Tommaso Valletti and Hans Zenger, on ‘Increasing Market Power and Merger Control’ (2019)

A significant body of empirical research has documented a structural increase in margins across a wide range of industries and countries. On average, firms enjoy appreciably greater pricing power today than used to be the case in prior decades. Research also showed that this increase in mark-ups coincided with a decline in the labour share of output, higher aggregate concentration, larger corporate profitability, and a slump in business dynamism (as measured by indicators such as entry, investment and innovation). Some researchers have attributed recent margin trends primarily to the growth of so-called “superstar firms”—highly profitable companies that have successfully seized the opportunities generated by globalization and technological change (such as digitization and automation). Others have linked increasing mark-ups to a lack of competition, e.g. overly permissive merger control. This article, available here, explores the implications of increased pricing power for merger control. It is structured as follows: Section 2 discusses the implications of increased pricing power for the assessment of…

Pauline Affeldty, Tomaso Dusoz and Florian Szücs on ‘25 Years of European Merger Control’ (2019) DIW Berlin Discussion Paper 179

The first European merger control regime came into force in 1990. Since then, merger control has evolved significantly. This paper, available here, employs a new dataset, comprising all merger cases until 2014 that led to a decision by DG Comp (more than 5,000 individual decisions). The goal of the paper is to evaluate the time dynamics of the European Commission’s decision procedures. Specifically, the paper assesses how consistently different arguments related to so-called structural market parameters – market shares, concentration, likelihood of entry and foreclosure – were deployed by the Commission over time. The paper first estimates the probability of intervention as a function of merger characteristics. It finds that the existence of barriers to entry, increases in concentration and, in particular, the share of product markets with competitive concerns are positively associated with intervention by the Commission. After the reform of 2004, an effects-based approach centred on a clearly stated theory of harm became a cornerstone of EU merger…

Volker Nocke and Michael D. Whinston on ‘Concentration Screens for Horizontal Mergers’ (2020) NBER Working Papers no 27533

Concentration measures play a central role in merger analysis. Existing guidelines identify various presumptions – both safe harbours and presumptions of anticompetitive effects – based on the level of the post-merger Herfindahl index and of the change that the merger induces in that index. These presumptions have a significant impact on agency decisions, especially in screening mergers for further review. However, the basis for these screens, in both form and level, remains unclear. The authors of this paper, available here, show that there is both a theoretical and an empirical basis for focusing solely on changes in the Herfindahl index, and ignoring its level, in screening mergers for whether their unilateral effects will harm consumers. The authors also argue that the levels at which the presumptions currently are set may allow mergers to proceed that cause consumer harm. Section 2 reviews concentration screens in various versions of the US Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The first version of the Merger Guidelines –…

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…

Francisco Costa-Cabral, Leigh Hancher, Giorgio Monti and Alexandre Ruiz Feases ‘EU Competition Law and Covid-10’

This paper, which is from the whole of Tilburg’s competition department, as far as I can tell, is available here. It explores how EU competition enforcement might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors recommend that competition authorities should be watchful of excessive prices and price discrimination, and rely on interim measures if necessary. Collusion should remain an enforcement priority, but a procedural pathway to review agreements that may be in the public interest should be adopted. In merger control, the Commission’s strict interpretation of the failing firm defence is appropriate but, in general, a more sceptical attitude towards mergers may be warranted during this period. Advocacy will play a key role: competition agencies can both point to existing regulations that limit competition and monitor proposed emergency legislation that would harm competition for no good reason. A first section provides an overview of the nature of competition law in the midst of a crisis. Competition law is a political enterprise,…

Friso Bostoen ‘Online Platforms and Pricing: Adapting abuse of dominance assessments to the economic reality of free products’ (2019) Computer Law and Security Review 35 263

What sets platforms apart is their possibility to effectively cross-subsidise between the different user groups that are party to a transaction. Platforms often treat one side as a profit centre and the other as a loss leader, or, at best, as financially neutral. As a result, platforms must choose not only a price level, but also a price structure for their service. Given this,  the present article, available here, explores how potentially abusive behaviour involving free products (both goods and services) can be assessed under competition law. Section II looks at different dimensions of offering free goods and services. Free online offerings have become ubiquitous. This reflects lower costs brought about by the existing digital infrastructure (e.g. processing power, bandwidth, storage). However, companies still want to make a profit. In practice, offering services for free has the potential to attract the critical mass of customers that will allow a company to maximise its profits across its various products. There are three…

Martin Cave ‘Platform Software Versus the Software of Competition Law’ (2019) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 10(7) 472

The emergence of two-sided platforms challenges competition law to adapt its ‘software’—the practical way in which cases are addressed. Competition authorities carefully and conservatively manage competition policy’s operating system, but the radical nature of multi-sidedness imposes major challenges. The purpose of this article, available here, is to discuss how these challenges might be addressed in practice. This is done by reference to a two-sided platform merger inquiry that was undertaken by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in 2017. The case concerned two merging food-ordering platforms that linked restaurants and customers, and accounted for 80% of the market (with the merger leading to a 10% increment).  A monetary transfer linked the two sides of the market – these platforms were usually rewarded by a percentage of the customers’ bill. The wider marketplace also included firms which operated ordering platforms and provided food delivery (‘food-ordering and logistics companies’), as well as restaurants and restaurant chains which themselves took orders and delivered food….

Ariel Ezrachi and Viktoria Robertson ‘Competition, Market Power and Third-Party Tracking’ (2019) World Competition 42(1) 5

Trackers on our websites and apps enable multi-sourced data gathering. While numerous operators engage in tracking, a small number of data giants controls the majority of these trackers. This article, available here, considers the rise and growth of this industry, the power it has bestowed on a handful of platforms, and the possible implications for consumer welfare and competition. Section 2 describes the pervasiveness of third-party tracking. Third-party tracking is a mechanism through which a company (the third-party tracker) hooks onto another (first-party) website or application and collects identifiable data about users, enabling the tracker to build a comprehensive profile about these users. Tracking may occur both actively and passively. It may offer generic information on usage and webpage visits, or combined and analysed information which enables the identification of the individual. The gathering of personalised data – through third-party tracking or otherwise – is primarily relied upon for four purposes in the digital realm: to provide data-based (i.e. individualized or targeted)…

Nicolas Petit ‘Are “FANGs” Monopolies? A Theory of Competition under Uncertainty’ (working paper)

This paper, available here, builds on draft sections of a forthcoming book on tech giants and public policy. It lays down the rudiments of a descriptive theory of competition among the digital tech platforms known as “FANGs” (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). The paper begins by addressing the debate over whether FANGs are monopolies. One school argues that they are indeed monopolies, reflecting FANG’s control of a large share of output in relevant product(s) or service market(s), high barriers to entry, lateral integration and strong network effects. Some of these works also discuss (novel) theories of harm such as reductions in privacy, labour market monopsony and distortions of the democratic process. A different current argues that traditional monopoly harms are not manifest in FANGs. To the contrary, FANGs would outperform textbook monopolies by observable metrics of prices, output, labour or innovation. In addition, the tech industry is arguably rife with examples of once dominant later irrelevant companies like AOL, MySpace or…

Julien Briguet ‘The State’s Invisible Hand: Chinese SOEs Facing EU Antitrust Law‘ (2018) World Competition Law 52(5) 839

Chinese outbound merger and acquisition (M&A) activity has surged in Europe during the last decade. Chinese companies, particularly state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were the key drivers of this surge, amounting to 70% of these investments in Europe. This paper, available here, argues that the way the European Commission looks at mergers involving Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) suffers from several flaws. These arise primarily from inconsistency in how the single economic entity doctrine has been applied to these companies – sometimes a single Chinese SOE is taken to be the relevant economic unit, sometimes all SOEs active in a specific industry were said to comprise the acquiring undertaking. The author argues that a more systematic application of the single economic entity doctrine is required to restore consistency to the case law, address the realities of China’s State capitalism and protect the principle of competitive neutrality at the core of EU competition law. Section two reviews how the single economic entity doctrine applies…