Popular Media

Thom Lambert on Guidelines for the FTC’s UMC Authority: What’s Clear and What’s Not?

Thom Lambert is Wall Family Foundation Chair in Corporate Law & Governance and Professor of Law at University of Missouri School of Law

In the last few weeks, two members of the FTC—Commissioners Josh Wright and Maureen Ohlhausen—have staked largely consistent positions on guidelines for implementation of the Commission’s “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority.  Their statements make two points that are, in my opinion, no-brainers.  Where the statements conflict, they raise an issue worthy of significant contemplation.  I’ll be interested to hear others’ thoughts on that matter.

First, the no-brainers.

No-Brainer #1:  We Need Guidance on the Scope of the FTC’s UMC Authority.

Ours is a government of laws and not of men.  That means, in the words of F. A. Hayek, “that government in all its actions [must be] bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”  According to the classic statement by A.V. Dicey, the “Rule of Law” means “the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even of wide discretionary authority on the part of government.”  As it stands, Section 5’s prohibition of “unfair methods of competition” is so indeterminate and discretionary that it can hardly constitute law.  The text itself is woefully deficient for, as the Second Circuit observed in analyzing the provision, “[t]he term ‘unfair’ is an elusive concept, often depending upon the eye of the beholder.”  Nor has the caselaw on Section 5 developed in way that lets business planners know what they must and must not do to avoid liability.  The sort of guidance Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen are proposing, then, is badly needed.

No-Brainer #2:  The FTC Should Not Challenge a Practice Under Its UMC Authority Unless Doing So Is Necessary to Avert an Actual or Likely Harm to Competition.

Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen agree that for the FTC to bring a “stand-alone” Section 5 action (i.e., one not simply alleging behavior that violates the Sherman Act), the challenged practice must result in, or likely result in, significant harm to competition.  Such harm consists of a reduction in overall market output, usually evinced by an increase in price.  It does not result from mere harm to competitors.  Thus, doing a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing to your competitor—while perhaps tortious—would not constitute an unfair method of competition if the action did not, and was not likely to, reduce overall market output.

The reason for this requirement, which may sound harsh and extreme to non-antitrusters, is simple:  Business conduct that hurts competitors without reducing overall market output does not usually leave market output unchanged; rather, it usually enhances market output and thereby benefits consumers.  If the FTC seeks to condemn competitor-harming conduct that doesn’t harm competition, it will likely end up hurting consumers.  In the Brown Shoe case, for example, the FTC condemned exclusive dealing by a shoe manufacturer where harm to competition was unrealistic but competitors were injured.  The effect was to shut down more efficient distribution practices and thereby hurt consumers.  If the FTC is to remain a consumer protection agency, it must limit its UMC challenges to acts causing or threatening significant competitive injury.

That brings us to a somewhat difficult policy question.

The Contestable Issue:  How Broad Should the Safe Harbor for Efficiency-Creating Conduct Be?

Commissioner Wright has taken the position that a second prerequisite to a stand-alone UMC challenge should be that the practice at issue lacks any cognizable efficiencies.  Commissioner Ohlhausen, by contrast, would permit a challenge (assuming her other pre-requisites, which are largely subsumed in Commissioner Wright’s first pre-requisite, are satisfied) when the practice at issue either creates no cognizable efficiencies or “results in harm to competition that is disproportionate to its benefits to consumers and to the economic benefits to the defendant, exclusive of the benefits that may accrue from reduced competition.”  Ohlhausen is careful to emphasize that she is not proposing “to balance precisely” procompetitive versus anticompetitive effects.  Instead, the latter prong of her disjunctive pre-requisite is satisfied only if the surplus lost from reduced output significantly outweighs the efficiencies created by the practice.

As a practical matter, the dispute here may reduce to, “What must a firm show to come within a safe harbor from stand-alone UMC liability?”  According to Commissioner Wright, establishing cognizable efficiencies from the practice at issue will keep you safe.  Commissioner Ohlhausen would require a firm to establish such efficiencies and show that they are not significantly outweighed by lost surplus from reduced output.

So whose approach is better?  I’ll confess that I’ve gone back and forth on that question over the last few days.  On the one hand, Commissioner Wright’s position seems awfully pro-defendant: a tiny increase in productive efficiency stemming from a practice could insulate the practice even if it occasioned huge allocative inefficiencies.  Do we really need so expansive a safe harbor here, given that UMC judgments occasion only injunctive relief (cease and desist orders) and cannot give rise to follow-on private treble damages actions?  On the other hand, Commissioner Ohlhausen’s safe harbor seems pretty unreliable—after-the-fact balancing of competitive effects is always tricky—and there are reasons to worry about follow-on private litigation and the chilling effect it may create.  (For example, as Commissioner Kovacic observed in his N-Data dissent, many states have “little FTC Acts,” a number of which are privately enforceable in treble damages actions.)

At this point, I’m inclined to side with Commissioner Wright on the scope of the safe harbor.  There are few practices that occasion genuine harm to competition but are not covered by the Sherman and Clayton Acts, and most of those—e.g., attempts to collude, market power-creating naked acts of exclusion by firms previously lacking market power—occasion no efficiencies and thus would not come within Commissioner Wright’s broader safe harbor.  See Wright’s Examples 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8.  I can think of only one obvious category of conduct that (1) harms competition, (2) is not covered by the Sherman or Clayton Act, and (3) would fall within Commissioner Wright’s, but not Commissioner Ohlhausen’s, safe harbor: oligopolistic coordination using facilitating devices that were adopted unilaterally.  Several prominent antitrust scholars have argued that such conduct should be illegal, see, e.g., Richard A. Posner, Oligopoly and the Antitrust Laws: A Suggested Approach, 21 Stan. L. Rev. 1562 (1969); Herbert Hovenkamp, The Antitrust Enterprise 32-35, 128-34 (2005), and Professor Hovenkamp has argued that it should be policed under the FTC’s UMC authority.  See Herbert Hovenkamp, The Federal Trade Commission and the Sherman Act, 62 Fla. L. Rev. 871, 879-82 (2010).  In light of the judicial hostility toward that approach as evidenced in cases such as Ethyl and Boise Cascade, however, I would not be inclined to exchange Commissioner Wright’s broader safe harbor for Commissioner Ohlhausen’s narrower one in the hopes of pursuing such facilitating devices.

Of course, I may be overlooking other categories of anticompetitive conduct that are not covered by the Sherman and Clayton Acts and would be condemned under Commissioner Ohlhausen’s, but not Commissioner Wright’s, approach.  If anyone can think of something obvious, please let me know.

Regardless of how we resolve the controversy over the scope of any “efficiencies safe harbor,” Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen deserve our thanks and admiration for pressing a long overdue issue and working to improve the state of American competition law.  I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the commissioners’ proposals.

Filed under: antitrust, federal trade commission, section 5, UMC symposium Tagged: antitrust, Competition law, Federal Trade Commission, ftc, section 5, UMC