President Barack Obama's appointees have promised to crack down on monopolies and other instances where weak competition lets businesses abuse consumers.
About time. The administration of President George W. Bush is widely perceived as the wimpiest antitrust regulator in decades, allowing anti-competitive mergers in mobile phone service, washing machines, cruise lines and more.
Search engine gorilla Google is No. 1 on the Obama people's list. Ticketmaster and Live Nation, which want to merge and turn their chokehold on live entertainment into a triple-reverse full Nelson, are right behind.
But the Feds must have better things to worry about than whether two little Pennsylvania pretzel companies pose a danger to the American economy. This month Snyder's of Hanover and Utz Quality Foods, both in Hanover, just over the state line from Carroll County, halted a planned merger after regulators intervened.
In deciding to extend its review of the deal, the Federal Trade Commission sought documents that would have cost the companies millions of dollars and months of uncertainty.
"They were asking for a lot of data - obviously a very expensive process" says Utz President Tom Dempsey. "We looked at it and said, 'We've got to make a business decision here.' We just decided this isn't something we're prepared to go forward on."
Too bad. The merger, which the companies said would have been layoff-free, could have given them fighting weight to compete against monsters Frito-Lay and Kraft. It would have been good for Hanover, where they employ a couple of thousand people.
Not in anybody's imagination (except maybe an antitrust regulator's) could it have hurt consumers.
Between them Frito-Lay and Kraft control well over half of the U.S. snack market. Frito-Lay makes the eponymous chips and other junk food. Kraft makes Ritz and Triscuit crackers and Mister Salty pretzels.
Snyder's market share, by contrast, is about 2 percent. Utz's is even less. Combined, they would control a smaller portion of the snack business than Microsoft's share of Web-search activity. Believe me, that's small.
True, in pretzels Snyder's is the big cheese. Southeastern Pennsylvania is to pretzels what Silicon Valley is to semiconductors. Emerging from the dozens of pretzel makers founded by German immigrants in the late 1800s, Synder's has gone national and somehow fended off Frito-Lay and its Rold Gold brand.
Even so, Snyder's has only 39 percent of the pretzel business, according to Snack World magazine, the holy writ of salty munchables. Add Utz's 6 percent pretzel share and you're still nowhere near a hazardous pretzel monopoly.
The pretzel trade still looks like the beer business from 50 years ago - many small producers staying with their niches and preferred merchants. Numerous pretzel makers operate within a hundred miles of Hanover - Sturgis, Herr's, Anderson, Schultz, Bachman and so forth.
If a Snyder's/Utz pretzel trust managed to stick snackers with big price increases, competitors would undercut it in a snap. In any case, industry consolidation might help consumers by lowering costs.
Under Obama, competition regulators "are very interested in showing people they will be vigorous in challenging mergers," says Robert H. Lande, an antitrust specialist and professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
The FTC didn't challenge the pretzel merger, says agency spokesman Mitchell Katz. Asking for extra information "is a normal step in the process," he said.
Yeah, an expensive step - one that for Utz wasn't much different from a hostile court order.
It's true that the anti-monopoly cops need to be back on the beat. But why did they twist themselves into curlicues over a couple of little snack makers?