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

3.1. Case in Point: The United States and the European Union - Worlds Apart

The European Union's initial reaction to the proposed merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in 1997 was to threaten to impose tariffs on Boeing planes entering the continent if the deal went through. The issue brought the United States and its European partners to the brink of a trade war.

Then President Bill Clinton responded to the EU's threat saying, "I'm concerned about what appears to be the reasons for the objection to the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger by the European Union, and we have some options ourselves when actions are taken in this regard". The president seemed to be suggesting retaliatory trade sanctions, such as U.S. tariffs on European-made planes.

At the last minute, the EU allowed the merger on two conditions: that Boeing give up its exclusive supply deals and agreed to license to its competitors (meaning Airbus) McDonnell technology that had been developed with U.S. government support.

In the press, the incident was reported as an incipient trade war. Europe was trying to protect its own airline industry; the United States its own. According to New York University economist Eleanor Fox, though, the dispute stemmed not from countries trying to protect their own companies but from differing antitrust laws.

Ms. Fox argues that U.S. antitrust law is consumer oriented. The question for the Federal Trade Commission was whether the merger made consumers worse off by raising the price of jets to airlines. The FTC reasoned that McDonnell Douglas had no reasonable chance of making and selling new fleets on its own and thus did not constitute a competitive force in the marketplace. With McDonnell Douglas deemed competitively insignificant, the merger was permissible.

However, European Union antitrust laws consider not only consumers but also unfair competitive advantages of dominant firms. Because Boeing held 20-year exclusive contracts with three airlines that represent more than 10% of the market for airline manufacture, the merger magnified Boeing's competitive advantage over other firms (primarily Airbus) that sell aircraft. The conditions that the EU impose thus made the merger subject to its antitrust laws.

The policy difference is fundamental. Americans argue that they seek to protect competition, while the EU protects competitors - even if consumers suffer as a result. The Economist, a British newsmagazine, reports American antitrust policy makers tend to rely on market forces to dampen monopoly power and argue that relying on regulation may tend to diminish innovation and, in the long run, competition. Europeans argue that regulation is necessary in order to ensure that all firms have a reasonable chance to compete.

The difference in the two approaches to antitrust is vividly illustrated in the treatment of Microsoft by the United States and by the European Union. While the United States initially attempted to prosecute Microsoft for violating the Sherman Act by bundling Internet Explorer with its Windows software, it has since permitted it. The European Union has come down very hard on Microsoft, fining it €1.4 billion ($2.2 billion) and ordering the firm to supply firms using Windows the complete documentation of the system. U.S. authorities argue that such restrictions make Microsoft a less innovative company and argue that the computer market is a highly competitive one as it is and that the imposition of a regulatory burden risks stifling the competition that exists.