Real and fair competition of corporate monopolies

Margrethe Vestager wants to keep European markets competitive - which is why, on behalf of the EU, she's fined Google $2.8 billion for breaching antitrust rules, asked Apple for $15.3 billion in back taxes and investigated a range of companies, from Gazprom to Fiat, for anti-competitive practices. In an important talk about the state of the global business, she explains why markets need clear rules - and how even the most innovative companies can become a problem when they become too dominant. "Real and fair competition has a vital role to play in building the trust we need to get the best of our societies," Vestager says. "And that starts with enforcing our rules."

Competition law is a law that promotes or seeks to maintain market competition by regulating anti-competitive conduct by companies. Competition law is implemented through public and private enforcement.

Competition law is known as anti-trust law in the United States, and as anti-monopoly law in China and Russia. In previous years it has been known as trade practices law in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the European Union, it is referred to as both antitrust and competition law.

Since the 20th century, competition law has become global. The two largest and most influential systems of competition regulation are United States antitrust law and European Union competition law. National and regional competition authorities across the world have formed international support and enforcement networks.

Competition law, or antitrust law, has three main elements:

·      prohibiting agreements or practices that restrict free trading and competition between business. This includes in particular the repression of free trade caused by cartels.

·      banning abusive behavior by a firm dominating a market, or anti-competitive practices that tend to lead to such a dominant position. Practices controlled in this way may include predatory pricingtyingprice gougingrefusal to deal, and many others.

·      supervising the mergers and acquisitions of large corporations, including some joint ventures. Transactions that are considered to threaten the competitive process can be prohibited altogether, or approved subject to "remedies" such as an obligation to divest part of the merged business or to offer licenses or access to facilities to enable other businesses to continue competing.

Substance and practice of competition law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Protecting the interests of consumers (consumer welfare) and ensuring that entrepreneurs have an opportunity to compete in the market economy are often treated as important objectives. Competition law is closely connected with law on deregulation of access to markets, state aids and subsidies, the privatization of state owned assets and the establishment of independent sector regulators, among other market-oriented supply-side policies. In recent decades, competition law has been viewed as a way to provide better public servicesRobert Borkargued that competition laws can produce adverse effects when they reduce competition by protecting inefficient competitors and when costs of legal intervention are greater than benefits for the consumers.

European competition law is the competition law in use within the European Union. It promotes the maintenance of competition within the European Single Market by regulating anti-competitive conduct by companies to ensure that they do not create cartels and monopolies that would damage the interests of society.

European competition law today derives mostly from articles 101 to 109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), as well as a series of Regulations and Directives. Four main policy areas include:

·      Cartels, or control of collusion and other anti-competitive practices, under article 101 TFEU.

·      Market dominance, or preventing the abuse of firms' dominant market positions under article 102 TFEU.

·      Mergers, control of proposed mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures involving companies that have a certain, defined amount of turnover in the EU, according to the European Union merger law.

·      State aid, control of direct and indirect aid given by Member States of the European Union to companies under TFEU article 107.

Primary authority for applying competition law within the European Union rests with European Commission and its Directorate General for Competition, although state aids in some sectors, such as agriculture, are handled by other Directorates General. The Directorates can mandate that improperly-given state aid be repaid, as was the case in 2012 with Malev Hungarian Airlines.


At a national level competition law is enforced through competition authorities, as well as private enforcement. The United States Supreme Court explained:

Every violation of the antitrust laws is a blow to the free-enterprise system envisaged by Congress. This system depends on strong competition for its health and vigor, and strong competition depends, in turn, on compliance with antitrust legislation. In enacting these laws, Congress had many means at its disposal to penalize violators. It could have, for example, required violators to compensate federal, state, and local governments for the estimated damage to their respective economies caused by the violations. But, this remedy was not selected. Instead, Congress chose to permit all persons to sue to recover three times their actual damages every time they were injured in their business or property by an antitrust violation.

In the European Union, the Modernisation Regulation 1/2003 means that the European Commission is no longer the only body capable of public enforcement of European Union competition law. This was done to facilitate quicker resolution of competition-related inquiries. In 2005 the Commission issued a Green Paper on Damages actions for the breach of the EC antitrust rules, which suggested ways of making private damages claims against cartels easier.

Some EU Member States enforce their competition laws with criminal sanctions. These types of sanctions engender a number of significant theoretical, legal and practical challenges.

Antitrust administration and legislation can be seen as a balance between:

·      guidelines which are clear and specific to the courts, regulators and business but leave little room for discretion that prevents the application of laws from resulting in unintended consequences.

·      guidelines which are broad, hence allowing administrators to sway between improving economic outcomes versus succumbing to political policies to redistribute wealth.


Dominance and Monopoly

When firms hold large market shares, consumers risk paying higher prices and getting lower quality products than compared to competitive markets. However, the existence of a very high market share does not always mean consumers are paying excessive prices since the threat of new entrants to the market can restrain a high-market-share firm's price increases. Competition law does not make merely having a monopoly illegal, but rather abusing the power that a monopoly may confer, for instance through exclusionary practices.

First it is necessary to determine whether a firm is dominant, or whether it behaves "to an appreciable extent independently of its competitors, customers and ultimately of its consumer." Under EU law, very large market shares raise a presumption that a firm is dominant, which may be rebuttable. If a firm has a dominant position, then there is "a special responsibility not to allow its conduct to impair competition on the common market." Similarly as with collusive conduct, market shares are determined with reference to the particular market in which the firm and product in question is sold. Then although the lists are seldom closed, certain categories of abusive conduct are usually prohibited under the country's legislation. For instance, limiting production at a shipping port by refusing to raise expenditure and update technology could be abusive. Tying one product into the sale of another can be considered abuse too, being restrictive of consumer choice and depriving competitors of outlets. This was the alleged case in Microsoft v. Commission leading to an eventual fine of million for including its Windows Media Player with the Microsoft Windows platform. A refusal to supply a facility which is essential for all businesses attempting to compete to use can constitute an abuse. One example was in a case involving a medical company named Commercial Solvents. When it set up its own rival in the tuberculosis drugs market, Commercial Solvents were forced to continue supplying a company named Zoja with the raw materials for the drug. Zoja was the only market competitor, so without the court forcing supply, all competition would have been eliminated.

Forms of abuse relating directly to pricing include price exploitation. It is difficult to prove at what point a dominant firm's prices become "exploitative" and this category of abuse is rarely found. In one case however, a French funeral service was found to have demanded exploitative prices, and this was justified on the basis that prices of funeral services outside the region could be compared. A more tricky issue is predatory pricing. This is the practice of dropping prices of a product so much that one's smaller competitors cannot cover their costs and fall out of business. The Chicago School (economics) considers predatory pricing to be unlikely. However, in France Telecom SA v. Commission a broadband internet company was forced to pay million for dropping its prices below its own production costs. It had "no interest in applying such prices except that of eliminating competitors" and was being cross-subsidized to capture the lion's share of a booming market. One last category of pricing abuse is price discrimination. An example of this could be offering rebates to industrial customers who export your company's sugar, but not to customers who are selling their goods in the same market as you are in.

Mergers and acquisitions

A merger or acquisition involves, from a competition law perspective, the concentration of economic power in the hands of fewer than before. This usually means that one firm buys out the shares of another. The reasons for oversight of economic concentrations by the state are the same as the reasons to restrict firms who abuse a position of dominance, only that regulation of mergers and acquisitions attempts to deal with the problem before it arises, ex ante prevention of market dominance. In the United States merger regulation began under the Clayton Act, and in the European Union, under the Merger Regulation 139/2004 (known as the "ECMR"). Competition law requires that firms proposing to merge gain authorization from the relevant government authority. The theory behind mergers is that transaction costs can be reduced compared to operating on an open market through bilateral contracts. Concentrations can increase economies of scale and scope. However often firms take advantage of their increase in market power, their increased market share and decreased number of competitors, which can adversely affect the deal that consumers get. Merger control is about predicting what the market might be like, not knowing and making a judgment. Hence the central provision under EU law asks whether a concentration would, if it went ahead, "significantly impede effective competition... in particular as a result of the creation or strengthening off a dominant position..." and the corresponding provision under US antitrust states similarly,

No person shall acquire, directly or indirectly, the whole or any part of the stock or other share capital... of the assets of one or more persons engaged in commerce or in any activity affecting commerce, where... the effect of such acquisition, of such stocks or assets, or of the use of such stock by the voting or granting of proxies or otherwise, may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.

What amounts to a substantial lessening of, or significant impediment to competition is usually answered through empirical study. The market shares of the merging companies can be assessed and added, although this kind of analysis only gives rise to presumptions, not conclusions. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is used to calculate the "density" of the market, or what concentration exists. Aside from the maths, it is important to consider the product in question and the rate of technical innovation in the market. A further problem of collective dominance, or oligopoly through "economic links" can arise, whereby the new market becomes more conducive to collusion. It is relevant how transparent a market is, because a more concentrated structure could mean firms can coordinate their behavior more easily, whether firms can deploy deterrents and whether firms are safe from a reaction by their competitors and consumers. The entry of new firms to the market, and any barriers that they might encounter should be considered. If firms are shown to be creating an uncompetitive concentration, in the US they can still argue that they create efficiencies enough to outweigh any detriment, and similar reference to "technical and economic progress" is mentioned in Art. 2 of the ECMR. Another defense might be that a firm which is being taken over is about to fail or go insolvent, and taking it over leaves a no less competitive state than what would happen anyway. Mergers vertically in the market are rarely of concern, although in AOL/Time Warner the European Commission required that a joint venture with a competitor Bertelsmann be ceased beforehand. The EU authorities have also focused lately on the effect of conglomerate mergers, where companies acquire a large portfolio of related products, though without necessarily dominant shares in any individual market

Intellectual property, innovation and competition

Competition law has become increasingly intertwined with intellectual property, such as copyrighttrademarkspatentsindustrial design rights and in some jurisdictions trade secrets. It is believed that promotion of innovation through enforcement of intellectual property rights may promote as well as limit competitiveness. The question rests on whether it is legal to acquire monopoly through accumulation of intellectual property rights. In which case, the judgment needs to decide between giving preference to intellectual property rights or towards promoting competitiveness:

·         Should antitrust laws accord special treatment to intellectual property.
·         Should intellectual rights be revoked or not granted when antitrust laws are violated.

Concerns also arise over anti-competitive effects and consequences due to:

·      Intellectual properties that are collaboratively designed with consequence of violating antitrust laws (intentionally or otherwise).

·      The further effects on competition when such properties are accepted into industry standards.

·      Cross-licensing of intellectual property.

·      Bundling of intellectual property rights to long term business transactions or agreements to extend the market exclusiveness of intellectual property rights beyond their statutory duration.

·      Trade secrets, if they remain a secret, having an eternal length of life.

Some scholars suggest that a prize instead of patent would solve the problem of deadweight loss, when innovators got their reward from the prize, provided by the government or non-profit organization, rather than directly selling to the market, see Millennium Prize Problems. However innovators may accept the prize only when it is at least as much as how much they earn from patent, which is a question difficult to determine.

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