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[This post adapts elements of “Should ASEAN Antitrust Laws Emulate European Competition Policy?”, published in the Singapore Economic Review (2021). Open access working paper here.]

U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.

In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).

This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.

The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.

In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.

Exploitative Abuses

U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:

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.

This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”

While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.

European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:

[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)

As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation.  Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.

As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.

Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.

Predatory Pricing

A second important area of divergence concerns predatory-pricing cases. U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions:

  1. Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
  2. There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.

In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”

Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.

Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.

By contrast, the EU employs a more expansive legal standard to define predatory pricing, and almost certainly risks injuring consumers as a result. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory. Even when a firm charges prices that are between its average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of a plan to eliminate a competitor. Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.

[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, ​​in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:

[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.  (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.

Refusals to Deal

U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.

As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine. Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.

While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.

In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal. Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.

In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.

EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.

Vertical Restraints

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.

On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.

Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered to be restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition. This severe treatment also applies to non-price vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.

Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former. (Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, 1966).

This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:

Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”

The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.

Political Discretion in European Competition Law

EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.

The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice.”

The commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains, because it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:

Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).

It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.

The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:

As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.

The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)

Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.

What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.

By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eline Chivot, (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Data Innovation, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.).]

As the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of many stores, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar shops have been stepping up efforts to facilitate online deliveries while ensuring their workers’ safety. Without online retail, lockdown conditions would have been less tolerable, and confinement measures less sustainable. Yet a recent French court’s ruling on Amazon seems to be a justification for making life more difficult for some of these businesses and more inconvenient for people by limiting consumer choice. But in a context that calls for as much support to economic activity and consumer welfare as possible, that makes little sense. In fact, the court’s decision is symptomatic of how countries use industrial policy to treat certain companies with double standards.

On April 24, Amazon lost its appeal of a French court order requiring the platform to stop delivering “non-essential items” until it evaluates workers’ risk of coronavirus exposure in its six French warehouses. The online retailer is now facing penalties of about 100,000 euros (about $110,000) per delivery, and was given 48 hours to reduce its warehouse activities and operations. 

But the complexity of logistics would make it difficult to adjust and limit deliveries to just “essential items.” Given the novelty of the situation, there were no official, precise, and pre-determined lists in place, nor was there clarity about who gets to decide, nor was there a common understanding of what customers would consider essential services or goods. As a result, Amazon temporarily closed its six French distribution centers, and is now shipping to its French customers from its warehouses in other European countries. If France wants to apply such measure for worker safety in this time of crisis, that’s clearly its right. But the requirement should apply to all online retailers equally, not just to the American company Amazon.

The court’s decision was made on the grounds that Amazon had not implemented sufficient safety measures for its workers. The turnaround last week of trade unions (who had initiated the complaints against Amazon and called for the shutdown of its facilities) and their proposition to “gradually” resume operations speak volume. Like many other companies, Amazon had  invested in additional safety measures for its employees during the crisis, distributed masks and gloves to its workers, had taken their temperatures before their shifts, had built testing capacity, and proactively decided to prioritize the delivery of essential goods. Like many other companies, Amazon had to rapidly cope with unprecedented circumstances it wasn’t prepared to handle, while having to juggle a surge in online orders during lockdowns and make do with some governments’ unclear guidance regarding safety measures.

But France has long prioritized worker welfare over broad economic welfare—which includes worker welfare, but also consumer welfare and economic growth. Yet, in this case, that prioritization seems to only apply to Amazon. French retailers like Fnac, Cdiscount, Spartoo, and La Redoute did not face the same degree of judicial scrutiny despite similar complaints about distribution centers. Nor did they have to restrict their deliveries to “essential goods.” But in France, it seems, what is good for French geese isn’t good for U.S. ganders. In fact, the real issue appears to be the French application of industrial policy.  According to a union representative of Fnac, this is about “preventing Amazon from gaining market share over French retailers during lockdown,” so that the latter can reap the benefits. Using the crisis as an excuse to restructure the French retail sector is certainly one creative application of industrial policy.

Moreover, by applying these restrictions (either just to Amazon or across all retailers who engage in e-commerce), the French government is deepening the economic crisis. The restrictions it has imposed on Amazon are likely to accentuate the losses many French small- and medium-sized companies are already facing because of the COVID-19 crisis, while also having longer-term negative consequences for its logistics network in France. Many such firms rely on Amazon’s platform to sell, ship, and develop their business, and now have to turn to more expensive delivery services. In addition, the reduction in activity by its distribution centers could force Amazon to furlough many of its 9,300 French workers.

According to the unions, Amazon’s activity is judged “nonessential to the life of the country.” Never mind that Amazon partners with French retailers like Casino and is rescuing brands like Deliveroo during the crisis. In addition, online companies like Amazon, HelloFresh and Instacart hired more workers to manage growing demands during the crisis, while others had to furlough or layoff their staff. Beyond, French brands will need economically robust allies like Amazon to compete with Chinese state-backed giants like Alibaba that are expanding their footprint in European markets, and that have come under fire for dubious workplace practices.  

Finally, the French court’s decision is an inconvenience to the 22.2 million people in France who order via Amazon, depend on efficient home deliveries to cope with strict confinement measures, and are now being told what is essential or not. With Amazon relying on other European warehouses for deliveries and being forced to limit them to items such as IT products, health and nutrition items, food, and pet food, consumers will be faced with delayed deliveries and reduced access to product variety. The court’s decision also hurts many French merchants who use Amazon for warehousing and fulfillment, as they are effectively locked out of accessing their stock. 

Non-discrimination is, or least should be, a core principle of rule-of-law nations. It appears that, at least in this case, France does not think it should apply to non-French firms.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by John Newman, Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law; Advisory Board Member, American Antitrust Institute; Affiliated Fellow, Thurman Arnold Project, Yale; Former Trial Attorney, DOJ Antitrust Division.)

Cooperation is the basis of productivity. The war of all against all is not a good model for any economy.

Who said it—a rose-emoji Twitter Marxist, or a card-carrying member of the laissez faire Chicago School of economics? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. Frank Easterbrook penned these words in an antitrust decision written shortly after he left the University of Chicago to become a federal judge. Easterbrook’s opinion, now a textbook staple, wholeheartedly endorsed a cooperative agreement between two business owners not to compete with each another.

But other enforcers and judges have taken a far less favorable view of cooperation—particularly when workers are the ones cooperating. A few years ago, in an increasingly rare example of interagency agreement, the DOJ and FTC teamed up to argue against a Seattle ordinance that would have permitted drivers to cooperatively bargain with Uber and Lyft. Why the hostility from enforcers? “Competition is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy,” explained Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

Should workers be able to cooperate to counter concentrated corporate power? Or is bellum omnium contra omnes truly the “lynchpin” of our industrial policy?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this question into sharper relief than ever before. Low-income workers—many of them classified as independent contractors—have launched multiple coordinated boycotts in an effort to improve working conditions. The antitrust agencies, once quick to condemn similar actions by Uber and Lyft drivers, have fallen conspicuously silent.

Why? Why should workers be allowed to negotiate cooperatively for a healthier workplace, yet not for a living wage? In a society largely organized around paying for basic social services, money is health—and even life itself.

Unraveling the Double Standard

Antitrust law, like the rest of industrial policy, involves difficult questions over which members of society can cooperate with one another. These laws allocate “coordination rights”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, industrial policy seemed generally to favor allocating these rights to corporations, while simultaneously denying them to workers and class-action plaintiffs. But, as the antitrust agencies’ apparent about-face on workplace organizing suggests, the times may be a-changing.

Some of today’s most existential threats to societal welfare—pandemics, climate change, pollution—will best be addressed via cooperation, not atomistic rivalry. On-the-ground stakeholders certainly seem to think so. Absent a coherent, unified federal policy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, state governors have reportedly begun to consider cooperating to provide a coordinated regional response. Last year, a group of auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to increase fuel-efficiency standards and reduce emissions. They did attract an antitrust investigation, but it was subsequently dropped—a triumph for pro-social cooperation. It was perhaps also a reminder that corporations, each of which is itself a cooperative enterprise, can still play the role they were historically assigned: serving the public interest.

Going forward, policy-makers should give careful thought to how their actions and inactions encourage or stifle cooperation. Judge Easterbrook praised an agreement between business owners because it “promoted enterprise”. What counts as legitimate “enterprise”, though, is an eminently contestable proposition.

The federal antitrust agencies’ anti-worker stance in particular seems ripe for revisiting. Its modern origins date back to the 1980s, when President Reagan’s FTC challenged a coordinated boycott among D.C.-area criminal-defense attorneys. The boycott was a strike of sorts, intended to pressure the city into increasing court-appointed fees to a level that would allow for adequate representation. (The mayor’s office, despite being responsible for paying the fees, actually encouraged the boycott.) As the sole buyer of this particular type of service, the government wielded substantial power in the marketplace. A coordinated front was needed to counter it. Nonetheless, the FTC condemned the attorneys’ strike as per se illegal—a label supposedly reserved for the worst possible anticompetitive behavior—and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

Reviving Cooperation

In the short run, the federal antitrust agencies should formally reverse this anti-labor course. When workers cooperate in an attempt to counter employers’ power, antitrust intervention is, at best, a misallocation of scarce agency resources. Surely there are (much) bigger fish to fry. At worst, hostility to such cooperation directly contravenes Congress’ vision for the antitrust laws. These laws were intended to protect workers from concentrated downstream power, not to force their exposure to it—as the federal agencies themselves have recognized elsewhere.

In the longer run, congressional action may be needed. Supreme Court antitrust case law condemning worker coordination should be legislatively overruled. And, in a sharp departure from the current trend, we should be making it easier, not harder, for workers to form cooperative unions. Capital can be combined into a legal corporation in just a few hours, while it takes more than a month to create an effective labor union. None of this is to say that competition should be abandoned—much the opposite, in fact. A market that pits individual workers against highly concentrated cooperative entities is hardly “competitive”.

Thinking more broadly, antitrust and industrial policy may need to allow—or even encourage—cooperation in a number of sectors. Automakers’ and other manufacturers’ voluntary efforts to fight climate change should be lauded and protected, not investigated. Where cooperation is already shielded and even incentivized, as is the case with corporations, affirmative steps may be needed to ensure that the public interest is being furthered.

The current moment is without precedent. Industrial policy is destined, and has already begun, to change. Although competition has its place, it cannot serve as the sole lynchpin for a just economy. Now more than ever, a revival of cooperation is needed.

[TOTM: The following is the seventh in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the politicization of antitrust. The entire series of posts is available here.]

This post is authored by Cento Veljanoski, Managing Partner, Case Associates and IEA Fellow in Law and Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs.

The concept of a “good” or “efficient” cartel is generally regarded by competition authorities as an oxymoron. A cartel is seen as the worst type of antitrust violation and one that warrants zero tolerance. Agreements between competitors to raise prices and share the market are assumed unambiguously to reduce economic welfare. As such, even if these agreements are ineffective, the law should come down hard on attempts to rig prices. In this post, I argue that this view goes too far and that even ‘hard core’ cartels that lower output and increase prices can be efficient, and pro-competitive. I discuss three examples of where hard core cartels may be efficient.

Resuscitating the efficient cartel

Basic economic theory tells us that coordination can be efficient in many instances, and this is accepted in law, e.g. joint ventures and agreements on industry standards.  But where competitors agree on prices and the volume of sales – so called “hard core” cartels – there is intolerance.

Nonetheless there is a recognition that cartel-like arrangements can promote efficiency. For example, Article 101(3)TFEU exempts anticompetitive agreements or practices whose economic and/or technical benefits outweigh their restrictions on competition, provided a fair share of those benefits are passed-on to consumers. However, this so-called ‘efficiency defence’ is highly unlikely to be accepted for hard core cartels nor are the wider economic or non-economic considerations. But as will be shown, there are classes of hard core cartels and restrictive agreement which, while they reduce output, raise prices and foreclose entry, are nonetheless efficient and not anticompetitive.

Destructive competition and the empty core

The claim that cartels have beneficial effects precedes US antitrust law. Trusts were justified as necessary to prevent ‘ruinous’ or ‘destructive’ competition in industries with high fixed costs subject to frequent ‘price wars’. This was the unsuccessful defence in Trans-Missouri (166 U.S. 290 (1897), where 18 US railroad companies formed a trust to set their rates, arguing that absent their agreement there would be ruinous competition, eventual monopoly and even higher prices.  Since then industries such as steel, cement, paper, shipping and airlines have at various times claimed that competition was unsustainable and wasteful.

These seem patently self-serving claims.  But the idea that some industries are unstable without a competitive equilibrium has long been appreciated by economists.  Nearly a century after Trans-Missouri, economist Lester Telser (1996) refreshed the idea that cooperative arrangements among firms in some industries were not attempts to impose monopoly prices but a response to their inherent structural inefficiency. This was based on the concept of an ‘empty core’. While Tesler’s article uses some hideously dense mathematical game theory, the idea is simple to state.  A market is said to have a ‘core’ if there is a set of transactions between buyers and sellers such that there are no other transactions that could make some of the buyers or sellers better off. Such a core will survive in a competitive market if all firms can make zero economic profits. In a market with an empty core no coalition of firms will be able to earn zero profits; some firms will be able to earn a surplus and thereby attract entry, but because the core is empty the new entry will inflict losses on all firms. When firms exit due to their losses, the remaining firms again earn economic profits, and attract entry. There are no competitive long-run stable equilibria for these industries.

The literature suggests that an industry is likely to have an empty core: (1) where firms have fixed production capacities; (2) that are large relative to demand; (3) there are scale economies in production; (4) incremental costs are low, (5) demand is uncertain and fluctuates markedly; and (6) output cannot be stored cheaply. Industries which have frequently been cartelised share many of these features (see above).

In the 1980s several academic studies applied empty core theory to antitrust. Brittlingmayer (1982) claimed that the US iron pipe industry had an empty core and that the famous Addyston Pipe case was thus wrongly decided, and responsible for mergers in the industry.

Sjostrom (1989) and others have argued that conference lines were not attempts to overcharge shippers but to counteract an empty core that led to volatile market shares and freight rates due to excess capacity and fixed schedules.  This type of analysis formed the basis for their exemption from competition laws. Since the nineteenth century, liner conferences had been permitted to fix prices and regulate capacity on routes between Europe, and North America and the Far East. The EU block exemption (Council Regulation 4056/86) allowed them to set common freight rates, to take joint decisions on the limitation of supply and to coordinate timetables. However the justifications for these exemptions has worn thin. As from October 2008, these EU exemptions were removed based on scepticism that liner shipping is an empty core industry particularly because, with the rise of modern leasing and chartering techniques to manage capacity, the addition of shipping capacity is no longer a lumpy process. 

While the empty core argument may have merit, it is highly unlikely to persuade European competition authorities, and the experience with legal cartels that have been allowed in order to rationalise production and costs has not been good.

Where there are environmental problems

Cartels in industries with significant environmental problems – which produce economic ‘bads’ rather than goods – can have beneficial effects. Restricting the output of an economic bad is good. Take an extreme example. When most people hear the word cartel, they think of a Colombian drugs cartel. . A drugs cartel reduces drug trafficking to keep its profits high. Competition in the supply would  lead to an over-supply of cheaper drugs, and a cartel charging higher prices and lower output is superior to a competitive outcome.

The same logic applies also to industries in which bads, such as pollution, are a by-product of otherwise legitimate and productive activities.  An industry which generates pollution does not take the full costs of its activities into account, and hence output is over-expanded and prices too low. Economic efficiency requires a reduction in the harmful activities and the associated output.  It also requires the product’s price to increase to incorporate the pollution costs. A cartel that raises prices can move such an industry’s output and harm closer to the efficient level, although this would not be in response to higher pollution-inclusive costs – which makes this a second-best solution.

There has been a fleeting recognition that competition in the presence of external costs is not efficient and that restricting output does not necessarily distort competition. In 1999, the European Commission almost uniquely exempted a cartel-like restrictive agreement among producers and importers of washing machines under Article 101(3)TFEU (Case IV.F.1/36.718. CECED).  The agreement not to produce or import the least energy efficient washing machines representing 10-11% of then EC sales would adversely affect competition and increase prices since the most polluting machines were the least expensive ones.

The Commission has since rowed back from its broad application of Article 101(3)TFEU in CECED. In its 2001 Guidelines on Horizontal Agreements it devoted a chapter to environmental agreements which it removed from its revised 2011 Guidelines (para 329) which treated CECED as a standardisation agreement.

Common property industries

A more clear-cut case of an efficient cartel is where firms compete over a common property resource for which property rights are ill-defined or absent, such as is often the case for fisheries. In these industries, competition leads to excessive entry, over-exploitation, and the dissipation of the economic returns (rents).  A cartel – a ‘club’ of fisherman – having sole control of the fishing grounds would unambiguously increase efficiency even though it increased prices, reduced production and foreclosed entry. 

The benefits of such cartels have not been accepted in law by competition authorities. The Dutch competition authority’s (MNa Case No. 2269/330) and the European Commission’s (Case COMP/39633 Shrimps) shrimps decisions in 2013-14 imposed fines on Dutch shrimp fleet and wholesalers’ organisations for agreeing quotas and prices. One study showed that the Dutch agreement reduced the fishing catch by at least 12%-16% during the cartel period and increased wholesale prices. However, this output reduction and increase in prices was not welfare-reducing if the competitive outcome resulted over-fishing. This and subsequent cases have resulted in a vigorous policy debate in the Netherlands over the use of Article 101(3)TFEU to take the wider benefits into account (ACM Position Paper 2014).

Sustainability and Article 101(3)

There is a growing debate over the conflict between and antitrust and other policy objectives, such as sustainability and industrial policy. One strand of this debate focuses on expanding the efficiency defence under Article 101(3)TFEU.  As currently framed, it has not enabled the reduction in pollution costs or resource over-exploitation to exempt restrictive agreements which distort competition even though these agreements may be efficient. In the pollution case the benefits are generalised ones to third parties not consumers, which are difficult to quantify. In the fisheries case, the short-term welfare of existing consumers is unambiguously reduced as they pay higher prices for less fish; the benefits are long term (more sustainable fish stock which can continue to be consumed) and may not be realized at all by current consumers but rather will accrue to future generations.

To accommodate sustainability concerns and other efficiency factors Article 101(3)TFEU would have to be expanded into a public interest defence based on a wider total welfare objective, not just consumers’ welfare as it is now, which took into account the long-run interest of consumers and third parties potentially affected by a restrictive agreement. This would mark a radical and open-ended expansion of the objectives of European antitrust and the grounds for exemption. It would put sustainability on the same plank as the clamour that industrial policy be taken-into-account by antitrust authorities, which has been firmly resisted so far.  This is not to belittle both the economic and environmental grounds for a public interest defence, it is just to recognise that it is difficult to see how this can be coherently incorporated into Article 101(3)TFEU while at the same time as preserving the integrity and focus of European antitrust.

Today the European Commission launched its latest salvo against Google, issuing a decision in its three-year antitrust investigation into the company’s agreements for distribution of the Android mobile operating system. The massive fine levied by the Commission will dominate the headlines, but the underlying legal theory and proposed remedies are just as notable — and just as problematic.

The nirvana fallacy

It is sometimes said that the most important question in all of economics is “compared to what?” UCLA economist Harold Demsetz — one of the most important regulatory economists of the past century — coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to critique would-be regulators’ tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances to idealized alternatives, and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between them. Wishful thinking, in other words.

The Commission’s Android decision falls prey to the nirvana fallacy. It conjures a world in which Google offers its Android operating system on unrealistic terms, prohibits it from doing otherwise, and neglects the actual consequences of such a demand.

The idea at the core of the Commission’s decision is that by making its own services (especially Google Search and Google Play Store) easier to access than competing services on Android devices, Google has effectively foreclosed rivals from effective competition. In order to correct that claimed defect, the Commission demands that Google refrain from engaging in practices that favor its own products in its Android licensing agreements:

At a minimum, Google has to stop and to not re-engage in any of the three types of practices. The decision also requires Google to refrain from any measure that has the same or an equivalent object or effect as these practices.

The basic theory is straightforward enough, but its application here reflects a troubling departure from the underlying economics and a romanticized embrace of industrial policy that is unsupported by the realities of the market.

In a recent interview, European Commission competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, offered a revealing insight into her thinking about her oversight of digital platforms, and perhaps the economy in general: “My concern is more about whether we get the right choices,” she said. Asked about Facebook, for example, she specified exactly what she thinks the “right” choice looks like: “I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy.”

Some consumers may well be sympathetic with her preference (and even share her specific vision of what Facebook should offer them). But what if competition doesn’t result in our — or, more to the point, Margrethe Vestager’s — prefered outcomes? Should competition policy nevertheless enact the idiosyncratic consumer preferences of a particular regulator? What if offering consumers the “right” choices comes at the expense of other things they value, like innovation, product quality, or price? And, if so, can antitrust enforcers actually engineer a better world built around these preferences?

Android’s alleged foreclosure… that doesn’t really foreclose anything

The Commission’s primary concern is with the terms of Google’s deal: In exchange for royalty-free access to Android and a set of core, Android-specific applications and services (like Google Search and Google Maps) Google imposes a few contractual conditions.

Google allows manufacturers to use the Android platform — in which the company has invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars — for free. It does not require device makers to include any of its core, Google-branded features. But if a manufacturer does decide to use any of them, it must include all of them, and make Google Search the device default. In another (much smaller) set of agreements, Google also offers device makers a small share of its revenue from Search if they agree to pre-install only Google Search on their devices (although users remain free to download and install any competing services they wish).

Essentially, that’s it. Google doesn’t allow device makers to pick and choose between parts of the ecosystem of Google products, free-riding on Google’s brand and investments. But manufacturers are free to use the Android platform and to develop their own competing brand built upon Google’s technology.

Other apps may be installed in addition to Google’s core apps. Google Search need not be the exclusive search service, but it must be offered out of the box as the default. Google Play and Chrome must be made available to users, but other app stores and browsers may be pre-installed and even offered as the default. And device makers who choose to do so may share in Search revenue by pre-installing Google Search exclusively — but users can and do install a different search service.

Alternatives to all of Google’s services (including Search) abound on the Android platform. It’s trivial both to install them and to set them as the default. Meanwhile, device makers regularly choose to offer these apps alongside Google’s services, and some, like Samsung, have developed entire customized app suites of their own. Still others, like Amazon, pre-install no Google apps and use Android without any of these constraints (and whose Google-free tablets are regularly ranked as the best-rated and most popular in Europe).

By contrast, Apple bundles its operating system with its devices, bypasses third-party device makers entirely, and offers consumers access to its operating system only if they pay (lavishly) for one of the very limited number of devices the company offers, as well. It is perhaps not surprising — although it is enlightening — that Apple earns more revenue in an average quarter from iPhone sales than Google is reported to have earned in total from Android since it began offering it in 2008.

Reality — and the limits it imposes on efforts to manufacture nirvana

The logic behind Google’s approach to Android is obvious: It is the extension of Google’s “advertisers pay” platform strategy to mobile. Rather than charging device makers (and thus consumers) directly for its services, Google earns its revenue by charging advertisers for targeted access to users via Search. Remove Search from mobile devices and you remove the mechanism by which Google gets paid.

It’s true that most device makers opt to offer Google’s suite of services to European users, and that most users opt to keep Google Search as the default on their devices — that is, indeed, the hoped-for effect, and necessary to ensure that Google earns a return on its investment.

That users often choose to keep using Google services instead of installing alternatives, and that device makers typically choose to engineer their products around the Google ecosystem, isn’t primarily the result of a Google-imposed mandate; it’s the result of consumer preferences for Google’s offerings in lieu of readily available alternatives.

The EU decision against Google appears to imagine a world in which Google will continue to develop Android and allow device makers to use the platform and Google’s services for free, even if the likelihood of recouping its investment is diminished.

The Commission also assessed in detail Google’s arguments that the tying of the Google Search app and Chrome browser were necessary, in particular to allow Google to monetise its investment in Android, and concluded that these arguments were not well founded. Google achieves billions of dollars in annual revenues with the Google Play Store alone, it collects a lot of data that is valuable to Google’s search and advertising business from Android devices, and it would still have benefitted from a significant stream of revenue from search advertising without the restrictions.

For the Commission, Google’s earned enough [trust me: you should follow the link. It’s my favorite joke…].

But that world in which Google won’t alter its investment decisions based on a government-mandated reduction in its allowable return on investment doesn’t exist; it’s a fanciful Nirvana.

Google’s real alternatives to the status quo are charging for the use of Android, closing the Android platform and distributing it (like Apple) only on a fully integrated basis, or discontinuing Android.

In reality, and compared to these actual alternatives, Google’s restrictions are trivial. Remember, Google doesn’t insist that Google Search be exclusive, only that it benefit from a “leg up” by being pre-installed as the default. And on this thin reed Google finances the development and maintenance of the (free) Android operating system and all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little or no revenue.

It’s hard to see how consumers, device makers, or app developers would be made better off without Google’s restrictions, but in the real world in which the alternative is one of the three manifestly less desirable options mentioned above.

Missing the real competition for the trees

What’s more, while ostensibly aimed at increasing competition, the Commission’s proposed remedy — like the conduct it addresses — doesn’t relate to Google’s most significant competitors at all.

Facebook, Instagram, Firefox, Amazon, Spotify, Yelp, and Yahoo, among many others, are some of the most popular apps on Android phones, including in Europe. They aren’t foreclosed by Google’s Android distribution terms, and it’s even hard to imagine that they would be more popular if only Android phones didn’t come with, say, Google Search pre-installed.

It’s a strange anticompetitive story that has Google allegedly foreclosing insignificant competitors while apparently ignoring its most substantial threats.

The primary challenges Google now faces are from Facebook drawing away the most valuable advertising and Amazon drawing away the most valuable product searches (and increasingly advertising, as well). The fact that Google’s challenged conduct has never shifted in order to target these competitors as their threat emerged, and has had no apparent effect on these competitive dynamics, says all one needs to know about the merits of the Commission’s decision and the value of its proposed remedy.

In reality, as Demsetz suggested, Nirvana cannot be designed by politicians, especially in complex, modern technology markets. Consumers’ best hope for something close — continued innovation, low prices, and voluminous choice — lies in the evolution of markets spurred by consumer demand, not regulators’ efforts to engineer them.

Following is the (slightly expanded and edited) text of my remarks from the panel, Antitrust and the Tech Industry: What Is at Stake?, hosted last Thursday by CCIA. Bruce Hoffman (keynote), Bill Kovacic, Nicolas Petit, and Christine Caffarra also spoke. If we’re lucky Bruce will post his remarks on the FTC website; they were very good.

(NB: Some of these comments were adapted (or lifted outright) from a forthcoming Cato Policy Report cover story co-authored with Gus Hurwitz, so Gus shares some of the credit/blame.)

 

The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife capable of correcting all manner of social and economic ills is apparently difficult for some to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, many recent calls for regulation of industry — and the tech industry in particular — are framed in antitrust terms. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example:

[T]oday, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.

And she is not alone. A growing chorus of advocates are now calling for invasive, “public-utility-style” regulation or even the dissolution of some of the world’s most innovative companies essentially because they are “too big.”

According to critics, these firms impose all manner of alleged harms — from fake news, to the demise of local retail, to low wages, to the veritable destruction of democracy — because of their size. What is needed, they say, is industrial policy that shackles large companies or effectively mandates smaller firms in order to keep their economic and political power in check.

But consider the relationship between firm size and political power and democracy.

Say you’re successful in reducing the size of today’s largest tech firms and in deterring the creation of new, very-large firms: What effect might we expect this to have on their political power and influence?

For the critics, the effect is obvious: A re-balancing of wealth and thus the reduction of political influence away from Silicon Valley oligarchs and toward the middle class — the “rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.”

But consider a few (and this is by no means all) countervailing points:

To begin, at the margin, if you limit firm growth as a means of competing with rivals, you make correspondingly more important competition through political influence. Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions, and rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration.

Next, by imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives, you also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so.

And finally, if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? All of a sudden the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might even find, again, that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules.

All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying problem: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results — precisely the opposite of what proponents claim to want.

Then there’s democracy, and calls to break up tech in order to save it. Calls to do so are often made with reference to the original intent of the Sherman Act and Louis Brandeis and his “curse of bigness.” But intentional or not, these are rallying cries for the assertion, not the restraint, of political power.

The Sherman Act’s origin was ambivalent: although it was intended to proscribe business practices that harmed consumers, it was also intended to allow politically-preferred firms to maintain high prices in the face of competition from politically-disfavored businesses.

The years leading up to the adoption of the Sherman Act in 1890 were characterized by dramatic growth in the efficiency-enhancing, high-tech industries of the day. For many, the purpose of the Sherman Act was to stem this growth: to prevent low prices — and, yes, large firms — from “driving out of business the small dealers and worthy men whose lives have been spent therein,” in the words of Trans-Missouri Freight, one of the early Supreme Court decisions applying the Act.

Left to the courts, however, the Sherman Act didn’t quite do the trick. By 1911 (in Standard Oil and American Tobacco) — and reflecting consumers’ preferences for low prices over smaller firms — only “unreasonable” conduct was actionable under the Act. As one of the prime intellectual engineers behind the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, Brandeis played a significant role in the (partial) legislative and administrative overriding of the judiciary’s excessive support for economic efficiency.

Brandeis was motivated by the belief that firms could become large only by illegitimate means and by deceiving consumers. But Brandeis was no advocate for consumer sovereignty. In fact, consumers, in Brandeis’ view, needed to be saved from themselves because they were, at root, “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.”

There’s a lot that today we (many of us, at least) would find anti-democratic in the underpinnings of progressivism in US history: anti-consumerism; racism; elitism; a belief in centrally planned, technocratic oversight of the economy; promotion of social engineering, including through eugenics; etc. The aim of limiting economic power was manifestly about stemming the threat it posed to powerful people’s conception of what political power could do: to mold and shape the country in their image — what economist Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”

That may sound great when it’s your vision being implemented, but today’s populist antitrust resurgence comes while Trump is in the White House. It’s baffling to me that so many would expand and then hand over the means to design the economy and society in their image to antitrust enforcers in the executive branch and presidentially appointed technocrats.

Throughout US history, it is the courts that have often been the bulwark against excessive politicization of the economy, and it was the courts that shepherded the evolution of antitrust away from its politicized roots toward rigorous, economically grounded policy. And it was progressives like Brandeis who worked to take antitrust away from the courts. Now, with efforts like Senator Klobuchar’s merger bill, the “New Brandeisians” want to rein in the courts again — to get them out of the way of efforts to implement their “big is bad” vision.

But the evidence that big is actually bad, least of all on those non-economic dimensions, is thin and contested.

While Zuckerberg is grilled in Congress over perceived, endemic privacy problems, politician after politician and news article after news article rushes to assert that the real problem is Facebook’s size. Yet there is no convincing analysis (maybe no analysis of any sort) that connects its size with the problem, or that evaluates whether the asserted problem would actually be cured by breaking up Facebook.

Barry Lynn claims that the origins of antitrust are in the checks and balances of the Constitution, extended to economic power. But if that’s right, then the consumer welfare standard and the courts are the only things actually restraining the disruption of that order. If there may be gains to be had from tweaking the minutiae of the process of antitrust enforcement and adjudication, by all means we should have a careful, lengthy discussion about those tweaks.

But throwing the whole apparatus under the bus for the sake of an unsubstantiated, neo-Brandeisian conception of what the economy should look like is a terrible idea.

Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct.  The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:

On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.

And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.

The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.

But the problem is even bigger than that.

Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.

What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?

The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.

Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.

Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.  

The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.

To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:

Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.

In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.

Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.

Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.

(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)

As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.

The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.

As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”

This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.

Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.

Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.

Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.

But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.

Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.

“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.

As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.

What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.

Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.

For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.

South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.

(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)

 

A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.

What can be done to confront these problems?

In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.

Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.

The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.

The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.

One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed.  Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency.  Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm.  In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights.  In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions.  The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles.  Let us hope that it does so, and soon.

  1. Introduction

The International Competition Network (ICN), a “virtual” organization comprised of most of the world’s competition (antitrust) agencies and expert non-governmental advisors (NGAs), held its Sixteenth Annual Conference in Porto, Portugal from May 10-12. (I attended this Conference as an NGA.) Now that the ICN has turned “sweet sixteen,” a stocktaking is appropriate. The ICN can point to some significant accomplishments, but faces major future challenges. After describing those challenges, I advance four recommendations for U.S.-led initiatives to enhance the future effectiveness of the ICN.

  1. ICN Background and Successes

The ICN, whose key objective is to promote “soft convergence” among competition law regimes, has much to celebrate. It has gone from a small core of competition authorities focused on a limited set of issues to a collection of 135 agencies from 122 far-flung jurisdictions, plus a large cadre of NGA lawyers and economists who provide practical and theoretical advice. The ICN’s nature and initiatives are concisely summarized on its website:

The ICN provides competition authorities with a specialized yet informal venue for maintaining regular contacts and addressing practical competition concerns. This allows for a dynamic dialogue that serves to build consensus and convergence towards sound competition policy principles across the global antitrust community.

The ICN is unique as it is the only international body devoted exclusively to competition law enforcement and its members represent national and multinational competition authorities. Members produce work products through their involvement in flexible project-oriented and results-based working groups. Working group members work together largely by Internet, telephone, teleseminars and webinars.

Annual conferences and workshops provide opportunities to discuss working group projects and their implications for enforcement. The ICN does not exercise any rule-making function. Where the ICN reaches consensus on recommendations, or “best practices”, arising from the projects, individual competition authorities decide whether and how to implement the recommendations, through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements, as appropriate.

The Porto Conference highlighted the extent of the ICN’s influence. Representatives from key international organizations that focus on economic growth and development (and at one time were viewed as ICN “rivals”), including the OECD, the World Bank, and UNCTAD, participated in the Conference. A feature in recent years, the one-day “Pre-ICN” Forum jointly sponsored by the World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Bar Association, this year shared the spotlight with other “sidebar” events (for example, an antitrust symposium cosponsored by UNCTAD and the Japan Fair Trade Commission, an “African Competition Forum,” and a roundtable of former senior officials and academics sponsored by a journal). The Porto Conference formally adopted an impressive array of documents generated over the past year by the ICN’s various Working Groups (the Advocacy, Agency Effectiveness, Cartel, Merger, and Unilateral Conduct Working Groups) (see here and here). This work product focuses on offering practical advice to agencies, rather than theoretical academic speculation. If recent history is in any indication, a substantial portion of this advice will be incorporated within some national laws, and various agencies guidance documents, and strategic plans.

In sum, the ICN is an increasingly influential organization. More importantly, it has, on balance, been a force for the promotion of sound policies on such issues as pre-merger notifications and cartel enforcement – policies that reduce transaction costs for the private sector and tend to improve the quality of antitrust enforcement. It has produced valuable training materials for agencies. Furthermore, the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, buoyed by a growing amount of academic research (some of it supported by the World Bank), increasingly has highlighted the costs of anticompetitive government laws and regulations, and provided a template for assessing and critiquing regulatory schemes that undermine the competitive process. Most recently, the revised chapter on the “analytical framework for evaluating unilateral exclusionary conduct” issued at the 2017 Porto Conference did a solid job of describing the nature of harm to the competitive process and the need to consider error costs in evaluating such conduct. Other examples of welfare-enhancing ICN proposals abound.

  1. Grounds for Caution Going Forward

Nevertheless, despite its generally good record, one must be cautious in evaluating the ICN’s long-term prospects, for at least five reasons.

First, as the ICN tackles increasingly contentious issues (such as the assessment of vertical restraints, which are part of the 2017-2018 ICN Work Plan, and “dominant” single firm “platforms,” cited specifically by ICN Chairman Andreas Mundt in Porto), the possibility for controversy and difficulty in crafting recommendations rises.

Second, most ICN members have adopted heavily administrative competition law frameworks that draw upon an inquisitorial civil law model, as opposed to the common law adversarial legal system in which independent courts conduct full legal reviews of agency conclusions. Public choice analysis (not to mention casual empiricism and common sense) indicates that as they become established, administrative agencies will have a strong incentive to “do something” in order to expand their authority. Generally speaking, sound economic analysis (bolstered by large staffs of economists) that stresses consumer welfare has been incorporated into U.S. federal antitrust enforcement decisions and federal antitrust jurisprudence – but that is not the case in large parts of the world. As its newer member agencies grow in size and influence, the ICN may be challenged by those authorities to address “novel” practices that stray beyond well-understood competition law categories. As a result, innovative welfare-enhancing business innovations could be given unwarranted scrutiny and thereby discouraged.

Third, as various informed commentators in Porto noted, many competition laws explicitly permit consideration of non-economic welfare-based goals, such as “industrial policy” (including promotion of “national champion” competitors), “fairness,” and general “public policy.” Such ill-defined statutory goals allow competition agencies (and, of course, politicians who may exercise influence over those agencies) to apply competition statutes in an unpredictable manner that has nothing to do with (indeed, may be antithetical to) promotion of a vigorous competitive process and consumer welfare. With the proliferation of international commerce, the costly uncertainty injected into business decision-making by malleable antitrust statutes becomes increasingly significant. The ICN, which issues non-binding recommendations and advice and relies on voluntary interagency cooperation, may have little practical ability to fend off such welfare-inimical politicization of antitrust.

Fourth, for nearly a decade United States antitrust agencies have expressed concern in international forums about lack of due process in competition enforcement. Commendably, in 2015 the ICN did issue guidance regarding “key investigative principles and practices important to effective and fair investigative process”, but this guidance did not address administrative hearings and enforcement actions, which remain particularly serious concerns. The ICN’s ability to drive a “due process improvements” agenda may be inherently limited, due to differences among ICN members’ legal systems and sensitivities regarding the second-guessing of national enforcement norms associated with the concept of “due process.”

Fifth, there is “the elephant outside the room.” One major jurisdiction, China, still has not joined the ICN. Given China’s size, importance in the global economy, and vigorous enforcement of its completion law, China’s “absence from “the table” is a significant limitation on the ICN’s ability to promote economically meaningful global policy convergence. (Since Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China, has joined the ICN, one may hope that China itself will consider opting for ICN membership in the not too distant future.)

  1. What Should the U.S. Antitrust Agencies Do?

Despite the notes of caution regarding the ICN’s future initiatives and effectiveness, the ICN will remain for the foreseeable future a useful forum for “nudging” members toward improvements in their competition law systems, particularly in key areas such as cartel enforcement, merger review, and agency effectiveness (internal improvements in agency management may improve the quality of enforcement and advocacy initiatives). Thus, the U.S. federal antitrust agencies, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), should (and undoubtedly will) remain fully engaged with the ICN. DOJ and the FTC not only should remain fully engaged in the ICN’s Working Groups, they should also develop a strategy for minimizing the negative effects of the ICN’s limitations and capitalizing on its strengths. What should such a strategy entail? Four key elements come to mind.

First, the FTC and DOJ should strongly advocate against an ICN focus on expansive theories of liability for unilateral conduct (particularly involving such areas as popular Internet “platforms” (e.g., Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others) and vertical restraints), not tied to showings of harm to the competitive process. The proliferation of cases based on such theories could chill economically desirable business innovations. In countering such novel and expansive condemnations of unilateral conduct, the U.S. agencies could draw upon the extensive law and economics literature on efficiencies and unilateral conduct in speeches, publications, and presentations to ICN Working Groups. To provide further support for their advocacy, the FTC and DOJ should also consider issuing a new joint statement of unilateral conduct enforcement principles, inspired by the general lines of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (regrettably withdrawn by the Obama Administration DOJ in 2009). Relatedly, the FTC and DOJ should advocate the right of intellectual property (IP) holders legitimately to maximize returns on their holdings. The U.S. agencies also should be prepared to argue against novel theories of antitrust liability untethered from traditional concepts of antitrust harm, based on the unilateral exploitation of IP rights (see here, here, here, and here).

Second, the U.S. agencies should promote a special ICN project on decision theory and competition law enforcement (see my Heritage Foundation commentary here), under the aegis of the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group. A decision-theoretic framework aims to minimize the costs of antitrust administration and enforcement error, in order to promote cost-beneficial enforcement outcomes. ICN guidance on decision theory (which would stress the primacy of empirical analysis and the need for easily administrable rules) hopefully would encourage competition agencies to focus on clearly welfare-inimical practices, and avoid pursuing fanciful new theories of antitrust violations unmoored from robust theories of competitive harm. The FTC and DOJ should also work to inculcate decision theory into the work of the core ICN Cartel and Merger Working Groups (see here).

Third, the U.S. agencies should also encourage the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group to pursue a comprehensive “due process” initiative, focused on guaranteeing fundamental fairness to parties at all stages of a competition law proceeding.  An emphasis on basic universal notions of fairness would transcend the differences inherent in civil law and common law administrative processes. It would suggest a path forward whereby agencies could agree on the nature of basic rights owed litigants, while still preserving differences among administrative enforcement models. Administrative procedure recommendations developed by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section in 2015 (see here) offer a good template for consideration, and 2012 OECD deliberations on fairness and transparency (see here) yield valuable background analysis. Consistent with these materials, the U.S. agencies could stress that due process reforms to protect basic rights would not only improve the quality of competition authority decision-making, it would also enhance economic welfare and encourage firms from around the world to do business in reforming jurisdictions. (As discussed above, due process raises major sensitivities, and thus the push for due process improvements should be viewed as a long-term project that will have to be pursued vigorously and very patiently.)

Fourth, working through the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, the FTC and DOJ should push to substantially raise the profile of competition advocacy at the ICN. A growing body of economic research reveals the enormous economic gains that could be unlocked within individual countries by the removal of anticompetitive laws and rules, particularly those that create artificial barriers to entry and distort trade (see, for example, here and here). The U.S. agencies should emphasize the negative consequences for poorer consumers, reduced innovation, and foregone national income due to many of these anticompetitive barriers, drawing upon research by World Bank and OECD scholars (see here). (Fortunately, the ICN already works with the World Bank to promote an annual contest that showcases economic “success stories” due to agency advocacy.) The FTC and DOJ should also use the ICN as a forum to recommend that national competition authorities accord competition advocacy aimed at domestic regulatory reform relatively more resources and attention, particularly compared to investigations of vertical restraints and novel unilateral conduct. It should also work within the ICN’s guidance and oversight body, the “Steering Group,” to make far-reaching competition advocacy initiatives a top ICN priority.

  1. Conclusion

The ICN is a worthwhile international organization that stands at a crossroads. Having no permanent bureaucracy (its website is maintained by the Canadian Competition Bureau), and relying in large part on online communications among agency staff and NGAs to carry out its work, the ICN represents a very good investment of scare resources by the U.S. Government. Absent thoughtful guidance, however, there is a danger that it could drift and become less effective at promoting welfare-enhancing competition law improvements around the world. To avert such an outcome, U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies (joined by like-minded ICN members from other jurisdictions) should proactively seek to have the ICN take up new projects that hold out the promise for substantive and process-based improvements in competition policy worldwide, including far-reaching regulatory reform. A positive ICN response to such initiatives would enhance the quality of competition policy. Moreover, it could contribute in no small fashion to increased economic welfare and innovation in those jurisdictions that adopted reforms in response to the ICN’s call. American businesses operating internationally also would benefit from improvements in the global competition climate generated by ICN-incentivized reforms.

 

 

 

On March 14, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report “by an independent group of experts it commissioned to consider U.S. responses to the inappropriate use of antitrust enforcement actions worldwide to achieve industrial policy outcomes.”  (See here and here.)  I served as rapporteur for the report, which represents the views of the experts (leading academics, practitioners, and former senior officials who specialize in antitrust and international trade), not the position of the Chamber.  In particular, the report calls for the formation of a new White House-led working group.  The working group would oversee development of a strategy for dealing with the misuse of competition policy by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies.  The denial of fundamental due process rights and the inappropriate extraterritorial application of competition remedies by foreign governments also would be within the purview of the working group.

The Chamber will hold a program on April 10 with members of the experts group to discuss the report and its conclusions.  The letter transmitting the report to the President and congressional leadership states as follows:

Today, nearly every nation in the world has some form of antitrust or competition law regulating business activities occurring within or substantially affecting its territory. The United States has long championed the promotion of global competition as the best way to ensure that businesses have a strong incentive to operate efficiently and innovate, and this approach has helped to fuel a strong and vibrant U.S. economy. But competition laws are not always applied in a transparent, accurate and impartial manner, and they can have significant adverse impacts far outside a country’s own borders. Certain of our major trading partners appear to have used their laws to actually harm competition by U.S. companies, protecting their own markets from foreign competition, promoting national champions, forcing technology transfers and, in some cases, denying U.S. companies fundamental due process.

Up to now, the United States has had some, but limited, success in addressing this problem. For that reason, in August of 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened an independent, bi-partisan group of experts in trade and competition law and economics to take a fresh look and develop recommendations for a potentially more effective and better-integrated international trade and competition law strategy.

As explained by the U.S. Chamber in announcing the formation of this group,

The United States has been, and should continue to be, a global leader in the development and implementation of sound competition law and policy. . . . When competition law is applied in a discriminatory manner or relies upon non-competition factors to engineer outcomes in support of national champions or industrial policy objectives, the impact of such instances arguably goes beyond the role of U.S. antitrust agencies. The Chamber believes it is critical for the United States to develop a coordinated trade and competition law approach to international economic policy.

The International Competition Policy Expert Group (“ICPEG”) was encouraged to develop “practical and actionable steps forward that will serve to advance sound trade and competition policy.”

The Report accompanying this letter is the result of ICPEG’s work. Although the U.S. Chamber suggested the project and recruited participants, it made no effort to steer the content of ICPEG’s recommendations.

The Report is addressed specifically to the interaction of competition law and international trade law and proposes greater coordination and cooperation between them in the formulation and implementation of U.S. international trade policy. It focuses on the use of international trade and other appropriate tools to address problems in the application of foreign competition policies through 12 concrete recommendations.

Recommendations 1 through 6 urge the Trump Administration to prioritize the coordination of international competition policy through a new, cabinet-level White House working group (the “Working Group”) to be chaired by an Assistant to the President. Among other things, the Working Group would:

  • set a government-wide, high-level strategy for articulating and promoting policies to address the misuse of competition law by other nations that impede international trade and competition and harm U.S. companies;
  • undertake a 90-day review of existing and potential new trade policy tools available to address the challenge, culminating in a recommended “action list” for the President and Congress; and
  • address not only broader substantive concerns regarding the abuse of competition policy for protectionist and discriminatory purposes, but also the denial of fundamental process rights and the extraterritorial imposition of remedies that are not necessary to protect a country’s legitimate competition law objectives.

Recommendations 7 through 12 focus on steps that should be taken with international organizations and bilateral initiatives. For example, the United States should consider:

  • the feasibility and value of expanding the World Trade Organization’s regular assessment of each member government by the Trade Policy Review Body to include national competition policies and encourage the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to undertake specific peer reviews of national procedural or substantive policies, including of non-OECD countries;
  • encouraging the OECD and/or other multilateral bodies to adopt a code enumerating transparent, accurate, and impartial procedures; and
  • promoting the application of agreements under which nations would cooperate with and take into account legitimate interests of other nations affected by a competition investigation.

The competition and trade law issues addressed in the Report are complex and the consequences of taking any particular action vis-a-vis another country must be carefully considered in light of a number of factors beyond the scope of this Report. ICPEG does not take a view on the actions of any particular country nor propose specific steps with respect to any actual dispute or matter. In addition, reasonable minds can differ on ICPEG’s assessment and recommendations. But we hope that this Report will prompt appropriate prioritization of the issues it addresses and serve as the basis for the further development of a successful policy and action plan and improved coordination and cooperation between U.S. competition and trade agencies.

During a presidential transition, it is an old Washington parlor game to discuss public policy tweaks and personnel changes, with speculation often focusing on former political appointees who are linked to the new President.  But with the election of Donald Trump, who has not previously served in government, many pundits’ crystal balls may be a bit cloudier than normal.  Well, help is on the way – at least for antitrust policy mavens.

On January 24, the Heritage Foundation will bring together an all-star cast of current and former top government officials to try and burn away the mists of uncertainty as it hosts its third annual antitrust policy conference (moderated by me).  The all-star cast, which includes former antitrust chiefs at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission and a current FTC Commissioner, will turn its attention to both domestic and international antitrust matters.  Antitrust is now a matter of global economic policy concern, and the Trump Administration’s reaction to antitrust developments around the world (including concerns about due process and industrial policy abuses overseas) may prove particularly important for American firms and the U.S. economy.

All antitrust fans are urged to attend the conference, which will be held at Heritage’s Lehrman Auditorium from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the 24th.  You can register online to attend in person, or follow the conference’s webcast at Heritage.org.

I hope to see you there!

A key issue raised by the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal from the European Union (EU) – popularly referred to as Brexit – is its implications for competition and economic welfare.  The competition issue is rather complex.  Various potentially significant UK competition policy reforms flowing from Brexit that immediately suggest themselves are briefly summarized below.  (These are merely examples – further evaluation may point to additional significant competition policy changes that Brexit is likely to inspire.)

First, UK competition policy will no longer be subject to European Commission (EC) competition law strictures, but will be guided instead solely by UK institutions, led by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).  The CMA is a free market-oriented, well-run agency that incorporates careful economic analysis into its enforcement investigations and industry studies.  It is widely deemed to be one of the world’s best competition and consumer protection enforcers, and has first-rate leadership.  (Former U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chairman William Kovacic, a very sound antitrust scholar, professor, and head of George Washington University Law School’s Competition Law Center, serves as one of the CMA’s “Non-Executive Directors,” who set the CMA’s policies.)  Post-Brexit, the CMA will no longer have to conform its policies to the approaches adopted by the EC’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) and determinations by European courts.   Despite its recent increased reliance on an “economic effects-based” analytical approach, DG-Comp still suffers from excessive formalism and an over-reliance on pure theories of harm, rather than hard empiricism.  Moreover, EU courts still tend to be overly formalistic and deferential to EC administrative determinations.  In short, CMA decision-making in the competition and consumer protection spheres, free from constraining EU influences, should (at least marginally) prove to be more welfare-enhancing within the UK post-Brexit.  (For a more detailed discussion of Brexit’s implication for EU and UK competition law, see here.)  There is a countervailing risk that Brexit might marginally worsen EU competition policy by eliminating UK pro-free market influence on EU policies, but the likelihood and scope of such a marginal effect is not readily measurable.

Second, Brexit will allow the UK to escape participation in the protectionist, wasteful, output-limiting European agricultural cartel knows as the “Common Agricultural Policy,” or CAP, which involves inefficient subsidies whose costs are borne by consumers.  This would be a clearly procompetitive and welfare-enhancing result, to the extent that it undermined the CAP.  In the near term, however, its net effects on CAP financing and on the welfare of UK farmers appear to be relatively small.

Third, the UK may be able to avoid the restrictive EU Common Fisheries Policy and exercise greater control over its coastal fisheries.  In so doing, the UK could choose to authorize the creation of a market-based tradable fisheries permit system that would enhance consumer and producer welfare and increase competition.

Fourth, Brexit will free the UK economy from one-size-fits-all supervisory regulatory frameworks in such areas as the environment, broadband policy (“digital Europe”), labor, food and consumer products, among others.  This regulatory freedom, properly handled, could prove a major force for economic flexibility, reductions in regulatory burdens, and enhanced efficiency.

Fifth, Brexit will enable the UK to enter into true free trade pacts with the United States and other nations that avoid the counterproductive bells and whistles of EU industrial policy.  For example, a “zero tariffs” agreement with the United States that featured reciprocal mutual recognition of health, safety, and other regulatory standards would avoid heavy-handed regulatory harmonization features of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Policy agreement being negotiated between the EU and the United States.  (As I explained in a previous Truth on the Market post, “a TTIP focus on ‘harmonizing’ regulations could actually lower economic freedom (and welfare) by ‘regulating upward’ through acceptance of [a] more intrusive approach, and by precluding future competition among alternative regulatory models that could lead to welfare-enhancing regulatory improvements.”)

In sum, while Brexit’s implications for other economic factors, such as macroeconomic stability, remain to be seen, Brexit will likely prove to have an economic welfare-enhancing influence on key aspects of competition policy.

P.S.  Notably, a recent excellent study by Iain Murray and Rory Broomfield of Brexit’s implications for various UK industry sectors (commissioned by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs) concluded “that in almost every area we have examined the benefit: cost trade-off [of Brexit] is positive. . . .  Overall, the UK will benefit substantially from a reduction in regulation, a better fisheries management system, a market-based immigration system, a free market in agriculture, a globally-focused free trade policy, control over extradition, and a shale gas-based energy policy.”

It appears that White House’s zeal for progressive-era legal theory has … progressed (or regressed?) further. Late last week President Obama signed an Executive Order that nominally claims to direct executive agencies (and “strongly encourages” independent agencies) to adopt “pro-competitive” policies. It’s called Steps to Increase Competition and Better Inform Consumers and Workers to Support Continued Growth of the American Economy, and was produced alongside an issue brief from the Council of Economic Advisors titled Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power.

TL;DR version: the Order and its brief do not appear so much aimed at protecting consumers or competition, as they are at providing justification for favored regulatory adventures.

In truth, it’s not exactly clear what problem the President is trying to solve. And there is language in both the Order and the brief that could be interpreted in a positive light, and, likewise, language that could be more of a shot across the bow of “unruly” corporate citizens who have not gotten in line with the President’s agenda. Most of the Order and the corresponding CEA brief read as a rote recital of basic antitrust principles: price fixing bad, collusion bad, competition good. That said, there were two items in the Order that particularly stood out.

The (Maybe) Good

Section 2 of the Order states that

Executive departments … with authorities that could be used to enhance competition (agencies) shall … use those authorities to promote competition, arm consumers and workers with the information they need to make informed choices, and eliminate regulations that restrict competition without corresponding benefits to the American public. (emphasis added)

Obviously this is music to the ears of anyone who has thought that agencies should be required to do a basic economic analysis before undertaking brave voyages of regulatory adventure. And this is what the Supreme Court was getting at in Michigan v. EPA when it examined the meaning of the phrase “appropriate” in connection with environmental regulations:

One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.

Thus, if this Order follows the direction of Michigan v. EPA, and it becomes the standard for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulation (and to review old regulations through such an analysis), then wonderful! Moreover, this mandate to agencies to reduce regulations that restrict competition could lead to an unexpected reformation of a variety of regulations – even outside of the agencies themselves. For instance, the FTC is laudable in its ongoing efforts both to correct anticompetitive state licensing laws as well as to resist state-protected incumbents, such as taxi-cab companies.

Still, I have trouble believing that the President — and this goes for any president, really, regardless of party — would truly intend for agencies under his control to actually cede regulatory ground when a little thing like economic reality points in a different direction than official policy. After all, there was ample information available that the Title II requirements on broadband providers would be both costly and result in reduced capital expenditures, and the White House nonetheless encouraged the FCC to go ahead with reclassification.

And this isn’t the first time that the President has directed agencies to perform retrospective review of regulation (see the Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens Order of 2012). To date, however, there appears to be little evidence that the burdens of the regulatory state have lessened. Last year set a record for the page count of the Federal Register (80k+ pages), and the data suggest that the cost of the regulatory state is only increasing. Thus, despite the pleasant noises the Order makes with regard to imposing economic discipline on agencies – and despite the good example Canada has set for us in this regard – I am not optimistic of the actual result.

And the (maybe) good builds an important bridge to the (probably) bad of the Order. It is well and good to direct agencies to engage in economic calculation when they write and administer regulations, but such calculation must be in earnest, and must be directed by the learning that was hard earned over the course of the development of antitrust jurisprudence in the US. As Geoffrey Manne and Josh Wright have noted:

Without a serious methodological commitment to economic science, the incorporation of economics into antitrust is merely a façade, allowing regulators and judges to select whichever economic model fits their earlier beliefs or policy preferences rather than the model that best fits the real‐world data. Still, economic theory remains essential to antitrust law. Economic analysis constrains and harnesses antitrust law so that it protects consumers rather than competitors.

Unfortunately, the brief does not indicate that it is interested in more than a façade of economic rigor. For instance, it relies on the outmoded 50 firm revenue concentration numbers gathered by the Census Bureau to support the proposition that the industries themselves are highly concentrated and, therefore, are anticompetitive. But, it’s been fairly well understood since the 1970s that concentration says nothing directly about monopoly power and its exercise. In fact, concentration can often be seen as an indicator of superior efficiency that results in better outcomes for consumers (depending on the industry).

The (Probably) Bad

Apart from general concerns (such as having a host of federal agencies with no antitrust expertise now engaging in competition turf wars) there is one specific area that could have a dramatically bad result for long term policy, and that moreover reflects either ignorance or willful blindness of antitrust jurisprudence. Specifically, the Order directs agencies to

identify specific actions that they can take in their areas of responsibility to build upon efforts to detect abuses such as price fixing, anticompetitive behavior in labor and other input markets, exclusionary conduct, and blocking access to critical resources that are needed for competitive entry. (emphasis added).

It then goes on to say that

agencies shall submit … an initial list of … any specific practices, such as blocking access to critical resources, that potentially restrict meaningful consumer or worker choice or unduly stifle new market entrants (emphasis added)

The generally uncontroversial language regarding price fixing and exclusionary conduct are bromides – after all, as the Order notes, we already have the FTC and DOJ very actively policing this sort of conduct. What’s novel here, however, is that the highlighted language above seems to amount to a mandate to executive agencies (and a strong suggestion to independent agencies) that they begin to seek out “essential facilities” within their regulated industries.

But “critical resources … needed for competitive entry” could mean nearly anything, depending on how you define competition and relevant markets. And asking non-antitrust agencies to integrate one of the more esoteric (and controversial) parts of antitrust law into their mission is going to be a recipe for disaster.

In fact, this may be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.

In short, the essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.” One important reason for the broad criticism is because

At bottom, a plaintiff … is saying that the defendant has a valuable facility that it would be difficult to reproduce … But … the fact that the defendant has a highly valued facility is a reason to reject sharing, not to require it, since forced sharing “may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” (quoting Trinko)

Further, it’s really hard to say when one business is so critical to a particular market that its own internal functions need to be exposed for competitors’ advantage. For instance, is Big Data – which the CEA brief specifically notes as a potential “critical resource” — an essential facility when one company serves so many consumers that it has effectively developed an entire market that it dominates? ( In case you are wondering, it’s actually not). When exactly does a firm so outcompete its rivals that access to its business infrastructure can be seen by regulators as “essential” to competition? And is this just a set-up for punishing success — which hardly promotes competition, innovation or consumer welfare?

And, let’s be honest here, when the CEA is considering Big Data as an essential facility they are at least partially focused on Google and its various search properties. Google is frequently the target for “essentialist” critics who argue, among other things, that Google’s prioritization of its own properties in its own search results violates antitrust rules. The story goes that Google search is so valuable that when Google publishes its own shopping results ahead of its various competitors, it is engaging in anticompetitive conduct. But this is a terribly myopic view of what the choices are for search services because, as Geoffrey Manne has so ably noted before, “competitors denied access to the top few search results at Google’s site are still able to advertise their existence and attract users through a wide range of other advertising outlets[.]”

Moreover, as more and more users migrate to specialized apps on their mobile devices for a variety of content, Google’s desktop search becomes just one choice among many for finding information. All of this leaves to one side, of course, the fact that for some categories, Google has incredibly stiff competition.

Thus it is that

to the extent that inclusion in Google search results is about “Stiglerian” search-cost reduction for websites (and it can hardly be anything else), the range of alternate facilities for this function is nearly limitless.

The troubling thing here is that, given the breezy analysis of the Order and the CEA brief, I don’t think the White House is really considering the long-term legal and economic implications of its command; the Order appears to be much more about political support for favored agency actions already under way.

Indeed, despite the length of the CEA brief and the variety of antitrust principles recited in the Order itself, an accompanying release points to what is really going on (at least in part). The White House, along with the FCC, seems to think that the embedded streams in a cable or satellite broadcast should be considered a form of essential facility that is an indispensable component of video consumers’ choice (which is laughable given the magnitude of choice in video consumption options that consumers enjoy today).

And, to the extent that courts might apply the (controversial) essential facilities doctrine, an “indispensable requirement … is the unavailability of access to the ‘essential facilities’[.]” This is clearly not the case with much of what the CEA brief points to as examples of ostensibly laudable pro-competitive regulation.

The doctrine wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the FCC’s Open Internet Order since edge providers have access to customers over networks, even where network providers want to zero-rate, employ usage-based billing or otherwise negotiate connection fees and prioritization. And it also doesn’t apply to the set-top box kerfuffle; while third-parties aren’t able to access the video streams that make-up a cable broadcast, the market for consuming those streams is a single part of the entire video ecosystem. What really matters there is access to viewers, and the ability to provide services to consumers and compete for their business.

Yet, according to the White House, “the set-top box is the mascot” for the administration’s competition Order, because, apparently, cable boxes represent “what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere.” ( “Elsewhere” to the White House, I assume, cannot include Roku, Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other video options  that consumers can currently choose among.)

The set-top box is, according to the White House, a prime example of the problem that

[a]cross our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see.

This is, of course, nonsense. Consumers enjoy an incredible amount of low-cost, high quality goods (including video options) – far more than at any point in history.  After all:

From cable to Netflix to Roku boxes to Apple TV to Amazon FireStick, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever — and we can do so in our living rooms, on our phones and tablets, and on seat-back screens at 30,000 feet. Oddly enough, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler … agrees: “American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Thus, I suspect that the White House has its eye on a broader regulatory agenda.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently announced that it would be extending its reach in the financial services industry by changing the standard for when financial advice might give rise to a fiduciary relationship under ERISA. It seems obvious that the SEC or FINRA could have taken up the slack for any financial services regulatory issues – it’s certainly within their respective wheelhouses. But that’s not the direction the administration took, possibly because SEC and FINRA are independent agencies. Thus, the DOL – an agency with substantially less financial and consumer protection experience than either the SEC or FINRA — has expansive new authority.

And that’s where more of the language in the Order comes into focus. It directs agencies to “ensur[e] that consumers and workers have access to the information needed to make informed choices[.]” The text of the DOL rule develops for itself a basis in competition law as well:

The current proposal’s defined boundaries between fiduciary advice, education, and sales activity directed at large plans, may bring greater clarity to the IRA and plan services markets. Innovation in new advice business models, including technology-driven models, may be accelerated, and nudged away from conflicts and toward transparency, thereby promoting healthy competition in the fiduciary advice market.

Thus, it’s hard to see what the White House is doing in the Order, other than laying the groundwork for expansive authority of non-independent executive agencies under the thin guise of promoting competition. Perhaps the President believes that couching this expansion in free market terms ( i.e. that its “pro-competition”) will somehow help the initiatives go through with minimal friction. But there is nothing in the Order or the CEA brief to provide any confidence that competition will, in fact, be promoted. And in the end I have trouble seeing how this sort of regulatory adventurism does not run afoul of separation of powers issues, as well as assorted other legal challenges.

Finally, conjuring up a regulatory version of the essential facilities doctrine as a support for this expansion is simply a terrible idea — one that smacks much more of industrial policy than of sound regulatory reform or consumer protection.