Archives For McWane

The “magic” of Washington can only go so far. Whether it is political consultants trying to create controversy where there is basic consensus, such as in parts of the political campaign, or the earnest effort to create a controversy over the Apple decision, there may be lots of words exchanged and animated discussion by political and antitrust pundits, but at the end of the day it’s much ado about not much. For the Apple case, even though this blog has attracted some of the keenest creative antitrust thinkers, a simple truth remains – there was overwhelming evidence that there was a horizontal agreement among suppliers and that Apple participated or even led the agreement as a seller. This is, by definition, a hub-and-spoke conspiracy that resulted in horizontal price fixing among ebook suppliers – an activity worthy of per se treatment.

The simplicity of this case belies the controversy of the ruling and the calls for Supreme Court review. Those that support Apple’s petition for certiorari seem to think that the case is a good vehicle to address important questions of policy in the law. Indeed, ICLE submitted an excellent brief making just such a case. But, unfortunately, the facts of this case are not great for resolving these problems.

For example, some would like to look at this case not as a horizontal price fixing agreement among competitors facilitated by a vertical party, but instead as a series of vertical agreements. This is very tempting, because the antitrust revolution was built on the back of fixing harmful precedent of per se condemnation of vertical restraints. Starting with GTE Sylvania, the Supreme Court has repeatedly applied modern economic learning to vertical restraints and found that there are numerous potential procompetitive benefits that must be accounted for in any proper antitrust analysis of a vertical agreement.

This view of the Apple e-book case is especially tempting because the Supreme Court’s work in this area of the law is not done. For example, the Supreme Court needs to update the law on exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts to reflect post-GTE Sylvania thinking, something I have written extensively on (including here at TOTM: here, here and here) in the context of the McWane case. (Which is also up for cert review). However, the facts of this case simply make this a bad case to resolve any matter of vertical restraint law. Apple was not approaching publishers individually, but aggressively orchestrating a scheme that immediately raised e-book prices by 30% and ensured that Apple’s store could not be undercut by any competitor. Consumers were very obviously harmed and the horizontal price fixing conspiracy could not have taken place without Apple’s involvement.

Of course in the court of public opinion (which is not an antitrust court) Apple attempted to wear the garb of the Robin Hood for consumers suggesting it was just trying to respond to Amazon’s dominance over ebooks. But the Justice Department and the court quickly saw through that guise. The proper response to market dominance is to compete harder. And that’s what happened. Apple’s successful entry into the e-book market seems to provide a more effective response than any cartel. But this does not show that there were procompetitive benefits of Apple’s anticompetitive actions worthy of rule of reason treatment. To the contrary, prices rose and output fell during the conduct at issue – exactly what one would expect to see following anticompetitive activities.

This argument also presupposes that Amazon’s dominance was bad for consumers. This is refuted by Scalia in Trinko:

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. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

The other problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests that it is OK to violate the antitrust laws to prevent a rival from charging too low of a price. This would obviously be bad policy. If Amazon was maintaining its dominant position through anticompetitive conduct, then there exists recourse in the law. As the old adage states, two wrongs do not make a right.

The main problem with the Apple e-book case is that it is a very simple case that lightly brushes against up against areas of law that and questions of policy that are attractive for Supreme Court review. There are important policy issues that still need to be addressed by the Supreme Court, but these facts don’t present them.

The Supreme Court does have an important job in helping antitrust law evolve in a sensible fashion. But this case is a soggy appetizer when there is a much more engaging main course about to be served. A cert petition has been filed in the FTC’s case against McWane, which provides a chance to update the law of exclusive dealing which the Court has not grappled with since the days of Sputnik (Only a slight exaggeration). And in McWane the most important business groups Including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have explained that the confusion and obscurity in this area and the mischief of the lower court’s decisions create real impediments to procompetitive conduct. Professors of law and economics (including several TOTM authors) also wrote in support of the petition.

The Court should skip the appetizer and get to the main course.

David Balto is a Public Interest Attorney at the Law Offices of David Balto

One must applaud the efforts of Commissioners Ohlhausen and Wright to begin the dialogue about the proper use of Section 5 as a tool of antitrust enforcement. It was 99 years ago that Congress was debating the creation of the Federal Trade Commission and increased guidance on the Commission’s thinking on Section 5 is in order.

One of the most important issues is the type of evidence needed to show a violation. Commissioner Wright has helped fashion the discussion by emphasizing the importance of having strong empirical evidence to support any enforcement action. He emphasizes the risks of relying too heavy on theory when empirical evidence is necessary.

Commissioner Ohlhausen’s speech focuses on the need for an economic basis for enforcement decisions in detail. Using the Clinton-era standards for regulatory action in EO 12866 puts this in even greater perspective. As she notes

E.O. 12866 calls for agencies to base their regulatory decisions on the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other information concerning the need for, and consequences of, any contemplated regulation. Similarly, any effort to expand UMC beyond the antitrust laws should be grounded in robust economic evidence that the challenged practice is anticompetitive and reduces consumer welfare.

She also notes that

any harm to competition under our UMC authority ought to be substantial.  This substantiality requirement would mirror the one in our Unfairness Statement on the consumer protection side, which states that the consumer injury must be substantial for the agency to pursue an unfair act or practice claim under Section 5 . . . ‘The Commission is not concerned with trivial or merely speculative harm.’

Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen do not have to wait long to apply their guidance on the need for strong economic evidence.  Their initial challenge will be served up later this month as they consider the appeal of the FTC staff’s challenge to certain distribution practices and alleged collusion by a small industrial firm, McWane.

McWane, a U.S. supplier of ductile iron pipe fittings (DIPF) used in municipal and regional water distribution systems, was alleged to have illegally conspired with its competitors to raise and stabilize DIPF prices and illegally excluded one of its foreign competitors.  After a several month trial the ALJ in a 476 page decision found no illegal conspiracy but found illegal exclusion.  Both decisions are on appeal. The case is on appeal to the full Commission with oral argument on August 22.

  • the staff’s  expert conceded he did not empirically test any of the critical allegations in the case:  i.e.,  the alleged market definition, the alleged exclusion, or the alleged consumer injury.
  • the staff failed to offer any economic test of exclusion or any other type of monopoly conduct.
  • the staff also failed to offer any economic test demonstrating any actual or likely injury to consumers from McWane’s alleged exclusionary conduct (basically providing rebates).
  • the ALJ found exclusion even though the alleged excluded firm, Star Pipe, was able to “clearly” and successfully enter the market, and in any event, was “less efficient” than McWane and thus its prices were always higher.
  • the staff failed to define the market by an economic test.
  • the staff  did not submit any economic evidence supporting the DIFF market.  Its expert performed no SSNIP test, elasticity test or any other economic test using any actual data to find a separate DIFF market.  Instead the staff simply relied on the hypothetical monopolist analysis from the Horizontal Merger Guidelines that the Commission has never previously used in a non-merger case.

Somehow this does not sound like robust economic evidence.

If perhaps the Commissioners fall prey to the weaker natures of enforcers and try to substitute theory for solid economic evidence, I have a cautionary note from one of the most important FTC cases in the 1990s – California Dental Association.  (At the time I was attorney advisor to Chairman Pitofsky).  The staff chose to litigate the case without an economist.  The Commission’s opinion tried to overcome the deficiency by substituting theory and antitrust law for economic evidence.  That effort ultimately failed at the steps of the Supreme Court.