Articles Posted in Competition

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.https://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=antitrustattorney-20&language=en_US&l=li2&o=1&a=0804139296

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).

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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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Cable MergerAntitrust attorneys do everything that a lawyer can do: They litigate in both courts and agencies; they counsel clients; and they participate in mergers & acquisitions. If you are a young lawyer or law student that can’t decide what type of legal activity you like best, try antitrust and competition law—you can do it all.

In the mergers & acquisitions category, antitrust’s most recent obsession is the deal between Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable., Inc.

Competition Policy International (CPI) was kind enough to ask me to write a few words expressing my thoughts, and you can read them here. You can view the other Comcast-TWC articles from the CPI Antitrust Chronicle here.

I won’t go into a lot of detail because you can read the actual article (which is less than five pages), but I thought I’d provide a little introduction into my thinking.

Usually in these circumstances, you will see commentary on one side stating that, of course, the merger should be approved, maybe even “as is.” On the other side, you will read analyses that the world will fall apart if the merger is not blocked forever.

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PillsLast week was a big antitrust week for the new law firm of Bona Law PC. First, it was the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, where antitrust lawyers from all over the world descend upon Washington, DC to obsess over antitrust and competition for several days. Second, I was writing an antitrust brief in a significant antitrust case.

Finally, I argued at a motion-to-dismiss hearing in the case Dr. Yvoune Kara Petrie, DC v. Virginia Board of Medicine, et al. I represent Yvoune Petrie, a doctor of chiropractic, in an antitrust lawsuit (Sherman Act, Section 1) against the Virginia Board of Medicine and several of its board members. Update: We survived the motion to dismiss.

With my client’s permission, I thought I’d tell you a little more about it.

As you might recall, I have experience and expertise in antitrust lawsuits against state and local entities, and believe that some of the most pernicious harm to competition comes from government conduct.

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Supreme CourtI am excited to announce that after a dozen years of big-law practice, I am leaving DLA Piper to start my own law firm—Bona Law PC. I believe that through Bona Law I can offer clients the legal services of the best law firms, but in a much more efficient way. I am headquartered in the San Diego, California area, but expect to continue to practice nationally.

My family, friends, and former co-workers have commented lately that I seem very happy—maybe even giddy. It is true. I am as enthusiastic about the practice of law—and life—as I have ever been. I have a wonderful supportive family and am about to embark on a journey that marries my entrepreneurial spirit with a profession that I love. I feel like I am living the dream.

After years of analyzing other markets for antitrust matters, I finally sat down and analyzed my own. My conclusion is the legal market has structurally changed such that the largest law firms are concentrating more and more on their biggest clients and developing such diseconomies of scale that they are no longer competitive for most businesses. Unless a company can provide these law firms with a minimum volume of work, the firms are unlikely to offer a competitive price for their services.

First, matters with less volume could create conflict issues, which are a significant and costly issue for large law firms. Without sufficient volume, it just isn’t worth it for firms to discount their already high prices.

Second, large law firms have huge fixed overhead—leases, management, marketing departments, etc. Moreover, many (probably most) of them have excess capacity, which means that they are paying a lot of attorneys that aren’t billing as many hours as the firm would like. So volume is a big deal.

This is where I come in.

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Update: The Supreme Court decided North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC. You can read my analysis here.

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 quite large, 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 virtually 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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Minnesota HockeyHere at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we like to talk about competition. And what could be a better example of competition than Olympic Hockey. Mostly ignored by all but die-hard fans, hockey—Olympic style—captures the world’s attention every four years, as we all become fans of this exciting sport.

Story lines are everywhere and history unfolds before our eyes, like it did on Saturday when the United States beat Russia in a wild shootout that went on and on. Not surprisingly, the hero from Saturday’s exciting preliminary match, T.J. Oshie, is from a small Northern Minnesota town called Warroad.

As you might recall, even though my family now lives in beautiful Sunny San Diego, we are Minnesota natives. My wife, in fact, has many (and I really mean many) family members that live in Warroad, as well as neighboring town and hockey rival, Roseau, Minnesota.

The two towns are adjacent to the Canadian border, and hockey is kind of a big deal. I have traveled there myself several times. It is a long drive from Minneapolis, best experienced during the warm months. You might be interested to know that two well-run and successful companies also call the area home—Polaris and Marvin Windows.

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