Competition Appeal Court’s Ruling in Standard Bank Case: A Changing of the Tides?

Threat of Referral no Longer an Arrow in the Commission’s Quiver?

By AAT Senior Contributor Michael-James Currie

In the first week of June 2018, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) upheld Standard Bank’s appeal and ordered that the Competition Commission (Commission) make available its investigation record to Standard Bank. Standard Bank is a respondent in the Commission’s ForEx investigation.

Standard Bank had requested that the Commission make available its record in terms of Rule 15 of the Competition Commission Rules. Rule 15 permits any member of the public to request access to the Commission’s non-confidential record. Standard Bank therefore brought its application in terms of Rule 15 not on the basis of it being a respondent to the Commission’s investigation but as an ordinary member of the public.

Although the CAC had in an earlier case, Group 5, set out the correct interpretation and application of Rule 15 and stated that:

  1. the Commission is obliged in terms of Rule 15 to make available its record of investigation;
  2. that the Commission must do so within a “reasonable time”; and
  3. that the Commission must disregard the applicants status as a litigant when determining what a reasonable time is.

The Tribunal in the Standard Bank case, however, deviated from the CAC’s binding decision in Group 5 and held that the Commission would only need to make its record available to Standard Bank at the time of discovery.

Accordingly, the CAC in the Standard Bank case found that the Tribunal took Standard Bank’s status as a litigant into account when assessing what a reasonable time would be by which the Commission was obliged to make available its record to Standard Bank. The CAC in Standard Bank confirmed that although the Tribunal is not bound by the stare decisis principle in relation to its own decisions, the Tribunal is bound by the CAC’s decisions. The Tribunal’s decision in Standard Bank was inconsistent with the CAC’s earlier decision in the Group 5 case – where the CAC expressly stated that there is no rational basis for linking the production of the Commission’s record with discovery proceedings. The Tribunal’s departure from the CAC’s earlier precedent was noted with concern by the CAC in Standard Bank.

The Commission argued – as justification for not producing its record – that Standard Bank was abusing its position as a litigant. In this regard, the CAC expressly rejected this argument and held that simply because a plaintiff would be better placed to plead its case after receiving the Commission’s record that, in of itself, does not amount to an abuse of process. The CAC held that it would only amount to an abuse of process if an applicant sought to rely on Rule 15 in order to avoid or delay having to plead within the prescribed time periods.

Furthermore, the CAC reaffirmed that a member of the public’s right to access the Commission’s record should not be prejudiced by the fact that such a member is also a litigant.

The Court’s Standard Bank decision is important as respondents will invariably be inclined to seek access to the Commission’s record prior to pleading their case. This may have a material impact on the Commission’s settlement strategy as respondents in settlement negotiations with the Commission are likely to request the Commission’s record in order to assess the strength of the Commission’s case against it before deciding whether to settle the case or not – thereby compelling the Commission to ensure that a robust investigation is conducted prior to entering into settlement negotiations with respondents.

Says John Oxenham, ‘the “threat of a referral” is unlikely to present the Commission with the same negotiating leverage as it may otherwise have enjoyed when respondents were kept in the dark as to the evidence which the Commission may have against them.’

Whether this all plays out in practice remains to be seen although any decision which promotes transparency and legal certainty can only be positive. It is for this reason that the CAC’s express criticism of the Tribunal’s decision to depart from established case precedent is particularly noteworthy as it is a stark reminder to all adjudicative bodies of the importance of adhering to the rule of law.

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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]

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’.

 

Predatory Pricing & the Competition Act: a False-Positive?

We have previously, on African Antitrust, reported on South Africa’s first predatory pricing case in the Media 24 matter. In light, however, of the recent cases on exclusionary conduct — particularly predatory pricing, which has received significant attention from competition law agencies across a number of jurisdictions of late (see, for instance, the Paris Court of Appeals’ dismissal of the predatory pricing and exclusionary conduct allegations made against Google by an online maps rival.  The Indian Competition Commission has also launched an investigation into alleged predatory pricing in the taxi industry, and the European Commission has launched investigations into predatory pricing in the potato-chips / crisps industry) — a more substantive evaluation of predatory pricing in South Africa is called for. The following article on predatory pricing, in light of the Media 24 case, neatly sets out and evaluates the landscape of predatory pricing in South Africa.

 

Predatory Pricing & the South African Competition Act: a False-Positive?

By Michael J. Currie

Intro & Summary

“From an antitrust perspective, predatory pricing is a particularly difficult problem with which to deal. If we are to prevent anticompetitive monopolization, it is a strategy that must not be permitted. The paradox, however, is that such a pricing strategy is virtually indistinguishable from the very sort of aggressive competitive pricing we wish to encourage.”

D L Kaserman and J W Mayo, ‘Government and Business: The Economics of Antitrust and Regulation’ (1995) Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press at 128

In September 2015, the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”), for the first time in South Africa’s sixteen-year history of competition-law enforcement found, in the Media 24 case that the respondent had engaged in predatory pricing in contravention of the South African Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Act”).

The Media 24 case, despite being dragged out for nearly six years, was set to be the leading jurisprudence on the laws pertain to predatory pricing, and in particular, how Section 8(d)(iv) of the Act would be interpreted and applied by the Tribunal. The finding by the Tribunal was, however, based on Section 8(c) of the Act, which is a broader ‘catch-all’ provision, and left some important questions as to the interpretation of Section 8(d)(iv) unanswered. Most notably, whether or not Section 8(d)(iv) permits complainants to utilise cost measurement standards other than Average Variable Costs (“AVC”) or Marginal Costs (“MC”) to prove that a dominant firm has engaged in predatory pricing in contravention of the provision.

Having said that, however, the Media 24 case provides some insight as to the precise relationship between Sections 8(d)(iv) and 8(c) of the Act as they relate to predatory pricing, and may have offered, by way of certain obiter remarks, an indication as to how the Tribunal may interpret and apply Section 8(d)(iv) of the Act in the future.

Continue reading the full article, an AAT exclusive, in PDF format:

Predatory Pricing and the South African Competition Act: a False-Positive?

First predatory pricing case before the Competition Tribunal

Media24 excludes GNN, Tribunal finds

By Julie Tirtiaux

A year ago, we at AAT reported on the intervention by competitors in the merger between Media24 and Paarl Media.  Today, we want to highlight a “one-year-later” feature about that same company, which has now been found liable of predatory exclusion of its rivals by the South African Competition Tribunal (the “Tribunal”).  The Tribunal found on 8 September 2015 that Media24 had engaged in exclusionary conduct due to predation by removing a rival community newspaper publication, Gold Net News (“GNN”), out of the market. [1]

Two routes explored by the South African Competition Commission’s (“SACC”) to sanction Media24’s predation conduct

In 2009, GNN exited the newspaper community market. Within 10 months of the exit of GNN, Media24 closed down one of its titles, Forum. From then until today, Vista which is another title owned by Media24, is the only title to survive in the Welkom market.

According to the SACC:

  • If Vista is the only local paper operating in the Welkom market, it is because Forum was used as a predatory vehicle to exclude its competitor, GNN.
  • The strategy consisted in pricing Forum’s advertising rates below market cost despite repeated loss making and failure to perform to budget forecasts.
  • Media24 operated Forum as a fighting brand, meaning that Media24 sacrificially maintained Forum in the market to exclude its competitor.

For the SACC the reduction of choice of community newspapers during the period January 2004 to April 2009 can only be explained by Media24’s predatory pricing conduct. In order to condemn this conduct as predation, the SACC relied on two provisions of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (the “Act”) which respectively lead to different sanctions.

  • First and ideally, the SACC alleged that Media24 should be sanctioned for its predatory behaviour in terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, which is the explicit predation provision and enables the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence.
  • Second, should the predation not be captured by the express predation provision of section 8(d)(iv), Media24 should at least be found responsible for engaging in general exclusionary conduct, prohibited by section 8(c) of the Act which only gives the Tribunal the power to impose remedies. No fine is available for a first contravention. Only a repeated offence may be subject to an administrative penalty.

Following the Commission’s investigation after the allegations brought by Hans Steyl, who ran GNN from 1999 until its eventual closure in 2009, the Commission referred the case to the Tribunal in 2011.

The denial of predation conduct by Media24

Media24 (whose slogan is, somewhat ironically perhaps: “Touching lives through the power of media“) denied any casual link between the fates of the Forum and the GNN’s papers. Forum was not used as a predatory vehicle to exclude GNN. Media24 attributed the closure of Forum to the 2008 recession, on-going downsizing in Media24 as a whole, and to the problem of publishing two newspapers, Forum and Vista, in the Welkom area. It further argued that GNN had exited because it was not viable.

The difficulty to prove a direct predatory pricing conduct

For the first time in the sixteen years in which the new Competition Act has been in operation[2], the Tribunal assessed a predatory pricing case.

Predatory pricing means that prices charged by a dominant firm are not market related but below what would be expect to be a market price. Predatory pricing is only a transient pleasure for consumers as once competitors are eliminated or new entrants are deterred from entering, then the low price honeymoon is over and the predator can impose high prices to recoup the losses sustained in the period of predation.

In terms of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act, to find an express predation contravention, the Commission is required to prove that Media24 priced below “its marginal or average variable cost” (“AVC”) (our emphasis)[3]. The Commission argued that this wording is broad enough to include pricing below average avoidable cost (“AAC”)[4]. This is the cost the firm could have avoided by not engaging in the predatory strategy.[5]

To find exclusionary conduct and thus a contravention of section 8(c) based on predation[6], the Commission would not necessarily need to establish that the dominant firm’s pricing is below any specific cost standard.  All that is required is that the conduct (in this case, low pricing) has an anti-competitive exclusionary effect.

In the Media24 case, the Tribunal has effectively established a new test for predatory pricing which does not meet the test under section 8(d)(iv).  It said that if Media24 is found to have priced below its average total cost (“ATC”)[7] accompanied by additional evidence of intention and recoupment of the loss of profits sustained during the predation period, then a contravention of section 8(c) has taken place.

As ATC include more costs than AAC and AVC of marginal cost, it makes a finding of predation more likely.  The AAC test is thus more stringent than the ATC test.  This follows the logic of the consequences of each section.  As a contravention of section 8(d)(iv) of the Act leads to a fine while a contravention of section 8(c) of the Act only leads to a remedy, it is more difficult to fill the requirements of the specific predation section – section 8(d)(iv).

Consequently, a central issue in this case was to determine Media24’s costs, and compare them to the prices charged during the relevant period.  This is no simple matter.

The Tribunal’s findings trigger questions about how section 8 of the Act on abuse of dominance is structured

Following lengthy discussions about what constitute avoidable costs, the Tribunal held that opportunity costs[8] and re-deployment costs cannot be factored into the calculation of Forum’s AAC. Accordingly, the Tribunal found that Media24 did not contravene the express predation section 8(d)(iv) of the Act.

Interestingly, the Tribunal did however found that Media24 contravened the general exclusionary section 8(c) of the Act. Indeed, after establishing that Media24 was a dominant firm in the market for community newspapers[9], the Tribunal found the evidence of predatory intent which resulted from statements and the implementation of a plan that was predatory in nature. Moreover, the Tribunal held that the pricing of Forum was below ATC.

As a result, it was found that GNN’s exit of the market affected both advertisers and readers. While advertisers paid higher prices as they lost an alternative outlet, readers lost the choice of an alternative newspaper.

Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that Media24 engaged in exclusionary practice because of predation but didn’t find a contravention of the express predation section of the Competition Act.

The implication of this finding is that Media24 is not liable for a fine. The only power left to the Tribunal is the imposition of another form of remedy. Only if Media24 does the same thing again, will it be subjected to a potential administrative penalty under section 8(c).

Such a finding triggers two interrogations about how section 8 of the Act deals with abuse of dominance.[10]

  • Firstly, how can deterrence be guaranteed when the only consequence of a predatory exclusion conduct, in certain circumstances, is a remedy without a monetary fine? This case leaves food for thought as to the necessity to empower the Tribunal to impose a fine for a first offence when a general exclusionary conduct is found.
  • Secondly, if the required test to prove a contravention of the explicit predation section is too stringent and almost impossible, not only a predatory conduct will never lead to a fine but more generally the utility of this section should be seriously considered.
Footnotes

[1] See the Tribunal’s decision: http://www.comptrib.co.za/assets/Uploads/Reasons-for-Decision-Media24-Section-8-Case-Signature-Documentfinal.pdf

[2] See the Tribunal’s press release: http://www.comptrib.co.za/publications/press-releases/media24-press-release/

[3] A variable cost being a cost that varies with changes in output. The AVC is defined as the sum of all variables costs divided by output.

[4] The important difference with AVC is that AAC include an element of fixed costs.

[5] AAC has become a widely accepted cost standard for the assessment of predatory pricing. This acceptance is evident both from its inclusion in the EU‘s Guidelines, the recent International Competition Network Guidelines, and a Department of Justice Report.

[6] See Nationwide Airlines (Pty) Ltd v SAA (Pty) Ltd and others [1999-2000] CPLR 230 (CT), page 10. The Tribunal stated that a predatory pricing could lead to a finding in terms of section 8(c).

[7] ATC includes fixed, variable and sunk costs (sunk costs being costs that have already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered).

[8] An opportunity cost is a cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.

[9] Media24 would have had a market share of approximately 75%.

[10] On this topic, see the articles of Neil Mackenzie, “Are South Africa’s Predatory Pricing Rules Suitable?” and “Rethinking Exclusionary Abuse in South Africa”.

Appellate competition body questions authority’s lenient fine

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Tribunal expresses doubts as to lenient fining level of Premier Fishing

The chairman of the South African Competition Tribunal, Takalani Madima, has asked the South African Competition Commission and Premier Fishing for ‘detailed substantial submissions’ on the settlement agreement reached between them, which lets the fishing company “off the hook” for an administrative penalty of a mere R2.1m (or 2% of its revenues).

2% fine not sufficient deterrent to anti-competitive conduct

According to a BDlive report, Mr. Madima is quoted as saying: ‘I am personally not too happy (with the agreement). I am still to be persuaded.’

The underlying conduct involves a cartel between Premier Fishing and others, in which the competitors shared information and pricing regarding the pelagic fish industry.  The Commission’s July 2008 investigation included the following companies as targets: Oceana, Foodcorp (note: the two former cartelists recently decided to merge and the competition authorities imposed conditions on the planned transaction), Premier Fishing, Gansbaai Marine, the SA Pelagic Fish Processors Association, Pioneer Fishing, Saldanha Bay Canning and others.

As the leniency applicant, Pioneer Fishing obtained full immunity from prosecution.  Others, such as Oceana, settled for approximately 5% of their fishing turnover.

Language barrier persists in Tribunal proceedings

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A report by the South African Citizen discusses the language barriers still present in the Republic today.

The piece, entitled “Tribunal struggles with Afrikaans” by Antoinette Slabbert, notes that the RSA Competition Tribunal has decided to have testimony given in Afrikaans transcribed, together with its English translation, “to ensure the court properly captures what a witness was trying to say.”

The underlying case is the Competition Commission’s case against Media24, alleging an abuse of dominance by squeezing its competitor, Gold-Net News, out of the market for advertising in community newspapers in the Free State Gold Fields between 2004 and 2009.

The Citizen reports:

Tribunal chairperson Norman Manoim asked whether Van Eck would mind testifying in English, since he was concerned about the quality of the translation of her responses the previous day. Media24′s legal team objected, saying Van Eck was already assisting the tribunal by taking questions in English.

The legal representative of the commission pointed out that Van Eck’s English was good. Both legal teams shared Manoim’s concern about the English interpretations. Van Eck said she prefered testifying in her home language to better express herself.

Earlier, Wian Bonthuyzen, Van Eck’s former manager and a key witness, switched from Afrikaans to broken English during his testimony, after another interpreter failed to properly convey his responses to the tribunal.

Commission’s fisheries merger conditions upheld on review by Tribunal

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Competition Tribunal confirms Commission’s ruling on Oceana and Foodcorp merger

Johannesburg-listed Ocean Group Limited is the largest fishing company in South Africa, whose fishing activities include inter alia the catching, processing, marketing and distribution of canned fish, fishmeal and fish oil and mid-water and deep-sea fishing.

Foodcorp Limited is a food producer and manufacturer with eight production divisions, one of which is a fishing division. Foodcorp’s fishing business comprises a pelagic division, a hake division and a lobster division.

The Competition Commission said its investigation into the proposed transaction showed that the proposed transaction would substantially affect competition in the market for canned pilchards to the detriment of competition and customers. Following implementation of the transaction, Oceana will hold 80% of the market, while its closest competitor would hold less than 10%. Furthermore, the Commission was concerned that the transaction, without the conditions, would remove an efficient competitor to Oceana’s Lucky Star brand from the market, as Glenryck would not be able to provide competition to Lucky Star without its own fishing quota.

Both Oceana and Foodcorp contended that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had approved the transfer of Foodcorp’s small pelagic fishing rights to Oceana, which includes the consideration of public interest issues regarding black economic empowerment.

The merging parties had taken the conditional approval of the intermediate merger on review before the Competition Tribunal. The conditions which the Competition Commission had imposed entailed that the merging parties are to sell the Glenryck canned-pilchards brand to an independent third party, as well as the small pelagic fish quota allocated to it by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The condition was imposed as a means that would deprive Oceana of Foodcorp’s fishing quota, thereby preventing market dominance.

The Competition Tribunal approved the transaction on the same conditions initially imposed by the Competition Commission. The Tribunal will issue its reasons for the decision in due course.

Tsogo Merger Unconditionally Approved

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Unconditional approval of SA hotel deal

The Competition Tribunal of South Africa (“Tribunal”) has unconditionally approved the merger of Southern Sun Hotel Interests (Pty) Ltd (“Southern Sun Hotel Interests”), which is a subsidiary of Tsogo Sun Holdings Limited, and The Cullinan Hotel (Pty) Ltd (“The Cullinan Hotel”).

The merger related to the provision of short-term hotel accommodation. Pre-merger, Southern Sun Hotel Interests held a 50% shareholding in The Cullinan Hotel and exercised joint control with Liberty Holdings Limited (“Liberty”) over The Cullinan Hotel. Southern Sun Hotel Interests acquired an additional 10% shareholding in the Cullinan Hotel from Liberty, thus increasing its shareholding in the joint venture to a majority interest of 60% and thereby acquiring sole control of The Cullinan Hotel.

The Tribunal approved the merger without any conditions.  Nortons Inc. represented Southern Sun Hotel Interests in this transaction.

How to (almost) gut an agency – the final twist in the maize seeds case?

How to (almost) gut an agency – the final twist in the maize seeds case?

By Patrick Smith

On 18 December 2013, the Constitutional Court of South Africa (“Constitutional Court”) handed down its decision in an appeal by the Competition Commission (“Commission”) against an unprecedented costs order imposed by the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”).  The costs order related to the CAC’s decision to overturn the decisions of the Commission and the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”) to prohibit the merger between Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Pannar Seeds.

The Commission had originally prohibited the proposed merger on 7 December 2010,[1] following a three-month investigation.  In the Commission’s assessment, the transaction amounted to a 3 to 2 concentration amongst producers of seeds for the staple food in South Africa, if not much of sub-Saharan Africa.  Quite apart from the substance, this sector fell squarely within the Commission’s prioritisation programme, and so was always likely to receive close scrutiny.[2]  On the Commission’s assessment, the transaction would give rise to significant unilateral effects, removing an important competitor from the market.  The Commission considered the merging parties’ submissions that the transaction would lead to efficiencies from a combination of the two parties’ breeding programmes, but found the claimed benefits unconvincing and unlikely to outweigh the anti-competitive harm.
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Following an extensive discovery process and a three-week hearing involving nine witnesses, the Tribunal also decided to prohibit the merger, on 9 December 2011.[3]  The Tribunal considered the potential for anti-competitive effects (concluding that the parties were close and effective competitors, and that the transaction would accordingly give rise to very significant anticompetitive effects),[4] and the likelihood of significant efficiencies (concluding that the Parties’ assumptions were “either grossly exaggerated or totally unrealistic”, and that any potential merger-specific efficiencies would lie beyond a 5 year time horizon)[5].  Despite the parties’ characterisation of the industry as a “dynamic innovation market”, maize seeds improve by 1-2% per annum (not exactly Moore’s law)[6] and the wide variety of different growing conditions (and the use of seeds adapted for each region), mean that any particular innovation is unlikely to be universally applied; the Tribunal highlighted the need to account for anticipated non-merger specific innovation as a benchmark against which the parties’ claims should be measured.

Notably, the Tribunal focussed substantial attention on assessing the relevant counterfactual against which the merger should be assessed.  While it was common cause that the target firm did not meet the requirements of the failing firm defence, in the course of the Tribunal hearing the parties had argued that the target firm, Pannar, would decline as a competitive force, most rapidly in relation to one specific product area (so-called irrigated region hybrids), but also more generally across its whole product range.  Considering local and international approaches to the counterfactual, the Tribunal found that there was no compelling evidence of the certain decline of the target firm (which was still the market leader in relation to the irrigated region hybrids), and concluded that there was no reason not to accept the status quo as the relevant counterfactual.

Following two days of oral argument, the CAC overturned the Tribunal’s prohibition, instead deciding on 28 May 2012[7] that the merger should be allowed subject to conditions, including the imposition of restrictions on price increases on existing Pannar varieties to the level of consumer price inflation for three years, and agreeing to license a list of Pannar varieties for breeding by third parties.  The CAC’s reasoning was based on an assumption that the decline of the target firm was “inevitable”[8] albeit uncertain in its timing, although it was again universally accepted that Pannar failed to meet the requirements of a failing firm.  On that assumption, the CAC appeared to reverse the onus that would have applied with a failing firm defence, and stated that the Commission[9] had failed to establish the likelihood of an alternative transaction that might preserve Pannar’s assets, in the event of a prohibition.  The CAC placed an unusually heavy weight on the interests of private shareholders,[10] as opposed to consumers, which is in distinction to the strict requirements of the failing firm defence, as applied internationally.[11]  The CAC ultimately concluded that the relevant counterfactual was the continued decline, eventual demise and exit by Pannar,[12] and against that benchmark, approved the transaction, subject to conditions.

It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court of Appeal denied the Commission leave to appeal on the substance, as the CAC’s approach to the counterfactual has created some uncertainty that may need to be resolved in another case.  In any event, the Constitutional Court was only asked to consider the CAC’s costs award.[13]

The CAC had awarded costs against the Commission, not only in respect of the CAC proceedings, but also those before the Tribunal.  The Constitutional Court first clarified that the Tribunal has no power to award costs against the Commission (thereby distinguishing the Commission, as a “party”, from a private “complainant” in Tribunal proceedings).[14]  Furthermore, the Constitutional Court determined that the CAC is similarly unable to award costs in relation to Tribunal proceedings.[15]  Finally, while the CAC has discretion to award costs against the Commission in respect of CAC proceedings, it must properly exercise this discretion.[16]  The Constitutional Court noted that while the “Unreasonable, frivolous or vexatious pursuit of a particular stance” may justify a costs order against the Commission, the vigorous pursuit of its case would not.  The Court highlighted the distinction between an ordinary civil litigant and the Commission, which is required to pursue its statutory mandate vigorously, often where there is no opposing party or amicus.  Ultimately, the Constitutional Court concluded that the lack of reasoning behind the costs award, and the lack of any evidence of “mala fides, irregularity, or unreasonable conduct” by the Commission meant that the costs order had to be set aside.

This is clearly an important result for the Commission’s ongoing activities.  The Commission had argued before the Constitutional Court that a costs order would have a serious effect on its budget and its stance in defending similar investigations and findings before the CAC.  Ideally, competition enforcement should aim to strike a balance between sufficiently robust enforcement to achieve policy objectives and the need to avoid imposing undue or disproportionate costs on the businesses that ultimately drive competition, growth and job creation.  Particularly in a developing country context, a certain degree of prioritisation can be helpful in building institutional capability and making the most effective use of limited resources, as well as minimising the burden of investigations.  By focussing the most resources and attention on those cases most likely to cause harm, an agency might maximise the benefits of enforcement, while minimising the potential for any inefficiency caused by the investigation process.

In this case, while the CAC took a different view from the Tribunal (and the Commission), it would be difficult to label the Tribunal’s decision (and hence the Commission’s defence at the CAC) as unreasonable or vexatious.  In a nutshell, this was a 3 to 2 combination between direct (“horizontal”)[17] competitors in a priority sector, in an industry that, while increasingly influenced by innovation, is slow moving in comparison with “innovation markets” such as those in the ICT sector.

South African merger control is not characterised by many prohibition decisions.  Amongst intermediate and large mergers, this is the most recent prohibition decision issued by the Tribunal.  There have been around 500 decisions since the previous prohibition, Telkom/BCX in August 2007.[18]  Few prohibitions may well point to the outstanding deterrent effect of the Commission’s historical enforcement efforts, but it seems a stretch to consider that the Commission’s (albeit vigorous) defence of the only large/intermediate prohibition decision by the Tribunal in the past 6 years is an indication of a vexatious or overly aggressive approach.

While the Commission will no doubt be heartened by this decision, it will be interesting to see whether the clarifications provided by the Constitutional Court will have any bearing on the Commission’s stance on contentious matters before the CAC in future, in particular those involving more complex theories of harm.  Arguably more important will be the anticipated clarification of the approach to mergers involving declining firms in the light of the CAC’s approach to the counterfactual.

Patrick Smith, RBB, author

Patrick Smith, RBB, author (South Africa)


[2]     See Roberts, Simon (2008) “South African Competition Policy in 2008: Key Priorities of the Competition Commission” Global Competition Policy, April 23rd, 2008.  Prioritisation might justify closer scrutiny, or even firmer enforcement, in particular sectors or industrial areas.  For an example of where enforcement might depend on sector characteristics, see EdF/British Energy, European Commission Case No COMP/M.5224, 22/12/2008, at para 31, cited in http://www.compcom.co.za/assets/Uploads/events/Fourth-Competition-Law-Conferece/Session-4B/100812-PS-Paper-for-SACC-conference-DRAFT.pdf.

[3]     Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc and Pannar Seed (Pty) Ltd v The Competition Commission and the African Centre for Biosafety, CT CASE NO: 81/AM/DEC10 (“Tribunal Decision”), http://www.comptrib.co.za/assets/Uploads/81AMDec10.pdf

[4]     Tribunal Decision paragraphs 282 to 284.

[5]     Tribunal Decision paragraphs 317 and 327.

[7]     Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc and Pannar Seed (Pty) Ltd v The Competition Commission and the African Centre for Biosafety, CAC CASE NO.: 113/CAC/NOV11, (“CAC Decision”), http://www.comptrib.co.za/assets/Uploads/113CACNov11-Pioneer-Pannar.pdf

[8]     CAC Decision paragraphs 3 and 29.

[9]     CAC Decision paragraph 26.

[10]    CAC Decision paragraphs 21-26.

[12]    CAC Decision paragraph 28.

[13]    The Competition Commission v Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc, Pannar Seed (Pty) Ltd, and the African Centre for Biosafety, Case CCT 58/13 [2013] ZACC 50, (“Constitutional Court Decision”), http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2013/50.html

[14]    Constitutional Court Decision paragraph 40.

[15]    Constitutional Court Decision paragraph 43.

[16]    Constitutional Court Decision paragraph 46-47.

[17]    More precisely, producers of substitutes.