South Africa: Trilogy of Rulings Against the Competition Commission Demonstrates the Importance of Following Proper Procedure

In three recent decisions, two by the Competition Tribunal and one by the Competition Appeal Court, a number of important procedural flaws were exposed in the manner in which certain complaints were initiated against various respondents. The Competition Appeal Court even made an adverse costs order against the Competition Commission in one of the cases. We discuss these important decisions below.

Misjoinder of Parent Company

The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) had recently alleged that Power Construction (West Cape) Pty Ltd (“West Cape”) and Haw and Inglis (Pty) Ltd (“H&I”) colluded in respect of a tender submitted to South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL). The tender was in respect of maintenance services. The SACC alleges both parties had contravened section 4(1)(b)(ii) and (iii) of the South African Competition Act (the “Act”).  The parent company of West Cape, Power Construction (Pty) Ltd (“Power Construction”) was cited as a respondent on the basis that it would be liable to pay the administrative penalty. Power Construction, had engaged in “with prejudice” settlement negotiations.

The SACC refused the proffer and informed Power Construction that after having  considered the settlement proceed that it was clear that Power Construction and West Cape (being the subsidiary of Power Construction) shared a majority of their respective directors which, according to the SACC, was sufficient to implicate Power Construction in the alleged collusive conduct. Accordingly, the SACC alleged that any Administrative Should be calculated using the higher annual turnover figures of Power Construction.

Power Construction disputed this, arguing that it was never alleged by the SACC that Power Construction had contravened the Act. The SACC then opted to amend its referral to include Power Construction. On application to the South African Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”), the Tribunal dismissed the proposed amendment on the basis that the SACC had failed to provide any material evidence to establish a prime facia case in favour the relevant amendment, stating that the burden remains on the applicant to prove that it is deserving of the amendment by putting sufficient factual allegations before the Tribunal.

In conclusion, the Tribunal also confirmed that the amendment could regardless have been rendered excipiable based on prescription. In this matter, the alleged conduct ceased more than three years prior to the Commission becoming aware of the conduct.

Prescription

In a further case, namely the Competition Commission and Pickfords Removals SA, regarding the interpretation of section 67(1) of the Act (namely that dealing with prescription), the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) was very recently called to decide on the correct date for the running of prescription in terms of section 67(1) of the Act.

The SACC (being the appellant in the matter), brought an appeal to the CAC after the Tribunal held that the complaint initiated by the SACC was time barred in terms of section 67 of the Act.

The SACC disputed this and submitted that prescription in terms of section 67 of the Act should only commence from the date on which the Commissioner or Complainant acquired knowledge of the prohibited practice and, alternatively, that the Tribunal has a discretion to condone non-compliance with this 3-year time period. The latter issue was central to the dispute.

The question was further complicated by the fact that the SACC filed two compliant initiations against the respondents. The SACC submitted that the so called ‘second initiation’ was merely an amendment to the first initiation. So the SACC argued, even if the time period had begun running when the practice had stopped, the time period in question would still not have expired.

In this regard, the CAC held that the SACC has the power to amend a compliant initiation and that it must be taken at its word on whether a second initiation is an amendment to the first or a separate and distinct complaint initiation. This is so, particularly where both complaint initiations concern the same conduct, in the same market and where the first complaint initiation states that the conduct is ongoing.

In relation to the issue of prescription, the CAC held that section 67 cannot be equated with section 12 of the South African Prescription Act which provides for prescription to commence  from the moment on which the “creditor acquires knowledge of the identity of the debtor and the relevant fact from which the debt arises”. Section 49B(1) of the Prescription Act provides for a much lower threshold, being the ‘reasonable suspicion of the existence of a prohibited practice’.

Accordingly, it must be accepted that the time bar in section 67 is intended to be a limitation of the Commissioner’s wide ranging powers (to prevent investigation into historic matters which are no longer in the public interest) and that the knowledge requirement contained in the Prescription Act cannot be read into this limitation as argued by the SACC. It follows then, based on this reasoning that there can similarly be no condonation by the Tribunal or the CAC on these matters.

For completeness sake, the CAC confirmed the general understanding that, for purposes of section 67, the alleged prohibited conduct will be deemed to have ceased on the date on which the respondent last benefited from the prohibited conduct (e.g. the date on which it last received payment under the agreement). In this regard, the Tribunal initially ordered the parties to produce evidence of the date on which the last payment was received. The CAC deemed this appropriate and opted not to interfere with this order.

Condonation and Costs

The Tribunal was also called recently upon to decide two interlocutory applications, the first being a condonation application brought by the SACC in terms of section 54 of the Act for the late filing of its revised trial bundle (containing an additional 1221 pages), which was opposed by the respondents (Much Asphalt and Roadmac Surfing) and finally a counter application for costs against the SACC.

In terms of the condonation application, the SACC sought to revise the trial bundle on the basis that the revised trial bundle contained documents which were essential to its case (which were inadvertently omitted from its initial bundle) and had been re-organized in a manner that was less burdensome for all the parties involved. In support, the SACC argued, that the respondents wouldn’t be prejudiced by the late filing as the extra documents had already been discovered.

The Tribunal confirmed that the test for condonation must be ‘good cause shown’ by the SACC which should be assessed on case by case basis. The Tribunal held that the SACC had not shown good cause in this matter as it had ample time to furnish the respondents with the revised bundle and further found that filing the revised bundle at the 11th hour was unnecessarily prejudicial to the respondents.

south_africaIn terms of applications for costs, the respondents sought an order for wasted costs in relation to the postponement due to the late furnishing of the bundle as well as the cost of defending the application for condonation. Importantly it should be borne in mind that the Tribunal does not as a matter of course make cost orders against the SACC.  In this regard, the Constitutional Court has previously held that the Tribunal does not have the powers to make adverse cost orders against the SACC, even where the SACC has abused its powers. The general rule is that the parties pay their own costs. The Tribunal may only make cost orders against third parties and, accordingly, dismissed the respondent’s application for costs.

John Oxenham, director of Primerio says that these cases demonstrate the objectivity and impartiality of the adjudicative bodies which is an encouraging sign for respondents who do not believe that the case brought against them is procedural or substantively fair.

Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says it is unfortunate that only the Competition Appeal Court makes adverse costs rulings and that the Competition Tribunal is precluded from doing so. Adverse costs ruling against the SACC should be reserved for matters in which there was clear negligence in the manner in which a case was investigated, pleaded or prosecuted. Such costs orders would, however, go a long way in ensuring that parties and in particular the prosecution agency, does not refer cases  to the adjudicative bodies (which have limited prospects of success) with no downside risk in losing the case.

Oxenham shares Currie‘s sentiment and suggests that adverse costs orders against the Commission will likely result in a more efficient enforcement regime as cases will be settled more expeditiously and respondents will be more reluctant to oppose the Competition Commission’s complaints with the knowledge that the SACC is confident in its case and prepared to accept the risk of an adverse costs order.

[The Editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this article]

 

 

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Africa: Increased growth rates, innovative banking sector, investment vs. development aid

The above topics were among those discussed at this year’s #AfricaFinanceForum, hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa.  The annual event featured high-level speakers, such as Rhoda Weeks-Brown, IMF General Counsel, who pointed to increased expected economic growth rates of 3.5% in 2019 (half a point higher than in 2018) and a faster per-capita income rise in Africa  than in rest of the world.  “Also up for debate was the dichotomy of investment vs. development assistance as the key driver of economic development on the continent,” notes Andreas Stargard, who attended on behalf of Primerio Ltd.

Ms. Weeks-Brown noted the rise of pan-African (vs. purely domestic) banks, observing the added benefit of improved competition, as well as the steady rise of fintech on the continent. The latter is especially important as the continent is still under-banked and relies heavily on the informal sector (less than 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has a bank account).  Yet Africa leads the world in mobile money.  Mr. Stargard noted that “[s]he and many other speakers on subsequent panels agreed that there was a delicate balance to be struck by regulators and legislators of weighing innovation against the proper level of FinTech regulation and its integration benefits against anti-competitive effects thereof.  The IMF attorney was careful to point out that banking & financial integration must grow in conjunction with, and to support, economic and trade integration, as financial stability is a public good.  Africa requires strong sector regulators that must remain free from undue political or industry interference.”

Kalidou Gadio, a lawyer at Manatt, provided a sanguine assessment of the state of banking in Africa, noting that it is not up to par globally, but better than it was a decade ago, before and during the financial crisis. He also pointed to the net positive effect of banks facing increasing competition from newcomers to the space, such as Orange, M-Pesa and other telecom firms.

Dr. Maxwell Opoku-Afari, First Deputy Governor of the national Bank of Ghana observed the difficulties in setting proper licensing rules for fintech companies by central banks, and commented on the concentration risk in banking.

Phumzile Langeni, special investment envoy of the RSA, gave an objective speech on the investment opportunities in South Africa, including the President’s FDI incentive programme.  She answered difficult questions with aplomb — for example those about the country’s land reforms, infrastructure troubles, and unemployment — and spoke of the enormous growth potential and the “youth dividend” in South Africa and the continent in general.

The half-day event was rounded out by a panel focussed on central banks’ handling of the unique foreign-exchange problems faced by certain African nations, notably Mozambique and Angola, whose central banks had representatives on the panel, including the issues of ForEx reserve allocation and pegged rates.

Global ATR economics conference – end of May

Concurrences, in partnership with NYU Stern, will hold the fourth annual Global Antitrust Economics Conference on Friday, May 31 2019 from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm at NYU Stern School of Business.

There will be four panels:

  • Panel 1: Antitrust in Sports
  • Panel 2: Telecom Mergers
  • Panel 3: Pricing Issues in Pharma: Pay-For-Delay, Product Hopping…
  • Panel 4: In-House Counsel Session: Platforms

You can see confirmed speakers, and register for free at http://globalantitrusteconomics.eventbrite.com

 

GCR Matter of the Year 2019 awarded to AG deal with significant African dimension

Primerio’s Merger Team First to Obtain Clearances on Bayer’s $66 Billion Monsanto Acquisition

The Global Competition Review 2019 GCR Awards honoured the companies and their in-house and outside counsel responsible for shepherding the massive agriculture transaction through the multi-jurisdictional merger-control processes around the globe.  The Bayer/Monsanto (with divestitures to BASF) merger garnered overall “Matter of the Year” as well as “Merger Control Matter of the Year” in Europe.  The ceremony took place in Washington, D.C., during the annual ABA Spring Meeting antitrust conference.

The legal team advising St. Louis-based Monsanto on all African competition approvals was led by John Oxenham and Andreas Stargard, ably assisted by attorneys in 4 African jurisdictions — South Africa, COMESA, Tanzania, and Kenya.  The Primerio lawyers had the unique distinction of obtaining the first out of dozens of required clearances.

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham, of Primerio

Competition enforcer terminates RPM investigation into Coca-Cola

COMESA’s second restrictive trade practices investigation ends inconclusively

Having now concluded two non-merger cases (the first was an exclusivity issue in football broadcasting and sponsorship agreements, see here), the COMESA Competition Commission’s (“CCC”) second investigation into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola and its distributors has culminated in somewhat of an indeterminate ending.

No fines were imposed, and the Coca-Cola parties agreed to eliminate the price-maintenance clause from their distribution contracts, as well as committing to implementing a generic compliance programme.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., in an in-depth analysis of the short Decision (dated 6th December 2018, but only released recently):

I am very disappointed in this missed opportunity.  The Decision lacks intellectual rigour and avoids critical detail, to assist practitioners or business going forward in any meaningful way.

This investigation began in earnest well over a year ago, when the CCC opened formal Article 22 proceedings against the parties in January 2018.  In its disappointingly short 9-paragraph decision, lacking any degree of detailed reasoning, factual or legal analysis underlying its conclusions, the Commission has now determined the following:

  1. The relevant product market is the sale of non-alcoholic carbonated beverages.  I note that the wording of this definition would presumably include sparkling mineral water, which appears to be an outlier from the ‘soft drinks’ category that is actually at issue here (“Coke,” Fanta,” “Sprite,” etc.).
  2. A relevant geographic market was notably not defined at all (!).  The absence of this key dimension is unfortunate — it is not in accordance with established competition-law principles, as market power can only be measured in well-defined product and geographic markets.  While the decision mentions the countries in which the parties are active, it fails to identify whether each country was viewed as a relevant sub-market, or whether Coca-Cola’s market power (or dominance) was assessed across the entire COMESA region.  This appears to be a glaring oversight.
  3. The CCC found relatively low entry barriers, as well as apparently actual “new product” entry (NB: does “new product” imply products by a new or different competitor?).
  4. Yet, despite ‘non-prohibitive’ entry barriers, the Commission somehow views the mere fact that the respondent’s brands “continued to command a majority share of the relevant markets” (NB: where is the plural (‘markets’) coming from here? I thought there was only a single market for ‘non-alcoholic carbonated beverages’?) as leading to a finding of dominance.
  5. Crucially, the actual conduct complained-of (the vertical restraints, the alleged RPM, etc.) is barely identified and lacks any significant detail.  Paragraph 7 merely provides that there are “clauses which stipulate the profit margins to be enjoyed by the distributors, as well as the commission at different levels of the market. … [and] vertical restraints which constrain the distributors’ conduct in the relevant markets” (note the plural again).  This absence of key information — ‘what were these so-called vertical restraints’? how were distributors constrained in their conduct? — in an official ‘Decision’  by the enforcement agency wholly fails to assist businesses seeking antitrust guidance for operating within the legal boundaries in the COMESA region.
  6. Finally, the CCC’s overall conclusion is rather weak: the Decision states that the Commission merely “registered its concern that the stipulation of prices [I thought it was profit margins?] may have anti-competitive effects in the market [back to a single market?].”  To address these ‘potential’ ‘concerns’, Coca-Cola appears to have voluntarily committed to removing the offending contract language and instituting a (wholly undefined) “compliance program” that exclusively concerns Part III of COMESA’s regulations.

In sum, Coca-Cola seems to have got away easy here: no fine was imposed at all (which could have been as much as 10% of the parties’ COMESA revenues), a limited, voluntary training exercise was agreed, as was the removal of the RPM provision.

The CCC, on the other hand, missed a truly golden opportunity to draft a more well-reasoned decision.  Its 9-paragraph reasoning (which notably concludes with a finding of actual dominance nonetheless!) can literally fit on a single page… Remember: resale price maintenance is considered in many jurisdictions to be a “hard-core” offence, and is often deemed per se illegal.  In this regard, the Decision likewise fails to make any mention of the relevant legal standard under the COMESA Regulations for evaluating the RPM (and the other unidentified, vertical) conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

The flaws outlined above — from the lack of geographic market definition, missing market share data and other highly relevant details, zero explanation of why low entry barriers somehow did not preclude a finding of dominance, use of tautological and circuitous verbiage (“restraints which constrain“?) — preclude this “conduct” case,  notably already a rarity in the CCC’s portfolio, to be a lightning rod for the assent of the COMESA Competition Commission to become a respected competition enforcer.  This was a chance for the agency to be placed on the radar screen of international businesses, agencies and practitioners, to be seen together on the map with its respected peer antitrust enforcers such as the South African Competition Commission — yet, it was a chance unfortunately missed…

 

Moroccan telecom sector gets competition regulation

AAT has learned that the fledgling Moroccan antitrust regime, which has never quite come off the ground, is now being supplemented in a sector-specific regulation, namely the recently gazetted Droit [Law] no. 121.12.

The new law supplements the competition guidance specifically for telecommunications carriers, including high-speed internet and fibre-optic cable service providers, without repealing the main piece of antitrust legislation (Law no. 104.12 on the Freedom of Prices and Competition), whose key regulatory body — the Competition Council (Conseil de la Concurrence) — only recently became active in December 2018.  Law 121.12 now confers full investigative authority to the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (ANRT), which it enables to review complaints of anti-competitive behaviour, roaming agreements between competitors, and the like.

Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio, notes that “the law is primarily focussed on conduct issues and does not cater for any transactional / merger regulation, which remains the province of Law 104.12 and its crucial (and much debated) ‘40% domestic market share’ hurdle for notifications in the Kingdom.”  Stargard notes that the Competition Council’s web site is still — despite the agency’s recent personnel appointments — merely an “empty store-front of a site, without any substantive content.”

The new telecom-specific regulation is likely to have an impact on, and was influenced by, the limited state of play in the sector, which has been dominated for decades by state monopoly Maroc Telecom, whose would-be competitors such as Orange and Inwi have recently filed complaints against the dominant firm, mostly for refusals to deal, being denied access to indispensable networks, roaming agreements, and the like.

Says Stargard: “The new law will take such disputes out of the lengthy judicial process in court and allow the ANRT to investigate and render decisions on its own, including the power to fine up to 5% of a company’s turnover.

We will update AAT once further details become available.

KENYA: ENFORCEMENT ALERT

Restrictive Practices

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) recently announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with local beer producer Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL), a subsidiary of UK Diageo’s East African Breweries Ltd (EABL).

The settlement follows from an investigation by the CAK in terms of section 21 of the Competition Act (12 of 2010) wherein the CAK had found that KBL’s distribution agreements with its downstream distributors – which provides for inter alia, territorial exclusivity  – is anti-competitive and may lead to the lessening of intra-brand competition.

The settlement was reached in terms of section 38 of the Competition Act and requires that KBL establish an internal compliance policy and review and amend the problematic and restrictive clauses in its agreements with distributors.

Michael-James Currie, an African focused competition lawyer, says that the decision is particularly important for companies which use third parties to execute their distribution strategies as the majority of distribution agreements contain restrictions of some kind (often transported from international distribution agreements) which will need to be assessed against the standards of the Competition Act in Kenya as the CAK is actively focusing on these types of restrictive verticals arrangements.

Abuse of Dominance

Styles Industries (Darling Kenya)

Braids supplier, Styles Industries Ltd (Styles) has been found guilty by the CAK for abuse of dominance in contravention of Section 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK launched an investigation into Styles on the basis of a complaint received by a competitor in the market, Solpia Kenya, claiming that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair selling prices and conditions on suppliers who sell its products.

The CAK’s investigation found that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair trading conditions on its downstream suppliers which it sought to enforce through threatening its downstream suppliers with account closure, removal of discounts and refusal to supply products.

The CAK is currently in negotiations with the parties and have indicated that its finding could result in Styles paying the complainant an amount in damages and/or a fine Sh10 million. In terms of Section 54(3) of the Competition Act, the relevant individuals within Styles could further face imprisonment for a period of up to 5 years.

Kaluworks

The CAK dismissed an abuse of dominance case against cookware manufacturer, Kaluworks Limited (Kaluworks).

The case emanated from a complaint by rival company, Sufuria World (Sufuria) in which it was alleged that Kaluworks had refused to sell to them certain aluminum circles which it required for purposes of manufacturing its aluminum cooking ports. This, Sufuria claimed, amounted to an abuse of dominance in terms of section 23 and 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK, however, found that the conduct did not amount to abuse of dominance under the Competition Act as Sufuria had other options available to it in that it had the ability to replicate the technologies used by Kaluworks to produce the aluminum circles (as other manufacturers have done) or it could increase its order volumes in order to make it economically feasible for Kaluworks to supply it with the aluminum circles.

This finding was based on the representations made by Kaluworks that:

  • it primarily produces aluminum circles for in-house production for a variety of its own cookware products intended for local and export markets; and
  • it could only manufacture the aluminum circles to third parties where such third parties placed an order which met certain minimum quantities that would guarantee optimal scale of production

In supporting its findings, the CAK stated that in assessing the conduct of a dominant firm and whether it amounts to a ‘refusal to deal’, “is necessary to prove indispensability of the facility to the operation of the complainant or other third parties as arbitrary intervention may hurt innovation.

Market Inquiries

Transport Inquiry

The CAK has recently announced that it has initiated a ‘regional study’ in the Shipping, Trucking and Haulage industry in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

According to the announcement, the objective of the inquiry is to identify and remedy features of the market and trade practices which are anti-competitive and which impedes the national and intra-regional trade which in terms slows the potential growth of the manufacturing sector in Kenya.

Leasing Sector

The CAK has further announced a market study into the leasing sector which it will be conducting in conjunction with the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya.

The objective of the market study is to assess the level of competition in the sector and to identify areas of concern in order to enhance competition in the market by facilitating SME entrants into the market.

John Oxenham, director at African antitrust advisory firm Primerio, says that market inquiries can be used very effectively, however, they are resource intensive and in order to achieve there objectives must be concluded expeditiously. The CAK should be cognizant of the challenges and experiences of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) where the market inquiries are not being concluded timeously.

[The editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this update]

South Africa: Overview of the Price Discrimination and Buyer Power Draft Regulations

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.

Price Discrimination

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”.

Buyer Power

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.

 

 

 

Antitrust Overhaul: South Africa to amend Competition Act today

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to sign the Competition Amendment Bill into law today, February 13, 2019, continuing a busy seven-day streak for major legislative antitrust developments on the continent (see here). The new law will be amending the venerable Competition Act, one of the preëminent antitrust statutes of the continent.  The amendment has been pushed for by Minister for Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel.  The official Presidential commentary on today’s signing notes the novel fights against “concentration and economic exclusion as core challenges” to the country’s growth, as well as the perceived dangers of economic exclusion from major markets of small and black-owned businesses.

As a trio of competition attorneys write in a recent article in the Journal of European Competition Law & Practice, the Amendment Bill alters key provisions of the South African Competition Act focusing specifically on the redistribution of wealth and transformation of ownership in lieu of pursuing traditional antitrust goals.

The Bill provides for greater ministerial intervention at the initial stage of a merger (based on national security), during the merger investigation (based on public-interest grounds) and broadens the right of appeals to parties outside the merger control review.

The Bill lowers the standard that the South African Competition Commission must meet to prosecute cases and foreshadows a risk of increased third-party interventionism more generally.

The departure from a traditional substantial lessening of competition (SLC) test to an adverse effects-based test, which takes public interests considerations into account, is likely to result in the injection of greater subjectivity into the decision-making process and parties’ increased difficulty in self-assessment of conduct particularly in relation to dominant firms.

AAT has published further articles on the topic here, here, and here.

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

Breaking News: Nigerian Competition Act Signed into Law

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has signed the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill into law (the “Competition Act”).

nigeriaAfter years of deliberations, the legislative process is now complete, and with the establishment of a Competition Commission and Competition Tribunal, Nigeria is the latest African jurisdiction to establish a dedicated antitrust authority.

From a merger-control perspective, the Competition Act and the Commission’s jurisdiction will ultimately supersede the ‘placebo antitrust’ role historically played by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has thus far received and assessed merger notifications above certain turnover thresholds, pursuant to the Investments and Securities Act.  The Act repeals the Consumer Protection Act, which did not contain stand-alone antitrust provisions.

Michael-James Currie, a competition lawyer advising clients across Africa, says the new Competition Act applies broadly to all commercial activities within Nigeria, but also to conduct outside of Nigeria (if the person or company is a Nigerian resident or incorporated in Nigeria or products are sold into Nigeria).  Furthermore, any acquisition or change of control of a business or asset outside of Nigeria which results in the change of control of an asset or business in Nigeria will also fall within the jurisdiction of the Competition Act.

The Commission has substantial powers, including considering and approving mergers, declaring business practices as amounting to abuse of dominance, prohibiting price discrimination or declaring unlawful any agreement which is in contravention of the Competition Act.

From an investigatory perspective, the Commission may subpoena witnesses or, upon obtaining a search warrant, conduct dawn raids, consistent with international best practices.

Any reviews or appeals in relation to a decision taken by the Commission may be made to the Competition Tribunal.

In relation to prohibited conduct, any agreement which has the effect or likely effect of preventing, restricting or distorting competition in any market is unlawful. Currie notes that the Act in particular prohibits collusive arrangements but also various forms of unilateral conduct include tying or bundling or limitations on the production or distribution of goods. John Oxenham, director at Primerio, echoes these sentiments and confirms that the Act provides for a rule-of-reason analysis.  He notes further that, in addition to the above general prohibitions, the Act also prohibits minimum resale price maintenance.

Fellow Primerio Director, Andreas Stargard, notes that the “monopolisation” prohibition against abuse of dominance mirrors those typically found in most jurisdictions; the wording of the Act appears to be influenced largely by the South African Competition Act.  That said, the test for dominance is essentially whether a firm is able to exert market power and, unlike South Africa, cannot be based on market-share thresholds alone.  In sum, he concludes:

“This latest piece of competition legislation was first introduced in 2011 by Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara from Bauchi State, who perhaps not surprisingly happens to be an attorney, and co-sponsored by Sen. Ahmed Lawan (Yobe North).

Its now final — and successful — iteration that was signed into law this week brings Africa’s largest economy into the fold of modern antitrust jurisdictions.  Many have called for this to happen for years [see hereand here).  Our firm’s West Africa team is eager to work on matters arising under the Act.”

The Bill's sponsor, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara

One of the Bill’s sponsors, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara

In terms of penalties, an antitrust violation attracts both a potential administrative penalty (capped at 10% of the respondent’s annual turnover) and criminal liability for directors who commit an offence, notes Currie, pointing to a  maximum of three years imprisonment as a fairly severe white-collar sentence potential.  It remains unclear to-date whether the turnover calculation for purposes of the administrative penalty determination refers to local or worldwide revenues, observes Stargard.

In relation to merger control, Oxenham notes that the Competition Act provides further clarity as to the type of transactions which require mandatory notification, notably including joint ventures, which were previously not identified by name under the SEC’s legislative regime.  The Act has introduced both de facto and de jure forms of control as potential triggers for merger notification. The Commission has not yet published Regulations which will prescribe turnover thresholds for “small” and “large” mergers. Both Oxenham and Currie point out that based on the wording of the Act, there seems to be a substantial amount of similarity between the Nigerian Act and the merger control process in South Africa including time frames involved and the introduction of public interest assessment in merger control.

This is not surprising, as the South African Competition Commission (SACC) has, through the African Competition Forum, been instrumental in advocating a robust competition regime. Furthermore, Oxenham suggests that there may be substantial amount of cooperation and assistance provided by the SACC to their Nigerian counterparts.

[AfricanAntitrust will provide further updates in relation to the Nigerian Competition Act and appreciates the input from leading antitrust practitioners and the on-going support of the Primerio team. To contact a Primerio representatives, please click here ]