WASHINGTON — The Obama administration put large companies on notice that it would be tougher on mergers and attempts to stifle competition, restoring the type of aggressive antitrust enforcement of the 1990s that led to the landmark government case against Microsoft Corp.
The tenor set Monday by the Justice Department's new antitrust enforcer, Christine Varney, would bring the U.S. more in line with the European Union and make it tougher for companies that dominate their markets to abuse their power, experts said.
Among those likely to feel the heat of federal inquiries are technology companies, such as chip maker Intel Corp., Internet giant Google Inc. and longtime tech leader IBM Corp.
"For eight years I think the signal has been the sheriff is sleeping," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Assn., a Washington trade group that has closely followed antitrust policy in the technology industry. "Christine Varney has signaled there's a new sheriff in town."
In her first public comments since taking office, Varney said the financial crisis had shown that the free market didn't always correct itself. She said the Obama administration was repealing antitrust guidelines issued by the Justice Department last year that, in her view, raised too many hurdles to government action.
"There was a high cost to standing aside. We must change course and take a new tack," Varney, an assistant attorney general, said in a speech to the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. "It is time for the antitrust division to step up their efforts."
Varney, a former Federal Trade Commission member during the Clinton administration, would not discuss specific companies or sectors of the economy on which the antitrust division would focus. Instead, she delivered a broad warning that the Obama administration would vigorously enforce laws preventing collusion, market dominance and other antitrust laws that critics said were largely ignored during the Bush years.
"The lessons learned from history are twofold. First, there is no adequate substitute for a competitive market, particularly during difficult economic times. Second, vigorous antitrust enforcement must play a significant role in the government's response to economic downturns to assure markets remain competitive," she said.
"This country's prior experience raises the question, at least in my mind, whether relaxed antitrust enforcement has contributed to the current state. Is 'too big to fail' a failure of antitrust?"
Her comments were a sharp rebuke to her predecessors in the Justice Department's antitrust division. During the Bush administration, many companies took their complaints to European regulators, who have been more aggressive in trying to rein in large corporations.
European regulators, for example, have been investigating antitrust claims against Intel. Regulatory action, including possible fines, could come as early as this week.
Timothy Bresnahan, a Stanford economics professor and former antitrust official in the Clinton administration, said Varney's announcement would bring the U.S. back into "the mainstream of pro-market thinking."
"The division will now pursue cases where an established monopoly blocks new competition that would benefit consumers. They have repudiated the extreme view that these problems never happen," he said in an e-mail. "What will be interesting to see in the coming months is whether they actually have some enforcement actions in mind or are just making a general policy statement."
Without naming names, Varney said firms with dominant positions in their markets have had the ability to push aside competitive threats and stifle innovation and "may have attempted to do so without fear of government prosecution."
Consumers have been waiting for the markets to correct themselves, but the financial crisis has shown they haven't. For that reason, Varney said, antitrust enforcers "can no longer sit on the sidelines."