Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for April 6th, 2011

Information Exchange and Cartels – Dangerous Liaisons?

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Are information exchanges really = cartels under EU competition law?

The issue has triggered many discussions on the blog lately. I just thought I’d post my own ruminations on this.

The  Guidelines do not really say that information exchanges are cartels. Let’s take a close look. There are four references to cartels in the guidelines that concern information exchanges. The first one, which is general in scope, can be found at §9  and expressly says the contrary: “Although these guidelines contain certain references to cartels, they are not intended to give any guidance as to what does and does not constitute a cartel as defined by the decisional practice of the Commission and the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union”. The three other references, which can be found at §§59 and 74, do not quite say that information exchanges are cartels. It is stated there that exchange of information, in particular on future prices, “with the object of fixing, in particular, prices or quantities” will be “considered and fined as cartels”, which is quite different from saying that they are cartels (and which is in line with the existing case-law on “concerted practices”). Moreover, in so doing, the Guidelines accurately indicate that only a subset of information exchanges may be treated as cartels (am a “glass half-full”, optimistic person) . Those are information exchanges that have the object of fixing prices or quantities. It is thus incumbent on the Commission – or on the complainant, applicant, whatever – to prove that the information exchange has an anticompetitive object, which I understand here as purpose (or intention). Not all information exchanges are thus treated as cartels.

From an economic perspective, what the Guidelines say is not illegitimate. Moving beyond the possibly unfortunate semantics of the Guidelines (why not stick to the good old concept of a “hardcore restriction”), exchanges of information on future prices in the market place are, from an economic standpoint, quite a bad thing. First, such practices are known to facilitate tacit collusion on tight oligopolistic markets. Second, in many cases, exchanges of information on future prices are just the tip of the iceberg: they serve as the adjustment mechanism of an otherwise unproven, but explicit collusion.

Are the Guidelines really tougher on information exchange? On this blog and elsewhere, it has been argued that the reference to cartels could signal a tougher regime for information exchanges. On this, a counterintuitive reflection springs to mind: from a defense counsel perspective, equating information exchange on future prices with cartels may actually mark a relaxation of the legal regime applicable to such hardcore restrictions. Think about it: the culprits now can benefit from leniency and enjoy the penalty discounts afforded under the settlement notice. To me, this does not really sound like an aggravation of the legal regime applicable to exchange of future information (which as I said were treated in the case-law as egregious restrictions of competition).

Where the concerns really are. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the Guidelines’ infuriated semantics. But I think there are other, more important areas of concern in relation to information exchange. I regret in particular that the Guidelines espouse a checklist (or “laundry list”) approach to information exchanges, which provides little, if no, legal certainty to firms willing to self assess proposed agreements. To assess such agreements, firms must review a long range of factors of seemingly equal importance, and the calibration of pro v. anti-collusive factors is notoriously daunting. Given that the theory of harm ascribed to information exchange is tacit or overt collusion, the Guidelines should have subordinated a finding of incompatibility under Article 101(1)TFEU to proof of the 3 cumulative Airtours condition (there’s a discrete reference to Airtours at fn61). This would have been sensible from both a legal certainty and an economic standpoint. Moreover, this solution would have ensured legal consistency across the various areas of EU competition law.

Written by Nicolas Petit

6 April 2011 at 11:51 am

Posted in Case-Law, Uncategorized