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Scholarship A joint publication of ICLE and The Entrepreneurs Network makes the case that the U.K. government's plan to crack down on Big Tech mergers would harm the British start-up ecosystem.

Executive Summary

The British government is consulting on whether to lower the burden of proof needed by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to block mergers and acquisitions involving large tech companies that have been deemed as having strategic market status (SMS) in some activity. This is likely to include companies like Google and Facebook, but the scope may grow over time.

Under the current regime, the CMA uses a two-step process. At Phase 1, the CMA assesses whether or not a deal has a ‘realistic prospect of a substantial lessening of competition’. If so, the merger is referred to Phase 2, where it is assessed in depth by an independent panel, and remedied or blocked if it is deemed to carry a greater than 50 per cent chance of substantially lessening competition.

The reforms proposed by the government would stop any deal involving a SMS firm that creates a ‘realistic prospect’ of reducing competition. This has been defined by courts as being a ‘greater than fanciful’ chance.

In practice, this could amount to a de facto ban on acquisitions by Big Tech firms in the UK, and any others designated as having strategic market status.

Mergers and acquisitions are normally good or neutral for competition, and there is little evidence that the bulk of SMS firms’ mergers have harmed competition.

Although the static benefits of mergers are widely acknowledged, the dynamic benefits are less well-understood. We highlight four key ways in which mergers and acquisitions can enhance competition by increasing dynamic efficiency:

Acquisition is a key route to exit for entrepreneurs

  • Startup formation and venture capital investment is extremely sensitive to the availability of exits, the vast majority of which are through acquisition as opposed to listing on a stock market. In the US, more than half (58%) of startup founders expect to be acquired at some point.
  • According to data provider Beauhurst, only nine equity-backed startups exited through IPO in 2019. By contrast, eight British equity-backed startups were acquired last year by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple alone.
  • Cross-country studies find that restrictions on takeovers can have strong negative effects on VC activity. Countries that pass pro-takeover laws see a 40-50% growth in VC activity compared to others.
  • Nine out of ten UK VCs believe that the ability to be acquired is ‘very important’ to the health of Britain’s startup ecosystem. Half of those surveyed said they would ‘significantly reduce’ the amount they invested if the ability to exit through M&A was restricted.

Acquisitions enable a ‘market for corporate control’

  • M&A allows companies with specific skills, such as navigating regulatory processes or scaling products, to acquire startups and unlock value that would otherwise not be realised in the absence of a takeover.

Acquisitions can reduce transaction costs between complementary products

  • M&A can encourage the development of complementary products that might not be able to find a market without the ability to be bought and integrated by an incumbent.
  • In the presence of network effects or high switching costs, takeovers can be a way to allow incremental improvements to be developed and added to incumbent products that would not be sufficiently attractive to compete users away from the product by themselves.

Acquisitions can support inter-platform competition

  • Competition in digital markets often takes place between digital platforms that have a strong position in one market and move into another market, sometimes using their advantage in the original market to gain a foothold in the new one. This often involves them moving into markets that are currently dominated by another digital platform, increasing competition faced by these companies.
  • Acquisitions can accelerate this kind of inter-platform competition. Instead of starting from scratch, platforms can use mergers to gain a foothold in the new market, and do so more rapidly and perhaps more effectively than if they had to develop the product in-house.
  • There are many examples of this kind of behaviour: Google’s acquisition of Android increased competition faced by Apple’s iPhone; Apple’s acquisition of Beats by Dre increased competition faced by Spotify; Walmart’s acquisition of Jet increased competition faced by Amazon in e-commerce; myriad acquisitions by Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in cloud computing have strengthened the competition each of those face from each other.

The UK risks becoming a global outlier

  • There is a serious risk that the US and EU do not follow suit on merger regulation. Although the EU’s Digital Markets Act is highly restrictive in some ways, it does not propose any changes to the EU’s standards of merger control besides changes to notification thresholds.
  • It is also unlikely that the US will follow suit. Although a bill has been brought forward in Congress, it may struggle to pass without bipartisan support. In the last Congress, between 2019 and 2020, only 2% of the 16,601 pieces of legislation that were introduced were ultimately passed into law.

The Government’s theories of harm caused by tech mergers are under-evidenced, hard to action, and do not require a change in the burden of proof to be effectively incorporated into the CMA’s merger review process.

The Government should instead consider a more moderate approach that retains the balance of probabilities approach, but that attempts to drive competition by supporting startups and entrepreneurs, and gives the CMA the tools it needs to do the best job it can within the existing burden of proof.

  • To support startups, the government should: streamline venture capital tax breaks such as EIS and SEIS, lift the EMI caps to £100M and 500 employees to make it easier for scale-ups to attract world-class talent, and implement reforms to the pensions charge cap to unlock more of the £1tn capital in Defined Contribution pension schemes for investment in startups.
  • The CMA should be better equipped to challenge deals that are potentially anti-competitive with lower and mandatory notification thresholds for SMS firms, alongside additional resourcing to bring the cases it believes may threaten competition.
  • Most importantly, any new SMS mergers regime should be limited to the activities given SMS designation, not the firms as a whole, to avoid limiting the use of M&A to increase inter-platform competition.

Read the full white paper here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Conflicting Missions: The Risks of the Digital Markets Unit to Competition and Innovation

Scholarship The UK's Digital Markets Unit will combine the powers and operating structure of a narrow sector regulator with a cross-sector purview that is much closer to the CMA’s economy-wide reach.

[This briefing paper was a joint publication of The Entrepreneurs Network and the International Center for Law & Economics.]

At the end of 2020, the UK government announced plans to create a Digital Markets Unit (DMU) charged with implementing an ex ante regulatory regime for certain digital platforms. Following the recommendations of the Digital Markets Taskforce, led by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), this DMU would serve as the de facto regulator of large tech companies that had been designated as having “strategic market status” (SMS). Accordingly, the DMU was formally established within the CMA in April 2021, although Parliament will need to legislate to give it the powers proposed by the Digital Markets Taskforce. That authorization is likely to come in 2022. Until then, the DMU will prepare draft codes of conduct, and potentially conduct further analysis to add more firms to its remit (so far, only Google and Facebook have been proposed as firms to be regulated, following the CMA’s Digital Advertising Market Study).

This announcement followed several official reviews claiming that some digital markets are not working properly because of the dominance of a few platforms. Based on these reports, the DMU would be given powers to designate dominant platforms as having “substantial, entrenched market power in at least one digital activity, providing the firm with a strategic position”, which would lead to their being given the SMS designation. This would make platforms subject to a bespoke code of conduct, potential procompetitive interventions (PCIs), and increased scrutiny of their merger and product expansion decisions.

At first glance, none of these powers may appear novel. Codes of conduct have been used in other sectors, such as groceries and energy markets, and PCIs were part of the package of remedies in the CMA’s 2015 retail banking market review.

But these interventions were limited to a small number of clearly delineated sectors, firms, activities, or products. By contrast, the DMU’s remit will cover all “digital markets”. This is an already large and growing proportion of the UK economy that comprises many different activities, from digital advertising and e-commerce to online search, social media, and news publishing (among others). And it increasingly encompasses markets like taxis, groceries, entertainment, and other sectors that are becoming significantly “digitalised”. What may seem to be a focused mandate now is, over the coming decades, likely to grow to encompass more and more of the economy.

The DMU will thus combine the powers and operating structure of a narrow sector regulator with a cross-sector purview that is much closer to the CMA’s economy-wide reach. And it will do so for one of the most vitally important parts of the economy, where entrepreneurialism is central and where misguided regulation of incumbents may have systemic effects. The implications of this—creating a de facto regulator with goals that are often conflicting, with powers that lack many of the checks and balances that the CMA usually faces, and with a remit that could be as broad as the economy itself have been given little scrutiny so far, with some assuming the DMU’s scope is much narrower and more focused than it really is.

Proponents might view this level of ambition as fit for the challenge presented by digital markets, where strong competition is vital and where markets may naturally gravitate toward a small number of large competitors. And given the broad variety of activities undertaken by digital platforms and the rapidity of technological change, they may argue that an effective regulator needs both a broad remit and extensive powers to act quickly. But there are also clear costs and risks in creating such a powerful new agency, and these have not yet been widely appreciated by many with an interest in economic policy in Britain.

To get the measure of those costs and risks, this paper evaluates the challenges that the DMU will face as a novel regulator tackling firms with complex and highly differentiated business models, whose actions have distinct effects in several markets and startup ecosystems. It focuses on the structure and goals of the DMU, the first pillar of its powers—the codes of conduct it is expected to write and enforce—and the checks and balances that the CMA’s proposals lack. The other two pillars of its powers—procompetitive interventions and changes to the mergers regime—are just as important substantively, but require further consideration in a future paper. We do discuss one element of the mergers proposals below, however, given its importance to startups.

Section 1 sets out the main findings of several official reviews that preceded the announcement of the DMU.

Section 2 summarises the duty and powers that the Digital Markets Taskforce proposes to give to this new regulator.

Section 3 considers the problems of operationalising the DMU’s primary duty, given its vague objectives and different constituencies. Without a clear vision for what success looks like and how to manage the trade-offs involved, the DMU could easily become a hindrance to competition and innovation, instead of a positive force. The number of firms subject to SMS designation, and the consequent interventions, could steadily increase without improving consumer outcomes, because there would be no straightforward way to decide whether regulation worked.

Further, because the determinants of innovation for any given firm or in any given market are so poorly understood, the heightened scrutiny of SMS firms contemplated by the Digital Markets Taskforce’s recommendations could inadvertently chill innovation, both by SMS firms themselves, as well as by small firms and startups, whose venture capital may depend in part on their prospects of being acquired by an incumbent.

Moreover, in its current proposed form, the DMU could influence the activities of companies beyond those found to have market power. This could create major barriers to inter-platform competition — a key part of competition in platform markets, as platforms vie with each other to keep users within their ecosystem and attract new ones. And, if it makes it harder for smaller firms to be acquired, it could reduce both the founding of, and investment in startups in the UK.

Because SMS firms will only be able to contest designations and the associated interventions via judicial review, there is also a bias in favour of intervention built in to the DMU’s design. Lacking meaningful checks and balances, the DMU’s mistakes could go uncorrected for years, further weakening innovation, competition, and startup formation in the UK to the detriment of consumers and the British economy itself.

All of these could combine to create significant unseen costs for British consumers, which go ignored and uncorrected even as they worsen consumer welfare and weaken competition and innovation in the markets the DMU is supposed to be working to improve.

Section 4 evaluates the Taskforce’s proposed participative approach. We consider existing models of conduct-based regulation in the UK, finding that these precedents have generally had much narrower goals and remits than those of the DMU, and that they therefore constitute a poor template for the new regulator. Where existing conduct-based regulation has had a broader remit, such as with the Financial Conduct Authority, it has been criticised by firms as unclear and unpredictable and by other stakeholders as ineffective. We also consider in this section whether co-regulation—mixing statutory objectives with private governance—might best achieve the government’s purpose for the DMU, given the need to optimise across many different margins and the difficulty of doing so from the top.

Section 5 concludes with high-level recommendations to help ensure that the DMU actually serves to promote competition and innovation in UK digital markets. Before moving forward, the government should focus the DMU on the CMA’s core objective, which is to promote competition for the benefit of British consumers. And it should be clear that the codes of conduct it is charged with drafting and enforcing should be done only to promote competition, not to regulate the conduct of incumbents for the purpose of promoting other social goals that may conflict with the goal of promoting competition.

The government should also narrow the scope and extent of the DMU’s powers so that it promotes competition in the specific markets in which it has determined a firm has “strategic market status”, and does not grow into a bloated regulator of these companies’ other activities in competitive markets, or of the wider economy wherever “digitalisation” is taking place. The DMU should be genuinely participative, allowing stakeholders to actively assist in decision-making instead of just offering advice. It should give special consideration to startups, and to the effects of its behaviour on entrepreneurs’ and venture capitalists’ incentives to start and fund a business. Finally, it should allow for appeals on the merits to allow the DMU to be held accountable by courts for its decisions.

Read the full briefing paper here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Why Data Interoperability Is Harder Than It Looks: The Open Banking Experience

Scholarship Many people hope that data interoperability can increase competition, by making it easier for customers to switch and multi-home across different products. The UK’s Open . . .

Many people hope that data interoperability can increase competition, by making it easier for customers to switch and multi-home across different products. The UK’s Open Banking is the most important example of such a remedy imposed by a competition authority, but the experience demonstrates that such remedies are unlikely to be straightforward. The experience of Open Banking suggests that such remedies should be applied with focus and patience, may require ongoing regulatory oversight to work, and may be best suited to particular kinds of market where, like retail banking, the products are relatively homogeneous. But even then, they may not deliver the outcomes that many hopes for.

Data portability and interoperability tools allow customers to easily move their data between competing services, either on a one-off or an ongoing basis. Some see these tools as offering the potential to strengthen competition in digital markets; customers who feel locked in to services that they have provided data to might be more likely to switch to competitors if they could move that data more easily. This would be particularly true, advocates hope, where network effects grant existing services value that new rivals cannot emulate or where one of the barriers to switching services is the cost of re-entering personal data.

The UK’s Open Banking system is one of the most mature and important examples of this kind of policy in practice. As such, the UK’s experience to date may offer useful clues as to the potential for similar policies in other markets, for which the UK’s Furman Report has cited Open Banking as a model. But fans of interoperability sometimes gloss over the difficulties and limitations that Open Banking has faced, which are just as important as the potential benefits.

In this article, I argue that Open Banking provides lessons that should both give hope to optimists about data portability and interoperability, as well as temper some of the enthusiasm for applying it too broadly and readily.

I draw on my experiences as part of the team that produced the industry review “Open Banking: Preparing For Lift Off” in 2019. That report concluded that Open Banking, though promising, needed several additional reforms to succeed, a few of which I discuss in this piece. I was also the co-author of a white paper that argued for an Open Banking-like remedy in the UK’s retail electricity market, which I discuss briefly below. All views expressed here are my own.

I argue that there are three main lessons to draw from Open Banking for considerations of similar remedies in other markets:

  1. Implementation is difficult and iterative, and probably requires de facto regulatory oversight if it is to be implemented effectively, with all the attendant costs and risks that entails.
  2. The outcomes that interoperability produces may differ from those policymakers have in mind, and may not mean more switching of core services.
  3. If Open Banking does succeed, it will be thanks to features of the UK banking market that may not be present in other markets where similar interoperability is being proposed.

I conclude that Open Banking has not yet led to noticeably stronger competition in the UK banking sector. Implementation challenges suggest that taking an equivalent approach to other markets would require more time, investment and effort than many advocates of interoperability requirements usually concede and may not deliver the anticipated benefits. To the extent that Open Banking is to be a model, it would be best applied as a focused approach in markets that bear particular characteristics and where the costs are outweighed by the benefits, rather than a blanket measure that can be applied to every market where customer data matters.

Read the full white paper here.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Digital Markets Taskforce Consultation Response

ICLE White Paper There is a danger that the UK is heading for a significant and potentially damaging overhaul of its competition policy on the basis of thin evidence, rushed analysis, and no attempt to measure the costs, benefits and risks of the approach being undertaken.

There is a danger that the UK is heading for a significant and potentially damaging overhaul of its competition policy on the basis of thin evidence, rushed analysis, and no attempt to measure the costs, benefits and risks of the approach being undertaken. The fact that the Digital Markets Taskforce consultation period was only one month is itself an example of this – one month is an unreasonably short period of time if the consultation was being taken seriously, and suggests that instead it is merely window-dressing to give procedural cover to whatever the government plans on doing anyway.

This would be a mistake. The two main documents that have led to the creation of the Digital Markets Taskforce, the Furman Report and the CMA’s digital advertising market study, do not provide strong justifications for the changes they propose, which are sweeping. Neither of them consider the trade-offs involved with the interventions they propose in any serious detail, let alone attempt to measure them quantitatively, yet these trade-offs and risks – lower investment, reduced competition, less innovation, fewer startups being founded in the UK, and worse productivity growth for the UK over the years ahead – are potentially enormous, and could weaken the UK’s technology sector.

Read the full paper here. 

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection