ECONOMY

Need to untie watchdog

Any administrative efforts to control rising prices will be short-lived and fragile if the market does not get rid of cartels and collusion and if speculation is not curbed, warns Competition Commission president Spyros Zisimopoulos. In an interview with Kathimerini, he says it is not just market distortions and speculation that fuel price rises, but also closed-shop mentalities and occupations protected by severely restrictive provisions, such as those of lawyers, engineers and notaries public. He notes that Greece has a serious deficit in competition culture. There is a widespread impression that the Competition Commission does not contribute to the fight against rising prices as much as it should. We should first make clear how far it should contribute to this fight. This is determined by law. Unfortunately, the confusion prevailing among ordinary citizens regarding the Competition Commission’s responsibilities often results in the lack of action being interpreted as incompetence. The commission is responsible only for certain causes of rising prices, not all. Which are these causes and where is the commission empowered to intervene? The causes are complex and many. Beginning with speculation, as the simplest and most widespread, they extend to closed-shop mentalities and interests or occupations protected by highly restrictive legal provisions, and the most serious forms of distortions of competition in the market. We are not an agency that polices prices, as some people mistakenly believe. We are not empowered to deal with speculators, but we are responsible for putting the country’s economic structures on a healthy footing by ridding them of distortions based on cartels, price collusion and abuse of dominant market position. This would contribute to a better price level for the consumer. Without such an effort, any attempt to rein in prices would be fragile and short-lived. Why do Greek consumers continue to pay high prices, despite the fact that the Competition Commission has been active for some years now? The same distortions of competition we find in other European countries, in Greece are proving more resistant due to particular characteristics of the conditions in which they developed. For several decades after World War II, Greek economic policy tried to secure the development of domestic business based more on protection rather than competition. This long absence of competition had a serious impact on the business mentality in this country, resulting in a serious deficit in the culture of competition. The absence of a well-informed and aware consumer movement, which would help the mechanisms of the free market operate, is also important. Without such a movement, much of the effort to apply the principles of competition is annulled in practice… Last year, the commission issued the highest number of decisions since its inception. And for the first time, a significant part of these decisions related also to various types of anti-competitive practices in important sectors such as fuel and dairy products, imposing sanctions that were unprecedented in Greece. Furthermore, last month we began carrying out checks on a number of common consumer goods, to see if agreements between industry and retailers contain terms and practices which fuel prices, such as price setting or a ban on imports. We are also challenging restrictive provisions in the legal profession. What would you propose so that the commission’s impact is maximized in its efforts to control prices? By the end of the year, we shall have the necessary staff to meet our obligations and we shall be on a par with the respective bodies elsewhere in Europe. What remains to be done is very important, that is to give the commission the legal right to select the cases it investigates, so that we can be rid of dozens of cases of lesser importance which are essentially bilateral disputes.