Global Trustbusters

The United States has long been famed for its trustbusting moves against overbearing monopolies and price-fixing cartels. In contrast, many European governments were once seen as timid in curbing anticompetitive schemes.

That's no longer the case.

The European Union has a monopoly watchdog that's now baring its antitrust fangs even more than Washington's two trustbusters, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the antitrust division of the Justice Department.

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This is a welcome development.

The global economy is experiencing a historic wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions. Since 1995, companies valued altogether at $12 trillion have announced their marriages.

US antitrust officials need all the help they can get - especially in funding from Congress - to watch over this merger avalanche and to prevent economic concentration that impedes competition in a free market.

We are not talking peanuts. The FTC, by stopping a merger of Office Depot and Staples, may have saved consumers $200 million a year.

Some help may come from the fact that more than 60 nations now have merger laws and antitrust agencies. In fact, Joel Klein, the departing antitrust chief of Justice, has called for cooperation with these nations in examining mergers.

The EU and Washington already cooperate to a large degree. But the two also share a rivalry. That's not entirely bad as long as it doesn't hopelessly complicate mergers that work to the consumers' benefit.

EU officials take a greater interest in predatory pricing and are less hesitant to check overheated competition. In July they blocked a merger of MCI WorldCom and Sprint before the US took action, citing a threat to Internet competition.

At the moment, both US and European antitrust officials are dealing with a $20 billion joint venture of the EMI Group and Time Warner, and the $183 billion merger of Time Warner and America Online. These involve complex antitrust issues that touch Internet and cable access, and the markets for music.

Antitrust officials should be given more financial and personnel resources to aid them in protecting consumers.

And the officials from different nations need to work together to harmonize their approaches in guiding rather than impeding globalization.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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