Amicus brief of Professors of Antitrust Law and Economics, McWane Inc. v. Federal Trade Commission, 11th Circuit
Unlike in a pre-merger investigation, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) did not need to rely on indirect evidence related to market structure to predict the competitive effect of the conduct challenged in this case. McWane’s Full Support Program, which gave rise to the Commission’s exclusive dealing claim, was fully operational—and had terminated—prior to the proceedings below. Complaint Counsel thus had access to data on actual market effects.
But Complaint Counsel did not base its case on such effects, some of which suggested an absence of anticompetitive harm. Instead, Complaint Counsel theorized that McWane’s exclusive dealing could have anticompetitively “raised rivals’ costs” by holding them below minimum efficient scale, and it relied entirely on a self-serving statement by McWane’s chief rival to establish what constitutes such scale in the industry at issue. In addition, Complaint Counsel failed to establish the extent of market foreclosure actually occasioned by McWane’s Full Support Program, did not assess the degree to which the program’s significant exceptions mitigated its anticompetitive potential, and virtually ignored a compelling procompetitive rationale for McWane’s exclusive dealing. In short, Complaint Counsel presented only weak and incomplete indirect evidence in an attempt to prove anticompetitive harm from an exclusive dealing arrangement that had produced actual effects tending to disprove such harm. Sustaining a liability judgment based on so thin a reed would substantially ease the government’s burden of proof in exclusive dealing cases.
Exclusive dealing liability should not be so easy to establish. Economics has taught that although exclusive dealing may sometimes occasion anticompetitive
harm, several prerequisites must be in place before such harm can occur. Moreover, exclusive dealing can achieve a number of procompetitive benefits and
is quite common in highly competitive markets. The published empirical evidence suggests that most instances of exclusive dealing are procompetitive rather than
anticompetitive. Antitrust tribunals should therefore take care not to impose liability too easily.
Supreme Court precedents, reflecting economic learning on exclusive dealing, have evolved to make liability more difficult to establish. Whereas exclusive
dealing was originally condemned almost per se, Standard Oil of California v. United States, 337 U.S. 293 (1949) (hereinafter “Standard Stations”), the Supreme
Court eventually instructed that a reviewing court should make a fuller inquiry into the competitive effect of the challenged exclusive dealing activity. See Tampa
Electric Co. v. Nashville Coal Co., 365 U.S. 320, 329 (1961). In In re Beltone Electronics, 100 F.T.C. 68 (1982), the FTC followed Tampa Electric’s instruction
and embraced an economically informed method of analyzing exclusive dealing.
The decision on appeal departs from Beltone—which the FTC never even cited—by imposing liability for exclusive dealing without an adequate showing of likely competitive harm. If allowed to stand, the judgment below could condemn or chill a wide range of beneficial exclusive dealing arrangements. We therefore urge reversal to avoid creating new and unwelcome antitrust enforcement risks.”