Monday, 1 December 2014

A Damp Squib – A Short Note on the Harper Review Draft Report

The recommendations contained in the Harper Review’s Draft Report have not received a great deal of support from either competition law specialists or the general community.  Indeed, a brief review of the 200 plus submissions lodged in response to the Draft Report show a great deal of dissatisfaction with many of the recommendations.  Particular areas of concern relate to the recommendations concerning proposed changes to section 46, retail trading hours and road pricing.  However, the most serious weakness of the Draft Report is its failure to put forward any meaningful recommendations to assist the small business sector.  This is despite Harper’s earlier claims that he would not let small business down. 

In many respects, the Draft Report demonstrates the extent to which the Harper Review is out of touch with the small business sector.  This lack of understanding is amply demonstrated by the claims in the Draft Report that particular recommendations will assist small business, when in reality most of these recommendations will have the opposite effect – ie they will further damage and disadvantage small businesses in their ability to compete with larger businesses.

Competition not competitors
The Harper Review claims throughout its Draft Report that the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (CCA) should be aimed at protecting competition and not competitors.  Indeed, this statement has become the catchcry of many groups seeking to make the CCA more big business friendly. 

The first concern about this claim is that it is not a correct statement of the actual objects of the CCA.  Section 2 of the CCA states:

The object of this Act is to enhance the welfare of Australian through the promotion of competition and fair trading and the provision of consumer protection.

The CCA is aimed at the promotion of both competition and fair trading.  It is implicit in the term “fair trading” that the CCA is aimed at preventing firms from engaging in unfair trading practices towards both consumers and their competitors. The unconscionable conduct provisions are the clearest example of this legislative intent.

The Second Reading Speech for the Trade Practices Act also made it clear that the policy objectives of the CCA involved a wider range of considerations than suggested in the Draft Report.  As stated by the Hon. Senator Murphy on 30 July 1974:

The purpose of the Bill is to control restrictive trade practices and monopolisation and to protect consumers from unfair commercial practices. The Bill will replace the existing Restrictive Trade Practices Act, which has proved to be one of the most ineffectual pieces of legislation ever passed by this Parliament. The Bill will also provide on a national basis long overdue protection for consumers against a wide range of unfair practices. Restrictive trade practices have long been rife in Australia. Most of them are undesirable and have served the interests of the parties engaged in them, irrespective of whether those interests coincide with the interests of Australians generally. These practices cause prices to be maintained at artificially high levels. They enable particular enterprises or groups of enterprises to attain positions of economic dominance which are then susceptible to abuse; they interfere with the interplay of competitive forces which are the foundation of any market economy; they allow discriminatory action against small businesses, exploitation of consumers and feather-bedding of industries.

The policy objectives of the TPA/CCA are much broader than the promotion of competition, but rather extend to the removal of unfair practices including the prevention of discriminatory action against small businesses.

Similarly, Senator Murphy noted the policy objectives behind section 46 in his Second Reading speech:

The clause [46] covers various forms of conduct by a monopolist against his competitors or would-be competitors. A monopolist for this purpose is a person who substantially controls a market. The application of this provision will be a matter for the Court. An arithmetical test such as one third of the market- as in the existing legislation- is unsatisfactory. The certainty which it appears to give is illusory.

Clause 46 as now drafted makes it clear that it does not prevent normal competition by enterprises that are big by, for example, their taking advantage of economies of scale or making full use of such skills as they have; the provision will prohibit an enterprise which is in a position to control a market from taking advantage of its market power to eliminate or injure its competitors.

The provision will not apply merely because a person who is in a position to control a market engages in conduct within one of the classes set out in the clause. It will be necessary for the application of the clause that, in engaging in such conduct, the person concerned is taking advantage of the power that he has by virtue of being in a position to control the market. For example, a person in a position to control a market might use his power as a dominant purchaser of goods to cause a supplier of those goods to refuse to supply them to a competitor of the first mentioned person- thereby excluding him from competing effectively. In such circumstances the dominant person has improperly taken advantage of his power.

Again, the policy objective behind section 46 was and is to prevent firms with market power from engaging in conduct which will eliminate or injure their competitors. 

Senator Murphy recognised that competition does not occur in a vacuum, but rather manifests itself in a practical sense through rivalrous behaviour between competing firms. In other words, the legislative intention behind the TPA and the CCA was that competition was best safeguarded by preventing unfair trading between competitors.

The reality is that Part IV of the CCA has long been applied in a way which has the practical effect of protecting competition.  Indeed, very few of these provisions could be applied in ways which would protect competitors whilst not at the same time protecting competition.

Section 45 prohibits agreements between firms which have the purpose and or effect of substantially lessening competition.  Most of the provisions of section 47 are also subject to a requirement that the prohibited conduct must substantially lessen competition. 

Even section 46 states that a firm with a substantial degree of market power must not use that power for the purpose of either eliminating or substantially damaging a competitor, preventing entry or preventing competitive conduct.

It is apparent that under section 46 conduct by a firm with market power which has the purpose of eliminating or substantially damaging its competitor will also inevitably have the effect of further entrenching that firm’s market power, which in turn will substantially lessen competition. 

In addition, conduct by a firm with market power which is aimed at preventing entry by another firm will have a profoundly negative effect on competition.  Indeed, successfully preventing new entry will permit the firm with market power to continue charging high prices.

The final proscribed purpose in section 46 is the clearest example of a prohibition on conduct which damages competition. This proscribed purpose is aimed at preventing firms with market power from engaging in conduct which deters or prevents competitive conduct.

As is apparent, each of the prohibitions contained in section 46 is aimed at protecting the competitive process by protecting competitors.  All the provision does is recognise the practical reality that businesses with market power will seek to achieve the goal of substantially lessening competition by taking steps to damage their competitors.

Given the vigor with which various commentators claim that section 46 needs to be changed so to protect competition rather than competitors, one would think that section 46 litigation is replete with examples of the section being used to protect competitors and not competition.  This is not the case.  It is clear that all successful section 46 cases have shown damage to competition through actions aimed at damaging competitors.

Small Business concerns
The Harper Review’s failure to make meaningful recommendations in relation to small business can be traced back to a more fundamental failure – namely, a failure to gain a proper understanding of small business concerns. It is quite apparent from reading the Draft Report that the Harper Review does not understand small business or small business issues.  This is disappointing as it is not particularly difficult to identify the main concerns facing small businesses.

One of the major concerns of small business is that they are often unable to buy goods from their suppliers at the wholesale level at prices which are lower than the prices at which their larger competitors are selling the same products at the retail level.  For example, small businesses are often concerned that they are paying their supplier, say, $10 for an item at the wholesale level, whilst their major competitor is selling the same product to consumers at, say, $8. 

As is apparent, small businesses find it hard to understand how such a situation can arise.  Is it a case of their suppliers selling goods to their larger competitors at extremely low prices or is it rather that their larger competitors are engaging in predatory pricing? 

Small businesses will often challenge their suppliers about these pricing disparities, only to be told by their suppliers that they are in fact paying similar wholesale prices to their major competitors.  However, what is often not made clear to small businesses is that their suppliers are also providing these large competitors with a wide range of additional discounts and rebates which significantly reduce their final wholesale unit price.

Small businesses also have some difficulty differentiating whether their large competitors pricing is loss leader pricing or predatory pricing.  This is understandable given that it is often very difficult to distinguish between loss leader pricing and predatory pricing.

From an economics perspective, the whole concept of loss leader pricing is irrational.  Consumers should not form the view based on loss leader pricing on a small number of goods that a particular retailer is generally cheaper and as a consequence make a decision to purchase a number of other higher priced items from that retailer.   Indeed, the entire concept of loss leader pricing relies on the consumer making irrational decisions, based largely on customer inertia.

The Harper Review has not demonstrated that it has gained any understanding of the above issues. Nor has the Review spent any time investigating the reasons for such large pricing discrepancies or the distinctions between loss leader pricing and predatory pricing.

Another concern which small business suppliers have relates to the rise of homebrands.  The increase in homebrands amongst the two major retailers is having the effect of squeezing smaller brands off shelves.  While there is little that can be done about decisions by the two major retailers to offer more and more homebrands, there is valid concern about the pricing of such homebrands. 

The Chicago School has expressed a great deal of scepticism about the prevalence of predatory pricing.  As a result, many commentators appear to have dismissed predatory pricing as a mere historical and theoretical curiosity. However, this is not to say that predatory pricing cannot and does not occur.

A particular area where predatory pricing is likely to be occurring is in relation to homebrands. As is apparent, both of the two major retailers are offering their homebrand products at very low prices.

The effect of this conduct is to drive smaller lower cost manufacturers out of business, as they are unable to secure shelf space and match the lower homebrand prices.  This trend is likely to result, over time, in markets being populated by a lesser numbers of brands and suppliers. Indeed, it is likely that over time many markets will be characterised by a two or three higher priced or premium brands and two or three homebrand products.

It is inevitable in such narrow markets that the major retailers will decide increase the prices of their homebrand products so that they approach the prices of the higher priced premium brand products available in their stores.  This conduct sounds like classical predatory pricing.

Third line forcing and RPM
The Harper Review recommendations in relation to third line forcing amply demonstrates its blasé attitude to small business concerns.  In their draft report there is no consideration of the likely market effects of this recommendations on small business.  Rather, the Harper Review limits its discussion to the following two paragraphs:

As a general principle, the CCA should not interfere with trading conditions agreed between buyers and sellers in connection with the acquisition and supply of goods and services unless those conditions have the purpose, or would have or be likely to have the effect, of substantially lessening competition.

Consistent with that principle, the Panel sees no need for third‑line forcing to be singled out from other forms of vertical trading conditions and prohibited per se. As notifications to the ACCC demonstrate, third‑line forcing is a common business practice and very infrequently has anti‑competitive effects.

It is quite staggering for the Harper Review to conclude that third line forcing “very infrequently has anti-competitive effects”, given that this conclusion is in direct contradiction to the finding reached by the Swanson Committee in 1976 on the same issue. As stated in the Swanson Committee report:

In the opinion of the Committee the practice of forcing another person's product may be justifiable in certain cases. However, the Committee is of the opinion that the practice will, in virtually all cases, have an anti-competitive effect and that it should accordingly, continue to be capable of justification upon the ground only of public benefit.

As correctly pointed out by the Swanson Committee, third line forcing will virtually always be anti-competitive.  Such conduct is by its very nature anti-competitive as it involves one firm forcing another firm to purchase a product which it either does not wish to purchase from that particular firm or does not wish to purchase at all. 

Furthermore, the practice of third line forcing offends another fundamental legal principle – namely, freedom of contract. As a general rule, a party should be able to choose the products it wishes to purchase, and to purchase such products from whomever it wishes. 

The main concern about removing the per se prohibition on third line forcing is that it will no doubt result in an explosion of such arrangements. Furthermore, it is small businesses which will bear the brunt of any such explosion of third line forcing arrangements.

The Harper Review’s treatment of RPM was similarly cursory. The following is the extent of it discussion of this issue:

The appropriateness of a per se prohibition of resale price maintenance (RPM) has been debated for many years, both in Australia and overseas. When the per se prohibition was enacted in Australia in the mid‑1970s, it reflected the law in many comparable jurisdictions. However, over the last 20 years some countries — particularly the US and Canada — have moved away from the per se prohibition of resale price maintenance. Other countries, including Europe and New Zealand, have retained the per se prohibition.

The Panel considers that there is not a sufficient case at this time for changing the prohibition of RPM from a per se prohibition to a competition‑based test. It would be appropriate, though, to allow business to seek exemption from the prohibition more easily. This could be achieved through allowing RPM to be assessed through the notification process, which is quicker and less expensive for businesses than authorisation. This change would also have the advantage of allowing the ACCC to assess RPM trading strategies more frequently, and thereby provide better evidence as to the competitive effects of RPM in Australia.

Unfortunately, the Harper Review does not appear to have examined the issue of RPM in any depth.  It noted that other jurisdictions have removed the per se prohibition, and then recommends the extension of the notification process to cover RPM. However, there is no discussion on whether the practice of RPM is anti-competitive or pro-competitive.

The idea that one firm should be permitted to force another firm to sell a good, which that second firm has purchased and has title in, at a higher price than they wish, is the very definition of anti-competitive conduct. Unfortunately, this very simple truth has been entirely lost in the debate, particularly in the US, which is dominated by esoteric and unrealistic arguments about free riding and intra-brand and inter-brand competition.  As a result, the US Supreme Court has effectively concluded in Leegin that RPM is likely to be pro-competitive in most cases, despite the clear evidence showing the opposite effect.

Any relaxation of the rules in relation to RPM is again going to adversely affect small businesses, particularly small business discounters. As a result, small businesses will be prevented from engaging in vigorous price competition to both their own competitive detriment and the detriment of competition more generally.

The Harper Review’s Draft Report is a great disappointment. The Harper Review has failed to look deeply into many important issues, instead taking a cursory and simplistic approach. Of particular concern is the failure of the Harper Review to come to grips with the challenges facing small businesses, particularly in relation to significant pricing differentials and the rise of homebrand products.  It is hoped that the Harper Review will spend more time listening to small business and trying to understand their concerns before finalising its deliberations.

[1] A squib is a type of firework consisting of a small container filled with chemicals which explodes to produce bright lights and loud noises. However, damp or wet squib will not explode.