The Department of Justice (DoJ) Antitrust Division challenge to the AT&T/T-Mo deal, United States v. AT&T, Inc., in addition to being a huge deal for us in the telecom world, is probably the single most important merger review case for the next ten years. In two ways, this has become a battle about the future of antitrust enforcement and the soul of the Antitrust Division.
Yes, that sounds melodramatic, but I make no apologies. As I explain below, this case has become a test case for the nature of antitrust and whether traditional metrics of concentration and market share, notably the Herfendahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI”), coupled with the concerns that such concentration predicts both the ability of the largest company to raise process and for all surviving companies to raise process (the “coordinated effects” test), will still have validity going forward. If the court accepts the arguments from AT&T and its defenders that the traditional measures of concentration are irrelevant, then antitrust review of mergers will essentially end for the next 5-10 years while economists and antitrust enforcers struggle to develop a new set of metrics for predicting the likely impact of mergers.
More importantly, however, this case represents a clear decision of the Antitrust Division to move ahead with enforcement despite the possible political consequences. Yes, politics has always mattered, and anyone who rises to the position of Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust has a well-developed political sense. The back channels for unofficial influence remain strong, and only a brave head of the Antitrust Division, whether or Acting or confirmed Appointee, seeks to challenge the most powerful and well connected companies in Washington.
But we have not yet reached the point where the head of the Antitrust Division decides to enforce the Antitrust law and the White House tries to pull it back. This may seem a small thing, but it is what separates us as a country that can still aspire to say it follows the rule of law and a country like Russia where law enforcement is simply the extension of the policy of the ruling oligarchy. And I assure you, oh cynical reader, that when we cross that threshold you will know the difference between a society where influence matters and a society that has abandoned any pretense of the rule of law.
I shall reserve this second point for a separate post. I address the legal significance of the case below . . .