In new approach to US antitrust policy, big is no longer bad

Antitrust policy is undergoing an evolution, says the newest Reagan administration appointee to the Federal Trade Commission: Bigness no longer means badness.

It is a time of unprecedented mergers, acquisitions, and cooperative ventures in the business world: multibillion-dollar oil takeovers, United States-Japanese auto ventures, consolidation proposals among big steel companies.

''During the Carter administration,'' FTC Commissioner Terry Calvani said in an interview here, ''there were people who believed the function of the antitrust laws was to forbid large-scale combinations, and that that was in itself bad. I don't think that view prevails today.''

The Federal Trade Commission is being swamped with major cases requiring the FTC's antitrust ruling. The commission still needs to make a final ruling on the General Motors-Toyota plant and the Texaco-Getty merger, although it has given both preliminary approval.

Shortly, the FTC will take up what could be the biggest merger in US corporate history - the proposed takeover of Gulf Oil by Standard Oil Company of California. Another oil merger is around the corner; Mobil announced Sunday that it will acquire Superior Oil for $5.7 billion.

Mr. Calvani's commission seat puts the ratio of Reagan appointees to Carter appointees at 3 to 2. While this Southerner says the White House does not interfere directly with FTC decisions, ''quite naturally the President picks people whose views don't differ markedly from his own.'' The administration, he adds, ''sees the role of antitrust enforcement as protecting consumer welfare, and by that I mean an efficient marketplace.''

Some members of Congress, however, don't see it that way. Mergers may be the most efficient, and least costly, way for an oil company to build reserves, but the consumer will suffer, they argue. Acquiring reserves through merger will discourage oil exploration, putting the country in a vulnerable security position. A pending House bill would largely forbid mergers among the top 20 oil companies. Senate opponents are trying to work out a bill that would put at least a six-month moratorium on mergers among the major oil companies.

''If Congress decides large oil companies are bad, and they enact legislation that creates a special set of laws for the oil industry, it seems to me that would be somewhat unfortunate . . . ,'' comments Calvani, the only commissioner who is a lawyer.

Decked out in maroon suspenders with flying ducks on them, he counters with his own graphic example of why exploration will not be hurt:

''If I want a Coca-Cola, and you have one you are willing to sell me for a nickel, and there's one that's available to me downstairs for a dime, is there something wrong with me buying my Coke from you for a nickel? Do I find it surprising that someone wants to buy oil at the cheapest location? I don't find that surprising.

''Does that mean that there will be a decrease in exploration? I guess I don't understand why that would be so. We still have the same amount of reserves that we had yesterday. If there was an incentive to explore yesterday, then I presume there's an incentive to explore today.''

Administration policy is ''an important factor'' in either encouraging or discouraging mergers, but it is not the only one, Calvani points out. The economy, corporate strategy, costs, the market - these are all factors, too.

The FTC is not the only body that makes antitrust rulings. The Justice Department has traditionally had jurisdiction in such industries as steel. Most recently, it blocked a proposed merger between the LTV Corporation and Republic Steel, saying the merger would create conditions for uncompetitive pricing. Since then, United States Steel has dropped its bid for National Steel.

Calvani says there are no inconsistencies between Justice Department and FTC policy, as some business executives complain. But he does see antitrust law continuing to change as business becomes more global. Companies should be allowed to enter joint research-and-development projects without fear of antitrust, he says, and worldwide markets should play a bigger role in evaluating anticompetitive implications of mergers.

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