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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One thought on “Ten Years of the Competition Superintendence – Past, Present, and Future

  1. Reblogged this on Derecho y Política de Libre Competencia en América Latina and commented:
    Otro artículo publicado en el blog Developing World Antitrust, en este caso escrito por Marlene Tobar, actualmente al directora del departamento encargado de las concentraciones empresariales y abogacía de la competencia en la Superintendencia de Competencia de El Salvador.

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