Articles Posted in Monopoly and Dominance

Articles that discuss antitrust and competition issues involving monopolists, dominant companies, monopoly power, and dominance.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

On October 6, 2020, the Antitrust Subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets.  As expected, the Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms.

In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.  Included in those recommendations were proposals for Congress to overrule several classic antitrust opinions.  Because this blog has summarized several classic antitrust cases over the years (see here and here, for example), we thought we would summarize some of the opinions that now might be on the chopping block.  This post concerns two classic Supreme Court opinions on refusal to deal or essential facility monopolization claims, Trinko and linkLine.

House Report on Refusal to Deal and Essential Facilities

The Report’s recommendations for general changes in the antitrust laws included several aimed at increasing enforcement of Sherman Act Section 2’s prohibition of monopolization.  In particular, the Report recommended that:

Congress consider revitalizing the “essential facilities” doctrine, or the legal requirement that dominant firms provide access to their infrastructural services or facilities on a nondiscriminatory basis.  To clarify the law, Congress should consider overriding judicial decisions that have treated unfavorably essential facilities- and refusal to deal-based theories of harm.  (Report, pp. 396-7)

The two judicial opinions listed were Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) and Pacific Bell Telephone Co. v. linkLine Communications, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009).

Trinko

Justice Scalia wrote the Court’s opinion dismissing the plaintiff’s refusal to deal claim.  There were no dissents although Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Thomas, wrote separately to concur in the result but would have dismissed based on lack of standing.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1919 U.S. v. Colgate (250 U.S. 300) decision, courts have found that “in the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly,” the antitrust laws allow any actor, including a monopolist, “freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.”  Trinko narrowly interpreted the Court’s earlier exceptions to the rule that even a monopolist can choose its own trading partners.

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Author: Steven Cernak

The U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee’s recent hearings into “big tech” and antitrust were “must see TV” for antitrust attorneys.

Over the five hours of testimony, many interesting questions were asked of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon; unfortunately, the format often left little time for answers.  Because so many of our clients—manufacturers, retailers, and others—are active in the online retail space, we thought we would focus on Amazon and Jeff Bezos’s statement and answers.

These hearing are not the only antitrust scrutiny that Amazon is receiving.  The FTC and the states of California and Washington appear to be investigating the company and its actions.  Given all the publicly available information, what did the hearings teach us about the kinds of antitrust claims that might be made against Amazon in any antitrust suit?

Competing with Private Label Goods

Several of the questions involved allegations that Amazon had somehow “stolen” or misused data from some of its manufacturers or third-party sellers to determine which products it would begin to produce as private label goods.  Many of these questions grew out of a long Wall Street Journal report in April.  Bezos explained that Amazon’s policy is not to use data of an individual seller to make such decisions, although the company continued to investigate possible violations.  Also, Bezos clarified that aggregate data, which he defined as data relating to at least two sellers, could be used by Amazon under its policy.

As commentators have pointed out, retailers deciding to sell private label goods along with, or instead of, branded goods is not inherently an antitrust violation; in fact, many retailers like Kroger’s and Costco obtain significant revenue from the practice.  Bezos himself pointed out that Amazon’s policy limiting its use of data from the other sellers was “voluntary” and not required by any current law.  One of the questions at the hearings hinted at an allegation that Amazon might be in a different position than other retailers, either because of its size or greater access to seller data; unfortunately, inadequate time was given for a response.  Any antitrust actions here would need to be able to take on all private label goods sold by large retailers or explain why Amazon’s actions are uniquely anti-competitive.

Predatory Pricing

At least two sets of questions focused on potential “predatory pricing” by Amazon, that is, pricing products so low that competitors are forced out of the market.  The first set involved allegations from many years ago that Amazon had drastically lowered prices on diapers to weaken Diapers.com, later renamed Quidsi before Amazon purchased it.  In response to questioning, Bezos claimed to be unfamiliar with the details of pricing of one product nearly ten years ago.  In the second set, Bezos was asked if Amazon ever priced Echo or Ring or other in-home assistants below cost.  He claimed that the price of those products usually was above cost, although sometimes their prices might be below cost during periodic promotions.

As readers of this blog know, current law makes predatory pricing illegal only if a monopolist’s prices are very low, usually defined as below variable costs, and there is a chance that the monopolist can later raise prices to recoup its losses.  Certainly, not enough time was spent on the topic during the hearings to address those details in these Amazon examples.  Also, other commentators have already disputed the implications from the Quidsi story, describing it as another example of a retailer using a pro-competitive “loss leader” strategy to build customer loyalty to the store.  (In fact, it appears that Quidsi was trying to follow that exact strategy itself.)  While the questions did not directly lead to evidence of a violation under today’s law, it is possible that these hearings will lead to legislation to alter antitrust law’s current view of such aggressive pricing.

“Bullying” Competitors and Suppliers

Finally, Bezos was asked several times in several ways about Amazon’s treatment of its “partners,” both the manufacturers and third-party retailers who sell to consumers on its marketplace as well as manufacturers who sell directly to Amazon.  Many of the questions included quotes from anonymous third parties who felt a need to be on Amazon:  “have to work with them,” “we’re stuck,” “nowhere else to go.”

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Author: Jarod Bona

The US Supreme Court said in 1986 that “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

This was the famous Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. case that is known mostly for stating that to survive summary judgment on antitrust conspiracy, a plaintiff must present evidence that tends to exclude the possibility of independent (rather than conspiratorial) activity. 475 U.S. 574 (1986). Unfortunately, many federal trial judges have misunderstood this standard to apply to the motion-to-dismiss level.

If you don’t know what predatory pricing is, you should first read Steven Cernak’s outstanding article detailing the doctrine’s history and requirements (and rarity).

The purpose of this article is much more modest—to ask whether the quote above from the 1986 Supreme Court decision is out-of-touch with current scenarios that may or may not be reality (you decide).

As you learned from reading Steve Cernak’s article, a predatory pricing claim is one that asserts that defendants (with monopoly power) harmed competition by pricing below cost to run competitors out of the market in the short run, so they could raise prices later, after the pesky competitors are out of their way (that is called recoupment).

To prevail, besides antitrust injury, a predatory-pricing plaintiff must show that defendant has monopoly power, priced below some appropriate measure of cost, and had the ability to recoup the costs of taking a loss after they vanquished competition and could again raise prices. This is one form of a monopolization claim.

Let’s look at that 1986 Matsushita Supreme Court quote again: “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

If you are an antitrust attorney or have studied antitrust, this quote is familiar to you and shows up in the defense briefing of just about every predatory-pricing case. And judges like to cite it too. Indeed, it represents the dismissiveness with which courts and, frankly, the entire antitrust world view predatory-pricing claims. And there is some good reason for that.

But is the statement correct and will it continue to be correct?

Let’s reminisce for a moment to the “olden days.” It used to be, I think, that companies sought to make a profit from the start to the finish. And if they didn’t make a profit, they failed, and whoever ran them would face scandal, scorn, and certain involuntary succession. Each company rise and stood alone, so each would try to be profitable. And if the business wasn’t profitable and didn’t survive, the equity of its shareholders or owners would perish, along with hopes and dreams.

Of course, like most general descriptions of a time or the past, this statement has holes and exceptions and could, in many instances, be plain wrong. But it is the narrative that was told (purposeful passive voice here) and that informed statements like that in the 1986-Matsushita-Supreme-Court decision, which is all that really matters for my point.

So, to price below cost, a company risked bankruptcy because pricing below cost, even for part of the company’s offerings, threatens profits, which threatens survival. And it may take a long time to vanquish competition to be able to later increase prices at monopoly-profit levels. And most companies weren’t willing or able to do that. So “predatory-pricing schemes were rarely tried,” as the quote goes. And, I suppose, those that did try them probably did mostly fail. But I haven’t reviewed the empirical evidence on that.

With that narrative, which is part of the history of predatory-pricing doctrine, we can see why the dismissive quote makes sense.

But what if this is the true world?

But what happens if you have a culture in which financial resources are aggregated into individual entities and you have smart people that place bets on large numbers of companies with the knowledge that most of them are going to fail? The financial entities, however, know and accept that and, instead, make their money from the extremely small percentage of companies that blow up (in a good way) and turn into unicorns or otherwise take over an entire market or industry.

And, at the same time, let’s say that a substantial percentage of these companies that are the subject of these financial bets are the type that succeed only if they reach the scale of monopoly. Maybe these are the sort of companies that create two-sided markets or exchanges, in which network effects are necessary to succeed?

And, what if, to obtain sufficient participants on both sides of the market (and the scale necessary to dominate the market), each of the companies (subject to the bets by the smart-financial entities) priced their products or services at zero or some extremely low amount in a race to get everyone on their website or app or system?

If that were to happen, I wonder if most of these companies would fail—they are pricing below cost, after all—and not everyone is going to be able to pull of a victory in these circumstances. But I bet a handful or more of them would survive and end up dominating their market. And I imagine that some of them would continue pricing below cost between the points of market penetration and complete market domination.

After all, profitability isn’t necessary because the money funding these companies—in this scenario—is not incented by mediocre or even strong profits. What makes these smart financial entities rich are the big winners—the companies with monopoly profits that dominate their markets.

If that were to happen, how would that change the accuracy of the 1986-Matsushita-Supreme Court quote: “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

In the scenario I just described—you can decide for yourself whether it sounds familiar or is true—I think that predatory pricing schemes would be commonly tried and periodically successful.

Here is another possible scenario:

Let’s say there is a foreign country that owns or controls a substantial number of companies. It is possible, I suppose, that the bureaucrats in the government are calculating profits and forcing decisions based entirely or mostly on profit-maximization. It is possible that control, power, and influence have nothing to do with their decisions. And that the funding acts just like any other market funding.

But let’s pretend for a second that this isn’t true. Maybe the government money (and control and incentives usually follow the money) is less concerned about profit-maximization and more concerned about other goals. In that case, I wonder if this government money would have the same reluctance to risk profits as companies in the narrative we told earlier. If that is the case, I probably wouldn’t be dismissive of the idea that a predatory-pricing scheme could be tried or successful. Money seeking power or control likes monopoly and may be willing to fund it.

What about this?

This is a little outlandish, but let’s pretend that the people in the government making decisions about bailouts haven’t heard of the term “moral hazard” and are willing to send taxpayer dollars to giant companies whenever the companies have trouble making a profit. For the sake of the story, let’s call them, I don’t know, maybe “too big to fail.”

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Author: Steven Cernak

Your much larger competitor sells the same products as you do but at a much lower price, so low you think that it must be losing money on each sale. Can such “predatory pricing” ever violate the antitrust laws? It is a very difficult monopolization case to make but, as Uber recently discovered, not all such claims are quickly dismissed.

Monopolization is illegal under Sherman Act Section 2 of the antitrust laws. Such claims can only be lodged against a “monopolist,” a competitor with monopoly power. Finding “monopoly power” is a difficult question this blog covered here. But even a monopolist is only liable for “monopolization,” actions that help it acquire or maintain that monopoly. There is no general test to judge a monopolist’s actions; instead, courts have developed different tests for different actions, including predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as “pricing below an appropriate measure of cost for the purpose of eliminating competitors in the short run and reducing competition in the long run”.¹ The Court expressed skepticism toward such claims several times for two reasons. First, it noted that “there is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful”.² Second, it can be difficult to distinguish pro-competitive low prices from predatorily low ones; after all, “cutting prices in order to increase business often is the very essence of competition”.³

Because of that skepticism, the Court has established a test that is difficult for plaintiffs to meet. In Brooke Group, the Court evaluated claims that a cigarette producer was using low prices to discipline a competitor.⁴ The Court held that predatory pricing allegations will be upheld only if ”the prices complained of are below an appropriate measure of its rival’s costs … [and the defendant] had a … dangerous probability of recouping its investment in below-cost prices.⁵

On the “below cost” element, the Court has declined to specifically define the “appropriate measure” of costs.⁶ While commentators have developed several potential measures, the most popular are variations on prices below a manufacturer’s reasonably anticipated marginal costs,⁷ such as average variable costs.⁸ The rationale is that no competitor would knowingly spend the incremental costs to make one more product if it did not plan to sell it for a price that covered at least those incremental costs unless such pricing was part of an anti-competitive scheme.

The “recoupment” element itself has two parts. First, the low prices must be capable of driving competitors from the market: “This requires an understanding of the extent and duration of the alleged predation, the relative financial strength of the predator and its intended victim, and their respective incentives and will.”⁹ Second, those expelled competitors and any other new entrants must stay out of the market and the market must have other attributes, such as high entry barriers, necessary to sustain high monopoly pricing so that the costs of the low prices can be recouped.¹⁰

The Brooke Group test has proven difficult for plaintiffs to meet. Despite those difficulties, plaintiffs continue to make predatory pricing claims, as illustrated by two 2019 opinions. But a May 2020 case involving Uber shows that some predatory pricing claims can survive a motion to dismiss.

In Clean Water Opportunities, Inc. v. Willamette Valley Co., plaintiff claimed that defendant put it out of business through various tactics, including predatory pricing.¹¹ In an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of this claim because plaintiff’s claims were both conclusory and implausible.¹² Plaintiff only alleged that defendant’s discounts to plaintiff’s customers “were substantial and represented a benefit below [defendant’s] cost to produce [product].” The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that this allegation required “further factual enhancement” to rise above mere conclusory allegations that the court was not bound to accept as true under the motion.¹³

The remainder of the allegations in the complaint made the possibility of such “factual enhancement” unlikely. Plaintiff alleged that its and defendant’s original undiscounted price both were well above the alleged competitive price. The court found that this allegation left plenty of room for defendant to undercut plaintiff’s price while staying above the competitive price, let alone any potential measure of defendant’s average variable costs.¹⁴

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Good news––the answer is yes. The bad news, however, is that antitrust laws only help you in very limited scenarios.

As a general rule, “Businesses are free to choose the parties with whom they deal, as well as the prices, terms, and conditions of that dealing” Pacific Bell Tel. Co. v. Linkline Commc’ns, Inc., 555 U.S. 438, 448 (2009). This means that firms, even those enjoying market power, are not typically required to cooperate with rivals by selling them products that would help them compete. Indeed, antitrust laws do not generally impose limitations on a competitor’s ability to “exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.” Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 411 (2004).

So, most of the time, once your distribution contract expires, your supplier is free to either renew your contract or stop dealing with you. After all, this is what the free market is about: you are free to decide your own commercial strategy in order to make profits and beat your competitors. But this is not always the case, and the recent case from the Seventh Circuit, Viamedia, Inc. v. Comcast Corp., is a very good example of it.

The willingness to forsake short-term profits

Courts have been cautious to recognize an antitrust exception to the general rule that businesses are free to choose the parties with whom they deal, as well as the prices, terms, and conditions of that dealing. The cases below provide a road map to better understand what you would need to succeed.

Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Co., 472 U.S. 585 (1985)

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated in the past that even an actual monopolist has no duty to deal with its competitors. A narrow exception to this rule, however, was established in Aspen Skiing. The Court provided some guidance to explain when a monopolist’s refusal to deal becomes contrary to antitrust rules.

In this case, the defendant monopolized the market for downhill skiing services in Aspen (Colorado). Defendant originally agreed to offer a joint lift ticket with plaintiff because it helped attract skiers. But defendant later decided to discontinue the successful joint-ticket program. By doing so, it rejected, for example, selling lift tickets to the plaintiff at full retail price. Defendant’s justifications included several administrative issues such as splitting revenues, suffering brand image injury, and others.

The Court concluded that defendant’s unilateral termination of a voluntary––and thus presumably profitable––course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end: to push plaintiff out of the market and achieve monopoly power to avoid any sort of competition.

Novell, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp 731 F.3d 1064 (10th Cir. 2013)

Microsoft provided independent software vendors access to a pre-release version of Windows 95––the so called “beta” version of the operating system available to all independent software vendors, including Novell––to facilitate their ability to write software for Windows 95. The reasoning behind this was to develop compatible programs while increasing both the utility of the operating system for users and the sales for Microsoft. Later on, however, Microsoft changed its strategy and revoked such access. It decided to give its proprietary applications the “competitive advantage” of “being the first applications useable on Windows 95.” Novell alleged that Microsoft intentionally altered its existing business practice of providing competitors with Windows technical information in order to monopolize the market for operation systems.

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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: Luis Blanquez

Luis Blanquez is an antitrust attorney at Bona Law with fifteen years of competition experience in different jurisdictions within the European Union such as Spain, France, Belgium and the UK. 

You can read our article about the elements for monopolization under U.S. antitrust law here. We also wrote about monopolization on the Bona Law website.

Article 102 TFUE

In the European Union, the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission (“the Commission”) together with the national competition authorities, directly enforces EU competition rules, Articles 101-109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

Article 102 TFEU prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position in a particular market.

Here is the language:

Any abuse by one or more undertakings of a dominant position within the internal market or in a substantial part of it shall be prohibited as incompatible with the internal market in so far as it may affect trade between Member States. Such abuse may, in particular, consist in: (a) directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions; (b) limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of  consumers; (c) applying  dissimilar  conditions  to  equivalent  transactions  with  other  trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage; (d) making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by the other parties of supplementary obligations which, by their nature or according to  commercial usage, have no connection with the subject of such contracts.

First, article 102 TFEU applies to “undertakings,” which is defined by EU case law as including every entity engaged in an economic activity, regardless of the legal status of the entity and the way in which it is financed. (C-41/90 Höfner and Elsner v Macrotron [1991] ECR I-1979).

Natural persons, legal persons, and even states are included in the interpretation of undertakings. (So, as in the United States, governments in Europe might violate the competition laws).

Second, to qualify as an undertaking, the entity must be also engaged in an economic activity, i.e. offering goods and/or services within a relevant market.

Third, to fit within Article 102 TFUE’s prohibition, the conduct must have a minimum level of cross-border effect between member states within the EU.

The concept of dominance under EU antitrust rules

As explained above, article 102 TFEU prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position in a particular market.

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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.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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