The South African Competition Commission warns against unjustifiable price increases of basic foods, particularly edible oil
By Gina Lodolo and Nicola Taljaard
Recent increases in the prices of edible oils have been the focus of news reports. Some retailers have been garnering particular attention for limiting the amount of oil that can be purchased per consumer.
The Chief Economist of the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”), James Hodge, highlighted the price of oil increasing by 42% over a year. This is significant as it reflects 3%-5% of poorer households’ food budget. It has been reported that, although there were already market factors last year affecting the price of oil, the Russia-Ukraine war has certainly exacerbated the situation. Hodge warns, however, that retailers and edible oil companies alike should not unreasonably use the Russia-Ukraine war to raise prices to unjust levels by inflating their price increases more than necessary, thereby seeking to earn ‘excessive profits’.
The SACC will look into the issue more closely. If and when the SACC comes to the conclusion that companies profiteer from their customers, they will act accordingly.
Where costs go up, there may be justifiable increases in prices, however, its recent warning against unjustifiable increases indicates that it will act where prices increase beyond justifiable cost-increase levels. Accordingly, the SACC is considering items that indicate unusual increases, even when taking into consideration the prevailing inflationary environment.
To this effect, Hodge emphasised that the SACC makes use of its ‘monitoring unit’ which tracks price increases by comparing increases in wholesale prices to increases in retail prices.
The work of the monitoring unit is particularly timely in light of its recent Report on Essential Food Pricing Monitoring, which was released on 1 March 2022. The Report clearly communicated the SACC’s intention to start tracking price increases and monitoring dynamics prevalent in the South African food value chain, which made it apparent that the SACC is cognizant of the impact of the significant disruptions and events which have characterized the pandemic years. The SACC has identified this impact to reflect particularly through supply chain disruptions, trade restrictions, border closures and the like.
Should the SACC suspect that retail price increases have surpassed wholesale price increases, complaints may be initiated by the SACC in terms of Section 49B of the Competition Act 89 of 1998. Thereafter, the complaint will be investigated in terms of Section 49B(3) of the Act to determine whether it will be referred to the Competition Tribunal for adjudication.
As the local Daily Monitor reports, landlocked COMESA member state Uganda — ruled since January 1986 by authoritarian president Museveni — has failed to make requisite payments under the COMESA Treaty to the supra-national regional organization. Its arrears date back over two years, according to sources, and amount to roughly U.S. $4 to 5 million. Arrears carry with them a 1% per annum interest rate.
COMESA’s Secretary General has officially reprimanded the Ugandan government and placed the nation on the organization’s “sanction bracket.”Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa boutique law firm Primerio Ltd., notes that being sanctioned carries with it the nation-state’s loss of all privileges of COMESA membership, including its key free-trading benefits, during the duration of the sanctions being imposed. “It also means that Ugandan officials are not permitted to address official COMESA bodies, nor are Ugandan citizens permitted to be appointed to, or hired by, COMESA organs. It remains to be seen whether this suspension of Uganda will impact competition-law enforcement in any direct, appreciable way — what comes to mind is merger notification and the impact that Uganda’s being sanctioned may have on cooperation between the CCC and Ugandan authorities.”
The outstanding debt is all the more concerning as Museveni’s administration, in an attempt to cling to power after 35 years, recently reportedly spent large sums out of the state’s coffers on military-grade weaponry to prepare for the chaos precipitated by the recent hotly-disputed elections.
By Jemma Muller & Gina Lodolo/ edits by Charl van der Merwe
The South African Competition Commission (SACC) indicated its intent to formally initiate a market inquiry in the Online Intermediation Platforms Market (Inquiry), in terms of section 43B(1)(a) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (as amended) (CompetitionAct).
In terms of the amended Competition Act, the SACC has the power to conduct a market inquiry at any time, “if it has reason to believe that any feature or combination of features of a market or any goods or services impedes, distorts or restricts competition within that market.
The SACC published its draft Terms of Reference (ToR), allowing members of the public until 12 March 2021 to submit their comments on the scope of the Inquiry.
The ToR envisage a limited scope of assessment, to include only online intermediation services and, in particular, eCommerce marketplaces; online classifieds; travel and accommodation aggregators; short term accommodation intermediation; food delivery; app stores (with the notable exclusion of ‘fintech’).
The Inquiry will be focused on both competition and public interest factors and will aim to consider:
market features that may hinder competition amongst the platforms themselves;
market features that give rise to discriminatory or exploitative treatment of business users; and
market features that may negatively impact on the participation of SMEs and/or HDI owned firms
According to the SACC in the ToR, these platforms have been flagged as they have the potential to self-preference and distort markets through algorithms, which is harmful to businesses who rely on these platforms to reach consumers.
The Inquiry follows shortly on the back of the SACC’s “Competition in the Digital Economy” report (Report), which was published for public comment in the final quarter of 2020. In the Report, the SACC specifically identified market inquiries are an effective tool to address market barriers (especially for Small Medium Enterprises (SME) and historically disadvantaged individuals (HDP)) and to address market feature concerns which may lead to reduced competition.
Allied to this, the ToR goes on to state, in support of the Inquiry, that the use of intermediation services can provide a manner of entry into a market for SMEs/ HDPs, but due to the potential distortions of the market, may also discriminate against them. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic online business opportunities are vital in ensuring economic recovery as well as inclusive growth of SMEs and HDPs.
The Inquiry will be the first inquiry in terms of the Competition Act as amended. In this regard, the amended Competition Act empowers the SACC to “take action to remedy, mitigate or prevent the adverse effect on competition”. This includes imposing structural or behavioural remedies.
It is also notable that the standard of assessment for market inquiries is a lower standard that that required in complaint proceedings. The SACC need only find that certain elements of the market may have “adverse effect on competition” (as opposed a substantial lessening of competition).
In light of these facts, firms in the relevant market cannot afford to remain passive participants in market inquiries and, instead, must consider and respond to the inquiry, as a respondent.
The above topics were among those discussed at this year’s #AfricaFinanceForum, hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa. The annual event featured high-level speakers, such as Rhoda Weeks-Brown, IMF General Counsel, who pointed to increased expected economic growth rates of 3.5% in 2019 (half a point higher than in 2018) and a faster per-capita income rise in Africa than in rest of the world. “Also up for debate was the dichotomy of investment vs. development assistance as the key driver of economic development on the continent,” notes Andreas Stargard, who attended on behalf of Primerio Ltd.
Ms. Weeks-Brown noted the rise of pan-African (vs. purely domestic) banks, observing the added benefit of improved competition, as well as the steady rise of fintech on the continent. The latter is especially important as the continent is still under-banked and relies heavily on the informal sector (less than 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has a bank account). Yet Africa leads the world in mobile money. Mr. Stargard noted that “[s]he and many other speakers on subsequent panels agreed that there was a delicate balance to be struck by regulators and legislators of weighing innovation against the proper level of FinTech regulation and its integration benefits against anti-competitive effects thereof. The IMF attorney was careful to point out that banking & financial integration must grow in conjunction with, and to support, economic and trade integration, as financial stability is a public good. Africa requires strong sector regulators that must remain free from undue political or industry interference.”
Kalidou Gadio, a lawyer at Manatt, provided a sanguine assessment of the state of banking in Africa, noting that it is not up to par globally, but better than it was a decade ago, before and during the financial crisis. He also pointed to the net positive effect of banks facing increasing competition from newcomers to the space, such as Orange, M-Pesa and other telecom firms.
Dr. Maxwell Opoku-Afari, First Deputy Governor of the national Bank of Ghana observed the difficulties in setting proper licensing rules for fintech companies by central banks, and commented on the concentration risk in banking.
Phumzile Langeni, special investment envoy of the RSA, gave an objective speech on the investment opportunities in South Africa, including the President’s FDI incentive programme. She answered difficult questions with aplomb — for example those about the country’s land reforms, infrastructure troubles, and unemployment — and spoke of the enormous growth potential and the “youth dividend” in South Africa and the continent in general.
The half-day event was rounded out by a panel focussed on central banks’ handling of the unique foreign-exchange problems faced by certain African nations, notably Mozambique and Angola, whose central banks had representatives on the panel, including the issues of ForEx reserve allocation and pegged rates.
At the Concurrences “Antitrust & Developing and Emerging Economies” conference held at NYU Law last Friday — and aptly sub-titled “Coping with nationalism, building inclusive growth” — the audience was treated to a (rather iconoclastic, yet fascinating) keynote speech by Nobel laureate economics professor Joe Stiglitz, which highlighted what would become a theme woven throughout the four panels of the day: One size does not fit all when it comes to competition-law regimes, according to a majority of the speakers; imposing a pure U.S. or EU-derived methodology without regard to local economic and/or political differences is doomed to fail. However, as we outline further below, there were also countervailing voices…
In the words of Professor Stiglitz, his advice to developing nations was (perhaps to the chagrin of U.S. government representatives, such as the FTC’s international director, Randy Tritell): “don’t copy the US antitrust laws and presumptions!” Smaller markets in developing countries are even more susceptible to market power by few large firms. Competition law can be used in developing countries to advance the public interest, as there are fewer “tools in the toolkit” in those nations, and in his view, all available tools should thus be used. He referred to the WalMart/Massmart transaction in South Africa in this regard, noting the public-interest conditions imposed there.
On the day’s Mega Mergers panel, SACC Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele noted how the outcomes of truly global “mega mergers” all having been positive, “there has been no outright prohibition, there really is no problem that’s too big which could not be remedied by the authorities and the parties.”
Observes Andreas Stargard: “Commissioner Bonakele also pointed to the importance of international merger enforcers cooperating on remedies, in order to allow these positive outcomes to be maintained.Taking up Professor Harry First’s hypothetical of a joint or ‘merged’ antitrust enforcement agency, Mr. Bonakele considered a combined merger authority for the African continent a possibility, especially in light of the many small jurisdictions which individually lack resources to police cross-border M&A activity.” Mr. Bonakele expressed the concern that“the smaller, national enforcers certainly feel as if they cannot block a mega deal on their own, so they largely defer” to the established agencies, such as the EC and DOJ / FTC.
In response to Frederic Jenny’s critical introduction of the South African Competition Amendment Act, Commissioner Bonakele commented that the current legal regime lacked the ability to tackle concentration as a market feature in itself, whilst the SACC had a comparatively positive track record on unilateral enforcement issues. Overall, he disagreed with the moderator that most of the Bill’s changes were drastic, stating simply that it would in fact bring South Africa more in line with other international regimes.
As to the ministerial intervention powers, he identified two concerns, namely the use of the agency’s resources as well as the possible risk of abuse by a minister who could employ the new law to pursue ulterior motives against a firm or a sector.
Counterpoint: public interest or politicization?
Prof. Ioannis Lianos characterized the “slightly fuzzy public interest test” as largely a scheme to enhance the bargaining power of the competition agencies that do apply such a test.
Canadian attorney and former enforcer Lawson Hunter pointed out that the trend of growing political interference in the merger approval process has spread globally, not only in developing nations but also in well-established regimes — often under the guise of national security reviews, which are “obscure, opaque in process, fundamentally political, and without any ‘there there’.”Merger review has “simply become very broad and less doctrinal.” “I found it interesting that Mr. Hunter recommended that other antitrust agencies should give more frank input into their sister agencies, if and when those stray from the right path,” said Stargard, who focuses his practice on competition matters across the continent. “Hunter also pointed to the tendency in emerging antitrust jurisdictions to abuse the remedy process in merger control to address economic issues that lie well outside the actual competition concerns that may have been found — an issue we have also come across, sadly.”
Commissioner Bonakele closed the final panel of the day by addressing the recently ratified South African Competition Amendment Bill: he admitted that there were some “radical” provisions in the law, such as the power to break up companies, as well as the existence of a risk of government using the law’s new national security provision in a protectionist manner. He concluded by stating his personal worry that the law had possibly too much ambition, which could be difficult to implement in reality by the SACC.
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”.
Patel’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).
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
As John Oxenham and Patrick Smithhave 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 firstname.lastname@example.org]
Landlocked and Oil-Rich South Sudan Joins Free-Trade Zone
As South Sudan was officially admitted to the East African Community (EAC) as its sixth member in Arusha (Tanzania), on Wednesday, March 2, the beleaguered nation joined a free-trade zone that will allow it to benefit from more open labour movement, less restrictions on capital flows and other increased economic integration. The other member states are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. After integration with S. Sudan — the youngest nation on Earth — the region will have a population of an estimated 163 million.
John Oxenham, of Pr1merio Africa advisors, says: “South Sudan’s former institutional weaknesses were (apparently, despite the ongoing civil strife in the country) sufficiently remedied that the EAC governing body saw fit to grant the application for admission that had been pending since 2011. Basic governance principles must be met for EAC membership, and we are not even talking competition-law here…”
As the EAC charter provides, all members must demonstrate and strive to achieve “good governance including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, social justice, equal opportunities, gender equality, as well as the recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.” (EAC Treaty, Chapter 2 Article 6 (d)).
Setting aside civil-rights concerns or worries about political instability, the integration of an oil-rich nation may ultimately benefit its neighbouring fellow EAC members, such as Kenya and Uganda. It remains to be seen whether integrating a less-than-stable country into the EAC zone will harm the competition legislation the region enacted in 2006. As AAT author Elizabeth Sisendapointed out recently, the organisation “has been setting up the mechanisms for its enforcement to-date through capacity building and mobilizing resources. In 2010, the EAC subsequently enacted competition regulations to assist in implementing the Act. One of the main challenges that has been encountered in the EAC with regards to the implementation of competition law and policy has been the unique economic and market structure of the member states. The majority of the EAC member states are economies that are transitioning from state-regulation to liberalization.”
We note that S. Sudan’s northern neighbour, the Republic of [the] Sudan, is currently a COMESA member state and thereby subject to the COMESA competition-law regulations and related merger-notification regime. South Sudan has, since at least the 2012 talks in Uganda, likewise been in negotiations with the COMESA governing bodies to discuss accession to that free-trade zone.
In our new AAT series, ECONAfrica, Pr1merio economist Peter O’Brien discusses corporate debt issues on the continent.
Debt debates on Africa nearly always talk about sovereign debt. But in economies which are growing, even if with plenty of ups and downs, firms need to finance expansion. Banks can help, yet this is often not so easy to organize. Another option is to issue corporate bonds (‘CB’). Since rating agencies generally assess clients on a three letter basis (sometimes with a + or – at the end), we will make our 3R assessment of African CB. What’s the reality, what’s the regulatory situation, and what are the risks and rewards?
First, a thumbnail sketch (admittedly based on limited evidence) of the stylized facts:
So far, all African countries (including the Middle East) account for less than 5% of the value of all CB issued by Emerging Market Economies (EME).
Within that, South Africa, Mauritius and Egypt add up to around two thirds, with South Africa alone as one third.
Most CB in Africa have maturities no more than 10 years
Over half of the bonds are fixed interest
Roughly 30% of the CB are considered high yield (another way of saying that investors reckon the risks are substantial)
It seems as if there is more or less an even split between CB issued in local currency (hence with local currency coupon rates) and those in foreign currency (nearly all $ or euro)
The investors are in the main a group of 50-60 funds
In South Africa, as of October 2015, foreign holdings of local CB were 35% of the total
In a number of African countries, the leading corporate borrowers are parastatal firms
Corporate debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, is far lower in African countries than in most others. While many other places, especially some of the big EME, are vulnerable to macroeconomic damage stemming from corporate debt, Africa (including South Africa, where this percentage has remained remarkably stable) should be fairly safe
What does this picture tell us? Its principal message is surely that this is an area certain to experience major changes, and quite possibly major expansion (not only in volume but also in the players involved).
Now to regulation, both internal and external. The country that seems to have explicitly made provision for corporate debt, and its restructuring, is South Africa. In Companies Act 71 of 2008, enacted in 2011, there are clauses that set out possibilities for Corporate Debt restructuring. Since enactment, over 400 companies have applied for these methods of handling the problems, and there are upwards of 80 entities offering specialized advice in the field. This prudent approach no doubt stems in part from the size and significance of corporate borrowing in that country. Elsewhere, legal and regulatory issues seem, on balance, to hold back greater reliance on CB. In part there are accounting and corporate governance standards which local companies may not yet meet. In part, it appears that the disclosure requirements that must be met before recourse to CB can be made may constrain the actions of companies (bank borrowing generally requires less disclosure). On the external side, the Basel 111 stipulations matter, in particular because they limit the possibilities for underpricing of CB (a practice that has been fairly frequent till now).
What is missing in the regulatory environment, however, is any overall examination of what might be done to stimulate the prudent use of CB. If this were to be done, such regulation would need to assess financial, economic and anti-trust issues.
The risks and rewards of the CB approach to corporate funding, and indeed the opportunities to use it, are very different across Africa. From economies such as Kenya and Botswana, where the phenomenon is on the rise, to those of the Maghreb, where political uncertainties in very recent years seem to have stunted what was a promising growth, to many parts of West Africa, where to date there is seemingly little activity in this area, each country has its own environment. However, the ever greater integration in the various regions means that there may well be prospects for making better use of private regional funds and of sovereign funds. Either way, African companies should look forward with optimism to utilizing more local capital. It is the job of regulators to ensure this is done in a sound way financially, and that these markets operate competitively.
According to a recent article in Polity, “Africa’s economy is projected to continue growing at between 2% and 3% above the global average over the next five years, helping it retain its position as one of the key emerging markets for 2015.”
It quotes a GIBS (Gordon Institute of Business Science) study showing that sub-Saharan Africa’s growth “outstripped global growth for the past 15 years,” which has “slowed down somewhat, owing to a number of challenges, including the drop in commodity prices.” The GIBS study is the result of an assessment of countries’ institutional evolution, measuring how countries were performing in terms of developing competitive business and living environments across political, social and economic spheres.
Kenya was highlighted, with the authors noting that “Kenya, in terms of perceptions, is a very important country on the continent; it has, since 2007, put in place a number of reforms to build competitiveness. However, it doesn’t come out very well when you look at the data behind industry and comes out poorly in [the DMI], but what you find on the ground is that there is [an entirely] different sentiment.”