Archives For merger review

In an age of antitrust populism on both ends of the political spectrum, federal and state regulators face considerable pressure to deploy the antitrust laws against firms that have dominant market shares. Yet federal case law makes clear that merely winning the race for a market is an insufficient basis for antitrust liability. Rather, any plaintiff must show that the winner either secured or is maintaining its dominant position through practices that go beyond vigorous competition. Any other principle would inhibit the competitive process that the antitrust laws are designed to promote. Federal judges who enjoy life tenure are far more insulated from outside pressures and therefore more likely to demand evidence of anticompetitive practices as a predicate condition for any determination of antitrust liability.

This separation of powers between the executive branch, which prosecutes alleged infractions of the law, and the judicial branch, which polices the prosecutor, is the simple genius behind the divided system of government generally attributed to the eighteenth-century French thinker, Montesquieu. The practical wisdom of this fundamental principle of political design, which runs throughout the U.S. Constitution, can be observed in full force in the current antitrust landscape, in which the federal courts have acted as a bulwark against several contestable enforcement actions by antitrust regulators.

In three headline cases brought by the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission since 2017, the prosecutorial bench has struck out in court. Under the exacting scrutiny of the judiciary, government litigators failed to present sufficient evidence that a dominant firm had engaged in practices that caused, or were likely to cause, significant anticompetitive effects. In each case, these enforcement actions, applauded by policymakers and commentators who tend to follow “big is bad” intuitions, foundered when assessed in light of judicial precedent, the factual record, and the economic principles embedded in modern antitrust law. An ongoing suit, filed by the FTC this year after more than 18 months since the closing of the targeted acquisition, exhibits similar factual and legal infirmities.

Strike 1: The AT&T/Time-Warner Transaction

In response to the announcement of AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, the DOJ filed suit in 2017 to prevent the formation of a dominant provider in home-video distribution that would purportedly deny competitors access to “must-have” content. As I have observed previously, this theory of the case suffered from two fundamental difficulties. 

First, content is an abundant and renewable resource so it is hard to see how AT&T+TW could meaningfully foreclose competitors’ access to this necessary input. Even in the hypothetical case of potentially “must-have” content, it was unclear whether it would be economically rational for post-acquisition AT&T regularly to deny access to other distributors, given that doing so would imply an immediate and significant loss in licensing revenues without any clearly offsetting future gain in revenues from new subscribers.

Second, home-video distribution is a market lapsing rapidly into obsolescence as content monetization shifts from home-based viewing to a streaming environment in which consumers expect “anywhere, everywhere” access. The blockbuster acquisition was probably best understood as a necessary effort to adapt to this new environment (already populated by several major streaming platforms), rather than an otherwise puzzling strategy to spend billions to capture a market on the verge of commercial irrelevance. 

Strike 2: The Sabre/Farelogix Acquisition

In 2019, the DOJ filed suit to block the $360 million acquisition of Farelogix by Sabre, one of three leading airline booking platforms, on the ground that it would substantially lessen competition. The factual basis for this legal diagnosis was unclear. In 2018, Sabre earned approximately $3.9 billion in worldwide revenues, compared to $40 million for Farelogix. Given this drastic difference in market share, and the almost trivial share attributable to Farelogix, it is difficult to fathom how the DOJ could credibly assert that the acquisition “would extinguish a crucial constraint on Sabre’s market power.” 

To use a now much-discussed theory of antitrust liability, it might nonetheless be argued that Farelogix posed a “nascent” competitive threat to the Sabre platform. That is: while Farelogix is small today, it may become big enough tomorrow to pose a threat to Sabre’s market leadership. 

But that theory runs straight into a highly inconvenient fact. Farelogix was founded in 1998 and, during the ensuing two decades, had neither achieved broad adoption of its customized booking technology nor succeeded in offering airlines a viable pathway to bypass the three major intermediary platforms. The proposed acquisition therefore seems best understood as a mutually beneficial transaction in which a smaller (and not very nascent) firm elects to monetize its technology by embedding it in a leading platform that seeks to innovate by acquisition. Robust technology ecosystems do this all the time, efficiently exploiting the natural complementarities between a smaller firm’s “out of the box” innovation with the capital-intensive infrastructure of an incumbent. (Postscript: While the DOJ lost this case in federal court, Sabre elected in May 2020 not to close following similarly puzzling opposition by British competition regulators.) 

Strike 3: FTC v. Qualcomm

The divergence of theories of anticompetitive risk from market realities is vividly illustrated by the landmark suit filed by the FTC in 2017 against Qualcomm. 

The litigation pursued nothing less than a wholesale reengineering of the IP licensing relationships between innovators and implementers that underlie the global smartphone market. Those relationships principally consist of device-level licenses between IP innovators such as Qualcomm and device manufacturers and distributors such as Apple. This structure efficiently collects remuneration from the downstream segment of the supply chain for upstream firms that invest in pushing forward the technology frontier. The FTC thought otherwise and pursued a remedy that would have required Qualcomm to offer licenses to its direct competitors in the chip market and to rewrite its existing licenses with device producers and other intermediate users on a component, rather than device, level. 

Remarkably, these drastic forms of intervention into private-ordering arrangements rested on nothing more than what former FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen once appropriately called a “possibility theorem.” The FTC deployed a mostly theoretical argument that Qualcomm had extracted an “unreasonably high” royalty that had potentially discouraged innovation, impeded entry into the chip market, and inflated retail prices for consumers. Yet these claims run contrary to all available empirical evidence, which indicates that the mobile wireless device market has exhibited since its inception declining quality-adjusted prices, increasing output, robust entry into the production market, and continuous innovation. The mismatch between the government’s theory of market failure and the actual record of market success over more than two decades challenges the policy wisdom of disrupting hundreds of existing contractual arrangements between IP licensors and licensees in a thriving market. 

The FTC nonetheless secured from the district court a sweeping order that would have had precisely this disruptive effect, including imposing a “duty to deal” that would have required Qualcomm to license directly its competitors in the chip market. The Ninth Circuit stayed the order and, on August 11, 2020, issued an unqualified reversal, stating that the lower court had erroneously conflated “hypercompetitive” (good) with anticompetitive (bad) conduct and observing that “[t]hroughout its analysis, the district court conflated the desire to maximize profits with an intent to ‘destroy competition itself.’” In unusually direct language, the appellate court also observed (as even the FTC had acknowledged on appeal) that the district court’s ruling was incompatible with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., which strictly limits the circumstances in which a duty to deal can be imposed. In some cases, it appears that additional levels of judicial review are necessary to protect antitrust law against not only administrative but judicial overreach.

Axon v. FTC

For the most explicit illustration of the interface between Montesquieu’s principle of divided government and the risk posed to antitrust law by cases of prosecutorial excess, we can turn to an unusual and ongoing litigation, Axon v. FTC.

The HSR Act and Post-Consummation Merger Challenges

The HSR Act provides regulators with the opportunity to preemptively challenge acquisitions and related transactions on antitrust grounds prior to those transactions having been consummated. Since its enactment in 1976, this statutory innovation has laudably increased dealmakers’ ability to close transactions with a high level of certainty that regulators would not belatedly seek to “unscramble the egg.” While the HSR Act does not foreclose this contingency since regulatory failure to challenge a transaction only indicates current enforcement intentions, it is probably fair to say that M&A dealmakers generally assume that regulators would reverse course only in exceptional circumstances. In turn, the low prospect of after-the-fact regulatory intervention encourages the efficient use of M&A transactions for the purpose of shifting corporate assets to users that value those assets most highly.

The FTC’s Belated Attack on the Axon/Vievu Acquisition

Dealmakers may be revisiting that understanding in the wake of the FTC’s decision in January 2020 to challenge the acquisition of Vievu by Axon, each being a manufacturer of body-worn camera equipment and related data-management software for law enforcement agencies. The acquisition had closed in May 2018 but had not been reported through HSR since it fell well below the reportable deal threshold. Given a total transaction value of $7 million, the passage of more than 18 months since closing, and the insolvency or near-insolvency of the target company, it is far from obvious that the Axon acquisition posed a material competitive risk that merits unsettling expectations that regulators will typically not challenge a consummated transaction, especially in the case of what is a micro-sized nebula in the M&A universe. 

These concerns are heightened by the fact that the FTC suit relies on a debatably narrow definition of the relevant market (body-camera equipment and related “cloud-based” data management software for police departments in large metropolitan areas, rather than a market that encompassed more generally defined categories of body-worn camera equipment, law enforcement agencies, and data management services). Even within this circumscribed market, there are apparently several companies that offer related technologies and an even larger group that could plausibly enter in response to perceived profit opportunities. Despite this contestable legal position, Axon’s court filing states that the FTC offered to settle the suit on stiff terms: Axon must agree to divest itself of the Vievu assets and to license all of Axon’s pre-transaction intellectual property to the buyer of the Vievu assets. This effectively amounts to an opportunistic use of the antitrust merger laws to engage in post-transaction market reengineering, rather than merely blocking an acquisition to maintain the pre-transaction status quo.

Does the FTC Violate the Separation of Powers?

In a provocative strategy, Axon has gone on the offensive and filed suit in federal district court to challenge on constitutional grounds the long-standing internal administrative proceeding through which the FTC’s antitrust claims are initially adjudicated. Unlike the DOJ, the FTC’s first stop in the litigation process (absent settlement) is not a federal district court but an internal proceeding before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), whose ruling can then be appealed to the Commission. Axon is effectively arguing that this administrative internalization of the judicial function violates the separation of powers principle as implemented in the U.S. Constitution. 

Writing on a clean slate, Axon’s claim is eminently reasonable. The fact that FTC-paid personnel sit on both sides of the internal adjudicative process as prosecutor (the FTC litigation team) and judge (the ALJ and the Commissioners) locates the executive and judicial functions in the hands of a single administrative entity. (To be clear, the Commission’s rulings are appealable to federal court, albeit at significant cost and delay.) In any event, a court presented with Axon’s claim—as of this writing, the Ninth Circuit (taking the case on appeal by Axon)—is not writing on a clean slate and is most likely reluctant to accept a claim that would trigger challenges to the legality of other similarly structured adjudicative processes at other agencies. Nonetheless, Axon’s argument does raise important concerns as to whether certain elements of the FTC’s adjudicative mechanism (as distinguished from the very existence of that mechanism) could be refined to mitigate the conflicts of interest that arise in its current form.

Conclusion

Antitrust vigilance certainly has its place, but it also has its limits. Given the aspirational language of the antitrust statutes and the largely unlimited structural remedies to which an antitrust litigation can lead, there is an inevitable risk of prosecutorial overreach that can betray the fundamental objective to protect consumer welfare. Applied to the antitrust context, the separation of powers principle mitigates this risk by subjecting enforcement actions to judicial examination, which is in turn disciplined by the constraints of appellate review and stare decisis. A rich body of federal case law implements this review function by anchoring antitrust in a decisionmaking framework that promotes the public’s interest in deterring business practices that endanger the competitive process behind a market-based economy. As illustrated by the recent string of failed antitrust suits, and the ongoing FTC litigation against Axon, that same decisionmaking framework can also protect the competitive process against regulatory practices that pose this same type of risk.

Recently-published emails from 2012 between Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s then-Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman, in which Zuckerberg lays out his rationale for buying Instagram, have prompted many to speculate that the deal may not have been cleared had antitrust agencies had had access to Facebook’s internal documents at the time.

The issue is Zuckerberg’s description of Instagram as a nascent competitor and potential threat to Facebook:

These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale they could be very disruptive to us. Given that we think our own valuation is fairly aggressive and that we’re vulnerable in mobile, I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them. 

Ebersman objects that a new rival would just enter the market if Facebook bought Instagram. In response, Zuckerberg wrote:

There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.

These email exchanges may not paint a particularly positive picture of Zuckerberg’s intent in doing the merger, and it is possible that at the time they may have caused antitrust agencies to scrutinise the merger more carefully. But they do not tell us that the acquisition was ultimately harmful to consumers, or about the counterfactual of the merger being blocked. While we know that Instagram became enormously popular in the years following the merger, it is not clear that it would have been just as successful without the deal, or that Facebook and its other products would be less popular today. 

Moreover, it fails to account for the fact that Facebook had the resources to quickly scale Instagram up to a level that provided immediate benefits to an enormous number of users, instead of waiting for the app to potentially grow to such scale organically. 

The rationale

Writing for Pro Market, Randy Picker argued that these emails hint that the acquisition was essentially about taking out a nascent competitor:

Buying Instagram really was about controlling the window in which the Instagram social mechanic invention posed a risk to Facebook … Facebook well understood the competitive risk posed by Instagram and how purchasing it would control that risk.

This is a plausible interpretation of the internal emails, although there are others. For instance, Zuckerberg also seems to say that the purpose is to use Instagram to improve Facebook to make it good enough to fend off other entrants:

If we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale. 

If this was the rationale, rather than simply trying to kill a nascent competitor, it would be pro-competitive. It is good for consumers if a product makes itself better to beat its rivals by acquiring undervalued assets to deploy them at greater scale and with superior managerial efficiency, even if the acquirer hopes that in doing so it will prevent rivals from ever gaining significant market share. 

Further, despite popular characterization, on its face the acquisition was not about trying to destroy a consumer option, but only to ensure that Facebook was competitively viable in providing that option. Another reasonable interpretation of the emails is that Facebook was wrestling with the age-old make-or-buy dilemma faced by every firm at some point or another. 

Was the merger anticompetitive?

But let us assume that eliminating competition from Instagram was indeed the merger’s sole rationale. Would that necessarily make it anticompetitive?  

Chief among the objections is that both Facebook and Instagram are networked goods. Their value to each user depends, to a significant extent, on the number (and quality) of other people using the same platform. Many scholars have argued that this can create self-reinforcing dynamics where the strong grow stronger – though such an outcome is certainly not a given, since other factors about the service matter too, and networks can suffer from diseconomies of scale as well, where new users reduce the quality of the network.

This network effects point is central to the reasoning of those who oppose the merger: Facebook purportedly acquired Instagram because Instagram’s network had grown large enough to be a threat. With Instagram out of the picture, Facebook could thus take on the remaining smaller rivals with the advantage of its own much larger installed base of users. 

However, this network tipping argument could cut both ways. It is plausible that the proper counterfactual was not duopoly competition between Facebook and Instagram, but either Facebook or Instagram offering both firms’ features (only later). In other words, a possible framing of the merger is that it merely  accelerated the cross-pollination of social mechanics between Facebook and Instagram. Something that would likely prove beneficial to consumers.

This finds some support in Mark Zuckerberg’s reply to David Ebersman:

Buying them would give us the people and time to integrate their innovations into our core products.

The exchange between Zuckerberg and Ebersman also suggests another pro-competitive justification: bringing Instagram’s “social mechanics” to Facebook’s much larger network of users. We can only speculate about what ‘social mechanics’ Zuckerberg actually had in mind, but at the time Facebook’s photo sharing functionality was largely based around albums of unedited photos, whereas Instagram’s core product was a stream of filtered, cropped single images. 

Zuckerberg’s plan to gradually bring these features to Facebook’s users – as opposed to them having to familiarize themselves with an entirely different platform – would likely cut in favor of the deal being cleared by enforcers.

Another possibility is that it was Instagram’s network of creators – the people who had begun to use Instagram as a new medium, distinct from the generic photo albums Facebook had, and who would eventually grow to be known as ‘influencers’ – who were the valuable thing. Bringing them onto the Facebook platform would undoubtedly increase its value to regular users. For example, Kim Kardashian, one of Instagram’s most popular users, joined the service in February 2012, two months before the deal went through, and she was not the first such person to adopt Instagram in this way. We can see the importance of a service’s most creative users today, as Facebook is actually trying to pay TikTok creators to move to its TikTok clone Reels.

But if this was indeed the rationale, not only is this a sign of a company in the midst of fierce competition – rather than one on the cusp of acquiring a monopoly position – but, more fundamentally, it suggests that Facebook was always going to come out on top. Or at least it thought so.

The benefit of hindsight

Today’s commentators have the benefit of hindsight. This inherently biases contemporary takes on the Facebook/Instagram merger. For instance, it seems almost self-evident with hindsight that Facebook would succeed and that entry in the social media space would only occur at the fringes of existing platforms (the combined Facebook/Instagram platform) – think of the emergence of TikTok. However, at the time of the merger, such an outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion.

For instance, critics argue that Instagram no longer competes with Facebook because of the merger. However, it is equally plausible that Instagram only became so successful because of its combination with Facebook (notably thanks to the addition of Facebook’s advertising platform, and the rapid rollout of a stories feature in response to Snapchat’s rise). Indeed, Instagram grew from roughly 24 million at the time of the acquisition to over 1 Billion users in 2018. Likewise, it earned zero revenue at the time of the merger. This might explain why the acquisition was widely derided at the time.

This is critical from an antitrust perspective. Antitrust enforcers adjudicate merger proceedings in the face of extreme uncertainty. All possible outcomes, including the counterfactual setting, have certain probabilities of being true that enforcers and courts have to make educated guesses about, assigning probabilities to potential anticompetitive harms, merger efficiencies, and so on.

Authorities at the time of the merger could not ignore these uncertainties. What was the likelihood that a company with a fraction of Facebook’s users (24 million to Facebook’s 1 billion), and worth $1 billion, could grow to threaten Facebook’s market position? At the time, the answer seemed to be “very unlikely”. Moreover, how could authorities know that Google+ (Facebook’s strongest competitor at the time) would fail? These outcomes were not just hard to ascertain, they were simply unknowable.

Of course, this is preceisly what neo-Brandesian antitrust scholars object to today: among the many seemingly innocuous big tech acquisitions that are permitted each year, there is bound to be at least one acquired firm that might have been a future disruptor. True as this may be, identifying that one successful company among all the others is the antitrust equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Instagram simply did not fit that description at the time of the merger. Such a stance also ignores the very real benefits that may arise from such arrangements.

Closing remarks

While it is tempting to reassess the Facebook Instagram merger in light of new revelations, such an undertaking is not without pitfalls. Hindsight bias is perhaps the most obvious, but the difficulties run deeper.

If we think that the Facebook/Instagram merger has been and will continue to be good for consumers, it would be strange to think that we should nevertheless break them up because we discovered that Zuckerberg had intended to do things that would harm consumers. Conversely, if you think a breakup would be good for consumers today, would it change your mind if you discovered that Mark Zuckerberg had the intentions of an angel when he went ahead with the merger in 2012, or that he had angelic intent today?

Ultimately, merger review involves making predictions about the future. While it may be reasonable to take the intentions of the merging parties into consideration when making those predictions (although it’s not obvious that we should), these are not the only or best ways to determine what the future will hold. As Ebersman himself points out in the emails, history is filled with over-optimistic mergers that failed to deliver benefits to the merging parties. That this one succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of everyone involved – except maybe Mark Zuckerberg – does not tell us that competition agencies should have ruled on it differently.

[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 Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

This guest post is by Jonathan M. Barnett, Torrey H. Webb Professor Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

It has become virtual received wisdom that antitrust law has been subdued by economic analysis into a state of chronic underenforcement. Following this line of thinking, many commentators applauded the Antitrust Division’s unsuccessful campaign to oppose the acquisition of Time-Warner by AT&T and some (unsuccessfully) urged the Division to take stronger action against the acquisition of most of Fox by Disney. The arguments in both cases followed a similar “big is bad” logic. Consolidating control of a large portfolio of creative properties (Fox plus Disney) or integrating content production and distribution capacities (Time-Warner plus AT&T) would exacerbate market concentration, leading to reduced competition and some combination of higher prices and reduced product for consumers. 

Less than 18 months after the closing of both transactions, those concerns seem to have been largely unwarranted. 

Far from precipitating any decline in product output or variety, both transactions have been followed by a vigorous burst of competition in the digital streaming market. In place of the Amazon plus Netflix bottleneck (with Hulu trailing behind), consumers now, or in 2020 will, have a choice of at least four new streaming services with original content, Disney+, AT&T’s “HBO Max”, Apple’s “Apple TV+” and Comcast’s NBCUniversal “Peacock” services. Critically, each service relies on a formidable combination of creative, financing and technological capacities that can only be delivered by a firm of sufficiently large size and scale.  As modern antitrust law has long recognized, it turns out that “big” is sometimes not bad.

Where’s the Harm?

At present, it is hard to see any net consumer harm arising from the concurrence of increased size and increased competition. 

On the supply side, this is just the next episode in the ongoing “Golden Age of Television” in which content producers have enjoyed access to exceptional funding to support high-value productions.  It has been reported that Apple TV+’s new “Morning Show” series will cost $15 million per episode while similar estimates are reported for hit shows such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “The Crown.”  Each of those services is locked in a fierce competition to gain and retain sufficient subscribers to earn a return on those investments, which leads directly to the next happy development.

On the demand side, consumers enjoy a proliferating array of streaming services, ranging from free ad-supported services to subscription ad-free services. Consumers can now easily “cut the cord” and assemble a customized bundle of preferred content from multiple services, each of which is less costly than a traditional cable package and can generally be cancelled at any time.  Current market performance does not plausibly conform to the declining output, limited variety or increasing prices that are the telltale symptoms of a less than competitive market.

Real-World v. Theoretical Markets

The market’s favorable trajectory following these two controversial transactions should not be surprising. When scrutinized against the actual characteristics of real-world digital content markets, rather than stylized theoretical models or antiquated pre-digital content markets, the arguments leveled against these transactions never made much sense. There were two fundamental and related errors. 

Error #1: Content is Scarce

Advocates for antitrust intervention assumed that entry barriers into the content market were high, in which case it followed that the owner of an especially valuable creative portfolio could exert pricing power to consumers’ detriment. Yet, in reality, funding for content production is plentiful and even a service that has an especially popular show is unlikely to have sustained pricing power in the face of a continuous flow of high-value productions being released by formidable competitors. The amounts being spent on content in 2019 by leading streaming services are unprecedented, ranging from a reported $15 billion for Netflix to an estimated $6 billion for Amazon and Apple TV+ to an estimated $3.9 billion for AT&T’s HBO Max. It is also important to note that a hit show is often a mobile asset that a streaming or other video distribution service has licensed from independent production companies and other rights holders. Once the existing deal expires, those rights are available for purchase by the highest bidder. For example, in 2019, Netflix purchased the streaming rights to “Seinfeld”, Viacom purchased the cable rights to “Seinfeld”, and HBO Max purchased the streaming rights to “South Park.” Similarly, the producers behind a hit show are always free to take their talents to competitors once any existing agreement terminates.

Error #2: Home Pay-TV is a “Monopoly”

Advocates of antitrust action were looking at the wrong market—or more precisely, the market as it existed about a decade ago. The theory that AT&T’s acquisition of Time-Warner’s creative portfolio would translate into pricing power in the home pay-TV market mighthave been plausible when consumers had no reasonable alternative to the local cable provider. But this argument makes little sense today when consumers are fleeing bulky home pay-TV bundles for cheaper cord-cutting options that deliver more targeted content packages to a mobile device.  In 2019, a “home” pay-TV market is fast becoming an anachronism and hence a home pay-TV “monopoly” largely reduces to a formalism that, with the possible exception of certain live programming, is unlikely to translate into meaningful pricing power. 

Wait a Second! What About the HBO Blackout?

A skeptical reader might reasonably object that this mostly rosy account of the post-merger home video market is unpersuasive since it does not address the ongoing blackout of HBO (now an AT&T property) on the Dish satellite TV service. Post-merger commentary that remains skeptical of the AT&T/Time-Warner merger has focused on this dispute, arguing that it “proves” that the government was right since AT&T is purportedly leveraging its new ownership of HBO to disadvantage one of its competitors in the pay-TV market. This interpretation tends to miss the forest for the trees (or more precisely, a tree).  

The AT&T/Dish dispute over HBO is only one of over 200 “carriage” disputes resulting in blackouts that have occurred this year, which continues an upward trend since approximately 2011. Some of those include Dish’s dispute with Univision (settled in March 2019 after a nine-month blackout) and AT&T’s dispute (as pay-TV provider) with Nexstar (settled in August 2019 after a nearly two-month blackout). These disputes reflect the fact that the flood of subscriber defections from traditional pay-TV to mobile streaming has made it difficult for pay-TV providers to pass on the fees sought by content owners. As a result, some pay-TV providers adopt the negotiating tactic of choosing to drop certain content until the terms improve, just as AT&T, in its capacity as a pay-TV provider, dropped CBS for three weeks in July and August 2019 pending renegotiation of licensing terms. It is the outward shift in the boundaries of the economically relevant market (from home to home-plus-mobile video delivery), rather than market power concerns, that best accounts for periodic breakdowns in licensing negotiations.  This might even be viewed positively from an antitrust perspective since it suggests that the “over the top” market is putting pressure on the fees that content owners can extract from providers in the traditional pay-TV market.

Concluding Thoughts

It is common to argue today that antitrust law has become excessively concerned about “false positives”– that is, the possibility of blocking a transaction or enjoining a practice that would have benefited consumers. Pending future developments, this early post-mortem on the regulatory and judicial treatment of these two landmark media transactions suggests that there are sometimes good reasons to stay the hand of the court or regulator. This is especially the case when a generational market shift is in progress and any regulator’s or judge’s foresight is likely to be guesswork. Antitrust law’s “failure” to stop these transactions may turn out to have been a ringing success.

Will the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint make consumers better or worse off? A central question in the review of this merger—as it is in all merger reviews—is the likely effects that the transaction will have on consumers. In this post, we look at one study that opponents of the merger have been using to support their claim that the merger will harm consumers.

Along with my earlier posts on data problems and public policy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), this provides an opportunity to explore why seemingly compelling studies can be used to muddy the discussion and fool observers into seeing something that isn’t there.

This merger—between the third and fourth largest mobile wireless providers in the United States—has been characterized as a “4-to-3” merger, on the grounds that it will reduce the number of large, ostensibly national carriers from four to three. This, in turn, has led to concerns that further concentration in the wireless telecommunications industry will harm consumers. Specifically, some opponents of the merger claim that “it’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”

A number of previous mergers around the world can or have also been characterized as 4-to-3 mergers in the wireless telecommunications industry. Several econometric studies have attempted to evaluate the welfare effects of 4-to-3 mergers in other countries, as well as the effects of market concentration in the wireless industry more generally. These studies have been used by both proponents and opponents of the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint to support their respective contentions that the merger will benefit or harm consumer welfare.

One particular study has risen to prominence among opponents of 4-to-3 mergers in telecom in general and the T-Mobile/Sprint merger in specific. This is worrying because the study has several fundamental flaws. 

This study, by Finnish consultancy Rewheel, has been cited by, among others, Phillip Berenbroick of Public Knowledge, who in Senate testimony, asserted that “Rewheel found that consumers in markets with three facilities-based providers paid twice as much per gigabyte as consumers in four firm markets.”

The Rewheel report upon which Mr. Berenbroick relied, is, however, marred by a number of significant flaws, which undermine its usefulness.

The Rewheel report

Rewheel’s report purports to analyze the state of 4G pricing across 41 countries that are either members of the EU or the OECD or both. The report’s conclusions are based mainly on two measures:

  1. Estimates of the maximum number of gigabytes available under each plan for a specific hypothetical monthly price, ranging from €5 to €80 a month. In other words, for each plan, Rewheel asks, “How many 4G gigabytes would X euros buy?” Rewheel then ranks countries by the median amount of gigabytes available at each hypothetical price for all the plans surveyed in each country.
  2. Estimates of what Rewheel describes as “fully allocated gigabyte prices.” This is the monthly retail price (including VAT) divided by the number of gigabytes included in each plan. Rewheel then ranks countries by the median price per gigabyte across all the plans surveyed in each country.

Rewheel’s convoluted calculations

Rewheel’s use of the country median across all plans is problematic. In particular it gives all plans equal weight, regardless of consumers’ use of each plan. For example, a plan targeted for a consumer with a “high” level of usage is included with a plan targeted for a consumer with a “low” level of usage. Even though a “high” user would not purchase a “low” plan (which would be relatively expensive for a “high” user), all plans are included, thereby skewing upward the median estimates.

But even if that approach made sense as a way of measuring consumers’ willingness to pay, in execution Rewheel’s analysis contains the following key defects:

  • The Rewheel report is essentially limited to quantity effects alone (i.e., how many gigabytes available under each plan for a given hypothetical price) or price effects alone (i.e., price per included gigabyte for each plan). These measures can mislead the analysis by missing, among other things, innovation and quality effects.
  • Rewheel’s analysis is not based on an impartial assessment of relevant price data. Rather, it is based on hypothetical measures. Such comparisons say nothing about the plans actually chosen by consumers or the actual prices paid by consumers in those countries, rendering Rewheel’s comparisons virtually meaningless. As Affeldt & Nitsche (2014) note in their assessment of the effects of concentration in mobile telecom markets:

Such approaches are taken by Rewheel (2013) and also the Austrian regulator rtr (when tracking prices over time, see rtr (2014)). Such studies face the following problems: They may pick tariffs that are relatively meaningless in the country. They will have to assume one or more consumption baskets (voice minutes, data volume etc.) in order to compare tariffs. This may drive results. Apart from these difficulties such comparisons require very careful tracking of tariffs and their changes. Even if one assumes studying a sample of tariffs is potentially meaningful, a comparison across countries (or over time) would still require taking into account key differences across countries (or over time) like differences in demand, costs, network quality etc.

  • The Rewheel report bases its comparison on dissimilar service levels by not taking into account, for instance, relevant features like comparable network capacity, service security, and, perhaps most important, overall quality of service.

Rewheel’s unsupported conclusions

Rewheel uses its analysis to come to some strong conclusions, such as the conclusion on the first page of its report declaring the median gigabyte price in countries with three carriers is twice as high as in countries with four carriers.

The figure below is a revised version of the figure on the first page of Rewheel’s report. The yellow blocks (gray dots) show the range of prices in countries with three carriers the blue blocks (pink dots) shows the range of prices in countries with four carriers. The darker blocks show the overlap of the two. The figure makes clear that there is substantial overlap in pricing among three and four carrier countries. Thus, it is not obvious that three carrier countries have significantly higher prices (as measured by Rewheel) than four carrier countries.

Rewheel

A simple “eyeballing” of the data can lead to incorrect conclusions, in which case statistical analysis can provide some more certainty (or, at least, some measure of uncertainty). Yet, Rewheel provides no statistical analysis of its calculations, such as measures of statistical significance. However, information on page 5 of the Rewheel report can be used to perform some rudimentary statistical analysis.

I took the information from the columns for hypothetical monthly prices of €30 a month and €50 a month, and converted data into a price per gigabyte to generate the dependent variable. Following Rewheel’s assumption, “unlimited” is converted to 250 gigabytes per month. Greece was dropped from the analysis because Rewheel indicates that no data is available at either hypothetical price level.

My rudimentary statistical analysis includes the following independent variables:

  • Number of carriers (or mobile network operators, MNOs) reported by Rewheel in each country, ranging from three to five. Israel is the only country with five MNOs.
  • A dummy variable for EU28 countries. Rewheel performs separate analysis for EU28 countries, suggesting they think this is an important distinction.
  • GDP per capita for each country, adjusted for purchasing power parity. Several articles in the literature suggest higher GDP countries would be expected to have higher wireless prices.
  • Population density, measured by persons per square kilometer. Several articles in the literature argue that countries with lower population density would have higher costs of providing wireless service which would, in turn, be reflected in higher prices.

The tables below confirm what an eyeballing of the figure suggest: Rewheel’s data show number of MNOs in a country have no statistically significant relationship with price per gigabyte, at either the €30 a month level or the €50 a month level.

RewheelRegression

While the signs on the MNO coefficient are negative (i.e., more carriers in a country is associated with lower prices), they are not statistically significantly different from zero at any of the traditional levels of statistical significance.

Also, the regressions suffer from relatively low measures of goodness-of-fit. The independent variables in the regression explain approximately five percent of the variation in the price per gigabyte. This is likely because of the cockamamie way Rewheel measures price, but is also due to the known problems with performing cross-sectional analysis of wireless pricing, as noted by Csorba & Pápai (2015):

Many regulatory policies are based on a comparison of prices between European countries, but these simple cross-sectional analyses can lead to misleading conclusions because of at least two reasons. First, the price difference between countries of n and (n + 1) active mobile operators can be due to other factors, and the analyst can never be sure of having solved the omitted variable bias problem. Second and more importantly, the effect of an additional operator estimated from a cross-sectional comparison cannot be equated with the effect of an actual entry that might have a long-lasting effect on a single market.

The Rewheel report cannot be relied upon in assessing consumer benefits or harm associated with the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, or any other merger

Rewheel apparently has a rich dataset of wireless pricing plans. Nevertheless, the analyses presented in its report are fundamentally flawed. Moreover, Rewheel’s conclusions regarding three vs. four carrier countries are not only baseless, but clearly unsupported by closer inspection of the information presented in its report. The Rewheel report cannot be relied upon to inform regulatory oversight of the T-Mobile/Spring merger or any other. This study isn’t unique and it should serve as a caution to be wary of studies that merely eyeball information.

Yesterday Learfield and IMG College inked their recently announced merger. Since the negotiations were made public several weeks ago, the deal has garnered some wild speculation and potentially negative attention. Now that the merger has been announced, it’s bound to attract even more attention and conjecture.

On the field of competition, however, the market realities that support the merger’s approval are compelling. And, more importantly, the features of this merger provide critical lessons on market definition, barriers to entry, and other aspects of antitrust law related to two-sided and advertising markets that can be applied to numerous matters vexing competition commentators.

First, some background

Learfield and IMG specialize in managing multimedia rights (MMRs) for intercollegiate sports. They are, in effect, classic advertising intermediaries, facilitating the monetization by colleges of radio broadcast advertising and billboard, program, and scoreboard space during games (among other things), and the purchase by advertisers of access to these valuable outlets.

Although these transactions can certainly be (and very often are) entered into by colleges and advertisers directly, firms like Learfield and IMG allow colleges to outsource the process — as one firm’s tag line puts it, “We Work | You Play.” Most important, by bringing multiple schools’ MMRs under one roof, these firms can reduce the transaction costs borne by advertisers in accessing multiple outlets as part of a broad-based marketing plan.

Media rights and branding are a notable source of revenue for collegiate athletic departments: on average, they account for about 3% of these revenues. While they tend to pale in comparison to TV rights, ticket sales, and fundraising, for major programs, MMRs may be the next most important revenue source after these.

Many collegiate programs retain some or all of their multimedia rights and use in-house resources to market them. In some cases schools license MMRs through their athletic conference. In other cases, schools ink deals to outsource their MMRs to third parties, such as Learfield, IMG, JMI Sports, Outfront Media, and Fox Sports, among several others. A few schools even use professional sports teams to manage their MMRs (the owner of the Red Sox manages Boston College’s MMRs, for example).

Schools switch among MMR managers with some regularity, and, in most cases apparently, not among the merging parties. Michigan State, for example, was well known for handling its MMRs in-house. But in 2016 the school entered into a 15-year deal with Fox Sports, estimated at minimum guaranteed $150 million. In 2014 Arizona State terminated its MMR deal with IMG and took it MMRs in-house. Then, in 2016, the Sun Devils entered into a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the Pac 12 in which the school manages and sells its own marketing and media rights while the conference handles core business functions for the sales and marketing team (like payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits). The most successful new entrant on the block, JMI Sports, won Kentucky, Clemson, and the University of Pennsylvania from Learfield or IMG. Outfront Media was spun off from CBS in 2014 and has become one of the strongest MMR intermediary competitors, handling some of the biggest names in college sports, including LSU, Maryland, and Virginia. All told, eight recent national Division I champions are served by MMR managers other than IMG and Learfield.

The supposed problem

As noted above, the most obvious pro-competitive benefit of the merger is in the reduction in transaction costs for firms looking to advertise in multiple markets. But, in order to confer that benefit (which, of course, also benefits the schools, whose marketing properties become easier to access), that also means a dreaded increase in size, measured by number of schools’ MMRs managed. So is this cause for concern?

Jason Belzer, a professor at Rutgers University and founder of sports consulting firm, GAME, Inc., has said that the merger will create a juggernaut — yes, “a massive inexorable force… that crushes whatever is in its path” — that is likely to invite antitrust scrutiny. The New York Times opines that the deal will allow Learfield to “tighten its grip — for nearly total control — on this niche but robust market,” “surely” attracting antitrust scrutiny. But these assessments seem dramatically overblown, and insufficiently grounded in the dynamics of the market.

Belzer’s concerns seem to be merely the size of the merging parties — again, measured by the number of schools’ rights they manage — and speculation that the merger would bring to an end “any” opportunity for entry by a “major” competitor. These are misguided concerns.

To begin, the focus on the potential entry of a “major” competitor is an odd standard that ignores the actual and potential entry of many smaller competitors that are able to win some of the most prestigious and biggest schools. In fact, many in the industry argue — rightly — that there are few economies of scale for colleges. Most of these firms’ employees are dedicated to a particular school and those costs must be incurred for each school, no matter the number, and borne by new entrants and incumbents alike. That means a small firm can profitably compete in the same market as larger firms — even “juggernauts.” Indeed, every college that brings MMR management in-house is, in fact, an entrant — and there are some big schools in big conferences that manage their MMRs in-house.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to in-house MMR management indicate that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

Indeed, from the perspective of the school, the true relevant market is no broader than each school’s own rights. Even after the merger there will be at least five significant firms competing for those rights, not to mention each school’s conference, new entrants, and the school itself.

The two-sided market that isn’t really two-sided

Standard antitrust analysis, of course, focuses on consumer benefits: Will the merger make consumers better off (or no worse off)? But too often casual antitrust analysis of two-sided markets trips up on identifying just who the consumer is — and what the relevant market is. For a shopping mall, is the consumer the retailer or the shopper? For newspapers and search engines, is the customer the advertiser or the reader? For intercollegiate sports multimedia rights licensing, is the consumer the college or the advertiser?

Media coverage of the anticipated IMG/Learfield merger largely ignores advertisers as consumers and focuses almost exclusively on the the schools’ relationship with intermediaries — as purchasers of marketing services, rather than sellers of advertising space.

Although it’s difficult to identify the source of this odd bias, it seems to be based on the notion that, while corporations like Coca-Cola and General Motors have some sort of countervailing market power against marketing intermediaries, universities don’t. With advertisers out of the picture, media coverage suggests that, somehow, schools may be worse off if the merger were to proceed. But missing from this assessment are two crucial facts that undermine the story: First, schools actually have enormous market power; and, second, schools compete in the business of MMR management.

This second factor suggests, in fact, that sometimes there may be nothing special about two-sided markets sufficient to give rise to a unique style of antitrust analysis.

Much of the antitrust confusion seems to be based on confusion over the behavior of two-sided markets. A two-sided market is one in which two sets of actors interact through an intermediary or platform, which, in turn, facilitates the transactions, often enabling transactions to take place that otherwise would be too expensive absent the platform. A shopping mall is a two-sided market where shoppers can find their preferred stores. Stores would operate without the platform, but perhaps not as many, and not as efficiently. Newspapers, search engines, and other online platforms are two-sided markets that bring together advertisers and eyeballs that might not otherwise find each other absent the platform. And a collegiate multimedia rights management firms is a two-sided market where colleges that want to sell advertising space get together with firms that want to advertise their goods and services.

Yet there is nothing particularly “transformative” about the outsourcing of MMR management. Credit cards, for example are qualitatively different than in-store credit operations. They are two-sided platforms that substitute for in-house operations — but they also create an entirely new product and product market. MMR marketing firms do lower some transaction costs and reduce risk for collegiate sports marketing, but the product is not substantially changed — in fact, schools must have the knowledge and personnel to assess and enter into the initial sale of MMRs to an intermediary and, because of ongoing revenue-sharing and coordination with the intermediary, must devote ongoing resources even after the initial sale.

But will a merged entity have “too much” power? Imagine if a single firm owned the MMRs for nearly all intercollegiate competitors. How would it be able to exercise its supposed market power? Because each deal is negotiated separately, and, other than some mundane, fixed back-office expenses, the costs of rights management must be incurred whether a firm negotiates one deal or 100, there are no substantial economies of scale in the purchasing of MMRs. As a result, the existence of deals with other schools won’t automatically translate into better deals with subsequent schools.

Now, imagine if one school retained its own MMRs, but decided it might want to license them to an intermediary. Does it face anticompetitive market conditions if there is only a single provider of such services? To begin with, there is never only a single provider, as each school can provide the services in-house. This is not even the traditional monopoly constraint of simply “not buying,” which makes up the textbook “deadweight loss” from monopoly: In this case “not buying” does not mean going without; it simply means providing for oneself.

More importantly, because the school has a monopoly on access to its own marketing rights (to say nothing of access to its own physical facilities) unless and until it licenses them, its own bargaining power is largely independent of an intermediary’s access to other schools’ rights. If it were otherwise, each school would face anticompetitive market conditions simply by virtue of other schools’ owning their own rights!

It is possible that a larger, older firm will have more expertise and will be better able to negotiate deals with other schools — i.e., it will reap the benefits of learning by doing. But the returns to learning by doing derive from the ability to offer higher-quality/lower-cost services over time — which are a source of economic benefit, not cost. At the same time, the bulk of the benefits of experience may be gained over time with even a single set of MMRs, given the ever-varying range of circumstances even a single school will create: There may be little additional benefit (and, to be sure, there is additional cost) from managing multiple schools’ MMRs. And whatever benefits specialized firms offer, they also come with agency costs, and an intermediary’s specialized knowledge about marketing MMRs may or may not outweigh a school’s own specialized knowledge about the nuances of its particular circumstances. Moreover, because of knowledge spillovers and employee turnover this marketing expertise is actually widely distributed; not surprisingly, JMI Sports’ MMR unit, one of the most recent and successful entrants into the business was started by a former employee of IMG. Several other firms started out the same way.

The right way to begin thinking about the issue is this: Imagine if MMR intermediaries didn’t exist — what would happen? In this case, the answer is readily apparent because, for a significant number of schools (about 37% of Division I schools, in fact) MMR licensing is handled in-house, without the use of intermediaries. These schools do, in fact, attract advertisers, and there is little indication that they earn less net profit for going it alone. Schools with larger audiences, better targeted to certain advertisers’ products, command higher prices. Each school enjoys an effective monopoly over advertising channels around its own games, and each has bargaining power derived from its particular attractiveness to particular advertisers.

In effect, each school faces a number of possible options for MMR monetization — most notably a) up-front contracting to an intermediary, which then absorbs the risk, expense, and possible up-side of ongoing licensing to advertisers, or b) direct, ongoing licensing to advertisers. The presence of the intermediary doesn’t appreciably change the market, nor the relative bargaining power of sellers (schools) and buyers (advertisers) of advertising space any more than the presence of temp firms transforms the fundamental relationship between employers and potential part-time employees.

In making their decisions, schools always have the option of taking their MMR management in-house. In facing competing bids from firms such as IMG or Learfield, from their own conferences, or from professional sports teams, the opening bid, in a sense, comes from the school itself. Even the biggest intermediary in the industry must offer the school a deal that is at least as good as managing the MMRs in-house.

The true relevant market: Advertising

According to economist Andy Schwarz, if the relevant market is “college-based marketing services to Power 5 schools, the antitrust authorities may have more concerns than if it’s marketing services in sports.” But this entirely misses the real market exchange here. Sure, marketing services are purchased by schools, but their value to the schools is independent of the number of other schools an intermediary also markets.

Advertisers always have the option of deploying their ad dollars elsewhere. If Coca-Cola wants to advertise on Auburn’s stadium video board, it’s because Auburn’s video board is a profitable outlet for advertising, not because the Auburn ads are bundled with advertising at dozens of other schools (although that bundling may reduce the total cost of advertising on Auburn’s scoreboard as well as other outlets). Similarly, Auburn is seeking the highest bidder for space on its video board. It does not matter to Auburn that the University of Georgia is using the same intermediary to sell ads on its stadium video board.

The willingness of purchasers — say, Coca-Cola or Toyota — to pay for collegiate multimedia advertising is a function of the school that licenses it (net transaction costs) — and MMR agents like IMG and Learfield commit substantial guaranteed sums and a share of any additional profits for the rights to sell that advertising: For example, IMG recently agreed to pay $150 million over 10 years to renew its MMR contract at UCLA. But this is the value of a particular, niche form of advertising, determined within the context of the broader advertising market. How much pricing power over scoreboard advertising does any university, or even any group of universities under the umbrella of an intermediary have, in a world in which Coke and Toyota can advertise virtually anywhere — including during commercial breaks in televised intercollegiate games, which are licensed separately from the MMRs licensed by companies like IMG and Learfield?

There is, in other words, a hard ceiling on what intermediaries can charge schools for MMR marketing services: The schools’ own cost of operating a comparable program in-house.

To be sure, for advertisers, large MMR marketing firms lower the transaction costs of buying advertising space across a range of schools, presumably increasing demand for intercollegiate sports advertising and sponsorship. But sponsors and advertisers have a wide range of options for spending their marketing dollars. Intercollegiate sports MMRs are a small slice of the sports advertising market, which, in turn, is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even if one were to incorrectly describe the combined entity as a “juggernaut” in intercollegiate sports, the MMR rights it sells would still be a flyspeck in the broader market of multimedia advertising.

According to one calculation (by MoffettNathanson), total ad spending in the U.S. was about $191 billion in 2016 (Pew Research Center estimates total ad revenue at $240 billion) and the global advertising market was estimated to be worth about $493 billion. The intercollegiate MMR segment represents a minuscule fraction of that. According to Jason Belzer, “[a]t the time of its sale to WME in 2013, IMG College’s yearly revenue was nearly $500 million….” Another source puts it at $375 million. Either way, it’s a fraction of one percent of the total market, and even combined with Learfield it will remain a minuscule fraction. Even if one were to define a far narrower sports sponsorship market, which a Price Waterhouse estimate puts at around $16 billion, the combined companies would still have a tiny market share.

As sellers of MMRs, colleges are competing with each other, professional sports such as the NFL and NBA, and with non-sports marketing opportunities. And it’s a huge and competitive market.

Barriers to entry

While capital requirements and the presence of long-term contracts may present challenges to potential entrants into the business of marketing MMRs, these potential entrants face virtually no barriers that are not, or have not been, faced by incumbent providers. In this context, one should keep in mind two factors. First, barriers to entry are properly defined as costs incurred by new entrants that are not incurred by incumbents (no matter what Joe Bain says; Stigler always wins this dispute…). Every firm must bear the cost of negotiating and managing each schools’ MMRs, and, as noted, these costs don’t vary significantly with the number of schools being managed. And every entrant needs approximately the same capital and human resources per similarly sized school as every incumbent. Thus, in this context, neither the need for capital nor dedicated employees is properly construed as a barrier to entry.

Second, as the DOJ and FTC acknowledge in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, any merger can be lawful under the antitrust laws, no matter its market share, where there are no significant barriers to entry:

The prospect of entry into the relevant market will alleviate concerns about adverse competitive effects… if entry into the market is so easy that the merged firm and its remaining rivals in the market, either unilaterally or collectively, could not profitably raise price or otherwise reduce competition compared to the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

As noted, there are low economies of scale in the business, with most of the economies occurring in the relatively small “back office” work of payroll, accounting, human resources, and employee benefits. Since the 2000s, the entry of several significant competitors — many entering with only one or two schools or specializing in smaller or niche markets — strongly suggests that there are no economically important barriers to entry. And these firms have entered and succeeded with a wide range of business models and firm sizes:

  • JMI Sports — a “rising boutique firm” — hired Tom Stultz, the former senior vice president and managing director of IMG’s MMR business, in 2012. JMI won its first (and thus, at the time, only) MMR bid in 2014 at the University of Kentucky, besting IMG to win the deal.
  • Peak Sports MGMT, founded in 2012, is a small-scale MMR firm that focuses on lesser Division I and II schools in Texas and the Midwest. It manages just seven small properties, including Southland Conference schools like the University of Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana University.
  • Fox Sports entered the business in 2008 with a deal with the University of Florida. It now handles MMRs for schools like Georgetown, Auburn, and Villanova. Fox’s entry suggests that other media companies — like ESPN — that may already own TV broadcast rights are also potential entrants.
  • In 2014 the sports advertising firm, Van Wagner, hired three former Nelligan employees to make a play for the college sports space. In 2015 the company won its first MMR bid at Florida International University, reportedly against seven other participants. It now handles more than a dozen schools including Georgia State (which it won from IMG), Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Stony Brook, and Santa Clara.
  • In 2001 Fenway Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, entered into an MMR agreement with Boston College. And earlier this year the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team began handling multimedia marketing for the University of South Florida.

Potential new entrants abound. Most obviously, sports networks like ESPN could readily follow Fox Sports’ lead and advertising firms could follow Van Wagner’s. These companies have existing relationships and expertise that position them for easy entry into the MMR business. Moreover, there are already several companies that handle the trademark licensing for schools, any of which could move into the MMR management business, as well; both IMG and Learfield already handle licensing for a number of schools. Most notably, Fermata Partners, founded in 2012 by former IMG employees and acquired in 2015 by CAA Sports (a division of Creative Artists Agency), has trademark licensing agreements with Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, Notre Dame, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin. It could easily expand into selling MMR rights for these and other schools. Other licensing firms like Exemplar (which handles licensing at Columbia) and 289c (which handles licensing at Texas and Ohio State) could also easily expand into MMR.

Given the relatively trivial economies of scale, the minimum viable scale for a new entrant appears to be approximately one school — a size that each school’s in-house operations, of course, automatically meets. Moreover, the Peak Sports, Fenway, and Tampa Bay Lightning examples suggest that there may be particular benefits to local, regional, or category specialization, suggesting that innovative, new entry is not only possible, but even likely, as the business continues to evolve.

Conclusion

A merger between IMG and Learfield should not raise any antitrust issues. College sports is a small slice of the total advertising market. Even a so-called “juggernaut” in college sports multimedia rights is a small bit in the broader market of multimedia marketing.

The demonstrated entry of new competitors and the transitions of schools from one provider to another or to bringing MMR management in-house, indicates that no competitor has any measurable market power that can disadvantage schools or advertisers.

The term “juggernaut” entered the English language because of misinterpretation and exaggeration of actual events. Fears of the IMG/Learfield merger crushing competition is similarly based on a misinterpretation of two-sided markets and misunderstanding of the reality of the of the market for college multimedia rights management. Importantly, the case is also a cautionary tale for those who would identify narrow, contract-, channel-, or platform-specific relevant markets in circumstances where a range of intermediaries and direct relationships can compete to offer the same service as those being scrutinized. Antitrust advocates have a long and inglorious history of defining markets by channels of distribution or other convenient, yet often economically inappropriate, combinations of firms or products. Yet the presence of marketing or other intermediaries does not automatically transform a basic, commercial relationship into a novel, two-sided market necessitating narrow market definitions and creative economics.

Last week concluded round 3 of Congressional hearings on mergers in the healthcare provider and health insurance markets. Much like the previous rounds, the hearing saw predictable representatives, of predictable constituencies, saying predictable things.

The pattern is pretty clear: The American Hospital Association (AHA) makes the case that mergers in the provider market are good for consumers, while mergers in the health insurance market are bad. A scholar or two decries all consolidation in both markets. Another interested group, like maybe the American Medical Association (AMA), also criticizes the mergers. And it’s usually left to a representative of the insurance industry, typically one or more of the merging parties themselves, or perhaps a scholar from a free market think tank, to defend the merger.

Lurking behind the public and politicized airings of these mergers, and especially the pending Anthem/Cigna and Aetna/Humana health insurance mergers, is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Unfortunately, the partisan politics surrounding the ACA, particularly during this election season, may be trumping the sensible economic analysis of the competitive effects of these mergers.

In particular, the partisan assessments of the ACA’s effect on the marketplace have greatly colored the Congressional (mis-)understandings of the competitive consequences of the mergers.  

Witness testimony and questions from members of Congress at the hearings suggest that there is widespread agreement that the ACA is encouraging increased consolidation in healthcare provider markets, for example, but there is nothing approaching unanimity of opinion in Congress or among interested parties regarding what, if anything, to do about it. Congressional Democrats, for their part, have insisted that stepped up vigilance, particularly of health insurance mergers, is required to ensure that continued competition in health insurance markets isn’t undermined, and that the realization of the ACA’s objectives in the provider market aren’t undermined by insurance companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have generally been inclined to imply (or outright state) that increased concentration is bad, so that they can blame increasing concentration and any lack of competition on the increased regulatory costs or other effects of the ACA. Both sides appear to be missing the greater complexities of the story, however.

While the ACA may be creating certain impediments in the health insurance market, it’s also creating some opportunities for increased health insurance competition, and implementing provisions that should serve to hold down prices. Furthermore, even if the ACA is encouraging more concentration, those increases in concentration can’t be assumed to be anticompetitive. Mergers may very well be the best way for insurers to provide benefits to consumers in a post-ACA world — that is, the world we live in. The ACA may have plenty of negative outcomes, and there may be reasons to attack the ACA itself, but there is no reason to assume that any increased concentration it may bring about is a bad thing.

Asking the right questions about the ACA

We don’t need more self-serving and/or politicized testimony We need instead to apply an economic framework to the competition issues arising from these mergers in order to understand their actual, likely effects on the health insurance marketplace we have. This framework has to answer questions like:

  • How do we understand the effects of the ACA on the marketplace?
    • In what ways does the ACA require us to alter our understanding of the competitive environment in which health insurance and healthcare are offered?
    • Does the ACA promote concentration in health insurance markets?
    • If so, is that a bad thing?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the healthcare provider market?
  • Do efficiencies arise from increased integration in the health insurance market?
  • How do state regulatory regimes affect the understanding of what markets are at issue, and what competitive effects are likely, for antitrust analysis?
  • What are the potential competitive effects of increased concentration in the health care markets?
  • Does increased health insurance market concentration exacerbate or counteract those effects?

Beginning with this post, at least a few of us here at TOTM will take on some of these issues, as part of a blog series aimed at better understanding the antitrust law and economics of the pending health insurance mergers.

Today, we will focus on the ambiguous competitive implications of the ACA. Although not a comprehensive analysis, in this post we will discuss some key insights into how the ACA’s regulations and subsidies should inform our assessment of the competitiveness of the healthcare industry as a whole, and the antitrust review of health insurance mergers in particular.

The ambiguous effects of the ACA

It’s an understatement to say that the ACA is an issue of great political controversy. While many Democrats argue that it has been nothing but a boon to consumers, Republicans usually have nothing good to say about the law’s effects. But both sides miss important but ambiguous effects of the law on the healthcare industry. And because they miss (or disregard) this ambiguity for political reasons, they risk seriously misunderstanding the legal and economic implications of the ACA for healthcare industry mergers.

To begin with, there are substantial negative effects, of course. Requiring insurance companies to accept patients with pre-existing conditions reduces the ability of insurance companies to manage risk. This has led to upward pricing pressure for premiums. While the mandate to buy insurance was supposed to help bring more young, healthy people into the risk pool, so far the projected signups haven’t been realized.

The ACA’s redefinition of what is an acceptable insurance policy has also caused many consumers to lose the policy of their choice. And the ACA’s many regulations, such as the Minimum Loss Ratio requiring insurance companies to spend 80% of premiums on healthcare, have squeezed the profit margins of many insurance companies, leading, in some cases, to exit from the marketplace altogether and, in others, to a reduction of new marketplace entry or competition in other submarkets.

On the other hand, there may be benefits from the ACA. While many insurers participated in private exchanges even before the ACA-mandated health insurance exchanges, the increased consumer education from the government’s efforts may have helped enrollment even in private exchanges, and may also have helped to keep premiums from increasing as much as they would have otherwise. At the same time, the increased subsidies for individuals have helped lower-income people afford those premiums. Some have even argued that increased participation in the on-demand economy can be linked to the ability of individuals to buy health insurance directly. On top of that, there has been some entry into certain health insurance submarkets due to lower barriers to entry (because there is less need for agents to sell in a new market with the online exchanges). And the changes in how Medicare pays, with a greater focus on outcomes rather than services provided, has led to the adoption of value-based pricing from both health care providers and health insurance companies.

Further, some of the ACA’s effects have  decidedly ambiguous consequences for healthcare and health insurance markets. On the one hand, for example, the ACA’s compensation rules have encouraged consolidation among healthcare providers, as noted. One reason for this is that the government gives higher payments for Medicare services delivered by a hospital versus an independent doctor. Similarly, increased regulatory burdens have led to higher compliance costs and more consolidation as providers attempt to economize on those costs. All of this has happened perhaps to the detriment of doctors (and/or patients) who wanted to remain independent from hospitals and larger health network systems, and, as a result, has generally raised costs for payors like insurers and governments.

But much of this consolidation has also arguably led to increased efficiency and greater benefits for consumers. For instance, the integration of healthcare networks leads to increased sharing of health information and better analytics, better care for patients, reduced overhead costs, and other efficiencies. Ultimately these should translate into higher quality care for patients. And to the extent that they do, they should also translate into lower costs for insurers and lower premiums — provided health insurers are not prevented from obtaining sufficient bargaining power to impose pricing discipline on healthcare providers.

In other words, both the AHA and AMA could be right as to different aspects of the ACA’s effects.

Understanding mergers within the regulatory environment

But what they can’t say is that increased consolidation per se is clearly problematic, nor that, even if it is correlated with sub-optimal outcomes, it is consolidation causing those outcomes, rather than something else (like the ACA) that is causing both the sub-optimal outcomes as well as consolidation.

In fact, it may well be the case that increased consolidation improves overall outcomes in healthcare provider and health insurance markets relative to what would happen under the ACA absent consolidation. For Congressional Democrats and others interested in bolstering the ACA and offering the best possible outcomes for consumers, reflexively challenging health insurance mergers because consolidation is “bad,” may be undermining both of these objectives.

Meanwhile, and for the same reasons, Congressional Republicans who decry Obamacare should be careful that they do not likewise condemn mergers under what amounts to a “big is bad” theory that is inconsistent with the rigorous law and economics approach that they otherwise generally support. To the extent that the true target is not health insurance industry consolidation, but rather underlying regulatory changes that have encouraged that consolidation, scoring political points by impugning mergers threatens both health insurance consumers in the short run, as well as consumers throughout the economy in the long run (by undermining the well-established economic critiques of a reflexive “big is bad” response).

It is simply not clear that ACA-induced health insurance mergers are likely to be anticompetitive. In fact, because the ACA builds on state regulation of insurance providers, requiring greater transparency and regulatory review of pricing and coverage terms, it seems unlikely that health insurers would be free to engage in anticompetitive price increases or reduced coverage that could harm consumers.

On the contrary, the managerial and transactional efficiencies from the proposed mergers, combined with greater bargaining power against now-larger providers are likely to lead to both better quality care and cost savings passed-on to consumers. Increased entry, at least in part due to the ACA in most of the markets in which the merging companies will compete, along with integrated health networks themselves entering and threatening entry into insurance markets, will almost certainly lead to more consumer cost savings. In the current regulatory environment created by the ACA, in other words, insurance mergers have considerable upside potential, with little downside risk.

Conclusion

In sum, regardless of what one thinks about the ACA and its likely effects on consumers, it is not clear that health insurance mergers, especially in a post-ACA world, will be harmful.

Rather, assessing the likely competitive effects of health insurance mergers entails consideration of many complicated (and, unfortunately, politicized) issues. In future blog posts we will discuss (among other things): the proper treatment of efficiencies arising from health insurance mergers, the appropriate geographic and product markets for health insurance merger reviews, the role of state regulations in assessing likely competitive effects, and the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for potential competitive harms arising from the mergers.

Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.

Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedly had occasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.

The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm

To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.

But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.

The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:

Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.

The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.

Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears

First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.

It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.

It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twice rejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:

In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.

The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.

It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.

OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”

After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that

Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.

Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.

Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.

In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.

If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.

The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either

While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.

Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.

Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.

And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?

While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.

In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”

The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable

Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.

The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).

What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.

Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.

In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.

The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.

The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.

Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.

The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.

At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.

Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.

In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.