WASHINGTON — As rising inflation threatens his presidency, President Joe Biden is turning to the federal government’s antitrust authorities to try to tame red-hot price increases that his administration believes are partly driven by a lack of corporate competition.
Biden has prodded the Agriculture Department to investigate large meatpackers that control a significant share of poultry and pork markets, accusing them of raising prices, underpaying farmers — and tripling their profit margins during the pandemic. As gas prices surged, he publicly encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate accusations that large oil companies had artificially inflated prices, behavior that the administration says continued even after global oil prices began to fall in recent weeks.
The push has extended to little-known agencies, such as the Federal Maritime Commission, which Biden has urged to search for price gouging by large shipping companies at the heart of the supply chain.
The turn to antitrust levers stems from Biden’s belief that rising levels of corporate concentration in the U.S. economy have empowered a few large players in each industry to raise prices higher than a more competitive market would allow.
Corporate culpability for rising prices remains unclear. Inflation is at a 40-year high because of pandemic-related factors such as broken supply chains and high demand for goods from consumers still flush with government-provided cash. But as the price increases have spread across sectors, including food and gasoline, the administration has come under increasing pressure to find ways to respond.
White House officials concede that their antitrust moves are unlikely to reduce costs for U.S. businesses or consumers immediately. The efforts, they say, will be more effective down the road. But the rise of inflation has given the White House an opportunity to take action that Democrats have long encouraged, and that Biden made an early focus of his tenure: using the power of government to break up monopolies and promote economic competition.
In July, before the recent run-up in prices, Biden issued an executive order that included 72 directives for Cabinet and independent agencies to more vigorously enforce antitrust laws and to pursue specific actions to promote competition, such as eliminating noncompete agreements for workers and forcing tech companies such as Apple to allow consumers to repair their own products.
He has also tapped antitrust crusaders for key roles, including Lina Khan to be chair of the FTC, and Jonathan Kanter, an adversary of Facebook and Google, to lead the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Tim Wu, a proponent of breaking up Facebook and other large companies, was brought on as a special White House adviser to Biden on competition issues.
White House officials say fighting inflation was not the initial motivation for Biden’s competition agenda. But, they say, the push has given him some of his most powerful tools to take action against rising prices, and it will play a central role in federal efforts to reduce costs for consumers over the long term.
That role could grow even more prominent if Democrats lose control of the House or Senate in next year’s midterm elections and Biden is forced to rely on executive actions to advance his economic agenda.
The administration’s focus on increasing competition “will spawn more innovation, more disruption, more startup businesses in the U.S.,” said Brian Deese, who heads the White House’s National Economic Council. And, he added, it “will deliver lower prices for Americans right away.”
Biden’s efforts to promote competition and potentially break up large players have rattled big companies and angered prominent industry groups in Washington at a time when businesses are already grappling with supply chain problems, higher input costs and labor shortages.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has accused the Biden administration of interfering with the work of independent agencies even as it threatened litigation against the FTC, an independent consumer protection agency.
Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer for the chamber, said in an interview that the measures would do little to blunt inflation.
“It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of inflation and frankly a poorly dressed-up political argument,” Bradley said, adding that inflation had been very low in the past decade during a period of corporate consolidation. “Did they get soft concentration all of a sudden and in nine months it produced rampant inflation? Of course not.”
Much of the business community concern is aimed at the FTC, which, empowered by Biden’s executive order, has targeted companies without looping in the White House.
An FTC official said the agency was pursuing its own agenda under Khan.
Late last month, the commission ordered nine large retailers, including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger, to turn over detailed information to help root out the sources of supply chain disruptions that were “harming competition in the U.S. economy.”
The demand for documents was news to the White House, which had arranged for Biden to meet that same day with a group of retailers to discuss the administration’s efforts to relieve backlogs at the nation’s ports and to highlight the companies’ promises that their shelves would be well stocked for the holiday season. Among the top executives attending the White House event were officials from Kroger and Walmart.
White House officials say they are pleased with the zeal that federal agencies have shown for Biden’s antitrust efforts. Administration officials say the biggest successes so far include blocking the merger of a large American railroad, Kansas City Southern, with a Canadian counterpart and the merger of two large insurance companies, Aon and Willis Towers Watson, which officials say could both have resulted in higher costs for consumers. They also cite a regulation allowing hearing aids to be sold without prescriptions and the auctioning of some gate slots at Newark Liberty International Airport to low-cost airlines.
More dramatic results could emerge from a Justice Department fight against consolidation in the sugar industry and new efforts by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to require that future federal regulations be evaluated, in part, based on how they might affect competition in regulated industries.
The Agriculture Department has distributed $500 million to help seed new entrants in the meatpacking industries to challenge the small group of corporate giants that dominate it.
The Federal Maritime Commission has investigated the handful of corporate shipping alliances that effectively control the flow of goods across the world’s oceans and that have raised prices as much as ninefold during the pandemic, according to data from freight-tracking firm Freightos. The commission’s analysis determined that market forces — particularly the rising demand for furniture and other items by consumers who have cut down on travel and dining out — are driving the increases, said Daniel Maffei, a former New York congressman who is chair of the commission.
But, Maffei said, the focus on antitrust has given the commission tools and confidence to investigate other abuses by shipping companies, now and in the future, when demand falls and companies might be tempted to try to keep their freight rates artificially high. “I think it has upped our credibility” with companies and discouraged anticompetitive behavior, he said.
Perhaps the administration’s most sustained focus, in the near term, has been on the meat industry. A report from the National Economic Council this month accused the largest meat-processing companies of price gouging to pad profits. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for meat were up 16% in November compared with the same month last year.
“We’re seeing the dominant meat processors use their market power to extract bigger and bigger profit margins for themselves,” the report said. “Businesses that face meaningful competition can’t do that, because they would lose business to a competitor that did not hike its margins.”
The North American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, denied the allegations and accused the Biden administration of cherry-picking economic data. It said that the White House was overlooking the record levels of demand for beef, pork and poultry.
“The White House Economic Council is again demonstrating its ignorance of agricultural economics and the fundamentals of supply and demand,” said Julie Anna Potts, president of the meat institute.
The clash between Biden and “Big Meat” has put the spotlight on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who held the same position for the eight years of the Obama administration. Some agricultural groups criticized Vilsack’s nomination because he had failed to mount an antitrust effort during his previous tenure and instead oversaw an era of consolidation in the farm sector, including the merger of Monsanto and Bayer. After leaving the Obama administration, Vilsack became a dairy industry lobbyist.
Vilsack is now responsible for developing new rules to strengthen a law — the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 — that is intended to protect farmers from anti-competitive practices in the meat industry and to promote ways for consumers to buy directly from farmers. But the rules, which were assigned as part of Biden’s July executive order on competition, have yet to be announced. That has revived suggestions that Vilsack is beholden to big agricultural corporations.
“These markets have been concentrated for a long time,” said Austin Frerick, deputy director of the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University, which researches competition policy and antitrust enforcement. “He didn’t fix it in his first eight years. Why do we think he’s going to fix it now?”
Kate Waters, a spokesperson for Vilsack, said the agency was working as quickly as possible through the rule-making process. She also noted that Vilsack had deployed economic relief money to bolster capacity at small meat-processing plants, pointing to the agency’s new Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program, which provides loan guarantees to help meat and poultry processors expand capacity.
Progressive groups have pushed the administration to target more industries, such as retail and grocery chains, which they say are also driving up prices and profit margins.
“The Biden administration understands this and knows this,” said Rakeen Mabud, managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. But, she said, “I would like to see more.”