Competition & the Public Interest

The public-interest saga continues: South African antitrust & inclusiveness

More on the revised Guidelines for the public-interest assessment in southern African’s largest economy… By AAT guest author Anne Brigot-Laperrousaz.

In December 2015, the South African Competition Commission (the “Commission”) issued revised guidelines for the assessment of public interest provisions in mergers (the “Guidelines”). This document is a further step in a long process aiming at ensuring better efficiency in the Commission’s evaluation of mergers. One of the main rationale is that informed parties will be able to anticipate the documentation and data to be transmitted to the Commission in view of obtaining its approval. Transparency, predictability and clarity, all of them fundamental aspects of legal certainty, shall result in reduction of delays and enhancement of legitimacy of the Commission’s decisions.

In January 2015, the Commission issued a first draft of those Guidelines, open to comment by stakeholders. Several bodies answered positively to this initiative, including law firms (Bowman Gilfilan, Baker & McKenzie, …), companies (Vodacom, Tabacks), international associations (International Bar Association) and policy research centers (UK Center for Competition Policy). The December 2015 Guidelines are the result of this broad enquiry, and the final version open to comments until the 29th January 2016.

Public-interest considerations abroad

Firstly, the international perspective on public interest considerations in the assessment of mergers might offer an interesting insight to the question.

In Europe, at Community level, the EU Merger Regulation (the “EUMR”) prevents the European Commission to assess non-competition considerations in its analysis of the proposed transaction. Indeed, Article 2 EUMR sets out a test based exclusively on the potential “significant impediment to effective competition”, and the available remedies when the merger might result in such an impediment.

Yet Article 21(4) EUMR allows interventions of Member States to protect three determined types of public interests, namely, public security, plurality of the media and prudential rules. Exceptionally, the European Commission may allow a national measure aimed at protecting a different legitimate interest, although this procedure is rarely used. In any case, the measures taken shall be compatible with the general principles and provisions of European Union law.

A major difference between EU and US competition laws is that the former was meant to serve as a tool to achieve a State union, whereas the latter intervened in an already federated region. This feature arguably plays a significant role in the importance attached to further political aims in the elaboration of the competition framework, although this feature did appear at the first stages of the US.

Two US institutions are today in charge of reviewing the competitive effects of mergers: the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission. Those two institutions act as competition regulators, focusing exclusively on the competition aspects of targeted operations. Other public policy interests, related to specific sectors, might be analysed and taken into account under the responsibility of other US agencies, such as the Federal Communication Commission or the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Such agencies therefore act as sector or industry regulators.

To the extent that the South African Competition Act (1998) (the “Act”) gives a particularly important role to public interest criteria in merger controls, the need for transparency and clarity in the Commission’s assessment mergers is all the more crucial.

south_africaZA: The integration of stakeholders’ comments by the Competition Commission

As for the general observations on the January 2015 guidelines, some constants remain in most of the stakeholders’ commentaries.

This is so in particular as regards evidential requirements, that is, the type and nature of information that would generally be required from the merging parties. Although the Guidelines do provide a relatively detailed and insightful perspective on the Commission’s methodology in assessing mergers, it does not appear that they answer this recurrent request, even in the form of non-exhaustive references to specific documents.

Tembinkosi Bonakele, the South African Competition Commissioner, had the following to say on the topic, when interviewed for AAT’s Meet the Enforcers:

It is important that BRICS countries weigh-in on this important debate. There is a divergence of views amongst many antitrust practitioners on the compatibility of antitrust issues with public interest issues, but everyone accepts that there are public interest issues. The conference will deepen and broaden perspectives on the matter. …

 

Tembinkosi-Bonakele-Profile-PicThe South African competition authorities were established as a package of reforms to transform the unequal South African economy to make it economy inclusive and ensuring that those who participate in it are competitive.

Through engagements such as the BRICS conference we’re able to discuss with our BRICS counterparts how to make our economies, which are similar, more efficient, competitive and inclusive.

A second concern regards the issue of “balancing” competition and other public policy interests. The different nature of those matters, implying various qualitative and quantitative methods of assessment, arguably makes this task “inherently arbitrary”. This is even more so in presence of the broad and general principles addressed by the Act, and that the Guidelines arguably ought to determine and circumscribe. In their revised version, although some further precisions on the process and the determining factors of the Commission’s assessment have been added, some grey areas remain. For instance, some commentators have highlighted the fact that as regards the effect of the merger on a particular industrial sector or region, the Commission “may consider any public interest argument in justification of the substantial negative effect arising as a result of the merger on an industrial sector or region” (Guidelines, §7.2.4.2). It is our view that this wording is all too broad and undetermined to provide useful guidance to practitioners, and ensure a transparent and consistent analysis by the Commission. Not to mention that, as noted by the International Bar Association, the Act limits the Commission’s jurisdiction in evaluating public interest matters in merger reviews. This reference to “any public interest” arguably overlooks the Commission’s limited jurisdiction. Unfortunately, this comment does not seem to have been taken into account in the drafting of the revised version.

The same analysis can be made of the use of such concepts as causality, for example, which is not clearly defined. Furthermore, the Guidelines often provide for the possibility to prove that the effect “results or arises from” the merger, together with the requirement of a causal link, undermining the precise and strict legal requirements that are entailed by the notion of causality (see §7.2.2.1). In other instances, the Commission will merely “consider whether the employment effects are in any way linked to the intentions […] of the acquiring group”, which broadens unreasonably the scope of analysis.

Overall, when considering the clarifications that were called for in various submissions from stakeholders, it appears that in most cases, where the comments have been echoed in the revised Guidelines, the drafting committee has hidden the difficulties rather than going further in its analysis.

For instance, several commentators have expressed their surprise at the principle stated in the January 2015 version of the Guidelines, in the section dedicated to the general approach to assessing public interest provisions, that when the Commission found that the public interest effects were neutral, it would balance the negative and positive effects (§6.6). Indeed, the concept lacked clarity, and does not appear in the revised Guidelines.

Yet, some more substantial comments, in that they pointed to more potentially noxious loopholes, have apparently been disregarded. This is the case of the consequences of the finding of negative competition and public policy effects, a situation where the Commission does not seem to consider the possibility to justify and find remedies. It appears that the result would be a forthright prohibition of the transaction, even if other ways could have existed.

More generally, the perspective on the matters at stake seems to be rather hostile. For instance, in cases where negative public interest effects have been identified, the Commission “may consider imposing remedies or prohibiting the merger depending on the substantiality of the public interest effects”. It may be considered that a more relevant criterion might have been the existence and efficiency of potential remedies, rather than the substantiality of the negative effects at stake. Indeed, although the substantial character of the adverse effects might be a suitable criterion to set the standard of analysis, it does not easily justify to disregard possible remedies, which seems to be the result of the present wording.

Similarly, the Guidelines seem to set the existence of a positive competition finding as a threshold to its analysis. It has been advocated that a more suitable logic would be that the starting point is the absence of any prevention or lessening of competition, which would be more in line with both the Act and the role it affords to public policy concerns, and international best practice.

Conclusion

As noted by the International Competition Network, “the legal framework for competition law merger review should focus exclusively on identifying and preventing or remedying anticompetitive mergers. A merger review law should not be used to pursue other goals”.

Since the introduction of public policy issues in merger control is broadly considered to require cautiousness and measure, it is questionable if the revised Guidelines abide by this general principle of predictability and transparency as regards those matters. Although clear efforts have been made, the public policies at stake do not appear to have been sufficiently identified and articulated with what should remain the fundamental purpose of merger control, that is, the competitive effects of the transaction at stake.

That is particularly so in view of the nature of the Commission, which has no particular expertise in the public policy matters that it his charged to assess. As it is the case in other jurisdictions, such as the UK, it may be useful to create the possibility for the Commission to obtain input from other specialised government agencies or department, although through a transparent and public process which would prevent any diversion of the Act and the Commission’s purposes.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s