South African Taxi Industry: Who gets hurt the most?

By Senior AAT Correspondent, Michael-James Currie

Currently, the South African Competition Commission is investigating Uber in relation to alleged anti-competitive practices. The crux of the complaint against Uber, which was brought by the SA Taxi Meter Association, is that Uber has engaged in predatory pricing in contravention of the South African Competition Act.

This is not the first complaint Uber has faced before the competition agencies. The authorities in the US, Kenya and India have all investigated the company for anti-competitive practices.

The confrontation between metered taxis and Uber culminated in a number of violent protests this year, to the extent that Uber drivers were reluctant to pick-up or drop-off passengers near certain popular venues so as to avoid physical conflict with metered taxi drivers.

Without engaging fully on the merits of the complaint brought against Uber, there are a number of important hurdles which a complainant needs to overcome in order to successfully prosecute a case of predatory pricing (this is one of the listed grounds in the Competition Act relating to abuse of dominance).

The author has previously, and exclusively for Africanantitrust, published a paper which comprehensively evaluates the Media24 case, which is the most recent case of predatory pricing successfully prosecuted by the Competition Commission before the Competition Tribunal.  The paper clearly sets out the challenges in formulating a predatory pricing case against a respondent and adducing sufficient evidence to prove such a case.

Apart from having to prove that Uber is in fact dominant in a particular market (which may be challenging considering Uber does not own any vehicles), and that Uber’s pricing amounted to predation (i.e. proving that the respondent supplied its services below its marginal cost or average variable cost), the Competition Tribunal will also have to be satisfied that the conduct does not have efficiency or pro-competitive effects which outweigh any anti-competitive effects.

It is in respect of the last point which, at least at face value, appears to be a major hurdle in respect of Uber’s complainants. Uber’s rapid success, not only in South Africa but across a multitude of jurisdictions, is largely as a result of providing customers with a new innovative, cost effective service. It appears to be the very essence and objectives of competition which resulted in Uber’s success, to the detriment of metered taxis.

As, Primerio director, Andreas Stargard stated in a previous article on africanantitrust:

The pro-competitive notion of innovation-plus-price competition is perhaps best understood by looking at the views of two leading antitrust agencies, the FTC and the European Commission.   Both have articulated simple and sound arguments for striking the right balance between regulatory limits for the protection of passengers, as well as allowing innovative technologies to enhance the competitive landscape and thereby increasing transportation options for riders.  In antitrust law, more options usually equal better outcomes.

In particular, Stargard points to the following statement made by the FTC in relation to a similar complaint brought against Uber in U.S, some three years ago:

Competition and consumer protection naturally complement and mutually reinforce each other, to the benefit of consumers. Consumers benefit from market competition, which creates incentives for producers to be innovative and responsive to consumer preferences with respect to price, quality, and other product and service characteristics. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of competition go beyond lower prices: ‘The assumption that competition is the best method of allocating resources in a free market recognizes that all elements of a bargain – quality, service, safety, and durability – and not just the immediate cost, are favorably affected by the free opportunity to select among alternative offers.”

The net sum of the Uber analogy is that Uber is widely regarded as beneficial to consumers and until evidence comes to light which contradicts this, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion. John Oxenham notes that the Competition Commission of India, had this to say about the complaint against Uber:

the allegations made are opposed to the basic tenets of competition law.

“Inability of the existing players or new entrants to match the innovative technology or app developed by any player or the model created for operating in a particular industry cannot be said to be creating entry barriers in itself,”

While the South African Competition Commission has not yet pronounced on whether it will initiate a complaint against Uber, the complaint has brought into focus an industry which to date, has received very little attention from the competition authorities.

In this regard, we note that Mr David Lipton of the International Monetary Fund, recently stated that “Tariffs on poultry imports also came under fire because of their effect on poor consumers as did SA’s “taxi and bus cartels. This he said “prevented transport markets from competitiveness”. Mr Lipton highlighted the need for greater competitiveness within the South African markets and highlighted that regulatory requirements often served as a significant barrier to entry.

We note that in respect of the taxi industry, it is perhaps the under enforcement of regulatory provisions such as the Competition Act, which has an equally deleterious effect on competition.

It is regularly reported that the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”.

In this regard, the following extract from the daily maverick highlights the negative state of play which exists in the taxi industry:

With the birth of this industry also came problems, of course. South Africa was always bad at protecting lives and property, especially if you were black. In such an environment, it was little wonder that legitimate measures to protect their own property soon extended to underhanded and sometimes violent means to quash competition.

This, however, is not an argument against the taxi industry, but against a government that is unable to enforce laws that prevent intimidation and violence to protect the business interests of commercial cartels.

The iron-fisted rule of the taxi associations, the firm grip they have on routes, and the short shrift they give to rivals, is a troubling feature of the industry. It limits competition, which reduces capital investment and keeps prices fixed.

Passengers are well aware of this, and would gladly choose alternatives, if they’re perceived to be cheaper, faster or safer.

Unfortunately, instead of enforcing laws that would enable free-market competition to meet this desire, the state is heading the other way. It is building alternative public transport options, and pouring taxpayer billions into them.”

In Minister Ebrahim Patel’s budget speech in April 2016, the Minister, who in his opening remarks stated that “Economies are about people, not simply numbers and policies” went on to quote the following extract from a recent World Bank study on competition in South Africa:

In the case of four cartels in maize, wheat, poultry and pharmaceuticals – products which make up 15.6% of the consumption basket of the poorest 10 percent – conservative estimates indicate that around 200 000 people stood to be lifted above the poverty line by tackling cartel overcharges”.

Given that there are approximately 250 000 taxis on the road transporting approximately 15 million passengers per day, and that these passengers include those “within the poorest 10%”, it is surprising that, in light of the findings of the IMF, public transport, particularly insofar as taxis and buses is concerned, has not been identified by the Competition Commission as a “priority sector” nor investigated with the same gusto as that which corporate entities, to date, have received.

SACC Investigates Port Operator for Monopolisation & Excessive Pricing

Abuse of Dominance & Excessive Pricing in South Africa: Transnet under Unvestigation

south_africaBy AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

On 7 July 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) announced that it has initiated an investigation against Transnet SOC Ltd (Transnet), for abusing its dominance by allegedly engaging in excessive pricing in contravention of the in section 8(a) of the Competition Act as well as for engaging in exclusionary practices in contravention of section 8(c) of the Competition Act in relation to the provision of port services.

The SACC investigation is allegedly based on information received indicating that South Africa’s port charges are excessive relative to global standards. A recent port tariff benchmarking report by the regulator determined that Transnet’s terminal handling charges for the period 2015-2016 were 56% above the global average. Transnet maintains that it is “comfortable and confident that its processes are fair, just, and in line with relevant legal requirements.

The SACC also indicated that it had received information indicating that Transnet is allegedly giving preferential treatment to certain customers to the exclusion of others, in the form of preferential berthing windows, capped export capacity, minimum export tonnage requirements and preferential lease agreements.

Patel talksThe SACC, as well as the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Patel, as expressly stated that, as part of the SACC’s policy, it will target firms who may be abusing their dominance in the market.

While most respondents in South Africa’s abuse of dominant cases thus far, have been firms who have previously been state owned and, therefore, as far as the SACC is concerned, obtained their significant market share as a result of previously having received state support.  It is thus noteworthy that Transnet is a ‘State Owned Entity’.

Despite having brought a number of abuse of dominance cases against various respondents, however, the SACC has found prosecuting respondents for abusing their dominance challenging.

In relation to excessive pricing, the SACC has found it particularly challenging to successfully prosecute a firm for a contravening section 8(a) of the Competition Act. This is largely due to the definition of ‘excessive pricing’ which is essentially defined in the Competition Act as “a price for a good or service which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service”.

What constitutes an ‘excessive price’ was fully dealt with in the recent Sasol Polymers case in which the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) overturned a R500 million rand penalty imposed on Sasol by the Competition Tribunal for excessive pricing.

Although the outcome of the Sasol case before the CAC turn largely on a lack of evidence, the case highlighted the difficulties in determining what the ‘economic value’ of a product is. In this regard, however, and as a general starting point, the CAC indicated that the economic value “is the notional price of the respective “good” or “service” under assumed conditions of long-run competitive equilibrium”.

If the price charged for a product exceeds the ‘economic value’, then the inquiry shifts to the second part of the definition – i.e. whether the price charged is reasonably related to the ‘economic value’. Although the CAC in Sasol indicated that this is a subjective inquiry, the CAC indicated that in instances where the actual price charged is not more than 20% of the economic value, it is unlikely that the price charged will be considered ‘unreasonable’.

John Oxenham and the author co-published a paper on excessive pricing, which was presented at the American Bar Association Fall Forum in 2015, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the Sasol case and the legal landscape of excessive pricing in South Africa.

After the Sasol case, Minister Patel has further expressed his intentions to broaden and strengthen the SACC’s powers to prosecute firms who abuse their dominance.

In this regard, Minister Patel had previously made similar averments in relation to combatting cartel conduct, which ultimately materialized in the Minister bring into effect criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who have engaged in cartel conduct. The criminal liability provisions were enacted in 2009, but were not brought into effect due to numerous concerns regarding the constitutionality and jurisdictional concerns regarding the enforcement of these provisions. Despite the concerns raised, the criminal liability provisions were nevertheless brought into effect from 1 May 2016 without any amendments having been made.

The significance of the Minister Patel’s decision to implement criminal liability provisions should be particularly concerning to firms to have a substantial market share, as the Minister has also indicated that he intends bring into effect the “complex monopoly” provisions as contained din the Competition Amendment Act.

Much like the criminal-liability provisions, the complex-monopoly provisions have also been enacted since 2009, but not brought into effect yet due to various concerns raised as to the how this provision would be enforced.

In terms of the complex monopoly provisions, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).

Although the introduction of complex monopoly provisions may appear far off, we would caution firms who operate in a concentrated market that Minister Patel’s efforts to combat abuse of dominance may see result in the expeditious implementation of the complex-monopoly provisions.

New Penalty Guidelines Provide Incentive to Apply for Leniency

Zambia: New Penalty Guidelines may Incentivise Firms to Apply for Leniency

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

At the recent International Competition Network conference held in Singapore, the International Competition Network (ICN), in conjunction with the World Bank, named the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) as one of the best Competition Authorities in advocating competition in key domestic markets.

The CCPC, as a competition agency, is making significant strides to ensure that the Zambian market is competitive to ensure greater consumer benefit.

In particular, the CCPC has, in recent years, strengthened its efforts to detect cartel conduct. This includes carrying out search and seizure operations, initiating investigations and introducing a corporate leniency policy (Zambian CLP) for whistle-blowers.

The Zambian CLP affords a firm who has engaged in cartel conduct, who is ‘first through the door’ in disclosing the cartel and who provides the CCPC with sufficient evidence to prosecute the cartel total immunity from an administrative penalty.

Unlike its South African counter-part, the Zambian CLP also caters for a ‘leniency plus’ whereby the ‘second through the door’ may qualify for up to a 50% reduction in respect of a potential administrative penalty.

In spite of leniency policies being regarded as arguably the most effective tool by which competition agencies detect and prosecute cartel conduct, we are not aware of the CCPC having yet received an application in terms of its CLP (as at March the CPCC had confirmed that it had not yet received such an application).

The reluctance by firms to come forward and expose cartel conduct in Zambia may be due to the fact that the Zambian CLP only extends immunity in respect of administrative liability and does not protect a whistle-blower from potential criminal or civil liability.

Despite the lack of success which the Zambian CLP has achieved thus far, the policy has only been in effect for just over a year. Furthermore, the CCPC has strengthened its efforts in initiating and concluding investigations in various sectors (which includes the stockbroker, frozen fish and milling industries, the latter of which is still on-going).

Accordingly, and in light of the recently published Draft Guidelines for the Issuance of Fines (Guidelines) (now for public comment), there may well be more activity in so far as the CLP is concerned.

zambiaThe Guidelines are clear in that administrative penalties should be punitive and should have a sufficient deterrent effect. The CCPC has expressly stated that it does not want administrative penalties to merely be considered as a ‘cost of doing business’ in Zambia.

Unsurprisingly, the Guidelines confirm that in respect of cartel conduct, “the fines to be imposed will be the highest due to the seriousness of the conduct”. Furthermore, the Guidelines state that “preceding such fines may be conviction for criminal culpability by a Court of Competent jurisdiction”.

In terms of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act (the “Act”), a firm’s potential liability is capped at 10% of its turnover derived within or from Zambia (similar to the EU’s 10% turnover cap), although the implementation of this cap is uncertain as we indicate below.

The Guidelines state that the 10% cap should be based on the latest audited financial years. While the CCPC will accept management accounts in certain circumstances, it should be noted that the CCPC will add 5% to the total as reflected in the management accounts.

Importantly, while the Guidelines recognise that an administrative penalty may be adjusted depending on aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the Guidelines provide, as a starting point, a ‘base fine’ which will be calculated in accordance with the nature of the contravention. We set these out below.

Base (%)

Conduct

7 Cartels
4 Resale Price Maintenance
4 Abuse of Dominance
3 Mergers
5 Restrictive Business Practices

 

John Oxenham, an African competition law practitioner, notes that the ‘base fine’ is “calculated utilising a firm’s aggregated turnover generated in or from Zambia, irrespective of the relevant market. In other words, the CCPC considers a firm’s total turnover in Zambia as the affected turnover, which can cause fines to mushroom in the case of diversified conglomerates with large revenues even where the affected, cartelised product market is de minimis.”

Importantly, in relation to prohibited horizontal or vertical conduct, the CCPC will impose a fine based on each year in which the parties contravened the Act, up to a maximum of five years. While the Guidelines as noted above, expressly state that the total penalty will be capped at the statutory cap of 10%. In light of the fact that the base fines start at 4% (which would in any evet exceed the statutory cap after only 2.5 years) it seems that the CCPC is of the view that each year in which a firm engaged in cartel conduct should be viewed as a separate contravention (i.e. that the statutory cap only applies per contravention). This will need to be clarified as a firm who is found to have engaged in anti-competitive conduct (including vertical restrictive practices) may be subjected to an exorbitant administrative fine.

It remains to be seen whether the significant administrative liabilities which is contemplated in terms of the Guidelines is indeed permissible and in accordance with the Act, and secondly, whether it will incentivise firms to take advantage of the CLP.

Antitrust conference hosted by Pr1merio, CEMAC & Cameroonian Ministry

This Thursday, June 7th, 2016, the Ministry of Trade & Commerce of Cameroon, the CEMAC organisation of states, and law boutique Pr1merio, will host an all-day conference on competition law & business in Africa, taking place in Douala, Cameroon.

1425573796The brochure and press communiqué are available online.  Dr. Patricia Kipiani, the host of the event, legal scholar and Pr1merio attorney, notes that the event is almost sold out and few seats remain.  “We are excited to host the first-ever antitrust conference of its kind in Cameroon,” Kipiani notes.  “Our platform allows us to work directly with both scientific, scholarly, and governmental advisors to create fora like these, where experts are able to discuss cutting-edge issues in the burgeoning field of competition law on the continent,” adds Prof. Flavien Tchapga, who will also speak at the event.

 

Growing Pains: From One-Trick Pony to Full-Fledged Enforcer?

COMESA Competition Commission Expands Enforcement Ambit from Merger Control to Conduct —

CCC Seeks Information on “Potentially” Anti-Competitive Agreements

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

Breaking News: The COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) has issued a notice (the “Notice”) calling on firms to notify the CCC of any agreements (both historic and forward looking) that may be anti-competitive, for the purpose of having such agreements ‘authorised’ or ‘exempted’ in terms of Article 20 of the COMESA Competition Regulations (the “Regulations”).

In terms of Article 20 of the Regulations, agreements which are anticompetitive may be exempted by the CCC if such an ‘anticompetitive agreement’ contributes positively to the ‘public interest’ to the extent that the public interest benefit outweighs the anti-competitive effect.

In terms of the CCC’s notice 1/2013, the following agreements may well be considered to be in the public interest when evaluating whether an anti-competitive agreement or concerted practice should be exempted:

  • Joint research and development ventures;
  • Specialisation agreements; and
  • Franchising agreements

As to the agreements or concerted practices which may be anti-competitive, the Notice refers specifically to the restrictive business practices listed in Article 16 of the Regulations which states that:

The following shall be prohibited as incompatible with the Common Market:

all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which:

(a) may affect trade between Member States; and

(b) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market.”

It should be noted that Article 16 is deliberately drafted broadly so as to prohibit conduct which has as its “object” the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Certain conduct, such as price fixing, fixing of trading terms or conditions, allocating suppliers or markets or collusive tendering may be considered as having as its ‘object’ the distortion or restriction of competition in the market. Accordingly, firms who have engaged in this type of conduct may be held liable in the absence of any evidence of an anti-competitive effect (whether actual or potential).

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “[t]he CCC’s notice is a clear sign that the agency is gathering momentum in its efforts to detect and prosecute anticompetitive practices within the member states — and is going beyond its ‘one-trick pony’ status as a pure merger-control gatekeeper.  We anticipate a more active role by the CCC in conduct investigations and presumptively also enforcement actions, as opposed to its previous rubber-stamping activity of approving transactions with a COMESA community dimension (and concomitant collection of vast filing fees).”

The CCC has recently signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding and Cooperation Agreements with various member states as well as a tripartite agreement with other broader regional forums such as the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community.

COMESA old flag colorThe web of MoU’s recently concluded, which have as their primary objectives the facilitation of information exchanges and cooperation between competition agencies, is certainly a significant stride made to assist the authorities, including the CCC, in detecting and prosecuting anticompetitive practices which may be taking place across the African continent.

A further indication of the CCC’s growing appetite and confidence to identify anticompetitive practices is that the CCC has announced that it is conducting a market enquiry into the grocery retail sector.  This is the first market inquiry to be conducted by the CCC.

In terms of the CCC’s Notice, firms who have not yet notified the CCC of agreements which may be anticompetitive, have approximately one month to do so. In other words, the CC has offered a leniency ‘window’ to incentivise firms to come forward and obtain an exemption in respect of agreements already implemented which may be in contravention of Article 16 of the Regulations.

 

Cooperation, handshakes & MoUs: all the rage in African antitrust?

AAT the big picture

Significant Strides made to Promote Harmonisation across African Competition Agencies

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

In the past 12 months there has been a steady drive by competition law agencies in Africa to promote harmonisation between the respective jurisdictions.

The African regional competition authority, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), has entered into memorandum of understandings with a number of its nineteen member states. On 5 June 2016, it was announced that the CCC has further concluded MoU’s with the Swaziland Competition Commission as well as the Fair Trade Commission of the Seychelles.

On 7 May 2016, it was announced that nine members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have also entered into and MoU. These member states include South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland, Seychelles, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia.

The SADC MoU was based on the 2009 SADC Declaration on Regional Cooperation and Consumer Policies.

SADC MoUAccording to the South African Competition Commissioner, Mr Tembinkosi Bonakele, the MoU creates a framework for cooperation enforcement within the SADC region.  “The MoU provides a framework for cooperation in competition enforcement within the SADC region and we are delighted to be part of this historic initiative,” said Bonakele.

Interestingly, although a number of the signatories to SADC MoU are not member states of COMESA (that is, South Africa and Namibia, who in turn, have a MoU between their respective competition authorities), Swaziland, Malawi and the Seychelles have existing MoU’s with the COMESA Competition Commission. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “it will be interesting to see, first, whether there may be conflicts that arise out of the divergent patchwork of cooperation MoUs, and second, to what extent the South African Competition Authorities, for example, could indirectly benefit from the broader cooperation amongst the various jurisdiction and regional authorities.”

Part of the objectives of the MoUs to date has largely been to facilitate an advocacy role. However, from a practical perspective, the SADC MoU envisages broader information exchanges and coordination of investigations.

While the MoU’s are a positive stride in achieving cross-border harmonisation, it remains to be seen to what extent the collaboration will assist the respective antitrust agencies in detecting and prosecuting cross border anticompetitive conduct.

There may be a number of practical and legal hurdles which may provide challenges to the effective collaboration envisaged. The introduction of criminal liability for cartel conduct in South Africa, for example, may provide challenges as to how various agencies obtain and share evidence.

AB InBev/SABMiller: SA conditional approval

South African Competition Commission Concludes Investigation into the AB In-Bev/SABMiller deal and Recommends that the Merger be Approved Subject to Conditions

On 31 May 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) recommended that that the Anheuser-Busch Inbev/ SABMiller merger be approved subject to various conditions relating to both competition and public interest concerns.

south_africaFrom a procedural aspect, the SACC’s recommendations are made to the South African Competition Tribunal, the adjudicative body ultimately responsible for approving a merger.

The SACC’s recommendations are not binding on the merging parties or the Tribunal. To the extent that the merging parties, or third parties, are concerned about the merger or the SACC’s recommendations, they may elect to participate in the hearing before the Tribunal.

In cases where neither the merging parties nor any third parties contest the SACC’s recommendations, the Tribunal usually rubber stamps the SACC’s recommendations.

We note that in terms of the SACC’s proposed recommendations, that the merging parties have made numerous undertakings to address the SACC’s concerns.

The following concerns and recommendations were proposed by the SACC:

  • A divestiture of SABMiller’s shareholding in the Distell Limited Group (a competitor of SAB in the cider market) within three years of the closing date of the transaction;
  • That no employees of the merged entity will be involved on the bottling operations of both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and that no commercially sensitive information would be exchanged between employees in relation to these two soft drink entities;
  • AB Inbev will continue supplying third parties with ‘tin metal crowns’ in South Africa as AB Inbev will own the only ‘tin metal supplier’ in South Africa post merger for a period of 5 years;
  • AB Inbev should make at least 10% of its fridge space available, in small retail outlets or taverns, to competitors’ products to protect small beer producers;
  • The development of a R1 billion fund which will be used, inter alia, to develop barley, hops and maize output in South Africa;
  • No merger related retrenchments are to take place in South Africa, in perpetuity;
  • AB Inbev will continue to supply certain products to small beer producers;
  • AB Inbev will continue to ensure that it follows the same ratio of local production and will, itself, remain committed to sourcing products locally;
  • Undertakings to ensure that the merging parties will, within two years after closing the merger, propose to the Commission and Government its plan on how to maintain black participation in the company and preserve equity;
  • AB Inbev will continue to comply with the existing terms and conditions of the current agreements which exist between SABMiller and ‘owner-drivers’.

The merging parties have agreed to the majority of the conditions imposed on the merger. We note, however, that the SACC’s media statement does not make it clear that the merging parties have agreed to the divestiture recommendation. The merging parties have also not agreed to the proposed condition relating to a commitment to continue to supply small beer producers with hops and malt.

Accordingly, even in the absence of any third party intervention, this merger may still be contested before the Tribunal.

While the SACC’s official recommendations have not yet been published, it appears to us that a number of the concerns raised by the SACC relate to pre-existing concerns which are not merger specific. Furthermore, important aspect of the proposed recommendations, even those which have been agreed to between the parties, will be in perpetuity.

Furthermore, although what may appear to be a relatively innocuous proposed conditions which the merging parties shave agreed to, is that AB Inbev will respect the current existing contractual arrangements as between SABMiller and ‘owner drivers’.  Approving a merger subject to such a condition poses an interesting conundrum. What happens in the event that there is contractual dispute between Ab-Inbev and owner drivers in the future? Will the Tribunal have jurisdiction to hear such disputes and could the merged entity be subject to penalties for breaching a condition of the merger, despite a contractual dispute which may have little if anything to do with the merger itself?

We have previously, here on Africanantitrust raised our concerns regarding the merger specificity of the R1 billion development fund. To access our previous article on this topic, please click here.

In our view, the Competition Tribunal should satisfy itself that the proposed conditions, even if agreed to between the merging parties, should address merger specific concerns and nothing more. A decision by the Tribunal is precedent setting and has an impact on the transparency and certainty of the merger control process in South Africa. When mergers are approved subject to conditions which go beyond merger specificity, uncertainty is created.

Antitrust in the Digital Economy: Fighting Inequality?

AAT the big picture

HOW CAN COMPETITION LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY HELP IN THE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY?

By DWA co-founder and visiting AAT author, Amine Mansour* (re-published courtesy of Developing World Antitrust’s editors)

When talking about competition law and poverty alleviation, we may intuitively think about markets involving essential needs. The rise of new sectors may however prompt competition authorities to turn their attention away from these markets. One of those emerging sectors is the digital economy sector. This triggers the question of whether the latter should be a top priority in competition authorities’ agenda. The answer remains unclear and depends mainly on the potential value added to consumers in general and the poor in particular[1].

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

Obviously, access to computer and technology is not a source of poverty stricto sensu. In the absence of basic needs, strategies focusing on digital sectors may prove meaningless. In practice, the last thing people living in extreme poverty will think about is gaining digital skills. Their immediate needs are embodied in markets offering goods and services which are basic necessities. The approach put forward by several Competition authorities in developing countries corroborates this view. For instance, in South Africa, digital markets are not seen as a top priority. Instead, the South African competition authority focuses on food and agro-processing, infrastructure and construction, banking and intermediate industrial products.

There are however compelling arguments to be made against such position. Most importantly, although access to technology and computers is not a source of poverty, such an access can be a solution to the poverty problem. In fact, closing the digital gap by providing digital skills and making access to technology and Internet easier can help the low income population when acting either as entrepreneurs or consumers. In both cases competition law can play a decisive role.

The low income population acting as consumers

First, when acting as consumers, people with low income can enjoy the benefits of new technology-based entrant. Thanks to lower costs of operation, lower barriers to entry and (almost) infinite buyers, these new operators have changed the competitive landscape by aggressively competing against traditional companies. These features have helped them not only extending existing products and services to low-income consumers but also making new ones available for them. Better yet, in some cases increased competition coming from technology-based companies motivates traditional business forms to adapt their offer to low-income consumers so as to face this new competition and remedy shrinking revenues. Perhaps, the most noteworthy aspect of all these evolutions, is that these new entrants have, in some instances, been able to challenge incumbents’ position by driving prices downward to levels unattainable by traditional companies without scarifying their profitability.

A shining example of all this dynamic is the possibility for low-income consumers to engage, thanks to some mobile companies, in financial transaction without the need to pass through the traditional stationary banking infrastructure. For instance, in Kenya, M-PESA a mobile money transfer service that has over 22 million subscribers[2] and around 40,000 agents (around 2600 Commercial bank branches)[3] changed the life of million of citizens. The service enables clients to deposit cash into their M-PESA accounts, send or transfer money to any other mobile phone user, withdraw cash and complete other financial transactions. A farmer in a remote area in Kenya can send or receive money by simply using his mobile phone. In this way, M-PESA can act as a substitute to personal bank accounts. This experience shows how the digital economy helps overcoming the prohibitive costs of reaching low-income customers and thus raising living standards.

On that basis, we can easily imagine the counter-argument incumbent companies might put forward. In this regard, unfair competition and the need for regulation to preserve policy objectives are often in the forefront. However, there is a great risk that these arguments are simply used to restrict market entry and impede competition from those new players.

In fact, this kind of arguments do not always reflect market reality. For example, in some remote geographic areas, traditional companies and the new ones based on the digital/internet space do not even compete directly against each other. Accordingly, regulation intended to protect policy goals has no role to play given that the affected consumers are out of the reach of the traditional business. In the M-PESA example, it may be possible to argue that any operator engaging in financial transactions should observe the regulatory restrictions that apply to the banking sector in order to ensure that policy objectives such as the stability of the banking system or the protection of consumer savings are preserved. However, applying such a reasoning will leave a large part of consumers with no alternative given the absence of a banking infrastructure in remote areas. The unfair competition and regulation arguments may only hold in cases where consumers are offered alternatives capable of providing an equivalent service.

This shows the need to proceed cautiously by favoring an evidence-based approach to the ex-post use of the regulation argument by incumbent operators. This is however only one of different facets of the interaction between the competitive impact of companies based on the internet-space, the regulatory framework and the repercussions for people with low income[4].

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

Second, the focus on digital markets as way to alleviate poverty is further justified when low-income people act as entrepreneurs. In fact, digital markets are distinguished from basic good markets in that they may act as an empowering instrument that encourages entrepreneurship.

More precisely, the digitalization of the economy results in an improved access to market information which in turn may benefit entrepreneurs especially the poor whether they intervene in the same market or in a different one. Practice is replete with cases where, for instance, a downstream firm heavily relies for its production/operation on services or products offered by an upstream company operating in a digital market. Similarly, in a traditional and somewhat caricatural way, a small-scale farmer may use VOIP calls to obtain market information or directly contact buyers suppressing the need for a middleman.

However, we can well imagine the disastrous consequences for these small-scale farmers or the downstream firm if mobile operators decide to block access to internet telephony services such as Skype or WhatsApp based on cheap phone calls using VOIP (this is what actually happened in Morocco). In such a case, the digitalization of the economy has clearly contributed to greatly lowering the costs of communication and distribution. However, low income entrepreneurs are prevented from benefiting of these low costs, which are a key input to be able to compete in the market.

The major difficulty here lies in the fact that, when low income people act as entrepreneurs, it is likely that they organize their activities in small structures. This result in relationships and structures favorable to the emergence of exploitative abuses. Keeping digital markets clear from obstructing anticompetitive practices is thus indispensable to ensure that small existing or potential competitors are not prevented from competing. This might not be easily achieved given that competition authorities’ focus is sometimes more on high profile cases.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

[1] Intervention may also be justified by the institutional significance argument. This significance lies in the fact that those markets are growing ones and challenging the common ways of both doing business and applying competition rules which in turn make it crucial for authorities to intervene by drawing the lines that ensure the right conditions for those market to grow and develop.

[2] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/about-us/about-safaricom

[3] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/get-started-with-m-pesa/m-pesa-agents

[4] For instance, it possible to think of the same problem from an ex-ante point of view highlighting incumbent firms’ efforts to block any re-examination of the regulatory standards that apply to the concerned sector (no relaxation of the quantitative and qualitative restrictions). This aspect has more to do with the advocacy function of competition authorities.

Namibia: NaCC issues Guidelines on Restrictive Practices

By Michael-James Currie

In April 2016, the Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) finalised its guidelines on restrictive practices (Guidelines) in terms of chapter three of the Namibian Competition Act. The Guidelines focus in particular on the investigatory powers and procedures to be utilised by the NaCC during its investigations into restrictive practices.

The Namibian Competition Act contains most of the traditional antitrust prohibitions in relation to restrictive conduct. These include ‘agreements’ or ‘concerted practices’ between firms in a horizontal or vertical relationship which have the “object” or “effect” of substantially lessening competition in the market.

The Competition Act does not, from a plain reading of the language, impose a per se prohibition for ‘hardcore’ cartel conduct. The Guidelines, however, confirm that certain practices such as ‘hardcore cartel conduct’ and ‘minimum resale price maintenance’ will be considered per se to be anticompetitive. It is unclear, however, whether this per se contravention should rather serve as a presumption that the conduct is anti-competitive which may affect the onus of proof, rather, as in the South African context where the Act makes it clear that the effect of hardcore cartel conduct is irrelevant.

Furthermore, there is no express provision which deals with ‘rule of reason’ defences, however, the Guidelines confirm that efficiency or pro-competitive features of the alleged anti-competitive conduct, may outweigh any anti-competitive effect. It should be noted, however, that even if there was no anti-competitive effect, if the objective of the conduct was to engage in an anti-competitive agreement or concerted practice, a respondent may still be liable. Accordingly, conduct must not only be shown not to have an anti-competitive effect, but must also be properly ‘characterised’ as not being anti-competitive, in order to avoid liability.

The Namibian Competition Act also prohibits abuse of dominance conduct. The Act does not contain thresholds or criteria for deterring when a firm would be considered ‘dominant’, however, in term of the Competition Commission’s Rules, a firm:

  • will be considered dominant if it has above a 45% market share;
  • will be presumed dominant if it has between 35-45% market share (unless it can show it does not have market power); or
  • has a market share of less than 35%, but has market power.

Although the abuse of dominant provision is intended to prohibit a broad range of potential anti-competitive conduct, the Act in particular, notes the following conduct which, if a firm is dominant, is restricted:

  • directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions;
  • limiting or restricting production, market outlets or market access, investment, technical development or technological progress;
  • applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties; and
  • making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by other parties of supplementary conditions which by their nature or according to commercial usage have no connection with the subject-matter of the contracts.”

Importantly, the Namibian Competition Act does not state that the conduct identified above must lead to a substantial-lessening of competition in the market. Furthermore, in terms of the Guidelines, the NaCC not only considers the conduct of and individual firm, but also considers the conduct of a “number of connected undertakings acting collectively” for purposes of considering whether there has been an “abuse of dominance”.

It should be noted that the Namibian Competition Act does cater for exemptions from the application of Chapter 3 (i.e. restrictive practices) and sets out in some detail the requirements and terms upon which an exemption may be granted.

As noted above, however, the most elements contained in the Guidelines relate to the NaCC’s investigatory powers.

In terms of the Namibian Competition Act, the NaCC may initiate a complaint or may elect to investigate a third party complaint.

The NaCC‘s investigatory powers include the power to conduct search and seizure operations. Importantly, the NaCC may take into possession any evidence which, in its opinion, will assist in the investigation. This is so even if such evidence would not be admissible as evidence in a court of law. For purposes of obtaining witness statements, however, a witness has the same rights and privileges as a witness before a court of law.

The Guidelines also confirm that the NaCC is not entitled to peruse or seize “legally privileged” documents unless privilege is waived. Interestingly, the Guidelines do not appear to protect communication between in-house legal and the firm and refers to legally privileged communication as that between “lawyer and client” only.

Search and seizure operations must be conducted in terms of a valid search warrant.

The Guidelines also contains further guidance on various topics and caters for a number of procedural aspects which must be adhered to (as well as the prescribed forms which should be utilised in certain circumstances) in relation to, inter alia the following:

  • initiating complaint;
  • applying for an exemption;
  • requesting an advisory opinion;
  • handling and the use of ‘confidential information’;

The Guidelines is no doubt a stern indication that the NaCC is preparing to heighten its intensity in terms of investigating and prosecuting restrictive practices. Since inception, the NaCC has dealt with over 450 merger cases, but has only handled approximately 40 restrictive practice complaints.

Furthermore, and in line with the NaCC’s newly adopted 5 year ‘Strategic Plan (2015-2020), the NaCC is growing in confidence and competence and firms should be aware that the NaCC will look to utilise the dawn raids provisions when necessary.

“The WRAP” from last month – a new semi-serial publication

South African Antitrust Developments: a WRAP from the Comp-Corner

Issue 1 – May 2016

The editors and authors at AAT welcome you to our new semi-serial publication: “The WRAP.”  In this first WRAP edition, we look back over recent months and provide an overview of the key recent developments which antitrust practitioners and businesses alike should take note of in respect of merger control and competition law enforcement.

As always, thank you for reading the WRAP, and remember to visit AAT for up-to-date competition-law news from the African continent.

         –Ed. (we wish to thank our contributors, especially Michael Currie, for their support)