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Intel v Commission and the problem with wrong economic assumptions

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(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

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 June 2014 at 11:43 am

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

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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 Brave New World: The Potential Intersection of Competition Law and Data Protection Regulation (by Orla Lynskey)

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Intro by Alfonso: Some days ago someone sent me a link to a an opinion issued by the European Data Protection Supervisor dealing with the interface between data protection, competition law and consumer protection.  I already expressed some views on this in a post published last year: Data protection and antitrust law (positing my view that there’s nothing new under the sun), but this time I thought it’d be interesting to have the view of someone who’s an expert not only in competition law, but also in data protection stuff. I found the ideal guest blogger to cover this issue: Orla Lynskey, a very good friend, and an extremely promising academic in the field of IT Law who’s been assistant at the College of Europe, competition lawyer at Howrey, case handler at DG Comp, holds a PhD in European Data Protection Law from Cambridge University and is now a lecturer at LSE focusing on data protection and competition law. I leave you with her:

 

In late March the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), an agency which oversees compliance with data protection rules by EU institutions and advises on the development of data protection law within the EU, issued a preliminary opinion on the intersection of data protection, consumer protection and competition law. Both scholars and the EU institutions have been musing on the relationship between data protection and competition law over the past few years. However, despite this attention, it is not yet apparent whether, and if so how, these two fields actually intersect.

Kuschewsky and Geradin have recently published a paper on the impact of data protection in Commission investigations and in particular in dawn raids. The use of fundamental rights as a shield to secure procedural guarantees is now well integrated in competition law (think, for instance, of the integration of ne bis in idem in transnational competition procedures). This narrow intersection between data protection and competition law should therefore come as no surprise.

The EDPS report attempts to identify other areas in which parallels exist, or could potentially exist, between the two fields. For instance, the report highlights that if the new data protection regulation is adopted (a big if at the moment..), both data protection and competition law would apply to entities established in third-country whose actions have effects in the EU. These type of parallels are of course present however they merely help us to compare the regimes rather than get to grips with how they intersect. Moreover, some of the parallels identified are less credible than others. For example, I still fail to see anything beyond a very superficial similarity between ‘substitutability’ for the purposes of the HMT in competition law and the notion of ‘compatibility’ in the data protection principle of purpose limitation (according to which data processed for one purpose should not be processed for another secondary purpose which is incompatible with the initial purpose).

Beyond these micro-comparisons, in a second (earlier) paper Kuschewsy and Geradin had set out some ‘preliminary thoughts’ on the bigger issues at stake. In particular, they questioned whether EU competition law can limit the accumulation and processing of personal data and whether personal data could be deemed an essential facility. However, the EDPS report seems to be kick-starting a much more ambitious discussion than that initiated by Kuschewsy and Geradin. It appears to me that the EDPS is querying, albeit indirectly, whether the notion of consumer welfare should incorporate data protection considerations. By this, I mean that competition law would incorporate fundamental rights into its substantive analysis when conducting an investigation under Article 101 or 102 TFEU or examining a concentration under the EUMR. To be very clear, this would mean a departure from a purely economic analysis of consumer welfare. If Commissioner Alumnia’s speech on the matter is anything to go by, this is not something the Commission is expecting (‘although Coates refers to this potential intersection – but certainly does not endorse it – in his book on Competition Law and Regulation of Technology Markets’.

I realise that this would represent a radical departure from the status quo and as nobody seems to be willing to move beyond ‘preliminary’ thoughts on this matter, I am merely adding my own ‘preliminary’ observations to the mix (that is a disclaimer in case I change my mind tomorrow).

I see two arguments which support this shift in policy. First, the current consumer welfare standard seeks, inter alia, to facilitate consumer choice. In industries which are heavy on data aggregation – social networking sites, search engines, micro-blogging platforms etc – network effects based on personal data constitute a significant barrier to entry. The monopolisation of these industries, in turn, poses serious problems for the application of data protection rules. In the EU, all personal data processing must have a legitimate legal basis and the legal basis most frequently used by private sector entities is ‘individual consent’. This consent must be freely given, specific and informed. However, the argument has been made (for instance before the Irish regulator in the Europe-v-Facebook audit) that consent to processing by a monopoly cannot be ‘freely given’. While this argument would never fly in the US (for reasons which I shall not explain here), it may have some traction in the EU where data protection rules seek (to little avail) to rectify power asymmetries between the individual and the data controllers. Data protection advocates have long been arguing that competition law should help facilitate actual consumer choice.

More convincingly perhaps, since 2009 data protection has been recognised as a fundamental right in the EU legal order, independently of the right to privacy. As such, it is binding on the EU institutions when enacting legislation or adopting decisions. Failure to respect this right will lead to the invalidity of the measure at stake (as we saw last week when the Data Retention Directive was declared invalid on the basis of its incompatibility with this Charter right). This may well therefore be the trump card.

This being said, there are arguments to be made against the incorporation of data protection and fundamental rights considerations into the consumer welfare standard (and I am sure readers of this blog will be very happy to point them out to me!). The primary objections I can identify are threefold. First, intervention on these grounds looks like punishing dominance and might entail significant interference with the commercial freedom of companies concerned. This should ordinarily be the purview of regulation (although as Dunne noted recently in a JCLE article, ‘regulatory competition’ is on the rise in the EU through the rollout of commitment decisions). Second, it is arguable that this would be another example of the ‘instrumentalisation’ of competition law and that it would be detrimental to the internal coherence of the discipline to incorporate fundamental rights into the substantive analysis of competition law. I have a certain amount of this sympathy for this view. Third, it might be argued that data protection regulation should adequately protect the right to data protection of individuals. This is effectively what the Commission stated in the context of the GoogleDoubleclick merger and what the Court determined in the ASNEF Equifax case. However, these matters were determined pre-2009 and the constitutional landscape has changed significantly since then. Moreover, it would now seem a little disingenuous for the Commission to argue that competition law does not apply to regulated sectors.

In short, it seems to me that whether competition lawyers agree or not, this preliminary report may be the first baby step towards a more holistic approach to the protection of data protection within the EU. Arguments to the contrary are also welcome however (I can then include them in my work in progress paper!).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

21 April 2014 at 10:40 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

The Spanish Google tax, or (twice) the perfect cartel

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(again by Pablo Ibañez Colomo, who’s covering up for me this week)

It is always tempting for firms in sectors in decline to collude. But a cartel may not always be feasible or successful. Sometimes, major competitors have no interest in playing the game (this may be so for various reasons; competitors may have a different cost structure, may be more efficient or use a different technology). The next trick is well known. If private collusion does not work, turn to the State to enforce an official cartel or to (bluntly) eliminate competition from other players. You want a well-functioning and sustainable cartel? Make sure that anti-dumping duties are imposed on your heartless competitors from other parts of the world.

Montebourg, who has become an endless source of competition-related stories, has been quite open (I admit he is very candid, both in the English and the Spanish sense of the word) about his dislike for Free Mobile and has even taken active steps to make its life more difficult. The operator has emerged as a phenomenal maverick, bringing much needed dynamism to the French mobile market. But apparently prices are too low for Monsieur le Ministre’s taste and French consumers, as responsible and forward-looking citizens of the Republic, should pay more for their calls (he has in fact referred to the ‘excesses of low-cost’). Needless to say, the three incumbent mobile operators are not particularly unhappy about the whole deal.

The proposed Google tax in Spain provides yet another example of State-enforced collusion, albeit a more subtle one (which is not difficult given that our dear Arnaud is leading the way in the abovementioned example). Traditional newspapers struggle to survive in Spain. Advertising revenues have been in steep decline for years and media groups are heavily indebted. The solution? Charge Google, which has become the default cash-cow (and access-cow), for the use of non-significant excerpts (which, I would mention in passing, sounds oxymoronic from a copyright law perspective).

For the Google tax to work in the interest of traditional newspapers, all media, including Internet-based papers (which have become very popular in Spain) need to play by the rules. How can this be achieved? Centralise the negotiation of the compensation and, more important, make it impossible for newspapers to opt-out of the regime. That is correct. A key feature of the proposed legislation, as I understand it, is that Internet-based papers will benefit from the system even if they do not want to (and some of them have already been quite open about their opposition). The government seeks to create, in other words, a watertight cartel protecting old media models from competition and slowing down their (inevitable) decline. Who knows, maybe the new Spanish super-quango will do something about it (this is a joke).

Why do I say that this proposed legislation is twice the perfect cartel? Those who are interested, as I am, in media law and freedom of expression issues, will have quickly understood. Governmental action cannot be expected to be subject to effective scrutiny and criticism (which, going back to yesterday’s post, is a precondition for progress to occur) when the media need legislative and financial protection to survive (centralising the negotiation of the compensation makes traditional newspapers even more vulnerable to pressures from the executive).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

19 March 2014 at 12:55 pm

What makes a great teacher?

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(by Pablo Ibañez Colomo)

The post Alfonso published last Monday made me think. It was controversial, but also a goldmine of follow-on topics. Call me oversensitive, but I could not help thinking he was targeting law teachers when he regretted the fact that fresh young graduates tend to be very critical of the case law without having always reached conclusions on their own. After a bit of back and forth, I thought I would write a post on what I think makes a great teacher, thereby mirroring Alfonso’s own recent post on what makes a great lawyer.

I will start by quoting some giants in our field, pretty much like Alfonso did. The intellectual ant that I am likes to learn from them and always bears their lessons in mind. To make it balanced (and thus to please Alfonso’s desire for neutrality), I will choose a lawyer and an economist, the first from Harvard and the second from Chicago.

In the Harvard Law Review issue dedicated to the memory of Phillip Areeda, Justice Stephen Breyer explained that the greatest antitrust lawyer of all time ‘did far more than simply teach antitrust law. [His casebook] showed the specialists how to blend economics with law (“economics informs the law”, Phil said), as it teaches both subjects together in plain and simple English. It showed the profession how law and lawyers can benefit from a knowledge of other disciplines. It tied this recondite specialty back to general legal principle. And it placed dramatically before the students’ eyes a clear demonstration of the necessary connections between intelligent analysis, law, and the more striking beneficial effects for society that law, when practiced properly, can help us all achieve’.

The Journal of Political Economy, one of the top economic reviews, and edited at Chicago, dedicated an issue to the memory of George Stigler. Thomas Sowell offered a student’s view on the Nobel Prize winner (and another one of my all-time favourites). When discussing the way in which Stigler approached the teaching of the economic side of our discipline, Sowell explained that ‘[f]ew, if any, areas of economics have as much confusion, circular reasoning, definitional traps, and fervent nonsense as industrial organization. It was the perfect place for Stigler to conduct a Demolition Derby. Nor was he hesitant about the task. Theories like “monopolistic competition” and “countervailing power”, which were treated reverently at Harvard (where they originated), were eviscerated by Stigler’. According to Sowell, ‘[w]hat Stigler really taught, whether the course was industrial organization or the history of economic thought, was intellectual integrity, analytical rigor, respect for evidence – and skepticism toward the fashions and enthusiasms that come and go’.

What do we get from these quotes? I would say the following:

  • A great teacher knows the stuff inside out: It is true that not all great researchers are good teachers. But without being at the top of the discipline, it is impossible to be a great teacher.
  • A great teacher necessarily conveys a view of the world: Somebody who has thought long and hard about a particular discipline necessarily comes up with strong views about it. It is inevitable that this (non-neutral) view of the discipline is conveyed when teaching students. There is nothing wrong about it. I would even say that this is what ideal university teaching is all about. Students are interested not only in the substance, but in how somebody, detached from commercial interests and focused only on seeking the truth, sees the discipline.
  • A great teacher takes students very seriously: Students need to be stretched and learn to think for themselves, and this is in no way in contradiction with the above. I fully agree with Alfonso when he suggests that a teacher who indoctrinates students is an absolute failure. The challenge for a teacher is to make students discover and understand for themselves the logic underlying the discipline, the crucial transversal issues that cut across topics.
  • A great teacher does not take her/himself too seriously: The teaching of a particular discipline should be put in perspective. For many, if not the majority of students, a particular subject may never be useful in practice. Therefore, teaching should be oriented towards contributing to a well-rounded education. And those of us teaching competition law are immensely fortunate: when taught properly, it has an awful lot to offer to students, even if they go on to do something completely different.
  • A great teacher shows respect for ideas, not for institutions or authority: I would say this should be (and has been) the central contribution of universities to society. Truth is to be sought without prejudices and without respect for rank or authority. Nonsense is nonsense irrespective of whether it comes from a first year undergraduate or from the highest of courts. Law students in particular should learn that there is nothing mystical or sacred about our legal institutions, even if they are populated by very intelligent and experienced women and men (‘only a brilliant mind can make a brilliant mistake’, Stigler liked to say of past economists).

And now I leave you. I have to teach in an hour.

[Pictured above are two evil Chicagoans (Friedman and Stigler) after a discussion with a colleague].

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

18 March 2014 at 5:09 pm

State aid: you don’t know what you’re missing (+ thicko of the day award)

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Montebourg

Some of you might remember one of ours posts titled State aid conferences: that’s where the fun is! (Michael O’Leary and Kim Jong Il make for a great marketing combination and attracted quite a few readers) [Btw, today’s picture features another “peculiar” character; see below for an explanation].

In reality, and jokes aside, State aid is a field where much is currently happening, and that most antitrust lawyers often fail to follow and even perceive as distant.  Let me explain why that may not make much sense:

Off the top of my head, I would say that around 40% of DG Comp’s decisional output and resources are devoted to State aid. In economic terms, State aid issues generally have much greater repercussions than most antitrust cases (to put just one example, the guys at my office are advising Spain on how to use some tenths of billions granted by the European Council to restructure the financial sector). The substantive issues are no less interesting, complex, and challenging as the one’s posed by antitrust law.

On the other hand, to be sure, political interference is much more frequent, intense, and often less camouflaged (politicians, very particularly French and British ones, seem to be the ones realizing about the impact of these rules) than in antitrust. You might have read this morning about the French Industry Minister, Arnaud Montebourg, openly attacking both State aid rules in general and Vice-President Almunia in particular. In the Minister’s words, the Commission lives in a “legal delirium” and “makes up rules that don’t exist in the Treaties in order to perpetuate its powers”. He also referred to the Commissioner an “obsolete liberal integrist” and asserted that he has the backing of 11 Member States to “revise and liberalize State aid”. For once I will be the controversial one here instead of Nico, and I’ll refer to Monsieur Montebourg as the first recipient of the “Thicko of the day” award (pictured above proudly receiving his trophy)    :)

Despite all the above (the fun, the legal complexity and the political and economic importance), State aid is not paid the attention it deserves by practicing lawyers. Why? Easy:  because those most directly affected often seem to be public authorities (many companies haven’t yet understood the opportunities and the risks associated to these rules), and those don’t pay as high bills as private companies do. (I guess efficiency and profit-maximizing related incentives also give rise to market failures/externalities).

Whereas I agree with the idea that State aid DNA shares more chromosomes with internal market rules than with antitrust law, there are some common feature between the two disciplines. Aside from the fact that they were placed in the same chapter of the Treaty –which led to their enforcement being entrusted to the same body: DG Comp-, State aid law is also always constantly in the making and questioning itself, which is what initially seduced me from antitrust.

An example: on January 17th the European Commission launched a consultation paper on the very the notion of aid. Think about it; no one would dare of doing the same in antitrust, even if very few people (perhaps with the exception of the influential Giuliano Marenco) have a comprehensive theory to explain what a restriction of competition actually is (an idea I also stated here and here).

There’s loads of “low-hanging fruit” in this domain. If you’re interested in an overview of the legal issues involved in determining what an State aid really is, I very strongly encourage you to read Andrea Biondi’s recent piece: State aid is falling down, falling down: An analysis of the case law on the notion of aid (very recently published in Common Market Law Review).

In the past few weeks I’ve taken a few initiatives to compensate for our State aid deficit. On a personal level, I got heavily involved together with José Luis Buendía in drafting and lodging no less than 12 State aid appeals concerning a particularly controverted and interesting decision (little did I know that I’d have to do that in the course of the Christmas holidays; btw, the experience left me wondering how we could manage in the pre e-Curia days). On a blog-related level, we’ve just asked a couple of the best minds in the field to become regular contributors to Chillin’Competition. We hope to be able to announce their coming on board soon.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 January 2014 at 5:58 pm

Follow-on thoughts on (and beyond) Microsoft/Nokia (by Luis Ortiz Blanco)

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[Note by Alfonso: A few weeks ago I wrote a brief post regarding one particular aspect of the Commission’s press release about the Microsoft/Nokia decision that caught my attention. Before posting it, I discussed the matter with two of my bosses’ colleagues: Luis Ortiz Blanco and Marcos Araujo, both with significantly more merger experience than myself, and both of whom initially agreed with the point I was trying to make. A few days ago this question came up again, and I managed to extract from Luis the commitment that he would write his views on a guest post here (all previous attempts to get him to do that and a Friday Slot interview were unsuccessful…). Luis needs no introduction; he’s an exceptional person, professor, lawyer, and was even also one of the best men at my wedding... He’s also the reason why I work in competition law, but that's a long story. I leave you with him].

Readers of this blog may by now be familiarized with Alfonso’s and Nicolas’ well-known “persistence”. I admit to be and old-school guy, more prone to do my writings with time, pen and paper rather than swiftly and informally on blogs, but this time they caught me off guard and suggested an interesting topic, so here I am, giving blogging a try.

Despite the title of this blog entry, my intention is not to comment on the Microsoft/Nokia decision specifically, not the least because the decision is not yet available and I have not directly or indirectly worked on the case. My intention is to discuss an interesting theoretical point that appears to have arisen in that case and that prompts very relevant legal question for practitioners, academics and competition authorities which go beyond the facts of a given matter: do or should merger control rules and remedies apply also to impediments to competition that a transaction may generate on the seller’s side?

Alfonso already touched on this issue in a previous post. In my view, he rightly identified what I also see as an erred reasoning in the European Commission’s press release, according to which:

  • The Commission considers that any possible competition concerns, which might arise from the conduct of Nokia, following the transaction, in the licensing of the patent portfolio for smart mobile devices which it has retained falls outside the scope of the EU Merger Regulation. The Commission cannot take account of such concerns in the assessment of the current transaction. Indeed, Nokia is the seller whereas the Commission’s investigation relates to the merged entity.

Now, do really merger control rules really relate only to the merged entity, to the exclusion of the seller?

Prior to providing you with my answer to this question, I would remark that, in my experience, it is most unusual to see the European Commission (or any other competition authority for that matter) self-limiting its own powers. Competition enforcers often tend to do the contrary, that is, to explore the powers they have, even if at the risk of perhaps going beyond them at times.

If among the readers of this blog is the one person that bought my book Market Power in EU Antitrust Law, she or he might recall the criticism I directed (pp. 77-78) at a few cases (ExxonMobil, and particularly at Grupo Villar Mir/EnBW/Hidroelectrica del Cantábrico and EnBW/EDP/Cajastur/Hidrocantábrico in relation to the ‘third-party dominance theory”) in which the Commission had intervened aggressively on the market in order to address effects unrelated to the transaction. In those cases the Commission extended and arguably exceeded its powers because of its will to address what it saw as a competitive problem. In its Microsoft/Nokia press release, however, the Commission does the contrary: it appears to restrain or limit the powers it has in order to justify not evaluating what many saw as a competitive problem.

This stance is all the more surprising if one recalls that in the past the Commission has accepted/required some “soft commitments”  in Oracle/Sun and, in a  more similar setting, on the part of Google at the time it acquired Motorola Mobility. The theory of harm in both the latter case and Microsoft/Nokia related to the alleged possible anticompetitive use of patent portfolios. If anything, Microsoft/Nokia would seem to give rise to increased suspicion [the deal was structured in a way that has resulted in an unusual situation: Microsoft buys Nokia’s mobile device business but not valuable mobile device patents, which it will only license. Nokia, in turn, will be under pressure to assert its patents aggressively, may possibly also act under the influence of Microsoft, and would be immune from possible retaliatory strategies because it will not manufacture smartphones anymore. The move is smart, but, in my personal view, maybe also a bit obvious too].

The sole argument seemingly adduced by the Commission to justify its different treatment of the two deals seems to be the precisely the one we are discussing in this post. But, think for a second, would it make sense to endorse an interpretation of the merger regulation that would enable parties to avoid scrutiny by carefully tailoring the structure of a deal?

Now, and more importantly, why do I say that the Commission must have the power to assess the effects of a merger on the selling party?

First of all, because it makes sense. If a merger does affect the incentives of the players in a given market in such a way that competition may be significantly impeded, there would seem to be no valid reasons for competition authorities not to look at the problem and, where necessary, accept (i.e. demand) commitments The contrary would undermine the effectiveness of the merger control system. Why could not the Commission condition the authorization of a transaction to a commitment from one of the parties to it (the seller)?

Secondly, because as Alfonso pointed out in his previous post, the letter of the Merger Regulation supports this idea. He referred to recital 25 of the Horizontal Merger Guidelines; I would also argue that the references in articles 6(2) and 8(2) to “modifications [of the concentration] by the undertakings concerned” shall logically encompass the parties to the transaction (the only ones that can modify it), which obviously would include the seller.

Thirdly, because the Commission’s practice reveals that in the past remedies have been required from the selling party. Think of cases such as E.ON/MOL, where the commitments accepted by the Commission concerned the seller (interestingly, the commitment was drafted in a way such that E.ON would “undertake to procure MOL to dispose of [certain shares in the transferred companies]’. Think also of Alcatel/Telettra, where assurances by a third-party (Telefonica) were relied on by the Commission in accepting commitments. This is not to mention the cases in which the Commission relied on Member State’s (i.e. third parties) assertions and declarations of intentions in support of certain commitments.

Perhaps the Commission would benefit from a third party appeal (not that these have been successful lately) prompting the Courts to rule that the Institution has more powers than it now purports to have. Once again –just like it happened in Camera Care regarding interim measures (a story that I always like to tell my students about)- the Commission could experience the serendipity of obtaining increased powers without even seeking them.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

17 January 2014 at 1:31 pm

AG Wathelet’s Opinion in the Greek lignite case

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The Opinion of Advocate General Wathelet in the very interesting Greek lignite case came out yesterday. This is the second time in recent weeks that the AG’s Opinion makes an impact in the competition scene with a tightly argued proposal (the previous one was his Opinion in Teléfonica).

You might remember that sometime ago we held our first and so far only ménage à trois debate precisely in relation to the General Court’s Judgment in the Greek lignite case:

For the moment, the AG’s Opinion essentialy sides with what José Luis Buendía wrote in his contribution to this debate a year ago (see here), and criticizes the solution adopted by the General Court.

There are however other very valid contrarian arguments, all brilliantly outlined in the pieces we published from Marixenia Davilla (part I ), and Assimakis Komninos (part III).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 December 2013 at 11:20 am

Television Rights, Matches – pun intended – and Bad Competition Law

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[Guest post by Pablo Ibañez Colomo]

It would seem that the Spanish super-quango is more active than one would have assumed (in particular given what is currently going on within the tax authority of the country). The newly-created CNMC has fined four football teams (including Real Madrid and Barcelona) and the broadcaster Mediapro EUR 15 million for concluding exclusive licensing agreements for a period exceeding three years. Such terms contravened a previous decision adopted by the – then – CNC in 2010.

The case is interesting, first, because the Spanish government passed (in 2010, at pretty much the same time that the original decision was adopted) legislation that set a four-year term for exclusive licensing agreements between teams and broadcasters. One could claim that, insofar as the contentious agreements complied with the relevant sector-specific legislation, they were concluded in good faith. Accordingly, the fine would be unjustified. In light (pun intended) of Consorzio Industrie Fiammiferi (pun intended, I’m on fire!), it is clear, however, that this is not a valid defence. Legislation did not preclude undertakings from concluding agreements for a shorter period and thus from complying with Article 101 TFEU (which was clearly applicable in this case).

A second reason why the case is interesting is because it shows that the three-year limit for exclusive licensing agreements is now set in stone. There is no reason why this should be the case. A three-year term is not necessarily pro-competitive. It all depends on the context in which the licensing agreement is concluded. If the goal of this bright-line rule is (as I assume) to preserve the contestability of markets for the acquisition of television rights, then it may sometimes be too short. A new entrant (as BSkyB was back in the early 1990s) may need a longer period to reduce uncertainty and recoup its investments. By ruling out any flexibility, a rigid interpretation of Article 101(1) TFEU can very well have the perverse effect of protecting the incumbent. These are the problems of applying competition law as regulation, which I highlighted elsewhere, and of assuming that UEFA Champions League, Bundesliga and Premier League were rightly decided, in spite of the overwhelming evidence suggesting the opposite.

Pablo

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

5 December 2013 at 7:18 pm

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