Tax Man Patel Strikes Again: Merger Conditions Going Beyond Antitrust
By Michael-James Currie
On 4 May 2016, it was announced that the merging parties to the SABMiller/Coca-Cola merger have agreed to establish a R850 million development fund in order to address public interest concerns raised by the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel.
The latest deal struck with Patel follows the R1 billion commitment from the merging parties in the SABMiller/AB-Inbev merger less than a month ago.
Collectively, these two commitments, which equate to R1.85 billion (or approximately U.S. $132 million), exceed the total administrative penalties which were paid by over 13 firms in the “construction cartel” (in 2013, the total penalties amounted to approximately R1.4 billion) which is regarded as the most significant and highly publicised cartel to be investigated and prosecuted by the Competition Commission to date.
A South African competition practitioner with knowledge of the recent cases observed that “[c]onsidering that there have been, in our view, no substantial arguments raised that either of the two mergers pose any substantial anti-competitive concerns, it appears absurd that to date, not a single administrative penalty imposed on a firm for hardcore cartel conduct matches the quantum which the respective merging parties have agreed to pay to get their deals done.” It further appears evident that the conditions imposed, although broadly described by the Minister as being necessary to address public interest concerns, are in fact at all merger specific.
In a clear move to placate Minister Patel and preclude further intervention by the Minister which may have the effect of delaying the merger, the merging parties in both mergers respectively, have agreed to these conditions. The timing of the two commitments are, however, illuminating.
The commitment made by the merging parties to the SAB/Coca-Cola merger, which was filed at the Competition Commission in March 2015, comes after the Competition Commission itself recommended that the merger be approved subject to an agreed R150 million development fund to help train and support historically disadvantaged farmers and suppliers. Despite the agreement reached with the Competition Commission and a confirmed hearing in May 2016 (effectively 14 months after the proposed transaction was filed) the merging parties have recognised the risk of further delays should Minster Patel intervene during the hearing proceedings.
In contrast, the in the SAB/AB In-Bev deal, the top executives met with Minster Patel soon after the deal was notified (albeit behind closed door discussions outside of the SACC’s merger-control process) in an attempt to pre-empt Minster Patel’s intervention. It is expected that the Competition Commission would, today, conclude its investigation and make its recommendations to the Competition Tribunal some four months after the this deal was filed at the competition authorities.
Minister Patel has expressed his satisfaction with the two ‘agreements’ as it is in line with his express commitment to target multinational deals, in particular, in order to promote government’s industrial policies and socio-economic objectives.
In the world of commercial negotiations and deal-making, the parties are, however, hardly in an equally bargaining position when before the competition authorities – a bargaining chip in Minister Patel’s favour which is no doubt aware of.
Whether the strategies adopted by the merging parties in respect of both the SABMiller/Ab-Inbev or the SAB/Coca-Cola merger will pave the way for the expeditious conclusion of the review process remains to be seen (although we would tend to think it certainly will in Patel’s absence from the hearings). The agreements will, however, certainly influence the Landscape of merger control in South Africa.
The precedent set by these two proposed mergers will no doubt result in greater uncertainty in South Africa’s merger control process as the message seems clear. If merging parties want to get a multinational deal concluded in South Africa and you are in Minister Patel’s sights, pay-up – irrespective of the merger specific effects of the deal.
As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merio antitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa notes: “It will be interesting to see whether the Competition Tribunal, which is tasked with ultimately approving or prohibiting a large merger, will consider whether the interventionist conditions imposed by the current ministry and agreed to by the merging parties are in fact merger-specific.” Although the Tribunal is often reluctant to get involved in conditions which have been agreed to by the respective parties, the Tribunal should be cognisant of the fact that orders of the Tribunal are precedent setting and that imposing conditions to a merger which go beyond what is necessary in terms of the Competition Act as far as merger specificity is concerned, may be undesirable.
Both parties to both recent mergers have agreed to further public interest-related conditions pertaining to employment. In the SAB/Coca-Cola deal, the parties have further agreed to “maintaining employment at current levels for three years and not reduce jobs by natural attrition”, however, may retrench up to 250 “non-unionised” head office employees. Despite the intervention by Minister Patel (who formerly headed the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, it would appear completely outside the realm of competition policy if the Competition Tribunal imposes this condition, as effectively the competition authorities would be providing greater protection to trade union members as opposed to non-trade union members. A clearer indication of a complete lack of merger specificity may be hard to come by.