Archives For unilateral conduct

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Steve Cernak, (Partner, Bona Law).]

The antitrust laws have not been suspended during the current COVID-19 crisis. But based on questions received from clients plus others discussed with other practitioners, the changed economic conditions have raised some new questions and put a new slant on some old ones. 

Under antitrust law’s flexible rule of reason standard, courts and enforcers consider the competitive effect of most actions under current and expected economic conditions. Because those conditions have changed drastically, at least temporarily, perhaps the antitrust assessments of certain actions will be different. Also, in a crisis, good businesses consider new options and reconsider others that had been rejected under the old conditions. So antitrust practitioners and enforcers need to be prepared for new questions and reconsiderations of others under new facts. Here are some that might cross their desks.

Benchmarking

Benchmarking had its antitrust moment a few years ago as practitioners discovered and began to worry about this form of communication with competitors. Both before and since then, the comparison of processes and metrics to industry bests to determine where improvement efforts should be concentrated has not raised serious antitrust issues – if done properly. Appropriate topic choice and implementation, often involving counsel review and third-party collection, should stay the same during this crisis. Companies implementing new processes might be tempted to reach out to competitors to learn best practices. Any of those companies unfamiliar with the right way to benchmark should get up to speed. Counsel must be prepared to help clients quickly, but properly, benchmark some suddenly important activities, like methods for deep-cleaning workplaces.

Joint ventures

Joint ventures where competitors work together to accomplish a task that neither could alone, or accomplish it more efficiently, have always received a receptive antitrust review. Often, those joint efforts have been temporary. Properly structured ones have always required the companies to remain competitors outside the joint venture. Joint efforts among competitors that did not make sense before the crisis might make perfect sense during it. For instance, a company whose distribution warehouse has been shut down by a shelter in place order might be able to use a competitor’s distribution assets to continue to get goods to the market. 

Some joint ventures of competitors have received special antitrust assurances for decades. The National Cooperative Research and Production Act of 1993 was originally passed in 1984 to protect research joint ventures of competitors. It was later extended to certain joint production efforts and standard development organizations. The law confirms that certain joint ventures of competitors will be judged under the rule of reason. If the parties file a very short notice with the DOJ Antitrust Division and FTC, they also will receive favorable treatment regarding damages and attorney’s fees in any antitrust lawsuit. For example, competitors cooperating on the development of new virus treatments might be able to use NCRPA to protect joint research and even production of the cure. 

Mergers

Horizontal mergers that permanently combine the assets of two competitors are unlikely to be justified under the antitrust laws by small transitory blips in the economic landscape. A huge crisis, however, might be so large and create such long-lasting effects that certain mergers suddenly might make sense, both on business and antitrust grounds. That rationale was used during the most recent economic crisis to justify several large mergers of banks although other large industrial mergers considered at the same time were abandoned for various reasons. It is not yet clear if that reasoning is present in any industry now. 

Remote communication among competitors

On a much smaller but more immediate scale, the new forms of communication being used while so many of us are physically separated have raised questions about the usual antitrust advice regarding communication with competitors. Antitrust practitioners have long advised clients about how to prepare and conduct an in-person meeting of competitors, say at a trade association convention. That same advice would seem to apply if, with the in-person convention cancelled, the meeting will be held via Teams or Zoom. And don’t forget: The reminders that the same rules apply to the cocktail party at the bar after the meeting should also be given for the virtual version conducted via Remo.co

Pricing and brand Management

Since at least the time when the Dr. Miles Medical Co. was selling its “restorative nervine,” manufacturers have been concerned about how their products were resold by retailers. Antitrust law has provided manufacturers considerable freedom for some time to impose non-price restraints on retailers to protect brand reputations; however, manufacturers must consider and impose those restraints before a crisis hits. For instance, a “no sale for resale” provision in place before the crisis would give a manufacturer of hand sanitizer another tool to use now to try to prevent bulk sales of the product that will be immediately resold on the street. 

Federal antitrust law has provided manufacturers considerable freedom to impose maximum price restraints. Even the states whose laws prevent minimum price restraints do not seem as concerned about maximum ones. But again, if a manufacturer is concerned that some consumer will blame it, not just the retailer, for a sudden skyrocketing price for a product in short supply, some sort of restraints must be in place before the crisis. Certain platforms are invoking their standard policies to prevent such actions by resellers on their platforms. 

Regulatory hurdles

While antitrust law is focused on actions by private parties that might prevent markets from properly working to serve consumers, the same rationales apply to unnecessary government interference in the market. The current health crisis has turned the spotlight back on certificate of need laws, a form of “brother may I?” government regulation that can allow current competitors to stifle entry by new competitors. Similarly, regulations that have slowed the use of telemedicine have been at least temporarily waived

Conclusion

Solving the current health crisis and rebuilding the economy will take the best efforts of both our public institutions and private companies. Antitrust law as currently written and enforced can and should continue to play a role in aligning incentives so we need not rely on “the benevolence of the butcher” for our dinner and other necessities. Instead, proper application of antitrust law can allow companies to do their part to (reviving a slogan helpful in a prior national crisis) keep America rolling.

In recent years, the European Union’s (EU) administrative body, the European Commission (EC), increasingly has applied European competition law in a manner that undermines free market dynamics.  In particular, its approach to “dominant” firm conduct disincentivizes highly successful companies from introducing product and service innovations that enhance consumer welfare and benefit the economy – merely because they threaten to harm less efficient competitors.

For example, the EC fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for its failure to adhere to an order that it offer a version of its Window software suite that did not include its popular Windows Media Player (WMP) – despite the lack of consumer demand for a “dumbed down” Windows without WMP.  This EC intrusion into software design has been described as a regulatory “quagmire.”

In June 2017 the EC fined Google 2.42 billion euros for allegedly favoring its own comparison shopping service over others favored in displaying Google search results – ignoring economic research that shows Google’s search policies benefit consumers.  Google also faces potentially higher EC antitrust fines due to alleged abuses involving android software (bundling of popular Google search and Chrome apps), a product that has helped spur dynamic smartphone innovations and foster new markets.

Furthermore, other highly innovative single firms, such as Apple and Amazon (favorable treatment deemed “state aids”), Qualcomm (alleged anticompetitive discounts), and Facebook (in connection with its WhatsApp acquisition), face substantial EC competition law penalties.

Underlying the EC’s current enforcement philosophy is an implicit presumption that innovations by dominant firms violate competition law if they in any way appear to disadvantage competitors.  That presumption forgoes considering the actual effects on the competitive process of dominant firm activities.  This is a recipe for reduced innovation, as successful firms “pull their competitive punches” to avoid onerous penalties.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) implicitly recognized this problem in its September 6, 2017 decision setting aside the European General Court’s affirmance of the EC’s 2009 1.06 billion euro fine against Intel.  Intel involved allegedly anticompetitive “loyalty rebates” by Intel, which allowed buyers to achieve cost savings in Intel chip purchases.  In remanding the Intel case to the General Court for further legal and factual analysis, the ECJ’s opinion stressed that the EC needed to do more than find a dominant position and categorize the rebates in order to hold Intel liable.  The EC also needed to assess the “capacity of [Intel’s] . . . practice to foreclose competitors which are at least as efficient” and whether any exclusionary effect was outweighed by efficiencies that also benefit consumers.  In short, evidence-based antitrust analysis was required.  Mere reliance on presumptions was not enough.  Why?  Because competition on the merits is centered on the recognition that the departure of less efficient competitors is part and parcel of consumer welfare-based competition on the merits.  As the ECJ cogently put it:

[I]t must be borne in mind that it is in no way the purpose of Article 102 TFEU [which prohibits abuse of a dominant position] to prevent an undertaking from acquiring, on its own merits, the dominant position on a market.  Nor does that provision seek to ensure that competitors less efficient than the undertaking with the dominant position should remain on the market . . . .  [N]ot every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation[.]

Although the ECJ’s recent decision is commendable, it does not negate the fact that Intel had to wait eight years to have its straightforward arguments receive attention – and the saga is far from over, since the General Court has to address this matter once again.  These sorts of long-term delays, during which firms face great uncertainty (and the threat of further EC investigations and fines), are antithetical to innovative activity by enterprises deemed dominant.  In short, unless and until the EC changes its competition policy perspective on dominant firm conduct (and there are no indications that such a change is imminent), innovation and economic dynamism will suffer.

Even if the EC dithers, the United Kingdom’s (UK) imminent withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) provides it with a unique opportunity to blaze a new competition policy trail – and perhaps in so doing influence other jurisdictions.

In particular, Brexit will enable the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to adopt an outlook on competition policy in general – and on single firm conduct in particular – that is more sensitive to innovation and economic dynamism.  What might such a CMA enforcement policy look like?  It should reject the EC’s current approach.  It should focus instead on the actual effects of competitive activity.  In particular, it should incorporate the insights of decision theory (see here, for example) and place great weight on efficiencies (see here, for example).

Let us hope that the CMA acts boldly – carpe diem.  Such action, combined with other regulatory reforms, could contribute substantially to the economic success of Brexit (see here).