Take Care is pleased to present a series of posts offering thoughts on how Congress might address key issues in antitrust law.
By Robert H. Lande | University of Baltimore Law School
Recently a federal court held that there was no antitrust problem with AT&T purchasing Time Warner for $86 billion. In the judge’s view, this consolidation didn’t offend the merger law as it now is interpreted. Nor could many far larger transactions be blocked under current antitrust doctrine. For example, the largest U.S. company in terms of market capitalization is Apple, which recently hit the $1 trillion mark. Today Apple could lawfully merge with the second largest company, Amazon (which has ~$800 billion in market capitalization) and also with other incredibly large firms (e.g., Exxon/Mobil and JP MorganChase), so long as they spun off any significant overlaps. In fact, under current antitrust law, it would theoretically be permissible for a series of mergers to leave the U.S. with at most ten corporations, each owning 10 percent of every industry.
Sandeep Vaheesan and I are drafting and proposing legislation that would block these extremely large mergers. The bill we’re constructing would block all mergers by companies larger than clearly specified—but quite large—limits. For example, any firm with more than $10 billion in assets could be prohibited from merging with any other company also exceeding this threshold. We believe that legislation requiring this limitation would have a number of benefits, with virtually no risk of downside consequences for society.
How Did The Current State of Permissiveness Arise?
Why are mergers of firms in unrelated markets—called “conglomerate mergers” —always permitted, regardless of size?
Corporate size and the political consequences thereof have long been core predicates for antitrust law. However, today the antitrust laws are interpreted solely in economic terms; the absolute sizes of companies are treated as irrelevant. The merger statute, for example, makes a merger illegal when its effect “may be substantially to lessen competition or to tend to create a monopoly.” Because mergers in unrelated markets are not likely to produce significant anticompetitive effects—as that term is defined by today’s courts—they are permitted regardless of the merging companies’ size.
This rule has roots stretching back at least to the 1980s. Since then, most of the antitrust community has believed that only microeconomics should count in antitrust decisionmaking, for two important reasons. The first is fear that incorporating suspicion of corporate size would lead to subjective enforcement decisions. Even those who regard the merger of exceptionally large corporations with skepticism must, as a practical matter, find a way to express their concern objectively, predictably, and in a “rule of law” manner. Put differently, fear of corporate bigness must be enforced without giving undue discretion to enforcers and courts. The second reason why most of the antitrust world has limited its focus to economics is a belief that blocking large mergers would mean the loss of significant efficiencies.
Both of these reasons, however, have increasingly come under scrutiny. This questioning is the impetus for our proposal.
The Changing Consensus
In recent years, the bipartisan belief that only economics should count in antitrust law has started to erode. Many prominent Republicans recently have voiced this opinion:
Leaders of leaders of the Democratic party also have emphasized non-economic concerns in their discussions of antitrust law:
There is, moreover, a growing body of academic literature which shows that these concerns are well founded. Here are five conclusions from that literature:
A Landmark Proposal
Recently Senator Klobuchar and other senators took a step in the direction of incorporating, for the first time, absolute size into antitrust analysis. She introduced legislation that would tighten the merger laws in a number of ways. In particular, her bill would mandate a more skeptical review of any acquisition of $5 billion or more by a firm with assets exceeding $100 billion. For these transactions, the legislation would switch the burden of proof and require the merging firms to prove that the acquisition would not reasonably be likely to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
Sandeep and I would go further. We’re proposing model legislation that would completely block the very largest mergers, as measured by specified dollar amounts. If Congress wanted to be especially cautious, it could add an exception when firms could clearly prove the merger was highly likely to generate significant efficiencies that will be passed to consumers. This proposal would not violate either of the two concerns noted earlier.
The first objection to incorporating absolute size or political factors into merger policy is easy to deal with. Instead of the amorphous idea that large size is suspect, our legislation would clearly specify dollar limits defining which mergers would be too large. Indeed, by doing this our proposal would enhance the clarity and predictability of merger law. In contrast to the open-ended rule of reason approach used today to evaluate mergers, such as the AT&T/Time Warner merger, our legislation would have clear lines—thus enhancing the rule of law and aiding business planning.
Second, the economics and business literature shows that the claimed efficiencies from large mergers are rarely achieved. On average, large mergers do not produce lower costs or increased innovation. Efficiencies from large mergers in the same industry are generally unpredictable, and are not at all common. Efficiencies from the merger of firms in unrelated industries are truly rare. Nevertheless, if Congress wanted to avoid the tiny risk of blocking merger-related efficiencies, it could give merging parties the defense of demonstrating their merger is highly likely to lead to significant efficiencies that will be passed to consumers.
Possible Conglomerate Merger Legislation
Almost regardless of which specific dollar thresholds Congress might choose, our proposal would block only a tiny number of large transactions each year. For example, suppose an ultra- cautious Congress decided to presumptively ban only those mergers in which both corporations had assets exceeding $100 billion. If such a law had been in effect in recent years, it would at most have prevented two mergers each year.
A still-very-cautious approach would employ a $50 billion threshold for both companies. This would have meant that 2 to 7 mergers would have been presumptively banned in each recent year.
Alternatively, suppose Congress instead chose a relatively “low” $10 billion threshold for both merging firms. This law would have presumptively prevented only 11 to 23 mergers each year.
Even five years ago, very few people would have advocated that Congress pass an antitrust law to block a hypothetical merger between Apple, Amazon, Exxon/Mobil, etc. But today, given heightened and bipartisan concern about the political power of the largest corporations, we hope to start a discussion of conglomerate merger legislation.