The Most Interesting CMA Merger Decisions of 2015

Last updated: February 29th 2016

Which were the most interesting UK merger decisions of 2015, in terms of the competition analysis undertaken?

160229-Phase 1 case summary slide

Here are my nominations, chosen from those cases that have completed their passage through CMA scrutiny (whether that was a Phase 1 assessment only or a Phase 2 inquiry as well) and for which a full final decision has been published.

To link straight to the CMA’s published decision for a case, please click on the blue highlighted titles.

Regus Group/Avanta Serviced Offices Group – Phase 1 undertakings in lieu of reference to Phase 2

The CMA found competition concerns in five areas of Central London and accepted divestments and a behavioural remedy to deal with these problems.

Points of interest included:

  • Comments by the CMA on the importance of the timely provision of evidence:
    • “At phase 1 the CMA has limited time to assess whether its duty to refer applies. The earlier that merging parties submit economic analysis supporting their case, the better-placed the CMA will be to assess that evidence and attribute appropriate weight to it. Accordingly, where possible, the CMA encourages merging parties to engage with it prior to commencement of the 40-working-day review period where they are considering submitting economic analysis.” – (Decision – paragraph 40)
  • Statistical analysis by the parties of a previous merger in the sector: The CMA reworked the analysis and produced more concerning results
  • The extremely detailed assessment of rival office capacities at a very local level, including the cross-checking of the parties’ figures with third parties
  • The disregarding of two office closures that took place before the merger and that would have created overlaps between the parties
  • The weight put on evidence of specific examples of local entry by rivals rather than on general ‘low barriers to entry’ arguments

Muller/Dairy Crest dairy operations – Phase 1 undertakings in lieu of reference to Phase 2

The CMA found competition concerns only in the supply of fresh liquid milk to national multiple retailers in the catchment area of Dairy Crest’s Severnside dairy, especially in the South West and Wales. Undertakings in lieu of a Phase 2 investigation were offered and accepted.

Particular points of interest are:

  • This is the first time that the new agency has accepted at Phase 1 arguments to the effect that assets would inevitably exit the market in the absence of the merger. (This was important because it enabled the CMA to conclude that, in certain products and geographic areas, the merger itself would not decrease competition compared to what it would otherwise be). In this case the CMA accepted the parties’ arguments that Dairy Crest would ‘downsize’ to a single dairy (Severnside) if the merger did not go ahead.
  • The CMA did not, however, accept the parties’ arguments that Dairy Crest would inevitably exit the supply of fresh milk to national multiple retailers if the deal did not proceed. This was largely because there was no mention of this in internal documents and because spare capacity at the plant would give both the ability and incentive to bid for contracts.
  • The CMA also rejected the parties’ arguments that milk supply is an ‘ideal bidding market’ in which strong competition can be achieved with few companies. The CMA concluded that none of the conditions required for such an outcome would be fulfilled. Neither did it accept that tenders follow an ascending (second price) auction model, as the parties claimed.
  • The nature and complexity of the remedies package (which is based around a toll agreement for processing at Severnside, lasting for up to 8 years) brings out how different the Phase 1 remedy  process can be under the CMA compared to Phase 1 under the OFT. The published decision on remedies itself runs to 45 pages. (One factor here is that the CMA has a greater ability as a single agency to decide on how to allocate resources as between the two phases of merger investigation than was the case when the two phases were undertaken by separate organisations. This gives greater scope for deciding that remedies are sufficiently clear-cut to avoid a Phase 2 investigation).

Poundland/99p Stores – Phase 2 clearance

At Phase 1 the CMA found potential concerns about the effect of the merger on competition in 92 local areas on the basis of a fairly standard retail merger assessment.

The CMA was highly critical of aspects of the parties’ online survey (as well as other aspects of their evidence such as their price-concentration and entry analysis) and therefore used cautious criteria to identify the local areas of concern in its Phase 1 assessment.

At Phase 2 the CMA commissioned its own survey covering a sample of 15 local areas. The results were used to construct a method that could be used to calculate so-called ‘Indicative Price Rises’ across all the overlap areas based on features such as the number and type of competitors and their proximity to one another.

An appendix to the Phase 2 report compares the results of the Phase 2 face-to-face survey with the Phase 1 online survey. It is a useful reminder of how much survey design can affect results.

Notwithstanding the price rise analysis, the CMA’s Phase 2 panel concluded, however, that the parties would not be likely to flex terms and conditions locally to take advantage of their stronger position in certain locations. This was based on evaluating the practicalities involved and the costs and benefits of changing certain aspects of its local offering.

The survey and profitability margin figures suggest that there could be strong incentives for the parties to close outlets in some areas where they both operate. The CMA concluded, however, that consumers would be unlikely to be harmed by any such closures because the parties have similar offerings and are located close to one another in the potential areas of concern. On this analysis customers would not therefore need to travel much further where they have to switch to the other outlet.

Despite a high level of interest in the case there were no third party submissions challenging the CMA to develop the reasoning published in its provisional Phase 2 findings. Similarly the provisional clearance decision meant that the parties themselves did not need to challenge further certain parts of the analysis. As a result the final report leaves open interesting questions that may need exploring in future retail cases.

160229-Phase 2 case summ slide

Reckitt/K-Y brand – Phase 2 licensing remedy

The CMA found harm to competition in the supply of personal lubricants to grocery retailers and to pharmacy chains.

There are many points of interest from both the Phase 1 and Phase 2 analysis, including:

  • The importance of ‘indicative price rise’ (IPR) analysis to the Phase 2 assessment, drawing on the results of a large consumer survey.
  • Also on this: many debates between the parties and the CMA on methodology and interpretation, including about the link between wholesale and retail prices
  • The CMA set out an approach to identifying so-called ‘marginal’ customers – those most likely to switch as a result of a price rise
  • Phase 2 analyses of competition by examining the effects of previous price changes and of price promotions
  • Many comments in Phase 1 on the parties’ own survey work and on other elements of their evidence
  • Close analysis of the future of the K-Y brand in the UK in the absence of the merger (the so-called ‘counterfactual’)
  • An eight year licensing remedy to position new entry, judged to be preferable to other remedies, including brand divestment. The idea is that the licensee will take over the K-Y product in the UK and rebrand it during the eight year period.

Surrey hospitals merger – Phase 2 clearance

Royal Surrey County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (RSC) and Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (ASP)  provide clinical services from their sites in Guildford, Ashford and Chertsey.

The clearance decision is significant because it is the first Phase 2 clearance of an NHS merger.

The case contains many developments of interest at Phase 2, including:

  • recognition of the importance of accurate treatment coding and the significant effect that it can have on the assessment for some treatments
  • taking into account the competition impact of developments at rival hospitals that are not captured in analysis of historic figures such as GP referral patterns
  • caution in the use of the results of a large patient survey in the light of the high proportion of patients who did not have a clear view on which alternative hospital they would choose if they had to switch
  • use of ‘closest hospital’ analysis to examine the proportion of a hospital’s patients for which other alternative hospitals would be closest.

At Phase 1, Monitor accepted the case that three treatment areas would give rise to so-called ‘Relevant Customer Benefits’ (though those were not sufficient to avoid a Phase 2 reference).

Tattersalls/Brightwells Phase 1 – No competition conclusions made. Deemed too small to merit a Phase 2 investigation

This case involved the merger of two bloodstock auctioneers. The CMA said that it could not rule out the possibility of competition concerns (set out below) but did not find it necessary to conclude on these because the concerns would be too small to justify a Phase 2 investigation

To qualify for consideration as a so-called ‘de minimis’ case the competition problems identified must be of a type that cannot in principle be remedied (otherwise the possibility of reference to Phase 2 would not arise anyway). As the CMA noted in this instance:

“The CMA’s concerns regarding the supply of bloodstock auctioneering services for low-value flat racing horses in training in the UK and Ireland may in principle have been addressed by the divestment of the Ascot lease. However, the CMA found that the competition concerns that the Merger raises in terms of elimination of Brightwells as a potential competitor in the supply of auctioneering services for store horses do not led (sic) themselves, in principle, to being addressed through UiLs in the specific circumstances of this case”.

Clearly the range of such problems left open can differ from the range of problems judged to raise competition concerns if the analysis is completed and conclusions are drawn – for example where the former include competition problems that cannot in principle be remedied and the latter include only problems that can.

Could leaving open the competition conclusions in a case therefore itself affect whether a case qualifies as too small to justify a Phase 2 investigation? In this case, for example, if the CMA had completed its Phase 1 assessment and decided that the only competition concerns related to the Ascot lease it would presumably have sought a divestment in lieu of a reference to Phase 2 and would not have permitted a de minimis outcome.

Other interesting aspects of this particular case include:

  • Internal documents said to show a valuation premium being paid for the elimination of competition, high barriers to entry for new competitors and plans to compete in new areas (so-called ‘potential competition’)
  • A different product/service categorisation to that used in a previous decision in the same sector ( a good example of how parties should not place too much weight on previous decisions)
  • Analysis showing how comparisons of average prices charged can give a misleading picture of how closely two companies compete.

Sonoco/Weidenhammer – Phase 2 clearance

Sonoco and Weidenhammer both produce ‘composite cans’ for packaging both food and non-food products, with a very high UK share of supply.

Points of interest include the importance to the clearance decision of:

  • the ability of customers to switch to alternative forms of packaging or to move to self-supply
  • new suppliers being likely to enter the market if prices increased (or quality decreased), potentially sponsored by larger customers looking for alternative suppliers
  • the resulting additional volumes being sufficient to protect the interests of customers not willing or able to sponsor entry.

None of these seemed particularly promising arguments on the basis of the Phase 1 assessment.

InterCity Railways/InterCity East Coast Rail Franchise – Behavioural undertakings in lieu of reference to Phase 2

The CMA found no significant competition concerns on most routes where East Coast services overlap with existing Stagecoach or Virgin Trains rail or coach services. They found, however, that the franchise award could mean higher fares or reduced service quality for rail passengers travelling between Peterborough, Grantham and Lincoln and for coach and rail passengers travelling between Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.

Points of interest include:

  • Analysis of the way that government support increases the parties’ incentives to increase price or reduce quality
  • The framework used to assess incentives affected by the balance between dedicated fares and inter-available fares
  • Rejection of the argument that the small increment on a flow is sufficient reason to conclude that competition concerns cannot arise
  • The range of remedies accepted: including price cap, separation of decision-making and price monitoring.

Greene King/Spirit  – 16 divestments in lieu of reference to Phase 2

In its first review of a merger between major pub operators, the CMA has adopted a long overdue fresh approach to the way transactions in this sector are assessed.

The many points of interest include:

  • The use of an internet survey of  certain customers of 40 of the parties’  pubs to help inform how to assess the catchment area for identifying overlaps. (In previous cases administrative areas for licensing had been used)
  • A distinction between food-oriented pubs and so-called wet-led pubs
  • A 35% combined share of pubs in a catchment area was deemed to raise possible competition concerns (56 areas in all)
  • Further criteria applied included:
    • A ‘discount’ factor to give some weight to the constraint of wet-led pubs on so-called ‘dry-led’ pubs (30 areas)
    • Location and proximity of pubs (2 areas)
    • Flexing drive time-assumptions (4 areas)
    • Price pressure analysis (2 areas)
    • Comparison of menus and Trip Adviser ratings ! (2 areas)

The big question is how soundly-based this new approach is as there is very little commentary in the published decision on the internet survey that underlies it and no significant reference to the sensitivity of results to changes in the main variables, including the ‘discount’ factor.

These factors also make it difficult to tell how cautious (or not) the assessment was for a Phase 1 decision.

The Original Bowling Company/Bowlplex – 6 divestments in lieu of reference to Phase 2

The decision packs a lot in to its 29 pages. Analytical points of note include:

  • CMA concerns with both the sample and questionnaire design for the parties’ telephone survey results
  • Statistical analysis to examine the impact of entry and exit by rival bowling operators and by cinemas
  • Much of interest on so-called ‘catchment areas, including the differences between the analysis produced using the CMA’s software and that used by the parties
  • The use of price pressure analysis (so called ‘GUPPI’ analysis) to help identify areas of most concern and the rejection of the parties’ arguments against the validity of this approach
  • No mention of any potential for the merger to reduce competition by removing the opportunity for the parties to enter new areas to compete with the other (so-called ‘potential competition’).

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My training seminar ‘The 17 UK Merger Cases Most Worth Knowing About’ looks at that select band of cases that have most influenced how UK mergers are assessed. Details available on request.

 

 

Recent UK merger control: from soft drinks to hard cheese

UK merger control over the past year – and looking ahead

On April 1st the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) took over UK merger control responsibilities from the Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission.

In this article I

  • take a high-level look at trends in UK Phase 1 and Phase 2 merger cases in the final year leading up to the new CMA
  • note some developments in assessment methods
  • set out in brief a few of the lessons that future merging parties may want to consider from the past year’s cases – and
  • look ahead to how the changes in the regime might affect future analysis.

Phase 1

The following chart compares the year to the end of March 2014 with the average across all cases in previous years under the Enterprise Act.

The figures focus on those cases that the OFT decided to qualify for assessment under the jurisdictional tests – hence the term ‘qualified cases’.

140508-Oft-stats-13-14

The key points are as follows:

  • Case numbers have been significantly down on previous years
  • The proportion of ‘substantial lessening of competition’ (SLC) findings was in line with previous years
  • No undertakings-in-lieu of reference were accepted, the first time this has happened (though with one remedy still outstanding)
  • Use of the de minimis discretion was in line with past averages
  • There has been much greater use of initial ‘hold separate’ undertakings, something that looks set to continue under the CMA.

The signs are that the low case numbers have continued (though activity seems now to be increasing):

  • Only 19 Phase 1 decisions up to May 1st this year

…. 50% down on the same point last year.

This should come as no surprise. Merger decisions occur with a time-lag and….

  • There were just 99 domestic and cross border transactions involving UK companies (excluding outward disposals) in the final quarter of 2013…

… the lowest number since quarterly figures were first collected in 1987.

  • For 2013 as a whole such deals were down 50% on 2011 (450, compared to 965).

As in previous years, the number of competitors and low increment to share of supply have been the most important factors in clearance decisions. Buyer power and entry arguments were important, however, in a small number of cases.

Phase 2

Of the references to Phase 2 made in the year up to 31st March to date there have been

  • 4 clearances (including a dissenting opinion in one case)
  • 2 SLC decisions involving remedies – one of them a price cap remedy (a pretty rare animal in the UK these days!)
  • and 2 other decisions are awaited.

Assessment methods – some points of interest

Before looking at some of the lessons for future merging parties I note here a few of the points of interest across the year in terms of the analytical approaches and techniques used by the merger authorities. These include:

  • A customer survey containing both a price rise question and a store closure question, enabling direct comparison of results as to how customers respond to each. This is often a bone of contention in cases where only the store closure question is asked and it is assumed that the answers carry across to consumer behaviour in response to price changes. There is only a handful of UK cases in which both questions have been asked.
  • Use of ‘uplifts’ to create ‘extended’ catchment areas, much larger than the often-used ‘80%’ catchment areas. These extended catchments can increase the number of overlaps between parties but, at the same time, can bring additional competitors into the analysis
  • Use of concentration ‘hotspot analysis’ to pick up concerns relating to particular areas/groups of customers within a catchment
  • Development of GP referral analysis methods, including analysis focused on the GPs most likely to switch referral hospitals.

More generally, there has been relatively little use of price pressure analyses this year and merger simulation has been rarely used.

By contrast, many cases have involved the use of ‘catchment area’ analysis and  analysis of internal documents has been important to a number of decisions.

It is worth noting that the new (much-enlarged) CMA notification form for Phase 1 has expanded the set of internal documents that are requested upfront.

Lessons for future merging parties

Within the scope of this article it is only possible to give a brief overview but below I set out some of the lessons for future merging parties drawn from published material on  Phase 1 and Phase 2 cases over the past year.

Many of the lessons have implications for pre-merger planning, both in terms of:

  1. assessing the risk of a deal being referred to Phase 2 and
  2. planning ahead so that the strongest case can be put within the Phase 1 timetable (which is changing under the CMA).

Here are some of the most notable points arising from the 2013/14 cases:

  • Be aware of the dangers of over-estimating rivals’ shares of supply – but try not to underestimate them either, as happened in one case.

– Large discrepancies between the parties’ figures and those obtained by the authorities in their enquiries of customers and competitors can undermine confidence in other material the parties put forward

  • Remember that the set of companies judged to be competitors can differ from case to case, even in sectors that have been examined previously….and many times over.

– This is important in pre-merger planning, in assessing the risks of a merger being referred to Phase 2 and the risk of it being found to be problematic at Phase 2.

  • Bidding data and data on sales won and lost were used across a large number of cases, more frequently than in previous years (though this may be due to the mix of cases rather than an underlying shift in approach).

– Bid data can be time-consuming to assemble so that it is sufficiently comprehensive. Early planning and gathering of material is therefore important.

  • Bear in mind capacity constraints that rivals may have, an important consideration in one of the 2013 references

– It is particularly important to distinguish between ‘theoretical capacity’ (which may be very large but may be costly to deploy in full) and that capacity that it may be realistic and economic to bring on stream.

  • Modelling of the merger impact on comparative tendering costs among rivals can be very powerful, as one clearance case this year showed.

– In some markets the key constraint on prices is the bidder who comes second. The key question is therefore what the merger does – if anything – to that player’s bid.

  • Once again this year, several cases have shown how important it is for parties to engage with the competition authorities if they are planning their own consumer survey work.

– This will become even more important looking ahead given the new merger timetables.

  • Ensure that in comparing branded and private label products – and the extent to which they compete – that the effect of price promotions is properly considered.

– For example, how close might be the price of branded goods that are heavily promoted to the price of private label products that are not?

  • Past failures can be very helpful !… especially if they relate to past attempts by one of the merging parties to enter a market against the other party.

– This helped dampen concerns about the potential for the parties to compete in one case this year.

  • Though on average they raise the probability of a case being seen to be problematic, customer complaints are not of themselves a good predictor of the outcome of a case

– For example, one notable case was cleared this year despite most customers complaining about it. Equally, many cases have been referred to Phase 2 in previous years without there being significant levels of complaint.

  • They may be rare, but successful efficiency arguments are possible when there are real synergies, backed with the right analysis

– as shown in a ‘3 to 2’ merger where plant location and logistics opened up new opportunities for the merged firm to reduce its costs – opportunities that would not otherwise have been possible.

  • Post-merger price increases – projected or actual (in the case of completed mergers) – often cause difficulties but sometimes evidence can be successfully put forward to justify even very large post-merger price increases

– as happened in one completed merger case this year – in which the increases were judged to be investments in quality

  • There appears to be continuing development in the use of ‘de minimis’ policy (i.e. policy that avoids referring to Phase 2 cases that raise significant competition concerns but are thought to be too small to merit further investigation)

– especially in exercising the discretion not to refer cases to Phase 2 in sectors in which similar deals are possible (perhaps even likely) in other local areas.

Looking ahead

Although much will stay the same, the arrival of the CMA brings a number of changes to UK merger control the effects of which will not be clear for some time.

The main changes being made include:

  • New hold-separate powers
  • Much more extensive Phase 1 notification forms
  • The new 40-day statutory timetable for Phase 1 mergers
  • New information-gathering powers
  • Some overlap between the Phase 1 and Phase 2 case teams
  • A new remedies process at Phase 1
  • Access to the Phase 1 decision-maker for merger parties

For the area that I am most often involved in – merger evidence-gathering and analysis – there are many questions that the next year will start to answer, including the following:

  • What will happen to the overall Phase 1 timetable given the need for more pre-notification discussions?
  • To what extent will the changes delay third party enquiries in terms of their place within the overall process? And what effect will any delay have on the risk of new questions emerging late on and the number of cases going to Phase 2?
  • What in turn will the implications be of any change in these areas for the quality of analysis and for decision-making thresholds?
  • To what extent will the new information-gathering powers blur the distinction between Phase 1 and Phase 2 and affect the decision-making thresholds?

And that is to say nothing of the more process-based questions on matters such as ‘stopping the clock’ and remedies where the devil really will be in the detail.

It may take a considerable time for the implications of the changes to become clear, particularly any unintended consequences.

Case circumstances vary considerably so that making judgements on what the changes may mean over, say, the first 10 cases – or even the first 20 – could prove as unreliable as making judgements on SLC trends from a similarly short run of cases (a topic I hope to return to in a future article).

Much more on all this in future merger workshops….

 

© Adrian Payne 2014

 

 

 

 

Merger Research: What’s new in 2013 ?

It is that time of the year when newspapers and magazines are full of ‘book of the year’ recommendations.

Well, by way of contrast……

….here is my selection of ten of the most interesting new (freely-downloadable) research papers I have read in 2013.

A great antidote to an overdose of turkey and tinsel !

The selection covers both theory and practice and ranges from hospital mergers….to topical issues in merger policy…. to what makes for successful mergers.

Do drop me a line if you think there are other papers as deserving of a read as those on the list.

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So, here are my ten (in no particular order)……

1. Quality matters

Most studies of the effects of past mergers focus on price. Here is that rare beast – one that looks at how two past mergers affected quality.

‘Mergers and Product Quality: Evidence from the Airline Industry, Chen and Gayle, MPRA, November 2013

http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/51238/1/MPRA_paper_51238.pdf

2. Going forward

Here is another paper looking at an often overlooked issue: how the prevalence of forward contracting in a sector affects the impact that horizontal mergers may have. Maybe one to consider when that next electricity merger comes along?

‘Forward Contracting and the Welfare Effects of Horizontal Mergers’, Miller, EAG, May 2013

http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/eag/296846.pdf

3. Could hospital mergers be good for you?

Hospital and health mergers are very much in the news these days. Here’s a paper that shows how price, quality, coinsurance and regulation can interact to produce some surprising results.

‘Hospital Mergers: A Spatial Competition Approach’, Brekke, Siciliani and Straume, NHH, April 2013

http://www.nhh.no/Files/Filer/institutter/sam/Discussion%20papers/2013/08.pdf

4. Bad news for R&D?

This paper uses a differences-in-differences approach to look at the effect of over 200 mergers on R&D.

On the face of it, it looks like bad news for R&D. But is it actually harm to consumers?

‘M&A and R&D – Asymmetric Effects on Acquirers and Targets’, Szücs, DIW Berlin, October 2013

http://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.429740.de/dp1331.pdf

5. Judging books by titles

Don’t let the title put you off. This is one of the most important papers of 2013. Its results should give merging companies and competition authorities a lot of food for thought.

‘Merger Externalities in Oligopolistic Markets’, Gugler and Szücs, DIW Berlin, June 2013

http://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.426970.de/dp1321.pdf

6. Timing is everything

I can think of several UK cases where the fact that the deal has been investigated after completion has helped clarify aspects of the case!

This paper puts the issue into a wider policy context and highlights the main factors that should influence timing. But is it really a case of either/or?

‘Ex post or ex ante? On the optimal timing of merger control’, Cosnita-Langlais and Tropeano, Economix Working Papers, June 2013

http://economix.fr/pdf/dt/2013/WP_EcoX_2013-22.pdf

7. Are cartels and mergers substitutes?

The short answer is ‘yes’, according to this paper. Clues perhaps for the Merger Intelligence function in a voluntary regime?

‘Do Cartel Breakdowns Induce Mergers?’, Hüschelrath and Smuda, ZEW, June 2013

http://econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/74799/1/749474947.pdf

8. A new demand-side efficiency

Some interesting new arguments in this paper, of particular interest where search costs are high.

‘Search Costs, Demand-side Economies and the Incentives to Merger under Bertrand Competition’, Moraga-Gonzalez and Petrikait, February 2013

http://www.tinbergen.nl/~moraga/Moraga_Petrikaite_3.pdf

9. Culture clashes

Clash of cultures often gets blamed for mergers that don’t deliver. But how strong is the theory and evidence supporting this view?

This paper contains some interesting insights into one of the most important questions about M&A.

‘The Role of Corporate Culture in Mergers and Acquisitions’, Bouwman, May 2013

http://faculty.weatherhead.case.edu/bouwman/downloads/BouwmanCorpCultureM&A%20Dec2012.pdf

10.Mergers that matter

An interesting approach to measuring what affects propensities to merge and who benefits from merger.

Mergers that matter: The Value Impact of Economic Links’, Harford et al, July 2013

https://www.nhh.no/Files/Filer/institutter/fin/wp/Paper%20-%20Jarrod%20Harford.pdf

Happy reading…and Merry Christmas one and all