Last September, we discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s opinion in In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation vacating a $147 million judgment against Chinese vitamin C manufacturers based on the doctrine of international comity. That case stemmed from allegations that the defendants illegally fixed the price and output levels of vitamin C that they exported to the United States. In reversing the district court’s decision to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit held that the district court should have deferred to the Chinese government’s explanation that Chinese law compelled the defendants to coordinate the price and output of vitamin C.
Joint ventures (“JVs”) can require navigation of a potential minefield of antitrust issues, which we’ll explore in a series of six blog posts beginning with this introductory post. Not all of the law in this area is entirely settled, and there remain ongoing debates about some aspects of the antitrust treatment of JVs. Indeed, arriving at a coherent and unified view of JV law is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with missing and damaged pieces.
The Federal Trade Commission has announced new (2017) premerger notification thresholds under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act as follows:
Any acquisition of voting securities and/or assets requires premerger notification to the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice under the HSR Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder (16 C.F.R. Sections 801 – 803) if the following tests are satisfied and if no exemption applies (15 U.S.C. Section 18a(a)(2)). Where a premerger notification is required, both parties must file, the acquiring person must pay a filing fee ((i) $45,000 for transactions below $161.5 million, (ii) $125,000 for transactions of $161.5 million or more but less than $807.5 million, and (iii) $280,000 for transactions of $807.5 million or more) and the parties must observe a 30 day waiting period prior to closing.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has a duty to refer a transaction for an “in depth” phase 2 investigation in instances where it believes that there is a realistic prospect of a transaction resulting in a “substantial lessening of competition”, subject to certain exceptions. This includes a de minimis exception in markets of “insufficient importance”, where the costs involved in investigating the transaction would be disproportionate to the size of the market concerned.
In an unprecedented move, the parties to a planned merger transaction have brought an action for annulment against the European Commission’s decision to initiate proceedings even before the proceedings are closed.
Under the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”), the Commission’s review procedure is divided into two phases: “Phase I”, which is normally limited to 25 working days, serves to separate unproblematic cases from cases that require a deeper analysis. At the end of phase I, the Commission must either clear a transaction (if it does not find significant competition concerns or if it concludes that it has no jurisdiction) or it must initiate “phase II” (if it has serious doubts as to the transaction’s compatibility with the EU law). While a decision to open phase II does not prejudice the final outcome – the Commission may still clear the transaction – it significantly increases the burden in terms of cost and inconvenience for the merging parties. The opening of phase II normally entails a significant delay of several months, and during that time and until the Commission issues a clearance decision, the parties may not close the transaction.
As of November 28, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has expanded the filing obligations under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act by requiring filers to submit certain documents analyzing a deal or affected markets even where the evaluation or analysis is limited to geographies or operations outside of the United States. This is a significant shift in the Agency’s interpretation of Items 4(c) and 4(d) of the HSR Notification and Report Form.
On November 8, 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) imposed the highest “gun-jumping” national and worldwide fine ever, €80 million, on Altice-Numericable, a major French telecommunications operator, in relation to its 2014 acquisitions of SFR (“Société Française du Radiotéléphone”) and OTL (“Omer Telecom Limited”).
“This is a world first decision when considering the amount of the sanction and the seriousness of the circumstances,” commented Isabelle de Silva, the President of the FCA since last October.
The European Commission has launched a public consultation to evaluate several aspects of EU merger control for possible revision. Stakeholders are invited to provide feedback until 13 January 2017. A link to the questionnaire can be found here.
The current consultation partly builds on previous efforts to improve and simplify the EU merger control regime, including the so-called “Simplification Package”, which has been in force since January 2014.
On November 17, 2016, Jon Sallet, DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for litigation, presented a speech at the American Bar Association Antitrust Section’s Fall Forum in which he outlined his views regarding the DOJ’s approach to vertical mergers and other transactions that raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition. After recapping some of the history regarding the DOJ’s treatment of vertical restraints, Mr. Sallet commented on issues such as merger-related efficiencies, competitive effects, input foreclosure and raising rivals costs, innovation effects, the exchange of competitively sensitive information that could harm interbrand competition, and potential anticompetitive effects in transactions that do not involve a combination of vertically related assets. Finally, he noted that if the DOJ has concerns regarding anticompetitive effects, it might feel that conduct remedies are insufficient and may require structural remedies or even try to block the transaction. Any company considering a vertical merger or a transaction that may raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition will benefit from reviewing Mr. Sallet’s speech. The speech is available here.
Although China and Japan have very different histories regarding their antitrust laws, antitrust enforcement officials from the two countries have recently taken steps to open a formal dialogue. This is a welcome development for Chinese and Japanese companies, as well as for foreign companies that do business in China and Japan, and it continues the trend of increased communication, cooperation and coordination among national enforcement agencies. There remains an open question, however, as to how convergence among Asian antitrust enforcement agencies will affect possible convergence with agencies in the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world.
The German government has recently published a bill that would significantly amend the criteria for determining whether an M&A transaction is subject to German merger control.
Currently, the applicability of the German merger control rules depends primarily on the revenues of the firms participating in a transaction. A concentration needs to be notified to the German competition authority – the Bundeskartellamt – where all the following three turnover thresholds are met: (i) EUR 500 million worldwide, (ii) EUR 25 million in Germany, and (iii) EUR 5 million in Germany. The 500 million threshold (i) refers to the sales achieved by all of the parties combined in their last completed financial year. The other two thresholds (ii) and (iii) refer to the individual sales of two parties to the transaction (e.g., the acquirer, on the one hand, and the business being acquired, on the other). Where the notification thresholds are met, the parties are subject to a standstill obligation. They must not consummate the transaction until it has been cleared (or is deemed to have been cleared) by the Bundeskartellamt.
On 18 July 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) broke new ground in France by holding that retail distribution of electronic products through both physical stores and online channels is a single relevant market.
The background and the FCA’s Decision
The FCA’s decision concerns Fnac’s acquisition of Darty. The proposed transaction drew a great deal of public attention because it involves France’s two largest click and mortar retailers. It drew even more attention in March 2016, when the FCA announced a phase II examination of the potentially negative effects of the merger. However, in its 18 July 2016 decision, the FCA reversed course and granted conditional approval for the transaction after determining the relevant market includes both online and physical distribution channels.
Where is the line drawn between acquisitions of securities made “solely for the purpose of investment” on one hand, and influencing control, thereby requiring regulatory approval, on the other hand? That is the central cautionary question that was reinforced by the July 12, 2016, Department of Justice (“DOJ”) settlement with ValueAct Capital. The well-known activist investment firm agreed to pay $11 million to settle a suit alleging that it violated the premerger reporting and waiting period requirements of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (“HSR Act”). ValueAct purchased more than $2.5 billion of shares in two oil companies, Baker Hughes Inc. and Halliburton Co., after they announced they would merge. The DOJ alleged that ValueAct used its ownership position to influence the proposed merger and other aspects of Baker Hughes and Halliburton, and thus could not rely on the exemption.
Recognizing concern that the Chinese government intervenes excessively into markets and private economic activities, the China State Council recently released opinions directing the implementation of a fair competition review system (“FCRS”), which is intended to moderate administrative authorities’ issuance of regulations and minimize the government’s interference in China’s economy. Although the CRS has been hailed as “a key step to establish the fundamental status of competition policies,” its success will depend on how it is implemented.
On June 1, 2016, the Opinions of the State Council on Establishing a Fair Competition Review System During the Development of Market-Oriented Systems (“Opinions”) were promulgated and became effective. The Opinions note that enforcement of current laws sometimes entails “local protectionism, regional blockade, industry barriers, business monopoly, granting preferential policies in violation of the law or illegally prejudicing the interests of market players, and other phenomena contrary to the efforts of building a unified national market and promoting fair competition.” These so-called “administrative monopolies,” which often are at issue in cases investigated under the Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), are at cross purposes to the AML. In an effort to reduce or eliminate obstacles to economic development, the Opinions call for limiting the government authorities’ administrative powers, establishing the FCRS, preventing new policies and measures that exclude competition, and gradually revising and ultimately abolishing existing provisions that impede fair competition.
On June 14, 2016, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, of the Northern District of Illinois, denied a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Attorney General for the State of Illinois, seeking to block the proposed merger between Advocate Health Care and the NorthShore University Health System (“NorthShore”) in the Chicago metropolitan area. According to Judge Alonso’s opinion released on June 20, the Plaintiffs failed to prove a relevant geographic market, the lack of which the Court deemed fatal to the Plaintiffs’ case.
This loss could be a blow for the FTC’s health care competition enforcement program. It is the agency’s second loss in district court this year in a hospital merger challenge. Additionally, as we noted in our May 13, 2016 blog post concerning the FTC’s earlier loss on the Hershey merger—now on appeal to the Third Circuit—both cases reflect push-back by courts against what to this point have been highly successful FTC market definition and consumer harm arguments in hospital merger cases.
Are patients receiving the best care in hospitals? The German competition authority – Bundeskartellamt – has now decided to apply a health check to the German hospitals market.
On May 31, 2016, the German competition authority announced that it was launching a so-called “sector inquiry” into the hospital services market to examine the degree of competition in that sector of the economy.
On June 1, 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen delivered remarks in Hong Kong, pushing back on recent news reports implying that the United States currently suffers from a “monopoly problem” causing a reduction of competition in the marketplace. Recent articles and opinion pieces in The Economist and The New York Times suggest that the consolidation of market power, and lack of antitrust enforcement preventing such consolidation, are having a noticeable effect and harming consumers and innovation. Indeed, the precursor to these reports—an April 14, 2016 report from the Council of Economic Advisers (“CEA”), entitled “Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power,” argues there has been a decline of competition in certain parts of the U.S. economy due the concentration of monopoly power in the hands of a select few players in certain industries (e.g., airlines, cable, networking). The CEA report suggests U.S. agencies should explore how certain factors—the use of Big Data, increased price transparency, and common stock ownership—affect competition. As a result of the CEA report, President Obama issued an Executive Order on April 15, 2016, directing antitrust enforcement agencies to use their authority to “promote competition.”
On May 19, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC)” issued an important clarification regarding how the agency will determine whether a foreign entity is classified as corporate or non-corporate for the purpose of the agency’s premerger notification program. Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (also referred to as the “HSR Act”), parties to certain mergers or acquisitions must notify both the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice prior to consummating the transaction. Under this program, whether a party to the transaction is a corporate or non-corporate entity (e.g., an LLC, partnership) can have significant implications for determining whether a filing is required and whether an exemption might apply. While evaluating party status has historically been straightforward for U.S. entities, foreign entities pose a number of challenges.
On May 17, 2016, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) issued a memorandum opinion explaining his decision to enjoin the Office Depot/Staples merger under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The court conducted a two-week trial in which the FTC called ten witnesses and 4000 exhibits were admitted into evidence, after which defendants opted to rest. The court found that the FTC “established their prima facie case by demonstrating that Defendants’ proposed merger is likely to reduce competition in the Business to Business (“B-to-B”) contract space for office supplies.” Defendants largely relied on Amazon’s development of on-line B-to-B services to replace or restore any reduction in competition resulting from the merger, but the court found that argument unpersuasive and enjoined the merger.
On May 9, 2016, U.S. District Judge John Jones III, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, rejected a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to halt the proposed merger between Penn State Hershey Medical Center (“Hershey”) and PinnacleHealth System (“Pinnacle”). The Court’s decision represents a potential setback for the FTC’s enforcement against hospital consolidation around the country. The opinion raises further questions about recent analyses endorsed by the agency and other federal courts when reviewing hospital mergers. The Court has extended the temporary restraining order in effect until May 27, 2016, to allow the FTC and the Attorney General to seek relief from the 3d Circuit.