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It has been a busy start to the year for competition authorities in both the EU and the UK.
As a general trend, regulators have been baring their teeth. It was with that in mind that airports operator BAA took very seriously its impending Competition Commission investigation and turned to longstanding adviser Herbert Smith rather than Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which advised Grupo Ferrovial when the Spanish group took over BAA, advised by the former firm, last June.
The commission has been occupied with its ongoing investigation into anticompetitive behaviour in the grocery market, which has consequently busied the Citys finest competition lawyers. Asda has instructed Slaughter and May; J Sainsbury has turned to Linklaters; Morrisons is using Ashurst; and Freshfields is advising perhaps the most high-profile supermarket, Tesco.
Although the commission has been careful to point out that it is not pursuing any one supermarket, Tesco has undoubtedly come in for some flak because of its market-leading position. Potentially it has the most to lose from any remedy the commission might impose, as it now controls one-third of the UK market and also has the largest land-bank (supply of undeveloped real estate).
Land use was just one area of concern flagged up by the Office of Fair Trading when it referred the supermarkets to the commission in March last year. Other problematic areas were predatory pricing, relationships with suppliers and entry into the convenience sector.
Although the commissions investigation will not finish until June, it published its initial findings last month, when it warned of a culture of fear among suppliers to the big four supermarkets.
January also brought the biggest single cartel fine from DG Comp, the European Commissions competition authority. German conglomerate Siemens received a whopping e396m (262.14m) penalty, which also made history for being the biggest fine ever handed out to one company for participation in a cartel.
Notably, Japanese companies Fuji, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba were also part of the cartel. DG Comp said there was an unwritten agreement between the Japanese companies to stay out of the European market in return for reciprocity. Those companies instructed Slaughters, Allen & Overy, Baker & McKenzie and White & Case respectively.