The creeping public-interest factor in antitrust: Still creeping or racing yet?


Race to bottom: dilution of competition-law factors in South Africa?

As we have reported numerous times, both on the global policy front as well as in individual case reports, the South African competition regulators and their superiors in the economic development ministry have had their sights on placing a stronger emphasis on the “public interest” element inherent in the SA competition legislation — thereby diluting pure competition-law/antitrust analysis, as some might argue.

Recently, Minister Patel commended his “independent” team at the Competition Commission for not only doing a good job overall, but also in particular on the public-interest front, encouraging the systematic consideration of public interest by the Commission and the Tribunal.

His prepared remarks from the 8th Annual Competition, Law, Economics and Policy Conference in Johannesburg are now uploaded here.  In them, he emphasizes that competition policy is “rightly”…:

“… a subset of broader competitive policies, which in turn are part of our industrial policy framework. … Our law provides an opportunity, and indeed an obligation, to align corporate strategy (by which I refer to mergers or takeovers) with public interest considerations. … The increasing use of the public-interest requirements in evaluating mergers has been critical in ensuring that competition policy has a growing developmental impact, saving thousands of jobs and providing millions of rands to support small and emerging enterprises.”

On the independence of the enforcers, Mr. Patel had this to say:

This kind of alignment must in future, as in the past, respect the independence of the regulator. But all our agencies, however independent, work within the framework of national policies.

These remarks are fairly strong, indeed!  We leave it to our AAT readership to infer the consequences of these observations on future merger enforcement and on the true degree of independence of the Commission — you can read between the lines.

In a companion paper, entitled “What is competition good for – weighing the wider benefits of competition and the costs of pursuing non-competition objectives”, AAT’s own John Oxenham (Nortons) and Patrick Smith (RBB Economics) argue as follows:

Over the past five years, the South African competition authorities have increasingly struggled to balance a competition test with defined public interest criteria (Metropolitan, Kansai, Walmart). Other agencies (ICASA, NERSA), and government ministries more generally, have also wrestled with how competition policy might fit into wider government policies and even broader concepts of the “public interest”, including notions of equality, fairness and access. In this paper we discuss some of key events in this ongoing debate, and we anticipate some of the battles that are likely to come. Furthermore, we set out a rigorous framework and provide a review of the available research and literature to discuss the effects of competition (both positive and negative) in multiple dimensions, in order to assess how far a “pure competition” test might go in achieving a broad range of efficiency, growth, and employment objectives. Such a comprehensive and evidence based approach is essential in understanding the costs and benefits of the existing pursuit of multiple (and often apparently conflicting) objectives, and will allow decision makers to more logically assess the trade-offs that they will continue to be confronted with.

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