The European Antitrust Review 2014 • Section 3: Country chapters
Netherlands: Authority for Consumers and Markets
The Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) is the new market authority, created on 1 April 2013 through the consolidation of the Netherlands Consumer Authority (CA), the Netherlands Independent Post and Telecommunication Authority (OPTA) and the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMa). The ACM is a single authority for consumer protection and market oversight. This merger lays the foundation for effective and efficient oversight on well-functioning markets for the purpose of optimising consumer welfare.
'The ACM promotes opportunities and options for businesses and consumers'
On 11 April 2013, the ACM launched a consultation on its proposed strategy (www.acm.nl). The proposed strategy makes it clear that increasing consumer welfare is the ACM’s primary goal. The ACM wishes to see markets in which consumers have an actual choice and in which businesses can compete freely for the favour of consumers. The ACM stimulates competition and regulates markets in a way that optimises the outcome for consumers. The desired result is sustainable welfare growth, in the broader sense of the word. It includes welfare growth as a result of financial and qualitative effects for consumers, in the short tern and in the long term.
The ACM has openness, professionalism and independence as its core values. We are fully aware of the social context in which the ACM operates. The creation of the ACM coincides with a broader social trend where the free-market system is under scrutiny and the protection of public interests must meet ever stricter requirements. The ACM therefore chooses to approach market and consumer problems in an integrated manner, while keeping in mind the different public interests that are at issue. We build on the work of the ACM’s predecessors: the NMa, OPTA and the CA. However, the ACM wishes to be more than just the sum of its parts. By bringing together the powers and expertise of the three regulators, and by reorganising the new authority, the ACM aims for a higher level of effectiveness and efficiency. Consumer interests and consumers are the common thread in all of our work. We are open towards our stakeholders and will include them in finding solutions to problems.
The ACM has published a Market Outlook, in which we outline the trends in our field, and highlight specific topics and problems. The ACM aims to solve market and consumer problems, or better yet, prevent them. Aside from our regular duties – such as reviewing mergers and acquisitions, combatting cartels and abuses of dominance in regulated and unregulated markets, and protecting and informing costumers – the ACM has set out a number of key priorities for the years to come.
Housing market chain
In this sector, the ACM specifically focuses on competition, pricing and entry barriers in mortgage markets. The ACM’s market studies reveal that not only does competition appear to be low on mortgage markets, profit margins have also increased substantially over the past few years. Investigation by the ACM shows that – due to the financial crisis – banks have become more reluctant to issue mortgages and compensate this by increasing interest rates. The ACM thus concludes that there are no direct signs of collusion. However, the investigation also showed that new entrants in the mortgage market are very scarce. Future research will have to provide insight in the market’s entry barriers and how these can be dealt with.
The focus here is on monitoring hospital mergers and ensuring the affordability of drugs and medical equipment. The ACM (and its predecessor, the NMa) has been very active in monitoring health-care mergers. The number of assessed merger plans has risen substantially after the revenue threshold for mandatory merger notification was lowered in 2008. Last year, the Dutch competition authority reviewed over 20 health-care mergers, including seven that were hospital-related. The ACM will continue to tightly monitor the health-care sector in the future. In assessing problems on health-care markets, the ACM concentrates on guarding the quality of health care by maintaining the choice set of clients.
The ACM aims to stimulate further integration of the energy market to enhance competition, making energy affordable and ensuring consumers receive a single energy bill. One of the ACM’s main objectives in the energy market is to make energy affordable for consumers. Recently, the ACM declared that the tariffs network administrators are allowed to set for the transport of gas and electricity will be decreased substantially.
We aim to meet the objective laid out by the European Digital Agenda: broadband internet for all Europeans in 2013. Also, given the recent introduction of the 4G network in the Netherlands, the ACM will examine whether these important developments lead to increased competition with benefits for consumers.
Companies can increase costumer welfare by introducing sustainable production but we must ensure that collective initiatives are not abused to impede competition.
The ACM is unique in Europe in combining sector-specific regulation, consumer protection and competition oversight in a single authority. Traditionally, there have often been differences in culture between consumer protection, sector-specific regulators and competition authorities. However, over the past decade there has been a shift in focus to an effects-based, market approach which emphasises the impact on consumer welfare, and a shift away from ad hoc intervention to a principles-based approach. All market authorities are aware of the importance of being grounded in the reality of public policy and consumers’ concerns and needs, and of avoiding the risk of isolation in an ivory tower of market perfection. The core principle of the sovereignty of individual consumers is of great influence.
The ACM continues to enforce the existing legislation of its predecessors. We see possible synergies in combined enforcement, in terms of the choice of tools and remedies used by the ACM to tackle market problems. For example, social media and communication tools can be put to innovative use to develop competition in newly liberalised markets, such as an online energy coach, which helps consumers through the process of switching energy supplier in a market where new players have difficulty getting off the ground. And there are other examples: the ACM helps consumers actively exercise their rights (through consumer empowerment), not just by pointing out to consumers what their rights are, but also by explaining how they can make well-informed decisions. ConsuWijzer, the consumer information website operated by the ACM, plays a crucial role in that context.
The launch of the ACM marks an exciting development in market oversight in the Netherlands. There are many challenges ahead, though I am convinced that we can better tackle these challenges together than apart.
Next Chapter: Netherlands: Overview