By Michael-James Currie
On 1 December 2017, the Minister of Economic Development (under whose auspices the South African competition authorities fall), Ebrahim Patel, published draft amendments to the South African Competition Act [PDF], 89 of 1998 (Act) for public comment.
The proposed amendments (Amendments) to the Act, which principally aim to address concentration in the market, go well beyond pure competition issues and bestow a significant public-interest mandate on the competition authorities.
In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.
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 Smith have argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.
While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.
A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.
Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.
Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.
From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).
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