The New South African Competition Amendment Bill – What this Means for Business

By Michael-James Currie

Background

On 1 December 2017, the Minister of Economic Development (under whose auspices the South African competition authorities fall), Ebrahim Patel, published draft amendments to the South African Competition Act [PDF], 89 of 1998 (Act) for public comment.

The proposed amendments (Amendments) to the Act, which principally aim to address concentration in the market, go well beyond pure competition issues and bestow a significant public-interest mandate on the competition authorities.

In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.

south_africaPatel’s influence in advancing his industrial-policy objectives through the utilisation of the public-interest provisions in merger control are well documented. AAT contributors have written about the increasing trend by the competition authorities in merger control to impose public-interest conditions that go well beyond merger specificity – often justified on the basis of the Act’s preamble which, inter alia, seeks to promote a more inclusive economy.  The following extracts from the introduction to the Amendments indicate a similar, if not more expansive, role for public interest considerations in competition law enforcement:

“…the explicit reference to these structural and transformative objectives in the Act clearly  indicates that the legislature intended that competition policy should be broadly framed, embracing both traditional competition issues, as well as these explicit transformative public interest goals”.

The draft Bill focuses on creating and enhancing the substantive provisions of the Act aimed at addressing two key structural challenges in the South African economy: concentration and the racially-skewed spread of ownership of firms in the economy.

The role of public interest provisions in merger control have often been criticised, predominantly on the basis that once the agencies move away from competition issues and merger specificity and seek conditions that go beyond that which is strictly necessary to remedy any potential negative effects, one moves away from an objective standard by which to assess mergers. This leads to a negative impact on costs, timing and certainty – essential factors for potential investors considering entering or expanding into a market.

As John Oxenham, director of Pr1merio states, “from a policy perspective it is apparent that consumer-welfare tests have been frustrated by uncertainty”. In this regard, the South African authorities initially adopted a position in terms of which competition law played a primary role, with public-interest considerations taking second place.  Largely owing to Minister Patel’s intervention, the agencies have recently taken a more direct approach to public-interest considerations and have effectively elevated the role of public-interest considerations to the same level as pure competition matters – particularly in relation to merger control (although we have seen a similar influence of public-interest considerations in, inter alia, market inquiries and more recently in the publishing of industry Codes of Conduct, e.g., in the automotive aftermarkets industry).

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

The current amendments, however, risk elevating public-interest provisions above those of competition issues. The broad remedies and powers which the competition agencies may impose absent any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour are indicative of the competition agencies moving into an entirely new ‘world of enforcement’ in what could very likely be a significant ‘over-correction’ on the part of Minister Patel, at the cost of certainty and the likely deleterious impact on investment.

The proposed Amendments, which we unpack below, seem to elevate industrial policies above competition related objectives thereby introducing a significant amount of discretion on behalf of the agencies. Importantly, the Amendments are a clear departure from the general internationally accepted view that that ‘being big isn’t bad’, but competition law is rather about how you conduct yourself in the market place.

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

(i) The provisions of the Competition Act relating to prohibited practices and mergers must be strengthened.

(ii) Special attention must be given to the impact of anti-competitive conduct on small businesses and firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons.

(iii) The provisions relating to market inquiries must be strengthened so that their remedial actions effectively address market features and conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in the relevant markets.

(iv) It is necessary to promote the alignment of competition-related processes and decisions with other public policies, programmes and interests.

(v) The administrative efficacy of the competition regulatory authorities and their processes must be enhanced.

At the outset, it may be worth noting that the Amendments now cater for the imposition of an administrative penalty for all contraventions of the Act (previously, only cartel conduct, resale price maintenance and certain abuse of dominance conduct attracted an administrative penalty for a first-time offence).

Secondly, the Amendments envisage that an administrative penalty may be imposed on any firm which forms part of a single economic entity (in an effort to preclude firms from setting up corporate structures to avoid liability).

We summarise below the key proposed Amendments to the Competition Act.

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

  • The evidentiary onus will now be on the respondent to counter the Competition Commission’s (Commission) prima facie case of excessive pricing against it.
  • The removal of the current requirement that an “excessive price” must be shown to be to the “detriment of consumers” in order to sustain a complaint.
  • An obligation on the Commission to publish guidelines to determine what constitutes an “excessive price”.

Predatory Pricing

  • The introduction of a standard which benchmarks against the respondents own “cost benchmarking” as opposed to the utilisation of more objective standards tests.
  • The benchmarking now includes reference to “average avoidable costs” or “long run average incremental costs” (previously the Act’s only tests were marginal costs and average variable costs).

General Exclusionary Conduct

  • The current general exclusionary conduct provision, Section 8(c), will be replaced by an open list of commonly accepted forms of exclusionary conduct as identified in Section 8(d).
  • The definition of exclusionary conduct will include not only “barriers to entry and expansion within a market, but also to participation in a market”.
  • The additional forms of abusive conduct will be added to Section 8(d):
    • prevent unreasonable conditions unrelated to the object of a contract being placed on the seller of goods or services”;
    • Section 8(1)(d)(vii) is inserted to include the practice of engaging in a margin squeeze as a possible abuse of dominance;
    • Section (1)(d)(viii) is introduced to protect suppliers to dominant firms from being required, through the abuse of dominance, to sell their goods or services at excessively low prices. This addresses the problem of monopsonies, namely when a customer enjoys significant buyer power over its suppliers”.

Price Discrimination

  • The Amendment will look to expand Section 9 of the Act to prohibit price discrimination by a dominant firm against its suppliers.
  • An onus of proof has been shifted on to the respondent to demonstrate that any price discrimination does not result in a substantial lessening of competition.

Merger-Control Provisions

  • Introduction of certain mandatory disclosures relating, in particular, to that of cross-shareholding or directorship between the merging parties and other third parties.
  • Introduction of provisions which essentially allow the competition authorities to treat a number of smaller transactions (which fell below the merger thresholds), which took place within three years, as a single merger on the date of the latest transaction.
  • Introduction of additional public-interest grounds which must be taken into account when assessing the effects of a merger. These relate to “ownership, control and the support of small businesses and firms owned or controlled by historically disadvantaged persons”.

Market Inquiries

  • Granting the Commission powers to make orders or impose remedies (including forced divestiture recommendations which must be approved by the Tribunal) following the conclusion of a market inquiry (previously the Commission was only empowered to make recommendations to Parliament).
  • The introduction of a new competition test for market inquiries, namely whether any feature or combination of features in a market that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in that market constitutes an “adverse effect” (a significant departure from the traditional “substantial lessening of competition” test).
  • Focussed market inquiries are envisaged to replace the “Complex Monopoly” provisions which were promulgated in 2009 but not yet brought into effect.

Additional Amendments

  • Empowering the Commission to grant leniency to any firm.
  • This is a departure from the current leniency policy, under which the Commission is only permitted to grant leniency to the ‘first through the door’.

What does this all mean going forward?

The above proposed amendments are not exhaustive. In addition to above, it is apparent that Minister Patel envisages utilising the competition agencies and Act as a “one-stop-shop” in order to address not only competition issues but facilitate increased transformation within the industry and to promote a number of additional socio-economic objectives (i.e., to bring industrial policies within the remit of the competition agencies).

In a move which would may undermine the independence and impartiality of the competition agencies, the Amendment also intends providing the responsible “Minister with more effective means of participating in competition-related inquiries, investigations and adjudicative processes”.

The amendments also strengthen the available interventions that will be undertaken to redress the specific challenges posed by concentration and untransformed ownership”.

Competition-law observers interviewed by AAT point out that the principle of separation of powers is a fundamental cornerstone of the South African constitutional democracy and is paramount in ensuring that there is an appropriate ‘checks and balances’ system in place. It is for this reason that the judiciary (which in this context includes the competition agencies) must remain independent, impartial and act without fear or favour (as mandated in terms of the Act).

The increased interventionist role which the executive is envisaged to play, by way of the Amendments, in the context of competition law enforcement raises particular concerns in this regard.  Furthermore, the increased role of public-interest considerations effectively confers on the competition agencies the responsibility of determining the relevant ambit, scope and enforcement of socio-economic objectives. These are broad, subjective and may be vastly different depending on whether one is assessing these non-competition objectives in the short or long term.

Any uncertainty regarding the relevant factors which the competition authorities ought to take into account or whose views the authorities will be prepared to afford the most weight too, risks trust being lost in the objectivity and impartiality of the enforcement agencies. This will have a direct negative impact on the Government’s objective in selling South Africa as an investor friendly environment.

In addition, as Primerio attorney and competition counsel Andreas Stargard notes, the “future role played by the SACC’s market inquiries” is arguably open to significant abuse, as “the Competition Commission has broad discretion to impose robust remedies, even absent any evidence of a substantial lessening of competition.”

  • Mr. Stargard notes that the draft Amendment Bill, in its own words in section 43D (clause 21) “places a duty on the Commission to remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market, including the use of divestiture orders. It also requires the Commission to record its reasons for the identified remedy. … These amendments empower the Commission to tailor new remedies demanded by the findings of the market inquiry. These remedies can be creative and flexible, constrained only by the requirements that they address the adverse effect on competition established by the market inquiry, and are reasonable and practicable.”
Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Although the Amendments recognise that concentration in of itself is not in all circumstances to be construed as an a priori negative, the lack of a clear and objective set of criteria together with the lower threshold (i.e., “adverse effect”) which must be met before the competition authorities may impose far-reaching remedies, coupled with the interventionist role which the executive may play (particularly in relation to market inquiries), may have a number of deterrent effects on both competition and investment.

Mr. Stargard notes in this regard that the “approach taken by the new draft legislation may in fact stifle innovation, growth, and an appetite for commercial expansion, thereby counteracting the express goals listed in its preamble:  Firms that are currently sitting at a market share of around 30% for instance may not be incentivised to obtain any greater accretive share for fear of being construed as holding a dominant market position, once the 35% threshold is crossed“.

The objectives to facilitate a spread of ownership is not a novel objective of the post-Apartheid government and a number of pieces of legislation and policies have been introduced in order to facilitate the entry of small previously disadvantaged players into the market through agencies generally better equipped to deal with this. These policies, in general, have arguably not led to the government’s envisaged benefits. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the new Amendments do not seek to address the previous failures or identify why various other initiatives and pieces of legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation has not worked (to the extent envisaged by Government). Furthermore, the Tribunal summed up this potential conflict neatly in the following extract in the Distillers case:

Thus the public interest asserted pulls us in opposing directions. Where there are other appropriate legislative instruments to redress the public interest, we must be cognisant of them in determining what is left for us to do before we can consider whether the residual public interest, that is that part of the public interest not susceptible to or better able to be dealt with under another law, is substantial.”

Perhaps directing the substantial amount of tax payers’ money away from a certain dominant state-owned Airline – which has been plagued with maladministration – and rather use those funds to invest in small businesses will be a better solution to grow the economy and spread ownership to previously disadvantaged groups than potentially prejudicing dominant firms which are in fact efficient.

Furthermore, ordering divestitures requires that there be a suitable third party who could effectively take up the divested business and impose a competitive constraint on the dominant entity. It seems inevitable that based on the proposed Amendments the competition authorities will be placed in the invidious position of considering a divestiture to an entity which may not yet have proven any successful track record. The Amendments do not provide guidance for this and although the competition authorities have the necessary skills and resources to assess whether conduct has an anti-competitive effect on the market, it is less clear whether the authorities have the necessary skills to properly identify a suitable third party acquirer of a divested business.

In addition and importantly, promoting competition within the market achieves public interest objectives. Likewise, anything which undermines competition in the market will have a negative impact on the public interest considerations.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

As John Oxenham and Patrick Smith have argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.

While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.

A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.

Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.

Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.

From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).

[To contact any of the contributors to this article, or should you require any further information regarding the Amendment Bill, you are welcome to contact the AAT editors at editor@africanantitrust.com]

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Namibian Competition Commission Seeks N$ 51 million penalty imposed on Namib Mills for Abuse of Dominance

By Sr. Contributor Michael-James Currie

The Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) recently referred Namib Mills to the Windhoek High Court for the imposition of a N$ 51 million (approx. USD 3.5 million) administrative penalty following the NaCC’s finding that Namib Mills has abused its dominance in the market by contractually requiring 54 bakeries to exclusively procure flour from Namib Mills.

In terms of the contractual arrangements, Namib Mills loaned capital to the bakeries for, inter alia, purchasing baking equipment. The tying provisions in the contractual arrangements at the heart of the dispute essentially preclude the respective bakeries from acquiring flour from any flour supplier other than Namib Mills for a period of 5 years. Any breach of this provision enables Namib Mills from calling for the immediate repayment of the loan amount in full (including repossessing the baking equipment if required).

The NaCC has alleged that this contractual restriction precludes other flour suppliers from entering into the market due to Namib Mills’ high market share.

The penalty which the NaCC has requested the High Court impose translates to approximately 2.6% of Namib Mill’s turnover for the previous financial year.

The case is unlikely to be finalised this year. It will, however, be a landmark judgment in relation to the assessment of the abuse of dominance provisions in terms of the Namibian Competition Act (Act).

namibmillsAndreas Stargard, an antitrust attorney with Primerio Ltd. points out that, to date, there has been a “dearth of precedent in Namibia relating to the manner in which the provisions of section 24 of the Act should be interpreted and specifically what thresholds and criteria the authorities should consider in determining whether a dominant firm has in fact ‘abused’ its dominance or monopolised any relevant market.”  He notes that the company is in fact the largest grain processor in Namibia, with a reported market share of well above 60%, a fact that will “almost certainly play a determinative role in the ultimate decision in the matter.  Foreclosure of rivals, which is clearly the main theory of harm here, requires a degree of market power that the NaCC appears to have found exists in this market, and a two-thirds share is generally accepted in antitrust law as sufficient to establish a risk of foreclosure, when taken together with anti-competitive acts, such as those alleged by the Commission here.”

Unlike its South African counterpart, the Namibian Competition Act does not clearly permit for a rule of reason defence for abuse of dominance conduct (unless specifically excluded, the South African Competition Act does permit for a rule of reason defence). In other words, it is not clear to what extent a complainant must demonstrate actual anti-competitive effects (i.e. foreclosure or consumer welfare effects) and whether pro-competitive, technology or other efficiency arguments are taken into consideration. Furthermore, as John Oxenham, director of Primerio points out, “it is also not clear who bears the onus and what level of proof is required to make a successful showing of an anti-competitive effect”.

Section 24 of the Act expressly prohibits dominants firms from:

  • directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions; or
  • limiting or restricting production, market outlets or market access, investment, technical development or technological progress

Without a clear framework in place, the abuse of dominance provisions could be extremely far reaching. For instance, a dominant firm would clearly need to, from time to time, place certain restrictions on third parties, particularly if the dominant firm has invested or assumed a certain amount of risk on behalf of that third party. Ensuring that a firm is able to safeguard and recoup its investment is inherently pro-competitive as this ensure continuous investment which brings with it innovation, better quality and ultimately lower prices for consumers.

In terms of the broad wording of the Act, however, a key challenge which the authorities face is assessing where one draws the line between exclusionary conduct which is justified by rule of reason arguments and at what point such exclusionary practices constitutes an abuse.

As a general observation, Andreas Stargard notes that “abuse of dominance cases are particularly challenging from an evidentiary point of view and typically require robust economic evidence when grappling with the various theories of harm and rule of reason justifications”.

Accordingly, a further difficulty which both Namib Mills and the NaCC face is that to the extent the High Court permits evidence to be led demonstrating the pro versus anti-competitive effects of the alleged conduct, the High Court may not be best placed to assess the evidence.

Regardless, the outcome of this case will be likely have far reaching consequences for firms who may be considered to be dominant in the Namibian market.

 

[Michael-James Currie is a practicing competition lawyer assisting clients with competition related matters in a number of African jurisdictions. Should you wish to contact Michael-James or any of the AAT contributors, kindly contact us at editor@africanantitrust.com and the AAT team will put you in touch with the relevant individuals]

South Africa: Abuse of Dominance Investigations– Out with the Old, In with the New

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it would withdraw its complaint of abuse of dominance levelled against two of the four pharmaceutical companies who had allegedly engaged in excessive pricing in relation to certain cancer medications in South Africa.

The companies who were implicated in the SACC’s investigation were Roche and Genentech, Pfizer, Equity and Aspen.

The SACC indicated that it had withdrawn its complaint in respect of Aspen and Equity as the relevant products only generated a small portion of revenue in South Africa or in the case of Equity, the relevant product is not registered in South Africa and was only imported once into South Africa from Germany (which was the basis for the high price charged in South Africa). The complaint against Roche and Pfizer will, according to the SACC, continue.

In the same week, the SACC announced that it has launched an abuse of dominance investigation against Vodacom for engaging in exclusionary conduct. This investigation by the SACC is somewhat puzzling as it appears from the SACC’s media release that the reason why Vodacom is being investigated is on the basis that Vodacom had won a tender issued by the National Treasury to become the sole provider of mobile telecommunication services to the government.

The SACC alleges that previously, government departments could purchase mobile telecommunication services from any mobile network operator, but following the award of the tender to Vodacom, other departments, including state owned entities and municipalities, will be incentivised to adopt new contracts with Vodacom. In other words, Vodacom would either be precluding government departments or inducing them not to deal with Vodacom’s competitors in contravention of Section 8 of the Competition Act.

In order to sustain an exclusionary conduct complaint, it must be demonstrated that the alleged conduct was in fact anti-competitive and cannot be outweighed by any pro-competitive or other efficiency justifications.

Importantly, the SACC has not indicated that the actual tender process in any way distorted a competitive bid being submitted by Vodacom.

Accordingly, by being awarded the tender, particularly a public tender issued by the National Treasury, one would have anticipated that this would be indicative that Vodacom’s bid was the most competitive offering – why else sign the agreement in the first place. It could hardly be the case that the National Treasury was ‘forced’ into accepting Vodacom’s terms and if there was an irregularity with the tender process, then why lodge a complaint with the Competition Authorities. This would be a public procurement issue.

Accordingly, the message which seems to be imparted from the SACC’s decision to investigate Vodacom is that dominant firms should be particularly cautious about tendering for a particular bid – they may just win.

Although the investigation has only recently been announced by the SACC, Vodacom’s share price dropped 8% following news of the investigation. Regardless, of whether the complaint levelled against Vodacom has any merit, Vodacom is already paying a reputational price which in today’s day and age, can be significantly costly.

Are the 2017 PPPFA Regulations Misaligned? Can Competition Law Assist?

By Mitchell Brooks, AAT guest author

If one looks at the 2011 Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA) Regulations, the Regulations provide two ratios to be used in determining a tender award. The two point systems are the 90/10 and the 80/20 ratios. The 90/10 ratio indicates that 90 out of 100 points are to be awarded based on the price of the bidder and 10 out of 100 points are to be awarded based on “special goals”[1]. Since the commencement of the 2011 PPPFA Regulations, special goals have primarily been allotted to BEE status levels.

slide_1Turning to the 2017 PPPFA Regulations, in which the above-mentioned ratios have been maintained, regulation 4 provides for pre-qualification criteria for preferential procurement. Interestingly, according to regulation 4(1)(a) of the 2017 Regulations, an organ of state may stipulate a minimum B-BBEE status level for tenderers. Furthermore, regulation 4(2) deems any tender in contravention of pre-qualification criteria unacceptable. In essence, the pool of bidders can be reduced significantly by requiring all bidders to possess as a B-BBEE Contribution level 1 despite primary legislation only allowing B-BBEE to be taken into account at a maximum threshold of 80/20. Therefore, it is hard to understand why the allocation of points to special goals is capped at 20 points whereas there is no maximum level allocated to the minimum pre-qualification criteria. Arguably, pre-qualification criteria in this regard are open to abuse in oligopolistic markets with few suppliers.

If one views this legal framework holistically, it may seem that the points allocation in the PPPFA is capable of being somewhat circumvented. In other words, the importance attached to a tenderer’s B-BBEE status level may be increased immensely if a level 1 or 2 B-BBEE status level is stipulated as a minimum pre-qualification criterion. On the other side of the coin, the significance of price may be undermined, rendering a competitive tendering process ineffective in securing value-for-money. This suggests the 2017 Regulations are misaligned in that the purpose of the 80/20 split is unclear when read with regulation 4.

In an effort to restrain pre-qualification criteria restricting a large pool of bidders, a bidder may ask whether a dominant public entity, for example, a monopolistic entity such as Eskom, would contravene section 8(c) of the Competition Act if the pre-qualification B-BBEE status level is set too high. Does it qualify as an exclusionary act which is likely to affect competition in the particular market? This falls part of a larger looming question, at what point does pre-qualification criteria by dominant parastatals become anticompetitive in terms of the Competition Act and how will Competition Law interact with procurement? Section 217 of the Constitution of South Africa does not provide a clear answer but it does suggest that competition may have an important role to play going forward.

[1] section 2(1)(e) of the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act Regulations 2011

[2] Competition Act 89 of 1998

South African Airways (SAA) to pay $80 million in civil damages to competitor Comair for abuse of dominance

-by Michael-James Currie

currie2

A second civil damages award was recently imposed on South Africa’s national airline carrier, SAA, following on from the Competition Tribunal’s finding that SAA had engaged in an abuse of dominance.   The award in favour of Comair, comes after the first ever successful follow-on civil damages claim in South Africa (as a result of competition law violation) which related to Nationwide’s civil claim against SAA.  In the Nationwide matter, the High Court awarded , (in August 2016) damages to Nationwide in the amount of R325 million.   Comair claim for damages was based on the same cause of action as Nationwide’s claim. The High Court, however, awarded damages in favour of Comair of R554 million plus interest bring the total award to over a R1 billion (or about US$ 80 million).

Both damages cases entailed lengthy proceedings as Nationwide (and subsequently Comair) launched complaints, in respect of SAA’s abuse of dominance, to the South African Competition Commission as far back as 2003. Importantly, in terms of South Africa’s legislative framework, a complainant may only institute a civil damages claim based on a breach of the South African Competition Act if there has been an adverse finding either by the Competition Tribunal or the Competition Appeal Court.

The outcome of the High Court case is significant as the combined civil damages (both Nationwide’s and Comair’s) together with the administrative penalties imposed by the Competition Tribunal (in 2006) amounts total liability for SA is in excess of R1.5 billion.

Says John Oxenham, “Although the South African competition regime has been in place for more than 16 years and there have been a number of adverse findings against respondents by the competition authorities, have only been a limited number of civil follow-on damages cases.” This is largely due to the substantial difficulties (or perceived difficulties) a plaintiff faces in trying to quantify the damages, he believes. Follow-on damages claims for breaches of competition legislation are notoriously difficult to prove not only in South Africa but in most jurisdictions.

The recent Nationwide and Comair judgments, however, may pave the way and provide some important guidance to potential plaintiffs who are contemplating pursuing civil redress against firms which have engaged in anti-competitive conduct (including cartel conduct).

In this regard, the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) announced last year that it has also instituted a civil damages claim of approximately R700 million against a number of construction firms who had had been found by the Competition Authorities to have engaged in cartel conduct.  The SANRAL case will be the first damages claim, if successful, by a ‘customer’ against a respondent who has contravened the Competition Act in relation to cartel conduct (and not abuse of dominance as in the SAA case).

saaplaceThe only previous civil damages claim was in the form of a class action instituted by bread distributors and consumers in relation to cartel conduct involving plant bakeries. Although the class was ultimately successful in their certification application, the case provides no further guidance as to the quantification of damages as the respective parties have either settled their case or remain in settlement negotiations.

As the development of civil redress in South Africa develops in relation to cartel conduct, it will be particularly interesting to evaluate what the effect of civil damages may have on the Competition Commission’s Corporate Leniency Policy. The Commission’s leniency policy only offers immunity to a respondent who is “first through the door” from an administrative penalty. It does not extend immunity to a whistle-blower for civil damages or criminal liability. It is well understood that the Corporate Leniency Policy has been one of the Commission’s most effective mechanisms in identifying and successfully prosecuting firms which have engaged in cartel conduct.

In relation to the recent civil damages cases, John Oxenham, a Primerio director, notes that “Parties will have to strike a delicate balance whether to approach the Competition Commission for purposes of obtaining immunity from an administrative penalty, which is no doubt made all the more difficult following the R1.5 billion administrative penalty levied on ArcelorMittal in 2016 (the largest administrative penalty imposed in South Africa to date) will no doubt be of some import given that most of the conduct related to cartel conduct“.

Accordingly, in light of the introduction of criminal liability as of May 2016, the imposition of record administrative penalties, the risk substantial follow-on civil damages and the development of class action litigation, South Africa is now evermore a rather treacherous terrain for firms and their directors.

SOUTH AFRICA: ZUMA’S STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS MAY BE HINT AT INTRODUCTION OF COMPLEX MONOPOLY PROVISIONS

While the media headlines are largely filled with the disruptions that took place at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Jacob Zuma on 9 February 2017, the President made an important remark which, if true, may have a significant impact on competition law in South Africa, particular in relation to abuse of dominance cases.

In this regard, the President stated that:

During this year, the Department of Economic Development will bring legislation to Cabinet that will seek to amend the Competition Act. It will among others address the need to have a more inclusive economy and to de-concentrate the high levels of ownership and control we see in many sectors. We will then table the legislation for consideration by parliament.

In this way, we seek to open up the economy to new players, give black South Africans opportunities in the economy and indeed help to make the economy more dynamic, competitive and inclusive. This is our vision of radical economic transformation.”

Patel talksNeither the President nor Minister Patel have given any further clarity as to the proposed legislative amendments other than Patel’s remarks early in January 2017 in which he stated that:

The review covers areas such as the efficacy of the administration of the Competition Act, procedural aspects in the investigation and prosecution of offences, matters relating to abuse of dominance, more effective investigations against cartels and the current public interest provisions of the act.

Says John Oxenham, a competition attorney who has closely followed the legislative and policy developments, “despite the broad non-committal remarks by Minister Patel, it is clear that the Minister is zealous in having the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions brought into force to address in order to address, what the Minister perceives to be, significant abuse of dominance in certain concentrated markets.”

In terms of the provisions, as currently drafted, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).

white-collar-crimeDespite having been promulgated in 2009, the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions have not yet been brought into effect largely due to the concerns raised as to how these provisions will be enforced, says Primerio Ltd.’s Andreas Stargard: “It is noteworthy that the introduction of criminal liability for directors and persons with management authority who engage in cartel conduct was also promulgated in 2009, but surprised most (including the Competition Authorities) when it was quite unexpectedly brought into force in 2016.”

Minister Patel was no doubt a key driving force behind the introduction of criminal liability and it would, therefore, not be surprising if the complex monopoly provisions are brought into force with equal swiftness in 2017.

Kenya: Competition Amendment Bill to bring about Radical changes to the Act

kenyaThe Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has recently announced that a number of proposed amendments to the Competition Act are currently pending before the National Assembly for consideration and approval.

The proposed amendments are generally aimed at increasing sanctions and CAK’s authority to detect and prosecute anti-competitive behaviour as well as to ensure that parties provide the CAK with adequate and correct information to properly assess merger notifications.

  • Anti-competitive conduct

Importantly, the amendments seek to introduce a financial threshold for respondents who are found to have engaged in abuse of dominance practices. Currently, there is no administrative penalty for a abuse of dominance.

The amendments further include an administrative cap of 10% for engaging in cartel conduct.

Interestingly, the amendments also seek to introduce measures to protect suppliers from buying groups. Unlike the South African Competition Act which specifically precludes competitors from entering into an agreement or concerted practice which amounts to the fixing of a purchase price or trading condition, Kenya’s Competition Act does not have a similar express prohibition.

It is also not clear, at this stage, what the anti competitive effect of buying groups is having in Kenya. The CAK has, however, indicated that suppliers are often left short-changed as a result of buying groups not paying the suppliers. Whether this has or may have a foreclosure effect on suppliers is noy yet apparent.

In any event, the proposed solution is likely to be resolved through the development of guidelines rather than an amendment to the Act.

  • Mergers

A clear indication that the CAK is increasing its efforts to ensure that they are not merely a regulatory body which rubber stamps merger approvals is the proposed introduction of penalties for merging parties who submit incorrect information to the CAK during a merger filing.

In addition, in terms of Section 47 of the Competition Act, the CAK may revoke their decision to approve or conditionally approve a merger if the merger approval was granted based on materially incorrect or false information provided during the notification and/or the merger is implemented in contravention of any merger approval related conditions.  In terms of the amendments, the CAK is proposing the introduction of criminal liability for merging parties who implement a merger despite the CAK having revoked the merger.

Merging parties will, therefore, need to ensure that they adequately prepare and submit comprehensive merger filings.

As to the definition of what constitutes a “merger” for purposes of the Competition Act, the proposed amendments seek to clarify that a change of control can take place by the acquisition of assets.

  • Market inquiries

Section 18 of the Act is also to be amended to place an obligation on parties to provide the CAK with information during market inquiries.

We have not yet seen the CAK conduct a full blown market inquiry as has been the case in South Africa. In light, however, of the CAK and the South African Competition Commission’s (SACC) advocacy initiatives (readers wlll recall that the CAK and the SACC recently concluded a Memorandum of Understanding), the CAK may soon launch a market inquiry into priority sectors such as grocery retail and agro-processing.

 

 

Drastic price increase could be sign of collusion or dominance: Dangote in Nigeria

Close-knit trade group and dominant cement manufacturer prove to be (price-)explosive combination

 Our friends at Songhai Advisory, a business intelligence firm covering key parts of Africa, have released a brief market-intel note addressing the 44% price hike of cement in Nigeria, led by the country’s (and indeed soon also the continent’s) dominant manufacturer, the Dangote group.

Any discussion of Nigeria — still Africa’s largest economy measured by GDP — in the competition-law context must begin with the surprising fact that the country’s political leadership still has failed to institute any antitrust regime.  Says Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa-focused Pr1merio law group:

“As the continent’s economic leader, Nigeria is a lone beacon of failure to police anti-competitive practices, whereas a multitude of significantly smaller African jurisdictions have had competition laws for years or even decades.  The recent price developments of Nigerian concrete are merely one example of the negative impact on consumers where there are no antitrust rules in effect.  Notably, an industry trade association also appears to be involved here, so from the competition point of view, we are dealing not only with one dominant entity (Dangote) but also an efficient and time-tested mechanism of information-sharing among direct competitors (trade groups).

 

The price increase covered the entire Nigerian cement market, according to Songhai and other media reports: cement prices of the members of the Cement Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (CMAN) rose over the course of a month by 44% from US$5 to $7 per 50kg.  Adds Stargard, “any competent antitrust enforcer would look into such a price hike.  Given the absence of competition law enforcement in Nigeria, it is likely that no investigation will take place, and civil suits are highly unlikely, in light of the lack of antitrust laws and the political connections at play here.”  In the words of Songhai’s reporting: “When Dangote decides to push its price up or down, others tend to follow.”  Yet, the researchers also quote a source at Sokoto Cement, one of Dangote’s main rivals, as describing power generation costs and foreign-exchange fluctuations as the actual drivers behind the drastic recent cement price increases.

 

 

SACC Investigates Port Operator for Monopolisation & Excessive Pricing

Abuse of Dominance & Excessive Pricing in South Africa: Transnet under Unvestigation

south_africaBy AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

On 7 July 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) announced that it has initiated an investigation against Transnet SOC Ltd (Transnet), for abusing its dominance by allegedly engaging in excessive pricing in contravention of the in section 8(a) of the Competition Act as well as for engaging in exclusionary practices in contravention of section 8(c) of the Competition Act in relation to the provision of port services.

The SACC investigation is allegedly based on information received indicating that South Africa’s port charges are excessive relative to global standards. A recent port tariff benchmarking report by the regulator determined that Transnet’s terminal handling charges for the period 2015-2016 were 56% above the global average. Transnet maintains that it is “comfortable and confident that its processes are fair, just, and in line with relevant legal requirements.

The SACC also indicated that it had received information indicating that Transnet is allegedly giving preferential treatment to certain customers to the exclusion of others, in the form of preferential berthing windows, capped export capacity, minimum export tonnage requirements and preferential lease agreements.

Patel talksThe SACC, as well as the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Patel, as expressly stated that, as part of the SACC’s policy, it will target firms who may be abusing their dominance in the market.

While most respondents in South Africa’s abuse of dominant cases thus far, have been firms who have previously been state owned and, therefore, as far as the SACC is concerned, obtained their significant market share as a result of previously having received state support.  It is thus noteworthy that Transnet is a ‘State Owned Entity’.

Despite having brought a number of abuse of dominance cases against various respondents, however, the SACC has found prosecuting respondents for abusing their dominance challenging.

In relation to excessive pricing, the SACC has found it particularly challenging to successfully prosecute a firm for a contravening section 8(a) of the Competition Act. This is largely due to the definition of ‘excessive pricing’ which is essentially defined in the Competition Act as “a price for a good or service which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service”.

What constitutes an ‘excessive price’ was fully dealt with in the recent Sasol Polymers case in which the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) overturned a R500 million rand penalty imposed on Sasol by the Competition Tribunal for excessive pricing.

Although the outcome of the Sasol case before the CAC turn largely on a lack of evidence, the case highlighted the difficulties in determining what the ‘economic value’ of a product is. In this regard, however, and as a general starting point, the CAC indicated that the economic value “is the notional price of the respective “good” or “service” under assumed conditions of long-run competitive equilibrium”.

If the price charged for a product exceeds the ‘economic value’, then the inquiry shifts to the second part of the definition – i.e. whether the price charged is reasonably related to the ‘economic value’. Although the CAC in Sasol indicated that this is a subjective inquiry, the CAC indicated that in instances where the actual price charged is not more than 20% of the economic value, it is unlikely that the price charged will be considered ‘unreasonable’.

John Oxenham and the author co-published a paper on excessive pricing, which was presented at the American Bar Association Fall Forum in 2015, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the Sasol case and the legal landscape of excessive pricing in South Africa.

After the Sasol case, Minister Patel has further expressed his intentions to broaden and strengthen the SACC’s powers to prosecute firms who abuse their dominance.

In this regard, Minister Patel had previously made similar averments in relation to combatting cartel conduct, which ultimately materialized in the Minister bring into effect criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who have engaged in cartel conduct. The criminal liability provisions were enacted in 2009, but were not brought into effect due to numerous concerns regarding the constitutionality and jurisdictional concerns regarding the enforcement of these provisions. Despite the concerns raised, the criminal liability provisions were nevertheless brought into effect from 1 May 2016 without any amendments having been made.

The significance of the Minister Patel’s decision to implement criminal liability provisions should be particularly concerning to firms to have a substantial market share, as the Minister has also indicated that he intends bring into effect the “complex monopoly” provisions as contained din the Competition Amendment Act.

Much like the criminal-liability provisions, the complex-monopoly provisions have also been enacted since 2009, but not brought into effect yet due to various concerns raised as to the how this provision would be enforced.

In terms of the complex monopoly provisions, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).

Although the introduction of complex monopoly provisions may appear far off, we would caution firms who operate in a concentrated market that Minister Patel’s efforts to combat abuse of dominance may see result in the expeditious implementation of the complex-monopoly provisions.

Namibia: NaCC issues Guidelines on Restrictive Practices

By Michael-James Currie

In April 2016, the Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) finalised its guidelines on restrictive practices (Guidelines) in terms of chapter three of the Namibian Competition Act. The Guidelines focus in particular on the investigatory powers and procedures to be utilised by the NaCC during its investigations into restrictive practices.

The Namibian Competition Act contains most of the traditional antitrust prohibitions in relation to restrictive conduct. These include ‘agreements’ or ‘concerted practices’ between firms in a horizontal or vertical relationship which have the “object” or “effect” of substantially lessening competition in the market.

The Competition Act does not, from a plain reading of the language, impose a per se prohibition for ‘hardcore’ cartel conduct. The Guidelines, however, confirm that certain practices such as ‘hardcore cartel conduct’ and ‘minimum resale price maintenance’ will be considered per se to be anticompetitive. It is unclear, however, whether this per se contravention should rather serve as a presumption that the conduct is anti-competitive which may affect the onus of proof, rather, as in the South African context where the Act makes it clear that the effect of hardcore cartel conduct is irrelevant.

Furthermore, there is no express provision which deals with ‘rule of reason’ defences, however, the Guidelines confirm that efficiency or pro-competitive features of the alleged anti-competitive conduct, may outweigh any anti-competitive effect. It should be noted, however, that even if there was no anti-competitive effect, if the objective of the conduct was to engage in an anti-competitive agreement or concerted practice, a respondent may still be liable. Accordingly, conduct must not only be shown not to have an anti-competitive effect, but must also be properly ‘characterised’ as not being anti-competitive, in order to avoid liability.

The Namibian Competition Act also prohibits abuse of dominance conduct. The Act does not contain thresholds or criteria for deterring when a firm would be considered ‘dominant’, however, in term of the Competition Commission’s Rules, a firm:

  • will be considered dominant if it has above a 45% market share;
  • will be presumed dominant if it has between 35-45% market share (unless it can show it does not have market power); or
  • has a market share of less than 35%, but has market power.

Although the abuse of dominant provision is intended to prohibit a broad range of potential anti-competitive conduct, the Act in particular, notes the following conduct which, if a firm is dominant, is restricted:

  • directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions;
  • limiting or restricting production, market outlets or market access, investment, technical development or technological progress;
  • applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties; and
  • making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by other parties of supplementary conditions which by their nature or according to commercial usage have no connection with the subject-matter of the contracts.”

Importantly, the Namibian Competition Act does not state that the conduct identified above must lead to a substantial-lessening of competition in the market. Furthermore, in terms of the Guidelines, the NaCC not only considers the conduct of and individual firm, but also considers the conduct of a “number of connected undertakings acting collectively” for purposes of considering whether there has been an “abuse of dominance”.

It should be noted that the Namibian Competition Act does cater for exemptions from the application of Chapter 3 (i.e. restrictive practices) and sets out in some detail the requirements and terms upon which an exemption may be granted.

As noted above, however, the most elements contained in the Guidelines relate to the NaCC’s investigatory powers.

In terms of the Namibian Competition Act, the NaCC may initiate a complaint or may elect to investigate a third party complaint.

The NaCC‘s investigatory powers include the power to conduct search and seizure operations. Importantly, the NaCC may take into possession any evidence which, in its opinion, will assist in the investigation. This is so even if such evidence would not be admissible as evidence in a court of law. For purposes of obtaining witness statements, however, a witness has the same rights and privileges as a witness before a court of law.

The Guidelines also confirm that the NaCC is not entitled to peruse or seize “legally privileged” documents unless privilege is waived. Interestingly, the Guidelines do not appear to protect communication between in-house legal and the firm and refers to legally privileged communication as that between “lawyer and client” only.

Search and seizure operations must be conducted in terms of a valid search warrant.

The Guidelines also contains further guidance on various topics and caters for a number of procedural aspects which must be adhered to (as well as the prescribed forms which should be utilised in certain circumstances) in relation to, inter alia the following:

  • initiating complaint;
  • applying for an exemption;
  • requesting an advisory opinion;
  • handling and the use of ‘confidential information’;

The Guidelines is no doubt a stern indication that the NaCC is preparing to heighten its intensity in terms of investigating and prosecuting restrictive practices. Since inception, the NaCC has dealt with over 450 merger cases, but has only handled approximately 40 restrictive practice complaints.

Furthermore, and in line with the NaCC’s newly adopted 5 year ‘Strategic Plan (2015-2020), the NaCC is growing in confidence and competence and firms should be aware that the NaCC will look to utilise the dawn raids provisions when necessary.