“Emerging Antitrust”: One size doesn’t fit all?

Pro rem publicam

At the Concurrences “Antitrust & Developing and Emerging Economies” conference held at NYU Law last Friday — and aptly sub-titled “Coping with nationalism, building inclusive growth” — the audience was treated to a (rather iconoclastic, yet fascinating) keynote speech by Nobel laureate economics professor Joe Stiglitz, which highlighted what would become a theme woven throughout the four panels of the day: One size does not fit all when it comes to competition-law regimes, according to a majority of the speakers; imposing a pure U.S. or EU-derived methodology without regard to local economic and/or political differences is doomed to fail.  However, as we outline further below, there were also countervailing voices…

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz: “Revisit all of antitrust!”

In the words of Professor Stiglitz, his advice to developing nations was (perhaps to the chagrin of U.S. government representatives, such as the FTC’s international director, Randy Tritell): “don’t copy the US antitrust laws and presumptions!”  Smaller markets in developing countries are even more susceptible to market power by few large firms.  Competition law can be used in developing countries to advance the public interest, as there are fewer “tools in the toolkit” in those nations, and in his view, all available tools should thus be used.  He referred to the WalMart/Massmart transaction in South Africa in this regard, noting the public-interest conditions imposed there.

On the day’s Mega Mergers panel, SACC Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele noted how the outcomes of truly global “mega mergers” all having been positive, “there has been no outright prohibition, there really is no problem that’s too big which could not be remedied by the authorities and the parties.”

Andreas Stargard and Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele (South Africa)

Observes Andreas Stargard: “Commissioner Bonakele also pointed to the importance of international merger enforcers cooperating on remedies, in order to allow these positive outcomes to be maintained.  Taking up Professor Harry First’s hypothetical of a joint or ‘merged’ antitrust enforcement agency, Mr. Bonakele considered a combined merger authority for the African continent a possibility, especially in light of the many small jurisdictions which individually lack resources to police cross-border M&A activity.”  Mr. Bonakele expressed the concern that “the smaller, national enforcers certainly feel as if they cannot block a mega deal on their own, so they largely defer” to the established agencies, such as the EC and DOJ / FTC.

In response to Frederic Jenny’s critical introduction of the South African Competition Amendment Act, Commissioner Bonakele commented that the current legal regime lacked the ability to tackle concentration as a market feature in itself, whilst the SACC had a comparatively positive track record on unilateral enforcement issues.  Overall, he disagreed with the moderator that most of the Bill’s changes were drastic, stating simply that it would in fact bring South Africa more in line with other international regimes.

As to the ministerial intervention powers, he identified two concerns, namely the use of the agency’s resources as well as the possible risk of abuse by a minister who could employ the new law to pursue ulterior motives against a firm or a sector.

Counterpoint: public interest or politicization?

Prof. Ioannis Lianos characterized the “slightly fuzzy public interest test” as largely a scheme to enhance the bargaining power of the competition agencies that do apply such a test.

Canadian attorney and former enforcer Lawson Hunter pointed out that the trend of growing political interference in the merger approval process has spread globally, not only in developing nations but also in well-established regimes — often under the guise of national security reviews, which are “obscure, opaque in process, fundamentally political, and without any ‘there there’.”  Merger review has “simply become very broad and less doctrinal.”  “I found it interesting that Mr. Hunter recommended that other antitrust agencies should give more frank input into their sister agencies, if and when those stray from the right path,” said Stargard, who focuses his practice on competition matters across the continent.  “Hunter also pointed to the tendency in emerging antitrust jurisdictions to abuse the remedy process in merger control to address economic issues that lie well outside the actual competition concerns that may have been found — an issue we have also come across, sadly.”

Commissioner Bonakele closed the final panel of the day by addressing the recently ratified South African Competition Amendment Bill: he admitted that there were some “radical” provisions in the law, such as the power to break up companies, as well as the existence of a risk of government using the law’s new national security provision in a protectionist manner. He concluded by stating his personal worry that the law had possibly too much ambition, which could be difficult to implement in reality by the SACC.

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SA Competition Act officially amended – serious consequences for businesses

South Africa has amended its antitrust laws, first introduced to the country in 1998 via its Competition Act.  Parliament ratified the amendments (which still have to be rubber-stamped by the National Council of Provinces, a mere formality) yesterday over the serious objections of the opposition parties.  The new law will give significant interventionist powers to the Minister for Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, as well as introduce lower (or even reversed) burdens of proof for the Competition Commission (SACC) to make its case, after a long-running string of court losses and appellate defeats has seen the SACC’s track record weakened, observers say.

As reported on AAT Monday, a panel of Africa-focussed competition specialists had just recently convened in Johannesburg, warning the South African business community about the high probability of the Bill’s passage, as well as addressing the adverse effects the Bill will have on doing business in South Africa as a medium to large size market player (measured in market share, not merely revenue) or simply as a foreign-owned corporate.

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel

Interviewed yesterday in Cape Town, where the Amendment Act was ratified by South Africa’s Parliament, Primerio competition practitioner Andreas Stargard commented: “As we foreshadowed at our conference less than a week ago, the likelihood of the Bill passing was high.  Political, populist pressure was simply too strong for this amendment — which had been introduced as a so-called ‘prioritised bill’ that could be fast-tracked — not to pass.  We view the likely effects of it as a serious departure from commonly accepted best practices in the international world of antitrust law, as we outlined to our clients at the Johannesburg conference.  I will be curious to hear what Commissioner Bonakele’s comments on these critiques will be at Friday’s conference at New York University“, referring to an event sponsored by NYU and Concurrences, at which the SACC Commissioner is expected to deliver a panel speech later this week.

Commenting on the purported social transformational goals, South African competition partner John Oxenham adds: “There is a relentless push from government (not only Mr. Patel) to use the Competition Act as a tool to speed up its broader social and transformation goals.  The underlying reasons for this Amendment are rather straightforwardly conceded by the current, and arguably presently fluctuating, administration: the Bill was ostensibly designed not to enhance competitiveness in the traditional antitrust sense, but rather to address so-called market concentration and perceived unequal ownership patterns in the SA economy.”

October Antitrust Conference Shines Spotlight on Africa

New York Concurrences conference: Focus on emerging economies, “coping with nationalism and building inclusive growth”

AAT invites its readers to sign up for what promises to be a timely and topical conference in NYC this October 26, 2018, at NYU Law School.  Program below, sign-up with Eventbrite here.  The event features the SACC’s Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele as well as professor Simon Roberts from the Univ. of Johannesburg.


08.15 am

Registration & Breakfast

 8:45am

Opening Keynote Speech

Joseph STIGLITZ  

Nobel Prize-Winning Economist | Professor, Columbia University, New York  

9:30am

Competition, Industrial Policy and Developing Countries

Noah BRUMFIELD | Partner, White & Case, Washington DC

Dennis DAVIS | President, Competition Appeal Court of South Africa, Cape Town

Kirti GUPTA | Senior Director, Economic Strategy Qualcomm, San Diego

Frédéric JENNY | Chairman, OECD Competition Committee, Paris

Simon ROBERTS | Professor, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg

Moderator: Eleanor FOX | Professor, NYU School of Law, New York

 11:00am

Coffee Break

11:15am

Mega Mergers and Developing Countries

Tembinkosi BONAKELE | Commissioner, South Africa Competition Commission, Pretoria

Marcio DE OLIVEIRA JR | Senior Consultant, Charles River Associates, São Paulo

Gönenç GÜRKAYNAK | Partner, ELIG Gürkaynak Attorneys-at-Law, Istanbul

Nicholas LEVY | Partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, London

Ioannis LIANOS | Professor, University College London

Moderator: Harry FIRST | Professor, NYU School of Law, New York

 12:45pm

Lunch

1:45pm

BRICS: A Competition Agenda? 

Alexey IVANOV | Director, HSE-Skolkovo Institute for Law and Development, Moscow

Ruchit PATEL | Partner, Ropes & Gray, London

Cristiane SCHMIDT| Commissioner, CADE, Brasília

Xianlin WANG | Professor, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai

Moderator: Daniel RUBINFELD | Professor, NYU School of Law

 3:15pm

Coffee Break

3:30pm

Enforcer’s Roundtable: What’s Under the Radar?

Roger ALFORD|Deputy Assistant Attorney General, US DOJ, Washington DC

Tembinkosi BONAKELE | Commissioner, South Africa Competition Commission, Pretoria

Randolph TRITELL | Director, Office of International Affairs, US FTC, Washington DC

Joseph WILSON | Adjunct Professor, McGill University, Montreal | Former Chairman, Competition Commission of Pakistan

Moderator: Frédéric JENNY| Chairman, OECD Competition Committee, Paris

5:00pm

Closing Wrap-up: New York Minute

Eleanor M. FOX | Professor, New York University School of Law

Harry FIRST | Professor, New York University School of Law

5:15pm

Cocktail Reception 

 

South Africa Competition Tribunal: Merging Parties Penalised for Failure to Comply with Public Interest Conditions

By Michael-James Currie

On 29 June 2018, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) penalised the RTO Group R75 000 for failing to comply with the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval in respect of two companies now within the RTI stable, Warehouseit and Courierit. The Tribunal approved the large merger in August 2015.

In terms of the Tribunal’s merger approval, a moratorium on merger specific retrenchments for a two year period was imposed – now a frequently imposed public interest related condition by the competition agencies in South Africa.

RTI, however, was penalised not for retrenching any employees during this window but for failure to adhere to the monitoring obligations as set out in the Tribunal’s conditional approval certificate.

In this regard, the merging parties were obliged to notify their employees (and Courierit’s subcontractors) of the conditions to the merger approval within five days of the merger approval date. The merging parties were also obliged to provide the Competition Commission with an affidavit confirming that the obligations in terms of the conditions had been complied with.

By way of a consent order, RTI admitted that it failed to comply with its monitoring obligations and agreed to pay an administrative penalty for breaching the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval.

Although there have been a limited number of cases in respect of which an administrative penalty has been imposed for a breach of the merger conditions, this case demonstrates the importance of fully complying with the terms set out by way of a conditional merger approval.

Furthermore, although notifying the employees of the relevant conditions may not have been a particularly onus obligation, merging parties should take particular cognisance of monitoring and reporting obligations when negotiating conditions with the Competition Commission. Merging parties understandably place greater emphasis on the substantive aspects of the conditions and may underestimate the reporting obligations related thereto – particularly if conditions are being negotiated at the eleventh hour (which is not uncommon).

While there are mechanism’s available to merging parties to remedy any patently unworkable aspects contained in merger approval conditions, it is advisable to ensure that the conditions are practical and capable of being adhered to in full prior to being finalised – assuming the merging parties have that luxury.

[Michael-James Currie is a South African based competition lawyer and practices across Sub-Saharan Africa]

Competition Appeal Court’s Ruling in Standard Bank Case: A Changing of the Tides?

Threat of Referral no Longer an Arrow in the Commission’s Quiver?

By AAT Senior Contributor Michael-James Currie

In the first week of June 2018, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) upheld Standard Bank’s appeal and ordered that the Competition Commission (Commission) make available its investigation record to Standard Bank. Standard Bank is a respondent in the Commission’s ForEx investigation.

Standard Bank had requested that the Commission make available its record in terms of Rule 15 of the Competition Commission Rules. Rule 15 permits any member of the public to request access to the Commission’s non-confidential record. Standard Bank therefore brought its application in terms of Rule 15 not on the basis of it being a respondent to the Commission’s investigation but as an ordinary member of the public.

Although the CAC had in an earlier case, Group 5, set out the correct interpretation and application of Rule 15 and stated that:

  1. the Commission is obliged in terms of Rule 15 to make available its record of investigation;
  2. that the Commission must do so within a “reasonable time”; and
  3. that the Commission must disregard the applicants status as a litigant when determining what a reasonable time is.

The Tribunal in the Standard Bank case, however, deviated from the CAC’s binding decision in Group 5 and held that the Commission would only need to make its record available to Standard Bank at the time of discovery.

Accordingly, the CAC in the Standard Bank case found that the Tribunal took Standard Bank’s status as a litigant into account when assessing what a reasonable time would be by which the Commission was obliged to make available its record to Standard Bank. The CAC in Standard Bank confirmed that although the Tribunal is not bound by the stare decisis principle in relation to its own decisions, the Tribunal is bound by the CAC’s decisions. The Tribunal’s decision in Standard Bank was inconsistent with the CAC’s earlier decision in the Group 5 case – where the CAC expressly stated that there is no rational basis for linking the production of the Commission’s record with discovery proceedings. The Tribunal’s departure from the CAC’s earlier precedent was noted with concern by the CAC in Standard Bank.

The Commission argued – as justification for not producing its record – that Standard Bank was abusing its position as a litigant. In this regard, the CAC expressly rejected this argument and held that simply because a plaintiff would be better placed to plead its case after receiving the Commission’s record that, in of itself, does not amount to an abuse of process. The CAC held that it would only amount to an abuse of process if an applicant sought to rely on Rule 15 in order to avoid or delay having to plead within the prescribed time periods.

Furthermore, the CAC reaffirmed that a member of the public’s right to access the Commission’s record should not be prejudiced by the fact that such a member is also a litigant.

The Court’s Standard Bank decision is important as respondents will invariably be inclined to seek access to the Commission’s record prior to pleading their case. This may have a material impact on the Commission’s settlement strategy as respondents in settlement negotiations with the Commission are likely to request the Commission’s record in order to assess the strength of the Commission’s case against it before deciding whether to settle the case or not – thereby compelling the Commission to ensure that a robust investigation is conducted prior to entering into settlement negotiations with respondents.

Says John Oxenham, ‘the “threat of a referral” is unlikely to present the Commission with the same negotiating leverage as it may otherwise have enjoyed when respondents were kept in the dark as to the evidence which the Commission may have against them.’

Whether this all plays out in practice remains to be seen although any decision which promotes transparency and legal certainty can only be positive. It is for this reason that the CAC’s express criticism of the Tribunal’s decision to depart from established case precedent is particularly noteworthy as it is a stark reminder to all adjudicative bodies of the importance of adhering to the rule of law.

Shipping cartels: BMW Pursues Civil Damages Claim against certain Carriers

By Stephany Torres

BMW plans to lodge a claim in South Africa for damages against international car-carriers and shipping companies which have been found guilty or have pleaded guilty to competition law contraventions, including Japanese-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (“MOL”) and K-Line Shipping South Africa, the local subsidiary of Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (“K-Line”), Norway’s Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics AS (“WWL”) and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (“NYK”).  BMW is seeking compensation for the losses it alleges to have suffered as a result of the anti-competitive price-fixing arrangements between the car carriers.

BMWship.jpgBMW’s case stems from an amnesty application, by which MOL approached the South African Competition Commission (“the Commission”) in terms of its Corporate Leniency Policy (“CLP”), which outlines a process through which the Commission may grant a self-confessing cartel member, who approaches the Commission first, immunity for its participation in cartel activity upon the cartel member fulfilling specific requirements which includes providing information and cooperating fully with the Commission’s investigation.  Says John Oxenham, a South African competition lawyer, “if the Commission grants an applicant what is called ‘conditional immunity’, a possible outcome is the complete avoidance of a fine, which could otherwise be calculated at up   to 10% of domestic revenues, including exports.”  That said, conditional antitrust immunity, does not offer full exoneration from potential other liability in respect of the conduct for which the Competition Commission granted immunity.

It is notable that MOL, NYK and WWL subsequently agreed to cooperate with the Commission in prosecuting K-Line.

On further investigation by the Commission it found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL fixed prices, divided markets and tendered collusively in contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i), (ii) and (iii) of the Competition Act no 89 of 1998 in respect of the roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ocean transportation of Toyota vehicles from South Africa to Europe, the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa and the Caribbean Islands via Europe, West Africa, East Africa and the Red Sea.

The Commission’s investigation found that from at least 2002 to 2013 K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL colluded on a tender issued by Toyota SA Motors (“TSAM”) to transport Toyota vehicles from South Africa abroad by sea.  The Commission further found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL agreed on the number of vessels that they were to operate on the South Africa to Europe routes at agreed intervals or frequencies.

In addition, the Commission found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL agreed on the freight rates that they were to charge TSAM for the shipment of Toyota vehicles.

International competition authorities including authorities in the US, Canada, Japan, China and Australia investigated this case and, in recent years, imposed large fines on the respective cartelists for engaging in market division and price fixing.  In February 2018, Wallenius Wilhelmsen agreed to pay a large fine to the EU.  Höegh Autoliners has reportedly been summoned to a court meeting in South Africa in March 2018.

 

Concurrences: Interview with Commissioner Bonakele

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Antitrust in Developing Countries: Competition Policy in a Politicised World

Our friends at Concurrences Review are hosting the fourth edition of the joint conference co-organized by Concurrences & New York University School of Law, in New York City on October 27, 2017.

Tickets and more information can be obtained here.

Below is the interview of Tembinkosi Bonakele (Commissioner, South African Competition Commission) by Ioannis Lianos (Professor, University College London). The two will participate in the conference panel “Impact of the New Nationalism on Competition and Economic Development in Developing Countries.”

Interview between Prof. Lianos and Commissioner Bonakele

© Concurrences

Competition authorities are increasingly interested in assessing the effects of mergers or other conduct on innovation. How is this concern over the promotion of innovation affecting the substance of competition law enforcement, and in particular the extraterritorial application of competition law, as innovation is often taking place in the context of global value chains? How should one resolve conflicts over competing visions over the impact of competition on innovation, as it seems to be, for instance, the case between the EU and the US, and possibly BRICS countries?

One of the aims of competition law is to encourage innovation. Firms and individuals are incentivised to innovate due to the protection conferred on their innovations by intellectual property laws (IP). Therefore, at least theoretically, competition and IP laws ought to be complementary. However, the conflicts between competition law and innovation/IP laws are increasingly coming into sharp focus within the context of global value chains. One such example is the recent global mega-mergers in the seeds and agro-chemicals sectors. These mergers illustrate how multinationals can leverage their significant innovation and research resources by extending their IP protections through ‘ever-greening’ of patents, reciprocal IP cross licensing arrangements with close rivals, joint ventures and collaborative research and development. This level of collaboration suggests that the seed/agro-processing markets are likely more concentrated than is currently understood. From a policy perspective, competition authorities in both the EU and US seem supportive of this level of concentration based on the theory that such concentration increases innovation, notwithstanding their (unintended) global unilateral effects to which developing countries are especially vulnerable, given the centrality of agriculture for the sustenance of communities in their economies. The vulnerability of developing countries is further exacerbated by the fact that they are trying to regulate multinationals which have access to resources that dwarf the GDPs of many developing countries, and are able to lobby hard politically, against any interventions aimed at their activities.

Against this backdrop, the way forward for BRICS and other developing countries is to continue efforts to establish their own research platforms to enable the true impacts of the trade-off between innovation and competition law to be better understood from a developing country perspective. Furthermore, there is scope for greater global co-ordination amongst competition law agencies to ensure that global transactions are investigated and remedied in a co-ordinated manner.

Broader public policy concerns, than consumer welfare narrowly defined, are increasingly taken into account by various competition law systems around the world, in both developing and developed countries when assessing mergers and, in some instances, anticompetitive conduct. There is also increasing demand for a broader canvas of principles and values in order to assess business conduct, as this is demonstrated by the development of the concepts of “social” and “green” capitalism. Should competition law authorities explore more systematically this trend and eventually move to a public interest standard in assessing anticompetitive conduct, at least in some economic sectors (for instance involving primary goods, such as food, shelter, or with considerable environmental impact etc.)? What would be the implications for the global governance of antitrust?

Many countries already apply tests beyond the typical competition law tests in merger assessments, but they do not declare those tests in an open and transparent way. In contrast, South Africa’s merger regulation explicitly includes a public interest test and guidelines have been issued setting out how the test will be applied during merger assessment.

Should public interest cover some old and emerging social issues such as green issues or the environmental impact on food security, shelter and so on? I think there is scope for these to be part of an assessment of merger transactions, but their location need not necessarily be with a competition agency and they can be properly assessed through a different regulatory agency in a transparent manner. Countries should be allowed to structure their agencies the way they deem fit.

Within South Africa’s context, in order to address historical inequalities and economic and political imbalances, competition legislation specifically provides for both competition law and public interest standards in the merger assessment process. It bears specific mention that the courts have recently confirmed that both the competition law and public interest tests are of equal prominence in any merger determination process. In a developmental context, economic exclusion exacerbates inequality, poverty and unemployment and competition policy in conjunction with industrial policy (introduced through public interest) can break down barriers to entry and unleash innovation and new entry, which are pivotal to the unleashing of economic growth and development.

Although public interest considerations in merger assessment would appear, largely, the preserve of developing countries, developed countries and most notably, the European Union, seem to be re-considering their stance towards public interest considerations in merger assessment. Moreover, the impact of globalisation appears to be giving rise to a new wave of ‘new nationalism’ in developed countries (and the United States is no exception). This has ushered in more inward looking perspectives to international trade and ironically, may give rise to the use of public interest considerations in ‘tit for tat’ exchanges in transactions taking place within an increasingly geopolitical context. Thus, the implications for the global governance of anti-trust may be convergence.

In recent years the competition authorities of BRICS countries and other large emergent economies have been increasingly active in competition law enforcement, adjudicating high profile cases of global importance. The experience gained may be a source of inspiration for competition authorities in other emergent and developing countries, and could also be an important source of learning and wisdom for the competition authorities in developed countries. Do you consider that BRICS and other larger emergent competition authorities should strive to ensure global convergence with the EU and/or US models of competition law, as this is put forward by some, or should they opt for different models, experimentation being an important source of collective learning for both developing and developed countries? Should convergence, or experimentation, be the main/driving principle for the global governance of competition law? 

In the developed world, competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that markets are naturally competitive, self-correcting and don’t require policy interventions to address failures. However, that presumption cannot hold true in a developing country context where markets are undeveloped, highly concentrated, non-inclusive and unemployment and inequality are high. In this ‘developmental context’ competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that firms with market power exploit it. Therefore, in developmental context, competition law more than just efficiency, but human and socio-economic development as well.

Rather than seeking convergence with developed country perspectives on competition law, developing countries need to play a more prominent role in understanding how competition law policy can be used to address poverty, inequality and unemployment. This will require developing countries through the auspices of representative regional platforms such as BRICS, to enhance co-operation, share experiences and develop legal and competition law expertise from a developmental perspective.

Thus, it is important to appreciate that approaches to competition law in the developed and developing worlds are diverse and that divergence should be tolerated and informed by context. This does not take away the need for global co-operation and sharing best practices. There are also instances where harmonisation may be desirable, like in regions with or striving for common markets.

South Africa: Merger Thresholds and Filing Fees Increased

As of 1 October 2017, the recently revised merger thresholds which were published by way of Government Gazette will become effective.

The large merger thresholds have remained unchanged, however, the thresholds for an intermediate merger (which requires mandatory merger notification if met) have been amended as follows:

The combined threshold has been increased to R600 million (approx.US$46 million) R560 million).  The combined threshold for an intermediate merger relates to either the combined turnover of the merging parties’ South African specific turnover or the merging parties combined asset value in South Africa.

The lower merger threshold (i.e. the target’s thresholds) for an intermediate merger has also been increased from R80 million to R100 million (approx. US$7.6 million) For purposes of the lower merger threshold, however, either the turnover or the asset value of the target entity is utilised.

The large merger thresholds remain unchanged with a combined threshold of R6.6 billion (approx. US$500 million) and the target’s threshold at R190 million (approx.US$14.6 million)

For purpose of both the intermediate and large merger thresholds, any combination of the South African specific turnover or asset value of the merging parties which exceed the thresholds will require a mandatory merger notification. In other words, the combined large merger threshold will be met if the acquiring firm’s asset value combined with the target firm’s turnover exceeds R6.6 billion.

In addition to the merger thresholds, the merger filing fees have also been increased and the new filing fees are:

  • Intermediate merger: R150 000
  • Large merger: R500 000

The merger thresholds were previously revised in 2009 and as John Oxenham, Director of Primerio Ltd., comments “increasing the target’s thresholds for purposes of an intermediate merger will assist in ensuring that transactions which are highly unlikely to result in any anti-competitive effects are subject to the merger control process“. Oxenham also points out that it is noteworthy that the filing fees have increased by 50% in respect of intermediate mergers and more than 40% for large mergers.

In addition to the mandatorily notifiable thresholds, Michael-James Currie notes that “the South African Competition Commission may call for the notification of any transaction which does not meet the intermediate merger thresholds (i.e. a small merger) within 6 months after the transaction has been implemented should the Commission be of the view that the small merger raises competition or public interest concerns“.

[For legal advice, please contact a Primerio representative]

 

South African Market Inquiries: What Lies Ahead and is it Justified?

By Michael-James Currie

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it will be conducting market inquiries into both the Public Passenger Transport sector (Transport Inquiry) as well as investigate the high costs of Data (Data Inquiry).

These inquiries are in addition to the SACC’s market inquiries into the private healthcare sector and grocery retail sector (which are still on-going) and the recently concluded LPG market inquiry.

There are mixed feelings about the benefits of market inquiries in South Africa. Market inquiries are extremely resource intensive (both from the SACC’s perspective as well as for the key participants in the inquiry) and the outcomes of the inquiries which have been concluded (including the informal inquiry in the banking sector) are lukewarm at best. There is little evidence available which suggests that the resources incurred in conducting market inquiries in South Africa are proportional to the perceived or intended pro-competitive outcomes.

Leaving aside this debate for now, the SACC’s most recent market inquiries are particularly interesting for a variety of additional reasons.

Firstly, in relation to the Transport Inquiry, the Terms of Reference (ToR) set out the objectives and the key focus areas of the inquiry. In this regard, the ToR indicate that pricing regulation is one of the key factors which allegedly creates an uneven playing field between metered taxis for example and app-based taxi services such as Uber.

It should be noted that the metered taxi association of South Africa had previously and unsuccessfully submitted a complaint to the SACC against Uber for alleged abuse of dominance. The success of Uber in South Africa has widely been regarded as pro-competitive.

Both prior and subsequent to the complaint against Uber, however, an overwhelming number of metered taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) have resorted to deliberate violent tactics in order to preclude Uber drivers from operating in key areas (i.e. at train stations). In fear of having themselves, their passengers and their vehicles harmed, many Uber drivers oblige. It would be most interesting to see how the SACC tackles this most egregious forms of cartel conduct, namely market allocation (albeit entered into under duress).

Over and above the ‘metered taxi v Uber’ debate, there are additional issues which the Transport Inquiry will focus on – including alleged excessive pricing on certain bus routes, regulated route allocation and ethnic transformation within the industry.

What will likely become a topic (directly or indirectly) during the Transport Inquiry are the allegations, as African Antitrust (AAT) had previously reported, that ‘the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”’.

In this regard, the ToR indicates that “between 70% and 80% of the South African population is dependent on public passenger transport for its mobility”. The majority of these individuals would make use of ‘minibus taxis’.

The Transport Inquiry ToR do not mention this seemingly most blatant violation of competition law principles and it remains to be seen to what extent the SACC’s is prepared to investigate and assess hardcore collusion in the industry.

In relation to the second market inquiry, the SACC will also conduct an inquiry in relation to the high data costs in South Africa.

The High costs of data in South Africa seems to be key issue from the government’s perspective and the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel called for the SACC to conduct an inquiry into this sector. Further, the high costs of data in South Africa seems so important to economic growth and development that the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, not only echoed Minister Patel’s calls for a market inquiry into high data costs, but identified such a market inquiry as part of his ‘14 point action plan’ to revive the South African economy.

Given that the three formal market inquiries which the SACC has commenced with to date have, only one (the LPG inquiry) has been finalized. Even the LPG inquiry took nearly three years to conclude. The private healthcare inquiry and the grocery retail inquiry which commenced in 2014 and 2015 respectively, still seem someway off from reaching any finality.

The length of time taken to conclude a market inquiry is, however, not the end of the matter from a timeline perspective. Following a market inquiry, recommendations must be made to Parliament. These recommendations may include legislative reforms or other remedies to address identified concerns with the structure of the market. Parliament may or may not adopt these recommended proposal.

Accordingly, it seems unlikely that from the date a market inquiry commences, that there will be any pro-competitive gains to the market within 5-7 years. That is assuming that the market presents anti-competitive features which can be remedies through legislative reform

While there appears to be consensus among most that data costs in South Africa are disproportionately high when compared to a number of other developing economies, the positive results envisaged to flow from a market inquiry is not only difficult to quantify, but will only be felt, if at all, a number of years down the line. Hardly a first step to revive the economy on a medium term outlook (let alone the short term).

Furthermore, and entwined with the SACC’s market inquiry into Data Costs, is that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) decided to also conduct a market inquiry into the telecommunications sector, which includes focusing on the high costs of data.  ICASA has indicated that it will liaise with other regulatory bodies including the SACC.

It is not clear what level of collaboration will exist between the SACC and ICASA although one would hope that due to the resource intensive nature of market inquiries, there is minimal duplication between the two agencies – particularly as their objectives would appear identical.

As a concluding remark, absent evidence which convincingly supports the beneficial outcomes of market inquiries in South Africa, perhaps a key priority for the authorities is to conclude the current inquiries as expeditiously as possible and conduct an assessment of the benefits of market inquiries (particularly in the manner in which they are presently being conducted), before initiating a number of additional market inquiries.

South African Competition Commission charges furniture removal company with record number of charges

by Meghan Eurelle

The South African Competition Commission has charged Stuttaford Van Lines, a furniture removal company, with 649 counts of collusive tendering related to hundreds of tenders to transport government furniture. This the largest number of charges faced by a single company in the history of anti-cartel enforcement by the Commission.

The tenders include those issued by the Presidency, Parliament, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Secret Service, the South African Police Service, the South African Revenue Services and the Public Protector, among others.

It is likely that the case emanates from the 2010 complaint against the industry that uncovered widespread and deep rooted anti-competitive and collusive conduct in the furniture removal market. The Commission’s investigation revealed Stuttaford colluded with its competitors from at least 2007 through cover quotes.

All the companies alleged to have colluded with Stuttafords, such as JH Retief Transport, Cape Express Removals, Patrick Removals and De Lange Transport, have subsequently settled with the Commission but the case against Stuttaford has been referred to the Tribunal for adjudication.

The Commission is asking the Tribunal to fine the furniture removal company 10 percent of its annual turnover on each of the 649 charges. The Commission’s approach of seeking an administrative penalty in respect of each alleged contravention means that the 10% statutory cap will be applied, on the Commission’s version, for each contravention.