Tuesday, 25 August 2020

CLPINZ 2020 goes online

Last week's Competition Law and Policy Institute (CLPINZ) workshop was - perforce - the first time CLPINZ has run the annual event online, and the good news is that the technology worked just fine (ably organised by Conference Innovators, special hat-tip Olivia Lynch). Covid is reshaping a lot of things (as I wrote in Acuity, the accountants' magazine) and sometimes for the better. Online workshops may not provide the same personal contacts and networking but they can deliver a lot of bang per buck once travel costs don't come into the equation for speakers or attendees.

Can't cover everything but here are some of my highlights.

The keynote was the topical 'Antitrust in times of crisis and emerging from the crisis', by Maureen K. Ohlhausen from Baker Botts in Washington DC, with commentary by Ayman Guirguis from K&L Gates in Sydney and session chair Anna Ryan of Lane Neave in Christchurch. One theme was the need for competition authorities everywhere to scramble hard to authorise (or at a minimum stand aside from preventing) collaborative activities between firms who would normally be competitors, when they are responding to covid logistical challenges (eg coordination of grocery deliveries, or availability of medical resources). The ACCC in particular has in my view been commendably quick to get provisional authorisations out the door. 

Another was how to treat 'failing firms': there are a lot of cases where firms are in trouble (or heading for foreseeable trouble) and while they can't qualify for the usually strict merger conditions around a 'failing firm', a properly forward-looking analysis of the competitive outlook might well lead you to allow a merger. 

A third theme was the renewed focus on market power in the tech space now that we're all even more dependent on the big tech names for our remote working and our online shopping. The conclusion as I saw it was that there is still no clear verdict on whether these markets are naturally tippy towards one predominant incumbent, or whether there are issues of market power that need to be corrected.

Consumer law isn't usually top of my interests, but I was very much taken with the session on 'Unconscionability and unfair contract terms', where the speaker was Sarah Court, Commissioner, ACCC, the commentator Anna Rawlings, Chair of the NZ Commerce Commission, and session chair James Craig of Simpson Grierson. As background, Australia's got unconscionability on the statute books, and we're minded to go the same way. I'd heard Sarah Court on this topic before (see here) and while the Kobelt case she cites as showing the Aussie law isn't working might be one of those odd cases that might not influence anything over the longer haul, there's a real chance that our courts might also struggle to nail genuinely ratbag behaviour. Why not read Kobelt and see what your call would have been? And if you think Kobelt got the wrong end of the stick, what would you suggest to fix it?

Another area where we look to be heading to align our legislation with the Aussies is changing our current s36 of the Commerce Act, the bit that deals with abuse of market power. The plan is we will move away from our current legal test (which focuses on the 'counterfactual test' of what would a firm without market power have done) to an 'effects test' which, as it says on the tin, tries to take an objective view of whether the conduct actually works anti-competitively (both jurisdictions would also retain anticompetitive purpose, which would catch those incriminating internal e-mails). 

I went into this session - 'Misuse of market power – what an 'effects test' would mean for New Zealand', speaker Dr Katharine Kemp from the University of New South Wales, commentator Brent Fisse of Brent Fisse Lawyers, session chair John Land from Bankside Chambers - with what I regret to reveal was a largely closed mind: I'm pro-change. But I came out with the odd niggle of doubt about potential over-reach. Faced with the choice of the status quo or the change, I'd still change, as the counterfactual test asks the wrong question plus we get the benefit of trans-Tasman alignment, but I suspect policy analysts on both sides of the Tasman will be watching the first few 'effects' cases very closely indeed.

And yet another area where we are harmonising with the Aussies (and with global practice generally) is criminalisation of cartels, where on the topic of  'Cartels – criminalisation – lessons from the Australian experience' we heard from Marcus Bezzi, Executive General Manager at the  ACCC, commentary from Marc Corlett QC from Britomart Chambers, chairing by Glenn Shewan from Bell Gully. I'm generally not in favour of yet more criminal offences when we already have far too many people in jail (by developed economy standards), but I'm prepared to make an exception for 'hard core' cartels which I see from a moral perspective as akin to fraud (quite apart from the often sizeable economic detriments).

One thing that's worried me, though, is that every 'ordinary' New Zealand cartel, if I can call it that, would attract criminal charges, which I would regard as overkill. I was partly relieved to hear Marcus talk about a memorandum of understanding between the ACCC and the Aussie Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions which aims to keep the criminal route for the worse cases, which is surely right. I presume something similar will go into place here at home before we go live in April next year. Marc Corlett's remarks said (to me at least) that individuals caught in the grinder between the criminal prosecutor and a perhaps not always supportive employer are going to be in a tough place: another reason in my view to make sure that we concentrate on the hard core conduct and the big fish.

The session on 'Acquisitions of nascent competitors', speaker Renata B. Hesse from Sullivan & Cromwell in Washington DC (who if I heard it right may indeed have coined the phrase 'killer acquisition'), commentator Iain Thain from DLA Piper in Auckland, session chair Will Taylor from NERA Economic Consulting in Auckland, got me thinking. This is a really tough area. It's important to stop killer acquisitions: as Iain emphasised, it's the competitive struggle that unearths all sorts of lucky discoveries (sometimes unexpected ones) even if in the end the market tips to one big winner. But it is very hard for competition authorities to deal with, when even those most up with the game in any given sector can't be sure what might have developed into a credible challenger to an incumbent, but for its pre-emptive acquisition. As Renata said, you're often trying to do an objective analysis of something that is inherently subjective. 

Some days I favour channelling my inner Schumpeter, not worrying too much about temporary tech monopolies and letting it all play out in the creative destruction gale. Sometimes there must be good outcomes when an incumbent offers a genuinely better product, once it has bolted on the smaller-firm functionality it's just bought, whereas you might be waiting years for the small firm to develop a full-feature offering. But then will incumbents' internal R&D slack off if they can rely on buying the next bright idea? And what if ... you get the drift. This is hard.

Life's too short to summarise everything but for the record we also had an economists' panel - 'Hipster economists? Values, welfare and evidence', and a corporate counsel oriented panel - 'Handy hints for practice – Joint ventures and commercial agreements', and if they ring your bell you can get in touch with the panellists (here's the full workshop programme with the details).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hi - sorry about the Captcha step for real people like yourself commenting, it's to baffle the bots