Douglas Ginsburg and Cecilia (Yixi) Cheng  ‘The Decline in U.S. Criminal Antitrust Cases’ George Mason University Law & Economics Research Paper Series 19-31 (Forthcoming in Liber Amicorum Albert A. Foer (2020) Nicolas Charbit et al. (eds)

Criminal cartel prosecutions are at modern lows in the U.S. The authors of this paper, available here, offer three non-exclusive hypotheses for this decline: (1) increasingly large fines in multiple jurisdictions have lessened the incentive to apply for leniency in any one jurisdiction; (2) technology has caused the substitution of lawful tacit for unlawful express collusion; and (3) competition policy has succeeded in deterring cartel formation – at least among U.S. companies. Copyright: FT While the available data is too limited to reach a definite conclusion, it seems to support the third hypothesis: since 2008, investigations have focused predominantly on foreign companies, while both the number and share of investigated U.S. companies have decreased. This is consistent with the hypothesis that U.S. competition policy has been effective in deterring anti-competitive conduct by US companies. Section II describes the recent downward trend in cartel prosecutions. The number of criminal cases filed annually by the DoJ decreased from 90 in 2011 to 18 in…

Nikolaus Fink, Philipp Schmidt-Dengler, Konrad Stahl and Christine Zulehner on ‘Registered cartels in Austria: an overview’ (2017) European Journal of Law and Economy 44 385

Many countries used to allow firms to engage in anticompetitive practices as long as they registered their agreements with a government authority. This was the case in several European countries, such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden after World War II; or the United States under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). In Austria, cartels were legal until the country’s EU accession in 1995. This paper.  available here, examines archival material on various types of registered horizontal cartels in Austria to learn about their inner working. It undertakes a content analysis of these legally binding cartel contracts with a view to identifying different collusion methods. In short, the authors find that these cartel agreements addresses those issues that the academic literature has identified as potential obstacles to sustaining collusion over time. In particular, the agreements set up compensation schemes, reporting requirements, rules for entry and exit, and mechanisms to ensure quick and credible punishment of cartel deviation. The paper is…

William E. Kovacic, Robert C. Marshall and Michael J. Meurer on ‘Serial collusion by multi-product firms’ (2018) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement 6 96

This paper, available here, is long and so, I am afraid, is the review. In short, the authors of this paper take issue with the assumption that each cartel in which a given firm participates is a single instance of conduct that is independent of other cartel conduct by the firm. Evidence of serial collusion by major multi-product firms is readily observable from the public record in a number of sectors, such as chemicals, electronics, car-parts, financial products or graphite. Further, collusion persists in at least three of these industries, with new investigations having recently been opened into collusion in the chemical, auto parts, and financial products markets. The paper provides empirical evidence that many multi-product firms have each participated in several cartels over the past 50 years. It argues that traditional assumptions regarding how cartelists operate, and consequent enforcement strategies, are deficient in many aspects. Reflecting this, the authors make policy recommendations to reign in serial collusion. The article is structured as…

Vivek Ghosal and Daniel Sokol on ‘The Rise and (Potential) Fall of U.S. Cartel Enforcement’

This working paper, which is available here,  is still rough around the edges, but it contains a number of interesting insights, which I thought might be of interest. This essay traces how the institutional setting of U.S. cartel enforcement evolved over the years, and assesses these developments from an optimal deterrence framework. In doing so, the authors also review the outcomes of the various US policy regimes in terms of number of cartels prosecuted, the level of financial penalties imposed per individual and firm, and of jail time for cartel crimes. The authors also offer an analysis of how cartel enforcement has varied with recent US Presidential administrations. Section 3 describes how cartel enforcement has evolved in the US since 1890. Cartel enforcement in US began with the passage of the Sherman Act, which imposed a maximum fine for collusion of USD 5,000, raised to USD 50,000 in 1955. Jail time was not actively pursued until the late 1950s, when…

The Common Understanding of G7 Competition Authorities on “Competition and the Digital Economy”

While adopted on 5 June, this communique was embargoed until yesterday. It can now be found here. As it says on the tin, this document reflects the common position that the competition authorities in the G7 countries (namely, the Autoritá Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (Italy), the Autorité de la Concurrence (France), the Bundeskartellamt (Germany), the Competition Bureau (Canada), the Competition and Markets Authority (United Kingdom), the Department of Justice (United States of America), the Directorate General for Competition (European Commission), the Federal Trade Commission (United States of America) and the Japan Fair Trade Commission (Japan)) have reached on the digital economy. It may come as no surprise that the level of agreement is relatively thin, and that the document does not go into the most controversial topics addressed in the reports reviewed last week and further below. The common understanding begins with the mandatory section on the benefits of the digital economy. Investment and innovation in the digital…

UK CMA’s Digital Market Strategy

The CMA’s Digital Market Strategy, available here, could be said to be a reaction to the Furman Report reviewed last week,  even if the official reaction took the form of a shorter and earlier letter to Government which can be found here. The paper begins by describing why digital markets are different and how the CMA sees its role in their respect. The underlying features of digital markets include substantial network effects, economies of scale and scope, the role of data and the computing power to use it, scope for personalisation, and market concentration. Most of these are not new individually, but in combination they are novel. Combined with the pace of change, it can be hard for both consumers and public authorities to keep up. Some of these features, or their effects, raise questions, including: firms’ use of people’s data; the market power or ‘gatekeeper’ status of certain platforms; use of increasingly sophisticated technology to target advertising; or the risk of so-called ‘killer acquisitions’. The…

Japan’s Interim Study on Digital Platforms and Fundamental Principles for Improvement of Rules Corresponding to the Rise of Digital Platform Businesses (sic) [Updated with correct link]

Japan published late last year an interim study on digital platforms and a number of Fundamental Principles for Improvement of Rules Corresponding to the Rise of Digital Platform Businesses (sic), both available here. The study, which was produced by a working group, is structured as follows. Section I and II review the characteristics of digital platforms and the legal regime to which they are subject. The study begins by outlining the characteristics of online platforms and the various benefits they bring in terms of innovation, ease of market entry and consumer welfare. The study also notes how digital platforms benefit from direct and indirect network effects and from economies of scale. These features can raise switching costs between different platforms, which would tend to facilitate monopolisation or oligopolisation. Further, once a business model based on using and accumulating data is established data, a virtuous cycle may be created, where the competitive advantage of such business is maintained and strengthened through further…

Italy’s Big Data Report

This is a report published by Italian competition authority, together with the telecommunications regulator and the data protection authority, on how to address big data. It is available here. In my analysis below, I will focus on the elements of the report that touch or focus on competition law. I would also emphasise that this is not the first competition authority in Europe to look at data – the joint Franco-German report in 2016 also looked at the intersection between competition and data. The decision to pursue an interdisciplinary study arose from a recognition that the characteristics of the digital economy are very often such that it touches on the competences of the three authorities. The relationship between competition, privacy and pluralism requires a particularly close coordination between different regulators, not only to ensure effective regulatory action but also to identify and reconcile possible trade-offs between the values protected by different regulatory schemes. Furthermore, joint action will allow a better understanding of…

UK Furman Report – Unlocking digital competition, Report of the Digital Competition Expert Panel,

This Report, which can be found here, follows a review ordered by the UK’s Treasury to make recommendations on changes to competition and pro-competition policy to help unlock the opportunities of the digital economy. The report’s recommendations build on a number of propositions, namely that: the digital economy is creating substantial benefits; that a number of digital markets are prone to tipping and being ‘winner-takes-all’; market concentration in these markets both creates benefits and incurs costs; but government policy and regulation have limitations. In the light of this, the report found that the standard tools of competition policy, evaluating whether mergers can proceed and whether antitrust action is warranted to remedy abuses by companies, could play a role in helping to promote competition and the associated better outcomes for consumers and innovation. To do so, competition policy will need to be updated to address the novel challenges posed by the digital economy. Some of these updates can happen within current powers,…

EU group of experts, ‘Competition Policy for the digital era’

This Report, which can be found here, explores how competition policy should evolve to continue to promote pro-consumer innovation in the digital age. It is structured as follows. Chapter 2 describes the digital world and markets. The report focuses on three key characteristics of the digital economy: extreme returns to scale, networks externalities and role of data. Regarding returns to scale, the cost of production of digital services is disproportionate to the number of customers served. While this aspect is not novel as such (bigger factories or retailers are often more efficient than smaller ones), the digital world pushes it to the extreme and this can result in a significant competitive advantage for incumbents. Concerning network externalities, the convenience of using a technology or a service increases with the number of users that adopt it. Consequently, it is not enough for a new entrant to offer better quality and/or a lower price than the incumbent does; it also has to…