Amazon’s $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods has sparked growing concerns that the web giant is getting too big and could start to throw its weight around.
Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.), a member of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, called for a full congressional oversight hearing on the deal, citing the possible effect the merger could have on other grocery stores and their workers. The proposed transaction, however, does not raise obvious antitrust red flags.
“While several leading antitrust scholars have expressed doubt that the transaction will result in higher prices for consumers, it nevertheless occurs amidst waves of consolidation in recent decades that have decreased wages and resulted in gross inequality in the workplace,” Cicilline said in a letter to the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law.
The letter comes about a month after Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) expressed concern over the deal, saying it was likely to “hurt” grocers in his district, which covers a chunk of Silicon Valley.
An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.
University of Michigan antitrust law professor Daniel Crane is one scholar who’s been vocal about the propriety of the Amazon Whole Foods deal on Twitter, saying recently that it’s a simple “vertical merger.”
“From an antitrust perspective, that’s all she wrote,” Crane noted.
Although a congressional hearing would ostensibly explore the potential impact of the deal for consumers, Congress has no actual role in approving Amazon’s proposed acquisition. That responsibility in this case will belong to the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission.
Beyond the possibility that Amazon’s expansion into food retail could depress wages, Cicilline said he’s been hearing concerns over Amazon’s already extensive advantages “in terms of size, consumer reach and ability to absorb losses,” which could be enough to quell innovation and competition in grocery and food delivery.
Cicilline also cited concerns that the Whole Foods deal will further increase Amazon’s dominance online, enabling it to push even more of its own products and services ahead of competitors, regardless of who has the best price, in addition to giving it more power to set prices for even more goods. (Fashion is one area where Amazon is expanding, having launched its own private-label brands, inked deals with big names such as Nike and set up a box delivery program, Prime Wardrobe).
“Expanding its retail footprint through this transaction may increase the risks of self-dealing and preferential treatment of its goods on this platform,” Cicilline said.
Unbridled self-promotion has been a concern for European antitrust regulators, which last month hit Google with a record 2.4 billion euro fine after finding the search engine rigged search results to favor its own shopping platform. But so far, that’s not been much of a concern for U.S. regulators.
Nor has Amazon’s offer to buy Whole Foods.
While Amazon is undeniably a power player in e-commerce and increasingly retail at large, as well as a company with expansion in mind, it is not a dominant force in grocery and acquiring Whole Foods won’t immediately make it one.
Even if it was poised to become a giant grocer with the deal, antitrust regulators generally like to have some evidence of consumer harm, like price-fixing, before impeding acquisitions. So far, there’s nothing concrete to support the notion that Amazon’s version of Whole Foods will depress prices in the grocery industry or put a dent in worker wages, even if it brings cashierless Amazon Go technology into the fold.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has signaled that Amazon will have little standing in the way of regulatory approval of the deal, saying during a late June appearance on Fox Business Network that nothing Amazon has done “would qualify remotely for antitrust consideration” despite its growing power in retail.
“I don’t think big or powerful in and of themselves are that big of a problem,” Ross said. “I think the real problem is if they begin to abuse whatever power they have.”
But this seems contradictory to comments by President Trump, who has shown some hostility toward Amazon, its founder Jeff Bezos and naturally, The Washington Post, which Bezos owns.
“He’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much,” Trump said of Bezos in May 2016 while campaigning. “Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing.”
The president more recently lashed out at “#AmazonWashingtonPost” in a Twitter post at the end of June, characterizing Amazon as “the guardian” of the newspaper and accusing the company of not paying “Internet taxes.” The White House has yet to clarify the meaning of the tweet, but Trump’s rancor is obvious.
Whether or not that will translate into issues for Amazon as it continues to expand and gain power in retail remains to be seen, but as the saying goes, politics can make strange bedfellows.
Barry C. Lynn, director of the Open Markets Program at left-leaning think tank New America, has openly called for regulators to block the acquisition, and said after the deal was announced that it will only serve to “worsen the already severe damage that Amazon is doing to America’s competitive, open-market system.”
“This corporation already dominates every corner of online commerce, and uses its power to set terms and prices for many of the most important products Americans buy or sell to one another,” Lynn said. “Now Amazon is exploiting that advantage to take over physical retail.”
While Amazon said the Whole Foods acquisition was likely to close later this year, if public criticism keeps up, it may have more of a fight on its hands than it bargained for.
For now, investors don’t seem too worried. Shares of the company inched up 0.1 percent to $1,001.81 Friday, giving it a market capitalization of $478.84 billion.