Regs & Exemptions: more on the EAC

The Exemption Regime under the East African Community’s competition regulations

Continuing in our series about the burgeoning East African Community and its nascent antitrust regime, AAT contributing author Elizabeth Sisenda is highlighting the exemption regime of the populous (146 million inhabitants) and increasingly wealthy ($150 billion GDP) region.  (For more background on the EAC regime, start here.)

Elizabeth Sisenda, LL.M (London) LL.B (CUEA) PGD Law (KSL)

Emerging markets or developing economies only recently adopted competition law and policy as an exclusive legal and economic tool for regulating markets. In previous years, restrictive trade practices were mostly handled under government price control departments or monopolies commissions. Most of the competition legislation and regulations in developing economies were promulgated within the last decade.

EAC: regulations & market conditions

The EAC, in particular, enacted its competition legislation in 2006 and has been setting up the mechanisms for its enforcement to-date through capacity building and mobilizing resources. In 2010, the EAC subsequently enacted competition regulations to assist in implementing the Act. One of the main challenges that has been encountered in the EAC with regards to the implementation of competition law and policy has been the unique economic and market structure of the member states.

The majority of the EAC member states are economies that are transitioning from state-regulation to liberalization. Consequently, several key sectors of these economies are still under quasi-governmental regulation by independent agencies established by the legislature, or explicitly protected by executive policy or subsidiary legislation.

As a result of the progressive liberalization of EAC economies, private entities have been building capacity to supply sectors of the economy where the government once had a monopolistic stake. These private firms, both local and multinational, have faced several challenges in meeting market requirements in terms of capacity. Consequently, the governments of these economies have sometimes adopted a protectionist approach for key sectors of their economies in the public interest. As much as this has often contributed to the substantial lessening of competition in the affected sectors to the detriment of consumers, these regulatory measures have been upheld by the respective governments on the grounds of national interest. The EAC, however, has been very cautious in its provisions for exemptions within the common market that could contribute to the substantial lessening of competition.

The EAC exemptions

Section 6 (3) of the EAC Competition Act provides that the Competition Authority may exempt a category of concerted practices by firms or parties, provided the concerted practice is limited to objectives which lead to an improvement of production or distribution, and whose beneficial effects, in the opinion of the Authority, outweigh its negative effects on competition. However, any exemptions granted by the Authority under this sub-section shall be applicable only if the combined market share of the parties involved in the concerted practice does not exceed 20% of the relevant market, and the agreement relating to the concerted practice does not contain any restrictive trade practice expressly prohibited under the Act. Thus, it may be contended that this exemption does not contribute to the substantial lessening of competition because it only applies to small or medium firms without any hint of market power, having a maximum market share of 10% each. Furthermore, the net effect of the concerted practice is beneficial to consumer welfare by improving access to goods or services. It also gives leeway for small producers to produce more efficiently, thus improving market conditions.

Low shares = more permissible conduct

The Authority under section 6 (1) further allows competitors whose combined market share does not exceed 10% of the relevant market to apply quantitative restraints on investment or input, output or sales, and engage in concerted practices that restrict the movement of goods within the common market. However, such conduct is expressly forbidden by the Act in the case of firms with larger market share. It may be contended that this particular provision is aimed at enabling small and medium enterprises to have a strategic opportunity to operate in an otherwise large and well-exploited market. It also does not limit competition because the firms in question have very little market share. Instead this exemption aims at protecting the competitiveness of the market by ensuring that smaller firms are not driven out of the market by larger, more efficient firms.

R&D and so on

Under section 6 (2) of the Act, the Authority also exempts 3 categories of conduct, namely: joint research and development, specialization of production or distribution and standardization of products or services, by firms whose combined market share does not exceed 20% of the relevant market. This exemption requires that the agreement relating to these categories of concerted practices should not contain any of the expressly prohibited anti-competitive practices under the Act. The Authority may contend that this exemption promotes consumer welfare by enabling smaller firms to collaborate in improving the quality of products or services in the relevant market through standardization and specialization efforts. It also enables smaller firms to participate in innovation through a collaborative effort. Most firms with this extent of combined market share would lack the resources or capacity on their own to engage in these activities that promote consumer welfare and efficiency in the relevant market.

Get permission first!

According to section 7 of the Act, any firm or person must first apply to the Authority, in accordance with the Regulations, for clearance to engage in any concerted practice. The Authority shall thereafter communicate its decision to the applicant within 45 days of receipt of the application. However, if the Authority does not communicate its decision in the specified duration, then the permission for the concerted practice shall be deemed to have been granted. Under the same section, it is an offence, punishable by a fine of not more than $10 000, to omit to seek the permission of the Authority to engage in a concerted practice. The Regulations under section 16 further provide that the undertaking seeking an exemption must pay the prescribed fees, and provide a detailed statement setting out the reasons why the concerted practice should be permitted for consideration to the Authority.

Conclusion

The EAC exemptions are therefore permitted in the common market to exercise a form of economic regulation for the purpose of ensuring that small and medium enterprises can effectively compete in a liberalized market without being driven out by firms with larger market share. In this way, the public interest is promoted to ensure that national or regional interests such as employment, allocative efficiency, specialization agreements and international competitiveness of domestic firms are taken into account. Applying exemptions does not necessarily imply the weakening of competition law enforcement. National economic policy considerations such as the maintenance and promotion of exports, changing productive capacity to stop decline in a particular industry, or maintaining stability in a particular industry are some of the policy considerations that motivate the application of exemptions. However, exemptions must be applied with caution because their application in one sector can perpetuate or induce distortions that can affect economic efficiency.

 

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Can antitrust law ensure a competitive Kenyan marketplace?

Competition law as a tool for promoting consumer welfare & maintaining a competitive market in Kenya 

By contributing author Elizabeth Sisenda, LL.M (London) LL.B (CUEA) PGD Law (KSL)

Elizabeth Sisenda, LL.M (London) LL.B (CUEA) PGD Law (KSL)

The core aim of enforcing competition law revolves around balancing between beneficial market power and market power that is detrimental to consumer welfare. Market power can be defined as the ability of a firm to raise and maintain price above the level that would prevail under competitive market conditions, without being destabilised by consumers switching to other products/services or new competitors entering the same market. Often the actual price is above cost leading to high profits for the firm with market power. In practice, the pursuit of market dominance can be a great incentive for investment, cost efficiency and innovation. Therefore, the acquisition of a dominant position through superior product or customer services, better pricing, innovation, efficiency and investment is not illegal. Only the abuse of dominance is prohibited. Where a firm exercises market power, competition law functions to protect the openness of the market by ensuring that the dominant firm does not impose unfair trading conditions for actual or potential competitors, or abuse its intellectual property rights. It also intervenes to prevent direct harm to consumer welfare through conduct or transactions that limit output or production artificially in order to price-fix.

Merger control is another important function of competition law and policy, that is designed to prevent positions of market power from being established through acquisition, unless there is a strong economic efficiency rationale that will mitigate for the loss of competition between the merging firms. A company should therefore earn market power and not simply buy out competitors.

Thus, an important ideal of competition policy is to promote a contestable market for as long as it promotes consumer welfare, and a feasible market structure for a particular sector of the economy. In a contestable market, the sunken costs required to join the sector are negligible and other entry barriers are so low that the threat of new entrants is sufficient to check the conduct of the incumbent firm with market power. The costs of exiting the market are also negligible.

In relation to competitors, competition law cannot intervene on behalf of a particular firm in the market, without taking into account the broader effects of the conduct in question on competition in the relevant market. A firm would have to show, on the face of it, that its competitors in that market are engaged in concerted or collusive practices. For instance, competitors can tacitly seek to exercise market power through anti-competitive agreements that enable them to concentrate the market. This often results in one or more firms becoming large enough to be in a position to affect the market’s outcomes in a manner that causes consumer welfare or public interest to be compromised.

Under these circumstances, competition law intervenes and investigates to ensure that there is no unwarranted concentration of economic power in a particular market through collusive agreements between competitors. Unwarranted concentrations of economic power exist where there is cross-directorship or sharing of a senior employee or executive between two distinct firms providing substantially similar goods or services, and whose combined market share is more than 40%. Competition legislation regulates this conduct because it often results in board decisions being made that could lead to collusion among the firms involved, such as price fixing and dividing markets, thereby lessening competition.

kenya

For instance, in Kenya, the cement sector has been under investigation for unwarranted concentrations of economic power. Although there are a number of cement-producing companies in the market, the dominant multinational firm – Lafarge Limited, has a 58.6% stake in the leading producer, Bamburi Cement Limited and a 42% shareholding in another leading company, East African Portland Cement Limited. Market concentration concerns have arisen because Bamburi Cement Limited, which has a market share of 39%, has had cross-directorship with the 3rd largest producer in the market – East African Portland Cement Limited to an extent that may dampen competition. Kenya’s cement prices have been the second highest out of six eastern and southern African countries including South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania between 2000-2014 according to a sector report. In 2014, the Kenyan government recommended that Lafarge dilute its shareholding in East African Portland Cement Limited. However, it was not conclusive whether price fixing was going on.

On the other hand, Kenya’s cement sector may experience increased competition from imports as a result of the East African Community (EAC) reducing the common external tariff (CET) on cement from 35% to 25% through an EAC gazette notice of February 2015. Cement has also been removed from the list of sensitive products that require protection until domestic industries can compete according to the same gazette notice. Although local cement producers are protesting the move, consumers stand to gain, as the liberalized market will lead to lower prices of the commodity, and possibly have a positive impact on the construction industry.

Protecting competition vs. competitors: Calls for an EAC competition regime

Protecting competition vs. competitors: Calls for an EAC competition regime

In an opinion piece by Elizabeth Sisenda, a competition lawyer at the Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment, the author calls for region-wide adoption, implementation, and enforcement of competition law, for the greater good of local business in the East African Community.  While generally in favour of increased competition-law recognition in Africa, we at AAT believe that there may be a protectionist undertone in the editorial, however:

Ms. Sisenda notably writes, “The EU has been negotiating a bilateral agreement with the EAC … Local firms stand to lose to foreign firms with greater capacity under the agreement in agriculture, retail, horticulture, fisheries, textile and clothing, dairy, and meat — if adequate safeguards are not established under the agreement.  This brings to light the need to enhance a competitive regional economy within the EAC through the implementation of a regional competition law regime to protect consumers and small enterprises from unfair business practices.

As antitrust attorneys will be quick to point out, pure competition law does not invariably act to protect small companies against so-called “unfair” competition by larger (or foreign) entities.  Granted, certain abuses of dominance or — of course — cartelist conduct is prohibited by proper antitrust legislation.  However, the mere arrival of a more powerful competitor in a local economy does not amount to “unfair competition” per se.  If a larger company can source its products and inputs at a lower cost than a local, established entity (say, Wal Mart compared to a ‘mom-and-pop’ corner store), this may hurt the incumbent but is not necessarily unlawful.

Calls for “African” competition enforcement must be careful not to commingle the notions of protectionism of domestic incumbents with actual competition-law enforcement.

UPDATE: Ms. Sisenda, the author of the original article, wishes to clarify that by “adequate safeguard” her intention was not protectionism but ensuring that dominant firms do not undertake anti-competitive practices such as price-fixing, raising barriers to entry or other illicit conduct.  She is clear in disavowing any notion of protectionism that AAT might have perceived, noting that “By using the term ‘unfair business practices,’ I did not impute any regulatory measures to prop local entities and lock out foreign firms. I simply meant abuse of dominance by more capable foreign firms such as predatory pricing.”

Andreas Stargard, a partner at Africa advisory practice Pr1merio, agrees with Miss Sisenda on two key points, however.  Says Stargard:

The author correctly notes that “there is still a quest for protectionism by the governments of some of the EAC member states.”  Truly anti-competitive practices must be curbed, whereas the inefficient protection of smaller incumbent domestic companies versus more efficient new entrants must not be encouraged.  In the words of one influential court, over 53 years ago, good antitrust laws are designed to protect “competition, not competitors”

Moreover, Ms. Sisenda rightly points to the great need within the EAC (and elsewhere in Africa) for “capacity-building at the national and regional level in support of the … competition regime, which might involve training personnel on competition law and policy and its enforcement.”  Workshops and publications such as AfricanAntitrust.com aid greatly in these efforts, including raising awareness of the need for proper competition-law enforcement, what it can do and also what it cannot accomplish on its own.

The EAC Competition Authority has an interim organisational structure & budget and is expected to start being operational next year.

PS: we note that Ms. Sisenda also raised, in our follow-up conversation with her, some notable questions that we invite our readers or future contributing authors (maybe Ms. Sisenda herself?) to address:

  • In your view, are there any parameters to antitrust such as exemptions granted under legislation for the purpose of promoting economic efficiency (be it allocative or productive) that are justified?
  • Is there a place for economic regulation in antitrust?

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