Mauritius: Competition Commission orders VISA and MasterCard to lower interchange fees

[By Michael-James Currie]

On 13 August 2019, the Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has, following a lengthy investigation, ordered VISA and MasterCard (Respondents) to reduce their banking interchange fees from 1% to 0,5%.

The CCM found that the Respondents set an interchange fee of 1% which in turn led to higher merchant fees. As a consequence, the interchange fee were found to have hampered the incentive for banks to issue credit/debit cards and to provide card facilities to merchants. This led to either some merchants electing not to have card accepting facilities or to increase the final price to consumers.

The high interchange fees were found by the CCM to impede competition between banks and in particular, the ability of smaller “acquirer” banks to compete with more established banks.

In determining the 0,5% “fee cap”, the CCM noted that the respondents offered a 0,5% interchange fee for payments at petrol stations and that the lower interchange fee applicable to petrol station payments has had positive effects.

The executive director of the CCM, Mr Deshmuk Kowlessur, stated that:

“The decision of the Commission requiring VISA and MasterCard to limit the interchange fees to a maximum of 0.5% is likely to reshape the competition landscape in the local payment card market. The reduction of the interchange fees will open-up the market for existing and  potential banking and other financial institutions to offer acquiring services to merchants.  At the same time, the two dominant banks will have to compete more rigorously. A  new dynamism  in  the local payment  card  market  is  likely  to encourage  existing  competitors  and  new  entrants  to  offer innovative  services.  The resulting lower merchant service commission will encourage card-acceptance by merchants and thus offer card users the convenience, security and lower costs of settling their transactions.  It can also be expected that consumers can benefit from lower prices of goods and services, as merchants’ cost of transaction will be reduced with lower merchant service commission. At the end, the  reduction  in  the  interchange  fee  will  bring  more competition  in  the  payment  card  market and positively impact  on trade,  commerce  and  economic development.”

The decision by the CCM is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The CCM’s findings is based on an abuse of dominance case by “setting a high interchange fee”. The CMM’s reasons (at those which are publicly available) do not, however, provide any indication of the benchmark used for finding that the prices were “high”. Unlike traditional excessive pricing cases (which are notoriously difficult to prosecute), the CMM does not set out the requisite test which should be used for purposes of determining whether a price is “high” (or excessive). The media release published by the CCM appears to suggest that the conduct amounted to a “collective dominance” / tacit collusion type of case without expressly stating as much.

John Oxenham, director at Primerio, says that the CCM’s remedy is noteworthy as “the CCM is for all practical purposes acting as a price regulator which is traditionally not the role of competition authorities“.

VISA and MasterCard have, however, indicated that they will appeal the CCM’s findings before the Supreme Court.

[Primerio specializes in providing competition law advice to clients across Africa including Mauritius]

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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]

 

 

KENYA: ENFORCEMENT ALERT

Restrictive Practices

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) recently announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with local beer producer Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL), a subsidiary of UK Diageo’s East African Breweries Ltd (EABL).

The settlement follows from an investigation by the CAK in terms of section 21 of the Competition Act (12 of 2010) wherein the CAK had found that KBL’s distribution agreements with its downstream distributors – which provides for inter alia, territorial exclusivity  – is anti-competitive and may lead to the lessening of intra-brand competition.

The settlement was reached in terms of section 38 of the Competition Act and requires that KBL establish an internal compliance policy and review and amend the problematic and restrictive clauses in its agreements with distributors.

Michael-James Currie, an African focused competition lawyer, says that the decision is particularly important for companies which use third parties to execute their distribution strategies as the majority of distribution agreements contain restrictions of some kind (often transported from international distribution agreements) which will need to be assessed against the standards of the Competition Act in Kenya as the CAK is actively focusing on these types of restrictive verticals arrangements.

Abuse of Dominance

Styles Industries (Darling Kenya)

Braids supplier, Styles Industries Ltd (Styles) has been found guilty by the CAK for abuse of dominance in contravention of Section 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK launched an investigation into Styles on the basis of a complaint received by a competitor in the market, Solpia Kenya, claiming that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair selling prices and conditions on suppliers who sell its products.

The CAK’s investigation found that Styles had abused its dominance by imposing unfair trading conditions on its downstream suppliers which it sought to enforce through threatening its downstream suppliers with account closure, removal of discounts and refusal to supply products.

The CAK is currently in negotiations with the parties and have indicated that its finding could result in Styles paying the complainant an amount in damages and/or a fine Sh10 million. In terms of Section 54(3) of the Competition Act, the relevant individuals within Styles could further face imprisonment for a period of up to 5 years.

Kaluworks

The CAK dismissed an abuse of dominance case against cookware manufacturer, Kaluworks Limited (Kaluworks).

The case emanated from a complaint by rival company, Sufuria World (Sufuria) in which it was alleged that Kaluworks had refused to sell to them certain aluminum circles which it required for purposes of manufacturing its aluminum cooking ports. This, Sufuria claimed, amounted to an abuse of dominance in terms of section 23 and 24 of the Competition Act.

The CAK, however, found that the conduct did not amount to abuse of dominance under the Competition Act as Sufuria had other options available to it in that it had the ability to replicate the technologies used by Kaluworks to produce the aluminum circles (as other manufacturers have done) or it could increase its order volumes in order to make it economically feasible for Kaluworks to supply it with the aluminum circles.

This finding was based on the representations made by Kaluworks that:

  • it primarily produces aluminum circles for in-house production for a variety of its own cookware products intended for local and export markets; and
  • it could only manufacture the aluminum circles to third parties where such third parties placed an order which met certain minimum quantities that would guarantee optimal scale of production

In supporting its findings, the CAK stated that in assessing the conduct of a dominant firm and whether it amounts to a ‘refusal to deal’, “is necessary to prove indispensability of the facility to the operation of the complainant or other third parties as arbitrary intervention may hurt innovation.

Market Inquiries

Transport Inquiry

The CAK has recently announced that it has initiated a ‘regional study’ in the Shipping, Trucking and Haulage industry in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

According to the announcement, the objective of the inquiry is to identify and remedy features of the market and trade practices which are anti-competitive and which impedes the national and intra-regional trade which in terms slows the potential growth of the manufacturing sector in Kenya.

Leasing Sector

The CAK has further announced a market study into the leasing sector which it will be conducting in conjunction with the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya.

The objective of the market study is to assess the level of competition in the sector and to identify areas of concern in order to enhance competition in the market by facilitating SME entrants into the market.

John Oxenham, director at African antitrust advisory firm Primerio, says that market inquiries can be used very effectively, however, they are resource intensive and in order to achieve there objectives must be concluded expeditiously. The CAK should be cognizant of the challenges and experiences of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) where the market inquiries are not being concluded timeously.

[The editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this update]

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.

KENYA: BUYER POWER

By Michael-James Currie

[Michael-James Currie is a competition lawyer practicing across multiple African jurisdictions]

Kenya has in some respects become the leading African authority in the regulation of buyer power in December 2016 when it adopted specific legislative provisions on buyer power through its competition law framework.

The CAK has long viewed buyer power as a concern as in its view, unequal bargaining power, particularly in the retail sector has had serious anti-competitive effects in the market, leading to the foreclosure of suppliers, particularly in the retail sector.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) formally initiated a market inquiry into the branded retail sector, with one of its key objectives being the bargaining power between retails and their suppliers. See the ATT exclusive here

Ostensibly in light of the identified concerns, the CAK assisted in developing a new industry code (which is being proposed in terms of the Kenya Trade Development Bill). In terms of the industry code, retailers are prohibited inter alia from:

  • Making late payments to suppliers;
  • Forcing suppliers to contribute to marketing costs;
  • Forcing suppliers to pay for shrinkage;
  • Unilaterally terminating commercial agreements (without reasonable notice and on good cause);
  • Imposing unfair risk/liability on suppliers.

The purpose of the code of practice is to encourage self-regulation and harmonise retailers’ and suppliers’ ways of engagement and in so doing, also apply international best practice applicable to the Kenyan situation,” says Kenya Trade Principal Secretary Chris Kiptoo

The industry code also establishes a Retail Trade Dispute Settlement Committee, who will act as an industry ombudsman to settle disputes arising out of the code.

The CAK also formed a specific ‘Buyer Power Unit’ within the CAK to oversee market conduct and to enforce compliance with the buyer power provisions of the Kenya Competition Act which attracts a sanction of imprisonment for a period not exceeding 5 years and/or a fine of Sh10million. Previously, the CAK had limited powers to intervene in commercial dealings between retailers and suppliers.  Ruth Mosoti, director of Primerio Kenya says with the code, together with the provisions of the Competition Act, “we are bound to see an increase in enforcement action by the CAK given that the legal framework is in place as well as the fact that the ‘Buyer Power’ department is fully operational”.

Further south, the South African Department of Economic Development has published draft guidelines on buyer power, in terms of the South African Competition Amendment Bill. The Bill and Draft Guidelines, prohibits a dominant firm 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 similarly an offence for the dominant firm to refuse to or avoid purchasing from such a supplier.

According to Andreas Stargard, also at Primerio, these latest developments are in line with the broader public interest initiatives which are increasingly prevalent in African competition enforcement. African competition authorities have identified competition enforcement as a key to driving growth in African economies through the protection and inclusion of local and small businesses.

The role of public interest in competition law enforcement has made competition compliance in these jurisdictions particularly complex as quantifying socio-economic effects is a particularly subjective exercise, says John Oxenham.

South Africa: Competition Tribunal Fines Computicket for Abusing its Dominance

By Charl van der Merwe

On 21 January 2019, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), ruled in favour of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) who prosecuted Computicket (Pty) Ltd. (Computicket) for abuse of dominance in contravention of the Competition Act.

The Tribunal ruled that Computicket had abused its dominance, in contravention of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act (which prohibits dominant entities from inducing customer or suppliers not to deal with competitors) by engaging in exclusionary conduct and fined the company R20 million (approximately US$1.44 million), payable within 60 days.

In terms of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act, exclusionary conduct is prohibited unless the dominant firm can show that the anti-competitive effect of the exclusionary conduct is outweighed by technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gains.

The SACC referred the complaint to the Tribunal in April 2010 after its investigation found that Computicket had entered into long term exclusive agreements with customers for the period 2005 to 2010 (immediately after being acquired by a large South African retailer, Shoprite), thereby excluding new entrants from entering the market. At the hearing of the matter, the SACC produced evidence that Computicket entered into these agreements shortly after being acquired and that employees vigorously enforced the exclusive agreements, particularly when new entrants sought to enter the market.

Computicket denied the allegations, arguing that its long term exclusive contracts had no anti-competitive effects as it was offering a superior service and the exclusive contracts were necessary to safeguard against reputational risks.

The Tribunal rejected the argument on the basis that:

  • Computicket had a near monopoly in the market;
  • there was limited market entry during the relevant period which coincided with the introduction of the longer term exclusivity contracts; and
  • no other theory was put forward as to why entry into the market was so limited and ineffectual.

The Tribunal, however, limited the period of the conduct to that period for which the SACC managed to produce conclusive evidence of anti-competitive effects.

The Tribunal found that while some of the anti-competitive effects were inconclusive, the evidence suggesting that the foreclosure of the market to competition during the period (coupled with the cumulative effect of the other inconclusive theories) is sufficient to prove an anti-competitive effect on a balance of probabilities.

According to John Oxenham, director at Primerio,  the Tribunal’s decision followed  largely on the same principles which were set out in the South African Airways case some years earlier. In terms of principles set out in SAA, the SACC was required to prove that the conduct of a dominate firm constitutes an exclusionary act as defined in section 8(1)(d) and, if so, that the exclusionary act has an anti-competitive effect. In other words, whether the conduct resulted in harm to consumer welfare or was “substantial or significant” in that it led to the foreclosing of market rivals. It is then for the respondent to justify its conduct based on a rule of reason analysis.

Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says that although there have been a limited number of abuse of dominance cases in South Africa which have successfully been prosecuted, companies with high market shares should take particular cognizance of the Tribunal’s decision. Tackling abuse of dominance cases is very much on the SACC’s radar and the Competition Amendment Bill (expected to be introduced in early 2019) will assist the SACC in prosecuting abuse of dominance cases by introducing thresholds divorced of competition or consumer welfare standards and placing a reverse onus on respondents to justify its conduct (particularly in relation to the excessive pricing, price discrimination and buyer power prohibitions).

Currie says that over and above the administrative penalty, companies found to have contravened section 8 of the Act are potentially at risk from a civil liability perspective. In this regard, both Currie and Oxenham point to the SAA case which resulted in Comair and Nationwide successfully claiming damages in the first follow-on damages case in South Africa for abuse of dominance conduct.

It appears that Computicket will take the Tribunal’s decision on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court.