Thursday, 20 July 2017

I've been to another conference...

...which sounds like that's all I do with my time, but it's just a strange coincidence that two of my three must-do conferences fell within a week of each other: last week's NZ Association of Economists' conference and this week's Competition Matters conference, the latest in the Commerce Commission's every-other-year get-togethers. The third, by the way, is the Competition Law and Policy Institute workshop in October - you will be going, won't you?

It's been a solid first day for what is a (literally) standing room only event. Mark Berry, the Commission chair, led off with some good news: the Commission will in the future be publishing those 'letters of issues' and 'letters of unresolved issues' that are part of the merger approval process. In the past they've sometimes been public, sometimes not, so that's a move towards more transparency. And it will be making the information on regulated industries more accessible for a wider audience, which is another good move. Information disclosure regimes are all very well, but currently it's a bit of an exercise to find the data and make effective use of it. It's there, and it's comprehensive, and the people who compile it are friendly and informed and helpful, but it's not yet really got the traction it might have.

The big keynote addresses were an interesting mix. Professor Spencer Weber Waller talked about 'The isolation of US antitrust': where once American legal and economic thinking about competition were state of the art and readily adopted elsewhere, now they're increasingly idiosyncratic and debatable (you could, sadly, say the same about a lot of other American policies too). And while I would normally pay good money not to go to another lecture on the 'internet of things', Professor Harry First gave a fascinating talk showing that the internet age does, in fact, pose new competition problems. Why (he started off) does the price of a packet of mini marshmallows go up and down so much, and why, recently, has it been so persistently high on Amazon - much higher than you'd pay in the corner dairy? This shouldn't be happening when the internet, in theory, gives consumers so much more ability to compare prices. And he went on from there into knottier issues, such as the potential for businesses to coordinate their online price-setting algorithms.

Professor George Yarrow -  a strong candidate in any Terry Pratchett Impersonator competition - talked about the outlook for incentive regulation. The short answer is, we don't know, and maybe the best approach is to experiment with what might work (it doesn't always). I'm a huge fan of incentive regulation: it's always seemed to me to be that our rate of return regulation is a step backwards from quicker, cleverer, simpler, cheaper approaches like CPI - X. After his speech I put that to George: his view was that things like CPI - X can take you a long way at the beginning of a regulatory regime, but to make further progress you're inescapably driven to delve deep into the details of a firm's costs, revenues and balance sheet. Maybe he's right, though I haven't completely given up on simple alternative ideas, particularly ones focussed on return on equity.

I wasn't entirely convinced by Professor Ralph Winter, either, who spoke on 'Competition policy in two-sided markets'. They're all the rage in competition economics - our recent, declined, NZME/Fairfax authorisation is a classic example - but Ralph's argument was (in my words) that courts have been bamboozled by this two-sided guff, when traditional one-sided analysis would have been perfectly adequate and would have found anti-competitive effects that a two-sided perspective would have okayed. He was summarising a longer, learned journal article, and maybe I should go and read that, but for now I'm sticking with the One Big Thing we've all learned about two-sided markets, which is that you shouldn't - can't - draw competition conclusions from looking at conditions on only one side.

It's a multi-track conference: I opted for the panel discussion on 'Merger hot topics'. The main takeaway for me was that competition authorities should keep a close and sceptical eye on mergers foreclosing potential sources of heightened competition, if (for example) the company being bought might (under alternative ownership) have been more combative in the market. It's a theme that surfaced, for example, in the 2015 Z / Chevron decision, where the dissenting Commissioner felt that the merger shut down the option value in Chevron being acquired by someone who might set out on a more competitive strategy.

We finished up with another good panel session, on 'Effective ways of engaging with a regulator'. This is something dear to my heart: some companies do it well, some fluff it badly. There were lots of good ideas: engage early, take efforts to explain your industry, be consistent in your engagement and your point of view, don't be selective or late with your data, be realistic about your expectations from the process and in particular try to understand the regulator's scope and objectives, don't let your advisors dominate your show. And (a point made by ACCC Commissioner Roger Featherston), if you end up on the pointy end of enforcement action, do a proper internal investigation, rather than be embarrassed by revelations later, and if you're bang to rights don't fight it all the way and then offer concessions late in the piece. It won't endear you to anyone.

All applehood and mother pie, you might think, and who needs an expensive conference to be told the obvious? But some companies still need to be told. I was comparing notes with some regulators at the drinks afterwards: we all had war stories of how Company X had sworn black was white in Australia, and then sworn white was black in New Zealand. Could have been naïveté: did they really think no-one would notice? Could have been incompetence: the Aussie end of the operation wasn't coordinating internally with the Kiwi one. Could have been sheer opportunistic cynicism. But the end result was the same: the company's regulatory credibility scored a spectacular own goal.

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