I was pleased to see this news last week that a federal judge declined to block the proposed merger between grocery store chains Whole Foods and Wild Oats. The newer news is that the Federal Trade Commission has indicated it will appeal. Here is a post from Prof. David Bernstein at Volokh calling the FTC’s position “unusually silly.” (And he quotes another commentator who labels it “ludicrous almost beyond belief.”)
So what is the FTC position that is so dumb? Well, essentially, the FTC argues that there is a regular grocery store market, consisting of all the big chains and other grocery providers, and a wholly separate market for organic food. Wild Oats and Whole Foods merging, the FTC says, would create an unhealthy concentration in this latter market in one company. Of course, this is ridiculous. For one thing, the merged company would still make up a very small portion of the overall grocery market. And, other “regular” grocery stores sell organic foods, too. The FTC has a simply bizarre definition of the relevant market.
I’ve been following this case not because I care a lot about organic groceries but because I care about radio. And the outcome of the organic grocery merger might have an impact on the pending merger of satellite radio companies XM and Sirius. (Disclosure: I’m an XM subscriber.) The satellite radio merger is facing some of the same hurdles as the organic grocery merger. It’s currently under review in the FCC and other agencies.
I really hope that the government doesn’t repeat its grocery posture in the radio merger. The National Association of Broadcasters, the lobbying group for “terrestrial” radio stations, opposes the merger, and is arguing in terms that sound a lot like the FTC’s. The NAB asserts that there are two radio markets in America — one made up of its members, and another, tiny one for satellite radio. One has to wonder why the NAB is so exorcised about a proposed merger in a market in which it asserts its members don’t compete. It claims to be looking out for consumers, so maybe it should have weighed in on the grocery merger, since it claims that the “satellite radio market” is as separate from its own as the organic grocery market is. (For a little more, see Truth on the Market here.)
But of course that’s not true. Terrestrial radio stations know they’re in competition with satellite radio (not to mention all sorts of other music, news, and entertainment options), just like large grocery store chains started stocking organic goods to compete with places like Whole Foods. I quit listening to regular radio precisely because I preferred the choices I could get via satellite. To pretend that there are two radio markets in the U.S. would be like acting as if the old broadcast tv networks aren’t competing with cable tv. The simplest way to show that the XM/Sirius merger would be good for consumers is to point out that, after a merger, I would have more choices, not fewer, because I would also be able to listen to Sirius content.
I have a feeling the radio merger won’t go perfectly smoothly, and I suspect I’ll probably have to end up buying a new receiver. But I’m willing to do that, just like I was willing to buy a new cable box when I got more channels. And here’s the best thing — if the merged company raises prices or reduces stations, I can always chuck it and go back to listening to regular radio for free, assuming it offers competitive options. So, yay capitalism!