[originally published on the ACT Blog]
Over the past few weeks an online debate has been brewing between antitrust scholars over the FTC case against Intel. The focus of the debate has been the FTC’s decision to pursue most of its case using its Section 5 authority to prevent “unfair and deceptive” practices, rather than its Section 2 authority for combating anti-competitive behavior.
The discussion began with a piece by Bob Litan, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department in the Clinton Administration, entitled “The FTC’s Radical Application of Section 5.” As the title suggests, Litan has some serious concerns about the FTC’s case in general and its application of Section 5. It’s a pretty compelling piece that I recommend to all you antitrust geeks, but if you’re short on time/attention span I’ll try to summarize.
Litan believes (like we do) that the FTC has a pretty difficult case to make, given that:
- The levels of innovation and price cutting from the semiconductor industry are unparalleled by any other industry (see our paper on Exponential Innovation)
- The FTC seeks to prevent Intel’s above-cost discounting of chips, a practice that Supreme Court has regularly defended and cautioned against regulatory interference of such pro-competitive activities.
Therefore, he argues:
The FTC apparently seeks to avoid proving harm to competition under the established standards of Section 2 because the causal link between the conduct it challenges and any conceivable harm to competition is weak. At a minimum, therefore, the relief sought by the FTC should reflect the tenuous connection between the conduct it challenges and the potential for harm to competition.
Yet, the FTC is pursuing pretty heavy-handed remedies.
Litan then goes on to make make compelling cases for how the FTC’s proposed remedies transform Intel into a regulated utility, which could actually raise prices, reduce innovation, and create “a radical and sweeping re-interpretation of this nation’s antitrust laws, with potentially grave implications for private incentives to innovate and compete.”
Enter David Balto, former policy director of the FTC and current Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Balto has been consistently supportive of the FTC’s case against Intel and took issue with the Litan’s reading http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/04/balto_ftc_intel.html of the situation. He argues:
These predictions of doom are exaggerated and misplaced. The reality is far more straightforward.
Balto argues that three different foreign antitrust authorities have charged Intel with anticompetitive conduct, and Intel’s conduct effectively limited consumer choice through its “rebate schemes.” Balto goes on to cover familiar territory by summarizing the arguments made the FTC and other antitrust regulators, and suggesting that Litan’s fears are far outweighed by the potential damage Intel could inflict on competition in the future, especially in the GPU market. He summarizes his points with:
The FTC’s action is perhaps most important for its focus on dynamic competition. Innovation is central to the growth of the U.S. economy. Exclusionary conduct that dampens innovation extracts a significant cost on the economy.
However, Balto never really addresses Litan’s concerns about the application of Section 5 in this case, but argues that the use of Section 5 authority is not radical and is in fact warranted in this case. While he does say that the FTC’s Section 2 case could stand on its own, Balto actually confirms Litan’s thesis that the FTC pursued the Section 5 claim to free itself from the bar of demonstrable consumer harm.
Section 5 enables the FTC to go beyond narrow competition concerns. As the Supreme Court has held in FTC v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., 405 U.S. 233 (1972), “like a court of equity, the Commission may consider public values beyond simply those enshrined in the letter or encompassed in the spirit of the antitrust laws.”
Perhaps his most compelling argument for the use of Section 5 authority is the speed at which the administrative courts can reach a decision, but that is a double-edged sword. Acting quickly can help the FTC address concerns before market opportunities are closed, but it can also magnify the cost of mistaken action as well. In the end, however, this was not one of Balto’s more compelling arguments for regulatory activism.
It wasn’t long before Geoff Manne of Lewis & Clark Law School offered his own rebuttal to the rebuttal. On the Truth on the Market blog, Manne posted an article entitled “David Balto (and the FTC) gets it woefully wrong on Intel <http://www.truthonthemarket.com/2010/04/14/david-balto-and-the-ftc-gets-it-woefully-wrong-on-intel/ .”
Manne highlights many of the failings of Balto’s piece.
- He notes that Balto’s reliance on decisions by three foreign commission as evidence of Intel’s liability is misleading at best, given that “it is well-accepted that conviction by a party acting as judge, jury and prosecutor is less than decisive.” This is doubly true given that the FTC is pursuing conduct that the other jurisdictions never even looked at.
- He also notes that, despite Balto’s assertion, none of the other Commission’s provided any evidence or specific conclusions that Intel’s conduct led to higher prices.
On Section 5, Manne provides his most effective rebuke of Balto, however. Manne notes that Balto is completely dismissive of error costs concerns (such as those made by Litan) because of his certainty that agencies “don’t err in the cases they bring-only in the cases they don’t bring.” He then takes on Balto’s argument that the use of Section 5 is critical to ensuring “dynamic competition”
Balto finishes by praising the FTC’s focus on dynamic competition and by comparing the case to the DOJ’s Microsoft case–as if to highlight how perfectly off-base his assessment is. The DOJ and the courts in Microsoft were so forward looking that they dismissed the threat to Microsoft from Linux and didn’t even realize that there was a threat from Google. Larry Lessig has announced that he “Blew It on Microsoft <http://webmonkey.wired.com/wired/archive/15.01/posts.html?pg=6> ” for failing to appreciate the dynamic market. This case by the FTC is built on theoretical models of speculative harms and against copious evidence of present-day benefits to consumers. If this is how the agency focuses on “dynamic” competition, count me out.
The debate (online and offline) over the FTC’s case and the use of Section 5 will certainly rage on, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the FTC’s case is anything but a slam dunk.