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.

3. Antitrust and Competitiveness in a Global Economy

Learning Objectives

  1. Define joint ventures and explain the evolution of U.S. antitrust policy towards them.
  2. Discuss other antitrust policy changes that relate to U.S. firms competing with foreign firms.

In the early 1980s, U.S. imports from foreign firms rose faster than U.S. exports. In 1986 the trade deficit reached a record level at that time. Antitrust laws played a relatively minor role in increasing the deficit, but business interests and politicians pressed for the relaxation of antitrust policy in order to make U.S. firms more competitive against multinational companies headquartered in other countries.

Antitrust enforcement was altered in the late 1980s so that horizontally competitive U.S. firms could cooperate in research and development (R&D) ventures aimed at innovation, cost-cutting technological advances, and new product development. In an antitrust context, joint ventures refer to cooperative arrangements between two or more firms that otherwise would violate antitrust laws. Proponents of the change argued that foreign multinational firms were not subject to stringent antitrust restrictions and therefore had a competitive advantage over U.S. firms. The International Competition Policy Advisory Committee (ICPAC) was formed in the Department of Justice in 1997 in recognition of the dramatic increases in both international commerce and international anticompetitive activity. Composed of a panel of business, industrial relations, academic, economic, and legal experts, ICPAC is to provide advice and information to the department on international antitrust issues such as transnational cartels and international anticompetitive business practices.

Cooperative Ventures Abroad

Policymakers who revised U.S. antitrust restrictions on joint ventures pointed out that Japanese and European firms are encouraged to cooperate and to collude not only in basic R&D projects, but in production and marketing as well.

The evidence is difficult to interpret, but in Japan, for example, a substantial percentage of research projects are sponsored jointly by firms in the same market. Moreover, the evidence is fairly clear that Japan allows horizontal consolidations and mergers in moderately concentrated markets where antitrust policy would be applied in the United States. Mergers that create substantial monopoly power in Japan are not typically prosecuted by the government.

In Europe, the potential competitive threat to U.S. firms is twofold. First, as the European Union (EU) moved toward economic unification in 1992, it relaxed antitrust enforcement for mergers between firms in different nations, even though they would become a single transnational firm in the near future. In 1984, for example, the European Community (EC), the forerunner of the EU, adopted a regulation that provided blanket exemptions from antitrust provisions against collusion in R&D for firms whose total market share did not exceed 20%. This exemption included horizontal R&D and extended to production and distribution to the point of final sale. Moreover, firms that had a market share greater than 20% could apply for an exemption based on a case-by-case examination.

The U.S. government has relaxed antitrust restrictions in some cases in an effort to make domestic firms more competitive in global competition. For example, producers of semiconductors were allowed to form a research consortium, Sematech, in order to promote the U.S. semiconductor industry. This type of joint venture was formerly prohibited. Sematech has since created the International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative (ISMI), a wholly owned subsidiary dedicated to improve the productivity and cost performance of equipment and manufacturing operations well beyond a narrowly defined semiconductor industry. Its membership includes both domestic and foreign firms, and they collectively represent half of the world's integrated circuit (semiconductor and microchip) production. In this case, we see the U.S. government is supporting cooperation among multinational and international firms ostensibly for product improvement. One suspects, however, that member firms gain a competitive advantage over non-member firms wherever in the world they are located.

Antitrust Policy and U.S. Competitiveness

In the 1980s Congress passed several laws that relaxed the antitrust prohibition against cooperation among U.S. firms, including the National Cooperative Research Act of 1984 (NCRA) and the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (OTCA).

The NCRA provided a simple registration procedure for joint ventures in R&D. The NCRA protects members of registered joint ventures from punitive antitrust penalties if the venture is later found to illegally reduce competition or otherwise act in restraint of trade. Between 1984 and 1990 over 200 research joint ventures were registered, substantially more than were formed over the same period within the EC.

Congress passed the OTCA in 1988. The OTCA made unfair methods of competition by foreign firms and importers punishable under the U.S. antitrust laws. It also changed the wording of existing laws concerning "dumping" (selling below cost) by foreign firms. In the past, a domestic firm that claimed injury from a foreign competitor had to prove that the foreign firm was "undercutting" the U.S. market prices. The OTCA changed this provision to the much less restrictive term "underselling" and specifically stated that the domestic firm did not have to prove predatory intent. This legislation opened the door for U.S. competitors to use antitrust laws to prevent competition from foreigners, quite the opposite of the laws' original purpose. Dumping is discussed further in a later chapter.

In another policy shift, the Justice Department announced in 1988 that the rule of reason would replace per se illegality in analysis of joint ventures that would increase U.S. competitiveness. The Justice Department uses the domestic guidelines and the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index to determine whether a proposed joint venture would increase concentration and thereby lessen competition. In making that assessment, the Justice Department also looks at (1) whether the firms directly compete in other markets, (2) the possible impact on vertical markets, and (3) whether any offsetting efficiency benefits outweigh the anticompetitiveness of the joint venture. Although mergers between two firms in a moderately or highly concentrated industry are prohibited, joint ventures between them may be allowed.

The major antitrust issues to be resolved in the first decade of the twenty-first century go beyond joint R&D ventures. The World Trade Organization, the international organization created in 1995 to supervise world trade, has established a group to study issues relating to the interaction between trade and competition policy, including anticompetitive practices. Nations currently have quite different antitrust laws, as the Case in Point in this section illustrates. The United States has argued against any internationalization of antitrust issues that would reduce its ability to apply U.S. laws. On the other hand, the United States, via the 1994 International Antitrust Enforcement Assistance Act, is negotiating bilateral agreements that allow antitrust agencies in different countries to exchange information for use in antitrust enforcement. The issue of how to deal with anticompetitive practices on a worldwide basis remains unresolved, and this area of antitrust practice and policy will be closely watched and studied by economists.

Key Takeaways

  • Increased imports in the last 25 years have led to a rethinking of American antitrust policy.
  • One response by the U.S. to international competition is the encouragement of joint ventures.
  • U.S. firms that have been "undersold" by foreign firms can charge those firms with "dumping".
  • The World Trade Organization is studying the interactions of trade, competition, and antitrust issues.

Try It!

Suppose that long-distance companies in the United States form a joint venture to explore alternative technologies in telephone services. Would such an effort suggest any danger of collusion? Would it be likely to be permitted?