AAT exclusive, COMESA, COVID-19, Meet the Enforcers, mergers, notification, public-interest

COMESA antitrust enforcer holds COVID seminar

 

Willard Mwemba

Dr. Mwemba of the CCC

The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) hosted a live webinar today on the impact of COVID-19 on merger regulation and enforcement within the common market in the COMESA region.  The seminar was aptly sub-titled “Challenges and Way Forward,” and the CCC representatives, in particular Dr. Willard Mwemba, did indeed lay out the problems faced by them and the measures proposed and taken to alleviate them.

COVID-related business and national competition agency closures have led to “significant delays in information gathering” from NCAs, third parties, and merger parties themselves.

CCC has relaxed the hard-copy filing requirements for merger notifications.

The concept of non-competition factors (i.e., the public-interest element) was also raised, as there is a “growing debate on whether the pandemic may necessitate changes in [the] substantive assessment of mergers, e.g., towards more lenient consideration of failing firms.”

That said, the CCC emphasized that its adjustment to enforcement actions should not be construed as any weakening of competition principles taking place.  The harmonization and coordination among the COMESA member countries’ agencies and the CCC remain a critical element of the operation of the single market.

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consumer protection, COVID-19, South Africa

South African Competition Enforcement: a Juxtaposition.

AAT has previously reported on the South African “Consumer and Customer Protection and National Disaster Management Regulations and Directions” (Pricing Regulations) which came into force on 19 March 2020.

The Pricing Regulations provide the temporary framework within which excessive or unfair price increases will be assessed during the national state of disaster. Further, to give effect to the Pricing Regulations, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) and Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), both made specific provision to prioritize and prosecute matters arising out of the Pricing Regulations, on an urgent basis.

Following the publication of the Pricing Regulations, the SACC has reportedly received a myriad of complaints arising out of alleged breaches of the Pricing Regulations and, in order to effectively respond, has allocated its resources almost exclusively to dealing with such cases.

Notably, a large majority of these have not been referred to the Tribunal and, in some instance, the SACC has opted to, instead, resolve such allegations through direct and informal engagement with the relevant parties. In this regard, the SACC has taken the approach of liaising with industry players proactively, in order to greenlight pricing and other potentially anticompetitive conduct. This can be compared to the efforts of other international agencies who have undertaken to, on an expedited basis, consider and approve ‘waiver requests’. While firms may take comfort in the fact that the SACC will not prosecute firms who have cooperated in this informal manner, balancing cooperation with the right against self-incrimination may be a risky exercise for firms, particularly where such engagement takes place informally, without the advice of counsel.

Even so, there can be little doubt that the SACC, like its international counterparts, are wearing two hats, presenting firms with temporary but valuable measures to successfully navigate the uncertainty of a national state of disaster. The various exemptions published in terms of the Competition Act is a further such example.

In wearing the hat of enforcement, the SACC has concluded various settlements by way of consent orders, with small independent retailers and pharmacies emanating from the Pricing Regulations.

The most notable of these include a consent order, reached with face mask and protective gear distributor, Matus, following an investigation undertaken by the SACC which found that Matus increased the prices of dust masks (FFP1 and FFP2) for the relevant period, causing its gross profit margins to be markedly inflated. Matus, in the consent order, admitted to inflating its gross profit margins although it denied having contravened any laws (likely on the basis that it may not be dominant in any specific market, as required for a contravention of Section 8 of the Competition Act) and agreed to:

  • Pay an administrative penalty of R5.9 million;
  • Contribute R5 million to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund;
  • Reduce its gross profit margin on dust masks to an acceptable level for the national disaster period (linked to an assurance that its gross profit margins for essential products will not be increased above that which was applicable on 16 February 2020).

The SACC has also, to date, referred and litigated two complaints before the Tribunal in terms of the Tribunal’s expedited Rules for Covid-19 Excessive Pricing Complaint Referrals (Tribunal Rules). These are:

Babelegi Workwear Overall Manufacturers & Industrial Supplies CC (Babelegi) – The SACC alleged that Babelegi increased the prices of facial masks for the period, earning a mark-up of over 500%, in contravention of the Pricing Regulations (and section 8 of the Competition Act).

Dis-Chem Pharmacies Limited (Dis-Chem) – The SACC alleged that Dis-Chem increased prices on surgical face masks (with increases between 43% and 261%) for the period February 2020 to March 2020, in contravention of the Pricing Regulations (and section 8 of the Competition Act).

The Dis-Chem matter has been interesting for a variety of reasons and is considered to be the ‘seminal case’ on prosecution in terms of the Pricing Regulations, with the SACC openly declaring that a “clear message must be sent that deters all other firms and Dis-Chem again from engaging in the same conduct”.

Dis-Chem is disputing its dominance in the relevant markets as well as the lawfulness of its decision to raise prices, arguing that it faced increased input costs and supply shortages which led to temporary price increases from all of its competitors and that Dis-Chem’s price adjustment was lower than that of other retailers.

From a procedural perspective, the matter has re-emphasized the need for compliance with the temporary Tribunal Rules, which provides for significantly reduced time periods, including that a respondent has 72 hours from service of the complaint referral in which to file a copy of their answering affidavit. Dis-Chem requested a one week extension for filing its answering affidavit, citing prejudice as a result of the complex nature of cases of excessive pricing and the severity of the penalty which may ultimately be imposed. The request was opposed by the SACC and Dis-Chem was forced to adhere to the shortened time period. Judgment is currently pending.

Competition agencies and advisors, globally, have stressed the pitfalls and advantaged of competition law during the state of disaster. A quick glance at enforcement statistics both now and following, for example the 2008 global financial crises, show that firms which have attempted to take advantage of consumers by flouting competition compliance during these times, have faced severe and endured consequences; economic and financial conditions cannot be used ex post to justify otherwise anticompetitive conduct.

Having said that, the proactive role played by the SACC also present opportunities for firms to utilize and take advantage of the temporary measures put in place by the SACC to green-light conduct which may otherwise be considered problematic.

The rules of the game have most certainly changed and, with it, there will be both winner and losers. A proactive approach to competition law compliance during these times, when perhaps firms are faced with more pressing concerns, may make all the difference.

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AAT exclusive, BRICS, collusion, COVID-19, exemptions, South Africa

Pandemic Antitrust Exemptions, or: “The Virus Let Me Do It!”

In antitrust circles, the term “Competitor Collaboration” may refer to quite an innocent practice, but is perhaps more often used as a euphemistic reference for good old-fashioned collusion: namely, a cartel by any other name.  Antitrust enforcers around the globe attempt to harness its “good side” during the viral pandemic…

In the COVID-19 world, several competition-law enforcers, including those in the United States and in South Africa, have tried to act swiftly to create express “safe harbours” for certain types of permissible conduct between (otherwise horizontal and direct) competitors.  The goal of these (usually temporary) exemptions from the strictures of antitrust prohibitions against collaboration, information exchanges, and the like, is to enable medical-supply providers to ensure that urgently-needed products and services can be delivered most expediently to the affected areas, patients, and hospitals.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

In the United States, notes Andreas Stargard, an antitrust attorney, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the federal antitrust agencies are capable of proceeding with speed when it comes to signing off on such allowable “competitor collaborations”, which are in the best interest of facilitating an efficient health-care industry response to the crisis.  The FTC and DOJ are now swiftly, within one week of the submission of a detailed request for review, sanctioning proposed cooperation agreements by firms that would otherwise compete to supply medicines or equipment.  Applicants for a business-review letter (“BRL”) must provide a detailed explanation of the planned conduct, together with its rationale and expected likely effects, to the agencies.

The first of these opinion letters was issued on April 4th, 2020, under the expedited procedure to McKesson, Cardinal Health and others.  It allows them to collaborate on PPE production, following the call for such action by FEMA and other federal agencies, and pursuing the coordinated response under their supervision for a limited time period (namely the duration of the crisis).  What could be deemed anti-competitive effects, such as an undue price increase, output reduction or the like, is expressly excluded from the permissible conduct.

Applying the “same analytical framework” as the DOJ’s approval of the PPE-related collaboration between McKesson, Cardinal Health, Owens & Minor, Medline Industries and Henry Schein Inc., the Department’s Antitrust Division has now issued a second BRL, dated April 20th, to AmeriSource Bergen and others, approving their similarly designed scheme to distribute medicinal products jointly across the country.  AmerisourceBergen sought the agency’s blessing of the proposal pursuant to the expedited review procedure outlined in the March 24th joint FTC and DOJ guidance on health-care providers collaborating on necessary public-health initiatives, in which the dual antitrust enforcers announced their goal to answer COVID-19-related BRL requests within one week of receiving the BRL applicants’ detailed description of the proposed collaborative conduct.

Mr. Stargard counsels that those firms seeking a BRL exemption should consult with a competent antitrust specialist lawyer.  He notes that the federal agencies have expressly invited providers to take advantage of the expedited BRL procedure, which is temporary in nature and only available during the time of the declared COVID-19 pandemic.

In South Africa, the South African Minster of Trade and Industry and Competition (“Minister”) has taken a similar tack, having published Regulations under Section 78 of the South African Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”).  Unlike the U.S., however, these Regulations go well beyond the medical industry.  John Oxenham, a Johannesburg-based competition lawyer, observes that “these Regulations exempt industry players in certain sectors from prosecution for conduct in contravention of Sections 4 and 5, also known as Block Exemptions.”  They also apply to the prohibition of excessive pricing (and ensuring sufficient supply) by firms selling key supplies.  Related to the exemption process in terms of the Competition Act are the powers of the Minister to publish directions under the recent Regulations issued under section 27 (2) of the Disaster Management Act (GN 318 of 18 March 2020). In this regard, Regulation 10(6) provides that the Minister may issue directions to “protect consumers from excessive, unfair, unreasonable or unjust pricing of goods and services during the national state of disaster; and maintain security and availability of the supply of goods and services during the national state of disaster.”

Block Exemptions

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

Block Exemptions have been published by the Minster in terms of section 10(10) of the Competition Act which provides that the Minister may, after consultation with the Competition Commission (SACC), issue regulations in terms of section 78, exempting a category of agreements or practices from the application of sections 4 and 5 of the Competition Act. As at the date of writing, Block Exemptions have been granted to the Healthcare Sector, the Banking Sector and Retail Property Sector.

Health Care Sector

The exemption include a range of industry players, including healthcare facilities, pharmacies, medical suppliers, medical specialist, pathologists and laboratories, and healthcare funders.  The Block Exemption will similarly allow industry players to coordinate on procurement of supplies, transferring equipment and coordinating the use of staff. In effect, the Block Exemption extends and broadens the scope of the exemption enjoyed by the NHN to include state and private healthcare. While this move is certainly a welcome one to ensure that South Africa is able to effectively deal with the spread of COVID-19, its effect on competition in this market will be most interesting. The health care sector, and particularly large private sector players (Private Health Care), has long been in the cross-hairs of the SACC, with many enforcement actions, heavily contested merger control proceedings and most recently, the market inquiry into the private healthcare sector conducted and concluded by the SACC. Concentration and Coordination has been key to the debate. While the Exemptions will apply only for so long as the state of disaster remains in effect, the effects of these measures on the industry is likely to endure for some time and will reform the debate around the future of health care in South Africa.  On the 8th of April the Block Exemption was amended to additionally cater for the following:

(i)         Those agreements which are exempt can only be undertaken at the request of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition or the Department of Health. Furthermore, either of these departments may impose further conditions on the agreements or practices; and

(ii)        The Exemption now caters for agreements or practices between manufacturers and suppliers of medical and hygiene supplies.

Banking Sector

The Block Exemption published in favour of the Banking Sector is aimed at exempting a category of agreements or practices between Banks, the members of the Banking Association of South Africa and/or Payments Association of South Africa from application of sections 4 and 5 of the Act and promoting cooperation between these industry participants to mitigate damages and to ensure the effective continuance of banking infrastructure. In this regard, industry participants are to coordinate and agree on, inter alia:

operation of payment systems and the continued availability of notes at ATMs, branches and businesses; debtor and credit management to cater for payment holidays and debt relief (including limitations on asset recovery and the extension of further credit terms).

Retail Property Sector

The Block Exemption in respect of the Retail Property Sector applies only to retail landlords and designated retail tenants (required to shut down in terms of the national shut down currently in place) and aims to provide a framework for cooperation between industry participants in respect of payment holidays and rental discounts and limitations on the eviction of tenants. The Block Exemptions also seek to cater for cooperation on limitations to the restrictions placed on tenants to protect their viability during the nation disaster, likely to allow tenants to alter of expand their product or service offerings to fall within the category of businesses or services exempt from the restrictions currently enforced by Government, thereby ensuring alternative income and increased capacity on key products and services.

Hotel Sector

The Exemption granted to hotel industry operators seeks to enable the hotel industry to collectively engage with various Government departments with respect to identifying and providing appropriate quarantine facilities. The Exemption applies to agreements or practices pertaining to the identification and provision of quarantine facilities, and cost reduction measures in providing accommodation for persons in quarantine.

Block Exemptions have not been widely utilised in South Africa. To the extent that the measures introduced by the Block Exemptions are effectively implemented, however, the use and application of the process of exemptions under the Competition Act may become a more prominent feature of the South African competition law process. The nature of emergencies are such that they expedite the implementation of historical process which were otherwise untouched or contested as the counterfactual has changed.

It is already evident that more and more industries affected by the COVID-19 will apply for or be granted block exemptions to ensure that they are able to effectively avert the negative effects associated with disruptions caused to the business and economy. Examples of these include the Grocery Retail and/or Fast Moving Consumable Goods Sectors, Security Sector and more.

Price Regulation

The Pricing Regulations, are published in terms of a combination of the Competition Act, the Consumer Protection Act 61 of 2008 (2008) and the Disaster Management Act (2002) and apply only to the ‘key supplies identified in the Pricing Regulations and will remain in effect only for so long as COVID-19 remains a ‘national disaster’.  Section 8(3)(f) of the Competition Act provides that in determining whether a price is an excessive price (for purposes of section 8(1)),  it must be determined whether that price is higher than a competitive price and whether such difference is unreasonable, determined by taking into account any regulation published by the Minister in terms of Section 78.  In terms of the Pricing Regulations a price will be considered an excessive price for purposes of Section 8(1) of the Competition Act where, during this period of national disaster, a price increase: does not correspond to or is not equivalent to the increase in the costs of providing that goods or service; or increases the net margin or mark-up on that good or service above the average margin or mark-up for that good or service in the three month period prior to 1 March 2020.

Notably, Section 8 applies only to dominant firms.

In addition to the above, the Pricing Regulations contain a similar assessment for the consideration of what is termed unconscionable, unfair, unreasonable and unjust price increases in the Consumer Protection Act. While it is likely that what constitutes an excessive price under the Competition Act will also constitute an unreasonable price increase for purposes of the Consumer Protection Act, the opposite may not be true. The Consumer Protection Act is enforced by a different authority in South Africa and case precedent has been quite limited, compared to the competition authorities.

The Pricing Regulations also cover quantities and the restrictions on sale to maintain equitable distribution and curb stockpiling. No mention is made of the Competition Act or Consumer Protection Act in these paragraphs, although they should also be considered in the broader context of competition policy and what the Pricing Regulations seek to achieve. Although South African competition policy is not ordinarily concerned with discrimination at the final consumer level, in terms of the Pricing Regulations, retailers are effectively required to ration the quantity sold, as the normal economic mechanism, whereby suppliers sell to those parts of the demand curve with a sufficient willingness to pay, is suspended.

The penalty provisions of the Pricing Regulations require prosecution in terms of the underling legislation, being the Competition Act and Consumer Protection Act respectively as these sanctions exceed the powers given to the Minister in the Disaster Management Act. The Pricing Regulations state that subject to the further specific provisions of the respective pieces of legislation, a failure to comply with the Pricing Regulations may attract a fine of up to R1 000 000 and/or a 10% of a firms turnover and imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months (depending on the applicable legislation). In terms of the Competition Act, only cartel conduct under section 4(1)(b) attracts criminal liability.

The Minister has recently announced that a number of firms are under investigation for allegedly contravening the provisions of the Competition Act and/or Consumer Protection Act in a manner prohibited by the Pricing Regulations.

The Disaster Management Act provides that the declaration of a national state of disaster can terminate after the expiry of 3 months or upon notice in the Government Gazette by the Minister before the expiry of 3 months. The Minister can nonetheless extend such a period for one month at a time.

Accordingly, the Disaster Management Act offers little certainty on how and when the measures implemented will come to an end.

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COVID-19, excessive pricing, South Africa

Competition Commission makes good on its promise to clamp down on excessive pricing amid COVID-19 outbreak

Despite the overwhelming amount of excessive pricing complaints being referred to the South African Competition Commission (“the Commission”), it has remained unwavering in its commitment to prioritize and follow-through on bringing the full might of the law down on suppliers and retails who have used the prevailing circumstances to take advantage of consumers by increasing prices on essential goods and services with no cost increase justification.

This is illustrated in a media statement released by the Commission on 15 April 2020, wherein the particulars of the Commissions first referral to the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) for price gouging on facial masks was expanded upon, and which is due to be heard on 24 April 2020.

Babelegi Workwear Overall Manufacturers and Industrial Supplies CC (“Babelegi”) allegedly engaged in price gouging through its 500% mark-up on facial masks, which is considered as an essential good, for the period 31 January 2020 to 5 March 2020. Babelegi’s supplier is also under investigation by the Commission for allegedly engaging in excessive pricing after it subsequently came to light that the said supplier purportedly increased its input prices.

In a media statement issued on 31 March 2020, the Commission aired its concerns  in and prioritization on suppliers and retailers who charge excessive prices on COVID-19 essentials, as well as complainants who are considered essential service professionals (such as doctors, policemen etc). The Commission also outlined the expedited preliminary investigations it will undertake in complaints. In this respect, respondent firms have 48 hours in which to confirm or rebut the allegations brought against it. Importantly, the Commission has showed that some complaints may indeed be justified where firms provide a valid cost increase justification. Accordingly, not all acts of price increases will be condemned as price gouging.

As highlighted by the Commission, firms can expect to see a wave of prosecutions in the coming days. The Commission has already concluded (but not yet referred) numerous price gouging complaints, to name a few:

  • A pharmacy has increased its mark-up on face marks and sanitizers by more than 300%;
  • A hardware store has allegedly increased the price of surgical gloves from R99.99 to R170.00 within one week absent any cost increase justification; and
  • A wholesaler of chicken has marked-up chicken pieces by up to 50%, also absent any cost increase justification.

It is important to keep in mind that firms engaging in excessive pricing, price fixing, allocation of markets and market shares and bid rigging risk facing a fine of up to 10% of their annual turnover, and risk a fine of up to 25% of their annual turnover in respect of repeat offences. Furthermore, complaints regarding price fixing, the allocation of markets and market shares and bid rigging could result in certain directors who engage in or initiate such contraventions with imprisonment of up to 10 years.

The spike in competition law contraventions amidst the COVID-19 outbreak is not unique to South Africa, the Ministry of Trade in Rwanda has itself imposed fines on 178 companies to the amount of RwF of 15 850 000 to date. Furthermore, the Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) has shown its determination in prosecuting exploitative conduct during the outbreak in the remedial order it issued to Cleanshelf Supermarkets for unconscionably adjusting prices of sanitizers.  Cleanshelf was ordered to find and refund all consumers who purchased the sanitizers above the usual selling price.

There is little doubt that the Commission will continue its endeavor in prosecuting COVID-19 related competition complaints, it may very well be slowed down due to the sheer explosion of complaints, but firms should not be quick to translate this voluminous burden as a gap in competition law enforcement that can be taken advantage of. Akin to his observation, Tembinkosi Bonakele, Commissioner of the Competition Commssion said “The Commission has now gone past the stage of moral suasion and appeals to patriotism to stop abuse of market power by those seeking to exploit consumers at the worse possible time – the law must take its course – we will see a wave of prosecution of firms in the next coming days.”

 

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AAT exclusive, COVID-19, event

FREE — Two upcoming Africa-focused telephone seminars

Primerio is hosting two telephone conferences:

Wed. 15 April (9 a.m. Eastern time / 14:00h CET) — on the different standards used for assessing force majeure clauses and other commercial implications relating to COVID-19 issues across key Southern and East African jurisdictions (South Africa, Kenya and Mauritius in particular).
Tue. 21 April (9 a.m. Eastern time / 14:00h CET) — on competition-law developments across Africa.  The panel will discuss the most important legislative developments, enforcement decisions and policy direction to take note of, as well as how the agencies across the continent are responding to COVID-19 related issues.
Attendees are invited to send their questions in advance of the sessions which they would like the diverse panel to consider and address.

There are no registration fees, but please RSVP by clicking here and you will receive the dial-in (& Zoom link) information.

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COMESA, COVID-19, East Africa, FAQ

COMESA retains 30-day merger notification requirement during COVID pandemic, but loosens some rules

The COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) has, along with several other competition-law enforcers on the African continent, issued new guidance on timing and other implications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The text of the official announcement is below:  

CCC-Notice-4-of -2020

NOTICE OF INTERIM MEASURES IN MERGER REVIEW OF THE COMESA COMPETITION COMMISSION DUE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The COMESA Competition Commission (the Commission) is aware that these are unprecedented, uncertain and challenging times for undertakings and other stakeholders. In view of this, the Commission wishes to notify the general public and all interested parties that as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic it has issued the following interim processes for merger reviews under the COMESA Competition Regulations (the Regulations) and the COMESA Competition Rules (the “Rules”).

  1. Receipt of Merger Notifications

Parties to a Merger are encouraged to submit all notifications and filing of mergers and acquisitions electronically including certified copies of filings. This therefore means that the parties shall not be expected to submit the hard copies within the specified 7 days under the COMESA Merger Assessment Guidelines. The hard copies may still be submitted by the parties at a later date when it is possible under the circumstances.

  1. Notification of a Merger following a Decision to Merge by the Parties

Pursuant to Article 24 (1) of the Regulations, parties to a merger should notify the Commission within 30 days of the decision to merge. The Commission takes cognizant that due to restrictions of movements and lockdowns in most countries as a result of the CoVID-19 Pandemic, some parties may not be able to gather all the information to enable them complete the notification within the 30 days period provided under Article 24(1) of the Regulations. The Commission is cognizant that section 5 of the Guidelines provides for the notification process and gives guidance to what amounts to a complete notification. During this temporal period, the Commission shall consider the initial engagement with the parties as the beginning of the notification process which shall be considered complete once all the information is submitted. It follows therefore that as long as the parties have engaged the Commission on the notification process, they shall not be penalized for failure to submit complete information within 30 days of the parties’ decision to merge.

  1. Consultations and Meetings

The Commission has suspended onsite investigations and face-to-face meetings with regard to merger investigations. However, consultations and meetings shall continue to be held through teleconferencing facilities until the situation normalises.

  1. Investigation Period of 120 Days

The Commission observes that under the current situation, it may not be able to complete its assessment of mergers and acquisitions that has been notified and yet to be notified in accordance with the 120 days stipulated under Article 25 (1) of the Regulations. This is due to travel bans and lockdowns in most Member States. These conditions shall affect the Commission’s engagements with various relevant stakeholders who are essential in the consultative process adopted by the Commission pursuant to Article 26 of the Regulations. Therefore, the merging parties should take note that the 120 days investigation period may be extended in some cases pursuant to Article 25 (2) of the Regulations as it may not be practicable to complete the assessment within 120 days under the circumstances.

If you wish to seek further details and/or clarifications on any aspect of this Notice, you may get in touch with Mr. Willard Mwemba, Manager, Mergers and Acquisitions, on +265 (0) 1 772 466 or via email at compcom@comesa.int and/or wmwemba@comesa.int.

Further, note that the Commission may update and revise this notice from time to time.

 

George K Lipimile

Director & Chief Executive Officer

 

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