Thursday, 7 December 2017

This year's RBB Economics conference

Last week's RBB Economics conference in Sydney lived up to its six excellent predecessors (write-ups of last year's: keynote addresses, using economists, mergers, competition law).

Rod Sims, the chair of the ACCC, led off on the theme of  'Towards the new era in competition law'. Mostly the 'new' bits centred around changes to legislation. The Aussies'  Competition and Consumer Act (the CCA) has a new s45 on anti-competitive 'concerted practices', and an improved version of s46 dealing with abuse of market power, which incorporates the 'effects' test for use of market power as recommended by the Aussies' Harper review of competition policy.

We, on the other hand, are still lumbered with the 'taking advantage of market power' test that the Aussies have moved on from. As our Commerce Commission said in its just-released Briefing to its Incoming Minister
The Commission supports changes to Section 36 [our abuse of market power provision] as our enforcement programme continues to be constrained by practical difficulties in applying the legal tests set down by the courts. We note that the equivalent misuse of market power provision in the Australian Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Section 46) has been amended (and came into effect in October this year), ostensibly to overcome similar issues and limitations encountered by the ACCC with ‘market power’ cases.
Don't know what cavilling nitpicker put 'ostensibly' in there: there's no ostensibly about it. Rod Sims said that "the old Section 46 saw us powerless to deal with a range of behaviour by powerful firms in many parts of the value chain who were stopping their competitors competing on their merits". The Aussies did have issues. They did have limitations. They've had a go at fixing them. We haven't (yet).

If the Aussies are ahead of us in some areas, it was nice to see that at least sometimes we have made the running. Currently our Commission does both merger clearances (no lessening of competition involved) and merger authorisations (there's a lessening, but it's worth it on a net public benefit basis), and has done for yonks. In Australia however there was an 'informal' clearance regime run by the ACCC (though in practice it became rather formalised and not unlike our clearance process), but authorisations went to the Australian Competition Tribunal. Now both clearances and authorisations go to the ACCC in the first instance, which makes total sense. So it was nice to see our own Mary-Anne Borrowdale, general counsel in the competition branch of the Commerce Commission, explaining to the Aussies how the processes work in practice and how to make them work smoothly for everyone.

Sims also made the good point that enforcing a competition regime is even more important these days when people are more than usually concerned about inequality and inequity. As he said, "Often populism opposes the essence of our market economy because it seems to many that the common person loses out and a small elite get wealthy at their expense. As I have repeatedly said, however, the role of the CCA is to ensure that our market economy does, and is seen to, work as it should, to the benefit of people generally".

I was struck by a couple of other things he said. One was that the ACCC has five criminal cartel cases with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions on top of others they've already pinged ("shipping, polycarbonate roofing, electrical cable, air freight, electrical componentry in cars, foreign exchange in the banking sector, airline tickets, and laundry detergent"), plus "there are others in our now‑healthy pipeline from our investment in establishing our serious cartels unit". Like all cartel policemen, he's got an interest in talking up his book, if only to make cartel leniency programmes look more attractive to potential dobbers-in: those five with the CDPP for all I know could all be the other Japanese shipping lines after NYK rolled over on its erstwhile co-conspirators. But even after allowing for some puffery it does leave me wondering: if the ACCC is finding stuff, are we? And if not, why not?

Sims also said that the ACCC had won a prize for competition advocacy. I'd never heard of the International Competition Network (ICN) / World Bank competition advocacy contest: now that I have, and acknowledging that we in New Zealand can't go through life forever making invidious comparisons with our Aussie mates, I wouldn't mind at all if the Commerce Commission was on the ICN / World Bank podium some day.

Luke Woodward, partner and head of the competition and regulation practice at Gilbert + Tobin, followed Sims on the same 'new era' topic (summary here, full remarks here). It put the evolution of Australia's competition regime in historical perspective. He said that "in Australia we developed an excessive level of legal formalism, where statutory construction has at times predominated over competition analysis. This approach has been rigid and not well able to flexibly adapt to developments in thinking over time...Section 46 suffered this fate: it started poorly with judicial glosses; was put on a good workable footing... and then...an artificial and disconnected legalistic approach to causal connections was introduced. The ACCC got shy and backed off. The hunting dog retreated to the porch".

But now Australia is in a potentially better position - potentially, because it might get to a place where the substance and the economics prevail over the legalism, or it might not. As Luke said, "The ACCC’s s 45 and s 46 guidelines don’t as of yet provide any guidance around the competitive theories of harm that the ACCC considers applying. In form, they are documents that look more like they were written by lawyers or administrators with an eye to warning businesses and keeping options open; rather than written by economists articulating a coherent economic theory of harm".

Other presenters - notably Peter Armitage from Ashurst (on s45) and Kirsten Webb from Clayton Utz (on s46) - made similar points about early days, detail still needing to be filled in, and how things might yet develop through the cases. Where the Aussies take s46 in particular will be hugely important to us if (as I think likely) we'll eventually join them in changing our law to match theirs. Whether we'll opt for a 'concerted practices' provision is more debatable. I can see a logic to one, but as Armitage argued, it's not fully clear what its reach is. If it's meant to catch anti-competitive things that aren't quite caught by the traditional 'contract, arrangement or understanding', fair enough. But (as he instanced) what about the example of smaller coal or iron producers swinging in behind the prices negotiated by the big guys with the big Chinese and Japanese buyers? There's a risk of overreach.

Luke Woodward also had some questions about the ACCC's extensive series of market studies: one came out on the morning of the conference (on the dairy industry), and another one has got underway since (a highly interesting one, on digital platforms). Luke worried that they might be going too far: for example, "If regulators themselves are prone to regulatory failure,then having found market failures, we run the risk of not correcting market failures, but simply adding regulatory failure to market failure" (read his full comments on pp 9-11 of his speech). All I can say is, it's a nice problem to have: up to now our Commerce Commission has been left twiddling its thumbs. The new government, goaded by the petrol  market, looks like it'll finally - finally - let the Commission proactively look at competition issues, but at the usual glacial pace of legislative and policy change in this area it'll be late next year before they have the powers, and 2019 and beyond before we see anything from them.

We also had sessions on competition issues in key industries, the pick for me being RBB's George Siolis with his commentary on the ACCC's retail electricity inquiry. At the risk of making those invidious comparisons again, I was left with the clear view that we've managed a much better job of regulating electricity lines businesses than the Aussies have, partly because Aussie lines companies were able to see off the regulator's decisions through the courts (a bolt hole that's since been sealed off).

All up, an engrossing conference, and well done RBB Economics. We're fortunate - in Australia and New Zealand - to have a variety of high level fora where these kinds of issues can get serious treatment. On our side of the ditch, though - those damn comparisons again - we're not very good at translating them into worthwhile reforms within any sensible timeframe.

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