South African Market Inquiries: What Lies Ahead and is it Justified?

By Michael-James Currie

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it will be conducting market inquiries into both the Public Passenger Transport sector (Transport Inquiry) as well as investigate the high costs of Data (Data Inquiry).

These inquiries are in addition to the SACC’s market inquiries into the private healthcare sector and grocery retail sector (which are still on-going) and the recently concluded LPG market inquiry.

There are mixed feelings about the benefits of market inquiries in South Africa. Market inquiries are extremely resource intensive (both from the SACC’s perspective as well as for the key participants in the inquiry) and the outcomes of the inquiries which have been concluded (including the informal inquiry in the banking sector) are lukewarm at best. There is little evidence available which suggests that the resources incurred in conducting market inquiries in South Africa are proportional to the perceived or intended pro-competitive outcomes.

Leaving aside this debate for now, the SACC’s most recent market inquiries are particularly interesting for a variety of additional reasons.

Firstly, in relation to the Transport Inquiry, the Terms of Reference (ToR) set out the objectives and the key focus areas of the inquiry. In this regard, the ToR indicate that pricing regulation is one of the key factors which allegedly creates an uneven playing field between metered taxis for example and app-based taxi services such as Uber.

It should be noted that the metered taxi association of South Africa had previously and unsuccessfully submitted a complaint to the SACC against Uber for alleged abuse of dominance. The success of Uber in South Africa has widely been regarded as pro-competitive.

Both prior and subsequent to the complaint against Uber, however, an overwhelming number of metered taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) have resorted to deliberate violent tactics in order to preclude Uber drivers from operating in key areas (i.e. at train stations). In fear of having themselves, their passengers and their vehicles harmed, many Uber drivers oblige. It would be most interesting to see how the SACC tackles this most egregious forms of cartel conduct, namely market allocation (albeit entered into under duress).

Over and above the ‘metered taxi v Uber’ debate, there are additional issues which the Transport Inquiry will focus on – including alleged excessive pricing on certain bus routes, regulated route allocation and ethnic transformation within the industry.

What will likely become a topic (directly or indirectly) during the Transport Inquiry are the allegations, as African Antitrust (AAT) had previously reported, that ‘the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”’.

In this regard, the ToR indicates that “between 70% and 80% of the South African population is dependent on public passenger transport for its mobility”. The majority of these individuals would make use of ‘minibus taxis’.

The Transport Inquiry ToR do not mention this seemingly most blatant violation of competition law principles and it remains to be seen to what extent the SACC’s is prepared to investigate and assess hardcore collusion in the industry.

In relation to the second market inquiry, the SACC will also conduct an inquiry in relation to the high data costs in South Africa.

The High costs of data in South Africa seems to be key issue from the government’s perspective and the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel called for the SACC to conduct an inquiry into this sector. Further, the high costs of data in South Africa seems so important to economic growth and development that the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, not only echoed Minister Patel’s calls for a market inquiry into high data costs, but identified such a market inquiry as part of his ‘14 point action plan’ to revive the South African economy.

Given that the three formal market inquiries which the SACC has commenced with to date have, only one (the LPG inquiry) has been finalized. Even the LPG inquiry took nearly three years to conclude. The private healthcare inquiry and the grocery retail inquiry which commenced in 2014 and 2015 respectively, still seem someway off from reaching any finality.

The length of time taken to conclude a market inquiry is, however, not the end of the matter from a timeline perspective. Following a market inquiry, recommendations must be made to Parliament. These recommendations may include legislative reforms or other remedies to address identified concerns with the structure of the market. Parliament may or may not adopt these recommended proposal.

Accordingly, it seems unlikely that from the date a market inquiry commences, that there will be any pro-competitive gains to the market within 5-7 years. That is assuming that the market presents anti-competitive features which can be remedies through legislative reform

While there appears to be consensus among most that data costs in South Africa are disproportionately high when compared to a number of other developing economies, the positive results envisaged to flow from a market inquiry is not only difficult to quantify, but will only be felt, if at all, a number of years down the line. Hardly a first step to revive the economy on a medium term outlook (let alone the short term).

Furthermore, and entwined with the SACC’s market inquiry into Data Costs, is that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) decided to also conduct a market inquiry into the telecommunications sector, which includes focusing on the high costs of data.  ICASA has indicated that it will liaise with other regulatory bodies including the SACC.

It is not clear what level of collaboration will exist between the SACC and ICASA although one would hope that due to the resource intensive nature of market inquiries, there is minimal duplication between the two agencies – particularly as their objectives would appear identical.

As a concluding remark, absent evidence which convincingly supports the beneficial outcomes of market inquiries in South Africa, perhaps a key priority for the authorities is to conclude the current inquiries as expeditiously as possible and conduct an assessment of the benefits of market inquiries (particularly in the manner in which they are presently being conducted), before initiating a number of additional market inquiries.

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Kenyan cabbies complain: The Uber competition saga reaches East Africa

Uber Africa: Increased competitiveness not a boon for entrenched monopolies

new multi-part seriesContinuing our AAT multi-part series on innovation & antitrust we turn once again to the ubiquitous “Sharing Economy” we are witnessing not only in the United States and Europe but also on the African continent…

“The taxi industry is in the midst of a crisis. Once protected by a regulated monopoly of the commercial passenger motor vehicle transportation market, the industry now faces increasing competition from a new type of transportation service—ride-sharing. The emergence of companies like Uber, the most successful ride-sharing company, threatens to eliminate the taxi industry’s stronghold on the ground transportation market and possibly the industry itself.” (Erica Taschler, Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies, in “A Crumbling Monopoly: The Rise of Uber and the Taxi Industry’s Struggle to Survive“)

April 14, 2015 Associated Press file photo, Nairobi, Kenya

Today, the Taxi Cab Association of Kenya announced protests against the “unfair competition” its members face from ride-sharing giant Uber, according to the organisation’s chairman, Josphat Olila.  This is no news for folks in London, Brussels, Hamburg, or Washington — places where the taxi-medallion-capped brethren of Nairobi’s cabbies have all long ago gone through the protest phase against the rising tide of the “new economy’s” novel way of hailing cars.  Examples abound, and all involve more or less refined antitrust arguments.

Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa competition advisors Primerio, sums it up as follows: “The pro-competitive notion of innovation-plus-price competition is perhaps best understood by looking at the views of two leading antitrust agencies, the FTC and the European Commission.   Both have articulated simple and sound arguments for striking the right balance between regulatory limits for the protection of passengers, as well as allowing innovative technologies to enhance the competitive landscape and thereby increasing transportation options for riders.  In antitrust law, more options usually equal better outcomes.

U.S.

Here is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had to say in 2013 about the D.C. taxi commission’s ‘unfair competition’ argument against ride-sharing services:

“The staff comments recommend that DCTC avoid unwarranted regulatory restrictions on competition, and that any regulations should be no broader than necessary to address legitimate public safety and consumer protection concerns.  … [T]he comments recommend that DCTC allow for flexibility and experimentation and avoid unnecessarily limiting how consumers can obtain taxis.”

Crucially, the Kenyan cabbies’ argument that Uber should be banned is based on price competition from Uber’s lower fares.  One of the main tenets of competition law is: lower prices are good for consumers (in general), as long as service quality remains the same.  With Uber, quality not only maintains the status quo of smelly and difficult-to-hail cabs, but arguably enhances it (by knowing when and where your car arrives, quality control via Uber’s policies and check-ups, convenient electronic billing & dispute resolution, etc.).  Let’s go back to the FTC’s public comments and see their take:

“Competition and consumer protection naturally complement and mutually reinforce each other, to the benefit of consumers. Consumers benefit from market competition, which creates incentives for producers to be innovative and responsive to consumer preferences with respect to price, quality, and other product and service characteristics. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of competition go beyond lower prices: ‘The assumption that competition is the best method of allocating resources in a free market recognizes that all elements of a bargain – quality, service, safety, and durability – and not just the immediate cost, are favorably affected by the free opportunity to select among alternative offers’.”

EU DG COMP

Former Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes would agree wholeheartedly with the above, and indeed said in 2014 that she was “outraged at the decision by a Brussels court to ban Uber.”  In her personal op-ed piece, published on the EU Commission’s web site under the catchy title “Crazy court decision to ban Uber in Brussels“, she poignantly had this to tell the Belgian Mobility Minister who signed off on the Uber ban:

“This decision is not about protecting or helping passengers – it’s about protecting a taxi cartel.  The relevant Brussels Regional Minister is Brigitte Grouwels. Her title is “Mobility Minister”.  Maybe it should be “anti-Mobility Minister”. She is even proud of the fact that she is stopping this innovation. It isn’t protecting jobs Madame, it is just annoying people!”

We wonder what would happen if Neelie Kroes were Kenyan government minister…

Kenya: Keep prices high and ‘foreign’ competition out?

The Kenyan Taxi Association does not see it that way, just like its D.C. counterpart did not some 3 years ago.  However, D.C.’s streets are still full of old-fashioned cabs, and Uber — while popular — is still far from blowing out the light shone by the once-prized cabbie medallions…

Still, the Kenyan association claims that between 4,000 and up to 15,000 taxi drivers face job extinction due to lower prices charged by Uber, which has been active in Nairobi since the beginning of 2015.  Again, the “lower price” argument is a red herring under even the most basic application of competition economics, which shows that innovation-based price competition is ultimately pro-competitive and good not only for the end consumer but also the industry’s development as a whole.

Sadly, antitrust law — even in a fairly developed competition-law jurisdiction like Kenya — does not always prevail (again, see the occidental examples of Brussels, Hamburg, London, or even Baltimore, where the cabbies ironically sued Uber in an antitrust lawsuit, alleging that the so-called ‘Surge Pricing’ mechanism amounts to per se illegal price-fixing…).

The Kenyan taxi-cab organisation not only claims that the livelihoods of its members are at stake, but also “questioned the protocols followed by the foreign investors behind Uber, saying they were not consulted before the service provider entered the market,” according to an article in the Kenyan Daily Nation.  The association’s spokesman is quoted as saying: “We have loans to service, families to feed, children to educate and other responsibilities to cater for and we are not ready to leave the transport industry to a foreigner and render [ourselves] jobless while we are in a democratic republic.”

So in the end, the ‘unfair taxi competition’ argument devolves into xenophobia and mistrust.  Sadder yet, Kenya’s Uber fight has now taken a violent turn: Yesterday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said that there had been reports of attacks on Uber drivers, which are being investigated.

AAT of course deplores the resort to violence and trusts that neither it nor the upcoming protests will impede the progress of competitiveness in Kenya, a country that otherwise prides itself on encouraging competition (see CNBC Africa video on “East African competitiveness”).  The sole glimmer of hope we see consists of the closing line of the Daily Nation piece, which notes that “[t]he drivers have also promised to come up with their own version of Uber to connect taxi drivers in the country.”  That is what innovation is all about: Uber innovates, others copy (be it Lyft or the Kenyan cabbies), and everyone is better off in the final analysis.

 

Unfair competitors or clever innovators? Lessons from the sharing economy.

new multi-part seriesInnovators face unfair competition claims

Our AAT multi-part series on innovation & antitrust is being continued by Professor Sofia Ranchordás. The AAT author just published a new paper on the ubiquitous “Sharing Economy” we are witnessing not only in the United States and Europe but also on the African continent (UBER has seen significant successes in Johannesburg and Cape Town, for instance).

Below is the abstract — for the full 45-page PDF article, to be published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology please go to SSRN here.

Sharing economy practices have become increasingly popular in the past years. From swapping systems, network transportation to private kitchens, sharing with strangers appears to be the new urban trend. Although Uber, Airbnb, and other online platforms have democratized the access to a number of services and facilities, multiple concerns have been raised as to the public safety, health and limited liability of these sharing economy practices. In addition, these innovative activities have been contested by professionals offering similar services that claim that sharing economy is opening the door to unfair competition. Regulators are at crossroads: on the one hand, innovation in sharing economy should not be stifled by excessive and outdated regulation; on the other, there is a real need to protect the users of these services from fraud, liability and unskilled service providers. This dilemma is far more complex than it seems since regulators are confronted here with an array of challenging questions: firstly, can these sharing economy practices be qualified as “innovations” worth protecting and encouraging? Secondly, should the regulation of these practices serve the same goals as the existing rules for the equivalent commercial services (e.g. taxi regulations)? Thirdly, how can regulation keep up with the evolving nature of these innovative practices? All these questions, come down to one simple problem: too little is known about the most socially effective ways of consistently regulating and promoting innovation. The solution of these problems implies analyzing two fields of study which still seem to be at an embryonic stage in the legal literature: the study of sharing economy practices and the relationship between innovation and law in this area. In this article, I analyze the challenges of regulating sharing economy from an ‘innovation law perspective’, i.e., I qualify these practices as innovations that should not be stifled by regulations but should not be left unregulated either. I start at an abstract level by defining the concept of innovation and explaining it characteristics. The “innovation law” perspective adopted in this article to analyze sharing economy implies an overreaching study of the relationship between law and innovation. This perspective elects innovation as the ultimate policy and regulatory goal and defends that law should be shaped according to this goal. In this context, I examine the multiple features of the innovation process in the specific case of sharing economy and the role played by different fields of law. Electing innovation as the ultimate policy target may however be devoid of meaning in a world where law is expected to pursue many other — and often conflicting — values. In this article, I examine the challenges of regulating innovation from the lens of sharing economy. This field offers us a solid case study to explore the concept of “innovation”, think about how regulators should look at the innovation process, how inadequate rules may have a negative impact on innovation, and how regulators should fine tune regulations to ensure that the advancement of innovation is balanced with other values such as public health or safety. I argue that the regulation of innovative sharing economy practices requires regulatory “openness”: less, but broader rules that do not stifle innovation while imposing a minimum of legal requirements that take into account the characteristics of innovative sharing economy practices, but that are open for future developments.