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

By Michael-James Currie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Price Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer Power

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

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

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

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

Examples of unfair trading terms include:

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Breaking: South African Competition Amendment Bill passed by Parliament

AAT has closely monitored the progress of the Competition Amendment Bill and provided commentary to the Bill from leading local and international competition practitioners.

This is to update our readers that the Amendment Bill was passed in the National Assembly on 23 October 2018. The Bill still requires the National Council of Provinces to approve the Bill, following that the President’s consent – both of these procedural steps are likely to be mere formalities in light of the National Assembly’s decision to approve the Bill.

AAT expects that the Bill will be brought into effect imminently and likely without any material grace period for parties to assure compliance with its onerous provisions.

The Bill passed by the National Assembly has been amend mended from the draft Bill which was placed before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee.  The key contentious provisions of the Bill, however, remain largely unchanged.

To access a copy of the Bill passed by Parliament, click here.

Namibian Competition Commission Investigates Pharmacies for Cartel Conduct

The Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) recently announced that it is investigating the pharmacy sector for allegedly fixing prices. The investigation is focused on the Pharmaceutical Society of Namibia (PSN) and over 200 of its members.

The allegations include, inter alia, that the PSN requires its members to impose a 50% mark-up on the dispensing of medicines and that the PSN disciplines members for deviating from the mark-up.

The investigation follows closely on the heels of an earlier announcement that the NaCC is investigating short term insurance companies for allegedly agreeing to cap maximum mark-up rates and maximum labour rates which panel beaters may charge for repairing vehicles.

The Namibian Competition Act prohibits agreements or concerted practices between competitors which have as their object or effect the prevention or lessening of competition in the market.

The recent activity by the NaCC is indicative of the NaCC’s intention to increase competition enforcement in the region and firms doing business in Namibia are increasingly required to self-assess their conduct to ensure compliance with domestic competition laws not only in Namibia but in most sub-Saharan countries.

Restriction on parallel imports gets red-lighted by CAK

Enforcement Update: Kenya Exemption Applications

The Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) recently issued a press release on its two decisions to reject exemptions applications under sections 25 and 26 of the Kenyan Competition Act 12 of 2010. The CAK rejected applications by WOW beverages (a leading distributor in the alcoholic beverages industry) and the Institute of Certified Public Secretaries (a professional body, hereafter “ICPS”).

WOW beverages filed an exemption application to the CAK, which would have allowed it to secure contracts with seven international suppliers to import and distribute exclusively 214 premium wine and spirit brands in Kenya. WOW beverages argued that the proposed exclusive contracts were necessary to protect its investment and would protect consumers from defective products, and guarantee accountability in the event that such products enter the Kenyan market. The CAK rejected this argument stating: “The Authority [CAK] is of the opinion that parallel imports, through legal channels, are likely to bring more benefits to Kenyan consumers, including the enhancement of intra-brand competition which often leads to lower prices.

The CAK’s decision on the application brought by ICPS (which was one of the first professional bodies to attempt to obtain an exemption to set fee guidelines) made it clear that there was no evidence to suggest that fixing prices for auditing services will improve the profession or prevent its decline and, instead, it is likely to eliminate the incentive to offer quality services. Interestingly, the CAK went a step further to state that “price fixing by professional associations extinguish[es] competition with no plausible public benefits” and went on to warn other professions that “the decision to reject the institute’s exemption application sends a strong message to professional bodies that fee guidelines decrease competition, reduce innovation and efficiencies, and limit customer choices”.  This likely follows from the recent increase in exemption applications brought by other professional bodies in Kenya such as the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya and the Law Society of Kenya (which has a remuneration order). The CAK’s decisions on these applications are likely to be published in short order.

With increased awareness of competition law in Kenya, more entities are applying to the CAK for exemptions primarily to ensure that they are not found to be engaging in anticompetitive conduct, where the penalty can be up to 10% of the turnover of the entity.

According to practicing Kenyan antitrust lawyer, Ruth Mosoti, the CAK has powers to allow an entity to engage in what would ordinarily be considered anticompetitive conduct.  The Act provides a framework on how such applications are to be determined “but, most importantly, the benefits must outweigh the competition concerns and meet the public-interest requirement.  The competition authority also appears to put great emphasis on espousing international best practices.  It is therefore important when one is making such an application to ensure that the same is backed by international best practices.”

Andreas Stargard, Ms. Mosoti’s colleague at Primerio Ltd., echoes her sentiments.  He notes that the CAK follows in the well-tread footsteps of other international competition enforcers, which have dealt with antitrust exemption applications for decades: “Similar to the European Commission in its past rulings on meritless Article 101(3) exemption requests, the CAK has diligently applied common-sense competition principles in these two recent cases.”  Stargard advises that other companies or trade groups wishing to seek reprieve from the Kenyan Act should consider certain key factors first before approaching the CAK:

First, ask yourself whether the proposed conduct for which you seek an exemption contributes to improving something other than your own bottom line (such as innovation that benefits others, or efficiency or a reduction in emissions, etc.), and consider whether consumers at large receive share of the resulting benefits.

In addition, just as with traditional joint-venture analysis, be prepared to articulate how the proposed agreement or restriction is absolutely indispensable to obtaining these benefits and accomplishing the stated economic goal.

Finally, seek competent legal advice from experts, who will be able to provide a professional evaluation whether or not the agreement you seek to exempt is likely to qualify under the criteria of sections 25 and 26 of the Act — or whether the CAK will rule against it, finding that an exclusivity clause or or restriction you seek will more likely than not eliminate competition.

For more on recent exemption application see our related articles, exclusively at AAT: Seeking Exemptions From Resale Price Maintenance Rules and Airlines Seek Antitrust Exemption: Kq-Cak Application Pending

 

 

 

The Long(er) Arm of Malawi’s Competition Law: CFTC Investigates Foreign Textbook Supplier in Cartel Probe

By Michael-James Currie

In a potential first, Malawi’s Competition and Fair Trade Commission’s (CFTC) Chief Executive Officer, Ms Charlotte Malonda, recently announced that the CFTC is investigating a UK-based supplier of textbooks, Mallory International, for alleged cartel conduct.  Mallory had partnered up with a local company, Maneno Books Investments, as part of a joint venture, called “Mallory International JV Maneno Enterprise”.  In addition, other companies also being investigated include Jhango Publishers, South African based Pearson Education Africa, Dzuka Publishing Company and UK based Trade Wings International.

The investigation follows complaints received by the Human Rights Consultative Committee as well as a number of its constituent civil society organisations and NGOs.

textbooksThe allegations include price fixing and collusive tendering vis-à-vis tenders issued by the Malawian government for the supply of pupils’ text books.

Section 33 of the Competition and Fair Trade Act prohibits collusive tendering and bid rigging per se. Furthermore, a contravention of section 33 is an offence in terms of the Act carries with it not only the imposition of an administrative penalty, which is the greater of the financial gain generated from the collusive conduct or K500 000, but also criminal sanctions, the maximum being a prison sentence of five years, notes Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney:

“The Malawian competition enforcer, under Ms. Malonda’s leadership, has shown significant growth both in terms of bench strength and actual enforcement activity since her involvement began in 2012.”

He continues:

“The present price-fixing investigation began as a result of complaints brought by HRCC, a human-rights network of 90 civil-society organisations.  Together with several NGOs, they evidently felt that the CFTC was the most competent domestic enforcer with long-arm jurisdiction and potential criminal sanctions at their disposal; and in Ms. Malonda — whose personal C.V. notably also includes prior human-rights law experience — they have found an effective champion of their cause.  Based on some of the complainant’s testimony, the alleged conduct goes back over a decade and included collusion with Ministry of Education staffers and even  direct intimidation of potential competitors not to bid on the government’s tenders…”

The Nyasa Times quoted the CFTC head as confirming that the agency had “received a few complaints about allegations of a cartel and other procurement malpractices, hence our commencement of the investigations to get the bottom of the matter.”

Based on the language of Section 50 of the Act suggests that the sanctions for committing an offence in terms of the Act requires the imposition of both a penalty and a five year prison sentence. Although not aware of any case law which has previously interpreted this provision, the wording of the Act is particularly onerous, particularly in light of the per se nature of cartel conduct.

The Act is not clear what “financial gain” means in this instance and whether the penalty is based on the entire revenue generated by the firm for the specific tender (allegedly tainted by collusion) or whether it applies only to the profit generated from the project. Furthermore, it is unclear how this would apply to a co-cartelist who did not win the tender. The Act may be interpreted that the “losing bidder” is fined the minimum amount of K500 000 which equates to appox. USD 700 (a nominal amount) while the “winner” is penalised the value of the entire tender value (which would be overly prejudicial, particularly if turnover and not profit is used as the basis for financial gain).

Although the investigation has only recently commenced and no respondent has admitted to wrong doing nor has there been a finding of wrongdoing, this will be an important case to monitor to the extent that there is an adverse finding made by the CFTC. Unless the Malawian authorities adopt a pragmatic approach to sentencing offending parties, section 50 of the Act may significantly undermine foreign investment as a literal interpretation of the Act would render Malawi one of the most high risk jurisdictions in terms of potential sanctions from a competition law perspective.

It may also result in fewer firms wishing to partner up with local firms by way of joint ventures as JV’s are a particularly high risk form of collaboration between competitors if there is no clear guidance form the authorities as to how JV’s are likely to be treated from a competition law perspective.

[Michael-James Currie is a competition lawyer practicing competition law across Sub-Saharan Africa. To get in touch with Michael-James, please contact the editors of AfricanAntitrust]