Shipping Cartel: Recent approach to fining in SA

By Michael Currie

AAT previously reported (here and here) that the SACC had been investigating cartel behaviour which allegedly took place between multiple shipping liners who transported vehicles for various Original Equipment Manufacturers (“OEMs”).

The investigation resulted in two consent agreements being concluded between the SACC and Nippon Yusen Kaisha Shipping Company (“NYK”) and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (“WWL”) respectively (the “Respondents”).

On 12 August 2015, the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”) was requested to make the consent agreements, orders of the Tribunal.

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In terms of the consent agreements, the Respondents had admitted that they had contravened Section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (the “Competition Act”) on multiple occasions (between 11 and 14 instances), and accordingly agreed to pay administrative penalties of approximately R95 million ($ 8million) and R103 million (R8.5 million) respectively.

We had noted in our previous article on this matter, that in light of the SACC’s recently adopted Guidelines for the Determination of Administrative Penalties for Prohibited Practices (the “Guidelines”), it would be interesting to see how the SACC and the Tribunal go about calculating and quantifying an administrative penalty, when dealing with factual circumstances similar to this matter.

We had been concerned that in cases which involve cartel conduct relating to tenders (i.e. bid-rigging), the Guidelines will have limited application.  Andreas Stargard, an attorney with the Africa consultancy Pr1merio, notes:

There are two main reasons why there we view only a narrowly circumscribed application of the Guidelines in these particular circumstances:

  • Firstly, the Guidelines require in the case of bid-rigging that the affected turnover to be used for purposes of calculating an administrative penalty must be the higher of: the value of the bid, the value of the contract ultimately concluded, or the amount of money ultimately paid to the successful bidder. While this approach to calculating affected turnover when dealing with tenders such as those in the construction industry may be useful, the Guidelines present an anomaly when one is dealing with a tender, the value of which is subject to one or more variable and the tender contract has not been completed yet at the time of the calculation or imposition of an administrative penalty.

  • Secondly, and perhaps even more problematic, is that the Guidelines envisage that a party involved in cartel conduct should be fined for the tenders that the party successfully ‘won’, as well as being held liable for tenders that the party ‘lost’. In terms of the Guidelines, a party who was involved in ensuring that another company was awarded the tender (due to collusion), the ‘unsuccessful’ party will be subjected to an administrative penalty for such a tender as well. In this regard, the affected turnover that will be utilised to calculate the administrative penalty for the ‘unsuccessful’ party, the SACC would also choose the greater of the actual value of the bid submitted by the ‘unsuccessful party’, or the value of the contract or the amount ultimately paid to the successful bidder.

This in itself creates two further issues. The first is from a policy perspective; in terms of penalising the unsuccessful bidder, the unsuccessful bidder’s affected turnover would in most instances be either than the affected turnover of the successful bidder higher (because when a firm deliberately ‘loses’ a bid, they usually submit a cover bid which is higher than the ‘winning’ bid), or at a minimum the same value as the affected turnover attributed to the successful bidder. Thus it is conceivable that the ‘unsuccessful’ bidder while not having derived any benefit from the bid in question, would be subjected to a similar or greater administrative penalty than the successful bidder.

Furthermore, for purposes of reaching a settlement quantum, it is often not possible for the ‘unsuccessful bidder’ to know or calculate the value of the contract or the amount paid to the successful bidder. The only way to obtain such information would require information sharing between competitors, which raise a host of further competition law concerns.

Accordingly, while the adoption of Guidelines for purposes of ensuring greater certainty and transparency is created for parties who are potentially subjected to administrative penalties, the Guidelines have respectfully fallen short of doing that, when dealing with instances of bid-rigging.

The difficulty of applying the Guidelines to cases of bid-rigging was acknowledged by the SACC during the shipping cartel hearings before the Tribunal, a consequence of which saw the SACC adopt a novel and individualised strategy to calculating the administrative penalties which the Respondents ultimately agree to.

The SACC decided firstly that whichever strategy they adopt for purposes of calculating the Respondents financial liability, must be one that can be consistently and fairly applied to all respondents in the investigation.

Accordingly, the SACC decided to impose a administrative penalty of 3.5% of the Respondents’ turnover derived within or from South Africa, in respect of bids which the Respondents were awarded, and a lesser percentage of turnover was used in respect of bid’s which were not awarded to the Respondents.

The SACC thus acknowledge that it would not be fair to impose the same penalty quantum on the successful bidder on the unsuccessful bidder as well.

The M/V Thalatta, a WWL High Efficiency RoRo vessel

The M/V Thalatta, a WWL High Efficiency RoRo vessel (image (c) WWL)

When pressed on how the SACC reached a value of 3.5%, the SACC indicated that the Respondents’ willingness to engage the SACC and their commitment to settling the process was a weighty factor taken into account.

Importantly, the SACC decided to penalise each of the respondents cumulatively. In other words, for each instance of a contravention, the SACC imposed a penalty equal to 3.5% of the firm’s annual turnover (or a slightly lesser amount if the firm was the unsuccessful bidder’).

Section 59 of the Competition Act limits the amount of affirms administrative penalty to 10% of the firm’s annual turnover derived within or from South Africa in its preceding financial year.

Due to the fact, however, that the SACC ultimately imposed a cumulative penalty, the administrative penalty imposed on the Respondents exceeded 10% of the Respondents annual turnover.

On a side note, the SACC did use the annual turnover of the proceeding financial year as the based upon which to penalise the respondents, but rather opted to use the year 2012 which was the most recent year during which there was evidence of collusion.

Accordingly, the Commission has exercised a considerable degree of discretion when choosing a strategy for purposes of imposing an administrative penalty and while the SACC considered the sic-step approach to calculating an administrative penalty, opted rather to impose a turnover based percentage figure, and thus, we are left none the wiser as to how the Guidelines are actually going to be interpreted and implemented.

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Patel commends his competition team

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Minister finds praise for competition agencies, having increased fines “1000%”

The official South African news agency reports that Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel has lauded the country’s competition authorities as “remarkably effective over the past 15 years.”

“The competition authorities have done solid investigations as they have stepped up actions against cartels and promoted public interest consideration when conducting investigations,” he is quoted as saying at the 8th Annual Competition, Law, Economics and Policy Conference in Johannesburg. “The remedies and fines imposed by the competition authorities climbed ten fold compared to the previous five years, call it 1000 percent, reaching over R6 billion.”

Minister Patel said the competition authority had come into their own with solid pipelines of anti-cartel investigation, the systematic consideration of public interest and issues in merger acquisition.

Setting aside the unorthodox phraseology (“merger acquisition”) in the quoted paragraph, the Minister’s remarks indeed echo what we at AAT have observed for well over a year now, namely the renewed and increased focus of the competition agencies on so-called “public-interest” factors, in lieu of (or in addition to) traditional, classic antitrust considerations, such as market power, concentration/HHIs, and prediction of unilateral/coordinated effects of proposed mergers.

Details of $2.9 billion bid-rigging come to light in South African parliament

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As SAcommercialPropNews reports, the South African Parliament heard testimony from the chairman of the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), Mr. Bafana Ndendwa, on the developments and results of the South African Competition Commission’s investigation into the building industry at large.

The investigation into the potential 26 billion Rand collusion had begun when building budgets related to the 2010 FIFA soccer world cup in South Africa were plagued with cost overruns.  Since then, it appears that well over 40 construction companies have been investigated by the Commission.  We had previously reported on antitrust settlements in the S.A. building industry here.

Even with some settlements underway, the building-industry antitrust saga appears far from over, though.  Creating a spectre of double jeopardy, Mr. Ndendwa stated that leniency from the Commission may not yield similar treatment by other investigating bodies.  The cited article also quotes members of the ‘Portfolio Committee’ of the Parliament as pressing for criminal charges to be filed.  This is an interesting development, as the South African competition law (as it is currently in effect) does not [yet] provide for criminal sanctions against individuals.  While the law had been amended to include such a provision, the amendments have not yet been ratified and put into effect.

Family feud: Which S.A. agency gets the first bite at the apple?

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Why is the South African government flexing its anti-fraud and corruption laws in the long-running investigation of potential bid-rigging in the construction sector, when it could perhaps more straightforwardly apply its competition law — and only that — to the alleged offences?  In its role as the antitrust watchdog, the SA Competition Commission has been attempting to induce guilty co-conspirators to seek leniency or corporate immunity from prosecution for cartel offences under the country’s Competition Act in exchange for information on rigged bids for construction projects.

Corporate leniency is one thing — personal liability for fraud or other racketeering charges is quite another…  Individual employees or directors of the leniency applicants should beware the double jeopardy they are exposed to, personally, when their employers ink settlements with the CC: The National Prosecuting Authority is not using the country’s civil-offence based competition law to pursue the alleged wrongdoing, even though the accusations raised by them would fall rather neatly within the category of prohibited horizontal agreements among competitors (i.e., cartel conduct).  Rather, the prosecution is applying the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, which — unlike the Competition Act — criminalises the illicit behaviour that allegedly took place.

On the policy side, had the as-of-yet dormant Competition Amendment Act 2009 come into force and the competition law therefore criminalisation “teeth”, we here at AfricanAntitrust.com are wondering whether we’d be seeing parallel, ongoing dual-agency investigations on a scale such as this — or rather an initial battle for jurisdiction between the CC and the NPA’s Hawks?  The S.A. family feud between the twin siblings, fraud laws and antitrust? The purely legal question of “double jeopardy”, raised above, would doubtless also figure in the debate who gets to enforce which law(s).  One of the CC’s public-relations managers, Trudi Makhaya, recently hinted at the potential for greater enforcement powers of the Competition Commission, mentioning the “pending amendments to the Competition Act”. For now, the so-called Construction Fast Track Settlement Project will have to keep churning out non-criminal settlements with offenders.

This specific post will serve as a lead-up into the broader arena of criminalisation of antitrust law, which we will cover soon in its own category.  It brings with it fascinating questions beyond those raised here (including, for instance, the potential for dis-incentives to corporate executives to seek leniency).

As always, we welcome your opinion — this is a question that will sooner or later have to be answered.