Friday, 20 March 2009

Commerce Commission: good or bad?

There has been some discussion lately of changes at the Commerce Commission. Everyone seems to think that such a body is needed and that it should be a powerful player in its role as competition regulator. I ask why? May be the commission does more harm than good. Would it be better to do away with it?

The idea behind competition law in New Zealand is, according to the Act, “to promote competition in markets for the long-term benefit of consumers”. This is to say, it is believed, by the Act's supporters, that markets left to themselves, without any oversight from regulators, without any regulation of prices, quantities, or structure, would be harmful to consumers. Such a view rests on the notion that there is a large danger of monopoly power being used to harm consumers and, therefore, competition is a state of affairs which must be regulated and managed by the authorities because undesirable situations of monopoly can emerge all the time.

Frederic Sautet, ex-economist at NZ Treasury and the Commerce Commission, makes the point that this thinking is wrong headed:
At the end of the day, the problem assumed by competition law is only exacerbated by regulation, while economics shows that the entrepreneurial process solves it. So while there may be situations where competition law may seem warranted, in fact there is no crime at the crime scene. While competition law aims to protect consumers, the danger is that it may affect the self-correcting properties of the market system — an outcome worse than the disease it tries to cure.
Much of the problem is due to the fact that competition law was established on an misunderstanding of the nature of competition. The law in New Zealand aims to achieve "workable competition" but the practice of competition law relies on the view of competition as a static (equilibrium) state of affairs - derived from the idea of perfect competition. However, actual competition is a rivalrous entrepreneurial process by which the knowledge enabling a better coordination of individual plans is discovered over time. Again, as Frederic Sautet points it
[...] it must be understood that the competitive process takes place within a set of institutions that guarantee the functioning of entrepreneurial discovery and the exploitation of business opportunities over time. These institutions and regulation must guarantee entry into any market to anyone desiring to compete.
Sautet goes on to make the important point that
Under the disguise of consumer protection, competition law has in fact protected some producers from the greater efficiency of their potential competitors. Indeed, competition can be difficult for some incumbents who run the risk of being outcompeted. However, this process is necessary if the ultimate goal is to let consumers (indirectly) dictate the allocation of resources according to their preferences. The danger with competition law is that it interferes with the entrepreneurial process — a cure worse than the disease.
Thus the danger of the Commerce Commission is that it may so damage or restrict the true competitive process that it harms the very people it set out to help, consumers, but helps the people it wished to control, producers. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

As far as empirical evidence goes it tends to suggest that competition policy does not improve consumer welfare by much. Robert W. Crandall and Clifford Winston look at the effects of antitrust enforcement in the US and ask Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? And the short answer is, not much. Crandall and Winston write,
In this paper, we argue that the current empirical record of antitrust enforcement is weak.
and add
We then synthesize the available research regarding the economic effects of three major areas of antitrust policy and enforcement: changing the structure or behavior of monopolies; prosecuting firms that engage in anticompetitive practices, namely, price fixing and other forms of collusion; and reviewing proposed mergers. We find little empirical evidence that past interventions have provided much direct benefit to consumers or significantly deterred anticompetitive behavior.
Overall I'm not sure that we really do want a strong interventionist Commerce Commission.

References: The Sautet paper, which is well worth reading, is "The Shaky Foundations of Competition Law", New Zealand Law Journal, pp. 186-190, June 2007.

The Robert W. Crandall and Clifford Winston paper is "Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? Assessing the Evidence", Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4) Fall 2003.


adamsmith1922 said...


My concern is with NZ behaviour. I responded to your comment at my blog with this

Of course I may well be wrong, but hey let us discuss

Matt Nolan said...

Good post.

There are definite methodological issues that need to be discussed - and you've put together a nice description.