Archive for the ‘International Antitrust’ Category
As you might have noticed, we took an unnanounced temporary break from bloggin’. First it was due to a particularly intense period of work (I might give more details about it in the future) and then to (my only…) week of Summer holidays during which I wanted to hear nothing about competition law [btw, I read these two very recommendable books (here and here), only to find out that the latter -a dystopian novel about tech companies- does refer to European Commission's antitrust investigations as part of the plot...].
In between this break Chillin’Competition surpassed 750,000 visits [I checked the stats and only in the past year we've had visits from 193 countries (exactly the same as the members of the UN)], which still today feels pretty surprising. We are however increasingly struggling to find the time to improve what we do here; at least in my case, this is proving a challenge (and it’ll be even more in the near future once the upcoming paternity reshuffles my priorities). This is to say that you should expect some significant changes in Chillin’Competition after the summer holidays, hopefully for good.We’ll explain this in more detail soon.
Nicolas -who will soon end his time at DG Comp- and myself discussed a bit about this yesterday when we met by surprise at a corridor of the College of Europe in Bruges; we were simultaneously lecturing in two contiguous rooms and hadn’t realized about it… By the way, I was lecturing to a group of very smart Chinese officials (pictured above) about EU Competition Procedure and Article 106 TFEU (the provision with the greatest unexploited potential in EU Competition Law) and very much enjoyed discussing with them (this in spite of -excellent- consecutive translation, which added a level of complexity to the conversation). In case anyone is interested, here are the two power points I used (although I’m afraid you might have trouble understanding much): EU Competition procedure (CoE-China) and Article 106 (CoE-China) (many thanks, by the way, to Carlos Bobillo and Ana Balcells for taking care of these. One day they’ll realize that the main advantage of spending a few years at a law firm is that you can get someone to do your PowerPoints ;) )
As I mentioned some posts ago, over the past few months I’ve been paying increased attention to competition law issues arising in Latin America. Until now I hadn’t shared here any views about what’s going on there, but this time the issue merits a comment, not the least because it calls into question the much talked about process of international substantive (or at least legislative) convergence in our field.
As you may know, Mexico is currently considering a reform to its competition law system. This is a move that many considered necessary; respected publications such as The Economist or even the influential book How Nations Fail had insisted in recommending Mexico to boost its competition law system and target market concentration as a way to increase growth and reduce inequality. But whereas few would challenge Mexico’s need for vigorous competition policy, many in the antitrust community are voicing out concerns in relation to some of the envisaged reforms.
For the most part, Mexico’s contemplated Competition Act is in line with other competition regimes around the world, including the EU’s. The proposed reform, however, includes some novel and unusual provisions, concepts and remedies that have given rise to concern, namely:
(i) several provisions (arts. 52, 55 and 57) that would turn the erection of “barriers to competition” (a term not defined in the draft Law) into a new self-standing violation of competition law (one that would seemingly be added to the prohibition on restrictive agreements and abuse of dominance); and
(ii) a provision (art. 94) that would grant the authority powers to “determine the existence of barriers for free competition” and order “corrective measures deemed necessary” for the purpose of eliminating them (“the measures may include the elimination of barriers to free competition, regulation of essential inputs or divesture of assets, rights, partnership interests or shares in Economic Agents in the proportion required (…) The measures concerning the existence of an essential input shall include modes of access to it, price or tariff controls, technical and quality conditions and time schedules”. This last provision reportedly attempts to mirror (although with some diferencies) the UK’s market investigation system.
Unsurprisingly, strong varied opinions have been published in various forums.
One of the best pieces written so far on the subject (and one that has the virtues –for us- of departing from the EU system and of being written in English) has been co-authored by our friend Assimakis Komninos (who has contributed to this blog in the past) and Anne Perrot (with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a panel last year). The Komninos-Perrot piece has been echoed not only in Spanish language press, but also in places like the Financial Times. It’s worth a read, and it’s available here: MexicoEurope(Komninos&Perrot)
For those of you who are interested in more and can read Spanish, I would recommend this document, featuring opinions from various experts.
P.S. Unrelated to the reform, but nevertheless interesting: a former member of the Mexican competition authority recently told me about a Mexican case that perfectly illustrates both the need for competition advocay in the country as well as how strictly the concept of “policing” a cartel has been interpreted. This 2010 COFECO decision refers to an official agreement subscribed by the municipal authorities of a given city with “tortilla producers”; the municipality divided the city into various areas, each one of which was exclusively assigned to a particular producer (delivery motorcycles all were painted in a color corresponding to the area in which they could operate). The task of ensuring compliance with this market sharing arrangement was entrusted to the municipality’s police. No kidding. And if you think this would not happen in Europe, read again our previous post on Monsieur Arnaud Montebourg.
Many EU officials and
some of the fauna making a living around them as well as many -like me- working in the EU area in Brussels are (once again) experiencing security checks, traffic disruptions and blockades today due to the visit of US President Barack Obama to conmemorate the 10th anniversary of the Microsoft decision, and to lobby Vice-President Almunia with respect to the Gazprom and Google antitrust investigations (Chillin’Competition has obtaiend a pic of the President discreetly entering the Madou tower this morning).
Chillin’Competition has also learnt that Obama’s travel arrangements haven’t gone according to plan:
First, Obama’s staff sent to Europe in advance to verify in person the recent developments on the antitrust damages front experienced some trouble as they were initiating the mission trying to consume a typical and typically cartelized product (beer).
Second, President Obama is reported not to have landed at Zaventem airport, as planned, but at the secret runway at Charleroi airport discovered by DG Comp (if you didn’t know about this one, click on the link; it’s too good to be true). Apparently, the managers at Zaventem told AirForceOne that it couldn’t land because the flight had not been scheduled with enough antitipation (“on sait pas faire ça, ici c’est la Belgique, monsieur“) were the exact controllers words.
Third, the President chose to spend the night at The Hotel (the usual venue for GCLC conferences) with the hope that he could perhaps attend a lunch talk. He couldn’t.
Finally, it seems that, at the end of the day, road blockages served no purposes:
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.
I’ve somewhat of a bad conscience for not having been able to cover this topic before (not least because one of you has been pestering me with emails asking when I’d write about it…)(btw, the same person has also gently and repeatedly reminded me to post a link to his new –and actually very interesting (really)- paper, so here it is; titled The Law of Abuse of Dominance and the System of Judicial Remedies).
As you may have read, within a lapse of two days the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and the European Commission issued, respectively, an opinion (in FTC v Actavis) and a decision (against Lundbeck and others) addressing reverse payments.
Most of the superficial client alerts analyses I’ve seen merely note the time coincidence and suggest a certain convergence in the US and EU approaches to the issue. The headline goes that the Commission imposed its first fine for this practice, and that the SCOTUS reversed a Circuit clash, holding that reverse payments are subject to the rule of reason and dismissing the “scope of the patent test”. In my view, this reading, although right, is also incomplete and hides a few of the interesting issues that have surfaced in these cases.
If I were to start explaining what reverse payments are, the background to these cases and the content and implications of the opinion and the decision you’d probably be tempted to stop reading after a few lines. In order to avoid that, instead of following the normal structure of a post, this will be a reverse post on reverse payments:
Today we will provide you with some comments on these developments and of why they can be relevant beyond their specific context. Tomorrow (if I’ve time) or on Friday (more likely) we’ll offer you our vision on the background to these cases and an overview of the opinion and the decision. I trust this will enable (i) connaisseurs to skip the background stuff; and (ii) those not initiated in these issues to grasp their relevance and to become interested in reading more about them.
Some reactions to the SCOTUS opinion and to the Commission’s decision
- Leaving the pharma sector aside, and looking at things from a broader perspective, the underlying philosophy of the Opinion in relation to the IP regulation/antitrust interface (condensed in this statement: “it would be incongruous to determine antitrust legality by measuring the settlements anticompetitive effects solely against patent law policy, rather than by measuring them against procompetitive antitrust policies as well”) appears to be at odds with the principles governing the interface between sector-specific regulation and antitrust established in Trinko . It’s therefore not surprising that Justice Scalia, that wrote the majority opinion in Trinko, has joined Roberst and Thomas in a dissenting opinion here. So, does this signal a change of trend in the way the SCOTUS interprets antitrust law? The 3 dissenting Justices at least do seem to see it that way, and argue in strong terms that the opinion overturns understood antitrust.
- On a very related but more specific note, although I haven’t read any comments on this point I see common link between these two recent cases on reverse payments and other landmark cases like Linkline US) and Telia Sonera (one of the most controversial EU cases in recent years). In all these cases some party relied on the idea that “he who can do the most can do the least”. In Actavis and Lundbeck the argument was that a patent holder was entitled to exclude competition provided that it remained within the limits of the “scope of the patent”; and in TeliaSonera and Linkline it was that if refusing to supply would not be deemed abusive, there could be no room to find an abusive margin squeeze.
This argument, however, had only been accepted by the SCOTUS in Linkline, with European Courts taking a different line in the most criticized TeliaSonera Judgment, so it’s not surprising (at least to me) that the Commission has rejected it in Lundbeck, but it’s remarkable that the SCOTUS has taken a different line in Actavis.
By the way, I leave one provoking thought I heard from someone the other day discussing TeliaSonera: “I don’t have an obligation to let anyone into my home, but once they’re inside it would be illegal for me to kick them out violently…”. (I expect some virulent reactions to this; happy to discuss).
- Are the EU and US approaches converging with regard to reverse payments, or even with regard to the assessment of horizontal agreements more widely? Not really (leave aside the synchronized summer desk cleaning timing coincidence). Sure, both the SCOTUS and the Commission see a margin for potential restrictions of competition in reverse payments, but they have chosen very different approaches. And whereas the theoretical difference does not appear to be large, the practical consequences hugely differ. In the US reverse payments will need to be assessed under the rule of reason –which imposes a very considerable burden on plaintiffs- (as we will explain in our forthcoming post, the Supreme Court has dismissed the “quick look approach” proposed by the FTC). In Europe, on the contrary, the Commission has decided to take the usual “object” shortcut. This is key, for an “amorphous rule of reason” (an expression actually used in the dissenting opinion in Actavis) analysis normally means difficulties for the plaintiff, whereas a “bifurcated” 101(1) / 101(3) analysis generally results in condemnation because of the (anticipated and worrysome) death of Art. 101 (3).
(Interestingly, the FTC wasn’t able to give a satisfactory answer to a very pertinent question asked by Justice Sotomayor at the hearing: “Why is the rule of reason so bad?”)
If you ask me, I would have no objection to the EU solution if Art. 101(3) were an effective possible way out (this was basically the ECJ’s stand in GlaxoSmithkline) and I would have no objection to the US approach if the burden of proof incumbent upon plaintiffs was a bit less burdensome. As things stand, it was probably not feasible to strike the right solution in theory (where I think the SCOTUS’ one is preferable) as well as in practice (where the Commission’s will likely yield better results) for these cases.
To be continued…
As explained in previous posts, there is a new and innovative Spanish competition law in the pipeline. I say innovative because the main change it will bring to the current system is the unification of sectoral regulators and the competition enforcer into a single “competition and markets authority”. We have voiced out some of our views about the draft law in a previous post. I’m still hesitating over the idea of writing a well thought out post explaining what’s going on in Spanish competition law (I do very little national work these days, but still follow it closely), but it might be wise to go through a cooling off period first.. Anyway, what I meant to say -mainly to our Spanish readers- is that the new draft law was approved by Congress and sent to the Senate earlier today. It’s available here.
Also, I’ll be flying to DC on Tuesday for the ABA’s section of antitrust law spring meeting. The program is interesting, but this event is mostly about
attending free cocktails networking (which may reinforce the perception some people have of lawyers as heavy drinkers). If any of the readers of Chillin’Competition is around, you can drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org); unfortunately we don’t always get to meet those of you outside Brussels. My firm will not be hosting a reception [hosting cocktails in the State can be risky from a legal point of view ;)], so I’m collecting cocktail invitations from others. I actually have a bet with an in-house counsel friend to see who gets more, and he’s clearly way ahead. Being an in-house at one of these events must feel like being the hot girl at a night club: everybody wants to buy you drinks…