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Competition watchdog raids major insurers over collusion and price fixing allegations

Logos: Discovery | Hollard | Momentum | Old Mutual

The Competition Commission believes that eight insurance companies colluded to fix the prices of premiums that consumers pay for investment and insurance products. Insurance companies allegedly shared information about the premiums they charge consumers.

The Competition Commission raided the offices of eight major insurance companies and seized documents on Thursday afternoon as part of its probe into allegations of collusion and price fixing in South Africa’s insurance industry.

The competition watchdog raided the offices of Discovery Limited, Hollard Insurance Group, Momentum, Old Mutual Insure, Sanlam, Professional Provident Society Limited, FMI (a division of Bidvest Life) and BrightRock Life. 

The Competition Commission believes the companies “have engaged in collusive practices to fix prices and/or trading conditions” regarding the premiums that consumers pay for investment products such as retirement annuities, and insurance products offering cover against dread disease, disability and death. 

Competition Act

In a statement published on Thursday, the commission said the insurance companies shared information about the premiums they charge consumers for investment and insurance products. This enables the eight companies “to adjust the prices of their existing and new insurance products” — which is in contravention of the Competition Act, specifically the clause that discourages competition from being prevented or lessened. 

The commission didn’t reveal details of its investigation into the eight insurance companies, which it launched in January 2021. 

It’s unclear how long the alleged collusion among the companies has been running or if insurance policyholders (consumers) were disadvantaged by paying high premiums. 

If the insurance companies are found guilty, the commission might recommend that the Competition Tribunal, which rules on such cases, impose an administrative fine. The fines are usually equal to 10% of the revenues that the companies have generated over a fixed period, mostly over one year. But major corporations tend to fight the commission and appeal against any sanctions imposed on them, as seen in the long-running case against commercial banks, which have been accused of colluding to fix currency prices.

Explainer: SA banks in the dogbox, but what does it all mean?

The raid saw offices of insurance companies across Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape being searched as part of a process to gather evidence that could support the Competition Commission’s probe.

During the searches, the commission seized documents and electronic data which will be analysed to determine whether the eight insurance companies contravened the Competition Act. The commission said it obtained warrants from high courts in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, authorising it to search the offices. 

“The search and seizure operation is part of the routine process of evidence gathering and we urge all involved to allow the investigation to run its course. The commission will at an appropriate stage reveal the outcome of the investigation,” said Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele.

The insurers respond

Most of the insurance companies implicated in the commission’s investigation confirmed that their offices were raided. They have also pledged to cooperate with the commission’s investigation.

Momentum Metropolitan said it was committed to providing the commission with required documents that are relevant to its investigation. “We have no reason to believe that we are guilty of price fixing. We reiterate our commitment to ongoing compliance with all regulatory requirements,” it said in a statement.

Old Mutual said it couldn’t comment on the merits of the commission’s investigation but the insurer was “committed to acting responsibly while executing our business strategy and delivering great value to all our stakeholders”.

Sanlam also said it would communicate with stakeholders when appropriate.

Discovery shared similar sentiments. “We uphold all of the principles of the Competition Act and are complying with the commission’s request for data and information related to their investigation, and will continue to co-operate with their industry-wide investigation to the fullest extent possible,” the company said.

News of the commission’s ongoing investigation has spooked investors on the JSE. Shares of Sanlam, Momentum Metropolitan, Old Mutual, and Discovery each fell by more than 1% on Thursday. DM/BM

Article updated to include comments by insurance companies. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Philip Wernberg says:

    The competition commission should be looking into Eskom charges since they are a monopoly, there is no competition. They go after businesses that are easy targets.

  • Heiko Schulte says:

    The raided insurance companies are all competing for more market share and hence the alleged collusion is unlikely although not impossible.
    The problem is that even if the commission were to find evidence of price fixing how will that help the consumer? The competition tribunal may impose an administrative fine, which could amount to a large sum of money and the industry will recover that penalty from the consumer over time.
    So who is the beneficiary of such a fine?

  • Dennis de Necker says:

    I am just trying to get my head around this – the insurance companies rip their policy holders off for many years, then the government intervenes and will hopefully one day fine the participating companies for this criminal act, being a 10% penalty based on 1 year’s premiums?
    No jailtime?
    No refund to the policyholders? – a thorough forensic investigation would surely pinpoint the policyholder and the amount he/she overpaid …. which in the real world belongs to the policyholders PLUS INTEREST.
    THEN the insurers get their jailtime allocation, along with whatever financial penalties fit the crime.
    Why should the penalty be paid into government coffers for easy picking by our dishonest officials, while the policyholders are still left in their exploited position?
    The mind boggles.

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