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Vertical Merger Scrutiny Needs an Upgrade After Microsoft-Activision

The Federal Trade Commission’s scrutiny of Microsoft’s acquisition of game producer Activision-Blizzard did not end as planned. Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, a Biden appointee, denied the FTC’s motion for preliminary injunction, ruling that the merger was in the public interest. At the time of this writing, the FTC has pursued an appeal of that decision to the Ninth Circuit, identifying numerous reversible legal errors that the Ninth Circuit will assess de novo.

But even critics of Judge Corley’s opinion might find agreement on one aspect: the relative lack of enforcement against anticompetitive vertical mergers in the past 40+ years. As Corley’s opinion correctly observes, United States v. AT&T Inc, 916 F.3d 1029 (D.C. Circuit 2019), is the only court of appeals decision addressing a vertical merger in decades. Absent evolution of the law to account for, among other recent phenomena, the unique nature of technology-enabled content platforms, the starting point for Corley’s opinion is misplaced faith in case law that casts vertical mergers as inherently pro-competitive.

As with horizontal mergers, the FTC and Department of Justice have historically promulgated vertical merger guidelines that outline analytical techniques and enforcement policies. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission withdrew the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines, with the stated intent of avoiding industry and judicial reliance on “unsound economic theories.” In so doing, the FTC committed to working with the DOJ to provide guidance for vertical mergers that better reflects market realities, particularly as to various features of modern firms, including in digital markets.

The FTC’s challenge to Microsoft’s proposed $69 billion acquisition of Activision, the largest proposed acquisition in the Big Tech era, concerns a vertical merger in both existing and emerging digital markets. It involves differentiated inputs—namely, unique content for digital platforms that is inherently not replaceable. The FTC’s theories of harm, Judge Corley’s decision, and the now-pending appeal to the Ninth Circuit provide key insights into how the FTC and DOJ might update the Vertical Merger Guidelines to stem erosion of legal theories that are otherwise ripe for application to contemporary and emerging markets.

Beware of must-have inputs

In describing a vertical relationship, an “input” refers to goods that are created “upstream” of a distributor, retail, or manufacturer of finished goods. Take for instance the production and sale of tennis shoes. In the vertical relationship between the shoe manufacturer and the shoe retailer, the input is the shoe itself. If the shoe manufacturer and shoe retailer merge, that’s called a vertical merger—and the input in this example, tennis shoes, is characteristic of a replaceable good that vertical merger scrutiny has conventionally addressed. If such a merger were to occur and the newly-merged firm sought to foreclose rival shoe retailers from selling its shoes, rival shoe retailers would likely seek an alternative source for tennis shoes, assuming the availability of such an alternative.

When it comes to assessing vertical mergers in digital content markets, not all inputs are created equal. To the contrary, online platforms, audio and video streaming platforms, and—in the case of Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of Activision—gaming platforms all rely on unique intellectual property that cannot simply be replicated if a platform’s access to that content is restricted. The ability to foreclose access to differentiated content that flows from the merger of a content creator and distributor creates a heightened concern of anticompetitive effects, because rivals cannot readily switch to alternatives to the foreclosed product. This is particularly true when the foreclosed content is extremely popular or “must-have,” and where the goal of the merged firm is to steer consumers toward the platform where it is exclusively available. (See also Steven Salop, “Invigorating Vertical Merger Enforcement,” 127 Yale L.J. 1962 (2018).)

The 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines fall short in their analysis of mergers involving highly differentiated products. The guidelines emphasize that vertical mergers are pro-competitive when they eliminate “double marginalization,” or mark-ups that independent firms claim at different levels of the distribution chain. For example, when game consoles purchase content from game developers, they may decide to add a mark-up on that content before offering it for consumer consumption. (In the real world of predatory pricing and cross-subsidization, the incentive to add such a mark-up is a more complex business calculation.) Theoretically, the elimination of those markups creates an incentive to lower prices to the end consumer.

But this narrow focus on elimination of double marginalization—and theoretical downward price pressure for consumers—ignores how the reduction in competition among downstream retailers for access to those inputs can also degrade the quality of the input. Let’s take Microsoft-Activision as an example. As an independent firm, Activision creates games and downstream consoles engage in some form of competition to carry those games. When consoles compete on terms to carry Activision games, the result to Activision includes greater investment in game development and higher quality games. When Microsoft acquires Activision, that downstream competition for exclusive or first-run access to Activision’s games is diminished. Gone is the pro-competitive pressure created by rival consoles bidding for exclusivity, as is the incentive for Activision to innovate and demand greater third-party investment in higher quality games.

Emphasizing the pro-competitive effects of eliminating double marginalization—even if that means lower prices to consumers—only provides half of the picture, because consumers will likely be paying for lower quality games. Previous iterations of the Vertical Merger Guidelines emphasize the consumer benefits of eliminating double marginalization, but they stop short of assessing the countervailing harms of mergers involving differentiated inputs. They should be updated accordingly.

Partial foreclosure will suffice

During the evidentiary hearings in the Northern District of California, the FTC repeatedly pushed back against the artificially high burden of having to prove that Microsoft had an incentive to fully foreclose access to Activision games. In the midst of an exchange during the FTC’s closing arguments, FTC’s counsel put it directly: “I don’t want to just give into the full foreclosure theory. That’s another artificially high burden that the Defendants have tried to put on the government.” And yet, in her decision, Judge Corley conflates the analysis for both full and partial foreclosure, writing, “If the FTC has not shown a financial incentive to engage in full foreclosure, then it has not shown a financial incentive to engage in partial foreclosure.”

Although agencies have acknowledged that the incentive to partially foreclose may exist even in the absence of total foreclosure (see, for instance, the FCC’s 2011 Order regarding the Comcast-NBCU vertical transaction), the Vertical Merger Guidelines do not make any such distinction. Again, that incomplete analysis hinges in part on the failure to distinguish between types of inputs. Take for instance a producer of oranges merging with a firm that makes orange juice. Theoretically, the merged firm might fully foreclose access to oranges to rival orange juice makers, who may then go in search for alternative sources of oranges. Or the merged firm might supply lower quality produce to rival firms, which may again send it in search of an alternative source.

But a merged firm’s ability and incentive to foreclose looks different when foreclosure takes the subtler form of investing less in the functionality of game content with a gaming console, subtly degrading game features, or adding unique features to the merged firm’s platforms in ways that will eventually drive more astute gamers to the merged firm (even though the game in question is technically still available on rival consoles). Such eventualities are perhaps easier to imagine in the context of other content platforms—for example, if news content were less readable on one social media platform than another. When a merged firm has unilateral control over those subtle design and development decisions, the ability and incentive to engage in more subtle forms of anticompetitive partial foreclosure is more likely and predictable.

In finding that Microsoft would not have a financial incentive to fully foreclose access to Activision games, Judge Corley’s analysis hinges on a near-term assessment of Microsoft’s financial incentive to elicit game sales by keeping games on rival consoles. (Never mind that Microsoft is a $2.5 trillion corporation that can afford near-term losses in service of its longer-view monopoly ambitions.) Regardless, a theory of partial foreclosure does not mean that Microsoft must forgo independent sales on rival consoles to achieve its ambitions. To the contrary, partial foreclosure would still allow users to purchase and play games on rival consoles. But it also allows for Microsoft’s incentive to gradually encourage consumers to use its own console or game subscription service for better game play and unique features.

Finally, Judge Corley’s analysis of Microsoft’s incentive to fully foreclosure is irresponsibly deferential to statements made by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick that the merging entities would suffer “irreparable reputational harm” if games were not made available on rival consoles. Again, by conflating the incentives for full and partial foreclosure, the court ignores Microsoft’s ability to mitigate that reputational harm—while continuing to drive consumers to its own platforms—if foreclosure is only partial.

Rejecting private behavioral remedies

In a particularly convoluted passage in the district court’s order, the Court appears to read an entirely new requirement into the FTC’s initial burden of demonstrating a likelihood of success on the merits—namely, that the FTC must assess the adequacy of Microsoft’s proposed side agreements with rival consoles and third-party platforms to not foreclose access to Call of Duty. Never mind that these side agreements lack any verifiable uniformity, are timebound, and cannot possibly account for incentives for partial foreclosure. Yet, the Court takes at face value the adequacy of those agreements, identifying them as the principal evidence of Microsoft’s lack of incentive to foreclose access to just one of Activision’s several AAA games.

In its appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the FTC seizes on this potential legal error as a basis for reversal. The FTC writes, “in crediting proposed efficiencies absent any analysis of their actual market impact, the district court failed to heed [the Ninth Circuit’s] observation ‘[t]he Supreme Court has never expressly approved an efficiencies defense to a Section 7 claim.’” The FTC argues that Microsoft’s proposed remedies should only have been considered after a finding of liability at the subsequent remedy stage of a merits proceeding, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Greater Buffalo Press, Inc., 402 U.S. 549 (1971). Indeed, federal statute identifies the Commission as the expert body equipped to craft appropriate remedies in the event of a violation of the antitrust laws.

In its statement withdrawing the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines, the FTC announced it would work with the Department of Justice on updating the guidelines to address ineffective remedies. Presumably, the district court’s heavy reliance on Microsoft’s proposed behavioral remedies is catalyst enough to clarify that they should not qualify as cognizable efficiencies, at least at the initial stages of a case brought by the FTC or DOJ.

If this decision has taught us anything, it is that the agencies can’t come out with the new Merger Guidelines fast enough. In particular, those guidelines must address the competitive harms that flow from the vertical integration of differentiated content and digital media platforms. Even so, updating the guidelines may be insufficient to shift a judiciary so hostile to merger enforcement that it will turn a blind eye to brazen admissions of a merging firm’s monopoly ambitions. If that’s the case, we should look to Congress to reassert its anti-monopoly objectives.

Lee Hepner is Legal Counsel at the American Economic Liberties Project.

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