By Michael-James Currie
[*Michael-James Currie is a practising competition lawyer based in Johannesburg and a regular contributor to Africanantitrust]
The South African Competition Amendment Act was signed into law by the President on 13 February 2019.
Two of the contentious aspects which were raised during the drafting of the Amendment Bill related to the price discrimination prohibitions and the introduction of express “buyer power” provisions. The key areas of concern relates to the fact that these practices are not ordinarily anti-competitive but quite the opposite – they are generally pro-competitive and more often than not lead to an increase in consumer welfare. Simply put, price discrimination allows firms to charge different customers a price relevant to what those customers are prepared to pay. In other words, it enables firms to ensure that the customer utility is maximized. If firms are obliged (or consider themselves required) to set prices at a uniform price, it is unlikely that the firm will adopt the “lowest price point” at which to sell its products but rather an average or the highest price point. This means that while customers who were prepared to pay more for a product at a certain price point may enjoy some discount, those customers who were only prepared to pay for the product at the lowest price point will either have to cough up more or will not buy the product altogether. Intuitively this results in a decrease in consumer welfare.
From a buyer power perspective, provided the downstream market is competitive, any buyer power exerted upstream will result in lower prices to consumers.
The Minister of the Department of Economic Development has published draft Regulations in relation to Price Discrimination and Buyer Power respectively in an effort to provide greater clarity as to how these provisions ought to be applied.
The Regulations will be particularly relevant to companies who have a market share in excess of 35% – therefore rebuttably presumed to be dominant – as they affect both the upstream and downstream pricing and more importantly, do not require any assessment of anti-competitive or consumer welfare effects. Instead, the provisions introduce a public interest standard against which to assess these practices. The Regulations expressly state that the assessment against the public interest standards does not require a consideration of anti-competitive or consumer welfare effects. In other words, a firm could be found liable to an administrative penalty despite its conduct being pro-competitive or enhancing consumer welfare.
Although the most contentious amendments brought about by the Amendment Act are aimed at dominant entities, it should be noted that the thresholds for being considered dominant in terms of the Competition Act are low. A firm is rebuttably presumed to be dominant if it has a market share (in a specific product or geographical market) between 35%-45% while a firm with a market share in excess of 45% is irrebuttably presumed to be dominant.
This raises the question as to why the price discrimination and buyer power provisions only apply to so-called “dominant entities”. The primary purpose for prescribing dominance thresholds based on market shares is that it serves an important (although contentious) screening process for purposes of determining when a firm is likely to have “market power”. The assumption being that the higher a firm’s market shares the more likely it is that the firm in question has market power. Market power in short refers to the ability of a firm to set prices above a competitive level for a sustained period of time. Consequently, assessing a firms’ “market power” is the crucial for purposes of determining whether a firm’s conduct is anti-competitive or harmful to consumers. Turning to the draft Regulations, however, if anti-competitive effects or consumer welfare are not factors taken into account when assessing the conduct against the price discrimination or buy power provisions from a public interest perspective, then there is no rationale link between “dominant firms” and the prohibited conduct itself.
The lack of economic rationale supporting the objectives of the Act’s amendments together with the Regulations benchmarks results in a legal framework which seems uncertain, subjective and risks dampening pro-competitive conduct. John Oxenham, Director at Primerio says that the Bill, together with the Regulations, has the potential to have a dampening effect on pro-competitive conduct as firms may be overly cautious in their commercial practices as the risk of “getting it wrong” exposes firms to potential administrative penalties and reputational risk.
What follows, however, is a high level summary of the legal framework insofar as it applies to price discrimination and buyer power.
In relation to the price discrimination and buyer power provisions, it is noteworthy that:
- the impact on small, medium and HDI owned firms is separate and independent from any assessment as to whether the alleged conduct is anti-competitive or adverse to the consumer welfare;
- there is a reverse onus on the dominant entity to demonstrate that its conduct is justifiable once a prima facie case has been made out against the respondent; and
- differentiating between customers or suppliers based only on “quantity” of products bought/sold (as the case may be) is essentially prohibited. There are, however, certain permissible grounds which justify differentiation in price or trading terms.
The Bill introduces a dual assessment for price discrimination in terms of which a firm can be found guilty of price discrimination either where its pricing has the effect or substantially lessening competition or where its pricing “impede[s] the ability of small and medium businesses and firms controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons to participate effectively.” It has further been made clear by way of the Draft Regulations that under the second assessment, there is no need for a complainant to show any anti-competitive or consumer harm – a complainant only needs to demonstrate a hindrance to being able to participate effectively in the market.
It is also an offence for a firm to avoid or refuse selling goods or services to a purchaser who is a small or medium business or controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons in order to circumvent the operation of section 9.
Once a prima facie case has been made out by a complainant, the onus rests on the dominant entity (as the respondent) to demonstrate that its pricing strategy does not impede the ability of small businesses or firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons to participate effectively in the market (and that it has not avoided or refused selling to a particular purchaser).
The Bill expressly precludes a dominant entity relying on “different quantities” alone as a defence if there is a prima facie case of price discrimination which impedes the ability of small, medium or HDI owned firms to “participate effectively” in the market. In other words, the Bill is aimed at protecting businesses who are unable to obtain the same prices as larger customers due only to their limited size.
The draft Regulations published in terms of section 9(4) sets out the relevant factors and benchmarks for determining whether the practice set out in subsection (1)(a)(ii) impedes the ability of a small and medium business or a firm owned or controlled by a historically disadvantaged person, to “participate effectively”.
The Regulations set out further factors which ought to be taken into account when assessing the impact that the price discrimination has customers. There must, however, be a causal connection between the price discrimination and the complainant’s inability to participate effectively in the market. “Participate effectively” is defined as the “ability of or the opportunity for firms to sustain themselves in the market”.
In terms of the Regulations, a dominant firm, in a sector designated by the Minister, is prohibited from imposing unfair prices or trading conditions on “a supplier that is a small and medium business or a firm controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons…”. It is also an offence for the dominant firm to refuse or avoid purchasing from such a supplier.
This includes discounts, rebates, commissions, allowances and credit and that firms cannot contract out of the rights contained in this sections.
A price/condition will be unfair if it is inferior relative to other suppliers and there is no reasonable rationale for the difference or where it impedes the ability of a firm to sustainably operate and grow its business. A designated supplier may not be prejudiced based on its size and accordingly volume based differences are not justifiable as a standalone defence.
With regard to ‘trading conditions’, the Regulations sets out various examples of terms which are impermissible vis-à-vis designated suppliers. These include, inter alia, terms which unreasonably transfers risk/costs to the suppliers, is one sided or bares no relation to the objective of the supply agreement and unfair payment terms.
Examples of unfair trading terms include:
- Trading without a contract, which imposes uncertainty and risk on the supplier, whilst at the same time denying them standard contractual rights and protections;
- Imposing costs or risks onto the supplier that are not spelt out in a clear and unambiguous manner or quantified within the supply contract;
- Unilateral changes in the supply terms that are detrimental to the supplier;
- Retrospectively changing supply terms of a material nature to the detriment of the supplier;
- Excessively long payment terms;
- An unreasonable transfer of the buyer’s costs of promotion and marketing onto the supplier; and
- Transfer of the buyer’s risks of wastage or shrinkage onto the supplier where it is not due to the supplier’s negligence or fault.
It is unfortunate that the Draft Regulations were published after the Bill itself has already been passed by Parliament. At the time of promulgating the Bill, assurances were given that the Regulations would provide clarity and objectivity in relation to the price discrimination provisions in particular. The Draft Regulations have not addressed the concerns raised by many commentators during the promulgation of the Bill. Instead, the Draft Regulations are now ostensibly being justified on the basis that Parliament has approved the Bill and is, therefore, in keeping with the objectives of the Bill. This “circular logic” is a process flaw in the promulgation process, which has seemingly been capitalized on by the Department of Economic Development.
Regardless, it is unlikely that their will be a materiel amendments to the draft Regulations and therefore the new landscape in relation to price discrimination and buyer power enforcement is likely to become effective imminently – raising unique but important challenges from a compliance perspective.