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Aquino appoints new antitrust enforcer

MANILA -- Arsenio Balisacan, the Philippines' economic planning secretary, is set to take charge of the country's first commission devoted to dismantling monopolies and cartels. By fostering competition, the government aims to attract more investment.

     Balisacan, who also serves as director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority, will resign effective Jan. 31 in order to lead the new Philippine Competition Commission. Emmanuel Esguerra, NEDA's deputy director-general, will take over as the agency's officer-in-charge, according to a statement released on Monday.

     President Benigno Aquino appointed Balisacan to the PCC. The entity will be composed of four commissioners and a chairman, who will serve a single seven-year term.

     The commission was created under the Philippine Competition Act, which Aquino signed last July, more than two decades after it was first pitched for legislation. A quasi-judicial body, it has a mandate to ensure a level playing field among businesses. It also has the power to investigate and penalize anti-competitive agreements, mergers and acquisitions and abuse of market dominance.

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"We want to address the problem of having a growing economy [in which] the benefits of such growth [reach] only a small sector," Balisacan said. "Promoting fair and healthy competition ... is a major factor in ensuring that the benefits of growth are properly shared."

     Lai-Lynn Barcenas, a competition policy specialist who runs her own law firm in Manila, said "the law itself is well-written" but that Balisacan will need a pool of experts to implement it. "It takes a lot of technical skill before you [can] say a merger is anti-competitive," Barcenas told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday.

     She said the commission is expected to examine industries such as telecommunications, in which Philippine Long Distance Telephone and Ayala Corp. unit Globe Telecom have a virtual duopoly. It might also scrutinize the practices of cement manufacturers, which have been accused of price collusion.

     But Barcenas said there is more to attracting investment than smoothing over the playing field. Smaller businesses need assistance to better compete with larger players. And the Philippines' restrictions on foreign ownership in critical industries could discourage newcomers.

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