Market Definition and the Sharing Economy

By Carmen Ortiz*

Introduction

Technology enabled the flourishing of the sharing economy both in developed and in developing countries.[i] It is characterized as an innovative system of collaboration between peers through an online platform accessed through smartphones.[ii] Services, goods, spaces, and others that are in surplus are offered for lease or sale at reduced transaction costs. Thus, the sharing economy boosts competition while generating different effects for the groups affected. For one part, consumers benefit with the access to new products and services, lower prices and non price benefits. For the other part, traditional firms face new threats by suppliers that compete aggressively to reduce the revenues and the market shares of incumbents. This novel model of commerce motivates for an analysis that determines the extent to which competition authorities in developed and developing countries should include the sharing economy activities in the relevant markets (RM) for traditional products and services.

The inclusion or exclusion of sharing economy activities could widen or narrow traditional RM and this can produce several consequences that influence the efforts of competition authorities in their aim to protect competition. First, the analysis of market power may be influenced by identifying more or less competitive constraints in the commercial behaviour of an undertaking. Second, regarding merger control, if sharing economy firms participate in the same RM of traditional firms, mergers between them would be analysed as horizontal (for example, where traditional firms could acquire sharing economy start ups to eliminate competitors). Third, referring to abuses of dominance, traditional firms could independently or collectively exclude sharing economy suppliers by raising barriers to entry. Moreover, a cartel between traditional firms might be obstructed if sharing economy competitors are successful disruptors of collusion. For all these reasons it is important to set a framework for definition of RM that can adapt to cases where this model of commerce is present.

New and expanding competitive constraints by sharing economy suppliers can change the current structure of traditional markets. Real world cases of this model of commerce are Uber and Airbnb, which exert competitive pressures on traditional rivals. For example, Uber fares in Stockholm can be up to 60% lower than traditional taxi fares.[iii] Non price benefits for consumers include less congestion, less delays and less time lost in traffic, all of which increase the demand for the service. Regarding Airbnb, in Texas, its growth of by 10% results in decreases of 0.37% in monthly hotel revenues.[iv] In the period of 2010 to 2015 the occupancy rates of traditional hotels have decreased from 8-10% in the areas where Airbnb has more demand.[v] These firms will serve as examples for the development of this proposal.

Framework for defining RM when the sharing economy is present

For the purpose of suggesting a framework for the definition of RM, the EU antitrust jurisdiction will be taken as a base as it is a leading regime that can be taken as a guide or as a point of comparison for other jurisdictions. The first step in this framework is to embrace the objective and the concept of RM. In the EU, the objective of defining the markets is to establish which undertakings constrain others from behaving freely in absence of competition.[vi] The basic concept of RM encompasses a product and a geographic dimension, and these will remain as the building blocks of this proposal.[vii]

Second, the undertakings that could supply the products or services that form part of the RM must be defined.[viii] In this stage, the focus is directed to the economic activity of the entities.[ix] In the special case of the sharing economy, two economic activities must be distinguished: a) online platform’s intermediation of supply and demand and, b) the supply of products and services. The specific characteristics of the relationship between the owner of the platform for intermediation and the suppliers of the services are decisive to determine whether they together form a single undertaking or independent undertakings. Lougher and Kalmanowicz sustain that if the firm providing intermediation also influences the conditions of the offer it could be determined that there is a single undertaking performing both activities. This posture is also accepted outside the EU, for example, in Australia.[x] For example, Uber sets requirements for the driver, the car and for the mode of operation. According to Lougher and Kalmanowicz, the exam must consider the contractual conditions, whether or not the suppliers are independent from the platform, if they bear risks, if they are employees or agents, among others.

Third, once the firms have been identified, the competitive constraints that they encounter should be established. Firms can face constraints as demand substitutability, supply substitutability and potential competition.[xi] Special considerations for each of these constraints are required in the markets where the sharing economy is present. On one hand, demand substitutability significantly determines market definition. The whole purpose of market definition is to determine which are the substitute products or suppliers to which customers can switch. Demand substitutability may refer to the prices, characteristics and the intended use of the products. For the EU Commission, the decisive criteria is the consumer’s reaction to prices as it considers that product characteristics and intended use are insufficient to reveal demand substitutability.[xii] Nonetheless, consumers of the sharing economy have revealed that they prefer it for its convenience.[xiii] Therefore, this framework suggests that the analysis should be flexible enough to take into account the consumer’s reaction to prices and also the product’s characteristics and intended use as they are motifs of convenience. The evidence of marginal consumers switching for reasons as price or convenience to the sharing economy products and services and making the price increase in traditional products unprofitable allows the inclusion of those products and services into the traditional RM.

For example, to test consumers’ reactions to prices the EU Commission’s Notice refers to a hypothetical monopolist and whether its “customers would switch to readily available substitutes or to suppliers located elsewhere in response to a hypothetical small (in the range 5 % to 10 %) but permanent relative price increase in the products and areas being considered”.[xiv] In the case of Uber, the test will reveal if the referred increase in prices of traditional taxi services would be unprofitable because Uber exerts sufficient competitive constraints that enable customers to switch to it. If yes, Uber should be included in the product market. For defining the geographic market, the question is to which other areas of Uber service would costumers switch “in the short term and at negligible cost” in reaction to the referred fare increase.[xv] Those areas that are alternatives for consumers should be included in the relevant geographic market. In synthesis, this is the extent to which Uber services could be included in the RM of traditional taxi services. It is interesting to note that it has been argued that because the sharing platforms are not direct substitutes of traditional products and services and because they cannot fulfill the demand, they should not be considered competitors (see Oxera Compelling Economics article). This proposal disagrees with such point of view. The reason is that the inclusion of a product in a relevant market relies on whether that product exerts sufficient competitive constraints in the other products to the point that their price increases are not profitable, not whether that product is able to fulfill the total demand or whether it is exactly the same in terms of characteristics.

Evidence in support of the inclusion of the sharing economy in the traditional market definitions could include the substitution on the recent past,[xvi] empirical data of quantities demanded and its impact on the traditional offer, good brand reputation that attracts the preference and loyalty of consumers,[xvii] convenience (accessibility, trust), the legal treatment by authorities of the product forming part of the traditional supply,[xviii] among others.

Regarding Airbnb, a similar methodology applies. Unprofitability after the mentioned price increase in hotel rooms in a given area will reveal if Airbnb exerts sufficient competitive pressures that allow its inclusion in the traditional RM of accommodation services. Past substitution, comparisons of the room capacity of hotels versus the growing supply of Airbnb,[xix] the impact of Airbnb on hotel’s revenues, uniqueness of Airbnb service, consumer’s preferences, could all constitute evidence that supports demand substitutability.[xx]

Once it has been established that the sharing economy activities exert sufficient competitive pressures to make unprofitable the price increases of traditional services, it must be ascertained which specific activities will be included in the definition of RM. The activities could be the intermediation platform and the supply, which could be considered independently or jointly in the exam of substitutability. It will all depend on the closeness and interdependence between those activities. If they are independent from each other, only be the products or services that exert competitive pressures on traditional products or services will be tested. If they are close enough to constitute one single activity, the intermediation and its underlying supply should be tested as a whole.[xxi] Even when it has been acknowledge that the “sharing economy platforms are generally active on the relevant product market for the intermediation of the relevant underlying supply”,[xxii] this is a situation that must be determined case by case.

On the other hand, regarding supply substitution and potential competition, the sharing economy involves a significant and constant competitive threat. In the scenario of the sharing economy, consumers with surplus of space, products and time, can easily become suppliers of more than one product or service depending on the surplus they possess over them and this way they can compete with traditional firms.[xxiii] This could happen in response to small and permanent changes in relative prices of traditional products and services which represent potential sources of income for new suppliers.[xxiv] The presence of sharing economy suppliers that compete for the customers of the traditional firms is an element that supports the inclusion of that specific sharing economy in the traditional RM.

Finally, regarding barriers to entry, these could take the form of legal, cultural, social and economic barriers that could weaken or obstruct the pressure exerted by the sharing economy on traditional businesses.[xxv] Legal barriers were raised with the French Constitutional Court banning Uber services (See article by Reuters). Moreover, Uber has closed operations in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Düsseldorf in response to a Court ban (See article by Lomas, N). Cultural barriers might arise when local custom, traditions and values are not relaxed enough as to allow its members to interact with strangers that offer services through the sharing economy. Social barriers might be the political instability, insecurity and violence in the society that could demotivate consumers from being exposed to the risks associated with the offer of the sharing economy (for example, unpredictability of trusting a stranger). Economic barriers could referr to the lack of resources to fund publicity and marketing for a sharing economy product or service. All of the mentioned barriers must be considered for the definition of relevant markets as they prevent consumers from switching their demand towards sharing economy substitutes.

Conclusion

Technology, consumer preference, strong brand reputation and the possibility of an ever growing supply provide the sharing economy with a high potential of growth within many sectors of the economy. The assessment of its inclusion on traditional RMs is essential for the protection of competition and innovation in developed and in developing countries. The assessment must be case and context specific as every industry has different structure and conditions. Moreover, barriers to entry specific to each national context might prevent the sharing economy from being a competitive constraint. For these reasons, there cannot be a one size fits all answer to whether the sharing economy activities should be included or not into the traditional relevant markets. In some cases, some analysis will result positive for its inclusion while in others, negative.

*LLM in International Competition Law and Policy, University of Glasgow, School of Law, Scotland, United Kingdom. Candidate for the LLM in Law and Economics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands. Head of the Mergers Control Unit in Superintendencia de Competencia, El Salvador, from January 2012 to August 2015.

Bibliography

Reports and Market Studies

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, “The sharing economy and the Competition and Consumer Act”, 2015, available at: “https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/Sharing%20Economy%20-%20Deloitte%20Report%20-%202015.pdf

Stefansdotter, A., Utfall Danielsson, C., Kastberg Nielsen, C., Rytter Sunesen, E. (2015) “Economic benefits of peer- to-peer transport services”, Copenhagen Economics, Stockholm. Available at: https://www.google.nl/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Copenhagen+Economics+(2015),+%E2%80%98Economic+benefits+of+peer-to-peer+transport+services%E2%80%99,+25+August.&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=1oePVuPECYim8wfcoLbwDA

Notices

Commission Notice on the definition of relevant market for the purposes of Community competition law (97/C 372/03)

Notice 07/14 of the Transport for London – Taxi and Private Hire, available: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/07-14-taxi-and-private-hire-smartphone-apps-in-london-letter-to-drivers.pdf

Decisions

Hofner and Elser v Macrotron GmbH (Case C-41/90) [1991] ECR I-1979

Google/DoubleClick (Case COMP/M.4731) Commission Decision [2008] OJ C 184

Microsoft/Yahoo! Search Business (Case COMP/M.5727)

Articles and News

Lomas, N. (2015), “Uber Pulls Out Of Three German Cities After Court Ban Shrinks Driver Pool”, TechCrucnh, available at: http://techcrunch.com/2015/11/02/uber-retrenches-in-germany/#.prbkyj5:RjYZ

Lougher, G. and Kalmanowicz, S. (2015), “EU Competition Law in the Sharing Economy”, Journal of European Competition Law, available at: http://jeclap.oxfordjournals.org.proxy.library.uu.nl/content/early/2015/12/10/jeclap.lpv086.full.pdf+html

Oxera Compelling Economics, (2015) “A fair share? The economics of the sharing economy”. Available at: http://www.oxera.com/Latest-Thinking/Agenda/2015/A-fair-share-The-economics-of-the-sharing-economy.aspx

Reuters, “French court upholds ban on Uber’s service using non-professional drivers”, available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-uber-tech-idUSKCN0RM26C20150922

San Francisco Chronicle, “S.F. taxi owners, cabbies join forces against Uber, Lyft, others”. Sept 2014, available at: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-taxi-owners-cabbies-join-forces-against-5773407.php#photo-6898035

Wallsten, Scott, (2015), “The Competitive Effects of the Sharing Economy: How is Uber Changing Taxis?”, Technology Policy Institute, Studying the Global Information Economy, June 2015. Available at: https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_comments/2015/06/01912-96334.pdf

Zervas, G., Prosperio, D., Byers, J. (2015), “The Rise of the Sharing Economy: Estimating the Impact of Airbnb on the Hotel Industry”. Available at: http://people.bu.edu/zg/publications/airbnb.pdf

[i] See, information about the scope and impact of the sharing economy, at Crowd Companies. Author: Jeremiah Owyang, available at: http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2014/09/29/a-day-in-the-life-of/ . See, also, information about the expected growth of the sharing economy, at Crowd Companies. Author: Jeremiah Owyang, available at: http://www.slideshare.net/jeremiah_owyang/sharingnewbuying , slide No. 12.

[ii] Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, “The sharing economy and the Competition and Consumer Act”, 2015, pg. 1.

[iii] Uber was founded in San Francisco, California, in 2009. It functions through an online platform that permits consumers to hire drivers that use their own cars. “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in hundreds of cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer”. See, Uber Website: https://www.uber.com/about . See, also, Stefansdotter, A., Utfall Danielsson, C., Kastberg Nielsen, C., Rytter Sunesen, E. (2015) “Economic benefits of peer- to-peer transport services”, Copenhagen Economics, Stockholm. pg. 3-4. , which are factors that could increase the demand for the servicetter Sunesen, E. (2015) irms might have a different result if

[iv] Airbnb was founded in San Francisco, California. It is “a provider of travel accommodation and a pioneer of the sharing economy, has served over 30 million guests since it was founded in 2008. Although Airbnb remains privately held, its valuation of over $10 billion now exceeds that of well-established global hotel chains like Hyatt”. See, Zervas, G., Prosperio, D., Byers, J. (2015), “The Rise of the Sharing Economy: Estimating the Impact of Airbnb on the Hotel Industry”, pg. 2.

[v] “Our main result is that in areas where Airbnb is most popular the revenue of the most vulnerable hotels in our data has decreased by about 8-10% over the past five years”. See, Zervas, G., Prosperio, D., Byers, J. (2015), “The Rise of the Sharing Economy: Estimating the Impact of Airbnb on the Hotel Industry”. pg. 3.

[vi] See, Commission Notice on the definition of relevant market for the purposes of Community Competition Law (97/C 372/03), in further, Commission Notice, para. 13.

[vii] “A relevant product market comprises all those products and/or services which are regarded as interchangeable or substitutable by the consumer, by reason of the products’ characteristics, their prices and their intended use”. “The relevant geographic market comprises the area in which the undertakings concerned are involved in the supply and demand of products or services, in which the conditions of competition are sufficiently homogeneous and which can be distinguished from neighbouring areas because the conditions of competition are appreciably different in those area”. Comision Notice on the definition of relevant markets. Commission Notice on the definition of relevant market for the purposes of Community Competition Law (97/C 372/03), para. 7-8.

[viii] Case C-41/90 Hofner and Elser v Macrotron GmbH [1991] ECR I-1979

[ix] Lougher, G. and Kalmanowicz, S. (2015), “EU Competition Law in the Sharing Economy”, Journal of European Competition Law, pg. 3.

[x] See Note 2, pg. 35.

[xi] See Commission Notice, para. 2.

[xii] See, Commission Notice, para. 36.

[xiii] See, Crowd Companies. Author: Jeremiah Owyang, available at: http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/category/collaborative-economy/

[xiv] See, Commission Notice, para. 15-17.

[xv] See, Commission Notice, para. 29.

[xvi] Commission Notice, para. 38. For example, “Taxis, badly losing the battle on San Francisco’s streets, are finally fighting back. After seeing 65 percent of their business migrate to ride services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, taxi drivers and company owners, at odds for decades, have joined forces — not only with one another but with their overseer, the Municipal Transportation Agency”. See, article: “S.F. taxi owners, cabbies join forces against Uber, Lyft, others”. San Francisco Chronicle

[xvii] See, information on the public perception of brand reputation of traditional business and sharing economy businesses, at Crowd Companies, author: Jeremiah Owyang, available at: http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/category/collaborative-economy/

[xviii] For example, in the UK, the OFT includes Uber in the private hire operator sector. See Notice 07/14 of the Transport for London – Taxi and Private Hire. See, also, Lougher and Kalmanowicz, pg. 8.

[xix] See, information about the growing supply of Airbnb in 2015, at Airbnb summer travel report: 2015, available at: http://blog.airbnb.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Airbnb-Summer-Travel-Report-1.pdf

[xx] See, information about consumer’s preferences regarding accommodation options, at Jeremiah Owyang, available at: http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2013/07/29/collaborative-economy-airbnb-loved-over-traditional-hotel-brands/ . Besides, for example, in the state of Texas in US, Zervas, Prosperio and Byers state that “(…) this estimate indicates that Airbnb listings result in some Airbnb stays that are substitutes for hotel stays in cities with an established Airbnb presence”. See, Zervas, G., Prosperio, D., Byers, J. (2015), “The Rise of the Sharing Economy: Estimating the Impact of Airbnb on the Hotel Industry”, pg. 16.

[xxi] See Lougher and Kalmanowicz, pg. 5. See, also, Google/DoubleClick (Case COMP/M.4731) Commission Decision [2008] OJ C 184, para. 68 and Microsoft/Yahoo! Search Business (Case COMP/M.5727), para. 83.

[xxii] See Lougher and Kalmanowicz, pg. 7.

[xxiii] See, information about consumer’s potential of becoming suppliers in the sharing economy, at “Sharing is the New Buying: How to Win in the Collaborative Economy”, by Jeremiah Owyang available at: http://www.slideshare.net/jeremiah_owyang/sharingnewbuying

[xxiv] See, Commission Notice, para. 20.

[xxv] See, Commission Notice, para. 42.

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Development and Competition: a Useful Tool for Salvadoran Growth

By Flor A. Calvo*

Economic growth and development are highly relevant and important topics in El Salvador: education, health, transportation and security policies all focus on producing better social and economic levels in the country. However, competition law, a policy already present in El Salvador, has been constantly neglected as part of this toolkit for promoting growth and development. The law’s main objective is to “increase economic efficiency and consumer welfare”[1] by eliminating agreements among competitors, abuse of market power or mergers that could damage market competition and harm consumers.

But, how exactly could competition law affect development and growth?

Both theory and empirical research, like Nickell (1996)[2], Aghion (2008)[3] and Buccirossi (2013)[4], indicates that market competition increases productivity among markets and firms, due to the fact that firms that operate in highly competitive markets need to constantly innovate their products and improve their quality. Good examples of this dynamic are food courts: each competitor (food chains) presents their best possible offer in order to attract as many consumers as possible.

Another channel, through which competition affects development, is through the price level offered in each market. The greater the competition in a particular market, the lower the price level it has. Ivaldi (2014)[5] shows that prices in markets where cartels were found were 23% higher compared to the periods prior the establishment of the agreements. This implies that a timely and effective cartel detection ensures that consumers would not have to pay overpriced goods and services.

Also, Gutman & Voigt (2014)[6] analyzed the impact that newly enacted competition laws had on economic growth. They found once competition laws are enacted, they increase economic growth in countries that established them. For developing countries, in particular, economic growth is boosted through an increase in investment levels, both national and foreign investment, among countries with a competition law.

However, the effectiveness of the law to generate competition, and therefore growth, depends not only on its presence, but on the efficacy of its application. This requires coordination among competition authorities and other government institutions in order to punish anticompetitive actions and agents appropriately. Greco et al[7] showed that for Latin American countries, competition law is not enough to increase sustainable growth, but that they need a strong and effective enforcement of the law in order to generate the desired impact.

Although competition law has many limitations, it is a viable option to foster growth and development in El Salvador. Its relevance and inclusion into public policy discussions should be a priority since it is an option that generates positive externalities by increasing productivity, growth and local investment. Cases like South Africa, where competition is at the core of its policies, show how the introduction and strengthening of national competition enhances economic growth and social welfare. Certainly, our country possesses an important tool, one that could boost our economy if applied correctly.

*This article is a translation kindly provided by the author from a post in El Blog de la Competencia. The author holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in international economics and development, specializing in impact assessment; has worked for international organizations such as FSD and 3ie; and works currently as an economist in the department in charge of the investigations of anticompetitive behavior in the Competition Superintendence of El Salvador.

[1] Art. 1, Competition Law. El Salvador.

[2] Nickell, S. (1996). Competition and Corporate Performance. Journal of Political Economy 104(4), 724-746.

[3] Aghion, P., Braum, M., & Fedderke, J. (2008). Competition and Productivity Growth in South Africa. Economics of Transition, 16(4), 741-768.

[4] Buccirossi, P., Ciari, L., Duso, T., Spagnolo, G., & Vitale, C. (2013). Competition Policy and Productivity Growth: An Empirical Assessment. Review of Economics and Statistics, 95(4), 1324-1336.

[5] Ivaldi, M., Khimich, A., & Jenny, F. (2014). Measuring the Economic Effects of Cartels in Developing Countries

[6] Gutmann, J., Voigt, S. (2014). Lending a Hand to the Invisible Hand? Assessing the Effects of Newly Enacted Competition Laws.

[7] Greco, E., Petrecolla, D., Romero, C., & Martinez, J. Competition Policy and Growth: Evidence from Latin America.

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DWA WEEKLY NEWS FROM 04/07/2016 TO 08/07/2016

Marriott’s Acquisition Of Starwood Has Antitrust Authorization From Saudi Arabia And Mexico

“Marriott International, Inc. today announced it has received authorization from competition authorities in Saudi Arabia and Mexico to proceed with its acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts in a merger transaction.”

Russian regulator postpones decision on Google fine

“Russian federal competition regulator FAS has postponed a decision about fining Google, reports Prime, following an appeal by the search engine. Google was accused of violating the Law on Competition in September 2015.”

Competition Commission of Namibia has acting CEO

“The chairperson of the Namibian Competition Commission Sackey Akweenda on Friday announced the appointment of the commission’s director for mergers and acquisitions, Vitalis Ndalikokule, as acting chief executive officer.”

China Resources Beer executive says country is set to approve AB InBev’s Megabrew deal

“An executive at China Resources Beer today said he believes the country’s competition authority is set to clear Anheuser-Busch InBev’s (AB InBev) takeover of SABMiller. “We don’t see any obstacle so far in getting a green light from China authorities,” chief financial officer Tomakin Lai said, reported Reuters. “We are confident that the deal can eventually get approval.””

DWA Weekly News from 26/06/2016 to 3/07/2016

Our compilation of relevant news from last week:

Brazils Ser to press CADE on Krotons deal with Estacio, source says

“Ser Educacional SA will use all legal means to ensure a merger between Brazil’s two largest education companies, Estácio Participações SA and Kroton Educacional SA, meets antitrust rules, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters”

Brazil’s federal police raided the offices of at least 12 builders in cartel probe of railway projects, CADE said

“CADE did not specify where the raids were conducted but said police suspected some of Brazil’s largest construction companies, including Odebrecht SA, OAS SA and Andrade Gutierrez SA, were active members of a cartel. All have been linked to corruption at oil projects.”

Colombia fines diaper cartel $70 million dollars

“The Superintendency of Industry and Trade of Colombia (SIC) fined 208,000 million pesos (70 million dollars) to three companies and 16 of their managers for artificially increasing the price of disposable baby diapers.”

Competition Tribunal of South Africa clears AB InBev SABMiller Merger deal

“The Competition Tribunal, which gives the final word on mergers in Africa’s most industrialized country, said in a statement that concessions made by AB InBev to get the deal approved were designed to address both public interest and competition concerns arising from the merger.”

China Signals More Antitrust Scrutiny for Drugmakers Over Prices

“Chinese regulators are closely examining the pricing methods of local and foreign drugmakers for any antitrust violations, according to a state-run financial newspaper, as the government conducts a wide-ranging campaign to regulate prices of medicines.”

Indonesia’s KPPU aims to abolish cattle import quotas to fight cartels

“Indonesia’s anti-monopoly agency has proposed abolishing a cattle import quota system and replacing it with tariffs, in a bid to break the stranglehold of local cartels blamed for surging beef prices, its chief told Reuters”

Safaricom’s Little Cab triggers price war with Uber in Kenya

Safaricom-backed online taxi-hailing app Little Cab has sparked off a price war with rivals Uber and Mondo Ride by setting lower tariffs compared to its two global competitors.”

What Does Being a Developing Country Mean and What Does that Have to Do with Antitrust?

By Francisco Beneke*

What Is a Developing Country?

“Developing” is quite a broad label because we group under it countries as different as Brazil and Botswana, Mexico and Afghanistan, Pakistan and El Salvador. What about Russia or China? It sounds odd to put the successor state of the Soviet Union or the second largest economy in the world in the same pool as the other countries mentioned before. The issue is obviously not simple and certainly not a settled one.

The World Bank has a classification according to income per capita, which gives a simple measure for differentiating countries. However, it does not fully capture development differences. Venezuela, for example, is classified as a high-income country, but no one would argue that the standard of living there is similar to that of, say, Chile, which has a comparable income level.

GDP per capita growth as a measure of rising living standards has been under attack for some time and with good reason. One of the main critiques is that the measure does not capture how unequal growth is (fundamental in knowing how the situation of the most vulnerable parts of the population improves). In the US for example, in spite of continuous economic growth, the inflation-adjusted wages at the bottom of the income distribution have decreased.

The International Monetary Fund has its own classification of countries. In the World Economic Outlook yearly publication, the countries are classified either as advanced, transition, and emerging and developing economies. The criteria are not expressly set out but some information has been revealed as some countries get reclassified into the advanced category. An advanced country has basically a combination of high income per capita, well-developed financial systems, and a strong diversified economy. These criteria were mentioned when Israel, South Korea, and Singapore were promoted to advanced countries. However, there are no published parameters that a country has to reach in these areas to be classified in either category. The IMF observers simply know an advanced country when they see one.

The World Economic Forum takes a whole different approach and ranks economies by their competitiveness. The term is defined in the Global Competitiveness Report as the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. From lowest to highest competitiveness, the country classifications are: factor-driven, efficiency-driven, and innovation-driven economies. Between the three stages, there are countries classified as being in a transition period. Argentina and Brazil, for example, are in a transition between being an efficiency-driven economy to an innovation-driven one.

Finally, a discussion of what is development (which entails the question of what a non-developed country is) has to take into account the approach pioneered by Amartya Sen. According to the author, the correct approach of development policies should be to promote individual freedoms necessary for people to expand their capabilities.[1] His approach has been labeled as more humanistic since it attempts to focus development efforts on the individual’s liberties and not on macroeconomic indicators that obscure the multifaceted aspects of what makes someone fulfill his or her aspirations.

What Does All of These Have to Do With Antitrust? 

The income level of the population, the factors that affect productivity, and the conditions under which individuals can fulfill their potential are directly connected with competition policy in many ways. Since all of the previously mentioned classifications entail insights that are useful to antitrust analysis, it does not come as a surprise that the literature on the latter is not committed to one specific classification but rather has taken a more pragmatic approach. That is, commentators usually identify characteristics that are associated with lower development instead of discussing whether countries like Russia, Malaysia or Turkey are developing economies.[2]

As a first point, in a country with a low income level and a significant portion of the population living in poverty, the issue of whether antitrust law enforcement contributes to development becomes central. In a previous post I already analyzed some of the issues that are present in the literature, but the main conclusion is that there is no undisputed evidence that law enforcement activities lead to economic growth. A satisfactory methodological approach and good measures of the quality of competition policy are yet to be found.

Another issue closely connected to the previous one and already analyzed by Amine has been the establishment of enforcement priorities based on development goals such as the reduction of poverty. An additional related point is the use of antitrust policy to further the growth of local small and medium enterprises, protecting them from exclusionary conduct from dominant multinational firms. This has been the approach taken by China, much to the displeasure of the US.

Another point is that developing countries have some characteristics in common that affect the analysis within the cases. One example is the size of the informal economy, which in developing countries tends to be larger. The informal economy can affect an authority’s assessment of market power of firms in the formal sector. Usually, a key issue is to determine if producers in the informal sector can be considered as part of the same relevant market of firms in the formal sector and, thus, dilute the market shares of the latter. Other characteristics associated with developing countries that have been mentioned in the literature as variables that affect market conditions are corruption, underdeveloped financial markets, and scarcity of skilled labor.[3]

Finally, developing countries usually share a weak institutional environment. This is a factor that can affect antitrust analysis, especially within regulated industries, but it can also affect the effectiveness of competition policy itself. The authorities can in this respect find problems in procuring adequate budgets and staffing. Another important obstacle could be a slow and inefficient judiciary, postponing the final word on a decision in a case for years. Another practical problem is the lack of market information from public institutions (a given in countries like the US), which seriously hinders the investigation efforts of the competition authority.

Some Final Remarks

The main take away from examining various classifications of countries based on measures of development is that none of them fully captures the multifaceted aspects of the problem. To inform policy, one has to take the valuable insights that each of the relevant criteria gives and not focus only on, for example, increasing GDP growth.

Antitrust law is one of the tools of economic policy and, therefore, has to be shaped according to the specific needs of each country. Adapting competition policy to developing economies does not mean in general coming up with two categories of laws depending on whether a country is developed or not. It means establishing legal standards and enforcement priorities that suit, for example, El Salvador but that may not be adequate for China.

 *Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

@Paco_Beneke

[1] Amartya Sen, “Development as Freedom”. Oxford University Press, First Edition (2000).

[2] A good example of this can be found in “The Economic Characteristics of Developing Jurisdictions: Their Implications for Competition Law”, Michal S. Gal, et al, eds.

[3] Michal S. Gal and Eleanor M. Fox, “Drafting Competition Law for Developing Jurisdictions: Learning from Experience”. In The Economic Characteristics of Developing Jurisdictions: Their Implications for Competition Law. Michal S. Gal, et al Eds. Edward Elgar Publishing (2015)

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Antitrust, Cheaper Beer, and the First Global Brewery (the South African Chapter)

By Francisco Beneke*

The price of beer is currently one of the hottest antitrust topics at the global stage. The largest merger the beer market has ever seen has been met with various attitudes from competition authorities around the world depending on, partly, the relative positions of the firms in each national or regional market. Today I focus on South Africa’s recent developments.

The Global Context

The USD$107 billion purchase of SABMiller by AB InBev is the third largest transaction in history. It will create what the media has dubbed the first truly global brewery and will account for half of the industry’s profits around the world. It already received antitrust clearance subject to (very tough) conditions in the EU, and it is still under review in other big markets such as the US and China. In the former, the Justice Department is believed to be close to a decision that involves SABMiller’s divestiture of its joint venture with Molson Coors. An almost identical divestiture has also taken place in China ahead of the MOFCOM’s decision in order to set the ground for the approval.

According to the media, the merger’s main focus is not the largest markets where the two brewers have substantial overlaps but the smaller Latin American, Asian, and African countries where either of the companies enjoy close-to-monopoly positions. This view is consistent with the approach of the merging parties of quickly proposing important asset divestitures in the US and China.

The merger has different implications in every market in which it is or has been subject to antitrust review. However, there are some particularities in the South African chapter, home country of one of the merging parties, that we are not going to see in many places around the world.

A Quick Dive into South African Merger Law

The Competition Commission of South Africa issued last Tuesday a press release in which it gives a detail of the several conditions under which it has recommended to the Competition Tribunal the approval of the merger. Before we get into the details, a quick primer on South Africa merger law is in order.

South Africa has an institutional design in which the prosecuting and adjudicative entities are separated. The prosecuting entity is the Competition Commission, who in the case of large mergers only has the power to recommend to the Competition Tribunal whether to approve or block a transaction. The merger can be enjoined if it will substantially lessen competition or if it cannot be justified on public interest concerns (article 12a, (2) and (3) of the Competition Act). In the case of the second category of considerations, the Minister of Economic Development can intervene in the proceedings before the Tribunal (article 18 of the Competition Act). In the present case, the Commission recommended that the merger go forward but, as mentioned above, under certain conditions.

Public Interest Considerations in the South African Beer Market

What makes the analysis of the deal so particular in the case of South Africa is the role public interest considerations play. People that are not familiar with South African merger law could have a hard time getting their heads around a condition that obliges the merged entity to present plans for the advancement of black people within the company or the establishment of a USD$63.6 million fund to promote local agriculture of hops, barley, and corn. One of the most striking conditions is that the merged entity has committed itself in perpetuity not to lay off any employee as a result of the merger.

The conditions regarding the agricultural promotion fund and not laying off employees in duplicate positions were the result of a previous agreement with the Minister of Economic Development. Some critics of the South African merger regime argue that the involvement of this government official brings uncertainty to potential merging parties. In the case in point, even if one disagrees with the uncertainty argument, it is undeniable that the Minister’s intervention was substantial.

One of the most important issues regarding the justifiability of the public interest clause is whether the remedies imposed are effective. In the present case, the no lay-offs condition lies on weak grounds and the fund is at least debatable.

Market regulation always has a way around. In this case, the resulting entity’s drive to lower costs can lead it to get creative in ways to lay off workers without it looking as if it was with the mere purpose of cutting costs. The supervision of this condition will inevitably turn the South African competition authorities in labor law judges because they will have to rule whether there were grounds to fire an employee. That is, the Competition Tribunal will have to determine whether the grounds of the lay-off are valid or if they are only an excuse. This is just one way to get around the condition and it reveals how costly it can be for the Commission to monitor its compliance.

The compliance with the fund may not be an issue because at a first glance it looks pretty straightforward. The effectiveness can still be compromised if the money is not spent well. The debate around development aid is applicable here. Many critics, such as William Easterly of NYU, have charged against aid programs that pour money into a problem with no tangible benefits.[1] Others, such as Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, are strong advocates of aid as a tool to avoid a poverty trap.[2]

There is not enough information so far on the specificities of the agricultural fund to make a prediction on how effective it will be for the development of local farmers. One component it should have is the gathering of information and the design of a study to measure its impact, independently from who bears the cost of such an assessment. This will be key in ensuring that the condition will not only impose the burden to burn money on a program with no real benefits to the South African society.

Competition Concerns

There is not much information on the significance of AB InBev’s position in the South African market, only that it does have a presence through a contract with a local distributor. Some of the conditions recommended by the Commission do involve horizontal and vertical conduct remedies. I will not go into detail in the analysis because Amine will fill you in the details next week with a post that complements what we have talked about here and with more information on the Minister of Economic Development’s intervention in the proceedings.

The Road Ahead

The proceedings before the Competition Tribunal have started and we will have to wait on the final word on the matter. Some argue that the Tribunal usually takes the Commission’s recommendations on merger control, but, as our colleagues from African Antitrust point out, there are some proposed remedies to which AB InBev and SABMiller have not agreed, and we could therefore see some litigation instead.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

@Paco_Beneke

[1] William Easterly, Why Aid Doesn’t Work. http://www.cato-unbound.org/2006/04/02/william-easterly/why-doesnt-aid-work

[2] Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Books; Reprint edition (February 28, 2006).

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Price Fixing in Pakistan’s Poultry Market: Is There a Case of False Positive?

By Owais Hassan Shaikh*

Introduction

The Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) is the national competition authority in the country. It was created in 2007 as a successor to the Monopoly Control Authority and operates under the Competition Act, 2010 (Act). To date the CCP has issued around 100 orders in various cases. In February 2016, the CCP issued an Order against the Pakistan Poultry Association (PPA), finding that the PPA violated section 4 of the Act, which relates to prohibited agreements.

Facts

The PPA advertised prices of broiler chicken (live and meat) and chicken eggs in various Pakistani newspapers between 6 and 9 October 2015. The CCP issued a show cause notice to the PPA as it considered the advertisements to be ‘decisions’ under section 4 to fix prices in the broiler chicken and egg markets having the object or effect of restricting competition in those markets. The PPA responded arguing that the local governments fix the prices of the poultry products and that PPA members face arbitrary price fixation by many city administrations. In this regard it also provided an official assurance that the prices are set by the government and not by the PPA.

Analyzing the PPA arguments, the CCP came to the conclusion that by advertising these prices, the PPA violated section 4(1) of the Competition Act. In coming to this conclusion the CCP held that the PPA’s defense that the poultry product prices are not determined by it, and therefore that it has no liability, is not tenable as the ‘discussion, approval or advertising of prices’ falls within the ambit of anti-competitive behavior; and even if the defense is accepted, advertising prices under its own name signals to the market that the PPA approves the prices, that they are an optimum rate to be followed and that the alleged advertisements could influence the overall market prices. It stressed that the PPA’s ‘standing as an association ensures a certain authority which has the implicit effect of manipulating the behaviour of players in the relevant markets’. According to the CCP, the advertisements also constituted ‘the exchange of data which encourages more uniform prices than might otherwise exist.’ The CCP fined the PPA Rs. 50 million (approx. $ 0.48 million) for the broiler chicken and the egg markets each and ordered it to immediately suspend such advertisements. In imposing the high fines, the CCP observed that the PPA had already been cautioned in a previous Order to ‘desist from taking any decision, even if merely suggestive in nature, regarding pricing, production and sale of poultry products.’

Analysis

The main issue in the Order was whether the advertisement by the PPA of broiler chicken and egg prices could be considered a ‘decision’ under section 4 of the Act. Paragraph 1 of Section 4 prohibits an association of undertakings from taking a decision that may have the object or effect of restricting competition with certain exceptions.

The CCP defined ‘decision’ of an association of undertakings in its earliest Order pertaining Section 4.[1] It held that ‘a decision of an association of undertakings reflects an understanding between its members’. ‘Agreement’ includes ‘understanding’ as defined in Section 2 of the Act, therefore, a decision by an association of undertakings is an agreement between its member. It is generally held that the concept of agreement or understanding requires a concurrence of wills or meeting of the minds.[2]

However, the problem in this Order is that the CCP did not provide any evidence showing a concurrence of wills or meeting of the minds with regard to fixing prices in the two markets by the PPA or its members. It does not even provide any evidence to rebut the PPA’s assertion and assurance that it does not fix the prices, but that it is forced to take them as they are from the local governments. Unlike the CCP’s Order in 2010 against the PPA, which relied extensively on the documents recovered from the PPA offices to prove cartelization, the current Order is uncharacteristically short (only 8 pages as compared to 36 pages in 2010) and does not provide any evidence of the alleged conduct. Instead, it implies that advertising the prices by the PPA itself is tantamount to a decision as it has the ‘object’ of preventing or restricting competition in the relevant markets. However, as analyzed above, in the absence of a ‘decision’ in the meaning of section 4, there is no basis of claiming that the advertisement per se had the object of restricting competition in the market.

According to the CCP, advertising prices by an association of undertakings falls within the ambit of anti-competitive behaviour. Therefore, the publication of prices in these advertisements under the PPA’s name may reflect to the different market players, including the consumers, that these prices have the approval of the PPA and are the optimum rates to be followed. In general, advertisements are pro-competitive tools in that they provide consumers information about the various characteristics of a product. They reduce consumers’ information and search costs. According to the CCP, the said advertisements carried the daily prices for the products in the broiler chicken and egg markets. The Order does not mention whether the government also provided the information about prices to the consumers. If this was not the case, the PPA advertisements did disseminate useful information to the consumers.

Without convincing evidence of independent meeting of the minds regarding price fixing by the PPA or its members, especially where the association provides additionally an assurance with regard to its stance, the imposition of a fine to the tune of Rs. 100 million appears to be unjustified. Though there is merit in the CCP’s argument that without an appropriate disclaimer that these prices are fixed by the government and the advertisements are not endorsements of these prices by the PPA, they may be seen as such by the market players, including the consumers, the CCP could direct the PPA to include the same, or a variation thereof, so that no one would be misled with regard to the PPA’s role in fixing poultry prices.

Moreover, by fining the PPA, the CCP fails to remedy the actual anti-competitive conduct in the market i.e., price fixing by the local governments. To solve this, the CCP should have focused on the concurrence of wills between the local governments and the PPA or its member undertakings. This could be done, for example, by investigating whether there was any coordination, communication or understanding between the PPA and the local governments prior to fixing prices on a daily basis.[3] Penalizing the PPA would definitely not discourage the local governments from fixing the prices, but it will deprive consumers from acquiring the most relevant information regarding broiler chicken and chicken eggs i.e., their prices.

* Visiting Lecturer, EU Business School, Munich; PhD, Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich; LL.M, University of Augsburg, Augsburg; MBA, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

[1] In the matter of Show Cause Notice dated 24 December 2007 for Violation of Section 4 of the Ordinance ¶ 46 available at http://cc.gov.pk/images/Downloads/Order_of_Banks.pdf.

[2] Bayer v Commission, Case T-41/96, [2000] E.C.R. II-03383 ¶ 69

[3] This was the actual line of inquiry in the Dole food case that the CCP cited in the Order where supplier of bananas coordinated wholesale prices which was then signaled to the market, though, the final market price would be negotiated with ALDI, as the biggest buyer. See Dole Food and Dole Fresh Fruit Europe v Commission, C-286/13 P, [2015] E.C.R. II ___ (delivered 19 March 2015). The CCP, however, did not adopt this line of inquiry in its own investigation in the current Order.

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How Can Competition Law Enforcement in the Digital Economy Help in the Fight Against Poverty?

By Amine Mansour*

When talking about competition law and poverty alleviation, we may intuitively think about markets involving essential needs. The rise of new sectors may however prompt competition authorities to turn their attention away from these markets. One of those emerging sectors is the digital economy sector. This triggers the question of whether the latter should be a top priority in competition authorities’ agenda. The answer remains unclear and depends mainly on the potential value added to consumers in general and the poor in particular[1].

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

Obviously, access to computer and technology is not a source of poverty stricto sensu. In the absence of basic needs, strategies focusing on digital sectors may prove meaningless. In practice, the last thing people living in extreme poverty will think about is gaining digital skills. Their immediate needs are embodied in markets offering goods and services which are basic necessities. The approach put forward by several Competition authorities in developing countries corroborates this view. For instance, in South Africa, digital markets are not seen as a top priority. Instead, the South African competition authority focuses on food and agro-processing, infrastructure and construction, banking and intermediate industrial products.

There are however compelling arguments to be made against such position. Most importantly, although access to technology and computers is not a source of poverty, such an access can be a solution to the poverty problem. In fact, closing the digital gap by providing digital skills and making access to technology and Internet easier can help the low income population when acting either as entrepreneurs or consumers. In both cases competition law can play a decisive role.

The low income population acting as consumers

First, when acting as consumers, people with low income can enjoy the benefits of new technology-based entrant. Thanks to lower costs of operation, lower barriers to entry and (almost) infinite buyers, these new operators have changed the competitive landscape by aggressively competing against traditional companies. These features have helped them not only extending existing products and services to low-income consumers but also making new ones available for them. Better yet, in some cases increased competition coming from technology-based companies motivates traditional business forms to adapt their offer to low-income consumers so as to face this new competition and remedy shrinking revenues. Perhaps, the most noteworthy aspect of all these evolutions, is that these new entrants have, in some instances, been able to challenge incumbents’ position by driving prices downward to levels unattainable by traditional companies without scarifying their profitability.

A shining example of all this dynamic is the possibility for low-income consumers to engage, thanks to some mobile companies, in financial transaction without the need to pass through the traditional stationary banking infrastructure. For instance, in Kenya, M-PESA a mobile money transfer service that has over 22 million subscribers[2] and around 40,000 agents (around 2600 Commercial bank branches)[3] changed the life of million of citizens. The service enables clients to deposit cash into their M-PESA accounts, send or transfer money to any other mobile phone user, withdraw cash and complete other financial transactions. A farmer in a remote area in Kenya can send or receive money by simply using his mobile phone. In this way, M-PESA can act as a substitute to personal bank accounts. This experience shows how the digital economy helps overcoming the prohibitive costs of reaching low-income customers and thus raising living standards.

On that basis, we can easily imagine the counter-argument incumbent companies might put forward. In this regard, unfair competition and the need for regulation to preserve policy objectives are often in the forefront. However, there is a great risk that these arguments are simply used to restrict market entry and impede competition from those new players.

In fact, this kind of arguments do not always reflect market reality. For example, in some remote geographic areas, traditional companies and the new ones based on the digital/internet space do not even compete directly against each other. Accordingly, regulation intended to protect policy goals has no role to play given that the affected consumers are out of the reach of the traditional business. In the M-PESA example, it may be possible to argue that any operator engaging in financial transactions should observe the regulatory restrictions that apply to the banking sector in order to ensure that policy objectives such as the stability of the banking system or the protection of consumer savings are preserved. However, applying such a reasoning will leave a large part of consumers with no alternative given the absence of a banking infrastructure in remote areas. The unfair competition and regulation arguments may only hold in cases where consumers are offered alternatives capable of providing an equivalent service.

This shows the need to proceed cautiously by favoring an evidence-based approach to the ex-post use of the regulation argument by incumbent operators. This is however only one of different facets of the interaction between the competitive impact of companies based on the internet-space, the regulatory framework and the repercussions for people with low income[4].

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

Second, the focus on digital markets as way to alleviate poverty is further justified when low-income people act as entrepreneurs. In fact, digital markets are distinguished from basic good markets in that they may act as an empowering instrument that encourages entrepreneurship.

More precisely, the digitalization of the economy results in an improved access to market information which in turn may benefit entrepreneurs especially the poor whether they intervene in the same market or in a different one. Practice is replete with cases where, for instance, a downstream firm heavily relies for its production/operation on services or products offered by an upstream company operating in a digital market. Similarly, in a traditional and somewhat caricatural way, a small-scale farmer may use VOIP calls to obtain market information or directly contact buyers suppressing the need for a middleman.

However, we can well imagine the disastrous consequences for these small-scale farmers or the downstream firm if mobile operators decide to block access to internet telephony services such as Skype or WhatsApp based on cheap phone calls using VOIP (this is what actually happened in Morocco). In such a case, the digitalization of the economy has clearly contributed to greatly lowering the costs of communication and distribution. However, low income entrepreneurs are prevented from benefiting of these low costs, which are a key input to be able to compete in the market.

The major difficulty here lies in the fact that, when low income people act as entrepreneurs, it is likely that they organize their activities in small structures. This result in relationships and structures favorable to the emergence of exploitative abuses. Keeping digital markets clear from obstructing anticompetitive practices is thus indispensable to ensure that small existing or potential competitors are not prevented from competing. This might not be easily achieved given that competition authorities’ focus is sometimes more on high profile cases.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

[1] Intervention may also be justified by the institutional significance argument. This significance lies in the fact that those markets are growing ones and challenging the common ways of both doing business and applying competition rules which in turn make it crucial for authorities to intervene by drawing the lines that ensure the right conditions for those market to grow and develop.

[2] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/about-us/about-safaricom

[3] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/get-started-with-m-pesa/m-pesa-agents

[4] For instance, it possible to think of the same problem from an ex-ante point of view highlighting incumbent firms’ efforts to block any re-examination of the regulatory standards that apply to the concerned sector (no relaxation of the quantitative and qualitative restrictions). This aspect has more to do with the advocacy function of competition authorities.

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The Relationship between Intellectual Property and Innovation: Do Patent Rights Always Spur the Creation of New Products and Technologies?

By Monika Hasbún*

It is generally acknowledged that patent rights, in an economic sense, work as an incentive to promote innovation. Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that this incentive can also generate inefficiencies. For this reason it is necessary to question and evaluate the scenarios in which patent rights do not necessarily promote innovation but can actually be detrimental to it.

The World Intellectual Property Organization defines a patent as “…an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem”. The protection is granted for a limited period, generally 20 years from the filing date of the application. Any product or procedure that receives this protection, cannot be commercially made, used, distributed, imported or sold by others without the patent owner’s consent.

The main argument to justify patents is the necessity to stimulate invention. Innovation is based on the idea of producing knowledge. Knowledge, considered as a public asset, has two attributes: First, the amount of available knowledge does not diminish when others use it (“non-rivalrous good”). Besides, once it has been produced, others can benefit from it (“non-excludable good”). These aspects produce a market failure so that not sufficient incentives are available that encourage economic agents to innovate.

To solve this dilemma, the patent system establishes two mechanisms that permit inventors to maximize their externalities: (i) The granting of a temporary monopoly on the invention, which works as a protecting mechanism that allows the right owner to obtain a retribution because of his dominant position, for a determined period of time and geographic area; and, (ii) The requirement to publish the invention. The right owner has to disclose and publish the details of its innovation. This way a patent right offers, in principle, an incentive for the study of new technologies by allowing the right owner to exclude competitors from the market and requiring the publication of the innovation details. Nevertheless, there are some cases in which patent rights do not necessarily act as an incentive to innovation.

The first aspect to be addressed is the quality of the patent right that is granted. The basic idea is the following: If everything is patentable, there is no innovation. If products or services that are not novel or innovative are patentable, those that truly are, might not obtain the required protection. This strategic use of the patent system of doubtful quality impedes third parties to innovate and compete in the creation of products that are truly innovative. For example, regarding pharmaceutical products it is extensively discussed whether simple chemical or formula changes should be considered as an authentic innovation. In this case, patent applications should be thoughtfully and carefully analyzed, so as to guarantee that the proposed innovative product presented in the patent application deserves to be recognized with a monopoly right.

It should also be considered, that depending on the sector where innovation needs to be promoted, patent rights may result unnecessary. For example, according to conducted research, patents do not seem to be essential to promote innovation in the service sector. In Japan, for example, the percentages of firms holding patents are 39.2% for manufacturing firms and 9.8% for service firms, a large and statistically significant difference.[1] This suggests that appropriation mechanisms other than patent filing, such as secrecy and lead-time, play an important role in this matter. The benefits provided by the advantages of arriving first to the market, complementary assets and network externalities result, at times, sufficient so that inventors in service companies recover their research and development investment costs and decide to innovate. It is even acknowledged that a patent right may result unnecessary as long as an invention can be maintained in secret without further ado.

In a similar manner, innovation in SMEs is commonly conducted by more “informal” means. This sector usually deals with incremental improvements or minor modifications to existing products which respond to concrete demands of the market. For small enterprises it is difficult to destine resources to obtain a patent right, since doing this would imply that less resources are destined to their innovation activities per se. For this reason they prefer to use alternative strategies of protection, such as the launching time in the market, investing in complementary assets, among others.

Finally, a country’s development level is also a key factor when analyzing the efficiency of patent systems. The existing asymmetry in the innovation capacities among developed and developing countries has an impact in the way agents in these countries respond to the patent protection system. In the case of developing countries, different from developed countries, companies demand and consume more technology than that which is internally produced, so that they become “technology importers”. Their investment in research and development is extremely limited, so that the granting of patent rights is practically non-existing. Companies in such countries tend to limit to the imitation and adaptation of technologies, so that patent rights result unnecessary and can even act as a barrier to the import of different technologies. Besides, developing countries do not generally have patent protection systems that are sufficiently mature so as to act as an actual incentive to innovation.

Patent rights and competition are closely connected. On the one hand, patent legislation seeks to promote innovation by awarding an exclusive right that prevents the patented invention from being commercially exploited by third parties. On the other side, competition legislation seeks to impede the abuse that such right owners could perform.

Considering that patent rights could act as a legal instrument that obstructs competition, it should be evaluated, according to the previously exposed ideas, that its justification is not always legitimate. It is not always the case that patent rights promote innovation. In determined cases patent rights may result unnecessary and even harmful to attain it. For this reason, so as to achieve an adequate patent system and the rewards it offers, without excessively restricting competition, the context in which the patent right is being granted should be carefully evaluated so as to determine its efficiency.

*The author is a lawyer and notary public in El Salvador, holds a bachelor of laws degree from the Universidad Dr. José Matías Delgado and has postgraduate degrees in public policy management and in law, economics, and business. She is currently a senior legal counsel in the Salvadoran competition authority.

[1] Morikawa, Masuyaki. (2014) “Protection of intellectual property to foster innovation in the service sector”. Available at: http://voxeu.org/article/intellectual-property-and-service-sector-innovation

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Ten Years of the Competition Superintendence – Past, Present, and Future

By Marlene Tobar*

Competition law enforcement in El Salvador started ten years ago, an ideal moment to assess the work of the Competition Superintendence, the authority in charge of its implementation since January 2006.

In these first years, the institution has carried out a healthy oversight of markets promoting undistorted competition, strictly following the legal framework and proving its independence from political forces[1]. In addition, the authority has taken a leading position in the region. It has been awarded twice at the World Bank’s Competition Advocacy Contest, it is the only authority in Central America that has enjoined a merger (the acquisition of Digicel by Claro in the telecommunications market), and it has given a strong push to the design of a regional competition law through its work in the RECAC[2] (the Central American network of competition authorities).

In the law enforcement area, it conducted investigations in markets that have spillover effects in the economy such as the energy industry, the wheat flour market (carrying out dawn-raids), the distribution of sugar (imposing a fine on Dizucar, the dominant wholesale distributor that is owned by the local sugar mills), and the telecommunications industry, among others.

The institution acknowledged the role that public sector intervention plays and allocated substantial resources to identify restrictions to competition arising from regulations. For that purpose, the authority pointed toward the need of improving regulations to promote more openness to trade regarding products of social importance such as rice and sugar. The Competition Superintendence has also pushed for reforms to the law that creates a legal cartel in the production of sugar. Another important policy change promoted has been the amendment of the system under which radio-electric spectrum concessions are granted in the telecommunications industry. The recommendations are aimed at promoting competition in the allocation of this input (competition for the market) in a context of upcoming expiration dates to current grants in the broadcasting market and the still uncertain process of digital technology adoption in the country.[3] Recently, the authority issued a statement regarding a decision by the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench[4] on the alleged unconstitutionality of certain provisions of the Telecommunications Law. The Court stated that the national congress should not close the door on any advisory intervention of the Competition Superintendence during the hearings on the issue.[5]

The Competition Superintendence has decided a total of 14 cases of anticompetitive behavior, analyzed 16 merger transactions, carried out 23 market studies, issued 128 opinions, signed 36 MoU’s, and implemented a wide-ranging program of diffusion and promotion of the country’s competition law. The authority has imposed $15.1 million USD in fines (93% of which correspond to anticompetitive behavior decisions). In other words, it is quantitatively and qualitatively clear that the authority has sought to cover all sources of restrictions to competition.

Nonetheless, the main topic to reflect upon is the ability of having a real impact on efficiency and consumer welfare (objectives that the authority has to pursue by law), which are to be understood as indirect means to achieve higher living standards for society.

At the moment, such ability is hindered by the lack of support from the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches evidenced by (at least) two facts: first, the Supreme Court’s Administrative Bench’s judicial backlog regarding the review of the Competition Superintendence’s decisions on anticompetitive behavior. From the total of fines imposed by the authority ($15.1 million USD), more than 90% have been challenged by the punished firms, with 27 ongoing proceedings before the Administrative Court and 1 before the Constitutional Court. Currently, there are $9.1 million USD of overdue payments in fines. On its part, the Administrative Court has temporarily enjoined some of the payments and other precautionary measures, a part of which have been certified to the National Prosecutor[6].

Second, the authority has found scant support from other government institutions in the implementation of policy recommendations and inter-institutional dialogues have been rare at best (or non-existent in many cases). The first element hinders the ability to correct the punished anticompetitive behavior and hampers the deterrent effect of the fines; and the lack of support from other government entities reduces the likelihood that competition policy can spur economic and social growth.

All that said, it is important to look at the future and set the direction of competition policy in El Salvador. In his speech in the event commemorating the tenth year anniversary of the institution, the superintendent stated that he would seek for the institution to have a greater impact in key variables of the economy (development, poverty, and inequality) with the purpose of contributing to its “democratization”.

In order to do that, in addition to tackling the problems mentioned above, the authority will have to aim its competition enforcement activities toward solving the real problems faced by the country. As a consequence, there are more than a few considerations to be made. Some of the main issues to be analyzed are if the current legal framework is adjusted to the nation’s objectives; if the use of neoclassic economic theory is an adequate basis for the analysis of competitive restrictions (as the international community advises as best practices); determining the objectives that competition policy has to pursue in order to effectively contribute to the country’s development; to define the term of economic efficiency that will be pursued, among others. This analysis will have to be made taking into consideration El Salvador’s particular traits and variables that determine the dynamics of competition in its national markets.[7]

*The author is the head of the department in El Salvador’s competition authority that is in charge of the merger review proceedings, market studies, and opinions regarding law proposals and rules of tendering in public procurement.

[1] The law entered into force under a right-wing government. Under the current left-wing government the authority imposed a fine in the amount of $759,924 USD to Alba Petróleos for failing to report mergers. This firm is partly owned by ENEPASA, an association of municipalities governed by majors from the political party that controls the executive branch. Even so, the president re-elected the superintendent, Francisco Díaz, for a second term, setting a precedent in the region.

[2] Composed of the competition authorities from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Representatives of the Guatemalan government attend the meetings in an observer capacity since Guatemala has no competition law to this date.

[3] Currently, the Congress is evaluating the best way to implement the amendments ordered by the Constitutional Court regarding the design of an alternate mechanism for the auctions of radio-electric spectrum.

[4] Decision of the Constitutional Court on the accumulated unconstitutionality proceedings with references 65-2012 and 36-2014. In El Salvador, the Supreme Court of Justice is divided into separate sub-courts according to a subject-matter criterion.

[5] Clarification issued by the Constitutional Court on December 16, 2015, regarding its decision on the accumulated unconstitutionality proceedings with references 65-2012 and 36-2014.

[6] One such example is the order enjoining the anticompetitive behavior for which DIZUCAR (the wholesale distributor owned by El Salvador’s sugar mills) was punished.

[7] Gal, M., et al. (ed.) (2015). The Economic Characteristics of Developing Jurisdictions, Their Implications for Competition Law”. Edward Elgar, Northampton, United States.

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