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Although not always front page news, International Trade Commission (“ITC”) decisions can have major impacts on trade policy and antitrust law. Scott Kieff, a former ITC Commissioner, recently published a thoughtful analysis of Certain Carbon and Alloy Steel Products — a potentially important ITC investigation that implicates the intersection of these two policy areas. Scott was on the ITC when the investigation was initiated in 2016, but left in 2017 before the decision was finally issued in March of this year.

Perhaps most important, the case highlights an uncomfortable truth:

Sometimes (often?) Congress writes really bad laws and promotes really bad policies, but administrative agencies can do more harm to the integrity of our legal system by abusing their authority in an effort to override those bad policies.

In this case, that “uncomfortable truth” plays out in the context of the ITC majority’s effort to override Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 by limiting the ability of the ITC to investigate alleged violations of the Act rooted in antitrust.

While we’re all for limiting the ability of competitors to use antitrust claims in order to impede competition (as one of us has noted: “Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions”), it is inappropriate to make an end-run around valid and unambiguous legislation in order to do so — no matter how desirable the end result. (As the other of us has noted: “Attempts to [effect preferred policies] through any means possible are rational actions at an individual level, but writ large they may undermine the legal fabric of our system and should be resisted.”)

Brief background

Under Section 337, the ITC is empowered to, among other things, remedy

Unfair methods of competition and unfair acts in the importation of articles… into the United States… the threat or effect of which is to destroy or substantially injure an industry in the United States… or to restrain or monopolize trade and commerce in the United States.

In Certain Carbon and Alloy Steel Products, the ITC undertook an investigation — at the behest of U.S. Steel Corporation — into alleged violations of Section 337 by the Chinese steel industry. The complaint was based upon a number of claims, including allegations of price fixing.

As ALJ Lord succinctly summarizes in her Initial Determination:

For many years, the United States steel industry has complained of unfair trade practices by manufacturers of Chinese steel. While such practices have resulted in the imposition of high tariffs on certain Chinese steel products, U.S. Steel seeks additional remedies. The complaint by U.S. Steel in this case attempts to use section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 to block all Chinese carbon and alloy steel from coming into the United States. One of the grounds that U.S. Steel relies on is the allegation that the Chinese steel industry violates U.S. antitrust laws.

The ALJ dismissed the antitrust claims (alleging violations of the Sherman Act), however, concluding that they failed to allege antitrust injury as required by US courts deciding Sherman Act cases brought by private parties under the Clayton Act’s remedial provisions:

Under federal antitrust law, it is firmly established that a private complainant must show antitrust standing [by demonstrating antitrust injury]. U.S. Steel has not alleged that it has antitrust standing or the facts necessary to establish antitrust standing and erroneously contends it need not have antitrust standing to allege the unfair trade practice of restraining trade….

In its decision earlier this year, a majority of ITC commissioners agreed, and upheld the ALJ’s Initial Determination.

In comments filed with the ITC following the ALJ’s Initial Determination, we argued that the ALJ erred in her analysis:

Because antitrust injury is not an express requirement imposed by Congress, because ITC processes differ substantially from those of Article III courts, and because Section 337 is designed to serve different aims than private antitrust litigation, the Commission should reinstate the price fixing claims and allow the case to proceed.

Unfortunately, in upholding the Initial Determination, the Commission compounded this error, and also failed to properly understand the goals of the Tariff Act, and, by extension, its own role as arbiter of “unfair” trade practices.

A tale of two statutes

The case appears to turn on an arcane issue of adjudicative process in antitrust claims brought under the antitrust laws in federal court, on the one hand, versus antitrust claims brought under the Section 337 of the Tariff Act at the ITC, on the other. But it is actually about much more: the very purposes and structures of those laws.

The ALJ notes that

[The Chinese steel manufacturers contend that] under antitrust law as currently applied in federal courts, it has become very difficult for a private party like U.S. Steel to bring an antitrust suit against its competitors. Steel accepts this but says the law under section 337 should be different than in federal courts.

And as the ALJ further notes, this highlights the differences between the two regimes:

The dispute between U.S. Steel and the Chinese steel industry shows the conflict between section 337, which is intended to protect American industry from unfair competition, and U.S. antitrust laws, which are intended to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, even if such competition harms competitors.

Nevertheless, the ALJ (and the Commission) holds that antitrust laws must be applied in the same way in federal court as under Section 337 at the ITC.

It is this conclusion that is in error.

Judging from his article, it’s clear that Kieff agrees and would have dissented from the Commission’s decision. As he writes:

Unlike the focus in Section 16 of the Clayton Act on harm to the plaintiff, the provisions in the ITC’s statute — Section 337 — explicitly require the ITC to deal directly with harms to the industry or the market (rather than to the particular plaintiff)…. Where the statute protects the market rather than the individual complainant, the antitrust injury doctrine’s own internal logic does not compel the imposition of a burden to show harm to the particular private actor bringing the complaint. (Emphasis added)

Somewhat similar to the antitrust laws, the overall purpose of Section 337 focuses on broader, competitive harm — injury to “an industry in the United States” — not specific competitors. But unlike the Clayton Act, the Tariff Act does not accomplish this by providing a remedy for private parties alleging injury to themselves as a proxy for this broader, competitive harm.

As Kieff writes:

One stark difference between the two statutory regimes relates to the explicit goals that the statutes state for themselves…. [T]he Clayton Act explicitly states it is to remedy harm to only the plaintiff itself. This difference has particular significance for [the Commission’s decision in Certain Carbon and Alloy Steel Products] because the Supreme Court’s source of the private antitrust injury doctrine, its decision in Brunswick, explicitly tied the doctrine to this particular goal.

More particularly, much of the Court’s discussion in Brunswick focuses on the role the [antitrust injury] doctrine plays in mitigating the risk of unjustly enriching the plaintiff with damages awards beyond the amount of the particular antitrust harm that plaintiff actually suffered. The doctrine makes sense in the context of the Clayton Act proceedings in federal court because it keeps the cause of action focused on that statute’s stated goal of protecting a particular litigant only in so far as that party itself is a proxy for the harm to the market.

By contrast, since the goal of the ITC’s statute is to remedy for harm to the industry or to trade and commerce… there is no need to closely tie such broader harms to the market to the precise amounts of harms suffered by the particular complainant. (Emphasis and paragraph breaks added)

The mechanism by which the Clayton Act works is decidedly to remedy injury to competitors (including with treble damages). But because its larger goal is the promotion of competition, it cabins that remedy in order to ensure that it functions as an appropriate proxy for broader harms, and not simply a tool by which competitors may bludgeon each other. As Kieff writes:

The remedy provisions of the Clayton Act benefit much more than just the private plaintiff. They are designed to benefit the public, echoing the view that the private plaintiff is serving, indirectly, as a proxy for the market as a whole.

The larger purpose of Section 337 is somewhat different, and its remedial mechanism is decidedly different:

By contrast, the provisions in Section 337[] are much more direct in that they protect against injury to the industry or to trade and commerce more broadly. Harm to the particular complainant is essentially only relevant in so far as it shows harm to the industry or to trade and commerce more broadly. In turn, the remedies the ITC’s statute provides are more modest and direct in stopping any such broader harm that is determined to exist through a complete investigation.

The distinction between antitrust laws and trade laws is firmly established in the case law. And, in particular, trade laws not only focus on effects on industry rather than consumers or competition, per se, but they also contemplate a different kind of economic injury:

The “injury to industry” causation standard… focuses explicitly upon conditions in the U.S. industry…. In effect, Congress has made a judgment that causally related injury to the domestic industry may be severe enough to justify relief from less than fair value imports even if from another viewpoint the economy could be said to be better served by providing no relief. (Emphasis added)

Importantly, under Section 337 such harms to industry would ultimately have to be shown before a remedy would be imposed. In other words, demonstration of injury to competition is a constituent part of a case under Section 337. By contrast, such a demonstration is brought into an action under the antitrust laws by the antitrust injury doctrine as a function of establishing that the plaintiff has standing to sue as a proxy for broader harm to the market.

Finally, it should be noted, as ITC Commissioner Broadbent points out in her dissent from the Commission’s majority opinion, that U.S. Steel alleged in its complaint a violation of the Sherman Act, not the Clayton Act. Although its ability to enforce the Sherman Act arises from the remedial provisions of the Clayton Act, the substantive analysis of its claims is a Sherman Act matter. And the Sherman Act does not contain any explicit antitrust injury requirement. This is a crucial distinction because, as Commissioner Broadbent notes (quoting the Federal Circuit’s Tianrui case):

The “antitrust injury” standing requirement stems, not from the substantive antitrust statutes like the Sherman Act, but rather from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the injury elements that must be proven under sections 4 and 16 of the Clayton Act.

* * *

Absent [] express Congressional limitation, restricting the Commission’s consideration of unfair methods of competition and unfair acts in international trade “would be inconsistent with the congressional purpose of protecting domestic commerce from unfair competition in importation….”

* * *

Where, as here, no such express limitation in the Sherman Act has been shown, I find no legal justification for imposing the insurmountable hurdle of demonstrating antitrust injury upon a typical U.S. company that is grappling with imports that benefit from the international unfair methods of competition that have been alleged in this case.

Section 337 is not a stand-in for other federal laws, even where it protects against similar conduct, and its aims diverge in important ways from those of other federal laws. It is, in other words, a trade protection provision, first and foremost, not an antitrust law, patent law, or even precisely a consumer protection statute.

The ITC hamstrings Itself

Kieff lays out a number of compelling points in his paper, including an argument that the ITC was statutorily designed as a convenient forum with broad powers in order to enable trade harms to be remedied without resort to expensive and protracted litigation in federal district court.

But, perhaps even more important, he points to a contradiction in the ITC’s decision that is directly related to its statutory design.

Under the Tariff Act, the Commission is entitled to self-initiate a Section 337 investigation identical to the one in Certain Alloy and Carbon Steel Products. And, as in this case, private parties are also entitled to file complaints with the Commission that can serve as the trigger for an investigation. In both instances, the ITC itself decides whether there is sufficient basis for proceeding, and, although an investigation unfolds much like litigation in federal court, it is, in fact, an investigation (and decision) undertaken by the ITC itself.

Although the Commission is statutorily mandated to initiate an investigation once a complaint is properly filed, this is subject to a provision requiring the Commission to “examine the complaint for sufficiency and compliance with the applicable sections of this Chapter.” Thus, the Commission conducts a preliminary investigation to determine if the complaint provides a sound basis for institution of an investigation, not unlike an assessment of standing and evaluation of the sufficiency of a complaint in federal court — all of which happens before an official investigation is initiated.

Yet despite the fact that, before an investigation begins, the ITC either 1) decides for itself that there is sufficient basis to initiate its own action, or else 2) evaluates the sufficiency of a private complaint to determine if the Commission should initiate an action, the logic of the decision in Certain Alloy and Carbon Steel Products would apply different standards in each case. Writes Kieff:

There appears to be broad consensus that the ITC can self-initiate an antitrust case under Section 337 and in such a proceeding would not be required to apply the antitrust injury doctrine to itself or to anyone else…. [I]t seems odd to make [this] legal distinction… After all, if it turned out there really were harm to a domestic industry or trade and commerce in this case, it would be strange for the ITC to have to dismiss this action and deprive itself of the benefit of the advance work and ongoing work of the private party [just because it was brought to the ITC’s attention by a private party complaint], only to either sit idle or expend the resources to — flying solo that time — reinitiate and proceed to completion.

Odd indeed, because, in the end, what is instituted is an investigation undertaken by the ITC — whether it originates from a private party or from its own initiative. The role of a complaining party before the ITC is quite distinct from that of a plaintiff in an Article III court.

In trade these days, it always comes down to China

We are hesitant to offer justifications for Congress’ decision to grant the ITC a sweeping administrative authority to prohibit the “unfair” importation of articles into the US, but there could be good reasons that Congress enacted the Tariff Act as a protectionist statute.

In a recent Law360 article, Kieff noted that analyzing anticompetitive behavior in the trade context is more complicated than in the domestic context. To take the current example: By limiting the complainant’s ability to initiate an ITC action based on a claim that foreign competitors are conspiring to keep prices artificially low, the ITC majority decision may be short-sighted insofar as keeping prices low might actually be part of a larger industrial and military policy for the Chinese government:

The overlooked problem is that, as the ITC petitioners claim, the Chinese government is using its control over many Chinese steel producers to accomplish full-spectrum coordination on both price and quantity. Mere allegations of course would have to be proven; but it’s not hard to imagine that such coordination could afford the Chinese government effective surveillance and control over  almost the entire worldwide supply chain for steel products.

This access would help the Chinese government run significant intelligence operations…. China is allegedly gaining immense access to practically every bid and ask up and down the supply chain across the global steel market in general, and our domestic market in particular. That much real-time visibility across steel markets can in turn give visibility into defense, critical infrastructure and finance.

Thus, by taking it upon itself to artificially narrow its scope of authority, the ITC could be undermining a valid congressional concern: that trade distortions not be used as a way to allow a foreign government to gain a more pervasive advantage over diplomatic and military operations.

No one seriously doubts that China is, at the very least, a supportive partner to much of its industry in a way that gives that industry some potential advantage over competitors operating in countries that receive relatively less assistance from national governments.

In certain industries — notably semiconductors and patent-intensive industries more broadly — the Chinese government regularly imposes onerous conditions (including mandatory IP licensing and joint ventures with Chinese firms, invasive audits, and obligatory software and hardware “backdoors”) on foreign tech companies doing business in China. It has long been an open secret that these efforts, ostensibly undertaken for the sake of national security, are actually aimed at protecting or bolstering China’s domestic industry.

And China could certainly leverage these partnerships to obtain information on a significant share of important industries and their participants throughout the world. After all, we are well familiar with this business model: cheap or highly subsidized access to a desired good or service in exchange for user data is the basic description of modern tech platform companies.

Only Congress can fix Congress

Stepping back from the ITC context, a key inquiry when examining antitrust through a trade lens is the extent to which countries will use antitrust as a non-tariff barrier to restrain trade. It is certainly the case that a sort of “mutually assured destruction” can arise where every country chooses to enforce its own ambiguously worded competition statute in a way that can favor its domestic producers to the detriment of importers. In the face of that concern, the impetus to try to apply procedural constraints on open-ended competition laws operating in the trade context is understandable.

And as a general matter, it also makes sense to be concerned when producers like U.S. Steel try to use our domestic antitrust laws to disadvantage Chinese competitors or keep them out of the market entirely.

But in this instance the analysis is more complicated. Like it or not, what amounts to injury in the international trade context, even with respect to anticompetitive conduct, is different than what’s contemplated under the antitrust laws. When the Tariff Act of 1922 was passed (which later became Section 337) the Senate Finance Committee Report that accompanied it described the scope of its unfair methods of competition authority as “broad enough to prevent every type and form of unfair practice” involving international trade. At the same time, Congress pretty clearly gave the ITC the discretion to proceed on a much less-constrained basis than that on which Article III courts operate.

If these are problems, Congress needs to fix them, not the ITC acting sua sponte.

Moreover, as Kieff’s paper (and our own comments in the Certain Alloy and Carbon Steel Products investigation) make clear, there are also a number of relevant, practical distinctions between enforcement of the antitrust laws in a federal court in a case brought by a private plaintiff and an investigation of alleged anticompetitive conduct by the ITC under Section 337. Every one of these cuts against importing an antitrust injury requirement from federal court into ITC adjudication.

Instead, understandable as its motivation may be, the ITC majority’s approach in Certain Alloy and Carbon Steel Products requires disregarding Congressional intent, and that’s simply not a tenable interpretive approach for administrative agencies to take.

Protectionism is a terrible idea, but if that’s how Congress wrote the Tariff Act, the ITC is legally obligated to enforce the protectionist law it is given.

Following is the (slightly expanded and edited) text of my remarks from the panel, Antitrust and the Tech Industry: What Is at Stake?, hosted last Thursday by CCIA. Bruce Hoffman (keynote), Bill Kovacic, Nicolas Petit, and Christine Caffarra also spoke. If we’re lucky Bruce will post his remarks on the FTC website; they were very good.

(NB: Some of these comments were adapted (or lifted outright) from a forthcoming Cato Policy Report cover story co-authored with Gus Hurwitz, so Gus shares some of the credit/blame.)

 

The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife capable of correcting all manner of social and economic ills is apparently difficult for some to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, many recent calls for regulation of industry — and the tech industry in particular — are framed in antitrust terms. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example:

[T]oday, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.

And she is not alone. A growing chorus of advocates are now calling for invasive, “public-utility-style” regulation or even the dissolution of some of the world’s most innovative companies essentially because they are “too big.”

According to critics, these firms impose all manner of alleged harms — from fake news, to the demise of local retail, to low wages, to the veritable destruction of democracy — because of their size. What is needed, they say, is industrial policy that shackles large companies or effectively mandates smaller firms in order to keep their economic and political power in check.

But consider the relationship between firm size and political power and democracy.

Say you’re successful in reducing the size of today’s largest tech firms and in deterring the creation of new, very-large firms: What effect might we expect this to have on their political power and influence?

For the critics, the effect is obvious: A re-balancing of wealth and thus the reduction of political influence away from Silicon Valley oligarchs and toward the middle class — the “rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.”

But consider a few (and this is by no means all) countervailing points:

To begin, at the margin, if you limit firm growth as a means of competing with rivals, you make correspondingly more important competition through political influence. Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions, and rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration.

Next, by imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives, you also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so.

And finally, if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? All of a sudden the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might even find, again, that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules.

All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying problem: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results — precisely the opposite of what proponents claim to want.

Then there’s democracy, and calls to break up tech in order to save it. Calls to do so are often made with reference to the original intent of the Sherman Act and Louis Brandeis and his “curse of bigness.” But intentional or not, these are rallying cries for the assertion, not the restraint, of political power.

The Sherman Act’s origin was ambivalent: although it was intended to proscribe business practices that harmed consumers, it was also intended to allow politically-preferred firms to maintain high prices in the face of competition from politically-disfavored businesses.

The years leading up to the adoption of the Sherman Act in 1890 were characterized by dramatic growth in the efficiency-enhancing, high-tech industries of the day. For many, the purpose of the Sherman Act was to stem this growth: to prevent low prices — and, yes, large firms — from “driving out of business the small dealers and worthy men whose lives have been spent therein,” in the words of Trans-Missouri Freight, one of the early Supreme Court decisions applying the Act.

Left to the courts, however, the Sherman Act didn’t quite do the trick. By 1911 (in Standard Oil and American Tobacco) — and reflecting consumers’ preferences for low prices over smaller firms — only “unreasonable” conduct was actionable under the Act. As one of the prime intellectual engineers behind the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, Brandeis played a significant role in the (partial) legislative and administrative overriding of the judiciary’s excessive support for economic efficiency.

Brandeis was motivated by the belief that firms could become large only by illegitimate means and by deceiving consumers. But Brandeis was no advocate for consumer sovereignty. In fact, consumers, in Brandeis’ view, needed to be saved from themselves because they were, at root, “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.”

There’s a lot that today we (many of us, at least) would find anti-democratic in the underpinnings of progressivism in US history: anti-consumerism; racism; elitism; a belief in centrally planned, technocratic oversight of the economy; promotion of social engineering, including through eugenics; etc. The aim of limiting economic power was manifestly about stemming the threat it posed to powerful people’s conception of what political power could do: to mold and shape the country in their image — what economist Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”

That may sound great when it’s your vision being implemented, but today’s populist antitrust resurgence comes while Trump is in the White House. It’s baffling to me that so many would expand and then hand over the means to design the economy and society in their image to antitrust enforcers in the executive branch and presidentially appointed technocrats.

Throughout US history, it is the courts that have often been the bulwark against excessive politicization of the economy, and it was the courts that shepherded the evolution of antitrust away from its politicized roots toward rigorous, economically grounded policy. And it was progressives like Brandeis who worked to take antitrust away from the courts. Now, with efforts like Senator Klobuchar’s merger bill, the “New Brandeisians” want to rein in the courts again — to get them out of the way of efforts to implement their “big is bad” vision.

But the evidence that big is actually bad, least of all on those non-economic dimensions, is thin and contested.

While Zuckerberg is grilled in Congress over perceived, endemic privacy problems, politician after politician and news article after news article rushes to assert that the real problem is Facebook’s size. Yet there is no convincing analysis (maybe no analysis of any sort) that connects its size with the problem, or that evaluates whether the asserted problem would actually be cured by breaking up Facebook.

Barry Lynn claims that the origins of antitrust are in the checks and balances of the Constitution, extended to economic power. But if that’s right, then the consumer welfare standard and the courts are the only things actually restraining the disruption of that order. If there may be gains to be had from tweaking the minutiae of the process of antitrust enforcement and adjudication, by all means we should have a careful, lengthy discussion about those tweaks.

But throwing the whole apparatus under the bus for the sake of an unsubstantiated, neo-Brandeisian conception of what the economy should look like is a terrible idea.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to expand its presence in online data regulation.  On August 13 the FTC announced a forthcoming workshop to explore appropriate policies toward “big data,” a term used to refer to advancing technologies that are dramatically expanding the commercial collection, analysis, use, and storage of data.  This initiative follows on the heels of the FTC’s May 2014 data broker report, which recommended that Congress impose a variety of requirements on companies that legally collect and sell consumers’ personal information.  (Among other requirements, companies would be required to create consumer data “portals” and implement business procedures that allow consumers to edit and suppress use of their data.)  The FTC also is calling for legislation that would enhance its authority over data security standards and empower it to issue rules requiring companies to inform consumers of security breaches.

These recent regulatory initiatives are in addition to the Commission’s active consumer data enforcement efforts.  Some of these efforts are pursuant to three targeted statutory authorizations – the FTC’s Safeguards Rule (promulgated pursuant to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and directed at non-bank financial institutions), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (directed at consumer protecting agencies), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (directed at children’s information collected online).

The bulk of the FTC’s enforcement efforts, however, stem from its general authority to proscribe unfair or deceptive practices under Section 5(a)(1) of the FTC ActSince 2002, pursuant to its Section 5 powers, the FTC has filed and settled over 50 cases alleging that private companies used deceptive or ineffective (and thus unfair) practices in storing their data.  (Twitter, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, GMR Transcription Services, GeneLink, Inc., and mobile device provider HTC are just a few of the firms that have agreed to settle.)  Settlements have involved consent decrees under which the company in question agreed to take a wide variety of “corrective measures” to avoid future harm.

As a matter of first principles, one may question the desirability of FTC data security investigations under Section 5.  Firms have every incentive to avoid data protection breaches that harm their customers, in order to avoid the harm to reputation and business values that stem from such lapses.  At the same time, firms must weigh the costs of alternative data protection systems in determining what the appropriate degree of protection should be.  Economic logic indicates that the optimal business policy is not one that focuses solely on implementing the strongest data protection system program without regard to cost.  Rather, the optimal policy is to invest in enhancing corporate data security up to the point where the marginal benefits of additional security equal the marginal costs, and no further.  Although individual businesses can only roughly approximate this outcome, one may expect that market forces will tend toward the optimal result, as firms that underinvest in data security lose customers and firms that overinvest in security find themselves priced out of the market.  There is no obvious “market failure” that suggests the market should not work adequately in the data security area.  Indeed, there is a large (and growing) amount of information on security systems available to business, and a thriving labor market for IT security specialists to whom companies can turn in designing their security programs.   Nevertheless, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that the FTC will choose to abandon its efforts to apply Section 5 to this area.  With that in mind, let us examine more closely the problems with existing FTC Section 5 data security settlements, with an eye to determining what improvements the Commission might beneficially make if it is so inclined.

The HTC settlement illustrates the breadth of decree-specific obligations the FTC has imposed.  HTC was required to “establish a comprehensive security program, undergo independent security assessments for 20 years, and develop and release software patches to fix security vulnerabilities.”  HTC also agreed to detailed security protocols that would be monitored by a third party.  The FTC did not cite specific harmful security breaches to justify these sanctions; HTC was merely charged with a failure to “take reasonable steps” to secure smartphone software.  Nor did the FTC explain what specific steps short of the decree requirements would have been deemed “reasonable.”

The HTC settlement exemplifies the FTC’s “security by design” approach to data security, under which the agency informs firms after the fact what they should have done, without exploring what they might have done to pass muster.  Although some academics view the FTC settlements as contributing usefully to a developing “common law” of data privacy, supporters of this approach ignore its inherent ex ante vagueness and the costs decree-specific mandates impose on companies.

Another serious problem stems from the enormous investigative and litigation costs associated with challenging an FTC complaint in this area – costs that incentivize most firms to quickly accede to consent decree terms even if they are onerous.  The sad case of LabMD, a small cancer detection lab, serves as warning to businesses that choose to engage in long-term administrative litigation against the FTC.  Due to the cost burden of the FTC’s multi-year litigation against it (which is still ongoing as of this writing), LabMD was forced to wind down its operations, and it stopped accepting new patients in January 2014.

The LabMD case suggests that FTC data security initiatives, carried out without regard to the scale or resources of the affected companies, have the potential to harm competition.  Relatively large companies are much better able to absorb FTC litigation and investigation costs.  Thus, it may be in the large firms’ interests to encourage the FTC to support intrusive and burdensome new FTC data security initiatives, as part of a “raising rivals’ costs” strategy to cripple or eliminate smaller rivals.  As a competition and consumer welfare watchdog, the FTC should keep this risk in mind when weighing the merits of expanding data security regulations or launching new data security investigations.

A common thread runs through the FTC’s myriad activities in data privacy “space” – the FTC’s failure to address whether its actions are cost-beneficial.  There is little doubt that the FTC’s enforcement actions impose substantial costs, both on businesses subject to decree and investigation, and on other firms possessing data that must contemplate business system redesigns to forestall potential future liability.  As a result, business innovation suffers.  Furthermore, those costs are passed on at least in part to consumers, in the form of higher prices and a reduction in the quality and quantity of new products and services.  The FTC should, consistent with its consumer welfare mandate, carefully weigh these costs against the presumed benefits flowing from a reduction in future data breaches.  A failure to carry out a cost-benefit appraisal, even a rudimentary one, makes it impossible to determine whether the FTC’s much touted data privacy projects are enhancing or reducing consumer welfare.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright recently gave voice to the importance of cost benefit analysis in commenting on the FTC’s data brokerage report – a comment that applies equally well to all of the FTC’s data protection and privacy initiatives:

“I would . . . like to see evidence of the incidence and scope of consumer harms rather than just speculative hypotheticals about how consumers might be harmed before regulation aimed at reducing those harms is implemented.  Accordingly, the FTC would need to quantify more definitively the incidence or value of data broker practices to consumers before taking or endorsing regulatory or legislative action. . . .  We have no idea what the costs for businesses would be to implement consumer control over any and all data shared by data brokers and to what extent these costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers.  Once again, a critical safeguard to insure against the risk that our recommendations and actions do more harm than good for consumers is to require appropriate and thorough cost-benefit analysis before acting.  This failure could be especially important where the costs to businesses from complying with any recommendations are high, but where the ultimate benefit generated for consumers is minimal. . . .  If consumers have minimal concerns about the sharing of certain types of information – perhaps information that is already publicly available – I think we should know that before requiring data brokers to alter their practices and expend resources and incur costs that will be passed on to consumers.”

The FTC could take several actions to improve its data enforcement policies.  First and foremost, it could issue Data Security Guidelines that (1) clarify the FTC’s enforcement actions regarding data security will be rooted in cost-benefit analysis, and (2) will take into account investigative costs as well as (3) reasonable industry self-regulatory efforts.  (Such Guidelines should be framed solely as limiting principles that tie the FTC’s hands to avoid enforcement excesses.  They should studiously avoid dictating to industry the data security principles that firms should adopt.)  Second, it could establish an FTC website portal that features continuously updated information on the Guidelines and other sources of guidance on data security. Third, it could employ cost-benefit analysis before pursuing any new regulatory initiatives, legislative recommendations, or investigations related to other areas of data protection.  Fourth, it could urge its foreign counterpart agencies to adopt similar cost-benefit approaches to data security regulation.

Congress could also improve the situation by enacting a narrowly tailored statute that preempts all state regulation related to data protection.  Forty-seven states now have legislation in this area, which adds additional burdens to those already imposed by federal law.  Furthermore, differences among state laws render the data protection efforts of merchants who may have to safeguard data from across the country enormously complex and onerous.  Given the inherently interstate nature of electronic commerce and associated data breaches, preemption of state regulation in this area would comport with federalism principles.  (Consistent with public choice realities, there is always the risk, of course, that Congress might be tempted to go beyond narrow preemption and create new and unnecessary federal powers in this area.  I believe, however, that such a risk is worth running, given the potential magnitude of excessive regulatory burdens, and the ability to articulate a persuasive public policy case for narrow preemptive legislation.)

Stay tuned for a more fulsome discussion of these issues by me.

In our recent blog symposium on Section 5 of the FTC Act, Latham & Watkins partner Tad Lipsky exposed one of antitrust’s dark little secrets: Nobody really knows what Sherman Act Section 2 forbids.  The provision bans monopolization, attempted monopolization, and conspiracies to monopolize, and courts have articulated formal elements for each claim.  But the element common to the two unilateral offenses—“exclusionary conduct”—remains essentially undefined.  Lipsky writes:

123 years of Section 2 enforcement and the best our Supreme Court can do is the Grinnell standard, defining [exclusionary conduct] as the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [monopoly] power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.”  Is this Grinnell definition that much better than [Section 5’s reference to] “unfair methods of competition”?

No, it’s not.  Nor are any of the other commonly cited judicial definitions of exclusionary conduct, such as “competition not on the merits.”  As Einer Elhauge has observed, such judicial definitions are not just vague but vacuous.

This is problematic because business planners need clarity.  On some specific unilateral practices—straightforward price cuts and aggressive input-bidding, for example—courts have provided clear liability rules and safe harbors.  But in a dynamic economy, business people are constantly coming up with new ideas for sales-enhancing practices that might have the effect of disadvantaging rivals, of “excluding” them from the market.  Absent some general understanding of what constitutes an “unreasonably exclusionary” act, business people are likely to forego novel but efficient sales-enhancing practices, to the detriment of consumers.

In the last decade or so, commentators have proposed four generally applicable definitions of unreasonably exclusionary conduct.  Judge Posner suggested that such conduct be defined as acts that could exclude an “equally efficient rival” from the perpetrator’s market (the “EER” approach).  Post-Chicago theorists would equate unreasonably exclusionary conduct with unjustifiably “raising rivals’ costs” (the “RRC” approach).  The Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise prescribes a balancing of the “consumer welfare effects” resulting from the practice at issue (“CWE-balancing”).  And the U.S. Department of Justice has called for defining unreasonably exclusionary conduct as that which would make “no economic sense” apart from its tendency to enhance market power (the “NES” test, or “NEST”).

Each of these approaches, it turns out, is troubling.  The EER approach is underdeterrent in that it fails to condemn practices that cause rivals to be less efficient than the perpetrator.  The RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches turn out to be difficult to apply—and largely indeterminate—for any exclusion-causing conduct involving “degrees.” For example, a 15% loyalty rebate conditioned upon purchasing 70% of one’s requirements from the defendant requires a certain “degree” of loyalty and provides a certain “degree” of price reduction.  It might well turn out that some degree of required loyalty (e.g., the increment from 60% to 70%) or some degree of discount (e.g., the increment from 10% to 15%) either (1) raised rivals’ costs unjustifiably (RRC) or (2) created greater consumer harm than benefit (CWE-balancing) or (3) made no economic sense but for its ability to enhance market power (NEST).  Because the RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches appear to require marginal analysis of exclusion-causing conduct, they become fairly inadministrable and indeterminate when applied to conduct involving degrees, a category that includes most of the novel conduct for which a generally applicable exclusionary conduct definition would be useful.  Because they provide little guidance and no reliable safe harbors, the RRC, CWE-balancing, and NEST approaches are likely to overdeter efficient, but novel, business practices.

In light of these and other difficulties with the proposed exclusionary conduct definitions, a number of scholars now advocate abandoning the search for a generally applicable definition and applying different liability standards to different types of behavior.  Eschewal of universal standards, though, is also troubling.  To the extent non-universalists are saying that there is no single definition of unreasonably exclusionary conduct—no common thread that runs through all instances of unreasonable exclusion—their position seems to violate rule of law norms.  After all, the Court has told us that unreasonably exclusionary conduct is an element of monopolization and attempted monopolization.  That means that the exclusionary conduct component of all Section 2 offenses must share something in common; otherwise, the “element” would consist of a non-exhaustive menu of unrelated features and would cease to be an element.

A less extreme “non-universalist” approach would concede that there is a single definition of unreasonably exclusionary conduct—that which reduces overall consumer welfare—but hold that there should be no universal test for identifying when a particular practice runs afoul of the definition.  This more defensible position resembles “rule utilitarianism” in ethical theory.  Rule utilitarians concede that morality is ultimately concerned with utility-maximization, but they would judge the morality of any particular act not on the basis of its actual consequences but instead according to whether it complies with a rule selected to maximize utility.  Similarly, “soft” non-universalists would select liability tests for particular business practices on the basis of whether those tests maximize overall consumer welfare, but they would evaluate particular instances of exclusion-causing behavior on the basis of whether they comply with applicable liability tests, not whether they actually enhance consumer welfare.

Because it reduces to a version of CWE-balancing (though at the rule level rather than the act level), “soft” non-universalism is subject to the same criticisms as CWE-balancing in general: it is difficult to apply and indeterminate.  Indeed, under a soft non-universal approach, a business planner considering a novel but efficient exclusion-causing practice would first have to predict the liability rule a reviewing court would adopt for the practice under consideration and then apply that rule.  Talk about a lack of clarity and reliable safe harbors!

I have recently authored a paper that critiques the proposed definitions of unreasonably exclusionary conduct as well as the non-universalist approaches discussed above and, finding each position deficient, proposes an alternative approach.  My approach would deem conduct to be unreasonably exclusionary if it would likely exclude from the perpetrator’s market a “competitive rival,” defined as a rival that is both as determined as the perpetrator and capable, at minimum efficient scale, of matching the perpetrator’s efficiency.  This “exclusion of a competitive rival” approach, the paper demonstrates, identifies a common thread running through instances of unreasonable exclusion, comports with prevailing intuitions about what constitutes appropriate competition, generates clear guidance and reliable safe harbors, and would minimize the sum of decision and error costs resulting from monopolization doctrine.

A draft of the paper, which is slated to appear as an article in the North Carolina Law Review, is available on SSRN.  Please download, and let me know if you have any comments.

Guest post by Steve Salop responding to Dan’s latest post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts. Other posts in the series: SteveDan, and Thom.

(1) Dan says that price-cost test should apply to “customer foreclosure” allegations.   One of my key points was that many loyalty discount claims involve “input foreclosure” or “raising rivals’ costs” effects, not plain-vanilla customer foreclosure.   In addition, loyalty agreements with distributors often involve input foreclosure because “distribution services” are an input and a rebate might be characterized as a reward payment for the (near-) exclusivity.    From his silence on the issue, I am inclined to presume that Dan would agree that the price-cost test should not be applied to such allegations.      Dan, what do you intend?

(2) Dan says that he agrees that the price-cost test should not be required for “partial exclusivity contracts” that involve contractual commitments to limit purchases from rivals.  He says that the price-cost test should apply only where the “claimed exclusionary mechanism is the price term.”  This distinction is peculiar because the economic analysis is the same in both situations.  In addition, even such voluntary exclusivity flowing from a price term can be anticompetitive, and even if the price-cost test is passed.  There are numerous reasons for this, as I explained in my original post. (I also discuss these issues in my contribution to Robert Pitofsky’s volume, “How the Chicago School Overshot the Mark.”  See also articles by Eric Rasmussen et. al., Michael Whinston and others.)

(3) Consider the following numerical examples that concretely illustrate the economic forces at work when there is competition for distribution, even in the absence of contractual commitments.

(a) Suppose that a monopolist is earning profits of $200.  If there is successful entry by an equally efficient entrant, each of the two firms will earn duopoly profits of $70.  (The duopoly profits are less than monopoly profits because of the price competition.)  Suppose that the entrant needs to obtain just non-exclusive distribution from a particular retailer in order to be viable.  In this case, the entrant would be willing to bid up to $70 per period for the non-exclusive distribution.  (In price terms, this would be a payment that led to the entrant’s costs equaling its price.)  But the monopolist would be willing to bid up to $130 for an exclusive (i.e., the difference between its monopoly and duopoly profits), in order to prevent the entrant from surviving.   Thus, the monopolist would win the bidding, say for a price of $71.   The monopolist would easily pass the price-cost test.   Why is the monopolist systematically able to outbid the entrant? This fundamental asymmetry does not arise because the entrant is less efficient.  Instead, the answer is that the monopolist is bidding to maintain its monopoly power, whereas the entrant can only obtain duopoly price.  The monopolist is “purchasing market power” in addition to distribution, whereas the entrant is only purchasing distribution.

(b) Or, consider this interesting variant with sequential bidding for multiple distributors.   Suppose there are two retailers and the entrant needs to get non-exclusive distribution at both in order to be viable.  Suppose that the negotiations at the two stores are sequential.  In this scenario, the entrant would have no incentive even to try to outbid the monopolist.   This is easy to see.   Suppose that the entrant wins the competition to get into the first store by paying the amount $B1.   In bidding for distribution at the second retailer, the monopolist would be willing to bid up to $130, as above.   At this second store, the entrant would not be willing to pay more than $70 (or $70 – $B1, if it is ignores the fact that the $B1 was an already sunk cost).  So the monopolist will win the exclusive at the second retailer and the entry will fail.   Looking back to the negotiations at the first store, the entrant would have had no incentive to throw away money by paying any positive amount $B1 to get distribution at the first store.   This is because it rationally would anticipate that it is inevitable that it will fail to gain distribution at the second retailer.  Thus, the monopolist will be able to gain the exclusive at both stores for next to nothing.   It clearly will pass the price-cost test even as it maintains its monopoly, merely by instituting the competition for distribution.

(c) If the entrant only needs to gain non-exclusive distribution at either one of the two stores, then the situation can be reversed and the entry can succeed.   The monopolist clearly would not be willing to pay $71 each at both stores (equal to a total payment of $142) in order to deter the entry and protect its “incremental” monopoly profits (equal to only $130 in the example).  Therefore, when the entrant bids for distribution at the first store, the monopolist might as well let the entrant win, which means that the entrant can gain access to both stores for next to nothing.   The entry succeeds, but again, the price-cost test would not be relevant to the analysis.

(d) There also can be elements of a “self-fulfilling equilibrium” because of lack of coordination by the distributors.  Suppose that there are 10 retailers and the entrant only needs to get distribution at 5 of them.   Suppose that the entrant offers to pay a $14 rebate for non-exclusive distribution, and it also will offer $14 again in the next period, if its entry succeeds in the first period.   Suppose the monopolist offers a lower rebate for an exclusive that will continue into the second period.   Suppose that each of the 10 retailers anticipates that the other retailers will accept the monopolist’s lower offer out of fear that the entrant will be unable to get 4 other retailers to accept its offer.  In that situation, the entry will fail.  This is not because the entrant is less efficient.  Instead, it is because the entrant faces a classic coordination problem.  If the retailers behave independently, the retailers’ fear of the entrant’s failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Again, the monopolist will easily pass the price-cost test.

(4) Dan makes the point that the price-cost test does not require adoption of an EEC antitrust standard (i.e., whereby only harm to EECs is relevant to antitrust).  I certainly agree that the price-cost screen does not necessarily rely on the EEC standard.   The price-cost test is better framed as a measure of “profit-sacrifice,” and EEC is simply a misleading way to express the test.  For example, I expect that Dan agrees that predatory pricing law uses the price-cost test as a measure of “profit-sacrifice,” not an assumption that only EECs matter.

(5) But, I was surprised that Dan also says that the EEC theory “has merit.”  In my view, the EEC standard has no merit in rigorous antitrust analysis. The example in my previous post illustrates why that is the case.  Raising the costs and possibly deterring the entry of a less efficient rival harms consumers and reduces output.

(6) Dan says that the “disloyalty penalty” price theory has problems, “including the empirical one that it doesn’t fit the pattern of almost any of the recent loyalty discount cases.”   The validity of Dan’s empirical claim is not obvious clear to me.  To evaluate whether there is a price penalty, you would need to know more than the path of prices over time.  You also would need to know what the price would be in the “but-for world.”   For example, suppose that in the absence of the loyalty discount, the incumbent would have reduced its price to $90.  This observation has two important implications.  First, this is a reason why it is not clear that loyalty discounts are “presumptively beneficial.”  Second, this is another reason why a price-cost test is not a good “screen” in loyalty discount cases.  Implementing the screen involves evaluating what prices would be absent the conduct.  But, after the competitive effects on consumers are known, what is the value of the screen?

(7) As to the question of whether Josh’s speech on loyalty discounts (and this issue of penalty prices) is inconsistent with their joint article on bundled discounts, I will leave that one for Josh and Dan to sort out, at least for the moment.   I certainly will concede the point that Wright is not always right.

(8) Dan began to suggest that the penalty price theory has a “problem of basic economics” in that the penalty price was not short-run profit-maximizing.   Dan subsequently seemed to withdraw this criticism, noticing that one could characterize the loyalty restriction as not profit-maximizing in the same way.   In any event, it is not a “problem” with the theory.  The reason why the firm is willing to sacrifice profits is because it gains the benefit of deterring entry.  By the way, it also may not even end up sacrificing profits.  The threat of the penalty price for non-exclusivity may be sufficient.  If the distributors succumb to the threat and buy exclusively from the incumbent, it never needs to actually charge them the penalty price.

Guest post by Dan Crane, responding to Steve’s post responding to Dan’s earlier post and Thom’s post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts.

Something that Thom and I both said in our earlier posts needs to be repeated at the outset:  I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with Steve and Josh that raising rivals’ costs (“RRC”) and economic analysis drawn from exclusive dealing law belong in an analysis of loyalty discounts.  There’s also no claim on the table that a loyalty discount that fails the “contestable share”/discount attribution test that Steve mentions should be treated anything like presumptively illegal.  The current debate is solely about whether there should be a price-cost screen in loyalty discount cases.  We aren’t even talking about what the measure of cost should be or how that screen should work (although, with Steve, I’m happy to assume marginal or average variable cost and the aforementioned contestable share/discount attribution approach for the sake of argument).  Josh and Steve are well justified in pointing out how aspects of RRC theory can apply in loyalty discount cases—but that doesn’t meet the objection that a screen should also apply.

It’s also important to recognize that the argument in favor of a price-cost screen for loyalty rebates does not need to entail a general argument in favor of a “profit sacrifice” theory for all monopolization offenses.  What we’re talking about here is unilaterally determined discounts to customers—something that is presumptively procompetitive, although potentially exclusionary under some circumstances.  Such discounts could be harmful if they resulted in customer foreclosure, but they would not result in customer foreclosure if the rival could profitably match the loyalty discount.  That is the point of the price-cost screen.  You might wonder why a rival would ever complain about a loyalty discount if they could profitably match it.  The reasons are many.  The rival might be losing sales because customers don’t like its product.  It might have failed for reasons completely apart from the accused firm’s loyalty discounts. It might be attempting to use antitrust law to thwart price competition, as a large body of literature suggests.  (See work by Will Baumol and Janusz Ordover, Preston McAfee and Nicholas Vakkur, and Edward Snyder and Tom Kauper, among others).

One thing I didn’t just mention—although it could often be true—is that the complaining rival isn’t an equally efficient competitor (“EEC”).  Steve is wrong to suggest that the price-cost test depends on adopting an EEC theory.  Although there is much merit to the EEC test (heck, even the Europeans have adopted it), one could formulate a version of the price-cost screen that simply requires the rival to show that the discount foreclosed a hypothetically equally efficient competitor or even this particular rival given its actual costs, as some have suggested.  The current argument is not over the formulation of the test, but whether we should dispense with a price-cost screen altogether in loyalty discount cases.

In any event, observe that the entire structure of modern predatory pricing law is premised on an EEC assumption.  If an incumbent firm with marginal costs of $50 and a current price of $100 faces entry by a new rival with marginal costs of $75 and drops its price to $74 in order to exclude the new rival, it enjoys categorical immunity under a long line of Supreme Court cases.  In another forum, Steve suggested that the difference in those cases is that the customer is getting the benefit of a lower price, so the law is hesitant to condemn the price as predatory.  But that exposes something problematic about Steve’s starting premise—he assumes that it’s uncertain whether loyalty discounts generally lower prices.  Prima facie, that seems wrong.  Customers routinely offer to trade loyalty for lower prices precisely because the prices are . . . lower.

Steve suggests that maybe loyalty discounts aren’t really discounts at all.  Maybe the seller, who was previously charging a price of $100, raises the price to $105 and then gives a discount back down to $100 in exchange for customer loyalty.  Steve notes that Thom and I didn’t consider this scenario.  That’s because Josh didn’t raise it in his speech.  It would have been very surprising if Josh had raised it in his speech, since Josh and I co-authored a paper several years ago debunking this same theory in the bundled discount context.  I discuss the “disloyalty penalty” theory at length in a forthcoming article in the Texas Law Review, really just extending the work that Josh and I started several years ago.

There are many problems with this “disloyalty penalty” theory, including the empirical one that it doesn’t fit the pattern of almost any of the recent loyalty discount cases.  But there is also a problem of basic economics.  Unless it is engaging in limit pricing, the accused firm’s $100 price is a monopoly (or market power) profit-maximizing price.  By definition, any price increase will be unprofitable to the seller.  Obviously, the $105 price would be unprofitable.  But it’s also true that a price of $100 coupled with a new obligation to buy a certain percentage of requirements from the seller to achieve that price is unprofitable because it exceeds the profit-maximizing price.  The addition of a contractual term that restricts the buyer’s freedom is economically equivalent to a price increase if the buyer valued the prior freedom from the restriction (if the buyer didn’t value the prior freedom from the restriction there’s no effective price increase but also no anticompetitive effect, since the buyer wouldn’t have bought from the rival anyway).  Hence a price of $100 with loyalty term is effectively higher than a price of $100 without a loyalty term that restricts the buyer’s purchasing freedom.  By adding a loyalty term to obtain the $100 price, the seller exceeds its profit-maximizing monopoly price.

My claim is not that “penalty pricing” for disloyalty is impossible, but that the presumption should be that loyalty discounts are true discounts off the but-for price.  Loyalty discounts belong squarely in the “hospitability” tradition for unilaterally determined pricing structures—all those judicial decisions that talk about how important it is not to chill vigorous price competition.

Steve argues that loyalty discounts may “tie up customers” before competitors arrive on the scene.  I’m not sure what Steve means by “tie up customers.”  Suppose that a monopolist, knowing that rivals are about to enter the market, goes to all of its customers and offers  them a 5% discount if they will agree to purchase 95% of their requirements from the monopolist for the next three years.  At that point we have a partial exclusive dealing contract and the cost-price screen shouldn’t be required.  But, there, the exclusionary mechanism—the thing that keeps rivals from competing—is not the loyalty discount but rather the contractual commitment not to buy any more than 5% of requirements from rivals.  Customers would have to breach their contract in order to consider even the most advantageous offers from rivals.  The point that amici made in our Meritor v. Eaton brief was that when the claimed mechanism of exclusion is a price term and not a contractual restriction on purchasing from rivals, some version of the price-cost screen should apply.

The example I’ve just attributed to Steve (and sorry Steve if this is not what you have in mind) is not what we’re talking about in almost any of the current generation of loyalty discount cases.  In Meritor, for example, the Third Circuit acknowledged that the loyalty provisions at issue did not require customers to buy any of their requirements from Eaton.  It’s just that if the customers didn’t meet the loyalty thresholds, they would lose a possible rebate.  Meritor could compete for that business by offering its own counter-rebates so long as it wouldn’t have had to price unprofitably to do so.

Steve’s point about economies of scale is one that I covered in my post and is fully accounted for by the cost-price screen.  A rival who can profitably match a loyalty discount scheme is not foreclosed from operating at any particular scale.

The same is true of Steve’s point about loyalty discount schemes foreclosing a new seller’s ability to make incremental sales that don’t reduce the accused firm’s own sales.  Again, so long the rival can profitably match the discounts, there is no reason that output should be reduced.

Finally, Steve asserts that loyalty discounts obtained by intermediaries may not be passed onto ultimate consumers.  That’s equally true of conventional single-firm price reductions that are categorically immunized from antitrust liability under a long line of precedent.  One may not like the price-cost test in any context for that reason or others, but there’s nothing special about its application to loyalty discounts. The common denominator of all of these points is that loyalty discounts aren’t exclusionary unless they force rivals to price below cost in order to match the customer’s loss of the loyalty discounts if they fail to meet the loyalty threshold.

Steve thinks the price-cost screen exhibits “formalism”—that dreaded epithet in the post-realist world—but it’s actually just an expression of economic common sense.  Steve and Josh are excellent economists and it’s hard for me to imagine a case in which they would condemn a loyalty discount if there was undisputed evidence that the allegedly excluded rival could have completely neutralized the financial inducement of the loyalty discount by offering a counter-discount of its own without pricing below cost.  If they can offer an example of a circumstance where such a loyalty discount should be condemned, I would be very interested to hear it.  If they can’t, then they have implicitly adopted a version of the price-cost screen and, to repeat a point from my earlier post, all we’re haggling over is the price.

Guest post by Steve Salop, responding to Dan’s post and Thom’s post on the appropriate liability rule for loyalty discounts.

I want to clarify some of the key issues in Commissioner Wright’s analysis of Exclusive Dealing and Loyalty Discounts as part of the raising rivals’ costs (“RRC”) paradigm. I never thought that I would have to defend Wright against Professors Lambert and Crane. But, it appears that rigorous antitrust analysis sometimes makes what some would view as strange bedfellows.

In my view, there should not be a safe harbor price-cost test used for loyalty discounts. Nor should these discounts be treated as conclusively (per se) illegal if the defendant fails the price-cost test. Either way, the test is a formalistic and unreliable screen. To explain these conclusions, and why I think the proponents of the screen are taking too narrow approach to these issues, I want to start with some discussion of the legal and economic frameworks.

In my view, there are two overarching antitrust legal paradigms for exclusionary conduct – predatory pricing and raising rivals’ costs (RRC), and conduct that falls into the RRC paradigm generally raises greater antitrust concerns. (For further details, see my 2006 Antitrust L.J. article, “Exclusionary Conduct, Effect on Consumers, and the Flawed Profit-Sacrifice Standard.”) Commissioner Wright also takes this approach in his speech of identifying and distinguishing the two paradigms.

This raises the question of which framework is better suited for addressing exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts (that is, where the conduct is not pled in the complaint as predatory pricing). Commissioner Wright’s speech articulates the view that theories of harm alleging RRC/foreclosure should be analyzed under exclusive dealing law, which is more consistent with the raising rivals’ costs approach, not under predatory pricing law (i.e., with its safe harbor for prices above cost). (Incidentally, I don’t read his speech as saying that he has abandoned Brooke Group for predatory pricing allegations. For example, it seems clear that he would support a price-cost test in a case alleging that a loyalty discount harmed competition via predatory pricing rather than RRC/foreclosure.)

To understand which legal framework – raising rivals’ costs/exclusive dealing versus predatory pricing/price-cost test – is most relevant for analyzing the relevant competitive issues, I want to begin with a primer on RRC theories of foreclosure. This will also hopefully bring everyone closer on the economics.

Input Foreclosure and Customer Foreclosure

There are two types of foreclosure theories within the RRC paradigm — “input foreclosure” and “customer foreclosure.” Both are relevant for evaluating exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts. The input foreclosure theory says that the ED literally “raises rivals’ costs” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a critical input subject to ED. The customer foreclosure theory says that ED literally “reduces rivals’ revenues” by foreclosing a rival’s access to a sufficient customer base and thereby drives the rival out of business or marginalizes it as a competitor (i.e., where it lacks the ability or incentive to move effectively beyond a niche position or to invest to grow).

Commissioner Wright’s speech tended to merge the two variants. But, it is useful to distinguish between them. (I think that this is one source of Professor Lambert being “baffled” by the speech, and more generally, is a source of confusion among commentators that leads to unnecessary disagreements.)

In the simplest presentation, one might say that customer foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with customers, while input foreclosure concerns are raised primarily by exclusive dealing with input suppliers. But, as noted below, both concerns may arise in the same case, and especially so where the “customers” are distributors rather than final consumers, and the “input” is distribution services.

Analysis of exclusive dealing (ED) often invokes the customer foreclosure theory. For example, Lorain Journal may be analyzed as customer foreclosure. However, input foreclosure is also highly relevant for analyzing ED because exclusive dealing often involves inputs. For example, Judge Posner’s famous JTC Petroleum cartel opinion can be interpreted in this way, if there were solely vertical agreements.

Cases where manufacturers have ED arrangements with wholesale or retail distributors might be thought to fall into the customer foreclosure theory because the distributors can be seen as customers of the manufacturer. However, distributors also can be seen as providing an input to the manufacturer, “distribution services.” For example, a supermarket or drug store provides shelf space to a manufacturer. If the manufacturer (say, unilaterally) sets resale prices, then the difference between this resale price and the wholesale price is the effective input price.

One reason why the input foreclosure/customer foreclosure distinction is important involves the proper roles of minimum viable scale (MVS) and minimum efficient scale (MES). The customer foreclosure theory may involve a claim that the rival likely will be driven below MVS and exit Or it may involve a claim that the rival will be driven below MES, where its costs will be so much higher or its demand so much lower that it will be marginalized as a competitor.

By contrast, and this is the key point, input foreclosure does not focus on whether the rival likely will be driven below MVS. Even if the rival remains viable, if its costs are higher, it will be led to raise the prices charged to consumers, which will cause consumer harm. And prices will not be raised only in the future. The recoupment can be simultaneous.

Another reason for the importance of the distinction is the role of the “foreclosure rate,” which often is the focus in customer foreclosure analysis. For input foreclosure, the key foreclosure issue is not the fraction of distribution input suppliers or capacity that is foreclosed, but rather whether the foreclosure will raise the rival’s distribution costs. That can occur even if a single distributor is foreclosed, if the exclusivity changes the market structure in the input market or if that distributor was otherwise critical. (For example, see Krattenmaker and Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion.”)

At the same time, it is important to note that the input/customer foreclosure distinction is not a totally bright line difference in many real world cases. A given case can raise both concerns. In addition, customer foreclosure sometimes can raise rivals costs, and input foreclosure sometimes (but not always) can cause exit.
While input foreclosure can succeed even if the rival remains viable in the market, in more extreme scenarios, significantly higher costs inflicted on the rival could drive the rival to fall below minimum viable scale, and thereby cause it to exit. I think that this is one way in which unnecessary disagreements have occurred. Commentators might erroneously focus only this more extreme scenario and overlook the impact of the exclusives or near-exclusives on the rival’s distribution costs.

Note also that customer foreclosure can raise a rival’s costs when there are economies of scale in variable costs. For this reason, even if the rival does not exit or is not marginalized, it nonetheless may become a weaker competitor as a result of the exclusivity or loyalty discount.

These points also help to explain why neither a price-cost test nor the foreclosure rate will provide sufficient reliable evidence for either customer foreclosure or input foreclosure, which I turn to next.

(For further discussion of the distinction between input foreclosure and customer foreclosure, see Riordan and Salop, Evaluating Vertical Mergers: A Post-Chicago Approach, 63 ANTITRUST L.R. 513(1995). See also the note on O’Neill v Coca Cola in Andrew Gavil, William Kovacic and Jonathan Baker, Antitrust Law in Perspective: Cases, Concepts and Problems in Competition Policy (2d ed.) at 868-69. For analysis of Lorain Journal as customer foreclosure, see Gavil et. al at 593-97.)

The Inappropriateness of a Dispositive Price-Cost Test

A price-cost test obviously is not relevant for evaluating input foreclosure concerns, even where the input is distribution services. Even if the foreclosure involves bidding up the price of the input, it can succeed in permitting the firm to achieve or maintain market power, despite the fact that the firm does not bid to the point that its costs exceed its price. (In this regard, Weyerhaeuser was a case of “predatory overbuying,” not “raising rivals’ cost overbuying.” The allegation was that Weyerhaeuser would gain market power in the timber input market, not the lumber output market.)

Nor is a price-cost test the critical focus for assessing customer foreclosure theories of competitive harm. (By the way, I think we all agree that the relevant price-cost test involves a comparison of the incremental revenue and incremental cost of the “contestable volume” at issue for the loyalty discount. So I will not delve into that issue.)

First, and most fundamentally, the price-cost test is premised on the erroneous idea that only equally efficient competitors are worth protecting. In other words, the price-cost requires the premise that the antitrust laws only protect consumers against competitive harm arising from conduct that could have excluded an equally efficient competitor. This premise makes absolutely no economic sense. One simple illustrative example is a monopolist raising the costs of a less efficient potential competitor to destroy its entry into the market. Suppose that monopolist has marginal cost of $50 and a monopoly price of $100. Suppose that there is the potential entrant has costs of $75. If the entry were to occur, the market price would fall. Entry of the less efficient rival imposes a competitive constraint on the monopolist. Thus, the entry clearly would benefit consumers. (And, it clearly often would raise total welfare as well.) It is hard to see why antitrust should permit this type of exclusionary conduct.

It is also unlikely that antitrust law would allow this conduct. For example, Lorain Journal is probably pretty close to this hypothetical. WEOL likely was not equally efficient. The hypothetical probably also fits Microsoft pretty well.

Second, the price-cost test does not make economic sense in the case of the equally efficient rival either. Even if the competitor is equally efficient, bidding for exclusives or near-exclusives through loyalty discounts often does not take place on a level playing field. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the dominant firm may tie up customers or input providers before the competitors even arrive on the scene or are in a position to counterbid. A second reason is that the exclusive may be worth more to the dominant firm because it will allow it to maintain market power, whereas the entrant would only be able to obtain more competitive profits. In this sense, the dominant firm is “purchasing market power” as well as purchasing distribution. (This point is straightforward to explain with an example. Suppose that the dominant firm is earning monopoly profits of $200, which would be maintained if it deters the entry of the new competitor. Suppose that successful entry by the equally efficient competitor would lead to the dominant firm and the entrant both earning profits of $70. In this example, the entrant would be unwilling to bid more than $70 for the distribution. But, the dominant firm would be willing to bid up to $130, the difference between its monopoly profits of $200 and the duopoly profits of $70.) A third reason is that customers may not be willing to take the risk that the entry will fail, where failure can occur not because the entrant’s product is inferior but simply because other customers take the exclusive deal from the dominant firm. In this case, a fear that the entrant would fail could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the customers cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firms’ offer. Lorain Journal may provide an illustrative example of this self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. This last point highlights a more general point Commissioner Wright made in his speech — that successful and harmful RRC does not require a below-cost price (net of discounts). When distributors cannot coordinate their responses to the dominant firm’s offer, a relatively small discount might be all that is required to purchase exclusion. Thus, while large discounts might accompany RRC conduct, that need not be the case. These latter reasons also explain why there can be successful foreclosure even when contracts have short duration.

Third, as noted above, customer foreclosure may raise rivals’ costs when there are economies of scale. The higher costs of the foreclosed rivals are not well accounted for by the price-cost test.

Fourth, as stressed by Joe Farrell, the price-cost test ignores the fact that loyalty discounts triggered by market share may deter a customer’s purchases from a rival that do not even come at the expense of the dominant firm. (For example, suppose in light of the discounts, the customer is purchasing 90 units from the dominant firm and 10 from the rival in order to achieve a “reward” that comes from purchasing 90% from the dominant firm. Now suppose that entrant offers a new product that would lead the customer to wish to continue to purchase 90 units from the dominant firm but now purchase 15 units from the rival. The purchase of these additional 5 units from the rival does not come at the expense of the dominant firm. Yet, even if the entrant were to offer the 5 units at cost, these purchases would be deterred because the customer would fall below the 90% trigger for the reward.) In this way, the market share discount can directly reduce output.

Fifth, the price-cost test assumes that the price decreases will be passed on to final consumers. This may be the clear where the exclusives or loyalty discounts are true discounts given to final consumers. But, it may not be the case where the dominant firm is acquiring the loyalty from input suppliers, including distributors who then resell to final consumers. The loyalty discounts often involve lump sum payments, which raises questions about pass-on, at least in the short-run.

Finally, it is important to stress that the price-cost test for loyalty discounts assumes that price actually represents a true discount. I expect that this assumption is the starting point for commentators who give priority to the price-cost test. However, the price may not represent a true discount in fact, or the size of the discount may turn out to be smaller than it appears after the “but-for world” is evaluated. That is, the proponents of a price-cost test have the following type of scenario in mind. The dominant firm is initially charging the monopoly price of $100. In the face of competition, the dominant firm offers a lower price of (say) $95 to customers that will accept exclusivity, and the customers accept the exclusivity in order to obtain the $5 discount. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $100 for total revenue of $9000. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $95 for total revenue of $9500.
Thus, the dominant firm earns incremental revenue of $500 on the 10 incremental units, or $50 per unit. If the dominant firm’s costs are $50 or less, it will pass the price-cost test.) But, consider next the following alternative scenario. The dominant firm offers the original $100 price to those customers that will accept exclusivity, and sets a higher “penalty” price of $105 to customers that purchase non-exclusively from the competitor. In this latter scenario, the $5 discount similarly may drive customers to accept the exclusive. These prices would lead to a similar outcome of the price-cost test. (To illustrate, suppose that absent the exclusive, the customers would purchase 90 units from the dominant firm at $105 for total revenue of $9450. With the exclusive, they purchase 100 units at a price of $100 for total revenue of $10,000. Thus, the dominant firm earns revenue of $550 on the 10 incremental units, or $55 per unit. Here, the dominant firm will pass the price-cost test, if its costs are $55 or less.) However, in this latter scenario, it is noteworthy that the use of the “penalty” price eliminates any benefits to consumers. This issue seems to be overlooked by Crane and Lambert. (For further details of the role of the penalty price in the context of bundled discounts, see Barry Nalebuff’s articles on Exclusionary Bundling and the articles of Greenlee, Reitman and Sibley.)

* * *

For all these reasons, treating loyalty discounts as analogous to predatory pricing and thereby placing over-reliance on a price-cost test represents a formalistic and unreliable antitrust approach. (It is ironic that Commissioner Wright was criticized by Professor Lambert for being formalistic, when the facts are the opposite.)

This analysis is not to say that the court should be indifferent to the lower prices, where there is a true discount. To the contrary, lower prices passed-on would represent procompetitive efficiency benefits. But, the potential for lower prices passed-on does not provide a sufficient basis for adopting a price-cost safe harbor test for loyalty discount allegations, even ones that can be confidently characterized as purely plain vanilla customer foreclosure with no effects on rivals’ costs.

Thus, the price-cost test should be one relevant evidentiary factor. But, it should not be the primary factor or a trump for either side. That is, above-cost pricing (measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be sufficient by itself for the defendant to escape liability. Nor should below-cost pricing (again, measured in terms of incremental revenue less than incremental cost) should not be a sufficient by itself for a finding of liability.

Such “Creeping Brookism” does not led to either rigorous or accurate antitrust analysis. It is a path to higher error rates, not a lower ones.

Nor should courts rely on simple-minded foreclosure rates. Gilbarco shows how a mechanical approach to measuring foreclosure leads to confusion. Microsoft makes it clear that a “total foreclosure” test also is deficient. Instead, a better approach is to require the plaintiff to prove under the Rule of Reason standard that the conduct harms the rival by reducing its ability to compete and also that it harms consumers.

I should add one other point for completeness. Some (but not Commissioner Wright or Professor Crane) might suggest that the price-cost test has administrability benefits relative to a full rule of reason analysis under the RRC paradigm. While courts are capable are evaluating prices and costs, that comparison may be more difficult than measuring the increase in the rivals’ distribution costs engendered by the conduct. Moreover, the price-cost comparison becomes an order of magnitude more complex in loyalty discount cases, relative to plain vanilla predatory pricing cases. This is because it also is necessary to determine a reasonable measure of the contestable volume to use to compare incremental revenue and incremental cost. For first-dollar discounts, there will always be some small region where incremental revenue is below incremental cost. Even aside from this situation, the two sides often will disagree about the magnitude of the volume that was at issue.

In summary, I think that Professor Wright’s speech forms the basis of moving the discussion forward into analysis of the actual evidence of benefits and harms, rather than continuing to fight the battles over whether the legal analysis used in the 1950s and 1960s failed to satisfy modern standards and thereby needed to be reined in with unreliable safe harbors.

It’s not often that I disagree with my friend and co-author, FTC Commissioner Josh Wright, on an antitrust matter.  But when it comes to the proper legal treatment of loyalty discounts, the Commish and I just don’t see eye to eye.

In a speech this past Monday evening, Commissioner Wright rejected the view that there should be a safe harbor for single-product loyalty discounts resulting in an above-cost price for the product at issue.  A number of antitrust scholars—including Herb Hovenkamp, Dan Crane, and yours truly—recently urged the Supreme Court to grant cert and overturn a Third Circuit decision refusing to recognize such a safe harbor.  Commissioner Wright thinks we’re wrong.

A single-product loyalty discount occurs when a seller conditions a price cut (either an ex ante discount or an ex post rebate) on a buyer’s purchasing some quantity of a single product from the seller.  The purchase target is often set as a percentage of the buyer’s requirements, as when a medical device manufacturer offers to pay a 20% rebate on all of a hospital’s purchases of the manufacturer’s device if the hospital buys at least 70% of its requirements of that type of device from the manufacturer.  Because a loyalty discount tends to encourage distributors to carry more of the discounting manufacturer’s brand and less of the brands of the discounter’s rivals, such a discount may tend to “foreclose” those rivals from available distribution outlets.  If the degree of foreclose is so great that rivals have to cut their output below minimum efficient scale (the minimum output level required to achieve all economies of scale), then the discount may “raise rivals’ costs” relative to those of the discounter and thereby harm consumers.

On all these points, Commissioner Wright and I are in agreement.  Where we differ is on the question of whether a loyalty discount resulting in a discounted price that is above the discounter’s own cost should give rise to antitrust liability.  I say no.  I take that position because such an “above-cost loyalty discount” could be matched by any rival that is as efficient a producer as the discounter.  If, for example, a manufacturer normally charges $1.00 for widgets it produces for $.79 each but offers a 20% loyalty discount to retailers that buy 70% of their widget requirements from the manufacturer, any competitor that could produce a widget for $.79 (i.e., any equally efficient rival) could stay in business by lowering its price to the level of its incremental cost.  Thus, any rival that loses sales because of a manufacturer’s above-cost loyalty discount must be either less efficient than the manufacturer (so it can’t match the manufacturer’s discounted price) or unwilling to lower its price to the level of its cost.  In either case, the rival is unworthy of antitrust’s protection, where that protection amounts to prohibiting price cuts that provide consumers with immediate benefits.

Commissioner Wright disputes (I think?) the view that equally efficient rivals could match all above-cost loyalty discounts.  He maintains that loyalty discounts may be structured so that

[a] distributor’s purchase of an additional unit from a rival supplier beyond the threshold level can result in a loss of rebates large enough to render rival suppliers unable to attract a distributor to purchase the marginal unit at prices at or above the marginal cost of producing the good.

While I’m not entirely certain what Commissioner Wright means by this remark, I think he’s making the point that a loyalty discounter’s equally efficient rival might not be able to attract purchases by matching the discounter’s above-cost loyalty rebate if the rival’s “regular” base of sales is substantially smaller than that of the discounter.

If that is indeed what Commissioner Wright is saying, he has a point.  Suppose, for example, that the market for tennis balls consists of two brands, Penn and Wilson, that current market shares, reflective of consumer demand, are 60% for the Penn and 40% for Wilson, and that retailers typically stock the two brands in those proportions. Assume also that it costs each manufacturer $.90 to produce a can of tennis balls, that each sells to retailers for $1 per can, and that minimum efficient scale in this market occurs at a level of production equal to 35% of market demand. Suppose, then, that Penn, the dominant manufacturer, offers retailers a 10% loyalty rebate on all purchases made within a year if they buy 70% of their requirements for the year from Penn. The $.90 per unit discounted price is not below Penn’s cost, so the loyalty discount would come within my safe harbor.

Nevertheless, the loyalty discount could have the effect of driving Wilson from the market.  After implementation of the rebate scheme, a typi­cal retailer that previously purchased sixty cans of Penn for $60 and forty cans of Wilson for $40 could save $7 on its 100-can tennis ball require­ments by spending $63 to obtain seventy Penn cans and $30 to obtain thirty Wilson cans. The retailer and others like it would thus have a strong incen­tive to shift pur­chases from Wilson to Penn. To prevent a loss of mar­ket share that would drive it below minimum efficient scale (35% of market demand), Wilson would need to lower its price to provide retailers with the same total dollar discount, but on a smaller base of sales (40% of a typical retailer’s require­ments rather than 60%). This would require it to lower its price below cost. For example, Wilson could match Penn’s $7 discount to the retailer described above only by reducing its $1 per-unit price by 17.5 cents ($7.00/40 = $.175), which would require it to price below its cost of $.90 per unit.  Viewed statically, then, it seems that even an above-cost loyalty discount could occasion competitive harm by causing rivals to be less efficient, so that they could not match the discounter’s price.

In light of dynamic effects, though, I’m not convinced that examples like this undermine the case for a safe harbor for above-cost loyalty discounts. Had the nondominant rival (Wilson) charged a price equal to its marginal cost prior to Penn’s loyalty rebate, it would have enjoyed a price advantage and likely would have grown its market share to a point at which Penn’s loyalty rebate strat­egy could not drive it below minimum effi­cient scale. Moreover, one strategy that would prevent a nondominant but equally efficient firm from being harmed by a dominant rival’s above-cost loyalty rebate would be for the non-dominant firm to give its own volume discounts from the outset, secur­ing up-front commitments from enough buy­ers (in exchange for discounted prices) to ensure that its production stayed above minimum efficient scale. Such a strategy, which would obvi­ously benefit consumers, would be encouraged by a liability rule that evaluated loy­alty discounts under straight­forward Brooke Group principles (i.e., that included a safe harbor for above-cost discounts) and thereby signaled to manufacturers that they must take steps to protect themselves from above-cost loyalty discounts.

Commissioner Wright maintains that all this discussion of price-cost comparisons is inapposite because the theoretical harm from loyalty discounts stems from market exclusion (and its ability to raise rivals’ costs), not from predation.  He says, for example:

  • “[T]o the extent loyalty discounts raise competition concerns, the concerns are about anticompetitive exclusion and, as a result, the legal framework developed to evaluate exclusive dealing claims ought to be used to evaluate claims relating to loyalty discounts.” [p. 12]
  • “[P]redatory pricing and raising rivals’ costs are distinct paradigms of potentially exclusionary conduct. There simply is not a stable relative relationship between price and cost in raising rivals’ cost models that form the basis of anticompetitive exclusion, and hence it does not follow that below cost pricing is a necessary condition for competitive harm.”  [pp. 19-20]
  • “When plaintiffs allege that loyalty discounts … violate the antitrust laws because they deprive rivals of access to a critical input, raise their costs, and ultimately harm competition, they are articulating a raising rivals’ cost theory of harm rather than price predation.”  [p. 24]
  • “Raising rivals’ costs and predation are two different economic paradigms of exclusionary conduct, and economic models within each paradigm establish the necessary conditions for each practice to harm competition and give rise to antitrust concerns. Loyalty discounts and other forms of partial exclusives … are properly analyzed under the exclusive dealing framework. Price‐cost tests in the predatory pricing tradition … simply do not comport with the underlying economics of exclusive dealing.”  [p. 33]

I must confess that I’m baffled by Commissioner Wright’s oddly formalistic pigeonholing.  Why must a practice be one or the other—either pricing too low or excluding rivals and thereby raising their costs?  That seems like a false dichotomy.  Indeed, it seems to me that a problematic loyalty discount is one in which the discounter excludes its rivals from a substantial portion of the distribution network (and thereby raises their costs) via the mechanism of conditional price cuts. It’s “both-and,” not “either-or.”  And if that’s the case, then surely it makes sense to limit which price cuts may occasion liability—i.e., only those that could not be matched by equally efficient rivals.  [It is important to note here that I don’t advocate a price-cost test as an alternative to a foreclosure-based analysis.  Rather, a plaintiff should have to establish below-cost pricing (to show that the plaintiff was deserving of antitrust’s protection via the highly disfavored prohibition of discounts) and demonstrate that the discounting at issue resulted in substantial foreclosure from distribution outlets (the latter showing is necessary to prove harm to competition rather than simply to a competitor).]

Throughout his speech, Commissioner Wright emphasizes that the primary competitive concern presented by loyalty discounts is the possibility of “anticompetitive exclusion.”  He writes on page 8, for example, that “[t]he key economic point is that the antitrust concerns potentially arising from loyalty discounts involve anticompetitive exclusion rather than predatory pricing….”  On page 12, he reiterates that “to the extent loyalty discounts raise competition concerns, the concerns are about anticompetitive exclusion.”  He then apparently assumes that loyalty discount-induced exclusion is “anticompetitive” if it is sufficiently substantial—i.e., if the discounter’s rivals are foreclosed from so many distribution outlets that they are driven below minimum efficient scale so that their costs are raised relative to those of the discounter.

I would dispute the notion that discount-induced exclusion is anticompetitive simply because it’s substantial.  Rather, I’d say such exclusion is anticompetitive only if it is substantial and could not have been avoided by aggressive pricing.  Omitting the second requirement creates the possibility that antitrust will be used by a laggard rival to prevent a more aggressive rival’s consumer-friendly price competition.  (LePage’s anyone?)

Suppose, for example, that there are two producers of widgets, A and B, which both produce widgets at a marginal cost of $.79 and, given their duopoly, charge $1.00 per widget.  A, whose market share has hovered around 50%, institutes a loyalty rebate of 20% for retailers that purchase 70% of their requirements from A.  If B offers the same deal, or simply cuts its price to $.80, it should lose no market share.  But suppose B doesn’t do so, A captures 70% of the market, and B falls below minimum efficient scale.  Would we say that B’s exclusion is “anticompetitive” because A’s discount scheme resulted in such substantial foreclosure that it raised B’s costs?  Should B be able to collect treble damages for based on its “anticompetitive exclusion”?  Surely not.

Commissioner Wright, from whom I have learned more about “error costs” than anyone else, seems oddly unconcerned about the chilling effect his decidedly pro-plaintiff approach to loyalty discounts will produce.  Wouldn’t a firm considering a loyalty discount—a price cut, don’t forget!—think twice if it knew its rivals could sit on their hands, claim “exclusion” if the discount successfully moved substantial market share toward the discounter, and collect treble damages?  The safe harbor Hovenkamp, Crane, and I have advocated would provide assurance to potential discounters that they will not face liability if they charge above-cost prices, prices that could be matched by equally efficient, aggressive rivals.  Isn’t that approach more likely to minimize error costs?

Two closing points.  First, despite my disagreement with Commissioner Wright on this issue, I share the widely held view that he is one of the most brilliant antitrust thinkers out there.  He’s taught me more about antitrust than anyone (with the possible exception of the uber-prolific Herb Hovenkamp).  His questioning of my views on loyalty discounts really makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

Second, to those who think Commissioner Wright has “drifted” or “turned,” let me assure you that he’s long held his views on loyalty discounts.  As you can see here, here, and here, we’ve been going round and round on this matter for quite some time.

Perhaps one day one of us will persuade the other.

Tyler Cowen has posted the reading list for his 2010 Industrial Organization class in the George Mason economics department.  He asks for recommendations.  Below the fold are my suggestions to supplement Section I or II of Cowen’s reading list. The first order of business is getting Coase, Klein, Crawford Alchian (1978), Alchian and Demsetz (1972) and Williamson (1971, 1975) added to the theory of the firm reading.

Continue Reading…

Steve Salop is a professor economics and law at the Georgetown University Law Center where he teaches antitrust law and economics and economic reasoning and the law.  Steve’s work in antitrust economics pioneered what is now frequently referred to as the “Post-Chicago” approach.  His research focuses on antitrust law and economics, and Steve has written numerous articles analyzing exclusionary market power, exclusionary conduct, and raising rivals’ costs in the context of a variety of antitrust areas, including monopolization, input purchases and monopsony, joint venture access rules, vertical mergers, and vertical restraints.  His research has also focused on various aspects of mergers and joint ventures, including market definition, partial ownership and cross-ownership interests, entry barriers, and efficiencies.  Professor Salop earned his Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1972. Before joining the Georgetown faculty, he worked at the Federal Trade Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the Federal Reserve Board.

TOTM is extremely pleased to have Steve here and is looking forward to some fun and lively exchanges.  Steve’s first post offers a different economic perspective on the buyer antitrust exemption issue Geoff and I have been discussing the last few days.