FTC Chair Khan Highlights Key Policy Priorities Going Forward, but Aggressive Agenda Faces Uphill Climb

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

In a September 22, 2021, memorandum to staff, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan formally laid out her “Vision and Priorities for the FTC,” reaffirming her calls for broad antitrust enforcement organized around three key policy priorities: merger enforcement, dominant intermediaries and restrictive contract terms. The memo further describes her vision for the agency’s strategic approach and operational objectives to support those priorities. Like her prior calls for antitrust reform and aggressive enforcement,1 the policy priorities outlined by Chair Khan are somewhat abstract and do not specify concrete actions the agency will take to achieve them. However, a close review of these high-level priorities, approach and objectives reveals some practical obstacles to implementation, including limitations imposed by resource constraints and the existing body of antitrust law.

Policy Priorities: Merger Enforcement, Dominant Intermediaries and Restrictive Contract Terms

Chair Khan listed three policy priorities for the agency going forward. First, she identified a need to strengthen the agency’s merger enforcement work to combat what she described as rampant consolidation and the market dominance she believes that consolidation has enabled. In particular, she expressed a concern that markets “will only become more consolidated” absent FTC vigilance and assertive action. She noted that revising the merger guidelines will be important to achieve merger reform, characterizing prior iterations of the guidelines as a “somewhat narrow and outdated framework for assessing mergers.” She also highlighted a need to find ways to deter unlawful transactions, including “facially illegal deals.”

Second, Ms. Khan indicated her desire to focus enforcement on “dominant intermediaries and extractive business models.” After suggesting that market power is an increasingly systemic problem in the economy, and that the FTC should devote resources to regulating the most significant actors — with “next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries” requiring particular vigilance, she focused specifically on the market position of “gatekeeper” companies and “dominant middlemen.” Such entities, according to Chair Khan, have been able to “hike fees, dictate terms, and protect and extend their market power.” She also posited that the involvement of private equity and other investment vehicles may strip such businesses of productive capacity and harm consumers. In discussing the agency’s strategic approach to address these issues, Chair Khan noted her intention to “focus[] on structural incentives that enable unlawful conduct,” and to “look[] upstream at the firms that are enabling and profiting from this conduct.”

Third, Ms. Khan discussed certain contract terms, including noncompete provisions, repair restrictions and exclusionary clauses, that she believes could constitute unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive trade practices. She also advocated for a “holistic” approach to identifying harms to account for effects on workers and independent businesses. Describing this holistic approach in broad terms, she indicated that the agency would focus on “power asymmetries and the unlawful practices those imbalances enable,” and the effects such conduct has, for example, on marginalized communities. In sharing her hopes to “further democratize the agency,” Chair Khan similarly expressed that the FTC’s work should help “shape[] the distribution of power and opportunity across our economy.”

More generally, the memo identifies areas of investment for the agency to help achieve these priorities. This includes incorporating a greater range of analytical tools and skillsets into the agency’s work, and expanding the agency’s regional footprint to grow its ranks, including by hiring additional technologists, data analysts, financial analysts and experts from outside disciplines. Chair Khan also announced that she will name Holly Vedova and Samuel Levine, both career FTC staff (as opposed to political appointees), as the director of the Bureau of Competition and the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, respectively.

Practical Limitations on Implementation of Chair Khan’s Policy Priorities

Chair Khan describes the antitrust agenda outlined in her memorandum as “robust,” and the memo communicates her intention to attempt to reshape antitrust policy and enforcement. However, a revolutionary shift in antitrust enforcement by the FTC will face substantial practical challenges.

Most significantly, the path to reshaping antitrust enforcement will be constrained by the substantial body of existing antitrust law and the need to convince a federal judge that the conduct in question is unlawful. Chair Khan’s memo generally advocates for a new, more expansive and holistic approach to identifying antitrust harms beyond the traditional focus on consumer welfare and price effects. However, courts have — and will likely continue to — rely on existing standards developed in the case law over many decades. Those standards focus on consumer welfare and predominantly price effects. Absent legislative change, then, a practical gap will persist between Chair Khan’s vision of refocused and more assertive antitrust enforcement, on the one hand, and the law that would apply to any FTC enforcement action, on the other.2

Moreover, Chair Khan’s plan to revise the merger guidelines and her desire to target “facially illegal deals” will also face constraints based on current law. First, the antitrust guidelines typically incorporate existing legal standards, making radical change difficult to achieve. The 1982 Guidelines, which impactfully affected merger enforcement with the implementation of the hypothetical monopolist test, provide the last dramatic revision. Whether courts will accept major revisions at this stage will be an open question. Second, agency merger review is shaped by the existing review process enacted by the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, regardless of whether the FTC believes a deal is facially illegal. Unlike regulators in other jurisdictions, the FTC must file a lawsuit and prevail in court if the agency wants to block a pending transaction.

Relatedly, Ms. Khan’s ability to implement her ambitious agenda will be subject to the fact that changing these legal frameworks will depend on either Congressional action, which is far from certain, or litigation victories, which require the commitment of significant resources at a time when the FTC claims to already be stretching its capacity. Despite her recognition of the demands already imposed on FTC staff and plan for “intentional” resource allocation, Chair Khan envisions the FTC undertaking increased vigilance and a more assertive agenda. If the existing resource constraints grow in response to Chair Khan’s enhanced enforcement ambitions, the FTC could face difficulty balancing its investigatory agenda with the ability to litigate those cases, particularly considering the complex nature of antitrust matters, which often take years to resolve and require millions of dollars for experts and other related costs as well as a large team of attorneys and staff to manage. In addition, though Chair Khan referenced her hope for increased cross-bureau coordination in cases, it is unclear that such coordination would be efficient or create the capacity needed to fulfill the new agenda, especially when attorneys from other government divisions have already been recruited to help reduce burdens on matters of antitrust enforcement.

Finally, Chair Khan’s desire to expand the agency’s regional footprint and supplement the staff with various nonlawyer roles may further strain the budgetary resources needed to keep pace with the new agenda and present their own management challenges. Whether funding from Congress is imminent, whether it would be used to onboard lawyers or the other potential staff Ms. Khan desires, and how quickly hiring could reach the scale necessary to support the FTC’s newly announced enforcement priorities are not yet clear.

Conclusion

Given the challenges to implementing the generalized policy goals set by Chair Khan, we do not expect an immediate fundamental sea change in antitrust enforcement. The practical obstacles described above mean that Chair Khan’s FTC will be unable to contest every instance of what the agency might perceive to be unlawful conduct or unfair competition. We expect that the FTC will need to continue to be selective in the cases that it brings, which may mean that in the near-term, it will focus available resources on sectors of the economy perceived as involving “the most significant actors,” such as large technology firms that Chair Khan has frequently referenced, particularly to the extent they engage in transactions that implicate the novel considerations under the proposed “holistic” approach to identifying antitrust harms.3 We still expect to see some matters receive extensive investigations and proceed to litigation, and the outcomes of these matters will likely partially signal the success of the new agenda.

Associates Evan H. Levicoff and Andrew J. Shanahan contributed to this article.

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1 See our June 18, 2021, client alert “Lina Khan’s Appointment as FTC Chair Reflects Biden Administration’s Aggressive Stance on Antitrust Enforcement.”

2 For a discussion of the current state of merger law, see “Why ‘Ramping Up’ Merger Enforcement Isn’t So Easy,” The CLS Blue Sky Blog (July 7, 2021), by Steve Sunshine and Julia York. Additionally, as recent history reflects, enforcement actions based on changed policy priorities can falter in the courts. See our July 18, 2021, client alert, “Facebook Rulings Are a Setback for Antitrust Regulators but May Spur Amendments.”

3 For a discussion of Chair Khan’s pro-enforcement approach to antitrust regulation and potential focus on technology companies, see our April 30, 2021, client alert, “Antitrust Enforcement Expected To Intensify.”

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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