In its Judgment of 13 July 2017 in INGSTEEL and Metrostav, C-76/16, EU:C:2017:549, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has followed the Opinion of AG Campos (discussed here) and accepted the use of financial guarantees (performance bonds) as economic selection criteria rather than as contract compliance clauses (which was the Commission's approach). The ECJ has also set some minimum requirements of proportionality in their assessment. The Judgment is based on the 2004 public procurement rules, but will be relevant in the context of the 2014 Directive as well.
In the case at hand, the tender documentation “required the participants in the tendering procedure to provide a statement from a Slovak bank or a Slovak branch office of a foreign bank confirming that it would grant them credit in the amount of at least EUR 3 000 000, a sum which should be available to them throughout the entire duration of the contract. That statement was to be in the form of a loan agreement or credit facility agreement and have been given by a person authorised to commit the bank in question” (C-76/16, para 16, please note that the description is not entirely coincidental with that of the AG Opinion, which did not refer to a 'loan agreement or credit facility', but rather to a 'guarantee ... to ensure performance of the contract'; however, the issue of the legal nature of the requirement may not have played a significant role in the ECJ's decision).
The disappointed tenderer did not provide such a bank statement, but rather "a statement, given by a bank, which contained information on the opening of a current-account credit facility for an amount exceeding EUR 5 000 000, and a sworn statement from the tenderer certifying that, if its bid was successful, it would have available in its current account, at the time of conclusion of the contract for works and throughout the period of performance of the contract, a minimum amount of EUR 3 000 000" (C-76/16, para 17).
The difference in the content of the bank statements is important because the core of the issue was that, as argued by the disappointed tenderer, it would have been "objectively impossible for it to satisfy the requirements relating to economic and financial standing set by the contracting authority in any other way, drawing on statements made by Slovak banks questioned by the latter to the effect that a binding undertaking to grant credit, such as that required by the contract notice, could be issued only after approval of the transaction covered by the credit and satisfaction of all the requirements laid down by the bank for the conclusion of a loan agreement" (C-76/16, para 18).
Taking the view that the unsuccessful tenderer had not satisfied the economic and financial standing requirements, the contracting authority decided to exclude it from the tendering procedure. The rejection was eventually challenged before the Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic, and the preliminary reference to the ECJ derives from a procedure mainly aimed at assessing (i) whether the contracting authority could introduce this requirement in compliance with the rules on economic and financial standing (Art 47(1)(a) and (4) Dir 2004/18); and (ii) whether the contracting authority should have accepted the documentation as alternative to the specified bank certificate (Art 47(5) Dir 2004/18). Only the first point deserves analysis, as the ECJ has left the second point completely open and referred it back for assessment by the domestic court.
It is also worth stressing that the Commission had challenged the approach of assessing performance bond requirements as selection criteria and submitted that: (i) the requirement for financial guarantees that had to be effective post-award should be assessed as a contract compliance clause under Art 26 Dir 2004/18 and, further, (ii) that given that such provision does not exhaustively govern the special conditions for performance, those conditions may be assessed in accordance with primary EU law. AG Campos rejected the Commission's approach and invited the ECJ to assess the requirement in the framework of economic selection criteria. The ECJ has now followed that approach and, after reiterating its case law on the setting of economic and financial selection criteria and the discretion that contracting authorities enjoy to that effect (paras 25-34), it has established that
35 As regards, first, the requirement expressly laid down in the contract notice that the financial guarantee should be provided ‘to ensure performance of the contract’, it appears ... that the contracting authority believed that that requirement was not satisfied since the credit granted to the tenderer, although exceeding the amount required by the contract notice, was a current-account credit facility that was not tied to performance of the contract.
36 In this respect, it must be noted that a requirement to obtain a loan tied to performance of the contract is, objectively, a reasonable means of obtaining information on the economic ability of the tenderer to perform the contract successfully. As the European Commission noted, the grant of a loan is an appropriate means of establishing that the tenderer has at its disposal resources which it does not itself own and which are necessary for the performance of the contract (see, to that effect, judgment of 2 December 1999, Holst Italia, C‑176/98, EU:C:1999:593, paragraph 29). It is, however, once again for the referring court to confirm that the amount required in the contract notice is proportionate to the subject matter of the contract.
37 In respect, second, of the requirement, also laid down in the contract notice, regarding the grant of credit in a minimum amount of EUR 3 000 000 ‘for the period of performance of the contract (48 months)’, although, admittedly Article 47 of Directive 2004/18 does not expressly provide that the contracting authority may require a tenderer to have at its disposal the resources necessary for the performance of the contract throughout the duration of the performance of the contract, it must be noted, as the Advocate General observed in point 46 of his Opinion, that the contracting authority’s verification of the tenderer’s compliance with the economic and financial criteria in a tendering procedure, is intended to provide that authority with the assurance that the successful tenderer will indeed be able to use whatever resources it relies on throughout the period covered by the contract (see, to that effect, judgment of 14 January 2016, Ostas celtnieks, C‑234/14, EU:C:2016:6, paragraph 26 and the case-law cited).
38 Moreover, the continued availability of the amount required throughout the period of performance of the contract is a useful tool in assessing, in a tangible manner, the economic and financial standing of the tenderer with respect to its commitments. The proper performance of the contract is indeed intrinsically linked to whether the tenderer has the financial means for the execution of the contract.
39 Therefore, in the present case, the condition requiring the tenderer to have the funds available throughout the period of performance of the contract is appropriate for securing the objectives of Article 47(1) of Directive 2004/18.
40 However, it is for the national court to determine the relevance of the evidence provided by the tenderer for that purpose, in particular the contract opening a current-account credit facility.
41 It follows from the foregoing that the answer to the first question is that Article 47(1)(a) and (4) of Directive 2004/18 must be interpreted as meaning that a contracting authority may exclude a tenderer from a tender procedure on the ground that it does not fulfil the criterion regarding economic and financial standing laid down in the contract notice with respect to the provision of a statement given by a bank undertaking to grant credit in the amount specified in the contract notice and to guarantee that that amount will be available to the tenderer throughout the period of performance of the contract (C-76/16, paras 35-41, emphasis added).
In my view, and as I said in relation with the AG Opinion in this case, the analysis carried out by the ECJ is technically flawed. Put simply, the EU public procurement directives (both the 2004 and the 2014 generations) do not regulate the possibility for contracting authorities to demand financial guarantees from economic operators participating in tender procedures – neither tender/participation guarantees, nor performance/completion guarantees [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 326-7 & 425-6]. Such requirements are not regulated as part of the assessment of the economic operator’s economic and financial standing for selection purposes – which is designed as an information-based screening process, not as a phase where the contracting authority can secure financial rights for itself –and this is also not related to the conditions for the performance of the contract. Moreover, a reinterpretation of the selection rules on economic and financial standing (but also on professional or technical standing) that made them forward looking creates significant distortions in the system of EU public procurement law, as well as potentially make it impossible to assess.
The specific reasoning of the ECJ in this case supports the fact that an assessment of performance bonds as selection criteria is problematic. The ECJ has stressed that the two main reasons why it considers these requirements acceptable concern the fact that (i) "a requirement to obtain a loan tied to performance of the contract is, objectively, a reasonable means of obtaining information on the economic ability of the tenderer to perform the contract successfully" (para 36), and that "the continued availability of the amount required throughout the period of performance of the contract is a useful tool in assessing, in a tangible manner, the economic and financial standing of the tenderer with respect to its commitments. The proper performance of the contract is indeed intrinsically linked to whether the tenderer has the financial means for the execution of the contract" (para 38).
In the abstract and taken into account in their own terms, these statements may seem uncontroversial. However, the extent to which they reflect the nature of the requirement for a performance bond or financial guarantee can be doubted. The economic and financial standing of the contractor is assessed in general terms at selection stage and the contracting authority always run an implicit risk that the economic and financial standing of the contractor may change during the execution of the contract, in particular if this is of a long duration. Thus, the requirement of performance-related financial guarantees does not have an informative aim, but rather a risk management aim and possibly a cashflow management aim.
By requiring the contractor to have an available credit of 12% of the procurement value (€3mn for a €25.5mn contract), the contracting authority seems to want to cover risks of mis- or under-performance (possibly through the imposition of contractual penalties) and/or to anticipate that the contractor will always be making investments ahead of expected payments for partial completion of the works. In that case, the function of the requirement is not to allow the contracting authority to assess the undertaking's financial standing, but rather to have access to implicit finance for the project and/or to reduce the financial risk of the project for the authority itself. Moreover, it is not clear whether the funds have to be 'frozen' and available throughout the duration of the contract, or if the contractor can use them to perform the contract. In the second case, assuming that a credit of 12% (or any other value, except for an excess of 100%) ensures adequate performance of the contract is only partially justified because at some point in the execution of the contract, the 12% funds will be exhausted and, barring the existence of other sources of finance (including payments by the contracting authority), the very same issues that the financial guarantee is supposed to exclude would arise.
From that perspective, in my opinion, both the suitability and the proportionality of the requirement need to be taken into account. It should be assessed whether the contracting authority has made efforts to design the contract in a cashflow neutral way (including initial downpayments, for instance), or if there are any other ways in which the management of risk can be satisfactorily conducted without requiring performance bonds. This is something that the ECJ has not done, and it has simply referred the issue back to the domestic court, so that it assesses "the relevance of the evidence provided by the tenderer for [the purpose of having funds available throughout the period of performance of the contract], in particular the contract opening a current-account credit facility" (C-76/16, para 40).
The problem, in my view, is that the ECJ has implicitly accepted that the requirement is legitimate and that contracting authorities can require undertakings to have specific levels of funds available to them during the execution of the contract as a matter of qualitative selection. This can be problematic because the creation of imbalanced cashflows can exclude undertakings from competition for the contract (in particular, SMEs) and because contracting authorities are not necessarily in the best position to assess the financial arrangements that undertakings have put in place for their operations. Moreover, if this was the best way of assessing the undertakings' economic and financial standing, then qualitative selection could be limited to demanding performance guarantees (possibly of 100% of the value) rather than assessing the undertakings' financial documentation. There would be no need to assess annual turnover or any other indicators, as contracting authorities would be absolutely certain that the contract would be financed. However, this clearly seems excessive and, in any way, excessive as compared to the role and purpose of qualitative selection. As the ECJ stressed in the INGSTEEL Judgment,
the requirements in terms of economic and financial standing must be objectively such as to provide information on such standing of an economic operator and must be adapted to the size of the contract concerned in that they constitute objectively a positive indication of the existence of a sufficient economic and financial basis for the performance of that contract, without, however, going beyond what is reasonably necessary for that purpose (C-76/16, para 33, emphasis added).
In my view, requirements of performance bonds or financial guarantees do not aim to obtain "positive indications" of the financial viability of the project, but rather "positive assurances" to that effect. In that regard, they do not relate to the general standing of the undertaking, but rather to the specific risk profile of the tender, and as such need to be assessed as contract performance clauses and under a strict proportionality test. The fact that the ECJ has taken a different analytical approach is, in my view, a lost opportunity.