Articles Posted in Competition

Competition-in-Politics-Harvard-Business-Review-300x169

Author: Jarod Bona

As antitrust attorneys, we advocate for competition in product and service markets. The US Supreme Court recognizes that “the heart of our national economy long as been faith in the value of competition,” and we agree.

But competition matters elsewhere too. We certainly see it in sports. You might notice that sport leagues strive to increase parity to make the league more competitive overall. So when your favorite NFL Football team creates twelve to sixteen sleepless nights for you one year, the league rewards it with a high draft pick the next year. And if your team wins more than it loses, the NFL scheduling gods will punish them the next year with a tougher path to the playoffs.

Anyway, if you read the Harvard Business Review, you may have noticed an article that is sure to pique the interest of an antitrust lawyer like myself. (July-August 2020 Issue). It isn’t about sports, but it is still interesting.

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter wrote “Fixing U.S. Politics: What business can—and must—do to revitalize democracy.”

Everyone seems unhappy with the current state of political affairs—so maybe more competition is the solution?

(This is a good reminder that every profession—including antitrust attorney—sees solutions to problems through their own, very specific, eyes. Knee injury? You need more competition. Of course, it isn’t always effective.)

Before we jump into Gehl and Porter’s work, as a disclaimer, Bona Law isn’t a political law firm: we don’t take any specific positions on politics or candidates. Our firm is made up of actual people, all of whom have freedom of thought and their own individual views, which we respect. As a firm, we take positions on certain types of policy—like encouraging competition and discouraging the government from destroying competition. But Bona Law is an antitrust law firm, so that’s not a surprise. But when it comes to politics, that is for each person to decide for themselves. Politics is personal.

According to the authors, politics are driven by the same five forces that affect more traditional markets: “the nature and intensity of rivalry, the power of buyers, the power of suppliers, the threat of new entrants, and the pressure from substitutes that compete in new ways.” (117). The authors explain that—unfortunately—the politics industry doesn’t have healthy competition.

The key problem, according to the authors, is that the Democrats and Republicans have a duopoly and that they work hard to keep it that way—with great success.

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Certificate-of-Need-Minnesota-300x225

Author: Jarod Bona

We do our best to describe antitrust and other legal issues as straightforwardly as possible here. We tend to speak directly and avoid the guarded language that you often see from lawyers elsewhere (a little secret: most big-firm attorneys are afraid of getting in trouble in one way or another).

So, in case there was any doubt, I’ll tell you what I really think of certificate-of-need laws. These are laws, still on the books in many states, that actually require a new healthcare provider that wants to move into a market to get permission from the state to do so (a certificate of need). And, even more bizarre, the existing competitors—who certainly don’t want any more competition—often have a say or a role in whether the new provider receives a certificate of need, which can sometimes take months or years to obtain, if at all.

We hear all the time how important health and safety is: The sanctity of human life. Take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Get your yearly physical. Follow your doctor’s advice.

We also hear complaints from every politician, news agency, and anyone that’s ever paid a medical bill about the costs of health care.

And, although healthcare workers have been heroes both before and during this pandemic, I think we would all agree that there is a lot of room for improvement in healthcare in the United States. I’ve been to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota many times and my son was born there, so I know how good healthcare can be. We have a lot of room to improve healthcare as a country.

I think we can all agree that healthcare is vitally important to us as human beings. That is what I hear the media tell me and what politicians preach all the time. And this makes sense: If you are sick or dying, getting better shoots up the priority list of needs and wants.

Switching gears briefly, here is something that I’ve learned as an antitrust attorney and as a student of economics: Markets with monopolists and markets with less competition have higher prices, lower supply, and lower quality for products and services.

Let’s say you are an evil troll that hates people. Let’s also say that you have the single opportunity to pass legislation in a state to hurt human beings that care about health and healthcare, but you don’t want it to be something that is so obvious that they’d just repeal it after your opportunity passes. You want something that is sneaky bad.

What would you do if you were that evil troll?

You’d pass certificate-of-need laws.

These laws are sneaky bad because it takes a couple steps of reasoning to see how they harm our health and healthcare. By creating the barrier to entry of these certificate-of-need laws, the evil troll can artificially limit the supply of healthcare, decrease its quality, and raise healthcare costs—almost without detection. And by offering the existing monopolist or provider an opportunity to participate in the process, the government agency is much less likely to award the certificate to improve people’s lives. At the very least, if the existing healthcare provider is involved, they will be able to help delay any competition.

Let’s say that you end up with a pandemic and really need a lot of hospital beds or other healthcare all at once. If that happens, the evil troll has won because their certificate-of-need laws are specifically designed to reduce the supply of healthcare, including hospital beds.

Bona Law opposes certificate of need laws and we call for their repeal and challenge. You can read our earlier article about certificate of need laws on this website here.

On April 28, 2020, Aaron Gott and I published an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled “State Certificate-of-Need Laws for Hospitals Must Go: These anti-competition laws have left us unprepared for the current pandemic, with fewer hospital beds for care.”

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Antitrust-Competition-Coronavirus-300x300

Author: Jarod Bona

The Coronavirus crisis has created an unusual situation for the world, but also for antitrust and competition law. People around the globe are trying to cooperate to solve and move past the crisis, but cooperation among competitors is a touchy subject under antitrust and competition laws.

Of course, cooperation between or among competitors isn’t unheard of, even during non-crisis times. Joint ventures are prevalent and often celebrated, companies will often license their technology to each other, and the existence of certain professional sport leagues, for example, depend entirely upon cooperation among competing and separately owned teams. Indeed, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division and FTC have published guidance (in 2000) on collaborations among competitors.

Human beings everywhere are working together to defeat the Coronavirus and that will require cooperation, sometimes even among and between competitors. It is unlikely that antitrust and competition law will get in the way of that. Indeed, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice issued a Business Review Letter confirming that certain competitors can cooperate “to expedite and increase manufacturing, sourcing, and distribution of personal-protective equipment (PPE) and coronavirus-treatment-related medication.”

At the same time, the foundations of antitrust and competition law—the “faith in the value of competition,” as articulated by the US Supreme Court in National Society of Professional Engineers—is the motor that will accelerate us toward solutions.

Private enterprise and the incentives inherent within it have created the foundations and the machinery to “science” our way out of this crisis. Over-coordination through a central planner will detract from that because we would lose the feature of massive a/b testing, or really a/b/c/d/e/etc. testing, that comes from a bottom-up, decentralized approach to creating and distributing resources.

So—at least in my opinion—antitrust and competition law should maintain their role in supporting competition during this crisis (and the FTC agrees with me). But—as is already true of antitrust and competition law—when there is a strong pro-competitive reason for cooperation among competitors, the courts and antitrust agencies can adjust to let that conduct go forward (and they have here).

And once we are past this crisis, I suspect that antitrust and competition law will become an even more popular area of discussion because of the likely greater concentration of markets resulting from government intervention.

In the meantime, here are some articles that our antitrust team has written about antitrust, competition, and the Coronovirus Crisis:

 

 

 

 

Also, Steven Cernak is heavily quoted in this article from MiBiz: Coronavirus price gouging spurs efforts to rein in ‘bad actor’ resellers.

Finally, we recommend that read the blog series from our friends at Truth on the Market entitled “The Law, Economics, and Policy of the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Lots of outstanding work by very smart people.

The other part of this, of course, is the economy. With stay-at-home orders throughout the country, there is a lot less commerce happening.

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Certificate-of-Need-Laws-Antitrust-300x216

Authors: Aaron Gott and Jarod Bona

The United States is in lockdown to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases because our hospital system has even less capacity to handle a surge of cases than Italy—where overload has led physicians to have to make tough decisions about which patients deserve treatment priority. New York, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, is expected to reach capacity in a matter of days and some hospitals have already exceeded their intensive-care capacity.

Hundreds of thousands of people may die directly as a result of inadequate hospital capacity in the United States, which is at its lowest in decades. In fact, the U.S. had nearly 8 hospital beds per 1,000 people in 1970, a number that has steadily declined to 2.9 per 1000 people today. Our elected officials have issued orders and recommendations that have our economy screeching to a halt, while Congress is considering unprecedented economic relief measures in the trillions of dollars to soften the fallout.

What put us in this position? There are many reasons. But one major culprit that is at least partially to blame for our current predicament has been nearly 50 years in the making: state certificate of public need laws (often called CON laws) that artificially limit the supply of hospital beds and medical equipment.

In 1974, Congress passed the National Health Planning Resources Development Act, which encouraged states to enact certificate-of-need laws for medical capital investment. Nearly every state enacted them. State bureaucrats, rather than the free market, would thereafter determine whether we “need” more ICU capacity, more testing labs, and more equipment like ventilators. The idea behind CON laws, proven wrong long before COVID-19, is that allowing states to control supply would reduce runaway healthcare costs and improve access to care.

Here is how a CON law generally works: it is illegal (often with criminal consequences) to build any kind of medical facility or make a capital medical equipment purchase without first obtaining a certificate allowing you to do so from the state health agency. It can cost millions of dollars and take several years to get one, if you can get one at all. In some states, your competitors have a right to object to the issuance of the certificate. In the worst states, monopolist and oligopolist hospital systems prevent competition because they have such a stranglehold on state bureaucrats and processes that most would-be competitors don’t even bother trying to get a certificate of need.

New York, by the way, is one of those states that still has a draconian certificate of need law on its books. New York requires a certificate of need for the “establishment, construction, renovation and major medical equipment acquisitions of health care facilities.” Any project that would add new hospital and/or ICU beds would require a certificate of need, and it is likely that adding new ICU-grade ventilators would also require a certificate of need because they individually cost tens of thousands of dollars.

New York has just 3,200 ICU beds but expects it will need between 18,600 and 37,200 to handle the expected wave of hospitalizations.

As antitrust and competition lawyers, certificate of need laws long have been on our minds. They are terrible, immoral policies even in the best of times.

We’re not alone in this thinking: even Congress quickly saw the error of its ways. In 1984, recognizing that the program was a failure, Congress repealed the provisions that encouraged certificate of need laws. Some states repealed their CON laws in the years since, but 35 states still have them on the books, largely because monopolist and oligopolist healthcare systems don’t like competition, and they have lobbying strangleholds over many state legislatures.

For years, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission have jointly pleaded for states to repeal their anticompetitive certificate of need laws (and criticism of CONs features prominently in their comprehensive guide on improving competition in healthcare). Yet states still have them, and courts have often refused to strike them down under the U.S. Constitution despite their disastrous effect on interstate commerce.

One example is Colon Health Centers v. Hazel, a case by our friends at the Institute of Justice challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s parochial certificate-of-need law under the dormant Commerce Clause. The plaintiffs in that case sought to open state-of-the-art clinics with MRI machines and CT scanners that would improve and cheapen certain types of cancer screenings, but they could not do so without first risking millions of dollars in a certificate of need process that was likely to be contested by existing providers, eventually resulting in denial.

We filed an amicus brief on behalf of law and economics scholars in that case to argue that states’ claims of cost-controlling benefits of CON laws are unsupported by empirical evidence. Nevertheless, the Fourth Circuit upheld the law on summary judgment, finding that the putative benefits of the law were not speculative (even in the face of evidence showing no such benefit), and that those benefits outweighed the effect the law has on interstate commerce.

That case may have been decidedly differently if it were heard today.

Now, in the face of an unprecedented pandemic and an economy that has come screeching to a halt as a result of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing recommendations—put in place primarily to “flatten the curve” and avoid the overload our inadequately supply of healthcare facilities—these laws have proven not just ineffective, but completely unconscionable.

More importantly, CON laws could now prevent us from quickly building up temporary medical infrastructure to deal with the surge of cases. We cannot rely on government alone to rise to the occasion with military resources; CON laws must get out of the way so that private enterprise can help fill in the gaps.

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large-monopoly-bus-300x169

Author: Jarod Bona

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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Author: Jarod Bona

Lawyers, judges, economists, law professors, policy-makers, business leaders, trade-association officials, students, juries, and the readers of this blog combined spend incredible resources—time, money, or both—analyzing whether certain actions or agreements are anticompetitive or violate the antitrust laws.

While superficially surprising, upon deeper reflection it makes sense because less competition in a market dramatically affects the prices, quantity, and quality of what companies supply in that market. In the aggregate, the economic effect is huge, thus justifying the resources we spend “trying to get it right.” Of course, in trying to get it right, we often muck it up even more by discouraging procompetitive agreements by over-applying the antitrust laws.

So perhaps we should focus our resources on the actions that are most likely to harm competition (and by extension, all of us)?

Well, one place we can start is by concentrating on conduct that is almost always anticompetitive—price-fixing and market allocation among competitors, as well as bid-rigging. We have the per se rule for that. Check.

There is another significant source of anticompetitive conduct, however, that is often ignored by the antitrust laws. Indeed, a doctrine has developed surrounding these actions that expressly protect them from antitrust scrutiny, no matter how harmful to competition and thus our economy.

As a defender and believer in the virtues of competition, I am personally outraged that most of this conduct has a free pass from antitrust and competition laws that regulate the rest of the economy, and that there aren’t protests in the street about it.

What has me so upset?

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Engineers and Bridge

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney, over time you see the same major cases cited again and again. It is only natural that you develop favorites. Here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we will, from time-to-time, highlight some of the “Classic Antitrust Cases” that we love, that we hate, or that we merely find interesting.

The Supreme Court decided National Society of Professional Engineers in the late 1970s—when I was two-years old—and before the Reagan Revolution. But the views that the author, Justice John Paul Stevens, expressed on behalf of the Supreme Court perhaps ushered in the faith in competition often associated with the 1980s.

The National Society of Professional Engineers thought that its members were above price competition. Indeed, it strictly forbid them from competing on price.

The reason was simple: “it would be cheaper and easier for an engineer ‘to design and specify inefficient and unnecessarily expensive structures and methods of construction.’ Accordingly, competitive pressure to offer engineering services at the lowest possible price would adversely affect the quality of engineering. Moreover, the practice of awarding engineering contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of quality, would be dangerous to the public health, safety, and welfare.” (684-85).

So price competition will cause bridges to collapse? I suppose the same argument could be made for any market where greater expense can improve the health or safety of a product or service. We better not let the car manufacturers compete to provide us with cars because they will skimp on the brakes. It is often the professionals–including and especially lawyers–that find competition distasteful or damaging for their particular profession and believe that they are above it. Well, according to the US Supreme Court, they are not.

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Author: Jarod Bona

We are all connected. When something happens anywhere, we know about it everywhere. If someone has a great idea, they can tell everyone about it, right away.

These connections create incredible value. We as a society can take the best ideas and build upon them. Information as a resource is incredibly cheap and easily available. Filtering is the real problem now, but more on that later.

So, this is all great, but I worry. There is a downside to this over-connectedness. But more on that later.

There was once a time when people were worried that government would suppress speech, ideas, and innovation. The government still does this, of course. But it seems like there is less worry about it. In many ways, the government doesn’t have as much power as it used to have. That is, in part, because of our connectedness.

Society can speak swiftly and harshly toward government action that is excessive, unfair, or wrong (in society’s judgment). This creates a check on government conduct, in the same way that many people used to consider the press the fourth branch of government. Indeed, the collective voice of the people on social media has all but replaced the press, who now, like everyone else, tend to mostly pick sides.

Society, of course, doesn’t speak in one voice, but a conventional wisdom often develops and if you don’t follow it, you are criticized, harshly. This isn’t the case for every issue, obviously, but for many.

Back in the old days, speech took place in public forums—maybe a park, a conventional hall, or even a mall. That still happens, but you can only reach so many people at one place (unless you video it and post it on YouTube, for example). So the government’s role in this type of speech is much less.

Some influential speech still takes place on television. But people seem to be watching that less and less. Now, the most influential speech takes place online, mostly filtered through technology and social media companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

I’ve mentioned the term “filter” several times now. There is so much content on these platforms that if you don’t filter it, the amount is so overwhelming, it just isn’t useful. Most people don’t have time to go through everything everyone says. So a filter is necessary.

If the government were to “filter” the speech at a public park, the ACLU and a bunch of other organizations would file a First Amendment Lawsuit, and that is a good thing.

But now, the most influential forums for speech must be filtered. But how? I am not sure any one person really knows. The technology and social media companies use something called an algorithm to do the work. That seems like it could be a good idea, assuming the algorithm is a good one. But how do we know?

Should the algorithm vary depending upon the recipient information stream? Again, that seems like a good idea. Having something completely customized for you is sort of fancy and certainly helpful. We all have different interests, needs, etc. But we all have “views” on certain issues too. As we develop wisdom, experience, and knowledge, those ideas should evolve and, in some cases, change dramatically. My views are not the same as they were twenty years ago. Yours probably weren’t either.

The idea that each of us has plastic unchanging views on everything from the origins of the universe to how to run a business to the most controversial political topics of the day is foolish.

But an algorithm that sends you a customized information stream is likely to send you a disproportionate amount of information that matches your present views and interests. In a way, that locks you into where you are—inhibiting your own growth. What if we aggregate that to, well, everyone on the planet that is on the internet. Uh oh!

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Law Library Books

Author: Jarod Bona

Law school exams are all about issue spotting. Sure, after you spot the issue, you must describe the elements and apply them correctly. But the important skill is, in fact, issue spotting. In the real world, you can look up a claim’s elements; in fact, you should do that anyway because the law can change (see Leegin and resale price maintenance).

And outside of a law-school hypothetical, it typically isn’t difficult to apply the law to the facts. Of course, what I like about antitrust is that the law evolves and is often unclear and applying it (whatever it is) challenges your thinking. Sometimes, you even need to ask your favorite economist for some help.

Anyway, if you aren’t an antitrust lawyer, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to advance deep into the learning curve so you are an expert in antitrust and competition doctrine. It might be fun, but it is a big commitment to get to where you would need to be, so you should consider devoting your extra time instead to something like CrossFit.

But you should learn enough about antitrust so you can spot the issues. This is important because you don’t want your company to violate the antitrust laws, which could lead to jail time, huge damage awards, and major costs and distractions. And as antitrust lawyers, we often counsel from this defensive position.

It is fun, however, to play antitrust from the offensive side of the ball. That is, utilize the antitrust laws to help your business. To do that, you need a rudimentary understanding of antitrust issues, so you know when to call us. Bona Law represents both plaintiffs and defendants in antitrust litigation of all sorts.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Business can be brutal.

Let’s say you have this business. Maybe you started it recently, or maybe you’ve been around for some time. But, in any event, you offer a good product or service. Customers like you and you are making money.

This is—for many—the American dream. You have freedom, which plays itself out by your decision to exercise that freedom by working 80 hours per week. But you are working those 80 hours for your baby—your business.

And at least you have control over your circumstances: If you keep providing your customers with great value at a great price, you will succeed.

That’s true, except sometimes it isn’t.

Competing for customers in a market isn’t just about providing the best services, products, or prices. That is, of course, the biggest part of it, most of the time. If you do well for your customers, they will usually do well for you. But sometimes it is more complicated than that.

Companies compete within markets, but they also compete for markets.

What does that mean?

Let’s say you own a restaurant and there are five restaurants on your street. You compete within the market because whoever offers the best combination of atmosphere, price, and quality and can best match the needs (i.e. demand) of the prospective restaurant customers in that geographic area will make the most money. That is competing within the market.

But the more competition there is, the harder it is to make money. Every market is different, of course, but the greater the differentiation among competitors within the market and the less competition within that market, the more profit margins increase. This, of course, is just a rough approximation. Markets are complicated beasts.

The truth is, if you want to make more money as a business, it is best to avoid or minimize competition. That is why Peter Thiel tells you in Zero to One to create new markets or to build businesses that will face minimal competition. In that sense, a restaurant is a terrible business—too much competition. We wrote about avoiding competition and Peter Thiel’s excellent book here.

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