Competition Authority approves KFC Franchise M&A with public-interest conditions

On 7 February 2018 the Competition Authority of Botswana (“The Competition Authority”) approved, with conditions, the acquisition by Bradleymore’s Holdings (Pty) Ltd (“Bradleymore’s”), which is incorporated in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Botswana (a joint venture between Vivo Energy Africa Holdings Limited and Baobab Khulisani South Africa (Pty) Ltd) of KFC franchises in Botswana, namely VPB Propco (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation), QSR Food Company (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation), Boitumelo Dijo (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation) and Greenax (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation).

The Competition Authority determined that the Proposed Transaction is not likely to result in the prevention or substantial lessening of competition, or endanger the continuity of the services offered in the market for quick-service or fast food restaurants.

Section 60 of the Competition Act No 17 of 2009 (“the Competition Act”) allows the Competition Authorities to approve a merger “subject to such conditions as it considers appropriate” and “contain such directions as the Authority considers necessary, reasonable and practicable to remedy, mitigate or prevent any adverse effects of the merger”.

Furthermore, section 61 of the Competition Act provides for either of the parties to a merger to offer an undertaking to the Competition Authority to address any concerns that may arise or be expected to arise during the Competition Authorities consideration of the notified merger and the Competition Authority may make determinations in relation to the merger on the basis of such an undertaking.

Pursuant to the provisions of section 60 and 61 of the Competition Act; the Competition Authority approved the Proposed Transaction with the following conditions:

  1. Bradleymore’s shall source a significant portion of their input requirements locally by continuing to source from existing suppliers that were engaged by VPB, provided they are YUM accredited; as well as consider sourcing from any other YUM accredited suppliers based in Botswana who are currently not supplying KFC;
  2. Bradleymore’s shall ensure that local suppliers are assisted in penetrating or meeting YUM’s standards of accreditation with the aim of sourcing from these suppliers; and
  3. The Parties shall not retrench any employees of the target entities as a result of the acquisition for a period of three (3) years from the implementation date. For the sake of clarity, retrenchments do not include: voluntary separation; voluntary early retirement; unreasonable refusal to be deployed in accordance with the provisions of the labour laws of Botswana; resignations or retirements in the ordinary course of business; terminations in the ordinary course of business; dismissals as a result of misconduct of poor performance.

In order for the Competition Authority to properly monitor compliance with the above conditions, the Competition Authority shall require Bradleymore’s to adhere to the following:

  1. Bradleymore’s shall annually (for a period of three years from the implementation date) submit to the Competition Authority, a detailed report     indicating:-
  2. Any changes to its employment records in the country and the reasons thereof;
  3. A list of its existing and new locally based suppliers (including the type of inputs they supply). This information can be captured in the supply agreements KFC has with such suppliers; and
  4. A copy of the strategy to be employed in building capacity of local suppliers in ensuring they meet YUM accreditation standards. That copy should be availed to the Authority within a period of twelve (12) months from the implementation date. The parties need to demonstrate to the Authority efforts made in identifying potential suppliers in line with their expansion strategy.

Stephany Torres, a competition lawyer, believes such a decision is indicative of the Competition Authorities’ tendency to give public interest considerations a prominent role in merger review.

In terms of section 59(1) of the Competition Act, “[i]n assessing a  proposed merger, the Authority shall first determine whether the merger (a) would be likely to prevent or substantially lessen competition or to restrict trade or the provision of any service or to endanger the continuity of supplies or services; or (b) would be likely to result in any enterprise, including an enterprise which is not involved as a party in the proposed merger, acquiring a dominant position in a market”.

In addition to considering the effect of a merger on competition, in terms of section 59(2) of the Competition Act, the Competition Authority may consider any factor which it considers bears upon the broader public interest, including the extent to which “(a) the proposed merger would be likely to result in a benefit to the public which would outweigh any detriment attributable to a substantial lessening of competition or to the acquisition or strengthening of a dominant position in a market; (b) the merger may improve, or prevent a decline in the production or distribution of goods or the provision of services; (c) the merger may promote technical or economic progress, having regard to Botswana’s development needs; (d) the proposed merger would be likely to affect a particular industrial sector or region; (e) the proposed merger would maintain or promote exports or employment; (f) the merger may advance citizen empowerment initiatives or enhance the competitiveness of citizen-owned small and medium sized enterprises; or (g) the merger may affect the ability of national industries to compete in international markets”.

Torres believes the Competition Authorities’ willingness to push public-interest considerations even in instances such as the proposed transaction, where no competition issues arise, is indicative of them trying to address unemployment issues in Botswana through their merger review.  This willingness to let public interest take centre stage is often seen in countries with new competition law regimes.  She expressed concern that public interest considerations may possibly be the deciding factor when making decisions regarding mergers as these are particularly difficult to quantify or objectively assess.

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Merger Control: Public Interest & SINOPEC/Chevron

When the Stick is Greater than the Carrot

While China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and global commodities trader and miner Glencore are the front runners in a bid to buy Chevron’s South African Business (Chevron SA), it appears that Sinopec has managed to edge ahead after the Chinese firm has agreed to a number of public interest conditions in an effort to placate the South African Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel (Patel) and avoid ministerial intervention before the Competition Tribunal’s (the agency responsible for approving the merger) hearing.

PublicInterestpic.jpgThe South African Competition Commission (SACC), responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the Tribunal, recently published its recommendation in relation to the proposed Sinopec-Chevron deal. Unsurprisingly, consistent with large mergers (particularly by foreign acquiring firms) – the SACC’s recommendations contain a number of non-merger specific public interest conditions. A feature of South African merger control which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years (refer to the AB-InBev/SAB or the SAB/Coca-Cola mergers) – largely as a result of Minister Patel’s ‘direct’ involvement in the merger control process.

It is not yet cast in stone that Sinopec will in fact be the acquiring entity as the minority shareholders in Chevron SA enjoy a right to first refusal. Regardless of the entity who is ultimately successful in acquiring Chevron SA (Chevron has confirmed that the proposed deal with Glencore is also currently before the SACC), the South African government has set its price for investing in South Africa, as confirmed by Minister Patel’s following statement:

Government will not choose to whom Chevron sells control of Chevron South Africa, but we will ensure that proper public interest conditions, in line with the Competition Act, should apply to whoever is the successful bidder,”

Apart from the significant Ministerial intervention and the direct influence this has on the SACC’s independent investigation and review of a merger, a particularly contentious issue in relation to the imposition of public interest conditions relates to the Minister’s comment that the public interest conditions are “in line with the Competition Act”.

Although conditions regarding employment falls within the scope of section 12A(3) of the South African Competition Act, the remainder of the recommendations made by the SACC in casu goes beyond what was envisaged by the legislature in Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act. In this regard, the conditions recommended by the SACC include inter alia the following:

  • Sinopec must set up its head office in South Africa in order for it to co-ordinate and oversee its operations in South Africa and to use South Africa as the platform to oversee its operations throughout Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes not to retrench any of its employees, in perpetuity;
  • Sinopec agrees to invest further in Chevron’s Cape Town refinery;
  • Sinopec undertakes to make a significant investment over and above the current investment plans of Chevron South Africa;
  • Sinopec must upgrade Chevron South Africa’s operations and expand its refinery capacity in South Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes to maintain Chevron SA’s current baseline number of independently owned petrol stations;
  • Where independently owned petrol stations are to be established, Sinopec must ensure that Chevron SA will give preference to small businesses, especially black-owned businesses;
  • Sinopec must ensure that Chevron will favour small businesses in granting rights in respect of any new retailer owned petrol stations.
  • Sinopec must also ensure that Chevron will increase its level of supplies of (liquefied petroleum gas) to black-owned businesses, following the expiration of current contractual arrangements; and
  • Sinopec must promote the export and sale of South African manufactured products for sale in China through its service stations network in China.

More specifically, Minister Patel requires that Sinopec makes a R6bn Capex investment, commits to increasing the level of BEE ownership in Chevron SA from 25% to 29% and, an all-time favourite condition, establish a development fund worth R200m.

As John Oxenham, Director of Primerio notes, the absence of merger specificity together with the imposition of public interest conditions which go far beyond the specified grounds listed in the Competition Act has been consistently criticised for resulting in uncertainty, delays and costs in the merger review process. It also sends a message to entities that South Africa is open to business… on condition (at a time when our economy could do with every bit of foreign direct investment).

Regardless of the criticism levelled against the role of public interest conditions in merger control proceedings, the prevalence of public interest conditions is set to play and even greater role in merger control (and competition enforcement more generally) should the Competition Amendment Bill be brought into effect.

John Oxenham further notes: “The Competition Amendment Bill has broadens the scope of the SACC’s powers with regards to public interest, to include the ability of small businesses to enter into, participate in and expand within the relevant market and the promotion of a greater spread of ownership.”

Practising competition law attorney, Michael-James Currie states: “The Bill has clearly sought to strengthen and codify the role of public interest conditions in merger control and expressly elevates public interest considerations to the same status as pure competition issues – the fact that the Bill specifically broadens the scope and role of public interest conditions brings into question whether the proposed conditions in the Chevron deal are in fact “in line with the (current) Competition Act”.

Competition law enforcement in South Africa is set for a significant shake-up to the extent that the Amendment Act is brought into effect – which is likely to occur in 2018. For further insight and commentary to the Amendment Bill, please see an AAT exclusive article here.

One message which business is desperately shouting across at the South African Government at the moment is “policy certainty!”  However, the SACC’s recommendation in casu and the proposed changes to the Competition Act is a move in the opposite direction as it seeks to place a great deal of discretion in the hands of a few key policy decision makers (namely the Minister of the Department of Economic Development and the SACC’s Commissioner). Discretion, exercised in a subjective manner, runs very much contrary to policy certainty – which, in light of an imminent cabinet reshuffle under new ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, may be of particular concern.

Although the Tribunal ultimately needs to approve the merger, the Tribunal is reluctant to intervene in proceedings which are uncontested – which Minister Patel knows all too well. Accordingly, as a crafty negotiator, Minister Patel is well aware that parties in the position of Sinopec have one of two options, agree to the public interest conditions and expedite the merger review or proceed with a contested hearing which will most likely be opposed by the Minister.

Despite calls for a more consistent, certain and transparent application of competition law in South Africa, however, there seems to be a move away from international best practice and competition law enforcement in South Africa and once the Amendment Act is brought into effect, there is a material risk that political influence will undermine the independence, impartiality and effective enforcement of competition law in South Africa to subjective, unqualified and discretion based enforcement.

[The ATT editors wish to thank Charl van Merwe for his assistance with drafting this article]

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

By Michael-James Currie currie2

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]

Competition forum highlights antitrust enforcement, international cooperation

South Africa signs cooperation agreements with Russia and Kenya

Leading government officials presented their respective countries’ accomplishments in the antitrust arena at the 10th annual Competition Law, Economics & Policy Conference in Cape Town yesterday.

south_africaThe attendees ranged from the SA Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, and the Commissioner of the Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, to their Russian and Kenyan counterparts.  Kenya Competition Authority director general Francis Kariuki emphasised the officials’ desire to remove barriers to trade.  He was quoted as saying he looked forward to exchanging information on cross-border cartels, which affect both the South African and Kenyan economies: tsar_200“We have regional economic communities and regional trade. There are some infractions in South Africa which are affecting Kenya and vice versa. We want to join hands to do market enquiries and do research. This will inform our governments when they come up with policies.”

On the inside-BRICS front, the SA Commission signed an MoU with Russia, adding to Russia’s “rich and diverse bilateral agreements portfolio.”  The MoU is described as focussing particularly on pharmaceutical and automotive sectors, in which pending or future sectoral inquiries would see information-sharing between the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) of Russia and the SACC, according to the FAS deputy chief Andrey Tsarikovskiy.

Patel talksMister Patel’s keynote address showed the glass half-full and half-empty, focussing in part on the need to “scale” the South African agency activity up to the level of the “success story” of domestic competition enforcement and its large caseload (quoting 133 new cartel cases initiated in the past year).

Never one to omit politicisation, Mr. Patel noted the perceived parallels he saw between South African history of concentrating economic power in the hands of a minority, raising indirectly the issue of public-interest concessions made in antitrust investigations, including M&A matters.  Mr. Patel clearly sees the SACC’s role as including a reduction in economic inequality among the populace, rather than being a neutral competition enforcer guided solely by internationally recognised legal antitrust & economic principles.  Both he and Commissioner Bonakele drew parallels between their anti-cartel enforcement and a purported reduction in the SA poverty rate of a whopping four tenths of a percent.

 

 

Growing Pains: From One-Trick Pony to Full-Fledged Enforcer?

COMESA Competition Commission Expands Enforcement Ambit from Merger Control to Conduct —

CCC Seeks Information on “Potentially” Anti-Competitive Agreements

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

Breaking News: The COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) has issued a notice (the “Notice”) calling on firms to notify the CCC of any agreements (both historic and forward looking) that may be anti-competitive, for the purpose of having such agreements ‘authorised’ or ‘exempted’ in terms of Article 20 of the COMESA Competition Regulations (the “Regulations”).

In terms of Article 20 of the Regulations, agreements which are anticompetitive may be exempted by the CCC if such an ‘anticompetitive agreement’ contributes positively to the ‘public interest’ to the extent that the public interest benefit outweighs the anti-competitive effect.

In terms of the CCC’s notice 1/2013, the following agreements may well be considered to be in the public interest when evaluating whether an anti-competitive agreement or concerted practice should be exempted:

  • Joint research and development ventures;
  • Specialisation agreements; and
  • Franchising agreements

As to the agreements or concerted practices which may be anti-competitive, the Notice refers specifically to the restrictive business practices listed in Article 16 of the Regulations which states that:

The following shall be prohibited as incompatible with the Common Market:

all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which:

(a) may affect trade between Member States; and

(b) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market.”

It should be noted that Article 16 is deliberately drafted broadly so as to prohibit conduct which has as its “object” the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Certain conduct, such as price fixing, fixing of trading terms or conditions, allocating suppliers or markets or collusive tendering may be considered as having as its ‘object’ the distortion or restriction of competition in the market. Accordingly, firms who have engaged in this type of conduct may be held liable in the absence of any evidence of an anti-competitive effect (whether actual or potential).

Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “[t]he CCC’s notice is a clear sign that the agency is gathering momentum in its efforts to detect and prosecute anticompetitive practices within the member states — and is going beyond its ‘one-trick pony’ status as a pure merger-control gatekeeper.  We anticipate a more active role by the CCC in conduct investigations and presumptively also enforcement actions, as opposed to its previous rubber-stamping activity of approving transactions with a COMESA community dimension (and concomitant collection of vast filing fees).”

The CCC has recently signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding and Cooperation Agreements with various member states as well as a tripartite agreement with other broader regional forums such as the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community.

COMESA old flag colorThe web of MoU’s recently concluded, which have as their primary objectives the facilitation of information exchanges and cooperation between competition agencies, is certainly a significant stride made to assist the authorities, including the CCC, in detecting and prosecuting anticompetitive practices which may be taking place across the African continent.

A further indication of the CCC’s growing appetite and confidence to identify anticompetitive practices is that the CCC has announced that it is conducting a market enquiry into the grocery retail sector.  This is the first market inquiry to be conducted by the CCC.

In terms of the CCC’s Notice, firms who have not yet notified the CCC of agreements which may be anticompetitive, have approximately one month to do so. In other words, the CC has offered a leniency ‘window’ to incentivise firms to come forward and obtain an exemption in respect of agreements already implemented which may be in contravention of Article 16 of the Regulations.

 

AB InBev/SABMiller: SA conditional approval

South African Competition Commission Concludes Investigation into the AB In-Bev/SABMiller deal and Recommends that the Merger be Approved Subject to Conditions

On 31 May 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) recommended that that the Anheuser-Busch Inbev/ SABMiller merger be approved subject to various conditions relating to both competition and public interest concerns.

south_africaFrom a procedural aspect, the SACC’s recommendations are made to the South African Competition Tribunal, the adjudicative body ultimately responsible for approving a merger.

The SACC’s recommendations are not binding on the merging parties or the Tribunal. To the extent that the merging parties, or third parties, are concerned about the merger or the SACC’s recommendations, they may elect to participate in the hearing before the Tribunal.

In cases where neither the merging parties nor any third parties contest the SACC’s recommendations, the Tribunal usually rubber stamps the SACC’s recommendations.

We note that in terms of the SACC’s proposed recommendations, that the merging parties have made numerous undertakings to address the SACC’s concerns.

The following concerns and recommendations were proposed by the SACC:

  • A divestiture of SABMiller’s shareholding in the Distell Limited Group (a competitor of SAB in the cider market) within three years of the closing date of the transaction;
  • That no employees of the merged entity will be involved on the bottling operations of both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and that no commercially sensitive information would be exchanged between employees in relation to these two soft drink entities;
  • AB Inbev will continue supplying third parties with ‘tin metal crowns’ in South Africa as AB Inbev will own the only ‘tin metal supplier’ in South Africa post merger for a period of 5 years;
  • AB Inbev should make at least 10% of its fridge space available, in small retail outlets or taverns, to competitors’ products to protect small beer producers;
  • The development of a R1 billion fund which will be used, inter alia, to develop barley, hops and maize output in South Africa;
  • No merger related retrenchments are to take place in South Africa, in perpetuity;
  • AB Inbev will continue to supply certain products to small beer producers;
  • AB Inbev will continue to ensure that it follows the same ratio of local production and will, itself, remain committed to sourcing products locally;
  • Undertakings to ensure that the merging parties will, within two years after closing the merger, propose to the Commission and Government its plan on how to maintain black participation in the company and preserve equity;
  • AB Inbev will continue to comply with the existing terms and conditions of the current agreements which exist between SABMiller and ‘owner-drivers’.

The merging parties have agreed to the majority of the conditions imposed on the merger. We note, however, that the SACC’s media statement does not make it clear that the merging parties have agreed to the divestiture recommendation. The merging parties have also not agreed to the proposed condition relating to a commitment to continue to supply small beer producers with hops and malt.

Accordingly, even in the absence of any third party intervention, this merger may still be contested before the Tribunal.

While the SACC’s official recommendations have not yet been published, it appears to us that a number of the concerns raised by the SACC relate to pre-existing concerns which are not merger specific. Furthermore, important aspect of the proposed recommendations, even those which have been agreed to between the parties, will be in perpetuity.

Furthermore, although what may appear to be a relatively innocuous proposed conditions which the merging parties shave agreed to, is that AB Inbev will respect the current existing contractual arrangements as between SABMiller and ‘owner drivers’.  Approving a merger subject to such a condition poses an interesting conundrum. What happens in the event that there is contractual dispute between Ab-Inbev and owner drivers in the future? Will the Tribunal have jurisdiction to hear such disputes and could the merged entity be subject to penalties for breaching a condition of the merger, despite a contractual dispute which may have little if anything to do with the merger itself?

We have previously, here on Africanantitrust raised our concerns regarding the merger specificity of the R1 billion development fund. To access our previous article on this topic, please click here.

In our view, the Competition Tribunal should satisfy itself that the proposed conditions, even if agreed to between the merging parties, should address merger specific concerns and nothing more. A decision by the Tribunal is precedent setting and has an impact on the transparency and certainty of the merger control process in South Africa. When mergers are approved subject to conditions which go beyond merger specificity, uncertainty is created.

Antitrust in the Digital Economy: Fighting Inequality?

AAT the big picture

HOW CAN COMPETITION LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY HELP IN THE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY?

By DWA co-founder and visiting AAT author, Amine Mansour* (re-published courtesy of Developing World Antitrust’s editors)

When talking about competition law and poverty alleviation, we may intuitively think about markets involving essential needs. The rise of new sectors may however prompt competition authorities to turn their attention away from these markets. One of those emerging sectors is the digital economy sector. This triggers the question of whether the latter should be a top priority in competition authorities’ agenda. The answer remains unclear and depends mainly on the potential value added to consumers in general and the poor in particular[1].

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

Obviously, access to computer and technology is not a source of poverty stricto sensu. In the absence of basic needs, strategies focusing on digital sectors may prove meaningless. In practice, the last thing people living in extreme poverty will think about is gaining digital skills. Their immediate needs are embodied in markets offering goods and services which are basic necessities. The approach put forward by several Competition authorities in developing countries corroborates this view. For instance, in South Africa, digital markets are not seen as a top priority. Instead, the South African competition authority focuses on food and agro-processing, infrastructure and construction, banking and intermediate industrial products.

There are however compelling arguments to be made against such position. Most importantly, although access to technology and computers is not a source of poverty, such an access can be a solution to the poverty problem. In fact, closing the digital gap by providing digital skills and making access to technology and Internet easier can help the low income population when acting either as entrepreneurs or consumers. In both cases competition law can play a decisive role.

The low income population acting as consumers

First, when acting as consumers, people with low income can enjoy the benefits of new technology-based entrant. Thanks to lower costs of operation, lower barriers to entry and (almost) infinite buyers, these new operators have changed the competitive landscape by aggressively competing against traditional companies. These features have helped them not only extending existing products and services to low-income consumers but also making new ones available for them. Better yet, in some cases increased competition coming from technology-based companies motivates traditional business forms to adapt their offer to low-income consumers so as to face this new competition and remedy shrinking revenues. Perhaps, the most noteworthy aspect of all these evolutions, is that these new entrants have, in some instances, been able to challenge incumbents’ position by driving prices downward to levels unattainable by traditional companies without scarifying their profitability.

A shining example of all this dynamic is the possibility for low-income consumers to engage, thanks to some mobile companies, in financial transaction without the need to pass through the traditional stationary banking infrastructure. For instance, in Kenya, M-PESA a mobile money transfer service that has over 22 million subscribers[2] and around 40,000 agents (around 2600 Commercial bank branches)[3] changed the life of million of citizens. The service enables clients to deposit cash into their M-PESA accounts, send or transfer money to any other mobile phone user, withdraw cash and complete other financial transactions. A farmer in a remote area in Kenya can send or receive money by simply using his mobile phone. In this way, M-PESA can act as a substitute to personal bank accounts. This experience shows how the digital economy helps overcoming the prohibitive costs of reaching low-income customers and thus raising living standards.

On that basis, we can easily imagine the counter-argument incumbent companies might put forward. In this regard, unfair competition and the need for regulation to preserve policy objectives are often in the forefront. However, there is a great risk that these arguments are simply used to restrict market entry and impede competition from those new players.

In fact, this kind of arguments do not always reflect market reality. For example, in some remote geographic areas, traditional companies and the new ones based on the digital/internet space do not even compete directly against each other. Accordingly, regulation intended to protect policy goals has no role to play given that the affected consumers are out of the reach of the traditional business. In the M-PESA example, it may be possible to argue that any operator engaging in financial transactions should observe the regulatory restrictions that apply to the banking sector in order to ensure that policy objectives such as the stability of the banking system or the protection of consumer savings are preserved. However, applying such a reasoning will leave a large part of consumers with no alternative given the absence of a banking infrastructure in remote areas. The unfair competition and regulation arguments may only hold in cases where consumers are offered alternatives capable of providing an equivalent service.

This shows the need to proceed cautiously by favoring an evidence-based approach to the ex-post use of the regulation argument by incumbent operators. This is however only one of different facets of the interaction between the competitive impact of companies based on the internet-space, the regulatory framework and the repercussions for people with low income[4].

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

Second, the focus on digital markets as way to alleviate poverty is further justified when low-income people act as entrepreneurs. In fact, digital markets are distinguished from basic good markets in that they may act as an empowering instrument that encourages entrepreneurship.

More precisely, the digitalization of the economy results in an improved access to market information which in turn may benefit entrepreneurs especially the poor whether they intervene in the same market or in a different one. Practice is replete with cases where, for instance, a downstream firm heavily relies for its production/operation on services or products offered by an upstream company operating in a digital market. Similarly, in a traditional and somewhat caricatural way, a small-scale farmer may use VOIP calls to obtain market information or directly contact buyers suppressing the need for a middleman.

However, we can well imagine the disastrous consequences for these small-scale farmers or the downstream firm if mobile operators decide to block access to internet telephony services such as Skype or WhatsApp based on cheap phone calls using VOIP (this is what actually happened in Morocco). In such a case, the digitalization of the economy has clearly contributed to greatly lowering the costs of communication and distribution. However, low income entrepreneurs are prevented from benefiting of these low costs, which are a key input to be able to compete in the market.

The major difficulty here lies in the fact that, when low income people act as entrepreneurs, it is likely that they organize their activities in small structures. This result in relationships and structures favorable to the emergence of exploitative abuses. Keeping digital markets clear from obstructing anticompetitive practices is thus indispensable to ensure that small existing or potential competitors are not prevented from competing. This might not be easily achieved given that competition authorities’ focus is sometimes more on high profile cases.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

[1] Intervention may also be justified by the institutional significance argument. This significance lies in the fact that those markets are growing ones and challenging the common ways of both doing business and applying competition rules which in turn make it crucial for authorities to intervene by drawing the lines that ensure the right conditions for those market to grow and develop.

[2] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/about-us/about-safaricom

[3] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/get-started-with-m-pesa/m-pesa-agents

[4] For instance, it possible to think of the same problem from an ex-ante point of view highlighting incumbent firms’ efforts to block any re-examination of the regulatory standards that apply to the concerned sector (no relaxation of the quantitative and qualitative restrictions). This aspect has more to do with the advocacy function of competition authorities.

The Coca Cola bottlers merger & the costs of placating third parties in merger control

Tax Man Patel Strikes Again: Merger Conditions Going Beyond Antitrust

By Michael-James Currie

On 4 May 2016, it was announced that the merging parties to the SABMiller/Coca-Cola merger have agreed to establish a R850 million development fund in order to address public interest concerns raised by the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel.

south_africaThe latest deal struck with Patel follows the R1 billion commitment from the merging parties in the SABMiller/AB-Inbev merger less than a month ago.

Collectively, these two commitments, which equate to R1.85 billion (or approximately U.S. $132 million), exceed the total administrative penalties which were paid by over 13 firms in the “construction cartel” (in 2013, the total penalties amounted to approximately R1.4 billion) which is regarded as the most significant and highly publicised cartel to be investigated and prosecuted by the Competition Commission to date.

A South African competition practitioner with knowledge of the recent cases observed that “[c]onsidering that there have been, in our view, no substantial arguments raised that either of the two mergers pose any substantial anti-competitive concerns, it appears absurd that to date, not a single administrative penalty imposed on a firm for hardcore cartel conduct matches the quantum which the respective merging parties have agreed to pay to get their deals done.” It further appears evident that the conditions imposed, although broadly described by the Minister as being necessary to address public interest concerns, are in fact at all merger specific.

In a clear move to placate Minister Patel and preclude further intervention by the Minister which may have the effect of delaying the merger, the merging parties in both mergers respectively, have agreed to these conditions. The timing of the two commitments are, however, illuminating.

Patel talks.jpgThe commitment made by the merging parties to the SAB/Coca-Cola merger, which was filed at the Competition Commission in March 2015, comes after the Competition Commission itself recommended that the merger be approved subject to an agreed R150 million development fund to help train and support historically disadvantaged farmers and suppliers. Despite the agreement reached with the Competition Commission and a confirmed hearing in May 2016 (effectively 14 months after the proposed transaction was filed) the merging parties have recognised the risk of further delays should Minster Patel intervene during the hearing proceedings.

In contrast, the in the SAB/AB In-Bev deal, the top executives met with Minster Patel soon after the deal was notified (albeit behind closed door discussions outside of the SACC’s merger-control process) in an attempt to pre-empt Minster Patel’s intervention. It is expected that the Competition Commission would, today, conclude its investigation and make its recommendations to the Competition Tribunal some four months after the this deal was filed at the competition authorities.

Patel signature on 73AMinister Patel has expressed his satisfaction with the two ‘agreements’ as  it is in line with his express commitment to target multinational deals, in particular, in order to promote government’s industrial policies and socio-economic objectives.

In the world of commercial negotiations and deal-making, the parties are, however, hardly in an equally bargaining position when before the competition authorities – a bargaining chip in Minister Patel’s favour which is no doubt aware of.

Whether the strategies adopted by the merging parties in respect of both the SABMiller/Ab-Inbev or the SAB/Coca-Cola merger will pave the way for the expeditious conclusion of the review process remains to be seen (although we would tend to think it certainly will in Patel’s absence from the hearings). The agreements will, however, certainly influence the Landscape of merger control in South Africa.

The precedent set by these two proposed mergers will no doubt result in greater uncertainty in South Africa’s merger control process as the message seems clear. If merging parties want to get a multinational deal concluded in South Africa and you are in Minister Patel’s sights, pay-up – irrespective of the merger specific effects of the deal.

As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merio antitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa notes: “It will be interesting to see whether the Competition Tribunal, which is tasked with ultimately approving or prohibiting a large merger, will consider whether the interventionist conditions imposed by the current ministry and agreed to by the merging parties are in fact merger-specific.”  Although the Tribunal is often reluctant to get involved in conditions which have been agreed to by the respective parties, the Tribunal should be cognisant of the fact that orders of the Tribunal are precedent setting and that imposing conditions to a merger which go beyond what is necessary in terms of the Competition Act as far as merger specificity is concerned, may be undesirable.

Both parties to both recent mergers have agreed to further public interest-related conditions pertaining to employment. In the SAB/Coca-Cola deal, the parties have further agreed to “maintaining employment at current levels for three years and not reduce jobs by natural attrition”, however, may retrench up to 250 “non-unionised” head office employees. Despite the intervention by Minister Patel (who formerly headed the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, it would appear completely outside the realm of competition policy if the Competition Tribunal imposes this condition, as effectively the competition authorities would be providing greater protection to trade union members as opposed to non-trade union members. A clearer indication of a complete lack of merger specificity may be hard to come by.

 

Developments in South African Merger Control: Ministerial Interventionism and the Impact on Timing & Certainty

Partisanship can degrade the brand of the antitrust agencies, reduce their influence aboard, and discourage longer term investments that strengthen agency performance. Though difficult to quantify, these constitute a potentially serious, unnecessary drag on agency effectiveness”

(William Kovacic, “Policies and Partisanship in U.S. Federal Antitrust Enforcement” (2014) Antitrust Law Journal, Vol. 79 at 704).

In their article entitled “Developments in South African Merger Control – Ministerial Interventionism and the Impact on Timing & Certainty,” John Oxenham, Andreas Stargard, and Michael Currie argue that, while the existence of ‘public-interest’ provisions in merger control is an express feature in certain jurisdictions’ antitrust regimes, the manner and regularity with which they are applied remains a significant challenge both for antitrust practitioners and for their clients gauging certainty of their foreign investments.

A consideration of the developments in the South African context indicates the substantial risks associated with the manner in which antitrust agencies and governmental departments approach public interest considerations in merger proceedings.

Merging firms, particularly multinationals, need to be acutely aware of the challenges and risks associated with the use of public-interest considerations throughout merger-control proceedings in South Africa. Recent interventionist strategies have had a significant impact on two key features: the timing and cost of concluding mergers in the region.

The paper was presented at this year’s ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, the largest competition-law focussed conference in the world, taking place annually in Washington, D.C.  AAT’s readers have exclusive free access to the PDF here.

John Oxenham and Wendy

John Oxenham

Ministerial meddling in mergers

Intervention by economic ministry outside proper competition channels yields R1 billion employment fund

As reported yesterday, AB InBev has agreed to a R1bn ($69m) fund to buoy the South African beer industry and to “protect” domestic jobs.  It is widely seen as a direct payment in exchange for the blessing of the U.S. $105 billion takeover of SABMiller by InBev — notably occurring outside the usual channels of the Competition Authorities, instead taking place as behind-closed-door meetings held between the parties and the Minister for Economic Development, Ibrahim Patel, and his staff.

Patel talks.jpgAs we reported earlier this week, the previously granted extension of the competition authorities’ review was “widely suspected that the request for the extension is due to intervention by the Minister of Economic Development, in relation to public interest grounds. Although there is no suggestion at this stage that Minister Patel is opposing the deal, the proposed intervention does highlight bring into sharp focus the fact that multinational mega-deals face a number of hurdles in getting the deal done.”
AAT has reported previously on “extra-judicial factors,” as well as the interventionism by the current ministry.  This latest deal struck by Mr. Patel and the parent of famed Budweiser beer includes a promise by the parties to preserve full-time employment levels in the country for five years after closing, according to AB InBev.  Moreover, the companies pledged to provide financial help for new farms to increase raw materials production of beer inputs like hops and barley.
The minister is quoted as saying: “This transaction is by far the largest yet to be considered by the competition authorities and it’s important that South Africans know that the takeover of a local iconic company will bring tangible benefits.  Jobs and inclusive growth are the central concerns in our economy.”
ABInbev

The holy trinity of InBev’s beers

Our editors and contributing authors have reported (and warned) on multiple occasions that the extra-procedural behaviour of the economic minister effectively side-lines the competition agencies, thereby eroding the perceived or real authority of the Competition Commission and the Tribunal.  Says Andreas Stargard, a competition law practitioner with a focus on Africa:
“This ‘unscripted’ process risks future merger parties not taking the Authorities seriously and side-stepping them ex ante by a short visit to the Minister instead, cutting a deal that may be in the interest of South Africans according to his ministry’s current political view, but certainly not according to well-founded and legislatively prescribed antitrust principles.  The Commission and the Tribunal take the latter into account, whereas the Minister is not bound by them, by principled legal analysis, nor by competition economics.”
This is especially true as the current deal involves the takeover of SABMiller, an entity that controls 90% of South Africa’s beer market.  From a pure antitrust perspective, this transaction would certainly raise an agency’s interest in an in-depth investigation on the competition merits — not merely on the basis of job maintenance and other protectionist goals that may serve a political purpose but do not protect or assure future competition in an otherwise concentrated market.
Says one African antitrust attorney familiar with the matter, “What may be a short-term populist achievement, racking up political points for Mr. Patel and the ANC, may well turn out to be a less-than-optimal antitrust outcome in the long run.”