Restriction on parallel imports gets red-lighted by CAK

Enforcement Update: Kenya Exemption Applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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South Africa: Competition Appeal Court Sends Strong “Passive Participation” Message

Competitors Beware of Industry Gatherings

By Charl van der Merwe

On 19 December 2016, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) handed down judgment in the Omnico (Pty) Ltd; Cool Heat Agencies (Pty) Ltd vs The Competition Commission & Others matter.

The judgment details an application brought by two respondents who sought to challenge the Competition Tribunal’s finding that their participation at industry association meetings amounted to cartel conduct, despite the appellants’ contention that they did not actively participate in any anticompetitive discussions and were effectively passive participants at the meetings.

The CAC had to decide on whether or not silent participation by firms at an industry  meeting or forum of competitors where cartel activity was discussed amounts to a contravention in terms of section 4(1)(b)(i) of the Competition Act, Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”).

south_africaSection 4 of the Act provides that “An agreement between, or concerted practice by, firms, or a decision by an association of firms, is prohibited if it is between parties in a horizontal relationship and if – (a) it has the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in a market, unless a party to the agreement, concerted practice, or decision can prove that any technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gain resulting from it outweighs that effect”.

The Appellants are wholesalers that supply bicycle and bicycle accessories to the retail trade. The appellants attended a series of industry meetings together with various retailers and wholesalers of bicycles and bicycle accessories to discuss ways in which retailers could increase retail margins. This the CAC found was achieved by the wholesalers agreeing to increase the Recommended Retail Price, (“RRP”) for the various products sold.

In this particular case, the RRP increase was scheduled to take place on the 1st of October.

Though the appellants both increased their RRP on the effective date, the crux of the matter and the point the appellants placed great reliance on was the contention that they never actively participated in the industry meetings.

smoke_filled_room_smallThe CAC in dismissing the appeal held that it was clear that there was a cartel and that due to the complex and clandestine nature of cartel conduct, the Commission merely had to show sufficient evidence that in its entirety proves that the appellants were part of that cartel. The Commission was not required to scrutinise and evaluate each and every activity or discussion at the various meetings, and it was up to the appellants to put forward rebuttal evidence to establish that their participation at the meetings lacked any intention on their part to be a party to the collusive conduct.

Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that, “importantly, the CAC confirmed that the standard of proof in competition law cases is lower than that of contract and common law — a wink and a nod may in the smoke-filled-room, under the right circumstances, be sufficient proof to show collusion among competitors.  To prove a cartel, there is no need to apply the rigid principles of contract law, determining whether a meeting of the minds was reached, or to prove formal offer and acceptance in order to show that a collusive agreement was reached.”

Furthermore, he says,“the CAC found that the evidence put forward by the Commission need only be ‘sufficiently precise, consistent and convincing’ — not necessarily the ‘clear and convincing‘ evidentiary standard generally required in terms of common law.”

In addition, the CAC noted that there is no need for a single pressing piece of conduct to show that an anticompetitive arrangement has been entered into, but that the authorities will consider the cumulative effect of conduct whether active or passive in order to determine whether, on a holistic approach, the respondents had entered into a collusive agreement.

The CAC held that although the appellants did not express agreement at the meeting, the appellants did not ‘publicly’ distance themselves from the collusive proposals put forward at the meetings.

Accordingly, the CAC found that:

  • there was consensus reached at the meeting and the appellants failed to distance themselves from the discussions;
  • neither appellants gave any indication that they disagreed with the consensus reached at the meeting nor that they would not proceed along the lines as agreed during the meeting;
  • that at the very least (without even increasing their prices on the effective date) the appellants would have passively benefitted from the conduct resulting from that collusive arrangement; and
  • that neither of the appellants placed any evidence before the CAC to prove that they priced independently.

In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that firms who attend industry association meetings, forums or the like, are obliged to take active steps to denounce any anticompetitive discussions which may have taken place at such meetings.

Once a firm is party to any anticompetitive discussions, the onus rests on that firm to actively distance itself from such discussions – this is so irrespective of whether a collusive arrangement is implemented or not. It is not clear what steps need to be taken to satisfactorily distance oneself from such discussions, although it must be a ‘public’ denouncement. This could be interpreted as indicating that firms may be obliged to report to the authorities any collusive arrangements which they wish to actively distance themselves from.

Drastic price increase could be sign of collusion or dominance: Dangote in Nigeria

Close-knit trade group and dominant cement manufacturer prove to be (price-)explosive combination

 Our friends at Songhai Advisory, a business intelligence firm covering key parts of Africa, have released a brief market-intel note addressing the 44% price hike of cement in Nigeria, led by the country’s (and indeed soon also the continent’s) dominant manufacturer, the Dangote group.

Any discussion of Nigeria — still Africa’s largest economy measured by GDP — in the competition-law context must begin with the surprising fact that the country’s political leadership still has failed to institute any antitrust regime.  Says Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa-focused Pr1merio law group:

“As the continent’s economic leader, Nigeria is a lone beacon of failure to police anti-competitive practices, whereas a multitude of significantly smaller African jurisdictions have had competition laws for years or even decades.  The recent price developments of Nigerian concrete are merely one example of the negative impact on consumers where there are no antitrust rules in effect.  Notably, an industry trade association also appears to be involved here, so from the competition point of view, we are dealing not only with one dominant entity (Dangote) but also an efficient and time-tested mechanism of information-sharing among direct competitors (trade groups).

 

The price increase covered the entire Nigerian cement market, according to Songhai and other media reports: cement prices of the members of the Cement Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (CMAN) rose over the course of a month by 44% from US$5 to $7 per 50kg.  Adds Stargard, “any competent antitrust enforcer would look into such a price hike.  Given the absence of competition law enforcement in Nigeria, it is likely that no investigation will take place, and civil suits are highly unlikely, in light of the lack of antitrust laws and the political connections at play here.”  In the words of Songhai’s reporting: “When Dangote decides to push its price up or down, others tend to follow.”  Yet, the researchers also quote a source at Sokoto Cement, one of Dangote’s main rivals, as describing power generation costs and foreign-exchange fluctuations as the actual drivers behind the drastic recent cement price increases.