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South Africa: PepsiCo acquisition of Pioneer recommended for approval, at a price!

On 11 February 2020, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) recommended that PepsiCo’s acquisition of Pioneer Foods, be approved, subject to a number of conditions.

Despite there being no material overlap between the parties which give rise to any competition concerns, the Commission has proposed substantial public interest related conditions – including the establishment of an enterprise development fund and a BBBEE deal worth R1.6 billion in order to spread ownership among historically disadvantaged persons.

It is not yet confirmed whether the merging parties have agreed to these conditions although I strongly suspect that they have so as to avoid third party intervention.

The Commission has, as per its media release, recommended that the Tribunal approves the merger subject to several public interest commitments including:

(i) A moratorium on merger related retrenchments for a certain period;

(ii) The creation of additional jobs at the merged entity;

(iii) Significant investment in the operations of the merged entity, the agricultural sector and the establishment of an enterprise development fund; and

(iv) A B-BBEE transaction to the value of at least R1.6 billion that will promote a greater spread of ownership and participation by workers / historically disadvantaged South Africans.

Many of our readers will recall that the AB InBev/SAB and SAB/Coca-Cola mergers in 2016 were only recommended for approval by the SACC (in the face of Minister Patel’s intervention in these mergers) following the merging parties’ commitment to establish similar development funds. Further, Minister Patel (responsible for the executive portfolio which overseas the competition authorities) has on a number of occasions expressly indicated that he will look to intervene in large mergers by foreign firms in order to extract additional commitments to advance socio-economic objectives.

Those who monitored the AB InBev/SAB transaction will recall that executives of the merging parties engaged Minister Patel directly and negotiated the “public interest” conditions. A transaction of that nature, two of the world’s largest beer manufacturers, took approximately 6 months to obtain final approval in South Africa. Approval which included approximately a R1 billion “development fund”.

Prior to this merger, SAB and Coca-Cola had engaged with the SACC for approximately 18 months in order to obtain approval. After AB InBev acquired SAB, SAB also offered a supplier development and agreed to pay R600 million to this fund. The transaction was approved shortly thereafter. This was despite the Commission not having identified any material competition concerns.

While the merging parties may have consented to these conditions in an effort to avoid protracted hearings before the adjudicative bodies, the blatant extortion of foreign firms seeking to invest in South Africa is concerning and certainly does not assist or support President Ramaphosa’s foreign investment drive. Minister Patel has been prone to utilising market inquiries in an effort to address perceived high levels of concentration in the market (despite the vast unintended consequences of destabilizing those industries, sectors and private firms who are actually sustainable in challenging economic times and offer consumers great products and prices). It would be interesting to have a market study commissioned that attempts to quantify the amount of “lost foreign investment” into South Africa as a result of the political climate, interference and policy uncertainty. The number of jobs and spinoff benefits from that foreign investment is likely to substantially exceed any “supplier development fund” benefits which Patel seems to be vindicated in extracting from those firms who are actually prepared to invest in South Africa. Such a study wouldn’t even be particularly difficult to conduct. Survey foreign firms and ask how interested would they be to invest in South Africa if the merger filing fee for multinational foreign firms was lets say R1 billion (USD65 million)? South Africa would have to be a very attractive environment to operate in to justify that sort of commitment.

 

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