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Antitrust quote of the other day and more on the evolution of the law

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Our last post revolved around a well-known quote from Philip Areeda that explains the evolution of the law in terms of judicial inertia/judging by catchphrase. Areeda’s explanation has the virtue of verbalizing brilliantly in simple and intuitively correct terms a human factor that explains why some legal rules may at times evolve beyond the limits of their logic. [To be sure, as noted elsewhere his explanation certainly applies not only to theories that expand liability, but also to those that limit it; in fact, the example I used may arguably refer to the latter category].

In my view, the idea underlying Areeda’s theory explains many other behaviors and situations in areas beyond competition law. At the end of the day, it is about people adopting a simple pre-established view or prism that makes further reflection unnecessary which, in turn, makes the process of forming a view much easier. We do that all the time in many other fields, politics being one of them (if, for instance, one dogmatically assumes that State intervention is always bad (think of Tea Partisans…), then one has a simplistic solid view on many complex specific instances without the need for further reflection; yep, this is one of my recurring themes). Uncertainty and doubt feel troublesome, but certainties -even when mistaken- are comfortable, save a lot of effort and provide seemingly confident opinions.

Judges may at times certainly favor simple pre-defined solutions uncritically (Areeda blamed the fact that there were “too few judges experienced enough with the subject to resist” the temptation of applying previous rulings uncritically), but they’re not the only ones. Think, for instance, of a group which, by definition, is not experienced enough with the subject to resist the temptation to assume stuff uncritically: students.

In the past few days I’ve had various interactions with students from various backgrounds, and I have again been reminded of how new generations of competition lawyers almost universally coincide in the view that the case law and the decisional practice (particularly, but not exclusively, in the domain of Art. 102 TFEU) is fundamentally flawed, absurd, “ordoliberal” and almost crafted by lunatics. But once you scratch below this initial thought, it seems that for some resason students often feel it must necessarily be THE right answer even if they can’t always explain why (which is ironic when what’s criticized is the alleged lack of analytical content in current rules and doctrines). To be sure, I’m not saying that the case-law is perfect (which it probably isn’t, but one needs to understand it and to reflect on it in order to have ideas on whether and how it is to be improved), nor that this is the case of all students, nor that professors don’t do their job right (although not all of them are Areeda either), but I like it better when I see young lawyers who have reasoned doubts than when I see them with unreasoned certainties (I, for one, have very few competition law-related certainties; in fact, I’m not even sure of whether the criticism I’m expressing here is entirely justified). And false certainties may be more common in relatively complex yet non-scientific disciplines, like ours.

Drop by drop, this process whereby some people learn formed opinions instead of the tools with which to form them might also have a crucial impact on the evolution of the law. As new generations get to higher roles (clerks, then Judges, etc), their preconceptions may follow. And, as Areeda noted, it wouldn’t be until their expansion became ridiculous that the process of cutting back would begin (perhaps engendering an analogous process holding contrarian views).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

10 March 2014 at 9:02 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

WhatsApp, Facebook?

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A few hours ago Facebook announced its purchase of WhatsApp, which has been -more or less- valued at over 13 billion euros, one of the most expensive tech aquisitions ever.

As any well-informed competition lawyer may have learnt from recent case-law, this may seem like a risky investment: WhatsApp operates in a dynamic market, in which barriers to entry are said to be almost inexistent, in which there are no technical or economic obstacles to switching to a competing provider (particularly for small groups of people), in which services are mostly provided for free, and in which, despite the lack interconnection, having the largest network with hundreds of millions of users does not give rise to network effects providing a competitive advantage….

If such reasoning were right, it’d be hard to see why anyone would invest over $40 per user of a 55 employees company.

Bitter ironies aside, this deal raises another interesting question: given WhatsApp’s limited turnover I guess it’s likely that the deal will fall outside EU merger notification thresholds. Now, should it? I don’t have a stance on this, but now that there are so many ongoing discussions about the reform of the scope of the Merger Control Regulation, it could perhaps be useful to reflect on whether turnover thresholds are well-suited to reach mergers in the era of free services, in which turnover may not always be good proxy to competitive significance. Think of the possibility that depending on market definition, these transactions could only have to be notified in jurisdictions contemplating market share thresholds (which I’ve always criticized but that remain in place in Spain and Portugal); does that make sense? To be sure, I’m not saying this merger raises any substantive competition concerns; my point is a more general one unrelated to the specificities of any particular case.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

21 February 2014 at 3:31 pm

On information requests and their limits

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The latest entry in 21st Century Competition (Kevin Coates’ very good blog; btw, pictured above is a capture of his work keyboard) explains that the Commission has improved its habits regarding information requests and that there may still be some margin for further improvement.

Kevin’s views are, as always, sensible and well explained [he also has good taste for recommending other people’s writings; see here in relation to the ongoing Android investigation]. They also bring a thought to mind: is self-restraint the only limitation -other than the general principle of proportionality- that the Commission faces in relation to its powers to gather information?

Together with my colleagues Luis Ortiz and Napoleón Ruiz (no kiddin’) I am arguing in a case that is currently pending before the General Court (T-296/11) that this shouldn’t be the case [btw, I’m not disclosing anything not public given that an interim measures order was already published].

Article 18 of Regulation 1/2003 provides that the Commission may require undertakings “to provide all necessary information“. In our view, however, this provision should not be interpreted as granting the Commission absolute discretion.

If our interpretation is correct and the Commission does not enjoy carte blanche in this regard, then the criterion of necessity in Article 18 should be interpreted in an objective manner; otherwise it would be rendered meaningless, with the ensuing risk of fishing investigations. We posit that the objective element of reference could only be given by the indications of the existence of an infringement that are already in the Commission’s power, and not just by reference to the subject-matter and purpose of the investigation. The recent and most interesting Prysmian and Nexans Judgments (in relation to inspections) would seem to lend support to this idea.

This interesting question, however, won’t remain open for long. The General Court is set to deliver its Judgments on a few parallel cases on 14 March (with the exception of ours, which had a very interesting post-hearing procedural peculiarity on which I can’t yet comment). We’ll provide you with our views on these Judgments as soon as they’re out.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 February 2014 at 6:48 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

Pomposity v Social Value in Legal (and Antitrust) Scholarship

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I just saw this graph on Prof. Einer Elhauge’s LinkedIn account; the original source is Eric Posner’s blog (yes, the son of Richard Posner and a big name in his own right too).

I’d be curious to know about the underlying methodology (economic analysis seems to favor economy-related disciplines). It would seem as if an antitrust legal scholar had asked an economist to come up with a seemingly scientific study corroborating a given thesis. Not that this would ever happen in private practice…  🙂

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

9 January 2014 at 1:12 pm

A thought on Microsoft/Nokia

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As you know, a few days ago the European Commission unconditionally authorized the Microsoft/Nokia deal. I’m looking forward to reading the decision, which isn’t yet public. Whereas I expect to see nothing odd in there, a doubt did spring to mind when reading the press release last week.

When explaining its approach to the concern that Nokia could become a troll-like entity, the Commission’s Press Release says the following:

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. However, the Commission will remain vigilant and closely monitor Nokia’s post-merger licensing practices under EU antitrust rules, in particular Article 102 (…)”. (Emphasis added).

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that a wrong/arguable over-simplification? (although, to be sure, it wouldn’t be a crime for a press release to over-simplify). Does merger control really relate solely to the merged entity to the exclusion of other actors in the market? Isn’t it rather about the effect that the transaction may have on the structure of the market? I mean, can’t the Commission assess the effects that a concentration would cause on the market power of parties to the transaction as well as on that of third parties? Perhaps the press release only intended to refer to the Commission’s remedial powers, and not to its assessment powers, but even assuming that, the short explanation may be incorrect. Although infrequent, third party post-merger conduct may be potentially relevant in deciding a case.

Look, for instance, at recital 25 of the horizontal merger guidelines “under certain circumstances, concentrations involving the elimination of important competitive constraints that the merging parties had exerted upon each other, as well as a reduction of competitive pressure on the remaining competitors, may even in the absence of a likelihood of coordination (…) result in a significant impediment to effective competition”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not challenging the outcome of the Decision (it seems prima facie reasonable for the theory of harm at issue in that case to be monitored ex post), but, in my view, the explanation would have had to do with “causality” (à la Tetra Laval or GE/Honeywell), not with the scope of merger control. Perhaps this would seem to make no practical difference in principle (as we’ve learnt recently, in real life ends justify means, and reasonings aren’t really worth paying attention to), but inconsistencies in the formulation of policy positions might eventually come at a cost.

P.S. Following the advice of some of you, last night I created a Twitter account: @LamadridAlfonso; it’d now be nice to know how to use it and what for!

[Image possibly subject to copyright]

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

17 December 2013 at 5:03 pm

The Concept of Abuse in EU Competition Law

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Note: The new release of Competition Law Journal features a book review that I wrote this past summer about Pinar Akman’s interesting book: The Concept of Abuse in EU Competition Law: Legal and Economic Approaches.  I took advantage of the opportunity to voice out some perhaps not-so-frequent views on competition law in general and Article 102 in particular, mainly casting doubt on the convenience of upholding efficiency as its single, sacred, overarching goal and raison d’être. It is reproduced below:

The interest, apparent complexity and the peculiar nature of competition law stem to a great extent from the abstract nature and impreciseness of its main concepts. Most other areas of law have settled and well understood central notions. Competition law, by contrast, is premised upon particularly nebulous or malleable concepts (fortunately for those of us that make a living out of it, and perhaps not so much for those directly subject to it). Ask most lawyers about what a ‘restriction of competition’ is and you will get a surprising variety of theories, and most likely some striking silences. And whereas competition law concepts are open enough to accommodate different – often conflicting – interpretations, no other concept gives rise to the same level of controversy as the notion of ‘abuse of dominance’.

Indeed, despite longstanding efforts – including some notable recent ones by enforcers on both sides of the Atlantic – we still lack a precise idea of what an abuse of dominance is. Moreover, it has become common for partisans of different schools or viewpoints to point at the obvious irrationality of their counterparts: those ‘irrational ordoliberals’ on the one side, or those ‘irrational neoliberals’ on the other, both cross-criticized for obviously lacking any merit in their arguments. Article 102 elicits passions that move discussions away from ideally Cartesian legal debates and closer to those touching on more profound and vital issues such as religion, politics and football.

Our inability to come up with satisfactory rules to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate unilateral conduct by dominant firms has provided fertile ground for the creativity of both practicing lawyers and academics (and, to be sure, of competition enforcers as well). Focusing only on the academic domain, Pinar Akman’s book is preceded by an endless list of publications having as their object – but perhaps not as their effect – the clarification of Art 102 TFEU.

Against this background, Pinar Akman’s book stands out as a particularly original contribution to this debate, and one that is definitely worth reading. The book is very innovative in its approach, it is well written, and it visibly is the result of thorough research, reflection and drafting. Akman’s work is deliberately theoretical; it is not aimed at providing a systematic and thorough account of cases; it stays true to its stated purpose of proposing a ‘completely fresh approach’ to Art 102 TFEU, and it does indeed submit thought-provoking ideas.

The Concept of Abuse in EU Competition Law is grounded on the author’s arguable assumption that “the approach that has been adopted by EU authorities to date is far from desirable or appropriate and sometimes is even far from rational“. Consistent with this critical stance, the book seeks not to provide an analysis of the case law and decisional practice, but rather to propose its radical overhaul. This is boldly announced in its very first paragraph:

The reader of this book is invited to put to one side her preconceptions of the prohibition of abuse of a dominant position in Article 102 TFEU, in particular those directly resulting from the judgments of the Court of Justice (ECJ). Fortunately, this is not asking for too much; after all, the ECJ is not legally bound by precedent.”

It is often said that the first phrase in any literary work should create a tension prompting the reader to continue the story. I acknowledge that the bold view of precedents as preconceptions made me read the rest of the book with increased interest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 December 2013 at 2:09 pm

Thought of the day

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The Law and judicial review would improve significantly if Court submissions were public.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

11 December 2013 at 4:02 pm

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