A Bargain Deal on Yahoo! for Microsoft & the Regime Uncertainty of Antitrust

by on July 29, 2009 · 9 comments

Eric Goldman, one of the few active cyberlibertarians in legal academe, has a thoughtful post about the search partnership announced today. Eric notes blogger Danny Sullivan’s observation about the decline in Yahoo’s assets and his comment that:

Microsoft is getting a huge bargain courtesy of the US Department Of Justice. Without Google being able to compete for Yahoo’s business, the billions that were floating around in 2008 become millions in 2009.

Danny and Eric certainly have a strong point: One of the costs of the Justice Department’s decision to block Google from partnering with Yahoo! is that Yahoo! wound up fetching much less in its deal with Microsoft. But the intervening slump in the economy and online advertising has also contributed in the drop in Yahoo!’s share price and overall valuation, so it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Eric is probably right that in assessment that:

Yahoo was unbelievably crazy for passing on Microsoft’s acquisition proposal from a year-and-a-half ago. It looked like a foolish mistake at the time, and hindsight has definitely not improved that assessment!

It would seem that both Yahoo! and Microsoft under-estimated the likelihood that antitrust regulators would block a Yahoo!/Google deal a year ago: Microsoft probably wouldn’t have offered as much as it did to acquire Yahoo!’s search business ($31/share) and Yahoo! (currently $15.14/share) certainly wouldn’t have held out for a better deal from Google. While the end result ended up being a Yahoo!/Microsoft deal anyway, the delay of over a year in reaching a deal is itself a significant cost of what economists would call the “regime uncertainty” created antitrust: Without clear rules, it’s difficult for economic actors to predict the decisions by regulators. A delay of a year could well prove to make a big difference in the ability of the two companies to mount a successful response to Google in search and advertising—just as Microsoft’s 18 month delay back in 2003-2004 in developing a search ad auction system to respond to Google’s AdWords system (which now produces 2/3 of its revenue) probably did much to thwart Microsoft’s initial efforts to compete in search.

Sadly, no one can undo the mistakes of the past—either by regulators or businessmen. But as Adam and I conclude in our Forbes.com op-ed about the deal, to avoid doing further damage:

policymakers should recognize that the business, user and technological paradigms of the Web are constantly being re-invented and replaced. They shouldn’t delay approving this deal, especially as any delay would lengthen an awkward period of uncertainty for the corporate couple at the antitrust altar. Moreover, they should avoid micro-managing the transaction through regulatory blackmail: demanding “voluntary concessions” before giving their blessing.

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