Co-authored with Berin Szoka
FTC Commissioner Wright issued today his Policy Statement on enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC)—the one he promised in April. Wright introduced the Statement in an important policy speech this morning before the Executive Committee Meeting of the New York State Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Both the Statement and the speech are essential reading, and, collectively, they present a compelling and comprehensive vision for Section 5 UMC reform at the Commission.
As we’ve been saying for some time, and as Wright notes at the outset of his Statement:
In order for enforcement of its unfair methods of competition authority to promote consistently the Commission’s mission of protecting competition, the Commission must articulate a clear framework for its application.
Significantly, in addition to offering important certainty to guide business actions, Wright bases his proposed Policy Statement on the error cost framework:
The Commission must formulate a standard that distinguishes between acceptable business practices and business practices that constitute an unfair method of competition in order to provide firms with adequate guidance as to what conduct may be unlawful. Articulating a clear and predictable standard for what constitutes an unfair method of competition is important because the Commission’s authority to condemn unfair methods of competition allows it to break new ground and challenge conduct based upon theories not previously enshrined in Sherman Act or Clayton Act jurisprudence.
As far as we know, this Statement is the most significant effort yet to cabin FTC enforcement decisions within a coherent error-cost framework, and it is especially welcome.
Ironically, this is former Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s true legacy: His efforts to expand Section 5 to challenge conduct under novel theories, devoid of economic grounding and without proof of anticompetitive harm (in cases like Intel, N-Data and Google, among others) brought into stark relief the potential risks of an unfettered, active Section 5. Commissioner Wright’s Statement can be seen as the unintended culmination of—and backlash against—Leibowitz’s Section 5 campaign.
Particularly given the novelty of circumstances that might come within Section 5’s ambit, the error-cost minimizing structure of Commissioner Wright’s proposed Statement is enormously important. As one of us (Manne) notes in the paper, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust (co-authored with then-Professor Wright),
Both product and business innovations involve novel practices, and such practices generally result in monopoly explanations from the economics profession followed by hostility from the courts (though sometimes in reverse order) and then a subsequent, more nuanced economic understanding of the business practice usually recognizing its procompetitive virtues.
And as Wright’s Statement notes,
This is particularly true if business conduct is novel or takes place within an emerging or rapidly changing industry, and thus where there is little empirical evidence about the conduct’s potential competitive effects.
The high cost and substantial risk of over-enforcement arising from unbounded Section 5 authority counsel strongly in favor of Wright’s Statement restricting Section 5 to minimize these error costs.
Thus, while the specifics matter, of course, the real import of Commissioner Wright’s Statement is in some ways structural: If adopted, it would both bring much needed, basic guidance to the scope of the FTC’s Section 5 authority; just as important, it would constrain (an important aspect of) the FTC’s enforcement discretion within the error cost framework, bringing the sound economic grounding of antitrust law and economics to Section 5, benefiting consumers as well as commerce generally:
This Policy Statement benefits both consumers and the business community by relying on modern economics and antitrust jurisprudence to strengthen the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provide clear guidance about the contours of the Commission’s Section 5 authority.
For Wright, this is about saving Section 5 from its ill-defined and improperly deployed history. As he noted in his speech this morning,
In undertaking this task, I think it is important to recall why the Commission’s use of Section 5 has failed to date. In my view, this failure is principally because the Commission has sought to do too much with Section 5, and in so doing, called into serious question whether it has any limits whatsoever. In order to save Section 5, and to fulfill the vision Congress had for this important statute, the Commission must recast its unfair methods of competition authority with an eye toward regulatory humility in order to effectively target plainly anticompetitive conduct….. I believe that doing anything less would betray our obligation as responsible stewards of the Commission and its competition mission, and may ultimately result in the Commission having its Section 5 authority defined for it by the courts, or worse, having that authority completely revoked by Congress.
This means circumscribing the FTC’s Section 5 authority to limit enforcement to cases where the Commission shows both actual harm to competition and the absence of cognizable efficiencies.
The Status Quo
Both together and separately, we’ve discussed the problems with the Section 5 status quo in numerous places, including:
To summarize: The problem is that Section 5 enforcement standards in the unfairness context are non-existent. Former Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch, in particular, have, in several places, argued for expanded use of Section 5, both as a way around judicial limits on the scope of Sherman Act enforcement, as well as as an affirmative tool to enforce the FTC’s mandate. As the Commission’s statement in the N-Data case concluded:
We recognize that some may criticize the Commission for broadly (but appropriately) applying our unfairness authority to stop the conduct alleged in this Complaint. But the cost of ignoring this particularly pernicious problem is too high. Using our statutory authority to its fullest extent is not only consistent with the Commission’s obligations, but also essential to preserving a free and dynamic marketplace.
The problem is that neither the Commission, the courts nor Congress has defined what, exactly, the “fullest extent” of the FTC’s statutory authority is. As Commissioner Wright noted in this morning’s speech,
In practice, however, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of the commissioners believes that it is.
The Commission’s claim that it applied its authority “broadly (but appropriately)” in N-Data is unsupported and unsupportable. As Commissioner Ohlhausen put it in her dissent in In re Bosch,
I simply do not see any meaningful limiting principles in the enforcement policy laid out in these cases. The Commission statement emphasizes the context here (i.e. standard setting); however, it is not clear why the type of conduct that is targeted here (i.e. a breach of an allegedly implied contract term with no allegation of deception) would not be targeted by the Commission in any other context where the Commission believes consumer harm may result. If the Commission continues on the path begun in N-Data and extended here, we will be policing garden variety breach-of-contract and other business disputes between private parties….
It is important that government strive for transparency and predictability. Before invoking Section 5 to address business conduct not already covered by the antitrust laws (other than perhaps invitations to collude), the Commission should fully articulate its views about what constitutes an unfair method of competition, including the general parameters of unfair conduct and where Section 5 overlaps and does not overlap with the antitrust laws, and how the Commission will exercise its enforcement discretion under Section 5. Otherwise, the Commission runs a serious risk of failure in the courts and a possible hostile legislative reaction, both of which have accompanied previous FTC attempts to use Section 5 more expansively.
This consent does nothing either to legitimize the creative, yet questionable application of Section 5 to these types of cases or to provide guidance to standard-setting participants or the business community at large as to what does and does not constitute a Section 5 violation. Rather, it raises more questions about what limits the majority of the Commission would place on its expansive use of Section 5 authority.
Commissioner Wright’s proposed Policy Statement attempts to remedy these defects, and, in the process, explains why the Commission’s previous, broad applications of the statute are not, in fact, appropriate.
Requirement #1: Harm to Competition
It should go without saying that anticompetitive harm is a basic prerequisite of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Sadly, however, this has not been the case. As the FTC has, in recent years, undertaken enforcement actions intended to expand its antitrust authority, it has interpreted far too expansively the Supreme Court’s statement in FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists that Section 5 contemplates
not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons.
But “against public policy for other reasons” does not mean “without economic basis,” and there is no indication that Congress intended to give the FTC unfettered authority unbounded by economically sensible limits on what constitutes a cognizable harm. As one of us (Manne) has written,
Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has understood (and courts have demanded) that antitrust enforcement . . . requires demonstrable consumer harm to apply. But this latest effort reveals an agency pursuing an interpretation of Section 5 that would give it unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional antitrust measures — reduction in output or an output-reducing increase in price — but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.
Commissioner Wright’s Statement and its reasoning are consistent with Congressional intent on the limits of the “public policy” rationale in Section 5’s “other” unfairness authority, now enshrined in Section 45(n) of the FTC Act:
The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.
While not entirely foreclosing the possibility of other indicia of harm to competition, Wright provides a clear statement of what would constitute Section 5 UMC harm under his standard:
Conduct that results in harm to competition, and in turn, in harm to consumer welfare, typically does so through increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate.
This means is that, among other things, “reduction in consumer choice” is not, by itself, a cognizable harm under Section 5, just as it is not under the antitrust laws. As one of us (Manne) has discussed previously:
Most problematically, Commissioner Rosch has suggested that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice” without requiring any evidence that conduct actually reduces consumer welfare…. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by a competitor’s conduct.
The clear limit on “consumer choice” claims contemplated by Wright’s Statement is another of its important benefits.
But Wright emphatically rejects proposals to limit Section 5 to mean only what the antitrust laws themselves mean. Section 5 does extend beyond the limits of the antitrust laws in encompassing conduct that is likely to result in harm to competition, although it hasn’t yet.
Because prospective enforcement of Section 5 against allegedly anticompetitive practices that may turn out not to be harmful imposes significant costs, Wright very nicely here also incorporates an error cost approach, requiring a showing of greater harm where the risk of harm is lower:
When the act or practice has not yet harmed competition, the Commission’s assessment must include both the magnitude and probability of competitive harm. Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission will not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the act or practice poses a risk of substantial harm.
In this category are the uncontroversial “invitation to collude” cases long agreed by just about everyone to be within the ambit of Section 5. But Commissioner Wright also suggests Section 5 is appropriate to prevent
the use by a firm of unfair methods of competition to acquire market power that does not yet rise to the level of monopoly power necessary for a violation of the Sherman Act.
This is somewhat more controversial as it contemplates (as the Statement’s illustrative examples make clear) deception that results in the acquisition of market power.
But most important to note is that, while deception was the basis for the Commission’s enforcement action in Rambus (later reversed by the D.C. Circuit), Commissioner Wright’s Statement would codify the important limitation (partly developed in Wright’s own work) on such cases that the deception must be the cause of an acquisition of market power.
Requirement #2: Absence of Cognizable Efficiencies
The real work in Wright’s Statement is done by the limitation on UMC enforcement in cases where the complained-of practice produces cognizable efficiencies. This is not a balancing test or a rule of reason. It is a safe harbor for cases where conduct is efficient, regardless of its effect on competition otherwise:
The Commission therefore creates a clear safe harbor that provides firms with certainty that their conduct can be challenged as an unfair method of competition only in the absence of efficiencies.
As noted at the outset, this is the most important and ambitious effort we know of to incorporate the error cost framework into FTC antitrust enforcement policy. This aspect of the Statement takes seriously the harm that can arise from the agency’s discretion, uncertainty over competitive effects (especially in “likely to cause” cases) and the imbalance of power and costs inherent in the FTC’s Part III adjudication to tip the scale back toward avoidance of erroneous over-enforcement.
Importantly, Commissioner Wright called out the last of these in his speech this morning, describing the fundamental imbalance that his Statement seeks to address:
The uncertainty surrounding the scope of Section 5 is exacerbated by the administrative procedures available to the Commission for litigating unfair methods claims. This combination gives the Commission the ability to, in some cases, take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Section 5 by challenging conduct as an unfair method of competition and eliciting a settlement even though the conduct in question very likely would not violate the traditional federal antitrust laws. This is because firms typically will prefer to settle a Section 5 claim rather than going through lengthy and costly administrative litigation in which they are both shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them. Such settlements only perpetuate the uncertainty that exists as a result of ambiguity associated with the Commission’s Section 5 authority by encouraging a process by which the contours of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority are drawn without any meaningful adversarial proceeding or substantive analysis of the Commission’s authority.
In essence, by removing the threat of Section 5 enforcement where efficiencies are cognizable, Wright’s Statement avoids the risk of Type I error, prioritizing the possible realization of efficiencies over possible anticompetitive harm with a bright line rule that avoids attempting to balance the one against the other:
The Commission employs an efficiencies screen to establish a test with clear and predictable results that prevents arbitrary enforcement of the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority, to focus the agency’s resources on conduct most likely to harm consumers, and to avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing business practices.
Moreover, the FTC bears the burden of demonstrating that its enforcement meets the efficiencies test, ensuring that the screen doesn’t become simply a rule of reason balancing:
The Commission bears the ultimate burden in establishing that the act or practice lacks cognizable efficiencies. Once a firm has offered initial evidence to substantiate its efficiency claims, the Commission must demonstrate why the efficiencies are not cognizable.
Fundamentally, as Commissioner Wright explained in his speech,
Anticompetitive conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies is the most likely to harm consumers because it is without any redeeming consumer benefits. The efficiency screen also works to ensure that welfare-enhancing conduct is not inadvertently deterred…. The Supreme Court has long recognized that erroneous condemnation of procompetitive conduct significantly reduces consumer welfare by deterring investment in efficiency-enhancing business practices. To avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing conduct, my proposed Policy Statement limits the use of Section 5 to conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies.
The Big Picture
Wright’s proposed Policy Statement is well thought out and much needed. It offers clear guidance for companies navigating the FTC’s murky Section 5 waters, and it offers clear, economically grounded limits on the FTC’s UMC enforcement authority. While preserving a scope of enforcement authority for Section 5 beyond the antitrust statutes (including against deceptive conduct that harms competition without any corresponding efficiency justification), it nevertheless reins in the most troubling abuses of that authority by clearly prohibiting the agency’s unprincipled enforcement actions in cases like N-Data, Google and Rambus, all of which failed to establish a connection between the complained-of conduct and harm to competition or else ignored clear efficiencies (particularly Google).
No doubt some agency watchers will criticize the Statement, labeling it reflexively deregulatory. But remember this isn’t being proposed in a vacuum. Commissioner Wright’s Statement defines only what should be a fairly narrow set of cases beyond the antitrust statutes’ reach. The Sherman Act doesn’t disappear because Section 5 is circumscribed, and the most recent controversial Section 5 cases could all theoretically have been plead solely as Section 2 cases (although they may well have failed).
What does change is the possibility of recourse to Section 5 as a means of avoiding the standards established by the courts in enforcing and interpreting the Sherman Act.
The Statement does not represent a restriction of antitrust enforcement authority unless you take as your starting point the agency’s recent unsupported and expansive interpretation of Section 5—a version of Section 5 that was never intended to, and doesn’t, exist. Wright’s Statement is, rather, a bulwark against unprincipled regulatory expansion: a sensible grounding of a statute with a checkered past and a penchant for mischief.
Chairman Leibowitz and Commissioner Rosch, in defending the use and expansion of Section 5, argued in Intel that it was necessary to circumvent judicial limitations on the enforcement of Section 2 aimed only at private plaintiffs (like, you know, demonstration of anticompetitive harm, basic pleading standards…)—basically the FTC’s “get out of Trinko free” card. According to Leibowitz, the Court’s economically rigorous, error-cost jurisprudence in cases like linkline, Trinko, Leegin, Twombly, and Brook Group were aimed at private plaintiffs, not agency actions:
But I also believe that the result, at least in the aggregate, is that some anticompetitive behavior is not being stopped—in part because the FTC and DOJ are saddled with court-based restrictions that are designed to circumscribe private litigation. Simply put, consumers can still suffer plenty of harm for reasons not encompassed by the Sherman Act as it is currently enforced in the federal courts.
The claim is meritless (as one of us (Manne) discussed here, for example). But it helps to make clear what the problem with current Section 5 standards are: There are no standards, only post hoc rationalizations to justify pursuing Section 2 cases without the cumbersome baggage of its jurisprudential limits.
The recent Supreme Court cases mentioned above are only the most recent examples of a decades-long jurisprudential trend incorporating modern economic thinking into antitrust law and recognizing the error-cost tradeoff. These cases have served to remove certain conduct (at least without appropriate evidence and analysis) from the reach of Section 2 in a measured, accretive fashion over the last 40 years or so. They have by no means made antitrust irrelevant, and the agencies and private plaintiffs alike bring and win cases all the time—and this doesn’t even measure the conduct that is deterred by the threat of enforcement. The limits on Section 5 suggested by Commissioner Wright’s Statement are marginal limits on the scope of antitrust beyond the Sherman Act, Clayton Act and other statutes. There is nothing in the legislative history or plain language of Section 5 to suggest adopting a more expansive approach, in effect using it to undo what the courts have methodically done.
It is also worth noting that not only the antitrust laws, but also the the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) prong of Section 5 exerts a regulatory constraint on business conduct, proscribing deception, for example, as a consumer protection matter—without having to prove the existence of market power or its abuse. This also forms a piece of the institutional backdrop against which Wright’s proposed Policy Statement must be adjudged.
Wright was a leading critic of the agency’s expansive use of Section 5 before he joined the Commission, both at Truth on the Market as well as in longer writing. He has, correctly, seen it as a serious problem in need of remedying for quite some time. It is gratifying that Wright is continuing this work now that he is on the Commission, where he is no longer relegated merely to critiquing the agency but is in a position to try to transform it himself.
What remains needed is the political will to move this draft Policy Statement to adoption by the full Commission—something Chairman Ramirez is not likely to embrace without considerable pressure from Congress and/or the antitrust community. In the modest service of fulfilling this need, ICLE and TechFreedom intend to host later this year the first of what we hope will be several workshops on Commissioner Wright’s Statement and the broader topic of Section 5 enforcement reform. If the Commission won’t do it, the private sector will have to step in. For a taste of our perspective, check out the amicus brief we recently filed with FTC law scholars (Todd Zywicki, Paul Rubin and Gus Hurwitz) in the case of FTC v. Wyndham, which may be the first case to really test how the FTC uses is unfairness authority in consumer protection cases.