Biden Plans Broad Competition Order Following M&A Surge

The Biden administration is preparing a government-wide plan to encourage competition in markets across the economy, according to people familiar with the process, a move that could have broad implications for industries including technology, pharmaceuticals and agriculture.

The White House plans to issue an executive order as soon as next week that would require federal agencies to take steps to promote competition in the industries they oversee, said the people, who asked not to be named because the initiative isn’t yet public.

“The president made clear during his campaign that he is committed to increasing competition in the American economy, including by banning noncompete agreements for workers and protecting farmers from abusive practices, but there is no final decision on any actions at this time,” said White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons.

The move gives Biden a way to focus on the decade-plus consolidation of key consumer-facing industries in the U.S., including airlines and telecommunications. In discussing competition, the order also would let him weigh in on the growth of tech companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., whose market sway has stirred bipartisan concerns in Congress.

The order will echo an Obama administration order in 2016 that said government agencies beyond those responsible for antitrust enforcement had a role to play in protecting consumers, workers and business from being harmed by instances of market power in the economy. Reuters reported earlier on the plans for an executive order.

That order built off a report by the Council of Economic Advisers outlining concern about evidence indicating that industries across the U.S. economy suffer from rising consolidation and declining competition. The report recommended that other agencies and departments, such as those overseeing communications and transportation use regulations to address the problem in addition to traditional antitrust enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.

Since then, attention on the power of dominant companies has only grown as economists and policy makers raise concern that rising concentration is ailing large swaths of the economy and contributing to problems including income inequality, stagnant wages and low productivity growth.

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An executive order by the Biden White House would add to a widespread push for stronger antitrust enforcement in Washington, where bipartisan majorities on the House Judiciary Committee last week advanced six antitrust bills, primarily aimed at the biggest tech companies. The proposals represent an effort to revamp antitrust laws and give competition enforcers more authority.

The hurdles faced by antitrust official in challenging the conduct of dominant companies was thrust into the spotlight on Monday when a judge dismissed two monopoly cases against Facebook Inc. that had been brought by the FTC and a coalition of states. The cases accused Facebook of engaging in a strategy of buying companies to eliminate competition and sought to force the divestitures of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Before President Joe Biden took office, antitrust experts urged the administration to look beyond the Justice Department and the FTC to protect competition, arguing that the two enforcers can’t do everything to ensure competitive markets.

“No single part of government can fully revitalize competition on its own,” a report by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth said.

That report recommended that Biden establish a White House Office of Competition Policy to promote new regulations and push a legislative agenda to revitalize antitrust enforcement. Although the president hasn’t taken that step, he named Columbia Law School professor and antitrust expert Tim Wu as a competition adviser in March.

Biden followed Wu’s appointment with the nomination of Lina Khan to the FTC, where she took over as chair earlier this month.

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