Thursday, March 8, 2007

Ass't. A.G. Barnett testifies before Senate Subcommittee

The following is an excerpt from prepared remarks submitted yesterday by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett (U.S.D.O.J. – Antitrust Division) to the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights:

Real Estate Services--The Division's enforcement against anticompetitive agreements included its extensive efforts to stop anticompetitive practices in the real estate services industry, including its lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors (NAR). For many people, the purchase or sale of a home not only represents the fulfillment of the American dream but is their single most significant personal financial transaction. The Division has focused its enforcement activities to ensure that the industry and consumers can take advantage of newer business models. In addition, the Division, often in collaboration with the FTC, has vigorously pursued competition advocacy efforts by commenting on the detrimental competitive effects of various legislative and regulatory proposals that limit competitive alternatives at the state level. I will discuss these efforts in greater detail later on.

In September 2005, the Division (I am recused from this matter) filed suit after NAR promulgated rules that would limit competition from real estate brokers who use the Internet to serve their customers. The lawsuit alleges that NAR's policy prevents consumers from receiving the full benefits of competition and threatens to lock in outmoded business models and discourage discounting

NAR has hundreds of affiliated Multiple Listing Services (MLS) across the country--one in virtually every community. Each MLS maintains a database to which member brokers contribute the property listings of the customers they represent. A broker participating in an MLS thus has access to all or nearly all of the property listings in the local market and can distribute those listings to customers. Some brokers have recently begun delivering listings to customers via the Internet, through what are known as Virtual Office Websites, or VOWs. In an effort to protect high commissions (which have increased by over 50% in recent years), real estate brokers have instituted efforts to foreclose competition from VOWs and other innovative brokerage models.

NAR's recent VOW policies include an "opt-out" provision that allows brokers to prevent Internet-based competitors from providing the same listing information over the Internet that other brokers can provide from their offices. The Division's lawsuit also challenges a NAR membership rule that denies access to MLS listings to brokers that operate referral services. This rule effectively prevents two brokers from working together in what can be a more innovative and efficient way, with one attracting new business and educating potential buyers about the market, and the other guiding the buyer through home tours and the contract and closing processes.

In November 2006, a U.S. District Court denied NAR's motion to dismiss. The lawsuit is proceeding.

Competition Advocacy

. . .

The Division, together with the FTC, also educates policymakers and the general public about the benefits of competition in a variety of markets. One market we have devoted substantial efforts to is the real estate market. The Division provides assistance and information to entities considering rules--such as rules that prohibit rebates to consumers or that undermine online brokerage models--that would inhibit some types of competition that can lower the cost of buying or selling a home.

During 2006, several states modified proposed or existing laws and regulations to enhance competition to the benefit of consumers. Delaware, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all passed bills that included a waiver provision to enable individual consumers to choose not to purchase unwanted types of real estate brokerage services. The West Virginia Real Estate Commission, the Tennessee Real Estate Commission, the Kentucky Real Estate Commission, the South Dakota Real Estate Commission, and the State of South Carolina all lifted bans on consumer rebates and other inducements to consumers in real estate transactions. The result is that consumers in these states now have the potential to save thousands of dollars on the purchase of a home.

The Division is also engaged in a broader effort to ensure that all American consumers will continue to benefit from competition in the real estate services industry. A well-attended workshop in October 2005, jointly sponsored by the Antitrust Division and the FTC, was a key part of that effort. Participants from brokerage firms, NAR, local realtor associations, fee-for-service and internet referral brokers, and buyers' brokers spotlighted the competitive issues facing this industry. The Division will continue to maintain its enforcement and advocacy efforts in this area to ensure that consumers enjoy the benefits of better service, increased choice, and lower prices resulting from competition.


I would emphasize in closing that none of what I have discussed could have been accomplished without the dedicated career staff of the Antitrust Division, and in fact it is because of their experience, talent, and dedication to the mission of protecting consumers that we have been able to achieve the successes we have--both in terms of quantity and quality.

Given the important role we assign to competition in our nation's economy, the Antitrust Division must be a vigorous, formidable, and effective enforcer of our laws. While I am pleased with all that we have accomplished thus far, I recognize that the hallmark of any successful organization is the continuing desire to improve. In that regard I look forward to working with this Subcommittee and its staff.

Mr. Chairman, that completes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to respond to the Subcommittee's questions at this time.

A complete copy of Mr. Barnett’s prepared testimony is available on the DOJ’s website.

No comments:

Post a Comment