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Biden administration ramps up antitrust efforts amid worries about high prices

The FTC told the White House it would step up enforcement of collusion in the oil and gas industry.

President Biden passes a signing pen to the head of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, during a White House event in July. Khan signaled plans to step up oversight of oil and gas companies in a memo last week. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/file)

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Julia Coronado. The article has been corrected.

Senior Biden administration officials, alarmed by the rising costs of consumer staples, are ramping up efforts to police corporate monopolies and alleged collusion by big companies, arguing a crackdown on corporate malfeasance will translate into cheaper goods.

In response to requests by the White House economic team, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan announced Monday that regulators would step up enforcement on oil and gas companies that they say may be colluding to raise fuel costs.

White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese is leading a review of what might be done to alleviate soaring food prices, working with the Agriculture Department on measures to prevent large agricultural processors and meatpackers from squeezing consumers and farmers.

President Biden has also ordered U.S. transportation agencies to root out anti-competitive behavior in the shipping industry, optimistic that new entrants into the sector will reduce the meteoric delivery costs hurting many small businesses.

The push to use federal competition laws to lower prices reflects not only Biden’s long-standing commitment to antitrust policy, but also the growing political and economic danger the administration sees in sustained high prices. Senior administration officials have been worried about polling showing that voters — including many Democrats — blame Biden’s economic policies for high inflation as the economy bounces back from the coronavirus pandemic.

Publicly and privately, administration officials say they are convinced that inflationary pressures represent a primarily short-term problem that will subside with time. But even if temporary, the current price hikes have no obvious immediate solution — given that supply chain bottlenecks could take years to unwind — and have created consternation among some centrist Democrats about the administration’s multitrillion-dollar spending agenda.

Aggressive antitrust enforcement represents one avenue where the administration can act without congressional approval while demonstrating it is trying to head off the issue.

In a speech earlier this month, Biden cited his push to have the FTC “address any illegal conduct that might be contributing to price increases at the pump.” He added that his executive order from July “opens up competition in the agricultural business, gives more farmers a chance to compete — which will give Americans more food choices at lower cost.” The president has been adamant about antitrust policy since before the presidential campaign, but the issue has taken on new urgency given the price increases.

“I’ve directed my administration to crack down on what some major players are doing in the economy that are keeping prices higher than they need be,” Biden said.

Some experts are skeptical that the antitrust efforts will bring down prices, particularly in the short term.

Prices in the United States rose by roughly 5.4 percent in July relative to last year, well above the central bank’s benchmark rate of 2 percent. Much of the increase was due to temporary factors related to the pandemic and beyond the administration’s control, such as a shortage in semiconductors and an enormous increase in the cost of used cars. The pace of the increase on a month-to-month basis also slowed in July.

But other troubling signs have emerged in ways that threaten the administration’s political agenda. The price of gasoline rose by 2.5 percent in June and 2.4 percent in July — a rate that, if consistent over the course of the year, would amount to a more than 20 percent annual increase. Gas prices have risen above $3 and are at their highest level since 2014 as part of a broader increase in prices that the administration is eager to reverse. Prices could increase further as Hurricane Ida slams into Louisiana, a key hub for refineries, although that uptick will probably prove temporary.

Food price spikes also strained family budgets, rising by roughly 3.4 percent from last year. The Agriculture Department saw faster than expected jumps between June and July in the price of 11 food categories — including beef and veal, seafood, fish, and dairy products — with pork and chicken prices increasing by about 2 percent in one month. USDA projected jumps in poultry prices of as high as 6 percent over 2021.

Some economists who support the administration’s antitrust push say the efforts are unlikely to quickly resolve the short-term issues leading to inflation. The administration has said these high prices partly stem from long-standing “anti-competitive” practices by large businesses that predate the pandemic.

“It’s an important part of the agenda, but it’s not going to address near-term supply bottlenecks and the high prices coming out of that,” said Julia Coronado, president and founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives. “It’s certainly valuable, given that concentration has been intensifying. But it won’t lower 2022 inflation.”

A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal thinking, pointed out that the threat of greater federal scrutiny could lead large firms to preemptively lower prices, even without a new mandate.

Biden officials have expressed confidence in the power of antitrust enforcement to reduce a range of economic maladies. In July, Biden signed an executive order with 72 directives aimed primarily at directing federal agencies to step up antitrust investigations or enforcement. A growing body of literature has suggested that increased corporate consolidation is responsible for a range of problems in the U.S. economy. The White House has said that 75 percent of U.S. industries are more consolidated than they were 20 years ago, a trend that the administration has said has contributed to a tripling of prices for many household necessities. Researchers at Northeastern University have found that mergers in concentrated markets drive up prices by an average of 7 percent, while a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics has found a tripling in product “markups” since 1980.

But it’s an open question whether the antitrust effort can address high prices in the areas most troubling to consumers. In the letter released Monday, Khan, the FTC chair, told Deese that she is directing regulatory staff to ensure that the consolidation of large oil and gas firms is not leading to higher prices through “collusive practices.” Khan also promised additional steps to “deter unlawful mergers” in the oil and gas industry and investigate whether “the power imbalance favoring large national chains” forces fuel station franchisees to sell gasoline at higher prices. Khan’s statement follows a controversial $21 billion merger between 7-Eleven and Speedway, a convenience store chain with thousands of stores across the country. FTC members appointed by Democrats have raised concerns about the impact of that transaction, saying it raises “significant competitive concerns in hundreds of local retail gasoline and diesel fuel markets across the country.”

“What we see is shortages and price gouging everywhere, and what the FTC is going to try to do is stop that,” said Matt Stoller, an antitrust expert at the American Economic Liberties Project. “If you own most of the gas stations in an area, you can control the price or collude with others to control the price. Preventing that collusion will reduce prices.”

Other experts are dubious. Some point out that the U.S. oil and gas industry is no more consolidated than international competitors, and that gas prices tend to follow an international pattern — not price-fixing by a handful of small firms.

“It’s PR. This is not going to reduce prices,” said Pavel Molchanov, an oil industry analyst at Raymond James.

The Biden administration faces a similar challenge in using anti-competitive enforcement to reduce high food prices. The USDA announced earlier this month that it will issue new transparency reporting requirements in the cattle trade to “promote fair and competitive markets” as part of Biden’s executive order. USDA officials have also announced new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act designed to improve commercial livestock activity. And the Justice Department has increasingly targeted agriculture companies, announcing on July 29 that four executives at Koch Foods had been charged with price fixing for “participating in a nationwide conspiracy” over broiler chicken products.