First predatory pricing case before the Competition Tribunal

Media24 excludes GNN, Tribunal finds

By Julie Tirtiaux

A year ago, we at AAT reported on the intervention by competitors in the merger between Media24 and Paarl Media.  Today, we want to highlight a “one-year-later” feature about that same company, which has now been found liable of predatory exclusion of its rivals by the South African Competition Tribunal (the “Tribunal”).  The Tribunal found on 8 September 2015 that Media24 had engaged in exclusionary conduct due to predation by removing a rival community newspaper publication, Gold Net News (“GNN”), out of the market. [1]

Two routes explored by the South African Competition Commission’s (“SACC”) to sanction Media24’s predation conduct

In 2009, GNN exited the newspaper community market. Within 10 months of the exit of GNN, Media24 closed down one of its titles, Forum. From then until today, Vista which is another title owned by Media24, is the only title to survive in the Welkom market.

According to the SACC:

  • If Vista is the only local paper operating in the Welkom market, it is because Forum was used as a predatory vehicle to exclude its competitor, GNN.
  • The strategy consisted in pricing Forum’s advertising rates below market cost despite repeated loss making and failure to perform to budget forecasts.
  • Media24 operated Forum as a fighting brand, meaning that Media24 sacrificially maintained Forum in the market to exclude its competitor.

For the SACC the reduction of choice of community newspapers during the period January 2004 to April 2009 can only be explained by Media24’s predatory pricing conduct. In order to condemn this conduct as predation, the SACC relied on two provisions of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (the “Act”) which respectively lead to different sanctions.

  • First and ideally, the SACC alleged that Media24 should be sanctioned for its predatory behaviour in terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, which is the explicit predation provision and enables the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence.
  • Second, should the predation not be captured by the express predation provision of section 8(d)(iv), Media24 should at least be found responsible for engaging in general exclusionary conduct, prohibited by section 8(c) of the Act which only gives the Tribunal the power to impose remedies. No fine is available for a first contravention. Only a repeated offence may be subject to an administrative penalty.

Following the Commission’s investigation after the allegations brought by Hans Steyl, who ran GNN from 1999 until its eventual closure in 2009, the Commission referred the case to the Tribunal in 2011.

The denial of predation conduct by Media24

Media24 (whose slogan is, somewhat ironically perhaps: “Touching lives through the power of media“) denied any casual link between the fates of the Forum and the GNN’s papers. Forum was not used as a predatory vehicle to exclude GNN. Media24 attributed the closure of Forum to the 2008 recession, on-going downsizing in Media24 as a whole, and to the problem of publishing two newspapers, Forum and Vista, in the Welkom area. It further argued that GNN had exited because it was not viable.

The difficulty to prove a direct predatory pricing conduct

For the first time in the sixteen years in which the new Competition Act has been in operation[2], the Tribunal assessed a predatory pricing case.

Predatory pricing means that prices charged by a dominant firm are not market related but below what would be expect to be a market price. Predatory pricing is only a transient pleasure for consumers as once competitors are eliminated or new entrants are deterred from entering, then the low price honeymoon is over and the predator can impose high prices to recoup the losses sustained in the period of predation.

In terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, to find an express predation contravention, the Commission is required to prove that Media24 priced below “its marginal or average variable cost” (“AVC”) (our emphasis)[3]. The Commission argued that this wording is broad enough to include pricing below average avoidable cost (“AAC”)[4]. This is the cost the firm could have avoided by not engaging in the predatory strategy.[5]

To find exclusionary conduct and thus a contravention of section 8(c) based on predation[6], the Commission would not necessarily need to establish that the dominant firm’s pricing is below any specific cost standard.  All that is required is that the conduct (in this case, low pricing) has an anti-competitive exclusionary effect.

In the Media24 case, the Tribunal has effectively established a new test for predatory pricing which does not meet the test under section 8(d)(iv).  It said that if Media24 is found to have priced below its average total cost (“ATC”)[7] accompanied by additional evidence of intention and recoupment of the loss of profits sustained during the predation period, then a contravention of section 8(c) has taken place.

As ATC include more costs than AAC and AVC of marginal cost, it makes a finding of predation more likely.  The AAC test is thus more stringent than the ATC test.  This follows the logic of the consequences of each section.  As a contravention of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act leads to a fine while a contravention of section 8(c) of the Act only leads to a remedy, it is more difficult to fill the requirements of the specific predation section – section 8(d)(iv).

Consequently, a central issue in this case was to determine Media24’s costs, and compare them to the prices charged during the relevant period.  This is no simple matter.

The Tribunal’s findings trigger questions about how section 8 of the Act on abuse of dominance is structured

Following lengthy discussions about what constitute avoidable costs, the Tribunal held that opportunity costs[8] and re-deployment costs cannot be factored into the calculation of Forum’s AAC. Accordingly, the Tribunal found that Media24 did not contravene the express predation section 8(d)(iv) of the Act.

Interestingly, the Tribunal did however found that Media24 contravened the general exclusionary section 8(c) of the Act. Indeed, after establishing that Media24 was a dominant firm in the market for community newspapers[9], the Tribunal found the evidence of predatory intent which resulted from statements and the implementation of a plan that was predatory in nature. Moreover, the Tribunal held that the pricing of Forum was below ATC.

As a result, it was found that GNN’s exit of the market affected both advertisers and readers. While advertisers paid higher prices as they lost an alternative outlet, readers lost the choice of an alternative newspaper.

Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that Media24 engaged in exclusionary practice because of predation but didn’t find a contravention of the express predation section of the Competition Act.

The implication of this finding is that Media24 is not liable for a fine. The only power left to the Tribunal is the imposition of another form of remedy. Only if Media24 does the same thing again, will it be subjected to a potential administrative penalty under section 8(c).

Such a finding triggers two interrogations about how section 8 of the Act deals with abuse of dominance.[10]

  • Firstly, how can deterrence be guaranteed when the only consequence of a predatory exclusion conduct, in certain circumstances, is a remedy without a monetary fine? This case leaves food for thought as to the necessity to empower the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence when a general exclusionary conduct is found.
  • Secondly, if the required test to prove a contravention of the explicit predation section is too stringent and almost impossible, not only a predatory conduct will never lead to a fine but more generally the utility of this section should be seriously considered.
Footnotes

[1] See the Tribunal’s decision: http://www.comptrib.co.za/assets/Uploads/Reasons-for-Decision-Media24-Section-8-Case-Signature-Documentfinal.pdf

[2] See the Tribunal’s press release: http://www.comptrib.co.za/publications/press-releases/media24-press-release/

[3] A variable cost being a cost that varies with changes in output. The AVC is defined as the sum of all variables costs divided by output.

[4] The important difference with AVC is that AAC include an element of fixed costs.

[5] AAC has become a widely accepted cost standard for the assessment of predatory pricing. This acceptance is evident both from its inclusion in the EU‘s Guidelines, the recent International Competition Network Guidelines, and a Department of Justice Report.

[6] See Nationwide Airlines (Pty) Ltd v SAA (Pty) Ltd and others [1999-2000] CPLR 230 (CT), page 10. The Tribunal stated that a predatory pricing could lead to a finding in terms of section 8(c).

[7] ATC includes fixed, variable and sunk costs (sunk costs being costs that have already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered).

[8] An opportunity cost is a cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.

[9] Media24 would have had a market share of approximately 75%.

[10] On this topic, see the articles of Neil Mackenzie, “Are South Africa’s Predatory Pricing Rules Suitable?” and “Rethinking Exclusionary Abuse in South Africa”.

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