Antitrust, Cheaper Beer, and the First Global Brewery (the South African Chapter)*

The price of beer is currently one of the hottest antitrust topics at the global stage. The largest merger the beer market has ever seen has been met with various attitudes from competition authorities around the world depending on, partly, the relative positions of the firms in each national or regional market. Today I focus on South Africa’s recent developments.

The Global Context

The USD$107 billion purchase of SABMiller by AB InBev is the third largest transaction in history. It will create what the media has dubbed the first truly global brewery and will account for half of the industry’s profits around the world. It already received antitrust clearance subject to (very tough) conditions in the EU, and it is still under review in other big markets such as the US and China. In the former, the Justice Department is believed to be close to a decision that involves SABMiller’s divestiture of its joint venture with Molson Coors. An almost identical divestiture has also taken place in China ahead of the MOFCOM’s decision in order to set the ground for the approval.

According to the media, the merger’s main focus is not the largest markets where the two brewers have substantial overlaps but the smaller Latin American, Asian, and African countries where either of the companies enjoy close-to-monopoly positions. This view is consistent with the approach of the merging parties of quickly proposing important asset divestitures in the US and China.

The merger has different implications in every market in which it is or has been subject to antitrust review. However, there are some particularities in the South African chapter, home country of one of the merging parties, that we are not going to see in many places around the world.

A Quick Dive into South African Merger Law

The Competition Commission of South Africa issued last Tuesday a press release in which it gives a detail of the several conditions under which it has recommended to the Competition Tribunal the approval of the merger. Before we get into the details, a quick premier on South Africa merger law is in order.

South Africa has an institutional design in which the prosecuting and adjudicative entities are separated. The prosecuting entity is the Competition Commission, who in the case of large mergers only has the power to recommend to the Competition Tribunal whether to approve or block a transaction. The merger can be enjoined if it will substantially lessen competition or if it cannot be justified on public interest concerns (article 12a, (2) and (3) of the Competition Act). In the case of the second category of considerations, the Minister of Economic Development can intervene in the proceedings before the Tribunal (article 18 of the Competition Act). In the present case, the Commission recommended that the merger go forward but, as mentioned above, under certain conditions.

Public Interest Considerations in the South African Beer Market

What makes the analysis of the deal so particular in the case of South Africa is the role public interest considerations play. People that are not familiar with South African merger law could have a hard time getting their heads around a condition that obliges the merged entity to present plans for the advancement of black people within the company or the establishment of a USD$63.6 million fund to promote local agriculture of hops, barley, and corn. One of the most striking conditions is that the merged entity has committed itself in perpetuity not to lay off any employee as a result of the merger.

The conditions regarding the agricultural promotion fund and not laying off employees in duplicate positions were the result of a previous agreement with the Minister of Economic Development. Some critics of the South African merger regime argue that the involvement of this government official brings uncertainty to potential merging parties. In the case in point, even if one disagrees with the uncertainty argument, it is undeniable that the Minister’s intervention was substantial.

One of the most important issues regarding the justifiability of the public interest clause is whether the remedies imposed are effective. In the present case, the no lay-offs condition lies on weak grounds and the fund is at least debatable.

Market regulation always has a way around. In this case, the resulting entity’s drive to lower costs can lead it to get creative in ways to lay off workers without it looking as if it was with the mere purpose of cutting costs. The supervision of this condition will inevitably turn the South African competition authorities in labor law judges because they will have to rule whether there were grounds to fire an employee. That is, the Competition Tribunal will have to determine whether the grounds of the lay-off are valid or if they are only an excuse. This is just one way to get around the condition and it reveals how costly it can be for the Commission to monitor its compliance.

The compliance with the fund may not be an issue because at a first glance it looks pretty straightforward. The effectiveness can still be compromised if the money is not spent well. The debate around development aid is applicable here. Many critics, such as William Easterly of NYU, have charged against aid programs that pour money into a problem with no tangible benefits.[1] Others, such as Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, are strong advocates of aid as a tool to avoid a poverty trap.[2]

There is not enough information so far on the specificities of the agricultural fund to make a prediction on how effective it will be for the development of local farmers. One component it should have is the gathering of information and the design of a study to measure its impact, independently from who bears the cost of such an assessment. This will be key in ensuring that the condition will not only impose the burden to burn money on a program with no real benefits to the South African society.

Competition Concerns

There is not much information on the significance of AB InBev’s position in the South African market, only that it does have a presence through a contract with a local distributor. Some of the conditions recommended by the Commission do involve horizontal and vertical conduct remedies. I will not go into detail in the analysis because Amine will fill you in the details next week with a post that complements what we have talked about here and with more information on the Minister of Economic Development’s intervention in the proceedings.

The Road Ahead

The proceedings before the Competition Tribunal have started and we will have to wait on the final word on the matter. Some argue that the Tribunal usually takes the Commission’s recommendations on merger control, but, as our colleagues from African Antitrust point out, there are some proposed remedies to which AB InBev and SABMiller have not agreed, and we could therefore see some litigation instead.


*Originally published in Developing World Antitrust

[1] William Easterly, Why Aid Doesn’t Work.

[2] Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Books; Reprint edition (February 28, 2006).

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