Insurance companies raided by antitrust agency for alleged rate-setting collusion

PRICE-FIXING ALLEGATIONS LEAD TO THURSDAY’S DAWN RAIDS AT MAJOR SOUTH AFRICAN INSURANCE COMPANIES

By Michael-James Currie and Joshua Eveleigh

On 25 August 2022, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) announced that it was conducting so-called ‘dawn raids’ as part of an ongoing investigation into the industry, initiated in 2021. The raid took place simultaneously at 8 of South Africa’s major insurance firms: Discovery Limited; Hollard Insurance Group (Pty) Ltd; Momentum, a division of MNI Limited; Old Mutual Limited; BrightRock Life Limited; FMI, a division of Bidvest Life Limited; Professional Provident Society Limited, and South African National Life Assurance Company (Pty) Ltd (together, the “Insurance Firms”).

Notably, all of the Insurance Firms operate within the long-term insurance market.

The SACC’s decision to raid the premises of the Insurance Firms comes as the result of suspicions that the they had agreed to fix prices and/or trading terms in relation to certain investment products in contravention of section 4(1)(i) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”). Specifically, the SACC stated that it was in possession of information implicating the Insurance Firms in a scheme to share information regarding premium rates on risk-related products and fees for other investment products.

Says John Oxenham, a lawyer with Primerio Ltd., “[a]lthough dawn raids form part of the SACC’s ordinary evidence gathering procedure and is not indicative of the guilt of the Insurance Firms, the sharing of information would enable the coordination of increased prices.” Given that the clients of the Insurance Firms include both natural and juristic persons, the effect of the alleged conduct would have far-reaching and adverse effects on consumers, particularly where those consumers are sensitive to price increases.  Continues attorney Oxenham: “In this respect, it would be unsurprising if the SACC were to continue on its path of highlighting ‘public-interest‘ objectives by pursuing the investigation against the Insurance Firms and seeking the maximum penalty in respect of a contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i) – 10% of the Firm’s annual turnover in and from South Africa, for first-time offenders.”

Mr. Oxenham’s colleague, Andreas Stargard, notes the size of the RSA insurance market, and points out that the dawn raids occurred across the entire geography of the Republic of South Africa: “South Africa alone makes up over two-thirds of all African insurance premiums continent-wide! Today, the SACC’s spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed today that 5 sites were raided in Gauteng, 2 in the Western Cape, and 1 in KwaZulu-Natal. This simultaneous and unannounced action is testament to the Commission’s bench strength, no doubt assisted by local provincial law-enforcement authorities, as is usually the case across in antitrust raids across the globe, where the actual evidence-gathering procedure is not only undertaken by government competition lawyers, but rather significantly assisted by local police, sheriffs, or similar enforcement agencies”. Finally, Stargard notes, “it remains to be seen whether this raid occurred as a result purely of the agency’s prior sector investigation, or whether there was (or were) any whistleblower(s) seeking leniency for their participation in the alleged cartel conduct, thus enabling the SACC to pursue a targeted and well-founded raid.”

Interestingly, a U.S. consulting firm, McKinsey, which has been involved with several South African government agencies and quasi-governmental entities, recently published an article entitled “Africa’s insurance market is set for takeoff“, noting that the “African insurance market’s immaturity points to significant scope for growth”:

Africa’s insurance industry is valued at about $68 billion in terms of GWP and is the eighth largest in the world—although this is not equally distributed across the continent. Markets are inconsistent in terms of size, mix, growth, and degree of consolidation, with 91 percent of premiums concentrated in just ten countries. South Africa, the largest and most established insurance market, accounts for 70 percent of total premiums. Outside of South Africa, we see six primary insurance regions in Africa. In the Southern Africa region, 54 percent of premiums are for life insurance. Nonlife insurance, however, plays a larger role in anglophone West Africa, North Africa, East Africa, and even more so in francophone Africa

It remains to be seen whether the effect of today’s raids in the RSA will hinder the predicted “takeoff” of the insurance industry, or assist in its growth within permissible, lawful boundaries.

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