Sunday, May 19, 2013

Kansas Gets it Right on Minimum RPM


Embracing Economic Science
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback  recently signed legislation reforming the state's approach to minimum resale price maintenance ("minimum rpm"), thereby conforming the law to the dictates of modern economic science.  (The legislation appears here. An official summary appears here.)  The legislation in question amended the state's Restraint of Trade Act to make it clear that the Act only forbids unreasonable restraints of trade, thereby incorporating into Kansas law the sort of "Rule of Reason" that the U.S. Supreme Court read into Section 1 of the federal Sherman Act in Standard Oil v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911). In so doing, the new statute nullfied the Kansas Supreme Court's recent decision in O'brien v. Leegin Creative Leather Products, 277 P.3d 1062 (Kansas 2012), which had held that the state's Restraint of Trade Act bans any and all minimum rpm agreements, regardless whether the contract is reasonable in a particular case.     
The O'brien decision would have made perfect sense as a matter of antitrust policy in, say, 1950.  At that time economists and others were hostile to so-called "non-standard contracts," that is, agreements that limited the autonomy of dealers and others who purchased and took title to a manufacturer's product.  This hostility followed naturally from the state of economic learning at the time. For, as previously explained on this blog, during this era economists and others believed that complete or partial vertical integration could serve only two purposes: first, the realization of technological efficiencies and second, the creation or exercise of market power, by depriving rivals of sources of inputs or otherwise stifling competition.  Because minimum rpm and other non-standard agreements reached across the boundaries of one firm to dictate decisions by other firms, sometimes in other states, such agreements could not produce technological efficiencies.  As a result, economists and others inferred that such agreements, which reduced rivalry, necessarily fortified or exercised market power to the detriment of society's consumers.  The result was the so-called "inhospitality tradition" of antitrust law.  (See pp. 68-80  of this article for a more detailed explanation of the origins of the inhospitality tradition.) 

In 1960, however, everything changed.  In a path-breaking article, Professor Lester Telser explained how minimum rpm could prevent a manufacturer's dealers from free-riding on each others' promotional expenditures, thereby overcoming the market failure that would result if each dealer was left to his or her own discretion when determining promotional tactics. See Lester G. Telser, Why Should Manufacturers Want Fair Trade?, 3 J. L. & Econ. 86 (1960).  Six years later, and as previously recounted on this blog, Robert Bork reiterated Telser's argument and extended Telser's reasoning to non-price vertical restraints such as market division as well as horizontal price and non-price restraints that are ancillary to otherwise legitimate joint ventures. See Robert H. Bork, The Rule of Reason and the Per Se Concept: Price Fixing and Market Division, part II, 75 Yale L. J. 373 (1966).  (See also here,  here, and here for this blogger's views on the appropriate characterization and treatment of such restraints)   

The Supreme Court eventually took these lessons to heart.  Thus, in 1977, the Court, citing Bork and others, overruled a prior decision that had banned non-price vertical restraints such as exclusive territories.   See Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36 (1977).  Two decades later, the Court, again citing Bork and others, overruled a previous decision condemning maximum rpm as unlawful per se. See State Oil v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3 (1997).  Finally, in Leegin Creative Leather Products v. PSKS, 551 U.S. (2007), the Court overruled Dr. Miles v. John D. Park & Sons, 220 U.S.373 (1911), which had banned minimum rpm outright.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy persuasively explained that Dr. Miles was based upon an economic misconception, namely, that manufacturer-imposed minimum rpm is economically indistinguishable from a horizontal cartel among the dealers of a manufacturer's product.  Relying upon the work of Bork, Telser and others, Justice Kennedy explained that, instead, manufacturer-imposed minimum rpm often produces significant efficiencies, by, among other things, preventing free-riding and thus ensuring an optimal amount of promotional expenditures, with the result that per se condemnation of the practice is not justified.  In so doing, the Court followed Standard Oil's requirement that courts employ "reason" to adjust antitrust doctrine in light of "more accurate economic conceptions," that is, advances in economic science.

Of course, the Supreme Court's Leegin decision only governed the federal Sherman Act, which generally does not preempt more interventionist state antitrust regulation, no matter how ill-advised.  Thus, Leegin left states perfectly free to ban minimum rpm as unlawful per se under their own antitrust laws, as some have, thereby reducing the welfare of a state's consumers.  Perhaps Kansas law left the O'brien court with little choice but to reaffirm such a per se ban in 2012.  Be that as it may, the people of Kansas are fortunate to have a legislature apparently committed to conforming the state's antitrust law to the dictates of economic science.