Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for the ‘The Economist Corner’ Category

Intel and the fight for the soul of EU competition law

with 9 comments

Wouter Wils (one the finest legal minds at the Commission, currently Hearing Officer and one of our Friday Slot interviewees –see here-) has today released an article that will certainly have a significant impact in the discussions on the convenience of following a “more economic approach” to abuse of dominance (and that is likely to be highly controversial, particularly among competition law economists).

We’ve recommended many other articles before, but this really is a must-read.

By the way, Wouter was inspired to write the article by Pablo Ibañez Colomo’s comment on the Intel Judgment in this blog and by the ensuing discussion (see here).

The piece (soon to be published in World Competition) is now available here:

The judgment of the EU General Court in Intel and the so-called ‘more economic approach’ to abuse of dominance

We very much look forward to the debate that this piece will spur.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

19 September 2014 at 2:45 pm

Expert economic evidence(?) in competition cases

with one comment

On 21 November Concurrences, A&O and MAPP will be holding a worskshop on “Standard of Proof for Economic Evidence” (registration is free and still possible through this website).

The topic is very interesting. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to attend, so I’ll make a point in public here (or rathe repeat what I co-wrote on a piece published here) in relation only to the assessment of economic evidence in judicial proceedings. To me, it’s more appropriate to refer to “economic argument” than to “economic evidence”. Unless the expert is appointed by the Court (off the top of my head I can only remember this being done in Woodpulp) or comes from the Commission (which has the winning hand enjoys a margin of discretion in this regard), I do not see many differences between legal and economic argument put forward by the parties in competition proceedings, and no one would call lawyers´ pleadings “legal expert opinions”.

Certainly, in some cases there will be a hardcore of economic data which is not contested by opponents (be it the Commission, the parties, or complainants), but a great part of the “evidence” will be opinion and based on each one’s assumptions, not strictly evidential. An expert presenting evidence is supposed to act as a translator for the judge on areas on which the latter lacks the appropriate training. However, in real life, expert economic evidence has a “strong tendency” to favor the argumentation of one particular party, and is often contradictory with that presented by other parties.

In the end, economic evidence offered by the parties will be assessed by the European Commission and EU Courts as a friendly (former CFI Judge Huber Legal would call it “sisterly”) statement commanded by the interested party with a view to making its case more palatable to the deciding authority or court. Its value will depend on how persuasive the economist in question can be, just like lawyers and their plaidoiries. In the words of Hubert Legal at the 2006 Fordham conference “[T]he way we proceed is compatible with our Rules of Procedure because [economists] are not pleading under oath; it is only a part of the pleading, like you would have the possibility to ask a member of the board of a company to speak, or your sister or whoever is interested in the case”.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 November 2012 at 9:00 pm

On how to find the perfect couple (2012 Nobel Prize in Economics)

with one comment

As announced yesterday by the Swedish academy, the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics are Angela Merkel and the German Government Al Roth and Lloyd Shapley.

Their research has mainly focused on the stable allocation of resources in markets where prices are inexistent. They focused on two-sided markets where monetary exchanges would be inappropriate (i.e. patients-kidney donors or the two individuals in a marriage) and figured out the way to strike non improvable (stable) matches.

As we wait for Nico to come up with a Chuck Norris joke on this, we can point you to Al Roth’s blog . In yesterday’s entry he said that his daily post could be delayed, and on Sunday Roth had written a post on the correlation between national chocolate consumption and per-capita Nobel prizes (Belgium is the exception that confirms the rule) 😉    (there is, however, a correlation which seems even stronger than the chocolate one: if you’re a US citizen, a Harvard Professor, and your research is on game theory then it’s pretty clear that you’ll get a Nobel sooner or later!).

We could also recommend you to read Shapley’s seminal paper on Long term competition (a game theoretic approach) (if you do, please tell us what it says, because we can’t really read equations!).

Now, since you probably won’t read neither Roth’s blog nor Shapley’s 1992 paper, and since the only think in this post that caught your attention was that they figured out the best way to find the perfect match in marriage, that’s where we will focus on:

In a 1962 paper Shapley and Gale assumed a market in which men propose to women (a debatable assumption as it is a bit male-chauvinist and also leaves out people who wish to stay single, gay and bisexual people and a bunch of other “real life stuff”), in which each individual has views about what their ideal couple should be like, but in which those views do not lead to perfect matching [otherwise a bunch of us would be matched to Monica Bellucci or Bar Refaeli, and that can’t work; or could it?? (note to my girlfriend: this is only a joke mandated by our editorial line; don’t worry)]. Shapley and Gale stood up for the proposition that an stable result could only be attained if women applied a “deferred acceptance” strategy. This would work as follows:

First, men would propose to their favorite woman. This means that Monica and Bar (which is how Nico and I call them in private) would have multiple choices but that other women would have less or zero choice, which (even if certainly acceptable by some of us) is unfortunately not stable. Instead of accepting their favorite “candidate”, they argue that women should “pocket” the strongest offer without accepting it and reject all others. Rejected men would then make a second proposal, which would allow women to stick to their previous pick or to replace it by one of the new candidates. Shapley and Gale proved that, if repeated enough times [1st round Monica Bellucci, 2nd round Bar Refaeli… 1456th million round Snowwhite’s evil stepmother –with two notable exceptions-] the algorithm will lead to stable non-improvable matches.

Sure this doesn’t seem to “match” the real world and, although intellectually interesting, its practical application seemed doubtful (and discouraging!).  But Roth figured out that Shapley’s algorithm could have enormous practical applications on students-schools, patient-donors, and doctors-hospitals. A great example where the intelectual beauty of economics results in very practical solutions to real problems that truly affect peoples lives. In sum, a very deserved prize.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

16 October 2012 at 12:29 pm

Fine and Punishment

with one comment

In the article that  kept me working during my otherwise summer holidays last year Luis Ortiz Blanco and myself wrote for the Fordham Conference held last September [the final version is published here; a draft version is available for free here] we quoted one of our “Friday Slotters”, Ian Forrester, (actually, he was the one who proposed “The Friday Slot” as a name for the section) saying that competition fines imposed by the Commission “exceed fines imposed by the public authority in any democracy of which I am aware for any offence“.

Some evolution is apparently taking place in this regard. Look, for instance, at the  $3 billion fine that GlaxoSmithkline has agreed to pay for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data. Take a look also at this very interesting graph, which points out at the largest corporate fines and settlements in the past seven years, and also presents the fine as a percentage of the yearly income of the sanctioned companies.

During a Paris-Brussels train trip last night I read an interesting piece on The Economist that deals precisely with the recent increment in corporate fines using international cartel fines (which reportedly “rose by a factor of one thousand between the 1990s and 2000s”) as the main example. 

The Economist‘s piece draws on economic research to justify the conclusion that “to deter bad behavior fines need to rise”.

You may recall that our guest Benoît Durand dealt with this same issue some posts ago and came to a contrary conclusion: that deterrence would be better served by envisaging individual sanctions (fines, disqualification and/or prison penalties) for the executives directly involved in cartel meetings. We haven´t really thought this through, but we’re not big fans of prison penalties, nor would we favor the imposition of disproportionate individual fines. A well designed disqualification sanction, however, would appear to us as a reasonable measure. Any views?

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 July 2012 at 3:08 pm

The Economist Corner (4) – Are Cartel Fines too Low?

with 4 comments

Given today’s announcement, I suspect Alfonso has better to do than posting on this blog. Run, Alfonso (on the banks), run!

With this, it is thus my duty, and honour, to introduce the 4th edition of the Economist Corner. For this edition, Benoît Durand (RBB Economics) has sent us a good piece on a money-related issue, i.e. fines for cartel infringements. Enjoy!

In the last decade the European Commission has imposed higher fines on cartels, in particular under the helm of Neelie Kroes.  The stated purpose for this increase was that fine levels were not sufficiently high to deter the formation of cartels.

In general, the deterrence property of sanctions is a key aspect of law enforcement.  Becker (1968), who was the first to apply economic principles to crime and punishment, explains that the level of sanctions should be set so as to deter crime.  A high level of sanction in turn contributes to minimise the costs of enforcing the law.[1]

Firms consider the expected benefits and costs of participating in a cartel.  Under this logic, if the expected sanctions are higher than the collusive gains, then firms will not take the chance.  Because there is always a significant probability that cartels slip through the net, the penalties should be several times larger than the gains such that no firm would dare try fixing prices.  By way of example, consider that a cartel member expects to pocket 50 million euros extra every year for about 6 years, whilst the probability of being caught is 1 out of 5.  In this setting, it would take a massive fine of slightly more than 1.5 billion euros to convince a firm not to collude.[2]

As cartels continue to exist, it must be the case that the current level of sanctions is ineffective.  This is the conclusion that Combe and Monnier (2011) draw after reviewing the fines for 64 EC cartel decisions between 1979 and 2009.  They show that in virtually all cases fines were set below the optimal deterrence level; i.e. in spite of the sanctions, the cartels were profitable.[3]

Is it therefore necessary to raise corporate fines above the current levels to deter the formation of cartels?  It is hard to say, but to achieve full deterrence, competition authorities need not increase fines at stratospheric levels as suggested by the logic described above.  First, they could adjust sanctions to give cartel members the incentive to undercut each other, which would trigger the collapse of cartels.  Second, in complement to corporate fines, competition authorities could consider applying measures targeted at company officers who have brokered the cartel agreement.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nicolas Petit

6 June 2012 at 9:58 am

The Economist Corner (III): “Intent” in Article 102 cases

with one comment

For this third edition of The Economist Corner we have invited Hans Zenger. Hans used to be a member of the Chief Economist Team at DG Comp and is currently Senior Consultant at CRA. He’s is not only one of the most brilliant economists in town, but he’s also a great gruy.

 As noted here some months ago, and even though there remains much to be done, Hans will also be one of the co-authors (the others will be Miguel de la Mano, Renato Nazzini and myself) of the Article 102 chapter of the next edition of Faull & Nikpay’s The EU Law of Competition. 

We leave you with his ruminations on the role of intent in Article 102 cases. This topic, and many others, are dealt with in his article “Loyalty Rebates and the Competitive Process”, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Competition Law & Economics.)


In criminal law, proof of intent plays an important role in establishing the scope of liability. If A intends to benefit at the expense of B, then A is probably up to no good. In antitrust, this principle has all too easily been extended to unilateral conduct law. The problem is that the intent of benefitting at the expense of others is essentially what generates the beneficial outcome of a market economy:

• The prospect of “exploiting” consumers is what provides firms with an incentive to produce valuable products that improve over existing varieties.

 • And the prospect of “excluding” rivals from making sales is what provides firms with an incentive to cut price to expand output.

In other words, the self-serving intent to “exploit” and “foreclose” is a cornerstone of the competitive process.

Adam Smith succinctly explained this in 1776: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest … By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

If one too readily transposes the zero-sum logic of criminal law to unilateral conduct investigations, then Smith’s conclusion constitutes a paradox: If A intends to benefit at the expense of B, how could that possibly be good for B? But as Schumpeter has explained, “There is no more of a paradox in this than there is in saying that motorcars are traveling faster than they otherwise would because they are provided with brakes.”

The evidentiary value of intent evidence in Article 102 cases therefore has its limits. Perhaps not surprisingly, regulators on occasion have shown a tendency to read too much into such documents. As Judge Easterbrook has noted, “firms ‘intend’ to do all the business they can, to crush their rivals if they can … Rivalry is harsh, and consumers gain the most when firms slash costs to the bone and pare price down to cost, all in pursuit of more business. Few firms price unaware of what they are doing; price reductions are carried out in pursuit of sales, at others’ expense. Entrepreneurs who work hardest to cut their prices will do the most damage to their rivals, and they will see good in it. You cannot be a sensible business executive without understanding the link among prices, your firm’s success and other firm’s distress. If courts use the vigorous, nasty pursuit of sales as evidence of forbidden ‘intent,’ they run the risk of penalizing the motive forces of competition.”

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

11 April 2012 at 11:31 am

The Economist Corner (2) – Patent Settlements in the Pharmaceutical Sector

with 5 comments

For this second edition of the Economist Corner, Benoît Durand from RBB Economics has sent us a post on patent settlements in the pharmaceutical sector. Benoît advocates against a per se approach to such agreements, and gives examples of pro-competitive settlements. The topic of Benoît’s post is timely. At a Brussels event last week, an EU official hinted that COMP would likely not treat such agreements under a per-se approach. He also said that the Commission would seek to provide as much legal certainty as possible on the issue. As some of you may know, the Commission dropped several settlement cases lately (GSK; AstraZeneca) but still continues to scrutinize other cases (J&J v. Novartis; Cephalon v. Teva; Servier (Perindropil); Lundbeck).

Following the conclusion of the pharmaceutical sector market inquiry in 2009, the European Commission has launched a number of investigations on patent-settlement agreements that include a payment between an originator and a generic company (also called “reverse payment” settlements[1]).  The Commission is worried that some of these payments may be used used by originators to reward generic manufacturers for postponing the launch of cheaper drugs on the market.  It is easy to see that the originator has a strong incentive to delay generic entry in order to continue earning a monopoly rent on the sale of its patented drug.  When the patent exclusivity expires generic drugs may begin challenging the originator’s monopoly position.  In this case, sharing part of the monopoly profit with a potential entrant is a better outcome than letting competition eat the rent away.[2]

However, as you might have guessed, reality is more complicated, and perhaps surprisingly, patent settlement agreements involving reverse payment need not necessarily be anti-competitive. The first thing to note is that the originator drug is protected by a patent, and it is only when the legal exclusivity expires that generic drugs may begin challenge the originator drug.  The second thing to note is that the validity of a patent is never a sure thing, and therefore its expiry date is uncertain.  Even though a pharmaceutical company has filed a patent, generic entrants may still challenge the incumbent before the formal expiry date.  Generic producers may consider that they have a good chance of challenging the patent in courts.  In the case of entry, the patent holder would seek an injunction to prevent entry, but judges may or may not grant the injunction, and they may or may not uphold a patent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nicolas Petit

21 March 2012 at 11:03 am

Economics in competition law

with 2 comments

Nicolas’ post from yesterday was somewhat of a declaration of lawove to economics. However, as the post noted, in my personal case this love is not at all unconditional.

Nico’s post stated that the “reptilian reflex of dismissing economics as a source of legal uncertainty is misguided“, but acknowledged that “on this point Alfonso has more nuanced views that he will develop here“.

So, here they are.

Those “more nuanced views” have been recently developed in a couple of pieces co-written by Luis Ortiz Blanco and by myself (one was presented at Fordham’s Annual Conference and the other at a GCLC Annual Conference, and both are about to be published as part of the proceedings of these two events). In these papers we argue that the growing influence of economics in competition law enforcement has brought about many positive consequences, but that we should be mindful of letting the about pendulum swing too far. We submit that there is a limit to the concessions that a legal regime can make without renouncing its nature, and that effects-based legality tests might approach decision-making to economic divination to the prejudice of legal certainty.

I’m conscious that these thoughts may not appear be shared by the mainstream (I don’t expect them to make me the most popular guy if I go to Place Lux for a drink tonight). Nevertheless, I do tend to think that there is a silent large minority/majority that supports these ideas. In fact, a very prominent European Commission official read outloud the following paragraphs from one of our papers at a conference held two or three months ago (by the way: he said he liked them, not that he endorsed them), and invited the attendants to reflect on them:

(If interested, click here to continue reading)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

1 March 2012 at 2:18 pm

The Economist Corner (1) – When State aid rules get seriously wrong…

with one comment

Unlike many lawyers who keep on bashing the use of economics in competition proceedings, Alfonso and I love antitrust economics. The reptilian reflex of dismissing economics as a source of legal uncertainty is misguided (although on this point Alfonso has more nuanced views that he will develop here). As explained by J. Sims, the introduction of economics in competition law, and the ensuing flexibility of competition analysis does not necessarily mean that legal certainty is degraded. Antitrust economics help channeling discussion in competition proceedings. It has helped define more accurate theories of harm (the boundaries of infringements) and the requirements necessary for them to fly (the conditions of infringements). And those concerned that opening the gates to antitrust economics means accepting the Trojan horse of small, Chicago-like, antitrust policy should think of a minute to how economists have helped enlarging the scope of competition law in the past decades. Examples of such expansions abound, with doctrines such as collective dominance, below-dominance unilateral effects, raising rivals’ costs, etc.

With this background, and to help our lawyer-friends feel more at ease with economics, we have decided to create a new, bi-monthly column on this blog, called “The Economist Corner”. Our first invited blogger for this column is Benoît Durand from RBB Economics. It would take too long to go through Benoît’s full biography, but as most of the guys we like here, Benoît has a wealth of experiences, having worked as an official in COMP and at the UK Competition Commission, and being the author of a Phd. in Economics from Boston College. More importantly, Benoît is a fun person to have a beer with – we did a natural experiment of this 2 weeks ago – and a huge rugby fan.

For his first column, Benoît has decided to focus on State aid in the Banking sector. As with our posts, this post reflects Benoît’s own, personal opinions,  which cannot be attributed to the firm he works for. We hope you’ll enjoy the reading.

When the financial crisis hit the banking sector in 2008, some European governments had to step in to rescue banks in order to avoid a financial meltdown.  For example, Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, announced in October 2008 that the government would inject capital in some of the major banks, Lloyds TSB, Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS.  Little did he know that these capital injections violated state aid rules, which meant that in return for being saved from bankruptcy, the banks had to severe a limb to satisfy Brussels.

The European Commission enforcement of State aid rules is based on the view that government rescue distorts competition.  That is, the public capital injection gave the recipient banks an unfair competitive advantage, and in return for this advantage, the bailed out banks had to be penalised so as to restore the level playing field.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nicolas Petit

29 February 2012 at 8:44 pm