COMESA Competition Commission: 2019 Regional Sensitization Workshop

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

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

Attendees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merger Control

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

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

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

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

Enforcement Activities

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

Exemptions

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

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

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

False or Misleading Representation 

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

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

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

Currie Panel Discussion

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mauritius: Competition Commission orders VISA and MasterCard to lower interchange fees

[By Michael-James Currie]

On 13 August 2019, the Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has, following a lengthy investigation, ordered VISA and MasterCard (Respondents) to reduce their banking interchange fees from 1% to 0,5%.

The CCM found that the Respondents set an interchange fee of 1% which in turn led to higher merchant fees. As a consequence, the interchange fee were found to have hampered the incentive for banks to issue credit/debit cards and to provide card facilities to merchants. This led to either some merchants electing not to have card accepting facilities or to increase the final price to consumers.

The high interchange fees were found by the CCM to impede competition between banks and in particular, the ability of smaller “acquirer” banks to compete with more established banks.

In determining the 0,5% “fee cap”, the CCM noted that the respondents offered a 0,5% interchange fee for payments at petrol stations and that the lower interchange fee applicable to petrol station payments has had positive effects.

The executive director of the CCM, Mr Deshmuk Kowlessur, stated that:

“The decision of the Commission requiring VISA and MasterCard to limit the interchange fees to a maximum of 0.5% is likely to reshape the competition landscape in the local payment card market. The reduction of the interchange fees will open-up the market for existing and  potential banking and other financial institutions to offer acquiring services to merchants.  At the same time, the two dominant banks will have to compete more rigorously. A  new dynamism  in  the local payment  card  market  is  likely  to encourage  existing  competitors  and  new  entrants  to  offer innovative  services.  The resulting lower merchant service commission will encourage card-acceptance by merchants and thus offer card users the convenience, security and lower costs of settling their transactions.  It can also be expected that consumers can benefit from lower prices of goods and services, as merchants’ cost of transaction will be reduced with lower merchant service commission. At the end, the  reduction  in  the  interchange  fee  will  bring  more competition  in  the  payment  card  market and positively impact  on trade,  commerce  and  economic development.”

The decision by the CCM is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The CCM’s findings is based on an abuse of dominance case by “setting a high interchange fee”. The CMM’s reasons (at those which are publicly available) do not, however, provide any indication of the benchmark used for finding that the prices were “high”. Unlike traditional excessive pricing cases (which are notoriously difficult to prosecute), the CMM does not set out the requisite test which should be used for purposes of determining whether a price is “high” (or excessive). The media release published by the CCM appears to suggest that the conduct amounted to a “collective dominance” / tacit collusion type of case without expressly stating as much.

John Oxenham, director at Primerio, says that the CCM’s remedy is noteworthy as “the CCM is for all practical purposes acting as a price regulator which is traditionally not the role of competition authorities“.

VISA and MasterCard have, however, indicated that they will appeal the CCM’s findings before the Supreme Court.

[Primerio specializes in providing competition law advice to clients across Africa including Mauritius]

CRESSE CONFERENCE GREECE 2019: SOUTH AFRICAN AMENDMENT ACT

Africanantitrust regular contributors John Oxenham, Michael-James Currie and Stephany Torres (Primerio and Nortons Inc) authored and presented a paper on the role of non-competition law factors in competition law enforcement at the 2019 CRESSE Conference in Rhodes Island, Greece in early July 2019.

Motivated by the recent, but significant, amendments to South Africa’s Competition Act, the timing of the authors’ paper could not have been better scripted. The Amendment Act was brought into effect on 12 July 2019 – a week after presenting the paper to an esteemed delegation of competition law practitioners and economists.

The paper, titled “South African Competition Law – The role of non-competition factors in enforcing unilateral conduct: Forging ahead or falling behind?” explores the socio-economic context and objectives which underpin the recent amendments to South Africa’s legislation and highlights the expansion of what is often termed “public interest” considerations in competition law enforcement beyond merger control.

Most notably, the authors contextualise the policy debate before providing an in-depth discussion of the new thresholds and standards against which certain abuse of dominance conduct will now be assessed.

The Amendment Act introduces a public interest standard, namely what the effect of certain conduct by dominant entities will have on the ability of “small, medium businesses and businesses owned by previously disadvantaged persons” to participate effectively in the market”.

Looking specifically at the price discrimination and buyer power provisions, the paper notes that, notwithstanding the noble objectives of the Amendment Act, there are potentially a number of unintended consequences which require further deliberation so as not to dampen pro-competitive conduct.

In relation to the price discrimination provisions, the authors conclude that:

Accordingly, in light of:

  • the low market share threshold applicable to “dominant” entities;
  • the uncertainty regarding the threshold that must be met in order to sustain a case of prohibited price discrimination;
  • the evidentiary burden on a respondent to essentially prove a negative in relation to section 9(3); and
  • the threat of an administrative penalty for a first-time offence (potentially on both the South African business and its parent),

the price discrimination provisions pose a material risk to companies in South Africa who have a market share above 35%.”

As part of the presentation of the paper, it was noted that competition policy globally is constantly evolving. Issues such as “big data” and “data protection” have called on antitrust commentators to question whether the existing laws remain adequate to address broader consumer harm concerns. In South Africa, the authors point out that while the South African competition agencies have traditionally turned to European and US precedent in relation to antitrust enforcement, the socio-economic factors which have shaped competition policy in South Africa (at least from Government’s perspective) is unique and constitutes a substantial departure from more established jurisdictions.

Competition policy globally is, therefore, likely to be more divergent than convergent in the next few years.

In concluding, the authors point to the inordinate responsibility placed on the shoulders of the competition agencies in South Africa to exercise their discretion and develop a body of precedent as soon as possible that would hopefully provide practitioners and business with a more objective and transparent benchmark against which to assess their conduct. A task which could prove highly complex as the authorities will inevitable need to develop an objective basis for quantifying public interest considerations – an inherently subjective exercise.

To obtain a copy of the paper, please email the AAT editor by following the contact link below.

 

 

 

 

 

Competition enforcer terminates RPM investigation into Coca-Cola

COMESA’s second restrictive trade practices investigation ends inconclusively

Having now concluded two non-merger cases (the first was an exclusivity issue in football broadcasting and sponsorship agreements, see here), the COMESA Competition Commission’s (“CCC”) second investigation into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola and its distributors has culminated in somewhat of an indeterminate ending.

No fines were imposed, and the Coca-Cola parties agreed to eliminate the price-maintenance clause from their distribution contracts, as well as committing to implementing a generic compliance programme.

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., in an in-depth analysis of the short Decision (dated 6th December 2018, but only released recently):

I am very disappointed in this missed opportunity.  The Decision lacks intellectual rigour and avoids critical detail, to assist practitioners or business going forward in any meaningful way.

This investigation began in earnest well over a year ago, when the CCC opened formal Article 22 proceedings against the parties in January 2018.  In its disappointingly short 9-paragraph decision, lacking any degree of detailed reasoning, factual or legal analysis underlying its conclusions, the Commission has now determined the following:

  1. The relevant product market is the sale of non-alcoholic carbonated beverages.  I note that the wording of this definition would presumably include sparkling mineral water, which appears to be an outlier from the ‘soft drinks’ category that is actually at issue here (“Coke,” Fanta,” “Sprite,” etc.).
  2. A relevant geographic market was notably not defined at all (!).  The absence of this key dimension is unfortunate — it is not in accordance with established competition-law principles, as market power can only be measured in well-defined product and geographic markets.  While the decision mentions the countries in which the parties are active, it fails to identify whether each country was viewed as a relevant sub-market, or whether Coca-Cola’s market power (or dominance) was assessed across the entire COMESA region.  This appears to be a glaring oversight.
  3. The CCC found relatively low entry barriers, as well as apparently actual “new product” entry (NB: does “new product” imply products by a new or different competitor?).
  4. Yet, despite ‘non-prohibitive’ entry barriers, the Commission somehow views the mere fact that the respondent’s brands “continued to command a majority share of the relevant markets” (NB: where is the plural (‘markets’) coming from here? I thought there was only a single market for ‘non-alcoholic carbonated beverages’?) as leading to a finding of dominance.
  5. Crucially, the actual conduct complained-of (the vertical restraints, the alleged RPM, etc.) is barely identified and lacks any significant detail.  Paragraph 7 merely provides that there are “clauses which stipulate the profit margins to be enjoyed by the distributors, as well as the commission at different levels of the market. … [and] vertical restraints which constrain the distributors’ conduct in the relevant markets” (note the plural again).  This absence of key information — ‘what were these so-called vertical restraints’? how were distributors constrained in their conduct? — in an official ‘Decision’  by the enforcement agency wholly fails to assist businesses seeking antitrust guidance for operating within the legal boundaries in the COMESA region.
  6. Finally, the CCC’s overall conclusion is rather weak: the Decision states that the Commission merely “registered its concern that the stipulation of prices [I thought it was profit margins?] may have anti-competitive effects in the market [back to a single market?].”  To address these ‘potential’ ‘concerns’, Coca-Cola appears to have voluntarily committed to removing the offending contract language and instituting a (wholly undefined) “compliance program” that exclusively concerns Part III of COMESA’s regulations.

In sum, Coca-Cola seems to have got away easy here: no fine was imposed at all (which could have been as much as 10% of the parties’ COMESA revenues), a limited, voluntary training exercise was agreed, as was the removal of the RPM provision.

The CCC, on the other hand, missed a truly golden opportunity to draft a more well-reasoned decision.  Its 9-paragraph reasoning (which notably concludes with a finding of actual dominance nonetheless!) can literally fit on a single page… Remember: resale price maintenance is considered in many jurisdictions to be a “hard-core” offence, and is often deemed per se illegal.  In this regard, the Decision likewise fails to make any mention of the relevant legal standard under the COMESA Regulations for evaluating the RPM (and the other unidentified, vertical) conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

The flaws outlined above — from the lack of geographic market definition, missing market share data and other highly relevant details, zero explanation of why low entry barriers somehow did not preclude a finding of dominance, use of tautological and circuitous verbiage (“restraints which constrain“?) — preclude this “conduct” case,  notably already a rarity in the CCC’s portfolio, to be a lightning rod for the assent of the COMESA Competition Commission to become a respected competition enforcer.  This was a chance for the agency to be placed on the radar screen of international businesses, agencies and practitioners, to be seen together on the map with its respected peer antitrust enforcers such as the South African Competition Commission — yet, it was a chance unfortunately missed…

 

KENYA: ENFORCEMENT ALERT

Restrictive Practices

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) recently announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with local beer producer Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL), a subsidiary of UK Diageo’s East African Breweries Ltd (EABL).

The settlement follows from an investigation by the CAK in terms of section 21 of the Competition Act (12 of 2010) wherein the CAK had found that KBL’s distribution agreements with its downstream distributors – which provides for inter alia, territorial exclusivity  – is anti-competitive and may lead to the lessening of intra-brand competition.

The settlement was reached in terms of section 38 of the Competition Act and requires that KBL establish an internal compliance policy and review and amend the problematic and restrictive clauses in its agreements with distributors.

Michael-James Currie, an African focused competition lawyer, says that the decision is particularly important for companies which use third parties to execute their distribution strategies as the majority of distribution agreements contain restrictions of some kind (often transported from international distribution agreements) which will need to be assessed against the standards of the Competition Act in Kenya as the CAK is actively focusing on these types of restrictive verticals arrangements.

Abuse of Dominance

Styles Industries (Darling Kenya)

Braids supplier, Styles Industries Ltd (Styles) has been found guilty by the CAK for abuse of dominance in contravention of Section 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK launched an investigation into Styles on the basis of a complaint received by a competitor in the market, Solpia Kenya, claiming that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair selling prices and conditions on suppliers who sell its products.

The CAK’s investigation found that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair trading conditions on its downstream suppliers which it sought to enforce through threatening its downstream suppliers with account closure, removal of discounts and refusal to supply products.

The CAK is currently in negotiations with the parties and have indicated that its finding could result in Styles paying the complainant an amount in damages and/or a fine Sh10 million. In terms of Section 54(3) of the Competition Act, the relevant individuals within Styles could further face imprisonment for a period of up to 5 years.

Kaluworks

The CAK dismissed an abuse of dominance case against cookware manufacturer, Kaluworks Limited (Kaluworks).

The case emanated from a complaint by rival company, Sufuria World (Sufuria) in which it was alleged that Kaluworks had refused to sell to them certain aluminum circles which it required for purposes of manufacturing its aluminum cooking ports. This, Sufuria claimed, amounted to an abuse of dominance in terms of section 23 and 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK, however, found that the conduct did not amount to abuse of dominance under the Competition Act as Sufuria had other options available to it in that it had the ability to replicate the technologies used by Kaluworks to produce the aluminum circles (as other manufacturers have done) or it could increase its order volumes in order to make it economically feasible for Kaluworks to supply it with the aluminum circles.

This finding was based on the representations made by Kaluworks that:

  • it primarily produces aluminum circles for in-house production for a variety of its own cookware products intended for local and export markets; and
  • it could only manufacture the aluminum circles to third parties where such third parties placed an order which met certain minimum quantities that would guarantee optimal scale of production

In supporting its findings, the CAK stated that in assessing the conduct of a dominant firm and whether it amounts to a ‘refusal to deal’, “is necessary to prove indispensability of the facility to the operation of the complainant or other third parties as arbitrary intervention may hurt innovation.

Market Inquiries

Transport Inquiry

The CAK has recently announced that it has initiated a ‘regional study’ in the Shipping, Trucking and Haulage industry in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

According to the announcement, the objective of the inquiry is to identify and remedy features of the market and trade practices which are anti-competitive and which impedes the national and intra-regional trade which in terms slows the potential growth of the manufacturing sector in Kenya.

Leasing Sector

The CAK has further announced a market study into the leasing sector which it will be conducting in conjunction with the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya.

The objective of the market study is to assess the level of competition in the sector and to identify areas of concern in order to enhance competition in the market by facilitating SME entrants into the market.

John Oxenham, director at African antitrust advisory firm Primerio, says that market inquiries can be used very effectively, however, they are resource intensive and in order to achieve there objectives must be concluded expeditiously. The CAK should be cognizant of the challenges and experiences of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) where the market inquiries are not being concluded timeously.

[The editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this update]

South Africa: Overview of the Price Discrimination and Buyer Power Draft Regulations

By Michael-James Currie

[*Michael-James Currie is a practising competition lawyer based in Johannesburg and a regular contributor to Africanantitrust]

The South African Competition Amendment Act was signed into law by the President on 13 February 2019.

Two of the contentious aspects which were raised during the drafting of the Amendment Bill related to the price discrimination prohibitions and the introduction of express “buyer power” provisions. The key areas of concern relates to the fact that these practices are not ordinarily anti-competitive but quite the opposite – they are generally  pro-competitive and more often than not lead to an increase in consumer welfare. Simply put, price discrimination allows firms to charge different customers a price relevant to what those customers are prepared to pay. In other words, it enables firms to ensure that the customer utility is maximized. If firms are obliged (or consider themselves required) to set prices at a uniform price, it is unlikely that the firm will adopt the “lowest price point” at which to sell its products but rather an average or the highest price point. This means that while customers who were prepared to pay more for a product at a certain price point may enjoy some discount, those customers who were only prepared to pay for the product at the lowest price point will either have to cough up more or will not buy the product altogether. Intuitively this results in a decrease in consumer welfare.

From a buyer power perspective, provided the downstream market is competitive, any buyer power exerted upstream will result in lower prices to consumers.

The Minister of the Department of Economic Development has published draft Regulations in relation to Price Discrimination and Buyer Power respectively in an effort to provide greater clarity as to how these provisions ought to be applied.

The Regulations will be particularly relevant to companies who have a market share in excess of 35% – therefore rebuttably presumed to be dominant – as they affect both the upstream and downstream pricing and more importantly, do not require any assessment of anti-competitive or consumer welfare effects. Instead, the provisions introduce a public interest standard against which to assess these practices. The Regulations expressly state that the assessment against the public interest standards does not require a consideration of anti-competitive or consumer welfare effects. In other words, a firm could be found liable to an administrative penalty despite its conduct being pro-competitive or enhancing consumer welfare.

Although the most contentious amendments brought about by the Amendment Act are aimed at dominant entities, it should be noted that the thresholds for being considered dominant in terms of the Competition Act are low. A firm is rebuttably presumed to be dominant if it has a market share (in a specific product or geographical market) between 35%-45% while a firm with a market share in excess of 45% is irrebuttably presumed to be dominant.

This raises the question as to why the price discrimination and buyer power provisions only apply to so-called “dominant entities”. The primary purpose for prescribing dominance thresholds based on market shares is that it serves an important (although contentious) screening process for purposes of determining when a firm is likely to have “market power”. The assumption being that the higher a firm’s market shares the more likely it is that the firm in question has market power. Market power in short refers to the ability of a firm to set prices above a competitive level for a sustained period of time. Consequently, assessing a firms’ “market power” is the crucial for purposes of determining whether a firm’s conduct is anti-competitive or harmful to consumers. Turning to the draft Regulations, however, if anti-competitive effects or consumer welfare are not factors taken into account when assessing the conduct against the price discrimination or buy power provisions from a public interest perspective, then there is no rationale link between “dominant firms” and the prohibited conduct itself.

The lack of economic rationale supporting the objectives of the Act’s amendments together with the Regulations benchmarks results in a legal framework which seems uncertain, subjective and risks dampening pro-competitive conduct. John Oxenham, Director at Primerio says that the Bill, together with the Regulations, has the potential to have a dampening effect on pro-competitive conduct as firms may be overly cautious in their commercial practices as the risk of “getting it wrong” exposes firms to potential administrative penalties and reputational risk.

What follows, however, is a high level summary of the legal framework insofar as it applies to price discrimination and buyer power.

In relation to the price discrimination and buyer power provisions, it is noteworthy that:

  • the impact on small, medium and HDI owned firms is separate and independent from any assessment as to whether the alleged conduct is anti-competitive or adverse to the consumer welfare;
  • there is a reverse onus on the dominant entity to demonstrate that its conduct is justifiable once a prima facie case has been made out against the respondent; and
  • differentiating between customers or suppliers based only on “quantity” of products bought/sold (as the case may be) is essentially prohibited. There are, however, certain permissible grounds which justify differentiation in price or trading terms.

Price Discrimination

The Bill introduces a dual assessment for price discrimination in terms of which a firm can be found guilty of price discrimination either where its pricing has the effect or substantially lessening competition or where its pricing “impede[s] the ability of small and medium businesses and firms controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons to participate effectively.” It has further been made clear by way of the Draft Regulations that under the second assessment, there is no need for a complainant to show any anti-competitive or consumer harm – a complainant only needs to demonstrate a hindrance to being able to participate effectively in the market.

It is also an offence for a firm to avoid or refuse selling goods or services to a purchaser who is a small or medium business or controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons in order to circumvent the operation of section 9.

Once a prima facie case has been made out by a complainant, the onus rests on the dominant entity (as the respondent) to demonstrate that its pricing strategy does not impede the ability of small businesses or firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons to participate effectively in the market (and that it has not avoided or refused selling to a particular purchaser).

The Bill expressly precludes a dominant entity relying on “different quantities” alone as a defence if there is a prima facie case of price discrimination which impedes the ability of small, medium or HDI owned firms to “participate effectively” in the market. In other words, the Bill is aimed at protecting businesses who are unable to obtain the same prices as larger customers due only to their limited size.

The draft Regulations published in terms of section 9(4) sets out the relevant factors and benchmarks for determining whether the practice set out in subsection (1)(a)(ii) impedes the ability of a small and medium business or a firm owned  or  controlled  by  a  historically  disadvantaged person, to “participate effectively”.

The Regulations set out further factors which ought to be taken into account when assessing the impact that the price discrimination has customers. There must, however, be a causal connection between the price discrimination and the complainant’s inability to participate effectively in the market. “Participate effectively” is defined as the “ability of or the opportunity for firms to sustain themselves in the market”.

Buyer Power

In terms of the Regulations, a dominant firm, in a sector designated by the Minister, is prohibited from imposing unfair prices or trading conditions on “a supplier that is a small and medium business or a firm controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons…”.  It is also an offence for the dominant firm to refuse or avoid purchasing from such a supplier.

This includes discounts, rebates, commissions, allowances and credit and that firms cannot contract out of the rights contained in this sections.

A price/condition will be unfair if it is inferior relative to other suppliers and there is no reasonable rationale for the difference or where it impedes the ability of a firm to sustainably operate and grow its business. A designated supplier may not be prejudiced based on its size and accordingly volume based differences are not justifiable as a standalone defence.

With regard to ‘trading conditions’, the Regulations sets out various examples of terms which are impermissible vis-à-vis designated suppliers. These include, inter alia, terms which unreasonably transfers risk/costs to the suppliers, is one sided or bares no relation to the objective of the supply agreement and unfair payment terms.

Examples of unfair trading terms include:

  • Trading without a contract, which imposes uncertainty and risk on the supplier, whilst at the same time denying them standard contractual rights and protections;
  • Imposing costs or risks onto the supplier that are not spelt out in a clear and unambiguous manner or quantified within the supply contract;
  • Unilateral changes in the supply terms that are detrimental to the supplier;
  • Retrospectively changing supply terms of a material nature to the detriment of the supplier;
  • Excessively long payment terms;
  • An unreasonable transfer of the buyer’s costs of promotion and marketing onto the supplier; and
  • Transfer of the buyer’s risks of wastage or shrinkage onto the supplier where it is not due to the supplier’s negligence or fault.

It is unfortunate that the Draft Regulations were published after the Bill itself has already been passed by Parliament. At the time of promulgating the Bill, assurances were given that the Regulations would provide clarity and objectivity in relation to the price discrimination provisions in particular. The Draft Regulations have not addressed the concerns raised by many commentators during the promulgation of the Bill. Instead, the Draft Regulations are now ostensibly being justified on the basis that Parliament has approved the Bill and is, therefore, in keeping with the objectives of the Bill. This “circular logic” is a process flaw in the promulgation process, which has seemingly been capitalized on by the Department of Economic Development.

Regardless, it is unlikely that their will be a materiel amendments to the draft Regulations and therefore the new landscape in relation to price discrimination and buyer power enforcement is likely to become effective imminently – raising unique but important challenges from a compliance perspective.

 

 

 

KENYA: BUYER POWER

By Michael-James Currie

[Michael-James Currie is a competition lawyer practicing across multiple African jurisdictions]

Kenya has in some respects become the leading African authority in the regulation of buyer power in December 2016 when it adopted specific legislative provisions on buyer power through its competition law framework.

The CAK has long viewed buyer power as a concern as in its view, unequal bargaining power, particularly in the retail sector has had serious anti-competitive effects in the market, leading to the foreclosure of suppliers, particularly in the retail sector.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) formally initiated a market inquiry into the branded retail sector, with one of its key objectives being the bargaining power between retails and their suppliers. See the ATT exclusive here

Ostensibly in light of the identified concerns, the CAK assisted in developing a new industry code (which is being proposed in terms of the Kenya Trade Development Bill). In terms of the industry code, retailers are prohibited inter alia from:

  • Making late payments to suppliers;
  • Forcing suppliers to contribute to marketing costs;
  • Forcing suppliers to pay for shrinkage;
  • Unilaterally terminating commercial agreements (without reasonable notice and on good cause);
  • Imposing unfair risk/liability on suppliers.

The purpose of the code of practice is to encourage self-regulation and harmonise retailers’ and suppliers’ ways of engagement and in so doing, also apply international best practice applicable to the Kenyan situation,” says Kenya Trade Principal Secretary Chris Kiptoo

The industry code also establishes a Retail Trade Dispute Settlement Committee, who will act as an industry ombudsman to settle disputes arising out of the code.

The CAK also formed a specific ‘Buyer Power Unit’ within the CAK to oversee market conduct and to enforce compliance with the buyer power provisions of the Kenya Competition Act which attracts a sanction of imprisonment for a period not exceeding 5 years and/or a fine of Sh10million. Previously, the CAK had limited powers to intervene in commercial dealings between retailers and suppliers.  Ruth Mosoti, director of Primerio Kenya says with the code, together with the provisions of the Competition Act, “we are bound to see an increase in enforcement action by the CAK given that the legal framework is in place as well as the fact that the ‘Buyer Power’ department is fully operational”.

Further south, the South African Department of Economic Development has published draft guidelines on buyer power, in terms of the South African Competition Amendment Bill. The Bill and Draft Guidelines, prohibits a dominant firm from imposing unfair prices or trading conditions on “a supplier that is a small and medium business or a firm controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons…”.  It is similarly an offence for the dominant firm to refuse to or avoid purchasing from such a supplier.

According to Andreas Stargard, also at Primerio, these latest developments are in line with the broader public interest initiatives which are increasingly prevalent in African competition enforcement. African competition authorities have identified competition enforcement as a key to driving growth in African economies through the protection and inclusion of local and small businesses.

The role of public interest in competition law enforcement has made competition compliance in these jurisdictions particularly complex as quantifying socio-economic effects is a particularly subjective exercise, says John Oxenham.

South Africa: Competition Tribunal Fines Computicket for Abusing its Dominance

By Charl van der Merwe

On 21 January 2019, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), ruled in favour of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) who prosecuted Computicket (Pty) Ltd. (Computicket) for abuse of dominance in contravention of the Competition Act.

The Tribunal ruled that Computicket had abused its dominance, in contravention of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act (which prohibits dominant entities from inducing customer or suppliers not to deal with competitors) by engaging in exclusionary conduct and fined the company R20 million (approximately US$1.44 million), payable within 60 days.

In terms of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act, exclusionary conduct is prohibited unless the dominant firm can show that the anti-competitive effect of the exclusionary conduct is outweighed by technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gains.

The SACC referred the complaint to the Tribunal in April 2010 after its investigation found that Computicket had entered into long term exclusive agreements with customers for the period 2005 to 2010 (immediately after being acquired by a large South African retailer, Shoprite), thereby excluding new entrants from entering the market. At the hearing of the matter, the SACC produced evidence that Computicket entered into these agreements shortly after being acquired and that employees vigorously enforced the exclusive agreements, particularly when new entrants sought to enter the market.

Computicket denied the allegations, arguing that its long term exclusive contracts had no anti-competitive effects as it was offering a superior service and the exclusive contracts were necessary to safeguard against reputational risks.

The Tribunal rejected the argument on the basis that:

  • Computicket had a near monopoly in the market;
  • there was limited market entry during the relevant period which coincided with the introduction of the longer term exclusivity contracts; and
  • no other theory was put forward as to why entry into the market was so limited and ineffectual.

The Tribunal, however, limited the period of the conduct to that period for which the SACC managed to produce conclusive evidence of anti-competitive effects.

The Tribunal found that while some of the anti-competitive effects were inconclusive, the evidence suggesting that the foreclosure of the market to competition during the period (coupled with the cumulative effect of the other inconclusive theories) is sufficient to prove an anti-competitive effect on a balance of probabilities.

According to John Oxenham, director at Primerio,  the Tribunal’s decision followed  largely on the same principles which were set out in the South African Airways case some years earlier. In terms of principles set out in SAA, the SACC was required to prove that the conduct of a dominate firm constitutes an exclusionary act as defined in section 8(1)(d) and, if so, that the exclusionary act has an anti-competitive effect. In other words, whether the conduct resulted in harm to consumer welfare or was “substantial or significant” in that it led to the foreclosing of market rivals. It is then for the respondent to justify its conduct based on a rule of reason analysis.

Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says that although there have been a limited number of abuse of dominance cases in South Africa which have successfully been prosecuted, companies with high market shares should take particular cognizance of the Tribunal’s decision. Tackling abuse of dominance cases is very much on the SACC’s radar and the Competition Amendment Bill (expected to be introduced in early 2019) will assist the SACC in prosecuting abuse of dominance cases by introducing thresholds divorced of competition or consumer welfare standards and placing a reverse onus on respondents to justify its conduct (particularly in relation to the excessive pricing, price discrimination and buyer power prohibitions).

Currie says that over and above the administrative penalty, companies found to have contravened section 8 of the Act are potentially at risk from a civil liability perspective. In this regard, both Currie and Oxenham point to the SAA case which resulted in Comair and Nationwide successfully claiming damages in the first follow-on damages case in South Africa for abuse of dominance conduct.

It appears that Computicket will take the Tribunal’s decision on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court.

 

 

 

Namibia: High Court declares Competition Commission’s search and seizure unlawful

On 9 November 2018, the High Court in Namibia declared a dawn raid conducted by the Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) in September 2016 to be unlawful. The NaCC raided the premises of PUMA Energy on the basis of alleged abuse of dominance conduct in relation to the sale of aviation fuel at two airports in Namibia.

namibiaPUMA Energy challenged the validity of the search warrant and successfully argued that there was no basis for granting the search warrant. Consequently, the NaCC is obliged to return all documents seized during the raid to PUMA Energies.

In June 2018, the South African Competition Commission also lost a High Court challenge where the validity of a search warrant was at issue. The Pietermaritzburg High Court set aside the search warrant on the basis that the SACC failed to demonstrate that there was a bona fide “reasonable belief” that a prohibited act had been engaged in by the respondents in that case.

Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says that the use of search and seizure operations as an enforcement tool is being increasingly used across a number of African jurisdictions. Dawn raids have recently been conducted in Egypt, Kenya and Zambia in addition to Namibia and South Africa.

Currie says while dawn raids have been used effectively by well-established antitrust agencies, search and seizure operations are particularly burdensome on the targets and should only be used in those instances were no other less intrusive investigative tools are available. If competition authorities’ powers are not kept in check there is a material risk that search and seizure powers may be used as “fishing expeditions”.

Primerio director, John Oxenham, points out that the evidentiary threshold required in order to obtain a search warrant is relatively low. It is, therefore, concerning if enforcement agencies subject respondent parties to such an intrusive and resource intensive investigative tool without satisfying the requirements for obtaining a search warrant.

Despite these recent challenges to search warrants, Andreas Stargard, also a partner at Primerio, corroborates Oxenham and Currie’s view that the South African and Namibian competition agencies will continue utilising dawn raids as an investigative tool and in light of the increasingly robust enforcement activities, particularly by the younger competition agencies, companies should ensure that they are well prepared to handle a dawn raid should they be subjected to such an investigation.

 

SA Airlink referred to Tribunal for Engaging in Alleged Excessive and Predatory Pricing Conduct

By Stephany Torres

The Competition Commission (Commission) has referred SA Airlink, a privately owned regional feeder airline, to the Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) for prosecution on charges of excessive and predatory pricing in relation to a specified domestic route in South Africa (Johannesburg-Mthatha).  The Commission was prompted to investigate the matter after receiving complaints lodged by Khwezi Tiya‚ Fly Blue Crane and the OR Tambo District Chamber of Business between 2015 and 2017.

The Commission found SA Airlink to be dominant in the market for the provision of flights on the Johannesburg-Mthatha route and further found that SA Airlink contravened the Competition Act by abusing this dominance from September 2012 to August 2016 by charging excessive prices on the route to the detriment of consumers in contravention of Section 8(a) of the Competition Act no 89 of 1998 (“the Competition Act”).  The Competition Act defines an “excessive price” as a price for a good or service “which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of that good or service and is higher than the value referred to in 8(a)”.

SA country flag outlineAn additional requirement which the Commission will need to demonstrate in order to succeed with an excessive pricing complaint is that the “excessive pricing” was to the detriment of consumers.  In this regard the Commission found that consumers would have saved between R89 million and R108 million had SA Airlink not priced excessively on this route.  Furthermore, lower prices would also have resulted in more passengers traveling by air on the route‚ possibly contributing to the local economy of Mthatha.

The Commission also found SA Airlink to have engaged in predatory pricing to exclude a competitor from the market in contravention of section 8(c) and Section 8(d)(iv) of the Competition Act. In this regard, the Commission alleges that prior to Fly Blue Crane entering the market, SA Airlink had charged excessive prices. When Fly Blue Crane entered the route, SA Airlink allegedly reduced its prices below its average variable costs and average avoidable costs for some of its flights and then subsequently, after Fly Blue Crane stooped flying the relevant route, SA Airlink reverted to their alleged excessive prices.

The Commission went further to say that the effect of the predation is also likely to deter future competition on this route from other airlines which would also be to the detriment of consumers.

The Competition Act provides for an administrative penalty of up to 10% of SA Airlink’s annual turnover for contravention of Section 8. The Commission stated that “it will seek the maximum administrative penalty before the Tribunal”.

In addition‚ the Commission has asked the Tribunal “to determine other appropriate remedies in order to correct the conduct“.

Michael-James Currie, a competition lawyer, notes that “in addition to the potential administrative liability, should SA Airlink be found by the Tribunal to have abused its dominance, SA Airlink may also face civil damages claims similar to those which Nationwide and Commair successfully instituted against South African Airways (SAA) following the Tribunal’s decision that SAA had engaged in abuse of dominance conduct”.

John Oxenham, a director of Primerio and editor of the recently published book “Class Action Litigation in South Africa”, states that “this case may potentially also result in class action litigation if the Commission is correct in its quantification of the harm caused to consumers”.

The Competition Commission’s case against Airlink comes at an interesting juncture in light of the recently published Competition Amendment Bill. Andreas Stargard, also a director at Primerio notes that the underlying motivation for the proposed amendments to the abuse of dominance provisions is to assist the Commission in prosecuting dominant firms (by placing the onus on a dominant firm to demonstrate that its conduct is pro-competitive). The case against Airlink, however, will be decided in terms of the current regime as the Amendment Bill has not yet been brought into effect.

For further information and insight into excessive pricing and predatory pricing cases in South Africa, AAT has previously published papers on the Competition Appeal Court’s decision in Sasol (the seminal excessive pricing case in South Africa) and the Media 24 cases (the first successfully prosecuted case based on a predation theory of harm).