‘Remarkable’: watchdog CEO’s verdict on impact of Hong Kong’s competition law

Rose Webb to step down for more family time, but says public now more educated on industry issues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 3:21pm

The business landscape of Hong Kong and society in general have made great strides since the competition law came into force two years ago, said the outgoing head of the city’s Competition Commission as she reflected on the milestones and challenges of her tenure.

Rose Webb, CEO of the competition watchdog, is set to step down this week to spend more time with her family in Sydney. Looking back at her tenure, Webb said she had no regrets.

The Australian, who joined the commission in 2014 and was promoted to CEO last year, said it had been a “fascinating” experience to start a new agency and enact a new law under a jurisdiction that was already mature.

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She acknowledged that the Competition Ordinance – which came into effect in December 2015 – took a bit longer than expected to implement, but the impact had been “remarkable”.

“Compared to people’s level of understanding and the types of questions and inquiries we got three years ago … in 20 months we have seen quite a difference in the behaviour of businesses,” Webb said.

She said one of the common misconceptions was when people saw similar businesses offering the same prices for their products as an act of price fixing.

She cited petrol prices as an example.

“Why would anyone who is selling petrol across the road [from a competitor] put a higher price on their fuel? They would lose all their business straight away.”

Webb said it was inevitable that the public would judge the commission’s performance on enforcement figures. So far two cases have been brought to the Competition Tribunal.

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“But we’re not here just to take cases and penalise people; we are here to encourage compliance with the law … and not to look at [the ordinance] as just a piece of red tape, but to see that there are actually benefits for everyone.

“It’s amazing how much interest the Hong Kong media has in competition law issues … in Australia we struggled hard to get our voices heard,” Webb said.

She recalled the cultural differences she has had to overcome, and said she was surprised at Hong Kong’s myriad of options for outdoor activities, among other things.

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“It’s [also] a little bit more formal and hierarchical here. I was quite surprised that people leapt to their feet when I walked past their work stations. In Australia no one ever stood up for me,” she said.

Webb insisted she was not taking on any other jobs in the near future, apart from workshops organised to help Asean nations set up similar laws to those in Hong Kong.

Brent Snyder, the former head of criminal enforcement at the US Department of Justice’s antitrust division, will replace her.

Looking ahead, commission senior executive director Rasul Butt said he did not foresee any financial trouble for the body, but said he expected expenses to gradually rise.

“We have to shoulder the legal costs of going after violators, and there will be financial implications if we lose,” he said.

Butt said that instead of constantly seeking more money from the government, the commission had to adopt a sustainable model of operation through ways such as managing manpower.

“We try to kick off one study every year. [We could do more but] that would drain our resources on other aspects of our work, such as enforcement and education.”