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.

Breaking: CCC withdraws its recent Merger Practice Note

An AAT-exclusive first report on this — somewhat stunning — development follows below. More details to be published once they become available in a new post…

On August 8th, 2022, the CCC officially announced the formal withdrawal of its Practice Note No. 1 of 2021, which had clarified what it meant for a party to “operate” in the COMESA common market. The announcement mentions that it will (soon? how soon?) be replaced with a revised Practice Note — a somewhat unusual step, in our view, as the revised document could have, or should have, been published simultaneously with the withdrawal of the old one. Otherwise, in the “interim of the void,” legal practitioners and commercial parties evaluating M&A ramifications in the COMESA region will be left with no additional guidance outside the bloc’s basic Competition Regulations and Rules.

Of note, “this clarifying policy document did not stem from the era of Dr. Mwemba’s predecessor (CCC 1.0 as we are wont to call it), but it was already released under Willard’s aegis as then-interim director of the agency,” observes Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer at Primerio Ltd. He continues: “Therefore, we cannot ascribe this most recent abdication to a change in personnel or agency-leadership philosophy, but rather external factors, such as — perhaps — the apparently numerous inquiries the CCC still received even after implementation of the Note.”

To remind our readers, we had previously reported on AAT as to this (now rescinded) note as follows (Feb. 11, 2021):

The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) issued new guidance today in relation to its application of previously ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory merger-notification rules under the supra-national COMESA regime. As Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio notes:

“This new Practice Note issued by Dr. Mwemba is an extremely welcome step in clarifying when to notify M&A deals to the COMESA authorities. Specifically, it clears up the confusion as to the meaning of the term ‘to operate’ within the Common Market.

Prior conflicts between the 3 operative documents (the ‘Rules’, ‘Guidelines’, and the ‘Regulations’) had become untenable for practitioners to continue without clear guidance from the CCC, which we have now received. I applaud the Commission for taking this important step in the right direction, aligning its merger procedure with the principles of established best-practice jurisdictions such as the European Union.”

New antitrust MoU between COMESA & EEC

No, that’s not the European Economic Community, but rather the slightly less well-known Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), thank you for asking…

The Memorandum of Understanding, signed in late July in Geneva, is designed to allow the two agencies to “cooperate in addressing anti-competitive conduct in their respective regions, capacity building and research,” according to AAT’s old friend and CCC 2.0 executive, Dr. Willard Mwemba.

His EEC counterpart, Mr. Arman Shakkaliyev, Minister in charge of Competition & Antitrust Regulation, said that the future collaboration “opened up new opportunities” for closer interaction and the sharing of experiences and knowledge as to specific investigations, most notably, in addition to the two agencies planning more standard cooperative ventures such as joint conferences or training seminars.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer at Primerio Ltd.:

“This latest MoU represents yet a further step in the clear and unmistakable direction of ever-closer cooperation between enforcement agencies on the African continent that we have seen for a few years now. The advice to be taken from this is fairly simple: Companies operating in more than one country in Africa should take note of this development, as their local ‘competition reputation‘ from one jurisdiction will doubtless precede them in the other, given the information-sharing between African watchdogs, which catches many corporates seemingly unawares…”

Gun-jumping in Morocco, Switzerland-style

In a relatively rare northwestern excursion on the continent, we are reporting today that the Moroccan competition authority (the Competition Council, or “CC”) based in Fez, which has operated only since late 2018, issued its first-ever gun-jumping fine to Swiss construction/chemicals firm Sika Aktiengesellschaft. Sika will have to pay (unless it exercises its right to a judicial appeal of this inaugural MCC decision, which it appears the company has waived and agreed to pay the) approx. $1m in fines, per the recent Article 19 fining decision made on April 28, 2022.

The underlying conduct consisted of Sika’s May 2019 acquisition of 100% of the capital and voting rights of its French competitor, Financière Dry Mix Solutions SAS, with business activities in and economic ties to Morocco, via its “Sodap” in-country subsidiary. Sika – the largest construction chemicals firm worldwide, according to its own marketing materials – likewise conducts business in Morocco, in addition to 100 other countries globally.

According to the MCC, the parties purportedly failed to notify the transaction pursuant to the mandatory provisions in Arts. 12-14 of the Moroccan competition act (Loi no. 104-12 of 2014) and thus caused the MCC to open its first gun-jumping investigation, leading to this — not insignificant — fine that has now been issued by the Council. The original liability finding was made previously, in MCC decision n°134/D/2021 (dated 6th December 2021).

Under the domestic merger-control regime, a notifiable transactions exists when:

  1. two or more previously independent undertakings merge;
  2. one or more persons, already controlling at least one undertaking, acquire, directly or indirectly, whether by purchase of securities or assets, by contract or by any other means, control of the whole or parts of one or more undertakings; and
  3. one or more undertakings acquire, directly or indirectly, whether by purchase of securities or assets, by contract or by any other means, control of the whole or parts of one or more other undertakings.

To avoid similar mishaps from happening in the future, the MCC — in collaboration with the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM) — held a conference and issued a legal compliance guide for businesses active in Morocco in January 2022. The MCC’s president, Ahmed Rahhou, expressed his hope that the Guidebook would “allow companies to avoid being in breach of the law and to know their rights and duties especially in terms of competition law.”

New CCC Chief addresses World Competition Day, lays out future of COMESA antitrust policy

As we previously reported, long-time COMESA Competition Commission executive, Dr. Willard Mwemba, was recently promoted to his new role of permanent CEO of the CCC, after having been appointed Acting Director in February of this year. In this new capacity, he recently gave a thus-far unreported speech on the occasion of “World Competition Day” on December 5th, 2021.

In his short address, Dr. Mwemba lays out the mid-term future he envisions for the antitrust policy under his aegis in the Common Market, as follows.

Highlighting the importance of competition law for efficient and fair markets, with the goal of benefiting businesses (as opposed to being perceived as an impediment to business interests), Mwemba mentions key building blocks of the CCC’s enforcement going forward. These include resale-price maintenance and exclusive-dealing enforcement (around 1-1:30 in the little-known video, which has thus far only garnered two dozen views on the YouTube platform and is not yet published on the CCC’s own web site). He then moves on to merger regulation (2:45 onward), and further discusses the importance of the effectiveness of the actual competition law itself — noting that the CCC plans to amend its Regulations and Guidelines within the next year (3:40). Noting that the CCC cannot undertake this process very well alone, Mwemba highlights the cooperative approach of the Commission, partnering with and relying on other groups and stakeholders (such as the COMESA Women in Business group, OECD, and others).

Mwemba notes that the CCC’s “focus for the year 2022 will be on strict enforcement, especially against blatant anti-competitive conduct and blatant violations of the COMESA Competition Regulations, and in this case I mean cartels.  It is said that cartels are the supreme evil of antitrust … because it robs consumers, government, and businesses of huge sums…  So in line with this theme, our focus for 2022 shall be on cartels, and we shall make sure that we weed out all possible or potential cartels operating in the Common Market.”

The CCC chief concludes his address by saying that competition authorities “are not there to frustrate businesses, we are not the enemy of business”; instead, he sees the CCC’s role to ensure that markets operate fairly for all — a welcome reminder to the southern and eastern African business community to understand and embrace the precepts of antitrust law as an efficiency-enhancing mechanism for trading in the Common Market.

Upcoming Free Webinar: Risk & Investment in Africa

Hosted in partnership with Franklin Société d’avocats


When: 13 October 2021 at 15:00 CET/SAST (09:00 ET)
Where: Virtual
Registration: Click HERE to register (this event is free to attend)

About: Join Primerio and Franklin’s directors as they canvass a broad range of legal and regulatory risks in investing in Africa. This session will be held in both English and French.

Speakers: Jérôme Michel (Partner, Franklin); Joël Rault (Senior Advisor, Franklin); John Oxenham (Director, Primerio International); Lionel Lesur (Partner, Franklin); Andreas Stargard (Director, Primerio International)

R. Goerg | iStock | Getty Images

China tells Africa: ‘Monopolies bad!’

In an interesting twist, a representative of the last properly remaining centralised economy (the People’s Republic of China) has admonished African nations (specifically South Africa, where he acts as Ambassador) to enhance competition-law enforcement against dominant firms, including Western tech giants.

We observe that his statement is an “interesting” twist, because the Editor was taught over the years in several (perhaps faulty?) history lessons that the PRC itself had been inarguably heavily reliant on government-run monopoly companies for decades.

But let’s cut to the chase of what Mr. Xiaodong is actually saying: his thesis, not exactly ground-breaking in antitrust circles, can be summarised succinctly as “excessive power and influence of technology giants hinder innovation and competition and increases economic inequality.” There!

With regards to the applicability of his thesis to South Africa, the ambassador notes that “Antimonopoly practices also exist in SA. The control over data fees and food prices imposed by big corporations here has safeguarded consumers’ rights and interests. Monopolistic actions in the platform economy is also a matter of grave concern for SA’s Competition Commission. No country can turn a blind eye to the negative externality of the emerging digital economy.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

“Negative externalities…” sound very much like proper Western antitrust-economics-speak. Interesting. However, there is of course an ulterior motive behind this little lesson in competition economics from his excellency, the honorable ambassador. It comes at the end of his “opinion” piece: China would like to do more business in Africa, strengthen its ties, and deepen its influence (including in the area of education – beware!)… In the diplomat’s own words: “China’s high quality economic development brings greater opportunities for Africa’s development. … And China’s current cumulative investment in SA has exceeded $25bn, creating more than 400,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the region and making big contributions to SA’s economic and social development.”

Curious news, perhaps not so much any more after digging deeper. Especially when the interested reader googles (oh yes, coincidentally using that same FAANG company’s services that Mr. Xiadong’s diatribe indirectly disparages here) the simple search term “China – Africa“, the latest news from today’s South China Morning Post is that “China seeks to expand influence in Africa with more digital projects…” — nice coincidence.

Well, now readers of AAT know.

China wants to “share the achievements of digital technology with Africa to promote interconnectivity”

Precedent-Setting Decision: Burger King Acquisition Prohibited Purely on Public Interest Grounds

By Charl van der Merwe

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) made headlines with its first prohibition of an intermediate merger that was based solely on public-interest grounds.

Emerging Capital Partners (ECP), a private equity firm founded in the US, was to acquire all Burger King assets from South African Grand Parade Investments, a South African majority black owned entity. 

The SACC, while finding that the proposed transaction will have no actual impact on competition, prohibited the transaction on the basis that the transaction will have a substantial negative effect on “the promotion of greater spread of ownership, in particular to increase the levels of ownership by historically disadvantaged persons” (HDPs).

The SACC found that the merger would lead to a 68% reduction in the shareholding of HDPs in the target entity.

As John Oxenham, director at Primerio points out, “public interest” considerations have long been a feature of competition law in South Africa, particularly in relation to merger control. In this regard, mergers, which may otherwise be deemed problematic, could be ‘justified’ on public interest grounds. Public interest, while initially limited to employment, was first informally expanded through notable mergers such as Walmart/Massmart (2011) and AB Inbev/SAB (2016) where public interest conditions were imposed related to empowerment and ownership, through agreement by the merging parties.

The Competition Amendment Act, which largely became effective in 2019, formally expanded the recognised public-interest factors contain in Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act to include the “promotion of a greater spread of ownership, in particular to increase the levels of ownership by historically disadvantaged persons and workers in firms in the market”. Further, the public-interest element was elevated to a separate and self-standing assessment, which must be assessed as an integral part of the merger assessment.

While the Competition Act, as amended, has made provision for mergers to be assessed and prohibited on pure public interest grounds since July 2019, the Burger King merger is the first merger to be prohibited on this basis.

SACC Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele noted that the SACC had no choice but to recommend that the merger be prohibited as, clearly, the merger would result in a reduction of HDP ownership from 68% to 0%, which the SACC believes is substantial. This concern was raised with the merging parties, who were unable to address the concern in a suitable manner.

Regarding the broader impacts of the decision on investment and merger control in South Africa, Bonakele noted that the SACC is merely a statutory agency obliged to impose the law as it currently stands and, according to the Bonakele, there is no uncertainty regarding the transformation objectives which had been introduced to the Competition Act. The SACC is clear on its mandate in terms of the Competition Act, as amended, and will continue to implement such mandate.

The legal basis for the decision is clear, however, as is the case with any new legislation, implementation thereof less so. At the time of the enactment of the amendments to the Competition Act, it was well recognised that the practical implementation of these provisions will be critical and that it may lead to significant unintended consequences – including adverse effects on consumer welfare and even broader public interest. Primerio director, Michael-James Currie points out that, ironically, HDP-owned target firms might be negatively prejudiced by this criterion, as the pool of potential buyers is limited (and hence the value) if non-black owned firms are not able to successful acquire the target’s business.

It is not clear, at this stage, what the assessment in the Burger King merger entailed, what evidence was put forward by the parties and what the relevant counterfactual may have been. It is also not clear whether the transaction presented pro-competitive elements which outweigh the adverse effect on public interest – similar to what is required in terms of public interest where a merger may have an adverse impact on competition. The SACC confirmed, however, that the transaction was ultimately prohibited after ECP failed to adhere to requests to proffer conditions relating to shareholding and empowerment.

The SACC has the power to assess and prohibit intermediate mergers. Accordingly, the SACC’s prohibition can only be challenged by way of a request for consideration, to be filed by the merging parties, to the South African Competition Tribunal. The SACC opined, however, that unless the acquiring firm is prepared to make concession to remedy the public interest concerns, the decision is unlikely to be overturned.

Grand Parade has been vocal in its dissatisfaction of the prohibition. The matter will be highly contested, and it is not uncommon for transactions to be approved on a request for consideration to the Tribunal.  Furthermore, any decision by the Tribunal is likely to be taken on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court and likely also the Constitutional Court.

The Burger King decision, regardless of its eventual outcome, will leave a lasting precedent and shape merger control proceedings in South Africa going forward.

Let them eat bread: Consumer protection in Kenya

On May 24, 2021, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK or Authority) issued a notice to the manufacturers of bread on how to label the breads sold to consumers. The CAK claimed the producers were in contravention of Section 55 of the Competition Act 12 of 2012 (“Act”). Section 55(a)(i) of the Act states that “a person commits an offence when, in trade in connection with the supply or possible supply of goods or services or in connection with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of goods or services, he— (a) falsely represents that— (i) goods are of a particular standard, quality, value, grade, composition, style or model or have had a particular history or particular previous use” . The This section found application in, inter alia,  relation to the labelling of FMCG such as bread sold to consumers.

The CAK’s first concern was that the labels on the bread were illegible, thereby denying the consumer sufficient information. Second, the producers were directed to adjust the information on the wrappers from “Best before” to “Sell by” to indicate the date of expiration. This adjustment will make this information clearer to the consumers, according to the Authority. Sources close to the investigation stated that bread manufacturers had taken liberties with proper labeling previously and had been ‘mischievous’ with labels, as they initially placed the expiration date on the disposable part of the wrapper, thereby depriving consumers of reliable information after opening the packaging. Thereafter, upon being directed by the regulator that the information should be on the actual bread wrapper, the manufacturers purportedly caused the printing of the information to be illegible.

Regarding the issue of weight and ingredients, the bread manufacturers now have an obligation to indicate the correct weight as well as the ingredients of their breads. It was found that some breads alleged to have milk or butter while in reality they did not. Such conduct by manufactures amount to false information. This is itself a breach of the law under both the Competition Act and the Standards Act.

The CAK has the overarching consumer protection mandate, as provided under the Constitution and the Competition Act of Kenya. While carrying out this consumer protection mandate, the Authority must consult with the Kenya Bureau of Standards in all matters involving definition and specification of goods and the grading of goods by quality. Indeed in 2016, the Authority entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to enhance cooperation with Kenya Bureau of Standards. Section 60 (1) of the Competition Act also makes it an offence for any person to supply goods which do not meet the consumer information standards prescribed by law.

Ruth Mosoti, a competition and consumer protection attorney with Primerio Ltd. in Nairobi, notes that the Authority’s chief “essentially informed the producers that compliance with the law was not a pick-and-choose buffet style option. In this instance, the consumer information standard is defined under the Standards Act and that is why the bread manufacturers have been directed to comply as Authority head Mr. Wang’ombe Kariuki correctly put it.” Kariuki stated: “manufacturers have no latitude to elect which laws to adhere to”.  The specific standards in question refer to labeling.

The Authority has taken a soft enforcement approach with a focus on compliance rather than imposing the maximum penalty as prescribed by law. Contraventions of the consumer protection provisions attract a penalty of a maximum of ten million Shillings ($100,000) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years. One can only assume that the assertion by the Authority that no actual harm to consumers had been recorded yet as a result of the contraventions by the bread manufacturers must have influenced this soft-enforcement approach.

Common Markets & the Race for Power in Africa: a Podcast Interview

Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people.  From a consumer potential standpoint it matches China or India.  Yet historically, it has suffered from the lingering shadows of its colonial past, in addition to its current fractures, hostility, and ever-present corruption.

The continent is emerging fast, however, and is quickly accelerating into the 21st Century marketplace both from an investment and growth opportunity. From the digital revolution and increased free trade, to innovation in various industries, Africa may be the next market frontier to unfold into accelerated multinational presence.

In this podcast episode (available gratis on Apple, Spotify, and Sheppard Mullin‘s web site), Michael P.A. Cohen is joined by Africa competition and markets expert, Andreas Stargard, as he shares his insight to help multinationals navigate the African landscape.

What we discuss in this Podcast episode:

  • What do the Africa markets look like from a multinational business opportunity perspective?
  • Which countries in Africa have established markets? Which ones have growth potential?
  • How and why has China’s investment and influence across Africa intensified over the last couple of decades?
  • What type of digital revolution is taking place in Africa?
  • Is there a huge opportunity for mobile money on the continent?
  • How is free trade shaping up across the African continent? How do the AfCFTA’s goals tie in?
  • What Free Trade cooperation agreements exist among the East, West and South African nations? Will they succeed?
  • Where is Africa leading innovations?
  • How will African wars and corruption impact its ability to grow a multinational marketplace?

Who’s speaking:

Michael Cohen is the creator of the Nota Bene podcast. He began his career as an Assistant Special Prosecutor, investigating and prosecuting organized crime involvement with the failure of local financial institutions in the early 1990s, and has since practiced globally at several top law firms. In 2015, Michael joined Sheppard Mullin’s storied antitrust practice with a goal of putting his 25 years experience to work to complement the firm’s longstanding antitrust litigation group, helping to bridge government antitrust enforcement in Washington, D.C. to the firm’s strengths in Brussels, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

A co-founding senior member of Primerio, a business advisory firm helping companies do business within Africa from a global perspective, Andreas Stargard is legal, strategic, and business advisor to companies and individuals across the globe.  He focuses on antitrust and competition advice, white-collar counseling, contract dispute and negotiation, and resolution of global business disputes, including cartel work, corruption allegations and internal investigations, intellectual property, and distribution matters.  He has written and spoken extensively on these topics and many others.  Andreas also advises clients on corporate compliance programmes that conform to local as well as global government standards, and has handled key strategic merger-notification questions, including evaluation of filing requirements, avoidance strategies, cross-jurisdictional cooperation, and the like.