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John E. Lopatka is A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law at Penn State Law School

People need to eat. All else equal, the more food that can be produced from an acre of land, the better off they’ll be. Of course, people want to pay as little as possible for their food to boot. At heart, the antitrust analysis of the pending agribusiness mergers requires a simple assessment of their effects on food production and price. But making that assessment raises difficult questions about institutional competence.

Each of the three mergers – Dow/DuPont, ChemChina/Syngenta, and Bayer/Monsanto – involves agricultural products, such as different kinds of seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. All of these products are inputs in the production of food – the better and cheaper are these products, the more food is produced. The array of products these firms produce invites potentially controversial market definition determinations, but these determinations are standard fare in antitrust law and economics, and conventional analysis handles them tolerably well. Each merger appears to pose overlaps in some product markets, though they seem to be relatively small parts of the firms’ businesses. Traditional merger analysis would examine these markets in properly defined geographic markets, some of which are likely international. The concern in these markets seems to be coordinated interaction, and the analysis of potential anticompetitive coordination would thus focus on concentration and entry barriers. Much could be said about the assumption that product markets perform less competitively as concentration increases, but that is an issue for others or at least another day.

More importantly for my purposes here, to the extent that any of these mergers creates concentration in a market that is competitively problematic and not likely to be cured by new entry, a fix is fairly easy. These are mergers in which asset divestiture is feasible, in which the parties seem willing to divest assets, and in which interested and qualified asset buyers are emerging. To be sure, firms may be willing to divest assets at substantial cost to appease regulators even when competitive problems are illusory, and the cost of a cure in search of an illness is a real social cost. But my concern lies elsewhere.

The parties in each of these mergers have touted innovation as a beneficial byproduct of the deal if not its raison d’être. Innovation effects have made their way into merger analysis, but not smoothly. Innovation can be a kind of efficiency, distinguished from most other efficiencies by its dynamic nature. The benefits of using a plant to its capacity are immediate: costs and prices decrease now. Any benefits of innovation will necessarily be experienced in the future, and the passage of time makes benefits both less certain and less valuable, as people prefer consumption now rather than later. The parties to these mergers in their public statements, to the extent they intend to address antitrust concerns, are implicitly asserting innovation as a defense, a kind of efficiency defense. They do not concede, of course, that their deals will be anticompetitive in any product market. But for antitrust purposes, an accelerated pace of innovation is irrelevant unless the merger appears to threaten competition.

Recognizing increased innovation as a merger defense raises all of the issues that any efficiencies defense raises, and then some. First, can efficiencies be identified?  For instance, patent portfolios can be combined, and the integration of patent rights can lower transaction costs relative to a contractual allocation of rights just as any integration can. In theory, avenues of productive research may not even be recognized until the firms’ intellectual property is combined. A merger may eliminate redundant research efforts, but identifying that which is truly duplicative is often not easy. In all, identifying efficiencies related to research and development is likely to be more difficult than identifying many other kinds of efficiencies. Second, are the efficiencies merger-specific?  The less clearly research and development efficiencies can be identified, the weaker is the claim that they cannot be achieved absent the merger. But in this respect, innovation efficiencies can be more important than most other kinds of efficiencies, because intellectual property sometimes cannot be duplicated as easily as physical property can. Third, can innovation efficiencies be quantified?  If innovation is expected to take the form of an entirely new product, such as a new pesticide, estimating its value is inherently speculative. Fourth, when will efficiencies save a merger that would otherwise be condemned?  An efficiencies defense implies a comparison between the expected harm a merger will cause and the expected benefits it will produce. Arguably those benefits have to be realized by consumers to count at all, but, in any event, a comparison between expected immediate losses of customers in an input market and expected future gains from innovation may be nearly impossible to make. The Merger Guidelines acknowledge that innovation efficiencies can be considered and note many of the concerns just listed. The takeaway is a healthy skepticism of an innovation defense. The defense should generally fail unless the model of anticompetitive harm in product (or service) markets is dubious or the efficiency claim is unusually specific and the likely benefits substantial.

Innovation can enter merger analysis in an even more troublesome way, however: as a club rather than a shield. The Merger Guidelines contemplate that a merger may have unilateral anticompetitive effects if it results in a “reduced incentive to continue with an existing product-development effort or reduced incentive to initiate development of new products.”  The stark case is one in which a merger poses no competitive problem in a product market but would allegedly reduce innovation competition. The best evidence that the elimination of innovation competition might be a reason to oppose one or more of the agribusiness mergers is the recent decision of the European Commission approving the Dow/DuPont merger, subject to various asset divestitures. The Commission, echoing the Guidelines, concluded that the merger would significantly reduce “innovation competition for pesticides” by “[r]emoving the parties’ incentives to continue to pursue ongoing parallel innovation efforts” and by “[r]emoving the parties’ incentives to develop and bring to market new pesticides.”  The agreed upon fix requires DuPont to divest most of its research and development organization.

Enforcement claims that a merger will restrict innovation competition should be met with every bit the skepticism due defense claims that innovation efficiencies save a merger. There is nothing inconsistent in this symmetry. The benefits of innovation, though potentially immense – large enough to dwarf the immediate allocative harm from a lessening of competition in product markets – is speculative. In discounted utility terms, the expected harm will usually exceed the expected benefits, given our limited ability to predict the future. But the potential gains from innovation are immense, and unless we are confident that a merger will reduce innovation, antitrust law should not intervene. We rarely are, at least we rarely should be.

As Geoffrey Manne points out, we still do not know a great deal about the optimal market structure for innovation. Evidence suggests that moderate concentration is most conducive to innovation, but it is not overwhelming, and more importantly no one is suggesting a merger policy that single-mindedly pursues a particular market structure. An examination of incentives to continue existing product development projects or to initiate projects to develop new products is superficially appealing, but its practical utility is elusive. Any firm has an incentive to develop products that increase demand. The Merger Guidelines suggest that a merger will reduce incentives to innovate if the introduction of a new product by one merging firm will capture substantial revenues from the other. The E.C. likely had this effect in mind in concluding that the merged entity would have “lower incentives . . . to innovate than Dow and DuPont separately.”  The Commission also observed that the merged firm would have “a lower ability to innovate” than the two firms separately, but just how a combination of research assets could reduce capability is utterly obscure.

In any event, whether a merger reduces incentives depends not only on the welfare of the merging parties but also on the development activities of actual and would-be competitors. A merged firm cannot afford to have its revenue captured by a new product introduced by a competitor. Of course, innovation by competitors will not spur a firm to develop new products if those competitors do not have the resources needed to innovate. One can imagine circumstances in which resources necessary to innovate in a product market are highly specialized; more realistically, the lack of specialized resources will decrease the pace of innovation. But the concept of specialized resources cannot mean resources a firm has developed that are conducive to innovate and that could be, but have not yet been, developed by other firms. It cannot simply mean a head start, unless it is very long indeed. If the first two firms in an industry build a plant, the fact that a new entrant would have to build a plant is not a sufficient reason to prevent the first two from merging. In any event, what resources are essential to innovation in an area can be difficult to determine.

Assuming essential resources can be identified, how many firms need to have them to create a competitive environment? The Guidelines place the number at “very small” plus one. Elsewhere, the federal antitrust agencies suggest that four firms other than the merged firm are sufficient to maintain innovation competition. We have models, whatever their limitations, that predict price effects in oligopolies. The Guidelines are based on them. But determining the number of firms necessary for competitive innovation is another matter. Maybe two is enough. We know for sure that innovation competition is non-existent if only one firm has the capacity to innovate, but not much else. We know that duplicative research efforts can be wasteful. If two firms would each spend $1 million to arrive at the same place, a merged firm might be able to invest $2 million and go twice as far or reach the first place at half the total cost. This is only to say that a merger can increase innovation efficiency, a possibility that is not likely to justify an otherwise anticompetitive merger but should usually protect from condemnation a merger that is not otherwise anticompetitive.

In the Dow/DuPont merger, the Commission found “specific evidence that the merged entity would have cut back on the amount they spent on developing innovative products.”  Executives of the two firms stated that they expected to reduce research and development spending by around $300 million. But a reduction in spending does not tell us whether innovation will suffer. The issue is innovation efficiency. If the two firms spent, say, $1 billion each on research, $300 million of which was duplicative of the other firm’s research, the merged firm could invest $1.7 billion without reducing productive effort. The Commission complained that the merger would reduce from five to four the number of firms that are “globally active throughout the entire R&D process.”  As noted above, maybe four firms competing are enough. We don’t know. But the Commission also discounts firms with “more limited R&D capabilities,” and the importance to successful innovation of multi-level integration in this industry is not clear.

When a merger is challenged because of an adverse effect on innovation competition, a fix can be difficult. Forced licensing might work, but that assumes that the relevant resource necessary to carry on research and development is intellectual property. More may be required. If tangible assets related to research and development are required, a divestiture might cripple the merged firm. The Commission remedy was to require the merged firm to divest “DuPont’s global R&D organization” that is related to the product operations that must be divested. The firm is permitted to retain “a few limited [R&D] assets that support the part of DuPont’s pesticide business” that is not being divested. In this case, such a divestiture may or may not hobble the merged firm, depending on whether the divested assets would have contributed to the research and development efforts that it will continue to pursue. That the merged firm was willing to accept the research and development divestiture to secure Commission approval does not mean that the divestiture will do no harm to the firm’s continuing research and development activities. Moreover, some product markets at issue in this merger are geographically limited, whereas the likely benefits of innovation are largely international. The implication is that increased concentration in product markets can be avoided by divesting assets to other large agribusinesses that do not operate in the relevant geographic market. But if the Commission insists on preserving five integrated firms active in global research and development activities, DuPont’s research and development activities cannot be divested to one of the other major players, which the Commission identifies as BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta, or firms with which any of them are attempting to merge, namely Monsanto and ChemChina. These are the five firms, of course, that are particularly likely to be interested buyers.

Innovation is important. No one disagrees. But the role of competition in stimulating innovation is not well understood. Except in unusual cases, antitrust institutions are ill-equipped either to recognize innovation efficiencies that save a merger threatening competition in product markets or to condemn mergers that threaten only innovation competition. Indeed, despite maintaining their prerogative to challenge mergers solely on the ground of a reduction in innovation competition, the federal agencies have in fact complained about an adverse effect on innovation in cases that also raise competitive issues in product markets. Innovation is at the heart of the pending agribusiness mergers. How regulators and courts analyze innovation in these cases will say something about whether they perceive their limitations.

A number of blockbuster mergers have received (often negative) attention from media and competition authorities in recent months. From the recently challenged Staples-Office Depot merger to the abandoned Comcast-Time Warner merger to the heavily scrutinized Aetna-Humana merger (among many others), there has been a wave of potential mega-mergers throughout the economy—many of them met with regulatory resistance. We’ve discussed several of these mergers at TOTM (see, e.g., here, here, here and here).

Many reporters, analysts, and even competition authorities have adopted various degrees of the usual stance that big is bad, and bigger is even badder. But worse yet, once this presumption applies, agencies have been skeptical of claimed efficiencies, placing a heightened burden on the merging parties to prove them and often ignoring them altogether. And, of course (and perhaps even worse still), there is the perennial problem of (often questionable) market definition — which tanked the Sysco/US Foods merger and which undergirds the FTC’s challenge of the Staples/Office Depot merger.

All of these issues are at play in the proposed acquisition of British aluminum can manufacturer Rexam PLC by American can manufacturer Ball Corp., which has likewise drawn the attention of competition authorities around the world — including those in Brazil, the European Union, and the United States.

But the Ball/Rexam merger has met with some important regulatory successes. Just recently the members of CADE, Brazil’s competition authority, unanimously approved the merger with limited divestitures. The most recent reports also indicate that the EU will likely approve it, as well. It’s now largely down to the FTC, which should approve the merger and not kill it or over-burden it with required divestitures on the basis of questionable antitrust economics.

The proposed merger raises a number of interesting issues in the surprisingly complex beverage container market. But this merger merits regulatory approval.

The International Center for Law & Economics recently released a research paper entitled, The Ball-Rexam Merger: The Case for a Competitive Can Market. The white paper offers an in-depth assessment of the economics of the beverage packaging industry; the place of the Ball-Rexam merger within this remarkably complex, global market; and the likely competitive effects of the deal.

The upshot is that the proposed merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects, and any competitive concerns that do arise can be readily addressed by a few targeted divestitures.

The bottom line

The production and distribution of aluminum cans is a surprisingly dynamic industry, characterized by evolving technology, shifting demand, complex bargaining dynamics, and significant changes in the costs of production and distribution. Despite the superficial appearance that the proposed merger will increase concentration in aluminum can manufacturing, we conclude that a proper understanding of the marketplace dynamics suggests that the merger is unlikely to have actual anticompetitive effects.

All told, and as we summarize in our Executive Summary, we found at least seven specific reasons for this conclusion:

  1. Because the appropriately defined product market includes not only stand-alone can manufacturers, but also vertically integrated beverage companies, as well as plastic and glass packaging manufacturers, the actual increase in concentration from the merger will be substantially less than suggested by the change in the number of nationwide aluminum can manufacturers.
  2. Moreover, in nearly all of the relevant geographic markets (which are much smaller than the typically nationwide markets from which concentration numbers are derived), the merger will not affect market concentration at all.
  3. While beverage packaging isn’t a typical, rapidly evolving, high-technology market, technological change is occurring. Coupled with shifting consumer demand (often driven by powerful beverage company marketing efforts), and considerable (and increasing) buyer power, historical beverage packaging market shares may have little predictive value going forward.
  4. The key importance of transportation costs and the effects of current input prices suggest that expanding demand can be effectively met only by expanding the geographic scope of production and by economizing on aluminum supply costs. These, in turn, suggest that increasing overall market concentration is consistent with increased, rather than decreased, competitiveness.
  5. The markets in which Ball and Rexam operate are dominated by a few large customers, who are themselves direct competitors in the upstream marketplace. These companies have shown a remarkable willingness and ability to invest in competing packaging supply capacity and to exert their substantial buyer power to discipline prices.
  6. For this same reason, complaints leveled against the proposed merger by these beverage giants — which are as much competitors as they are customers of the merging companies — should be viewed with skepticism.
  7. Finally, the merger should generate significant managerial and overhead efficiencies, and the merged firm’s expanded geographic footprint should allow it to service larger geographic areas for its multinational customers, thus lowering transaction costs and increasing its value to these customers.

Distinguishing Ardagh: The interchangeability of aluminum and glass

An important potential sticking point for the FTC’s review of the merger is its recent decision to challenge the Ardagh-Saint Gobain merger. The cases are superficially similar, in that they both involve beverage packaging. But Ardagh should not stand as a model for the Commission’s treatment of Ball/Rexam. The FTC made a number of mistakes in Ardagh (including market definition and the treatment of efficiencies — the latter of which brought out a strenuous dissent from Commissioner Wright). But even on its own (questionable) terms, Ardagh shouldn’t mean trouble for Ball/Rexam.

As we noted in our December 1st letter to the FTC on the Ball/Rexam merger, and as we discuss in detail in the paper, the situation in the aluminum can market is quite different than the (alleged) market for “(1) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Brewers; and (2) the manufacture and sale of glass containers to Distillers” at issue in Ardagh.

Importantly, the FTC found (almost certainly incorrectly, at least for the brewers) that other container types (e.g., plastic bottles and aluminum cans) were not part of the relevant product market in Ardagh. But in the markets in which aluminum cans are a primary form of packaging (most notably, soda and beer), our research indicates that glass, plastic, and aluminum are most definitely substitutes.

The Big Four beverage companies (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and MillerCoors), which collectively make up 80% of the U.S. market for Ball and Rexam, are all vertically integrated to some degree, and provide much of their own supply of containers (a situation significantly different than the distillers in Ardagh). These companies exert powerful price discipline on the aluminum packaging market by, among other things, increasing (or threatening to increase) their own container manufacturing capacity, sponsoring new entry, and shifting production (and, via marketing, consumer demand) to competing packaging types.

For soda, Ardagh is obviously inapposite, as soda packaging wasn’t at issue there. But the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that aluminum cans (which in fact make up 56% of the beer packaging market) don’t compete with glass bottles for beer packaging is also suspect.

For aluminum can manufacturers Ball and Rexam, aluminum can’t be excluded from the market (obviously), and much of the beer in the U.S. that is packaged in aluminum is quite clearly also packaged in glass. The FTC claimed in Ardagh that glass and aluminum are consumed in distinct situations, so they don’t exert price pressure on each other. But that ignores the considerable ability of beer manufacturers to influence consumption choices, as well as the reality that consumer preferences for each type of container (whether driven by beer company marketing efforts or not) are merging, with cost considerations dominating other factors.

In fact, consumers consume beer in both packaging types largely interchangeably (with a few limited exceptions — e.g., poolside drinking demands aluminum or plastic), and beer manufacturers readily switch between the two types of packaging as the relative production costs shift.

Craft brewers, to take one important example, are rapidly switching to aluminum from glass, despite a supposed stigma surrounding canned beers. Some craft brewers (particularly the larger ones) do package at least some of their beers in both types of containers, or simultaneously package some of their beers in glass and some of their beers in cans, while for many craft brewers it’s one or the other. Yet there’s no indication that craft beer consumption has fallen off because consumers won’t drink beer from cans in some situations — and obviously the prospect of this outcome hasn’t stopped craft brewers from abandoning bottles entirely in favor of more economical cans, nor has it induced them, as a general rule, to offer both types of packaging.

A very short time ago it might have seemed that aluminum wasn’t in the same market as glass for craft beer packaging. But, as recent trends have borne out, that differentiation wasn’t primarily a function of consumer preference (either at the brewer or end-consumer level). Rather, it was a function of bottling/canning costs (until recently the machinery required for canning was prohibitively expensive), materials costs (at various times glass has been cheaper than aluminum, depending on volume), and transportation costs (which cut against glass, but the relative attractiveness of different packaging materials is importantly a function of variable transportation costs). To be sure, consumer preference isn’t irrelevant, but the ease with which brewers have shifted consumer preferences suggests that it isn’t a strong constraint.

Transportation costs are key

Transportation costs, in fact, are a key part of the story — and of the conclusion that the Ball/Rexam merger is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects. First of all, transporting empty cans (or bottles, for that matter) is tremendously inefficient — which means that the relevant geographic markets for assessing the competitive effects of the Ball/Rexam merger are essentially the largely non-overlapping 200 mile circles around the companies’ manufacturing facilities. Because there are very few markets in which the two companies both have plants, the merger doesn’t change the extent of competition in the vast majority of relevant geographic markets.

But transportation costs are also relevant to the interchangeability of packaging materials. Glass is more expensive to transport than aluminum, and this is true not just for empty bottles, but for full ones, of course. So, among other things, by switching to cans (even if it entails up-front cost), smaller breweries can expand their geographic reach, potentially expanding sales enough to more than cover switching costs. The merger would further lower the costs of cans (and thus of geographic expansion) by enabling beverage companies to transact with a single company across a wider geographic range.

The reality is that the most important factor in packaging choice is cost, and that the packaging alternatives are functionally interchangeable. As a result, and given that the direct consumers of beverage packaging are beverage companies rather than end-consumers, relatively small cost changes readily spur changes in packaging choices. While there are some switching costs that might impede these shifts, they are readily overcome. For large beverage companies that already use multiple types and sizes of packaging for the same product, the costs are trivial: They already have packaging designs, marketing materials, distribution facilities and the like in place. For smaller companies, a shift can be more difficult, but innovations in labeling, mobile canning/bottling facilities, outsourced distribution and the like significantly reduce these costs.  

“There’s a great future in plastics”

All of this is even more true for plastic — even in the beer market. In fact, in 2010, 10% of the beer consumed in Europe was sold in plastic bottles, as was 15% of all beer consumed in South Korea. We weren’t able to find reliable numbers for the U.S., but particularly for cheaper beers, U.S. brewers are increasingly moving to plastic. And plastic bottles are the norm at stadiums and arenas. Whatever the exact numbers, clearly plastic holds a small fraction of the beer container market compared to glass and aluminum. But that number is just as clearly growing, and as cost considerations impel them (and technology enables them), giant, powerful brewers like AB InBev and MillerCoors are certainly willing and able to push consumers toward plastic.

Meanwhile soda companies like Coca-cola and Pepsi have successfully moved their markets so that today a majority of packaged soda is sold in plastic containers. There’s no evidence that this shift came about as a result of end-consumer demand, nor that the shift to plastic was delayed by a lack of demand elasticity; rather, it was primarily a function of these companies’ ability to realize bigger profits on sales in plastic containers (not least because they own their own plastic packaging production facilities).

And while it’s not at issue in Ball/Rexam because spirits are rarely sold in aluminum packaging, the FTC’s conclusion in Ardagh that

[n]on-glass packaging materials, such as plastic containers, are not in this relevant product market because not enough spirits customers would switch to non-glass packaging materials to make a SSNIP in glass containers to spirits customers unprofitable for a hypothetical monopolist

is highly suspect — which suggests the Commission may have gotten it wrong in other ways, too. For example, as one report notes:

But the most noteworthy inroads against glass have been made in distilled liquor. In terms of total units, plastic containers, almost all of them polyethylene terephthalate (PET), have surpassed glass and now hold a 56% share, which is projected to rise to 69% by 2017.

True, most of this must be tiny-volume airplane bottles, but by no means all of it is, and it’s clear that the cost advantages of plastic are driving a shift in distilled liquor packaging, as well. Some high-end brands are even moving to plastic. Whatever resistance (and this true for beer, too) that may have existed in the past because of glass’s “image,” is breaking down: Don’t forget that even high-quality wines are now often sold with screw-tops or even in boxes — something that was once thought impossible.

The overall point is that the beverage packaging market faced by can makers like Ball and Rexam is remarkably complex, and, crucially, the presence of powerful, vertically integrated customers means that past or current demand by end-users is a poor indicator of what the market will look like in the future as input costs and other considerations faced by these companies shift. Right now, for example, over 50% of the world’s soda is packaged in plastic bottles, and this margin is set to increase: The global plastic packaging market (not limited to just beverages) is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% between 2014 and 2020, while aluminum packaging is expected to grow at just 2.9%.

A note on efficiencies

As noted above, the proposed Ball/Rexam merger also holds out the promise of substantial efficiencies (estimated at $300 million by the merging parties, due mainly to decreased transportation costs). There is a risk, however, that the FTC may effectively disregard those efficiencies, as it did in Ardagh (and in St. Luke’s before it), by saddling them with a higher burden of proof than it requires of its own prima facie claims. If the goal of antitrust law is to promote consumer welfare, competition authorities can’t ignore efficiencies in merger analysis.

In his Ardagh dissent, Commissioner Wright noted that:

Even when the same burden of proof is applied to anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, of course, reasonable minds can and often do differ when identifying and quantifying cognizable efficiencies as appears to have occurred in this case.  My own analysis of cognizable efficiencies in this matter indicates they are significant.   In my view, a critical issue highlighted by this case is whether, when, and to what extent the Commission will credit efficiencies generally, as well as whether the burden faced by the parties in establishing that proffered efficiencies are cognizable under the Merger Guidelines is higher than the burden of proof facing the agencies in establishing anticompetitive effects. After reviewing the record evidence on both anticompetitive effects and efficiencies in this case, my own view is that it would be impossible to come to the conclusions about each set forth in the Complaint and by the Commission — and particularly the conclusion that cognizable efficiencies are nearly zero — without applying asymmetric burdens.

The Commission shouldn’t make the same mistake here. In fact, here, where can manufacturers are squeezed between powerful companies both upstream (e.g., Alcoa) and downstream (e.g., AB InBev), and where transportation costs limit the opportunities for expanding the customer base of any particular plant, the ability to capitalize on economies of scale and geographic scope is essential to independent manufacturers’ abilities to efficiently meet rising demand.

Read our complete assessment of the merger’s effect here.

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.

On February 13 an administrative law judge (ALJ) at the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision regarding the Comcast/Time Warner Cable (TWC) merger. The proposed decision recommends that the CPUC approve the merger with conditions.

It’s laudable that the ALJ acknowledges at least some of the competitive merits of the proposed deal. But the set of conditions that the proposed decision would impose on the combined company in order to complete the merger represents a remarkable set of unauthorized regulations that are both inappropriate for the deal and at odds with California’s legislated approach to regulation of the Internet.

According to the proposed decision, every condition it imposes is aimed at mitigating a presumed harm arising from the merger:

The Applicants must meet the conditions adopted herein in order to provide reasonable assurance that the proposed transaction will be in the public interest in accordance with Pub. Util. Code § 854(a) and (c).… We only adopt conditions which mitigate an effect of the merger in order to satisfy the public interest requirements of § 854.

By any reasonable interpretation, this would mean that the CPUC can adopt only those conditions that address specific public interest concerns arising from the deal itself. But most of the conditions in the proposed decision fail this basic test and seem designed to address broader social policy issues that have nothing to do with the alleged competitive effects of the deal.

Instead, without undertaking an analysis of the merger’s competitive effects, the proposed decision effectively accepts that the merger serves the public interest, while also simply accepting the assertions of the merger’s opponents that it doesn’t. In the name of squaring that circle, the proposed decision seeks to permit the merger to proceed, but then seeks to force the post-merger company to conform to the merger’s critics’ rather arbitrary view of their preferred market structure for the provision of cable broadband services in California.

For something — say, a merger — to be in the public interest, it need not further every conceivable public interest goal. This is a perversion of the standard, and it turns “public interest” into an unconstrained license to impose a regulatory wish-list on particular actors, outside of the scope of usual regulatory processes.

While a few people may have no problem with the proposed decision’s expansive vision of Internet access regulation, California governor Jerry Brown and the overwhelming majority of the California state legislature cannot be counted among the supporters of this approach.

In 2012 the state legislature passed by an overwhelming margin — and Governor Brown signed — SB 1161 (codified as Section 710 of the California Public Utilities Code), which expressly prohibits the CPUC from regulating broadband:

The commission shall not exercise regulatory jurisdiction or control over Voice over Internet Protocol and Internet Protocol enabled services except as required or expressly delegated by federal law or expressly directed to do so by statute or as set forth in [certain enumerated exceptions].”

The message is clear: The CPUC should not try to bypass clear state law and all institutional safeguards by misusing the merger clearance process.

While bipartisan majorities in the state house, supported by a Democratic governor, have stopped the CPUC from imposing new regulations on Internet and VoIP services through SB 1161, the proposed decision seeks to impose regulations through merger conditions that go far beyond anything permitted by this state law.

For instance, the proposed decision seeks to impose arbitrary retail price controls on broadband access:

Comcast shall offer to all customers of the merged companies, for a period of five years following the effective date of the parent company merger, the opportunity to purchase stand-alone broadband Internet service at a price not to exceed the price charged by Time Warner for providing that service to its customers, and at speeds, prices, and terms, at least comparable to that offered by Time Warner prior to the merger’s closing.

And the proposed decision seeks to mandate market structure in other insidious ways, as well, mandating specific broadband speeds, requiring a break-neck geographic expansion of Comcast’s service area, and dictating installation and service times, among other things — all without regard to the actual plausibility (or cost) of implementing such requirements.

But the problem is even more acute. Not only does the proposed decision seek to regulate Internet access issues irrelevant to the merger, it also proposes to impose conditions that would actually undermine competition.

The proposed decision would impose the following conditions on Comcast’s business VoIP and business Internet services:

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Business Calling Plan with Stand Alone Internet Access to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company merger at existing prices, terms and conditions.

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Carrier Ethernet Last Mile Access product to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company at the same prices, terms and conditions as offered by Time Warner prior to the merger.

But the proposed decision fails to recognize that Comcast is an also-ran in the business service market. Last year it served a small fraction of the business customers served by AT&T and Verizon, who have long dominated the business services market:

According to a Sept. 2011 ComScore survey, AT&T and Verizon had the largest market shares of all business services ISPs. AT&T held 20% of market share and Verizon held 12%. Comcast ranked 6th, with 5% of market share.

The proposed conditions would hamstring the upstart challenger Comcast by removing both product and pricing flexibility for five years – an eternity in rapidly evolving technology markets. That’s a sure-fire way to minimize competition, not promote it.

The proposed decision reiterates several times its concern that the combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable will serve more than 80% of California households, and “reduce[] the possibilities for content providers to reach the California broadband market.” The alleged concern is that the combined company could exercise anticompetitive market power — imposing artificially high fees for carrying content or degrading service of unaffiliated content and services.

The problem is Comcast and TWC don’t compete anywhere in California today, and they face competition from other providers everywhere they operate. As the decision matter-of-factly states:

Comcast and Time Warner do not compete with one another… [and] Comcast and Time Warner compete with other providers of Internet access services in their respective service territories.

As a result, the merger will actually have no effect on the number of competitive choices in the state; the increase in the statewide market share as a result of the deal is irrelevant. And so these purported competition concerns can’t be the basis for any conditions, let alone the sweeping ones set out in the proposed decision.

The stated concern about content providers finding it difficult to reach Californians is a red herring: the post-merger Comcast geographic footprint will be exactly the same as the combined, pre-merger Comcast/TWC/Charter footprint. Content providers will be able to access just as many Californians (and with greater speeds) as before the merger.

True, content providers that just want to reach some number of random Californians may have to reach more of them through Comcast than they would have before the merger. But what content provider just wants to reach some number of Californians in the first place? Moreover, this fundamentally misstates the way the Internet works: it is users who reach the content they prefer; not the other way around. And, once again, for literally every consumer in the state, the number of available options for doing so won’t change one iota following the merger.

Nothing shows more clearly how the proposed decision has strayed from responding to merger concerns to addressing broader social policy issues than the conditions aimed at expanding low-price broadband offerings for underserved households. Among other things, the proposed conditions dramatically increase the size and scope of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, converting this laudable effort from a targeted program (that uses a host of tools to connect families where a child is eligible for the National School Lunch Program to the Internet) into one that must serve all low-income adults.

Putting aside the damage this would do to the core Internet Essentials’ mission of connecting school age children by diverting resources from the program’s central purpose, it is manifestly outside the scope of the CPUC’s review. Nothing in the deal affects the number of adults (or children, for that matter) in California without broadband.

It’s possible, of course, that Comcast might implement something like an expanded Internet Essentials program without any prodding; after all, companies implement (and expand) such programs all the time. But why on earth should regulators be able to define such an obligation arbitrarily, and to impose it on whatever ISP happens to be asking for a license transfer? That arbitrariness creates precisely the sort of business uncertainty that SB 1161 was meant to prevent.

The same thing applies to the proposed decision’s requirement regarding school and library broadband connectivity:

Comcast shall connect and/or upgrade Internet infrastructure for K-12 schools and public libraries in unserved and underserved areas in Comcast’s combined California service territory so that it is providing high speed Internet to at least the same proportion of K-12 schools and public libraries in such unserved and underserved areas as it provides to the households in its service territory.

No doubt improving school and library infrastructure is a noble goal — and there’s even a large federal subsidy program (E-Rate) devoted to it. But insisting that Comcast do so — and do so to an extent unsupported by the underlying federal subsidy program already connecting such institutions, and in contravention of existing provider contracts with schools — as a condition of the merger is simple extortion.

The CPUC is treating the proposed merger like a free-for-all, imposing in the name of the “public interest” a set of conditions that it would never be permitted to impose absent the gun-to-the-head of merger approval. Moreover, it seeks to remake California’s broadband access landscape in a fashion that would likely never materialize in the natural course of competition: If the merger doesn’t go through, none of the conditions in the proposed decision and alleged to be necessary to protect the public interest will exist.

Far from trying to ensure that Comcast’s merger with TWC doesn’t erode competitive forces to the detriment of the public, the proposed decision is trying to micromanage the market, simply asserting that the public interest demands imposition of it’s subjective and arbitrary laundry list of preferred items. This isn’t sensible regulation, it isn’t compliant with state law, and it doesn’t serve the people of California.

Credit where it’s due — the FTC has closed its investigation of the Men’s Warehouse/Jos. A. Bank merger. I previously wrote about the investigation here, where I said:

I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

The FTC’s blog post on closing the investigation notes that:

Despite limited competition from the Internet, the transaction is not likely to harm consumers because of significant competition from other sources. As in all transactions, FTC staff examined which product markets were likely to be affected and what the competitive landscape looks like in those markets. There were two such markets in this matter: (1) the retail sale of men’s suits and (2) tuxedo rentals. With respect to men’s suits, there are numerous competitors that sell suits across the range of prices of the suits the merging parties offer, including Macy’s, Kohl’s, JC Penney’s, Nordstrom, and Brooks Brothers, among others. The two firms also have different product assortments that reflect their different customer bases. Men’s Wearhouse, which sells branded and private-label suits, has a younger, trendier customer set, while Jos. A. Bank, which sells private-label suits only, has an older, more traditional customer base.

Sounds right — and good to see.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright pens an incredibly important dissent in the FTC’s recent Ardagh/Saint-Gobain merger review.

At issue is how pro-competitive efficiencies should be considered by the agency under the Merger Guidelines.

As Josh notes, the core problem is the burden of proof:

Merger analysis is by its nature a predictive enterprise. Thinking rigorously about probabilistic assessment of competitive harms is an appropriate approach from an economic perspective. However, there is some reason for concern that the approach applied to efficiencies is deterministic in practice. In other words, there is a potentially dangerous asymmetry from a consumer welfare perspective of an approach that embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other.

In the summer of 1995, I spent a few weeks at the FTC. It was the end of the summer and nearly the entire office was on vacation, so I was left dealing with the most arduous tasks. In addition to fielding calls from Joe Sims prodding the agency to finish the Turner/Time Warner merger consent, I also worked on early drafting of the efficiencies defense, which was eventually incorporated into the 1997 Merger Guidelines revision.

The efficiencies defense was added to the Guidelines specifically to correct a defect of the pre-1997 Guidelines era in which

It is unlikely that efficiencies were recognized as an antitrust defense…. Even if efficiencies were thought to have a significant impact on the outcome of the case, the 1984 Guidelines stated that the defense should be based on “clear and convincing” evidence. Appeals Court Judge and former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Ginsburg has recently called reaching this standard “well-nigh impossible.” Further, even if defendants can meet this level of proof, only efficiencies in the relevant anticompetitive market may count.

The clear intention was to ensure better outcomes by ensuring that net pro-competitive mergers wouldn’t be thwarted. But even under the 1997 (and still under the 2010) Guidelines,

the merging firms must substantiate efficiency claims so that the Agency can verify by reasonable means the likelihood and magnitude of each asserted efficiency, how and when each would be achieved (and any costs of doing so), how each would enhance the merged firm’s ability and incentive to compete, and why each would be merger-specific. Efficiency claims will not be considered if they are vague or speculative or otherwise cannot be verified by reasonable means.

The 2006 Guidelines Commentary further supports the notion that the parties bear a substantial burden of demonstrating efficiencies.

As Josh notes, however:

Efficiencies, like anticompetitive effects, cannot and should not be presumed into existence. However, symmetrical treatment in both theory and practice of evidence proffered to discharge the respective burdens of proof facing the agencies and merging parties is necessary for consumer‐welfare based merger policy

There is no economic basis for demanding more proof of claimed efficiencies than of claimed anticompetitive harms. And the Guidelines since 1997 were (ostensibly) drafted in part precisely to ensure that efficiencies were appropriately considered by the agencies (and the courts) in their enforcement decisions.

But as Josh notes, this has not really been the case, much to the detriment of consumer-welfare-enhancing merger review:

To the extent the Merger Guidelines are interpreted or applied to impose asymmetric burdens upon the agencies and parties to establish anticompetitive effects and efficiencies, respectively, such interpretations do not make economic sense and are inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare. Application of a more symmetric standard is unlikely to allow, as the Commission alludes to, the efficiencies defense to “swallow the whole of Section 7 of the Clayton Act.” A cursory read of the cases is sufficient to put to rest any concerns that the efficiencies defense is a mortal threat to agency activity under the Clayton Act. The much more pressing concern at present is whether application of asymmetric burdens of proof in merger review will swallow the efficiencies defense.

It benefits consumers to permit mergers that offer efficiencies that offset presumed anticompetitive effects. To the extent that the agencies, as in the Ardagh/Saint-Gobain merger, discount efficiencies evidence relative to their treatment of anticompetitive effects evidence, consumers will be harmed and the agencies will fail to fulfill their mandate.

This is an enormously significant issue, and Josh should be widely commended for raising it in this case. With luck it will spur a broader discussion and, someday, a more appropriate treatment in the Guidelines and by the agencies of merger efficiencies.

 

I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

Last month the Wall Street Journal raised the specter of an antitrust challenge to the proposed Jos. A. Bank/Men’s Warehouse merger.

Whether a challenge is forthcoming appears to turn, of course, on market definition:

An important question in the FTC’s review will be whether it believes the two companies compete in a market that is more specialized than the broad men’s apparel market. If the commission concludes the companies do compete in a different space than retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, then the merger partners could face a more-difficult government review.

You’ll be excused for recalling that the last time you bought a suit you shopped at Jos. A. Bank and Macy’s before making your purchase at Nordstrom Rack, and for thinking that the idea of a relevant market comprising Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse to the exclusion of the others is absurd.  Because, you see, as the article notes (quoting Darren Tucker),

“The FTC sometimes segments markets in ways that can appear counterintuitive to the public.”

“Ah,” you say to yourself. “In other words, if the FTC’s rigorous econometric analysis shows that prices at Macy’s don’t actually affect pricing decisions at Men’s Warehouse, then I’d be surprised, but so be it.”

But that’s not what he means by “counterintuitive.” Rather,

The commission’s analysis, he said, will largely turn on how the companies have viewed the market in their own ordinary-course business documents.

According to this logic, even if Macy’s does exert pricing pressure on Jos. A Bank, if Jos. A. Bank’s business documents talk about Men’s Warehouse as its only real competition, or suggest that the two companies “dominate” the “mid-range men’s apparel market,” then FTC may decide to challenge the deal.

I don’t mean to single out Darren here; he just happens to be who the article quotes, and this kind of thinking is de rigeur.

But it’s just wrong. Or, I should say, it may be descriptively accurate — it may be that the FTC will make its enforcement decision (and the court would make its ruling) on the basis of business documents — but it’s just wrong as a matter of economics, common sense, logic and the protection of consumer welfare.

One can’t help but think of the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger and the FTC’s ridiculous “premium, natural and organic supermarkets” market. As I said of that market definition:

In other words, there is a serious risk of conflating a “market” for business purposes with an actual antitrust-relevant market. Whole Foods and Wild Oats may view themselves as operating in a different world than Wal-Mart. But their self-characterization is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether customers who shop at Whole Foods would shop elsewhere for substitute products if Whole Food’s prices rose too much. The implicit notion that the availability of organic foods at Wal-Mart (to say nothing of pretty much every other grocery store in the US today!) exerts little or no competitive pressure on prices at Whole Foods seems facially silly.

I don’t know for certain what an econometric analysis would show, but I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

Commissioner Wright makes a powerful and important case in dissenting from the FTC’s 2-1 (Commissioner Ohlhausen was recused from the matter) decision imposing conditions on Nielsen’s acquisition of Arbitron.

Essential to Josh’s dissent is the absence of any actual existing market supporting the Commission’s challenge:

Nielsen and Arbitron do not currently compete in the sale of national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement services. In fact, there is no commercially available national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement service today. The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

* * *

[W]e…do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

* * *

To be clear, I do not base my disagreement with the Commission today on the possibility that the potential efficiencies arising from the transaction would offset any anticompetitive effect. As discussed above, I find no reason to believe the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition because the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is likely to generate anticompetitive effects in the alleged relevant market.

This is the kind of theory that seriously threatens innovation. Regulators in Washington are singularly ill-positioned to predict the course of technological evolution — that’s why they’re regulators and not billionaire innovators. To impose antitrust-based constraints on economic activity that hasn’t even yet occurred is the height of folly. As Virginia Postrel discusses in The Future and Its Enemies, this is the technocratic mindset, in all its stasist glory:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation.

* * *

By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

* * *

For technocrats, a kaleidoscope of trial-and-error innovation is not enough; decentralized experiments lack coherence. “Today, we have an opportunity to shape technology,” wrote [Newt] Gingrich in classic technocratic style. His message was that computer technology is too important to be left to hackers, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and computer buyers. “We” must shape it into a “coherent picture.” That is the technocratic notion of progress: Decide on the one best way, make a plan, and stick to it.

It should go without saying that this is the antithesis of the environment most conducive to economic advance. Whatever antitrust’s role in regulating technology markets, it must be evidence-based, grounded in economics and aware of its own limitations.

As Josh notes:

A future market case, such as the one alleged by the Commission today, presents a number of unique challenges not confronted in a typical merger review or even in “actual potential competition” cases. For instance, it is inherently more difficult in future market cases to define properly the relevant product market, to identify likely buyers and sellers, to estimate cross-elasticities of demand or understand on a more qualitative level potential product substitutability, and to ascertain the set of potential entrants and their likely incentives. Although all merger review necessarily is forward looking, it is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer these basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

* * *

When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Josh’s dissent also contains an important, related criticism of the FTC’s problematic reliance on consent agreements. It’s so good, in fact, I will quote it almost in its entirety:

Whether parties to a transaction are willing to enter into a consent agreement will often have little to do with whether the agreed upon remedy actually promotes consumer welfare. The Commission’s ability to obtain concessions instead reflects the weighing by the parties of the private costs and private benefits of delaying the transaction and potentially litigating the merger against the private costs and private benefits of acquiescing to the proposed terms. Indeed, one can imagine that where, as here, the alleged relevant product market is small relative to the overall deal size, the parties would be happy to agree to concessions that cost very little and finally permit the deal to close. Put simply, where there is no reason to believe a transaction violates the antitrust laws, a sincerely held view that a consent decree will improve upon the post-merger competitive outcome or have other beneficial effects does not justify imposing those conditions. Instead, entering into such agreements subtly, and in my view harmfully, shifts the Commission’s mission from that of antitrust enforcer to a much broader mandate of “fixing” a variety of perceived economic welfare-reducing arrangements.

Consents can and do play an important and productive role in the Commission’s competition enforcement mission. Consents can efficiently address competitive concerns arising from a merger by allowing the Commission to reach a resolution more quickly and at less expense than would be possible through litigation. However, consents potentially also can have a detrimental impact upon consumers. The Commission’s consents serve as important guidance and inform practitioners and the business community about how the agency is likely to view and remedy certain mergers. Where the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare. Because there is no judicial approval of Commission settlements, it is especially important that the Commission take care to ensure its consents are in the public interest.

This issue of the significance of the FTC’s tendency to, effectively, legislate by consent decree is of great importance, particularly in its Section 5 practice (as we discuss in our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).

As the FTC begins its 100th year next week, we need more voices like those of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen challenging the FTC’s harmful, technocratic mindset.

As everyone knows by now, AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile has hit a bureaucratic snag at the FCC.  The remarkable decision to refer the merger to the Commission’s Administrative Law Judge (in an effort to derail the deal) and the public release of the FCC staff’s internal, draft report are problematic and poorly considered.  But far worse is the content of the report on which the decision to attempt to kill the deal was based.

With this report the FCC staff joins the exalted company of AT&T’s complaining competitors (surely the least reliable judges of the desirability of the proposed merger if ever there were any) and the antitrust policy scolds and consumer “advocates” who, quite literally, have never met a merger of which they approved.

In this post I’m going to hit a few of the most glaring problems in the staff’s report, and I hope to return again soon with further analysis.

As it happens, AT&T’s own response to the report is actually very good and it effectively highlights many of the key problems with the staff’s report.  While it might make sense to take AT&T’s own reply with a grain of salt, in this case the reply is, if anything, too tame.  No doubt the company wants to keep in the Commission’s good graces (it is the very definition of a repeat player at the agency, after all).  But I am not so constrained.  Using the company’s reply as a jumping off point, let me discuss a few of the problems with the staff report.

First, as the blog post (written by Jim Cicconi, Senior Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs) notes,

We expected that the AT&T-T-Mobile transaction would receive careful, considered, and fair analysis.   Unfortunately, the preliminary FCC Staff Analysis offers none of that.  The document is so obviously one-sided that any fair-minded person reading it is left with the clear impression that it is an advocacy piece, and not a considered analysis.

In our view, the report raises questions as to whether its authors were predisposed.  The report cherry-picks facts to support its views, and ignores facts that don’t.  Where facts were lacking, the report speculates, with no basis, and then treats its own speculations as if they were fact.  This is clearly not the fair and objective analysis to which any party is entitled, and which we have every right to expect.

OK, maybe they aren’t pulling punches.  The fact that this reply was written with such scathing language despite AT&T’s expectation to have to go right back to the FCC to get approval for this deal in some form or another itself speaks volumes about the undeniable shoddiness of the report.

Cicconi goes on to detail five areas where AT&T thinks the report went seriously awry:  “Expanding LTE to 97% of the U.S. Population,” “Job Gains Versus Losses,” “Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s Parent, Has Serious Investment Constraints,” “Spectrum” and “Competition.”  I have dealt with a few of these issues at some length elsewhere, including most notably here (noting how the FCC’s own wireless competition report “supports what everyone already knows: falling prices, improved quality, dynamic competition and unflagging innovation have led to a golden age of mobile services”), and here (“It is troubling that critics–particularly those with little if any business experience–are so certain that even with no obvious source of additional spectrum suitable for LTE coming from the government any time soon, and even with exponential growth in broadband (including mobile) data use, AT&T’s current spectrum holdings are sufficient to satisfy its business plans”).

What is really galling about the staff report—and, frankly, the basic posture of the agency—is that its criticisms really boil down to one thing:  “We believe there is another way to accomplish (something like) what AT&T wants to do here, and we’d just prefer they do it that way.”  This is central planning at its most repugnant.  What is both assumed and what is lacking in this basic posture is beyond the pale for an allegedly independent government agency—and as Larry Downes notes in the linked article, the agency’s hubris and its politics may have real, costly consequences for all of us.

Competition

But procedure must be followed, and the staff thus musters a technical defense to support its basic position, starting with the claim that the merger will result in too much concentration.  Blinded by its new-found love for HHIs, the staff commits a few blunders.  First, it claims that concentration levels like those in this case “trigger a presumption of harm” to competition, citing the DOJ/FTC Merger Guidelines.  Alas, as even the report’s own footnotes reveal, the Merger Guidelines actually say that highly concentrated markets with HHI increases of 200 or more trigger a presumption that the merger will “enhance market power.”  This is not, in fact, the same thing as harm to competition.  Elsewhere the staff calls this—a merger that increases concentration and gives one firm an “undue” share of the market—“presumptively illegal.”  Perhaps the staff could use an antitrust refresher course.  I’d be happy to come teach it.

Not only is there no actual evidence of consumer harm resulting from the sort of increases in concentration that might result from the merger, but the staff seems to derive its negative conclusions despite the damning fact that the data shows that wireless markets have seen considerable increases in concentration along with considerable decreases in prices, rather than harm to competition, over the last decade.  While high and increasing HHIs might indicate a need for further investigation, when actual evidence refutes the connection between concentration and price, they simply lose their relevance.  Someone should tell the FCC staff.

This is a different Wireless Bureau than the one that wrote so much sensible material in the 15th Annual Wireless Competition Report.  That Bureau described a complex, dynamic, robust mobile “ecosystem” driven not by carrier market power and industrial structure, but by rapid evolution and technological disruptors.  The analysis here wishes away every important factor that every consumer knows to be the real drivers of price and innovation in the mobile marketplace, including, among other things:

  1. Local markets, where there are five, six, or more carriers to choose from;
  2. Non-contract/pre-paid providers, whose strength is rapidly growing;
  3. Technology that is making more bands of available spectrum useful for competitive offerings;
  4. The reality that LTE will make inter-modal competition a reality; and
  5. The reality that churn is rampant and consumer decision-making is driven today by devices, operating systems, applications and content – not networks.

The resulting analysis is stilted and stale, and describes a wireless industry that exists only in the agency’s collective imagination.

There is considerably more to say about the report’s tortured unilateral effects analysis, but it will have to wait for my next post.  Here I want to quickly touch on a two of the other issues called out by Cicconi’s blog post. Continue Reading…