Competition Law

Australian Competition Law and Policy Discussion

Price signalling bill introduced

Posted by Julie Clarke on 22 November 2010

Shadow Minister for Competition, Mr Bruce Billson, this morning presented the Competition and Consumer (Price Signalling) Amendment Bill 2010 at 10.26am. An explanatory memorandum was presented and statement made.  The Bill was read for a first time at 10.37am.

Although promoted as a response to concerns about banking competition, it is not limited to any particular sector of the economy. The explanatory memorandum states:

This Coalition Private Member’s Bill seeks to establish a new head of power under which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) would be able to investigate and seek penalties for ‘price signalling’ that produces anti-competitive effects in the Australian market, to the detriment of consumers.

Price signalling is essentially defined in the bill as communication of price-related information to a competitor for purpose of encouraging the competitor to vary supply or acquisition prices in circumstances where that communication has, or is likely to have, the effect of substantially lessening competition.

The new provision would be contained in Division 2 of Part IV of the TPA and would not be subject to the new criminal regime applicable to some forms of cartel conduct.  The provision would be in the form of a new s 45A (filling the gap left by the repeal of the price fixing provision last year).  It would provide, in part:

Prohibition of price signalling

(1)    A corporation must not engage in price signalling.

(2)    For this section, a corporation engages in price signalling if:

(a)    it communicates price-related information to a competitor; and

(b)    it does so for the purpose of inducing or encouraging the competitor to vary the price at which it supplies or acquires, offers to supply or acquire, or proposes to supply or acquire, goods or services; and

(c)    the communication of that information has, or is likely to have, the effect of substantially lessening competition in the market for those goods or services, or in another market.

Establishing the purpose of a communication

(3)    Without in any way limiting the manner in which the purpose referred to in paragraph (2)(b) may be established, a corporation may be taken to have communicated price-related information to a competitor even if, after all of the evidence has been considered, the existence of that purpose is ascertainable only by inference from the conduct of the corporation, or of any other person, or from other relevant circumstances.

Several more sub-sections follow which define various terms. In particular, it captures public and private communications, including those made by way of public announcement. Importantly, however, transmissions or re-transmissions of price-related information that is already in the public domain is excluded, as are communications required by law.

The bill is more modest than had been feared by some.  Importantly, it applies only to price signalling when substantial lessening of competition flowing from that conduct can be established – this is not an easy threshold to meet – and requires a purpose of inducing a competitor to alter prices.  Although that purpose may be inferred, it must still be established in each case.  The exclusions noted above will also limit its scope.

Although it is suggested that there may be better or more effective methods of capturing anti-competitive communications between competitors (if such a law is required – and there is some argument that it is following the narrow interpretation of the word ‘understanding’ in the petrol cases – then addressing that issue directly rather than creating yet another untested provision would seem to be the preferred course of action), for a law directed toward “price signalling”, the proposed bill would seem to strike the balance appropriately between identifying that conduct likely to cause genuine anti-competitive concern and be an appropriate focus for legislative intervention, and avoiding casting the net too wide and thereby risking a series of unintended consequences (for example, a per se ban would have stifled even pro-competitive public price communications).

That said, if passed, the bill is unlikely to have an earth-shattering impact – proof of anti-competitive effect will be very difficult.

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