The New South African Competition Amendment Bill – What this Means for Business

By Michael-James Currie

Background

On 1 December 2017, the Minister of Economic Development (under whose auspices the South African competition authorities fall), Ebrahim Patel, published draft amendments to the South African Competition Act [PDF], 89 of 1998 (Act) for public comment.

The proposed amendments (Amendments) to the Act, which principally aim to address concentration in the market, go well beyond pure competition issues and bestow a significant public-interest mandate on the competition authorities.

In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.

south_africaPatel’s influence in advancing his industrial-policy objectives through the utilisation of the public-interest provisions in merger control are well documented. AAT contributors have written about the increasing trend by the competition authorities in merger control to impose public-interest conditions that go well beyond merger specificity – often justified on the basis of the Act’s preamble which, inter alia, seeks to promote a more inclusive economy.  The following extracts from the introduction to the Amendments indicate a similar, if not more expansive, role for public interest considerations in competition law enforcement:

“…the explicit reference to these structural and transformative objectives in the Act clearly  indicates that the legislature intended that competition policy should be broadly framed, embracing both traditional competition issues, as well as these explicit transformative public interest goals”.

The draft Bill focuses on creating and enhancing the substantive provisions of the Act aimed at addressing two key structural challenges in the South African economy: concentration and the racially-skewed spread of ownership of firms in the economy.

The role of public interest provisions in merger control have often been criticised, predominantly on the basis that once the agencies move away from competition issues and merger specificity and seek conditions that go beyond that which is strictly necessary to remedy any potential negative effects, one moves away from an objective standard by which to assess mergers. This leads to a negative impact on costs, timing and certainty – essential factors for potential investors considering entering or expanding into a market.

As John Oxenham, director of Pr1merio states, “from a policy perspective it is apparent that consumer-welfare tests have been frustrated by uncertainty”. In this regard, the South African authorities initially adopted a position in terms of which competition law played a primary role, with public-interest considerations taking second place.  Largely owing to Minister Patel’s intervention, the agencies have recently taken a more direct approach to public-interest considerations and have effectively elevated the role of public-interest considerations to the same level as pure competition matters – particularly in relation to merger control (although we have seen a similar influence of public-interest considerations in, inter alia, market inquiries and more recently in the publishing of industry Codes of Conduct, e.g., in the automotive aftermarkets industry).

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

The current amendments, however, risk elevating public-interest provisions above those of competition issues. The broad remedies and powers which the competition agencies may impose absent any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour are indicative of the competition agencies moving into an entirely new ‘world of enforcement’ in what could very likely be a significant ‘over-correction’ on the part of Minister Patel, at the cost of certainty and the likely deleterious impact on investment.

The proposed Amendments, which we unpack below, seem to elevate industrial policies above competition related objectives thereby introducing a significant amount of discretion on behalf of the agencies. Importantly, the Amendments are a clear departure from the general internationally accepted view that that ‘being big isn’t bad’, but competition law is rather about how you conduct yourself in the market place.

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

(i) The provisions of the Competition Act relating to prohibited practices and mergers must be strengthened.

(ii) Special attention must be given to the impact of anti-competitive conduct on small businesses and firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons.

(iii) The provisions relating to market inquiries must be strengthened so that their remedial actions effectively address market features and conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in the relevant markets.

(iv) It is necessary to promote the alignment of competition-related processes and decisions with other public policies, programmes and interests.

(v) The administrative efficacy of the competition regulatory authorities and their processes must be enhanced.

At the outset, it may be worth noting that the Amendments now cater for the imposition of an administrative penalty for all contraventions of the Act (previously, only cartel conduct, resale price maintenance and certain abuse of dominance conduct attracted an administrative penalty for a first-time offence).

Secondly, the Amendments envisage that an administrative penalty may be imposed on any firm which forms part of a single economic entity (in an effort to preclude firms from setting up corporate structures to avoid liability).

We summarise below the key proposed Amendments to the Competition Act.

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

  • The evidentiary onus will now be on the respondent to counter the Competition Commission’s (Commission) prima facie case of excessive pricing against it.
  • The removal of the current requirement that an “excessive price” must be shown to be to the “detriment of consumers” in order to sustain a complaint.
  • An obligation on the Commission to publish guidelines to determine what constitutes an “excessive price”.

Predatory Pricing

  • The introduction of a standard which benchmarks against the respondents own “cost benchmarking” as opposed to the utilisation of more objective standards tests.
  • The benchmarking now includes reference to “average avoidable costs” or “long run average incremental costs” (previously the Act’s only tests were marginal costs and average variable costs).

General Exclusionary Conduct

  • The current general exclusionary conduct provision, Section 8(c), will be replaced by an open list of commonly accepted forms of exclusionary conduct as identified in Section 8(d).
  • The definition of exclusionary conduct will include not only “barriers to entry and expansion within a market, but also to participation in a market”.
  • The additional forms of abusive conduct will be added to Section 8(d):
    • prevent unreasonable conditions unrelated to the object of a contract being placed on the seller of goods or services”;
    • Section 8(1)(d)(vii) is inserted to include the practice of engaging in a margin squeeze as a possible abuse of dominance;
    • Section (1)(d)(viii) is introduced to protect suppliers to dominant firms from being required, through the abuse of dominance, to sell their goods or services at excessively low prices. This addresses the problem of monopsonies, namely when a customer enjoys significant buyer power over its suppliers”.

Price Discrimination

  • The Amendment will look to expand Section 9 of the Act to prohibit price discrimination by a dominant firm against its suppliers.
  • An onus of proof has been shifted on to the respondent to demonstrate that any price discrimination does not result in a substantial lessening of competition.

Merger-Control Provisions

  • Introduction of certain mandatory disclosures relating, in particular, to that of cross-shareholding or directorship between the merging parties and other third parties.
  • Introduction of provisions which essentially allow the competition authorities to treat a number of smaller transactions (which fell below the merger thresholds), which took place within three years, as a single merger on the date of the latest transaction.
  • Introduction of additional public-interest grounds which must be taken into account when assessing the effects of a merger. These relate to “ownership, control and the support of small businesses and firms owned or controlled by historically disadvantaged persons”.

Market Inquiries

  • Granting the Commission powers to make orders or impose remedies (including forced divestiture recommendations which must be approved by the Tribunal) following the conclusion of a market inquiry (previously the Commission was only empowered to make recommendations to Parliament).
  • The introduction of a new competition test for market inquiries, namely whether any feature or combination of features in a market that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in that market constitutes an “adverse effect” (a significant departure from the traditional “substantial lessening of competition” test).
  • Focussed market inquiries are envisaged to replace the “Complex Monopoly” provisions which were promulgated in 2009 but not yet brought into effect.

Additional Amendments

  • Empowering the Commission to grant leniency to any firm.
  • This is a departure from the current leniency policy, under which the Commission is only permitted to grant leniency to the ‘first through the door’.

What does this all mean going forward?

The above proposed amendments are not exhaustive. In addition to above, it is apparent that Minister Patel envisages utilising the competition agencies and Act as a “one-stop-shop” in order to address not only competition issues but facilitate increased transformation within the industry and to promote a number of additional socio-economic objectives (i.e., to bring industrial policies within the remit of the competition agencies).

In a move which would may undermine the independence and impartiality of the competition agencies, the Amendment also intends providing the responsible “Minister with more effective means of participating in competition-related inquiries, investigations and adjudicative processes”.

The amendments also strengthen the available interventions that will be undertaken to redress the specific challenges posed by concentration and untransformed ownership”.

Competition-law observers interviewed by AAT point out that the principle of separation of powers is a fundamental cornerstone of the South African constitutional democracy and is paramount in ensuring that there is an appropriate ‘checks and balances’ system in place. It is for this reason that the judiciary (which in this context includes the competition agencies) must remain independent, impartial and act without fear or favour (as mandated in terms of the Act).

The increased interventionist role which the executive is envisaged to play, by way of the Amendments, in the context of competition law enforcement raises particular concerns in this regard.  Furthermore, the increased role of public-interest considerations effectively confers on the competition agencies the responsibility of determining the relevant ambit, scope and enforcement of socio-economic objectives. These are broad, subjective and may be vastly different depending on whether one is assessing these non-competition objectives in the short or long term.

Any uncertainty regarding the relevant factors which the competition authorities ought to take into account or whose views the authorities will be prepared to afford the most weight too, risks trust being lost in the objectivity and impartiality of the enforcement agencies. This will have a direct negative impact on the Government’s objective in selling South Africa as an investor friendly environment.

In addition, as Primerio attorney and competition counsel Andreas Stargard notes, the “future role played by the SACC’s market inquiries” is arguably open to significant abuse, as “the Competition Commission has broad discretion to impose robust remedies, even absent any evidence of a substantial lessening of competition.”

  • Mr. Stargard notes that the draft Amendment Bill, in its own words in section 43D (clause 21) “places a duty on the Commission to remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market, including the use of divestiture orders. It also requires the Commission to record its reasons for the identified remedy. … These amendments empower the Commission to tailor new remedies demanded by the findings of the market inquiry. These remedies can be creative and flexible, constrained only by the requirements that they address the adverse effect on competition established by the market inquiry, and are reasonable and practicable.”
Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Although the Amendments recognise that concentration in of itself is not in all circumstances to be construed as an a priori negative, the lack of a clear and objective set of criteria together with the lower threshold (i.e., “adverse effect”) which must be met before the competition authorities may impose far-reaching remedies, coupled with the interventionist role which the executive may play (particularly in relation to market inquiries), may have a number of deterrent effects on both competition and investment.

Mr. Stargard notes in this regard that the “approach taken by the new draft legislation may in fact stifle innovation, growth, and an appetite for commercial expansion, thereby counteracting the express goals listed in its preamble:  Firms that are currently sitting at a market share of around 30% for instance may not be incentivised to obtain any greater accretive share for fear of being construed as holding a dominant market position, once the 35% threshold is crossed“.

The objectives to facilitate a spread of ownership is not a novel objective of the post-Apartheid government and a number of pieces of legislation and policies have been introduced in order to facilitate the entry of small previously disadvantaged players into the market through agencies generally better equipped to deal with this. These policies, in general, have arguably not led to the government’s envisaged benefits. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the new Amendments do not seek to address the previous failures or identify why various other initiatives and pieces of legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation has not worked (to the extent envisaged by Government). Furthermore, the Tribunal summed up this potential conflict neatly in the following extract in the Distillers case:

Thus the public interest asserted pulls us in opposing directions. Where there are other appropriate legislative instruments to redress the public interest, we must be cognisant of them in determining what is left for us to do before we can consider whether the residual public interest, that is that part of the public interest not susceptible to or better able to be dealt with under another law, is substantial.”

Perhaps directing the substantial amount of tax payers’ money away from a certain dominant state-owned Airline – which has been plagued with maladministration – and rather use those funds to invest in small businesses will be a better solution to grow the economy and spread ownership to previously disadvantaged groups than potentially prejudicing dominant firms which are in fact efficient.

Furthermore, ordering divestitures requires that there be a suitable third party who could effectively take up the divested business and impose a competitive constraint on the dominant entity. It seems inevitable that based on the proposed Amendments the competition authorities will be placed in the invidious position of considering a divestiture to an entity which may not yet have proven any successful track record. The Amendments do not provide guidance for this and although the competition authorities have the necessary skills and resources to assess whether conduct has an anti-competitive effect on the market, it is less clear whether the authorities have the necessary skills to properly identify a suitable third party acquirer of a divested business.

In addition and importantly, promoting competition within the market achieves public interest objectives. Likewise, anything which undermines competition in the market will have a negative impact on the public interest considerations.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

As John Oxenham and Patrick Smith have argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.

While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.

A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.

Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.

Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.

From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).

[To contact any of the contributors to this article, or should you require any further information regarding the Amendment Bill, you are welcome to contact the AAT editors at editor@africanantitrust.com]

Advertisements

Nigeria Competition Law – One More Signature Required

After numerous calls from various stakeholders both locally and internationally, Nigeria seems to be on the verge of finally adopting its long-awaited Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill (the Bill) which will introduce competition law in the country.

Moves to enact competition law had started in 2000 and several amendments to the initial proposal had been unsuccessfully presented to the Senate. The subsequent bills had either stalled at first reading stage, or disappeared from the legislative process. However, the Bill received its initial approval earlier in June this year and after being passed into law by the Senate, the Bill now faces the final hurdle of being assented by the President, by which it will become law. This is expected to be a mere formality.

AAT have closely monitored the development of the Bill from its infancy stages and although it has been in the making for some time, the introduction of competition law in Nigeria will be welcomed by most. For additional insights into the Bill, please see the following articles (here and here).

In summary, the Bill. once it comes into force, will replace the Consumer Protection Act and to create a new Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and Tribunal to enforce the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act.

The Bill has largely followed the model of other African countries who have successfully implemented antitrust and consumer protection enforcement and seeks to address all areas of competition such as price fixing, market allocation, collusive tendering and abuse of dominance.  In addition hereto, the Bill would also seek to ensure and enhance product safety and consumer protection within Nigeria.

Notably, in line with the approach recently adopted in South Africa, the Bill includes criminal sanctions for individuals engaging in anticompetitive practices.  In this regard, see here for a detailed assessment from AAT guest author Osayomwanbor Bob Enofe.

[The AAT editors thank Charl van Merwe for his assistance with this AAT update]

Namibian Competition Commission Seeks N$ 51 million penalty imposed on Namib Mills for Abuse of Dominance

By Sr. Contributor Michael-James Currie

The Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) recently referred Namib Mills to the Windhoek High Court for the imposition of a N$ 51 million (approx. USD 3.5 million) administrative penalty following the NaCC’s finding that Namib Mills has abused its dominance in the market by contractually requiring 54 bakeries to exclusively procure flour from Namib Mills.

In terms of the contractual arrangements, Namib Mills loaned capital to the bakeries for, inter alia, purchasing baking equipment. The tying provisions in the contractual arrangements at the heart of the dispute essentially preclude the respective bakeries from acquiring flour from any flour supplier other than Namib Mills for a period of 5 years. Any breach of this provision enables Namib Mills from calling for the immediate repayment of the loan amount in full (including repossessing the baking equipment if required).

The NaCC has alleged that this contractual restriction precludes other flour suppliers from entering into the market due to Namib Mills’ high market share.

The penalty which the NaCC has requested the High Court impose translates to approximately 2.6% of Namib Mill’s turnover for the previous financial year.

The case is unlikely to be finalised this year. It will, however, be a landmark judgment in relation to the assessment of the abuse of dominance provisions in terms of the Namibian Competition Act (Act).

namibmillsAndreas Stargard, an antitrust attorney with Primerio Ltd. points out that, to date, there has been a “dearth of precedent in Namibia relating to the manner in which the provisions of section 24 of the Act should be interpreted and specifically what thresholds and criteria the authorities should consider in determining whether a dominant firm has in fact ‘abused’ its dominance or monopolised any relevant market.”  He notes that the company is in fact the largest grain processor in Namibia, with a reported market share of well above 60%, a fact that will “almost certainly play a determinative role in the ultimate decision in the matter.  Foreclosure of rivals, which is clearly the main theory of harm here, requires a degree of market power that the NaCC appears to have found exists in this market, and a two-thirds share is generally accepted in antitrust law as sufficient to establish a risk of foreclosure, when taken together with anti-competitive acts, such as those alleged by the Commission here.”

Unlike its South African counterpart, the Namibian Competition Act does not clearly permit for a rule of reason defence for abuse of dominance conduct (unless specifically excluded, the South African Competition Act does permit for a rule of reason defence). In other words, it is not clear to what extent a complainant must demonstrate actual anti-competitive effects (i.e. foreclosure or consumer welfare effects) and whether pro-competitive, technology or other efficiency arguments are taken into consideration. Furthermore, as John Oxenham, director of Primerio points out, “it is also not clear who bears the onus and what level of proof is required to make a successful showing of an anti-competitive effect”.

Section 24 of the Act expressly prohibits dominants firms from:

  • directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions; or
  • limiting or restricting production, market outlets or market access, investment, technical development or technological progress

Without a clear framework in place, the abuse of dominance provisions could be extremely far reaching. For instance, a dominant firm would clearly need to, from time to time, place certain restrictions on third parties, particularly if the dominant firm has invested or assumed a certain amount of risk on behalf of that third party. Ensuring that a firm is able to safeguard and recoup its investment is inherently pro-competitive as this ensure continuous investment which brings with it innovation, better quality and ultimately lower prices for consumers.

In terms of the broad wording of the Act, however, a key challenge which the authorities face is assessing where one draws the line between exclusionary conduct which is justified by rule of reason arguments and at what point such exclusionary practices constitutes an abuse.

As a general observation, Andreas Stargard notes that “abuse of dominance cases are particularly challenging from an evidentiary point of view and typically require robust economic evidence when grappling with the various theories of harm and rule of reason justifications”.

Accordingly, a further difficulty which both Namib Mills and the NaCC face is that to the extent the High Court permits evidence to be led demonstrating the pro versus anti-competitive effects of the alleged conduct, the High Court may not be best placed to assess the evidence.

Regardless, the outcome of this case will be likely have far reaching consequences for firms who may be considered to be dominant in the Namibian market.

 

[Michael-James Currie is a practicing competition lawyer assisting clients with competition related matters in a number of African jurisdictions. Should you wish to contact Michael-James or any of the AAT contributors, kindly contact us at editor@africanantitrust.com and the AAT team will put you in touch with the relevant individuals]

ENFORCEMENT ALERT: MINIMUM RESALE PRICE MAINTENANCE – SOUTH AFRICA

The AAT Editors thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution.

The Competition Tribunal of South Africa (Tribunal) on 26 October 2017 confirmed a consent order filed by the South African Competition Commission (SACC) in terms of which SBS Household Appliances t/a SMEG (Pty) Ltd (SMEG) admitted to contravening Section 5(2) of the South African Competition Act 89 of 1998 (Competition Act).

Section 5(2) of the Competition Act contained a per se prohibition of Minimum Resale Price Maintenance (MRPM), which means that firms operating in South Africa may not set minimum prices at which its downstream customers/retailers are obliged to sell its products.

According to the Tribunal’s order, one of SMEG’s customers lodged a complaint with the SACC in which it was alleged that SMEG refused to supply them with product because they failed to resell a certain product at a price above the minimum recommend price set by SMEG.

The SACC conceded that the price list which SMEG circulated to its retailers had the words “recommended price” appearing next to it – as required under South African competition law. However, the SACC found that in practice when the complainants continued to sell the specific product below the ‘recommended price’ (after SMEG demanding adherence to the ‘recommended price’), SMEG terminated supply of all its product to the complainants. This was done after SMEG received a complaint from one of its other retailers that the complainants had sold the specific product below the ‘recommended price’.

As a mitigating factor, the SACC found this to be an isolated incident, which was not implemented throughout SMEG’s operations. In this regard, the SACC’s investigation into the matter revealed that most of the retailers of SMEG’s products do not necessarily sell at the recommended price and that it was in fact SMEG’s practice to “recommend retail prices, but those were not enforced.”

In light of this mitigating factor, SMEG was only fined R 100 000 (roughly $7000) and agreed to implement a number of behavioural remedies – which includes a commitment to continue to supply the complainants with the respective products.

With regards to the calculation of the penalty, despite some deliberation as to the relevant turnover to be utilised for purposes of calculating the administrative penalty, the Tribunal ultimately fined SMEG based the affected turnover, as “this is a case specific issue” (Retailer specific).

Most notably, the Tribunal elected to move away from its standard procedures in relation to consent orders (not to give any reasons or explanation for its decision) in order to specifically raise awareness on the issue of MRPM in South Africa and deal with the “nature and severity of minimum resale price maintenance” and to “enhance the awareness of the fact that minimum resale price maintenance is prohibited per se in South Africa”.

The SACC in its consent agreement clearly stated that although other jurisdictions such as the US are now treating MRPM as a rule of reason rather than a per se contravention, it remains a per se contravention in terms of the Competition Act and specifically noted that there is no intention to change the Competition Act in relation to the per se nature of MRPM.

The Tribunal also used the opportunity to caution firms against adopting American (or other) antitrust practices in South Africa. In this regard the Tribunal held that “[T]he notion that other jurisdictions may be revisiting their stance on minimum resale price maintenance cannot be construed as a mitigating factor in the matter at hand.”

Finally, the Tribunal reaffirmed its stance on the serious nature of MRPM as a competition offence with reference to the its previous decision on the issue in the case of Competition Commission vs Federal Mogul Aftermarket Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd and Other (08/CR/Feb01) and used the case at hand as an illustration of the detrimental effects of minimum resale price maintenance on customers.

Concurrences: Interview with Commissioner Bonakele

nyuevent960x200-1

Antitrust in Developing Countries: Competition Policy in a Politicised World

Our friends at Concurrences Review are hosting the fourth edition of the joint conference co-organized by Concurrences & New York University School of Law, in New York City on October 27, 2017.

Tickets and more information can be obtained here.

Below is the interview of Tembinkosi Bonakele (Commissioner, South African Competition Commission) by Ioannis Lianos (Professor, University College London). The two will participate in the conference panel “Impact of the New Nationalism on Competition and Economic Development in Developing Countries.”

Interview between Prof. Lianos and Commissioner Bonakele

© Concurrences

Competition authorities are increasingly interested in assessing the effects of mergers or other conduct on innovation. How is this concern over the promotion of innovation affecting the substance of competition law enforcement, and in particular the extraterritorial application of competition law, as innovation is often taking place in the context of global value chains? How should one resolve conflicts over competing visions over the impact of competition on innovation, as it seems to be, for instance, the case between the EU and the US, and possibly BRICS countries?

One of the aims of competition law is to encourage innovation. Firms and individuals are incentivised to innovate due to the protection conferred on their innovations by intellectual property laws (IP). Therefore, at least theoretically, competition and IP laws ought to be complementary. However, the conflicts between competition law and innovation/IP laws are increasingly coming into sharp focus within the context of global value chains. One such example is the recent global mega-mergers in the seeds and agro-chemicals sectors. These mergers illustrate how multinationals can leverage their significant innovation and research resources by extending their IP protections through ‘ever-greening’ of patents, reciprocal IP cross licensing arrangements with close rivals, joint ventures and collaborative research and development. This level of collaboration suggests that the seed/agro-processing markets are likely more concentrated than is currently understood. From a policy perspective, competition authorities in both the EU and US seem supportive of this level of concentration based on the theory that such concentration increases innovation, notwithstanding their (unintended) global unilateral effects to which developing countries are especially vulnerable, given the centrality of agriculture for the sustenance of communities in their economies. The vulnerability of developing countries is further exacerbated by the fact that they are trying to regulate multinationals which have access to resources that dwarf the GDPs of many developing countries, and are able to lobby hard politically, against any interventions aimed at their activities.

Against this backdrop, the way forward for BRICS and other developing countries is to continue efforts to establish their own research platforms to enable the true impacts of the trade-off between innovation and competition law to be better understood from a developing country perspective. Furthermore, there is scope for greater global co-ordination amongst competition law agencies to ensure that global transactions are investigated and remedied in a co-ordinated manner.

Broader public policy concerns, than consumer welfare narrowly defined, are increasingly taken into account by various competition law systems around the world, in both developing and developed countries when assessing mergers and, in some instances, anticompetitive conduct. There is also increasing demand for a broader canvas of principles and values in order to assess business conduct, as this is demonstrated by the development of the concepts of “social” and “green” capitalism. Should competition law authorities explore more systematically this trend and eventually move to a public interest standard in assessing anticompetitive conduct, at least in some economic sectors (for instance involving primary goods, such as food, shelter, or with considerable environmental impact etc.)? What would be the implications for the global governance of antitrust?

Many countries already apply tests beyond the typical competition law tests in merger assessments, but they do not declare those tests in an open and transparent way. In contrast, South Africa’s merger regulation explicitly includes a public interest test and guidelines have been issued setting out how the test will be applied during merger assessment.

Should public interest cover some old and emerging social issues such as green issues or the environmental impact on food security, shelter and so on? I think there is scope for these to be part of an assessment of merger transactions, but their location need not necessarily be with a competition agency and they can be properly assessed through a different regulatory agency in a transparent manner. Countries should be allowed to structure their agencies the way they deem fit.

Within South Africa’s context, in order to address historical inequalities and economic and political imbalances, competition legislation specifically provides for both competition law and public interest standards in the merger assessment process. It bears specific mention that the courts have recently confirmed that both the competition law and public interest tests are of equal prominence in any merger determination process. In a developmental context, economic exclusion exacerbates inequality, poverty and unemployment and competition policy in conjunction with industrial policy (introduced through public interest) can break down barriers to entry and unleash innovation and new entry, which are pivotal to the unleashing of economic growth and development.

Although public interest considerations in merger assessment would appear, largely, the preserve of developing countries, developed countries and most notably, the European Union, seem to be re-considering their stance towards public interest considerations in merger assessment. Moreover, the impact of globalisation appears to be giving rise to a new wave of ‘new nationalism’ in developed countries (and the United States is no exception). This has ushered in more inward looking perspectives to international trade and ironically, may give rise to the use of public interest considerations in ‘tit for tat’ exchanges in transactions taking place within an increasingly geopolitical context. Thus, the implications for the global governance of anti-trust may be convergence.

In recent years the competition authorities of BRICS countries and other large emergent economies have been increasingly active in competition law enforcement, adjudicating high profile cases of global importance. The experience gained may be a source of inspiration for competition authorities in other emergent and developing countries, and could also be an important source of learning and wisdom for the competition authorities in developed countries. Do you consider that BRICS and other larger emergent competition authorities should strive to ensure global convergence with the EU and/or US models of competition law, as this is put forward by some, or should they opt for different models, experimentation being an important source of collective learning for both developing and developed countries? Should convergence, or experimentation, be the main/driving principle for the global governance of competition law? 

In the developed world, competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that markets are naturally competitive, self-correcting and don’t require policy interventions to address failures. However, that presumption cannot hold true in a developing country context where markets are undeveloped, highly concentrated, non-inclusive and unemployment and inequality are high. In this ‘developmental context’ competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that firms with market power exploit it. Therefore, in developmental context, competition law more than just efficiency, but human and socio-economic development as well.

Rather than seeking convergence with developed country perspectives on competition law, developing countries need to play a more prominent role in understanding how competition law policy can be used to address poverty, inequality and unemployment. This will require developing countries through the auspices of representative regional platforms such as BRICS, to enhance co-operation, share experiences and develop legal and competition law expertise from a developmental perspective.

Thus, it is important to appreciate that approaches to competition law in the developed and developing worlds are diverse and that divergence should be tolerated and informed by context. This does not take away the need for global co-operation and sharing best practices. There are also instances where harmonisation may be desirable, like in regions with or striving for common markets.

South Africa: Abuse of Dominance Investigations– Out with the Old, In with the New

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it would withdraw its complaint of abuse of dominance levelled against two of the four pharmaceutical companies who had allegedly engaged in excessive pricing in relation to certain cancer medications in South Africa.

The companies who were implicated in the SACC’s investigation were Roche and Genentech, Pfizer, Equity and Aspen.

The SACC indicated that it had withdrawn its complaint in respect of Aspen and Equity as the relevant products only generated a small portion of revenue in South Africa or in the case of Equity, the relevant product is not registered in South Africa and was only imported once into South Africa from Germany (which was the basis for the high price charged in South Africa). The complaint against Roche and Pfizer will, according to the SACC, continue.

In the same week, the SACC announced that it has launched an abuse of dominance investigation against Vodacom for engaging in exclusionary conduct. This investigation by the SACC is somewhat puzzling as it appears from the SACC’s media release that the reason why Vodacom is being investigated is on the basis that Vodacom had won a tender issued by the National Treasury to become the sole provider of mobile telecommunication services to the government.

The SACC alleges that previously, government departments could purchase mobile telecommunication services from any mobile network operator, but following the award of the tender to Vodacom, other departments, including state owned entities and municipalities, will be incentivised to adopt new contracts with Vodacom. In other words, Vodacom would either be precluding government departments or inducing them not to deal with Vodacom’s competitors in contravention of Section 8 of the Competition Act.

In order to sustain an exclusionary conduct complaint, it must be demonstrated that the alleged conduct was in fact anti-competitive and cannot be outweighed by any pro-competitive or other efficiency justifications.

Importantly, the SACC has not indicated that the actual tender process in any way distorted a competitive bid being submitted by Vodacom.

Accordingly, by being awarded the tender, particularly a public tender issued by the National Treasury, one would have anticipated that this would be indicative that Vodacom’s bid was the most competitive offering – why else sign the agreement in the first place. It could hardly be the case that the National Treasury was ‘forced’ into accepting Vodacom’s terms and if there was an irregularity with the tender process, then why lodge a complaint with the Competition Authorities. This would be a public procurement issue.

Accordingly, the message which seems to be imparted from the SACC’s decision to investigate Vodacom is that dominant firms should be particularly cautious about tendering for a particular bid – they may just win.

Although the investigation has only recently been announced by the SACC, Vodacom’s share price dropped 8% following news of the investigation. Regardless, of whether the complaint levelled against Vodacom has any merit, Vodacom is already paying a reputational price which in today’s day and age, can be significantly costly.

Competitiveness and a new African Public Procurement mindset

By Sanjeev Ghurburrun, Geroudis

Mauritius has long been one of those countries which favours restrictions in Public Procurement in order to limit the number of entities which can bid and benefit from Government or Government related tenders.

For lack of a better approach, tenderers restrict the number of entities which can bid by automatically asking for significant years of experience and operation and proven track records. This is the historical way in which tenderers consider that they will not end up with non-performing companies winning bids. Unfortunately, this system has led to a reduction in competition and an increase in joint bidding with local and international companies in order to comply with possible criteria which one entity on its own may not have.

Enter in 2009, a Competition framework and legislation which provides tools to change, at least for some sectors of the industry, the above mindset in Government, along with tools to sharpen competition between bidders who can use its principles to question authorities and competitors alike.

On the public-sector side, any corporation or Government company which ‘engages in commercial activity for gain or reward’ falls within the competition legislation and has to abide by it.Getting to a new Public Procurement mindset

What this also means is that if such a Government Corporation or company (or parastatals as they are coined locally) is a monopoly in its market, it is also subject to the restrictions under competition principles which are generally applicable to any monopoly, and prohibited from exclusionary or exploitative conduct.

What it boils down to is that a monopolistic Government enterprise issuing tenders and awarding to any winning bidder a resulting contract containing clauses exploiting its monopoly position or excluding competitors could be considered as an abuse of its monopoly position by the Competition Commission.

Consider the UK example of London Luton Airport Operations Ltd (Luton Operations). This company conducted a tender to award a concession to operate a coach service between Luton Airport and London. Luton Operation was in a position to award this lucrative concession as Local Government had granted to it previously the enjoyment of this concession.

People getting out of the National Express Bus in London.

ATS, the losing bidder, brought a competition action alleging abuse of dominance by Luton Operations. The claim was based on alleged unfairness of the tender procedure and terms of the new contract, which included, in short, a seven-year exclusivity over routes of London and a right of first refusal over new routes to London.

The duration of the exclusivity was actually increased from 5 to 7 years during post-bid negotiations with the winning bidder National Express in return for a greater share of the revenue.

The Court confirmed that the grant of exclusivity for a long period to a single competitor had a distortive effect on the downstream market (for bus services between Luton Airport and London) by preventing any other operator from entering the market. The Court also went further to say that even if there was room for only one operator, a well-run competitive tender should mimic the competitive process by awarding the contract to the operator that offered the best service to consumers rather than the highest fee to the body awarding the concession.

The distortion was aggravated due to the extended exclusivity which could not be justified. In conclusion Luton Operations were found to have abused their dominant position, inter alia, in the grant and duration of the exclusivity to National Express and the right of first refusal over new routes.

In conclusion, the tools are here. Let us see how far the Mauritius private sector takes the game to the public sector on changing the Public Procurement mindset.

Akzo rejects CCC notification request, claims no ‘failure-to-file’ in paint deal

Paint giant goes on offensive against COMESA request for retroactive merger filing

By AAT Editors

As AAT first reported here on Sept. 26, the COMESA Competition Commission has launched its first failure-to-file investigation into an M&A transaction (here, likely, a licensing deal), specifically involving Dutch commercial paint giant AkzoNobel and paint brand “Sadolin“.

Today’s news, reported in local Ugandan media, is that AkzoNobel’s Director for Decorative Paints in Sub-Saharan Africa, Johann Smidt, made strong comments at the “relaunch” of Sadolin Uganda, claiming that Akzo’s reassignment of the Sadolin brand name & distribution network to Crown Paints East Africa falls outside the CCC’s purview.”  This sentiment was echoed by Crown’s CEO, Rakesh Rao, saying that “[w]e do not have a merger going on; we are a fully independent plant, so COMESA does not come into the picture at all.

Competition lawyers caution that, on occasion, a business person’s notion of what constitutes a “notifiable transaction” can be at odds with the legal definition thereof, says Andreas Stargard,  an antitrust attorney with Primerio Ltd.

“Whilst they may not be a classic ‘merger’ or ‘acquisition’ in the eyes of the business people, certain types of exclusive licensing agreements or even patent or other IP [intellectual property] assignments may very well fall within the purview of competition regulators, including the COMESA Comp Com.,” said Stargard.

The facts surrounding the transaction itself are by all accounts, fairly confounding.  As best as one can interpret the media reports, the former AkzoNobel license agreement was one with an entity called “Sadolin East Africa” (SEA).  However, upon the purchase of SEA by Japanese company Kansai Plascon (AKA “Plascon Uganda” in the region), Akzo cancelled the agreement and has now entered into a new replacement license with Crown Paints (AKA Regal Paints).  It is the cancellation and reassignment that, according to two letters sent by the CCC on September 19th and 25th, requesting that the companies make retroactive merger-notification filings to bring them into belated compliance with the COMESA merger regime.

For now, we know that Akzo remains defiant (presumably basing its critical position on advice of legal counsel), with its local director stating that “whatever we have done to date has been within the laws of this country and this region”.

While some of Akzo’s statements were presumably vetted by antitrust counsel, others are at odds with a “good” antitrust story and appear to be less-carefully made proclamations: Akzo has said that “we believe that we are going to improve competition because we have a new player who is introducing a new product and an existing player, who is Sadolin and we will continue to be here,” yet its director also noted “that the war of words between Sadolin and Plascon had eaten into their market share and that this had influenced their quick agreement with Crown paints”.

As attorney Stargard observes, “it is usually not considered to be an effective antitrust defence to claim that a competitor has ‘eaten into your market share’, and that your actions that are now under investigation were motivated by said competition…”

EAC poised to pressure remaining members into antitrust enforcement

By AAT staff

On the heels of the COMESA Competition Commission launching its first-ever “failure-to-file” merger investigation, the East African Community (EAC) Competition Authority is poised to dip its toes into the waters of being operational — but it will require its member states to have active enforcement programmes of their own, says the agency head.

There are hurdles to the regional body of the African Great Lakes, as Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with a focus on Africa, points out: only two out of the EAC’s six member states — namely Kenya and Tanzania — currently have working antitrust enforcement authorities.  Having only one-third of a supra-national organisation’s members being versed in competition enforcement is a hindrance to the EAC Authority’s competence and pragmatic effectiveness, said chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Sam Watasa at the agency’s 2nd meeting at the organisation’s Arusha headquarters.  He is quoted as saying:

“Kenya and Tanzania have operational National Competition Agencies, Rwanda and Burundi had enacted laws but are yet to be operationalised. In Uganda there was a draft Competition Bill.”

M&A news: First publicly reported failure-to-file accusation in COMESA

Commission goes after Dutch paint manufacturer in Uganda in supra-national enforcement action threat

By AAT staff

The African expansion saga of Japanese paint manufacturer Kansai continues, albeit not in Southern Africa (after having travailed through a hostile takeover of South African paint company Freeworld Coatings and obtaining a majority stake in Zimbabwean competitor Astra Industries in 2010 and 2013, respectively): the current Kansai-related antitrust story is a COMESA one, which comes to us from East Africa.

As was reported back in 2013 in industry publication CoatingsWorld, Kansai had set its sights on expanding into Eastern Africa as well, focussing on the Sadolin brand (formerly owned by AkzoNobel and since its private equity buy-out produced under a continuing AkzoNobel licence and under the parent label Crown Paints).

This has now changed, says competition attorney Andreas Stargard with Primerio Ltd.: “Recently, the COMESA Competition Commission had become aware of press reports that AkzoNobel had withdrawn its Kansai/Sadolin licence in Uganda (a COMESA member state) and effectively entered into — or planned to enter into — a new agreement with an unnamed ‘local producer’.”

Mr. Stargard, who practices competition law with a focus on African companies and jurisdictions, points out that the COMESA merger-notification regime requires a mandatory filing under certain conditions, such as those affecting 2 or more member states and involving businesses with at least $10m in combined regional revenues.

“Whilst the COMESA review is non-suspensory (meaning the parties must notify, but can go ahead and implement the transaction prior to the termination of the CCC’s antitrust review), the notification itself is mandatory.  A failure-to-file can result in significant fines of up to 10% of combined turnover, as well as the regional annulment of the merger within the COMESA countries.

This is what has now happened with Mr. Lipimile’s Sept. 19th letter to AkzoNobel: the CCC chief warned the company that it would risk voiding any contracts if it failed to make a ‘curative’ retroactive filing by yesterday, Monday, 25 September 2017.”

The CCC’s letter to the Dutch paint giant reads in relevant part: “Kindly be informed that the COMESA competition commission has become aware through the media that Akzo Nobel Powder Coatings has entered into sales, manufacturing and distribution agreements with a local paint manufacturer in Uganda.  I wish to inform you that, mergers and any other forms of agreements between competitors are required to be notified to the Commission….without such notification, and subsequent approval by the Commission, such transactions are null and void ab initio and no rights or obligations imposed on the participating parties shall be legally enforceable in the Common Market.”

As to the likelihood of any notification having been made — or at least made satisfactorily and completely —  Andreas Stargard observes that:

“By any antitrust lawyer’s standards, scrambling to make a filing within less than a week, as seems to be required by George’s letter here, is a tall order — merger notifications usually require significant preparatory work, including data analysis, document collection, and interviews with the business people to advance to a final ‘filing’ stage.  To do so in 6 calendar days is extremely difficult.”

He concludes that, “as COMESA is still a relatively young regime in terms of merger filings — with few resources at hand to manage notifications in and of themselves, much less enforcement actions — we expect that the CCC and the parties will somehow arrive at an amicable settlement in this matter.”