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16.1: Antitrust Laws and Their Interpretation

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Define antitrust policies and tell when and why they were introduced in the United States.
    2. Discuss highlights in the history of antitrust policies in the United States, focusing on major issues.
    3. Explain the guidelines the Justice Department uses in dealing with mergers.

    In the decades after the Civil War, giant corporations and cartels began to dominate railroads, oil, banking, meat packing, and a dozen other industries. These businesses were led by entrepreneurs who, rightly or wrongly, have come to be thought of as “robber barons” out to crush their competitors, monopolize their markets, and gouge their customers. The term “robber baron” was associated with such names as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie in the steel industry, Philip Armour and Gustavas and Edwin Swift in meat packing, James P. Duke in tobacco, and John D. Rockefeller in the oil industry. They gained their market power through cartels and other business agreements aimed at restricting competition. Some formed trusts, a combination of corporations designed to consolidate, coordinate, and control the operations and policies of several companies. It was in response to the rise of these cartels and giant firms that antitrust policy was created in the United States. Antitrust policy refers to government attempts to prevent the acquisition and exercise of monopoly power and to encourage competition in the marketplace.

    A Brief History of Antitrust Policy

    The final third of the nineteenth century saw two major economic transitions. The first was industrialization—a period in which U.S. firms became far more capital intensive. The second was the emergence of huge firms able to dominate whole industries. In the oil industry, for example, Standard Oil of Ohio (after 1899, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey) began acquiring smaller firms, eventually controlling 90% of U.S. oil-refining capacity. American Tobacco gained control of up to 90% of the market for most tobacco products, excluding cigars.

    Public concern about the monopoly power of these giants led to a major shift in U.S. policy. What had been an economic environment in which the government rarely intervened in the affairs of private firms was gradually transformed into an environment in which government agencies took on a much more vigorous role. The first arena of intervention was antitrust policy, which authorized the federal government to challenge the monopoly power of firms head-on. The application of this policy, however, has followed a wandering and rocky road.

    The Sherman Antitrust Act

    The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 remains the cornerstone of U.S. antitrust policy. The Sherman Act outlawed contracts, combinations, and conspiracies in restraint of trade.

    An important issue in the interpretation of the Sherman Act concerns which actions by firms are illegal per se, meaning illegal in and of itself without regard to the circumstances under which it occurs. Shoplifting, for example, is illegal per se; courts do not inquire whether shoplifters have a good reason for stealing something in determining whether their acts are illegal. One key question of interpretation is whether it is illegal per se to control a large share of a market. Another is whether a merger that is likely to produce substantial monopoly power is illegal per se.

    Two landmark Supreme Court cases in 1911 in which the Sherman Act was effectively used to break up Standard Oil and American Tobacco enunciated the rule of reason, which holds that whether or not a particular business practice is illegal depends on the circumstances surrounding the action. In both cases, the companies held dominant market positions, but the Court made it clear that it was their specific “unreasonable” behaviors that the breakups were intended to punish. In determining what was illegal and what was not, emphasis was placed on the conduct, not the structure or size, of the firms.

    In the next 10 years, the Court threw out antitrust suits brought by government prosecutors against Eastman Kodak, International Harvester, United Shoe Machinery, and United States Steel. The Court determined that none of them had used unreasonable means to achieve their dominant positions in the industry. Rather, they had successfully exploited economies of scale to reduce costs below competitors’ costs and had used reasonable means of competition to reap the rewards of efficiency.

    The rule of reason suggests that “bigness” is no offense if it has been achieved through legitimate business practices. This precedent, however, was challenged in 1945 when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). The court acknowledged that Alcoa had been able to capture over 90% of the aluminum industry through reasonable business practices. Nevertheless, the court held that by sheer size alone, Alcoa was in violation of the prohibition against monopoly.

    In a landmark 1962 court case involving a proposed merger between United Shoe Machinery and the Brown Shoe Company, one of United’s competitors, the Supreme Court blocked the merger because the resulting firm would have been so efficient that it could have undersold all of its competitors. The Court recognized that lower shoe prices would have benefited consumers, but chose to protect competitors instead.

    The Alcoa case and the Brown Shoe case, along with many other antitrust cases in the 1950s and 1960s, added confusion and uncertainty to the antitrust environment by appearing to reinvoke the doctrine of per se illegality. In the government’s case against Visa and MasterCard, the government argued successfully that the behavior of the two firms was a per se violation of the Sherman Act.

    The Sherman Act also aimed, in part, to prevent price-fixing, in which two or more firms agree to set prices or to coordinate their pricing policies. For example, in the 1950s General Electric, Westinghouse, and several other manufacturers colluded to fix prices. They agreed to assign market segments in which one firm would sell at a lower price than the others. In 1961, the General Electric–Westinghouse agreement was declared illegal. The companies paid a multimillion-dollar fine, and their officers served brief jail sentences. In 2008, three manufactures of liquid crystal display panels—the flat screens used in televisions, cell phones, personal computers, and such—agreed to pay $585 million in fines for price fixing, with LG Display paying $400 million, Sharp Corporation paying $120 million, and Chunghwa Picture Tubes paying $65 million. The $400 million fine to LG is still less than the record single fine of $500 million paid in 1999 by F. Hoffman-LaRoche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, in a case involving fixing prices of vitamin supplements.

    Other Antitrust Legislation

    Concerned about the continued growth of monopoly power, in 1914 Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a five-member commission that, along with the antitrust division of the Justice Department, has the power to investigate firms that use illegal business practices.

    In addition to establishing the FTC, Congress enacted new antitrust laws intended to strengthen the Sherman Act. The Clayton Act (1914) clarifies the illegal per se provision of the Sherman Act by prohibiting the purchase of a rival firm if the purchase would substantially decrease competition, and outlawing interlocking directorates, in which there are the same people sitting on the boards of directors of competing firms. More significantly, the act prohibits price discrimination that is designed to lessen competition or that tends to create a monopoly and exempts labor unions from antitrust laws.

    The Sherman and Clayton acts, like other early antitrust legislation, were aimed at preventing mergers that reduce the number of firms in a single industry. The consolidation of two or more producers of the same good or service is called a horizontal merger. Such mergers increase concentration and, therefore, the likelihood of collusion among the remaining firms.

    The Celler–Kefauver Act of 1950 extended the antitrust provisions of earlier legislation by blocking vertical mergers, which are mergers between firms at different stages in the production and distribution of a product if a reduction in competition will result. For example, the acquisition by Ford Motor Company of a firm that supplies it with steel would be a vertical merger.