What Are Antitrust Laws? Antitrust is a collection of laws that prohibits unfair competition or monopolistic practices by businesses. These laws generally serve to protect consumers through principles of fair trade and unrestricted competition. Antitrust law isn’t a single statute; it’s a collection of rules and regulations intended to keep markets fair and competitive. Competition in a free market is beneficial for both buyers and sellers, but when there’s a risk of market dominance, government intervention is necessary. The focus of the antitrust law is on the events where markets fail or competition is threatened. When businesses are likely to exercise too much power or influence over consumers, it is necessary to intervene. What Is Illegal Under Antitrust Law? While antitrust laws seek to protect consumers, they also offer certain protections to companies. It attempts to find a balance between the two by penalizing certain actions. There are four main antitrust violations: Price fixing occurs when competitors agree to set prices at an artificially high level. This can be done through a formal agreement between competitors or an informal understanding. Examples of price fixing are most commonly found in the agriculture, paper and steel industries. Tying is a practice in which a seller forces customers to buy a competing product (the tied product) along with a particular or unique product in demand (the tying product). It limits competition in the market as customers are not free to buy the competing product from another seller. Predatory pricing occurs when a company lowers prices below its actual costs to reduce competition. Once the competition is gone, the price is raised back up. Market allocation is a strategy created by two organizations to limit their operations to particular geographic regions or clientele groups. Another name for this plan is a regional monopoly. Imagine that your firm is located in the Southwest and your competitor is in the Northeast. Both firms have a de facto monopoly as long as they agree to remain out of each other’s zones because the expenses of doing business are so high that startups have no chance of competing. Why Do We Have Antitrust Laws? Some of the early antitrust laws were created to prevent the formation of monopolies. The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 sought to prevent companies from forming monopolies through government intervention. The Sherman Act was enacted to prevent the monopolization of trade and commerce. The law states that “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce” is an illegal act. Modern antitrust laws focus on protecting consumers by fostering competition. How Do Antitrust Laws Work? The government investigates antitrust violations and brings cases before the courts. It can also issue orders prohibiting certain activities and requiring companies to divest assets. If companies are found to be breaking the law, they could face fines or even be forced to shut down. For example, the European Commission (EC) fined Google 2.42 billion euros for abusing its position in the search engine market. There are two main types of antitrust cases—government-initiated cases and private lawsuits. Government-initiated antitrust cases occur when the antitrust enforcers initiate a case against a company. There are two common ways for this to happen: Abuse of Dominance: Companies can be fined or forced to divest if they abuse their dominance in a market. For example, if company B is the only manufacturer of cars that can drive in mud, and it prevents other car manufacturers from making similar cars – it is abusing its dominance in the market. Market Fragmentation: When a merger or acquisition is proposed, it may reduce the number of companies in a market. If the new market has fewer competitors in it, it can be harmful to consumers. Limitations of antitrust law One limitation of antitrust law is that there are no clear guidelines for what is or isn’t considered harmful to the market. For example, a company that is larger than its competitors could be considered dominant enough to be subject to antitrust laws. However, the same company could be expected to grow and become dominant in the future. Another limitation of antitrust laws is that they don’t take into account how companies make money.
February 12, 2023