Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Workshop takeaways

Last weekend was the latest annual workshop of the Competition Law and Policy Institute of New Zealand (CLPINZ). Wellington turned on its loveliest weather, all the speakers and discussants performed well, there were sausage rolls at the meal breaks, and during my absence in Wellington the Warriors broke their home game hoodoo and took the two points. An excellent week-end all round, and special thanks to Chapman Tripp for providing the excellent facilities.

Many of the usual suspects were at the workshop, but if you're in the game and had to miss it, head over to the CLPINZ website, sign up as a member, and you'll get access to the papers (they're not up yet, but will be). You'll also get access to previous years' presentations.

The papers speak for themselves: here are some personal thoughts I took away.

Cartels - the cause célèbre du jour is the Lodge case. This is the one where a whole bunch of real estate agencies pleaded guilty to price-fixing, but for the eponymous hold-out in Hamilton, who went to trial and to widespread surprise beat the rap in the High Court. At the time I wrote about the fines for those who had pleaded guilty and said that "in the context of small to medium provincial businesses, even to my unsympathetic eye they were looking down the severe end". Having listened to the cartels session, and to the session on coming to a negotiated settlement with the Commission, I'm more of that view now. I never thought I'd feel that way, but as David Blacktop's presentation said, there can often be some "precipitating event" that causes otherwise well-meaning, normally competitive businesses to lapse into a concerted (rather than independent) response to the event - in this case to Trade Me's attempted jack-up of real estate listing fees. No, they shouldn't collude on a response, and in principle it doesn't matter that they would have come to the same decisions independently, but all the same they got backed into a corner and were anything but the cartoon cartelists in the proverbial smoke-filled room. Time for more understanding, in my view, of the reality they found themselves in. The goss, by the way, is that the Commission stands a good chance of having Lodge overturned in the Court of Appeal, but stranger things have happened. And while we're on the topic...

The law - okay, I'm an economist, and anyone who gets their legal advice from an economist deserves what happens to them, but I've got some questions. Is there anyone on the look-out for where Australian and New Zealand competition law might be diverging? We don't want, for example, the situation John Land described, where the legal approaches to price fixing may be going down different roads. Is there any kind of trans-Tasman body that keeps a weather eye out and acts to harmonise on best practice? And speaking of harmonising on best practice, it seems from what Minister Faafoi said at the workshop dinner that reform of s36 - anti-competitive abuse of market power - will be back on the agenda next year. Good: the Aussies have fixed their equivalent, and we should get in behind. I've also got some disquiet (partly stemming from Lodge but also more generally) whether behaviour at the lower end of culpability will be prosecuted under the forthcoming criminalisation regime, rather than the 'hard core' cartels that should be its target.

Regulation - I found myself in strong agreement with Ross Patterson's response to Sasha Daniel's paper on 'The future shape of telecommunications regulation'. Ross argued that there is no lack of competition in access to fast broadband and hence no case for regulation, especially when you're regulating one technology (fibre) but not another (fixed wireless) and with a - I think he said 'clunky', but if he didn't I am - a clunky form of 'building block' price cap regulation.

The internet - our new digital economy is going to be a minefield from both competition and consumer law perspectives, and I suspect we'll be making both Type 1 and Type 2 errors for some time before we get it right, if we ever do. That was my overall impression from the keynote 'Collusion without the smoke-filled room: from public statements by wetware to algorithmic pricing by software' from Professor Joseph Harrington and 'Consumer Analytica: NZ consumer law application to international developments in privacy and use of data' from Sarah Keene. I suspect there's likely to be behaviour that is anticompetitive or unfair/misleading that will not be pinged, and behaviour that's legit that risks being rapped. Joe Harrington is surely right that we likely need jurisprudence and new guidelines to distinguish between the two, but we're still a long way from being able (for example) to "develop rules for how a platform can intervene in the setting of prices" or to "define the class of prohibited pricing algorithms".

Market studies - the papers presented at the session I chaired were absolutely on the money. If you're thinking about how the Commission should use the powers it's (more than likely) going to get, you've got to read the excellent presentations from Mike Tilley and Richard Meade. They've both had first-hand experience of doing these studies, and it showed. Market studies are a great idea, but there are more process issues to think through than you (or I) might have imagined. I'll just chuck in one final thought for MBIE's consideration: I suggest that any company that attempts to invoke our 'anti-dumping' provisions should automatically trigger a market study into its industry.

Quantification - James Mellsop and his NERA colleague Kevin Counsell gave a very good presentation on 'Mergers: exploring the economic tool box', and walked the attendees through unilateral effects in auction markets (using a pathology merger example), vertical arithmetic (a version of critical loss analysis) using the AT&T/Time Warner example, and then some Cournot modelling of a wool scouring merger (using made-up data, by the way, if anyone involved in any of those cases is wondering). Good stuff, and they got it across in a user-friendly way that - my keyboard nearly inserted 'even' - lawyers could understand. My feeling is that we are, finally, on the brink of a new more data-driven and more quantitative approach to competition analysis, after a long period when the tide had gone out a very long way indeed on playing with the numbers. As I've said a few times before (eg here or here) there's far more empirical data becoming available, and better (and often more robust) ways of interrogating it. The Commission's Reuben Irvine said that some of these quantitative techniques, like the auction and vertical arithmetic tools James and Kevin mentioned, are already in use, if somewhat behind the scenes, at the Commission, and about time, too. In my stint there, applicants and opponents very rarely reached for even the more basic econometric methods (regression, differences-in-differences), and you could go years without tripping over a correlation coefficient. We've become an immensely data-rich world: time to start using it, rather than making anecdotal guesses about (for instance) the degree to which products are or are not in the same market.

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