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

By Michael-James Currie

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

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

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

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

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

Predatory Pricing

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

General Exclusionary Conduct

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

Price Discrimination

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

Merger-Control Provisions

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

Market Inquiries

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

Additional Amendments

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

What does this all mean going forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andreas Stargard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Predatory Pricing & the Competition Act: a False-Positive?

We have previously, on African Antitrust, reported on South Africa’s first predatory pricing case in the Media 24 matter. In light, however, of the recent cases on exclusionary conduct — particularly predatory pricing, which has received significant attention from competition law agencies across a number of jurisdictions of late (see, for instance, the Paris Court of Appeals’ dismissal of the predatory pricing and exclusionary conduct allegations made against Google by an online maps rival.  The Indian Competition Commission has also launched an investigation into alleged predatory pricing in the taxi industry, and the European Commission has launched investigations into predatory pricing in the potato-chips / crisps industry) — a more substantive evaluation of predatory pricing in South Africa is called for. The following article on predatory pricing, in light of the Media 24 case, neatly sets out and evaluates the landscape of predatory pricing in South Africa.

 

Predatory Pricing & the South African Competition Act: a False-Positive?

By Michael J. Currie

Intro & Summary

“From an antitrust perspective, predatory pricing is a particularly difficult problem with which to deal. If we are to prevent anticompetitive monopolization, it is a strategy that must not be permitted. The paradox, however, is that such a pricing strategy is virtually indistinguishable from the very sort of aggressive competitive pricing we wish to encourage.”

D L Kaserman and J W Mayo, ‘Government and Business: The Economics of Antitrust and Regulation’ (1995) Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press at 128

In September 2015, the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”), for the first time in South Africa’s sixteen-year history of competition-law enforcement found, in the Media 24 case that the respondent had engaged in predatory pricing in contravention of the South African Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Act”).

The Media 24 case, despite being dragged out for nearly six years, was set to be the leading jurisprudence on the laws pertain to predatory pricing, and in particular, how Section 8(d)(iv) of the Act would be interpreted and applied by the Tribunal. The finding by the Tribunal was, however, based on Section 8(c) of the Act, which is a broader ‘catch-all’ provision, and left some important questions as to the interpretation of Section 8(d)(iv) unanswered. Most notably, whether or not Section 8(d)(iv) permits complainants to utilise cost measurement standards other than Average Variable Costs (“AVC”) or Marginal Costs (“MC”) to prove that a dominant firm has engaged in predatory pricing in contravention of the provision.

Having said that, however, the Media 24 case provides some insight as to the precise relationship between Sections 8(d)(iv) and 8(c) of the Act as they relate to predatory pricing, and may have offered, by way of certain obiter remarks, an indication as to how the Tribunal may interpret and apply Section 8(d)(iv) of the Act in the future.

Continue reading the full article, an AAT exclusive, in PDF format:

Predatory Pricing and the South African Competition Act: a False-Positive?

First predatory pricing case before the Competition Tribunal

Media24 excludes GNN, Tribunal finds

By Julie Tirtiaux

A year ago, we at AAT reported on the intervention by competitors in the merger between Media24 and Paarl Media.  Today, we want to highlight a “one-year-later” feature about that same company, which has now been found liable of predatory exclusion of its rivals by the South African Competition Tribunal (the “Tribunal”).  The Tribunal found on 8 September 2015 that Media24 had engaged in exclusionary conduct due to predation by removing a rival community newspaper publication, Gold Net News (“GNN”), out of the market. [1]

Two routes explored by the South African Competition Commission’s (“SACC”) to sanction Media24’s predation conduct

In 2009, GNN exited the newspaper community market. Within 10 months of the exit of GNN, Media24 closed down one of its titles, Forum. From then until today, Vista which is another title owned by Media24, is the only title to survive in the Welkom market.

According to the SACC:

  • If Vista is the only local paper operating in the Welkom market, it is because Forum was used as a predatory vehicle to exclude its competitor, GNN.
  • The strategy consisted in pricing Forum’s advertising rates below market cost despite repeated loss making and failure to perform to budget forecasts.
  • Media24 operated Forum as a fighting brand, meaning that Media24 sacrificially maintained Forum in the market to exclude its competitor.

For the SACC the reduction of choice of community newspapers during the period January 2004 to April 2009 can only be explained by Media24’s predatory pricing conduct. In order to condemn this conduct as predation, the SACC relied on two provisions of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (the “Act”) which respectively lead to different sanctions.

  • First and ideally, the SACC alleged that Media24 should be sanctioned for its predatory behaviour in terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, which is the explicit predation provision and enables the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence.
  • Second, should the predation not be captured by the express predation provision of section 8(d)(iv), Media24 should at least be found responsible for engaging in general exclusionary conduct, prohibited by section 8(c) of the Act which only gives the Tribunal the power to impose remedies. No fine is available for a first contravention. Only a repeated offence may be subject to an administrative penalty.

Following the Commission’s investigation after the allegations brought by Hans Steyl, who ran GNN from 1999 until its eventual closure in 2009, the Commission referred the case to the Tribunal in 2011.

The denial of predation conduct by Media24

Media24 (whose slogan is, somewhat ironically perhaps: “Touching lives through the power of media“) denied any casual link between the fates of the Forum and the GNN’s papers. Forum was not used as a predatory vehicle to exclude GNN. Media24 attributed the closure of Forum to the 2008 recession, on-going downsizing in Media24 as a whole, and to the problem of publishing two newspapers, Forum and Vista, in the Welkom area. It further argued that GNN had exited because it was not viable.

The difficulty to prove a direct predatory pricing conduct

For the first time in the sixteen years in which the new Competition Act has been in operation[2], the Tribunal assessed a predatory pricing case.

Predatory pricing means that prices charged by a dominant firm are not market related but below what would be expect to be a market price. Predatory pricing is only a transient pleasure for consumers as once competitors are eliminated or new entrants are deterred from entering, then the low price honeymoon is over and the predator can impose high prices to recoup the losses sustained in the period of predation.

In terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, to find an express predation contravention, the Commission is required to prove that Media24 priced below “its marginal or average variable cost” (“AVC”) (our emphasis)[3]. The Commission argued that this wording is broad enough to include pricing below average avoidable cost (“AAC”)[4]. This is the cost the firm could have avoided by not engaging in the predatory strategy.[5]

To find exclusionary conduct and thus a contravention of section 8(c) based on predation[6], the Commission would not necessarily need to establish that the dominant firm’s pricing is below any specific cost standard.  All that is required is that the conduct (in this case, low pricing) has an anti-competitive exclusionary effect.

In the Media24 case, the Tribunal has effectively established a new test for predatory pricing which does not meet the test under section 8(d)(iv).  It said that if Media24 is found to have priced below its average total cost (“ATC”)[7] accompanied by additional evidence of intention and recoupment of the loss of profits sustained during the predation period, then a contravention of section 8(c) has taken place.

As ATC include more costs than AAC and AVC of marginal cost, it makes a finding of predation more likely.  The AAC test is thus more stringent than the ATC test.  This follows the logic of the consequences of each section.  As a contravention of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act leads to a fine while a contravention of section 8(c) of the Act only leads to a remedy, it is more difficult to fill the requirements of the specific predation section – section 8(d)(iv).

Consequently, a central issue in this case was to determine Media24’s costs, and compare them to the prices charged during the relevant period.  This is no simple matter.

The Tribunal’s findings trigger questions about how section 8 of the Act on abuse of dominance is structured

Following lengthy discussions about what constitute avoidable costs, the Tribunal held that opportunity costs[8] and re-deployment costs cannot be factored into the calculation of Forum’s AAC. Accordingly, the Tribunal found that Media24 did not contravene the express predation section 8(d)(iv) of the Act.

Interestingly, the Tribunal did however found that Media24 contravened the general exclusionary section 8(c) of the Act. Indeed, after establishing that Media24 was a dominant firm in the market for community newspapers[9], the Tribunal found the evidence of predatory intent which resulted from statements and the implementation of a plan that was predatory in nature. Moreover, the Tribunal held that the pricing of Forum was below ATC.

As a result, it was found that GNN’s exit of the market affected both advertisers and readers. While advertisers paid higher prices as they lost an alternative outlet, readers lost the choice of an alternative newspaper.

Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that Media24 engaged in exclusionary practice because of predation but didn’t find a contravention of the express predation section of the Competition Act.

The implication of this finding is that Media24 is not liable for a fine. The only power left to the Tribunal is the imposition of another form of remedy. Only if Media24 does the same thing again, will it be subjected to a potential administrative penalty under section 8(c).

Such a finding triggers two interrogations about how section 8 of the Act deals with abuse of dominance.[10]

  • Firstly, how can deterrence be guaranteed when the only consequence of a predatory exclusion conduct, in certain circumstances, is a remedy without a monetary fine? This case leaves food for thought as to the necessity to empower the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence when a general exclusionary conduct is found.
  • Secondly, if the required test to prove a contravention of the explicit predation section is too stringent and almost impossible, not only a predatory conduct will never lead to a fine but more generally the utility of this section should be seriously considered.
Footnotes

[1] See the Tribunal’s decision: http://www.comptrib.co.za/assets/Uploads/Reasons-for-Decision-Media24-Section-8-Case-Signature-Documentfinal.pdf

[2] See the Tribunal’s press release: http://www.comptrib.co.za/publications/press-releases/media24-press-release/

[3] A variable cost being a cost that varies with changes in output. The AVC is defined as the sum of all variables costs divided by output.

[4] The important difference with AVC is that AAC include an element of fixed costs.

[5] AAC has become a widely accepted cost standard for the assessment of predatory pricing. This acceptance is evident both from its inclusion in the EU‘s Guidelines, the recent International Competition Network Guidelines, and a Department of Justice Report.

[6] See Nationwide Airlines (Pty) Ltd v SAA (Pty) Ltd and others [1999-2000] CPLR 230 (CT), page 10. The Tribunal stated that a predatory pricing could lead to a finding in terms of section 8(c).

[7] ATC includes fixed, variable and sunk costs (sunk costs being costs that have already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered).

[8] An opportunity cost is a cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.

[9] Media24 would have had a market share of approximately 75%.

[10] On this topic, see the articles of Neil Mackenzie, “Are South Africa’s Predatory Pricing Rules Suitable?” and “Rethinking Exclusionary Abuse in South Africa”.

Internet & mobile operators at war: merge, acquire, complain

Deals and accusations rock ZA’s Vodacom

The South African mobile operator landscape can be described as a microcosmic reflection of the larger African experience: Mobile technology is exponentially more developed than what an outside observer would otherwise predict, based on distinct economic predictors.  One of the key reasons for this highly-developed sub-Saharan mobile world is the concomitant lack of hard-wired infrastructure, necessitating that mobile make up for the copper-wire slack.  Other reasons include the hot topic of mobile banking (again: lack of brick-and-mortar banks necessitates mobile banking alternatives, such as M-Pesa’s services, on which AAT has reported extensively).

South Africa, as the continent’s largest (or second-largest, depending on whether you trust the revised Nigerian GDP numbers) economy, is of course at the forefront of the African mobile/internet frontier.

Now, the large South African operator Vodacom has rejoined the antitrust headlines simultaneously in two ways:

First, Vodacom ZA plans to acquire Neotel, a large S.A. internet provider, for 7 billion Rand (circa $650m).  This transaction will, of course, be subject to merger review by the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”).

Second, Vodacom has confirmed the prior reports of its competitor Cell-C’s October 2013 complaint, accusing Vodacom of discriminatory pricing, which is now being taken rather seriously by the SACC, according to TechCentral’s reporting.  On that front, Vodacom’s spokesman Richard Boorman is quoted as using classic competition-law argumentation as a clever shield:

“Cell C is apparently arguing for an increase in the price that Vodacom customers pay to call other Vodacom customers. It’s hard to argue that increasing prices would be a benefit to consumers.”

Vodacom’s official press statement on the Neotel deal follows below:

Vodacom reaches agreement to acquire Neotel

Monday, 19 May 2014

Further to the SENS announcement on 30 September 2013, Vodacom has reached an agreement with the shareholders of Neotel Proprietary Limited (“Neotel” or the “Company”) to acquire 100% of the issued share capital in, and shareholder loans against, Neotel for a total cash consideration equivalent to an enterprise value of R7.0bn.

Principal benefits of the transaction

Leading fixed telecommunications network

Neotel, which started operations in 2007, is the second largest provider of fixed telecommunications services for both businesses (commonly referred to as enterprise services) and consumers in South Africa. The company has access to over 15,000 km of fibre-optic cable, including 8,000 km of metro fibre in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Neotel also has access to 2 x 12 MHz of 1800 MHz spectrum, 2 x 5 MHz of 800 MHz spectrum and 2 x 28 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum.

Acceleration of Vodacom’s unified communications strategy

Neotel will become a subsidiary of Vodacom South Africa and the combination with Vodacom’s South African fixed enterprise business will create a national service provider with annual revenues of more than R5bn.

Vodacom sees a significant opportunity to accelerate growth in unified communications products and services by integrating its extensive distribution and marketing capabilities with Neotel’s fixed network and product capabilities. The combined entity will be able to offer an expanded and enhanced range of converged services (e.g. hosted PBX, OneNet) to enterprise customers. Vodacom estimates revenue synergies with a total net present value of approximately R0.9bn after integration costs.

Enhancement of next generation network capabilities in South Africa

The combination of Neotel’s and Vodacom’s networks will improve overall network availability and reduce the cost to serve customers. The combined business will also be ideally positioned to accelerate broadband connectivity in line with the South African Government’s broadband targets, enabling Vodacom to take a leading position in the fibre to the home and fibre to the enterprise segments of the market.

The combined entity will also be able to use the radio spectrum currently assigned to Neotel more effectively. This spectrum will enable Vodacom to accelerate the roll-out of LTE (commonly referred to as 4G) services, providing high speed, high quality wireless connectivity to a greater proportion of the South African population.

In-market consolidation with substantial cost and capex savings

Vodacom expects to achieve substantial cost and capex synergies with an annual run-rate of approximately R300m before integration costs in the full fifth year post completion, equivalent to a net present value of approximately R1.5bn after integration costs. These savings will primarily be derived from the joint utilisation of Neotel’s extensive fibre network and the elimination of overlapping elements, joint procurement and the combination of overlapping administrative functions. The transaction values Neotel at a multiple of 8.8x annualised 1H2014 OpFCF, adjusted for cost and capex synergies.

Neotel management and employees

Vodacom looks forward to welcoming Neotel’s employees. Their fixed and enterprise skills will enable the combined entity to deliver enhanced and extended service offers.

Additional information on the transaction

Vodacom will fund the acquisition through available cash resources and existing credit facilities.

The transaction remains subject to the fulfilment of a number of conditions precedent including applicable regulatory approvals and is expected to close before the end of the financial year.

Speaking about the transaction, Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub said:

“Through the combination of these two businesses, the provision of a wider range of business services and much needed consumer services like fibre-to-the-business and fibre-to-the-home becomes a concrete reality – it will be good for the consumer, good for business and good for the country.  And for our investors, the transaction fits perfectly within the priorities of Vodacom’s growth strategy focused on continuing our investment in data and our Enterprise business.”

 

South Africa’s mobile operators under attack for discriminatory “on-net” pricing

south_africa

Cell C (one of South Africa’s top 3 mobile telecommunications providers) has filed a complaint against competitors MTN and Vodacom with the Competition Commission, according to its press statement dated October 9, 2013

What appears to be the crux of the Cell C complaint is a predatory pricing argument against MTN and Vodacom — a type of claim that is, generally speaking, not an easy one to make.  Complaining to an antitrust regulator or a court that a rival is charging too low a price for competing services is generally a no-go of an antitrust argument.  You are essentially telling the judge: “my rivals out-compete me! Help me raise prices!

To make out a successful case for truly anti-competitive predatory conduct, you would normally (e.g., in the U.S. or in the EU) have to prove (1) dominance, (2) true below-cost pricing (the economic measure of which is subject to debate, on top of that), (3) a likelihood of success in the subsequent recoupment of any losses incurred, and potentially, depending on your jurisdiction, (4) predatory intent by the dominant firm.

Interestingly, the complaint may have received well-timed (or perhaps too well-timed?) support from the South African Independent Communications Authority (ICA).  The ICA recently announced plans to reduce the so-called “mobile termination rates” by 75%, from 40 to 10 South African cents within 2 years.  This would, we expect, reduce the current differential between on- and off-rate calls.

This of course bodes well for Cell C, as the company has openly stated its desire, according to another report, for “a flat rate” i.e., termination rates of zero.  In its October 11, 2013, proposal to cut termination rates drastically, the ICA tellingly concludes “that competition in the wholesale voice call termination markets … is ineffective owing to inefficient pricing.”  (Draft Regulation at section 5.)  The regulator purportedly used the hypothetical monopolist test to define and evaluate the relevant markets.  Violations of the proposed rate reductions would carry penalties of Rand 500,000 to R1m.

Vodacom is the largest S.A. mobile carrier by number of subscribers, ahead of MTN and Cell C.  MTN — itself no stranger to these blog pages — is the dominant mobile carrier on the African continent, however, and has been accused previously of leveraging its power elsewhere to gain or maintain dominance in other jurisdictions.

According to an article that appeared in the South African journal MoneyWeb, Cell C’s CEO Alan Knott-Craig has complained publicly at an industry conference that its competitors (Vodacom and MTN) are abusing their purported dominant market positions with far lower on-net call rates than off-net rates (i.e., rates to numbers outside the proprietary mobile network).

According to the complainant’s press statement, the key argument “relates to the manner in which the dominant incumbents discriminate between their on-net and off-net effective prices, which has a dramatic and direct impact on smaller operators’ ability to acquire new customers.  The two dominant incumbents discount their effective on-net prices substantially while charging a premium for their customers to call off-net. This amounts to discriminatory pricing and is without doubt anti-competitive when adopted by dominant operators.”