Raising merger notification thresholds

Namibia fine-tunes its M&A review

By AAT guest author Anne Brigot-Laperrousaz

Under the Namibian Competition Act (the “Act”), which came into law in April 2003, the term “merger” covers all three common types of M&A activity, as well as joint ventures; above certain thresholds, a merger becomes compulsorily notifiable.  On December 21, 2015, the Namibian Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development, in accordance with the powers conferred upon it under s43(1) and (2) of the Act, published a notice containing remarkable changes to the thresholds triggering the application of the merger regulations under the Act and thereby a compulsory notification.

Former thresholds

The previously applicable government notice on the determination of those thresholds, dated December 24, 2012, had established the following triggering values:

  • The combined assets, or combined annual turnover in, into or from Namibia of the acquiring and target undertakings exceed N$20 million (US$1.578 million, based on the Bank of Namibia 2015 average exchange rate)

or

  • The annual turnover of one of the undertaking plus the assets of the other undertaking exceed N$20 million

or

  • The asset value or the annual turnover in, into or from Namibia of the target undertaking exceeds N$10 million (US$ 789,000)

Revised thresholds

John Oxenham, an Africa practitioner with advisory firm Pr1merio, notes that  “[t]he December 2015 Government notice raised those thresholds by 50%, i.e. N$30 million and N$15 million respectively (US$ 2.367 and 1.1835 million). Furthermore, the revised notice sets out a two-tier calculation of the triggering thresholds, with two cumulative values to be considered,” as follows:

  • First, the combined assets, on the one hand, or annual turnover, on the other hand of the involved entities;
  • or, the cumulated value of the assets of one entity, and of the annual turnover of the other.
  • Yet even if one of those values exceeds N$30 million, the operation need not be notified if either the asset value of the annual turnover of the transferred undertaking is equal to or valued below N$15 million.

In other words, M&A targeting relatively small firms will not need to be notified, no matter how large the acquiring entity may be.

Yet the new notice maintains the possibility for the enforcement agency, the Namibian Competition Commission (the “Commission”), which came into operation in December 2008, to demand notification of a merger falling below those thresholds, if it considers it necessary to deal with the merger in terms of the Act.

namibiaAlthough the rationale of this provision is relatively clear, its phrasing raises questions as to the way it should be implemented. It is reasonable to believe that this regulation simply aims at allowing the Commission to investigate in all cases it deems useful. Indeed, the purpose of the thresholds is to sort out the potentially hazardous operations, as a form of “pre-selection” so as to avoid obstructing the Commission. But those thresholds should not bear the adverse consequence of preventing the Commission to exercise its control when it has reasonable grounds to consider that a “smaller” operation may cause harm to competition.

The notice lacks explicitly stated and pre-determined factors that could lead the Commission to such a finding, a loophole that arguably leaves way for arbitrary decisions. This goes against international best practices, as reaffirmed once again in a 2005 OECD report, considering that the criteria to determine whether a merger must be notified should be clear and objective.

Furthermore, it is unclear how the Commission could determine that a “small” merger needs to be notified, prior to any investigation. If this regulation simply requires the firms to provide the Commission with the information that would be asked in case of a mandatory notification, it is regrettable to make this unnecessary detour instead of recognising the Commission’s powers to request relevant documents and information as part of its general investigatory function.

As for the modification of the thresholds themselves, recent commentaries have praised the initiative, describing it as a “positive development”.

The explanatory note accompanying the Government notice referred, in particular, to the Recommended Practices of the International Competition Network (the “ICN”), together with comparative studies and analysis of the past efficiency of the thresholds’ level, as the basis for this reform.

Indeed, one of the first recommendations of the ICN is that “merger notification thresholds should incorporate appropriate standards of materiality as to the level of ‘local nexus’ required for merger notification”. The first comment of the ICN working group on this recommendation states that “each jurisdiction should seek to screen out transactions that are unlikely to result in appreciable competitive effects within its territory”. In particular, the material sales or assets level within the territory shall be important enough to justify the additional transaction costs entailed by the obligation to notify the operation.

In the case of Namibia in particular, a UNCTAD peer review conducted in 2014, while acknowledging the “fairly good competition law as enshrined in the Competition Act”, recommended a revision of the Namibian merger control. In particular, the UNCTAD report advocated for a review upwards of merger notification thresholds. In that regards, the Commission’s initiative is much welcome. Indeed, the UNCTAD report praised the Act for taking into account special requirements of the country’s economy, characterised by small undertakings. Arguably, the revised thresholds go a step further in this positive direction.

Conclusion

The public statistics on the Commission’s achievements show that since its setting up in 2009, the Commission’s M&A division has handled over 200 mergers. In November 2015, the Commission announced that it received a total of 60 merger notifications, of which 48 were approved during the current financial year of 2015/2016. The announced total value or purchase consideration for these merger notifications was about N$23,2 billion, and N$19,2 billion for the 48 approved mergers. Yet since “about 99%” of the total purchase consideration paid during the first quarter was one transaction, the relevance of the revised thresholds appears clearly.

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