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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The Big Picture: Market-Sector Inquiries in Africa

AAT the big picture

Market Inquiries in Africa – An Overview

By AAT guest author, Michael-James Currie.

Most African jurisdictions with competition laws have included provisions in their respective legislations that allow the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Market inquiries have proved to be useful tools for competition agencies in numerous jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, and is becoming a common and increasingly popular tool amongst an number of African agencies as well.

Despite the benefits that may flow from a market inquiry, it is important that competition agencies appreciate and have due regard to the costs associated with such inquiries. Market inquiries are very time consuming and onerous for market participants and should be used sparingly. Having said that, the focus of market inquiries in most African jurisdictions tend to be on markets which the relevant authorities have identified as having a large impact on consumers.

In other words, socio-economic considerations appear to be a significant factor during the screening process used in deciding whether to institute a market inquiry. Sectors such as food, healthcare and banking (at an individual consumer level) are some of the common industries which have been ‘prioritised’ or identified as important sectors.

While the number of market inquiries which have been concluded on the African continent is limited, as competition agencies gain more expertise and confidence in their mandates, there is likely to be a significant increase in the number of market inquiries instituted and firms conducting business in Africa, particularly within ‘priority’ sectors, should be cognisant of this.

We set out below a brief overview of the market inquiries which are currently being conducted in the various African jurisdictions.

South Africa

There are currently three market inquiries which are underway, one into the private healthcare sector and the other into the grocery retail market. The third market inquiry is in the liquefied petroleum gas sector.

The private healthcare inquiry was launched on the basis that cost of private health care in South Africa is a concern to the competition authorities. A revised statement of Issues for public comment was announced on 11 February 2016 and comments are to be submitted by 11 March 2016.

The grocery retail inquiry is focussed largely on the stricture of the market and the ability of smaller or informal retailers to compete, but will also address issues such as “long term lease” clauses (which has already been adjudicated upon by the Competition Tribunal).

The third market inquiry is into the LPG which was launched in August 2014 is expected to conclude in March 2016.

The only previous market inquiry concluded in South Africa was into the banking sector. This inquiry was conducted on an informal basis as there were no formal legislative powers bestowed on the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Swaziland

The Swaziland Competition Commission (SCC) announced in January 2016 that a market inquiry has been launched into the retail banking sector. The SCC stated that retail banking service offered to consumers, micro and medium enterprises remained the most important sub-sector of banking. It is, however, the ‘current account’ which is the central product to be used as the starting point for the inquiry.

Zambia

On 1 February 2016, the Zambian Competition Authority (CCPC) announced that it will be conducting a market inquiry into the vehicle towing industry. While the CCPC indicated that it wishes to understand the “conditions of competition in the market”, although the inquiry came about as the CCPC had received numerous complaints from consumers that emergency towing operators were charging high prices. It remains to be seen whether this inquiry is focused predominantly on competition-law issues, or rather consumer-protection laws.

Botswana

The Competition Authority in Botswana (CA) is currently underway with a market inquiry into the grocery retail sector, focusing on shopping malls and in particular, the impact of long term exclusivity leases on competition in the market.

COMESA

Consistent with the competition authorities of South Africa and Botswana, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) has also launched an investigation into the impact that shopping malls have on competition. The CCC announced that it will carry out their inquiry by taking samples from the member states.

We have previously published articles on the announcement of this market inquiry on AAT which can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://africanantitrust.com/category/market-study/

Kenyan cabbies complain: The Uber competition saga reaches East Africa

Uber Africa: Increased competitiveness not a boon for entrenched monopolies

new multi-part seriesContinuing our AAT multi-part series on innovation & antitrust we turn once again to the ubiquitous “Sharing Economy” we are witnessing not only in the United States and Europe but also on the African continent…

“The taxi industry is in the midst of a crisis. Once protected by a regulated monopoly of the commercial passenger motor vehicle transportation market, the industry now faces increasing competition from a new type of transportation service—ride-sharing. The emergence of companies like Uber, the most successful ride-sharing company, threatens to eliminate the taxi industry’s stronghold on the ground transportation market and possibly the industry itself.” (Erica Taschler, Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies, in “A Crumbling Monopoly: The Rise of Uber and the Taxi Industry’s Struggle to Survive“)

April 14, 2015 Associated Press file photo, Nairobi, Kenya

Today, the Taxi Cab Association of Kenya announced protests against the “unfair competition” its members face from ride-sharing giant Uber, according to the organisation’s chairman, Josphat Olila.  This is no news for folks in London, Brussels, Hamburg, or Washington — places where the taxi-medallion-capped brethren of Nairobi’s cabbies have all long ago gone through the protest phase against the rising tide of the “new economy’s” novel way of hailing cars.  Examples abound, and all involve more or less refined antitrust arguments.

Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa competition advisors Primerio, sums it up as follows: “The pro-competitive notion of innovation-plus-price competition is perhaps best understood by looking at the views of two leading antitrust agencies, the FTC and the European Commission.   Both have articulated simple and sound arguments for striking the right balance between regulatory limits for the protection of passengers, as well as allowing innovative technologies to enhance the competitive landscape and thereby increasing transportation options for riders.  In antitrust law, more options usually equal better outcomes.

U.S.

Here is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had to say in 2013 about the D.C. taxi commission’s ‘unfair competition’ argument against ride-sharing services:

“The staff comments recommend that DCTC avoid unwarranted regulatory restrictions on competition, and that any regulations should be no broader than necessary to address legitimate public safety and consumer protection concerns.  … [T]he comments recommend that DCTC allow for flexibility and experimentation and avoid unnecessarily limiting how consumers can obtain taxis.”

Crucially, the Kenyan cabbies’ argument that Uber should be banned is based on price competition from Uber’s lower fares.  One of the main tenets of competition law is: lower prices are good for consumers (in general), as long as service quality remains the same.  With Uber, quality not only maintains the status quo of smelly and difficult-to-hail cabs, but arguably enhances it (by knowing when and where your car arrives, quality control via Uber’s policies and check-ups, convenient electronic billing & dispute resolution, etc.).  Let’s go back to the FTC’s public comments and see their take:

“Competition and consumer protection naturally complement and mutually reinforce each other, to the benefit of consumers. Consumers benefit from market competition, which creates incentives for producers to be innovative and responsive to consumer preferences with respect to price, quality, and other product and service characteristics. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of competition go beyond lower prices: ‘The assumption that competition is the best method of allocating resources in a free market recognizes that all elements of a bargain – quality, service, safety, and durability – and not just the immediate cost, are favorably affected by the free opportunity to select among alternative offers’.”

EU DG COMP

Former Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes would agree wholeheartedly with the above, and indeed said in 2014 that she was “outraged at the decision by a Brussels court to ban Uber.”  In her personal op-ed piece, published on the EU Commission’s web site under the catchy title “Crazy court decision to ban Uber in Brussels“, she poignantly had this to tell the Belgian Mobility Minister who signed off on the Uber ban:

“This decision is not about protecting or helping passengers – it’s about protecting a taxi cartel.  The relevant Brussels Regional Minister is Brigitte Grouwels. Her title is “Mobility Minister”.  Maybe it should be “anti-Mobility Minister”. She is even proud of the fact that she is stopping this innovation. It isn’t protecting jobs Madame, it is just annoying people!”

We wonder what would happen if Neelie Kroes were Kenyan government minister…

Kenya: Keep prices high and ‘foreign’ competition out?

The Kenyan Taxi Association does not see it that way, just like its D.C. counterpart did not some 3 years ago.  However, D.C.’s streets are still full of old-fashioned cabs, and Uber — while popular — is still far from blowing out the light shone by the once-prized cabbie medallions…

Still, the Kenyan association claims that between 4,000 and up to 15,000 taxi drivers face job extinction due to lower prices charged by Uber, which has been active in Nairobi since the beginning of 2015.  Again, the “lower price” argument is a red herring under even the most basic application of competition economics, which shows that innovation-based price competition is ultimately pro-competitive and good not only for the end consumer but also the industry’s development as a whole.

Sadly, antitrust law — even in a fairly developed competition-law jurisdiction like Kenya — does not always prevail (again, see the occidental examples of Brussels, Hamburg, London, or even Baltimore, where the cabbies ironically sued Uber in an antitrust lawsuit, alleging that the so-called ‘Surge Pricing’ mechanism amounts to per se illegal price-fixing…).

The Kenyan taxi-cab organisation not only claims that the livelihoods of its members are at stake, but also “questioned the protocols followed by the foreign investors behind Uber, saying they were not consulted before the service provider entered the market,” according to an article in the Kenyan Daily Nation.  The association’s spokesman is quoted as saying: “We have loans to service, families to feed, children to educate and other responsibilities to cater for and we are not ready to leave the transport industry to a foreigner and render [ourselves] jobless while we are in a democratic republic.”

So in the end, the ‘unfair taxi competition’ argument devolves into xenophobia and mistrust.  Sadder yet, Kenya’s Uber fight has now taken a violent turn: Yesterday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said that there had been reports of attacks on Uber drivers, which are being investigated.

AAT of course deplores the resort to violence and trusts that neither it nor the upcoming protests will impede the progress of competitiveness in Kenya, a country that otherwise prides itself on encouraging competition (see CNBC Africa video on “East African competitiveness”).  The sole glimmer of hope we see consists of the closing line of the Daily Nation piece, which notes that “[t]he drivers have also promised to come up with their own version of Uber to connect taxi drivers in the country.”  That is what innovation is all about: Uber innovates, others copy (be it Lyft or the Kenyan cabbies), and everyone is better off in the final analysis.

 

ECONAfrica: African Corporate Debt — Reality, Regulation and Risks

By Peter O’Brien

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?

Overview

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
Economist corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP

Corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP (Source: The Economist)

Lessons Learned?

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.

 

Protecting competition vs. competitors: Calls for an EAC competition regime

Protecting competition vs. competitors: Calls for an EAC competition regime

In an opinion piece by Elizabeth Sisenda, a competition lawyer at the Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment, the author calls for region-wide adoption, implementation, and enforcement of competition law, for the greater good of local business in the East African Community.  While generally in favour of increased competition-law recognition in Africa, we at AAT believe that there may be a protectionist undertone in the editorial, however:

Ms. Sisenda notably writes, “The EU has been negotiating a bilateral agreement with the EAC … Local firms stand to lose to foreign firms with greater capacity under the agreement in agriculture, retail, horticulture, fisheries, textile and clothing, dairy, and meat — if adequate safeguards are not established under the agreement.  This brings to light the need to enhance a competitive regional economy within the EAC through the implementation of a regional competition law regime to protect consumers and small enterprises from unfair business practices.

As antitrust attorneys will be quick to point out, pure competition law does not invariably act to protect small companies against so-called “unfair” competition by larger (or foreign) entities.  Granted, certain abuses of dominance or — of course — cartelist conduct is prohibited by proper antitrust legislation.  However, the mere arrival of a more powerful competitor in a local economy does not amount to “unfair competition” per se.  If a larger company can source its products and inputs at a lower cost than a local, established entity (say, Wal Mart compared to a ‘mom-and-pop’ corner store), this may hurt the incumbent but is not necessarily unlawful.

Calls for “African” competition enforcement must be careful not to commingle the notions of protectionism of domestic incumbents with actual competition-law enforcement.

UPDATE: Ms. Sisenda, the author of the original article, wishes to clarify that by “adequate safeguard” her intention was not protectionism but ensuring that dominant firms do not undertake anti-competitive practices such as price-fixing, raising barriers to entry or other illicit conduct.  She is clear in disavowing any notion of protectionism that AAT might have perceived, noting that “By using the term ‘unfair business practices,’ I did not impute any regulatory measures to prop local entities and lock out foreign firms. I simply meant abuse of dominance by more capable foreign firms such as predatory pricing.”

Andreas Stargard, a partner at Africa advisory practice Pr1merio, agrees with Miss Sisenda on two key points, however.  Says Stargard:

The author correctly notes that “there is still a quest for protectionism by the governments of some of the EAC member states.”  Truly anti-competitive practices must be curbed, whereas the inefficient protection of smaller incumbent domestic companies versus more efficient new entrants must not be encouraged.  In the words of one influential court, over 53 years ago, good antitrust laws are designed to protect “competition, not competitors”

Moreover, Ms. Sisenda rightly points to the great need within the EAC (and elsewhere in Africa) for “capacity-building at the national and regional level in support of the … competition regime, which might involve training personnel on competition law and policy and its enforcement.”  Workshops and publications such as AfricanAntitrust.com aid greatly in these efforts, including raising awareness of the need for proper competition-law enforcement, what it can do and also what it cannot accomplish on its own.

The EAC Competition Authority has an interim organisational structure & budget and is expected to start being operational next year.

PS: we note that Ms. Sisenda also raised, in our follow-up conversation with her, some notable questions that we invite our readers or future contributing authors (maybe Ms. Sisenda herself?) to address:

  • In your view, are there any parameters to antitrust such as exemptions granted under legislation for the purpose of promoting economic efficiency (be it allocative or productive) that are justified?
  • Is there a place for economic regulation in antitrust?

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