Archives For per se

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

[This post wraps the initial run of Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Over the past three weeks, we have shared contributions from more than a dozen antitrust commentators—including academics, practitioners, students, and a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission—discussing the potential for the FTC to develop substantive rules using its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. This post offers a recap of where we have been so far in this discussion and also discusses what comes next for this symposium and our coverage of these issues.

First, I must express a deep thank you to all who have contributed. Having helped to solicit, review, and edit many of these pieces, it has been a pleasure to engage with and learn from our authors. And second, I am happy to say to everyone: stay tuned! The big news this week is that, after a long wait, Alvaro Bedoya has been confirmed to the commission, likely creating a majority who will support Chair Lina Khan’s agenda. The ideas that we have been discussing as possibilities are likely to be translated into action over the coming weeks and months—and we will be here to continue sharing expert commentary and analysis.

The Symposium Goes On: An Open Call for Contributions

We will continue to run this symposium for the foreseeable future. We will not have daily posts, but we will have regular content: a weekly recap of relevant news, summaries of important FTC activity and new articles and scholarship, and other original content.

In addition, in the spirit of the symposium, we have an open call for contributions: if you would like to submit a piece for publication, please e-mail it to me or Keith Fierro. Submissions should be 1,500-4,000 words and may approach these issues from any perspective. They should be your original work, but may include short-form summaries of longer works published elsewhere, or expanded treatments of shorter publications (e.g., op-eds).

The Symposium So Far

We have covered a lot of ground these past three weeks. Contributors to the symposium have delved deeply into substantive areas where the FTC might try to use its UMC authority; they have engaged with one another over the scope and limits of the FTC’s authority; and they have looked at the FTC’s history, both ancient and recent, to better understand what the FTC may try to do, where it may be successful, and where it may run into a judicial wall.

Over 50,000 words of posts cannot be summarized in a few paragraphs, so I will not try to provide such a summary. The list of contributions to the symposium to date is below and each contribution is worth reading both on its own and in conjunction with others. Instead, I will pull out some themes that have come up across these posts:

Scope of FTC Authority

Unsurprisingly, several authors engaged with the potential scope of FTC UMC-rulemaking authority, with much of the discussion focused on whether the courts are likely to continue to abide the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 1973 Petroleum Refiners opinion. It is fair to say that “opinions varied.” Discussion included everything from modern trends of judicial interpretation and how they differ from those used in 1973, to close readings of the Magnuson-Moss legislation (adopted in the immediate wake of the Petroleum Refiners opinion), and consideration of how more recent cases such as AMG and the D.C. Circuit’s American Library Association case affect our thinking about Petroleum Refiners.

Likely Judicial Responses

Several contributors also considered how the courts might respond to FTC rulemaking, allowing that the commission may have some level of substantive-rulemaking authority. Several authors invoked the Court’s recent “major questions” jurisprudence. Dick Pierce captures the general sentiment that any broad UMC rulemaking “would be a perfect candidate for application of the major questions doctrine.” But as with any discussion of the “major” questions doctrine, the implicit question is when a question is “major.” There seems to be some comfort with the idea that the FTC can do some rulemaking, assuming that the courts find that it has substantive-rulemaking authority under Section 6(g), but that the Commission faces an uncertain path if it tries to use that authority for more than incremental changes to antitrust law.

Virtues and Vices of Rulemaking

A couple of contributors picked up on themes of the virtues and vices of developing legal norms through rulemaking, as opposed to case-by-case adjudication. Aaron Neilson, for instance, argues that the FTC likely most needs to use rules to make bigger changes to antitrust law than are possible through adjudication, but that such big changes are the ones most likely to face resistance from the courts. And FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips looks at the Court’s move away from per se rules in antitrust cases over the past 50 years, arguing that the same logic that has pushed the courts to embrace a case-by-case approach to antitrust law is likely to create judicial resistance to any effort by the FTC to tack an opposite course.

The Substance of Substantive Rules

Several contributors addressed specific substantive issues that the FTC may seek to address with rules. In some cases, these issues formed the heart of the post; in others, they were used as examples along the way. For instance, Josh Sarnoff evaluated whether the FTC should develop rules around aftermarket parts and to address right-to-repair concerns. Dick Pierce also looked at that issue, along with several others (potential rules to address reverse-payment settlements in the pharmaceutical industry, below-cost pricing, and non-compete clauses involving low-wage workers).

Gaining Perspective

And last, but far from least, several contributors asked questions that help to put any thinking about the FTC into perspective. Jonathan Barnett, for instance, looks at the changes the FTC has made over the past year to its public statements of mission and priorities, alongside its potential rulemaking activity, to discuss the commission’s changing thinking about free markets. Ramsi Woodcock juxtaposes the FTC, the statutory framing of its regulatory authority, with the FOMC and its statutory power to directly affect the value of the dollar. And Bill MacLeod takes us back to 1935 and the National Industrial Recovery Act, reflecting on how the history of rules of “fair competition” might inform our thinking about the FTC’s authority today.

That’s a lot of ground to have covered in three weeks. Of course, the FTC will keep moving, and the ground will keep shifting. We look forward to your continued engagement with Truth on the Market and the authors who have contributed to this discussion.

If you wander into an undergraduate economics class on the right day at the right time, you might catch the lecturer talking about Giffen goods: the rare case where demand curves can slope upward. The Irish potato famine is often used as an example. As the story goes, potatoes were a huge part of the Irish diet and consumed a large part of Irish family budgets. A failure of the potato crop reduced the supply of potatoes and potato prices soared. Because families had to spend so much on potatoes, they couldn’t afford much else, so spending on potatoes increased despite rising prices.

It’s a great story of injustice with a nugget of economics: Demand curves can slope upward!

Follow the students around for a few days, and they’ll be looking for Giffen goods everywhere. Surely, packaged ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese are Giffen goods. So are white bread and rice. Maybe even low-end apartments.

While it’s a fun concept to consider, the potato famine story is likely apocryphal. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to find a Giffen good in the real world. My version of Greg Mankiw’s massive “Principles of Economics” textbook devotes five paragraphs to Giffen goods, but it’s not especially relevant, which is perhaps why it’s only five paragraphs.

Wander into another economics class, and you might catch the lecturer talking about monopsony—that is, a market in which a small number of buyers control the price of inputs such as labor. I say “might” because—like Giffen goods—monopsony is an interesting concept to consider, but very hard to find a clear example of in the real world. Mankiw’s textbook devotes only four paragraphs to monopsony, explaining that the book “does not present a formal model of monopsony because, in the world, monopsonies are rare.”

Even so, monopsony is a hot topic these days. It seems that monopsonies are everywhere. Walmart and Amazon are monopsonist employers. So are poultry, pork, and beef companies. Local hospitals monopsonize the market for nurses and physicians. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a monopsony employer of college athletes. Ultimate Fighting Championship has a monopsony over mixed-martial-arts fighters.

In 1994, David Card and Alan Krueger’s earthshaking study found a minimum wage increase had no measurable effect on fast-food employment and retail prices. They investigated monopsony power as one explanation but concluded that a monopsony model was not supported by their findings. They note:

[W]e find that prices of fast-food meals increased in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania, suggesting that much of the burden of the minimum-wage rise was passed on to consumers. Within New Jersey, however, we find no evidence that prices increased more in stores that were most affected by the minimum-wage rise. Taken as a whole, these findings are difficult to explain with the standard competitive model or with models in which employers face supply constraints (e.g., monopsony or equilibrium search models). [Emphasis added]

Even so, the monopsony hunt was on and it intensified during President Barack Obama’s administration. During his term, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) brought suit against several major Silicon Valley employers for anticompetitively entering into agreements not to “poach” programmers and engineers from each other. The administration also brought suit against a hospital association for an agreement to set uniform billing rates for certain nurses. Both cases settled but the Silicon Valley allegations led to a private class-action lawsuit.

In 2016, Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers published an issue brief on labor-market monopsony. The brief concluded that “evidence suggest[s] that firms may have wage-setting power in a broad range of settings.”

Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it intended to “criminally investigate naked no-poaching or wage-fixing agreements that are unrelated or unnecessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers.” The DOJ argued that no-poach agreements that allocate employees between companies are per se unlawful restraints of trade that violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

If one believes that monopsony power is stifling workers’ wages and benefits, then this would be a good first step to build up a body of evidence and precedence. Go after the low-hanging fruit of a conspiracy that is a per se violation of the Sherman Act, secure some wins, and then start probing the more challenging cases.

After several matters that resulted in settlements, the DOJ brought its first criminal wage-fixing case in late 2020. In United States v. Jindal, the government charged two employees of a Texas health-care staffing company of colluding with another staffing company to decrease pay rates for physical therapists and physical-therapist assistants.

The defense in Jindal conceded that that price-fixing was per se illegal under the Sherman Act but argued that prices and wages are two different concepts. Therefore, the defense claimed that, even if it was engaged in wage-fixing, the conduct would not be per se illegal. That was a stretch, and the district court judge was having none of that in ruling that: “The antitrust laws fully apply to the labor markets, and price-fixing agreements among buyers … are prohibited by the Sherman Act.”

Nevertheless, the jury in Jindal found the defendants not guilty of wage-fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, and also not guilty of a related conspiracy charge.

The DOJ also brought criminal no-poach cases against three other health-care companies and their employees: United States v. Surgical Care Affiliates LLC; United States v. Hee; and United States v. DaVita Inc. Each of the indictments alleged no-poach agreements in which defendants conspired with competitors not to recruit each other’s employees. Hee also included wage-fixing allegations.

Before trial, the defense in DaVita filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that no-poach agreements did not amount to illegal market-allocation agreements. Instead, the defense claimed that no-poach agreements were something less restrictive. Rather than a flat-out refusal to hire competitors’ employees, they were more akin to agreeing not to seek out competitors’ employees. As with Jindal, this was too much of a stretch for the judge who ruled that no-poach agreements could be an illegal market-allocation agreement.

A day after the Jindal verdict, the jury in DaVita acquitted the kidney-dialysis provider and its former CEO of charges that they conspired with competitors to suppress competition for employees through no-poach agreements.

The DaVita jurors appeared to be hung up on the definition of “meaningful competition” in the relevant market. The defense presented information showing that, despite any agreements, employees frequently changed jobs among the companies. Thus, it was argued that any agreement did not amount to an allocation of the market for employees.

The prosecution called several corporate executives who testified that the non-solicitation agreements merely required DaVita employees to tell their bosses they were looking for another job before they could be considered for positions at the three alleged co-conspirator companies. Some witnesses indicated that, by informing their bosses, they were able to obtain promotions and/or increased compensation. This was supported by expert testimony concluding that DaVita salaries changed during the alleged conspiracy period at a rate higher than the health-care industry as a whole. This finding is at-odds with a theory that the non-solicitation agreement was designed to stabilize or suppress compensation.

The Jindal and DaVita cases highlight some of the enormous challenges in mounting a labor-monopsonization case. Even if agencies can “win” or get concessions on defining the relevant markets, they still face challenges in establishing that no-poach agreements amount to a “meaningful” restraint of trade. DaVita suggests that a showing of job turnover and/or increased compensation during an alleged conspiracy period may be sufficient to convince a jury that a no-poach agreement may not be anticompetitive and—under certain circumstances—may even be pro-competitive.

For now, the hunt for a monopsony labor market continues its quest, along with the hunt for the ever-elusive Giffen good.

[The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumare developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency. 

This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement.  Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.

Abandoning Competitive Markets

Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes. 

In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.

Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.”  In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al. The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.

These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership. 

In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”

This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition. 

Abandoning the Rule of Reason

In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.

This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications. 

First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.  

Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.

While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.

The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”

Abandoning the Rule of Law

In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction. 

Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.  

This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC (1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority). 

It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.

From Free Markets to Administered Markets

The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice. 

In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.  

This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.

By William Kolasky

Jon Jacobson in his initial posting claims that it would be “hard to find an easier case” than Apple e-Books, and David Balto and Chris Sagers seem to agree. I suppose that would be true if, as Richard Epstein claims, “the general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se unlawful.”

That, however, is not the law, and has not been since William Howard Taft’s 1898 opinion in Addyston Pipe. In his opinion, borrowing from an earlier dissenting opinion by Justice Edward Douglas White in Trans-Missouri Freight Ass’n, Taft surveyed the common law of restraints of trade. He showed that it was already well established in 1898 that even horizontal restraints of trade were not necessarily unlawful if they were ancillary to some legitimate business transaction or arrangement.

Building on that opinion, the Supreme Court, in what is now a long series of decisions beginning with BMI and continuing through Actavis, has made it perfectly clear that even a horizontal restraint cannot be condemned as per se unlawful unless it is a “naked” restraint that, on its face, could not serve any “plausible” procompetitive business purpose. That there are many horizontal arrangements that are not per se unlawful is shown by the DOJ’s own Competitor Collaboration Guidelines, which provide many examples, including joint sales agents.

As I suggested in my initial posting, Apple may have dug its own grave by devoting so much effort to denying the obvious—namely, that it had helped facilitate a horizontal agreement among the publishers, just as the lower courts found. Apple might have had more success had it instead spent more time explaining why it needed a horizontal agreement among the publishers as to the terms on which they would designate Apple as their common sales agent in order for it to successfully enter the e-book market, and why those terms did not amount to a naked horizontal price fixing agreement. Had it done so, Apple likely could have made a stronger case for why a rule of reason review was necessary than it did by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by insisting that its agreements were purely vertical.

By Thomas Hazlett

The Apple e-books case is throwback to Dr. Miles, the 1911 Supreme Court decision that managed to misinterpret the economics of competition and so thwart productive activity for over a century. The active debate here at TOTM reveals why.

The District Court and Second Circuit have employed a per se rule to find that the Apple e-books agreement with five major publishers constituted a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Citing the active cooperation in contract negotiations involving multiple horizontal competitors (publishers) and the Apple offer, which appears to have raised prices paid for e-books, the conclusion that this is a case of horizontal collusion appears a slam dunk to some. “Try as one may,” writes Jonathan Jacobson, “it is hard to find an easier antitrust case than United States v. Apple.”

I’m guessing that that is what Charles Evans Hughes thought about the Dr. Miles case in 1911.

Upon scrutiny, the apparent simplicity in either instance evaporates. Dr. Miles has been revised as per GTE Sylvania, Leegin, and (thanks, Keith Hylton) Business Electronics v. Sharp Electronics. Let’s here look at the pending Apple dispute.

First, the Second Circuit verdict was not only a split decision on application of the per se rule, the dissent ably stated a case for why the Apple e-books deal should be regarded as pro-competitive and, thus, legal.

Second, the price increase cited as determinative occurred in a two-sided market; the fact asserted does not establish a monopolistic restriction of output. Further analysis, as called for under the rule of reason, is needed to flesh out the totality of the circumstances and the net impact of the Apple-publisher agreement on consumer welfare. That includes evidence regarding what happens to total revenues as market structure and prices change.

Third, a new entrant emerged as per the actions undertaken — the agreements pointedly did not “lack…. any redeeming virtue” (Northwest Wholesale Stationers, 1985), the justification for per se illegality. The fact that a new platform — Apple challenging Amazon’s e-book dominance — was both cause and effect of the alleged anti-competitive behavior is a textbook example of ancillarity. The “naked restraints” that publishers might have imposed had Apple not brought new products and alternative content distribution channels into the mix thus dressed up. It is argued by some that the clothes were skimpy. But that fashion statement is what a rule of reason analysis is needed to determine.

Fourth, the successful market foray that came about in the two-sided e-book market is a competitive victory not to be trifled. As the Supreme Court determined in Leegin: A “per se rule cannot be justified by the possibility of higher prices absent a further showing of anticompetitive conduct. The antitrust laws are designed to protect interbrand competition from which lower prices can later result.” The Supreme Court need here overturn U.S. v. Apple as decided by the Second Circuit in order that the “later result” be reasonably examined.

Fifth, lock-in is avoided with a rule of reason. As the Supreme Court said in Leegin:

As courts gain experience considering the effects of these restraints by applying the rule of reason… they can establish the litigation structure to ensure the rule operates to eliminate anticompetitive restraints….

The lock-in, conversely, comes with per se rules that nip the analysis in the bud, assuming simplicity where complexity obtains.

Sixth, Judge Denise Cote, who issued the District Court ruling against Apple, shows why the rule of reason is needed to counter her per se approach:

Here we have every necessary component: with Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise e-book prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition.

But that cannot be “every necessary component.” It is not in Apple’s interest to raise prices, but to lower prices paid. Something more has to be going on. Indeed, in raising prices the judge unwittingly cites an unarguable pro-competitive aspect of Apple’s foray: It is competing with Amazon and bidding resources from a rival. Indeed, the rival is, arguably, an incumbent with market power. This cannot be the end of the analysis. That it is constitutes a throwback to the anti-competitive per se rule of Dr. Miles.

Seventh, in oral arguments at the Second Circuit, Judge Raymond J. Lohier, Jr. directed a question to Justice Department counsel, asking how Apple and the publishers “could have broken Amazon’s monopoly of the e-book market without violating antitrust laws.” The DOJ attorney responded, according to an article in The New Yorker, by advising that

Apple could have let the competition among companies play out naturally without pursuing explicit strategies to push prices higher—or it could have sued, or complained to the Justice Department and to federal regulatory authorities.

But the DOJ itself brought no complaint against Amazon — it, instead, sued Apple. And the admonition that an aggressive innovator should sit back and let things “play out naturally” is exactly what will kill efficiency enhancing “creative destruction.” Moreover, the government’s view that Apple “pursued an explicit strategy to push prices higher” fails to acknowledge that Apple was the buyer. Such as it was, Apple’s effort was to compete, luring content suppliers from a rival. The response of the government is to recommend, on the one hand, litigation it will not itself pursue and, on the other, passive acceptance that avoids market disruption. It displays the error, as Judge Jacobs’ Second Circuit dissent puts it, “That antitrust law is offended by gloves off competition.” Why might innovation not be well served by this policy?

Eighth, the choice of rule of reason does not let Apple escape scrutiny, but applies it to both sides of the argument. It adds important policy symmetry. Dr. Miles impeded efficient market activity for nearly a century. The creation of new platforms in Internet markets ought not to have such handicaps. It should be recalled that, in introducing its iTunes platform and its vertically linked iPod music players, circa 2002, the innovative Apple likewise faced attack from competition policy makers (more in Europe, indeed, than the U.S.). Happily, progress in the law had loosened barriers to business model innovation, and the revolutionary ecosystem was allowed to launch. Key to that progressive step was the bulk bargain struck with music labels. Richard Epstein thinks that such industry-wide dealing now endangers Apple’s more recent platform launch. Perhaps. But there is no reason to jump to that conclusion, and much to find out before we embrace it.

By Chris Sagers

United States v. Apple has fascinated me continually ever since the instantly-sensational complaint was made public, more than three years ago. Just one small, recent manifestation of the larger theme that makes it so interesting is the improbable range of folks who apparently consider certiorari rather likely—not least some commenters here, and even SCOTUSblog, which listed the case on their “Petitions We’re Watching.” It seems improbable, I say, not because reasonable people couldn’t differ on the policy issues. In this day and age somebody pops up to doubt every antitrust case brought against anybody no matter what. Rather, on the traditional criteria, the case just seems really ill-suited for cert.[*]

But it is in keeping with the larger story that people might expect the Court to take this basically hum-drum fact case in which there’s no circuit split. People have been savaging this case since its beginnings, despite the fact that to almost all antitrust lawyers it was such a legal slam dunk that so long as the government could prove its facts, it couldn’t lose.

And so I’m left with questions I’ve been asking since the case came out. Why, given the straightforward facts, nicely fitting a per se standard generally thought to be well-settled, involving conduct that on the elaborate trial record had no plausible effect except a substantial price increase,[**] do so many people hate this case? Why, more specifically, do so many people think there is something special about it, such that it shouldn’t be subject to the same rules that would apply to anybody else who did what these defendants did?

To be clear, I think the case is interesting. Big time. But what is interesting is not its facts or the underlying conduct or anything about book publishing or technological change or any of that. In other words, I don’t think the case is special. Like Jonathan Jacobson, I think it is simple.  What is remarkable is the reactions it has generated, across the political spectrum.

In the years of its pendency, on any number of panels and teleconferences and brown-bags and so on we’ve heard BigLaw corporate defense lawyers talking about the case like they’re Louis Brandeis. The problem, you see, is not a naked horizontal producer cartel coordinated by a retail entrant with a strong incentive to discipline its retail rival. No, no, no. The problem was actually Amazon, and the problem with Amazon was that it is big. Moreover, this case is about entry, they say, and entry is what antitrust is all about. Entry must be good, because numerosity in and of itself is competition. Consider too the number of BigLaw antitrust partners who’ve publicly argued that Amazon is in fact a monopolist, and that it engaged in predatory pricing, of all things.

When has anyone ever heard this group of people talk like that?

For another example, consider how nearly identical have been the views of left-wing critics like the New America Foundation’s Barry Lynn to those of the Second Circuit dissenter in Apple, the genteel, conservative Bush appointee, Judge Dennis Jacobs. They both claim, as essentially their only argument, that Amazon is a powerful firm, which can be tamed only if publishers can set their own retail prices (even if they do so collusively).

And there are so many other examples. The government’s case was condemned by no less than a Democrat and normally pro-enforcement member of the Senate antitrust committee, as it was by two papers as otherwise divergent as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Meanwhile, the damnedest thing about the case, as I’ll show in a second, is that it frequently causes me to talk like Robert Bork.

So what the hell is going on?

I have a theory.  We in America have almost as our defining character, almost uniquely among developed nations, a commitment to markets, competition, and individual enterprise. But we tend to forget until a case like Apple reminds us that markets, when they work as they are supposed to, are machines for producing pain. Firms fail, people lose jobs, valuable institutions—like, perhaps, the paper book—are sometimes lost. And it can be hard to believe that such a free, decentralized mess will somehow magically optimize organization, distribution, and innovation. I think the reason people find a case like Apple hard to support is that, because we find all that loss and anarchy so hard to swallow, we as a people do not actually believe in competition at all.

I think it helps in making this point to work through the individual arguments that the Apple defendants and their supporters have made, in court and out. For my money, what we find is not only that most of the arguments are not really that strong, but that they are the same arguments that all defendants make, all the time. As it turns out, there has never been an antitrust defendant that didn’t think its market was special.

Taking the arguments I’ve heard, roughly in increasing order of plausibility:

  • Should it matter that discipline of Amazon’s aggressive pricing might help keep the publisher defendants in business? Hardly. While the lamentations of the publishers seem overblown—they may be forced to adapt, and it may not be painless, but that is much more likely at the moment than their insolvency—if they are forced out because they cannot compete on a price basis, then that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Econ 101.
  • Was Apple’s entry automatically good just because it was entry? Emphatically no. There is no rule in antitrust that entry is inherently good, and a number of strong rules to the contrary (consider, for example, the very foundation of the Brook Group predation standard, which is that we should provide no legal protection to less efficient competitors, including entrants). That is for a simple reason: entry is good when causes quality-adjusted price to go down. The opposite occurred in Apple[***]
  • Is Amazon the real villain, so obviously that we should allow its suppliers to regulate its power through horizontal cartel? I rather think not. While I have no doubt that Amazon is a dangerous entity, that probably will merit scrutiny on any number of grounds now or in the future, it seems implausible that it priced e-books predatorily, surely not on the legal standard that currently prevails in the United States. In fact, an illuminating theme in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s comprehensive study of the company, was the ubiquity of supplier allegations of Amazon’s predation in all kinds of products, complaints that have gone on throughout the company’s two-decade existence. I don’t believe Amazon is any hero or that it poses no threats, but what it’s done in these cases is just charge lower prices. It’s been able to do so in a sustained manner mainly through innovation in distribution. And in any case, whether Amazon is big and bad or whatever, the right tool to constrain it is not a price fixing cartel. No regulator cares less about the public interest.
  • Does it make the case special in some way that a technological change drove the defendants to their conspiracy? No. The technological change afoot was in effect just a change in costs. It is much cheaper to deliver content electronically than in hard copy, not least because as things have unfolded, consumers have actually paid for and own most of the infrastructure. To that extent there’s nothing different about Apple than any case in which an innovation in production or distribution has given one player a cost advantage. In fact, the publishers’ primary need to defend against pricing of e-books at some measure of their actual cost is that the publishers’ whole structure is devoted to an expensive intermediating function that becomes largely irrelevant with digital distribution.
  • Is there reason to believe that a horizontal cartel orchestrated by a powerful distributor will achieve better quality-adjusted prices, which I take to be Geoff Manne’s overall theme? I mean, come on. This is essentially a species of destructive competition argument, that otherwise healthy markets can be so little trusted efficiently to supply products that customers want that we’ll put the government to a full rule of reason challenge to attack a horizontal cartel? Do we believe in competition at all?
  • Should it matter that valuable cultural institutions may be at risk, including the viability of paper books, independent bookstores, and perhaps the livelihoods of writers or even literature itself? This seems more troubling than the other points, but hardly is unique to the case or a particularly good argument for self-help by cartel. Consider, if you will, another, much older case. The sailing ship industry was thousands of years old and of great cultural and human significance when it met its demise in the 1870s at the hands of the emerging steamship industry. Ships that must await the fickle winds cannot compete with those that can offer the reliable, regular departures that shipper customers desire. There followed a period of desperate price war following which the sail industry was destroyed. That was sad, because tall-masted sailing ships are very swashbuckling and fun, and were entwined in our literature and culture. But should we have allowed the two industries to fix their prices, to preserve sailing ships as a living technology?

There are other arguments, and we could keep working through them one by one, but the end result is the same. The arguments mostly are weak, and even those with a bit more heft do nothing more than pose the problem inherent in that very last point. Healthy markets sometimes produce pain, with genuinely regrettable consequences.  But that just forces us to ask: do we believe in competition or don’t we?

___________

[*] Except possibly for one narrow issue, Apple is at this point emphatically a fact case, and the facts were resolved on an extensive record by an esteemed trial judge, in a long and elaborate opinion, and left undisturbed on appeal (even in the strongly worded dissent). The one narrow issue that is actually a legal one, and that Apple mainly stresses in its petition—whether in the wake of Leegin the hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement can face per se liability—is one on which I guess people could plausibly disagree. But even when that is the case this Court virtually never grants cert. in the absence of a significant circuit split, and here there isn’t one.

Apple points only to one other Circuit decision, the Third Circuit’s Toledo Mack. It is true as Apple argues that a passage in Toledo Mack seemed to read language from Leegin fairly broadly, and to apply even when there is horizontal conspiracy at the retail level. But Toledo Mack was not a hub-and-spoke case. While plaintiff alleged a horizontal conspiracy among retailers of heavy trucks, and Mack Trucks later acquiescence in it, Mack played no role in coordinating the conspiracy. Separately, whether Toledo Mack really conflicts with Apple or not, the law supporting the old per se rule against hub-and-spoke conspiracies is pretty strong (take a look, for example, at pp. 17-18 of the Justice Department’s opposition brief.

So, I suppose one might think there is no distinction between a hub-and-spoke and a case like Toledo Mack, in which a manufacturer merely agreed after the fact to assist an existing retail conspiracy, and that there is therefore a circuit split, but that would be rather in contrast to a lot of Supreme Court authority. On the other hand, if there is some legal difference between a hub-and-spoke and the facts of Toledo Mack, then Toledo Mack is relevant only if it is understood to have read Leegin to apply to all “vertical” conduct, including true hub-and-spoke agreements. But that would be a broad reading indeed of both Leegin and Toledo Mack. It would require believing that Leegin reversed sub silentio a number of important decisions on an issue that was not before the Court in Leegin. It would also make a circuit split out of a point that would be only dicta in Toledo Mack. And yes, yes, yes, I know, Judge Jacobs in dissent below himself said that his panel’s decision created a circuit split with Toledo Mack. But I mean, come on. A circuit split means that two holdings are in conflict, not that one bit of dicta commented on some other bit of dicta.

A whole different reason cert. seems improbable is that the issue presented is whether per se treatment was appropriate. But the trial court specifically found the restraint to have been unreasonable under a rule of reason standard. Of course that wouldn’t preclude the Court from reversing the trial court’s holding that the per se rule applies, but it would render a reversal almost certainly academic in the case actually before the Court.

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing the courts do really surprises me anymore, and there are still four members of the Court, even in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing, who harbor open animosity for antitrust and a strong fondness for Leegin. It is also plausible that those four will see the case Apple’s way, and favor reversing Interstate Circuit (though that seems unlikely to me; read a case like Ticor or North Carolina Dental Examiners if you want to know how Anthony Kennedy feels about naked cartel conduct). But the ideological affinities of the Justices, in and of themselves, just don’t usually turn an otherwise ordinary case into a cert-worthy one.

[**] Yes, yes, yes, Grasshopper, I know, Apple argued that in fact its entry increased quality and consumer choice, and also put on an argument that the output of e-books actually expanded during the period of the publishers’ conspiracy. But, a couple of things. First, as the government observed in some juicy briefing in the case, and Judge Cote found in specific findings, each of Apple’s purported quality enhancements turned out to involve either other firms’ innovations or technological enhancements that appeared in the iPad before Apple ever communicated with the publishers. As for the expanded output argument, it was fairly demolished by the government’s experts, a finding not disturbed even in Judge Jacobs’ dissent.

In any case, any benefit Apple did manage to supply came at the cost of a price increase of fifty freaking percent, across thousands of titles, that were sustained for the entire two years that the conspiracy survived.

[***] There have also been the usual squabbles over factual details that are said to be very important, but these points are especially uninteresting. E.g., the case involved “MFNs” and “agency contracts,” and there is supposed to be some magic in either their vertical nature or the great uncertainty of their consequences that count against per se treatment. There isn’t. Neither the government’s complaint, the district court, nor the Second Circuit attacked the bilateral agreements in and of themselves; on the contrary, both courts emphatically stressed that they only found illegal the horizontal price fixing conspiracy and Apple’s role in coordinating it.

Likewise, some stress that the publisher defendants in fact earned slightly less per price-fixed book under their agency agreements than they had with Apple. Why would they do that, if there weren’t some pro-competitive reason? Simple. The real money in trade publishing was not then or now in the puny e-book sector, but in hard-cover, new-release best sellers, which publishers have long sold at very significant mark-ups over cost. Those margins were threatened by Amazon’s very low e-book prices, and the loss on agency sales was worth it to preserve the real money makers.

The Apple E-Books Antitrust Case: Implications for Antitrust Law and for the Economy — Day 2

February 16, 2016

truthonthemarket.com

We will have a few more posts today to round out the Apple e-books case symposium started yesterday.

You can find all of the current posts, and eventually all of the symposium posts, here. Yesterdays’ posts, in order of posting:

Look for posts a little later today from:

  • Tom Hazlett
  • Morgan Reed
  • Chris Sagers

And possibly a follow-up post or two from some of yesterday’s participants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

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

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

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

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

For a few months I have thought that the Apple eBooks case would find an easy fit within the Supreme Court’s antitrust decisions. The case that seems closest to me is Business Electronics v. Sharp Electronics, an unfortunately under-appreciated piece of antitrust precedent. One sign of its under-appreciation is its absence in some recent editions of antitrust casebooks.

In Business Electronics, the Court looked at a vertical relationship in which a manufacturer agreed with one of its retailers to terminate another retailer for failing to comply with the manufacturer’s suggested minimum prices. The Court held that such an agreement could not be ruled per se illegal unless the plaintiff could prove that the non-terminated retailer had agreed with the manufacturer to set its resale price at some level. The Court was reluctant to apply the per se test to this sort of case because of the potential efficiencies that might justify the manufacturer’s minimum retail prices. To allow some leeway for these efficiencies to be realized, the Court erected a high burden of proof under the per se test. Now, of course, the Court no longer applies the per se test to vertical arrangements like that in Business Electronics because of its decision in Leegin to adopt rule of reason analysis for vertical restraints.

The Apple eBooks case falls under Business Electronics. Apple offered the book publishers a contract that left Amazon with a choice of complying with a pricing system closer to the publisher’s preferences or terminating its relationship with the publishers. In other words, the Apple contract, with its famous most-favored-nations clause, effectively presented Amazon with an ultimatum similar to the one observed in Business Electronics. The ultimatum worked: Amazon was forced to comply with the pricing scheme preferred by the publishers and Apple. It follows from Business Electronics, and from Leegin, that the burden of proof in this case should be set high – a bit higher than the trial court set it in this case. Further, Leegin suggests that rule of reason analysis should apply because the relationship at issue is vertical.

Justice Scalia’s passing may have affected the Apple eBooks case already. Scalia was the author of Business Electronics, and presumably the Supreme Court Justice most likely to have noticed the similarity between Business Electronics and Apple eBooks.

By Andrew Albanese

In October of last year, I had the chance to interview Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry from the stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I asked him whether his 2009 concerns that low e-book prices would devalue the book—the driving factor behind the alleged e-book price-fixing conspiracy—were in the the past. After all, much has changed over the last six years.

Nourry was resolute in his response.

When you lose control over your price point you are on the way to death. We have to be very careful and never think it is behind us. We are still concerned. And I am glad that there is a consensus among major publishers that we should keep control.

As the non-lawyer here, I’m necessarily going to take a slightly different approach to today’s symposium. But I want to be clear, right up front: However the Supreme Court dispatches with Apple’s appeal in it e-book price-fixing case, whether the court declines to take up the appeal, or ultimately reverses, it is going to have little effect on the e-book market.

Even though it triggered a high profile antitrust case, and two years of market sanctions, Apple’s 2010 scheme with publishers to eliminate retail price competition from the e-book market ultimately succeeded. Today, the Big Five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House) now control the consumer prices of their e-books. Apple does not have to worry about the iBookstore being undercut on price by Amazon. And Amazon’s main competitive advantage has been blunted—its $9.99 price on bestselling new release e-books—“that pitiful, paltry price,” as Daily Beast co-founder Tina Brown once called it—is history. Frontlist e-books now retail for as high as $14.99.

So, how is the e-book market faring, post-Apple? It’s been a mixed bag. On one hand, e-book sales from the Big Five publishers declined in 2015. For Nourry’s company, Hachette, digital sales (including digital audio) accounted for 22% of trade sales last year, down from 26% in 2014. So much for Steve Jobs’ 2010 prediction that Apple would usher in a “mainstream e-book revolution.”

On the other hand, print sales are up. Publishers say the dip in e-book sales and the rebound of print is a sign that the book market that is beginning to find its balance. And while they concede that higher e-book prices are clearly playing a role in the market’s re-balancing act, it is still too early to tell to what degree price or other factors are driving format choices in the publishing market.  

For me, the interesting question is where we go from here. In 2016, for the first time in the modern e-book market’s short history, there are no major disruptions on the horizon: no game-changing device like the iPad; no fundamental changes coming in the retail market (like the agency model); no looming negotiations with Amazon (for now); no court-imposed e-book discounting. With fewer thumbs on the scale, the next two years are poised to present the clearest picture yet of the demand for e-books, what prices work, or don’t, the viability of emerging new channels such as subscription access, where the competitive fault lines truly lie.

In that light, the narrow legal question before the Supreme Court in Apple’s appeal—whether a vertical firm that organizes a price-fixing conspiracy among its suppliers can be condemned as per se liable—feels anticlimactic, and largely academic. Sure, there is $400 million in consumer refunds at stake, per Apple’s settlement with the states and consumer class. But here’s what’s not at stake: the future of innovation.

Despite some outstanding work by Apple’s counsel, and some outraged editorials and amicus briefs, this case has never been about innovation, new technology, or novel business arrangements in emerging markets. When the publishers first agreed to Apple’s terms, they had yet to even see an iPad, or the iBookstore. And there is no dispute that the iPad was going to be used as an e-reading device regardless of whether or not Apple got into e-book retailing.

Rather, as Macmillan CEO John Sargent once suggested in an email, the benefit of the iPad was that its launch presented a singular opportunity to change the business model for e-books—to wrest pricing control from Amazon, and to raise e-book prices to levels they considered “rational.” 

While it is a compelling narrative, it seems highly unlikely to me that upholding per se liability in this case would discourage tech companies from innovating or striking novel new arrangements in emerging digital markets. Again, I am no lawyer. But isn’t the greater concern that, if vindicated, Apple’s scheme would essentially serve as a blueprint for large vertical players to work with major suppliers to eliminate retail price competition from nascent markets?

I keep going back to U.S. attorney Mark Ryan’s closing argument at Apple’s trial. Who knows, Ryan argued, how the market would have solved Amazon’s $9.99 problem? That, it seems to me, remains the key question.

Andrew Richard Albanese is Senior Writer for Publishers Weekly and the author of The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight.

As ICLE argued in its amicus brief, the Second Circuit’s ruling in United States v. Apple Inc. is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision, and creates a circuit split with the Third Circuit based on that court’s Toledo Mack ruling. Moreover, the negative consequences of the court’s ruling will be particularly acute for modern, high-technology sectors of the economy, where entrepreneurs planning to deploy new business models will now face exactly the sort of artificial deterrents that the Court condemned in Trinko:

Mistaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Absent review by the Supreme Court to correct the Second Circuit’s error, the result will be less-vigorous competition and a reduction in consumer welfare. The Court should grant certiorari.

The Second Circuit committed a number of important errors in its ruling.

First, as the Supreme Court held in Leegin, condemnation under the per se rule is appropriate

only for conduct that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition… [and] only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue.

Neither is true in this case. The use of MFNs in Apple’s contracts with the publishers and its adoption of the so-called “agency model” for e-book pricing have never been reviewed by the courts in a setting like this one, let alone found to “always or almost always tend to restrict competition.” There is no support in the case law or economic literature for the proposition that agency models or MFNs used to facilitate entry by new competitors in platform markets like this one are anticompetitive.

Second, the court of appeals emphasized that in some cases e-book prices increased after Apple’s entry, and it viewed that fact as strong support for application of the per se rule. But the Court in Leegin made clear that the per se rule is inappropriate where, as here, “prices can be increased in the course of promoting procompetitive effects.”  

What the Second Circuit missed is that competition occurs on many planes other than price; higher prices do not necessarily suggest decreased competition or anticompetitive effects. As Josh Wright points out:

[T]the multi-dimensional nature of competition implies that antitrust analysis seeking to maximize consumer or total welfare must inevitably calculate welfare tradeoffs when innovation and price effects run in opposite directions.

Higher prices may accompany welfare-enhancing “competition on the merits,” resulting in greater investment in product quality, reputation, innovation, or distribution mechanisms.

While the court acknowledged that “[n]o court can presume to know the proper price of an ebook,” its analysis nevertheless rested on the presumption that Amazon’s prices before Apple’s entry were competitive. The record, however, offered no support for that presumption, and thus no support for the inference that post-entry price increases were anticompetitive.

In fact, as Alan Meese has pointed out, a restraint might increase prices precisely because it overcomes a market failure:

[P]roof that a restraint alters price or output when compared to the status quo ante is at least equally consistent with an alternative explanation, namely, that the agreement under scrutiny corrects a market failure and does not involve the exercise or creation of market power. Because such failures can result in prices that are below the optimum, or output that is above it, contracts that correct or attenuate market failure will often increase prices or reduce output when compared to the status quo ante. As a result, proof that such a restraint alters price or other terms of trade is at least equally consistent with a procompetitive explanation, and thus cannot give rise to a prima facie case under settled antitrust doctrine.

Before Apple’s entry, Amazon controlled 90% of the e-books market, and the publishers had for years been unable to muster sufficient bargaining power to renegotiate the terms of their contracts with Amazon. At the same time, Amazon’s pricing strategies as a nascent platform developer in a burgeoning market (that it was, in practical effect, trying to create) likely did not always produce prices that would be optimal under evolving market conditions as the market matured. The fact that prices may have increased following the alleged anticompetitive conduct cannot support an inference that the conduct was anticompetitive.

Third, the Second Circuit also made a mistake in dismissing Apple’s defenses. The court asserted that

this defense — that higher prices enable more competitors to enter a market — is no justification for a horizontal price‐fixing conspiracy.

But the court is incorrect. As Bill Kolasky points out in his post, it is well-accepted that otherwise-illegal agreements that are ancillary to a procompetitive transaction should be evaluated under the rule of reason.

It was not that Apple couldn’t enter unless Amazon’s prices (and its own) were increased. Rather, the contention made by Apple was that it could not enter unless it was able to attract a critical mass of publishers to its platform – a task which required some sharing of information among the publishers – and unless it was able to ensure that Amazon would not artificially lower its prices to such an extent that it would prevent Apple from attracting a critical mass of readers to its platform. The MFN and the agency model were thus ancillary restraints that facilitated the transactions between Apple and the publishers and between Apple and iPad purchasers. In this regard they are appropriately judged under the rule of reason and, under the rule of reason, offer a valid procompetitive justification for the restraints.

And it was the fact of Apple’s entry, not the use of vertical restraints in its contracts, that enabled the publishers to wield the bargaining power sufficient to move Amazon to the agency model. The court itself noted that the introduction of the iPad and iBookstore “gave publishers more leverage to negotiate for alternative sales models or different pricing.” And as Ben Klein noted at trial,

Apple’s entry probably gave the publishers an increased ability to threaten [Amazon sufficiently that it accepted the agency model]…. The MFN [made] a trivial change in the publishers’ incentives…. The big change that occurs is the change on the other side of the bargaining situation after Apple comes in where Amazon now cannot just tell them no.

Fourth, the purpose of applying the per se rule is to root out activities that always or almost always harm competition. Although it’s possible that a horizontal agreement that facilitates entry and increases competition could be subject to the per se rule, in this case its application was inappropriate. The novelty of Apple’s arrangement with the publishers, coupled with the weakness of proof of any sort of actual price fixing fails to meet even a minimal threshold that would require application of the per se rule.

Not all horizontal arrangements are per se illegal. If an arrangement is relatively novel, facilitates entry, and is patently different from naked price fixing, it should be reviewed under the rule of reason. See BMI. All of those conditions are met here.

The conduct of the publishers – distinct from their agreements with Apple – to find some manner of changing their contracts with Amazon is not itself price fixing, either. The prices themselves would be set only subsequent to whatever new contracts were adopted. At worst, the conduct of the publishers in working toward new contracts with Amazon can be characterized as a facilitating practice.

But even then, the precedent of the Court counsels against applying the per se rule to facilitating practices such as the mere dissemination of price information or, as in this case, information regarding the parties’ preferred, bilateral, contractual relationships. As the Second Circuit itself once held, following the Supreme Court,  

[the] exchange of information is not illegal per se, but can be found unlawful under a rule of reason analysis.

In other words, even the behavior of the publishers should be analyzed under a rule of reason – and Apple’s conduct in facilitating that behavior cannot be imbued with complicity in a price-fixing scheme that may not have existed at all.

Fifth, in order for conduct to “eliminate price competition,” there must be price competition to begin with. But as the district court itself noted, the publishers do not compete on price. This point is oft-overlooked in discussions of the case. It is perhaps possible to say that the contract terms at issue and the publishers’ pressure on Amazon affected price competition between Apple and Amazon – but even then it cannot be said to have reduced competition, because, absent Apple’s entry, there was no competition at all between Apple and Amazon.

It’s true that, if all Apple’s entry did was to transfer identical e-book sales from Amazon to Apple, at higher prices and therefore lower output, it might be difficult to argue that Apple’s entry was procompetitive. But the myopic focus on e-book titles without consideration of product differentiation is mistaken, as well.

The relevant competition here is between Apple and Amazon at the platform level. As explained above, it is misleading to look solely at prices in evaluating the market’s competitiveness. Provided that switching costs are low enough and information about the platforms is available to consumers, consumer welfare may have been enhanced by competition between the platforms on a range of non-price dimensions, including, for example: the Apple iBookstore’s distinctive design, Apple’s proprietary file format, features on Apple’s iPad that were unavailable on Kindle Readers, Apple’s use of a range of marketing incentives unavailable to Amazon, and Apple’s algorithmic matching between its data and consumers’ e-book purchases.

While it’s difficult to disentangle Apple’s entry from other determinants of consumers’ demand for e-books, and even harder to establish with certainty the “but-for” world, it is nonetheless telling that the e-book market has expanded significantly since Apple’s entry, and that purchases of both iPads and Kindles have increased, as well.

There is, in other words, no clear evidence that consumers viewed the two products as perfect substitutes, and thus there is no evidence that Apple’s entry merely caused a non-welfare-enhancing substitution from Amazon to Apple. At minimum, there is no basis for treating the contract terms that facilitated Apple’s entry under a per se standard.

***

The point, in sum, is that there is in fact substantial evidence that Apple’ entry was pro-competitive, that there was no price-fixing scheme of which Apple was a part, and absolutely no evidence that the vertical restraints at issue in the case were the sort that should presumptively give rise to liability. Not only was application of the per se rule inappropriate, but, to answer Richard Epstein, there is strong evidence that Apple should win under a rule of reason analysis, as well.