Articles Posted in Competition

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If you have sold or purchased a home recently, you might be under the impression that real estate commissions—the price to engage a real estate broker—are fixed or otherwise set by law in different geographic markets. They aren’t—to do so amounts to price-fixing, which is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Like any other competitor—professional or not—real estate brokers and agents must compete for customer business on price, quality, and everything else. If competing professionals were to join together to fix commissions at a set price, they would violate the antitrust laws. And since it would be a per se violation, there are potential criminal penalties.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, is engaged in prosecuting some other real-estate participants for per se antitrust violations—bid rigging: Several Northern California real-estate investors have pled guilty for bid rigging public real estate foreclosure auctions. Similar bid rigging of foreclosure auctions apparently occurred in Georgia, as well. We wrote about these bid rigging investigations long ago when DOJ’s antitrust activity was in its early stages.

But let’s return to real estate brokers and commissions: It is true that in most geographic regions, you see commissions at around the same level, no matter who you hire as a real estate agent. That will sometimes happen in a market; there is a rate that is around the market rate and most will price around that rate.  We wrote a prior article about this situation, where real estate commissions ended up at the same level, but not due to any agreement. This was not an antitrust violation.

For some reason, however, there is an impression with real estate commissions that there is a “standard” or “legal” rate that real estate agents must price. If you are a consumer in this industry, it is important that you know that this is absolutely incorrect. If your real estate broker tells you otherwise, have them read one of our most popular articles: Five Antitrust Concerns for Real Estate Professionals.

Then, go ahead and negotiate. That is your right. You don’t have a right to win the negotiation, but real estate agents don’t have a right to agree among each other on prices either.

If you are a competitor for real estate services, it is particularly important that you understand that you can’t fix prices with other agents. If you do, you might find yourself on the wrong side of an antitrust lawsuit—possibly even brought by Bona Law—as we receive a lot of calls and emails about these issues. Or, worse, you could receive a call from a Department of Justice lawyer that opened an investigation into you or your company.

My interest in this issue goes beyond my role running a boutique antitrust law firm: I am also a long time real estate investor and I have a California real estate license. To capitalize on that background, we recently started a new blog directed at real estate investors, called Titles & Deeds. If you want to learn more, you can read about our real estate blog here.

This, of course, leads us to Kansas. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Let me explain.

Are the Kansas Real Estate Commission and its Members About to Violate the Antitrust Laws?

On June 16, 2017, Andrew Finch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ, wrote a letter to the Kansas Real Estate Commission expressing concern about a regulation the Commission is considering that would make it easier to fix prices by forbidding real estate brokers from competing on price by offering gift cards or similar items.

Apparently, according to the DOJ law, Kansas state law forbids real estate brokers from offering rebates, but doesn’t define the term “rebates.” The Kansas state ban, of course, is highly anticompetitive. It directly restricts price competition and harms consumers in Kansas. The Kansas government has unfortunately chosen to protect profits in the real estate profession over the well-being of its citizens.

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Do you or your competitor have a monopoly in a particular market? If so, your conduct or their conduct might enter the territory of the Sherman Act—Section 2—called monopolization.

If you are in Europe or other jurisdictions outside of the United States, instead of monopoly, people will refer to the company with extreme market power as “dominant.”

Of course, it isn’t illegal itself to be a monopolist or dominant (and monopoly is profitable). But if you utilize your monopoly power or obtain or enhance your market power improperly, you might run afoul of US, EU, or other antitrust and competition laws.

In the United States, Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it illegal for anyone (person or entity) to “monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations.” But monopoly, by itself, is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a monopolist to engage in competition on the merits.

As an aside, I have heard, informally, from companies that are considered “dominant” in Europe that the label of “dominant” effectively diminishes their ability to engage in typical competitive behavior because they are under such heavy scrutiny by EU Competition authorities.

If you are interested in learning more about abuse of dominance in the EU, read this article.

In the United States, monopolists have more flexibility, but they are still under significant pressure and could face lawsuits or government investigations at any time, even when they don’t intend to violate the antitrust laws. There is often a fine line between strong competition on the merits and exclusionary conduct by a monopolist.

Here are the elements of a claim for monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act:

  • The possession of monopoly power in the relevant market.
  • The willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

To determine whether an entity has monopoly power, courts and agencies usually first define the relevant market, then analyze whether the firm has “monopoly” power within that market.

But because the purpose of that analysis is to figure out whether certain conduct or an arrangement harms competition or has the potential to do so, evidence of the actual detrimental effects on competition might obviate the need for a full market analysis. If you want to learn more about this point, read FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (and subsequent case law and commentary). Now that I think about it, this should probably be a future blog post.

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FTC State Action ImmunityIn early 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC that the “active state supervision” prong of the state-action immunity from antitrust liability test applied to state licensing boards controlled by market participants. You can read my analysis of the decision here. And you can read the amicus brief that Bona Law filed in the case here.

(Besides the “active state supervision” requirement, state-action-immunity applicants must also demonstrate that the challenged restraint was clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy by a state sovereign, like a state legislature. The Supreme Court recently addressed this requirement in FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. I filed an amicus brief in this case, which you can review here.)

The Basics of Antitrust Liability and State-Action Immunity for State Regulatory Boards

I have written quite a bit about state action immunity and the NC Dental case, so I won’t give a lot of background here. You can read my prior articles.

But here are the basics: Not surprisingly, state and local governments often engage in anticompetitive behavior. Sometimes this includes conduct that the federal antitrust laws prohibit.

But, owing to federalism and the fact that governments get away with things they shouldn’t, sometimes state and federal governments have a get-out-of-antitrust-liability card called “state-action immunity.” Like all antitrust exemptions, Courts interpret the scope of state-action immunity narrowly.

In most situations, a state or local government seeking state-action immunity must demonstrate that (1) the state sovereign—usually the legislature or state supreme court acting legislatively—clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed the challenged restraint as state policy (See Phoebe Putney); and (2) that the state actively supervises the anticompetitive policy.

Before the US Supreme Court decided the NC Dental case, it was an open question whether state licensing or regulatory boards were required to show both prongs of what is called the Midcal test, or just the first prong. That is, it wasn’t a given that these state boards had to show active supervision. I addressed that very issue in a law review article, which you can read here. But apparently my article wasn’t enough to end discussion on the issue, so the US Supreme Court went ahead and addressed it in the NC Dental v. FTC case.

The Supreme Court in NC Dental went on to hold that a state board on which a controlling number of decision-makers are market participants in the regulated occupation must satisfy the active supervision requirement to invoke state-action antitrust immunity.

(As an aside, certain municipalities do not need to show active state supervision, but I suspect that courts will continue to narrow this exception. Luke Wake and I argued in another law review article that whenever the government entity becomes a market-participant, it should lose its state-action immunity entirely. I mention this here because it is often a local government entity that competes directly in the market and tries to invoke state-action immunity.).

So we now know that anticompetitive conduct by state regulatory boards are subject to antitrust scrutiny unless they can show both prongs of the Midcal test, including active state supervision. But what is active state supervision?

What is Active State Supervision for State-Action Immunity from Antitrust?

Active Supervision is something that the US Supreme Court has on occasion addressed, but there isn’t a clear standard. It simply hasn’t come up enough to create a dense body of law. So the guidance is slim.

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Teladoc antitrustIt is easier to succeed in business without competition than with it. And if you are used to practicing your profession in a particular way, it is quite uncomfortable when new approaches develop that undercut your business.

(As an aside, Aaron Gott and I just published an article for CIO Story that discussed this idea in the context of the legal profession: Disrupting the Traditional Law Firm Model.)

Indeed, the first reaction is that the “guild” scrambles to find ways to stop the newcomers, often citing health, safety, or consumer protection reasons to cover what are, in fact, really actions of self-preservation. Several years ago, I published a law review article called “The Antitrust Implications of Licensed Occupations Choosing Their Own Exclusive Jurisdiction,” that discussed the antitrust implications of this problem.

North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC

More recently, the United States Supreme Court decided a case called North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC. In that case, the Supreme Court held that a state board made up of dentists was not immune from the antitrust laws when it collectively acted to limit the market for teeth-whitening to dentists.

In the NC Dental case, dentists noticed that their high-margin teeth-whitening was facing lower-priced competition from non-dentists. They predictably reacted by citing health, safety, and consumer concerns and did what they could—collectively—to destroy their competitors and thus their competition.

That they did so through what was, in fact, a state board was no concern to the US Supreme Court because when an entity—even a state entity—is made up of a group of competitors it is in many ways just like a private trade association. If the competitors collectively violate the antitrust laws by excluding competition, they must face antitrust liability.

What the Supreme Court did not do in NC Dental, however, is determine the scope of what is an antitrust violation. For that, we must turn to basic antitrust doctrine. And like any other antitrust application, doctrine develops around different types of actions and situations.

One pertinent example, of course, is the state board made up of private competitors that seek to exclude their competition. The scope of antitrust liability—separate and apart from any state-action immunity issues—is an underdeveloped area of antitrust doctrine because there weren’t a great many cases of this nature.

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BlackjackSo here’s an idea. Let me know what you think: A hedge fund or other investment vehicle centered on antitrust analysis.

I’ll explain.

As you might know, I am an antitrust attorney. And I write a blog on antitrust and competition law. So, as you may expect, I follow antitrust developments somewhat obsessively at times. As a result, I have a good sense of the practical antitrust implications of certain cases, investigations, or prospective mergers.

I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. Nor do I have any inside information. And since human beings—judges or agency officials—make the relevant decisions, nobody can actually predict what will happen.

But by now, I can review a complaint or a motion to dismiss or description of facts and have a good sense of the strength and risk of the antitrust issues. I think I also have a decent idea how the major antitrust agencies—the FTC and Department of Justice—focus their priorities and like to resolve investigations, cases, and mergers. Like I said, I can’t predict anything with certainty, but there is a high learning curve for antitrust (probably more than most specialties) and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort climbing that curve.

Enough about me—for now anyway.

Let’s talk about antitrust and company stock performance. The obvious scenario is a merger. Two companies, perhaps competitors, announce a merger or acquisition. It isn’t a dead-on-antitrust-arrival merger between the first and second leading companies in a product and geographic market that is easily defined. Instead, it is the sort of merger where the markets are somewhat complicated, perhaps in flux, and it isn’t entirely clear whether an antitrust agency will challenge it or a court will stop it.

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MonopolyYou may have noticed Peter Thiel’s provocatively titled article “Competition is for Losers” in the Review section of last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Since we extol the virtues of competition here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, perhaps you are bracing yourself for me to rip into his article?

No way! It is a great article. And his discussion is not only a good antitrust primer—without the jargon—but is also absolutely accurate. Thom Lambert at the excellent blog, Truth on the Market, seems to agree.

Of course, you have to read beyond the headline, which is, like most headlines, meant to grab your attention. Peter Thiel in his book “Zero to One,” makes a lot of great points, from both the macro and micro level. I’ll focus on the micro level here.

Thiel contrasts perfect competition with monopoly. In the typical perfect-competition scenario, many firms will sell the exact same product, like a commodity. The market, at least theoretically, will achieve equilibrium, and there is no market power. The market sets the price. The profits for the sellers are minimal—zero if you are talking about economic profit (which assumes a modest rate of return).

In a typical monopoly market, by contrast, the seller is the primary or only firm that offers the product and can determine its own price and quantity produced (of course, even a monopolist can often reach the edge of its own relevant market by setting a price too high). A monopolist usually has a high-profit margin and very healthy profits.

Of course, perfect competition and monopoly are endpoints on a continuum, with lots of room between.

There is a lot to say about the article, but I am going to limit myself to the micro level—the perspective of the individual business not the overall economy.

Thiel develops the unremarkable proposition that it is much better to go into business as a fancy monopolist than a perfect-competition soldier. Thiel says “If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.” That’s right.

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As you know, I am a big fan of the Antitrust Law Journal, which is produced by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section. It is the journal where antitrust lawyering meets antitrust economics and academics. I like to hang out at this intersection.

A couple weeks ago, another issue of the Antitrust Law Journal arrived. I haven’t had a chance to read any of the articles yet—as I’ve been fortunately quite busy—but I skimmed it and it looks like a good one. Let’s review it together.

It is a double symposium issue, which is great because symposium issues can be a bummer if you don’t like the topic. This gives you twice the odds of liking at least some of the articles. The two topics are (1) Patent Assertion Entities, and (2) Politics and Antitrust.

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TaxisProbably not. But any government agency that files an amicus brief supporting an Institute for Justice case challenging anticompetitive state action deserves some libertarian props.

If I had to name a favorite government agency, I would pick the FTC. I don’t agree with many of their positions, of course, and have gone up against them before. But they work hard to rein in anticompetitive state and local conduct and that is meaningful. In those instances, they are champions of competition. These state and local boards shouldn’t violate the antitrust laws.

Andrew Gavil, the Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the FTC, testified before the House Committee on Small Business on “Competition and the Potential Costs and Benefits of Professional Licensure.” This is an issue that I have studied for many years and the FTC has been and remains a leader in protecting competition from needless entry barriers by state and local boards.

Let’s take a quick look at Andrew Gavil’s written statement, which officially presents the views of the Federal Trade Commission by a 5-0 vote.

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Ski EquipmentSometimes competition is a real hassle.

If your company has a loyal customer or longtime employee, you feel betrayed when a competitor swoops in to try to “steal them.”

If you are the Miami Heat, you probably don’t like that the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to hire your best player, LeBron James. Of course, a few years ago, the Heat signed James from Cleveland. (On a side note, this Minnesota Timberwolves fan wonders whether a LeBron James move to Cleveland will lead to a Kevin Love trade for Number 1 draft pick, Andrew Wiggins).

Update: LeBron James is indeed “coming home” to Cleveland.

I just started watching Breaking Bad. (I know, what took me so long?). Anyway, it is apparent in the early episodes that drug cartels shovel heavy resources into extinguishing competition. They certainly don’t seem too happy about this Heisenberg fellow coming in to outcompete them with a superior product. Perhaps in a later season, “Better Call Saul” will help Walter White file a Sherman Act, Section 2 Antitrust lawsuit against some of these monopolists that are restraining him from competing in certain geographic markets?

The bottom line is that as great as competition is—for almost everyone—it isn’t always enjoyable to those that must compete.

It is much easier to complacently offer the same product or service for a highly-profitable price than to constantly refine your wares and cut prices to attract and keep customers.

Perhaps a couple major ski equipment manufacturers were thinking along those lines if we are to believe the FTC’s allegations that ended in settlements approved today?

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UmpireA few years ago, now-Chief Justice then-Nominee John Roberts invoked an umpire analogy during his confirmation hearings, explaining that “My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” I love baseball, so I can appreciate any description that marries law and baseball.

Without getting into the substance of Chief Justice Robert’s point, let’s examine that analogy in a slightly different context:

Let’s say you are in the midst of a serious competitive ballgame. You reach the seventh inning, the score is tied 3 to 3 (good pitching, lots of great defensive plays, maybe a solo home run, and a couple manufactured runs for your team—something for everyone). The umpires have called a good game, but they haven’t been perfect.

You are the home team, so you go out to pitch in the top of the seventh inning. But instead of a batter coming up for the other team, the home plate umpire takes off his mask, grabs a bat and goes up to bat. Well, this is unexpected. Suddenly you are playing against the umpire?

Okay, you are a good pitcher, you can handle it. It is odd, but life is about making adjustments. You wait for a new umpire, but the spot behind the catcher remains vacant. What is going on? You call a time-out and ask.

After hearing the answer, you go back to the mound thinking “this is crazy.” The umpire is, indeed, now competing against you. But there isn’t a new umpire. The original umpire is still the umpire. He will still make the calls, while playing the game.

Pitch one: A fastball right down the middle, an obvious strike. No swing. “Ball One,” you hear from behind the batter’s helmet. That doesn’t seem fair. But, you’ve seen worse calls, so you ready pitch two.

Pitch two: A change-up over the plate. “Ball two.” Now, you are livid. Two strikes, but your hitter is calling the game, so you are behind in the count 2-0. This is the point where you start to ready your bean-ball pitch, but you smartly realize that if you throw at the hitter, the umpire, who is also the hitter, will probably throw you out of the game.

Pitch three: Another fast-ball down the middle. You know he won’t swing. “Ball three.” The umpire-hitter then takes first base. “That was only ball three,” you yell at the foolish ump, who can’t count. You were initially angry, but you see that he made a fool of himself for not being able to count, so your anger subsides a little. You chuckle, while getting ready to throw another pitch.

But then the umpire explains that not only does he still make the calls, but he can also change the rules during the game. So, at least for now, three balls not four balls is a walk. At this point, you let out a string of expletives, articulating that it isn’t really competition if the other side doesn’t have to follow the rules and can change them at will.

So, that was half-way amusing, but what’s the point?

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