No one in government or business has a crystal ball. Yet predictions of what is coming in markets characterized by rapid and disruptive innovation seem to be being made more often by competition enforcement agencies these days than in the past. It’s a trend that raises troublesome issues about the role of antitrust law and policy in shaping the future of competition.
Take two examples. The first is Nielsen’s $1.3 billion merger with Arbitron this fall. Nielsen specializes in television ratings, less well-known Arbitron principally in radio and “second screen” TV. Nonetheless, the Federal Trade Commission — by a divided 2-1 vote — concluded that if consummated, the acquisition might lessen competition in the market for “national syndicated cross-platform measurement services.” The consent decree settlement dictates that the post-merger firm sell and license, for at least eight years, certain Arbitron assets used to develop cross-platform audience measurement services to an FTC-approved buyer and take steps designed to ensure the success of the acquirer as a viable competitor.
In announcing the decree, FTC chair Edith Ramirez noted that “Effective merger enforcement requires that we look carefully at likely competitive effects that may be just around the corner.” That’s right, and the underlying antitrust law (Section 7 of the Clayton Act) has properly been described as an “incipiency” statute designed to nip monopolies and anticompetitive market structure in the bud before they can ripen into reality. Nonetheless, the difference is that making a predictive judgment about future competition in an existing market is different from predicting that in the future new markets will emerge. No one actually offers the advertising Nirvana of cross-platform audience measurement today. Nor is it clear that the future of measurement services will rely at all on legacy technologies (such as Nielsen’s viewer logs) in charting audiences for radically different content like streaming “over the top” television programming.
The problem is that divining the future of competition even in extant but emerging markets (“nascent” markets) is extraordinarily uncertain and difficult. That’s why successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists make the big bucks, for seeing the future in a way others do not. That sort of vision is not something in which policy makers and courts have any comparative expertise, however. Where the analysis is ex post, things are different. In the Microsoft monopolization cases, for instance, the question was not predicting whether Netscape and its then-revolutionary Web browser would offer a cross-platform programming functionality to threaten the Windows desktop monopoly — it already had — but rather whether Microsoft abused its power to eliminate such cross-platform competition because of the potential long-term threat it posed. By contrast, in the Nielsen-Arbitron deal, the government is operating in the ex ante world in which the market it is concerned about, as well as the firms in and future entrants into that market, have yet to be seen at all.
This qualitative difference between nascent markets and future markets (not futures markets, which hedge the future value of existing products based on supply, demand and time value of money) is important for the Schumpterian process of creative destruction. When businesses are looking to remain relevant as technology and usage changes, they are betting with their own money. The right projection will yield a higher return on investment than bad predictions. Creating new products and services to meet unsatisfied demand may represent an inflection point, “tipping” the new market to the first mover, but it may also represent the 21st century’s Edsel or New Coke, i.e., a market that either never materializes or that develops very differently from what was at first imagined.