By Francisco Beneke*
South Africans appear to be enraged by the prospect of having had to pay a higher price for cancer drugs. The Competition Commission of South Africa is currently undertaking three separate investigations on excessive pricing by three drug manufacturers: Aspen, Pfizer, and Roche. In El Salvador, the final word from the Supreme Court is finally out on the proceedings regarding a cartel of two wheat flour producers who conspired to raise the price of this product. In these two countries, which have a relatively high poverty rate (as defined by local authorities), antitrust cases that involve access to health and nutrition have an extra component that makes them special. Indeed, cases like this have the potential of generating social unrest. Why? The image of a cancer patient who cannot afford a needed drug or a malnourished child evokes a feeling that other cases do not.
Before going any further, one distinction between the situations in the two countries has to be made. In South Africa, we are talking about three ongoing investigations where guilt has not been yet established, while in El Salvador, the case that concerns us has already been decided. The two flour producers were found guilty and rightfully so. The case is the only instance where the Salvadoran authority has conducted a dawn raid, in which it found conclusive evidence of the agreement to allocate market shares. The point of this article is not to advance a judgment in the case of the South African investigations but to point out why a correct competition law enforcement policy is crucial in developing countries. Cartels and abusive dominant firms can be extra harmful in the sense that poor consumers do not simply forgo a part of their welfare but the harm extends to their daily struggle to survive.
I have picked these two examples as the basis of this post because they are recent developments. However, we can find similar situations in other countries in the past. When the farmacies cartel was uncovered in Chile, the population was so enraged by having had to pay more for their medicines that protests erupted and all of this served as a catalyst for reforms that strengthened the Chilean competition authorities.
Developing countries have a particular need for a working competition policy. They do not only have to ensure markets that promote productivity growth but also protect consumers in vulnerable situations. As a consequence, it is important to ensure that the deterrence effects are maximized in markets strategic to this purpose. I say this because it is a common problem in developing countries that competition authorities are underfunded and understaffed. As a result, their investigation and case-resolution capabilities are limited, which decreases the expectation of companies of being caught and punished for competition law infringements. In such a situation, the authority can nevertheless create such an expectation in important industries––for example, health and food products––by focusing its scarce resources on this industries. The deterrence effect of antitrust will not work in the whole economy but at least in an essential part.
The case of El Salvador also shows an important area where the advocacy efforts of the authority should be directed: judicial efficiency. The wheat flour cartel case spent almost nine years under judicial review after the date of the Competition Superintendence’s decision. Such prolonged court battles significantly hamper the deterrence effects of the competition law since the final payment of the fine and, perhaps more importantly, the enforceability of the injunction is postponed. Therefore, the companies can significantly discount the potential losses of an adverse judgment (though they have to pay substantial litigation costs, which nevertheless shows the value they place on delaying the final judgment). In addition, the lengthy proceedings tie up important personnel of the antitrust authority, which affects its enforcement activities.
Competition policy in developing countries faces more difficulties than in developed economies. But more is at stake. It is important that the policies achieve maturity and gain sufficient importance in the eyes of the public so that their funding can become a priority and the authorities can have a better chance of achieving their purpose.
*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust