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The antitrust laws also affect a variety of “vertical” relationships — those involving firms at different levels of the supply chain — such as manufacturer-dealer or supplier-manufacturer. Restraints in the supply chain are tested for their reasonableness, by analyzing the market in detail and balancing any harmful competitive effects against offsetting benefits. In general, the law views most vertical arrangements as beneficial overall because they reduce costs and promote efficient distribution of products. A vertical arrangement may violate the antitrust laws, however, if it reduces competition among firms at the same level (say among retailers, “BROKERS” or among wholesalers) or prevents new firms from entering the market. This is particularly a concern in markets with few sellers or those dominated by one seller. In these markets, manufacturer- or supplier-imposed restraints may make it difficult for newcomers or firms with innovative products to find outlets and reach consumers.

Manufacturer-imposed Requirements

Reasonable price, territory, and customer restrictions on dealers are legal. Manufacturer-imposed requirements can benefit consumers by increasing competition among different brands (interbrand competition) even while reducing competition among dealers in the same brand (intrabrand competition). For instance, an agreement between a manufacturer and dealer to set maximum (or “ceiling”) prices prevents dealers from charging a non-competitive price. Or an agreement to set minimum (or “floor”) prices or to limit territories may encourage dealers to provide a level of service that the manufacturer wants to offer to consumers when they buy the product. These benefits must be weighed against any reduction in competition from the restrictions.

Until recently, courts treated minimum resale price policies differently from those setting maximum resale prices. But in 2007, the Supreme Court determined that all manufacturer-imposed vertical price programs should be evaluated using a rule of reason approach. According to the Court, “Absent vertical price restraints, the retail services that enhance interbrand competition might be underprovided. This is because discounting retailers can free ride on retailers who furnish services and then capture some of the increased demand those services generate.” Note that this change is in federal standards; some state antitrust laws and international authorities view minimum price rules as illegal, per se.

If a manufacturer, on its own, adopts a policy regarding a desired level of prices, the law allows the manufacturer to deal only with retailers who agree to that policy. A manufacturer also may stop dealing with a retailer that does not follow its resale price policy. That is, a manufacturer can implement a dealer policy on a “take it or leave it” basis.

Limitations on how or where a dealer may sell a product (that is, customer or territory restrictions) are generally legal — if they are imposed by a manufacturer acting on its own. These agreements may result in better sales efforts and service in the dealer’s assigned area, and, as a result, more competition with other brands.

Antitrust issues may arise if a manufacturer agrees with competing manufacturers to impose price or non-price restraints up or down the supply chain (that is, in dealings with suppliers or dealers), or if suppliers or dealers act together to induce a manufacturer to implement such restraints. Again, the critical distinction is between a unilateral decision to impose a restraint (lawful) and a collective agreement among competitors to do the same (unlawful). For example, a group of car dealers threatened not to sell one make of cars unless the manufacturer allocated new cars on the basis of sales made to customers in each dealer’s territory. The FTC found the dealers’ actions unreasonableand designed primarily to stop one dealer from selling at low “no haggle” prices and via the Internet to customers all over the country.

Determining whether a restraint is “vertical” or “horizontal” can be confusing in some markets, particularly where some manufacturers operate at many different levels and may even supply important inputs to their competitors. The label is not as important as the effect: Does the restraint unreasonably reduce competition among competitors at any level? Is the vertical restraint the product of an agreement among competitors? And labeling an agreement a vertical arrangement will not save it from antitrust scrutiny when there is evidence of anticompetitive horizontal effects. For instance, the FTC has stopped exclusive distribution agreements that operated as market allocation schemes between worldwide competitors. In this situation, the competitors agree not to compete by designating one another as an exclusive distributor for different geographic areas.

Q: One of my suppliers marks its products with a Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Do I have to charge this price?

A: The key word is “suggested.” A dealer is free to set the retail price of the products it sells. A dealer can set the price at the MSRP or at a different price, as long as the dealer comes to that decision on its own. However, the manufacturer can decide not to use distributors that do not adhere to its MSRP.

Q: I am a manufacturer and I occasionally get complaints from dealers about the retail prices that other dealers are charging for my products. What should I tell them?

A: Competitors at each level of the supply chain must set prices independently. That means manufacturers cannot agree on wholesale prices, and dealers cannot agree on retail prices. However, a manufacturer can listen to its dealers and take action on its own in response to what it learns from them.

Many private antitrust cases have involved a manufacturer cutting off a discounting dealer. Often there is evidence that the manufacturer received complaints from competing dealers before terminating the discounter. This evidence alone is not enough to show a violation; the manufacturer is entitled to try to keep its dealers happy with their affiliation. Legal issues may arise if it appears that the dealers have agreed to threaten a boycott or collectively pressure the manufacturer to take action.

Q: I would like to carry the products of a certain manufacturer, but the company already has a franchised dealer in my area. Isn’t this a restriction on competition?

A: Under federal antitrust law, a manufacturer may decide how many distributors it will have and who they will be. From a competition viewpoint, a manufacturer may decide that it will use only franchised dealers with exclusive territories to compete more successfully with other manufacturers. Or it may decide that it will use different dealers to target specific customer groups.

There are pros and cons to being a franchised dealer. By agreeing to be a franchised dealer, you likely would have to comply with the manufacturer’s requirements for selling the product, such as operating hours, cleanliness standards, and the like. These restrictions are seen as reasonable limits on how you run your business in exchange for dealing in an established brand that consumers associate with a certain level of quality or service. For instance, a brewer may require all retail stores to store its beer at a certain temperature to preserve its quality, because consumers are likely to blame poor quality on the manufacturer — thus reducing sales at all outlets — rather than blaming the retailer’s inadequate storage method.

Q: My supplier offers a cooperative advertising program, but I can’t participate if I advertise a price that is below the supplier’s minimum advertised price. I think that’s unfair.

A: The law allows a manufacturer considerable leeway in setting the terms for advertising that it helps to pay for. The manufacturer offers these promotional programs to better compete against the products of the other manufacturers. There are limited situations when these programs can have an unreasonable effect on price levels. For instance, the FTC challenged the Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) policies of five large distributors of pre-recorded music because the policies were unreasonable in their reach: they prohibited ads with discounted prices, even if the retailer paid for the ads with its own money; they applied to in-store advertising; and a single violation required the retailer to forfeit funds for all of its stores for up to 90 days. The FTC found that these policies, in effect for more than 85 percent of market sales, were unreasonable and prevented retailers from telling consumers about discounts on records and CDs. Issues involving advertising allowances may become of less practical concern as manufacturers adjust to new standards that allow more direct influence on retail prices.

Q: I am a health care provider and I want to join a new insurance group to provide services to a large employer in my town. My agreement with another insurance group requires that I give them the lowest price on my services. If I join the new group, do I have to lower my prices for the other insurance group?

A: These provisions, referred to as “most-favored-nations (MFN) clauses,” are quite common. Generally, an MFN promises that one party to the agreement will treat the other party at least as well as it treats others. In most circumstances, MFNs are a legitimate way to reduce risks. In some circumstances, however, MFNs can unreasonably limit the offering of targeted discounts and create a de facto industry price. The FTC challenged an MFN clause used by a pharmacy network in individual contracts with its member pharmacies that discouraged them from discounting on reimbursement rates. The network was a group of more than 95 percent of the competing pharmacies in the state. The MFN discouraged any individual pharmacy from offering lower prices to another plan because any discounts would have to be applied to all its other sales through the network.

Exclusive Dealing or Requirements Contracts

Exclusive dealing or requirements contracts between manufacturers and retailers are common and are generally lawful. In simple terms, an exclusive dealing contract prevents a distributor from selling the products of a different manufacturer, and a requirements contract prevents a manufacturer from buying inputs from a different supplier. These arrangements are judged under a rule of reason standard, which balances any procompetitive and anticompetitive effects.

Most exclusive dealing contracts are beneficial because they encourage marketing support for the manufacturer’s brand. By becoming an expert in one manufacturer’s products, the dealer is encouraged to specialize in promoting that manufacturer’s brand. This may include offering special services or amenities that cost money, such as an attractive store, trained salespeople, long business hours, an inventory of products on hand, or fast warranty service. But the costs of providing some of these amenities — which are offered to consumers before the product is sold and may not be recovered if the consumer leaves without buying anything — may be hard to pass on to customers in the form of a higher retail price. For instance, the consumer may take a “free ride” on the valuable services offered by one retailer, and then buy the same product at a lower price from another retailer that does not offer high-cost amenities, such as a discount warehouse or online store. If the full-service retailer loses enough sales in this way, it may eventually stop offering the services. If those services were genuinely useful, in the sense that the product plus the services together resulted in greater sales for the manufacturer than the product alone would have enjoyed, there is a loss both for the manufacturer and the consumer. As a result, antitrust law generally permits nonprice vertical restraints such as exclusive dealing contracts that are designed to encourage retailers to provide extra services.

On the other hand, a manufacturer with market power may potentially use these types of vertical arrangements to prevent smaller competitors from succeeding in the marketplace. For instance, exclusive contracts may be used to deny a competitor access to retailers or distributors without which the competitor cannot make sufficient sales to be viable.  For example, the FTC found that a manufacturer of pipe fittings unlawfully maintained its monopoly in domestically-made ductile iron fittings by requiring its distributors to buy domestic fittings exclusively from it and not from its competitors, who were attempting to enter the domestic market.  The FTC found that this manufacturer’s policy foreclosed a competitor from achieving the sales needed to compete effectively. On the supply side, exclusive contracts may tie up most of the lower cost sources of supply, forcing competitors to seek higher-priced sources. This was the scenario that led to FTC charges that a large pharmaceutical company violated the antitrust laws by obtaining exclusive licenses for a critical ingredient. The FTC claimed that the licenses had the effect of raising ingredient costs for its competitors, which led to higher retail drug prices.

In some situations, exclusive dealing may be used by manufacturers to reduce competition between them. For example, the FTC challenged exclusive provisions in sales contracts used by two principal manufacturers of pumps for fire trucks. Each company sold pumps to fire truck manufacturers on the condition that any additional pumps would be bought from the manufacturer that was already supplying them. These exclusive supply contracts operated like a customer allocation agreement between the two pump manufacturers, so that they no longer competed for each other’s customers.

For discussion of exclusive licensing arrangements involving intellectual property rights, see Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property.

Q: I am a small manufacturer of high-quality flat-panel display monitors. I would like to get my products into a big box retailer, but the company says it has an agreement to sell only flat-panel display monitors made by my competitor. Isn’t that illegal?

A: Exclusive distribution arrangements like this usually are permitted. Although the retailer is prevented from selling competing flat-panel display monitors, this may be the type of product that requires a certain level of knowledge and service to sell. For instance, if the manufacturer invests in training the retailer’s sales staff in the product’s operation and attributes, it may reasonably require that the retailer commit to selling only its brand of monitors. This level of service benefits buyers of sophisticated electronics products. As long as there are sufficient outlets for consumers to buy your products elsewhere, the antitrust laws are unlikely to interfere with this type of exclusive arrangement.

Refusal to Supply

In general, a seller has the right to choose its business partners. A firm’s refusal to deal with any other person or company is lawful so long as the refusal is not the product of an anticompetitive agreement with other firms or part of a predatory or exclusionary strategy to acquire or maintain a monopoly. This principle was laid out by the Supreme Court more than 85 years ago:

The purpose of the Sherman Act is to… preserve the right of freedom of trade. In the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the act does not restrict the long recognized right of a trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

This remains a fundamental rule of federal antitrust law and draws a line between legal independent decision-making on the one hand and illegal joint or monopolistic activity on the other.

Q: I own a small clothing store and the maker of a popular line of clothing recently dropped me as an outlet. I’m sure it’s because my competitors complained that I sell below the suggested retail price. The explanation was the manufacturer’s policy: its products should not be sold below the suggested retail price, and dealers that do not comply are subject to termination. Is it legal for the manufacturer to cut me off?

A: Yes. The law generally allows a manufacturer to have a policy that its dealers should sell a product above a certain minimum price, and to terminate a dealer that does not honor that policy. Manufacturers may choose to adopt this kind of policy because it encourages dealers to provide full customer service and prevents other dealers, who may not provide full service, from taking away customers and “free riding” on the services provided by other dealers. However, it may be illegal for the manufacturer to drop you if it has an agreement with your competitors to cut you off to help maintain a price they agreed to.