With steep inflation and seemingly constant disruptions in supply chains for all manner of goods, the Biden Administration has turned increasingly to antitrust authorities to tame price increases and stem future bottlenecks. These agencies have used the myriad tools at their disposal to carry out their mandate, from targeting companies that use supply disruptions as cover for anti-competitive conduct, to investigating industries with key roles in the supply chain, to challenging vertical mergers that consolidate suppliers into one firm. In keeping with the Administration’s “whole-of-government” approach to antitrust enforcement, these actions have often involved multiple federal agencies.
Whatever an entity’s role in the supply chain, that company can make a unilateral decision to raise its prices in response to changing economic conditions. But given the number of enforcement actions, breadth of the affected industries, and the government’s more aggressive posture toward antitrust enforcement in general, companies should tread carefully.
What follows is a survey of recent antitrust enforcement activity affecting supply chains and suggested best practices for minimizing the attendant risk.
Combatting Inflation as a Matter of Federal Antitrust Policy
Even before inflation took hold of the U.S. economy, the Biden Administration emphasized a more aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement. President Biden appointed progressives to lead the antitrust enforcement agencies, naming Lina Kahn chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Jonathan Kanter to head the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ). President Biden also issued Executive Order 14036, “Promoting Competition in the American Economy.” This Order declares “that it is the policy of my Administration to enforce the antitrust laws to combat the excessive concentration of industry, the abuses of market power, and the harmful effects of monopoly and monopsony….” To that end, the order takes a government-wide approach to antitrust enforcement and includes 72 initiatives by over a dozen federal agencies, aimed at addressing competition issues across the economy.
Although fighting inflation may not have been the initial motivation for the President’s agenda to increase competition, the supply disruptions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and persistent inflation, now at a 40-year high, have made it a major focus. In public remarks the White House has attributed rising prices in part to the absence of competition in certain industries, observing “that lack of competition drives up prices for consumers” and that “[a]s fewer large players have controlled more of the market, mark-ups (charges over cost) have tripled.” In a November 2021 statement declaring inflation a “top priority,” the White House directed the FTC to “strike back at any market manipulation or price gouging in this sector,” again tying inflation to anti-competitive conduct.
The Administration’s Enforcement Actions Affecting the Supply Chain
The Administration has taken several antitrust enforcement actions in order to bring inflation under control and strengthen the supply chain. In February, the DOJ and FBI announced an initiative to investigate and prosecute companies that exploit supply chain disruptions to overcharge consumers and collude with competitors. The announcement warned that individuals and businesses may be using supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for price fixing and other collusive schemes. As part of the initiative, the DOJ is “prioritizing any existing investigations where competitors may be exploiting supply chain disruptions for illicit profit and is undertaking measures to proactively investigate collusion in industries particularly affected by supply disruptions.” The DOJ formed a working group on global supply chain collusion and will share intelligence with antitrust authorities in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK.
Two things stand out about this new initiative. First, the initiative is not limited to a particular industry, signaling an intent to root out collusive schemes across the economy. Second, the DOJ has cited the initiative as an example of the kind of “proactive enforcement efforts” companies can expect from the division going forward. As the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Criminal Enforcement put it in a recent speech, “the division cannot and will not wait for cases to come to us.”
In addition to the DOJ’s initiative, the FTC and other federal agencies have launched more targeted inquiries into specific industries with key roles in the supply chain or prone to especially high levels of inflation. Last fall, the FTC ordered nine large retailers, wholesalers, and consumer good suppliers to “provide detailed information that will help the FTC shed light on the causes behind ongoing supply chain disruptions and how these disruptions are causing serious and ongoing hardships for consumers and harming competition in the U.S. economy.” The FTC issued the orders under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act, which authorizes the Commission to conduct wide-ranging studies and seek various types of information without a specific law enforcement purpose. The FTC has in recent months made increasing use of 6(b) orders and we expect may continue to do so.
Amid widely reported backups in the nation’s ports, the DOJ announced in February that it was strengthening its partnership with and lending antitrust expertise to the Federal Maritime Commission to investigate antitrust violations in the ocean shipping industry. In a press release issued the same day, the White House charged that “[s]ince the beginning of the pandemic, these ocean carrier companies have been dramatically increasing shipping costs through rate increases and fees.” The DOJ has reportedly issued a subpoena to at least one major carrier as part of what the carrier described as “an ongoing investigation into supply chain disruption.”
The administration’s efforts to combat inflation through antitrust enforcement have been especially pronounced in the meat processing industry. The White House has called for “bold action to enforce the antitrust laws [and] boost competition in meat processing.” Although the DOJ suffered some well-publicized losses in criminal trials against some chicken processing company executives, the DOJ has obtained a $107 million guilty plea by one chicken producer and several indictments.
Most recently, the FTC launched an investigation into shortages of infant formula, including “any anticompetitive  practices that have contributed to or are worsening this problem.” These actions are notable both for the variety of industries and products involved and for the multitude of enforcement mechanisms used, from informal studies with no law enforcement purpose to criminal indictments.
Preventing Further Supply-Chain Consolidation
In addition to exposing and prosecuting antitrust violations that may be contributing to inflation and supply issues today, the Administration is taking steps to prevent further consolidation of supply chains, which it has identified as a root cause of supply disruptions. DOJ Assistant Attorney General Kanter recently said that “[o]ur markets are suffering from a lack of resiliency. Among many other things, the consequences of the pandemic have revealed supply chain fragility. And recent geopolitical conflicts have caused prices at the pump to skyrocket. And, of course, there are shocking shortages of infant formula in grocery stores throughout the country. These and other events demonstrate why competition is so important. Competitive markets create resiliency. Competitive markets are less susceptible to central points of failure.”
Consistent with the Administration’s concerns with consolidation in supply chains, the FTC is more closely scrutinizing so-called vertical mergers, combinations of companies at different levels of the supply chain. In September 2021, the FTC voted to withdraw its approval of the Vertical Merger Guidelines published jointly with the DOJ the year before. The Guidelines, which include the criteria the agencies use to evaluate vertical mergers, had presumed that such arrangements are pro-competitive. Taking issue with that presumption, FTC Chair Lina Khan said the Guidelines included a “flawed discussion of the purported pro-competitive benefits (i.e., efficiencies) of vertical mergers” and failed to address “increasing levels of consolidation across the economy.”
In January 2022, the FTC and DOJ issued a request for information (RFI), seeking public comment on revisions to “modernize” the Guidelines’ approach to evaluating vertical mergers. Although the antitrust agencies have not yet published revised Guidelines, the FTC has successfully blocked two vertical mergers. In February, semiconductor chipmaker, Nvidia, dropped its bid to acquire Arm Ltd., a licenser of computer chip designs after two months of litigation with the FTC. The move “represent[ed] the first abandonment of a litigated vertical merger in many years.” Days later Lockheed Martin, faced with a similar challenge from the FTC, abandoned its $4.4 billion acquisition of missile part supplier, Aerojet Rocketdyne. In seeking to prevent the mergers, the FTC cited supply-chain consolidation as one motivating factor, noting for example that the Lockheed-Aerojet combination would “further consolidate multiple markets critical to national security and defense.”
Up Next? Civil Litigation
This uptick in government enforcement activity and investigations may lead to a proliferation of civil suits. Periods of inflation and supply disruptions are often followed by private plaintiff antitrust lawsuits claiming that market participants responded opportunistically by agreeing to raise prices. A spike in fuel prices in the mid-2000s, for example, coincided with the filing of class actions alleging that four major U.S. railroads conspired to impose fuel surcharges on their customers that far exceeded any increases in the defendants’ fuel costs, and thereby collected billions of dollars in additional profits. That case, In re Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litigation, is still making its way through the courts. Similarly, in 2020 the California DOJ brought a civil suit against two multinational gas trading firms claiming that they took advantage of a supply disruption caused by an explosion at a gasoline refinery to engage in a scheme to increase gas prices. All indicators suggest that this trend will continue.
Reducing Antitrust Risk in the Supply Chain and Ensuring Compliance
Given the call to action for more robust antitrust enforcement under Biden’s Executive Order 14036 and the continued enhanced antitrust scrutiny of all manner of commercial activities, companies grappling with supply disruptions and rampant inflation should actively monitor this developing area when making routine business decisions.
As a baseline, companies should have an effective antitrust compliance program in place that helps detect and deter anticompetitive conduct. Those without a robust antitrust compliance program should consider implementing one to ensure that employees are aware of potential antitrust risk areas and can take steps to avoid them. If a company has concerns about the efficacy of its current compliance program, compliance reviews and audits – performed by capable antitrust counsel – can be a useful tool to identify gaps and deficiencies in the program.
Faced with supply chain disruptions and rampant inflation, many companies have increased the prices of their own goods or services. A company may certainly decide independently and unilaterally to raise prices, but those types of decisions should be made with the antitrust laws in mind. Given the additional scrutiny in this area, companies may wish to consider documenting their decision-making process when adjusting prices in response to supply chain disruptions or increased input costs.
Finally, companies contemplating vertical mergers should recognize that such transactions are likely to garner a harder look, and possibly an outright challenge, from federal antitrust regulators. Given the increased skepticism about the pro-competitive effects of vertical mergers, companies considering these types of transactions should consult antitrust counsel early in the process to help assess and mitigate some of the risk areas with these transactions.