Merger Control: Public Interest & SINOPEC/Chevron

When the Stick is Greater than the Carrot

While China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and global commodities trader and miner Glencore are the front runners in a bid to buy Chevron’s South African Business (Chevron SA), it appears that Sinopec has managed to edge ahead after the Chinese firm has agreed to a number of public interest conditions in an effort to placate the South African Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel (Patel) and avoid ministerial intervention before the Competition Tribunal’s (the agency responsible for approving the merger) hearing.

PublicInterestpic.jpgThe South African Competition Commission (SACC), responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the Tribunal, recently published its recommendation in relation to the proposed Sinopec-Chevron deal. Unsurprisingly, consistent with large mergers (particularly by foreign acquiring firms) – the SACC’s recommendations contain a number of non-merger specific public interest conditions. A feature of South African merger control which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years (refer to the AB-InBev/SAB or the SAB/Coca-Cola mergers) – largely as a result of Minister Patel’s ‘direct’ involvement in the merger control process.

It is not yet cast in stone that Sinopec will in fact be the acquiring entity as the minority shareholders in Chevron SA enjoy a right to first refusal. Regardless of the entity who is ultimately successful in acquiring Chevron SA (Chevron has confirmed that the proposed deal with Glencore is also currently before the SACC), the South African government has set its price for investing in South Africa, as confirmed by Minister Patel’s following statement:

Government will not choose to whom Chevron sells control of Chevron South Africa, but we will ensure that proper public interest conditions, in line with the Competition Act, should apply to whoever is the successful bidder,”

Apart from the significant Ministerial intervention and the direct influence this has on the SACC’s independent investigation and review of a merger, a particularly contentious issue in relation to the imposition of public interest conditions relates to the Minister’s comment that the public interest conditions are “in line with the Competition Act”.

Although conditions regarding employment falls within the scope of section 12A(3) of the South African Competition Act, the remainder of the recommendations made by the SACC in casu goes beyond what was envisaged by the legislature in Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act. In this regard, the conditions recommended by the SACC include inter alia the following:

  • Sinopec must set up its head office in South Africa in order for it to co-ordinate and oversee its operations in South Africa and to use South Africa as the platform to oversee its operations throughout Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes not to retrench any of its employees, in perpetuity;
  • Sinopec agrees to invest further in Chevron’s Cape Town refinery;
  • Sinopec undertakes to make a significant investment over and above the current investment plans of Chevron South Africa;
  • Sinopec must upgrade Chevron South Africa’s operations and expand its refinery capacity in South Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes to maintain Chevron SA’s current baseline number of independently owned petrol stations;
  • Where independently owned petrol stations are to be established, Sinopec must ensure that Chevron SA will give preference to small businesses, especially black-owned businesses;
  • Sinopec must ensure that Chevron will favour small businesses in granting rights in respect of any new retailer owned petrol stations.
  • Sinopec must also ensure that Chevron will increase its level of supplies of (liquefied petroleum gas) to black-owned businesses, following the expiration of current contractual arrangements; and
  • Sinopec must promote the export and sale of South African manufactured products for sale in China through its service stations network in China.

More specifically, Minister Patel requires that Sinopec makes a R6bn Capex investment, commits to increasing the level of BEE ownership in Chevron SA from 25% to 29% and, an all-time favourite condition, establish a development fund worth R200m.

As John Oxenham, Director of Primerio notes, the absence of merger specificity together with the imposition of public interest conditions which go far beyond the specified grounds listed in the Competition Act has been consistently criticised for resulting in uncertainty, delays and costs in the merger review process. It also sends a message to entities that South Africa is open to business… on condition (at a time when our economy could do with every bit of foreign direct investment).

Regardless of the criticism levelled against the role of public interest conditions in merger control proceedings, the prevalence of public interest conditions is set to play and even greater role in merger control (and competition enforcement more generally) should the Competition Amendment Bill be brought into effect.

John Oxenham further notes: “The Competition Amendment Bill has broadens the scope of the SACC’s powers with regards to public interest, to include the ability of small businesses to enter into, participate in and expand within the relevant market and the promotion of a greater spread of ownership.”

Practising competition law attorney, Michael-James Currie states: “The Bill has clearly sought to strengthen and codify the role of public interest conditions in merger control and expressly elevates public interest considerations to the same status as pure competition issues – the fact that the Bill specifically broadens the scope and role of public interest conditions brings into question whether the proposed conditions in the Chevron deal are in fact “in line with the (current) Competition Act”.

Competition law enforcement in South Africa is set for a significant shake-up to the extent that the Amendment Act is brought into effect – which is likely to occur in 2018. For further insight and commentary to the Amendment Bill, please see an AAT exclusive article here.

One message which business is desperately shouting across at the South African Government at the moment is “policy certainty!”  However, the SACC’s recommendation in casu and the proposed changes to the Competition Act is a move in the opposite direction as it seeks to place a great deal of discretion in the hands of a few key policy decision makers (namely the Minister of the Department of Economic Development and the SACC’s Commissioner). Discretion, exercised in a subjective manner, runs very much contrary to policy certainty – which, in light of an imminent cabinet reshuffle under new ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, may be of particular concern.

Although the Tribunal ultimately needs to approve the merger, the Tribunal is reluctant to intervene in proceedings which are uncontested – which Minister Patel knows all too well. Accordingly, as a crafty negotiator, Minister Patel is well aware that parties in the position of Sinopec have one of two options, agree to the public interest conditions and expedite the merger review or proceed with a contested hearing which will most likely be opposed by the Minister.

Despite calls for a more consistent, certain and transparent application of competition law in South Africa, however, there seems to be a move away from international best practice and competition law enforcement in South Africa and once the Amendment Act is brought into effect, there is a material risk that political influence will undermine the independence, impartiality and effective enforcement of competition law in South Africa to subjective, unqualified and discretion based enforcement.

[The ATT editors wish to thank Charl van Merwe for his assistance with drafting this article]

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