A Trustbuster Looks Back

Joel Klein reflects on his tenure as antitrust chief

The scourge of Redmond is hanging up his axe. On Sept. 19, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Joel I. Klein announced he would leave the Administration at month's end. He's expected to land a top-dollar job in the private sector--though we can probably rule out Microsoft. On Sept. 20, Klein spoke to legal affairs correspondent Dan Carney about his achievements--and predicted that tough antitrust scrutiny is here to stay.

Q: How do you justify the surge in antitrust cases under Clinton?

A: In the last year of the Bush Administration, we had about $75 billion in merger activity. This year, it's over $2 trillion. We didn't see mergers on the order of $50 million and $60 million before. Now they're routine. We are going through a major restructuring. Three forces--globalization, deregulation, and a technological explosion--have come together. One could say we've challenged some mega mergers, but we have also allowed a great deal of consolidation.

Q: Some companies seem bewildered by the merger review process, with the European Union and so many different countries getting into the act.

A: The time is right for a global competition initiative. We are certainly going to enforce our laws. And I'm sure other countries are going to enforce theirs. But major efforts need to be made to make the multinational review process as efficient as possible. We owe that to business.

Q: Does the sheer crush of merger activity threaten to overwhelm government trustbusters?

A: I hope not. And I don't think that's the case. There's no question we had to move certain civil enforcement investigations to the back-burner. We have at times had to slow some projects down. But I'd be surprised if any [unwarranted mergers] slipped through. The staff has too good a nose for separating out mergers that could have competitive impact.

Q: You scored a big victory with the Microsoft antitrust case. Do you think all this could have been prevented if there had been some modest remedial steps taken by the company a few years ago?

A: I don't think it's appropriate to speculate on those issues. We put on the case we thought was right. They conducted theirs in a way they thought was appropriate.

Q: Is there a relationship between increased antitrust enforcement and recent anticorporate sentiments?

A: Large aggregations of capital raise questions having to do with human scale, powerlessness, and the digital divide. But those issues are separate from antitrust. Antitrust can be about mega mergers or about the consolidation of two small hospitals in a single city. It's about market share not size.

Q: George W. Bush has criticized this Administration's antitrust policy on occasion as overreaching. Do you worry about a rollback by the Antitrust Division if Bush wins the White House?

A: People from all parts of the political spectrum have said what we are doing is very mainstream [and] grounded in sound economic analysis. There will always be a certain amount of criticism from both sides--you weren't aggressive enough, you were too aggressive. But I think the core of what we have done will be the core of what the division does in the future, regardless of the Administration.

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