Increased Antitrust Activity Shows Eye to Free Competiton
Fatsis, Stefan, THE JOURNAL RECORD
By Stefan Fatsis
NEW YORK _ The Justice Department takes over an antitrust probe of Microsoft Corp. AT T, split up by antitrust regulators in 1982, plans to merge with the nation's biggest cellular telephone company.
American Airlines and Wal-Mart are tangled in unfair pricing lawsuits. Baseball's 71-year-old antitrust exemption is challenged in court. Health care reform raises questions about hospital mergers.
Suddenly, antitrust is news.
Lawyers say the rash of recent cases is mostly coincidence. But it comes as the Clinton administration promises stricter enforcement of laws designed to promote free competition after 12 years of laissez-faire Republican rule.
"I think you're in a period of transition between the virtual non-enforcement of the Reagan years and what will certainly be much more active government regulation in the Clinton years," said Robert Pitofsky, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
"These may be very early signs but they're reliable signs," he said.
Among the strongest was a speech earlier this month to the American Bar Association by Clinton's new antitrust chief, Anne K. Bingaman, who promised to re-energize antitrust enforcement.
Bingaman, an assistant attorney general, has indicated the government will chart a new antitrust course in areas such as mergers, business conduct, price-fixing and foreign compliance with U.S. antitrust laws.
The Justice Department has acted already: taking over an investigation of Microsoft, the computer software powerhouse, and eliminating Reagan-era guidelines that allowed manufacturers to fix prices with distributors.
First, the department in July requested documents about Microsoft from the Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust oversight. The FTC examined alleged unfair business practices at Microsoft for three years but deadlocked over whether to sue the company.
Second, the department rescinded 1985 rules on "vertical pricing" that made it easy for suppliers to impose minimum retail prices, hurting discounters in industries such as consumer electronics and apparel. The government has brought just two price-fixing cases since 1980.
Any merger enforcement activity would mark a significant shift from the Reagan-Bush era, which saw the greatest rate of corporate combinations since the 19th century and what lawyers describe as lax enforcement. Several cases could receive close review. American Telephone Telegraph Co.'s planned $12.6 billion acquisition of McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. could challenge the regional Bell companies' local telephone business. AT T's monopoly over local and longdistance was broken up by the government in 1982.
"We don't believe that the merger with McCaw has any antitrust implications," AT T spokesman Walter Murphy said. Mattel Inc. …