Distribution, Competition, and Antitrust / IP Law

Archives for July 2015

Are Mutual Index Funds Anti-Competitive?

They may be, according to a thought-provoking article by Harvard Law School Professor Einer Elhauge entitled “Horizontal Shareholding as an Antitrust Violation” (July 21, 2015), available here.

In a nutshell, Professor Elhauge’s argument is:

  • Large institutional investors (mutual funds and, presumably, ETFs) own fairly large shareholdings in horizontal competitors throughout the economy – for example, from 2013-15, seven shareholders controlled 60% of United Airlines, 27.5% of Delta airlines, 22.3% of Southwest Airlines, and 20.7% of JetBlue Airlines. The problem is particularly acute for index funds, which routinely invest in horizontal competitors in an industry;
  • Basic economic theory suggests that this sort of “horizontal shareholding” may result in diminished incentives to compete – because if firm A gains profit/market share by lowering prices, shareholders who own stock in both firm A and competitor B (or competitors B and C, or B and C and D, etc.) will see at least some loss in profitability in their other holdings;
  • Recent econometric studies suggest that in markets where shareholdings are concentrated in this manner, higher prices are not only observed, but are also attributable to the “excess” concentration;
  • These horizontal shareholdings explain some persistent economic puzzles, including (a) executive compensation being based on industry performance, rather than corporate performance, (b) the failure of high corporate profits to lead to high growth, and (c) the recent rise in economic inequality; (*)
  • Antitrust law – as it is currently formulated – can reach these horizontal shareholdings under Clayton Act Section 7, and the passive investor exception is not a bar to legal action, because (a) funds actively insert themselves into management discussions and so are not purely “passive” and (b) even if they are, the passive exception does not apply if the acquired stock is actually used (by voting or otherwise) to lessen competition substantially or to attempt to do so; and
  • Regardless of the Section 7 passive investor exception, Sherman Act Section 1 and FTC Act Section 5 apply to horizontal shareholding acquisitions.

As I said, provocative and intriguing stuff. But I have some questions.

  • Mutual fundsandETFs are owned (I assume predominantly) by individuals. Many (most?) of those individuals are also employees in the labor markets. Why would those owners want to see unduly high executive compensation, lower growth, or higher income inequality? If the answer is there is an information gap or asymmetry, why does it persist? If firms subject to fund ownership can figure out (even without communication) that they shouldn’t vigorously compete due to their common owners, why can’t mutual/ETF fund managers figure out that fund owners don’t want fund managers tocontribute to anticompetitive behavior?
    • Perhaps most stock is ultimately held by investors who benefit more in their role as investors than they do as workers.  Additionally, perhaps there is a collective action problem at the fund investor level – even though we would all be better off with a stronger economy, when choosing to invest money, we each have incentives to pick the fund with the highest rate of return.
  • All things being equal, the higher level of horizontal holdings, the moremonopoly-level profits one would expect to be extracted. Yet we apparently see horizontal shareholdings by funds in the 4-6% range (and in any event usually under 10% for any particular fund). If the horizontal ownership strategy were so successful, wouldn’t we expect to see even higher ownership levels? What does it mean that we don’t?
    • Perhaps regulatory obligations kick in at 5% and 10%, and over 15% may require a Hart-Scott-Rodino filing. If there’s no current appetite to bring enforcement actions in this space, however, I wouldn’t think these modest expansion barriers (filing requirements) would be much of an impediment to larger holdings.
    • Perhaps it would be just as profitable to have 5% stakes in four anticompetitive marketsrather than a 20% stake in one anticompetitive market. But:
      • If 4×5% is just as profitable as one 20% holding, doesn’t that suggest that 20×1% is also just as profitable? But we apparently don’t typically see 20×1%, and if we did, it’s not clear to me it would be objectionable. It seems to me that, if the horizontal shareholdings theory is generally correct, one would expect to see higher rates of return (and more anticompetitive effects) with higher levels of shareholding (though the effect may not be linear). So I still wonder about the relatively low levels here.
      • Also, it may be more difficult and expensive to amass and manage a portfolio of many small holdings as opposed to one larger one. Again, if that’s true, how do we explain the absence of larger horizontal shareholdings?
    • Is there anything in securities law and regulation that allows for horizontal ownership and/or communication with management and that would otherwise preempt the application of antitrust law?
    • Would antitrust enforcement lessen fund diversification? And if so, can the pro-competitive effects of antitrust enforcement be balanced against the reduction in diversification in a quantitative manner?
    • To the extent there is an issue, can it be solved by giving funds a choice – either limit their holdings, or agree not to become actively involved in firm management or governance? The article suggests the answer may be yes – “if index funds alone would create a problem of anticompetitive horizontal shareholding in a concentrated market, and those index funds feel the benefits of diversification across all firms in that market exceed the benefits of influencing corporate governance, they could commit not to communicate with management or vote their shares.”

In short – it’s a very interesting theory. But it’s early days, and I think we need some more consideration – and evidence – to evaluate it.

P.S. – The paper also argues that increased antitrust enforcement in the 1930s under Thurman Arnold was a substantial reason for the United States’ emergence from the Great Depression. Certainly the timing of AAG Arnold’s appointment lines up neatly with the decrease in the unemployment rate. As they say, correlation is not causation – but again it’s a very interesting point.

(*) The basic arguments are that (a) the use of industry performance measures is not a bug but a feature for institutional investors who are invested across the industry, because managers who increase individual corporate performance by competing with rivals decrease institutional investor profits across the industry by decreasing industry profits; (b) with horizontal shareholdings, firms acting in the interests of their shareholders have incentives to constrain output rather than expand; and (c) anticompetitive markets raise returns on capital (which is invested in firms whose product prices are inflated) but also lower the effective returns to labor through (i) higher product prices that lower the purchasing power of wages and (ii) the exercise of monopsony power over labor rates.

Milk expiration dates and clever cartels

A glass of milk Français : Un verre de lait

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Planet Money podcast this week has a story about the Greek economy.  According to the podcast, there is a Greek milk producer “cartel.”  Of course cartels are unlawful in Europe, just as they are in the U.S.  So it seems that Greek milk producers have engineered a clever “cartel” — they have lobbied the Greek government to require that bottled milk have an expiration date no more than 7 days after the milk is obtained from the cow.  As a result, milk produced elsewhere in Europe either isn’t available in Greece or is (I assume) more difficult and more expensive to obtain.

The story is an interesting one, and caused me to pause for a moment about the use of the word “cartel.”  In the U.S., this sort of lobbying would almost certainly be protected by the Noerr-Pennington petitioning immunity.  But what if the milk producers got together and agreed on expiration date rules without obtaining a regulation?

Such an agreement might be a form of a “cartel.”  But it wouldn’t be focused on price — at least not directly.  So it probably wouldn’t be subject to the per se rule.  But I think there’s not much reason to worry about such “cartels,” because they wouldn’t work.  Such a milk “cartel” wouldn’t stop manufacturers outside of Greece from exporting milk to Greece (indeed, it might make longer-shelf-life milk produced outside Greece more attractive to Greek consumers), so Greek manufacturers have little or no incentive to form one.  Only the force of government regulation interferes with distribution of non-Greek milk in Greece.

Price Erosion and Restricting Online Distribution Rights

English: Vegetables reseller at rue Mouffetard...

An early vegetables reseller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A reader who works with clients who sell online asked me to address online distribution restrictions.  This is more-or-less the reverse of the question I addressed in “Can My Supplier Refuse to Sell Products to Me?”  As always, I offer general thoughts here, not specific legal advice.

First, to frame the issue a bit further – if you sell products online, particularly through third-party sites such as Amazon, eBay, etc., then you very well may have concerns about controlling not only product quality and service but also price.  Many online sellers are seeing price erosion caused by multiple distributors or resellers, and they want to know what they can do about it.

Before getting to the several possibilities below, keep in mind that if you – or anyone in your distribution chain – is a monopolist or near-monopolist, many of these possibilities may be problematic.  It’s often more difficult than you might think to figure out if a firm is a monopolist, but you can use market share as a sort of rough proxy.  A share above 40% starts putting you in the potential yellow zone.  A share above 60%-70% is often (though not always) evidence of monopoly power.

But let’s assume that neither you, nor your supplier (to the extent you have one), has a market share close to these levels.  In that case, what can you do to control product distribution – and particularly product pricing – on third-party Internet sites?

Exclusive distribution

First, you can be appointed (or appoint yourself) as the exclusive distributor of the product.  You can define the rights as they best work for your business.  You could have the exclusive rights to:

  • Distribute product anywhere;
  • Distribute product online; or
  • Distribute product on certain third-party sites (like Amazon).

By having exclusive distribution rights, you can of course maintain better control over product pricing.  (Note – I’m not talking here about actual price agreements – only the natural result of having a limited distribution network.)

Online distribution “territories”

You can appoint distributors, sub-distributors, or resellers for limited purposes – for example, you can have a single authorized sub-distributor for Amazon, another for eBay, etc.  Again, by limiting your distributors, you should see less intra-brand price competition.  Because the antitrust laws are designed to encourage inter-brand competition, a loss of intra-brand competition is not usually a matter of significant (or indeed any) concern.

Minimum advertised price programs

If you use a number of sub-distributors, or if you are one of many sub-distributors, you can use minimum advertised price (“MAP”) programs.  These do not limit actual consumer pricing (e.g., the pricing in an online checkout cart), but they impose limits on what prices can be advertised.  Sometimes advertising coop dollars are awarded for compliance with the program and withheld for non-compliance.  It is important to properly structure any MAP program.  If structured properly, they are lawful throughout the country.

Resale price agreements

This one is a little tricky.  Under federal law, agreements on resale prices are no longer per se unlawful.  They can still be condemned if they are anti-competitive, but it is usually quite difficult to establish that they are.

The problem is that at least several states still consider agreements on minimum resale prices to be per se unlawful.  So before entering into such agreements, you need to consider whether you are going to be selling or distributing products in those states.  If you’re selling on a national platform like Amazon, you may have to assume that you will be selling in all 50 states.

Price discrimination

Can you offer (or be offered) different (e.g., better) pricing than other distributors or sub-distributors?  Maybe, maybe not — there is a complex law called the Robinson-Patman Act that governs such price “discrimination.”  The law makes discrimination unlawful, but there are many exceptions, and I don’t have space to get into all of them here.

Terminations for price

If your sub-distributor is pricing product in a way you don’t like, you can always terminate him/her (putting aside any contract rights he may have).  However, it is very important that you make a clean termination – promises, commitments, and suggestions followed by a reinstatement can amount to an agreement, which again may still be per se unlawful in several states.

Conclusion

There are a number of options for limiting online distribution to maintain better control over product placement and pricing.  Keep in mind, however, that you should never agree on such options with your competitors – or else you may have a horizontal agreement on pricing, which can be extremely problematic.

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