recent example of flouting the rule of law, see here and here).

In sum, the case against criminal Section 2 prosecutions is overwhelming. At a time when DOJ is facing difficulties winning “slam dunk” criminal Section 1  prosecutions targeting facially anticompetitive joint conduct (see here, here, and here), the notion that it would criminally pursue unilateral conduct that may generate substantial efficiencies is ludicrous. Hopefully, DOJ leadership will come to its senses and drop any and all plans to bring criminal Section 2 cases.

The “magic” of Washington can only go so far. Whether it is political consultants trying to create controversy where there is basic consensus, such as in parts of the political campaign, or the earnest effort to create a controversy over the Apple decision, there may be lots of words exchanged and animated discussion by political and antitrust pundits, but at the end of the day it’s much ado about not much. For the Apple case, even though this blog has attracted some of the keenest creative antitrust thinkers, a simple truth remains – there was overwhelming evidence that there was a horizontal agreement among suppliers and that Apple participated or even led the agreement as a seller. This is, by definition, a hub-and-spoke conspiracy that resulted in horizontal price fixing among ebook suppliers – an activity worthy of per se treatment.

The simplicity of this case belies the controversy of the ruling and the calls for Supreme Court review. Those that support Apple’s petition for certiorari seem to think that the case is a good vehicle to address important questions of policy in the law. Indeed, ICLE submitted an excellent brief making just such a case. But, unfortunately, the facts of this case are not great for resolving these problems.

For example, some would like to look at this case not as a horizontal price fixing agreement among competitors facilitated by a vertical party, but instead as a series of vertical agreements. This is very tempting, because the antitrust revolution was built on the back of fixing harmful precedent of per se condemnation of vertical restraints. Starting with GTE Sylvania, the Supreme Court has repeatedly applied modern economic learning to vertical restraints and found that there are numerous potential procompetitive benefits that must be accounted for in any proper antitrust analysis of a vertical agreement.

This view of the Apple e-book case is especially tempting because the Supreme Court’s work in this area of the law is not done. For example, the Supreme Court needs to update the law on exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts to reflect post-GTE Sylvania thinking, something I have written extensively on (including here at TOTM: here, here and here) in the context of the McWane case. (Which is also up for cert review). However, the facts of this case simply make this a bad case to resolve any matter of vertical restraint law. Apple was not approaching publishers individually, but aggressively orchestrating a scheme that immediately raised e-book prices by 30% and ensured that Apple’s store could not be undercut by any competitor. Consumers were very obviously harmed and the horizontal price fixing conspiracy could not have taken place without Apple’s involvement.

Of course in the court of public opinion (which is not an antitrust court) Apple attempted to wear the garb of the Robin Hood for consumers suggesting it was just trying to respond to Amazon’s dominance over ebooks. But the Justice Department and the court quickly saw through that guise. The proper response to market dominance is to compete harder. And that’s what happened. Apple’s successful entry into the e-book market seems to provide a more effective response than any cartel. But this does not show that there were procompetitive benefits of Apple’s anticompetitive actions worthy of rule of reason treatment. To the contrary, prices rose and output fell during the conduct at issue – exactly what one would expect to see following anticompetitive activities.

This argument also presupposes that Amazon’s dominance was bad for consumers. This is refuted by Scalia in Trinko:

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

The other problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests that it is OK to violate the antitrust laws to prevent a rival from charging too low of a price. This would obviously be bad policy. If Amazon was maintaining its dominant position through anticompetitive conduct, then there exists recourse in the law. As the old adage states, two wrongs do not make a right.

The main problem with the Apple e-book case is that it is a very simple case that lightly brushes against up against areas of law that and questions of policy that are attractive for Supreme Court review. There are important policy issues that still need to be addressed by the Supreme Court, but these facts don’t present them.

The Supreme Court does have an important job in helping antitrust law evolve in a sensible fashion. But this case is a soggy appetizer when there is a much more engaging main course about to be served. A cert petition has been filed in the FTC’s case against McWane, which provides a chance to update the law of exclusive dealing which the Court has not grappled with since the days of Sputnik (Only a slight exaggeration). And in McWane the most important business groups Including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have explained that the confusion and obscurity in this area and the mischief of the lower court’s decisions create real impediments to procompetitive conduct. Professors of law and economics (including several TOTM authors) also wrote in support of the petition.

The Court should skip the appetizer and get to the main course.

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.

Guest post by Steve Salop, responding to Dan’s post and Thom’s post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts.

I want to clarify some of the key issues in Commissioner Wright’s analysis of Exclusive Dealing and Loyalty Discounts as part of the raising rivals’ costs (“RRC”) paradigm. I never thought that I would have to defend Wright against Professors Lambert and Crane. But, it appears that rigorous antitrust analysis sometimes makes what some would view as strange bedfellows.

In my view, there should not be a safe harbor price-cost test used for loyalty discounts. Nor should these discounts be treated as conclusively (per se) illegal if the defendant fails the price-cost test. Either way, the test is a formalistic and unreliable screen. To explain these conclusions, and why I think the proponents of the screen are taking too narrow approach to these issues, I want to start with some discussion of the legal and economic frameworks.

In my view, there are two overarching antitrust legal paradigms for exclusionary conduct – predatory pricing and raising rivals’ costs (RRC), and conduct that falls into the RRC paradigm generally raises greater antitrust concerns. (For further details, see my 2006 Antitrust L.J. article, “Exclusionary Conduct, Effect on Consumers, and the Flawed Profit-Sacrifice Standard.”) Commissioner Wright also takes this approach in his speech of identifying and distinguishing the two paradigms.

This raises the question of which framework is better suited for addressing exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts (that is, where the conduct is not pled in the complaint as predatory pricing). Commissioner Wright’s speech articulates the view that theories of harm alleging RRC/foreclosure should be analyzed under exclusive dealing law, which is more consistent with the raising rivals’ costs approach, not under predatory pricing law (i.e., with its safe harbor for prices above cost). (Incidentally, I don’t read his speech as saying that he has abandoned Brooke Group for predatory pricing allegations. For example, it seems clear that he would support a price-cost test in a case alleging that a loyalty discount harmed competition via predatory pricing rather than RRC/foreclosure.)

To understand which legal framework – raising rivals’ costs/exclusive dealing versus predatory pricing/price-cost test – is most relevant for analyzing the relevant competitive issues, I want to begin with a primer on RRC theories of foreclosure. This will also hopefully bring everyone closer on the economics.

Input Foreclosure and Customer Foreclosure

There are two types of foreclosure theories within the RRC paradigm — “input foreclosure” and “customer foreclosure.” Both are relevant for evaluating exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts. The input foreclosure theory says that the ED literally “raises rivals’ costs” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a critical input subject to ED. The customer foreclosure theory says that ED literally “reduces rivals’ revenues” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a sufficient customer base and thereby drives the rival out of business or marginalizes it as a competitor (i.e., where it lacks the ability or incentive to move effectively beyond a niche position or to invest to grow).

Commissioner Wright’s speech tended to merge the two variants. But, it is useful to distinguish between them. (I think that this is one source of Professor Lambert being “baffled” by the speech, and more generally, is a source of confusion among commentators that leads to unnecessary disagreements.)

In the simplest presentation, one might say that customer foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with customers, while input foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with input suppliers. But, as noted below, both concerns may arise in the same case, and especially so where the “customers” are distributors rather than final consumers, and the “input” is distribution services.

Analysis of exclusive dealing (ED) often invokes the customer foreclosure theory. For example, Lorain Journal may be analyzed as customer foreclosure. However, input foreclosure is also highly relevant for analyzing ED because exclusive dealing often involves inputs. For example, Judge Posner’s famous JTC Petroleum cartel opinion can be interpreted in this way, if there were solely vertical agreements.

Cases where manufacturers have ED arrangements with wholesale or retail distributors might be thought to fall into the customer foreclosure theory because the distributors can be seen as customers of the manufacturer. However, distributors also can be seen as providing an input to the manufacturer, “distribution services.” For example, a supermarket or drug store provides shelf space to a manufacturer. If the manufacturer (say, unilaterally) sets resale prices, then the difference between this resale price and the wholesale price is the effective input price.

One reason why the input foreclosure/customer foreclosure distinction is important involves the proper roles of minimum viable scale (MVS) and minimum efficient scale (MES). The customer foreclosure theory may involve a claim that the rival likely will be driven below MVS and exit Or it may involve a claim that the rival will be driven below MES, where its costs will be so much higher or its demand so much lower that it will be marginalized as a competitor.

By contrast, and this is the key point, input foreclosure does not focus on whether the rival likely will be driven below MVS. Even if the rival remains viable, if its costs are higher, it will be led to raise the prices charged to consumers, which will cause consumer harm. And prices will not be raised only in the future. The recoupment can be simultaneous.

Another reason for the importance of the distinction is the role of the “foreclosure rate,” which often is the focus in customer foreclosure analysis. For input foreclosure, the key foreclosure issue is not the fraction of distribution input suppliers or capacity that is foreclosed, but rather whether the foreclosure will raise the rival’s distribution costs. That can occur even if a single distributor is foreclosed, if the exclusivity changes the market structure in the input market or if that distributor was otherwise critical. (For example, see Krattenmaker and Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion.”)

At the same time, it is important to note that the input/customer foreclosure distinction is not a totally bright line difference in many real world cases. A given case can raise both concerns. In addition, customer foreclosure sometimes can raise rivals costs, and input foreclosure sometimes (but not always) can cause exit.
While input foreclosure can succeed even if the rival remains viable in the market, in more extreme scenarios, significantly higher costs inflicted on the rival could drive the rival to fall below minimum viable scale, and thereby cause it to exit. I think that this is one way in which unnecessary disagreements have occurred. Commentators might erroneously focus only this more extreme scenario and overlook the impact of the exclusives or near-exclusives on the rival’s distribution costs.

Note also that customer foreclosure can raise a rival’s costs when there are economies of scale in variable costs. For this reason, even if the rival does not exit or is not marginalized, it nonetheless may become a weaker competitor as a result of the exclusivity or loyalty discount.

These points also help to explain why neither a price-cost test nor the foreclosure rate will provide sufficient reliable evidence for either customer foreclosure or input foreclosure, which I turn to next.

(For further discussion of the distinction between input foreclosure and customer foreclosure, see Riordan and Salop, Evaluating Vertical Mergers: A Post-Chicago Approach, 63 ANTITRUST L.R. 513(1995). See also the note on O’Neill v Coca Cola in Andrew Gavil, William Kovacic and Jonathan Baker, Antitrust Law in Perspective: Cases, Concepts and Problems in Competition Policy (2d ed.) at 868-69. For analysis of Lorain Journal as customer foreclosure, see Gavil et. al at 593-97.)

The Inappropriateness of a Dispositive Price-Cost Test

A price-cost test obviously is not relevant for evaluating input foreclosure concerns, even where the input is distribution services. Even if the foreclosure involves bidding up the price of the input, it can succeed in permitting the firm to achieve or maintain market power, despite the fact that the firm does not bid to the point that its costs exceed its price. (In this regard, Weyerhaeuser was a case of “predatory overbuying,” not “raising rivals’ cost overbuying.” The allegation was that Weyerhaeuser would gain market power in the timber input market, not the lumber output market.)

Nor is a price-cost test the critical focus for assessing customer foreclosure theories of competitive harm. (By the way, I think we all agree that the relevant price-cost test involves a comparison of the incremental revenue and incremental cost of the “contestable volume” at issue for the loyalty discount. So I will not delve into that issue.)

First, and most fundamentally, the price-cost test is premised on the erroneous idea that only equally efficient competitors are worth protecting. In other words, the price-cost requires the premise that the antitrust laws only protect consumers against competitive harm arising from conduct that could have excluded an equally efficient competitor. This premise makes absolutely no economic sense. One simple illustrative example is a monopolist raising the costs of a less efficient potential competitor to destroy its entry into the market. Suppose that monopolist has marginal cost of $50 and a monopoly price of $100. Suppose that there is the potential entrant has costs of $75. If the entry were to occur, the market price would fall. Entry of the less efficient rival imposes a competitive constraint on the monopolist. Thus, the entry clearly would benefit consumers. (And, it clearly often would raise total welfare as well.) It is hard to see why antitrust should permit this type of exclusionary conduct.

It is also unlikely that antitrust law would allow this conduct. For example, Lorain Journal is probably pretty close to this hypothetical. WEOL likely was not equally efficient. The hypothetical probably also fits Microsoft pretty well.

Second, the price-cost test does not make economic sense in the case of the equally efficient rival either. Even if the competitor is equally efficient, bidding for exclusives or near-exclusives through loyalty discounts often does not take place on a level playing field. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the dominant firm may tie up customers or input providers before the competitors even arrive on the scene or are in a position to counterbid. A second reason is that the exclusive may be worth more to the dominant firm because it will allow it to maintain market power, whereas the entrant would only be able to obtain more competitive profits. In this sense, the dominant firm is “purchasing market power” as well as purchasing distribution. (This point is straightforward to explain with an example. Suppose that the dominant firm is earning monopoly profits of $200, which would be maintained if it deters the entry of the new competitor. Suppose that successful entry by the equally efficient competitor would lead to the dominant firm and the entrant both earning profits of $70. In this example, the entrant would be unwilling to bid more than $70 for the distribution. But, the dominant firm would be willing to bid up to $130, the difference between its monopoly profits of $200 and the duopoly profits of $70.) A third reason is that customers may not be willing to take the risk that the entry will fail, where failure can occur not because the entrant’s product is inferior but simply because other customers take the exclusive deal from the dominant firm. In this case, a fear that the entrant would fail could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the customers cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firms’ offer. Lorain Journal may provide an illustrative example of this self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. This last point highlights a more general point Commissioner Wright made in his speech — that successful and harmful RRC does not require a below-cost price (net of discounts). When distributors cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firm’s offer, a relatively small discount might be all that is required to purchase exclusion. Thus, while large discounts might accompany RRC conduct, that need not be the case. These latter reasons also explain why there can be successful foreclosure even when contracts have short duration.

Third, as noted above, customer foreclosure may raise rivals’ costs when there are economies of scale. The higher costs of the foreclosed rivals are not well accounted for by the price-cost test.

Fourth, as stressed by Joe Farrell, the price-cost test ignores the fact that loyalty discounts triggered by market share may deter a customer’s purchases from a rival that do not even come at the expense of the dominant firm. (For example, suppose in light of the discounts, the customer is purchasing 90 units from the dominant firm and 10 from the rival in order to achieve a “reward” that comes from purchasing 90% from the dominant firm. Now suppose that entrant offers a new product that would lead the customer to wish to continue to purchase 90 units from the dominant firm but now purchase 15 units from the rival. The purchase of these additional 5 units from the rival does not come at the expense of the dominant firm. Yet, even if the entrant were to offer the 5 units at cost, these purchases would be deterred because the customer would fall below the 90% trigger for the reward.) In this way, the market share discount can directly reduce output.

Fifth, the price-cost test assumes that the price decreases will be passed on to final consumers. This may be the clear where the exclusives or loyalty discounts are true discounts given to final consumers. But, it may not be the case where the dominant firm is acquiring the loyalty from input suppliers, including distributors who then resell to final consumers. The loyalty discounts often involve lump sum payments, which raises questions about pass-on, at least in the short-run.

Finally, it is important to stress that the price-cost test for loyalty discounts assumes that price actually represents a true discount. I expect that this assumption is the starting point for commentators who give priority to the price-cost test. However, the price may not represent a true discount in fact, or the size of the discount may turn out to be smaller than it appears after the “but-for world” is evaluated. That is, the proponents of a price-cost test have the following type of scenario in mind. The dominant firm is initially charging the monopoly price of $100. In the face of competition, the dominant firm offers a lower price of (say) $95 to customers that will accept exclusivity, and the customers accept the exclusivity in order to obtain the $5 discount. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $100 for total revenue of $9000. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $95 for total revenue of $9500.
Thus, the dominant firm earns incremental revenue of $500 on the 10 incremental units, or $50 per unit. If the dominant firm’s costs are $50 or less, it will pass the price-cost test.) But, consider next the following alternative scenario. The dominant firm offers the original $100 price to those customers that will accept exclusivity, and sets a higher “penalty” price of $105 to customers that purchase non-exclusively from the competitor. In this latter scenario, the $5 discount similarly may drive customers to accept the exclusive. These prices would lead to a similar outcome of the price-cost test. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $105 for total revenue of $9450. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $100 for total revenue of $10,000. Thus, the dominant firm earns revenue of $550 on the 10 incremental units, or $55 per unit. Here, the dominant firm will pass the price-cost test, if its costs are $55 or less.) However, in this latter scenario, it is noteworthy that the use of the “penalty” price eliminates any benefits to consumers. This issue seems to be overlooked by Crane and Lambert. (For further details of the role of the penalty price in the context of bundled discounts, see Barry Nalebuff’s articles on Exclusionary Bundling and the articles of Greenlee, Reitman and Sibley.)

* * *

For all these reasons, treating loyalty discounts as analogous to predatory pricing and thereby placing over-reliance on a price-cost test represents a formalistic and unreliable antitrust approach. (It is ironic that Commissioner Wright was criticized by Professor Lambert for being formalistic, when the facts are the opposite.)

This analysis is not to say that the court should be indifferent to the lower prices, where there is a true discount. To the contrary, lower prices passed-on would represent procompetitive efficiency benefits. But, the potential for lower prices passed-on does not provide a sufficient basis for adopting a price-cost safe harbor test for loyalty discount allegations, even ones that can be confidently characterized as purely plain vanilla customer foreclosure with no effects on rivals’ costs.

Thus, the price-cost test should be one relevant evidentiary factor. But, it should not be the primary factor or a trump for either side. That is, above-cost pricing (measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be sufficient by itself for the defendant to escape liability. Nor should below-cost pricing (again, measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be a sufficient by itself for a finding of liability.

Such “Creeping Brookism” does not led to either rigorous or accurate antitrust analysis. It is a path to higher error rates, not a lower ones.

Nor should courts rely on simple-minded foreclosure rates. Gilbarco shows how a mechanical approach to measuring foreclosure leads to confusion. Microsoft makes it clear that a “total foreclosure” test also is deficient. Instead, a better approach is to require the plaintiff to prove under the Rule of Reason standard that the conduct harms the rival by reducing its ability to compete and also that it harms consumers.

I should add one other point for completeness. Some (but not Commissioner Wright or Professor Crane) might suggest that the price-cost test has administrability benefits relative to a full rule of reason analysis under the RRC paradigm. While courts are capable are evaluating prices and costs, that comparison may be more difficult than measuring the increase in the rivals’ distribution costs engendered by the conduct. Moreover, the price-cost comparison becomes an order of magnitude more complex in loyalty discount cases, relative to plain vanilla predatory pricing cases. This is because it also is necessary to determine a reasonable measure of the contestable volume to use to compare incremental revenue and incremental cost. For first-dollar discounts, there will always be some small region where incremental revenue is below incremental cost. Even aside from this situation, the two sides often will disagree about the magnitude of the volume that was at issue.

In summary, I think that Professor Wright’s speech forms the basis of moving the discussion forward into analysis of the actual evidence of benefits and harms, rather than continuing to fight the battles over whether the legal analysis used in the 1950s and 1960s failed to satisfy modern standards and thereby needed to be reined in with unreliable safe harbors.