Book Review: “Making Markets Work for Africa: Markets, Developments and Competition Law in Sub-Saharan Africa” by Eleanor M. Fox and Mor Bakhoum

Thanks to the diverse and on-going commitments by our contributors, AfricanAntitrust is considered the leading resource tracking competition law developments across the continent. AfricanAntitrust has, over the past number of years published numerous articles, updates and expression pieces by numerous contributors both in an effort to ensure our readership remains up to date on all regulatory developments in Africa, and also to stimulate robust debate on competition policy and enforcement across the continent.

Developing countries have unique socio-economic issues and market dynamics which many have argued justify a unique approach to the role competition law policy should play.

The editors at AfricanAntitrust were, therefore, particularly interested in the book authored by well-known Professor, Eleanor Fox and co-author Mor Bakhoum . AAT is honoured to have been requested to provide a book review and indebited to John Oxenham, Andreas Stargard and Michael-James Currie for their commentary below.

The book’s title Making Markets Work for Africa: Markets, Developments and Competition Law in Sub-Saharan Africa provides significant insight into its subject matter and the topics covered. As an introductory remark, the content provides a concise but necessary introduction to the social, political and economic challenges which underpin most sub-Saharan jurisdictions. Readers who may not be familiar with the jurisdictions covered in the book will find this useful for purposes of contextualising the competition policy debate and the nuances which underpin this debate.

After sketching an overview of the economic and political background, the authors go on to detail the relevant competition laws and the application thereof across the sub-Saharan jurisdictions.

The authors have, usefully, selected certain key enforcement activities in each of the jurisdictions covered in an effort to demonstrate the robustness of the respective agencies’ enforcement activities.

The authors then do a neat job of teeing up the crux of the debate, should competition law in developing countries converge towards a ‘global standard’ (which in this context refers primarily to US and EU precedent) or rather, do market and socio-political challenges which are often unique to most sub-Saharan countries, require a different set of rules, benchmarks or policy outlooks to competition policy and enforcement. In this regard, the authors provide a useful platform for debate among competition lawyers, economists, academics and law makers alike.

The book was not intended to provide a complete and robust assessment of the multitude of policy options available when developing competition law. Further, the authors have elected not to engage in a highly technical critique or assessment of the key decisions which have shaped competition policy across the African continent. Rather, the authors highlight the need to consider and debate different policies.

The authors correctly highlight South Africa as the “golden standard” insofar as competition law enforcement in developing countries is concerned – particularly in relation to the role of public interest enforcement in merger reviews. The authors discuss the seminal case in this regard, namely the Walmart/Massmart merger, as the foundation from which numerous subsequent mergers have been approved subject to public interest related conditions.

While the Walmart/Massmart merger was finally approved in 2013, the authors may consider, in subsequent editions, whether the substantial litigation and interventionist risks which are inherent in assessing public interest factors in competition law enforcement (particularly merger control) can be quantified. A departure from traditional competition law standards and precedent, particularly with the introduction of subjective considerations, is likely to increase the scope for litigation and interventionist strategies which may hinder the very objectives sought to be advanced.

The authors do, however, recognise that when assessing competition policy, one must consider the objectives of the policy against its practical enforcement – particularly in light of the principle of rule of law and sound economic analysis. The book certainly does not profess to ignore these and at numerous instances expressly or implicitly acknowledges that a transparent and objective competition enforcement regime is critical.

With the “hipster antitrust” movement ostensibly gaining traction in the US and EU, South Africa (and indirectly Africa more generally) it would appear there is a more mainstream deviation from traditional competition law enforcement. It certainly suggests a uniform standard in competition policy may become even more difficult to sustain. Alternatively, it may be the inherent complexity and trade-offs which are always at play in developing competition policy which may in fact necessitate a form of convergence. The authors give some insight into these trade-offs and the various factors which legislators and practitioners should take into account.

The authors also raise a number of issues which are often left out of the policy debate, yet play a crucial role in the efficacy of competition law enforcement in developing countries.

Factors such as political interference, corruption (as an overarching concern) and the limited resources available to many African competition agencies contribute to certain markets remaining inaccessible to new entrants and preclude efficiencies from materialising to the benefit of consumers. The authors point out, quite correctly, that judgments or decisions by agencies are often entirely devoid of substantive reasons let alone robust economic analysis.

The above recognition further reinforces the need for objectivity and transparency in developing competition enforcement regime.

Finally, readers will find the authors’ discussion on the regional blocs in Africa (COMESA, SADC, EAC) and explore the level of harmonisation between these regional blocs and their respective members states.

The timing of the book in this regard could not be more apposite in light of the current negotiations regarding a uniform African competition policy as contemplated by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

We congratulate the authors on this important and well researched text.

 

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CRESSE CONFERENCE GREECE 2019: SOUTH AFRICAN AMENDMENT ACT

Africanantitrust regular contributors John Oxenham, Michael-James Currie and Stephany Torres (Primerio and Nortons Inc) authored and presented a paper on the role of non-competition law factors in competition law enforcement at the 2019 CRESSE Conference in Rhodes Island, Greece in early July 2019.

Motivated by the recent, but significant, amendments to South Africa’s Competition Act, the timing of the authors’ paper could not have been better scripted. The Amendment Act was brought into effect on 12 July 2019 – a week after presenting the paper to an esteemed delegation of competition law practitioners and economists.

The paper, titled “South African Competition Law – The role of non-competition factors in enforcing unilateral conduct: Forging ahead or falling behind?” explores the socio-economic context and objectives which underpin the recent amendments to South Africa’s legislation and highlights the expansion of what is often termed “public interest” considerations in competition law enforcement beyond merger control.

Most notably, the authors contextualise the policy debate before providing an in-depth discussion of the new thresholds and standards against which certain abuse of dominance conduct will now be assessed.

The Amendment Act introduces a public interest standard, namely what the effect of certain conduct by dominant entities will have on the ability of “small, medium businesses and businesses owned by previously disadvantaged persons” to participate effectively in the market”.

Looking specifically at the price discrimination and buyer power provisions, the paper notes that, notwithstanding the noble objectives of the Amendment Act, there are potentially a number of unintended consequences which require further deliberation so as not to dampen pro-competitive conduct.

In relation to the price discrimination provisions, the authors conclude that:

Accordingly, in light of:

  • the low market share threshold applicable to “dominant” entities;
  • the uncertainty regarding the threshold that must be met in order to sustain a case of prohibited price discrimination;
  • the evidentiary burden on a respondent to essentially prove a negative in relation to section 9(3); and
  • the threat of an administrative penalty for a first-time offence (potentially on both the South African business and its parent),

the price discrimination provisions pose a material risk to companies in South Africa who have a market share above 35%.”

As part of the presentation of the paper, it was noted that competition policy globally is constantly evolving. Issues such as “big data” and “data protection” have called on antitrust commentators to question whether the existing laws remain adequate to address broader consumer harm concerns. In South Africa, the authors point out that while the South African competition agencies have traditionally turned to European and US precedent in relation to antitrust enforcement, the socio-economic factors which have shaped competition policy in South Africa (at least from Government’s perspective) is unique and constitutes a substantial departure from more established jurisdictions.

Competition policy globally is, therefore, likely to be more divergent than convergent in the next few years.

In concluding, the authors point to the inordinate responsibility placed on the shoulders of the competition agencies in South Africa to exercise their discretion and develop a body of precedent as soon as possible that would hopefully provide practitioners and business with a more objective and transparent benchmark against which to assess their conduct. A task which could prove highly complex as the authorities will inevitable need to develop an objective basis for quantifying public interest considerations – an inherently subjective exercise.

To obtain a copy of the paper, please email the AAT editor by following the contact link below.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Pure Competition Law – Is Africa Leading the Way Forward in Antitrust Enforcement?

To all our Africanantitrust followers, please take note of the upcoming American Bar Association webinar on 2 July 2019 (11amET/4pmUK/5pm CET) titled:

“Beyond Pure Competition Law – Is Africa Leading the Way Forward in Antitrust Enforcement?”

In what promises to be a highly topical (telecon) panel discussion, Eleanor Fox, Andreas Stargard, John Oxenham, Amira Abdel Ghaffar and Anthony Idigbe will:

  • provide critical commentary of the most recent developments in antitrust policy across the African continent;
  • highlight the most significant legislative amendments and enforcement activities in Africa; and
  • analyze some of the key enforcement decisions.

South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, COMESA and Kenya are among the key jurisdictions under the microscope.

Practitioners, agency representatives, academics and anyone who is an antitrust enthusiast will find this webinar to be of great interest. Not to mention companies actually active or looking to enter the African market place.

For details on how to participate, please follow this Link

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOUTH AFRICA: COMPETITION COMMISSION PUBLISHES INTERIM REPORT RE GROCERY RETAIL MARKET INQUIRY

By Charl van der Merwe

Introduction

The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) on Wednesday 29 May 2019 released its interim report on its findings in the Grocery Retail Sector Market Inquiry (“Inquiry”).

The Inquiry’s terms of reference, published in October 2015, mandated the SACC to investigate:

  • The impact of the expansion, diversification and consolidation of national supermarket chains on small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban and rural areas and the informal economy;
  • The impact of long term exclusive lease agreements entered into between property developers and national supermarket chains, and the role of financiers in these agreements on competition in the grocery retail sector;
  • The dynamics of competition between local and foreign national operated small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
  • The impact of regulations, including inter alia municipal town planning and by-laws on small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
  • The impact of buyer groups on small and independent retailers in townships, periurban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
  • The impact of certain identified value chains on the operations of small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy.”

The Inquiry received extensive submissions from industry stakeholders including large grocery retailers (“larger retailers”), FMCG suppliers, banks, shopping center property developers (“property developers”) and small and independent retailers.  The public hearings of the Inquiry were held in all major cities during April 2017 to November 2017 with further ‘informal hearings’ in smaller towns across South Africa.  The Interim Report was hailed by SACC Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele (“Commissioner”) at the media briefing on 29 May 2019 as the most comprehensive study into all elements of the grocery retail sector.

Industry stakeholders will have a further opportunity to engage with the SACC on the findings of the interim report and to present further written submissions before Friday 28 June 2019. The Final Report is expected to be released on 30 September 2019.

Key Findings

Long Term Exclusive Lease Agreements and Rental Costs

The Inquire placed great emphasis on the practice of long term exclusive lease agreements entered into between large retailers and property developers apropos new shopping malls and other property developments. The Inquiry found that these exclusive lease agreements range for periods of up to 45 years, constituting what the Inquiry termed unnecessary artificial barriers to entry.

A central focus of the Inquiry was the significant market power of the large retailers which enable large retailers to negotiate long term exclusive lease agreements, lower rental fees and more favorable rebates from suppliers.

The Inquiry found that property developers are reliant on the large retailers’ participation in new property developments (as anchor tenants) as they attract customers to the development and are also required by banks and other financial houses to advance funding to property developers. It is noteworthy that the Inquiry found that contrary to the submissions made by large retailers, finance houses do not demand exclusivity (only a fixed terms commitment from an anchor tenant). The practice of exclusivity was introduced by the large retailers as compensation for risk.

The Inquiry found that the prevalence of the long term exclusive lease agreements had the effect of reinforcing the levels of concentration in the market as the ‘process’ repeats itself which each new  development. While this does mean that new competitors are foreclosed from the market, significantly, it also excludes small and independent specialist retailers such as butcheries, bakeries etc, which, according to the Inquiry, deprive consumers of ‘bespoke’ or ‘craft’ products which characterizes the retail sector in other areas of the world.

The Inquiry found the submissions made by the large retailers as ‘not compelling’ and has recommended that:

  • Large retailers immediately cease enforcing exclusivity provisions against specialty stores (which was undertaken by the large retailers); and
  • Exclusivity clauses be ‘phased out’ within 3 years (and no new lease agreements be entered into that contain exclusivity) in order to allow new entrants into developments.

A second but related finding of the Inquiry is that large retailers are able to use their bargaining power to negotiate lower rental fees in property developments which, according to the findings, causes property developers to increase rental fees for small and independent stores in order to ‘recoup’ the discount offered to the large retailers.

The Inquiry heard evidence from a variety of small retailers and specialty stores (as well as property developers) that the higher rental fees in property developments hinders entrance or leads to the failure of small retailers and specialty stores. Interestingly, the Inquiry did not make any recommendations in this regard and, instead, called for further submissions on the commercial realities and possible remedies.

Rebate Structures

The Inquiry found that that the large retailers also enjoy significant market power, compared to independent retailers and wholesalers, as they provide a key route to market for suppliers. Accordingly, the Inquiry found that large retailers are able to extract more favorable trading terms than that which wholesalers and/or buying groups are able to negotiate. Interestingly, however, the Inquiry found that large retailers are able to extract larger rebates than buyer groups, despite the larger volumes purchased by buyer groups.

According to the SACC chief economist, James Hodge, the primary concern is not ‘basic rebates’ which are also available to buyer groups and wholesalers but rather the ‘special retail rebates’ (e.g. distribution center rebates, store opening rebates, advertising rebates etc.) which are not available to wholesalers or buying groups.

In this regard, the Inquiry found that the justification for these ‘special retail rebates’ are unconvincing as the knock-on effect is that the independent retailers or specialty stores at the retail level (who purchase stock from wholesalers and buyer group) face higher costs and cannot compete with the large retailers.

The Inquiry recognizes that rebates are not inherently anti-competitive and can often be justified. The Inquiry further found that the current rebate structures cannot be easily changed without commercial disruption. The Inquiry, therefore, did not make any recommendations and, instead, invited industry stakeholders to engage with the Inquiry in order to address the issue.

Other

The Inquiry also recommend intervention, through regulation, by a “single government department”. The department was not specified due to the uncertainty on whether the Economic Development Department (“EDD”) will remain in its current form. The EDD has now been subsumed into the Department of Trade and Industry (“DTI”), which will be headed by former EDD minister, Minister Ebrahim Patel. The DTI is, therefore, likely to be nominated as the relevant governmental department.

As an alternative, the Inquiry recommend an industry code of conduct, which requires buy in from industry stakeholders to agree on and implement policies which would otherwise cause commercial disruption.  Industry codes appear to be increasingly finding favour with the SACC as a form of soft enforcement. There is currently a draft Code of Conduct published in relation to the Automotive Aftermarket.

In this regard, the SACC Commissioner noted that the grocery retail sector is a sector which is known around the world for being highly regulated and, according to the Inquiry, is not conducive to the levels of concentration experienced in South Africa. The Commissioner, therefore, remarked that the sector cannot wait for the slow and costly process of regulating conduct through enforcement and should, instead, be remedied through ideally am industry code of conduct and/or regulation.

Asked to comment on the impact of the Code, John Oxenham says that “the timing of the Code is noteworthy in light of the Competition Amendment Act and draft buyer power and price discrimination regulations having been published. Dominant entities involved in the FMCG sector, will likely have to carefully evaluate their trading terms to ensure that they are objectively justifiable not only in light of traditional competition law principles but also public interest related objectives“.

Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie concurs with Oxenham and suggests that “while rebates can be anti-competitive, there needs to be robust evidence and a clear theory of harm before an anti-competitive finding. This ordinarily requires a case specific assessment based on the facts at hand which may make ‘industry wide’ reforms difficult to monitor and enforce. Likewise, rebates are nor per se anti-competitive and therefore industry wide reforms or blanket thresholds may have unintended consequences and potentially have adverse effects on consumer welfare.”

Oxenham suggests that a “carefully balanced approach must be taken in this regard, although this appears to be recognized by the SACC“.

It is clear from the Report that industry participants will ultimately need to justify and support any alleged pro-competitive effects based on clear and objective evidence.

 

 

 

Minister Ebrahim Patel will no longer be a Member of Parliament: What does this mean for Competition Policy in South Africa?

According to recent reports, Minister of the Department of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, will not be sworn in as a member of Parliament despite initially being listed on the African National Congress’ (ANC) Members of Parliament list.

[see https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/politics/2019-05-15-ebrahim-patel-and-senzeni-zokwana-fail-to-make-it-back-to-parliament/%5D

Since Cyril Ramaphosa was voted as the ANC’s President, and hence South Africa’s President, there had been increasing speculation regarding where Minister Patel would complement Ramaphosa’s economic policies. With many political commentators initially expected Ramaphosa to relieve Patel of his position as the Minister of Economic Development soon after taking over the presidency reins, it appeared that Patel had convinced Ramaphosa that he was an integral part of the team. Patel even accompanied Ramaphosa as part of the “special economic envoy” on a series of international road shows promoting and encouraging foreign investment in South Africa.

At this stage it is not clear what the reasons are for Patel not forming part of the ANC’s list of Members of Parliament (a prerequisite to serving as a Cabinet Minister unless Patel serves as one of the two non-MP’s allowed to serve in Cabinet) ). Following the national elections on 8 May 2019, however, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is intent on reducing the size of the Cabinet which would necessarily require various government departments and portfolios to be consolidated. It may be that the Department of Economic Development (EDD) is consolidated with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). If this were the case, the South African competition authorities would then also fall under the auspices of the DTI and no longer under the EDD. Many of our readers may recall that the competition authorities previously fell under the policy stewardship of the DTI.

While it may be too early to speculate what the ramifications of Patel’s departure could mean for competition policy and enforcement in South Africa, John Oxenham, director at Primerio, says that “Minister Patel was one of the key proponents behind elevating the role of public interest considerations in merger control. The minister’s intervention in numerous transactions, particularly international deals has resulted in public interest conditions, the scope and nature of which, pushed the outer most limits of what is appropriate in competition policy when assessed against international standards”.

Minister Patel’s reputation for engaging in robust opposition to mergers prompted Ab-Inbev directors to engage directly with Patel rather than the Competition Commission in order to secure public interest related conditions which would placate the Minister – all in the hope of ensuring that the transaction sales through the merger control process unchallenged. Which it largely did.

Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, says that another key element of Patel’s departure relates to the Competition Amendment Act which was signed into law by President Ramaphosa in February 2019. Currie says that “although the Act has been signed into law, the enforcement of a number of the provisions of the Amendment Act remains unclear. For example, there are draft guidelines published in relation to the “price discrimination” and “buyer power” provisions of the Amendment Act which completely do away with any standard of “adverse effect on competition” and even the “consumer welfare” standard is of no relevance when small, medium or historically disadvantaged persons may be affected. Currie says Patel’s departure may spark a fresh round of debate and submissions in relation to the draft regulations. Submissions which previously appeared to largely be ignored by Patel.”

Oxenham echoes Currie’s sentiments and is of the view that the Amendment Act, which was largely driven by Patel, may ultimately be interpreted and enforced by the competition agencies in a manner which is more consistent with international best practice. Of course, this would depend on who replaces Patel and whether there is a different policy view as to the role of competition law in South Africa by Patel’s successor.

A key concern raised by numerous commentators is that the subjectivity of public interest assessments together with the increasing intervention by the executive to extract non-merger specific public interest related conditions, particularly in foreign transactions, does little to boost South Africa’s image as being open to foreign investment.

While the on-going debate of the role of public interest considerations in merger control will continue well beyond Patel’s tenure as Minister of the EDD, the entire South African competition community will be watching closely Ramaphosa’s final Cabinet announcement as this would likely be the clearest indication of whether we could expect a material policy direction change fin South Africa insofar as competition law enforcement is concerned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Africa: Trilogy of Rulings Against the Competition Commission Demonstrates the Importance of Following Proper Procedure

In three recent decisions, two by the Competition Tribunal and one by the Competition Appeal Court, a number of important procedural flaws were exposed in the manner in which certain complaints were initiated against various respondents. The Competition Appeal Court even made an adverse costs order against the Competition Commission in one of the cases. We discuss these important decisions below.

Misjoinder of Parent Company

The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) had recently alleged that Power Construction (West Cape) Pty Ltd (“West Cape”) and Haw and Inglis (Pty) Ltd (“H&I”) colluded in respect of a tender submitted to South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL). The tender was in respect of maintenance services. The SACC alleges both parties had contravened section 4(1)(b)(ii) and (iii) of the South African Competition Act (the “Act”).  The parent company of West Cape, Power Construction (Pty) Ltd (“Power Construction”) was cited as a respondent on the basis that it would be liable to pay the administrative penalty. Power Construction, had engaged in “with prejudice” settlement negotiations.

The SACC refused the proffer and informed Power Construction that after having  considered the settlement proceed that it was clear that Power Construction and West Cape (being the subsidiary of Power Construction) shared a majority of their respective directors which, according to the SACC, was sufficient to implicate Power Construction in the alleged collusive conduct. Accordingly, the SACC alleged that any Administrative Should be calculated using the higher annual turnover figures of Power Construction.

Power Construction disputed this, arguing that it was never alleged by the SACC that Power Construction had contravened the Act. The SACC then opted to amend its referral to include Power Construction. On application to the South African Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”), the Tribunal dismissed the proposed amendment on the basis that the SACC had failed to provide any material evidence to establish a prime facia case in favour the relevant amendment, stating that the burden remains on the applicant to prove that it is deserving of the amendment by putting sufficient factual allegations before the Tribunal.

In conclusion, the Tribunal also confirmed that the amendment could regardless have been rendered excipiable based on prescription. In this matter, the alleged conduct ceased more than three years prior to the Commission becoming aware of the conduct.

Prescription

In a further case, namely the Competition Commission and Pickfords Removals SA, regarding the interpretation of section 67(1) of the Act (namely that dealing with prescription), the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) was very recently called to decide on the correct date for the running of prescription in terms of section 67(1) of the Act.

The SACC (being the appellant in the matter), brought an appeal to the CAC after the Tribunal held that the complaint initiated by the SACC was time barred in terms of section 67 of the Act.

The SACC disputed this and submitted that prescription in terms of section 67 of the Act should only commence from the date on which the Commissioner or Complainant acquired knowledge of the prohibited practice and, alternatively, that the Tribunal has a discretion to condone non-compliance with this 3-year time period. The latter issue was central to the dispute.

The question was further complicated by the fact that the SACC filed two compliant initiations against the respondents. The SACC submitted that the so called ‘second initiation’ was merely an amendment to the first initiation. So the SACC argued, even if the time period had begun running when the practice had stopped, the time period in question would still not have expired.

In this regard, the CAC held that the SACC has the power to amend a compliant initiation and that it must be taken at its word on whether a second initiation is an amendment to the first or a separate and distinct complaint initiation. This is so, particularly where both complaint initiations concern the same conduct, in the same market and where the first complaint initiation states that the conduct is ongoing.

In relation to the issue of prescription, the CAC held that section 67 cannot be equated with section 12 of the South African Prescription Act which provides for prescription to commence  from the moment on which the “creditor acquires knowledge of the identity of the debtor and the relevant fact from which the debt arises”. Section 49B(1) of the Prescription Act provides for a much lower threshold, being the ‘reasonable suspicion of the existence of a prohibited practice’.

Accordingly, it must be accepted that the time bar in section 67 is intended to be a limitation of the Commissioner’s wide ranging powers (to prevent investigation into historic matters which are no longer in the public interest) and that the knowledge requirement contained in the Prescription Act cannot be read into this limitation as argued by the SACC. It follows then, based on this reasoning that there can similarly be no condonation by the Tribunal or the CAC on these matters.

For completeness sake, the CAC confirmed the general understanding that, for purposes of section 67, the alleged prohibited conduct will be deemed to have ceased on the date on which the respondent last benefited from the prohibited conduct (e.g. the date on which it last received payment under the agreement). In this regard, the Tribunal initially ordered the parties to produce evidence of the date on which the last payment was received. The CAC deemed this appropriate and opted not to interfere with this order.

Condonation and Costs

The Tribunal was also called recently upon to decide two interlocutory applications, the first being a condonation application brought by the SACC in terms of section 54 of the Act for the late filing of its revised trial bundle (containing an additional 1221 pages), which was opposed by the respondents (Much Asphalt and Roadmac Surfing) and finally a counter application for costs against the SACC.

In terms of the condonation application, the SACC sought to revise the trial bundle on the basis that the revised trial bundle contained documents which were essential to its case (which were inadvertently omitted from its initial bundle) and had been re-organized in a manner that was less burdensome for all the parties involved. In support, the SACC argued, that the respondents wouldn’t be prejudiced by the late filing as the extra documents had already been discovered.

The Tribunal confirmed that the test for condonation must be ‘good cause shown’ by the SACC which should be assessed on case by case basis. The Tribunal held that the SACC had not shown good cause in this matter as it had ample time to furnish the respondents with the revised bundle and further found that filing the revised bundle at the 11th hour was unnecessarily prejudicial to the respondents.

south_africaIn terms of applications for costs, the respondents sought an order for wasted costs in relation to the postponement due to the late furnishing of the bundle as well as the cost of defending the application for condonation. Importantly it should be borne in mind that the Tribunal does not as a matter of course make cost orders against the SACC.  In this regard, the Constitutional Court has previously held that the Tribunal does not have the powers to make adverse cost orders against the SACC, even where the SACC has abused its powers. The general rule is that the parties pay their own costs. The Tribunal may only make cost orders against third parties and, accordingly, dismissed the respondent’s application for costs.

John Oxenham, director of Primerio says that these cases demonstrate the objectivity and impartiality of the adjudicative bodies which is an encouraging sign for respondents who do not believe that the case brought against them is procedural or substantively fair.

Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says it is unfortunate that only the Competition Appeal Court makes adverse costs rulings and that the Competition Tribunal is precluded from doing so. Adverse costs ruling against the SACC should be reserved for matters in which there was clear negligence in the manner in which a case was investigated, pleaded or prosecuted. Such costs orders would, however, go a long way in ensuring that parties and in particular the prosecution agency, does not refer cases  to the adjudicative bodies (which have limited prospects of success) with no downside risk in losing the case.

Oxenham shares Currie‘s sentiment and suggests that adverse costs orders against the Commission will likely result in a more efficient enforcement regime as cases will be settled more expeditiously and respondents will be more reluctant to oppose the Competition Commission’s complaints with the knowledge that the SACC is confident in its case and prepared to accept the risk of an adverse costs order.

[The Editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this article]

 

 

GCR Matter of the Year 2019 awarded to AG deal with significant African dimension

Primerio’s Merger Team First to Obtain Clearances on Bayer’s $66 Billion Monsanto Acquisition

The Global Competition Review 2019 GCR Awards honoured the companies and their in-house and outside counsel responsible for shepherding the massive agriculture transaction through the multi-jurisdictional merger-control processes around the globe.  The Bayer/Monsanto (with divestitures to BASF) merger garnered overall “Matter of the Year” as well as “Merger Control Matter of the Year” in Europe.  The ceremony took place in Washington, D.C., during the annual ABA Spring Meeting antitrust conference.

The legal team advising St. Louis-based Monsanto on all African competition approvals was led by John Oxenham and Andreas Stargard, ably assisted by attorneys in 4 African jurisdictions — South Africa, COMESA, Tanzania, and Kenya.  The Primerio lawyers had the unique distinction of obtaining the first out of dozens of required clearances.

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham

Monsanto Africa counsel, Stargard and Oxenham, of Primerio

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

By Michael-James Currie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Price Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer Power

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

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

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

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

Examples of unfair trading terms include:

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

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

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

 

 

 

Antitrust Overhaul: South Africa to amend Competition Act today

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to sign the Competition Amendment Bill into law today, February 13, 2019, continuing a busy seven-day streak for major legislative antitrust developments on the continent (see here). The new law will be amending the venerable Competition Act, one of the preëminent antitrust statutes of the continent.  The amendment has been pushed for by Minister for Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel.  The official Presidential commentary on today’s signing notes the novel fights against “concentration and economic exclusion as core challenges” to the country’s growth, as well as the perceived dangers of economic exclusion from major markets of small and black-owned businesses.

As a trio of competition attorneys write in a recent article in the Journal of European Competition Law & Practice, the Amendment Bill alters key provisions of the South African Competition Act focusing specifically on the redistribution of wealth and transformation of ownership in lieu of pursuing traditional antitrust goals.

The Bill provides for greater ministerial intervention at the initial stage of a merger (based on national security), during the merger investigation (based on public-interest grounds) and broadens the right of appeals to parties outside the merger control review.

The Bill lowers the standard that the South African Competition Commission must meet to prosecute cases and foreshadows a risk of increased third-party interventionism more generally.

The departure from a traditional substantial lessening of competition (SLC) test to an adverse effects-based test, which takes public interests considerations into account, is likely to result in the injection of greater subjectivity into the decision-making process and parties’ increased difficulty in self-assessment of conduct particularly in relation to dominant firms.

AAT has published further articles on the topic here, here, and here.

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

SOUTH AFRICA COMPETITION LAW: NEW REGULATIONS RE ACCESS TO RECORD

By Charl van der Merwe

The South African Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel (Minister) last week published the amended Regulation 15 of the Rules for the Conduct of Proceedings in the Competition Commission. The amended regulation is effective from date of publication being 25 January 2019.

The amended Regulation 15 has the effect of restricting access to the Commission’s record and preventing litigants from accessing the Commission’s record for purposes of preparing its defence in a legal matter before any court or administrative body (i.e. the Competition Tribunal).

In terms of the old Rule 15, any person had the right to request access to the Commission’s record, subject to certain rules regarding confidentiality and legal privilege. This led to various cases being brought before the Competition Tribunal and ultimately the Competition Appeal Court (CAC) where respondents requested access to the Commission’s record, prior to pleading and prior to discovery.

Issues regarding the proper interpretation of the old Rule 15 was finally settled by the CAC in the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited v the Competition Commission of South Africa (160/CAC/Nov17) case a mere four months prior to the Minister publishing the draft amended Regulation 15.  See AAT exclusive here

In summary, the CAC in Standard Bank confirmed its earlier judgement in the Group 5 case and held that any member of the public (regardless of whether it is also a litigant/respondent in proceedings before the Tribunal) must be granted access to the Commission’s record within a ‘reasonable time’. The CAC made clear that a member of the public’s right to access the Commission’s record should not be prejudiced by the fact that such an applicant is also a litigant.

Furthermore, the CAC also rejected the Commission’s argument that a reasonable time for purposes of producing its record to a litigant would be at the time of discovery (after pleadings have closed).

The amended Regulation 15 in direct conflict with the CAC’s ruling and further states that any record obtained in a manner that contravenes the Regulation 15 (i.e. in that the record was requested by and provided to a litigant) will not be admissible as evidence unless the court or administrative body finds that the exclusion of the record would be against the interests of justice.

In order to ensure compliance with the right to access to information in the Constitution, the amended Regulation 15 states that a litigant may request access or the production of the record through means of any other laws or rules of any court, including the Tribunal.

The Tribunal Rules deal only with information which has been submitted to the Tribunal and will not contain the Commission’s record prior to discovery (which is when the Commission contents a record must be made available to the respondents).

Furthermore, requiring a litigant to request access to the Commission’s record through means of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2002 (PAIA) is simply a shifting of the goalpost, effectively by passing the Competition Tribunal and CAC (which is bound by the CAC’s prior legal precedent). In terms of PAIA an individual or organisation (requester) must apply (by way of a specific form) to the relevant government body. If refused, the applicant must then request an internal appeal (which must be concluded within 30 days) and, only after the applicant has exhausted the internal appeal procedure, may the applicant apply to the High Court for access to the record.

The amended Regulation 15, therefore, effectively means that a litigant must now apply to the High Court (as opposed to the specialist Competition Tribunal and CAC) for access to the Commission’s record in instances where it is a litigant/respondent and where the Commission refuses to allow the litigant/respondent access to its record.

According to competition lawyer Michael-James Currie, while the amendment to Rule 15 is clearly motivated to preclude litigants accessing the Commission’s record prior to pleading, what is less clear is why granting litigants access to their record is such a contentious aspect from the Commission’s perspective. Presumably, the Commission  only refers cases for prosecution once it is in possession of sufficient evidence to sustain the allegations (at least on a prima facie basis). A respondent may, therefore, be better placed to gauge whether to oppose a complaint referral or settle the complaint referral once it has been provided with access to the record. This, says Currie, would go a long way to ensuring matters are resolved expeditiously as opposed to protracted litigation – particularly when the respondents’ representatives and decision makers have no knowledge of the alleged conduct or the conduct is historic, as firms are generally reluctant to settle a case unless they are fully aware of the evidence against it. Providing access to the Commission’s record would more likely result in the expeditious resolution of cases as opposed to being exploited by respondents. It will also ensure that the level of investigatory work is of the highest standard if respondents are granted access to the record prior to pleading.

Whether there are any constitutional challenges to the Regulations remains to be seen.