Archives For SURE Act

Earlier this week I testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade regarding several proposed FTC reform bills.

You can find my written testimony here. That testimony was drawn from a 100 page report, authored by Berin Szoka and me, entitled “The Federal Trade Commission: Restoring Congressional Oversight of the Second National Legislature — An Analysis of Proposed Legislation.” In the report we assess 9 of the 17 proposed reform bills in great detail, and offer a host of suggested amendments or additional reform proposals that, we believe, would help make the FTC more accountable to the courts. As I discuss in my oral remarks, that judicial oversight was part of the original plan for the Commission, and an essential part of ensuring that its immense discretion is effectively directed toward protecting consumers as technology and society evolve around it.

The report is “Report 2.0” of the FTC: Technology & Reform Project, which was convened by the International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom with an inaugural conference in 2013. Report 1.0 lays out some background on the FTC and its institutional dynamics, identifies the areas of possible reform at the agency, and suggests the key questions/issues each of them raises.

The text of my oral remarks follow, or, if you prefer, you can watch them here:

Chairman Burgess, Ranking Member Schakowsky, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.

I’m Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics, a non-profit, non-partisan research center. I’m a former law professor, I used to work at Microsoft, and I had what a colleague once called the most illustrious FTC career ever — because, at approximately 2 weeks, it was probably the shortest.

I’m not typically one to advocate active engagement by Congress in anything (no offense). But the FTC is different.

Despite Congressional reforms, the FTC remains the closest thing we have to a second national legislature. Its jurisdiction covers nearly every company in America. Section 5, at its heart, runs just 20 words — leaving the Commission enormous discretion to make policy decisions that are essentially legislative.

The courts were supposed to keep the agency on course. But they haven’t. As Former Chairman Muris has written, “the agency has… traditionally been beyond judicial control.”

So it’s up to Congress to monitor the FTC’s processes, and tweak them when the FTC goes off course, which is inevitable.

This isn’t a condemnation of the FTC’s dedicated staff. Rather, this one way ratchet of ever-expanding discretion is simply the nature of the beast.

Yet too many people lionize the status quo. They see any effort to change the agency from the outside as an affront. It’s as if Congress was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1914 and the Perfect Platonic Agency sprang forth.

But in the real world, an agency with massive scope and discretion needs oversight — and feedback on how its legal doctrines evolve.

So why don’t the courts play that role? Companies essentially always settle with the FTC because of its exceptionally broad investigatory powers, its relatively weak standard for voting out complaints, and the fact that those decisions effectively aren’t reviewable in federal court.

Then there’s the fact that the FTC sits in judgment of its own prosecutions. So even if a company doesn’t settle and actually wins before the ALJ, FTC staff still wins 100% of the time before the full Commission.

Able though FTC staffers are, this can’t be from sheer skill alone.

Whether by design or by neglect, the FTC has become, as Chairman Muris again described it, “a largely unconstrained agency.”

Please understand: I say this out of love. To paraphrase Churchill, the FTC is the “worst form of regulatory agency — except for all the others.”

Eventually Congress had to course-correct the agency — to fix the disconnect and to apply its own pressure to refocus Section 5 doctrine.

So a heavily Democratic Congress pressured the Commission to adopt the Unfairness Policy Statement in 1980. The FTC promised to restrain itself by balancing the perceived benefits of its unfairness actions against the costs, and not acting when injury is insignificant or consumers could have reasonably avoided injury on their own. It is, inherently, an economic calculus.

But while the Commission pays lip service to the test, you’d be hard-pressed to identify how (or whether) it’s implemented it in practice. Meanwhile, the agency has essentially nullified the “materiality” requirement that it volunteered in its 1983 Deception Policy Statement.

Worst of all, Congress failed to anticipate that the FTC would resume exercising its vast discretion through what it now proudly calls its “common law of consent decrees” in data security cases.

Combined with a flurry of recommended best practices in reports that function as quasi-rulemakings, these settlements have enabled the FTC to circumvent both Congressional rulemaking reforms and meaningful oversight by the courts.

The FTC’s data security settlements aren’t an evolving common law. They’re a static statement of “reasonable” practices, repeated about 55 times over the past 14 years. At this point, it’s reasonable to assume that they apply to all circumstances — much like a rule (which is, more or less, the opposite of the common law).

Congressman Pompeo’s SHIELD Act would help curtail this practice, especially if amended to include consent orders and reports. It would also help focus the Commission on the actual elements of the Unfairness Policy Statement — which should be codified through Congressman Mullins’ SURE Act.

Significantly, only one data security case has actually come before an Article III court. The FTC trumpets Wyndham as an out-and-out win. But it wasn’t. In fact, the court agreed with Wyndham on the crucial point that prior consent orders were of little use in trying to understand the requirements of Section 5.

More recently the FTC suffered another rebuke. While it won its product design suit against Amazon, the Court rejected the Commission’s “fencing in” request to permanently hover over the company and micromanage practices that Amazon had already ended.

As the FTC grapples with such cutting-edge legal issues, it’s drifting away from the balance it promised Congress.

But Congress can’t fix these problems simply by telling the FTC to take its bedrock policy statements more seriously. Instead it must regularly reassess the process that’s allowed the FTC to avoid meaningful judicial scrutiny. The FTC requires significant course correction if its model is to move closer to a true “common law.”

Last Monday, a group of nineteen scholars of antitrust law and economics, including yours truly, urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reverse the Federal Trade Commission’s recent McWane ruling.

McWane, the largest seller of domestically produced iron pipe fittings (DIPF), would sell its products only to distributors that “fully supported” its fittings by carrying them exclusively.  There were two exceptions: where McWane products were not readily available, and where the distributor purchased a McWane rival’s pipe along with its fittings.  A majority of the FTC ruled that McWane’s policy constituted illegal exclusive dealing.

Commissioner Josh Wright agreed that the policy amounted to exclusive dealing, but he concluded that complaint counsel had failed to prove that the exclusive dealing constituted unreasonably exclusionary conduct in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.  Commissioner Wright emphasized that complaint counsel had produced no direct evidence of anticompetitive harm (i.e., an actual increase in prices or decrease in output), even though McWane’s conduct had already run its course.  Indeed, the direct evidence suggested an absence of anticompetitive effect, as McWane’s chief rival, Star, grew in market share at exactly the same rate during and after the time of McWane’s exclusive dealing.

Instead of focusing on direct evidence of competitive effect, complaint counsel pointed to a theoretical anticompetitive harm: that McWane’s exclusive dealing may have usurped so many sales from Star that Star could not achieve minimum efficient scale.  The only evidence as to what constitutes minimum efficient scale in the industry, though, was Star’s self-serving statement that it would have had lower average costs had it operated at a scale sufficient to warrant ownership of its own foundry.  As Commissioner Wright observed, evidence in the record showed that other pipe fitting producers had successfully entered the market and grown market share substantially without owning their own foundry.  Thus, actual market experience seemed to undermine Star’s self-serving testimony.

Commissioner Wright also observed that complaint counsel produced no evidence showing what percentage of McWane’s sales of DIPF might have gone to other sellers absent McWane’s exclusive dealing policy.  Only those “contestable” sales – not all of McWane’s sales to distributors subject to the full support policy – should be deemed foreclosed by McWane’s exclusive dealing.  Complaint counsel also failed to quantify sales made to McWane’s rivals under the generous exceptions to its policy.  These deficiencies prevented complaint counsel from adequately establishing the degree of market foreclosure caused by McWane’s policy – the first (but not last!) step in establishing the alleged anticompetitive harm.

In our amicus brief, we antitrust scholars take Commissioner Wright’s side on these matters.  We also observe that the Commission failed to account for an important procompetitive benefit of McWane’s policy:  it prevented rival DIPF sellers from “cherry-picking” the most popular, highest margin fittings and selling only those at prices that could be lower than McWane’s because the cherry-pickers didn’t bear the costs of producing the full line of fittings.  Such cherry-picking is a form of free-riding because every producer’s fittings are more highly valued if a full line is available.  McWane’s policy prevented the sort of free-riding that would have made its production of a full line uneconomical.

In short, the FTC’s decision made it far too easy to successfully challenge exclusive dealing arrangements, which are usually procompetitive, and calls into question all sorts of procompetitive full-line forcing arrangements.  Hopefully, the Eleventh Circuit will correct the Commission’s mistake.

Other professors signing the brief include:

  • Tom Arthur, Emory Law
  • Roger Blair, Florida Business
  • Don Boudreaux, George Mason Economics (and Café Hayek)
  • Henry Butler, George Mason Law
  • Dan Crane, Michigan Law (and occasional TOTM contributor)
  • Richard Epstein, NYU and Chicago Law
  • Ken Elzinga, Virginia Economics
  • Damien Geradin, George Mason Law
  • Gus Hurwitz, Nebraska Law (and TOTM)
  • Keith Hylton, Boston University Law
  • Geoff Manne, International Center for Law and Economics (and TOTM)
  • Fred McChesney, Miami Law
  • Tom Morgan, George Washington Law
  • Barack Orbach, Arizona Law
  • Bill Page, Florida Law
  • Paul Rubin, Emory Economics (and TOTM)
  • Mike Sykuta, Missouri Economics (and TOTM)
  • Todd Zywicki, George Mason Law (and Volokh Conspiracy)

The brief’s “Summary of Argument” follows the jump. Continue Reading…

Over at Forbes Berin Szoka and I have a lengthy piece discussing “10 Reasons To Be More Optimistic About Broadband Than Susan Crawford Is.” Crawford has become the unofficial spokesman for a budding campaign to reshape broadband. She sees cable companies monopolizing broadband, charging too much, withholding content and keeping speeds low, all in order to suppress disruptive innovation — and argues for imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. Berin and I begin (we expect to contribute much more to this discussion in the future) to explain both why her premises are erroneous and also why her proscription is faulty. Here’s a taste:

Things in the US today are better than Crawford claims. While Crawford claims that broadband is faster and cheaper in other developed countries, her statistics are convincingly disputed. She neglects to mention the significant subsidies used to build out those networks. Crawford’s model is Europe, but as Europeans acknowledge, “beyond 100 Mbps supply will be very difficult and expensive. Western Europe may be forced into a second fibre build out earlier than expected, or will find themselves within the slow lane in 3-5 years time.” And while “blazing fast” broadband might be important for some users, broadband speeds in the US are plenty fast enough to satisfy most users. Consumers are willing to pay for speed, but, apparently, have little interest in paying for the sort of speed Crawford deems essential. This isn’t surprising. As the LSE study cited above notes, “most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant.”

Even if she’s right, she wildly exaggerates the costs. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Crawford claims that slow downloads (compared to other countries) could cost the U.S. $3 trillion/year in lost productivity from wasted time spent “waiting for a link to load or an app to function on your wireless device.” This intentionally sensationalist claim, however, rests on a purely hypothetical average wait time in the U.S. of 30 seconds (vs. 2 seconds in Japan). Whatever the actual numbers might be, her methodology would still be shaky, not least because time spent waiting for laggy content isn’t necessarily simply wasted. And for most of us, the opportunity cost of waiting for Angry Birds to load on our phones isn’t counted in wages — it’s counted in beers or time on the golf course or other leisure activities. These are important, to be sure, but does anyone seriously believe our GDP would grow 20% if only apps were snappier? Meanwhile, actual econometric studies looking at the productivity effects of faster broadband on businesses have found that higher broadband speeds are not associated with higher productivity.

* * *

So how do we guard against the possibility of consumer harm without making things worse? For us, it’s a mix of promoting both competition and a smarter, subtler role for government.

Despite Crawford’s assertion that the DOJ should have blocked the Comcast-NBCU merger, antitrust and consumer protection laws do operate to constrain corporate conduct, not only through government enforcement but also private rights of action. Antitrust works best in the background, discouraging harmful conduct without anyone ever suing. The same is true for using consumer protection law to punish deception and truly harmful practices (e.g., misleading billing or overstating speeds).

A range of regulatory reforms would also go a long way toward promoting competition. Most importantly, reform local franchising so competitors like Google Fiber can build their own networks. That means giving them “open access” not to existing networks but to the public rights of way under streets. Instead of requiring that franchisees build out to an entire franchise area—which often makes both new entry and service upgrades unprofitable—remove build-out requirements and craft smart subsidies to encourage competition to deliver high-quality universal service, and to deliver superfast broadband to the customers who want it. Rather than controlling prices, offer broadband vouchers to those that can’t afford it. Encourage telcos to build wireline competitors to cable by transitioning their existing telephone networks to all-IP networks, as we’ve urged the FCC to do (here and here). Let wireless reach its potential by opening up spectrum and discouraging municipalities from blocking tower construction. Clear the deadwood of rules that protect incumbents in the video marketplace—a reform with broad bipartisan appeal.

In short, there’s a lot of ground between “do nothing” and “regulate broadband like electricity—or railroads.” Crawford’s arguments simply don’t justify imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. But that doesn’t leave us powerless to correct practices that truly harm consumers, should they actually arise.

Read the whole thing here.

Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, The Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law, The University of Chicago.

Few academic publications have had as much direct public influence on the law as the 2008 article by my NYU colleague Oren Bar-Gill and then Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren.  In “Making Credit Safer,” they seek to combine two strands of academic thought in support of one great cause—more regulation of financial markets.  They start with the central claim of behavioral economics that sophisticated entrepreneurs are able to take advantage of the systematic foibles of ordinary people, by rigging their products in ways that work systematically to their own advantage.  By plying ordinary individuals will carefully packaged payment contracts, firms can undercut the central postulate of rational choice economics that all voluntary transactions produce mutual gains for the parties.  In its stead we get the wreckage of families and fortunes brought about by unscrupulous bankers in search of a buck.  Warren and Bar-Gill repeatedly talk about the importance of empirical evidence.  Her own work, however, is exceptionally shoddy, as Todd Zywicki has recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal.

The second strand of their argument refers to the law of product liability in which they claim that government actors at all levels have intervened into markets to cure the information deficits in products that in an earlier age used to maim, if not kill, ordinary consumers.  The exploding toaster is their key example of a product that needs government oversight.  In their view, the key insight is that “sellers have no incentive to invest in making a safer product given consumers’ imperfect information.”  That position, moreover, is barely tolerable if consumers know about their own ignorance because they are then in a position to take precautions to offset the lamentable neglect of product providers.  Yet in those cases where consumers fail to perceive the risks, they get the worst of both worlds.  Sellers can afford to be indifferent to product risk, which leads to many bad consequences for consumers in the absence of firm government regulation.

In their model, financial products have similar characteristics.  It is just a short step therefore to argue that the insights of behavioral economics should transform the way in which payment cards should be regulated, to bring the situation into a closer alignment with the system of product liability regulation. However imperfect, Bar-Gill and Warren insist that the current regulation of consumer products outperforms the current of financial products.

At this point, the proper approach is to accept no small ambitions.  Instead their prescient conclusion runs as follows:

[T]he current legal structure, a loose amalgam of common law, statutory prohibitions, and regulatory agency oversight, is structurally incapable of providing effective protection. We propose the creation of a single regulatory body that will be responsible for evaluating the safety of consumer credit products and policing any features that are designed to trick, trap, or otherwise fool the consumers who use them.

Their fondest dreams have been realized.  By recess appointment, Elizabeth Warren is perched inside the United States Treasury as an Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (CFPB)  In that capacity, my hope is that she will come to realize the uselessness of the product liability analogies to which she attaches so much weight.  You have to know something first about the body of law to which you which to compare payment markets.  In this instance, neither Bar-Gill nor Warren have the slightest clue about the evolution of product liability law.

Continue Reading…

Careless or even fraudulent documentation in foreclosure actions has stalled foreclosures, stymied recovery of the housing market, threatened the earnings and even financial stability of banks, and may lead to massive securities fraud actions.  How did this happen?  Per CR:

[A] combination of getting swamped with foreclosures, lack of experienced staff, the poor economic environment for servicers, and outsourcing to the lowest bidder, all contributed to the servicers using “robo-signers”.

From WaPo:

To keep up with the crush of foreclosures, document processors and mortgage service firms rushed to hire anyone they could – hair stylists, Wal-Mart clerks, assembly-line workers who made blinds – and gave them key roles in their foreclosure departments without formal training, according to court papers. A number of these employees have testified that they did not really know what a mortgage was, couldn’t define “affidavit,” and knew they were lying when they signed documents related to foreclosures * * *

More on incentives (WaPo again): 

[V]irtually everyone involved – loan servicers, law firms, document processing companies and others – made more money as they evicted more borrowers from their homes, creating a system that was vulnerable to error and difficult for homeowners to challenge. * * * The law firm of David J. Stern in Plantation, Fla., for instance, assigned a team of 12 to handle 12,000 foreclosure files at once for big financial companies such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Citigroup, according to court documents. Each time a case was processed without a challenge from the homeowner, the firm was paid $1,300. It was an unusual arrangement in a legal profession that normally charges by the hour.  The office was so overwhelmed with work that managers kept notary stamps lying around for anyone to use. * * *

Law firms were rewarded with additional bonuses from document processing companies if they met deadlines for preparing and filing foreclosures in courts. * * * Fannie Mae imposes a $100 fee on contractors for each day they fail to notify the firm that the foreclosure process was a success and that it has the right to move ahead with the resale of a home. On top of that, Fannie charges a penalty – which escalates for larger mortgages – on contractors who delay selling off such properties. * * * Speed is also rewarded by the nation’s credit-rating agencies, which give higher grades to mortgage service firms that accelerate the foreclosure process and generally hand out lower grades to those who hold onto delinquent loans. A Fitch Ratings manual calls the speed of foreclosures “the key driver in the servicer rating,” according to a report by the National Consumer Law Center. * * *

(So here we have Fannie Mae in the middle of yet another financial crisis.)

More on the lawyers (NYT, via CR):

[F]ormer employee recently testified that Mr. Stern’s firm, in a rush to file and complete thousands of foreclosures, routinely violated procedures by having foreclosure-related documents notarized that were never checked for accuracy — all with the lawyer’s knowledge. * * *

Years ago, lawyers once handled and verified most of the paperwork involved in a foreclosure. But the advent of mortgage securitization a decade ago, financial experts say, gave rise to a parallel legal industry. In it, a law firm is paid a flat fee by loan servicers to handle a foreclosure, which is lucrative for lawyers who process a high volume of cases.  “This is a very profitable business model,” said O. Max Gardner III, a lawyer in Shelby, N.C., who defends homeowners in foreclosure proceedings. “You’ve got five lawyers and four hundred people without legal training working for them.” * * *

According to the lawsuits filed this month against Lender Processing Services and Prommis Solutions, plaintiffs’ lawyers accused the companies of using various mechanisms to steer legal work to foreclosure mills, then splitting legal fees with the lawyers running those operations. In many states, it is illegal or unethical for lawyers to split fees with nonlawyers. Both Lender Processing and Prommis essentially act as informational middlemen between mortgage servicers and law firms doing foreclosure work. Both have denied being involved in such practices.

In recent papers (Death of Big Law, and the in-process Owning the Law) I have described an industry in transition from one-to-one legal advice to more commoditized legal information and mass production.  When I present these ideas I’m often accused of inviting the degradation of a once-proud profession.  My response is that this is not something I’m advocating.  I’m describing changes that are already occurring.  The disaster will come if lawyers and others fail adequately to recognize and deal with these developments.

Foreclosure-gate is partly a product of a law industry which has already embraced mass production and in which non-lawyers (e.g., mortgage servicers and the “informational middlemen” named above) are calling the shots.  Current ethics rules require legal work to be done by lawyer-owned law firms.  So we get “law firms” with “five lawyers and four hundred people without legal training.”  Discarding outmoded regulation and ethical rules that fail to deal with the realities of modern law practice would help involve more credible firms that could put the industry on a sounder business footing.

Of course, there’s another possible future:  regulation that attempts to stop these practices without taking account of the pressures and incentives that caused them to happen.  This is likely to make things worse.

Gretchen Morgenson doesn’t want poor people to have access to consumer credit. At least, that’s what I think she’s saying in her rambling NYT column this week.

Congress and federal regulators have recently taken a number of actions that will make it tougher for riskier customers to access consumer credit. First there was the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which precludes issuers from charging fees for services like telephone payments, requires a number of disclosures and advanced warnings, and makes it harder for issuers to raise interest rates and charge over-limit fees. Then there are the new Fed regulations set to go into effect next month. Those rules, which implement the Credit Card Act, preclude credit card issuers from raising interest rates for the ensuing twelve months after an account is opened, and then only on new charges, not on existing balances. By limiting an issuer’s ability to reprice credit based on changes in a customer’s risk profile, the Credit Card Act and Fed rules will make it harder for risky consumers to access consumer credit.

But all these things aren’t enough for Ms. Morgenson. She’s upset that issuers catering to higher-risk consumers are finding other sources of revenue:

An example is Alliance Data Systems, a big issuer of private-label credit cards like those that specialty stores offer. It has decided to levy a $1 monthly surcharge to customers who choose to receive account statements by mail. Proof, yet again, that if you close the door, they will come in through the window. And if you close the window, they blow through the door.

Ms. Morgenson sees Alliance’s $1 charge for assembling, printing, and mailing a paper bill (as opposed to posting the bill on the Internet) as inconsistent with the thrust of the new Fed regulations and the Credit Card Act, and she calls on regulators to “pursue companies flouting the spirit or the letter of the new rules.” Never mind that the small and seemingly justified charge is consistent with the actual terms (as opposed to the amorphous “spirit”) of the new regulations. Never mind also that those new rules have effectively forced Alliance to impose this slight charge if it wants to continue servicing high-risk consumers without raising interest rates. Indeed, Ms. Morgenson recognizes that Alliance caters to riskier customers and is generally compensated via penalty fees rather than higher interest rates:

William Ryan, an analyst at Portales Partners in New York, said the $1 statement fee wasn’t a surprise, given Alliance’s business model. “A disproportionate part of Alliance Data Systems’ yield comes from penalty fees,” he said, “so by default they would be more proportionately impacted by the Credit Card Act than an American Express that caters to higher-end customers.”

Ms. Morgenson thus seems to acknowledge that if the law is enforced as she’d prefer an issuer like Alliance must either charge higher interest rates or up-front service fees, cater exclusively to higher-end customers (a la American Express), or shut down. (She might say that Alliance could also just reduce its revenues, but doing so would probably drive its capital elsewhere.) All these options would make it harder for poorer and riskier consumers to access consumer credit.

But that doesn’t bother Ms. Morgenson. She admits that she prefers a paternalistic “nanny state” to “the pirate state that brought this economy to its knees.” I wonder if the high-risk consumers she’s trying to protect share her views?