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[Today’s guest post—the 11th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—comes from Ramsi A. Woodcock of the University of Kentucky’s Rosenberg College of Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In an effort to fight inflation, the Federal Open Market Committee raised interest rates to 20% over the course of 1980 and 1981, triggering a recession that threw more than 4 million Americans, many in well-paying manufacturing jobs, out of work.

As it continues to do today, the committee met in secret and explained its rate decisions in a handful of paragraphs.

None of the millions of Americans thrown out of work—or the many businesses driven to bankruptcy—sued the FOMC. No one argued that the FOMC’s power to disrupt the American economy was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority. No one argued that, in adopting its rate decisions, the FOMC had failed to comply with any of the notice-and-comment procedures required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

They were wise not to sue, because they would have lost.

There have been only five lawsuits against the FOMC since it was created in 1933. All have failed; none has challenged a FOMC rate decision.

As Judge Augustus Hand put it in a related case: “it would be an unthinkable burden upon any banking system if its open market sales and discount rates were to be subject to judicial review.”

Even if everything Frank Easterbrook has had to say about antitrust is correct, it is unlikely that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could ever trigger a recession, much less one as severe as the one the FOMC created 40 years ago. And yet, no FTC commissioner can dream of the agency enjoying anything like the level of deference from the courts enjoyed by the FOMC.

The reality of FTC practice is just too depressing.

The FTC Act of 1914 is an expression of profound ambivalence about the administrative project, denying to the FTC even the authority to carry out internal deliberations other than through an adjudicative process. The FTC must bring an administrative complaint; firms have the right to a hearing; and so on. A Congress that would do that to an agency would certainly subject the agency’s final decisions to review by the federal courts—which, of course, Congress did.

Unlike their francophone peers on the European Court of Justice (ECJ), who have leveraged a culture of judicial deference to administrative action—as well as the fact that the ECJ’s language of business is their native tongue—to give the European Union’s antitrust agency something like carte blanche, American judges have delighted at using their powers to humiliate the FTC.

Take pay-for-delay. The FTC—informed by a staff of 80 PhD economists, not all Democrats—declared the practice to be bad for consumers in the late 1990s. But several courts actually decided that the practice was so good for consumers that it should be per se legal instead. It took more than a decade of litigation before the FTC was able to make a dent in the rate of accumulation of these agreements.

So whipped is the FTC by the courts that even when it dreams of a better life, the commission seems unable to imagine one without judicial review. During a period when bipartisan groups of legislators are seeking to reform the antitrust laws, one might have hoped that the FTC would ask for some of the discretion enjoyed by the FOMC.

Instead, the FTC’s current leadership appears intent to strap the FTC into the straightjacket of notice-and-comment rulemaking under the APA, which will only extend the FTC’s subjugation to the courts.

Indeed, progressives understood the passage of the APA in 1946 to be a signal defeat, clawing back power for the courts that progressives had fought for two generations to lodge in administrative agencies. The act was literally adopted over FDR’s dead body—he vetoed its forerunner in 1940 and died in 1945. It is consistent with contemporary progressives’ habit of mistaking counterproductive, middle-of-the-road policies for radical interventions (the original progressives of a century ago didn’t think much of the entire antitrust enterprise, either), that they should mistake the APA’s notice-and-comment rulemaking for a recipe for FTC invigoration.

To be sure, the issuance of competition regulations would be a new thing for the FTC. Rather than just enforce existing antitrust rules (and fantasizing that, one day, a court might read the FTC’s power to condemn “unfair methods of competition” more broadly), the FTC would be able actually to make new antitrust law.

But law is a double-edged sword for an administrative agency. It binds the public, but it also binds the agency. Any rule the FTC seeks to adopt, the FTC itself must follow; if a defendant can show that the firm complied, the FTC loses its case.

And that’s after the FTC has made it through the hell of the rulemaking process itself—the notice-and-comment periods, the court challenges to the agency’s interpretation of every point of process, along with the substantive basis for the rule—for every single rule the agency wishes to adopt. Or  to repeal.

The FOMC suffers no such indignities.

Although Congress calls the FOMC’s decisions “regulations,” they are not subject to the APA. The FOMC can make a rate decision and then change its mind whenever and however it wishes. The FOMC does not need to provide the public with notice and an opportunity to comment—indeed, the FOMC waits five years to release transcripts of its deliberations—and its decisions are never reviewed, even for caprice.

If the FTC wanted real power—if it wanted to get something done—it would want discretion. Discretion has made the FOMC nimble and being nimble has made the FOMC effective. Economists agree that the FOMC’s rate decisions slew inflation in the early 1980s; it could not have done that if, like the FTC and pay-for-delay, it had had to wait a decade for the courts’ approval.

As Judge Hand put it, “the correction of discount rates by judicial decree seems almost grotesque, when we remember that conditions in the money market often change from hour to hour, and the disease would ordinarily be over long before a judicial diagnosis could be made.”

How strange it is to read this as an antitrust scholar and reflect that the single most important attack on antitrust enforcement has always been, in Judge Hand’s words, that “the disease [is] ordinarily … over long before a judicial diagnosis [is] made.”

Is that not the lesson drawn by antitrust’s critics from the Microsoft litigation? Microsoft may well have monopolized operating systems in 1992 or 1994. But by the time the case settled in 2001, Windows’ dominance could not be rolled back. America was already used to a single operating system, a single Office suite, and so on. And mobile, which Microsoft did not dominate, was on the horizon. If there had been a time when antitrust enforcers could have done something to promote competition, it had passed.

Or AT&T. Antitrust managed to break the company up just in time for the cell-phone revolution to render its decades-old landline monopoly irrelevant.

If, as Judge Hand observed, “conditions in the money market change from hour to hour,” so too do conditions in virtually every market—including the markets that the FTC regulates. If that is the argument for FOMC discretion, it is an equally potent argument for FTC discretion.

But to get power, you have to want it, and the current leadership cries out instead only for a more varied servitude.

The case for instead making the FTC more like the FOMC is strong. (Even the name fits.)

Both institutions are charged with using indirect methods to get prices right in fluid market environments—the FOMC by using the purchase and sale of securities to get interest rates right; the FTC by tweaking market structure to get market prices to competitive levels. As has already been observed, this can be done effectively only through the unfettered exercise of administrative discretion.

Independence from all three branches of government (including the courts) is essential to both. Just as an accountable FOMC would probably not have had the will to throw millions out of work and drive many businesses into bankruptcy in order to fight inflation—even though that was ultimately best for the economy—an accountable FTC cannot embark on a campaign of economy-wide deconcentration when that is the right thing for the economy (which is not to say that it always is).

The sort of systemic regulation of the preconditions for a successful capitalism in which both the FOMC and the FTC are engaged creates too many powerful winners and losers for either institution to be able to do its job without complete and utter discretion to act as it sees fit—something the FTC lacks.

Indeed, the last time the FTC tried to flex its muscles, it was smacked down by all three branches of government—attacked by both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan from the campaign trail, threatened with defunding by Congress, and rejected by the courts.

One can distinguish the FOMC from the FTC on the grounds that the FOMC paints with a broader brush than does the FTC. To get interest rates right, the FOMC directs the purchase and sale of securities, often in great volumes, whereas the FTC may need to tell a single, identifiable company how to do a particular, identifiable thing, such as to distribute a particular input on reasonable terms or to excise a particular provision from its contracts. Because of the potential for abuse of the individual that might result from such individualized action, the argument goes, the courts must keep the FTC on a tighter leash.

There is a fictional premise here. The FTC rarely deals with individuals—flesh-and-blood humans—but instead with corporations, often so large that they have thousands of workers and managers, and still more shareholders. The potential for abuse of actual individuals, as opposed to the fictive corporate individual, is low.

But even if we accept this fiction—as, alas, the courts have done—the FTC differs from the FOMC here only because it has so far adhered to an adjudicatory model of decisionmaking. The FTC could, for example, decide instead to target competitive prices by ordering every firm in the economy having an accounting profit in excess of 15% to be broken up, along the lines of the Industrial Reorganization Act considered by Congress in the 1970s.

That would paint with a brush of FOMCian breadth. Indeed, by varying the triggering profit percentage, the FTC would be able to vary, in a rough way, the level of competition and hence the level of prices in the economy, just as, by varying its target interest rate, the FOMC varies, in a rough way, the level of inflation in the economy.

(I do not mean to suggest an equivalence between monopoly pricing and inflation; monopoly pricing is a problem of levels whereas inflation is a problem of rates of change; they are two different problems with two different causes, two different institutions to mind them, and two different fixes.)

And although such a broad approach would surely send copious “good” firms that have engaged in no monopolizing activities to their fates, the FOMC’s rate increases doubtless also send to their fates plenty of “good” firms that have not inflated their prices but cannot survive at a 20% cost of capital. The FOMC does that because it is more expedient to discipline every firm than to identify the inflators and coax them into altering their behavior on a case-by-case basis.

We tolerate this sacrifice of innocents because we believe that low inflation confers long-term gains on everyone. If we believe that competitive pricing confers long-term gains on everyone—and that is the premise of competition policy—surely we must tolerate the same from the FTC.

If anything, the case for a broad-brush FTC is stronger than that for the FOMC, because, as already noted, no matter how overzealous the deconcentration program, it is hard to imagine deconcentration plunging the economy into recession and throwing millions of Americans out of work, at least in the short run.

If anything, deconcentration should raise employment, because competition is wasteful and duplicative; all those shards of big firms need their own independent support staffs. And, of course, it is a staple of antitrust theory that when competition increases, output goes up, not down.

One might also seek to distinguish between the FOMC and the FTC on the grounds that what the FTC must do is more complicated, and hence more prone to error, than what the FOMC must do, making oversight more appropriate for the FTC. Both inflation and monopoly power are bad for growth, the argument might go, but the connection between inflation and growth is clear whereas that between monopoly power and growth—not so much.

Indeed, too much inflation prevents firms from planning and, so, from innovating. But while the adversity associated with competition is the mother of invention, many innovations—such as social networks—can be delivered only at scale, suggesting that too much competition can be as bad for growth as too little. It would seem to follow that getting monetary policy right is easy, whereas getting competition policy right is hard.

Except that the FOMC must strike a balance between too much inflation and too little, just as the FTC must strike a balance between too much competition and too little.

Deflation can be just as bad for growth—just as hard on business planning—as inflation, as any Japanese central banker of the previous generation can tell you. The FOMC must, therefore, find the interest rates that produce neither too much nor too little inflation, just as the FTC must find the level of concentration that produces neither too much nor too little competition.

Both the FOMC and the FTC have hard jobs. Why do we trust one to handle its job better than the other?

One reason might be that the FOMC is a friend to big business whereas the FTC is a natural enemy thereof. Inflation, when unexpected, levels, because it reduces the real value of debts. If firms tend to be creditors and consumers debtors, and firms’ shareholders tend to be richer than consumers, the wealth gap narrows.

It follows that, in preventing inflation, the FOMC tilts, and so big business wants the FOMC healthy and free. The FTC, by contrast, levels, because it eliminates monopoly profits, benefiting consumers at the expense of shareholders. So, big business prefers the FTC shackled.

If that is right, then the FOMC enjoys a level of discretion that the FTC never can, because the power behind government never will give the FTC so loose a leash. Congress has authorized both the FOMC and the FTC to create regulations. But the courts would never interpret this language consistently; for the FOMC, to “adopt” a “regulation” means to do whatever you like whereas for the FTC to “make” a “regulation” means either nothing at all or, at best, notice-and-comment rulemaking under the APA.

But I rather think there is a better explanation for the divergent experiences of the FOMC and the FTC, one that does not turn on class conflict and which has been staring us in the face all along.

Just as competition policy probably cannot cause a recession or throw millions of Americans out of work, it probably cannot much increase growth or employ many more Americans either. The future of an economy may be decided by the variance of an interest rate between 0% and 20%; this is not so for the variance of a market price between the competitive level and the monopoly level. The FOMC is simply more important to the success of the capitalist system than is the FTC.

And both are probably not that important for economic inequality. While unexpected inflation does tend to make debts go away, firms rewrite contracts to account for expected inflation, so inflation’s contribution to equality is blip-like.

The contribution of monopoly profits to inequality is also likely to be small; scarcity profits, which firms generate even in competitive markets, are likely to play a more important role. At least, that’s what Thomas Piketty, the dean of inequality studies, happens to think.

And maybe also what the rich think: there is conservative support for more competition policy, but none for more tax policy, which tells us something about which is likely to have a more radical impact on the distribution of wealth.

So, it is because the FTC is not dangerous, rather than because it is dangerous, that we feel free to hobble it with process. And because the FOMC is dangerous that we want it free and maximally effective.

Just so, there is no due process in wartime because there is so much at stake, whereas in peacetime you can’t kill a statue without multiple appeals.

Which takes us back to the real deficit in progressive radicalism. Yes, rulemaking for the FTC is a cop out.

But so is the entire antitrust project.

The U.S. economy survived the COVID-19 pandemic and associated government-imposed business shutdowns with a variety of innovations that facilitated online shopping, contactless payments, and reduced use and handling of cash, a known vector of disease transmission.

While many of these innovations were new, they would have been impossible but for their reliance on an established and ubiquitous technological infrastructure: the global credit and debit-card payments system. Not only did consumers prefer to use plastic instead of cash, the number of merchants going completely “cashless” quadrupled in the first two months of the pandemic alone. From food delivery to online shopping, many small businesses were able to survive largely because of payment cards.

But there are costs to maintain the global payment-card network that processes billions of transactions daily, and those costs are higher for online payments, which present elevated fraud and security risks. As a result, while the boom in online shopping over this past year kept many retailers and service providers afloat, that hasn’t prevented them from grousing about their increased card-processing costs.

So it is that retailers are now lobbying Washington to impose new regulations on payment-card markets designed to force down the fees they pay for accepting debit and credit cards. Called interchange fees, these fees are charged by banks that issue debit cards on each transaction, and they are part of a complex process that connects banks, card networks, merchants, and consumers.

Fig. 1: A basic illustration of the 3- and 4-party payment-processing networks that underlie the use of credit cards.

Regulation II—a provision of 2010’s Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act commonly known as the “Durbin amendment,” after its primary sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)—placed price controls on interchange fees for debit cards issued by larger banks and credit unions (those with more than $10 billion in assets). It required all debit-card issuers to offer multiple networks for “routing” and processing card transactions. Merchants now want to expand these routing provisions to credit cards, as well. The consequences for consumers, especially low-income consumers, would be disastrous.

The price controls imposed by the Durbin amendment have led to a 52% decrease in the average per-transaction interchange fee, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue losses for covered depositories. But banks and credit unions have passed on these losses to consumers in the form of fewer free checking accounts, higher fees, and higher monthly minimums required to avoid those fees.

One empirical study found that the share of covered banks offering free checking accounts fell from 60% to 20%, the average monthly checking accounts fees increased from $4.34 to $7.44, and the minimum account balance required to avoid those fees increased by roughly 25%. Another study found that fees charged by covered institutions were 15% higher than they would have been absent the price regulation; those increases offset about 90% of the depositories’ lost revenue. Banks and credit unions also largely eliminated cash-back and other rewards on debit cards.

In fact, those who have been most harmed by the Durbin amendment’s consequences have been low-income consumers. Middle-class families hardly noticed the higher minimum balance requirements, or used their credit cards more often to offset the disappearance of debit-card rewards. Those with the smallest checking account balances, however, suffered the most from reduced availability of free banking and higher monthly maintenance and other fees. Priced out of the banking system, as many as 1 million people might have lost bank accounts in the wake of the Durbin amendment, forcing them to turn to such alternatives as prepaid cards, payday lenders, and pawn shops to make ends meet. Lacking bank accounts, these needy families weren’t even able to easily access their much-needed government stimulus funds at the onset of the pandemic without paying fees to alternative financial services providers.

In exchange for higher bank fees and reduced benefits, merchants promised lower prices at the pump and register. This has not been the case. Scholarship since  implementation of the Federal Reserve’s rule shows that whatever benefits have been gained have gone to merchants, with little pass-through to consumers. For instance, one study found that covered banks had their interchange revenue drop by 25%, but little evidence of a corresponding drop in prices from merchants.

Another study found that the benefits and costs to merchants have been unevenly distributed, with retailers who sell large-ticket items receiving a windfall, while those specializing in small-ticket items have often faced higher effective rates. Discounts previously offered to smaller merchants have been eliminated to offset reduced revenues from big-box stores. According to a 2014 Federal Reserve study, when acceptance fees increased, merchants hiked retail prices; but when fees were reduced, merchants pocketed the windfall.

Moreover, while the Durbin amendment’s proponents claimed it would only apply to big banks, the provisions that determine how transactions are routed on the payment networks apply to cards issued by credit unions and community banks, as well. As a result, smaller players have also seen average interchange fees beaten down, reducing this revenue stream even as they have been forced to cope with higher regulatory costs imposed by Dodd-Frank. Extending the Durbin amendment’s routing provisions to credit cards would further drive down interchange-fee revenue, creating the same negative spiral of higher consumer fees and reduced benefits that the original Durbin amendment spawned for debit cards.

More fundamentally, merchants believe it is their decision—not yours—as to which network will route your transaction. You may prefer Visa or Mastercard because of your confidence in their investments in security and anti-fraud detection, but later discover that the merchant has routed your transaction through a processor you’ve never heard of, simply because that network is cheaper for the merchant.

The resilience of the U.S. economy during this horrible viral contagion is due, in part, to the ubiquitous access of American families to credit and debit cards. That system has proved its mettle this past year, seamlessly adapting to the sudden shift to electronic payments. Yet, in the wake of this American success story, politicians and regulators, egged on by powerful special interests, instead want to meddle with this system just so big-box retailers can transfer their costs onto American families and small banks. As the economy and public health recovers, Congress and regulators should resist the impulse to impose new financial harm on working-class families.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) released a study updating our 2014 analysis of the economic effects of the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act.

The new paper, Unreasonable and Disproportionate: How the Durbin Amendment Harms Poorer Americans and Small Businesses, by ICLE scholars, Todd J. Zywicki, Geoffrey A. Manne, and Julian Morris, can be found here; a Fact Sheet highlighting the paper’s key findings is available here.

Introduced as part of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, the Durbin Amendment sought to reduce the interchange fees assessed by large banks on debit card transactions. In the words of its primary sponsor, Sen. Richard Durbin, the Amendment aspired to help “every single Main Street business that accepts debit cards keep more of their money, which is a savings they can pass on to their consumers.”

Unfortunately, although the Durbin Amendment did generate benefits for big-box retailers, ICLE’s 2014 analysis found that it had actually harmed many other merchants and imposed substantial net costs on the majority of consumers, especially those from lower-income households.

In the current study, we analyze a welter of new evidence and arguments to assess whether time has ameliorated or exacerbated the Amendment’s effects. Our findings in this report expand upon and reinforce our findings from 2014:

Relative to the period before the Durbin Amendment, almost every segment of the interrelated retail, banking, and consumer finance markets has been made worse off as a result of the Amendment.

Predictably, the removal of billions of dollars in interchange fee revenue has led to the imposition of higher bank fees and reduced services for banking consumers.

In fact, millions of households, regardless of income level, have been adversely affected by the Durbin Amendment through higher overdraft fees, increased minimum balances, reduced access to free checking, higher ATM fees, and lost debit card rewards, among other things.

Nor is there any evidence that merchants have lowered prices for retail consumers; for many small-ticket items, in fact, prices have been driven up.

Contrary to Sen. Durbin’s promises, in other words, increased banking costs have not been offset by lower retail prices.

At the same time, although large merchants continue to reap a Durbin Amendment windfall, there remains no evidence that small merchants have realized any interchange cost savings — indeed, many have suffered cost increases.

And all of these effects fall hardest on the poor. Hundreds of thousands of low-income households have chosen (or been forced) to exit the banking system, with the result that they face higher costs, difficulty obtaining credit, and complications receiving and making payments — all without offset in the form of lower retail prices.

Finally, the 2017 study also details a new trend that was not apparent when we examined the data three years ago: Contrary to our findings then, the two-tier system of interchange fee regulation (which exempts issuing banks with under $10 billion in assets) no longer appears to be protecting smaller banks from the Durbin Amendment’s adverse effects.

This week the House begins consideration of the Amendment’s repeal as part of Rep. Hensarling’s CHOICE Act. Our study makes clear that the Durbin price-control experiment has proven a failure, and that repeal is, indeed, the only responsible option.

Click on the following links to read:

Full Paper

Fact Sheet

Summary