Archives For mergers

In the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on competition policy in the 21st century, Georgetown professor Steven Salop urged greater scrutiny of vertical mergers. He argued that regulators should be skeptical of the claim that vertical integration tends to produce efficiencies that can enhance consumer welfare. In his presentation to the FTC, Professor Salop provided what he viewed as exceptions to this long-held theory.

Also, vertical merger efficiencies are not inevitable. I mean, vertical integration is common, but so is vertical non-integration. There is an awful lot of companies that are not vertically integrated. And we have lots of examples in which vertical integration has failed. Pepsi’s acquisition of KFC and Pizza Hut; you know, of course Coca-Cola has not merged with McDonald’s . . . .

Aside from the logical fallacy of cherry picking examples (he also includes Betamax/VHS and the split up of Alcoa and Arconic, as well as “integration and disintegration” “in cable”), Professor Salop misses the fact that PepsiCo’s 20 year venture into restaurants had very little to do with vertical integration.

Popular folklore says PepsiCo got into fast food because it was looking for a way to lock up sales of its fountain sodas. Soda is considered one of the highest margin products sold by restaurants. Vertical integration by a soda manufacturer into restaurants would eliminate double marginalization with the vertically integrated firm reaping most of the gains. The folklore fits nicely with economic theory. But, the facts may not fit the theory.

PepsiCo acquired Pizza Hut in 1977, Taco Bell in 1978, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1986. Prior to PepsiCo’s purchase, KFC had been owned by spirits company Heublein and conglomerate RJR Nabisco. This was the period of conglomerates—Pillsbury owned Burger King and General Foods owned Burger Chef (or maybe they were vertically integrated into bun distribution).

In the early 1990s Pepsi also bought California Pizza Kitchen, Chevys Fresh Mex, and D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches.

In 1997, PepsiCo exited the restaurant business. It spun off Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC to Tricon Global Restaurants, which would later be renamed Yum! Brands. CPK and Chevy’s were purchased by private equity investors. D’Angelo was sold to Papa Gino’s Holdings, a restaurant chain. Since then, both Chevy’s and Papa Gino’s have filed for bankruptcy and Chevy’s has had some major shake-ups.

Professor Salop’s story focuses on the spin-off as an example of the failure of vertical mergers. But there is also a story of success. PepsiCo was in the restaurant business for two decades. More importantly, it continued its restaurant acquisitions over time. If PepsiCo’s restaurants strategy was a failure, it seems odd that the company would continue acquisitions into the early 1990s.

It’s easy, and largely correct, to conclude that PepsiCo’s restaurant acquisitions involved some degree of vertical integration, with upstream PepsiCo selling beverages to downstream restaurants. At the time PepsiCo bought Kentucky Fried Chicken, the New York Times reported KFC was Coke’s second-largest fountain account, behind McDonald’s.

But, what if vertical efficiencies were not the primary reason for the acquisitions?

Growth in U.S. carbonated beverage sales began slowing in the 1970s. It was also the “decade of the fast-food business.” From 1971 to 1977, Pizza Hut’s profits grew an average of 40% per year. Colonel Sanders sold his ownership in KFC for $2 million in 1964. Seven years later, the company was sold to Heublein for $280 million; PepsiCo paid $850 million in 1986.

Although KFC was Coke’s second largest customer at the time, about 20% of KFC’s stores served Pepsi products, “PepsiCo stressed that the major reason for the acquisition was to expand its restaurant business, which last year accounted for 26 percent of its revenues of $8.1 billion,” according to the New York Times.

Viewed in this light, portfolio diversification goes a much longer way toward explaining PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases than hoped-for vertical efficiencies. In 1997, former PepsiCo chairman Roger Enrico explained to investment analysts that the company entered the restaurant business in the first place, “because it didn’t see future growth in its soft drink and snack” businesses and thought diversification into restaurants would provide expansion opportunities.

Prior to its Pizza Hut and Taco Bell acquisitions, PepsiCo owned companies as diverse as Frito-Lay, North American Van Lines, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Rheingold Brewery. This further supports a diversification theory rather than a vertical integration theory of PepsiCo’s restaurant purchases. 

The mid 1990s and early 2000s were tough times for restaurants. Consumers were demanding healthier foods and fast foods were considered the worst of the worst. This was when Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded as KFC. Debt hangovers from the leveraged buyout era added financial pressure. Many restaurant groups were filing for bankruptcy and competition intensified among fast food companies. PepsiCo’s restaurants could not cover their cost of capital, and what was once a profitable diversification strategy became a financial albatross, so the restaurants were spun off.

Thus, it seems more reasonable to conclude PepsiCo’s exit from restaurants was driven more by market exigencies than by a failure to achieve vertical efficiencies. While the folklore of locking up distribution channels to eliminate double marginalization fits nicely with theory, the facts suggest a more mundane model of a firm scrambling to deliver shareholder wealth through diversification in the face of changing competition.

The Department of Justice announced it has approved the $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Once completed, the deal will create a mobile carrier with around 136 million customers in the U.S., putting it just behind Verizon (158 million) and AT&T (156 million).

While all the relevant federal government agencies have now approved the merger, it still faces a legal challenge from state attorneys general. At the very least, this challenge is likely to delay the merger; if successful, it could scupper it. In this blog post, we evaluate the state AG’s claims (and find them wanting).

Four firms good, three firms bad?

The state AG’s opposition to the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is based on a claim that a competitive mobile market requires four national providers, as articulated in their redacted complaint:

The Big Four MNOs [mobile network operators] compete on many dimensions, including price, network quality, network coverage, and features. The aggressive competition between them has resulted in falling prices and improved quality. The competition that currently takes place across those dimensions, and others, among the Big Four MNOs would be negatively impacted if the Merger were consummated. The effects of the harm to competition on consumers will be significant because the Big Four MNOs have wireless service revenues of more than $160 billion.

. . . 

Market consolidation from four to three MNOs would also serve to increase the possibility of tacit collusion in the markets for retail mobile wireless telecommunications services.

But there are no economic grounds for the assertion that a four firm industry is on a competitive tipping point. Four is an arbitrary number, offered up in order to squelch any further concentration in the industry.

A proper assessment of this transaction—as well as any other telecom merger—requires accounting for the specific characteristics of the markets affected by the merger. The accounting would include, most importantly, the dynamic, fast-moving nature of competition and the key role played by high fixed costs of production and economies of scale. This is especially important given the expectation that the merger will facilitate the launch of a competitive, national 5G network.

Opponents claim this merger takes us from four to three national carriers. But Sprint was never a serious participant in the launch of 5G. Thus, in terms of future investment in general, and the roll-out of 5G in particular, a better characterization is that it this deal takes the U.S. from two to three national carriers investing to build out next-generation networks.

In the past, the capital expenditures made by AT&T and Verizon have dwarfed those of T-Mobile and Sprint. But a combined T-Mobile/Sprint would be in a far better position to make the kinds of large-scale investments necessary to develop a nationwide 5G network. As a result, it is likely that both the urban-rural digital divide and the rich-poor digital divide will decline following the merger. And this investment will drive competition with AT&T and Verizon, leading to innovation, improving service and–over time–lowering the cost of access.

Is prepaid a separate market?

The state AGs complain that the merger would disproportionately affect consumers of prepaid plans, which they claim constitutes a separate product market:

There are differences between prepaid and postpaid service, the most notable being that individuals who cannot pass a credit check and/or who do not have a history of bill payment with a MNO may not be eligible for postpaid service. Accordingly, it is informative to look at prepaid mobile wireless telecommunications services as a separate segment of the market for mobile wireless telecommunications services.

Claims that prepaid services constitute a separate market are questionable, at best. While at one time there might have been a fairly distinct divide between pre and postpaid markets, today the line between them is at least blurry, and may not even be a meaningful divide at all.

To begin with, the arguments regarding any expected monopolization in the prepaid market appear to assume that the postpaid market imposes no competitive constraint on the prepaid market. 

But that can’t literally be true. At the very least, postpaid plans put a ceiling on prepaid prices for many prepaid users. To be sure, there are some prepaid consumers who don’t have the credit history required to participate in the postpaid market at all. But these are inframarginal consumers, and they will benefit from the extent of competition at the margins unless operators can effectively price discriminate in ways they have not in the past, and which has not been demonstrated is possible or likely.

One source of this competition will come from Dish, which has been a vocal critic of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Under the deal with DOJ, T-Mobile and Sprint must spin-off Sprint’s prepaid businesses to Dish. The divested products include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Sprint prepaid. Moreover the deal requires Dish be allowed to use T-Mobile’s network during a seven-year transition period. 

Will the merger harm low-income consumers?

While the states’ complaint alleges that low-income consumers will suffer, it pays little attention to the so-called “digital divide” separating urban and rural consumers. This seems curious given the attention it was given in submissions to the federal agencies. For example, the Communication Workers of America opined:

the data in the Applicants’ Public Interest Statement demonstrates that even six years after a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, “most of New T-Mobile’s rural customers would be forced to settle for a service that has significantly lower performance than the urban and suburban parts of the network.” The “digital divide” is likely to worsen, not improve, post-merger.

This is merely an assertion, and a misleading assertion. To the extent the “digital divide” would grow following the merger, it would be because urban access will improve more rapidly than rural access would improve. 

Indeed, there is no real suggestion that the merger will impede rural access relative to a world in which T-Mobile and Sprint do not merge. 

And yet, in the absence of a merger, Sprint would be less able to utilize its own spectrum in rural areas than would the merged T-Mobile/Sprint, because utilization of that spectrum would require substantial investment in new infrastructure and additional, different spectrum. And much of that infrastructure and spectrum is already owned by T-Mobile. 

It likely that the combined T-Mobile/Sprint will make that investment, given the cost savings that are expected to be realized through the merger. So, while it might be true that urban customers will benefit more from the merger, rural customers will also benefit. It is impossible to know, of course, by exactly how much each group will benefit. But, prima facie, the prospect of improvement in rural access seems a strong argument in favor of the merger from a public interest standpoint.

The merger is also likely to reduce another digital divide: that between wealthier and poorer consumers in more urban areas. The proportion of U.S. households with access to the Internet has for several years been rising faster among those with lower incomes than those with higher incomes, thereby narrowing this divide. Since 2011, access by households earning $25,000 or less has risen from 52% to 62%, while access among the U.S. population as a whole has risen only from 72% to 78%. In part, this has likely resulted from increased mobile access (a greater proportion of Americans now access the Internet from mobile devices than from laptops), which in turn is the result of widely available, low-cost smartphones and the declining cost of mobile data.

Concluding remarks

By enabling the creation of a true, third national mobile (phone and data) network, the merger will almost certainly drive competition and innovation that will lead to better services at lower prices, thereby expanding access for all and, if current trends hold, especially those on lower incomes. Beyond its effect on the “digital divide” per se, the merger is likely to have broadly positive effects on access more generally.

There’s always a reason to block a merger:

  • If a firm is too big, it will be because it is “a merger for monopoly”;
  • If the firms aren’t that big, it will be for “coordinated effects”;
  • If a firm is small, then it will be because it will “eliminate a maverick”.

It’s a version of Ronald Coase’s complaint about antitrust, as related by William Landes:

Ronald said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down, they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same, they said it was tacit collusion.

Of all the reasons to block a merger, the maverick notion is the weakest, and it’s well past time to ditch it.

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines define a “maverick” as “a firm that plays a disruptive role in the market to the benefit of customers.” According to the Guidelines, this includes firms:

  1. With a new technology or business model that threatens to disrupt market conditions;
  2. With an incentive to take the lead in price cutting or other competitive conduct or to resist increases in industry prices;
  3. That resist otherwise prevailing industry norms to cooperate on price setting or other terms of competition; and/or
  4. With an ability and incentive to expand production rapidly using available capacity to “discipline prices.”

There appears to be no formal model of maverick behavior that does not rely on some a priori assumption that the firm is a maverick.

For example, John Kwoka’s 1989 model assumes the maverick firm has different beliefs about how competing firms would react if the maverick varies its output or price. Louis Kaplow and Carl Shapiro developed a simple model in which the firm with the smallest market share may play the role of a maverick. They note, however, that this raises the question—in a model in which every firm faces the same cost and demand conditions—why would there be any variation in market shares? The common solution, according to Kaplow and Shapiro, is cost asymmetries among firms. If that is the case, then “maverick” activity is merely a function of cost, rather than some uniquely maverick-like behavior.

The idea of the maverick firm requires that the firm play a critical role in the market. The maverick must be the firm that outflanks coordinated action or acts as a bulwark against unilateral action. By this loosey goosey definition of maverick, a single firm can make the difference between success or failure of anticompetitive behavior by its competitors. Thus, the ability and incentive to expand production rapidly is a necessary condition for a firm to be considered a maverick. For example, Kaplow and Shapiro explain:

Of particular note is the temptation of one relatively small firm to decline to participate in the collusive arrangement or secretly to cut prices to serve, say, 4% rather than 2% of the market. As long as price cuts by a small firm are less likely to be accurately observed or inferred by the other firms than are price cuts by larger firms, the presence of small firms that are capable of expanding significantly is especially disruptive to effective collusion.

A “maverick” firm’s ability to “discipline prices” depends crucially on its ability to expand output in the face of increased demand for its products. Similarly, the other non-maverick firms can be “disciplined” by the maverick only in the face of a credible threat of (1) a noticeable drop in market share that (2) leads to lower profits.

The government’s complaint in AT&T/T-Mobile’s 2011 proposed merger alleges:

Relying on its disruptive pricing plans, its improved high-speed HSPA+ network, and a variety of other initiatives, T-Mobile aimed to grow its nationwide share to 17 percent within the next several years, and to substantially increase its presence in the enterprise and government market. AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile would eliminate the important price, quality, product variety, and innovation competition that an independent T-Mobile brings to the marketplace.

At the time of the proposed merger, T-Mobile accounted for 11% of U.S. wireless subscribers. At the end of 2016, its market share had hit 17%. About half of the increase can be attributed to its 2012 merger with MetroPCS. Over the same period, Verizon’s market share increased from 33% to 35% and AT&T market share remained stable at 32%. It appears that T-Mobile’s so-called maverick behavior did more to disrupt the market shares of smaller competitors Sprint and Leap (which was acquired by AT&T). Thus, it is not clear, ex post, that T-Mobile posed any threat to AT&T or Verizon’s market shares.

Geoffrey Manne raised some questions about the government’s maverick theory which also highlights a fundamental problem with the willy nilly way in which firms are given the maverick label:

. . . it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price—there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price. I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.

While T-Mobile had a reputation for lower mobile prices, in 2011, the firm was lagging behind Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T in the rollout of 4G technology. In other words, T-Mobile was offering an inferior product at a lower price. That’s not a maverick, that’s product differentiation with hedonic pricing.

More recently, in his opposition to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge asserts that both firms are mavericks and their combination would cause their maverick magic to disappear:

Sprint, also, can be seen as a maverick. It has offered “unlimited” plans and simplified its rate plans, for instance, driving the rest of the industry forward to more consumer-friendly options. As Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure stated, “Sprint and T-Mobile have similar DNA and have eliminated confusing rate plans, converging into one rate plan: Unlimited.” Whether both or just one of the companies can be seen as a “maverick” today, in either case the newly combined company would simply have the same structural incentives as the larger carriers both Sprint and T-Mobile today work so hard to differentiate themselves from.

Kimmelman provides no mechanism by which the magic would go missing, but instead offers a version of an adversity-builds-character argument:

Allowing T-Mobile to grow to approximately the same size as AT&T, rather than forcing it to fight for customers, will eliminate the combined company’s need to disrupt the market and create an incentive to maintain the existing market structure.

For 30 years, the notion of the maverick firm has been a concept in search of a model. If the concept cannot be modeled decades after being introduced, maybe the maverick can’t be modeled.

What’s left are ad hoc assertions mixed with speculative projections in hopes that some sympathetic judge can be swayed. However, some judges seem to be more skeptical than sympathetic, as in H&R Block/TaxACT :

The parties have spilled substantial ink debating TaxACT’s maverick status. The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a “maverick” — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis. The government even put forward as supposed evidence a TaxACT promotional press release in which the company described itself as a “maverick.” This type of evidence amounts to little more than a game of semantic gotcha. Here, the record is clear that while TaxACT has been an aggressive and innovative competitor in the market, as defendants admit, TaxACT is not unique in this role. Other competitors, including HRB and Intuit, have also been aggressive and innovative in forcing companies in the DDIY market to respond to new product offerings to the benefit of consumers.

It’s time to send the maverick out of town and into the sunset.

 

Thomas Wollmann has a new paper — “Stealth Consolidation: Evidence from an Amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act” — in American Economic Review: Insights this month. Greg Ip included this research in an article for the WSJ in which he claims that “competition has declined and corporate concentration risen through acquisitions often too small to draw the scrutiny of antitrust watchdogs.” In other words, “stealth consolidation”.

Wollmann’s study uses a difference-in-differences approach to examine the effect on merger activity of the 2001 amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (15 U.S.C. 18a). The amendment abruptly increased the pre-merger notification threshold from $15 million to $50 million in deal size. Strictly on those terms, the paper shows that raising the pre-merger notification threshold increased merger activity.

However, claims about “stealth consolidation” are controversial because they connote nefarious intentions and anticompetitive effects. As Wollmann admits in the paper, due to data limitations, he is unable to show that the new mergers are in fact anticompetitive or that the social costs of these mergers exceed the social benefits. Therefore, more research is needed to determine the optimal threshold for pre-merger notification rules, and claiming that harmful “stealth consolidation” is occurring is currently unwarranted.

Background: The “Unscrambling the Egg” Problem

In general, it is more difficult to unwind a consummated anticompetitive merger than it is to block a prospective anticompetitive merger. As Wollmann notes, for example, “El Paso Natural Gas Co. acquired its only potential rival in a market” and “the government’s challenge lasted 17 years and involved seven trips to the Supreme Court.”

Rolling back an anticompetitive merger is so difficult that it came to be known as “unscrambling the egg.” As William J. Baer, a former director of the Bureau of Competition at the FTC, described it, “there were strong incentives for speedily and surreptitiously consummating suspect mergers and then protracting the ensuing litigation” prior to the implementation of a pre-merger notification rule. These so-called “midnight mergers” were intended to avoid drawing antitrust scrutiny.

In response to this problem, Congress passed the Hart–Scott–Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, which required companies to notify antitrust authorities of impending mergers if they exceeded certain size thresholds.

2001 Hart–Scott–Rodino Amendment

In 2001, Congress amended the HSR Act and effectively raised the threshold for premerger notification from $15 million in acquired firm assets to $50 million. This sudden and dramatic change created an opportunity to use a difference-in-differences technique to study the relationship between filing an HSR notification and merger activity.

According to Wollmann, here’s what notifications look like for never-exempt mergers (>$50M):

And here’s what notifications for newly-exempt ($15M < X < $50M) mergers look like:

So what does that mean for merger investigations? Here is the number of investigations into never-exempt mergers:

We see a pretty consistent relationship between number of mergers and number of investigations. More mergers means more investigations.  

How about for newly-exempt mergers?

Here, investigations go to zero while merger activity remains relatively stable. In other words, it appears that some mergers that would have been investigated had they required an HSR notification were not investigated.

Wollmann then uses four-digit SIC code industries to sort mergers into horizontal and non-horizontal categories. Here are never-exempt mergers:

He finds that almost all of the increase in merger activity (relative to the counterfactual in which the notification threshold were unchanged) is driven by horizontal mergers. And here are newly-exempt mergers:

Policy Implications & Limitations

The charts show a stark change in investigations and merger activity. The difference-in-differences methodology is solid and the author addresses some potential confounding variables (such as presidential elections). However, the paper leaves the broader implications for public policy unanswered.

Furthermore, given the limits of the data in this analysis, it’s not possible for this approach to explain competitive effects in the relevant antitrust markets, for three reasons:

Four-digit SIC code industries are not antitrust markets

Wollmann chose to classify mergers “as horizontal or non-horizontal based on whether or not the target and acquirer operate in the same four-digit SIC code industry, which is common convention.” But as Werden & Froeb (2018) notes, four-digit SIC code industries are orders of magnitude too large in most cases to be useful for antitrust analysis:

The evidence from cartel cases focused on indictments from 1970–80. Because the Justice Department prosecuted many local cartels, for 52 of the 80 indictments examined, the Commerce Quotient was less than 0.01, i.e., the SIC 4-digit industry was at least 100 times the apparent scope of the affected market.  Of the 80 indictments, 19 involved SIC 4-digit industries that had been thought to comport well with markets, so these were the most instructive. For  16 of the 19, the SIC 4-digit industry was at least 10 times the apparent scope of the affected market (i.e., the Commerce Quotient was less than 0.1).

Antitrust authorities do not rely on SIC 4-digit industry codes and instead establish a market definition based on the facts of each case. It is not possible to infer competitive effects from census data as Wollmann attempts to do.

The data cannot distinguish between anticompetitive mergers and procompetitive mergers

As Wollmann himself notes, the results tell us nothing about the relative costs and benefits of the new HSR policy:

Even so, these findings do not on their own advocate for one policy over another. To do so requires equating industry consolidation to a specific amount of economic harm and then comparing the resulting figure to the benefits derived from raising thresholds, which could be large. Even if the agencies ignore the reduced regulatory burden on firms, introducing exemptions can free up agency resources to pursue other cases (or reduce public spending). These and related issues require careful consideration but simply fall outside the scope of the present work.

For instance, firms could be reallocating merger activity to targets below the new threshold to avoid erroneous enforcement or they could be increasing merger activity for small targets due to reduced regulatory costs and uncertainty.

The study is likely underpowered for effects on blocked mergers

While the paper provides convincing evidence that investigations of newly-exempt mergers decreased dramatically following the change in the notification threshold, there is no equally convincing evidence of an effect on blocked mergers. As Wollmann points out, blocked mergers were exceedingly rare both before and after the Amendment (emphasis added):

Over 57,000 mergers comprise the sample, which spans eighteen years. The mean number of mergers each year is 3,180. The DOJ and FTC receive 31,464 notifications over this period, or 1,748 per year. Also, as stated above, blocked mergers are very infrequent: there are on average 13 per year pre-Amendment and 9 per-year post-Amendment.

Since blocked mergers are such a small percentage of total mergers both before and after the Amendment, we likely cannot tell from the data whether actual enforcement action changed significantly due to the change in notification threshold.

Greg Ip’s write-up for the WSJ includes some relevant charts for this issue. Ironically for a piece about the problems of lax merger review, the accompanying graphs show merger enforcement actions slightly increasing at both the FTC and the DOJ since 2001:

Source: WSJ

Overall, Wollmann’s paper does an effective job showing how changes in premerger notification rules can affect merger activity. However, due to data limitations, we cannot conclude anything about competitive effects or enforcement intensity from this study.

On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Is Amazon’s Appetite Bottomless? The Whole Foods Merger After One Year — that looked at the concerns surrounding the closing of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, and how those concerns had played out over the last year.

The difficulty presented by the merger was, in some ways, its lack of difficulty: Even critics, while hearkening back to the Brandeisian fear of large firms, had little by way of legal objection to offer against the merger. Despite the acknowledged lack of an obvious legal basis for challenging the merger, most critics nevertheless expressed a somewhat inchoate and generalized concern that the merger would hasten the death of brick-and-mortar retail and imperil competition in the grocery industry. Critics further pointed to particular, related issues largely outside the scope of modern antitrust law — issues relating to the presumed effects of the merger on “localism” (i.e., small, local competitors), retail workers, startups with ancillary businesses (e.g., delivery services), data collection and use, and the like.

Steven Horwitz opened the symposium with an insightful and highly recommended post detailing the development of the grocery industry from its inception. Tracing through that history, Horwitz was optimistic that

Viewed from the long history of the evolution of the grocery store, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger made sense as the start of the next stage of that historical process. The combination of increased wealth that is driving the demand for upscale grocery stores, and the corresponding increase in the value of people’s time that is driving the demand for one-stop shopping and various forms of pick-up and delivery, makes clear the potential benefits of this merger.

Others in the symposium similarly acknowledged the potential transformation of the industry brought on by the merger, but challenged the critics’ despairing characterization of that transformation (Auer, Manne & Stout, Rinehart, Fruits, Atkinson).

At the most basic level, it was noted that, in the immediate aftermath of the merger, Whole Foods dropped prices across a number of categories as it sought to shore up its competitive position (Auer). Further, under relevant antitrust metrics — e.g., market share, ease of competitive entry, potential for exclusionary conduct — the merger was completely unobjectionable under existing doctrine (Fruits).

To critics’ claims that Amazon in general, and the merger in particular, was decimating the retail industry, several posts discussed the updated evidence suggesting that retail is not actually on the decline (although some individual retailers are certainly struggling to compete) (Auer, Manne & Stout). Moreover, and following from Horwitz’s account of the evolution of the grocery industry, it appears that the actual trajectory of the industry is not an either/or between online and offline, but instead a movement toward integrating both models into a single retail experience (Manne & Stout). Further, the post-merger flurry of business model innovation, venture capital investment, and new startup activity demonstrates that, confronted with entrepreneurial competitors like Walmart, Kroger, Aldi, and Instacart, Amazon’s impressive position online has not translated into an automatic domination of the traditional grocery industry (Manne & Stout).  

Symposium participants more circumspect about the merger suggested that Amazon’s behavior may be laying the groundwork for an eventual monopsony case (Sagers). Further, it was suggested, a future Section 2 case, difficult under prevailing antitrust orthodoxy, could be brought with a creative approach to market definition in light of Amazon’s conduct with its marketplace participants, its aggressive ebook contracting practices, and its development and roll-out of its own private label brands (Sagers).

Skeptics also picked up on early critics’ concerns about the aggregation of large amounts of consumer data, and worried that the merger could be part of a pattern representing a real, long-term threat to consumers that antitrust does not take seriously enough (Bona & Levitsky). Sounding a further alarm, Hal Singer noted that Amazon’s interest in pushing into new markets with data generated by, for example, devices like its Echo line could bolster its ability to exclude competitors.

More fundamentally, these contributors echoed the merger critics’ concerns that antitrust does not adequately take account of other values such as “promoting local, community-based, organic food production or ‘small firms’ in general.” (Bona & Levitsky; Singer).

Rob Atkinson, however, pointed out that these values are idiosyncratic and not likely shared by the vast majority of the population — and that antitrust law shouldn’t have anything to do with them:

In short, most of the opposition to Amazon/Whole Foods merger had little or nothing to do with economics and consumer welfare. It had everything to do with a competing vision for the kind of society we want to live in. The neo-Brandesian opponents, who Lind and I term “progressive localists”, seek an alternative economy predominantly made up of small firms, supported by big government and protected from global competition.

And Dirk Auer noted that early critics’ prophecies of foreclosure of competition through “data leveraging” and below-cost pricing hadn’t remotely come to pass, thus far.

Meanwhile, other contributors noted the paucity of evidence supporting many of these assertions, and pointed out the manifest value the merger seemed to be creating by pressuring competitors to adapt and better respond to consumers’ preferences (Horwitz, Rinehart, Auer, Fruits, Manne & Stout) — in the process shoring up, rather than killing, even smaller retailers that are willing and able to evolve with changing technology and shifting consumer preferences. “For all the talk of retail dying, the stores that are actually dying are the ones that fail to cater to their customers, not the ones that happen to be offline” (Manne & Stout).

At the same time, not all merger skeptics were moved by the Neo-Brandeisian assertions. Chris Sagers, for example, finds much of the populist antitrust objection more public relations than substance. He suggested perhaps not taking these ideas and their promoters so seriously, and instead focusing on antitrust advocates with “real ideas” (like Sagers himself, of course).

Coming from a different angle, Will Rinehart also suggested not taking the criticisms too seriously, pointing to the evolving and complicated effects of the merger as Exhibit A for the need for regulatory humility:

Finally, this deal reiterates the need for regulatory humility. Almost immediately after the Amazon-Whole Foods merger was closed, prices at the store dropped and competitors struck a flurry of deals. Investments continue and many in the grocery retail space are bracing for a wave of enhancement to take hold. Even some of the most fierce critics of deal will have to admit there is a lot of uncertainty. It is unclear what business model will make the most sense in the long run, how these technologies will ultimately become embedded into production processes, and how consumers will benefit. Combined, these features underscore the difficulty, but the necessity, in implementing dynamic insights into antitrust institutions.

Offering generous praise for this symposium (thanks, Will!) and echoing the points made by other participants regarding the dynamic and unknowable course of competition (Auer, Horwitz, Manne & Stout, Fruits), Rinehart concludes:

Retrospectives like this symposium offer a chance to understand what the discussion missed at the time and what is needed to better understand innovation and competition in markets. While it might be too soon to close the book on this case, the impact can already be felt in the positions others are taking in response. In the end, the deal probably won’t be remembered for extending Amazon’s dominance into another market because that is a phantom concern. Rather, it will probably be best remembered as the spark that drove traditional retail outlets to modernize their logistics and fulfillment efforts.  

For a complete rundown of the arguments both for and against, the full archive of symposium posts from our outstanding and diverse group of scholars, practitioners, and other experts is available at this link, and individual posts can be easily accessed by clicking on the authors’ names below.

We’d like to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions!

 

What actually happened in the year following the merger is nearly the opposite: Competition among grocery stores has been more fierce than ever. “Offline” retailers are expanding — and innovating — to meet Amazon’s challenge, and many of them are booming. Disruption is never neat and tidy, but, in addition to saving Whole Foods from potential oblivion, the merger seems to have lit a fire under the rest of the industry.
This result should not be surprising to anyone who understands the nature of the competitive process. But it does highlight an important lesson: competition often comes from unexpected quarters and evolves in unpredictable ways, emerging precisely out of the kinds of adversity opponents of the merger bemoaned.

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So why this deal, in this symposium, and why now? The best substantive reason I could think of is admittedly one that I personally find important. As I said, I think we should take it much more seriously as a general matter, especially in highly dynamic contexts like Silicon Valley. There has been a history of arguably pre-emptive, market-occupying vertical and conglomerate acquisitions, by big firms of smaller ones that are technologically or otherwise disruptive. The idea is that the big firms sit back and wait as some new market develops in some adjacent sector. When that new market ripens to the point of real promise, the big firm buys some significant incumbent player. The aim is not. just to facilitate its own benevolent, wholesome entry, but to set up hopefully prohibitive challenges to other de novo entrants. Love it or leave it, that theory plausibly characterizes lots and lots of acquisitions in recent decades that secured easy antitrust approval, precisely because they weren’t obviously, presently horizontal. Many people think that is true of some of Amazon’s many acquisitions, like its notoriously aggressive, near-hostile takeover of Diapers.com.

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Amazon offers Prime discounts to Whole Food customers and offers free delivery for Prime members. Those are certainly consumer benefits. But with those comes a cost, which may or may not be significant. By bundling its products with collective discounts, Amazon makes it more attractive for shoppers to shift their buying practices from local stores to the internet giant. Will this eventually mean that local stores will become more inefficient, based on lower volume, and will eventually close? Do most Americans care about the potential loss of local supermarkets and specialty grocers? No one, including antitrust enforcers, seems to have asked them.

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The gist of these arguments is simple. The Amazon / Whole Foods merger would lead to the exclusion of competitors, with Amazon leveraging its swaths of data and pricing below costs. All of this begs a simple question: have these prophecies come to pass?

The problem with antitrust populism is not just that it leads to unfounded predictions regarding the negative effects of a given business practice. It also ignores the significant gains which consumers may reap from these practices. The Amazon / Whole foods offers a case in point.

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Even with these caveats, it’s still worth looking at the recent trends. Whole Foods’s sales since 2015 have been flat, with only low single-digit growth, according to data from Second Measure. This suggests Whole Foods is not yet getting a lift from the relationship. However, the percentage of Whole Foods’ new customers who are Prime Members increased post-merger, from 34 percent in June 2017 to 41 percent in June 2018. This suggests that Amazon’s platform is delivering customers to Whole Foods.

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The negativity that surrounded the deal at its announcement made Whole Foods seem like an innocent player, but it is important to recall that they were hemorrhaging and were looking to exit. Throughout the 2010s, the company lost its market leading edge as others began to offer the same kinds of services and products. Still, the company was able to sell near the top of its value to Amazon because it was able to court so many suitors. Given all of these features, Whole Foods could have been using the exit as a mechanism to appropriate another firm’s rent.

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Brandeis is back, with today’s neo-Brandeisians reflexively opposing virtually all mergers involving large firms. For them, industry concentration has grown to crisis proportions and breaking up big companies should be the animating goal not just of antitrust policy but of U.S. economic policy generally. The key to understanding the neo-Brandeisian opposition to the Whole Foods/Amazon mergers is that it has nothing to do with consumer welfare, and everything to do with a large firm animus. Sabeel Rahman, a Roosevelt Institute scholar, concedes that big firms give us higher productivity, and hence lower prices, but he dismisses the value of that. He writes, “If consumer prices are our only concern, it is hard to see how Amazon, Comcast, and companies such as Uber need regulation.” And this gets to the key point regarding most of the opposition to the merger: it had nothing to do with concerns about monopolistic effects on economic efficiency or consumer prices.  It had everything to do with opposition to big firm for the sole reason that they are big.

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