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Recent Judgments of the EU Courts

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In the past few days there have been some remarkable competition-developments coming from EU Courts, the last of which took place only minutes ago in the Greek lignite case  (if you’re only interested in that one you can go directly to the bottom of the post). This is just a quick overview of some of those recent developments:

Some were anecdotal, such as President Barroso giving testimony as a witness before the General Court.

Others are relevant mainly for cartel geeks, such as the GC’s granting reductions of fines in 3 paraffin wax cartel related cases, in which it also (a) carried out a particularly detailed review of the exercise of decisive influence between a parent and its subsidiary (Sasol, available here); (b) observed a violation of the principle of equal treatment and, most unusually, found an infringement of the principle of proportionality in the calculation of the basic amount of a fine (but only due to the peculiar circumstance that the Commission had partly taken into accout the turnover of a company that had merged, in the course of the cartel, with another company participating in the infringement; see the Judgment in Esso, available here); and (c) shed some light on the assessment of the exercise of decisive influence in JV settings (in RWE, available here).

That challenges against the proportionality of fines imposed within the 10% limit are unlikely to be successful was confirmed by last week’s Judgment from the ECJ in the Telefónica case. Telefónica had challenged the GC’s Judgment upholding the controversial decision sanctioning it for a margin squeeze abuse. The ECJ’s Judgment contains nothing of particular interest (aside from an interesting explanation of why the General Court’s review is fully compatible with the requirements stemming from the ECHR). The case will mostly be remembered because of Advocate General’s Wathelet’s Opinion both on the issue of proportionality as well as on the qualities of the appeal lodged by Telefónica, which we’re told broke a record as the lenghtiest in the history of the ECJ. (For those of you who are wondering whether limitations on the number of pages didn’t apply, you should know that there’s a way to bypass them, which I won’t explain here in the interest of the efficient use of Court’s resources…).

And, finally, most interesting news came from Luxembourg minutes ago, as the ECJ has annulled the General Court’s Judgment in the Greek lignite case concerning the joint application of Articles 106 and 102 TFEU. As you may recall, some time ago we held a most interesting ménage à trois debate on the GC’s Judgment with Marixenia Davilla (see here), José Luis Buendía (see here) and Makis Komninos (see here). The ECJ and the Advocate General have followed the approach that José Luis had forecasted (the Mr. 106 nickname has a justification).

The Judgment is much more important than many may realize at first sight. The main issues raised by the case are covered in our previous posts, so I refer you to those. Observe only that the Judgment goes pretty far -in the right direction, I would argue- in ruling (in para 46) that “[a]ll that is necessary is for the Commission to identify a potential or actual anti‑competitive consequence liable to result from the State measure at issue. Such an infringement may thus be established where the State measures at issue affect the structure of the market by creating unequal conditions of competition between companies, by allowing the public undertaking or the undertaking which was granted special or exclusive rights to maintain (for example by hindering new entrants to the market), strengthen or extend its dominant position over another market, thereby restricting competition, without it being necessary to prove the existence of actual abuse“.

The Judgment would insuflate some life to Art. 106 which, as I said last week, has a tremendous potential which still today remains largely unused. This would nonetheless largely depend on politics at the incoming Commission and on the Commission’s discretion, and, judging by history, I’m not opimistic. As the GC reminded us with another Order last month declaring an appeal inadmissible (here), “the Commission’s refusal to act under Article 106(3) TFEU following the filing of a complaint by an individual against a Member State does not constitute a challengeable act“.  This ruling is based on the max.mobil case-law, which I’ve always seen as unfortunate and in need of repeal.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

17 July 2014 at 11:41 am

Intel v Commission and the problem with wrong economic assumptions

with 10 comments

(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.

Pablo

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 June 2014 at 11:43 am

Breaking news- The Intel Judgment is out: the European Commission wins

with 2 comments

Minutes ago the General Court released its Judgment in Intel v Commission (T-286/09) dismissing the appeal in its entirety and upholding the 1.06 billion euros fine.

 As I noted to Bloomberg some time ago, the ECJ’s Tomra Judgment had paved the way for the Commission’s victory in this case with regard to the substantive arguments at issue.  Indeed, the Judgment resorts to Tomra in several occassions to support the key proposition that once a loyalty mechanism is demonstrated there is no need to demonstrate effects by means of an as efficient competitor (AEC) test (see mainly para. 145; I’ve spotted a few other references to Tomra in paras: 72, 73 , 77, 78, 91, 97, 103, 117, 119, 120, 132, 153, 176, 182, 184, 193, 527 or 998, plus a few more to AG Mazak’s Opinion in that case)

The General Court has also ruled out the procedural concerns previously identified by the Ombudsman, ruling that there was no procedural irregularity, and that even if there had been one it wouldn’t have affected the outcome of the case (paras. 601-664).

The Judgment has not yet been made public   is available here. [Note: this post was initially written in the light of the Court's Press release and was subsequently updated  following a first very quick look at the actual Judgment]. I’ve only had the chance to skim through it quickly, but a quick look is enough to reveal the Judgment’s likely impact on the law on abuse of dominace and to anticipate that this ruling will no doubt stir many debates in the coming weeks and months.

The Court has found that the rebates are issue were “exclusivity rebates” and declared that these, “when granted by an undertaking in a dominant position are, by their very nature, capable of restricting competition and foreclosing competitors“. The Judgment states that in the face of such rebates it is not necessary to show effect on a case-by-case basis, and that “the Commission was not required to make an assessment of the circumstanced of the case in order to show that rebates actually or potantially had the effect of foreclosing competitors from the market“. Against this background the Court explicitly rejects the applicability of the “as efficient competitor test“.  A similar approach is undertaken with regard to the conditional payments granted to several computer manufacturers.

Key to the Court’s reasoning is the idea that a foreclosure effect occurs not only where access to the market is made impossible for competitors. Indeed, it is sufficient that that access be made more difficult”. (paras 88 and 149). According to para 150 the as efficient competitor test “only makes it possible to verify the hypothesis that access to the market has been made impossible and not to rule out the possibility that it has been made more difficult”.

In para 152 the Court distinguishes Intel from previous cases where the as efficient competitor test had been a key criterion (namely TeliaSonera, Deutsche Telekom and Post Danmark) by observing that “those cases concerned margin squeeze practices or low price practices)” which means that a price-cost comparison was needed. According to this para. “[a] price cannot be unlawful in itself. However, in the case of an exclusivity rebate, it is the condition of exclusive or quasi-exclusive supply to which its grant is subject rather than the amount of the rebate which makes it abusive”. In para. 153 the Court again resorts to Tomra (“which postdates” the above mentioned Judgments) to support its view that no effects assessment is needed.

The Judgment deals directly with the alleged incompatibility of this approach and the Commission’s Guidance paper. In paras. 154-161 the Court explains essentially that it is “not necessary to consider whether the contested decision is in line with the Article 82 Guidance” (157) because the latter only set priorities for cases initiated following its adoption whereas the Intel investigation was already at an advanced stage by then (paras. 155-156). According to the Court, the as efficient competitor test envisaged in the Guidance paper was only relied upon by the Commission “for the sake of completeness”.

In spite of the clear statement of principle regarding the no need to prove effects, the Court has also engaged in a detailed case by case review of both the rebates and the conditional payments and concluded that “even supposing that the Commission was required to show on a case by case basis that the exclusivity rebates and payments granted to Dell, HP, Lenovo and Media-Saturn were capable of restricting competition, the Commission demonstrated that capability to the requisite legal standard in its analysis of the facts of the case”.

This “just in case” review is what explains the  lenght of the Judgment (283 pages in English). It also places the Commission in a much better position regarding an eventual appeal, for even if the ECJ were to quash the GC’s conclusions that effects didn’t have to be established (the upcoming Post Danmark II Preliminary Ruling will tell us whether that is or not likely to happen), the factual assessment of the case -beyond the scope of review of the ECJ- would be most likely to stand.

Even if somehow expected, this is a very important victory for the Commission. The main question relates to how this Judgment will impact future post-Guidance paper enforcement.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

12 June 2014 at 9:43 am

Umbrella pricing- Case C-557/12 Kone, or when effectiveness may go too far with little effective consequences

with 4 comments

 

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.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

11 June 2014 at 3:20 pm

More on AG Wahl and restrictions by object: ‘pay-for-delay’ settlements as a case study

with 5 comments

A while ago I wrote a post and engaged in some follow-up comments on the issue of restrictions by object. But since Alfonso is busy these days and has shown some persistence in chasing me to have me write another guest post, I thought it a good idea to add a few more thoughts on the matter. I see value in doing so given that the discussion in the preceding post remained (to my regret) overly abstract. I tell myself that if I illustrate my points by relating them to some on-going disputes/investigations, they may become clearer, and might even spark more discussion.

I explained back in March that the ECJ does not see the notion of restriction by object as a presumption of the likely effects of the agreement. I know this is a very popular understanding of Article 101(1) TFEU, but I see a clear difference – and so does the Court, may I add – between understanding what the agreement is all about (Article 101 TFEU refers explicitly to its ‘object’) and establishing its likely (negative) effects on the market. A ‘naked’ price-fixing agreement between competitors is prohibited irrespective of whether collusion can realistically be sustained on the relevant market (that is, irrespective of whether there are reasons to believe that the parties will ever be credibly committed to restricting competition). When reading the case law, it is pretty clear to me that the real question is whether the agreement is a plausible source of efficiency gains (there are myriad examples where this approach has been followed, some of which I mentioned in the other post). Put differently, the true issue is whether it is realistic to expect pro-competitive effects from the agreement in light of the context in which it is implemented.

Allow me to illustrate these ideas by reference to the on-going debates around ‘pay-for-delay’ settlements (Alfonso already wrote about this some time ago). It is fairly clear that a ‘naked’ (and the word ‘naked’ cannot be emphasised enough) agreement between two competitors whereby one of them agrees to delay the launch of a product amounts to a restriction by object within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU. The question is whether the agreements at stake in cases like Lundbeck can be likened to such ‘naked’ restrictions. Addressing this issue requires understanding, first and foremost, the point of these agreements in their context. What becomes immediately apparent in this sense is that they cannot be said to be ‘naked’. There is something else to these agreements, namely a background dispute between the parties relating to the validity or to the infringement of a patent. From this perspective, the question could be rephrased as one of whether putting an end to such a dispute by means of a settlement can be likened to a cartel agreement.

To me, the answer is a clear no. Nobody would deny that out-of-court settlements are an efficient way to deal with disputes. In paragraph 235 of the recently issued Guidelines on technology transfer agreements, the Commission is very explicit in this regard. If this is so, and to the extent that there is genuine uncertainty about the ability of a generic producer to enter the market, the applicable case law suggests that Lundbeck-like settlements should only be deemed to restrict competition after a careful assessment of their effects under Article 101(1) TFEU. By the same token, the ‘object’ category would only be appropriate where it is clear beyond doubt that the generic producer would have been able to enter the market without infringing the patent(s) in question or it is clear beyond doubt that the said patent(s) are invalid. Only then would it be justified to assess them in the same way cartels are (in such a scenario, the restraints would in reality be ‘naked’, as there would be no actual dispute to settle).

Pablo

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

22 May 2014 at 12:18 pm

A comment on Case T-79/12 Cisco Systems and Messagenet v European Commission (Microsoft/Skype)

with 7 comments

On 15 February 2012, Cisco Systems and Messagenet appealed the Commission’s decision authorizing the purchase of Skype by Microsoft. On 11 December 2013, the General Court rendered its Judgment dismissing the application for annulment.

As many readers of this blog will know, I was one of the lawyers representing the applicants, and was personally very involved in the judicial phase of the case, which I very much enjoyed. For the past 5 months I’ve read some succinct comments about and I think that there are many genuinely interesting things about it that might so far have been overlooked.

Whereas I –biased as I am- have issues with most of what’s in the Judgment (and particularly with what isn’t there), I’ve decided to try to get rid of any bitterness (some irony will be inevitable, I’m afraid) and approach it in a hopefully constructive way, leaving a myriad factual case-specific issues aside, and focusing only on selected matters of general relevance to any competition lawyer.

So instead of re-arguing the case –which would be of little use at this time- my intention is to shed light on some aspects of the Judgment which otherwise not attract the attention they deserve. I’ll touch on 6 selected issues, and will offer some personal views as a conclusion.

Needless to say, my opinions are, aside from non-objective, exclusively attributable to myself, not to anyone else, notably clients and colleagues, and neither Cisco nor Messagenet have anything to do with this post.

1)      The Court ruled that the standards of proof and review applicable to Phase I (Art.6) decisions are identical to those applicable to Phase II (Art. 8) decisions

Whereas we argued that the merger should be annulled regardless of how the Court interpreted the applicable standards of proof and review, we also claimed that the standard of proof must necessarily be higher in the case of Phase I decisions because the Commission has to prove that the case couldn’t objectively give rise to “serious doubts” (which is the applicable legal test according to Art 6 of Regulation 139).

This interpretation, now held wrong, was fairly uncontroverted in academia (see e.g. the contributions EUI’s 2009 workshop on standard of proof in competition law), and had been formulated previous cases. In her Opinion in Impala AG Kokott went even further and explained that a “beyond reasonable doubt” standard applied to Phase I decisions “to compensate for the fact that at that stage the investigation of a concentration is merely a summary one” (…) “[a]t that stage, serious doubts as to the compatibility of a concentration with the common market will only prevented its being cleared to quickly and force the Commission to make a more extensive investigation in a formal procedure”. A test of absence of doubts also governs the initiation of in-depth reviews in the State aid domain, and the Court has established in that context that this test requires a review that “will, by nature, go beyond simple consideration of whether or not there has been a manifest error of assessment” on the Commission’s part (for more on this see, e.g. cases T-73/98, para 47 and T-119/02, para 77).

The Judgment in this case nonetheless states that “the standard of proof is no higher for decisions adopted under Article 6 of Regulation 139/2004 than those adopted under Article 8 of that regulation (para 46). The Court then goes on to explain that even if we correctly argued that the Commission has no discretion as regards the initiation of Phase II whenever it has serious doubts, the Institution “enjoys a certain margin of discretion” to carry out the “complex economic assessments” required in merger cases (para. 49), and that therefore the standard of review for both Phase I and Phase II is the same: that applied to complex economic assessments (limited judicial review).

What the Court is effectively saying in paras 46 to 49 is that even if the notion of serious doubts is an objective one, the Commission has discretion to have doubts or not. In my mind, this would mean that the alleged objectivity of the concept is meaningless, but perhaps there’s a different reading, which I don’t yet grasp. Even if the standard of review is the same for Phase I and Phase II decisions, it seemed intuitive to me that what has to be proved in one case (no serious doubts) and the other (compatibility or incompatibility with the internal market) is different. By rejecting this previously uncontroversial interpretation I think the Court has importantly -rightly or wrongly- expanded the Commission’s margin of discretion in merger cases.

2)      Unless I’m missing something in para. 67 the Court explains that competitive assessments in most Phase I decisions are not to be taken seriously because they do not assess the “real” relevant market.

The applicants therefore base their complaint relating to market power held by the new entity on an incorrect assumption, in so far as the Commission did not define the existence of a specific market for consumer video communications on Windows based PCs. The Commission did not therefore establish in the contested decision that operators present on the narrow market could act independently of the competitive pressure from other means of consumer communications, such as services offered on other platforms or other operating systems. In addition, the applicants did not themselves submit any evidence or study to support the conclusion of the existence of such a narrow market. By contrast, they merely criticised the factors put forward in the contested decision in order to qualify the significance of market shares”.

What this paragraph says isthat the fact that the Commission chose to assess the market for video communications on Windows based PCs was irrelevant, and that we could only have challenged this assessment if we proved that the market was the real one (!). This is quite astonishing may perhaps be a bit surprising to some, because what we were challenging was precisely the conclusion that “the proposed transaction does not give rise to any competition concerns even on the narrowest possible definition of the relevant product market”. The market might have been hypothetical, but its assessment was the only one contained in the decision and therefore the only one that could be appealed.

Unless I’m wrong (again, let me know if you see it differently) what this means that from now onwards any party wishing to appeal a Phase I merger decision should not challenge the assessment actually carried out by the Commission, but will need to prove that the assessment of the “narrowest possible market” corresponds to a real market, which will almost never be the case! In other words, from now onwards the Commission could get immunity from Court review by carrying out assessments of markets whose definition is left open.

3)      On the irrelevance of market shares in dynamic markets

The few paragraphs that have so far received public attention are the ones concerning the irrelevance of high market shares. In para 69 the Judgment states that “the consumer communications sector is a recent and fast‑growing sector which is characterised by short innovation cycles in which large market shares may turn out to be ephemeral. In such a dynamic context, high market shares are not necessarily indicative of market power”.

In fact, I agree with this statement. Market shares in these markets are “not necessarily indicative of market power”; they provide an indication which may be disproved by other factors. My problem with this is they do provide an indication, and even if it can be disproved by looking at countervailing factors, I still struggle to see those here.

In any event, there are a few paras in this section (mainly paras 79 to 84) that that are potentially quite troublesome for enforcement, particularly in technology and communication markets. No wonder these will from now onwards be cited by any company with large market shares.

4)      On the irrelevance of network effects in a non-interoperable communications market

Paragraph 76 also marks –in my view- a change in the way network effects are assessed in EU competition law by stating that the existence of network effects does not necessarily procure a competitive advantage for the new entity”.

This may seem at odds with all past Commission precedents, mainstream economics, regulation of other communication markets, the Commission’s soft law on market definition, 102 and mergers, as well as with Skype’s own repeated statements in official public submissions claiming that “the scale, global distribution and growth of our user base provide us with powerful network effects, whereby Skype becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby creating an incentive for existing users to encourage new users to join. We believe that these network effects help us attract new users and provide significant competitive advantages”.

You may recall that the Decision’s argument to rebut the role of network effects was that users “make the majority of their voice and video calls to the small number of family and friends that make up their so called “inner cicle” (4-6 people) and that “it is not difficult for these groups to move between communication services”. This peculiar argument was endorsed by the Court. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past two years, I may well Skype the most with my wife, girlfriend (J), mother and best friend, but I would assume that my best friend has in turn a different mother, girlfriend and wife (or so I’d like to think…); in other words, groups of people are interconnected and do not communicate in movable autarkic nodules. On this point, the Judgment simply repeats (thereby endorsing) the Commission’s argument at the end of para 52 (“the network effects to which the concentration might give rise would be diluted by the fact that users tend to communicate in small restricted circles and use a range of operators. Those factors demonstrate the ease with which user groups switch to other communications services”). [On multi-homing, note that the “range of operators” meant the two merging parties –otherwise they couldn’t have a 90% market share- as openly acknowledged in footnote 52 of the decision].

4)      On the identification of competitive constraints.

A paragraph that could also prove important for various markets where companies rely on others’ technology (and for private label products) is para. 72, which dismisses the claim that Facebook (the second largest player with an overwhelming 10% of the market, whose video call service runs on Skype, which has Microsoft as a shareholder and which interoperates with Skype) would not be an effective competitor with this reasoning.

The only factor that they put forward in support of that argument is that Facebook is a licensee and strategic ally of Skype, which cannot use Skype’s software to offer services in competition with the paid services of Skype, called SkypeOut, which make it possible to, inter alia, call fixed or mobile telephone numbers and to conduct video calls involving more than two persons. However, they do not submit that that agreement prevents Facebook from offering its video communications services to consumers who might decide to switch away from the new entity if it decided to exert any market power.

So, being a “strategic ally”, using the same technology and the existence of a non-compete agreement do not indicate mitigated competitive vigor. Note taken.

5)      On switching, statement of reasons and the comparison with the Microsoft (and Google) abuse cases

 

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

12 May 2014 at 9:01 am

Intel Judgment: Coming out soon

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It has been reported (I learnt it thanks to MLex) that the Intel Judgment will be delivered on 12 June.

If you want to freshen up your recollection of the legal issues at stake, here is the summary of the arguments at stake elaborated by the Court itself:  Intel Report Hearing

Even if I think the General Court would like to have an opportunity to make a point on judicial review by quashing an Art. 102 decision, my guess is that this won’t be the occassion. My knowledge of the case is limited, but my impression is that the Commission’s work was particularly thorough and that it stands on solid ground, even more so after the ECJ’s Judgment in Tomra.

You may nevertheless recall that a year and a half ago Nicolas made a similar (controversially rumour-based) forecast although accompanied by an anticipated criticism.

Even though the Intel case has understandably been the focus of all attention (the 1.06 billion fine surely caught the attention of the media), it’s not the only the most potentially legally relevant rebates case pending before EU Courts.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 April 2014 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Case-Law

The General Court on the scope of the Commission’s powers to request information

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On Friday 14 March the General Court issued seven Judgments in cases T-292/11, T-293/11, T-296/11, T-297/11, T-302/11M T-305/11 and T-306/11. We represented one of the seven applicants (needless to say, the opinions below are exclusively my own, and in no way can be attributed to my client or my colleagues).

I had already anticipated those Judgments noting that -irrespective of who the prevailing parties were- they would be of great interest and procedural relevance. [The Judgments came out while I was lecturing on competition procedure at the Brussels School of Competition, so I discussed them almost live].

The cases concerned seven appeals lodged by cement companies against massive -arguably unprecedented- requests for information, and they are important because the Court was asked to clarify whether there are any real limitations to the Commission’s investigative powers.

There have been two groups of Judgments:

-In six cases the applicants grounded their appeal on the lack of motivation of the information request. In those cases the GC has ruled (a) that although “it is true that “the presumed infringements [were] set out in very general terms which might well have been made more precise”, they have the minimum degree of clarity in order to be able to be considered to be consistent with the requirements of EU law; and (b) that even if “the size of the workload caused by the volume of information and the very high degree of precision in the response format imposed by the Commission cannot be reasonably disputed”, that workload was not disproportionate in the light of the necessities of the enquiry and the extent of the presumed infringements.

[Intermission: Too often, when the Court decides to dismiss an application it practically denies any reason to every argument made by the applicant). This wasn't the case here, and the Court was objective and transparent enough to acknowledge that there could be problems, but that they were overridden by effectiveness considerations. I like it better this way].

-The content of the Judgment in the seventh case (T-296/11 in which we acted for the applicant) is different, as explained in the Court’s press release http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-03/cp140035en.pdf

Instead of focusing our arguments on lack of motivation (which we thought would at most have only given us a temporary victory), we had posited that the criterion of “necessity” in Art. 18 of Regulation 1/2003 should be interpreted not in light of what the Commission intends or hopes to find, but in the light of the elements that the Commission has and that raise the suspicion triggering the investigation. We claimed that otherwise the criterion of necessity would be devoid of any practical significance.

The GC has accepted the theory (as it did in Prysmian and Nexans -now pending before the ECJ- regarding inspections). According to the GC, the Commission is not obliged to disclose to the companies the preliminary evidence at its disposal, but it must have enough evidence to justify the information request (paras. 38-40).

In this particular case, and since the Court acknowledges we had “put forward factors capable of casting doubt on the sufficiently serious nature of the evidence concerned”, the Commission was very exceptionally asked to produce a summary of its file. Luis Ortiz Blanco and myself were asked to go to Luxembourg to access it and make observations without being allowed to disclose anything not even to our client [I'm not disclosing anything confidential because this is all explained in paras. 23-26 of the Judgment]. This is what explains that a great part of the Judgment is redacted as confidential.

Obviously I can’t say or even hint at anything that’s not been disclosed in the non-confidential version of the Judgment. Essentially, the Court explains that in the light of the Commission’s file the Institution could have validly addressed the exhaustive and exhausting information request to the applicant. The reasoning (mainly contained in para 59) is that even if we did offer an alternative interpretation of the elements in the file, the Commission cannot be asked at a preliminary stage to have evidence so consistent as to be sufficient to establish an infringement; it’s enough to have evidence that -at a preliminary stage and absent third party contextualization- would have arouse a reasonable suspicion.

The lines of what’s reasonable are of course blurry, and the Court’s approach is -rightly or wrongly- deferential to the Commission and to the need of safeguarding the effectiveness of its investigations, particularly at an early stage. Some may fear that if Courts started annulling requests for information (or Phase I clearance decisions, to pick a “random” example) then the floodgates would open. However, failing to annul those categories of decisions systematically and regardless of their merits or lack thereof those may also be akin to conferring carte blanche on the Commission, and that (regardless of the unquestionable good intentions of the Institution) might also have drawbacks.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 April 2014 at 9:38 am

Restrictions of competition by object under Article 101(1) TFEU: chapeau bas, Prof Wahl!

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Note by Alfonso: Advocate General Wahl’s Opinion in Groupement de Cartes Bancaires out on Friday, and its take at clarifying the object-effect conundrum is remarkable. Pablo Ibañez Colomo offers his views on the Opinion below:

Advocate General Wahl’s opinion in Groupement des Cartes Bancaires v Commission (published last Friday, and available in French and in Greek only for the time being) is a model of lucidity and flexible thinking. It is also very much in line with an article of mine on the subject, but that is plain irrelevant. What matters, and what makes this opinion remarkable, is that it manages to capture the logic underlying the existing case law addressing the boundaries between restrictions by object and by effect. Many commentators and some advocates general have tried in the past few years to identify the elusive factors that should be considered when establishing whether an agreement restricts competition ‘by its very nature’. Paragraph 56 of the opinion sets out a formula that is, in my view, more accurate and elegant than any previous attempt (the fact that I am forced to read it in French for the moment probably adds to the latter):

 ‘Ne devraient donc être considérés comme restrictifs de concurrence par objet que les comportements dont le caractère nocif est, au vu de l’expérience acquise et de la science économique, avéré et facilement décelable, et non les accords qui, au vu du contexte dans lequel ils s’insèrent, présentent des effets ambivalents sur le marché ou qui sont porteurs d’effets restrictifs accessoires nécessaires à la poursuite d’un objectif principal non restrictif de concurrence’.

In other words, what really matters is whether, given the context in which it is concluded, an agreement is a plausible source of efficiency gains. Thus only those agreements that have no credible redeeming virtues are understood to restrict competition by object. A careful reading of the relevant case law shows, in my view, that this is the ‘default methodology’ (which is the expression I use in my article) – or, if one prefers, ‘l’appréciation plus standardisée’ (as Advocate General Wahl writes in his opinion) – followed by the ECJ when it examines the nature of agreements under Article 101(1) TFE. The methodology changes, and rightly so, when market integration as an objective is directly at stake in a case (as is true of agreements restricting parallel trade).

From Societe Technique Miniere to Pronuptia and Delimitis, and from Remia to Wouters and Asnef-Equifax (to mention just a few landmark rulings), the ECJ has followed the same approach, which revolves around an analysis of the rationale behind the agreement. The Court typically seeks to identify the reasons why two or more firms would introduce some restraints in an agreement. If it appears that such restraints are a plausible means to achieve legitimate business objectives, it concludes that the agreement does not restrict competition by its very nature. In Groupement des Cartes Bancaires, the parties to the agreement claimed that it was intended to address free-riding issues and therefore that it did not have a restrictive object. In light of the relevant case law, the question in these proceedings is whether this story is a credible one given the nature of the agreement and the context in which it was concluded.

The opinion is notable for other reasons, of which I mention a couple:

- It is sometimes claimed that the category of ‘object restrictions’ captures those agreements that can be presumed to have anticompetitive effects (the famous speed-limit analogy and variations thereof). This interpretation of the notion is problematic insofar as it sits at odds with the principle, well established in the case law, whereby an agreement may restrict competition by its very nature irrespective of the effects it produces. Advocate General Wahl emphasises, in this same vein, the importance of distinguishing between the analysis of the nature of the agreement and the analysis of its effects. If the question of whether an agreement restricts competition by object depends on its presumed effects, the two would be confused. The rulings mentioned above indeed confirm that the two are separate steps and that the Court has been careful not to mix them (and has rightly reacted when the General Court has done so, as in Glaxo Spain – also discussed in the opinion).

- The opinion shows that, when confined to its role, the use of economic analysis can be very useful and, more importantly, wholly uncontroversial. Advocate General Wahl does not rely on economic analysis for normative purposes (that is, to state how the law should be, or to claim that the case law is misguided), but as a tool (among others) to make sense of a legal issue. Economics is used in the opinion, in other words, as a guide – a code – to decipher a complex reality. I hope this opinion contributes to a more fluid dialogue between disciplines. I was pleased and surprised to even find a reference to Rochet and Tirole’s ground-breaking work on two-sided markets – which, as you all know by now from Alfonso’s last post, is ‘the single most important and fascinating subject in contemporary antitrust (and beyond)’.

Lastly, I will also mention that writing this post brings very good memories of a great seminar (and even better post-seminar!) to which Luis Ortiz Blanco and Alfonso invited me last year and in which I had the chance to discuss these questions with some luminaries from the Commission.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

31 March 2014 at 12:26 pm

Antitrust quote of the day and the evolution of the law on refusal to supply

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In 1989 late Philip Areeda (picture above) wrote one of the most influential and cited antitrust pieces in the history of the discipline: Essential Facilities: An Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 58 Antitrust L.J. 841. I recall my first reading of this article as student at the College of Europe and how I truly enjoyed it (at roughly the same time I remember having felt the same about Joseph Weiler’s The Transformation of Europe) (yes, those were two good indicators of geekishness). From time to time I’ve gone back to that piece from Areeda, and as a fan of pendulum-based evolutional/historical theories, I’ve quite often cited one particular excerpt therein; here it is:

As with most instances of judging by catch-phrase, the law evolves in three stages: (1) An extreme case arises to which a court responds. (2) The language of the response is then applied -often mechanically, sometimes cleverly- to expand the application. With too few judges experienced enough with the subject to resist, the doctrine expands to the limits of its language, with little regard to policy. (3) Such expansions ultimately become ridiculous, and the process of cutting back begins“.

I think this captures the evolutionary process of the law in many other areas of law in general and of competition law in particular. To mention only one among many possible examples, I used it some days ago to explain the evolution of the notion of the “single and continuous infringement” under Art. 101 TFEU.

There’s an interesting additional thought in relation to this quote. A few years after this piece was published the ECJ ruled on Magill, and I think it’s not at all unreasonable to say that Areeda’s piece was pondered by the Judges in that case (see, and cast your vote, here). Now, if you think about it, Areeda in many ways anticipated how the evolution of the law on refusal to supply would discur in Europe:

(1) Magill was a extreme case to which the Court responsed with a reasoning that was very much tailored to the facts at issue (a point often forgotten); (2) The language of the response was then applied -possibly mechanically, as an illustration of judidicial inertia (not to be confused with stare decisis)- to other factual settings and, with too few judges experienced enough with the subject to dare to nuance it (?), the Magill criteria consolidated in cases like Bronner and IMS. (3) Their consolidation as the sole relevant criteria ultimately became perhaps unreasonable and inconvenient, which led to an attempt to nuance them [the Commission's -in my view very reasonable- claim in the first Microsoft Decision that “there is no persuasiveness to an approach that would advocate the existence of an exhaustive checklist of exceptional circumstances and would have the Commission disregard a limine other circumstances of exceptional character that may deserve to be taken into account when assessing a refusal to supply.” (para. 555)].

As you know the the General Court did not follow the Commission on that particular point, not because it disagreed, it just didn’t need to rule on that point because it thought the Magill criteria were in any event fulfilled. That was done with the aim of minimizing the chances of getting quashed in an appeal and at the cost of some legal contortionism. In my view, it would have been desirable for the Court to assess whether all “extraordinary circumstances” to identify a refusal to suppy could or not be subsumed within the Magill criteria. Instead the Court gave a practical illustration of how its hammer can make square pegs fit round holes (an exercise that was repeated a few months later in BUPA re the Altmark criteria).

For a most interesting discussion on the legal contortions in Microsoft featuring some of the people who were actually associated to the case see the 16 comments to Nicolas’ post on The Magill-IMS Re-animator.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 March 2014 at 6:28 pm

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