Friday, May 13, 2011

On the Distinction Between Regulation and Enforcement: Why the Antitrust Division is Apparently Exceeding its Authority

NCAA Commissioner-in-Chief?

NCAA Vice-Commissioner in Chief?

When running for President, Barak Obama (pictured above receiving a gift from 2010 BCS champion Alabama) made no secret of his desire to replace the current BCS Bowl system with an eight team national playoff to determine college football's champion. Moreover, nearly two years ago, Seantor Orrin Hatch, pictured below President Obama, called for an antitrust investigation of the BCS system. Last week the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice finally "got the hint," and sent a letter to the NCAA seeking an explanation for the association's failure to adopt a playoff system similar to that employed in some other college sports, including, e.g., college basketball.

The letter does not formally or informally charge the NCAA with any violations of the antitrust laws or any other federal law. Nor does it articulate or even adumbrate any argument that the BCS system, which is a particular form of playoff system, and/or the means used to enforce it violate the antitrust laws. Instead, the letter begins by noting that the Attorney General of Utah, hardly a disinterested party (the state's two best college football teams are in conferences whose winners do not automatically qualify for a BCS bowl), has announced an intent to challenge the BCS under the antitrust laws. The letter also notes that 21 economists --- a miniscule fraction of the nation's economists --- have filed a memorandum with the Division calling for an antitrust investigation of the BCS system. Finally, the letter notes that "other prominent individuals have publicly urged the Antitrust Division to take action against the BCS."

The DOJ's letter is perplexing to say the least. The Antitrust Division is charged with enforcing the nation's antitrust laws, period. That is to say, the Division is charged with determining whether a given restraint, by reducing pre-existing competition, reduces consumer welfare. However, the letter reads more like a request from a congressional committee considering regulatory legislation or an adminstrative agency charged with promulgating New Deal style "public interest" regulation. Thus, the letter asks open-ended questions that are untethered to any recognizable standard of antitrust liability. For instance, the letter asks why "the Football Bowl Subdivision does not have a playoff" and "[w]hat steps does the NCAA plan to take to establish a playoff at this time?" Finally, and most oddly, the letter asks "[h]ave you determined that there are aspects of the BCS system that do not serve the interests of fans, colleges, universities and players?" To what extent would an alternate system better serve those interests?"

These questions suggest that the Antitrust Division is conducting an inquiry that exceeds its jurisdiction, that is, that the Division is seeking to leverage its authority to enforce the antitrust laws to determine whether, say, an 8 team playoff system is superior to the current BCS system and then to foist upon the NCAA the results of the Division's analysis. Would it be sheer coincidence if Division determines that the best system is the one preferred by the President of the United States, who can hire and fire the head of the Antitrust Division at will?

But don't the antitrust laws require the NCAA to adopt the optimal system of determining a national champion? After all, many have argued that antirust should ban those restraints that reduce economic welfare. Certainly not. The Sherman Act forbids contracts, combinations and conspiracies in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states. A century ago, in Standard Oil v. United States (discussed here in a subsequent post), the Supreme Court held that only contracts that produce "the consequences of monopoly" restrain trade within the meaning of the statute. There are, the Court said, three such consequences: higher prices, reduced output and reduced quality. (A modern economist would recognize these consequences as different manifestations of an exercise of market power.) A restraint that produces none of these consequences cannot violate the Sherman Act, regardless of its other effects and regardless of whether a different restraint would produce even more social benefits. (For a summary of Standard Oil's Rule of Reason, see pp. 83-92 of the article found here.) The Supreme Court has repeatedly reiterated that Standard Oil properly states the law under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. See e.g. National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679 (1978). Indeed, and ironically, the Antitrust Division's own guidelines for examining "collaboration among competitors" provide that "Rule of reason analysis focuses on the state of competition with, as compared to without, the relevant agreement." (See Competitor Collaboration Guidelines, Section 1.2; id. at Section 3.1) There is no suggestion that such analysis entails comparison of the challenged restraint to a restraint that has never existed in the hope that the latter restraint would better serve the interests of society and consumers.

It's difficult if not impossible to square the Antitrust Division's letter with any effort to enforce Section 1's Rule of Reason or for that matter its own enforcement guidelines. Under Standard Oil, the question for the Division is straight-forward, if difficult to answer. Does the BCS system adopted in 1998 --- the first effort to create a true national championship game --- reduce output, raise prices or reduce quality compared to the system that preceded it, that is, the status quo ante? That status quo ante, in turn, involved no playoff whatsover, but instead an uncoordinated "system" of numerous bowls, each promoted separately. The relevant question is NOT whether the Antitrust Division, 21 economists, or a court can imagine a different completely hypothetical system, e.g., an 8 team playoff, that would serve consumers and various other groups even better than the current system. Indeed, if Rule of Reason analysis did turn on this sort of hypothetical inquiry, the Sherman Act would rapidly become a license for a form of central planning. Any number of firms, after all, enter long term ventures or contracts that restrain parties to them and thus "reduce competition." However, most such agreements properly survive Rule of Reason scrutiny because they produce no harm in the first place or produce only benefits compared to the status quo ante. Thus, an antitrust standard banning harmless or beneficial restraints simply because a different practice would be even more beneficial for all concerned would empower courts and the antitrust enforcement agencies to examine any agreement to determine whether some other agreement would produce even more benefits. For instance, such an approach would authorize courts and the enforcement agencies to examine any merger to determine whether a different transaction produced even more benefits. Such an approach would be unprecedented and radically change the nature of antitrust regulation and contravene Standard Oil's fundamental premise that Section 1 should leave market actors free to exercise their contractual liberty as they see fit absent proof that the restraint in question produces antitrust harm compared to the status quo ante. The parties to various restraints, disciplined as they are by a free market, know far better than the enforcement agencies whether there might be some other arrangement that serves the interests of themselves and thus society even better.

Antitrust officianados might ask "but what about the less restrictive alternative test; don't courts conducting Rule of Reason analysis ask whether a challenged restraint is the least restrictive means of achieving the restraint's purported objective?" Yes, but only in narrow circumstances. (See pp. 110-113 of this article for an explanation of the role of less restrictive alternatives in Rule of Reason analysis.) That is to say, courts only ask whether there is a less restrictive means of achieving a restraint's objective if a plaintiff first shows that the challenged restraint produces antitrust harm compared to the status quo ante. Absent such a showing, the presence or not of such an alternative is simply irrelevant under current law, including the Division's own enforcement guidelines quoted above. Or, as Judge Frank Easterbrook put it in Chicago Professional Sports Ltd. Partnership v. NBA, 95 F.3d 593 (7th Cir. 1996) ("The Antitrust Laws do not deputize district judges as one man regulatory agencies. The core question in antitrust is output. Unless a contract reduces output in some market, there is no antitrust problem."). Ironically, the last question in the Division's letter quoted above, which asks whether there is another system that would improve everyone's welfare, seems to amount to an implicit concession that current system does not produce antitrust harm in the form of an exercise of market power that reduces output. For, if it did, then it's hard to imagine how a more competitive alternative would improve the welfare of consumers AND producers, the latter of whom benefit from reduced output flowing from exercises of market power.

None of this is the say that the BCS system would, in fact, survive scrutiny under an antitrust test that properly implements Standard Oil's Rule of Reason. The 21 economists mentioned above have argued that the BCS system entails a cartel between four bowls --- Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and Rose --- that were previously independent and unilaterally decided which teams to invite. The BCS system, these economists argue, disadvantages those schools from non-BCS conferences, that is, conferences whose winners do not automatically qualify for a BCS bowl and thus "injures schools in major college football's five other conferences . . . and also harm consumers by restraining output, fixing prices and reducing quality." The result, it is said, "is a marked change from the pre-BCS era, when non-traditional teams frequently competed for college football's national championship" (at least as measured by polls of sportswriters and coaches). It should be noted that, if these economists are correct, the appropriate remedy is emphatically NOT to impose an 8 team playoff, but instead to return to the status quo ante, where each bowl decided whom to invite and where to televise its product independent of the others.

There are, of course, significant counter-arguments to the claim that the BCS system is an unreasonable restraint of trade. For instance, the mere fact that the BCS entails horizontal cooperation between potential rivals does not transform it into a naked and presumptively illegal cartel. As the Supreme Court recognized in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 468 U.S. 85 (1986), college football necessarily requires some horizontal cooperation, including cooperation about the size of salaries paid athletes, that would otherwise be unlawful. Moreover, each college football conference is itself a "cartel" that, for instance, determines the number of games played by its member teams ("output") and divides revenue among various schools, sometimes allocating significant revenue to schools that had losing records during the season in question. Nor is it always apparent what measure of price or output the 21 economists are referring to; there were 35 bowl games at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Are the economists asserting that there would have been even more such games absent the BCS? Perhaps more importantly, are they including "quality" within their measure of output? (All sports leagues limit the "output" of games; presumably such limits survive scrutiny because they enhance the quality of the games actually played and thus maximize "output" properly understood.) Without such an output reduction, how could the BCS increase prices? What prices would have fallen without the BCS? Prices for tickets? Prices that networks charge advertisers? Prices that Bowls charge networks for the rights to televise various bowls? Finally, the 21 economists complain about facets of the BCS, e.g., its revenue sharing arrangements, that seem unrelated to any appropriate antitrust concern. Just as antitrust law is unconcerned with the choice between the BCS system and an 8 team playoff, it is also agnostic between different schemes of allocating revenue, unless a challenged scheme results in a reduction in output and resulting increase in price.

But, at least the 21 economists seem to be asking the right question, unlike the Department of Justice.