AAT, AAT exclusive, excessive pricing, South Africa, Uncategorized

South Africa’s Second Price Gouging Case: Dis-Chem Penalised For Excessive Pricing re Face Masks

By Michael-James Currie and John Oxenham

On 14 July 2020, the South African Competition Tribunal published its written reasons in relation to its decision to penalize Dis-Chem (a large pharmaceutical chain in South Africa) for contravening section 8(1)(a) of the Competition Act by charging excessive prices for a variety of surgical face-mask products.

The Tribunal’ latest price gouging decision follows closely on the heels of the Tribunal’s decision in Babelegi, which was the first decision price gouging decision in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic (in terms of which the Tribunal also imposed a penalty on Babelegi based on a finding that Babelegi charged excessive prices for face masks during the pandemic). Babelegi was a firm which -pre-Covid 19 had a market share of less than 5%.

Turning to the Dis-Chem case, the price increases at play for three different face-masks were 261%, 43% and 25% respectively, on 9 March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped South Africa, but before the Minister of Trade and Industry published the commonly referred to ‘Price Gouging Regulations’ (Regulations). The Regulations, promulgated, on 19 March 2020, essentially place a reverse onus on dominant firms (in relation to a defined list of “essential goods”) to demonstrate why any price increases post the proclamation of the Regulations, which were not directly and proportionally linked to a corresponding cost increase, are not “excessive”.

Although the Competition Commission (SACC) had initially framed its case in terms of the Regulations, the Tribunal confirmed that the Regulations did not apply retroactively. Accordingly, the Tribunal proceeded to analysis the complaint in terms of section 8(1)(a) of the Act read together with the factors set out in section 8(3) of the Act in order to determine whether a price is excessive. This is noteworthy as the principles underpinning the Dis-Chem decision are applicable regardless of whether the Regulations are, or remain in, force and may well apply to cases beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

In terms of the recently amended Competition Act, an “excessive price” is defined as a price which has “no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product”. If there is a prima facie case of excessive pricing, the onus shifts to the respondent to demonstrate that the price is not excessive.

The Tribunal held that in order to demonstrate an “excessive price”, what the complainant must show is a price which “on the face of it was utterly exorbitant”. The respondent would then need to show that the increase was reasonable.

The crux of the case, however, largely turns on whether Dis-Chem is in fact considered “dominant”. Dominance, generally, is determined with reference to whether a firm is able to exert a substantial degree of “market power”. In terms of South Africa’s Competition Act, a firm is irrebuttably presumed to be dominant if it has market shares in excess of 45%. A firm can still be found to be dominant, however, with market shares less than 45% if it can be established that the firm is able to exert “market power”. “Market power” is specifically defined in the Act as “the power of a firm to control prices or to exclude competition, or to behave to an appreciable extent independently of its competitors, customers or suppliers”.

The Commission argued that defining the relevant market was not necessary. Rather, the fact that Dis-Chem was able to materially increase its prices in the context of a global health crisis independently of its competitors, customers or suppliers, meant that Dis-Chem was able to exert “market power” and was therefore “dominant”.

The Tribunal confirmed that the assessment of “market power” may be conducted with reference to the prevailing market conditions without having to specifically define the market. In essence, the Tribunal asked itself what advantages the global-health crisis conferred to the respondent (in this case Dis-Chem) that it would not enjoy absent the crisis?

At the time of the relevant price increase, the public were encouraged to wear surgical face-masks. The Tribunal rejected, therefore the argument raised by Dis-Chem that cloth face-masks are a suitable substitute. Dis-Chem had argued that barriers to entry were low as face-masks where easy to produce from a supply-side. The product market was broadly defined as the market for surgical face masks.

Turning to the geographic market definition, the Tribunal suggested that the geographic market must be narrowed (based on customers reluctance to travel far during the pandemic) despite Dis-Chem applying a national pricing strategy. The Tribunal ultimately did not define the geographic market. Instead, its assessment essentially refers back to that relating to the tests for market power. In essence, the Tribunal held that because there were concerns among consumers about supply shortages, consumers would not be prepared to “shop around” for better options fearing they may miss out altogether. The Tribunal mentioned that applying the well known “hypothetical monopolist test”, that Dis-Chem would have been able to profitably raise its prices by more than 5% and, therefore, was essentially in its own market (the Tribunal did not define the precise geographic boundaries of the market even though these was evidence put up suggesting that there were many suppliers of surgical face masks within a very small geographic radius of Dis-Chem’s largest outlets). Accordingly, this case was not determined by narrowing the geographic market.

Turning to the economic tests utilized or considered by the Tribunal, the following is summarized:

  1. The relevant “benchmark” price used was the price immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the prices thereafter.
  2. The relevant complaint period was held to be 1-31 March 2020.
  3. That the empirical evidence assessed pointed to an increase in prices in March (compared to prices prevailing in January and February) without a direct link to cost increases. Consequently, the Tribunal found that the gross-margins increased “exponentially” during the complaint period.
  4. The Tribunal rejected the argument that for multi-product retailers, profit margins ought to be assessed with reference to “net” as opposed to “gross” margins. In other words, the Tribunal precluded any cross-subsidization type defences.

The Tribunal found that had it not been for the surge demand for surgical face-masks as a result of the health crisis posed by Covid-19, Dis-Chem would not have been able to increase the prices to the extent it did. Further, the Tribunal found Dis-Chem enjoyed and exerted market power by substantially increasing its prices and profit margins for face-masks and therefore the SACC had established a prima facie case of excessive pricing which shifted the burden of proof to Dis-Chem to show its price increases were “reasonable”.

In determining whether a price increase is “reasonable”, the Tribunal appears to disfavour any economic assessment to the inquiry. Instead the Tribunal suggests that any price increase (presumably irrespective of the percentage increment) in relation to an item essential for the public’s health is unreasonable. Following the Tribunal’s earlier finding that the price increases were substantial, the Tribunal held that Dis-Chem’s price increases during the pandemic were “utterly unreasonable and reprehensible”.

As an aside, the Tribunal suggests that the price increase of any good in South Africa between 47%-261% would affect the public interest adversely. In the context of a health crisis where those increases related to essential goods, the price increase has a particular impact on poor customers.

Accordingly, the Tribunal found that Dis-Chem had engaged in excessive pricing in contravention of the Act and imposed a penalty of R1.2 million (which was calculated based on approximately twice the turnover which Dis-Chem derived from face-masks during the complaint period).

The Tribunal’s decision in Dis-Chem provides more analysis and considerations to market definition than the case of Babelegi although the central features and findings in both cases are the same. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both Dis-Chem and Babelegi charged higher prices to consumer in relation to products considered essential to the health and well-being of the public and because these price increase were nor justified with reference to cost increases, the prices were considered “excessive”.

The Tribunal (as part of its assessment under the geographic market definition analysis) provides an important qualifier to intervening in matters arising from short-term market conditions. In particular, the Tribunal stated that “material price increases of life essential items such as surgical masks, even in the short run, in a health disaster such as the Covid-19 outbreak, warrants our intervention”. This is an important caveat as the Tribunal appears to recognize that intervening in competition law matters based on short term market conditions may have unintended consequences and that ordinarily competition authorities should allow the market to “self-regulate”.

While opportunistic and exploitative behaviour during a time of crisis may indeed warrant scrutiny, one does question whether these decisions fall into the classic “hard cases make bad law” dictum coined by US Supreme Court Justice, OW Holmes.

Different standards of law and economics should not apply to firms simply based on the type of product that they produce or sell. To punish a firm because it supplies essential healthcare products may indeed be a noble public interest objective, but caution must be had to using mechanisms such as the Competition Act to achieve these outcomes if the economic principles and justifications do not stack up.

While the Tribunal was at pains to point out in Dis-Chem that context matters, it is less clear precisely what context matters in excessive pricing cases going forward. Are the market dynamics due to the Covid-19 pandemic an outlier unlikely to repeat itself in history and that the Tribunal’s recent price gouging decisions should be assessed in that context? Or, does the Tribunal’s decision effectively mean that any firm who is able to profitably increase a price by 5% has market power (and is, therefore, dominant) and, therefore, any such price increase (unless linked proportionately to a cost increase) is prima facie excessive? When will the Tribunal intervene in excessive price cases and when will it allow the normal forces of supply and demand and the hallmark features of a dynamic competition to rectify any market abnormalities?

While the Tribunal suggests that a 47% increase and above would be excessive for “any good” in South Africa, the Tribunal does not provide much guidance on where to the draw the line. The Tribunal rejected the US’s guidance which refers to a 10% increase (in the context of a price increase of an essential good). Previously the Competition Appeal Court in the Sasol judgment suggested (without setting a firm benchmark) that a price which is less than 25% more than the economic value of the product cannot be said to be excessive.

While the Tribunal does make cursory mention of the prices of other competitors, the Tribunal seems to err in one important regard. Excessive price cases and indeed the assessment of market power should not be conducted with reference to the overall demand shock in the market but with reference to the firm’s ability to act independently of other competitors in the same prevailing market conditions. A comparison therefore between pre-market shock and post-market shock insofar as the shock applies to the whole market, is somewhat irrelevant.

If the overall demand for face-masks increased and all face-mask suppliers are able to profitably increase their prices for face-masks during the relevant period, it can hardly be said that every face-mask supplier is “dominant” during that period. If all ice-cream suppliers raise their prices in summer versus winter that would clearly not be a result of ice-cream suppliers having market power during the summer months only. The Tribunal’s analysis in Dis-Chem does not seem to answer this issue and in fact lends credence to such an outcome which would clearly not be supported by any credible economic justification.

The Tribunal does not deal with another important aspect relating to principles of supply and demand more generally. The Tribunal recognizes that there were (and are) a shortage of supply for face-masks. It was the shortage of supply (be it actual or potential) which in fact led to “panic buying” and higher demand and therefore higher prices. To suggest that the poorest customers are most likely to be harmed due to price increases following demand shocks is correct. However, all customers (including the poorest) are likely to be harmed if the supply shortage cannot be addressed and is perpetuated by the on-going health crisis. The most sensible way to encourage entry into the supply side market for face-masks is to allow such firms to earn short term profits which it would not otherwise enjoy. Without the upside incentive, new entry into the supply side market is unlikely and the only disciplining safeguard left in the market is quasi-price regulation by the competition authorities. The forces of competition in such instances are, therefore, precluded from being allowed to operate to restore the market to competitive levels. The Tribunal, however, recognizes in the Dis-Chem decision that in certain instances it should in fact play the role of a price regulator.

So where does that leave us? Firstly, it seems very likely that the Dis-Chem decision will be taken on appeal. Until such time as the Tribunal’s decision is altered (if at all), firms selling goods which are considered “essential” in the fight against Covid-19 should take particular cognizance of this decision. Secondly, the price gouging regulations published by the Minister are essentially rendered nugatory by the Tribunal’s approach to excessive pricing cases. Thirdly, regardless of the size of the firm pre-Covid, if a firm is able to increase its prices unilaterally as a result of a demand shock following the Covid health, there is a significant risk that the Tribunal will consider such a firm to possess market power and hence unless such price increase is justified with reference to cost increases, potentially liable to an administrative penalty (and possibly follow-on civil damages).

[About the Authors: John Oxenham and Michael-James Currie are practicing competition law attorneys based in South Africa and advise clients on competition law related matters across most African jurisdictions]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AAT, AAT exclusive, excessive pricing, South Africa, Uncategorized

South Africa Competition Tribunal: Regulations published to expedite COVID-19 excessive and unfair pricing complaint referrals

[The editors at AfricanAntitrust wish to thank Jemma Muller and Gina Lodolo for compiling this article]

On 3 April 2020, Minister Ebrahim Patel made amendments to section 27(2) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”) with regards to the regulations pertaining to the functions of the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”).

The amendment was enacted to regulate complaint referrals for alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act which deals with the charging of excessive prices by a dominant firm. The amendment is crucial in light of the current state of affairs, where the charging of excessive prices has become more frequent during the Covid-19 outbreak. Accordingly, the amendment is only applicable for the duration of the period of the declaration of a Natural State of Disaster with regards to COVID-19.

An applicant who wishes to bring a complaint based on an alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act, read with the Consumer and Customer Protection Regulations, must file a Notice of Motion and founding affidavit to the Tribunal.

Urgent complaint referral procedure

Who must file the complaint referral?

A complaint referral may be filed by the Commission or a complainant, as soon as possible after the commission has issued a notice of non-referral to that complainant.

Notice of motion requirements

An applicant must allege a contravention of section 8(1)(a), indicate the order sought against the respondent(s) and state the name and and address (electronic or otherwise) of each respondent in respect to whom the order is sought. Applicant’s may also state the date and time on which the applicant wishes the matter to be heard by the Tribunal.

Founding affidavit

The founding affidavit must set out the grounds of urgency and the material points of law and evidence that support the complaint. In addition, the applicant may include confirmatory affidavits from any factual or expert witnesses.

Procedure

The applicant must serve a copy of the Notice of Motion and founding affidavit on each of the respondent(s) named in the Notice of Motion and file a copy of the application with the Tribunal.

The important time periods:

A respondent must serve a copy of their Answering Affidavit on the complainant within 72 hours of service of the complaint referral. Thereafter the person who filed the Complaint referral may serve a copy for their Reply within 24 hours after being served with a copy of the Answering Affidavit.

The Tribunal will then determine the date and time for the hearing of the complaint referral (Tribunal Rules 6,16,17,18,18,47,54 and 55 apply to an application under this Rule unless they pertain to Rules which stipulate time-frames).

These documents may be filed electronically.

Urgent hearing

The Tribunal may direct that the urgent complaint proceedings in terms of the Rules may be conducted wholly as video or audio proceedings.

If no answering affidavit is filed within the period set out in the Notice of Motion or such extended period as may be determined by the Tribunal, the urgent complaint referral may be heard on an unopposed basis.

The Tribunal will determine if there was contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act based on the evidence contained in the affidavits unless there is a substantial dispute of fact which cannot be resolved by affidavits. In this case the Tribunal may determine an expedited procedure (which may include oral evidence on an expedited basis by way of video or audio proceedings). The Tribunal may also call for further evidence if it is required (subject to section 55 of the Act).

Remedies

The Tribunal may impose a pricing order if the respondent has been found to contravene section 8(1)(a) of the Act. The respondent may apply to appeal or review the decision on an urgent basis to the Competition Appeal Court (the pricing order will remain in force unless it is set aside by the court on appeal or review).

Consent order

The Commission may at any time (before, during and after and investigation) conclude a consent agreement for a complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Act and it will be the full and final settlement of the matter  (including settlement of civil proceedings). This consent order may be confirmed by the Tribunal without hearing any evidence.

The amended complaint referral procedures equip complainants with the means in which to assist the competition authorities in penalizing those who have used the prevailing circumstances to exploit consumers, and is thus a commendable and efficient tool invoked by the Minister.

 

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AAT, mergers, public-interest, Uncategorized

PepsiCo/Pioneer merger: Minister Patel approves the Deal

In one of the few megamergers of the 2019/2020 season, the South African Competition Tribunal approved, subject to a wide range of public interest related conditions, PepsiCo’s acquisition of South Africa’s largest FMCG producers, Pioneer Foods.

In predictable fashion, this was not the type of transaction which would escape the attention of Minister Patel (who oversees the portfolio of the competition agencies). Despite not being a transaction which raises any competition concerns (i.e. there being no substantive overlap in product portfolios) and no material public interest concerns, the merger was an acquisition by a major international producer, PepsiCo and Minister Patel has openly expressed his intention to involve himself in acquisitions by foreign firms in an effort to extract a “socio-economic” tax from the merging parties. This was first seen in the Massmart/Walmart deal in 2012 but more recently in the AB-InBev/SAB and SAB/Coca-Cola mergers.

Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie points out that a noteworthy difference between the legislative environment in terms of which the PepsiCo/Pioneer merger was assessed are the amendments to South Africa’s Competition Act. Under the new merger regime, public interest standards have been elevated, as a test, so as to be on par with the traditional competition analysis. Furthermore, the public interest grounds which the competition authorities are mandated to take into account have been expanded and now specifically include ownership levels among historically disadvantaged persons (commonly referred to as BBBEE policies in South Africa – Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment).

The Competition Tribunal’s reasons are noteworthy. In a transaction of this magnitude, the Tribunal did not provide any reasons or findings as to the assessment of the merger. There was no analysis as to the relevant markets nor an assessment of the negative effects that the merger may have on the public interest factors.

The Tribunal’s reasons jump straight to the conditions ostensibly on the basis that the merging parties, the Competition Commission and Minister Patel had “agreed” to the conditions and, therefore, there was no reason to assess the transaction and the Tribunal could go ahead and rubber stamp the terms of the agreement.

Based on the majority of the conditions imposed, it is safe to assume that the transaction raised no material competition or public interest concerns. Notwithstanding that the transaction raised no adverse effects, the conditions imposed on the merger include:

  1. The creation of a BBBEE Workers Trust which will receive at least R1.6 billion (USD 10.6 million) in equity and the appointment of a non-executive director to the PepsiCo board together with voting rights of 12.9% in lieu of the equity for a period of 5 years;
  2. Employment:
    1. A moratorium on merger related retrenchments for a period of 5 years;
    2. An undertaking to maintain the aggregate levels of employment for 5 years; and
    3. An undertaking to create 500 direct new employment opportunities and 2500 indirect employment opportunities over the next five years.
  3. An undertaking to invest a cumulative amount of R5.5 billion (USD180 million) in production capacity over the next five years.
  4. Promote procurement from local suppliers and producers;
  5. Maintain all sales and distribution agreements currently in place for a period of two years;
  6. Contribute at least R600 million (USD60 million) to the creation of a development fund to be used for education, small medium enterprise development and agriculture programs.

Despite the substantial conditions imposed on the merger, Minister Patel surely finds himself in a catch twenty two. On the one hands, Minister Patel is a socialist at heart and has very much focused his efforts on utilising the Competition Act and authorities to promote industrial policy action and advance socio-economic objectives. Now, both as Minister of Trade and Industry and in light of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s drive to attract foreign direct investment, Minister Patel needs to tread a far more intricate line than ay previously the case (under President Jacob Zuma’s reign).

On the one hand, large foreign mergers present Minister Patel with a golden opportunity to extract non-merger specific public interest commitments – which merging parties often acquiesce to in order to preclude protracted litigation. On the other, Minister Patel needs to ensure that South Africa’s message to the rest of the world is that we would welcome foreign investment with open arms.

John Oxenham says that while it is perhaps regrettable that the Competition Tribunal did not grapple fully with the extent to which these types of conditions would have been objectively justifiable in terms of the new merger control regime or whether they amount to an overreach. While the Tribunal typically does not dedicate substantial resources to evaluating mergers when there is no dispute between the parties – and understandably so – the Tribunal should be mindful of rubber-stamping approvals of this nature. The message that this decision sends to foreign firms seeking to invest in South Africa is certainly not a warm and inviting message. The lack of analysis and objective justification for the conditions sends a strong message to merging parties that the most important aspect for purposes of obtaining merger approval is to engage and reach settlement terms with Minister Patel.

When the executive becomes the gatekeeper to merger control approvals (or competition law enforcement more generally), this very rapidly blurs the distinction of the separation of powers.

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AAT, price discrimination, Uncategorized

South Africa News Alert: Price Discrimination and Buyer Power Provisions brought into effect.

On 13 February 2020, exactly a year since the price discrimination and buyer power provisions were signed into law, President Ramaphosa and Minister Patel have brought into effect the operation of the amended section 9 of the South African Competition Act (price discrimination) as well as section 8(4) (buyer power provisions) together with the respective Regulations.

Both provisions are aimed at ensuring that small or medium owned businesses or firms controlled by historically disadvantaged persons are able to “participate effectively” in the market.

While the buyer power provisions are largely consumer protection provisions – which require large firms to impose fair trading terms vis-a-vis their smaller customers, the amended section 9 of the Act has material ramifications not only for large suppliers but consumers as well.

At the heart of section 9, is a prohibition of volume based rebates/trading terms. While the Act permits for certain efficiency based pricing differentials (provided they are proportionate and reasonable), suppliers are prohibited from competing purely based on quantities. Low margins high volume type strategies would in many instances be prohibited – with the concomitant imposition of administrative penalties.

The motivation behind the amendments is to assist smaller players participate in the market. A noble objective. Although it seems quite apparent that those in support of the amendments have not fully recognized, appreciated or cared about the unintended consequences which are likely to flow from section 9.

Pro-consumer welfare pricing strategies may, under the amended Act, be outlawed. So while the counter factual is that certain small businesses may benefit, is this an industrial policy victory if consumer welfare is diminished? Hardly.

Although section 9 and section 8(4) where brought into effect on the eve of President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address – certainly not coincidental – a challenge to the rationality of section 9 seems most likely.

The Competition Commission’s price discrimination draft guidelines expressly preclude any considerations to the level of efficiency of downstream customers or any impact (good or bad) on consumer welfare).

Seriously concerning stuff and large suppliers (across all industries) should take note of these amendments with urgency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AAT, East Africa, Kenya, mergers, Uncategorized

KENYA: AIRTEL//TELKOM KENYA MERGER CONDITIONS TAKEN ON APPEAL

By Ruth Mosoti

In December 2019, the CAK approved the merger between two Kenyan telecom firms, Airtel and Telkom Kenya, subject to a number of wide ranging conditions.

The merging parties, however, were not satisfied with the conditions and have decided to take the CAK’S decision on review to the Competition Tribunal. Kenya’s Competition Tribunal was fully constituted and became operational in May 2019 after four members were appointed to the panel.

In terms of  the Kenyan Competition Act, any party aggrieved by a decision of the CAK in relation to a merger has 30 days to file for a review of that merger before the Tribunal. The 30 days period commences from the date the CAK’s decision is published in the gazette. Accordingly, although the merger was formally approved in October 2019, the merging parties had to wait until December 2019 for the gazette, containing the CAK’s decision, to be published before a notice for review could be filed.

The Tribunal has a broad range of powers and may overturn, amend or confirm the decision of the CAK. The Tribunal may also, if it considers it appropriate to do so, refer the matter back to the CAK for reconsideration of certain issues.

Turning to the conditions themselves, one of the contentious conditions relates to having the spectrum revert back to the government upon expiry of the merging parties’ license.

This is concerning as it is the Communications Authority of Kenya that issues and renews licences. The spectrum allocation by Communication Authority is an asset in the hands of the holder. Assuming that the spectrum is being utilized in accordance with the licence, ordinarily renewal is guaranteed.

The CAK’s decision that the license must revert back to the government is concerning as it seems to overlap with the Communications Authority’s mandate. John Oxenham, a director of Primerio, says that the interplay and conflict between the roles of competition and communications agencies are not unique to Kenya. In South Africa there have also been a number of issues which have raised as to which agency is best suited to assess ‘competition law matters’. A memorandum of understanding between the South African Competition Commission and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has been concluded in an effort to ensure consistency and enhanced collaboration between the two agencies in this regard.

The CAK’s conditions in this merger seem to be at odds with the CAK’s approach adopted in previous matters. For instance, when Yui exited the Kenyan market, both Airtel and Safaricom acquired Yu’s assets (including licenses). Although Safaricom had a larger chunk of the 2G spectrum, the CAK did not seem to take Safaricom’s market size into account when these assets were acquired. Perhaps the CAK appreciates that there was a missed opportunity.

This is will be the Tribunal’s first opportunity to review the CAK’s decision relating to a  merger and it will be interesting to see how robustly the Tribunal scrutinizes the CAK’s decision with reference to economic evidence. As competition lawyer Michael-James Currie points out, unfortunately, the CAK does not publish detailed reasons which underpin its decisions and it is, therefore, often difficult to fully appreciate the CAK’s reasoning or assess whether the CAK’s decision is sufficiently supported by the underlying evidence. Hopefully the Tribunal’s reasons in this matter will be more comprehensive, thereby contributing positively to creating precedent.

Currie also points out that the CAK imposed a public interest condition relating to a moratorium of any merger specific retrenchments for a two year period. The merging parties are appealing this condition as well and have proposed that the moratorium be reduced to 12 months. The role of public interest factors in merger control has been materially influenced by the South African merger control regime where employment related conditions are a common feature in merger conditions. Moreover, two year moratoriums is usually the ‘benchmark’ standard although moratoriums ranging from 3-5 years have also been imposed on parties in South Africa. It will be interesting to gauge the Tribunal’s approach to public interest factors and whether we will see a unique approach to the assessment of such conditions or whether the Tribunal is likely to follow the South African approach.

[Ruth is a Primerio competition law practitioner based in Nairobi, Kenya.]

 

 

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AAT, dominance, South Africa, Uncategorized

SOUTH AFRICA: COMPETITION APPEAL COURT CONFIRMS TRIBUNAL FINDING IN COMPUTICKET ABUSE OF DOMINANCE CASE

By Charl van der Merwe

The South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) on 23 October 2019 dismissed an appeal by Computicket (Pty) Ltd. (Computicket), following the decision of the Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) that Computicket had abused its dominance in contravention of the Competition Act.

For further information on the Tribunal decision, see the AAT exclusive here

Computicket appealed to the CAC on the substantive basis that the Tribunal erred in its factual conclusions on exclusion and anti-competitive effects.

It was further alleged by Computicket in its appeal that the economic evidence presented by the Commission was untested and speculative and ought to have been dismissed for a lack of independence. The basis for this allegation was that the economic evidence was presented by the Chief economist of the Commission, which presented a conflict of interests as the witness would be biased in favor of the Commission. The CAC rejected this argument and held that the evidence of experts must be assessed objectively on the basis of the criteria specified by the CAC (see Sasol Chemical Industries Limited v The Competition Commission 2015  – where the CAC held that there is no distinction drawn between an expert employed with the Commission and one appointed by a litigant).

On the substantive competition assessment, both experts were in agreement on the relevant market and Computicket conceded that it was dominant in that market in terms of section 7 of the Competition Act (with consistent market shares in excess of 95%).

The abusive conduct in question was that of exclusionary conduct, which can be assessed either in terms of section 8(c) or 8(d), with the latter being the ‘catch all’ provision. In this regard, the CAC confirmed that in terms of section 8(d)(i), it is sufficient for the Commission to prove only that Computicket’s conduct requires “or induces a customer not to deal with a competitor, without having to prove that the conduct also “impedes or prevents a firm from entering into, participating in or expanding within a market”. Once the Commission succeeds in linking the conduct to an identified theory of harm, the respondent bears the burden of proving that the harm is outweighed based on efficiency or other pro-competitive grounds.

Computicket argued against this ‘form based’ approach which, it believed hampered efficiency and could lead to consumer harm. It argued that one must consider the unique features of each market and, where there are other factors which may have exclusionary effects, the case must be dismissed.

This argument was, to some extent, upheld by the CAC who confirmed that there must be a causal relationship between the conduct and the anti-competitive effect (effects doctrine). The key consideration, however, remains what effect must be proven and the CAC confirmed that ultimately the judgment is made in weighing the net effects (harms and gain). In doing so, the CAC considered both actual and potential effects as well as the materiality of such effects. The CAC held that “plainly, a small adverse effect will readily be outweighed by pro-competitive gains”.

Against this legal framework, the CAC ultimately upheld the factual findings of the Tribunal and dismissed Computicket’s appeal.

In assessing the evidence, the CAC dealt with two fairly novel concepts which have become increasingly prevalent in South African competition enforcement, the assessment of negative effects on innovation and the efficiency of small competitors for purposes of the substantive assessment.

With regard to the latter, the CAC dismissed Computicket’s argument that a competitor lacked the requisite size and efficiency to compete with it. The CAC confirmed that the size and efficiency of the competitor are not determining factors in establishing likely competitive effects.

On the issue of innovation, without dealing with the argument in too much detail, the CAC confirmed the Tribunal’s finding that the exclusionary clause had a negative effect on innovation. This was held with reference to the Tribunal’s finding that Computicket had a “reluctance” to “timeously make use of available advances in technology and innovation”.

The Commission’s theory of harm in this case was that, viewed holistically, a decrease in supply by inventory providers; a reluctance by Computicket to timeously make use of available advances in technology and innovation; and the lack of choices for end consumers all cumulatively established an anti-competitive effect. It is not clear whether the delay (or reluctance) in introducing technology can be found to be an independent theory of harm.

In the Commission’s media release, the Commission indicated that it has referred a further case for prosecution to the Tribunal against Computicket and Shoprite Checkers (Pty) Ltd for exclusive agreements entered into between January 2013 to date (a period not covered by the prior case).

Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, says that the Commission has had limited success before the Competition Appeal Court in previous abuse of dominance cases with a number of decisions by the Tribunal in favour of the Commission overturned. One of the key concerns raised by the CAC previously is that the Commission failed to present a sufficiently robust economic case based on the available evidence to substantiate the theory of harm. The Commission appears to have, in this case, presented a compelling economic argument.

 

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AAT, buyer power, East Africa, Kenya, Uncategorized

KENYA: COMPETITION AMENDMENT BILL INTRODUCES ONEROUS BUYER POWER PROVISIONS

* By Ruth Mosoti

In July 2019, the Competition Amendment Bill was gazetted and looks on course to be adopted by Parliament.

There are several proposed amendments to the current Competition Act although the focus of the Amendments, most notably, relates to the introduction of buyer power provisions which is a self -standing prohibition and does not require a complainant to first establish a dominance on the part of the buyer.

In regard to buyer power, the majority of the substantive provisions in the current  “Buyer Power Guidelines” previously published by the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) have been mirrored in the Act. We summarize below some of the features that the Bill seeks to introduce to the Act in regard to buyer power include:

  1. Introduction of a ‘buyer power code of practice’, developed by the CAK in consultation with stakeholders, relevant government agencies and the Attorney General;
  2. The CAK will have power to impose reporting measures on sectors that experience or are likely to experience abuse of buyer power reporting and prudential requirements, in addition to this, these sectors may be required to develop their own binding code of practice;
  3. The Bill proposes minimum requirements for an agreement between a buyer undertaking and a supplier undertaking. The amendment also provides that this agreement does not have to be in writing;
  4. A new section 29A (which is controversial as it appears to be aimed at the advocates remuneration order) is introduced that targets Professional Associations whose rules offend the provisions of the Competition Act and provides for the persons who will be held responsible for any guidelines that are issued by the association.
  5. It is notable that there are no monetary administrative sanctions introduced by these provisions rather non-compliance attracts criminal sanctions.

The Bill, if passed into law, will positively impact the enforcement of buyer power provisions as the  gap on the substantive provisions on the enforcement of buyer power provisions will be filled.

Michael-James Currie, a pan-Africa competition law practitioner notes that that the Buyer Power principles are similar to those typically found in consumer protection legislation and there are no clear benchmarks (such as a substantial lessening of competition) against which to measure or assess the alleged buyer power. The criteria for determining whether buyer power amounts to an contravention is guided by principles of fairness and reasonableness rather than any economic benchmark. This makes compliance as well as objective decision making all the more difficult. John Oxenham, director at Primerio echoes these sentiments and states that from a traditional competition law perspective, buyer power generally only raises concerns in the event that the buyer concerned is able to exercise a substantial degree of market power.

Currie suggests that absent a clear threshold as to what would trigger an offence in terms of the new buyer power provisions, coupled with the criminal liability (which includes a maximum prison sentence of five years), is particularly onerous on firms seeking to comply with the competition legislation. Currie suggests that it would be preferable to change the liability to an administrative penalty as opposed to a criminal offence so as not to hamper or overly prejudice firms operating in the market.

 

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AAT, East Africa, fines, Kenya, mergers, Uncategorized

Enforcement Update: Kenya Competition Authority imposes administrative penalty for gun-jumping (prior implementation of a merger)

  • update by Michael-James Currie

In September 2019, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) formally penalised two merging parties for having implemented a transaction without having obtaining the requisite prior regulatory approval.

The trigger for mandatory notification in this case was a change from joint control to sole control when Patricia Cheng acquired an additional 50% of the shareholding in Moringa School.

The maximum penalty which may be imposed for prior implementation is 10% of the parties’ combined turnover in Kenya. In this case, the CAK imposed a nominal penalty (approximately USD 5000) in light of the parties having voluntarily notified the CAK of their failure to obtain prior approval, having co-operated with the CAK’s investigatory agency and after having subsequently assessed the transaction, the CAK concluded that the merger was unlikely to have any adverse effects on competition and would have positive public interest benefits.

The public interest benefits included the fact that the school would offer coding technology to over 1000 students and employees over 100 staff members.

In light of the mitigating factors, the CAK found that the penalty was balanced taking into account principles of deterrence and proportionality of the infringement.

The case is noteworthy not only because it signals a clear message from the CAK that the prior implementation of mergers will attract penalties (which are likely to increase substantially as firms ought to have greater awareness of the merger control regime in Kenya) but also confirms that a move from sole to joint control of an entity or, as in this case, a move from joint to sole control, requires mandatory notification to the CAK.

The CAK has one of the most effective merger control regimes in Africa and is increasingly becoming a more robust competition agency from an enforcement perspective.

[Michael-James Currie is a competition lawyer practising across the majority of sub-Saharan African jurisdictions]

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AAT, AAT exclusive, Access to Information, COMESA, commissioners, dominance, EAC, East Africa, exemptions, Kenya, market study

COMESA Competition Commission: 2019 Regional Sensitization Workshop

On 9-10 September 2019, the Comesa Competition Commission (CCC) hosted its 6th  “Regional Sensitization Workshop for Business Reporters on Competition Law and Trade Developments within the Common Market” workshop in Nairobi, Kenya as part of its advocacy initiative to promote competition law and enforcement activities across the COMESA region.

AfricanAntitrust, having attended last year’s event, was again invited to attend the event and senior contributor and competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, attended the event on behalf of AAT and participated in a serious of panel discussions and informal interactive sessions with members of the CCC and Competition Authority of Kenya.

Attendees

The workshop was well attended with a year on year increase in attendees reflecting the importance and popularity of this initiative. The CCC should be congratulated on a well organized and structured workshop.

Patrick Okilangole, Board Chairperson of the CCC, opened the event by highlighting the importance of competitive domestic markets to  “realize the benefits of trade; multilateral and bilateral trade agreements recognize the need to guarantee that restrictive business practices do not hinder the positive effects of free trade”.

Protectionist policies was identified by Okilangole as one of the key impediments to effective regional growth and trade. More specifically, Okilangole highlighted the following consequences of protectionist policies:

“(i)     Ineffective competition policy frameworks. Over the past few years, competition law has been enacted in several Member States of the Common Market. However, in some countries, competition frameworks have included:

(ii)      unjustified and discretionary exemptions, for example, utilities managed by the state in key economic sectors,

(iii)     lack of sufficient investigative powers and tools in the current national and regional legislation to deter anticompetitive behaviour,

(iv)    lack of independency in decision making since competition agencies report to and their decisions may be vetoed by a ministry, and

(v)     significant government intervention in markets such as price controls in potentially competitive markets, controlling essential products, margins, and geographic areas.”

Okilangole reaffirmed the true hallmark of an effective competition law regime, namely that competition law should be focused on protecting the competitive process and not a particular competitor. “The rules are not meant to punish large companies on account of their size or commercial success. The key feature of the competition rules is to create a level playing field for all business players in the market.”

Okilangole’s remarks were echoed by the Chief Executive Officer of the CCC, George Lipimile who emphasised the need to move away from protectionist policies in order to realise the benefits that flow from increased regional trade.

Restrictive business practices, particularly abuse of dominance practices and collusion were identified by Lipimile as being particularly prevalent within COMESA and that increased enforcement activities are required, both by the CCC and regional agencies, to detect and prosecute anti-competitive behaviour.

The workshop was also used as an opportunity to present and engage on the CCC’s Guidelines on Restrictive Business Practices (which were approved in April 2019). The objective of the Guidelines is to provide greater clarity, predictability and transparency in relation to the analytical framework which will be used to evaluate alleged anti-competitive conduct. The Guidelines also provide greater guidance on the process and circumstances in which the CCC may grant exemptions.

The CCC was well represented (so to was the CAK) and senior investigators, analysts and members from the executive team provided useful insights into the enforcement activities of the CCC as well as what lay ahead in the pipeline. Attendees were invited to engage, debate and where appropriate raise concerns regarding the efficacy of competition law enforcement in COMESA. It is this willingness to be open and engage proactively with constructive criticism which is perhaps the hallmark of this CCC initiative and certainly welcomed by the attendees.

As to enforcement updates, the CCC put together comprehensive presentations both in relation to merger control and restrictive business practices more generally. We highlight some of the more noteworthy developments below.

Merger Control

Willard Mwemba, manager of mergers and acquisitions at the CCC, confirmed that over 230 transactions have been notified to the CCC between 2013 and July 2019. Of these, 17 were approved subject to conditions.

From a merger trend perspective, the CCC witnessed an increased shift in merger notifications in traditional sectors, such as agriculture and construction, to emerging sectors such as energy, banking and financial services with the most active member states including Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

As to merger activity in COMESA, Mwemba confirmed that there has been a decrease in merger activity in the first half of 2019, largely as a result of a decrease in global activity and that the value of transactions that occurred within the first half of 2019 dropped from USD 527 billion to USD 319 billion for the same period in 2018. This is also consistent with the 19% decrease in the number of notifiable transactions globally.

The combined total turnover value of all mergers assessed by the CCC to date amounts to over USD 110 billion. Although 2019 figures were not presented, the CCC highlighted that total Foreign Direct Investment in COMESA grew in 2016 from USD 18.6 billion to USD 19.3 billion in 2017 representing nearly half of Africa’s total FDI inflows. Again, highlighting the significance of the COMESA market in the global space.

Enforcement Activities

Although the CCC has had an active merger control regime in place for many years, a number of commentators have raised the lack of robustly investigated and prosecuted abuse of dominance or cartel cases as a key hindrance to effective competition law enforcement in COMESA. While the CCC acknowledges that more should be done in this regard, below is a list of non-merger matters which the CCC has concluded in past three years:

Exemptions

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Supreme Imports Limited Lighting bulbs Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Sayyed Engineers Limited Writing implements East Africa
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Chloride Egypt SAE Automotive Batteries Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between John Deere (Proprietary) Limited and AFGRI Zimbabwe Private Limited Agriculture Equipment Zimbabwe
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and the Motor Engineering Company of Ethiopia Agriculture and Construction Equipment Ethiopia
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and UMCL Limited Agriculture and Construction Equipment Comoros, Mauritius, Seychelles
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and Sodirex SA, Madagascar Road Construction Machinery Madagascar
Application for the Joint Venture Agreement between Kenya Airways PLC, Koninklijke Luchvaart Maatscahppij NV (KLM) and Societe Air France SA Aviation Kenya
Assessment of the distribution agreements between Unilever Market Development (Pty) Limited and Distributors in the Common Market  FMCGs DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius,

Determination of Anti-Competitive Conduct: Procedure of Commission on its own volition

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Eveready East Africa Limited and Clorox Sub Saharan Africa Bleaching agents East Africa
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Parmalat SA (Pty) Limited and its Distributors Milk and dairy products Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements between Coca-Cola Beverages Africa and Distributors in the Common Market Non-alcoholic beverages Comoros, Ethiopia, Uganda

False or Misleading Representation 

Matter Sector Affected Member States
Misleading Advertising by Fastjet Airlines Limited Aviation Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

The CCC also confirmed that they are currently conducting a number of market screening initiatives across priority sectors. Following the conclusion of these screening exercises, the CCC will decide whether to prosecute any firms engaged in restrictive business practices.

As part of the CCC’s efforts in detecting and investigating anti-competitive behavior, the CCC has increased its collaborative efforts with domestic member agencies and has established the “Restrictive Business Practices Network” to increase the efficacy of cross-border cases.

Currie Panel Discussion

[Michael-James Currie speaking on a panel discussion on “How to improve the quality of reporting on regional integration and competition law related matters” facilitated by Mr Mwangi Gakunga from the Competition Authority of Kenya]

Conclusion

In light of the tripartite negotiations between SADC-EAC-COMESA as well as the negotiation of competition policy in terms of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, it is imperative that the CCC develops an effective competition enforcement regime which assists and incentivizes free trade across the relevant markets. To do so, the CCC must be equipped with the necessary resources to ensure that it has the capacity to effectively execute its policies.

Despite the significant challenges faced by the CCC, it is encouraging to note that the CCC is taking a more robust approach to detecting and prosecuting anti-competitive practices in the COMESA market and are endeavoring to do so in accordance with international best practices.

If the CCC is able to deliver on the objectives and action items which were discussed in detail at the workshop, then there is every reasons to look forward to a more active CCC in the months to come with interesting cases likely to be brought to the fore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AAT, AAT exclusive, East Africa, fraud/corruption, jurisdiction, Kenya, mergers, mobile, public-interest, Telecoms, Uncategorized

Kenyan Competition Watchdog suspends Telkom Kenya / Airtel deal

Multiple regulatory agencies, competitor complaints and public interest concerns has posed a significant impediment to the proposed merger between Telkom Kenya and Airtel.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) recently announced that the Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) is investigating Telkom Kenya amidst allegations of corruption in relation to historic transactions which gave rise to the current shareholding in Telkom Kenya.

The CAK’s decision to suspend the assessment of the merger was announced approximately a week after the Communications Authority of Kenya also suspended its assessment of the transaction pending the outcome of the EACC’s investigation.

The Communications Authority’s investigation will likely include an assessment of a complaint filed with the agency by Safaricom, a competitor to the merging parties.

Furthermore, the deal was also opposed by certain Telkom employees, ostensibly on the basis that their jobs were at risk should the deal go ahead.

Accordingly, the parties appear to have a long road ahead of them before clearance to implement the deal is granted.

The proposed transaction has no doubt attracted an additional degree of scrutiny as the telecom sector in Kenya is a significant market and there have been a number of disputes regarding the CAK’s jurisdiction to assess anti-competitive conduct, particularly abuse of dominance conduct, in this sector. A study into the telecom sector prepared by the Communications Authority was presented to Parliament in 2018. The CAK objected to the findings and remedial actions contained in the report which the CAK argued would amount to “price regulating” by the Communications Authority. Instead, the CAK urged the Communications Authority to focus rather on features of the market which raise barriers to entry or preclude effective competition between competitors.

While Parliament has, as far back as 2015, urged the Communications Authority to consult the CAK before making any determination regarding a telecom service providers’ “dominance”, subsequent litigation led to a High Court ruling in 2017 which confirmed that the Communications Authority’s powers vis-à-vis competition related matters remain vested exclusively with the Communications Authority.

The concurrent jurisdiction between the CAK and the Communication’s Authority has created somewhat of an enforcement discord – at least in so far as assessing abuse of dominance cases are concerned.

The fact that both the CAK and the Communications Authority have decided to suspend their assessments of the proposed merger following the outcome of the EACC’s investigation suggests that the outcome of the EACC’s investigation is relevant to both the CAK and Communication Authority analysis of the proposed transaction. This in turn, seemingly appears that there is at least an overlap in relation to the key issues under assessment by the respective agencies. Assuming there is indeed an overlap between the CAK and the Communication Authority’s assessment of the proposed transaction that naturally raises the risk of having two agencies come to different conclusions based on the same facts.

Telkom Kenya, however, remain confident that the merger will ultimately be cleared by all regulators.

Telkom Kenya have indicated that the merger will have significant pro-competitive and pro-public interest benefits which will have a positive impact on employees (and the market more generally). Whether the CAK conducts a comprehensive assessment between the short term negative impact on employment versus long term positive impact remains to be seen.

Assuming the proposed deal does not raise any traditional competition issues, it cannot therefore be ruled out that the transaction will be approved subject to public interest related conditions regarding retrenchments and/or re-employment obligations.

Whatever decision is ultimately reached, one hopes that the authorities will publish detailed reasons based on a robust assessment of the evidence in order to provide greater objectivity and transparency as to the analysis which is undertaken by the CAK when analyzing a merger – both from a competition and public interest perspective.

The CAK has in the past number of years have made significant positive strides forward in this regard and is deserved of the recognition it receives as one of the most active and robust competition authorities in Africa.

[Michael-James Currie is senior contributor to AAT and a practicing competition lawyer who has assisted clients with competition law related matters in multiple jurisdictions across Africa]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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