FTC-DOJ RFI on Merger Guidelines: The Agencies Should Proceed with Caution
The Jan. 18 Request for Information on Merger Enforcement (RFI)—issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ)—sets forth 91 sets of questions (subsumed under 15 headings) that provide ample opportunity for public comment on a large range of topics.
Before chasing down individual analytic rabbit holes related to specific questions, it would be useful to reflect on the “big picture” policy concerns raised by this exercise (but not hinted at in the questions). Viewed from a broad policy perspective, the RFI initiative risks undermining the general respect that courts have accorded merger guidelines over the years, as well as disincentivizing economically beneficial business consolidations.
Policy concerns that flow from various features of the RFI, which could undermine effective merger enforcement, are highlighted below. These concerns counsel against producing overly detailed guidelines that adopt a merger-skeptical orientation.
The RFI Reflects the False Premise that Competition is Declining in the United States
The FTC press release that accompanied the RFI’s release made clear that a supposed weakening of competition under the current merger-guidelines regime is a key driver of the FTC and DOJ interest in new guidelines:
Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division launched a joint public inquiry aimed at strengthening enforcement against illegal mergers. Recent evidence indicates that many industries across the economy are becoming more concentrated and less competitive – imperiling choice and economic gains for consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
This premise is not supported by the facts. Based on a detailed literature review, Chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President concluded that “the argument that the U.S. economy is suffering from insufficient competition is built on a weak empirical foundation and questionable assumptions.” More specifically, the 2020 Economic Report explained:
Research purporting to document a pattern of increasing concentration and increasing markups uses data on segments of the economy that are far too broad to offer any insights about competition, either in specific markets or in the economy at large. Where data do accurately identify issues of concentration or supercompetitive profits, additional analysis is needed to distinguish between alternative explanations, rather than equating these market indicators with harmful market power.
Even in industries where concentration may have risen, “the evidence does not support claims that concentration is persistent or harmful.” In that regard, Kulick’s research finds that higher-concentration industries tend to become less concentrated, while lower-concentration industries tend to become more concentrated over time; increases in industrial concentration are associated with economic growth and job creation, particularly for high-growth industries; and rising industrial concentration may be driven by increasing market competition.
In short, the strongest justification for issuing new merger guidelines is based on false premises: an alleged decline in competition within the Unites States. Given this reality, the adoption of revised guidelines designed to “ratchet up” merger enforcement would appear highly questionable.
The RFI Strikes a Merger-Skeptical Tone Out of Touch with Modern Mainstream Antitrust Scholarship
The overall tone of the RFI reflects a skeptical view of the potential benefits of mergers. It ignores overarching beneficial aspects of mergers, which include reallocating scarce resources to higher-valued uses (through the market for corporate control) and realizing standard efficiencies of various sorts (including cost-based efficiencies and incentive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization through vertical integration). Mergers also generate benefits by bringing together complementary assets and by generating synergies of various sorts, including the promotion of innovation and scaling up the fruits of research and development. (See here, for example.)
What’s more, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has explained, “[e]vidence suggests that vertical mergers are generally pro-competitive, as they are driven by efficiency-enhancing motives such as improving vertical co-ordination and realizing economies of scope.”
Given the manifold benefits of mergers in general, the negative and merger-skeptical tone of the RFI is regrettable. It not only ignores sound economics, but it is at odds with recent pronouncements by the FTC and DOJ. Notably, the 2010 DOJ-FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (issued by Obama administration enforcers) struck a neutral tone. Those guidelines recognized the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers while noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (“[t]he Agencies seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral”). The same neutral approach is found in the 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (“the Agencies use a consistent set of facts and assumptions to evaluate both the potential competitive harm from a vertical merger and the potential benefits to competition”).
The RFI, however, expresses no concern about unnecessary government interference, and strongly emphasizes the potential shortcomings of the existing guidelines in questioning whether they “adequately equip enforcers to identify and proscribe unlawful, anticompetitive mergers.” Merger-skepticism is also reflected throughout the RFI’s 91 sets of questions. A close reading reveals that they are generally phrased in ways that implicitly assume competitive problems or reject potential merger justifications.
For example, the questions addressing efficiencies, under RFI heading 14, casts efficiencies in a generally negative light. Thus, the RFI asks whether “the [existing] guidelines’ approach to efficiencies [is] consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts,” citing the statement in FTC v. Procter & Gamble (1967) that “[p]ossible economies cannot be used as a defense to illegality.”
The view that antitrust disfavors mergers that enhance efficiencies (the “efficiencies offense”) has been roundly rejected by mainstream antitrust scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here). It may be assumed that today’s Supreme Court (which has deemed consumer welfare to be the lodestone of antitrust enforcement since Reiter v. Sonotone (1979)) would give short shrift to an “efficiencies offense” justification for a merger challenge.
Another efficiencies-related question, under RFI heading 14.d, may in application fly in the face of sound market-oriented economics: “Where a merger is expected to generate cost savings via the elimination of ‘excess’ or ‘redundant’ capacity or workers, should the guidelines treat these savings as cognizable ‘efficiencies’?”
Consider a merger that generates synergies and thereby expands and/or raises the quality of goods and services produced with reduced capacity and fewer workers. This merger would allow these resources to be allocated to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy, yielding greater economic surplus for consumers and producers. But there is the risk that such a merger could be viewed unfavorably under new merger guidelines that were revised in light of this question. (Although heading 14.d includes a separate question regarding capacity reductions that have the potential to reduce supply resilience or product or service quality, it is not stated that this provision should be viewed as a limitation on the first sentence.)
The RFI’s discussion of topics other than efficiencies similarly sends the message that existing guidelines are too “pro-merger.” Thus, for example, under RFI heading 5 (“presumptions”), one finds the rhetorical question: “[d]o the [existing] guidelines adequately identify mergers that are presumptively unlawful under controlling case law?”
This question answers itself, by citing to the Philadelphia National Bank (1963) statement that “[w]ithout attempting to specify the smallest market share which would still be considered to threaten undue concentration, we are clear that 30% presents that threat.” This statement predates all of the merger guidelines and is out of step with the modern economic analysis of mergers, which the existing guidelines embody. It would, if taken seriously, threaten a huge number of proposed mergers that, until now, have not been subject to second-request review by the DOJ and FTC. As Judge Douglas Ginsburg and former Commissioner Joshua Wright have explained:
The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. . . . The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.
By inviting support for PNB-style thinking, RFI heading 5’s lead question effectively rejects the economic effects-based analysis that has been central to agency merger analysis for decades. Guideline revisions that downplay effects in favor of mere concentration would likely be viewed askance by reviewing courts (and almost certainly would be rejected by the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, if the occasion arose).
These particularly striking examples are illustrative of the questioning tone regarding existing merger analysis that permeates the RFI.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Not Incorporate the Multiplicity of Issues Embodied in the RFI
The 91 sets of questions in the RFI read, in large part, like a compendium of theoretical harms to the working of markets that might be associated with mergers. While these questions may be of general academic interest, and may shed some light on particular merger investigations, most of them should not be incorporated into guidelines.
As Justice Stephen Breyer has pointed out, antitrust is a legal regime that must account for administrative practicalities. Then-Judge Breyer described the nature of the problem in his 1983 Barry Wright opinion (affirming the dismissal of a Sherman Act Section 2 complaint based on “unreasonably low” prices):
[W]hile technical economic discussion helps to inform the antitrust laws, those laws cannot precisely replicate the economists’ (sometimes conflicting) views. For, unlike economics, law is an administrative system the effects of which depend upon the content of rules and precedents only as they are applied by judges and juries in courts and by lawyers advising their clients. Rules that seek to embody every economic complexity and qualification may well, through the vagaries of administration, prove counter-productive, undercutting the very economic ends they seek to serve.
It follows that any effort to include every theoretical merger-related concern in new merger guidelines would undercut their (presumed) overarching purpose, which is providing useful guidance to the private sector. All-inclusive “guidelines” in reality provide no guidance at all. Faced with a laundry list of possible problems that might prompt the FTC or DOJ to oppose a merger, private parties would face enormous uncertainty, which could deter them from proposing a large number of procompetitive, welfare-enhancing or welfare-neutral consolidations. This would “undercut the very economic ends” of promoting competition that is served by Section 7 enforcement.
Furthermore, all-inclusive merger guidelines could be seen by judges as undermining the rule of law (see here, for example). If DOJ and FTC were able to “pick and choose” at will from an enormously wide array of considerations to justify opposing a proposed merger, they could be seen as engaged in arbitrary enforcement, rather than in a careful weighing of evidence aimed at condemning only anticompetitive transactions. This would be at odds with the promise of fair and dispassionate enforcement found in the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines, namely, to “seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.”
Up until now, federal courts have virtually always implicitly deferred to (and not questioned) the application of merger-guideline principles by the DOJ and FTC. The agencies have won or lost cases based on courts’ weighing of particular factual and economic evidence, not on whether guideline principles should have been applied by the enforcers.
One would expect courts to react very differently, however, to cases brought in light of ridiculously detailed “guidelines” that did not provide true guidance (particularly if they were heavy on competitive harm possibilities and discounted efficiencies). The agencies’ selective reliance on particular anticompetitive theories could be seen as exercises in arbitrary “pre-cooked” condemnations, not dispassionate enforcement. As such, the courts would tend to be far more inclined to reject (or accord far less deference to) the new guidelines in evaluating agency merger challenges. Even transactions that would have been particularly compelling candidates for condemnation under prior guidelines could be harder to challenge successfully, due to the taint of the new guidelines.
In short, the adoption of highly detailed guidelines that emphasize numerous theories of harm would likely undermine the effectiveness of DOJ and FTC merger enforcement, the precise opposite of what the agencies would have intended.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Avoid Relying on Outdated Case Law and Novel Section 7 Theories, and Should Give Due Credit to Economic Efficiencies
The DOJ and FTC could, of course, acknowledge the problem of administrability and issue more straightforward guideline revisions, of comparable length and detail to prior guidelines. If they choose to do so, they would be well-advised to eschew relying on dated precedents and novel Section 7 theories. They should also give due credit to efficiencies. Seemingly biased guidelines would undermine merger enforcement, not strengthen it.
As discussed above, the RFI’s implicitly favorable references to Philadelphia National Bank and Procter & Gamble are at odds with contemporary economics-based antitrust thinking, which has been accepted by the federal courts. The favorable treatment of those antediluvian holdings, and Brown Shoe Co. v. United States (1962) (another horribly dated case cited multiple times in the RFI), would do much to discredit new guidelines.
In that regard, the suggestion in RFI heading 1 that existing merger guidelines may not “faithfully track the statutory text, legislative history, and established case law around merger enforcement” touts the Brown Shoe and PNB concerns with a “trend toward concentration” and “the danger of subverting congressional intent by permitting a too-broad economic investigation.”
New guidelines that focus on (or even give lip service to) a “trend” toward concentration and eschew overly detailed economic analyses (as opposed, perhaps, to purely concentration-based negative rules of thumb?) would predictably come in for judicial scorn as economically unfounded. Such references would do as much (if not more) to ensure judicial rejection of enforcement-agency guidelines as endless lists of theoretically possible sources of competitive harm, discussed previously.
Of particular concern are those references that implicitly reject the need to consider efficiencies, which is key to modern enlightened merger evaluations. It is ludicrous to believe that a majority of the current Supreme Court would have a merger-analysis epiphany and decide that the RFI’s preferred interventionist reading of Section 7 statutory language and legislative history trumps decades of economically centered consumer-welfare scholarship and agency guidelines.
Herbert Hovenkamp, author of the leading American antitrust treatise and a scholar who has been cited countless times by the Supreme Court, recently put it well (in an article coauthored with Carl Shapiro):
When the FTC investigates vertical and horizontal mergers will it now take the position that efficiencies are irrelevant, even if they are proven? If so, the FTC will face embarrassing losses in court.
Reviewing courts wound no doubt take heed of this statement in assessing any future merger guidelines that rely on dated and discredited cases or that minimize efficiencies.
New Guidelines, if Issued, Should Give Due Credit to Efficiencies
Heading 14 of the RFI—listing seven sets of questions that deal with efficiencies—is in line with the document’s implicitly negative portrayal of mergers. The heading begins inauspiciously, with a question that cites Procter & Gamble in suggesting that the current guidelines’ approach to efficiencies is “[in]consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts.” As explained above, such an anti-efficiencies reference would be viewed askance by most, if not all, reviewing judges.
Other queries in heading 14 also view efficiencies as problematic. They suggest that efficiency claims should be treated negatively because efficiency claims are not always realized after the fact. But merger activity is a private-sector search process, and the ability to predict ex post effects with perfect accuracy is an inevitable part of market activity. Using such a natural aspect of markets as an excuse to ignore efficiencies would prevent many economically desirable consolidations from being achieved.
Furthermore, the suggestion under heading 14 that parties should have to show with certainty that cognizable efficiencies could not have been achieved through alternative means asks the impossible. Theoreticians may be able to dream up alternative means by which efficiencies might have been achieved (say, through convoluted contracts), but such constructs may not be practical in real-world settings. Requiring businesses to follow dubious theoretical approaches to achieve legitimate business ends, rather than allowing them to enter into arrangements they favor that appear efficient, would manifest inappropriate government interference in markets. (It would be just another example of the “pretense of knowledge” that Friedrich Hayek brilliantly described in his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture.)
Other questions under heading 14 raise concerns about the lack of discussion of possible “inefficiencies” in current guidelines, and speculate about possible losses of “product or service quality” due to otherwise efficient reductions in physical capacity and employment. Such theoretical musings offer little guidance to the private sector, and further cast in a negative light potential real resource savings.
Rather than incorporate the unhelpful theoretical efficiencies critiques under heading 14, the agencies should consider a more helpful approach to clarifying the evaluation of efficiencies in new guidelines. Such a clarification could be based on Commissioner Christine Wilson’s helpful discussion of merger efficiencies in recent writings (see, for example, here and here). Wilson has appropriately called for the symmetric treatment of both the potential harms and benefits arising from mergers, explaining that “the agencies readily credit harms but consistently approach potential benefits with extreme skepticism.”
She and Joshua Wright have also explained (see here, here, and here) that overly narrow product-market definitions may sometimes preclude consideration of substantial “out-of-market” efficiencies that arise from certain mergers. The consideration of offsetting “out-of-market” efficiencies that greatly outweigh competitive harms might warrant inclusion in new guidelines.
The FTC and DOJ could be heading for a merger-enforcement train wreck if they adopt new guidelines that incorporate the merger-skeptical tone and excruciating level of detail found in the RFI. This approach would yield a lengthy and uninformative laundry list of potential competitive problems that would allow the agencies to selectively pick competitive harm “stories” best adapted to oppose particular mergers, in tension with the rule of law.
Far from “strengthening” merger enforcement, such new guidelines would lead to economically harmful business uncertainty and would severely undermine judicial respect for the federal merger-enforcement process. The end result would be a “lose-lose” for businesses, for enforcers, and for the American economy.
If the agencies enact new guidelines, they should be relatively short and straightforward, designed to give private parties the clearest possible picture of general agency enforcement intentions. In particular, new guidelines should:
- Eschew references to dated and discredited case law;
- Adopt a neutral tone that acknowledges the beneficial aspects of mergers;
- Recognize the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers, while at the same time noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (consistent with the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines); and
- Acknowledge the importance of efficiencies, treating them symmetrically with competitive harm and according appropriate weight to countervailing out-of-market efficiencies (a distinct improvement over existing enforcement policy).
Merger enforcement should continue to be based on fact-based case-specific evaluations, informed by sound economics. Populist nostrums that treat mergers with suspicion and that ignore their beneficial aspects should be rejected. Such ideas are at odds with current scholarly thinking and judicial analysis, and should be relegated to the scrap heap of outmoded and bad public policies.