FTC Antitrust Enforcement and the Rule of Law
The language of the federal antitrust laws is extremely general. Over more than a century, the federal courts have applied common-law techniques to construe this general language to provide guidance to the private sector as to what does or does not run afoul of the law. The interpretive process has been fraught with some uncertainty, as judicial approaches to antitrust analysis have changed several times over the past century. Nevertheless, until very recently, judges and enforcers had converged toward relying on a consumer welfare standard as the touchstone for antitrust evaluations (see my antitrust primer here, for an overview).
While imperfect and subject to potential error in application—a problem of legal interpretation generally—the consumer welfare principle has worked rather well as the focus both for antitrust-enforcement guidance and judicial decision-making. The general stability and predictability of antitrust under a consumer welfare framework has advanced the rule of law. It has given businesses sufficient information to plan transactions in a manner likely to avoid antitrust liability. It thereby has cabined uncertainty and increased the probability that private parties would enter welfare-enhancing commercial arrangements, to the benefit of society.
In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch commented on the importance of the rule of law to principled antitrust enforcement. He noted:
[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.
Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.
The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.
Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.
That is certainly not to say there has not been positive change in the antitrust laws in the past, or that we would have been better off without those changes. U.S. antitrust law has been refined, and occasionally recalibrated, with the courts playing their appropriate interpretive role. And enforcers must always be on the watch for new or evolving threats to competition. As markets evolve and products develop over time, our analysis adapts. But as those changes occur, we pursue reliability and consistency in application in the antitrust laws as much as possible.
Indeed, we have enjoyed remarkable continuity and consensus for many years. Antitrust law in the U.S. has not been a “paradox” for quite some time, but rather a stable and valuable law enforcement regime with appropriately widespread support.
Unfortunately, policy decisions taken by the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leadership in recent weeks have rejected antitrust continuity and consensus. They have injected substantial uncertainty into the application of competition-law enforcement by the FTC. This abrupt change in emphasis undermines the rule of law and threatens to reduce economic welfare.
As of now, the FTC’s departure from the rule of law has been notable in two areas:
- Its rejection of previous guidance on the agency’s “unfair methods of competition” authority, the FTC’s primary non-merger-related enforcement tool; and
- Its new advice rejecting time limits for the review of generally routine proposed mergers.
In addition, potential FTC rulemakings directed at “unfair methods of competition” would, if pursued, prove highly problematic.
Rescission of the Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement
The bipartisan UMC Policy Statement has originally been supported by all three Democratic commissioners, including then-Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The policy statement generally respected and promoted the rule of law by emphasizing that, in applying the facially broad “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) language, the FTC would be guided by the well-established principles of the antitrust rule of reason (including considering any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications) and the consumer welfare standard. The FTC also explained that it would not apply “standalone” Section 5 theories to conduct that would violate the Sherman or Clayton Acts.
In short, the UMC Policy Statement sent a strong signal that the commission would apply UMC in a manner fully consistent with accepted and well-understood antitrust policy principles. As in the past, the vast bulk of FTC Section 5 prosecutions would be brought against conduct that violated the core antitrust laws. Standalone Section 5 cases would be directed solely at those few practices that harmed consumer welfare and competition, but somehow fell into a narrow crack in the basic antitrust statutes (such as, perhaps, “invitations to collude” that lack plausible efficiency justifications). Although the UMC Statement did not answer all questions regarding what specific practices would justify standalone UMC challenges, it substantially limited business uncertainty by bringing Section 5 within the boundaries of settled antitrust doctrine.
The FTC’s announcement of the UMC Policy Statement rescission unhelpfully proclaimed that “the time is right for the Commission to rethink its approach and to recommit to its mandate to police unfair methods of competition even if they are outside the ambit of the Sherman or Clayton Acts.” As a dissenting statement by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson warned, consumers would be harmed by the commission’s decision to prioritize other unnamed interests. And as Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed in his dissent, the end result would be reduced guidance and greater uncertainty.
In sum, by suddenly leaving private parties in the dark as to how to conform themselves to Section 5’s UMC requirements, the FTC’s rescission offends the rule of law.
New Guidance to Parties Considering Mergers
For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:
- The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and
- An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.
Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.
Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.
Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”
The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.
Perhaps more significantly, as three prominent antitrust practitioners point out, the FTC’s warning letters states that:
[T]he FTC may challenge deals that “threaten to reduce competition and harm consumers, workers, and honest businesses.” Adding in harm to both “workers and honest businesses” implies that the FTC may be considering more ways that transactions can have an adverse impact other than just harm to competition and consumers [citation omitted].
Because consensus antitrust merger analysis centers on consumer welfare, not the protection of labor or business interests, any suggestion that the FTC may be extending its reach to these new areas is inconsistent with established legal principles and generates new business-planning risks.
More generally, the Aug. 6 FTC “blog post could be viewed as an attempt to modify the temporal framework of the HSR Act”—in effect, an effort to displace an implicit statutory understanding in favor of an agency diktat, contrary to the rule of law. Commissioner Wilson sees the blog post as a means to keep investigations open indefinitely and, thus, an attack on the decades-old HSR framework for handling most merger reviews in an expeditious fashion (see here). Commissioner Phillips is concerned about an attempt to chill legal M&A transactions across the board, particularly unfortunate when there is no reason to conclude that particular transactions are illegal (see here).
Finally, the historical record raises serious questions about the “resource constraint” justification for the FTC’s new merger review policies:
Through the end of July 2021, more than 2,900 transactions were reported to the FTC. It is not clear, however, whether these record-breaking HSR filing numbers have led (or will lead) to more deals being investigated. Historically, only about 13 percent of all deals reported are investigated in some fashion, and roughly 3 percent of all deals reported receive a more thorough, substantive review through the issuance of a Second Request. Even if more deals are being reported, for the majority of transactions, the HSR process is purely administrative, raising no antitrust concerns, and, theoretically, uses few, if any, agency resources. [Citations omitted.]
Proposed FTC Competition Rulemakings
The new FTC leadership is strongly considering competition rulemakings. As I explained in a recent Truth on the Market post, such rulemakings would fail a cost-benefit test. They raise serious legal risks for the commission and could impose wasted resource costs on the FTC and on private parties. More significantly, they would raise two very serious economic policy concerns:
First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.
Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules. [Emphasis added.]
In short, common law antitrust adjudication, focused on the consumer welfare standard, has done a good job of promoting a vibrant competitive economy in an efficient fashion. FTC competition rulemaking would not.
Recent FTC actions have undermined consensus antitrust-enforcement standards and have departed from established merger-review procedures with respect to seemingly uncontroversial consolidations. Those decisions have imposed costly uncertainty on the business sector and are thereby likely to disincentivize efficiency-seeking arrangements. What’s more, by implicitly rejecting consensus antitrust principles, they denigrate the primacy of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement. The FTC’s pursuit of competition rulemaking would further damage the rule of law by imposing arbitrary strictures that ignore matter-specific considerations bearing on the justifications for particular business decisions.
Fortunately, these are early days in the Biden administration. The problematic initial policy decisions delineated in this comment could be reversed based on further reflection and deliberation within the commission. Chairwoman Lina Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners would benefit by consulting more closely with Commissioners Wilson and Phillips to reach agreement on substantive and procedural enforcement policies that are better tailored to promote consumer welfare and enhance vibrant competition. Such policies would benefit the U.S. economy in a manner consistent with the rule of law.