OECD papers on the implications of the pandemic for competition law – merger control, cooperation agreements and exploitative pricing

This post reviews three OECD papers on the implications of the pandemic for competition law. Each paper focuses on a different topic. A first paper focuses on merger control in the time of COVID-19. In times of acute crisis, such as the one provoked by COVID-19, many firms may need to leave the market, which may trigger increased merger activity. Without thorough merger review, there is a serious risk that the economic crisis would result in higher market concentration and market power in several sectors. At the same time, the unparalleled economic uncertainty we are living through means that competition authorities face a number of challenges in the exercise of their merger control powers. A first challenge relates to how to conduct forward-looking competitive assessments in turbulent market conditions. Merger reviews assess the effects of transactions by comparison to the circumstances that would have prevailed without the transaction (i.e. a counterfactual). In most cases, the counterfactual starts from the competitive…

Christian Kersting ‘Liability of sister companies and subsidiaries in European competition law’ (2020) European Competition Law Review 41 125

Traditionally, tort liability – which governs private competition enforcement – attaches to specific legal entities. However, liability for a competition infringement under European law attaches to undertakings, i.e. economic units that may comprise multiple legal entities. Increasingly, jurisdictions have relied on this latter approach also for assigning private liability for competition damages, and a similar approach even seems to have been endorsed by the European Court of Justice in Skanska. As a result, questions regarding which legal entities are liable for competition damages are increasingly coming to the fore, particularly as the answer is often crucial to determine whether certain courts (and countries) have jurisdiction over the claim. Under EU competition law, an undertaking encompasses every entity engaged in an economic activity. An undertaking may consist of several legally independent entities, provided that together they form an economic unit. Within the scope of this economic unit, an innocent parent company is generally liable for the competition infringements of its subsidiaries….

Andrew Leitch ‘Skanska: are jurisdiction challenges now an impossible undertaking?’ (2019) Competition Law Journal 18(3) 97

This paper is available here. Damages claims which follow on from European Commission (“Commission”) cartel decisions are, by their very nature, multinational in scope, with addressees of a Commission decision often domiciled across various EU Member States and even further afield. As multiple national markets are often affected by the anticompetitive conduct, potential claimants are also often domiciled across the EU and beyond. This can present potential claimants with a choice as to the jurisdiction in which they wish to pursue their damages claims, with the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands emerging as the most popular jurisdictions. However, seising jurisdiction in the national court of a desired Member State can require the claim to be pursued against an anchor defendant that is not an addressee of a Commission decision. The ECJ’s Skanska judgment relieves claimants from the burden of having to establish that the non-addressee defendant participated in, or implemented, the cartel in order to sustain a claim against…

Case review of Apple v. Pepper  Harvard Law Review (2019) 33 382

Since Illinois Brick, standing to sue for violation of US federal antitrust law has been reserved exclusively to those parties who purchased directly from price-setting monopolists or cartelists. Indirect purchasers, who transacted with these direct purchasers rather than with the monopolist itself, had no standing, even if the direct purchaser “passed on” the full cost of the monopolistic overcharge to them in the form of higher prices. The Court prohibited these pass-through arguments because it judged itself ill suited to efficiently determine what parts of an overcharge are passed on at any given stage in the chain of distribution. The Court also worried that allowing pass-through arguments would undermine deterrence, as indirect purchasers, who could not sue as effectively as direct purchasers, would be able to claim a portion of what would previously have gone to direct purchasers in a successful suit. Last year, however, the Supreme Court in Apple v Pepper held that app purchasers could sue Apple for…

Herbert Hovenkamp ‘Apple vs. Pepper: Rationalizing Antitrust’s Indirect Purchaser Rule’ (2020) Columbia Law Review Forum 120(1) 14

The simplest measure of loss caused by an antitrust infringement is the amount of the overcharge caused by a conduct. However, customers of the infringing party may be able to pass on this overcharge to their own customers, which means that indirect purchasers may also suffer loss. The US – unlike other countries – typically limits the ability to claim damages to direct purchasers for the amount of the relevant overcharge (typically trebled). In Apple Inc. v. Pepper, the Supreme Court held that consumers who allegedly paid too much for apps sold on Apple’s App Store because of an antitrust violation could sue Apple for damages because they were “direct purchasers”. The paper, available here, argues that, working within the context of applicable rules, the majority reached the right conclusion. At the same time, and while this judgment eliminates some of the irrationalities of the indirect purchaser rule as it has been applied, it hardly adopts a definite solution to the…

Andrew Gavil ‘Consumer welfare without consumers? Illinois Brick after Apple v Pepper’ (2019) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement 7 447

This essay, available here, examines the recent Apple v Pepper decision with a focus on two issues: its seeming rehabilitation of compensation principles and its approach to evaluating antitrust damages. Together, these two aspects of the Court’s reasoning may undermine the continued vitality of Illinois Brick’s decision not to allow indirect purchasers to claim for damages. The author argues that, although the Supreme Court formally retained Illinois Brick, the Court’s logic in explaining the nature of damages that flow from antitrust violations will prove hard to contain and difficult to reconcile with Illinois Brick’s simplistic conception of ‘pass-on’. That, in turn, will likely alter how parties litigate antitrust damage claims in ways likely to invite future challenges to Illinois Brick. Apple v Pepper also may have reopened long-simmering debates in the USA about how best to balance the twin remedial goals of deterrence and compensation. Given the evolution over four decades of a fairly intricate federal-state, public–private enforcement ecosystem in the USA,…

OECD competition policy responses to COVID-19

This policy brief, which you can find here, discusses how competition policy can help address the immediate challenges raised by the COVID-19 crisis, whilst looking to the post-pandemic future. It describes competition principles that governments can follow when designing support measures for the economy, and outlines actions competition authorities can take to address the challenges of the current crisis. Section A focuses on state interventions, while Section B focuses on competition enforcement actions in the short and medium term. A first section concern as regards state intervention is maintaining competitive neutrality. In times of extraordinary, and temporary, demand and supply shocks, governments can support consumers, workers and firms to weather the storm while ensuring readiness to resume economic activity once the crisis passes. This may take the form of grants, subsidies, bank guarantees or other state support. Nonetheless, there is a danger that state support may distort the playing field between companies that receive aid and their competitors that do…

Jorge Padilla and Nicolas Petit on ‘Competition policy and the Covid-19 opportunity’ (2020) Concurrences 2 1

Every economic crisis raises the same normative question for competition law. Should decision makers be temporarily more permissive in their application of the law to private and public restraints of competition? While historical evidence suggests that this is a bad idea, most economic crises since the 1970s led to some softening of competition law. In countries around the world, massive amounts of state aid have been injected into the economy. While such policies deserve praise in their concern for the protection of jobs, recessions have a “cleansing effect” which is desirable and can be dampened by such interventions. Recessions facilitate the exit of zombie firms that crowd out growth opportunities for more efficient competitors, and delay the diffusion of technological innovation. A case might thus be made that the current recession might be a source of opportunities for the EU economy, long trapped in a cycle of weak productivity, low economic dynamism and conspicuous absence of superstar firm creation. The…