COMESA foreshadows first substantive sector study, potential cartel enforcement

Retail antitrust: “mushrooming” shopping malls vs. SMEs, and possible cartel follow-on enforcement on the horizon for CCC

As reported in the Swazi Observer and other news outlets, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) recently expressed an interest in investigating the effect that larger shopping malls have had on competition in the common market’s retail sector.

This is one of the first non-M&A investigations undertaken by the CCC, according to a review of public sources.  While observers in the competition-law community have witnessed several merger notifications (and clearances) under COMESA jurisdiction, there has been no conduct enforcement by the young CCC to speak of.  Indeed, CCC executive director George Lipimile stated at a conference in November 2014: “Since we commenced operations in January, 2013 the most active provisions of the Regulations has been the merger control provisions.”  Andreas Stargard, an attorney with the boutique Africa consultancy Pr1merio, notes:

“Looking at the relative absence of enforcement against non-merger conduct (such as monopolisation, unilateral exclusionary practices, cartels, information exchanges among competitors or other conduct investigations), this new ‘shopping mall sectoral inquiry‘ may thus mark the first time the CCC has become active in the non-merger arena — a development worth following closely.  Moreover, the head of the CCC also announced future enforcement action against cartels, albeit only those previously uncovered in other jurisdictions such as South Africa, it appears from his prepared remarks.”

The CCC’s interest in the mall sector was revealed during one of the agency’s “regional sensitisation workshops” for business journalists (AAT previously reported on one of them here).  At the event, Lipimile is quoted as follows:

“The little shops in the locations seem to be slowly disappearing because everybody is going into shopping malls. And these shopping malls and the shops in them are mostly owned by foreigners.”

The investigation will take a sampling from the economies of several of the 19 COMESA member states and attempt to determine whether the “mushrooming” growth of shopping malls negatively affects local small and medium enterprises in the whole common market.

Rajeev Hasnah, a Pr1merio consultant, former Commissioner of the CCC and previously Chief Economist & Deputy Executive Director of the Competition Commission of Mauritius, commented that,

“Conducting market studies is one of the functions of the CCC and it is indeed commendable that the institution would contemplate on conducting such a study in the development of shopping malls across the COMESA region.  I believe that this will then enable the institution to correctly identify and appreciate the competition dynamics in the operations of shopping malls and the impact they have on the economy in general.  The study should also identify whether there are areas of concerns where the CCC could initiate investigations to enable competition to flourish to the benefit of businesses, consumers and the economy in general.  We look forward to the undertaking of such a study and its findings.”

AAT agrees with this view and welcomes the notion of the CCC commencing substantive non-merger investigations.  We observe, however, that the initial reported statements on the part of the CCC tend to show that there is the potential for dangerous local protectionist motives to enter into the legal competition analysis.  As Mr. Lipimile stated at the conference:

“Though [the building of malls] might be seen as a good thing, it may negatively impact on our local entrepreneurship and might lead to poverty. Before shopping malls were built, local entrepreneurs realised sales from their products.  Now malls are taking over. … [A] strong competition policy can be an effective tool to promote social inclusion and reduce inequalities as it tends to open up more affordable options for consumers, acting as an automatic stabiliser for prices”

That said, Mr. Lipimile also stated at the same event, quite astutely, that a “solid competition framework provides a catalyst to increase productivity as it generates the right incentives to attract the most efficient firms.”  In the rational view of antitrust law & economics, if — after an objective review such as the study announced by the CCC — the “most efficient” firm happens to be a larger shopping mall that does not otherwise foreclose equally effective competition, then the Darwinian survival of the fittest in a market economy must not be impeded by regulatory intervention.

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

Mr. Lipimile himself seemed to agree in November 2014, when he said that the 19-member COMESA jurisdiction must have regard to “its trading partners [which] go beyond the Common Market hence, it requires consensus building and a balancing act.”  At this time, “when regional integration is occupying the centre stage as one of the key economic strategies and a rallying point for the development of the African continent,” domestic protectionist strategies have no place in antitrust & competition law.  Said Mr. Lipimile: “[R]egional integration can only be realized by supporting a strong competition culture in the Common Market,” which would not support a more reactionary, closed tactic of a regulatory propping-up of “domestic champions” versus more efficient foreign competition.  As the CCC head recognised, “[t]he purpose of competition law is to facilitate competitive markets, so as to promote economic efficiency, thereby generate lower prices, increase choice and economic growth and thus enhance the welfare of the general community.”

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Second market inquiry focuses on energy sector (LPG)

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“Highly regulated” liquefied petroleum gas at center of second sectoral Commission inquiry

According to the South African Competition Commission, the agency has issued “Terms of Reference for the market inquiry into the Liquefied Petroleum Gas sector”:

The Commission has today issued the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the LPG market inquiry. The ToR formally launches and outlines the scope of the inquiry.
The Commission is initiating the inquiry because it has reason to believe that there may be features of the sector that prevent, distort or restrict competition. The Commission hopes that the inquiry will assist in understanding the state of competition in the LPG sector.

It comes on the heels of the first market inquiry into private healthcare, on which AAT has reported extensively.

The full Terms of Reference are available online here.  The market inquiry is expected to begin this month and is expected to be completed by October 2015.

According to the Terms of Reference, the objectives of the market inquiry include:

  • Analyzing the current regulatory pricing framework with the aim of determining whether regulation could be improved in order to limit the exercise of substantial market power by market participants;
  • Examining whether the supply bottlenecks in the liquefied petroleum gas industry may serve to create circumstances or incentives that serve to distort, prevent or lessen competition;
  • Determining whether features currently prevalent in the market increase costs of switching to a prohibitive level when customers seek to switch between resellers of liquefied petroleum gas;
  • Assessing the extent of the barriers to entry and general competition dynamics at various levels of the supply chain within the industry; and
  • Making recommendations that may serve to improve the state of competition.

The Commission has identified the participants in the market inquiry process as including business enterprises within the liquefied petroleum gas chain, such as manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers, other related enterprises, end-users, government departments, public entities, regulatory authorities, industry associations and any other stakeholders that may be able to provide information relevant to the market inquiry.

BDLive reports that approximately “300,000 tons of LPG is manufactured in SA annually, generating turnover of about R1.5bn. Six refineries, Sapref, Sasol Synfuels, PetroSA Synfuels, Enref, Chevref and Natref produce and supply LPG.

Major resellers such as Afrox, Easigas, BPSA and Total Gas distribute it bulk or in a repackaged form. Afrox, Easigas and Sapref also imported at least 6,100 tons of LPG through facilities in Richards Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban.”

The Gambian take on the benefits of market studies

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The Gambian Competition Authority’s commitment to investigating all prohibited practices in markets of any size

Shortly after the renaming of The Gambia Competition Commission to include consumer protection issues earlier this year, the Gambian Minister of Trade, Integration and Employment, Abdou Kolley, endorsed the ability of The Gambia Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (“GCCPC”) to continue pursuing any evidence of cartels, abuses of dominance and other illegal anti-competitive activities in any sector of the economy, as mandated by the the Competition Act 2007.

 

Minister Kolley

In its Strategic Plan over the next 3 years, the GCCPC indicates that it purposefully did not identify any priority sectors, to allow it to commit to investigating prohibited practices regardless of the market or its size. The Minister endorsed this approach given the need for independent agencies like the GCCPC to ensure that the competition playing field is leveled, that barriers to entry are low and that “the rules of the game” are reasonable. The Minister continued that simply having competition regime cannot produce or ensure competition in the market unless this is facilitated by government policies and enforcement.

Sectoral Market Inquiries: As in South Africa, whose Competition Commission has launched its first-ever market inquiry into the state of competition in the healthcare sector in terms of the Competition Amendment Act of 2009, the GCCPC is also empowered to launch “market studies” under section 15(k) of the Gambian Competition Act. A market study enables the GCCPC to consider both policies and enforcement simultaneously, thereby promoting competition in the economy, according to the Minister. The Minister explained that the aim of the market study was to assess competition in a particular area and recommend ways of improving it to the benefit of the economy and consumers in general.

As noted in our prior reporting, the Minister spoke at the opening of a workshop on the “Tourism Market Study” and to bring the concept of competition law closer to home, he placed emphasis on the increasing awareness about competition law within the tourism fraternity, forums such as the workshop will contribute substantially to the spread of competition culture and improving levels of compliance of the Competition Act, which would be beneficial both for the economy as well as individual businesses.

Gambian competition enforcer discusses tourism market inquiry

Gambia in the antitrust headlines twice in past week

7 days ago, it made news because of its changed name and dawn of a broader enforcement agenda, now including consumer protection matters.  Today, we are covering meeting by Gambia Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (GCCPC) with tourism industry stakeholders, as reported by AllAfrica.

Abdou Kolley, Minister of Trade and Employment, gave a Tuesday speech addressing his competition agency’s tourism market study, undertaken according to section 15(k) of the Competition Act, attempting to garner support for the benefits of free-market competition.  “Competition does not emerge on its own”, noting that the GCCPC’s enforcement and oversight activities were necessary to lower entry barriers and assure the absence of illegal price-fixing and other illicit conduct.

“The GCCPC is mandated by the competition Act 2007 to pursue any evidence of cartels, abuses of dominance and other illegal anti-competitive activities in any sector of the economy and I am confident that they will continue to do so.”

Minister Kolley

The Director General of the Gambia Tourism Board, Benjamin Robert, was quoted as agreeing with the minister, saying that the GCCPC’s report was “timely” and noted that the domestic tourism industry possessed certain characteristics of dominance in some sectors, with over 50% market share by some market players.

Commission details plans for private healthcare sector inquiry

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Further details revealed by inquiry panel

On Friday, subsequent to outlining the time table of the project, the South African Competition Commission Competition Commission released important frameworks for its sectoral inquiry into the competitiveness of the private healthcare sector in the RSA. The key documents are a draft “statement of issues” (which the Commission warned may further “evolve” during the course of the inquiry) and “guidelines for participation” for the market inquiry into the private healthcare sector, which is headed by retired Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo. The public and affected stakeholders are invited to make written submissions on these before Monday, 30 June 2014 (South African Competition Commission direct e-mail address: health@compcom.co.za).

Notably, the statement of issues includes the role of the public sector in competition in the market for healthcare. This was a key sticking point for observers and stakeholders, as the initial framing of the inquiry appeared solely focused on the private players, failing to take into account the competitive restraints imposed by the strong public insurance schemes and other state-related participants in the healthcare arena.  (AAT published on this and related issues here and here.)

Other topics include, predictably from an antitrust point of view, regulation, market power and dominance, barriers to entry, as well as consumer-protection aspects. Taken together, the areas of concern have been grouped by the Commission’s inquiry panel into six possible theories of harm, which the Commission defines as follows: “A theory of harm refers simply to a hypothesis about how harm to competition might arise in a market to the detriment of consumers and to the detriment of efficient and innovative outcomes in that market.” (Statement of Issues at para. 9 and 53, as follows):

  1. Theory of harm 1: Market power and distortions in healthcare
    financing.
  2. Theory of harm 2: Market power and distortions in relation to
    healthcare facilities.
  3. Theory of harm 3: Market power and distortions in relation to
    healthcare practitioners.
  4. Theory of harm 4: Barriers to entry and expansion at various levels
    of the healthcare value chain.
  5. Theory of harm 5: Imperfect information.
  6. Theory of harm 6: Regulatory framework.

Private Health-Care Sector Inquiry: Time Table & Details

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Inquiry panel’s head details logistics

On 16 April 2014, the South African Competition Commission held a media briefing, in which the administrative guidelines, the administrative timetable and statement of issues for the inquiry were announced.  AAT previously reported on the health-care sector investigation here.

Addressing the media and other stakeholders at the briefing, the chairperson of the inquiry, former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, provided a brief explanation of what a market inquiry is, provided an overview of its possible outcomes, the Competition Commission and panel’s approach, the use of information during the inquiry and the management of confidential information.

Furthermore, the former Chief Justice elaborated on the important dates and timelines of the inquiry, the statement of issues, theories of harm and that stakeholders ought to provide accurate information in order to assist the panel.

The important dates are:

Date Event
31 May Statement of Issues and Administrative Guidelines issues for public comment
30 June Deadline for submission of public comment on Statement of Issues and Administrative Guidelines
1 July – 31 July Incorporation of comments on Statement of Issues and Administrative Guidelines
01 August Publication of final Statement of Issues and Administrative Guidelines
01 August Call for submissions on subject matter of the inquiry
March and April 2015 Public hearings
November 2015 Forecasted completion of the inquiry

Antitrust sectoral healthcare inquiry

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Clarification of scope and timetable of sector investigation

According to official statements by the South African Competition Commission (“Commission”), the agency has clarified the administrative guidelines, administrative timetable, and statement of issues.  AAT has reported previously on the sectoral healthcare inquiry by the Commission, critically noting the apparent exclusion of the public healthcare segment, to the detriment of the private care providers.

Theories of harm – “just” theories

The Commission’s main document on the “stakeholder engagement meeting last week states as follows regarding its theories of harm:

[I]n order for the market inquiry to make determinations, it has developed a set of ideas or hypothesis about how harmful competitive effects might arise in the relevant markets under consideration. These ideas are generally referred to as “theories of harm”.
‘It is important to emphasise that these theories of harm are simply hypotheses, or tools, that will enable us to identify whether there are features or a combination of features that may prevent, distort, or restrict competition in the private healthcare markets. Theories of harm are not findings of harm; but are simply analytical tools to guide our analysis. They will be deepened and revised as the inquiry’s thinking develops,’ adds former Chief Judge Ngcobo.

Public comments, and timetable

The agency is “inviting stakeholders to make further comments” on its theories of harm, noting that:

The inquiry is set to follow a very precise and tight administrative timetable which is mindful of the timelines for gathering information including an invitation for written submissions, public hearings, site visits, seminars, and workshops and conducting surveys. Broadly, key milestones will include the issuing of information requests no later than 01 August 2014. The first round of public hearings will take place between 01 March 2015 to 30 April 2015 then from May 2015, the inquiry will analyse and review the information gathered. Presently, the panel aims to make provisional findings and recommendations available for public comment in October 2015.

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