Articles Posted in Antitrust for Kids

Antitrust-for-Kids-300x143

Author: Molly Donovan

Every spring, the Trooper Girls sell cookies in their town. Although they’re all members of the same group, the girls compete against each other to be the top cookie seller of the season. The girls hold regular meetings with rules set by the troop leader based on an antitrust course she took in law school:

  1. Discussions should stay focused on personal safety guidelines for selling cookies, and how cookie sales are going generally.
  2. No agreements to fix cookie prices—each girl is supposed to price her own cookies individually. That’s part of the fun of competing.
  3. No agreements to divide markets—deals along the lines of “you take this street and I’ll take that street” are prohibited. Members should vigorously compete in all relevant locations.
  4. Any applicant under the age of 15 can be a member of Trooper Girls upon completing the online forms and having them signed by a parent or guardian.

[“I like these rules,” thinks the antitrust lawyer. The membership criteria are clear and can be fairly and objectively applied, and the meeting discussions seem appropriately restricted to legitimate subjects]

At the first meeting of cookie-selling season, the Trooper Girls were in distress.  Practically no cookies had been sold because, unforeseeably, the Ranger Boys had started selling ice cream—a treat much more popular than cookies of late given the unseasonably warm weather.

The de facto ringleader of Trooper Girls—Tina—announced at the meeting, “We all know cookie sales aren’t going well and we all know why. We need to get on the same page, and reconsider cookie prices until the weather returns to normal and this crisis is over.”

The troop leader interrupted, “Tina, I think that’s enough on that. Let’s change the subject.”

[“Uh oh,” thinks the antitrust lawyer. Tina’s comments sound like an invitation to collude. I’m glad the troop leader spoke up, but the damage may be done.]

Tina winked at her Trooper Girl friends and they all basically knew what to do. Meanwhile, the specifics were worked out in whispers during social time after the meeting, and during one-on-one phone calls and text exchanges. Of course, nobody said exactly what price to charge and nobody wrote down any sort of formal agreement—the rules clearly don’t allow that.  Instead, the discussions were more along the lines of “let’s think about a 10%-20% discount,” which can’t constitute an “agreement,” right? Specific prices weren’t even discussed.

[“Wrong,” says the antitrust lawyer. “Agreements” don’t have to be explicit at all. A wink and a nod could suffice. Similarly, specific prices need not be discussed—agreements about the general direction of pricing could raise antitrust scrutiny.]

The next day, each member of Trooper Girls cut their cookie prices, all in the 10-20% range, though some a little bit more and some a little bit less.

Suddenly, the weather cooled again and cookie sales took off. The Ranger Boys went out of business completely, unable to compete with the reduced price of the Trooper Girl treats.

Immediately thereafter, the Trooper Girls communicated to one another—in various ways—that it was no longer necessary to keep prices low, each member could do as she pleased, though continued cooperation to return to normal prices was appropriate.

And that’s what happened.

[“Oh no, again.” This could be deemed another anticompetitive agreement, now with indefinite and potentially long-running effects.]

Rick, a member of the Ranger Boys was very sad. For one thing, he was left with a freezer full of ice cream—couldn’t give the stuff away. For another, he had nothing to do on weekends with the Ranger Boys now essentially defunct.

Wisely, Rick did two things. He called an antitrust lawyer, suspicious that something unfair had occurred. And he petitioned the Trooper Girls to join their group.

Although the girls initially refused the application, the antitrust lawyer changed Rick’s life (as antitrust lawyers do) by threatening to sue the Trooper Girls and their individual members for violating the Sherman Act, including by refusing Rick’s application for anticompetitive reasons contrary to the membership criteria.

The Trooper Girls relented—paid Rick not to sue and admitted him in the group. Rick used the settlement money to start his own business making ice cream sandwiches. He used the ice cream leftover in his freezer and Trooper Girl cookies for the sandwich ends (genius!). In the process, Rick sold a lot of ice cream and a lot of cookies—everyone was happy.

THE MORALS OF THE STORY:

*For the Trooper Girl Types and Their Associations:  In addition to having clear membership criteria, have a written antitrust compliance policy and train all members to issue spot.

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Antitrust-for-Kids-300x143

Author: Molly Donovan

Antitrust for Kids is a new blog series designed to explain complex principles of U.S. competition law to practitioners and business people in plain English. Meant to be fun, and tongue-in-cheek, the series will serve as a useful primer to help the audience issue spot and better understand antitrust concepts like price discrimination, vertical restraints, tying, tacit agreements, and more.

Max and Margie are next-door neighbors on Lemon Lane. They both operate competing lemonade stands in their front yards all summer. And, both shop at the same grocery stores to purchase the same three ingredients necessary for making their finished drinks:  fresh lemons, sugar, ice.

While they’ve been frenemies for years, casually exchanging pleasantries at times, this summer the weather is very hot, and so is competition in the local lemonade market. In fact, Max and Margie barely acknowledge each another, unless it’s to bad mouth the other—each complaining that the other makes inferior lemonade.

One day, Margie announces a breakthrough that she’s made in the lemonade space:  STRAWBERRY LEMONADE. It’s a hit. Margie begins charging 2 times over cost for her strawberry drink, and the demand for plain old lemonade (sans strawberries) stops cold.

Max is incensed, naturally, and hatches a scheme to bring Margie down.

Max heads to the largest grocery store in town. There, he tells George (the grocer) that unless George stops selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie, Max—and more importantly, Max’s dad—will pull all their business from George immediately.  EEEK!  That would be a real problem for George because Max’s dad buys nearly all his ingredients to operate the town’s most popular restaurant from George, which is a serious portion of George’s business.

George feels he has no choice.  He agrees with Max to stop selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “that’s a vertical agreement, i.e., an agreement between a purchaser and a supplier, to restrain competition for the purchase of lemonade ingredients.”]

“But,” says George, “I don’t want to see all of my business with Margie go to the other grocers in town.  Hear what I’m saying?”  “Good idea,” thinks Max.

Max promptly visits the two other grocers in town, telling them that they’d better not sell lemonade ingredients to Margie, or else Max will boycott and so will his dad, both of whom provide a steady stream of business to these grocers as well (whenever George faces supply issues). Max takes care to add: George already agreed, so all of you grocers need to get on the same page.”

Not sure what else to do, these two additional grocers respectively agree to Max’s proposal. While the idea seems contrary to their individual interests, they can see Max means business and independently decide it’s easiest to comply.

Max circles back with George, telling him that all the grocers in town are on board. George nods.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “now there’s a potential horizontal agreement, i.e., an agreement among competitors in the same level on the supply chain—in this case, the 3 grocers. Such an agreement could be implied even though the grocers never actually spoke to one another.”]

As a result of Max’s scheming, Margie can’t buy the ingredients she needs, and goes out of business. Max never can figure out how to add strawberries to his classic recipe for straight lemonade, so the town is left without strawberry lemonade indefinitely.

Margie’s very upset until she meets an antitrust lawyer to whom she tells her story. The antitrust lawyer explains to Margie that she’s the victim of a hub-and-spoke conspiracy—with Max at the hub, 3 separate vertical agreements between Max and each of the grocers (the spokes), and the 3 grocers all implicitly agreeing with one another, forming a horizontal agreement to boycott Margie on the “rim.” While courts may analyze the arrangement differently depending on the jurisdiction, it’s certainly an antitrust concern anywhere.

With her lawyer’s help, Margie files an antitrust claim, wins trebled damages, and lives happily ever after selling her strawberry lemonade, now world famous.

Max becomes a white-collar lawyer specializing in the defense of executives who allegedly violate the criminal antitrust laws. He’s still single.

THE MORALS OF THE STORY:

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