Chapter 16: Antitrust Policy and Business Regulation

Start Up: The Plastic War

The $2.5 trillion market for credit and debit cards received a major jolt in 2004 when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that Visa and MasterCard had violated the nation’s antitrust laws by prohibiting banks who issued Visa and/or MasterCard from issuing Discover or American Express cards. The court found that, rather than competing with each other, Visa and MasterCard had cooperated with each other by increasing their “intercharge fees,” the fees credit card companies charge to merchants who accept credit cards for payment, in lock-step. And, by locking Discover and American Express out of many markets, Visa and MasterCard were guilty of anti-competitive behavior.

The court’s ruling spelled major trouble for Visa and MasterCard. Under U.S. law, a competitor that has been damaged by the anticompetitive practices of dominant firms can recover triple the damages that actually occurred. Rivals Discover and American Express filed suits against Visa and MasterCard. In 2008, American Express reached an agreement with MasterCard for a settlement of $1.8 billion. That followed a 2007 settlement with Visa for $2.1 billion. Together, the two agreements represented the largest judgments in America’s antitrust history. Discover’s $6 billion suit was still pending in mid-2008.Eric Dash, “MasterCard Will Pay $1.8 Billion To a Rival,” New York Times, June 26, 2008, p. C4; and United States vs. Visa U.S.A., Inc., 344 F.3d 229 (2d. Circuit 2003). The government’s case against Visa and MasterCard illustrates one major theme of this chapter.

In this chapter we will examine some of the limits government imposes on the actions of private firms. The first part of the chapter considers the effort by the U.S. government to limit firms’ monopoly power and to encourage competition in the marketplace. The second part looks at those policies in the context of the global economy. We will also examine efforts to modify antitrust policy to make the U.S. economy more competitive internationally. In the third part of the chapter we will consider other types of business regulation, including those that seek to enhance worker and consumer safety, as well as deregulation efforts over the last 30 years.


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