Please turn on JavaScript

Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Priest on Obama Administration's Antitrust Policy

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Priest on Obama Administration's Antitrust Policy

Christine Varney, the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust in the Obama administration recently outlined plans for greater enforcement of antitrust laws.  George Priest who teaches antitrust law at Yale University, dissented from her conclusions in a Wall Street Journal opinion article titled, "The Justice Department's Antitrust Bomb." dated June 2, 2009.  As always, the entire article is well worth reading.  I have selected a few quotes that I believe illustrate Priest's reasoning.
Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney claims that the Justice Department can aid economic recovery by prosecuting businesses that have been successful in gaining large market shares. In her announcement last month she argued that "many observers agree" that our current recession reflects "a failure of antitrust" and "inadequate antitrust oversight."

This is news to most economists. The cause of the recession is not easy money by the Fed, or the bursting of the housing bubble, or excessive risk-taking through complicated financial instruments? It's insufficient antitrust prosecution? The claim is hardly plausible. Prosecuting successful businesses will help the recovery? Again, hard to believe.......Her basic proposal is to transform American antitrust law to more closely resemble that of Europe. She states that American antitrust policies have "diverged too frequently" from those of the Europe, and that "[w]e will focus our efforts on working through our previously divergent policies regarding single-firm conduct and pursuing vigorous enforcement on the [monopolization] front."

This is a huge mistake. The principal reasons American and European approaches to antitrust diverge are that the operative legal standards are different and that the Europeans have not adopted a tradition of rigorous economic analysis.

U.S. antitrust laws condemn practices that are "in restraint of trade," which has been interpreted to mean harm to competition. The European Union, in contrast, condemns practices that constitute "abuse of a dominant position."

The European emphasis on "dominance" has consistently led to confusion. A good example is the way the proposed GE-Honeywell merger was treated in 2001. It was uncontested both in the U.S. and in Europe that the proposed merger would create economic efficiencies, lowering product costs to the benefit of consumers. In the U.S. this was reason to approve -- if not applaud -- the merger. But in Europe the expected cost savings would make the merged firms even more dominant. The EU blocked the merger, to the harm of U.S. and European consumers.

Another example is the recent $1.45 billion fine levied by the EU against Intel. Although the EU has not released its full report documenting what violations it found, it appears that the principal concern was Intel's practice of giving "loyalty discounts" to repeat customers, presumably increasing Intel's dominance in the microprocessor business...

[T]he fact that it has been able to maintain roughly an 80% market share for decades provides strong evidence that it is producing a valuable product. The antitrust questions with regard to dominant firms should be: What is the source of dominance and how has it survived over time?

The EU complaint claims that Intel has practiced a variation of predatory pricing. As is well-established in U.S. law, predatory pricing claims are highly questionable in the intellectual property field. Although the EU competition unit has added economists to its staff since GE-Honeywell, its antitrust theories are roughly 30 years behind those in the U.S.

1 comment:

  1. Obama's plan for antitrust laws could prove to to be an equitable way to keep the markets competitive, as long as Obama does not seek to completely level the competitive market playing field.