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Antitrust Analysis of Vertical Mergers: Recent Developments and Economic Teachings

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The generally well-accepted belief motivating modern antitrust analysis of vertical mergers—i.e., acquisitions that combine companies in different levels of the same supply chain—is that they are generally procompetitive or neutral. That belief is based upon a significant body of empirical evidence. Indeed, as former U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Economics head Francine Lafontaine and Margaret Slade concluded, “[c]onsistent with the large set of efficiency motives for vertical mergers . . ., the [empirical] evidence on the consequences of vertical mergers suggests that consumers mostly benefit from mergers that firms undertake voluntarily.” That view of the empirical evidence is consistent with other meta-studies of the empirical evidence by leading industrial organization economists from academia and the U.S. antitrust agencies. Consistent with this evidence, the U.S. antitrust agencies typically have rarely challenged vertical mergers. When they have challenged vertical mergers, they have tended to resolve concerns with narrowly tailored behavioral remedies, such as firewalls to prevent the sharing of rivals’ competitively sensitive information, non-discrimination clauses to eliminate incentives to disfavor rivals, and requirements to supply and/or license competitors. This Article is organized as follows: Section I sets forth the empirical evidence supporting the widespread understanding that vertical integration is generally procompetitive or neutral, and responds to the major critiques of these studies. Section I also discusses typical justifications for vertical integration, namely avoiding the costly and risky processes of forming, administering, and enforcing contracts with independent suppliers and customers. Section II lays out the economic approach to antitrust analysis of vertical mergers, briefly addressing calls for the U.S. antitrust agencies to update their 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Section III discusses remedies. The final section offers closing thoughts focusing on the relative expertise of agencies and courts as compared to merging parties in evaluating the costs and benefits of vertical integration.