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In the battle of ideas, it is quite useful to be able to brandish clear and concise debating points in support of a proposition, backed by solid analysis. Toward that end, in a recent primer about antitrust law published by the Mercatus Center, I advance four reasons to reject neo-Brandeisian critiques of the consensus (at least, until very recently) consumer welfare-centric approach to antitrust enforcement. My four points, drawn from the primer (with citations deleted and hyperlinks added) are as follows:

First, the underlying assumptions of rising concentration and declining competition on which the neo-Brandeisian critique is largely based (and which are reflected in the introductory legislative findings of the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act [of 2021, introduced by Senator Klobuchar on February 4, lack merit]. Chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President, dealing with competition policy, summarizes research debunking those assumptions. To begin with, it shows that studies complaining that competition is in decline are fatally flawed. Studies such as one in 2016 by the Council of Economic Advisers rely on overbroad market definitions that say nothing about competition in specific markets, let alone across the entire economy. Indeed, in 2018, professor Carl Shapiro, chief DOJ antitrust economist in the Obama administration, admitted that a key summary chart in the 2016 study “is not informative regarding overall trends in concentration in well-defined relevant markets that are used by antitrust economists to assess market power, much less trends in concentration in the U.S. economy.” Furthermore, as the 2020 report points out, other literature claiming that competition is in decline rests on a problematic assumption that increases in concentration (even assuming such increases exist) beget softer competition. Problems with this assumption have been understood since at least the 1970s. The most fundamental problem is that there are alternative explanations (such as exploitation of scale economies) for why a market might demonstrate both high concentration and high markups—explanations that are still consistent with procompetitive behavior by firms. (In a related vein, research by other prominent economists has exposed flaws in studies that purport to show a weakening of merger enforcement standards in recent years.) Finally, the 2020 report notes that the real solution to perceived economic problems may be less government, not more: “As historic regulatory reform across American industries has shown, cutting government-imposed barriers to innovation leads to increased competition, strong economic growth, and a revitalized private sector.”

Second, quite apart from the flawed premises that inform the neo-Brandeisian critique, specific neo-Brandeisian reforms appear highly problematic on economic grounds. Breakups of dominant firms or near prohibitions on dominant firm acquisitions would sacrifice major economies of scale and potential efficiencies of integration, harming consumers without offering any proof that the new market structures in reshaped industries would yield consumer or producer benefits. Furthermore, a requirement that merging parties prove a negative (that the merger will not harm competition) would limit the ability of entrepreneurs and market makers to act on information about misused or underutilized assets through the merger process. This limitation would reduce economic efficiency. After-the-fact studies indicating that a large percentage of mergers do not add wealth and do not otherwise succeed as much as projected miss this point entirely. They ignore what the world would be like if mergers were much more difficult to enter into: a world where there would be lower efficiency and dynamic economic growth because there would be less incentive to seek out market-improving opportunities.

Third, one aspect of the neo-Brandeisian approach to antitrust policy is at odds with fundamental notions of fair notice of wrongdoing and equal treatment under neutral principles, notions that are central to the rule of law. In particular, the neo-Brandeisian call for considering a multiplicity of new factors such as fairness, labor, and the environment when enforcing policy is troublesome. There is no neutral principle for assigning weights to such divergent interests, and (even if weights could be assigned) there are no economic tools for accurately measuring how a transaction under review would affect those interests. It follows that abandoning antitrust law’s consumer-welfare standard in favor of an ill-defined multifactor approach would spawn confusion in the private sector and promote arbitrariness in enforcement decisions, undermining the transparency that is a key aspect of the rule of law. Whereas concerns other than consumer welfare may of course be validly considered in setting public policy, they are best dealt with under other statutory schemes, not under antitrust law.

Fourth, and finally, neo-Brandeisian antitrust proposals are not a solution to widely expressed concerns that big companies in general, and large digital platforms in particular, are undermining free speech by censoring content of which they disapprove. Antitrust law is designed to prevent businesses from creating impediments to market competition that reduce economic welfare; it is not well-suited to policing companies’ determinations regarding speech. To the extent that policymakers wish to address speech censorship on large platforms, they should consider other regulatory institutions that would be better suited to the task (such as communications law), while keeping in mind First Amendment limitations on the ability of government to control private speech.

In light of these four points, the primer concludes that the neo-Brandeisian-inspired antitrust “reform” proposals being considered by Congress should be rejected:

[E]fforts to totally reshape antitrust policy into a quasi-regulatory system that arbitrarily blocks and disincentivizes (1) welfare-enhancing mergers and (2) an array of actions by dominant firms are highly troubling. Such interventionist proposals ignore the lack of evidence of serious competitive problems in the American economy and appear arbitrary compared to the existing consumer-welfare-centric antitrust enforcement regime. To use a metaphor, Congress and public officials should avoid a drastic new antitrust cure for an anticompetitive disease that can be handled effectively with existing antitrust medications.

Let us hope that the serious harm associated with neo-Brandeisian legislative “deformation” (a more apt term than reformation) of the antitrust laws is given a full legislative airing before Congress acts.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

An oft-repeated claim of conferences, media, and left-wing think tanks is that lax antitrust enforcement has led to a substantial increase in concentration in the US economy of late, strangling the economy, harming workers, and saddling consumers with greater markups in the process. But what if rising concentration (and the current level of antitrust enforcement) were an indication of more competition, not less?

By now the concentration-as-antitrust-bogeyman story is virtually conventional wisdom, echoed, of course, by political candidates such as Elizabeth Warren trying to cash in on the need for a government response to such dire circumstances:

In industry after industry — airlines, banking, health care, agriculture, tech — a handful of corporate giants control more and more. The big guys are locking out smaller, newer competitors. They are crushing innovation. Even if you don’t see the gears turning, this massive concentration means prices go up and quality goes down for everything from air travel to internet service.  

But the claim that lax antitrust enforcement has led to increased concentration in the US and that it has caused economic harm has been debunked several times (for some of our own debunking, see Eric Fruits’ posts here, here, and here). Or, more charitably to those who tirelessly repeat the claim as if it is “settled science,” it has been significantly called into question

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

The most recent — and, I believe, most significant — corrective to the conventional story comes from economists Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg of Princeton University. As they write in a recent paper titled, “The Industrial Revolution in Services”: 

We show that new technologies have enabled firms that adopt them to scale production over a large number of establishments dispersed across space. Firms that adopt this technology grow by increasing the number of local markets that they serve, but on average are smaller in the markets that they do serve. Unlike Henry Ford’s revolution in manufacturing more than a hundred years ago when manufacturing firms grew by concentrating production in a given location, the new industrial revolution in non-traded sectors takes the form of horizontal expansion across more locations. At the same time, multi-product firms are forced to exit industries where their productivity is low or where the new technology has had no effect. Empirically we see that top firms in the overall economy are more focused and have larger market shares in their chosen sectors, but their size as a share of employment in the overall economy has not changed. (pp. 42-43) (emphasis added).

This makes perfect sense. And it has the benefit of not second-guessing structural changes made in response to technological change. Rather, it points to technological change as doing what it regularly does: improving productivity.

The implementation of new technology seems to be conferring benefits — it’s just that these benefits are not evenly distributed across all firms and industries. But the assumption that larger firms are causing harm (or even that there is any harm in the first place, whatever the cause) is unmerited. 

What the authors find is that the apparent rise in national concentration doesn’t tell the relevant story, and the data certainly aren’t consistent with assumptions that anticompetitive conduct is either a cause or a result of structural changes in the economy.

Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg point out that increased concentration is not happening everywhere, but is being driven by just three industries:

First, we show that the phenomena of rising concentration . . . is only seen in three broad sectors – services, wholesale, and retail. . . . [T]op firms have become more efficient over time, but our evidence indicates that this is only true for top firms in these three sectors. In manufacturing, for example, concentration has fallen.

Second, rising concentration in these sectors is entirely driven by an increase [in] the number of local markets served by the top firms. (p. 4) (emphasis added).

These findings are a gloss on a (then) working paper — The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms — by David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson, and John Van Reenan (now forthcoming in the QJE). Autor et al. (2019) finds that concentration is rising, and that it is the result of increased productivity:

If globalization or technological changes push sales towards the most productive firms in each industry, product market concentration will rise as industries become increasingly dominated by superstar firms, which have high markups and a low labor share of value-added.

We empirically assess seven predictions of this hypothesis: (i) industry sales will increasingly concentrate in a small number of firms; (ii) industries where concentration rises most will have the largest declines in the labor share; (iii) the fall in the labor share will be driven largely by reallocation rather than a fall in the unweighted mean labor share across all firms; (iv) the between-firm reallocation component of the fall in the labor share will be greatest in the sectors with the largest increases in market concentration; (v) the industries that are becoming more concentrated will exhibit faster growth of productivity; (vi) the aggregate markup will rise more than the typical firm’s markup; and (vii) these patterns should be observed not only in U.S. firms, but also internationally. We find support for all of these predictions. (emphasis added).

This is alone is quite important (and seemingly often overlooked). Autor et al. (2019) finds that rising concentration is a result of increased productivity that weeds out less-efficient producers. This is a good thing. 

But Hsieh & Rossi-Hansberg drill down into the data to find something perhaps even more significant: the rise in concentration itself is limited to just a few sectors, and, where it is observed, it is predominantly a function of more efficient firms competing in more — and more localized — markets. This means that competition is increasing, not decreasing, whether it is accompanied by an increase in concentration or not. 

No matter how may times and under how many monikers the antitrust populists try to revive it, the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm remains as moribund as ever. Indeed, on this point, as one of the new antitrust agonists’ own, Fiona Scott Morton, has written (along with co-authors Martin Gaynor and Steven Berry):

In short, there is no well-defined “causal effect of concentration on price,” but rather a set of hypotheses that can explain observed correlations of the joint outcomes of price, measured markups, market share, and concentration. As Bresnahan (1989) argued three decades ago, no clear interpretation of the impact of concentration is possible without a clear focus on equilibrium oligopoly demand and “supply,” where supply includes the list of the marginal cost functions of the firms and the nature of oligopoly competition. 

Some of the recent literature on concentration, profits, and markups has simply reasserted the relevance of the old-style structure-conduct-performance correlations. For economists trained in subfields outside industrial organization, such correlations can be attractive. 

Our own view, based on the well-established mainstream wisdom in the field of industrial organization for several decades, is that regressions of market outcomes on measures of industry structure like the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index should be given little weight in policy debates. Such correlations will not produce information about the causal estimates that policy demands. It is these causal relationships that will help us understand what, if anything, may be causing markups to rise. (emphasis added).

Indeed! And one reason for the enduring irrelevance of market concentration measures is well laid out in Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg’s paper:

This evidence is consistent with our view that increasing concentration is driven by new ICT-enabled technologies that ultimately raise aggregate industry TFP. It is not consistent with the view that concentration is due to declining competition or entry barriers . . . , as these forces will result in a decline in industry employment. (pp. 4-5) (emphasis added)

The net effect is that there is essentially no change in concentration by the top firms in the economy as a whole. The “super-star” firms of today’s economy are larger in their chosen sectors and have unleashed productivity growth in these sectors, but they are not any larger as a share of the aggregate economy. (p. 5) (emphasis added)

Thus, to begin with, the claim that increased concentration leads to monopsony in labor markets (and thus unemployment) appears to be false. Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg again:

[W]e find that total employment rises substantially in industries with rising concentration. This is true even when we look at total employment of the smaller firms in these industries. (p. 4)

[S]ectors with more top firm concentration are the ones where total industry employment (as a share of aggregate employment) has also grown. The employment share of industries with increased top firm concentration grew from 70% in 1977 to 85% in 2013. (p. 9)

Firms throughout the size distribution increase employment in sectors with increasing concentration, not only the top 10% firms in the industry, although by definition the increase is larger among the top firms. (p. 10) (emphasis added)

Again, what actually appears to be happening is that national-level growth in concentration is actually being driven by increased competition in certain industries at the local level:

93% of the growth in concentration comes from growth in the number of cities served by top firms, and only 7% comes from increased employment per city. . . . [A]verage employment per county and per establishment of top firms falls. So necessarily more than 100% of concentration growth has to come from the increase in the number of counties and establishments served by the top firms. (p.13)

The net effect is a decrease in the power of top firms relative to the economy as a whole, as the largest firms specialize more, and are dominant in fewer industries:

Top firms produce in more industries than the average firm, but less so in 2013 compared to 1977. The number of industries of a top 0.001% firm (relative to the average firm) fell from 35 in 1977 to 17 in 2013. The corresponding number for a top 0.01% firm is 21 industries in 1977 and 9 industries in 2013. (p. 17)

Thus, summing up, technology has led to increased productivity as well as greater specialization by large firms, especially in relatively concentrated industries (exactly the opposite of the pessimistic stories):  

[T]op firms are now more specialized, are larger in the chosen industries, and these are precisely the industries that have experienced concentration growth. (p. 18)

Unsurprisingly (except to some…), the increase in concentration in certain industries does not translate into an increase in concentration in the economy as a whole. In other words, workers can shift jobs between industries, and there is enough geographic and firm mobility to prevent monopsony. (Despite rampant assumptions that increased concentration is constraining labor competition everywhere…).

Although the employment share of top firms in an average industry has increased substantially, the employment share of the top firms in the aggregate economy has not. (p. 15)

It is also simply not clearly the case that concentration is causing prices to rise or otherwise causing any harm. As Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg note:

[T]he magnitude of the overall trend in markups is still controversial . . . and . . . the geographic expansion of top firms leads to declines in local concentration . . . that could enhance competition. (p. 37)

Indeed, recent papers such as Traina (2018), Gutiérrez and Philippon (2017), and the IMF (2019) have found increasing markups over the last few decades but at much more moderate rates than the famous De Loecker and Eeckhout (2017) study. Other parts of the anticompetitive narrative have been challenged as well. Karabarbounis and Neiman (2018) finds that profits have increased, but are still within their historical range. Rinz (2018) shows decreased wages in concentrated markets but also points out that local concentration has been decreasing over the relevant time period.

None of this should be so surprising. Has antitrust enforcement gotten more lax, leading to greater concentration? According to Vita and Osinski (2018), not so much. And how about the stagnant rate of new firms? Are incumbent monopolists killing off new startups? The more likely — albeit mundane — explanation, according to Hopenhayn et al. (2018), is that increased average firm age is due to an aging labor force. Lastly, the paper from Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg discussed above is only the latest in a series of papers, including Bessen (2017), Van Reenen (2018), and Autor et al. (2019), that shows a rise in fixed costs due to investments in proprietary information technology, which correlates with increased concentration. 

So what is the upshot of all this?

  • First, as noted, employment has not decreased because of increased concentration; quite the opposite. Employment has increased in the industries that have experienced the most concentration at the national level.
  • Second, this result suggests that the rise in concentrated industries has not led to increased market power over labor.
  • Third, concentration itself needs to be understood more precisely. It is not explained by a simple narrative that the economy as a whole has experienced a great deal of concentration and this has been detrimental for consumers and workers. Specific industries have experienced national level concentration, but simultaneously those same industries have become more specialized and expanded competition into local markets. 

Surprisingly (because their paper has been around for a while and yet this conclusion is rarely recited by advocates for more intervention — although they happily use the paper to support claims of rising concentration), Autor et al. (2019) finds the same thing:

Our formal model, detailed below, generates superstar effects from increases in the toughness of product market competition that raise the market share of the most productive firms in each sector at the expense of less productive competitors. . . . An alternative perspective on the rise of superstar firms is that they reflect a diminution of competition, due to a weakening of U.S. antitrust enforcement (Dottling, Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018). Our findings on the similarity of trends in the U.S. and Europe, where antitrust authorities have acted more aggressively on large firms (Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018), combined with the fact that the concentrating sectors appear to be growing more productive and innovative, suggests that this is unlikely to be the primary explanation, although it may important in some specific industries (see Cooper et al, 2019, on healthcare for example). (emphasis added).

The popular narrative among Neo-Brandeisian antitrust scholars that lax antitrust enforcement has led to concentration detrimental to society is at base an empirical one. The findings of these empirical papers severely undermine the persuasiveness of that story.

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?