Antitrust Policy and Business Regulation

Read this chapter to learn about how government policies have been in place to curve the power of imperfect competition. Also identify what the US has used regulations to protect consumers and limit the excesses of businesses via antitrust policies.

2. Antitrust Laws and Their Interpretation

2.1. Case in Point: Does Antitrust Policy Help Consumers?

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission spend a great deal of money enforcing U.S. antitrust laws. Firms defending themselves may spend even more.

The government's first successful use of the Sherman Act came in its action against Standard Oil in 1911. The final decree broke Standard into 38 independent companies. Did the breakup make consumers better off?

In 1899, Standard controlled 88% of the market for refined oil products. But, by 1911, its share of the market had fallen to 64%. New discoveries of oil had sent gasoline prices down in the years before the ruling. After the ruling, gasoline prices began rising. It does not appear that the government's first major victory in an antitrust case had a positive impact on consumers.

In general, antitrust cases charging monopolization take so long to be resolved that, by the time a decree is issued, market conditions are likely to have changed in a way that makes the entire effort seem somewhat frivolous. For example, the government charged IBM with monopolization in 1966. That case was finally dropped in 1982 when the market had changed so much that the original premise of the case was no longer valid. In 1998 the Department of Justice began a case against against Microsoft, accusing it of monopolizing the market for Internet browsers by bundling the browser with its operating system, Windows. A trial in 2000 ended with a judgment that Microsoft be split in two with one company having the operating system and another having applications. An appeals court overturned that decision a year later.

Actions against large firms such as Microsoft are politically popular. However, neither policy makers nor economists have been able to establish that they serve consumer interests.

We have seen that the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have a policy of preventing mergers in industries that are highly concentrated. But, mergers often benefit consumers by achieving reductions in cost. Perhaps the most surprising court ruling involving such a merger came in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled that a merger in shoe manufacturing would achieve lower costs to consumers. The Court prevented the merger on grounds the new company would be able to charge a lower price than its rivals! Clearly, the Court chose to protect firms rather than to enhance consumer welfare.

What about actions against price-fixing? The Department of Justice investigates roughly 100 price-fixing cases each year. In many cases, these investigations result in indictments. Those cases would, if justified, result in lower prices for consumers. But, economist Michael F. Sproul, in an examination of 25 price-fixing cases for which adequate data were available, found that prices actually rose in the four years following most indictments.

Economists Robert W. Crandall and Clifford Winston have asked a very important question: Has all of this effort enhanced consumer welfare? They conclude that the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission would best serve the economy by following a policy of benign neglect in cases of monopolization, proposed mergers, and efforts by firms to exploit technological gains by lowering price. The economists conclude that antitrust actions should be limited to the most blatant cases of price-fixing or mergers that would result in monopolies. In contrast, law professor Jonathan Baker argued in the same journal that such a minimalist approach could be harmful to consumer welfare. One argument he makes is that antitrust laws and their enforcement create a deterrence effect.

A recent paper by Orley Ashenfelter and Daniel Hosken analyzed the impact of five mergers in the consumer products industry that seemed to be most problematic for antitrust enforcement agencies. In four of the five cases prices rose following the mergers and in the fifth case the merger had little effect on price. While they do not conclude that this small study should be used to determine the appropriate level of government enforcement of antitrust policy, they state that those who advocate less intervention should note that the price effects were not negative, as they would have been if these mergers were producing cost decreases and passing them on to consumers. Those advocating more intervention should note that the price increases they observed after these mergers were not very large.