SA Airlink referred to Tribunal for Engaging in Alleged Excessive and Predatory Pricing Conduct

By Stephany Torres

The Competition Commission (Commission) has referred SA Airlink, a privately owned regional feeder airline, to the Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) for prosecution on charges of excessive and predatory pricing in relation to a specified domestic route in South Africa (Johannesburg-Mthatha).  The Commission was prompted to investigate the matter after receiving complaints lodged by Khwezi Tiya‚ Fly Blue Crane and the OR Tambo District Chamber of Business between 2015 and 2017.

The Commission found SA Airlink to be dominant in the market for the provision of flights on the Johannesburg-Mthatha route and further found that SA Airlink contravened the Competition Act by abusing this dominance from September 2012 to August 2016 by charging excessive prices on the route to the detriment of consumers in contravention of Section 8(a) of the Competition Act no 89 of 1998 (“the Competition Act”).  The Competition Act defines an “excessive price” as a price for a good or service “which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of that good or service and is higher than the value referred to in 8(a)”.

SA country flag outlineAn additional requirement which the Commission will need to demonstrate in order to succeed with an excessive pricing complaint is that the “excessive pricing” was to the detriment of consumers.  In this regard the Commission found that consumers would have saved between R89 million and R108 million had SA Airlink not priced excessively on this route.  Furthermore, lower prices would also have resulted in more passengers traveling by air on the route‚ possibly contributing to the local economy of Mthatha.

The Commission also found SA Airlink to have engaged in predatory pricing to exclude a competitor from the market in contravention of section 8(c) and Section 8(d)(iv) of the Competition Act. In this regard, the Commission alleges that prior to Fly Blue Crane entering the market, SA Airlink had charged excessive prices. When Fly Blue Crane entered the route, SA Airlink allegedly reduced its prices below its average variable costs and average avoidable costs for some of its flights and then subsequently, after Fly Blue Crane stooped flying the relevant route, SA Airlink reverted to their alleged excessive prices.

The Commission went further to say that the effect of the predation is also likely to deter future competition on this route from other airlines which would also be to the detriment of consumers.

The Competition Act provides for an administrative penalty of up to 10% of SA Airlink’s annual turnover for contravention of Section 8. The Commission stated that “it will seek the maximum administrative penalty before the Tribunal”.

In addition‚ the Commission has asked the Tribunal “to determine other appropriate remedies in order to correct the conduct“.

Michael-James Currie, a competition lawyer, notes that “in addition to the potential administrative liability, should SA Airlink be found by the Tribunal to have abused its dominance, SA Airlink may also face civil damages claims similar to those which Nationwide and Commair successfully instituted against South African Airways (SAA) following the Tribunal’s decision that SAA had engaged in abuse of dominance conduct”.

John Oxenham, a director of Primerio and editor of the recently published book “Class Action Litigation in South Africa”, states that “this case may potentially also result in class action litigation if the Commission is correct in its quantification of the harm caused to consumers”.

The Competition Commission’s case against Airlink comes at an interesting juncture in light of the recently published Competition Amendment Bill. Andreas Stargard, also a director at Primerio notes that the underlying motivation for the proposed amendments to the abuse of dominance provisions is to assist the Commission in prosecuting dominant firms (by placing the onus on a dominant firm to demonstrate that its conduct is pro-competitive). The case against Airlink, however, will be decided in terms of the current regime as the Amendment Bill has not yet been brought into effect.

For further information and insight into excessive pricing and predatory pricing cases in South Africa, AAT has previously published papers on the Competition Appeal Court’s decision in Sasol (the seminal excessive pricing case in South Africa) and the Media 24 cases (the first successfully prosecuted case based on a predation theory of harm).

 

 

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South African Competition Tribunal Rules against Wal-Mart in South Africa on “Exclusive Leases”

By Michael-James Currie

On 13 February 2018, the South African Competition Tribunal ruled against Massmart Holdings, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart in relation to a complaint filed by Massmart against three of South Africa’s largest grocery retailers (as well as the South African Property Owners Association – who did not actively participate in the hearing).

The history of the complaint dates back to 2014, when Massmart submitted a complaint to the Competition Commission alleging that the exclusive lease agreements which the respondents had concluded with the relevant landlords in respect of shopping malls were exclusionary and contravened the South African Competition Act. The Competition Commission elected not to refer the matter to the Competition Tribunal and dismissed Massmart’s complaint based on a lack of evidence demonstrating any anti-competitive effects.

Massmart proceeded to refer the complaint itself to the Competition Tribunal in 2015 (which is permissible only if the Competition Commission elects not to refer the matter to the Tribunal) on the basis that the respondents had contravened Section 5(1) of the Competition Act — which prohibits any vertical arrangement which has anti-competitive effects and which cannot be outweighed by pro-competitive efficiency enhancing justifications.

Massmart’s case against the respondents was essentially that the respondent retailers had entered into long term lease agreements with landlords of various shopping centres which contained exclusivity provisions effectively precluding (or limiting) competing retailers from entering that same shopping centre.  In other words, the crux of Massmart’s complaint was that Massmart could not enter into a number of shopping centres in a manner which would enable Massmart to compete with the incumbent retailers.

Although the respondents raised a number of exceptions to the Massmart complaint (including the “non-citation” of the relevant landlords who are parties to the respective lease agreements), the Tribunal did not need to rule on these exceptions. The Tribunal dismissed the complaint on the basis that Massmart did not prove that the exclusivity provisions contained in the lease agreements resulted in anti-competitive effects in the relevant market.

In conducting its assessment, the Tribunal considered whether the “exclusive leases” are likely to either:

  1. have an adverse impact on consumer welfare; or
  2. lead to the foreclosure of a rival in the market.

Central to the Tribunal’s assessment was the appropriate definition of the “relevant market”. In this regard, the Tribunal found that Massmart had not properly demonstrated that each shopping mall constituted a separate geographic market.

Assuming that the relevant geographic market is the boundaries of a shopping mall,  the Tribunal went on to state that Massmart’s complaint was not supported by sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there would be a “substantial lessening of competition” in that market. In this regard, the Tribunal confirmed that the mere exclusion of a rival does not equate to a “substantial lessening of competition” – particularly if there is at least one other competitor in the relevant market – which based on the evidence appeared to be the case in a number of circumstances.

In relation to an alternative proposition put forward by Massmart, the Tribunal considered whether the “exclusive leases” would lead to anti-competitive effects in the “national market”. Again, the Tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence pleaded to demonstrate that there was a substantial lessening of competition on the national market. Importantly, however, the Tribunal indicated that the respondent retailers appear to impose a competitive constraint on each other in the national market – assuming that there is in fact a competition dimension at a ‘national level’.

The Tribunal’s decision does not therefore go as far as confirming that ‘exclusive leases’ between retailers and shopping malls are inherently pro-competitive, but rather that parties seeking to demonstrate the anti-competitive effects of the ‘exclusivity arrangements’ must do so with credible theories of harm which is supported with the necessary evidence.

The Tribunal’s decision comes at an interesting juncture in light of the current market inquiry being conducted by the Competition Commission in the grocery retail sector. One of the key objectives of the market inquiry is to assess the anti-competitive effects of “exclusive leases”. The Competition Commission is scheduled to finalise its market inquiry in 2018 following which the SACC will make recommendations to Parliament to remedy any potential anti-competitive features of South Africa’s grocery retail sector.

In relation to international precedent, the UK’s competition agency adopted a view that “exclusive leases” are not anti-competitive per se but rather that the duration of the exclusivity provisions contained in lease agreements should be curtailed. Accordingly, exclusivity provisions in the UK are limited to five years. The Australian agency (the ACCC), after conducting a public inquiry into various features of the grocery retail sector, concluded that exclusive lease provisions may be justified in ‘developing areas’ but are unlikely to be justified in ‘metropolitan areas’.

Accordingly, it remains to be seen whether the Competition Commission will propose that any remedial action be taken to address exclusive leases agreements in the context of the South African grocery retail sector (following the conclusion of the market inquiry) or whether Massmart (and/or other complainants) will look to reformulate a complaint to the Tribunal and focus on specific shopping malls as opposed to an overarching complaint against the existence of exclusivity provisions.

Importantly, however, in light of the Tribunal’s finding that Massmart was not able to sufficiently plead and support an argument that the exclusive leases were likely to lead to anti-competitive effect in any defined market, it was unnecessary to consider whether there are any pro-competitive arguments or economic justifications which would outweigh any anti-competitive effects.

[Michael-James Currie is an admitted attorney of the High Court of South Africa and advises clients on competition law matters across sub-Saharan Africa]

Enforcement Alert: MU Competition Commission to Permit Cartel Initiators to Seek Leniency

The Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has announced changes to its leniency programme. Though the CCM did have a functioning leniency programme in place since its inception in 2009, the it was often criticised as being inadequate.

Competition lawyer John Oxenham notes that under the existing programme, firms which were found to be cartel ‘initiators’ (an enterprise which has coerced others into a collusive agreement) did not qualify to receive any immunity or other benefit.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

Oxenham believes that this had led to uncertainty and prevented companies from applying for leniency (which required full disclosure of anti-competitive conduct), as firms may be unsure whether or not they would be considered to be ‘instigators’ (and so be disqualified from receiving immunity from prosecution). This meant that firms often had to weigh the risk of being considered an ‘initiator’ against the risk of prosecution to ultimately decide on whether to apply for leniency.

The CCM had previously identified this aspect as a potential area of concern, which led to the temporary special amnesty programmes under which firms who believed themselves to be ‘initiators’ could apply for leniency. This, according to the CCM, led to various successful leniency applications and related prosecutions.

In its media release of 23 January 2018, CCM executive director Deshmuk Kowlessure stated that “[w]ith respect to leniency programmes, we have observed that several advanced competition authorities have adopted leniency for cartel initiators and coercers…” “Likewise, the CCM has taken a step beyond traditional leniency programmes and we are now extending the possibility for initiators or coercers to apply for leniency.”

The recent amendment, therefore, seeks to formalise the CCM’s previous (temporary) amnesty programme for ‘initiators’ by allowing them to approach the CCM for leniency in return for a 50% reduction in the administrative penalty otherwise payable, says fellow Primerio Ltd. antitrust attorney Andreas Stargard.  “This level of fine reduction is in line with what the CCM has been offering in the past to leniency applicants who were not ‘first through the door’.  Unlike certain other countries, such as the United States, where the Department of Justice offers leniency benefits only to the first successful applicant, Mauritius allows for successive, reduced penalties to subsequent amnesty seekers.”

Corporate leniency policies are widely considered to be the most effective tool in the prosecution of cartel conduct. The CCM’s decision to include ‘initiators’ among those eligible to participate, therefore, not only strengthens its leniency programme but is also a significant step towards the prosecution and enforcement of cartel conduct in Mauritius, as more leniency applications directly imply more prosecutions of fellow cartelists.

Oxenham notes that the inclusion of initiators into the CCM’s official corporate leniency policy is welcomed from a business perspective, as it alleviates the concerns prospective leniency applicants may have previously had: “It will certainly lead to an increase in the amount of leniency applications received by the CCM”.

According the CCM’s media release, its guideline for leniency applicants will be amended accordingly and an explanatory note will be made available on its website in due course.

South African Competition Tribunal Finds in Favour of Ster-Kinekor in Market Allocation Case

The South African Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) last week dismissed a complaint referred to it by the Competition Commission (“the Commission”) in 2009 which alleged that two rival cinemas, Primedia’s Ster-Kinekor Theatres and Avusa’s Nu-Metro Entertainment (Pty) Ltd, which operate in the market for the exhibition of films at the V&A Waterfront shopping complex in Cape Town, engaged in market allocation by agreeing not to screen the same film genres in contravention of section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Competition Act[1].

The Commission initiated the complaint after Avusa applied for conditional immunity and provided evidence of the existence of a settlement agreement, which was made an order of court in 1998, between Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor. In terms of the settlement agreement, Ster-Kinekor agreed not to exhibit any films identified as “commercial films” and Nu Metro would not exhibit any films identified as “art films” at the V&A waterfront.

The two companies first signed the ‘non-compete’ settlement agreement in May 1998, before section 4 of the Competition Act (which prohibits cartel conduct) became effective. Section 4 of the Competition Act only became effective as at 1 September 1999.

The Tribunal dismissed the complaint on the basis that the settlement agreement was concluded before the Competition Act came into operation and Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro could only be found guilty of a contravention if there was evidence of actions or discussions between them directed at actually implementing the agreement after the Competition Act came into force.

In this regard cross-examination of witnesses revealed that while leniency applicant Nu Metro had attempted to invoke the settlement once after the Competition Act came into force, Ster-Kinekor employees “did not know about the… agreement, did not implement it, and had not implemented it before”, the Tribunal stated.

The Tribunal did not deal with Primedia’s other defence that no relief could be granted against Primedia because Primedia had only purchased Ster-Kinekor in 2008, so could not be liable for the actions of its predecessor.

John Oxenham, a South African competition lawyer, said that “the case confirms that the Competition Act does not apply retrospectively and some form of understanding or agreement (in essence a “new” agreement) needs to arise between the parties after the Act came into force for the conduct to be unlawful”.  He believes that although the Tribunal mentioned that there needs to be some implementation of the agreement after the Competition Act came into force, what they are actually saying or should be saying is that it is not the implementation which is necessary but the arising of a “new” agreement between the parties which is essential.

Section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Competition Act is a per se offence and an agreement does not need to be implemented in order to contravene the market allocation prohibitions.

Accordingly, the Tribunal has to some extent blurred the distinction between a ‘lack of implementation’ and the duty to distance oneself from a ‘prohibited agreement’.

 

ENFORCEMENT ALERT: SOUTH AFRICAN COMPETITION COMMISSION INVESTIGATE COLLUSIVE TENDERING CASE

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently referred a complaint investigation to the South African Competition (Tribunal) regarding a complaint lodged by South African power utility, Eskom in March 2016 vis-á-vis contracts for the supply and installation of scaffolding and thermal insulation for Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power station.

The companies involved are: Waco Africa‚ acting through its subsidiary SGB Cape‚ Tedoc Industries‚ Mtsweni Corrosion Control and Superfecta Trading‚ and three joint ventures involving these companies.

According to the SACC, SGB submitted multiple tenders (in its individual capacity and through the various joint ventures) which were all signed by the same individual (and which contained identical “Safety‚ financial‚ technical and quality document”) which it used to manipulate tender prices.

Interestingly, the complaint was subsequently withdrawn by Eskom when Matshela Koko (Koko) took over as interim CEO. The SACC, however, exercised its rights in terms of Rule 16 of the Competition Act to continue the investigation despite the complaint being withdrawn.

Notably, Koko has been the subject of various investigations into allegations of corruption, which included allegations that Koko allegedly engaged in tender rigging in awarding tenders to a company in which some members of his family had interests, without following proper process.

Collusive tendering is a contravention under section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act (89 of 1998) (which is a per se contravention) and can lead to an administrative penalty of up to 10% of turnover and more recently, criminal prosecution. Collusive tendering also falls under the definition of corruption under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (12 of 2004).

Firms are therefore urged to ensure that their employees are aware of the provisions of the Competition Act, especially when submitting ‘joint tenders’ (i.e where a firm provides certain products or services to a competitor for purposes of a tender bid and also submit an individual tender bid) or tendering through a joint venture. Furthermore, should there be any uncertainty as to whether or not a current practice falls foul of the Competition Act, firms should seek legal advice.

Ethiopia Competition Agency Files Charges against Fourteen Metal Producers

By AAT Senior Contributor Stephany Torres

On 28 January 2018 the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (“TCCPA”) filed charges against fourteen Ethiopian rebar, corrugated sheet, steel tube and pipe producers and seven rebar importers respectively for allegedly fixing prices in contravention of Article 7(1) of the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Proclamation (“Article 7(1)”), which provides that “(1) An agreement between or concerted practice by, business persons or a decision by association of business persons in a horizontal relationship shall be prohibited if:…(b) it involves, directly or indirectly, fixing a purchase or selling price or any other trading condition, collusive tendering or dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers territories or specific types of goods or services”.

It is worth mentioning that in most jurisdictions, which have an active competition law enforcement regime in place, ‘cartel conduct’ (i.e. price fixing, market allocation and/or collusion) is a per se prohibition in that the conduct is prohibited outright, without an examination of the actual effects on competition and without permitting a showing of net efficiency or other pro-competitive defensive arguments.

Where cartel conduct is prohibited per se, the relevant competition authorities require no further proof other than the existence of the agreement or concerted practice which underpins the conduct.  The conduct is simply presumed to have negative effects on the relevant market.

Article 7(1) of the TCCPA, however, is not a per se prohibition and is based on the ‘rule-of-reason’ standard – effectively permitting respondents to lead evidence demonstrating that the alleged conduct can be justified by pro-competitive, technology or efficiency gain justifications which outweigh any anti-competitive effect.

From a policy perspective, Africa competition lawyer Michael-James Currie notes that the permissibility of the ‘rule of reason defence’ is largely due to the fact that a respondent who is found to have contravened Article 7(1) of the TCCPA is liable to a penalty calculated at fifteen percent of the respondent’s annual turnover. This is a prescribed penalty. For non-cartel conduct, the penalty ranges between 5-10%.

Of the aforementioned fourteen Ethiopian steel producers; three manufacture reinforcement bars, namely East Steel PLC, Habesha Steel Mills PLC and Saint Nail PLC.  Six are involved in manufacturing corrugated sheets namely; Ethiopian Steel Profile, Ethiopian Steel PLC, Kombolcha Steel Products Industry PLC (KOSPI), a subsidiary of MIDROC Technology Group and Bazeto PLC and amongst the five manufacturers of steel tubes and pipes are Walia Steel Industry PLC and Mame Steel PLC.

The seven rebar importers accused of price fixing include Dag Trading PLC, Aberus PLC, Berhe Hagos PLC, Marka Trading, Beranea Yeshene and Haileselassie Amabye PLC.

Andreas Stargard, competition counsel with Primerio Ltd. notes that the trigger event for engaging in the alleged price fixing was the fifteen percent devaluation of the birr by the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) in October 2017 which may have influenced retailers and wholesalers to look for ways of recouping losses by raising prices for their goods and services.

It is, however, in fellow Primerio Director John Oxenham’s view, unlikely for a well-executed price-fixing cartel to be created ad hoc without any pre-existing information exchange structure.  Therefore, pre-existing trade association, interest groups or other vehicles are commonly used as the enabling platform for competitors to engage in collusive conduct.

The defendants are scheduled to submit their response to the Tribunal on February 20, 2018.

The metal and related products sector is a priority sector in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government is investigating a greater number of business entities involved in the production and importation of metal and metal related products who are also suspected of allegedly fixing prices.

Resale Price Maintenance in COMESA?

Second Non-Merger Investigation Opened by COMESA Enforcer

Coca-Cola’s Africa operations — recently sold in a majority shareholder exit in late 2016 by Anheuser-Busch InBev (which owned 54.5%) — were due for a major overhaul of the company’s long-term strategic plan to grow its market presence across Africa.  Yet, it is now under investigation for restrictive trade practices by the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”).

This is a first, of sorts: After the CCC’s original non-merger investigation into exclusive marketing practices of broadcasting rights and sponsorship agreements in relation to football tournaments (AAT reported here) ended — or hasn’t ended — with something of a thud (nothing having been reported by way of conclusion thereof), we and the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer are bracing ourselves for the outcome, if any, of the latest COMESA salvo delivered by the CCC to prove its worth to its Board.  (We surmise so as this latest, second-ever, non-merger investigation may have been prompted at least in part by the fact that the CCC’s budget was recently slashed by the regional body, and that the Commission wishes to reestablish itself in the eyes of the COMESA directorate as a worthwhile agency to fund and to bolster).

The COMESA “restrictive practices” investigation into Coca-Cola’s distribution agreements may come on the heels of its (announced, yet likely neither begun nor concluded) market enquiry into the grocery retail sector, similar to comparable market-wide investigations undertaken in Kenya and South Africa; moreover, the South African Competition Commission has likewise undertaken past investigations into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola in South Africa.

Actual or would-be soft drink competitors may have also brought claims of foreclosure to the CCC’s attention — likely alleging resale price maintenance, as well as possibly lack of access to key distributors due to Coca-Cola’s exclusive or quasi-exclusive contracts and the like.  According to the official COMESA Notice, the agency is investigating allegations against The Coca-Cola Company’s African subsidiary (Coca-Cola Africa (Proprietary) Limited) in relation to its distribution agreements with downstream entities in Ethiopia and Comoros, both of which are COMESA member states, albeit historically rather inactive when it comes to competition-law enforcement.

According to the antitrust-specialist publication Global Competition Review, the CCC has stated that Coca-Cola’s alleged restrictive conduct worked as planned only rarely in practice.  Yet, the agency’s spokesperson noted that the risk of anti-competitive effects remained real: “Coca-Cola is dominant in these countries, it is important that they do not abuse that dominance through distribution agreements which frustrate competition in the relevant markets”, the spokesperson said, according to GCR‘s reporting.  The magazine also quoted Pr1merio antitrust lawyer Andreas Stargard as saying that the CCC can issue injunctions and impose fines of up to 10% of Coca-Cola’s turnover in the common market for the year prior to the conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Stargard tells AAT further that “[a]ny agreement contravening Article 16 of the COMESA Regulations is automatically void.  In addition, while the CCC is breaking new ground here (as it has not yet successfully brought any non-merger investigation to conclusion to date), the applicable Regulations foresee not only injunctive relief (cease-and-desist orders and conduct-based injunctions forcing the party to ‘take whatever action the Commission deems necessary to remove and/or diminish the effect of the illegal conduct’) but also fines, as cited above.  However, no such fine has yet been imposed in any anti-competitive conduct investigation by the CCC.”

He continues: “Under the COMESA Competition Regulations, the agency normally has an initial ‘consultative’ time period of 30-45 days to evaluate whether or not to launch a full-fledged investigation.  This period may include meetings with the concerned party or parties, any complainant, or other stakeholders.  Thereafter, if the Commission votes to open an investigation, the latter must be concluded within 180 days from the date of receipt of the request for the investigation, if it was brought by a complainant.  Here, the official Notice provides that an investigation was in fact opened, meaning the clock has begun ticking.”

Interested stakeholders have until February 28, 2018 to issue comments.

Merger Control: Public Interest & SINOPEC/Chevron

When the Stick is Greater than the Carrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMESA Competition Chief Approves of FDI, M&A Transactions

Lipimile Advocates for Foreign Direct Investment, Encouraging Acquisition-Hungry Multi-Nationals in Recent COMESA Trade Remarks

In a comment on the COMESA Simplified Trade Regime (STR) regional programme, recently being implemented locally in the border region between Rwanda and the DRC, George Lipimilie, the Chief Executive Officer of the COMESA Competition Commission, stated that the regional body’s “focus on free movement of goods has generally paid dividends resulting in [] a lot of cross-border mergers and acquisitions,” according to an article in the Rwanda New Times.

George Lipimile of the COMESA Competition Commission

It appears that the CCC chief is expressly favouring foreign direct investment into the region by way of mergers (or perhaps more accurately, acquisitions).  “This is particularly so where the ‘foreign’ (presumably implying non-COMESA) multi-national entity brings with it novel technologies or R&D to improve the market position of the local competitor,” according to Andreas Stargard, a Pr1merio Ltd. competition-law practitioner.

Of interest to M&A practitioners, Mr. Lipimile is quoted as saying: “There are situations when foreign companies use acquisitions to enter the market where you find a multinational company buying a local company which is good because it comes with a lot of technology.” (Emphasis added).

Mr. Lipimile was also rather specific about encouraging FDI in the region’s raw-materials sector from nation states other than the PRC: said Lipimile, “[w]e have seen China taking advantage of our raw materials and we hope more countries can follow suit.”

We note that the domain of international trade — specifically tariffs as barriers to trade — has historically not been within the jurisdictional purview of the COMESA Competition Commission, which was designed to be a competition-law enforcement body.  Technically, there exists the post of COMESA Director for Trade, Customs & Monetary Affairs, held by Dr. Francis Mang’eni and not by Mr. Lipimile.  The CCC, however, “has recently emerged to take a more active role within the COMESA architecture of regional enforcement institutions,” Mr. Stargard says.  He notes that Article 4 of the COMESA Treaty expressly provides that “[i]n the field of trade liberalisation and customs co-operation [the Member States shall] (a) establish a customs union, abolish all non-tariff barriers to trade among themselves”, and that the regional Competition Regulations expressly bestow the CCC with the authority to investigate and abolish all “anti-competitive practices affecting COMESA regional and international trade.”

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

By Michael-James Currie currie2

Background

On 1 December 2017, the Minister of Economic Development (under whose auspices the South African competition authorities fall), Ebrahim Patel, published draft amendments to the South African Competition Act [PDF], 89 of 1998 (Act) for public comment.

The proposed amendments (Amendments) to the Act, which principally aim to address concentration in the market, go well beyond pure competition issues and bestow a significant public-interest mandate on the competition authorities.

In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.

south_africaPatel’s influence in advancing his industrial-policy objectives through the utilisation of the public-interest provisions in merger control are well documented. AAT contributors have written about the increasing trend by the competition authorities in merger control to impose public-interest conditions that go well beyond merger specificity – often justified on the basis of the Act’s preamble which, inter alia, seeks to promote a more inclusive economy.  The following extracts from the introduction to the Amendments indicate a similar, if not more expansive, role for public interest considerations in competition law enforcement:

“…the explicit reference to these structural and transformative objectives in the Act clearly  indicates that the legislature intended that competition policy should be broadly framed, embracing both traditional competition issues, as well as these explicit transformative public interest goals”.

The draft Bill focuses on creating and enhancing the substantive provisions of the Act aimed at addressing two key structural challenges in the South African economy: concentration and the racially-skewed spread of ownership of firms in the economy.

The role of public interest provisions in merger control have often been criticised, predominantly on the basis that once the agencies move away from competition issues and merger specificity and seek conditions that go beyond that which is strictly necessary to remedy any potential negative effects, one moves away from an objective standard by which to assess mergers. This leads to a negative impact on costs, timing and certainty – essential factors for potential investors considering entering or expanding into a market.

As John Oxenham, director of Pr1merio states, “from a policy perspective it is apparent that consumer-welfare tests have been frustrated by uncertainty”. In this regard, the South African authorities initially adopted a position in terms of which competition law played a primary role, with public-interest considerations taking second place.  Largely owing to Minister Patel’s intervention, the agencies have recently taken a more direct approach to public-interest considerations and have effectively elevated the role of public-interest considerations to the same level as pure competition matters – particularly in relation to merger control (although we have seen a similar influence of public-interest considerations in, inter alia, market inquiries and more recently in the publishing of industry Codes of Conduct, e.g., in the automotive aftermarkets industry).

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

The current amendments, however, risk elevating public-interest provisions above those of competition issues. The broad remedies and powers which the competition agencies may impose absent any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour are indicative of the competition agencies moving into an entirely new ‘world of enforcement’ in what could very likely be a significant ‘over-correction’ on the part of Minister Patel, at the cost of certainty and the likely deleterious impact on investment.

The proposed Amendments, which we unpack below, seem to elevate industrial policies above competition related objectives thereby introducing a significant amount of discretion on behalf of the agencies. Importantly, the Amendments are a clear departure from the general internationally accepted view that that ‘being big isn’t bad’, but competition law is rather about how you conduct yourself in the market place.

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

(i) The provisions of the Competition Act relating to prohibited practices and mergers must be strengthened.

(ii) Special attention must be given to the impact of anti-competitive conduct on small businesses and firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons.

(iii) The provisions relating to market inquiries must be strengthened so that their remedial actions effectively address market features and conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in the relevant markets.

(iv) It is necessary to promote the alignment of competition-related processes and decisions with other public policies, programmes and interests.

(v) The administrative efficacy of the competition regulatory authorities and their processes must be enhanced.

At the outset, it may be worth noting that the Amendments now cater for the imposition of an administrative penalty for all contraventions of the Act (previously, only cartel conduct, resale price maintenance and certain abuse of dominance conduct attracted an administrative penalty for a first-time offence).

Secondly, the Amendments envisage that an administrative penalty may be imposed on any firm which forms part of a single economic entity (in an effort to preclude firms from setting up corporate structures to avoid liability).

We summarise below the key proposed Amendments to the Competition Act.

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

  • The evidentiary onus will now be on the respondent to counter the Competition Commission’s (Commission) prima facie case of excessive pricing against it.
  • The removal of the current requirement that an “excessive price” must be shown to be to the “detriment of consumers” in order to sustain a complaint.
  • An obligation on the Commission to publish guidelines to determine what constitutes an “excessive price”.

Predatory Pricing

  • The introduction of a standard which benchmarks against the respondents own “cost benchmarking” as opposed to the utilisation of more objective standards tests.
  • The benchmarking now includes reference to “average avoidable costs” or “long run average incremental costs” (previously the Act’s only tests were marginal costs and average variable costs).

General Exclusionary Conduct

  • The current general exclusionary conduct provision, Section 8(c), will be replaced by an open list of commonly accepted forms of exclusionary conduct as identified in Section 8(d).
  • The definition of exclusionary conduct will include not only “barriers to entry and expansion within a market, but also to participation in a market”.
  • The additional forms of abusive conduct will be added to Section 8(d):
    • prevent unreasonable conditions unrelated to the object of a contract being placed on the seller of goods or services”;
    • Section 8(1)(d)(vii) is inserted to include the practice of engaging in a margin squeeze as a possible abuse of dominance;
    • Section (1)(d)(viii) is introduced to protect suppliers to dominant firms from being required, through the abuse of dominance, to sell their goods or services at excessively low prices. This addresses the problem of monopsonies, namely when a customer enjoys significant buyer power over its suppliers”.

Price Discrimination

  • The Amendment will look to expand Section 9 of the Act to prohibit price discrimination by a dominant firm against its suppliers.
  • An onus of proof has been shifted on to the respondent to demonstrate that any price discrimination does not result in a substantial lessening of competition.

Merger-Control Provisions

  • Introduction of certain mandatory disclosures relating, in particular, to that of cross-shareholding or directorship between the merging parties and other third parties.
  • Introduction of provisions which essentially allow the competition authorities to treat a number of smaller transactions (which fell below the merger thresholds), which took place within three years, as a single merger on the date of the latest transaction.
  • Introduction of additional public-interest grounds which must be taken into account when assessing the effects of a merger. These relate to “ownership, control and the support of small businesses and firms owned or controlled by historically disadvantaged persons”.

Market Inquiries

  • Granting the Commission powers to make orders or impose remedies (including forced divestiture recommendations which must be approved by the Tribunal) following the conclusion of a market inquiry (previously the Commission was only empowered to make recommendations to Parliament).
  • The introduction of a new competition test for market inquiries, namely whether any feature or combination of features in a market that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in that market constitutes an “adverse effect” (a significant departure from the traditional “substantial lessening of competition” test).
  • Focussed market inquiries are envisaged to replace the “Complex Monopoly” provisions which were promulgated in 2009 but not yet brought into effect.

Additional Amendments

  • Empowering the Commission to grant leniency to any firm.
  • This is a departure from the current leniency policy, under which the Commission is only permitted to grant leniency to the ‘first through the door’.

What does this all mean going forward?

The above proposed amendments are not exhaustive. In addition to above, it is apparent that Minister Patel envisages utilising the competition agencies and Act as a “one-stop-shop” in order to address not only competition issues but facilitate increased transformation within the industry and to promote a number of additional socio-economic objectives (i.e., to bring industrial policies within the remit of the competition agencies).

In a move which would may undermine the independence and impartiality of the competition agencies, the Amendment also intends providing the responsible “Minister with more effective means of participating in competition-related inquiries, investigations and adjudicative processes”.

The amendments also strengthen the available interventions that will be undertaken to redress the specific challenges posed by concentration and untransformed ownership”.

Competition-law observers interviewed by AAT point out that the principle of separation of powers is a fundamental cornerstone of the South African constitutional democracy and is paramount in ensuring that there is an appropriate ‘checks and balances’ system in place. It is for this reason that the judiciary (which in this context includes the competition agencies) must remain independent, impartial and act without fear or favour (as mandated in terms of the Act).

The increased interventionist role which the executive is envisaged to play, by way of the Amendments, in the context of competition law enforcement raises particular concerns in this regard.  Furthermore, the increased role of public-interest considerations effectively confers on the competition agencies the responsibility of determining the relevant ambit, scope and enforcement of socio-economic objectives. These are broad, subjective and may be vastly different depending on whether one is assessing these non-competition objectives in the short or long term.

Any uncertainty regarding the relevant factors which the competition authorities ought to take into account or whose views the authorities will be prepared to afford the most weight too, risks trust being lost in the objectivity and impartiality of the enforcement agencies. This will have a direct negative impact on the Government’s objective in selling South Africa as an investor friendly environment.

In addition, as Primerio attorney and competition counsel Andreas Stargard notes, the “future role played by the SACC’s market inquiries” is arguably open to significant abuse, as “the Competition Commission has broad discretion to impose robust remedies, even absent any evidence of a substantial lessening of competition.”

  • Mr. Stargard notes that the draft Amendment Bill, in its own words in section 43D (clause 21) “places a duty on the Commission to remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market, including the use of divestiture orders. It also requires the Commission to record its reasons for the identified remedy. … These amendments empower the Commission to tailor new remedies demanded by the findings of the market inquiry. These remedies can be creative and flexible, constrained only by the requirements that they address the adverse effect on competition established by the market inquiry, and are reasonable and practicable.”
Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Although the Amendments recognise that concentration in of itself is not in all circumstances to be construed as an a priori negative, the lack of a clear and objective set of criteria together with the lower threshold (i.e., “adverse effect”) which must be met before the competition authorities may impose far-reaching remedies, coupled with the interventionist role which the executive may play (particularly in relation to market inquiries), may have a number of deterrent effects on both competition and investment.

Mr. Stargard notes in this regard that the “approach taken by the new draft legislation may in fact stifle innovation, growth, and an appetite for commercial expansion, thereby counteracting the express goals listed in its preamble:  Firms that are currently sitting at a market share of around 30% for instance may not be incentivised to obtain any greater accretive share for fear of being construed as holding a dominant market position, once the 35% threshold is crossed“.

The objectives to facilitate a spread of ownership is not a novel objective of the post-Apartheid government and a number of pieces of legislation and policies have been introduced in order to facilitate the entry of small previously disadvantaged players into the market through agencies generally better equipped to deal with this. These policies, in general, have arguably not led to the government’s envisaged benefits. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the new Amendments do not seek to address the previous failures or identify why various other initiatives and pieces of legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation has not worked (to the extent envisaged by Government). Furthermore, the Tribunal summed up this potential conflict neatly in the following extract in the Distillers case:

Thus the public interest asserted pulls us in opposing directions. Where there are other appropriate legislative instruments to redress the public interest, we must be cognisant of them in determining what is left for us to do before we can consider whether the residual public interest, that is that part of the public interest not susceptible to or better able to be dealt with under another law, is substantial.”

Perhaps directing the substantial amount of tax payers’ money away from a certain dominant state-owned Airline – which has been plagued with maladministration – and rather use those funds to invest in small businesses will be a better solution to grow the economy and spread ownership to previously disadvantaged groups than potentially prejudicing dominant firms which are in fact efficient.

Furthermore, ordering divestitures requires that there be a suitable third party who could effectively take up the divested business and impose a competitive constraint on the dominant entity. It seems inevitable that based on the proposed Amendments the competition authorities will be placed in the invidious position of considering a divestiture to an entity which may not yet have proven any successful track record. The Amendments do not provide guidance for this and although the competition authorities have the necessary skills and resources to assess whether conduct has an anti-competitive effect on the market, it is less clear whether the authorities have the necessary skills to properly identify a suitable third party acquirer of a divested business.

In addition and importantly, promoting competition within the market achieves public interest objectives. Likewise, anything which undermines competition in the market will have a negative impact on the public interest considerations.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

As John Oxenham and Patrick Smith have argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.

While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.

A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.

Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.

Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.

From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).

[To contact any of the contributors to this article, or should you require any further information regarding the Amendment Bill, you are welcome to contact the AAT editors at editor@africanantitrust.com]