Competition Commission of India (CCI): Coram of Ashok Kumar Gupta (Chairperson) and Sangeeta Verma and Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi (Members) in view of a deliberate design on the part of Amazon to suppress the actual scope and purpose of the Combination, levied the maximum penalty of INR One Crore each under the provisions of Sections 44 and 45 of the Competition Act. Due to failure to notify combination under Section 6(2) of the Act, Section 43A of the Act, a penalty was imposed.
Purpose of this Order
The present order shall govern the disposal of the proceedings initiated against the Amazon.com NV Investment Holdings LLC (Amazon) under Sections 43A, 44 and 45 of the Competition Act, 2002 in relation to its acquisition of 49% shareholding in Future Coupons Private Limited (FCPL) in pursuance of the show cause notice based on application dated 25-3-2021 of FCPL.
CCI had approved the Combination under Section 31(1) of the Act upon competition assessment of the overlapping business activities of Amazon, FCPL and their group entities and after arriving at the opinion that the Combination is not likely to cause any appreciable adverse effect on competition in India.
Initiation of proceedings under Sections 43A, 44 and 45 of the Act
FCPL filed an application stating that Amazon had initiated arbitration proceedings in relation to transfer of assets of FRL, a company in which FCPL holds 9.82% of the shareholding and there are related litigations pending before the constitutional courts.
It was alleged that Amazon took completely contradictory stands in the arbitration proceedings and constitutional courts with respect to its investments in FCPL as compared to the representation and submissions made before the Commission. Such contradictions were said to establish false representation and suppression of material facts before the Commission.
Commission was of prima facie view that
(a) Amazon failed to identify and notify FRL SHA as a part of the Combination, in terms of Regulation 9(4) and Regulation 9(5) of the Combination Regulations;
(b) Amazon had concealed its strategic interest over FRL; and
(c) Amazon had made false and incorrect representations and concealed/suppressed material facts in contravention of the provisions of the Act.
In view of the above, Commission issued SCN under Sections 43A, 44 and 45 of the Act to Amazon, on 4th June, 2021.
Commission received a letter on 20-10-2021 from Amazon inter alia intimating that it has shared with Future Group, the Response to SCN and related correspondence with the Commission.
Later, Commission decided to hear both FCPL and Amazon on 4-1-2022.
Question for Consideration:
Whether alleged conduct (s) of Amazon is in contravention of the provisions of Sections 43A, 44 and 45 of the Act?
Whether Amazon has made misrepresentation, false statement or suppression/concealment of material facts in relation to the scope and purpose of the Combination and failed to identify and notify FRL SHA as an inter-connected part of the Combination, in terms of Regulations 9(4) and 9(5) of the Combination Regulations?
Analysis and Discussion
Commission noted the contract summary and internal e-mail dated 19th July, 2019 of Amazon Group with the subject ‘Request for APPROVAL for Project Taj [Future]…’, which elaborated the business summary and summary of key terms of the Combination (Approval Request). This e-mail was sent by Mr Rakesh Bakshi to Mr Jeff Bezos, seeking approval to sign definitive documents in relation to the Combination.
As per the internal communications and negotiations between the parties relating to the Combination, wherein Amazon initially planned to partner with Future Group, being a key player in the offline retail market, by acquiring 9.99% shareholding in FRL as well as entering into a business commercial framework to build and accelerate ultra-fast delivery services across the top-20 cities in India, leveraging the national footprints of Future Group.
The Approval Request dated 18th July, 2019 suggests that, in view of certain developments relating to foreign investments in India, instead of directly acquiring 9.9% shareholding in FRL, Amazon would use a twin-entity investment structure to invest in FRL i.e., Amazon would acquire 49% shareholding in FCPL which, in turn would hold 8 – 10% of the shareholding in FRL.
Coming to the Notice, it required the notifying party to disclose ‘Economic and Strategic purpose (including business objective and rationale for each of the parties to the combination and the manner in which they are intended to be achieved) of the Combination’.
Further, the Internal Correspondence of Amazon made it abundantly clear that Amazon was all along focussed/interested in FRL. The Internal Correspondence of Amazon did not speak about the business potential of FCPL, as had been claimed and projected in the Notice and in the responses to the letters of the Commission. Similarly, the Notice presented the rationale of indirect rights over FRL, as protection to investment in FCPL.
The expressions used by Amazon to describe the rationale behind the indirect rights over FRL varied from time to time: ‘strategic rights’ in its Internal Correspondence; ‘protection to investment in FCPL’ in the Notice given to Commission; and ‘rights derived from FRL SHA are to protect the interest of the investor [Amazon]’ in the response to SCN.
Commission observed that, in every case of investment, the acquirer would want to protect the value of its investment and the returns.
The purpose of securing strategic interest over FRL and commercial partnership with FRL is much different from FRL, a company with strong financials and futuristic outlook, being merely taken as an element of financial strength and protection to the investment in FCPL.
How has the Suppression of fact continued?
The Internal Correspondence of Amazon clearly showed different purposes for envisaging the Combination (i.e., ‘foot-in-door’ in the Indian retail sector, secure rights over FRL that are considered as strategic by Amazon and Commercial Arrangements between the retail business of Future Group and Amazon).
Amazon in its responses to the letters of the Commission, continued to suppress the actual purpose of the Combination. It was obvious that the purpose of Amazon to pursue the Combination was not the potential of the gist and loyalty card business of FCPL, as had been claimed in the Notice. Rather, FCPL was envisaged only as a vehicle in the Combination to which no value or purpose is ascribed in the Internal Correspondence.
In Commission’s opinion the present matter was a clear, conscious and wilful case of omission to state the actual purpose of the Combination despite the disclosure requirement under Item 5.3 of Form I read with Regulation 5 of the Combination Regulations and Section 6(2) of the Act.
Amazon failed to provide any material or plausible explanation in its response to the SCN and in the subsequent submissions to demonstrate that its disclosures against Item 5.3 are correct and that business potential of FCPL was consideration for Amazon to pursue the Combination.
Adding to the above, Coram also stated that Amazon, in addition to the omission to state the purpose of the Combination, has misrepresented the Commission by stating that the purpose of the Combination is an opportunity arising from the business potential of FCPL and to add credibility to FCPL’s financial position, FCPL invested and proposed to further invest in FRL, a company with strong financials and futuristic outlook.
Amazon had misled the Commission to believe, through false statements and material omissions, that the Combination and its purpose were the interest of Amazon in the business of FCPL.
Further, the Coram added in respect to disclosure against Item 8.8 of Form I that, True and complete disclosure against Item 8.8 enables the Commission to determine the appropriate framework for competition assessment of the Combination.
In response to Item 8.8, Amazon had furnished a presentation titled ‘Taj Coupons – Business Plan for 5 years’. The eight- page presentation provides only a brief idea of the gift voucher business of FCPL, its business operating model, estimated five-year business size, organisation design, sales team and financial summary, without any reference to FRL.
Commission in view of the above stated that Amazon knowingly suppressed relevant and material documents to be furnished under Item 8.8. of Form I.
Hence, Commission held that the conduct of Amazon amounted to suppression and misrepresentation of the purpose of the Combination and the said was in contravention of the provisions contained n clauses (a) and (b) of Section 44 and clause (a) and sub-section (1) of Section 45 of the Act.
The conduct of Amazon in supressing relevant and material documents against the disclosure requirement under Item 8.8 of Form I is a contravention of clause (c) of sub-section (1) of Section 45 of the Act. Similarly, the rights over FRL that were considered as strategic in the Internal Correspondence of Amazon, were represented as mere investor protection rights. Such repeated assertions, contrary to their actual purport, amount to statements that are false in material particular, in contravention of the provisions contained in clauses (a) and (b) of Section 44 and clause (a) of sub-section (1) of Section 45 of the Act.
Whether FRL SHA was identified and notified as an inter-connected part of the Combination?
In the present matter, Combination was a composite of acquisition of shares, rights and commercial contracts. These together were for the purpose of strategic alignment amongst the business of the parties, in particular to expand the ultra-fast delivery service of Amazon.
The fact that FRL SHA was part of the Combination and was executed at the behest of Amazon, was overwhelmingly evident from the email dated 4-1-2019 of Amazon to Future Group. Commission observes that mere consideration of the values of the asset and turnover of FRL cannot be considered as notification of FRL SHA and BCAs, as parts of the Combination.
Coram stated that details of FRL SHA were not mentioned in Item 5.2. As has emerged now, FRL SHA and the commercial agreements were inter-connected parts of the Combination and accordingly, their details ought to have been disclosed against Item 5.1.2.
The Notice, nowhere disclosed the fact that FRL SHA was negotiated as part of the Combination and was executed for the purpose of Amazon acquiring rights over FRL, through FCPL SHA, and that Amazon had insisted for FRL SHA to be entered into as a prerequisite to Transaction III. In the absence this material fact being disclosed, footnote 3, read with the disclosures and statements in the Notice and subsequent submissions of Amazon, including those against Items 5.1.2 and 5.2 of Form I, statements made in paragraphs 34 of the Notice and paragraph 44 of the submission dated 15th November, 2019 (in response to the letter dated 9th October, 2019 of the Commission), the impugned statement was self-evidently misleading to the effect that FRL SHA was not a part of the Combination and is only pursuant to the Warrants Transaction.
CCI held that, the categorical statements that FRL SHA and BCAs were independent of the Combination sufficiently establish that the same were not notified to the Commission as a part of the Combination, which is a contravention of the obligation contained in Section 6(2) of the Act, which attracts penalty under Section 43A of the Act.
Coram noted that Section 6(2) of the Act requires any person proposing Combination ‘to give notice to the Commission in the form as may be specified…disclosing the details of the proposed combination’.
If a party conceals/suppresses and/or misrepresents to the Commission the scope and purpose of the Combination and obtains approval, the same would effectively amount to approval/consent having been obtained by way of fraud.
Amazon ought to have notified the combination, inter alia, consisting of the following inter-connected steps: (a) Transaction I; (b) Transaction II; (c) Transaction III; (d) FRL SHA for the purpose of acquisition of strategic rights over FRL through FCPL SHA; and (e) commercial agreements between Amazon and Future groups, for the purpose of establishing strategic alignment and partnership between Amazon Group and FRL as well as have a ‘foot-in-the-door’ in the India retail sector.
The Commission directed Amazon to give notice in Form II within a period of 60 days from the receipt of this order and till disposal of such notice, the approval granted vide Order dated 28-11-2019, in Combination, shall remain in abeyance.
The Commission considers it appropriate to levy the maximum penalty of INR One Crore each under the provisions of Section 44 and Section 45 of Act. Accordingly, Amazon is directed to pay a penalty of INR Two Crore.
Due to failure to notify combination in terms of the obligation cast under Section 6(2) of the Act, Section 43A of the Act enables the Commission to impose a penalty, which may extend to one percent of the total turnover or the assets, whichever is higher, of such a combination. Accordingly, for the above-mentioned reasons, the Commission hereby imposes a penalty of INR Two Hundred Crore upon Amazon.[ Proceedings against Amazon.com NV Investment Holdings LLC under Sections 43A, 44 and 45 of the Competition Act, 2002, In Re., 2021 SCC OnLine CCI 71, decided on 17-12-2021]
Advocates before the Commission:
For Amazon: Mr. Gopal Subramanium and Mr. Amit Sibal, Senior Advocates with Mr. Anand S. Pathak, Ms. Sreemoyee Deb, Ms. Anubhuti Mishra and Mr. Rajat Moudgil, Advocates alongwith Mr. Rakesh Bakshi, Mr. Ankur Sharma, Ms. Ujwala Uppaluri and Ms. Hina Doon, representatives of Amazon
For FCPL: Mr. Harish Salve and Mr. Ramji Srinivasan, Senior Advocates with Mr. Raghav Shankar and Mr. Pranjit Bhattacharya, Advocates alongwith Mr. Sanjay Rathi, representative of FCPL
For CAIT: Mr. Krishnan Venugopal and Mr. Saurabh Kirpal, Senior Advocates with Mr. Rajat Sehgal and Mr. Debayan Gangopadhyay, Advocates