Friday 15 July 2016

Get your views in on abuse of market power

Right - you've got till 5.00pm next Thursday, June 21, to get your views in to MBIE on their targeted review of the Commerce Act.

It's important, and while I know we've all got other things to do, you'd be doing the economy a favour if you took some time out this week-end (when you're not watching the Warriors take on Manly in Perth, 7.30pm Saturday) to make a submission, particularly on our current approach to abuse of market power - the infamous section 36 of our Commerce Act.

All the background and how to submit can be found here. While technically MBIE is calling for 'cross submissions' on earlier input, anyone can put in something from scratch, though for good form you should probably phrase it as being a response to something already on the record.

There are three issues being canvassed, one big, one medium, one small.

The big one is potential reform of s36, the abuse of market power provision of the Act. In my opinion, and others', the thing is banjaxed. The law is poorly designed, has been interpreted strangely by the courts (both the old UK Privy Council and our newer Supreme Court), and in practice allows behaviour to go unchallenged that would not be countenanced in jurisdictions with better arrangements.

If all this is news to you, read the paper I gave at this year's NZ Association of Economists' conference, 'Abuse of market power: the end of "make-believe" analysis?'. If you'd like to see opinions saying no, everything's hunky-dory as it is, you'll find them in the original set of submissions to MBIE (try the law firms' ones). Whichever way you go on the issues, get your opinion on the record: these issues are too important to be left to 'the usual suspects'.

My cross-submission (I put in a submission first time round, too) is going to be along the general lines of my recent post on s36, 'The law is an ass', and will say:

  • Our competition authority, the Commerce Commission, has given up on making the current regime work despite having identified instances where it thinks there have been potential abuses of market power that it is unable to address
  • Its Aussie equivalent, the ACCC, agrees with it that our system is munted
  • The law is poorly phrased in the first place
  • Hence and otherwise the jurisprudence on s36 has seen the legislation effectively gutted in all but the most egregiously awful cases. In particular, courts are supposed to ask, would a firm without market power have done the same thing, and if so, the firm with market power is home free. This completely subverts the whole point, that some actions when undertaken by firms with market power have anti-competitive effects
  • The Aussies have, rightly and after a very extensive consultation process, decided to change their law (it's currently similar to ours) for something better
  • When the Aussies change, it will be silly and inefficient to have companies facing different legislative tests on either side of the Tasman, and we should harmonise on the better Aussie approach. Harmonisation is a government priority in any event
  • The arguments against change - broadly in  the categories of 'business certainty' and 'potential chilling effects' - while valid, are not strong.

There are two other issues you might want to look at.

The medium sized one is whether someone - probably the Commerce Commission - should have the ability to go out and proactively look at the state of competition in a particular sector. The short answer to that, is yes, of course it should. If you want a very quick potted summary of the case for, try my post 'The case for market studies - again', and if you'd like something more comprehensive there's my paper at last year's NZAE conference, 'Is the competition toolkit missing its torch? The case for market studies'

The smaller one is around the Commerce Commission's enforcement powers, and especially the 'cease and desist' process. I'm very sympathetic to some kind of quick-response tool for competition authorities, but there are arguments that the current 'cease and desist' process isn't working the way it ought. This is probably one for the lawyers amongst you.

On your marks, get set...

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