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Obama's antitrust agenda: Still waiting for the shoe to drop

There was a lot of fanfare when Christine Varney stepped into her role as top antitrust enforcer at the Department of Justice last year. It was said she would upend Bush-era policies that had gone easy on big business mergers. She would go after Google as if the year were 1998 when DOJ pressed its landmark case against Microsoft.

Based on her testimony on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, however, things have been fairly quiet -- at least so far.

A sampling of the division's recent work:

-Trying to undo a merger from 2009 between Dean Foods, the nation's largest dairy processor, and Foremost Dairy, alleging it reduced competition for milk sold in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

-Compelling Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan to abandon a proposed purchase of Physicians Health Plan of Mid-Michigan after telling the company it would file an antitrust suit to block the deal.

-Allowing a merger between Ticketmaster and concert promoter Live Nation but only after Ticketmaster agreed to some concessions such as selling off a ticketing unit.

Not exactly front-page stuff. Or, as Dan Crane, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, observes:

For all of the sound and fury, things have been relatively tame at the Antitrust Division. At least from the outsider perspective, things look like business as usual: anti-cartel enforcement, consent decrees on controversial mergers.

What's going on here? Crane offers a few theories.

One, when the economy's weak, antitrust enforcement tends to take a back seat.

Two, DOJ might have some big cases about to drop that we don't know about.

And lastly, the division could already be acting as a deterrent because businesses view Varney as a tough enforcer. As Crane writes, "If so, the dissonance between rhetoric and practice is merely the sound of deterrent success."

By Jia Lynn Yang  |  July 28, 2010; 3:18 PM ET
Categories:  Antitrust  
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