Archive for the ‘Subversive Thoughts’ Category
September 11 2014 was a big day for antitrust at the European Court of Justice. The Court delivered two important Judgments in the Mastercard and Cartes Bancaires cases, and heard oral arguments in Huawei/ZTE. We’ll comment on the latter in due course, and will be devoting our next posts to discussing the content and implications of the two Judgments. Let’s start with Cartes Bancaires, which is the one with greater potential future implications (as already noted by Pablo in the post below).
This can be an analytically complex subject and there’s much to discuss, so allow me to skip the basics and the summary of the Judgment that you can find here (a copy-pasted version will also appear in some newsletters…) Here are my 10 initial reactions to the Judgment. These are not at all definitive positions but rather preliminary thoughts that I’m hastily posting now with the hope that I’ll be able to polish them in the course of follow-up discussions. For the lazy ones, and given that the full text may be lengthy and dense (for a change), all the main messages appear in bold.
1) The Judgment is to be welcomed mainly as a statement, or cautionary message, from the Court in reaction to an often discussed trend on the excessive use and abuse of the “object shortcut” (how many recent EU and national 101 “effects” cases do you know of?)
In the ECJ’s words (para 58) “[t]he concept of restriction of competition `by object’ can be applied only to certain types of coordination between undertakings which reveal a sufficient degree of harm to competition that it may be found that there is no need to examine their effects otherwise the Commission would be exempted from the obligation to prove the actual effects on the market of agreements which are in no way established to be, by their very nature, harmful to the proper functioning of normal competition”.
It seems almost as if the GC had asked to be quashed when writing in its Judgment in this case (para. 124) that “the concept of infringement by object should not be given a strict interpretation”. The ECJ sensibly lambasts this statement in para. 58 (admittedly, though, this may have been a problem of bad drafting on the part of the GC; read in context, the statement seems to have intended to refer to the fact that “object restrictions” are not limited to a closed list of “suspect” hardcore restrictions, which –had it been stated that way- would’ve made perfect sense; AG Wahl also seems to have observed this as evident from para. 67 of his Opinion).
This is not without importance, for the “object” category has arguably been expanded beyond the limits of its logic (remember Areeda’s quote?) not only by the European Commission, but arguably also by the ECJ itself in T-Mobile (see below) and, less visibly, but more excessively and perhaps more importantly, by national competition authorities (as AG Wahl also observed in para. 59 of his Opinion: “caution is all the more necessary because the analytical framework that the Court is led to identify will be imposed both on the Commission and on the national competition authorities, whose awareness and level of expertise vary”). For my previous comments in this regard –in relation to info exchanges- click here.
2) Until now, the ECJ had endorsed an arguably wide interpretation of the notion of restriction by object, placing however the emphasis on the need to conduct a proper 101(3) analysis in any event. This is what the Court has done since Matra, did recently in Pierre Fabre and, most obviously, in Glaxo Spain, although to no avail because –as you may not yet know- the Commission recently decided to drop this case because it allegedly lacks EU interest; this is after 14 years of proceedings, two Court Judgments, a declaration from the ECJ that dual pricing constitutes a restriction by object and also despite the ECJ’s mandate for the Institution to conduct a 101(3) assessment. No wonder they have tried to keep it under the radar… We’ll comment on this case in the future (Disclaimer: my firm represents the European Association of Euro-Pharmaceutical Companies, which has recently appealed the Commission’s decision to drop the case under a quite innovative legal reasoning]. Given the little practical impact of its previous stance and the slow death of Article 101(3), it seems reasonable for the Court to have decided to move beyond it.
3) AG Wahl had rightly observed in his Opinion, “the present case gives the Court another opportunity to refine its much debated case-law on the concept of restriction by object”. Query: has the Judgment finally shed light on how to resolve the object/effect conundrum? As developed below, I’m afraid not much.
Click here to continue reading:
(by Pablo Ibañez Colomo)
Voices that relativise the problems with Article 102 TFEU case law are not infrequent. It may be true that the case law is not beyond reproach in all respects, the argument goes, but perfection is not of this world. The fact that rulings are often criticised simply means that Article 102 TFEU is an inherently controversial provision and that the stakes in abuse cases are generally very high, not that there is something fundamentally wrong with the preferences expressed by EU courts. And in any event, the alternative, economics-based, approaches have their problems too. The current case law is just the expression of a legitimate choice.
There is of course some truth in this position. At the same time, I find a bit defensive and as such problematic because it can become an obstacle to an honest and constructive exchange of ideas. I can think of at least a fundamental aspect that is uncontroversially (or objectively, if one prefers) wrong with Article 102 TFEU case law. What makes it even more interesting is that it fails to attract the attention that, in my view, it deserves. We all know that exclusive dealing and loyalty rebates are (absent an objective justification) abusive under Article 102 TFEU. The assumption underlying this rule is discussed far less often and is crucial to understand the case law. In paragraph 77 of Intel, the Court repeats the old formula whereby the abovementioned practices, as opposed to quantity rebates, ‘are not based – save in exceptional circumstances – on an economic transaction which justifies this burden or benefit but are designed to remove or restrict the purchaser’s freedom to choose his sources of supply and to deny other producers access to the market’.
This statement, as a matter of economics, is incorrect. Contrary to what the Court holds, there are perfectly valid pro-competitive justifications for exclusive dealing and loyalty rebates. I am inclined to believe that everyone at DG Comp and the Legal Service agrees by now with this idea, which has long been part of the mainstream. Suffice it to check any textbook on industrial organisation or the economics of competition law. To mention the three I had in my office when preparing this post, take Carlton & Perloff; Bishop & Walker; or Niels, Jenkins & Kavanagh (Hans Zenger’s piece on loyalty rebates is great too). Given its peculiar cost structure, some of these justifications are of obvious relevance in the microprocessor industry.
Article 102 TFEU case law will not evolve until the ECJ acknowledges that a rule-based approach to exclusive dealing and loyalty rebates is grounded on a misguided economic assumption. Interestingly, a shift in this direction would not require a major revolution. The ECJ would just have to accept – finally – that what is true under Article 101 TFEU must by definition be true under Article 102 TFEU. In paras 10-12 of Delimitis the Court holds that there are perfectly valid justifications for exclusive dealing and – by extension – for loyalty rebates. As a result, they are not restrictive by object. Article 102 TFEU case law cannot be based on the opposite assumption (i.e. that these practices are anticompetitive by their very nature because they have no economic explanation other than the exclusion of competition). Paragraphs 89-91 of Intel show the difficulties into which EU courts run whenever the tension between these two lines of case law is raised (Van den Bergh Foods being another excellent example).
I am convinced that an effects-based approach would follow logically from the suggested shift. The additional arguments raised in subsequent cases to justify the current approach are not particularly persuasive. The fact that dominant firms have a ‘special responsibility’ that derives from their status does not mean that an effects-based approach to loyalty rebates and exclusivity is not conceivable. There are recent cases, like Post Danmark and TeliaSonera, where the ‘special responsibility’ of dominant firms is seen as compatible with requiring evidence of an anticompetitive effect.
Paragraph 77 of Intel also made me think of the relationship between law and economics in competition law. It is interesting that the General Court reiterates the Hoffmann-La Roche formula to make it clear that there is a long line of case law supporting its position. ‘Exclusive dealing and loyalty rebates have no pro-competitive justifications because we have always said they do not’, the judges appear to claim. What is an economic argument is dealt with, in other words, as a legal one. From an economic perspective, to be sure, the fact that EU courts have consistently relied on the same assumption does not make the latter any less incorrect.
The Intel judgment also made me think of something I often say. Economic analysis is sometimes presented as an exogenous force that has interfered with EU competition law since the 1990s. What wrong assumptions such as the one discussed in this post show is that this view is not accurate. Economics is hard-wired into competition law – it is an integral part of it. The only debate should be whether to rely on one’s more or less accurate intuitions (à la market definition in United Brands, for instance) or to trust instead the analytical tools developed over several decades by competent individuals devoting their professional lives to a systematic understanding of the economic side of the discipline.
Umbrella pricing- Case C-557/12 Kone, or when effectiveness may go too far with little effective consequences
Last Thursday the ECJ delivered its –once again remarkably brief (4 pages)- Judgment in Kone, Case C-557/12. In her widely discussed Opinion in this case Advocate General Kokott had raised the stakes, pointing out that “[t]he Court’s Judgment in this case will without doubts be groundbreaking in the context of the further development of European competition law and, in particular, its private enforcement” (perhaps a bit of an overstatement if you ask me).
The question at issue was whether a national legal system can exclude the possibility that compensation may be sought in relation to damages suffered due to the overprice (legally) charged by non-cartelists who independently and rationally adapted to the cartel by increasing their own prices. The umbrella metaphor signifies that those companies can profitably increase under the cover of their competitors’ cartel.
The Judgment is remarkable because –following AG Kokott’s recommendation- it somehow endorses the “umbrella pricing/damages” theory by ruling that Member States cannot exclude it “categorically”. In the Court’s words:
“[t]he full effectiveness of Article 101 TFEU would be put at risk if the right of any individual to claim compensation for harm suffered were subjected by national law, categorically and regardless of the particular circumstances of the case, to the existence of a direct causal link while excluding that right because the individual concerned had no contractual links with a member of the cartel, but with an undertaking not party thereto, whose pricing policy, however, is a result of the cartel that contributed to the distortion of price formation mechanisms governing competitive markets”. (Para.33).
A brief background note
The preliminary reference had reached the ECJ because Austria Courts had previously ruled that the “umbrella pricing” theory would not be sufficient to establish a “causal link”. The referring Court cited a legal doctrine that holds sway in Germany and Austria according to which any claimant must establish the infringement of a “protective provision”. According to that doctrine, the decisive factor is whether the provision infringed by the person responsible for the loss had as its object the protection of the injured person’s interest. In this sense, it was generally considered in Austria that “umbrella pricing” theories were out of the scope of the protective provision given that the loss they could cause involved no relationship of unlawfulness and was rather “merely a side-effect of an independent decision that a person not involved in that cartel has taken based on his own business considerations”.
The Judgment’s reasoning in a nutshell
The Judgment (i) recalls the direct effect of the competition rules and that its effectiveness requires that any individual shall be able to claim damages for loss caused to him by a conduct restrictive of competition (paras 20-22); (ii) stresses the role of damages claims as a possibility that “strengthens the working of EU competition rules” (para 23); (iii) reminds that in the absence of harmonization the principle of procedural autonomy applies (meaning that whereas EU Law imposes the necessary “existence” of a right to claim damages national laws must govern the “exercise” thereof) (para. 24); (iv) observes that the principle of procedural autonomy is subjected to compliance with the principles of equivalence and effectiveness (paras 25-26); (v) states that “umbrella pricing” is “one of the possible effects of the cartel, that the members thereof cannot disregard” (paras. 27-30); and (vi) concludes that excluding the link of causality between the cartel and umbrella pricing categorically, for legal reasons and regardless of the circumstances would run counter the effectiveness of EU competition rules (paras. 31-35).
A handful of follow-up thoughts
I haven’t yet given much thought to this, but here are some preliminary -almost instinctive- reactions that might perhaps contribute to sparking some debate:
- From the viewpoint of general EU Law the Judgment fits within a consistent body of case-law endorsing an indirect harmonization of civil procedural rules by virtue of an ample reading of the principle of effectiveness that narrows the scope of the principle of procedural autonomy.
- The key assumption or stance underlying the Judgment is that there is a certain causal relationship between the cartel and the umbrella pricing in which the former acts as a facilitator or enabling mechanism for the latter (e.g. (a) “it is not disputed by the interested parties (…) that a phenomenon such as umbrella pricing is recognized as one of the possible consequences of a cartel”; (b) “even if the determination of an offer price is a purely autonomous decision, taken by the undertaking not party to a cartel, it must none the less be stated that such decision has been able to be taken by reference to a market price distorted by that cartel and, as a result, contrary to the competition rules”); and, more clearly, (c) the suffering of loss in “umbrella pricing” settings “is one of the possible effects of the cartel”).
To me this causal relationship would seem intuitively hard to establish, and I wouldn’t have bet on the Court taking it for granted (with the sole supporting arguent that the intervening parties in the case had not disputed that umbrella pricing is, very theoretically, a possible consequence of a cartel). In any event, those familiar with the Court’s case-law in other areas may observe that the ECJ might arguably have embraced a much narrower interpretation of the causality link in other areas, such as that of non-contractual liability of EU Institutions, where a “direct causal link” is required…
- Effectiveness trumps it all? The deviation from the general principle of procedural autonomy and the arguably flexible interpretation of the “causality” requirement might once again be explained by the perceived need to safeguard the effectiveness of the competition rules (read paras. 32 and 33 of the Judgment). Effectiveness has –rightly- been the core concern at the root of the case law on damages actions (Courage and Crehan, Manfredi, City Morors, Pfleiderer, Otis or Donau Chemie). However, one often has the impression that we hail the effectiveness of these rules too much in order to deviate from general principles of law to a greater extent than we do it with other legal regimes, particularly when dealing with cartels (para. 32 of Kokkot’s Opinion makes this last point more evident). I recently made the same point regarding the Court’s minimalistic interpretation of the limiting principles of necessity and proportionality in these cases for the sake of effectiveness
- At the level of incentives, what signal would this Judgment send to non-cartelists operating in a seemingly cartelized market? [admittedly not an easy group to target] How about “hey, raise your prices in the shadow of the cartel: you’ll reap the profits plus your rivals will have to pay extra for it”?
- It’s remarkable that, to my knowledge, this is an issue that hasn’t received that much attention in the U.S. in spite of private enforcement being much more developed. In fact, distric courts have tended to view this theory as too speculative or conjectural, observing that independent pricing decisions (which may be affected by several and complex factors) break the chain of causation. [e.g. Antoine Garabet, M.D., Inc. v. Autonomous Techs. Corp., 116 F. Supp. 2d 1159, 1167-68 (C.D. Cal. 2000)].
- The Judgment will be welcomed by many lawyers (because we now have an apparent better chance at overcoming the causality hurdle) and particularly economists (for whom, paradoxically, the endorsement of the umbrella theory could bring in a rain of new work) (I get metaphorical at lunchbreaks)
- At the end of the day, and in spite of all the above, I doubt this Judgment will have very significant practical implications. The only thing the Court really says is that national legislations cannot exclude the “umbrella theory” categorically and regardless of the specific circumstances of the case. However, it does in no way require national Courts to accept this theory when they examine the causal link originating responsibility in a given case. The causal relationship still will need to be proved in the light of the specific circumstances of the case and, well, good luck with that.
On Privacy, Big Data and Competition Law (2/2) On the nature, goals, means and limitations of competition law
In my previous post I outlined the content of the main part of my presentation at the European Data Protection Supervisor’s recent workshop on Privacy, Consumers, Competition and Big Data, held in the wake of the EDPS preliminary opinion on the subject.
Today I’ll provide you with my views on the great question underlying both the workshop and the opinion: should data protection considerations be incorporated to competition law’s substantive assessments?
The (preliminary) view implied in the EDPS’ opinion is that they should. In essence, the opinion posits that competition law is or should be about consumers’ welfare, and that this comprises much more than only the narrow set of economic considerations that competition law currently looks at. The EDPS tends to believe that public interest would be better served that way. Some lawyers and the companies they represent also hold these views but perhaps for different –less public interest oriented- reasons.
somewhat anticlimatic view I conveyed to the participants at the workshop on this point was the following (as in the last post, I’ll basically sketch my conference notes):
Competition law is certainly a most tempting instrument given both its flexibility to accommodate creative theories of harm and the ample remedial powers it offers. These reasons explain the recent use (or instrumentalization) of competition law to pursue other public policy goals [I also talked about the latter yesterday at another conference, but I might develop that in another future post].
But just because competition authorities have a hammer, that doesn’t mean they should view every problem –even if unrelated to competition law- as a nail.
In my view, competition law and competition authorities are not well-suited to factor into their analysis (perhaps more important) public policy considerations alien to the specific matters they are supposed to deal with. Competition law is a legal regime of last resort, which means that their existence is premised upon the assumption that, in those areas where regulation doesn’t say otherwise, competition is the best way to allocate resources. When this is not the case, I think the solution may lie in regulating more or in a smarter way, but not in blurring the already blurred contours of a legal regime that –let’s not forget- is of a quasi criminal nature.
Other reasons why competition law might not be well-suited to deal with privacy/data protection issues relate to the fact that it’s only triggered in very specific circumstances; that it is about conduct and not structure; that if authorities are reluctant to intervene in cases of apparent direct harm to consumers in the form of excessive price it’s not easy to see why they should focus on direct harm through lower privacy alternatives (when moreover there is an additional ad hoc legal regime precisely to establish minimum standards). And on top of those there are institutional factors: if competition authorities struggle to strike a balance between strictly economic factors, how would they be supposed to trade-off economic factors with fundamental rights or other public policy objectives? (environment, industrial policy, labor standards, effects on jobs …)
Coming back to the data protection world. The gap (if any) does not lie in competition law not reaching where it should, but on data protection law lacking adequate regulation and remedies. Accordingly, the way to fill in that gap would require devising an effective data protection regime with its own and more effective rules and principles, but not extending competition law beyond its natural limits.
Some person I very much appreciate personally and intellectually (can’t give names because Chatham rules applied) raised the point that the Charter of Fundamental Rights may perhaps be a game changer in that the European Commission would be bound by it and therefore should not only not violate those rights but also facilitate their exercise by citizens. I tend not to agree. In my mind the argument that the Commission would have any obligation not only to comply with the negative obligations Charter but also to positively ensure that private companies comply with it to an extent that goes beyond that required by specific ad hoc legislation –and that may moreover clash with the fundamental rights of others- is stretching the reach of the Charter too far.
I certainly don’t think public policy should be only or mostly about efficiency and competition (as an admired colleague often says, a world exclusively governed by competition would make a great subject for a dystopian novel). There are values, fundamental rights and public interests which might very well trump economic considerations. But my point is that even if one doesn’t trust market forces to promote optimal levels of privacy (due to consumers’ apparent indolence or for whatever reason), one shouldn’t entrust competition law with that task either.
If you ask me, there are issues far too important to be left to competition authorities and competition lawyers.
Chillin’Competition has encountered its first serious legal problem after a third party requested us to remove some content.
As usual readers will remember, we took particular interest in the French endives cartel case. A number of posts were devoted to endives (the
best troublesome ones are here and here). Oddly enough those posts still rank among our most read, to the extent that when you type “Chilling competition” in Google’s search box the word “endives” quickly appears next to it. This is a testimony to how bad the rest of our posts must be as well as to the bizarre taste of our audience (and I thought no one liked endives…). In our defense, the endives cartel also earned some air time at the French Presidential debate. (I don’t know what’s with this vegetable, but Belgian endives were also a major feature of the U.S. 1989 Presidential campaign -see here-).
Since then we hadn’t paid any more attention to endives, even though every time there’s an infringement concerning food some readers sent press clips to us with all sort of weird post suggestions (a message to them: we are grateful, but there’s no need to do that anymore, really).
But two recent legal developments occurring within the lapse of two days have changed the landscape, and have exposed Chillin’Competition to legal risks.
- On 13 May the ECJ delivered its ruling in the Google Spain case, holding (I will oversimplify) that there exists a certain right to be forgotten under the Directive on the processing of personal data even in relation to information which is true and was legally published.
- And on 15 May (hold tight) the Paris Court of Appeal annulled the decision of the Autorité de la Concurrence sanctioning the endive cartel. No kidding; see here.
Following these developments, an organisation called “Les amis des endives” (French for Endive’s Friends) has requested us to withdraw all our posts regarding the endive cartel. They allege that the informations are inadequate and no longer relevant. For the record, this association has nothing to do –that we know- with the EndiveLover Twitter account).
I initially thought it was a joke. Then I thought that the Judgment doesn’t support their claim. First because, (I may get in trouble for saying this) endives aren’t natural or legal persons (arguably endive producers are, even if tasteless and heartless). Second, because -contrary to what many people seem to think- the Judgment only refers to “results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name”, and people that get to our posts don’t do searching specifically for endives. Third, because –reading particularly para 80 of the Judgment- I get the impression that its establishing a lex specialis for search engines only, and perhaps only for Google (which once again gets treated as the SGEI of the new century). Lastly, I thought the information shouldn’t be withdrawn because of “historical statistical, scientific purposes” (para 92 of the Judgment).
In order to be on the safe side, I asked a team of eminent avocats about their view: Do endives have the right to be forgotten? Should our posts on endives be consigned to oblivion?
Grace Aylward (our endive expert; she’s the one who informed us about both the decision and its annulment) says: “I thought that when I grew up and became a Lawyer I could dislike whichever vegetables I wanted. Obviously I was wrong. I just hope I don’t start receiving endive hearts in the post.”
Orla Lynskey (privacy and competition expert at LSE) “the ruling does not apply to publishers. It applies to search engines (and most probably could be limited to Google). Even if they do fall within the scope of the DP rules (which is very unlikely to be the case if the piece only mentions legal persons), this does not automatically entitle them to have the original link removed. You need to pass the buck to Google to determine whether the processing is incompatible with the DP rules and the public interest test for removal is met”.
Other lawyers consulted coincide on the view that the Judgment doesn’t give mushroom to such requests and that this one in particular is nuts; if you see it differently, please lettuce know.
P.S . For the avoidance of doubt: this was a joke. Sadly, other absurd/ridiculous scenarios such as UKIP and the Front National winning the EU elections in England are France are not.
In the past days a Commission official who ranks among my preferred legal minds expressed her/his though that our discipline may not be as legal as we often think. The thought, formulated on the fly (don’t click, very bad joke) (I told you..) , was triggered by the observation that whereas the law and legal reasoning should be cuasi cartesian, logic, certain, it’s nevertheless very often impossible to predict the outcome of a given case. [This may remind some of a Holmes' quote: "prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law”].
Then on Monday a lawyer in the audience (not me, really) made a similar remark (this time at a conference in London regarding a certain case I discussed on my previous post, coincidentally published that day). The idea expressed there was that the Commission could have taken exactly the opposite conclusion it took in the face on the very same facts at issue, and it would very presumably also have been endorsed by the Court.
And a few minutes ago a colleague sent me an email discussing the spill-over effects that Alrosa has had in competition enforcement.
As much as I don’t like to admit it, all those are right and share a common theme. I guess Competition Law may indeed be partly losing its last name. I suppose an element of this could be found in other areas of law, but my feeling is that the issue is more acute in our field:
Is it because of the simplicity and vagueness of our main working provisions and the terms they use? (as I observed here, the Court itself recently acknowledged that “Article 101 or 102 TFEU are drawn up using imprecise legal concepts, such as distortion of competition or ‘abuse’ of a dominant position” ).
Is it because of the transformation of the discipline by the incorporation of economic analysis to the assessmente of legallity of market practices? (on that, you know my views). It has become popular to bash ordoliberals, but they crucially emphasised the need to preserve the competitive process through law-making, as opposed to unconstrained policy choices, and this is a lesson we may be forgetting.
Is it because of the Court’s inclination to show deference to (what they see as, and often are) specialized agencies?
Is it because of developments like Alrosa, that enable a disconnect between the problem and the solution and, in a way, may legitimize the abuse of an institutional dominant position?
Is it because of the number of the unavoidable yet more-or-less-reliable proxies (market definition, market shares, cost-assessments, object short-cuts, etc..) we use and the little certain tools we have?
Is it because law and policy-making are inextricably intertwined in our field? (in the sense that policy choices are often expressed through the choice of cases).
As with anything else, the answer is very likely cumulative and complex, but the fact is that competition law may have become a discipline where the authority’s self restraint, negotiations in the shadow of the law, disclaimers in lawyers’ risk assessments, administrative/judicial discretion, and therefore uncertainty, play a larger role than perhaps they should.
The fact that the law needs to be interpreted, or even the fact that legal reasoning can be played with has upsided (allowing me to earn a living or making the profession interesting are just two examples), but I can’t help feeling that there is something not right about it.
P.D. These are, as always, thoughts in progress. If you don’t agree with them, remember our disclaimer.