Streetwise Professor

July 18, 2011

Monopoly Leveraging in Clearing and Execution: Realistic Fear or Bugbear?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:53 pm

Back in the late-90s and early-00s I often remarked that it was interesting how exchanges had drawn so little anti-trust scrutiny, despite the fact that may were effectively monopolies.  I also predicted that they would get more scrutiny when they became for-profit, and more like conventional firms.

That prediction is being borne out today, and how.  Exchanges, particularly merging exchanges, are the subject of considerable attention from anti-trust authorities.  ICE CEO Jeffrey Sprecher–who ironically had hoped that anti-trust objections to the CME-CBT deal would open the door for an ICE-CBT merger–has seen the writing on the wall:

Exchanges will have to “rethink their global strategies” because of unexpectedly strong scrutiny of proposed bourse tie-ups from antitrust regulators, according to IntercontinentalExchange (ICE), one of the world’s biggest exchanges.

A string of proposed mergers has come unstuck in recent months, either through nationalist opposition in the home market of exchanges perceived as the targets of takeovers, or as antitrust authorities have moved to stymie combinations amid concerns they could reduce competition.

. . . .

Jeff Sprecher, ICE chief executive, said: “There’s been a marked change in the way regulators look at exchanges generally. The good news is that they are looking to exchanges to provide more transparency to prevent another meltdown.

“The bad news is that they want to ensure a lot more exchanges to ensure competition. So the impediments are now higher than they were a few years ago and I think it’s going to cause everyone to rethink their global strategies,” he told the Financial Times.

A major sticking point for anti-trust regulators has been vertical integration between execution and clearing.  The USDOJ Anti-trust Division’s Parthian shot at the CME from early-08 is one example of this.  Battles currently going on in Europe are another.

But the vertical silo wars have now gone beyond execution and clearing to encompass other vertical restrictions, including exclusive arrangements for use of data centers.  Last week, Swedish competition authorities raided the country’s stock exchange as part of an investigation of its deal with Verizon over exclusive access to a data center.

This area is fraught with potential for policy error, because as Sam Peltzman notes in his chapter on Aaron Director in Cohen and Wright’s Pioneers of Law and Economics, and as Posner notes in his Antitrust Law, anti-trust policy over vertical restrictions and vertical integration has long been a mess.

The brief against integration, particularly between execution and clearing venues, is that clearing is a natural monopoly, and that the operator of a clearing monopoly can thwart competition in execution by creating a vertical silo, and providing clearing services exclusively to its integrated execution arm. That is, that the clearing monopolist can leverage his market power into execution, which would otherwise be competitive.

As Peltzman notes, and as Director argued well over a half-century ago, this fear of leveraging one monopoly into two is commonsensical–and more often than not, wrong.   The essence of the Chicago critique is that the monopolist (in this case, the operator of the clearing service) can extract all of the monopoly rent by choosing the monopoly price for his product.  Keeping out potentially more efficient suppliers of complementary services (e.g., execution, which is highly complementary to clearing) just reduces the profit the monopolist could extract.  The monopolist wants complements sold for the lowest price possible, in order to push out the demand curve for the monopoly good as far as possible.  Thus, keeping out a more efficient supplier of the complementary good, or reducing competition in the sale of the complementary good, is counterproductive.

Chicagoans starting with Director explained vertical restrictions as a form of price discrimination (which has ambiguous welfare consequences) or as a means of addressing free rider problems (as in Telser’s model of resale price maintenance) or as a way to eliminate double-marginalization problems.  Transaction costs economists devised other efficiency-related explanations for vertical integration.

But the suspicion of vertical integration and ties and exclusive dealing and other vertical restraints lives on.  Hence the fighting over silos in the exchange space.

Post-Chicago, there have been several attempts to produce models which lead to anti-Chicago implications, i.e., to show that monopoly leveraging is possible.  In this post I will discuss those models, and show that they don’t apply to the facts of the exchange case.  In a future post, I will discuss the efficiency rationales for integration and exclusivity.

The most prominent post-Chicago leveraging model is by Whinston.  In his model, there is a monopoly good M.  Some customers want to consume that good along with another good C that could be produced by competitive firms.  But some customers don’t want to buy M.  They wish to consume C alone.

In Whinston’s model, the M monopolist may want to tie or vertically integrate into C (and not sell to other producers of C) if entry into C production requires payment of a fixed cost.  By tying/integrating, those who want to buy M have to buy C from the M producer too.  Thus, potential entrants into the C market can sell only to those who want to buy C alone.  If there are too few of those customers, or fixed costs are too high, it will be unprofitable to enter into the production of C.  Then the monopolist can sell C to the stand-alone customers at a monopoly price.

This model clearly doesn’t fit the facts in the clearing-execution case.  Those products are highly complementary.  Indeed, they are consumed in nearly fixed proportions–if you want to trade, you need to clear, and if you clear, you need to trade.  The whole point of the Whinston model is about monopolization of a product some customers do not find complementary to M. The monopolist uses his power over the customers who have strong complementarity to gain a monopoly over customers who do not experience any complementarity with M.   This is clearly at odds with the assertions of those who assert that clearing monopolies use their power to achieve execution monopolies, because those assertions rely heavily on the notion that clearing is an essential service–i.e., highly complementary to execution, and a service that all traders consume.  That’s completely at odds with the Whinston story, so it is of no help to the anti-silo crowd.

Carlton and Waldman have an interesting model that embeds complementarity, but arrives at similar conclusions to Whinston’s model.  But whereas Whinston argues that ties/integration can be used to extend a monopoly to a non-complementary good, Carlton-Waldman devise a model in which a monopolist ties a complementary good to protect his M monopoly.

C-W present a two-period model.  A firm has a monopoly over M.  It is guaranteed this monopoly for 1 period, but in the second period, a competitor can enter.  The M monopolist can also produce a good C, and a firm that can enter the M market in the second period can produce C in the first period.

In one model, the rival incurs a fixed cost to enter the C market.  By tying the complementary good in the first period, the M monopolist deprives the entrant of any sales in the first period.  The profits from producing C and M in the second period may not be sufficient to cover entry costs, meaning that with the tie entry may not occur in either market, thereby preserving the M monopoly.  In contrast, without a tie, the entrant can produce C in the first period, and make a profit that contributes towards covering fixed costs: he can make a profit because his C good is superior to that of the monopoly producer of M.  The profit from entering C production in the first period may cover fixed costs of entering the C market.  Then, in the second period, it may be profitable to enter the M market as well.  In this case, tying protects the M monopoly.

In the second model, there is customer lock in due to network effects.  By tying in the first period, the monopolist of M locks in a lot of consumers of C, and deprives the entrant of any sales in the first period.  The customer lock-in reduces the profitability of entry into M and C production in the second period, likely by enough to make such entry unprofitable.  Again, the tie protects the M monopoly.

These models work best to explain ties in highly technologically dynamic industries where monopolies are likely to be short-lived in any event.  That doesn’t seem to fit the exchange-clearing case.  Moreover, there is no legal or economic bar on entry into clearing and execution simultaneously: the necessity of sequential entry is the key driver of the C-W results.  Indeed, integrated exchanges have entered in competition with incumbents, and execution platforms have secured clearing services by contract, so simultaneous entry has occurred.

A third type of model relies on contracting externalities to explain how exclusive dealing and integration can impair competition.  One example of this is a model by Hart and Moore.  In H-M, an upstream monopolist can sell to multiple downstream retailers.  In the exchange case, the upstream firm would be the clearing monopoly, and the retailers execution venues.

In the H-M model, the upstream monopolist negotiates with the downstream firms individually and secretly.  Moreover, they negotiate over output–the quantity sold: this is a key assumption.  H-M show that under these conditions, the monopolist cannot credibly commit to sell the monopoly output Q_m.  For instance, if he sells .5Q_m to one firm, he has an incentive to sell more than .5Q_m to the other: he cannot credibly commit to selling .5Q_m to the second firm once he has sold that amount to the first firm.  Thus, total output exceeds the monopoly output and the monopolist’s profit is smaller.  Indeed, he can only achieve the Cournot duopoly profit.  If he sells to N retailers, he can get only the N-firm Cournot profit.

By integrating, or selling to only a single retailer, the monopolist effectively commits to the monopoly output.  This may come at a cost.  For example, there may be diseconomies of scale in retailing, or retailers may be differentiated and service different customer clienteles.  But the gains from eliminating the commitment problem may exceed the costs arising from diseconomies of scale or underproduction of variety/customization.

The monopolist obviously has incentives to avoid the commitment problem that drives the exclusionary result.  For instance, he could charge the monopoly price, post that price publicly, and let the downstream firms buy as much as they want–which would be .5Q_m.  This would require the avoidance of secret price discounts.  Reputation may ensure this in a repeated game.  The retailers could monitor competitors’ sales to see if the monopolist were cheating.

Moreover, this doesn’t seem to match up well with the mechanics of the exchange case.  “Output” is not the choice variable; prices are.  And trading volumes are readily observable, making it possible to detect whether a clearing monopolist were offering secret price cuts.

A similar model is one in which a downstream monopolist buys from two upstream suppliers who compete in an input market in which the supply curve for the input slopes up.  Similar commitment problems preclude achievement of the monopsony outcome in the input market.  This model has the same choice variable problem as the H-M model, and what’s more, it is difficult to imagine what the relevant input with the upward-sloping supply would be.  Computer programmers?  Servers?  Again, it doesn’t fit the exchange case well at all.

Another model of anti-competitive integration is by Ordover, Saloner, and Salop.  In that model, two downstream firms D1 and D2 compete, as do two upstream firms U1 and U2.  If D1 and U1 integrate, and the integrated firm refuses to sell to D2, D2 now has to buy an input from a monopoly supplier U1.  D2 pays a higher price for the input, which makes it a less formidable competitor for the integrated firm, which therefore becomes more profitable.

This model is quite fragile.  What’s more, an example in a related paper by Riordan and Salop makes it hard for me to take the theory seriously.  Their example of how this could work is that the purchase of Autolite–a spark plug maker–by Ford could raise the price of spark plugs to GM and Chrysler, thereby allowing Ford to raise the price of cars.  Really.  They couldn’t come up with a better example.  (Posner snarkily dismisses the applicability of this theory by pointing out the complete absence of credible examples.)

Moreover, it doesn’t fit at all the arguments of the anti-silo advocates.  Their premise is that clearing is a natural monopoly.  But the OSS model depends crucially on integration reducing competition upstream (i.e., in clearing).  That can’t happen if clearing is already a monopoly.  OSS is not a theory of monopoly leveraging.

In brief, there are a variety of rather special models that arrive at anti-Chicago conclusions, and which suggest that vertical restrictions and vertical integration can be anti-competitive.  None of these models, however, fit the facts of securities or derivatives trading.  Moreover, many are completely at odds with the arguments made by those who claim that integration between clearing and execution is monopoly leveraging.

Which means that the anti-silo forces are on very shaky intellectual ground.  There is no existing, rigorous, logically consistent theory that is (a) consistent with the facts of the exchange case, and (b) rationalizes their conclusion that integration is anti-competitive monopoly leveraging.

In his industrial Organization text, Tirole warns:

Few topics in industrial organization are as controversial as market foreclosure.  . . . Though market foreclosure is a “hot” issue among those concerned with anti-trust proceedings and with regulation, economists still have a very incomplete understanding of its motivation and effects.  Nor can they always explain successfully why a particular tool is employed to achieve foreclosure.  (Tirole, The Theory of Industrial Organization, p. 193).

True, that.  And given that Tirole is hardly a wild-eyed libertarian, those convinced that vertical silos in exchanges are anti-competitive foreclosure should take his words as cautionary.

Posner once upon a time was more of a libertarian than Tirole, but his words are also worth considering:

The general prohibition in section 2 of the Sherman Act against monopolizing is adequate to deal with the rare case in which a firm imposes a tie-in with the purpose or likely effect of monopolizing the market for the tied (or for that matte the tying) product.  A special tie-in doctrine, inevitably with a life of its own, is unnecessary and inappropriate.  (Antitrust Law, 2d. Ed., p. 207). [Emphasis added.]

Whinston recognizes that many of the models of vertical exclusion are quite special cases, limited primarily to “triangular” situations (i.e., two upstream firms and one downstream, or two downstream firms and one upstream).  Thus, like Tirole, he cautions against drawing strong conclusions on the basis of special models.

In his “Should Antitrust Be Modernized” (J. Econ. Perspectives, 2007), Dennis Carlton cautions that rules intended to identify anti-competitive exclusive acts “could potentially challenge a wide array of core competitive behaviors” and hence become “dangerous” (p. 170).   Peltzman, in the chapter on Director I alluded to earlier, takes a more benign view of the effects of errors in precluding certain types of vertical restrictions.  Sam explains courts’ hostility to vertical restrictions by a monopolist to the belief that it is unlikely that outlawing such restrictions is unlikely to have a serious detrimental impact on competition, that any benefits of the restriction are likely to be indirect, and that courts typically discount any such indirect effects.  Transaction costs economics suggest that these benefits may be large, however, so such discounting is problematic at best.

In sum, the existing models that demonstrate that vertical restrictions can leverage monopoly don’t fit the facts of the clearing-execution case and are so highly stylized that even their developers caution against taking them too seriously in practical situation.  Moreover, thoughtful analysts of anti-trust discount their applicability.

Based on this, antitrust authorities–and those who criticize integration between clearing and execution, or between exchanges and data centers, for that matter–should be much more circumspect in their attacks on silos: the cases in which integration or vertical restrictions are anti-competitive are the exception, rather than the rule.  This circumspection should be all the greater because there are compelling efficiency rationales for vertical integration and other vertical restrictions involving clearing and execution.  I’ve laid out some of those rationales in working papers, and will devote a future post to the subject.

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  1. @streetwiseprofessor I follow the arguments presented and appreciate why this leads one to conclude that the authorities need not intervene to require a CCP within a vertical silo to provide open access to competing execution venues i.e. one should be able to rely upon the CCPs to seek to profit-maximising outcomes.

    However this is reliant upon the CCP behaving in line with the model, when they may similarly believe what appears to be “commonsensical” i.e. actions might diverge from rational expectations because of their ill-founded beliefs. In seeking supporting evidence, I am reminded of Eurex US trying to access the existing open interest of CME’s CCP some years ago and being rebutted. Likewise, an EU vertical silos has elected not to licence its listed derivative products to competing venues or provide trade feeds, preferring instead to be the sole trading venue and CCP for the products.

    In this instance, perhaps regulatory intervention is required just to make the Vertical see sense and migrate to more profitable arrangements.

    Comment by John Wilson — July 19, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  2. John–Thanks. Re “behaving in line with the model”–the point I was trying to make is that the models help identify logical circumstances in which monopoly at one level can be leveraged into monopoly at another level, and that despite the concerted efforts of economists over the years, they have yet to come up with models that could explain why this would be profitable for CCPs/exchanges. Maybe it’s that economists aren’t clever enough, but it may also be that there are other, non-monopoly leveraging reasons for tying/vertical integration/silos.

    And I might add that economists aren’t too keen on arguments that presume agents routinely act irrationally, or based on “ill-founded beliefs.” This can happen, but when you see something of a regularity–and I’ve documented that integration is the rule rather than the exception around the world–explanations based on a systematic misunderstanding of interest lose plausibility. This is especially the case since verticality is becoming more common, not less (e.g., ICE, EuronextLiffe, and now LME looking to integrate).

    Your examples do raise questions: why do exchanges seem to prefer exclusivity? I hope to provide efficiency explanations for that in the future post I mentioned. I would note that the refusal to license is particularly interesting as the vertical you mention (which I presume is Eurex) could presumably charge whatever price it wanted to license its product. That is, it has ownership of the product, and can extract any monopoly rents not just through the price it charges for clearing, but also the license fee. This is consistent with the transaction-cost economics argument that I’ve made before, and will summarize in the post.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 19, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  3. @The Professor

    Re the licencing point, I wonder if a silo considers their best strategy to minimise regulatory scrutiny of the silo arrangement is to deny all access to third parties or provide to access but at sky-high rents that would deter use by competitors i.e. set at levels that would be uneconomic for competitors.

    Whilst either might invite intervention by competition authorities, in the former case, the silo might advance many technical & risk issues for being unable to open up as well as making IP exclusivity claims thereby giving the regulator pause for thought. Conversely in the latter case, these former barriers would have been removed to leave a debate over “fair pricing”, at which point the price a regulator may intervene to set might generate less in revenue for the silo than compensates for opening up the silo, notwithstanding the “model” might suggest that their overall revenues should rise.

    As regards silos being more efficient, I can see that a market may move voluntarily to such a structure given a range of options but presently the market rarely has such a choice to put this into practice. Of course, if this is the optimal answer, one could say that silos save the market time & money by putting it in place immediately. However, I retain doubts about this behaviour being altruistic.

    I look forward to your future post and hope it will address the two questions of
    – are silos always the “right answer”, and what do we forego
    – does it matter how the market structure arrives at that answer i.e. we get the right answer, but the manner in which got to it was wrong, as it didn’t allow for better [unforeseen] outcomes to emerge.

    Comment by John Wilson — July 29, 2011 @ 4:51 am

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