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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Price Squeezes and the Supreme Court

Posted by D. Daniel Sokol

Following up on my earlier post regarding recent analysis of the 9th circuit linkLine Communications case, below is the abstract for an amicus brief by economics and law professors supporting certification before the Supreme Court.

ABSTRACT: The linkLine price squeeze case from the Ninth Circuit is the most important antitrust case that the Supreme Court could take during the Fall 2007 Term. Amici are professors and scholars in law and economics who have taught, or have conducted research on, antitrust law and the economics of industrial organization. They include William J. Baumol, Robert H. Bork, Robert W. Crandall, George Daly, Harold Demsetz, Jeffrey A. Eisenach, Kenneth G. Elzinga, Gerald Faulhaber, Franklin M. Fisher, Charles J. Goetz, Robert Hahn, Jerry A. Hausman, Thomas M. Jorde, Robert E. Litan, Paul W. MacAvoy, J. Gregory Sidak, Pablo T. Spiller, and Daniel F. Spulber.

We agree with the petitioners that the Ninth Circuit has generated an inescapable conflict among circuits, and that the Ninth Circuit's opinion below is incompatible with this Court's reasoning in Verizon Communications Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004), Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons Hardwood Lumber Co., 127 S. Ct. 1069 (2007), and Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209 (1993). We agree with Judge Gould's dissent in linkLine that Trinko “takes the issues of wholesale pricing out of the case,” such that the plaintiffs' only possible remaining theory of harm would be predatory pricing at the retail level—which the plaintiffs did not allege. linkLine Commc'ns Inc. v. Pac. Bell Tel. Co. d/b/a/ AT&T Cal., Inc., No. 05-56023, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 21719, at *28-29 (9th Cir. Sept. 11, 2007) (Gould, J., dissenting). We also agree with Judge Ginsburg's opinion for the D.C. Circuit in Covad Communications Co. v. Bell Atlantic Corp., 398 F.3d 666 (D.C. Cir. 2005), which in turn embraces the conclusion of the Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise that “‘it makes no sense to prohibit a predatory price squeeze in circumstances where the integrated monopolist is free to refuse to deal.'” Id. at 673-74 (quoting 3A Phillip E. Areeda & Herbert Hovenkamp, Antitrust Law ¶ 767c3, at 129-30 (2d ed. 2002)). The existence of a rule like linkLine has a pervasive impact on business behavior that, at the margin, affects competition and consumers. This deleterious effect extends beyond the telecommunications industry to affect all firms that do business in the Ninth Circuit. These reasons justify granting certiorari in linkLine and reversing the Ninth Circuit's decision.

In our minds, an even larger reason than those described above makes it imperative that the Court take this case. The Ninth Circuit's decision in linkLine implicates the normative foundation of modern Sherman Act jurisprudence: that antitrust law exists to advance consumer welfare. We have three points to make.

First, any rule of price-squeeze liability that threatens liability based on the claim that the difference between a firm's upstream and downstream prices leaves downstream rivals insufficient margin substitutes a rule of competitor welfare for consumer welfare.

Second, properly understood, a price squeeze is a regulatory issue, which makes sense only as a rule of price regulation in an industry already subject to duties to deal and to control by institutionally competent regulators. Attempting to implement regulatory policy through section 2 of the Sherman Act is ill-advised, both because it makes no sense for courts to re-regulate deregulated or lightly regulated industries, and because courts lack the institutional competence to implement regulation.

Third, the Ninth Circuit's rule is of pressing concern precisely because it will deter efficiency-enhancing conduct and competitive pricing. Vertical integration and partial integration are ubiquitous, and firms need to be able to make decisions about such integration without the threat of liability. Vertically integrated firms likewise need to be free to cut retail prices (as long as the prices are not predatory) without concern for rivals—the point of Brooke Group. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit's standard is so vague and open-ended that it creates uncertainty and invites litigation; it also permits imposition of liability based on apparently subjective evaluation of disputed and hard-to-prove facts, which will lead to a substantial risk of false positives.

 

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