Archives For Vertical integration

This guest post is by Jonathan M. Barnett, Torrey H. Webb Professor Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

It has become virtual received wisdom that antitrust law has been subdued by economic analysis into a state of chronic underenforcement. Following this line of thinking, many commentators applauded the Antitrust Division’s unsuccessful campaign to oppose the acquisition of Time-Warner by AT&T and some (unsuccessfully) urged the Division to take stronger action against the acquisition of most of Fox by Disney. The arguments in both cases followed a similar “big is bad” logic. Consolidating control of a large portfolio of creative properties (Fox plus Disney) or integrating content production and distribution capacities (Time-Warner plus AT&T) would exacerbate market concentration, leading to reduced competition and some combination of higher prices and reduced product for consumers. 

Less than 18 months after the closing of both transactions, those concerns seem to have been largely unwarranted. 

Far from precipitating any decline in product output or variety, both transactions have been followed by a vigorous burst of competition in the digital streaming market. In place of the Amazon plus Netflix bottleneck (with Hulu trailing behind), consumers now, or in 2020 will, have a choice of at least four new streaming services with original content, Disney+, AT&T’s “HBO Max”, Apple’s “Apple TV+” and Comcast’s NBCUniversal “Peacock” services. Critically, each service relies on a formidable combination of creative, financing and technological capacities that can only be delivered by a firm of sufficiently large size and scale.  As modern antitrust law has long recognized, it turns out that “big” is sometimes not bad.

Where’s the Harm?

At present, it is hard to see any net consumer harm arising from the concurrence of increased size and increased competition. 

On the supply side, this is just the next episode in the ongoing “Golden Age of Television” in which content producers have enjoyed access to exceptional funding to support high-value productions.  It has been reported that Apple TV+’s new “Morning Show” series will cost $15 million per episode while similar estimates are reported for hit shows such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “The Crown.”  Each of those services is locked in a fierce competition to gain and retain sufficient subscribers to earn a return on those investments, which leads directly to the next happy development.

On the demand side, consumers enjoy a proliferating array of streaming services, ranging from free ad-supported services to subscription ad-free services. Consumers can now easily “cut the cord” and assemble a customized bundle of preferred content from multiple services, each of which is less costly than a traditional cable package and can generally be cancelled at any time.  Current market performance does not plausibly conform to the declining output, limited variety or increasing prices that are the telltale symptoms of a less than competitive market.

Real-World v. Theoretical Markets

The market’s favorable trajectory following these two controversial transactions should not be surprising. When scrutinized against the actual characteristics of real-world digital content markets, rather than stylized theoretical models or antiquated pre-digital content markets, the arguments leveled against these transactions never made much sense. There were two fundamental and related errors. 

Error #1: Content is Scarce

Advocates for antitrust intervention assumed that entry barriers into the content market were high, in which case it followed that the owner of an especially valuable creative portfolio could exert pricing power to consumers’ detriment. Yet, in reality, funding for content production is plentiful and even a service that has an especially popular show is unlikely to have sustained pricing power in the face of a continuous flow of high-value productions being released by formidable competitors. The amounts being spent on content in 2019 by leading streaming services are unprecedented, ranging from a reported $15 billion for Netflix to an estimated $6 billion for Amazon and Apple TV+ to an estimated $3.9 billion for AT&T’s HBO Max. It is also important to note that a hit show is often a mobile asset that a streaming or other video distribution service has licensed from independent production companies and other rights holders. Once the existing deal expires, those rights are available for purchase by the highest bidder. For example, in 2019, Netflix purchased the streaming rights to “Seinfeld”, Viacom purchased the cable rights to “Seinfeld”, and HBO Max purchased the streaming rights to “South Park.” Similarly, the producers behind a hit show are always free to take their talents to competitors once any existing agreement terminates.

Error #2: Home Pay-TV is a “Monopoly”

Advocates of antitrust action were looking at the wrong market—or more precisely, the market as it existed about a decade ago. The theory that AT&T’s acquisition of Time-Warner’s creative portfolio would translate into pricing power in the home pay-TV market mighthave been plausible when consumers had no reasonable alternative to the local cable provider. But this argument makes little sense today when consumers are fleeing bulky home pay-TV bundles for cheaper cord-cutting options that deliver more targeted content packages to a mobile device.  In 2019, a “home” pay-TV market is fast becoming an anachronism and hence a home pay-TV “monopoly” largely reduces to a formalism that, with the possible exception of certain live programming, is unlikely to translate into meaningful pricing power. 

Wait a Second! What About the HBO Blackout?

A skeptical reader might reasonably object that this mostly rosy account of the post-merger home video market is unpersuasive since it does not address the ongoing blackout of HBO (now an AT&T property) on the Dish satellite TV service. Post-merger commentary that remains skeptical of the AT&T/Time-Warner merger has focused on this dispute, arguing that it “proves” that the government was right since AT&T is purportedly leveraging its new ownership of HBO to disadvantage one of its competitors in the pay-TV market. This interpretation tends to miss the forest for the trees (or more precisely, a tree).  

The AT&T/Dish dispute over HBO is only one of over 200 “carriage” disputes resulting in blackouts that have occurred this year, which continues an upward trend since approximately 2011. Some of those include Dish’s dispute with Univision (settled in March 2019 after a nine-month blackout) and AT&T’s dispute (as pay-TV provider) with Nexstar (settled in August 2019 after a nearly two-month blackout). These disputes reflect the fact that the flood of subscriber defections from traditional pay-TV to mobile streaming has made it difficult for pay-TV providers to pass on the fees sought by content owners. As a result, some pay-TV providers adopt the negotiating tactic of choosing to drop certain content until the terms improve, just as AT&T, in its capacity as a pay-TV provider, dropped CBS for three weeks in July and August 2019 pending renegotiation of licensing terms. It is the outward shift in the boundaries of the economically relevant market (from home to home-plus-mobile video delivery), rather than market power concerns, that best accounts for periodic breakdowns in licensing negotiations.  This might even be viewed positively from an antitrust perspective since it suggests that the “over the top” market is putting pressure on the fees that content owners can extract from providers in the traditional pay-TV market.

Concluding Thoughts

It is common to argue today that antitrust law has become excessively concerned about “false positives”– that is, the possibility of blocking a transaction or enjoining a practice that would have benefited consumers. Pending future developments, this early post-mortem on the regulatory and judicial treatment of these two landmark media transactions suggests that there are sometimes good reasons to stay the hand of the court or regulator. This is especially the case when a generational market shift is in progress and any regulator’s or judge’s foresight is likely to be guesswork. Antitrust law’s “failure” to stop these transactions may turn out to have been a ringing success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carl Shapiro, the government’s economics expert opposing the AT&T-Time Warner merger, seems skeptical of much of the antitrust populists’ Amazon rhetoric: “Simply saying that Amazon has grown like a weed, charges very low prices, and has driven many smaller retailers out of business is not sufficient. Where is the consumer harm?”

On its face, there was nothing about the Amazon/Whole Foods merger that should have raised any antitrust concerns. While one year is too soon to fully judge the competitive impacts of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, nevertheless, it appears that much of the populist antitrust movement’s speculation that the merger would destroy competition and competitors and impoverish workers has failed to materialize.

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Viewed from the long history of the evolution of the grocery store, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger made sense as the start of the next stage of that historical process. The combination of increased wealth that is driving the demand for upscale grocery stores, and the corresponding increase in the value of people’s time that is driving the demand for one-stop shopping and various forms of pick-up and delivery, makes clear the potential benefits of this merger. Amazon was already beginning to make a mark in the sale and delivery of the non-perishables and dry goods that upscale groceries tend to have less of. Acquiring Whole Foods gives it a way to expand that into perishables in a very sensible way. We are only beginning to see the synergies that this combination will produce. Its long-term effect on the structure of the grocery business will be significant and highly beneficial for consumers.

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