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US Federal Competition Policy Expanded: North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v FTC

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TW

(by Giorgio Monti)

[Note by Alfonso: The US Supreme Court delivered last week an antitrust Opinion in North Carolina State Board of Examiners v FTC. We asked Giorgio Monti -whom we knew would be interested in the issues raised by the case- to write a comment for Chillin’Competition and he kindly accepted. Giorgio needs no introduction, but I’ll do a quick one: he’s one of the leading EU competition law professors, the author of this great book, currently holds one of the most envied posts in competition academia at the European University Institute in Fiesole, and, more importantly, he’s also a very nice guy. We leave you with him] 

***

The quiet life of incumbents is often shattered by new paradigms – Uber’s controversial challenge to the taxi businesses of many countries is a colorful example of the synergy of technology and entrepreneurship doing battle with a rentier establishment. In the case at hand, the FTC saw something similar in a market for the vain: teeth-whitening services being offered by non-dentists at a price lower than the same services offered by dentists. The latter, using the State Board (the majority of which is made up of dentists), issued warnings to these pesky new entrants stating that the unlicensed practice of dentistry (including whitening of teeth) was a crime. Faced with such a potentially steep entry barrier, the new entrants abandoned the market. Is the conduct of the State Board an unfair method of competition under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act?

The answer to this question is more of constitutional law than antitrust. The anticompetitive effects are clear; the justification for this restriction on the basis of risks to health if teeth whitening was performed by non-dentists was not even pleaded on the facts; contrariwise, as the majority reports, complains to the State Board were based on the lower prices of the new entrants. Indeed it wasn’t even clear if it was true that the unlicensed practice of teeth whitening services was indeed a crime because the legislation did not include this service. And yet, in the world’s freest market, where under Federal Law the antitrust rules are compared to the Magna Carta, State laws may restrict competition, and there’s nothing (much) the Federal government can do about it. However, and this is the vital point which this judgment sheds light upon, such restrictions must be the result of state action for there to be antitrust immunity.

In briefest outline, this immunity (so-called Parker immunity after the seminal judgment) applies if the actor that restricts competition is either (1) the State acting in its sovereign capacity or (2) a private party, and then in this case only if (a) the restraint of competition is clearly articulated State policy and (b) that this policy is actively supervised by the State.

The State Board claimed that they benefited from immunity under the first limb of this doctrine because the Board had been created by the State. The bone of contention was how far this Board, created by the State (here under the Dental Practice Act) but populated by practicing dentists, merited immunity under that first limb.  In the view of the majority, they did not: ‘A non-sovereign actor controlled by active market participants’ has to satisfy the second limb of the test and in this case it failed to do so because there was no active State supervision when the Board took the view that teeth whitening fell within its competences and that it was thus appropriate to send letters ordering non-dentists to stop offering teeth whitening services.

It follows that companies like Pro-Teeth Whitening, whose logo I used for this entry, might now re-open in Charlotte, North Carolina where it operated before the Board’s actions.

(1) The widening scope of Federal Competition Policy

The three dissenting Justices considered that more deference to State policies was warranted. Beneath the technical debates on whether the majority approach is consistent with precedent one gets a sense that the dissenting Justices are worried about departing from the original division of powers, so that the main bone of contention is about the constitutional balance being fixed rather than fluid. Thus the dissenters open by noting that State Dental Boards were always organized thus even before the Sherman Act. To Europeans this is a bit odd, because we know that we can use the TFEU precisely to challenge age-old practices. In Consorzio Industrie Fiammiferi the competition rules were used to challenge a 1923 Royal decree, for instance. To Europeans, competition law (and internal market law) applied to state conduct is a powerful crowbar to force states to rethink age-old restrictive practices. Of course some think this leads to neo-liberal oblivion, to others it shows we’ve got the most free market constitution in the world.

(2) Rules and Standards

The dissent felt, rightly, that the approach of the majority was also problematic because it would yield implementation problems. The rule-based approach supported by the dissent is easy to apply (Is the Board created by the State? If yes immunity) is a lot easier to apply to any case that may arise than the test of the majority (is the Board ‘controlled by active market participants, who possess singularly strong private interests’ such that there is a ‘structural risk of market participants’ confusing their own interests with the State’s policy goals’? If yes then immunity must satisfy the second limb of the Parker immunity doctrine). Is this a sufficiently strong argument to lead one to support the dissent’s view that the standard is unwieldy?  I am optimistic that Federal courts will be able to find a way of testing how far the composition of the agency is sufficiently remote from the commercial interests the agency regulates.  Moreover, even if we agree with the dissenting justices that ‘regulatory capture can occur in many ways’ is it not preferable to have a test that tries to challenge more of those occurrences, rather than fewer of them?

In oral argument, many of the Justices were troubled by the tension: surely the best way of regulating a profession is to ask professionals what to do (an example that was used is neurosurgery: surely nobody wants bureaucrats deciding on the best practices for neurosurgery).  But this is to misread the debate. The FTC was not claiming that a regulatory board composed of self-interested experts is illegal. It is merely saying that if a State creates such a regulator, it has to actively supervise it and so the State has a duty to be the competition advocate and to ask the regulator to justify restrictive policies.

(3) Procedural Public Interest

North Carolina may still try and ban non-dentists by more direct involvement with the Board. As the majority said, if State can make a claim that an anticompetitive policy is the State’s own choice, then this suffices for antitrust immunity. No substantive test is needed to measure how far the harm caused by an anticompetitive market compares to the benefits of state regulation.  The public interest, to recall Harm Schepel’s important paper (’Delegation of Regulatory Powers to Private Parties under EC-Competition Law: Towards a Procedural Public Interest Test’. (2002) 39(1) Common Market Law Review 31) is defined procedurally rather than substantively. Why so?

Perhaps doing this kind of comparison between consumer interests and producer interests is invidious (but isn’t cost-benefit analysis now so widespread?).

Perhaps States value what little residual sovereignty they still have over economic policy (spare a thought for Greece).

Or perhaps it all boils down to this: as the majority noted, if North Carolina wants to ban cheap teeth whitening services it may do so in a way that falls under Parker immunity. It will be for voters to then decide if this was the right policy choice.  If so, here is a nice exam question: ‘Democracy can, and should, determine how free markets are. Discuss.’

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

2 March 2015 at 12:02 pm

Much more on the Intel Judgment

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Writing about the Intel Judgment seems to have become one of the favorite hobbies of some of our leading competition law experts.

One of the most downloaded and talked-about competition law articles of the year was Wouter Wils‘ one on “The Judgment of the EU General Court in Intel and the So-Called “More Economic Approach” to Abuse of Dominance“, which we discussed and first announced here.

Wouter’s piece was followed by other equally interesting ones, like Richard Whish‘s (see here), and like my current co-blogger’s, which also received considerable attention (see here for Pablo Ibañez‘s “Intel and Article 102 TFEU Case Law: Making Sense of a Perpetual Controversy”  [Wouter’s and Pablo’s articles are by the way both nominated for the Antitrust Writing Awards (see the “Dominance” category here); for some reason Pablo is also co-nominated in the business category for two other pieces I wrote myself (I now understand why he likes to theorize about free riding… ;) ]

The latest addition to this list of worthy reading is a paper just made available by our friend and founder of this blog, Nicolas Petit. His piece, titled, Intel, Leveraging Rebates and the Goals of Article 102 TFEU discusses the positive law standard  applicable to exclusivity rebates following Intel. He finds that the GC’s Judgment sets a modified per se prohibition rule for exclusivity rebates, and endorses the theory of anticompetitive leveraging that formed the core of the Commission’s Guidance Paper on Article 102 TFEU. Nicolas also discusses the purposivist debate that has arisen in the scholarship, and whether it is right that the General Court endorsed a non-welfarist approach to Article 102 TFEU. In his view, this cannot be right, for non welfarist goals cannot be acclimated in moden competition law. Nicolas calls for clear dicta from the ECJ along the lines of Post Danmark.

Those interested in knowing even more (or, rather, in having even more mixed views) about the Intel case should (1) have attended Nick Banasevic’s (who was Case Manager in Intel) excellent talk about the Judgment last Friday in Madrid; and (2) take a look at a new competition law journal (Competition Law & Policy Debate) which, in its first number, features a bunch of Intel-related articles authored by a very impressive line-up of authors (the same issue includes as well an interesting piece on the Google case by the former President of the CFI, Bo Vesterdorf, also available in SSRN).

P.S. Following the publication of this post I have received another piece on the Judgment. This one is authored by Luc Peeperkorn -a European Commission official and one of the main proponents of the effects-based approach, currently on a one-year leave of absence at NYU-, and its title is self-explanatory: “Why the General Court is wrong in Intel and what the Court of Justice can do to rebalance the assessment of rebates“. The piece is also interesting, and unusual, for it is not every day that a Commission official criticizes (although in an academic capacity) a Judgment that the Institution won in first instance and is defending on appeal.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 February 2015 at 5:16 pm

Non-working papers (on two-sided markets, object/effect, cartel evidence and Google)

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writingI recently had to devote most of my non-billable work to finishing a few publications (the fact that after a few missed deadlines I was almost under death threat from editors also played a role) and preparing some courses. As if there weren’t better things to do with one’s time…

Anyway, since I did the work, I thought that it could perhaps be useful to post it or refer to it here, both to justify myself and in case any of you might find them interesting or have comments. These “non-working” papers include:

– A paper on “The Double Duality of Two-Sided Markets” which, to a large extent, is a beefed up version of my speech (the ppp is available here) at the Swedish Competition Authority’s Pros and Cons Conference back in November. The editors of Competition Law Journal have kindly offered to publish it, so it will appear there soon. The paper posits that competition law enforcement regarding multi-sided platforms may have not always accounted for the ambiguity of business practices carried out in these settings and attempts to identify the causes at the root of this problem and to propose some solutions. In essence, my take is that multi-sided platforms raise old questions but with renewed intensity, and that this must force us to go back to basics and recall some general principles that we should never lose sight of.

– A presentation on the Cartes Bancaires Judgment (here: Some additional reflections on Cartes Bancaires_Lamadrid ). It’s titled “some additional reflections” because it followed previous interventions at a seminar on the part of Javier Ruiz Calzado (Latham&Watkins; his very good ppp is also available here: Cartes Bancaires_Ruiz Calzado ) and Nicholas Khan, from the European Commission’s Legal Service. It was a privilege to share the panel with them.

– An absurdly lengthy not so succint paper I’ve co-written with my colleague Ana Balcells on cartel evidence in Spain: La prueba de los cárteles en España (Lamadrid_Balcells), forthcoming in JM Beneyto y J Maillo (Dirs): La lucha contra los cárteles en España, Aranzadi, 2015.

– Also, a few days ago the founder of this blog, Nicolas Petit, asked me (with a most kind anticipation of less than 24 hours…) to conduct a case study on the Google investigation at the Brussels School of Competition. It was a very interesting exercise. I only directed the debate asking questions and linking issues together and it was the students who brilliantly taught themselves and arrived to their own conclusions (I’m being nice to them because I told them that suscribing to the blog is a prerequisite for passing, so I assume they’re reading this). The legal issues underpinning the case (which have not always received the necessary attention) are very well-suited to reflect about some basic concepts of Article 102. In fact, Pablo also did this with his students at LSE a few days ago. Just in case any of you is interested in conducting a similar exercise, here is the (very hastily drafted) list of questions I used: Google Case study – BSC_Lamadrid.

In no man’s land- Case T-355/13, easyJet

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Last Wednesday, 21st January, the General Court rendered an interesting Judgment in Case T-355/13, easyJet v Commission.

It is well-known that the European Commission has always enjoyed great discretion to reject, shelve or prioritize cases, traditionally under the widely used justification (sometimes pretext) of lack of Community/EU interest (as the case-law has, ever since Automec, acknowledged it may do). With the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003 the Commission was granted another two reasons to dismiss cases (not that it needed  them); pursuant to Article 13 it could now dispose of complaints where “one authority is dealing with the case” already (13(1)) or where a complaint “has already been dealt with by another competition authority” (13(2)).

easyJet v Commission concerns the latter scenario.

The facts in a nutshell

In 2008 easyJet lodged three complaints against Schiphol airport with the Netherlands Competition Authority, based on national legislation governing aviation law and on competition law. The authority rejected the complaints by relying on the laws governing aviation (said to be inspired on the competition rules) and by resorting to its priority policy, which enables it to pick the cases with which it deals.

In 2011 easyJet lodged an abuse of dominance complaint with the European Commission. It acknowledged it had lodged similar complaints in the Netherlands and explained that these had never been assessed on the merits.

After two years (so much for the best practices), in 2013, the Commission rejected the complaint arguing, inter alia, that a national competition authority had already dealt with it.

The Judgment

In Wednesday’s Judgment, the Court rules:

1) That the Commission is entitled to reject a complaint which has previously been rejected by a competition authority of a Member State on priority grounds even if the latter has not examined the merits of the case. The Court explicitly endorses an interpretation whereby what’s important is that the national authority has “formally”, however superficially, “reviewed” the complaint (see, e.g. recital 27 of the Judgment).

2) That the above is valid also where, as in the case at hand, the national competition authority rejected the complaint in the course of an investigation conducted under separate provisions of national law (aviation law in casu) “on condition that the review was conducted in the light of the rules of EU Competition law” (see in this regard para. 46 of the Judgment).

In sum, the General Court rules that when a national competition authority rejects a case without having examined its merits, and without having undertaken an analysis on the basis of the competition law rules this is enough to consider that the said authority has “dealt with” the case within the sense of Article 13(2) of the Regulation.

A few comments

It is also widely acknowledged that judicial review in these cases –also starting with Automec- has been rather lenient. At one point some –like me- saw a possible change of trend in CEAHR, but hopes were later dispelled by Protegé (see here for our comments). This Judgment fits within the classic very deferential stream of case law in this domain.

Whereas it’s true that the facts of the case are very specific, my first inclination is not to share the Court’s reasoning; if you see it differently I’d be happy to discuss.

– First of all, I wonder how this all fits with a stream of case-law (actually cited in this very same Judgment), according to which “where the institutions have a broad discretion, respect for the rights guaranteed by the legal order of the European Union in administrative procedures is of even more fundamental importance; those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to examine carefully and impartially all the relevant aspects of the individual case”. (In the same sense see also the often forgotten recitals 79 to 83 of Automec itself). Given that the EU Courts require –at least in theory- that the Commission examine carefully all the relevant aspects of a case prior to rejecting it out of lack of priority, why doesn’t the GC require the same from national competition authorities prior to concluding that they have “dealt” with a case within the sense of 13(2)? Moreover, doesn’t the case law require that the guarantees provided by EU Law be also applied by national bodies when applying EU provisions?

– Secondly, I’m not sure the Commission needed this favor in a domain in which it effectively already enjoyed almost unfettered discretion. Indeed, it didn’t need to invoke Art. 13(2); had it simply said the case lacked EU interest it would have got away with it

– The risk, in my view, is that after this Judgments authorities will be able to dispose of cases out of prioritization reasons without having examined first the relevant aspects of the case, at was required –at least formally- by EU case law, just because another authority chose to do just that before.

In a way, the Judgment might accordingly make it much easier for authorities to play hot potato. Wanna-be complainants would be in between, in no man’s land, with the frustrating feeling that no one wants to even cursorily look at their case.

– The Commission would probably reply to the above that national Courts are still well placed to deal with complaints, that they’re moreover under the obligation to examine the merits of cases and that they have wider powers (such as that of awarding damages). Query: I wonder how the experience of losing a case that the Commission thought was obvious before a Belgian Court (see here) may have altered the Institution’s perception as to how well placed judges are to deal with competition cases. I also think that the Commission often trusts judges to deal with cases that would need an EU-wide consistent solution, ideally from an experienced specialized agency. For instance, the Commission very recently rejected a complaint against the UEFA Fair Play Rules alleging that Belgian Courts were well placed to deal with it (see here; query: is that really a case that should be dealt with by a national Court instead of by the European Commission?)

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

27 January 2015 at 4:24 pm

Antitrust Writing Awards 2015

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AWA

Concurrences has launched the 2015 edition of the Antitrust Writing Awards.

Among the roughly 50 articles selected for each of the “academic” and “business” categories there are many written by friends of this blog, and also some authored by Pablo (namely this one), Nicolas Petit (see here) and myself (here and here) (btw, if you click on any of those you might as well give us a 5 star vote ;) )

Regardless of the degree of importance that you may give to these things, scrolling through the list of selected articles is a great way of catching up with some of the best scholarship of the past few months (and also with our writings). Being the sort of person that reads a competition law blog, you’ll surely find some stuff of interest in those lists.

 

P.S. An additional thought: I just saw once again the pic of Pablo that appears in the Concurrences website (at one point in time he was the most read author in that site) and couldn’t help thinking that it’s well suited for a before-and-after Men’s Health cover

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 January 2015 at 11:44 am

A review of recent EU competition case-law

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Slide MvW-NP

Last week General Court Judge Marc van der Woude (click here to read his Friday Slot interview with us) and Nicolas Petit did a joint presentation on recent EU competition case-law at the Vereniging voor Mededingingsrecht (Dutch Competition Law Association).

The must-read slides are available here: Slides -17 December – Van der Woude and Petit

(A teaser: the slided identify an apparent misquote in the Cartes Bancaires Judgment…).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

22 December 2014 at 6:27 pm

International Conference on Cartels- Materials

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The Universidad San Pablo CEU (which thanks to the work of Prof. Jerónimo Maillo has always paid an unusual attention to competition law) and the Spanish Competition Authority recently held an international workshop on Cartels in Madrid which I hear was a great success.

I couldn’t make it, but I’m told that my colleague Konstantin Jörgens did a great job discussing a piece I’ve co-written on the assessment of evidence in cartel cases.

All materials are now available at the website of USP-CEU’s Institute for European Studies , but since we know you’re a bit lazy (no offence) we’ll save you the effort of an additional click:

  • Opening Speech
    Eduardo Prieto
    Download pdf
  • Integrating Regulatory and Antitrust Powers
    Juan Delgado
    Download pdf
  • Calculating fines: Practical problems
    Alberto Escudero
    Download pdf
  • Lessons from the Damages’claims in the Spanish sugar cartel
    Francisco Marcos
    Download pdf
  • EU Antitrust Damages
    Evelyne Ameye
    Download pdf
  • European Commission’s settlement procedure – a success story
    Eric Van Ginderachter
    Download pdf
  • Leniency programmes and the problematic use of confidential information
    Javier Guillen
    Download pdf
  • An economic assessment of the judicial review of the CNMC’s fines
    Javier García-Verdugo
    Download pdf
  • Cartel Settlements
    Jean-François Bellis
    Download pdf
  • Leniency and Cartel Detection
    Juliane Schulze
    Download pdf
  • Sanctioning hard core cartel infringements in EU Competition Law: towards a more compliance-driven approach
    Aaron Khan
    Download pdf
  • Fines and Evidence in Cartels
    Konstantin Jörgens
    Download pdf
  • Prosecutorial & Non-Prosecutorial Systems and the Fight against Cartels
    Marianela Lopez-Galdos
    Download pdf
  • Leniency – Dutch experience
    Pablo Amador Sánchez
    Download pdf
  • ‘How (Not) to Design a Criminal Cartel Offence: Learning from the UK Experience’
    Peter Whelan
    Download pdf
  • Swedish Competition Authority
    Karin Montelius
    Download pdf
  • EU Judicial Architecture Facing Anti-Cartel Enforcement
    Georges Vallindas
    Download pdf
  • Leniency Plus: a Building Block or a Trojan Horse?
    Marek Martyniszyn
    Download pdf
  • Class Actions to Claim Antitrust Damages
    Pablo Gutiérrez de Cabiedes
    Download pdf

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

18 December 2014 at 7:01 pm

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