In its recent judgment in Intel, the Grand Chamber shed valuable light on the “qualified effects test” for jurisdiction and on the room for loyalty rebates to be compatible with competition law.
Intel designed computer processors and sold them to original equipment manufacturers (“OEMs”) to use in central processing units (“CPUs”). One of its competitors, Advanced Micro Devices Inc (“AMD”), complained to the Commission that Intel was abusing its dominant position by offering loyalty rebates to its OEMs if they purchased all or most of their processors from Intel. The Commission agreed and imposed a €1.05 billion fine. The General Court dismissed Intel’s appeal.
On appeal, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU rejected Intel’s complaints about jurisdiction and procedural irregularities but allowed its appeal on the assessment of the rebates as abusive. That rendered three other grounds unnecessary to consider.
There are two key points of interest arising from the judgment:
- Arrangements that are intended to form part of a grander anti-competitive scheme may fall within CJEU jurisdiction, even though they are relatively removed from the EEA, under the “qualified effects” route to jurisdiction.
- Loyalty rebates are not automatically anti-competitive; in particular, they can be saved if the undertaking can show that they could not have the effect of foreclosing an as efficient operator from the market.
The qualified effects test for jurisdiction
The Court considered two tests for jurisdiction.
- The “implementation test”: Were the anticompetitive practices implemented in the EEA?
- The “qualified effects test”: Would the practices have foreseeable, immediate and substantial effects in the EEA?
The General Court had found that it had jurisdiction over Intel’s agreements with Lenovo (a Chinese OEM) on both tests. Intel unsuccessfully challenged the latter as a valid route to jurisdiction, and the Court’s application of both.
The Court confirmed that the “qualified effects test” is a valid route to jurisdiction. Although the test had previously been accepted by the General Court in Gencor v Commission (T‑102/96, EU:T:1999:65) at §92, this is the first time it has been recognised by the CJEU. It explained that it pursues the objective of “preventing conduct which, while not adopted within the EU, has anticompetitive effects liable to have an impact on the EU market”. If EU competition law were confined to the places where agreements were reached or concerted practices engaged in, it would “give undertakings an easy means of evading” Articles 101 and 102 (§§41-45).
How then is that test to be applied? The Court provided some guidance. The question is whether “it is foreseeable that the conduct in question will have an immediate and substantial effect in the European Union”. In answering that question it is necessary to examine the undertaking’s conduct as a whole. On the particular facts (§§51-57):
- The agreements with Lenovo in China had a “foreseeable” impact on competition, taking account of their “probable effects”.
- They had an “immediate” effect, because they formed part of an overall strategy to ensure that no Lenovo notebook equipped with an AMD CPU would be available on the market.
- They had a “substantial” effect on the EEA market, having regard to the whole of the conduct.
This last point is the most interesting one. Even though agreements with Lenovo for CPUs for delivery in China would by themselves have had a negligible effect, they formed part of conduct that would have a substantial effect. The Court refused to examine them in isolation on the basis that such an approach would “lead to an artificial fragmentation of comprehensive anticompetitive conduct”.
The main substantive implications of this case arise from the findings that loyalty rebates are not always be abusive: it will depend on their scope and effect.
The purpose of Article 102 is to promote, not inhibit, competition. So it does not protect undertakings which are not as efficient as the dominant undertaking. Rather, it prevents illegitimate competition that pushes equally efficient undertakings out of the market. That includes forcing purchasers to meet their requirements from the dominant undertaking. It also includes inviting purchasers to undertake a contractual obligation to do so. By extension, it might include incentivising purchasers to do so through loyalty rebates. But, the Court has now made clear, that latter category is not inherently abusive.
In order to determine whether it is, it is necessary:
- First, to consider all the circumstances, including the level and duration of the rebates, the market shares concerned, and the needs of customers. Most importantly, the Commission must consider the capability of the rebates to foreclose an “as efficient competitor” (the “AEC test”). That is, could the rebates force such a competitor to sell below cost price?
- Second, even if the rebates do have an exclusionary effect, they might still be redeemed if that effect is counterbalanced by efficiency advantages (§§139-140).
There are three key points of interest.
First, it appears that the general rule remains that loyalty rebates are abusive, unless the undertaking can produce evidence to the contrary. The Court recounted that loyalty rebates have an anti-competitive effect, and “clarified” its case-law to say that undertakings can displace that presumption by showing that they could not have that effect in the particular case. That brings Article 102 in line with the position under Article 101.
Second, the Court made clear that the AEC test applies generally to assessing whether conduct is an abuse of dominant position. Article 102 is not calculated to come to the aid of less efficient undertakings. Accordingly, to determine whether the practice is illegitimate, it is necessary to determine the effect it would have on a competitor who is as efficient as the dominant undertaking. That principle had been applied to attracting purchasers and excluding competitors by predatory pricing in Post Danmark v Konkurrencerådet (C‑209/10) and AKZO Chemie BV v Commission (C-62/86). In a victory for consistency, it is now clear that it applies more generally, including to attracting purchasers and excluding competitors by loyalty pricing schemes.
Third, in the context of that AEC test the Court said the inquiry was as to the “capability” of the rebates to foreclose an as efficient competitor (§§138, 141), even though Intel’s objection was that the General Court had failed to consider the “likelihood” of the rebates having that effect (§§113-114). That is a harder task for an undertaking seeking to avoid breaching the Article 102 prohibition. However, it is also consistent with other cases of actions with an anti-competitive object (which are less easily excused, only if they could not have that effect) rather than those with an anti-competitive effect (which are, for obvious reasons, excused if they are not likely to have that effect).