Xavier Boutin is a founding partner of Positive Competition. He has 15 years of experience in the analysis of competition cases, business strategies and public policies. Xavier also spent almost eight years as an economist in DG Competition. He was involved in a wide variety of high-level antitrust, merger and state aid cases (including in front of the ECJ), and policy issues (including the 102 and 101 guidance papers and the state aid modernisation).
What inspired you to pursue a career in competition economics?
I was actually not initially attracted by competition economics. My first interest was in policy making. Unfortunately, politics in France, though not only in France, is sometimes dominated by ideology or posturing. Due to the nature of my education, I was attracted by neither of the two.
However, in France there is a very strong tradition of engineers who become economists and policymakers, which traces back to, for instance, Edmond Malinvaud. I was convinced that it was possible to contribute to policymaking through rigorous and honest economic analysis. With that in mind I joined the French Statistical Institute after a long discussion with Benoît Cœuré, then in the French Treasury, who later became a board member of the ECB.
At the same time, policy evaluation, which is the use of rigorous empirical methods to answer policy questions, was emerging in Paris as a major new field. It is now a very popular and established field, having received the 2019 Nobel Prize, but it was just emerging in the early 2000s. I could have decided to focus on poverty, health, employment or education, which are captivating fields and where these techniques were first applied. However, I was always attracted to the European project, as a holistic approach to peace making through the building of a social market economy. This is how I discovered competition law: an essential pillar of this project.
When I joined the chief economist team of DG Competition, first as an intern and then as an official, I realised that it was possible to bring the same spirit of fact-based and non-ideological policymaking to this very important area, in the heart of Europe. And this is how, more than 15 years ago, I became a competition economist. I am very happy about it, but this was never part of a plan. Moreover, I would prefer to present myself as an applied microeconomist rather than a competition economist. I think industrial organisation is great, but we should stay open to other fields – for example, modern econometrics, as well as organisation theory, which is opening the black box of firms, institutions and even markets.
What did you enjoy most about establishing your own firm?
It gives us the opportunity to do things as we think they should be done and to build an organisation based on our own values. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail or make mistakes; but we will always improve. We are able to build very strong and honest relationships with our clients. They know we will do our best to help them. They also know that we are fully dedicated to them: at Positive Competition, we will never stand on the two (or more!) sides of the same argument. But they also know they will always hear the hard truth from us first, and not from the authorities or judges they ultimately face. We are also able to build strong relationships with our colleagues. There are no “resources” at Positive Competition. There are only human beings who want to grow and learn.
How do you ensure Positive Competition stands out among the competition in the market?
We are true to the values that we disclosed in our manifesto, which is also a commitment mechanism, as we can then be regularly reminded of them. Due to our backgrounds as academics and enforcers, we are able to act as a bridge between various people. For instance, to ensure that our contributions are always of the highest scientific standard, we very often involve leading academics at very early stages. We believe that this brings a breath of fresh air to our clients and it helps us all to think out of the box.
We are not lawyers and we believe lawyers and economists should specialise according to their absolute and comparative advantages. However, some of our colleagues also have law degrees, and others have drafted pieces of legislation. We also understand how public authorities work. We are therefore able to think of our economic submissions in a strategic manner, and in partnership with our clients and legal counsel.
How does your previous experience working at DG Competition enhance your current practice?
We believe this is absolutely crucial. Public authorities are not black boxes. We understand how public institutions work, what internal logic drive their processes, and, most importantly, the constraints civil servants face when they take decisions or when they advise decision-makers. There are certain things one can expect from public authorities and others that are simply impossible. It is important that clients are well informed about this.
We might disagree on specific issues with the people on the other side of the table. However, we never question their integrity and dedication. They also know that we will never stand on the side of an argument if we do not believe in it. This shared respect is key to a constructive dialogue.
What are the main challenges that large IT companies and platforms are facing with regard to competition concerns?
IT companies have brought tremendous value to consumers. They still do. However, because the technology they use is extremely versatile, they might sometimes have the temptation to leverage their strong market position in their core market, initially acquired entirely on the merits, into other adjacent markets. They also need to resist the temptation to erect barriers around their customers, locking them in closed ecosystems.
Current large IT companies all started as one-product companies. It is important that this process is still possible tomorrow. It is not in the interests of customers if tomorrow two or three digital companies compete with closed ecosystems instead of dozens of new companies competing in dozens of interoperable markets with low barriers to entry. It is also not very good for democracy, as the founders of Europe very well realised, ahead of their time.
That said, public authorities have to act purposefully and proportionally based on hard evidence and not on ideology. Dosage is key: all drugs are also a poison. We believe that there is now a window for fact-based and proportionate public intervention. This will, however, depend on the possibility to establish a positive dialogue between all parties. Public authorities and IT companies alike have a role to play. But if they fail, public intervention risks being less proportionate and fact-based; it would be harsher and ideological. This would have an impact on IT companies and competition law.
What impact do you envisage the evolution of the digital economy having on the type of work you will be receiving in the next few years?
For a very long time, economists were mostly involved in complex antitrust cases, which were very often built in a very formalistic way with no, or little, economic underpinning. Given the challenges we face in the context of the new antitrust cases, which do not fit into the current standard categories, we believe that economists will have a greater, more positive and balanced role to play in antitrust in the years to come.
How have you seen the role of competition economist develop since you first began practising?
Economists are now involved in a wide variety of cases: from antitrust cases to follow-on claims. This is a great success and public intervention is, overall, more relevant. However, economists in both private and public practice have a tendency to focus where their contribution is more obvious and better accepted, such as in merger control and damage estimation. It seems to me that, in the early times, economists were more involved in general policy debates than they currently are. It is time economists got more involved again in antitrust cases, both 102 but also 101, for instance on verticals. ECJ advocate-generals have recently been bolder than most economists. It is also time economists got more involved in general debates about state aid and industrial policy.
What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
I always believed that the most useful things in life were not the most utilitarian. This is true of art or education. This is also true of career advice. The best pieces of career advice are lessons of life by role models. I don’t claim to be a model for anyone. But I have chosen a few and they inspire me.
This is what I think I have learned from them: be true to yourself, and never do things that you don’t like in the short term because they seem useful as part of a long-term career plan. You will end up hating what you do, and your career plan will fail. Also don’t stay in organisations that don’t make you happy. Life is too short and precious to waste any minute of it. Life is like travelling: what matters the most is not where you go, but the journey and the people you share it with. The second piece of advice is: it is useless to be smart if you are not kind to people. Being smart never pays as much as being kind.
Xavier Boutin is a “very talented” practitioner who is “great to work with”, praise peers. His expertise spans merger proceedings and abuse of dominance cases.
Xavier Boutin is a founding partner of Positive Competition. He has 15 years of experience in economic and econometric modelling for the analysis of competition cases, business strategies and the evaluation of public policies.
Xavier advises clients in the context of merger, state aid and antitrust proceedings in front of the European Commission and national competition authorities. His most recent experiences involve vertical and horizontal mergers, exclusionary and exploitative abuses, information exchanges, cartel overcharge analysis in sectors such as high technology (including pharmaceutical and IT), internet platforms, online and offline retail, media, publishing, basic and manufacturing industries, FMCG, agriculture and finance. Xavier has also testified as an expert in commercial litigation.
Prior to founding Positive Competition and joining consulting, Xavier spent almost eight years in the chief economist team of the European Commission’s DG Competition. He was involved in a wide variety of high level antitrust, merger and state aid cases (including in front of the ECJ), as well as policy issues (including the 102 guidance paper and the 101 horizontal guidelines). Xavier contributed to many policy initiatives in the food chain and competitiveness of the European Industry and was involved in the State Aid Modernization, in particular R&D&I, Regional Aid and evaluation.
Xavier also worked as a research fellow at INSEE in France. A graduate from the École Polytechnique, he also holds a degree from ENSAE and a PhD in economics from EHESS (Paris School of Economics). Xavier is currently an adjunct professor and research fellow at ULB, and a founder and board member of l’Entente, the association of French antitrust practitioners in Brussels.