Archives For Harm to Competition

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021 — 1 Comment

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

Judges sometimes claim that they do not pick winners when they decide antitrust cases. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Competitive conduct by its nature harms competitors, and so if antitrust were merely to prohibit harm to competitors, antitrust would then destroy what it is meant to promote.

What antitrust prohibits, therefore, is not harm to competitors but rather harm to competitors that fails to improve products. Only in this way is antitrust able to distinguish between the good firm that harms competitors by making superior products that consumers love and that competitors cannot match and the bad firm that harms competitors by degrading their products without offering consumers anything better than what came before.

That means, however, that antitrust must pick winners: antitrust must decide what is an improvement and what not. And a more popular search engine is a clear winner.

But one should not take its winningness for granted. For once upon a time there was another winner that the courts always picked, blocking antitrust case after antitrust case. Until one day the courts stopped picking it.

That was the economy of scale.

The Structure of the Google Case

Like all antitrust cases that challenge the exercise of power, the government’s case against Google alleges denial of an input to competitors in some market. Here the input is default search status in smartphones, the competitors are rival search providers, and the market is search advertising. The basic structure of the case is depicted in the figure below.

Although brought as a monopolization case under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, this is at heart an exclusive dealing case of the sort normally brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: the government’s core argument is that Google uses contracts with smartphone makers, pursuant to which the smartphone makers promise to make Google, and not competitors, the search default, to harm competing search advertising providers and by extension competition in the search advertising market.

The government must show anticompetitive conduct, monopoly power, and consumer harm in order to prevail.

Let us assume that there is monopoly power. The company has more than 70% of the search advertising market, which is in the zone normally required to prove that element of a monopolization claim.

The problem of anticompetitive conduct is only slightly more difficult.

Anticompetitive conduct is only ever one thing in antitrust: denial of an essential input to a competitor. There is no other way to harm rivals.

(To be sure, antitrust prohibits harm to competition, not competitors, but that means only that harm to competitors necessary but insufficient for liability. The consumer harm requirement decides whether the requisite harm to competitors is also harm to competition.)

It is not entirely clear just how important default search status really is to running a successful search engine, but let us assume that it is essential, as the government suggests.

Then the question whether Google’s contracts are anticompetitive turns on how much of the default search input Google’s contracts foreclose to rival search engines. If a lot, then the rivals are badly harmed. If a little, then there may be no harm at all.

The answer here is that there is a lot of foreclosure, at least if the government’s complaint is to be believed. Through its contracts with Apple and makers of Android phones, Google has foreclosed default search status to rivals on virtually every single smartphone.

That leaves consumer harm. And here is where things get iffy.

Usage as a Product Improvement: A Very Convenient Argument

The inquiry into consumer harm evokes measurements of the difference between demand curves and price lines, or extrapolations of compensating and equivalent variation using indifference curves painstakingly pieced together based on the assumptions of revealed preference.

But while the parties may pay experts plenty to spin such yarns, and judges may pretend to listen to them, in the end, for the judges, it always comes down to one question only: did exclusive dealing improve the product?

If it did, then the judge assumes that the contracts made consumers better off and the defendant wins. And if it did not, then off with their heads.

So, does foreclosing all this default search space to competitors make Google search advertising more valuable to advertisers?

Those who leap to Google’s defense say yes, for default search status increases the number of people who use Google’s search engine. And the more people use Google’s search engine, the more Google learns about how best to answer search queries and which advertisements will most interest which searchers. And that ensures that even more people will use Google’s search engine, and that Google will do an even better job of targeting ads on its search engine.

And that in turn makes Google’s search advertising even better: able to reach more people and to target ads more effectively to them.

None of that would happen if defaults were set to other engines and users spurned Google, and so foreclosing default search space to rivals undoubtedly improves Google’s product.

This is a nice argument. Indeed, it is almost too nice, for it seems to suggest that almost anything Google might do to steer users away from competitors and to itself deserves antitrust immunity. Suppose Google were to brandish arms to induce you to run your next search on Google. That would be a crime, but, on this account, not an antitrust crime. For getting you to use Google does make Google better.

The argument that locking up users improves the product is of potential use not just to Google but to any of the many tech companies that run on advertising—Facebook being a notable example—so it potentially immunizes an entire business model from antitrust scrutiny.

It turns out that has happened before.

Economies of Scale as a Product Improvement: Once a Convenient Argument

Once upon a time, antitrust exempted another kind of business for which products improve the more people used them. The business was industrial production, and it differs from online advertising only in the irrelevant characteristic that the improvement that comes with expanding use is not in the quality of the product but in the cost per unit of producing it.

The hallmark of the industrial enterprise is high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The textile mill differs from pre-industrial piecework weaving in that once a $10 million investment in machinery has been made, the mill can churn out yard after yard of cloth for pennies. The pieceworker, by contrast, makes a relatively small up-front investment—the cost of raising up the hovel in which she labors and making her few tools—but spends the same large amount of time to produce each new yard of cloth.

Large fixed costs and low marginal costs lie at the heart of the bounty of the modern age: the more you produce, the lower the unit cost, and so the lower the price at which you can sell your product. This is a recipe for plenty.

But it also means that, so long as consumer demand in a given market is lower than the capacity of any particular plant, driving buyers to a particular seller and away from competitors always improves the product, in the sense that it enables the firm to increase volume and reduce unit cost, and therefore to sell the product at a lower price.

If the promise of the modern age is goods at low prices, then the implication is that antitrust should never punish firms for driving rivals from the market and taking over their customers. Indeed, efficiency requires that only one firm should ever produce in any given market, at least in any market for which a single plant is capable of serving all customers.

For antitrust in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beguiled by this advantage to size, exclusive dealing, refusals to deal, even the knife in a competitor’s back: whether these ran afoul of other areas of law or not, it was all for the better because it allowed industrial enterprises to achieve economies of scale.

It is no accident that, a few notable triumphs aside, antitrust did not come into its own until the mid-1930s, 40 years after its inception, on the heels of an intellectual revolution that explained, for the first time, why it might actually be better for consumers to have more than one seller in a market.

The Monopolistic Competition Revolution

The revolution came in the form of the theory of monopolistic competition and its cousin, the theory of creative destruction, developed between the 1920s and 1940s by Edward Chamberlin, Joan Robinson and Joseph Schumpeter.

These theories suggested that consumers might care as much about product quality as they do about product cost, and indeed would be willing to abandon a low-cost product for a higher-quality, albeit more expensive, one.

From this perspective, the world of economies of scale and monopoly production was the drab world of Soviet state-owned enterprises churning out one type of shoe, one brand of cleaning detergent, and so on.

The world of capitalism and technological advance, by contrast, was one in which numerous firms produced batches of differentiated products in amounts sometimes too small fully to realize all scale economies, but for which consumers were nevertheless willing to pay because the products better fit their preferences.

What is more, the striving of monopolistically competitive firms to lure away each other’s customers with products that better fit their tastes led to disruptive innovation— “creative destruction” was Schumpeter’s famous term for it—that brought about not just different flavors of the same basic concept but entirely new concepts. The competition to create a better flip phone, for example, would lead inevitably to a whole new paradigm, the smartphone.

This reasoning combined with work in the 1940s and 1950s on economic growth that quantified for the first time the key role played by technological change in the vigor of capitalist economies—the famous Solow residual—to suggest that product improvements, and not the cost reductions that come from capital accumulation and their associated economies of scale, create the lion’s share of consumer welfare. Innovation, not scale, was king.

Antitrust responded by, for the first time in its history, deciding between kinds of product improvements, rather than just in favor of improvements, casting economies of scale out of the category of improvements subject to antitrust immunity, while keeping quality improvements immune.

Casting economies of scale out of the protected product improvement category gave antitrust something to do for the first time. It meant that big firms had to plead more than just the cost advantages of being big in order to obtain license to push their rivals around. And government could now start reliably to win cases, rather than just the odd cause célèbre.

It is this intellectual watershed, and not Thurman Arnold’s tenacity, that was responsible for antitrust’s emergence as a force after World War Two.

Usage-Based Improvements Are Not Like Economies of Scale

The improvements in advertising that come from user growth fall squarely on the quality side of the ledger—the value they create is not due to the ability to average production costs over more ad buyers—and so they count as the kind of product improvements that antitrust continues to immunize today.

But given the pervasiveness of this mode of product improvement in the tech economy—the fact that virtually any tech firm that sells advertising can claim to be improving a product by driving users to itself and away from competitors—it is worth asking whether we have not reached a new stage in economic development in which this form of product improvement ought, like economies of scale, to be denied protection.

Shouldn’t the courts demand more and better innovation of big tech firms than just the same old big-data-driven improvements they serve up year after year?

Galling as it may be to those who, like myself, would like to see more vigorous antitrust enforcement in general, the answer would seem to be “no.” For what induced the courts to abandon antitrust immunity for economies of scale in the mid-20th century was not the mere fact that immunizing economies of scale paralyzed antitrust. Smashing big firms is not, after all, an end in itself.

Instead, monopolistic competition, creative destruction and the Solow residual induced the change, because they suggested both that other kinds of product improvement are more important than economies of scale and, crucially, that protecting economies of scale impedes development of those other kinds of improvements.

A big firm that excludes competitors in order to reach scale economies not only excludes competitors who might have produced an identical or near-identical product, but also excludes competitors who might have produced a better-quality product, one that consumers would have preferred to purchase even at a higher price.

To cast usage-based improvements out of the product improvement fold, a case must be made that excluding competitors in order to pursue such improvements will block a different kind of product improvement that contributes even more to consumer welfare.

If we could say, for example, that suppressing search competitors suppresses more-innovative search engines that ad buyers would prefer, even if those innovative search engines were to lack the advantages that come from having a large user base, then a case might be made that user growth should no longer count as a product improvement immune from antitrust scrutiny.

And even then, the case against usage-based improvements would need to be general enough to justify an epochal change in policy, rather than be limited to a particular technology in a particular lawsuit. For the courts hate to balance in individual cases, statements to the contrary in their published opinions notwithstanding.

But there is nothing in the Google complaint, much less the literature, to suggest that usage-based improvements are problematic in this way. Indeed, much of the value created by the information revolution seems to inhere precisely in its ability to centralize usage.

Americans Keep Voting to Centralize the Internet

In the early days of the internet, theorists mistook its decentralized architecture for a feature, rather than a bug. But internet users have since shown, time and again, that they believe the opposite.

For example, the basic protocols governing email were engineered to allow every American to run his own personal email server.

But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least the spam—and opted instead to get their email from a single server: the one run by Google as Gmail.

The basic protocols governing web traffic were also designed to allow every American to run whatever other communications services he wished—chat, video chat, RSS, webpages—on his own private server in distributed fashion.

But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least having to build and rebuild friend networks across platforms–—and they voted instead overwhelmingly to get their social media from a single server: Facebook.

Indeed, the basic protocols governing internet traffic were designed to allow every business to store and share its own data from its own computers, in whatever form.

But American businesses hated that freedom—not least the cost of having to buy and service their own data storage machines—and instead 40% of the internet is now stored and served from Amazon Web Services.

Similarly, advertisers have the option of placing advertisements on the myriad independently-run websites that make up the internet—known in the business as the “open web”—by placing orders through competitive ad exchanges. But advertisers have instead voted mostly to place ads on the handful of highly centralized platforms known as “walled gardens,” including Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, of course, Google Search.

The communications revolution, they say, is all about “bringing people together.” It turns out that’s true.

And that Google should win on consumer harm.

Remember the Telephone

Indeed, the same mid-20th century antitrust that thought so little of economies of scale as a defense immunized usage-based improvements when it encountered them in that most important of internet precursors: the telephone.

The telephone, like most internet services, gets better as usage increases. The more people are on a particular telephone network, the more valuable the network becomes to subscribers.

Just as with today’s internet services, the advantage of a large user base drove centralization of telephone services a century ago into the hands of a single firm: AT&T. Aside from a few business executives who liked the look of a desk full of handsets, consumers wanted one phone line that they could use to call everyone.

Although the government came close to breaking AT&T up in the early 20th century, the government eventually backed off, because a phone system in which you must subscribe to the right carrier to reach a friend just doesn’t make sense.

Instead, Congress and state legislatures stepped in to take the edge off monopoly by regulating phone pricing. And when antitrust finally did break AT&T up in 1982, it did so in a distinctly regulatory fashion, requiring that AT&T’s parts connect each other’s phone calls, something that Congress reinforced in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The message was clear: the sort of usage-based improvements one finds in communications are real product improvements. And antitrust can only intervene if it has a way to preserve them.

The equivalent of interconnection in search, that the benefits of usage, in the form of data and attention, be shared among competing search providers, might be feasible. But it is hard to imagine the court in the Google case ordering interconnection without the benefit of decades of regulatory experience with the defendant’s operations that the district court in 1982 could draw upon in the AT&T case.

The solution for the tech giants today is the same as the solution for AT&T a century ago: to regulate rather than to antitrust.

Microsoft Not to the Contrary, Because Users Were in Common

Parallels to the government’s 1990s-era antitrust case against Microsoft are not to the contrary.

As Sam Weinstein has pointed out to me, Microsoft, like Google, was at heart an exclusive dealing case: Microsoft contracted with computer manufacturers to prevent Netscape Navigator, an early web browser, from serving as the default web browser on Windows PCs.

That prevented Netscape, the argument went, from growing to compete with Windows in the operating system market, much the way the Google’s Chrome browser has become a substitute for Windows on low-end notebook computers today.

The D.C. Circuit agreed that default status was an essential input for Netscape as it sought eventually to compete with Windows in the operating system market.

The court also accepted the argument that the exclusive dealing did not improve Microsoft’s operating system product.

This at first seems to contradict the notion that usage improves products, for, like search advertising, operating systems get better as their user bases increase. The more people use an operating system, the more application developers are willing to write for the system, and the better the system therefore becomes.

It seems to follow that keeping competitors off competing operating systems and on Windows made Windows better. If the court nevertheless held Microsoft liable, it must be because the court refused to extend antitrust immunity to usage-based improvements.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it ignores the peculiar thing about the Microsoft case: that while the government alleged that Netscape was a potential competitor of Windows, Netscape was also an application that ran on Windows.

That means that, unlike Google and rival search engines, Windows and Netscape shared users.

So, Microsoft’s exclusive dealing did not increase its user base and therefore could not have improved Windows, at least not by making Windows more appealing for applications developers. Driving Netscape from Windows did not enable developers to reach even one more user. Conversely, allowing Netscape to be the default browser on Windows would not have reduced the number of Windows users, because Netscape ran on Windows.

By contrast, a user who runs a search in Bing does not run the same search simultaneously in Google, and so Bing users are not Google users. Google’s exclusive dealing therefore increases its user base and improves Google’s product, whereas Microsoft’s exclusive dealing served only to reduce Netscape’s user base and degrade Netscape’s product.

Indeed, if letting Netscape be the default browser on Windows was a threat to Windows, it was not because it prevented Microsoft from improving its product, but because Netscape might eventually have become an operating system, and indeed a better operating system, than Windows, and consumers and developers, who could be on both at the same time if they wished, might have nevertheless chosen eventually to go with Netscape alone.

Though it does not help the government in the Google case, Microsoft still does offer a beacon of hope for those concerned about size, for Microsoft’s subsequent history reminds us that yesterday’s behemoth is often today’s also ran.

And the favorable settlement terms Microsoft ultimately used to escape real consequences for its conduct 20 years ago imply that, at least in high-tech markets, we don’t always need antitrust for that to be true.

Critics of Google have argued that users overvalue Google’s services in relation to the data they give away.  One breath-taking headline asked Who Would Pay $5,000 to Use Google?, suggesting that Google and its advertisers can make as much as $5,000 off of individuals whose data they track. Scholars, such as Nathan Newman, have used this to argue that Google exploits its users through data extraction. But, the question remains: how good of a deal is Google? My contention is that Google’s value to most consumers far surpasses the value supposedly extracted from them in data.

First off, it is unlikely that Google and its advertisers make anywhere close to $5,000 off the average user. Only very high volume online purchasers who consistently click through online ads are likely anywhere close to that valuable. Nonetheless, it is true that Google and its advertisers must be making money, or else Google would be charging users for its services.

PrivacyFix, a popular extension for Google Chrome, calculates your worth to Google based upon the amount of searches you have done. Far from $5,000, my total only comes in at $58.66 (and only $10.74 for Facebook). Now, I might not be the highest volume searcher out there. My colleague, Geoffrey Manne states that he is worth $125.18 on Google (and $10.74 for Facebook). But, I use Google search everyday for work in tech policy, along with Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Gmail (both my private email and work emails)… for FREE!*

The value of all of these services to me, or even just Google search alone, easily surpasses the value of my data attributed to Google. This is likely true for the vast majority of other users, as well. While not a perfect analogue, there are paid specialized search options out there (familiar to lawyers) that do little tracking and are not ad-supported: Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg. But, the price for using these services are considerably higher than zero:

legalsearchcosts

Can you imagine having to pay anywhere near $14 per search on Google? Or a subscription that costs $450 per user per month like some firms pay for Bloomberg? It may be the case that the costs are significantly lower per search for Google than for specialized legal searches (though Google is increasingly used by young lawyers as more cases become available). But, the “price” of viewing a targeted ad is a much lower psychic burden for most people than paying even just a few cents per month for an ad-free experience. For instance, consumers almost always choose free apps over the 99 cent alternative without ads.

Maybe the real question about Google is: Great Deal or Greatest Deal?

* Otherwise known as unpriced for those that know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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: