Friday, 24 September 2021

Win some, lose some

From the outside the Commerce Commission's Fair Trading Act case against Bunnings always looked a difficult one, and I can't say that I'm hugely surprised that Judge Gibson in the Auckland District Court found for Bunnings on all 45 allegations. You can find the decision here on the Commission's website (though it's one of those annoying pdf's that won't let you select blocks of text).

The judge found that consumers were unlikely to have interpreted Bunnings' ads in a literal way but rather, at [136], "would take into account the nature of the industry, the size of the stores, the number of SKU's [stock keeping units, individual items on the shelves] and the general impossibility of ensuring that on each day every SKU in Bunnings stores was the lowest price. Consumers would also consider the LPG [the lowest price guarantee, i.e. the well known "if you happen to find a lower price we'll beat it by 15%"] alerted them to the possibility that not every item in Bunnings may be the lowest price but providing a remedy to achieve that". 

The "if you happen to find a better price" wording was self-evidently fatal to any overly literal reading of Bunnings ads, so the alternative argument run by the Commission was that, even if you cut Bunnings some slack over the practicalities of trying to monitor how its own 62,000 SKUs compared with the many tens of thousands of its competitors' prices, they weren't in fact making a decent enough fist of it to be able to claim that their prices were generally lower than their competitors.

That fell over, too, because none of the comparative price surveys put before the court was statistically robust enough to be relied on. The Commission argued (as I would have) that none of these surveys may have been perfect on its own, but taken in the round they suggested such and such. This "triangulation" didn't impress the judge who at [141] took (my wording) a Garbage In, Garbage Out approach, which is fair enough when the standard of proof in the proceedings was "beyond reasonable doubt".

The Commission has taken it philosophically (response here). But it left me wondering: while this was formally a Fair Trading Act matter, was it also expressing a more Commerce Act based concern about lowest price guarantees?

What concern, you may well wonder: what could be more competitive and pro-consumer than propositions such as offering to beat a competitor's price? What sort of twisted logic would see any harm in that?

The alternative logic goes like this. Suppose a new model of Kindle comes out, and I advertise it at $299 plus a guarantee to match or better any lower price from a competitor. My competitor has also got a stock of the Kindles and is wondering what to do. She sees my ad, and (the argument goes) reckons there's no point in trying to undercut me, as it'll do her no good: I'll just match her, she won't win any extra sales, and we'll both be worse off. So she prices at $299 as well. End of price competition for the consumer.

And there are other ways the lowest price guarantee might work against consumers' interests. A shopper may see my lowest price guarantee, and conclude there's no point in shopping around. Knowing that I've defused at least some comparative price searching might encourage me to set a higher price in the first place.

None of this, by the way, applies to Bunnings. As you can see in the judgement at [35-6], they genuinely went out to do what it said on the tin. 

There might be cases of nudge nudge, wink wink, see you in the bar at the next trade fair, where the competition is more apparent than real. But it wouldn't be my default position on the likes of best price matching. If a company is going to some trouble to position itself as an "everyday low prices" supplier, chances are that's what's going on. Alongside Garbage In, Garbage Out, maybe another computer motto is the best take: What You See Is What You Get.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

One never knows, do one

Yesterday the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee reported back on the Commerce Amendment Bill, and there was (at least from my perspective) one pleasant surprise.

First the big stuff. The proposed change to s36 of the Commerce Act, which deals with abuse of market power, has got the tick. We'll be shifting to Australia's "effects based" test and getting away from our current "take advantage" wording. 

For those whose eyes have just glazed over, it means that when a company with market power is brought before the courts for throwing its weight around in an anti-competitive way, the judges will stop asking, "Would a company otherwise just like this one, but without the market power, have done this? It would? No case to answer, get outta here". 

The problem with that line of reasoning, which follows on from the current s36 wording, is that it misses the essential point: when something is done by a company with market power, it may have different consequences compared to when a non-powerful company does it. To fix this, the new formulation will just look at the effects, or likely effects, and will stop speculating about what non-powerful companies might have done.

Under both the current s36 and the proposed new s36, clear anti-competitive purpose will also land you in court, as it should: if the e-mail trail shows "Hah! Competitors will never get a look in if we cunningly tweak the software", you'll still be bang to rights. In practice, the big bunfights in court over abuse of market power tend not to feature obviously incriminatory evidence of purpose, and tend to range over the effects battlefield, so the law change fixes up the important aspect.

As well as being the intellectually correct thing to do, the new s36 will harmonise our law with Australia's, which is helpful given the presence of so many companies on both sides of the ditch.

The National members on the Committee didn't agree: they felt that "firms with market power risk liability for unforeseeable future consequences, leading to overly-conservative decision making on their part". That's fair enough: reasonable people across many jurisdictions have struggled with finding the right definition. But for mine (and it's been the Commerce Commission's view, too), the current law was broken, and couldn't do what it was meant to. 

That's a bit of a worry in an economy with its fair share of concentrated industries, where there is scope for the 600 pound gorillas to drive the smaller apes away from the bananas. That said, big companies generally play fair, and stand-over corporate bullying doesn't come along all that often, but when it does, you want to be able to deal with it. The new s36 is well worth trying.

And that pleasant surprise?

I'd made a submission to the Committee and somewhat cheekily, I'd included an off-topic idea that while they were looking at other changes to the Commerce Act

One not included, but worth adopting, would be to reinstate the former section 63 of the Commerce Act (repealed in 1990) which had allowed the Commission to issue provisional authorisations. The value of this ability has been shown in Covid circumstances in Australia, where the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) has made excellent use of its ability to respond quickly to authorisation requests. The Commerce Commission under recent NZ Covid legislation temporarily had this power: it should be made permanent

And blow me down if the Committee didn't run with it and agree:

there may be situations where the need for authorisation is time sensitive. Recognising this, the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Act 2020 created a temporary ability for the Commerce Commission to issue “provisional authorisation” to an applicant ... We believe that the changes made by the COVID-19 legislation should be made permanent. COVID-19 has demonstrated that there may be compelling public interest reasons to authorise conduct before the full procedure for deciding an application can be completed. Making this permanent would improve the Act’s administration (p3)

Which (despite my simultaneous complete failure to convince the Committee to put better bounds around the Commerce Commission's proposed information-sharing powers) is a good example of why people should put in submissions. You may be tempted to think, what's the point: don't. A good Select Committee will genuinely kick the tyres, as this one did, and in the background the Committee will have expert policy assistance from the relevant Ministry (in this case, MBIE), and if your idea has legs, there's a fighting chance it'll get a decent hearing.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Sterny McSternface

Something's set them off. 

I've just noticed that at the end of last month the Commerce Commission came out with a stern "anti-collusion reminder to businesses supplying essential services". There was a nod towards the exigencies of Covid - "some businesses able to operate under level 4 restrictions may need to cooperate to ensure New Zealanders continue to be supplied with essential goods and services" - but the bulk of the message, and its clear overall tone, was that some businesses could have been tempted to overstep the mark. 

When the "reminder" includes how whistle blowers can dob in a cartel, and finishes up with a paragraph pointing out that cartel behaviour is now a criminal offence, you get the strong feeling that the Commission is not a happy bunny.

Which brings us back to an oddity of the first lockdown in 2020 ("What if they threw a party..."). 

Then - and again now - there were all sorts of Covid-related stresses on businesses: on supply chains, on resources, on lenders and landlords trying to respond to the predicaments of their lockdown customers. In many cases, cooperation would have been in the public interest: hospitals, for example, might agree on which patients should go where, to help manage capacity for Covid ICU beds. Supermarkets might jointly use scarce lorries to get stuff into the shops.

In Australia, the ACCC got lots of requests along those lines, and was, rightly, authorising herds of them, and, importantly, it was doing it very quickly to meet the urgent need. It wasn't being silly about it - the authorisations  tended to come with controls to make sure they were limited to the Covid issues at hand - but it was chucking them out the window at a rapid rate. Last month, for example, it rolled over its interim authorisation of  "temporary and limited coordination between the ABA [Australian Banking Association] and participating banks to defer loan repayments and waive certain banking fees for small businesses impacted by the pandemic". Absolutely.

Normally, our Commission can't do these quick fixes (daftly, its power to issue provisional authorisations was taken away years back, for reasons nobody can now recall). But, while there is an "epidemic period", as there is now, it can, under emergency legislation whacked through last year (details here).

But here's the thing. 

Nobody's turned up and asked for one. Which is distinctly odd. We have had the same stresses the Aussies had, but lots of authorisations there, none here. Qué?

I hope it's not because businesses think the Commission will be too slow, and by the time they get the slip of paper the bananas will have rotted on the wharf. And you can see why they might think that: in the normal course of affairs, the Commission doesn't exactly sprint through authorisations. Yes, they can be complex propositions where estimating the benefits and costs is hard, but even in relatively straightforward ones - like the HP one it's just given the green light to - it takes its own time. It had the issues identified in a commendably quick fortnight. And then it thought about them for four months.

It doesn't help that we're in a chicken and egg situation: without evidence of a quick response, businesses may flag away applying, but if there are no applications, the Commission can't show it can indeed hop to it when needs must.

Or maybe it's just the Kiwi way: we tend to be relatively informal and to muck in even before any contract is signed, and maybe there is socially useful cooperation going on and to hell with the paperwork. 

Let's hope it's one of those relatively benign reasons. Because if some businesses have used Covid to price fix, then they deserve anything the Commission throws at them - not to mention the risk of a PR disaster.