Will pricing algorithms be the European Commission’s next antitrust target?

There has been considerable debate over the last year or so about the potential anti-competitive impacts of pricing algorithms. They could lead to discriminatory pricing, for example a company quoting different prices to different people based on an algorithmic analysis of their personal data, or cases of collusion, for example companies using algorithms to automatically fix prices. 

In a recent speech, Commissioner Vestager sounded a clear warning against the latter example: “companies can’t escape responsibility for collusion by hiding behind a computer program”. She also indicated that the use of pricing software forms part of the issues being investigated in the Commission’s new investigation into price-fixing in consumer electronics.

However, as pricing algorithms increase in complexity and sophistication, and their use becomes more prevalent, it will not be easy for competition authorities to establish where the use of such algorithms equates to actionable infringements of competition law.

How might pricing algorithms be used?

A new book by Professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke have identified four scenarios in which pricing algorithms may promote anti-competitive collusion (see here; also developed in more detail in their book Virtual Competition). 

The first is where firms collude as in a traditional cartel, but use computers to manage or implement the cartel more effectively, or to monitor compliance, for example by utilising real-time data analysis. Competition authorities have already investigated this kind of subject-matter – for example, the CMA issued an infringement decision last year against two companies that agreed to use algorithms to fix prices for the sale of posters and frames on Amazon (see here).

The second example is a hub-and-spoke scenario whereby one pricing algorithm may be used to determine prices charged by numerous users. Evaluating this sort of issue is a current challenge for competition authorities. Last year, in Eturas, the CJEU held that travel agents participating in a platform that implemented a discount cap could be liable if they knew about the anti-competitive agreement and failed to distance themselves from it (see here).  An ongoing case in the US (Meyer v Kalanick) is examining Uber’s ‘surge’ pricing algorithm, which increases the price of an Uber journey as demand increases.  The claimants allege that this constitutes an implied horizontal price-fixing agreement.  

The examples seen so far involve relatively straightforward cases of the use of algorithms as an aid or means to fix prices (although the Uber example arguably involves only unilateral conduct, rather than collusion).  However, Ezrachi and Stucke’s final two scenarios move into more uncertain territory – what if there is no express collusion by the companies? 

In the third scenario, each firm independently adopts an algorithm that continually monitors and adjusts prices according to market data. Although this can lead – effectively – to tacit collusion, particularly in oligopolistic markets (those with a small number of sellers), there is no agreement between companies that could form the basis of an investigation.  However, there can evidently be an anti-competitive effect: if an online retailer can track the prices used by another online retailer for common products, and immediately adjust its own prices to match any discounts, it can prevent the second online retailer from gaining a reputation for lower prices. The incentive for either retailer to lower its prices is removed.  On the other hand, examples from the analogue world suggests that this kind of market review can be used to ensure lower prices for consumers, at least for now (think supermarkets’ price match promises…).

In the fourth scenario, machine learning and the increasing sophistication of algorithms expand tacit collusion beyond oligopolistic markets, making it very difficult even to detect when it’s happening.

The latter two examples pose obvious difficulties for competition authorities. If they do consider such actions to be anti-competitive, how would they prove the requisite intention to co-ordinate prices?

How will competition authorities react?

As discussed above, competition authorities have already undertaken investigations against companies using pricing algorithms in collusion. We have previously noted the CMA’s interest in developing digital tools to aid its investigations (here). It seems certain that such tools will be necessary as these algorithms become more sophisticated and harder to detect.

The actions of non-dominant companies in using pricing algorithms whilst acting independently do not fall within the current competition law framework, even if such use ultimately results in higher prices for consumers. Commissioner Vestager has accepted that “what matters is how these algorithms are actually used”. This sensibly suggests that for now the Commission’s focus will remain on the more clear-cut cases of collusion. Anything else is arguably a matter for policy and regulation rather than enforcement by competition authorities.

However, Commissioner Vestager also stated that “pricing algorithms need to be built in a way that doesn’t allow them to collude”, suggesting that they needed to be designed in a way that will oblige them to reject offers of collusion. It is unclear whether this means Commissioner Vestager intends to target the use of pricing algorithms more generally, or simply to drive home that the competition rules apply equally where collusion is achieved algorithmically.

The fourth scenario, where machine learning algorithms tacitly collude to fix prices, does sound speculative. However, recent developments such as Carnegie Mellon’s Liberatus beating four of the world’s best professional poker players (here) and Google Deep Mind’s AlphaGo victory against Lee Sedol (here) indicate that it might not be too far from becoming reality in the near future.

Back to the future: the Commission opens e-commerce competition investigations

True to its current focus on all things digital, the European Commission has recently announced that it has launched three separate investigations into whether certain online sales practices prevent, in breach of EU antitrust rules, consumers from benefiting from cross-border choice in their purchases of consumer electronics, video games and hotel accommodation at competitive prices.

The context to the investigations is the Commission's Digital Single Market Strategy and its related sector inquiry on e-commerce, which suggested that the use of online sales restrictions were widespread throughout the EU (previous posts here and here).

The Commission is now examining whether the companies concerned are breaking EU competition rules by “unfairly restricting retail prices” or by excluding customers from certain offers because of their nationality or location (geo-blocking). 

The Commission’s rationale for the inquires is that these practices may make cross-border shopping or online shopping in general more difficult and ultimately harm consumers by preventing them from benefiting from greater choice and lower online prices.  Whether the evidence gathered from the investigations ultimately bears out this hypothesis is very much an open question. 

Whatever the wider benefits to the Commission of the sector investigation, it is questionable whether these investigations in themselves justify the full arsenal of an antitrust sector inquiry.  To judge by the press release, at least a significant part of the Commission’s concern appears to relate to classical infringements of competition law – resale price maintenance and contractual barriers to parallel trade – which merely happen to have come to light through the sector inquiry.  Time will tell whether this hypothesis is correct, or whether more specific types of online anti-competitive conduct are in fact concerned.

FTC settles abusive acquisition of pharma licensing rights

On 18 January, the FTC announced that Mallinckrodt ARD Inc. (formerly Questcor Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) and its parent company have agreed to pay $100 million to settle FTC charges that they violated antitrust laws when Questcor acquired the rights to a drug that threatened its monopoly in the U.S. market for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) drugs.  The announcement was made concurrently with the release of the FTC's complaint.

Antitrust (as opposed to merger) cases about acquisitions of competing technology are not an everyday occurrence.  However, this complaint has something of the flavour of the EU Commission’s Tetra Pak 1 decision.  In that case, the EU Commission objected to Tetra Pak’s acquisition (through a merger) of exclusive rights to what was at the time the only viable competing technology to Tetra Pak’s dominant aseptic packaging system.  The Commission (and subsequently the EU courts) held that this would prevent competitors from entering the market and therefore amounted to an abuse of a dominant position.  

The FTC’s Mallinckrodt complaint alleges that while benefitting from an existing monopoly over the only U.S. ACTH drug, Acthar, Questcor illegally acquired the U.S. rights to develop a competing drug, Synacthen (a synthetic ACTH drug which is pharmacologically very similar to Acthar).  This acquisition stifled competition by preventing any other company from using the Synacthen assets to develop a synthetic ACTH drug, preserving Questcor’s monopoly and allowing it to maintain extremely high prices for Acthar.  

To judge by the FTC’s complaint, the case appears to contain some pretty stark facts which may have contributed to the immediate settlement of the proceedings by Mallinckrodt.  Those facts also bring the case squarely into line with the US and EU competition regulators’ current concern over excessive pricing in pharma.

First up is the finding that Questcor had a 100% share of the U.S. ACTH market and that it took advantage of that monopoly to repeatedly raise the prices of Acthar from $40 a vial in 2001 to more than $34,000 per vial today – an 85,000% increase.  The complaint details that in August 2007 Questcor increased the price of Acthar more than 1,300% overnight from $1,650 to $23,269 per vial and that it has taken significant and profitable increases on eight occasions since 2011 pushing the price up another 46% to its current $34,034 per vial.  Acthar is a speciality drug used to treat infantile spasms, a rare seizure disorder affecting infants, as well as being a drug of last resort (owing to its cost) for a variety of other serious medical conditions.  According to the FTC, Acthar treatment for an infant with infantile spasms can cost more than $100,000.  In Europe, Canada and other parts of the world doctors treat these conditions with Synacthen which is available at a fraction of the price of Acthar in the U.S. (Synacthen is not available in the U.S. as it does not have FDA approval.)  The FTC relies on the supra-competitive prices charged in the U.S. for Acthar as evidence of Questcor’s monopoly power as well as its 100% market share and the existence of substantial barriers to entry.

It is also part of the FTC’s case that Questcor disrupted the bidding process for Synacthen when the rights came up for acquisition.  According to the complaint, Questcor first sought to acquire Synacthen in 2009, and continued to monitor the competitive threat posed by Synacthen thereafter.  When the U.S. rights to Synacthen were eventually marketed in 2011, dozens of companies expressed an interest in acquiring them with three firms proceeding through several rounds of detailed negotiations.  All three firms planned to commercialise Synacthen and to use it to compete directly with Acthar including by pricing Synacthen well below Acthar.  In October 2012, Questcor submitted an offer for Synacthen and subsequently acquired the rights to Synacthen for the U.S. and thirty-five other countries and did not subsequently bring the product to market in the US.

In addition to the $100 million payout, the proposed court order requires that Questcor grant a licence to develop Synacthen to treat infantile spasms and nephrotic syndrome to a licensee approved by the FTC, a pretty far-reaching remedy.  

This case is the latest in a string of cases on both sides of the Atlantic relating to escalating pharma prices (as discussed in our previous blog posts here and here).  While companies retain significant scope to price products as they see fit, it reaffirms that pharma companies should be wary of implementing very significant price increases in the absence of good objective reasons for doing so.  This is particularly so where the increase is facilitated by commercial strategies such as acquiring IP rights to existing/potentially competitive products.  In the EU, it is also worth remembering that – as established by Tetra Pak I (on appeal to the General Court) – an agreement which falls within a block exemption can at the same time constitute an infringement of Article 102.  So companies and their advisors should remember to wear Article 101 and 102 hats when reviewing agreements.

Helen Hopson

When the price isn’t right – CMA fines Pfizer / Flynn for excessive pricing

The year is 2011.  The Office of Fair Trading (the predecessor to the current Competition and Markets Authority) contributes to an OECD round table on excessive pricing, concluding that: “firms should not face fines for excessive pricing, and should not face the risk of private damages actions in respect of such behaviour”.

Five years later, in early December this year, the CMA announced that its investigation into the supply of phenytoin sodium capsules by Pfizer and Flynn had concluded with its highest ever fine (£90 million), and ordered the companies to reduce their prices within 4 months.  How times change…

Excessive pricing is one of the more controversial types of abuse of dominance – the lack of a bright line test between competitive and anti-competitive pricing has meant that infringement decisions in relation to this form of abuse have been rarely pursued.  Indeed, this is the first UK competition authority decision based on excessive pricing by a pharmaceutical company since the 2001 Napp decision, which involved differential pricing in the hospital and community sectors.

As we have previously reported, however, something of a sea change in competition policy currently appears to be taking place, at least for certain parts of the pharmaceutical sector. 

The full reasoning of this decision will therefore be closely reviewed.  For now, however, the text of the decision remains unpublished.  While we wait for a non-confidential version, the following 4 points seem to us to be worth noting:

  1. Phenytoin sodium is not a new drug – it has been off patent for many years, although only entered as a generic following the conclusion of a UK supply deal between Pfizer and Flynn.  The case – as with other high profile excessive pricing investigations in the EU and beyond (see here/here) – concerns a sudden and significant jump in previously established market pricing, in this case of around 2,600%.  This is an entirely different legal and commercial context to that applicable for new or branded drugs: it would be extremely surprising if this decision provides any new basis for future intervention in relation to drugs which are subject to the PPRS, even at the stage of free initial pricing.  

  2. Although two companies are involved, no anti-competitive collusion has been alleged.  Rather, the case is based only on abuse of dominance.  It is rare for such cases to involve two separate companies.  Here, the allegation appears not to be that Pfizer and Flynn are jointly dominant, but that each holds a separate dominant position and has separately proved it.  This is a surprising feature of the investigation – proving excessive pricing is notoriously difficult, and the CMA given itself the task of pulling that off twice, with each company being held separately to have extracted supra-competitive prices.  Flynn is at once the ‘victim’ of Pfizer’s excessive pricing, and the perpetrator of an abuse of its own. 

  3. The basis for the findings of dominance is also far from obvious.  While details of how the market has been defined have not yet been released, it appears from a 2015 parallel trade case also relating to Flynn Pharma’s phenytoin sodium product that the drug is only a third line treatment for certain specific types of epilepsies, and that its sales have been in decline for a number of years.  It appears that the CMA’s dominance finding may be based on clinical guidance that stabilised patients should remain on one specific brand of product rather than being switched between different formulations even of the same API.  The trend to ultra-narrow market definition in the pharma sector thus appears to be continuing (see Perindopril, Paroxetine…) – but query whether it will survive review in the Competition Appeal Tribunal. 

  4. And finally, compliance with the price reduction remedy may not be straightforward – the companies will have to calculate what measure of reduction is sufficient to bring the infringement to an end.  Pfizer has already been subject to a procedural fine for failure to comply with a procedural order; if the companies miscalculate their price reductions, further fines could follow – in addition to the now inevitable follow-on claims from, at least, the Department of Health.

We need to talk…about Pharmaceuticals and Standard Essential Patents

At the end of last month, Commissioner Vestager gave a speech at the Chillin’ Competition Conference. The focus: how competition law can protect consumers from anti-competitive behaviours. The Commissioner gave examples of situations in which intervention could be justified, two of which are of particular interest in the competition/IP sphere - pharmaceutical goods and Standard Essential Patents (‘SEPs’)

Pharmaceutical goods

Commissioner Vestager noted that people’s health often relies on a drug sold by only one company. This can be because the company has a patent, but may also simply be because no other companies are interested in coming to the market due to low levels of demand. This isn’t a problem in itself if prices stay at a reasonable level but if prices go up, the Commission suggested it may warrant action by the competition authorities.

This could not be more topical – just today the Competition and Markets Authority’s (‘CMA’) has taken a decision in the Pfizer/Flynn case, which relates to excessive pricing of an anti-epilepsy drug previously branded as Epanutin (we reported previously on this investigation here). We’ll be providing a more detailed update on the CMA’s decision soon but in the meantime, our readers will be interested to know that both Pfizer and Flynn Pharma have already announced that they intend to appeal. 

The Pfizer/Flynn case follows the CMA’s recently launched investigation into excessive pricing in the pharmaceutical sector in the UK. Concordia International announced that it was in talks with the CMA about this. However, the investigation is still at the information gathering stage, with a decision on whether or not to proceed expected in February of next year.  

An article published in the Times last week suggested that certain generics drugs continue to be subject to significant price increases – the only manufacturer of lithium carbonate tablets is reported to have raised the price of its product by £39 in the last month, and from £3.22 to £87 over the last year. 

Similarly, the Italian Competition Authority recently investigated Aspen, a supplier of cancer drugs to the Italian Medicines Agency, and in October 2016 fined it over €5 million for increasing the price of its cancer drugs by up to 1500% (see here for our report on this).  

Pharmaceutical investigations continue outside of the EU as well. Last month Bloomberg reported that the first charges in the US DOJ’s antitrust investigation into collusion over generic price increases investigation (spanning over two dozen companies) are expected by the end of the year.

The prevalence of investigations relating to pricing regulation in the pharmaceutical sector represents a major change in policy from the days when competition authorities were wary of acting as price regulators. Perhaps, as is evidenced by Vestager’s recent speech, this is largely due to a renewed focus on consumer interests.  But it is far from clear that it is sensible policy for the competition authorities to have to intervene in cases which arguably result from regulatory failures.

SEPs

In her speech, Commissioner Vestager also suggested that in some situations, phone makers may be forced to accept whatever terms they are presented with, regardless of whether these are actually FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory).  This is particularly problematic where this takes place under threat of an injunction, and can mean that they end up paying unjustified royalties, with customers also paying more as a result. While FRAND disputes have been around for many years, the Commissioner emphasised that this remains a topical issue – with 5G and the Internet of Things, more and more products will be connected with each other; innovation is increasingly important and restrictive practices could stifle development.  

The issue of whether offers are FRAND has a reflection closer to home in the UK at the moment.  This week marks the closing submissions in the Unwired Planet v Huawei FRAND trial, which looks set to become the first EU case to determine what a FRAND offer is. A judgment in this case is likely to be handed down in the first few months of 2017… 

Excessive pricing: the Italian version

Pricing issues in the pharmaceutical industry have continued to keep competition authorities busy, this time with the Italian Market Competition Authority (AGCM) fining the multinational South African pharmaceutical company Aspen near €5.2 million on 14 October 2016, following its finding that Aspen abused its dominance to artificially inflate the price of four of its cancer drugs.

In its press release/statement, the AGCM stated that Aspen, which had acquired the rights to the four essential drugs (Leukeran (chlorambucil), Alkeran (melphalan), Purinethol (mercaptopurine) and Tioguanine (tioguanine)) from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), had threatened to interrupt their supply to the Italian market in order to compel the Italian Medicines Agency to accept price increases for the drugs of between 300%-1,500% of the initial price. The drugs were described by the AGCM as “irreplaceable” and central to the treatment of blood cancers especially for children and elderly patients. In the relevant period Aspen was the only supplier of these drugs in the Italian market, which led to the finding that Aspen held a dominant position in the relevant national market and had unfairly increased the prices.  The AGCM noted in particular that there was no direct substitute for the drugs, the patents had been expired for years and no economic justification for the price increases could be established.

The antitrust authority applied a two-step test to determine whether the increase in pricing amounted to unfair pricing in contravention of Article 102. The AGCM first established that there was an excessive discrepancy between the manufacturing costs and the final prices of the products and secondly considered that the pricing was excessive and unfair, by reference to factors such as the change in prices and any economic basis for this change, any potential benefits for patients, and conversely any harm to the Italian National Health Service.

There is no easy method for competition authorities (or indeed companies) to determine what constitutes excessive pricing, due to the number of variables involved.  A justified price increase might be due to increased manufacturing costs or could be the reflection of a profitable market or a high-risk marketing strategy, among other factors.  Ultimately, the determination of when a price is excessive remains challenging, and – where pharmaceuticals are involved – may well vary from country to country.  As yet, the impact of excessive pricing on reference prices has not been examined.

Italy is not the only country to look at excessive pricing of off-patent drugs, however.  Another example from the UK (on which we have reported here and here) is the ongoing CMA investigation into the pricing of the anti-epilepsy drug Epanutin by Pfizer and Flynn Pharma (the latter having acquired the marketing rights of Epanutin by Pfizer in late 2012).   The CMA has recently updated its case file to push back the expected date of the conclusion of the investigation, to November 2016. The focus of the investigation is understood to be whether the pricing for phenytoin sodium capsules is excessive and unfair and thus constitutes an Article 102 and Chapter II abuse.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the antitrust authorities have considered similar issues with the 50-fold increase in the price of Turing Pharmaceuticals’ Daraprim and the more recent Mylan EpiPen controversy, caused by a six-fold price rise in the popular emergency allergy treatment.  In September 2016, Mylan became the subject of a congressional hearing on this subject. The allegations about increased pricing were followed by suggestions that Mylan had been misclassifying EpiPen as a generic, as opposed to as a branded product, in order to benefit from the lower rebate rate available (13%) than the equivalent for branded drugs (23%).  In this case, it was of significance that Mylan had a market share of around 90%, and the increase in pricing was accompanied by a direct increase in Mylan’s profits. The US FDA itself was criticised for not intervening more effectively in order to allow competing products to reach the market.

The complex topic of excessive pricing continues to be an issue in the EU more generally.  The announcement of the Aspen investigation has led to calls by public interest bodies such as the BEUC for the Commission to carry out EU-wide investigations into whether companies use similar tactics to increase pricing.  No doubt, as the case law develops, so will our understanding of when a company’s pricing tactics risk being in breach of Article 102.

The European Commission’s E-commerce Conference

On 6 October, the Commission held a conference on its Preliminary Findings of the E-commerce Sector Inquiry: the entire day was made available via webcast (no geo-blocking for the Commission…).  

This follows the publishing of its Preliminary Report last month (which we covered here and here).  The conference was an opportunity for those working in industry, academia and competition authorities around the EU to comment on the findings.  A list of the speakers can be found here.  We have provided a summary of the main issues raised below.

Distribution

In today’s digital world, selective distribution systems are used for a very wide range of products and they are no longer limited to those products which are accompanied by a service.  It was suggested that using selective distribution to ban the use of third party platforms raised important competition law and political questions.

In the context of consumer goods, selective distribution can be beneficial, allowing brands to maintain consistency across retail channels and strengthening consumer protection.  However, it was noted that they can be detrimental to SME retailers, which often struggle to gain market share as a result of restrictive distribution practices.  The need for clear and objective criteria was also raised as an issue.  Some industry representatives called for greater parity between online and brick and mortar stores in terms of the products they are allowed to sell.  This view was not shared by all – others were quick to emphasise the differences between online and physical stores and the benefits of differentiating between these types of sales.  

Turning to the media content sector, the focus was on the use of exclusivity which gives rise to a similar dynamic to selective distribution in the goods economy.  On the one hand, the competition for exclusivity among media organisations has been a driver of innovation and investment in the production of new technologies (e.g. Ultra HD TVs) and has facilitated the creation of more choice among content providers.  On the other hand, distribution contracts are often awarded for lengthy terms and – in the Commission’s view – certain terms risk giving rise to anti-competitive effects.  One example which was discussed was the use of automatic renewal provisions, extending the duration of exclusivity; however, such terms may be justified on the basis of the considerable investment needed to create new content. Such terms will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Cross-border access to content

The paradox that 50% of EU citizens shop online but only 15% shop cross-border was raised as an important issue.  The volume of complaints about geo-blocking directed to National Competition Authorities varied significantly.  Opinions differed on the prioritisation of geo-blocking and territorial restrictions generally.  

The discussion on consumer goods focused on the ability to sell across borders.  Legal fragmentation and lack of harmonisation, personalised products and distribution capacity were all identified as reasons why cross-border sales may be limited.  In addition to technical and logistical barriers, selective distribution systems were also considered to play a part in the availability of products in specific regions. 

Geo-blocking occupied a large part of the discussion on online content distribution.  Industry representatives argued that the territoriality identified in the report is not the result of active efforts by distributors to fragment the market.  Instead, it was said to reflect diverging national demands and differences in the level of investment that broadcasters are prepared to make in each territory.  The possibility of pan-European licences was dismissed as being prohibitively expensive as well as having the potential to be anti-competitive. 

Pricing

Issues surrounding pricing and pricing mechanisms were raised throughout the day.  There was general agreement that the competitive impact of such mechanisms in e-commerce will depend heavily on the level of market power of those imposing the prices.

An interesting point on price discrimination was raised in the context of consumer goods.  If price discrimination is banned, firms adapt by changing their pricing and product strategies, which could harm or benefit consumers depending on the market.  It was noted that vertical restraints could be used strategically by suppliers in the marketplace. 

Pricing mechanisms were also raised as a concern in relation to online digital content.  It was suggested that it might be necessary for the Commission to examine restrictive payment structures in contracts and perhaps regulate the area to ensure a level playing field between mobile platform providers and application developers.

The Commission has invited stakeholders to submit comments on its Preliminary Report by 18 November 2016.  It remains to be seen whether the commentary put forward during the conference and the divergence of industry views will be reflected the Final Report.  Past sector inquiries tend to suggest that the changes between the preliminary and final reports may be few and far between…

Online poster seller in the frame for algorithm-centred price-fixing cartel

A few days ago, the CMA issued a decision confirming that two Amazon Marketplace vendors had fixed prices by using and configuring “commercially-available automated repricing software”.  The vendors, Trod Limited and GB eye Limited, which sell licensed sport and entertainment merchandise adorned with images of popular stars like Justin Bieber and 1D, colluded to offer online shoppers the same prices for products and co-ordinate price changes. 

Although the CMA accepts that online pricing tools can “help sellers compete better, for the benefit of consumers”, thereby benefiting competition, in this instance, the parties applied these tools to illegally fix prices at an artificially high level.  The CMA fined Trod £163,371, reflecting a 20% discount for Trod’s admission of liability and co-operation during the investigation.  GB eye, however, obtained 100% immunity for ‘whistle-blowing’, reflecting the CMA’s continued support for companies who come forward first.  

The CMA opened its investigation last year following a dawn raid at Trod’s premises and the home of one of its directors.  The CMA’s searches were co-ordinated with searches carried out by the British police on behalf of the US Department of Justice who were investigating the same conduct for sales through Amazon’s US Marketplace.  Following the dawn raid, the DoJ prosecuted both Trod and its director for price-fixing.  Trod accepted liability in the US as well, pleading guilty a few days ago (the DoJ has not yet provided details of any sanctions), but the director is still awaiting trial.  This provides an important reminder of the wider ramifications that anticompetitive behaviour can have, resulting in criminal sentences as well as civil fines and/or director disqualification.  

The CMA's investigation is yet another example of the authorities’ focus on digital markets, complementing the Commission’s e-commerce sector inquiry (see here and here).  The case follows in the footsteps of the CJEU’s Eturas decision which established the potential for liability for participants in a platform which fail to distance themselves from automated pricing updates (see here).  While the price-fixing agreement itself is hardly novel, the use of software to implement the agreement is more ‘innovative’ – and will doubtless not be the last such case to come before the competition authorities. 

The CMA still has pharma and medical devices in its sights

The CMA has been slowly but surely opening a raft of new investigations in the pharma and medical devices industries.  

It announced last week that it is investigating suspected anti-competitive conduct in the medical equipment sector under Chapter II CA 98 and Article 102 TFEU.  An initial 6-month timetable is set down, with the CMA hoping to be in a position to decide whether to take the investigation into the Statement of Objections phase by around October.

Last week also saw the CMA announce that it is investigating anti-competitive arrangements in the pharmaceutical sector under Chapter I CA and Article 102. This will follow the same timetable. 

Just a few weeks earlier, the CMA announced another separate investigation into suspected abuses of a dominant position in the pharma sector.

The CMA recently closed a possible market investigation into possible anti-competitive causes of medicines shortages and it is possible that at least some of these investigations will be shelved before more public information is made available.  However, at least two other longer-standing pharma-industry-focused investigations remain on foot, including:

  • The investigation into possible excessive prices charged by Pfizer for phenytoin sodium, which we have been following here on The CLIP Board: a formal Statement of Objections has been sent in this case, and an oral hearing held; last week Pfizer was fined £10,000 for a procedural infringement in connection with a failure to provide information, a salutary reminder for those involved in CMA investigations in any industry, as the CMA itself points out (“The imposition of an administrative penalty [on Pfizer] […] is critical to achieve deterrence, ie to impress both on the party under investigation, and more widely, the seriousness of a failure to comply with a statutory deadline, without a reasonable excuse.”…).  A decision is due in around August 2016.
  • An investigation into possible abusive discounts which is coming towards the end of its initial phase, and should be the subject of a decision to close or proceed next month.
One case which was not shelved was the Paroxetine patent settlements case (see our earlier post here).  Following the CMA’s imposition in February of £45 million of fines, it has been confirmed that GSK and all of the generics have appealed to the CAT.  The full text of the infringement decision has still not been published by the CMA, but the notices of appeal against the CMA’s decision have appeared on the website of the Competition Appeal Tribunal.  

GSK’s appeal encompasses eight separate grounds, six of which are on issues of substantive law (with two subsidiary grounds on the fining decision).  It is evident from GSK’s appeal that the CMA has followed the Commission in proceeding on the basis of both object and effect analyses in their Article 101/Chapter I infringement decisions, as well as in claiming an abuse of dominance arising from the set of facts.  GSK is unsurprisingly appealing the finding of dominance, which arose from the identification of a relevant market limited to a single molecule.
The CMA is clearly keeping a close eye on the pharmaceutical and medical industries – and we will continue to keep a close eye on the CMA’s activities in this area.

Loyal to investigating pharma product discounts? - New CMA investigation

The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has recently opened a new investigation into product discounts in the pharmaceutical sector. This news follows hard on the heels of the CMA’s closure of a year-long investigation into a similar issue with another (unnamed) pharmaceutical company. The CMA intends to conduct an initial information-gathering phase, with a view taking a decision on whether to proceed with the investigation by May 2016. 
As we discussed here, the CMA’s previous investigation into pharmaceutical discounts was closed in accordance with the CMA’s Prioritisation Principles. The CMA decided on ‘administrative priority grounds, not to continue its investigation because it longer fitted within the CMA’s casework priorities’. The CMA did, however, offer some guidance on potential competition concerns arising from the offering of discounts or rebates, an indication that it was taking these potential abuses of competition seriously even though such offerings tend, in the short term, to result in lower prices for the NHS.  It also noted that the “decision to close this investigation should not be taken to imply that the CMA would not prioritise investigations into suspected loyalty-inducing discount schemes in the future”, a comment which appears to be borne out by the new investigation.

In comparison to investigations against excessive pricing (the CMA issued a Statement of Objections against Pfizer and Flynn Pharma in relation to such allegations back in August), the CMA’s decision to investigate low prices can seem counter-intuitive. After all, one of the primary aims of competition law is to ensure that prices are competitive. 

The danger is of course that if a dominant company keeps prices artificially low through discounts, it can prevent a newcomer from entering the market. In order to compete on price to win sales from the dominant company, the newcomer would essentially have to compensate the customer for the loss of the discount it would otherwise have received.  Restricting new players’ access to the market in this manner can stifle innovation, and may mean that the end-user is worse off in the long run. Loyalty discounts can make it particularly difficult for third parties to access the market, depending on how they are structured, as recently confirmed by the CJEU in Post Danmark II (available in English here). In that case, the Court rejected the requirement of a de minimis threshold that would have to be met before a finding of abuse of dominance could be reached.  This may assist competition authorities to meet the threshold for a case to be brought. 

However, despite this decision, a case of this kind is unlikely to be straightforward for the CMA.  In addition to proving the dominance of the pharmaceutical company in question, the discount scheme must be shown to be capable of restricting competition.  And of course, as in its previous investigation, the CMA will have to consider its Prioritisation Principles, including whether it has sufficient resources and whether the discount scheme has a significant enough impact to warrant seeing the investigation through to a conclusion.