Abuse of Dominance & Excessive Pricing in South Africa: Transnet under Unvestigation
By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.
On 7 July 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) announced that it has initiated an investigation against Transnet SOC Ltd (Transnet), for abusing its dominance by allegedly engaging in excessive pricing in contravention of the in section 8(a) of the Competition Act as well as for engaging in exclusionary practices in contravention of section 8(c) of the Competition Act in relation to the provision of port services.
The SACC investigation is allegedly based on information received indicating that South Africa’s port charges are excessive relative to global standards. A recent port tariff benchmarking report by the regulator determined that Transnet’s terminal handling charges for the period 2015-2016 were 56% above the global average. Transnet maintains that it is “comfortable and confident that its processes are fair, just, and in line with relevant legal requirements.”
The SACC also indicated that it had received information indicating that Transnet is allegedly giving preferential treatment to certain customers to the exclusion of others, in the form of preferential berthing windows, capped export capacity, minimum export tonnage requirements and preferential lease agreements.
The SACC, as well as the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Patel, as expressly stated that, as part of the SACC’s policy, it will target firms who may be abusing their dominance in the market.
While most respondents in South Africa’s abuse of dominant cases thus far, have been firms who have previously been state owned and, therefore, as far as the SACC is concerned, obtained their significant market share as a result of previously having received state support. It is thus noteworthy that Transnet is a ‘State Owned Entity’.
Despite having brought a number of abuse of dominance cases against various respondents, however, the SACC has found prosecuting respondents for abusing their dominance challenging.
In relation to excessive pricing, the SACC has found it particularly challenging to successfully prosecute a firm for a contravening section 8(a) of the Competition Act. This is largely due to the definition of ‘excessive pricing’ which is essentially defined in the Competition Act as “a price for a good or service which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service”.
What constitutes an ‘excessive price’ was fully dealt with in the recent Sasol Polymers case in which the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) overturned a R500 million rand penalty imposed on Sasol by the Competition Tribunal for excessive pricing.
Although the outcome of the Sasol case before the CAC turn largely on a lack of evidence, the case highlighted the difficulties in determining what the ‘economic value’ of a product is. In this regard, however, and as a general starting point, the CAC indicated that the economic value “is the notional price of the respective “good” or “service” under assumed conditions of long-run competitive equilibrium”.
If the price charged for a product exceeds the ‘economic value’, then the inquiry shifts to the second part of the definition – i.e. whether the price charged is reasonably related to the ‘economic value’. Although the CAC in Sasol indicated that this is a subjective inquiry, the CAC indicated that in instances where the actual price charged is not more than 20% of the economic value, it is unlikely that the price charged will be considered ‘unreasonable’.
John Oxenham and the author co-published a paper on excessive pricing, which was presented at the American Bar Association Fall Forum in 2015, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the Sasol case and the legal landscape of excessive pricing in South Africa.
After the Sasol case, Minister Patel has further expressed his intentions to broaden and strengthen the SACC’s powers to prosecute firms who abuse their dominance.
In this regard, Minister Patel had previously made similar averments in relation to combatting cartel conduct, which ultimately materialized in the Minister bring into effect criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who have engaged in cartel conduct. The criminal liability provisions were enacted in 2009, but were not brought into effect due to numerous concerns regarding the constitutionality and jurisdictional concerns regarding the enforcement of these provisions. Despite the concerns raised, the criminal liability provisions were nevertheless brought into effect from 1 May 2016 without any amendments having been made.
The significance of the Minister Patel’s decision to implement criminal liability provisions should be particularly concerning to firms to have a substantial market share, as the Minister has also indicated that he intends bring into effect the “complex monopoly” provisions as contained din the Competition Amendment Act.
Much like the criminal-liability provisions, the complex-monopoly provisions have also been enacted since 2009, but not brought into effect yet due to various concerns raised as to the how this provision would be enforced.
In terms of the complex monopoly provisions, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).
Although the introduction of complex monopoly provisions may appear far off, we would caution firms who operate in a concentrated market that Minister Patel’s efforts to combat abuse of dominance may see result in the expeditious implementation of the complex-monopoly provisions.