No more ‘flying under the radar’: capturing transactions below the jurisdictional thresholds of national and EU merger control regimes

The European Commission (“Commission”) is expanding its jurisdiction over transactions by encouraging national competition authorities (“NCAs”) of the EU Member States to ‘refer’ certain transactions to it that fall below the thresholds for mandatory notification at the EU and the national level. On 26 March 2021, the Commission published guidance (“Guidance”) setting out referrals that are ‘encouraged’ and how and when it will accept such referrals. This development has not required legislative changes (which would have taken some time and also required unanimity among EU Member States) but rather the Commission is resuscitating an existing provision, the so-called “Dutch clause”, namely Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”).

The Commission hopes to remedy what it perceives as an enforcement gap under the turnover-based thresholds for notification. In particular, this change in policy aims to catch transactions that would otherwise fall outside its jurisdiction as the turnover thresholds would not be met, but the parties otherwise have an important competitive position that is not reflected in their turnover, including so-called “killer acquisitions”. The Commission considers this to be a particular issue in the digital economy, pharmaceutical sector and other ‘innovation-driven’ sectors.

Only a couple of Member States (Austria and Germany) have implemented transaction value-based thresholds to catch acquisitions of companies with low turnover and high valuation. The Guidance allows the Commission to enable a more systematic EU-wide response.

The substantive test remains unchanged: the Commission will continue to assess whether there is a risk of significant impediment to effective competition (the “SIEC test”).

Transactions falling within the new policy

According to the Guidance, Article 22 referrals will be encouraged for transactions where the turnover of at least one party does not reflect its actual or future “competitive potential.” A non-exhaustive list of examples includes acquisitions of: (i) promising start-ups, (ii) “important innovators,” (iii) an “actual or potential important competitive force,” (iv) companies having access to key raw materials, infrastructure, data or IP rights, and (v) companies providing key inputs for other industries.

Whether a transaction is eligible for an Article 22 referral depends on two legal requirements: the transaction must (i) affect trade between Member States, and (ii) threaten to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State(s) making the request. The Commission provides examples of the relevant factors for the assessment of these criteria:

  • Trade between Member States could be considered affected, for example, based on the location of potential customers, data collection, or likely future commercialisation of IP rights.
  • The requirement of a threat to “significantly affect competition” within the relevant territory will be met if a preliminary assessment reveals a real risk that the transaction could result in the creation or strengthening of a dominant position, the elimination of an important competitive force (in particular, a new important innovator), the foreclosure from a market or supplies, and leveraging a strong market position from one market to another through exclusionary practices. The preliminary assessment conducted to verify this second criterion is without prejudice to the subsequent formal assessment of the transaction if the Commission accepts the referral.

Procedure/timing

The Commission intends to play an active role in the enforcement of the new policy. It is willing to “cooperate closely” with NCAs to identify transactions that would fall within the scope of this new policy, or even invite NCAs to invoke Article 22 in certain cases. Third parties are encouraged to contact the Commission or NCAs, if they consider a transaction appropriate for referral, provided they have sufficient evidence to enable a preliminary assessment.

The timing for referral is as follows:

  • In cases where there is no mandatory filing at a national level, NCAs have 15 working days to request referral, starting from the date on which the transaction is made known to them (according to the Guidance, this is when sufficient information is available to make a preliminary assessment);
  • The Commission will inform the other NCAs of the referral request “without delay”;
  • Other NCAs then have 15 working days to join the initial request (direct communication between NCAs is also encouraged by the Commission); and
  • After 10 additional working days, the Commission will be deemed to have adopted a decision to examine the transaction, if it has not already done so.

While the referral is subject to the deadlines set out above, the Commission is willing to accept Article 22 referrals up to six months after completion of the transaction or the transaction having become known in the EU (whichever is the later), or even later in “exceptional situations”.

Implications for parties to corporate transactions

Standstill effect and risk of gun jumping: The obligation not to close a transaction applies to transactions that have not completed at the date on which the Commission informs the parties that an Article 22 referral request has been made, after which the parties risk substantial gun jumping fines if they decide to close. The standstill obligation ceases if the Commission subsequently decides not to examine the concentration. The standstill obligation does not apply to transactions that have already completed before the Article 22 referral process is initiated such that no gun jumping fines can be incurred. The Commission will inform the parties as soon as possible if a referral is being considered to allow the parties to refrain from completing the transaction.

Duty to notify: Once the Commission has accepted Article 22 jurisdiction, the acquirer will be under a duty to notify the transaction under the standard notification procedure under the EUMR.

Potential effects on the transaction and risk of sanctions: Once the Commission has accepted jurisdiction, the transaction will be reviewed based on the standard substantive and procedural EUMR rules, which for transactions that raise concerns include the risk of remedies and in the worst-case scenario, a prohibition decision. If the transaction has not yet completed, there will be no real difference with the standard rules for notifiable transactions, although a decision to apply Article 22 adds to the timetable and may delay closing. However, effective remedies could prove difficult to implement for transactions that have already closed depending on the degree to which the acquired business has been integrated, particularly remedies requiring structural changes (e.g. full or partial divestment) to restore the situation pre-transaction.

The end of the “one stop shop” within the EU?: While under Article 22, the territorial jurisdiction is in theory limited to the EU Member States that have either referred the concentration to the Commission or joined the initial referral(s), the Commission takes into account the effects of a transaction in the rest of the EU whenever a relevant market has a geographic dimension larger than the referring Member State(s). This is likely to be the case in many digital and innovation markets potentially covered by the new policy and tech companies with global ambitions should assume that the Commission will investigate the effect of the transaction on an EU-wide basis.

The Guidance states that if a transaction has already been notified in one or more EU Member States that did not request a referral or join such referral request, this could be a factor against accepting a referral. However, for the purposes of legal certainty and considering potential for inconsistencies, in particular in relation to any remedies, we encourage the NCAs and the Commission to maintain a high level of cooperation to avoid overlapping investigations.

Our recommendations in light of the new policy

This is a major change to the Commission’s merger control policy. With this new policy, which is not limited to “Big Tech” or the digital economy (which has driven recent policy shifts or discourse relating to such shifts), EU merger control no longer provides for the legal certainty resulting from turnover-based notification thresholds. Several months of delay could be added between signing and closing, remedies could be imposed after the implementation of a transaction, and completed acquisitions might have to be unwound, all for transactions which prior to this policy change would not have faced any merger control review in the EU.

In light of this, transaction parties should consider:

Assessing the risk of falling within the scope of the new policy: Transaction parties should consider if a transaction falls within the categories of potential Article 22 referrals set out above. They should also consider if the transaction is likely to raise competition concerns – including through the strengthening of dominance/market power, access to advanced/innovative technology, R&D or data, or if the transaction involves a highly concentrated market, a target with a substantial user base or high projected growth, or meets merger control thresholds outside the EU. The rationale of the transaction and projected market developments will also be relevant factors in assessing if an Article 22 referral is likely.

Allocating risk and adapting transaction documents: Transaction agreements should be revised to take into account the risk of an Article 22 referral. In particular, agreements should allocate the risk of an Article 22 referral between buyers and sellers and include, or not include, as a condition precedent the absence of an Article 22 referral in the time period between signing and closing. If a transaction is likely to be referred, the acquirer may insist on having received from the Commission or NCAs confirmation that the transaction will not get referred under Article 22.

Strategically informing NCAs: At a national level, it might be beneficial to provide NCAs with enough information to allow a preliminary assessment of whether Article 22 referral is appropriate. Providing a sufficient level of detail should trigger the 15 working day deadline vis-à-vis the NCAs that have been provided with such information. It remains to be seen what level of cooperation will be achieved among NCAs; at this stage, it is not certain that informing one NCA would be regarded as informing all NCAs.

Reaching out to the Commission: While it is not yet clear what type of “comfort letter” the Commission is willing to provide, early communication with the Commission should help clarify whether a transaction is outside the scope of Article 22 referral, provided that sufficient information is made available to the Commission to make such assessment. This option should be particularly attractive in a competing bid scenario, or where competitors or other third parties otherwise may use the new Article 22 policy to scupper or delay a transaction.

New Enforcement Tool Against Abusive Market Conduct

New enforcement tool for the German Federal Cartel Office in the control of abusive behavior of companies with a paramount cross-market significance for competition

 

 

 

 

 

In a nutshell:

  • What’s new?
    • Introduction of the Concept of Intermediation Power: A dominant position can as of now also result from intermediation services of a company that is active in multisided markets.
    • The German competition authority now has a new tool for intervention aiming at some types of large platforms’ conduct and other companies for which the authority established a so-called “paramount cross-market significance for competition”.
  • Action items for our clients
    • Follow the Federal Cartel Office’s approach with the new tool closely – we will keep you posted.

In detail:

The 10th amendment carries the name “Act amending the Act against Restraints of Competition for a focused, proactive and digital Competition Law 4.0 and other provisions (ARC Digitization Act)” and, as the name suggests, comprises the legislature’s intent to adapt German competition regulation to the new competitive environment in digital markets, in particular with respect to the controversial behavior of “gatekeeper” companies with superior market power like Google and Amazon. Hence, a core element of the amendment is the modernization of regulations on the control of abusive practices, in particular, the introduction of a new section 19a ARC (Act against Restraints of Competition) on abusive conduct of companies with a paramount cross-market significance for competition.

For the first time, section 19a ARC enables the Federal Cartel Office to intervene at an early stage in the event of threats to competition from certain large companies by determining that a company, which is active to a considerable extent in multisided markets, is of paramount importance for competition across markets, i.e., companies whose strategic position and resources make them particularly important for competition across markets. Under specific circumstances, the Federal Cartel Office can preventively prohibit such companies from certain practices, including:

1. Prohibition of “self-preferencing”, i.e., prohibition of giving preferential treatment to the company’s own offerings over those of competitors, in particular in terms of presentation and pre-installing exclusively the company’s own offerings on devices (a situation prominently discussed in the “Google-Shopping” case of the EU Commission);

2. Prohibition of measures of the company that impede third companies in their activities in a buyer’s or seller’s market if the company’s activity is important for the access to these markets;

3. Prohibition of impeding competitors in a market in which the company may quickly expand its market position;

4. Prohibition to erect or appreciably raise barriers to market entry or otherwise hinder other companies by processing competitively sensitive data collected by the company, or to impose business conditions that permit such processing;

5. Prohibition to impede or deny interoperability with other services and data portability, and thereby hinder competition;

6. Prohibition to inadequately inform other companies about the scope, quality or success of the service provided or commissioned or to make it difficult for them to assess the value of this service in another way; and

7. Prohibition to request advantages for treating offers of another company that are not appropriate in relation to the reason for the request.

The legislature also underpins the effectiveness of the new provision by accelerating the appeal proceedings. Appeals against decisions of the Federal Cartel Office made on the basis of section 19a ARC will be decided directly by the Federal Court of Justice. Skipping the first competent instance for all other antitrust proceedings, the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court, will result in considerable time savings in these fast-moving markets.

In addition, the legislature has specified the provisions for the traditional control of abusive practices and expanded them to include internet-specific criteria. When measuring market power, the law now also provides that access to competition-relevant data and the question of whether a platform has so-called intermediation power are to be taken into account. Such a key position in the intermediation of services can establish a dependency relevant under antitrust law.

With regard to the regulations for companies with relative or superior market power, the scope of protection is no longer limited to small and medium-sized enterprises. Another important innovation is that the Federal Cartel Office can, under certain conditions, order that data access is granted for an appropriate fee in favor of dependent companies. In addition, special intervention options are provided for the event that a platform market threatens to “tip” in the direction of a large provider (so-called “tipping” of a market).

Take-Aways

The resources of the Federal Cartel Office, which are freed up by the increase of the merger thresholds (see our blog post on New merger control thresholds in Germany), will likely be used to initiate more sector inquiries and, subsequently, will lead to more decisions under the new sections in 19a GWB.

It remains to be seen how the concept of addressing abusive conduct of companies with a paramount cross-market significance under section 19a GWB will influence the legislative process of the Digital Markets Act on the EU level (see our blog post New obligations and sanctions for digital ‘gatekeepers’: European Commission proposes Digital Market Act).

The UK’s New National Security and Investment Regime: Cutting Through the Noise – On Demand Video

The UK is introducing a new far-reaching national security regime which will impact M&A activity in Tech, Energy, Finance and other sectors. Orrick Partner Douglas Lahnborg, on 3 February 2021, hosted a webinar with panellists Niall Mackenzie (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy), Tim Riisager (Centrica), Alex van Someren (Amadeus Capital Partners) and Tom Tugendhat MP (Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee), who shared valuable insights for businesses and their advisors into the National Security and Investment Bill.

Watch a recording of the discussion here and listen to this experienced panel share their views on points such as what businesses should do now if they are concerned that a transaction may fall within the scope of the regime, the timing of the Bill, definition of “national security”, changes to the structuring of transactions, expectations on the newly-created Investment Security Unit and whether this is the first of a suite of legislation and policy that we will see from the government to address national security concerns in transactions involving entities or assets with links to the UK.

DECREASING HSR Premerger Notification Thresholds in 2021

Takeaways

  • The new minimum HSR threshold is DECREASING from $94 million to $92 million.
  • New thresholds apply to any transaction closing on or after March 4, 2021.
  • Failure to file may result in a fine of up to $43,792 per day of non-compliance.
  • The HSR Act casts a wide net, catching mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new HSR thresholds for 2021, which are lower than the existing thresholds. The thresholds typically increase year-over-year, but are decreasing in 2021 from $94 million to $92 million, potentially requiring HSR premerger notification filings to the U.S. antitrust agencies for smaller transactions. The new threshold will begin to apply to transactions closing on March 4, 2021. The HSR Act and Rules require that parties to certain transactions submit an HSR filing and wait up to 30 days (or more, if additional information is formally requested) before closing, which gives the government time to review the transaction for potential antitrust concerns. The HSR Act applies to a wide variety of transactions, including those outside the usual M&A context. Potentially reportable transactions include mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

Determining reportability: Does the transaction meet the Size of Transaction test?

The potential need for an HSR filing requires determining whether the acquiring person will hold an aggregate amount of voting securities, non-corporate interests, and/or assets valued in excess of the HSR “Size of Transaction” threshold that is in place at the time of closing. Calculating the Size of Transaction may require aggregating voting securities, non-corporate interests, and assets previously acquired, with what will be acquired in the contemplated transaction. It may also include more than the purchase price, such as earnouts and liabilities. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine what must be included in determining your Size of Transaction.

If the transaction will close before March 4, 2021, the $94 million threshold still applies; closings as of March 4, 2021 will be subject to the lower $92 million threshold.

Determining reportability: Do the parties to the transaction have to meet the Size of Person test?

Transactions that satisfy the Size of Transaction threshold may also have to satisfy the “Size of Person” thresholds to be HSR-reportable. These new thresholds are also effective for all closings on or after March 4, 2021. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine which entity’s sales and assets must be evaluated.

Filing Fee

For all HSR filings, one filing fee is required per transaction. The amount of the filing fee is based on the Size of Transaction.

Failure to File Penalty

Failing to submit an HSR filing can carry a significant financial penalty for each day of non-compliance.

Always consult with HSR counsel to determine if your transaction is HSR-reportable, especially before concluding that a filing is not required. Even if the Size of Transaction and Size of Person tests are met, the transaction may be exempt from the filing requirements.

Will (almost) every U.S. VC investment in German startups require FDI approval in the future?

The German Government is about to tighten the control of foreign direct investments (FDI) in German companies—again! The suggested changes might impede or at least delay non-EU (in reality mainly U.S.…) investments in German start-ups although such non-EU investments have in particular in the growth stage become vital for the developing German ecosystem over the last years…

 

 

 

In a nutshell:

  • What’s new?
    • German Ministry for Economics once again proposes to broaden the scope of FDI control.
    • This time, German FDI control faces a major overhaul: the latest draft covers more than 27 business areas in which an investment can trigger a mandatory notification and standstill obligation for non-EU investors.
    • Many more minority investments, including VC investments, could be subject to the proposed FDI control if an investor acquires at least 10% of the voting rights. Unlike merger control, there is no turnover threshold for the FDI regime.
  • The good
    • To be determined…
  • The ugly
    • The proposed amendment will possibly lead to significant delays for non-EU investors.
    • Investors that already hold at least 10% of the voting rights and acquire additional voting rights can also trigger such a mandatory notification and standstill obligation.
    • In the future, non-EU investors will likely face a competitive disadvantage compared to their EU competitors.
  • Action items for our clients
    • Check transactions that are currently being negotiated and determine if they can be completed before the proposed amendment becomes effective.
    • Review your plans for future acquisitions and investments to account for potential significant delays. Solid preparation will become even more critical.
    • Going forward: The Ministry has launched public consultations on the draft of the FDI amendment—keep an eye on this development! Of course, we will keep you posted.

In detail:

After the latest amendment of Foreign Trade and Payments Ordinance in October 2020, the now proposed amendment is the 4th amendment of the relevant German FDI regulation within the past 12 months. While prior amendments extended the review scope to specific business areas (e.g., companies active in the production of certain medical equipment due to the COVID pandemic), the proposed amendment specifies the requirements of the EU Screening Regulation. It will broaden the scope of German FDI control extensively, in particular with respect to critical technologies that are of (security) relevance.

Remember the good old times four amendments ago: While a year ago, the prohibition of an investment required a threat to the public order or security of the Federal Republic of Germany, it now suffices that public order or security of the Federal Republic of Germany or of another EU Member State is likely to be impaired as a result of the investment.

Investments in certain businesses in Germany that will result in the investor holding at least 10 percent of the voting rights can trigger a mandatory notification to the Ministry and a standstill obligation. This can include, among others, investments in companies that:

  • Provide cloud computing services and the infrastructures used for this purpose;
  • Develop or manufacture goods which solve specific application problems by means of artificial intelligence methods and are capable of independently optimizing their algorithm;
  • Develop or manufacture motor vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles that have technical equipment for the control of highly automated, fully automated or autonomous driving or navigation functions, or the components essential for the control of such driving or navigation functions or software required for this purpose;
  • Develop or manufacture industrial robots, including software or technology therefor, or provides specific related IT services;
  • Develop, manufacture or refine certain types of semiconductors, optical circuits and manufacturing or processing tools for such products;
  • Develop or manufacture certain IT products or components of such products;
  • Operate, develop or manufacture certain dual-use goods;
  • Develop or manufacture goods used to produce components for industrial applications by means of additive manufacturing processes;
  • Extract, process or refine critical raw materials or their ores.

Since the Ministry launched a public consultation, interested parties have the opportunity until 26 February 2021 to provide detailed comments on the proposed amendment. In view of the technical complexity of the aspects to be regulated, the Ministry attributes particular importance to the results of this consultation. Even though this should not be regarded as an indication for the Ministry narrowing the scope, it could result in a more precise description of the relevant business areas which will facilitate a prior assessment of the notification obligations.

Good News for Clients From Germany: Increased German Merger Control Thresholds in Force

In a Nutshell

  • What’s new?
    • Significantly increased turnover thresholds for German merger control.
  • The good
    • Many transactions will no longer be subject to German merger control.
    • This will lead to a much smoother process for lots of transactions, specifically for our clients in the tech sector and start-up companies that have not generated more than 17.5 mn in Germany.
  • The ugly
    • Transactions can still be subject to German merger control even if the increased thresholds are not triggered.
    • The Federal Cartel Office can require filings from a company after having conducted a market inquiry.
    • The review period for so-called phase 2 proceedings was extended from four to five months.
    • In 2017, consideration of the transaction threshold with the requirement of the rather vague criterion “substantial domestic operations” was introduced and is still in effect.
  • Action items for our clients
    • Check transactions that are currently being negotiated or that have already been signed – they might benefit from the increased thresholds of not requiring merger clearance in Germany anymore.
    • Going forward: Have a look at the Federal Cartel Office’s approach on the “vague thresholds” and sector inquiries – we will keep you posted.

In Detail

The 10th amendment of the German Act against Restraints of Competition (ARC) does not only introduce a new enforcement tool concerning the control of abusive practices. The amendment also brings a significant increase of the turnover thresholds in merger control. This will lead to a significant reduction of merger control filing requirements – good news for transactions!

New Thresholds

Most transactions in Germany are only subject to a notification if the companies involved achieve certain minimum turnover worldwide and in Germany. With respect to the turnover threshold, from now on, transactions will only be subject to merger control if, among other things, one of the companies involved has annual sales of at least 50 million euros in Germany (instead of 25 million previously) and, in addition, another company involved has annual sales in Germany of at least 17.5 million euros (instead of five million previously). Officially, this increase is intended to ease the bureaucratic burden on companies. However, the fact that the Federal Cartel Office received around 1,200 merger notifications in 2020 and opened in-depth investigations (phase II) in only 7 cases indicates that the Federal Cartel Office intends to focus its resources more efficiently on problematic cases. This is accompanied by the extension from four to five months of the review period for in-depth investigations.

For our business clients dealing with unproblematic transactions from an antitrust perspective, this is certainly good news as there will be no delay due to a merger control filing. However, besides these mere turnover thresholds, there is another threshold that takes into account the value of the transaction and competitive potential that has been in force since 2017 and is particularly important to our tech clients. We will keep you posted if the Federal Cartel Office focuses on this threshold in the future.

Further, the Federal Cartel Office is now able to require companies in certain sectors of the economy to notify mergers even if the companies involved in the transaction do not meet turnover thresholds mentioned above. According to the newly introduced section 39a ARC, the Federal Cartel Office can request notifications from a company if the following conditions are met:

  1. The acquirer must generate a worldwide turnover of more than 500 million euros;
  2. There must be objectively verifiable indications demonstrating that future acquisitions by the acquirer may significantly impede effective competition in Germany in the specified sectors;
  3. The acquirer holds at least a 15% market share in Germany in the specified sector; and
  4. The Federal Cartel Office must have carried out a sector inquiry of the industry in question.

Once a company is subject to such a notification obligation, it is obliged to notify the Federal Cartel Office about any acquisition in the specified sector(s), provided that

  1. the target’s global turnover exceeded 2 million euros in its last fiscal year, and
  2. more than two-thirds of the target’s turnover were generated in Germany.

Sector inquiries are investigations by the Federal Cartel Office of a specific sector of the economy if certain circumstances give rise to the assumption that competition of such a specific sector may be restricted or distorted. In the course of a sector inquiry, the supply and demand structures as well as aspects of market activity which have an impact on competition are analyzed by the Federal Cartel Office. A sector inquiry is not a procedure against specific companies. However, proceedings by the Federal Cartel Office are often a follow-up to a sector inquiry if the sector inquiry raises sufficient initial suspicion of a violation of competition regulations.

Andreas Mundt, President of the Federal Cartel Office, indicated the ambivalence of the new thresholds from an enforcement point of view:

So far, we have controlled around 1,200 mergers year after year; including many cases that are not really relevant from a competition point of view. That is a considerable number, and one that is accompanied by a very heavy workload. In principle, we therefore welcome an increase in the thresholds. However, at the level now selected, one or two questionable cases are likely to disappear. With the resources freed up, we will be able to focus even better on the really critical cases.

This shows the shift in the way the Federal Cartel Office obtains information on critical cases and markets. The previous approach relied heavily on a large number of “unproblematic” merger notifications, which provided the Federal Cartel Office with the parties’ view on markets and competition.

In the future, the Federal Cartel Office will put an emphasis on gaining information through sector inquiries. This shift also results in the elimination of the obligation to inform the Federal Cartel Office about the successful closing of a transaction. Previously, such a notification had to be submitted to the Federal Cartel Office for statistical purposes.

Takeaways

From a company’s point of view, the significant increase of the thresholds is welcomed as it will relieve companies from “pro forma” notifications. This applies, in particular, to PE funds. The new thresholds refer to the last completed business year prior to closing. Thus, transactions that are currently being negotiated or have already been signed but not yet closed could benefit from these new thresholds as well.

The increased thresholds will also free resources at the Federal Cartel Office, which will likely be used to conduct more sector inquiries and, subsequently, to prepare decisions under the new sections 39a and 19a GWB. Companies that are affected by such a sector inquiry and interested third parties will have the opportunity to provide the Federal Cartel Office with their views and arguments on the competitive environment in their market(s) and may highlight potentially controversial market conduct of (rival) market participants. This might be seen as a good opportunity to shine the spotlight in the right direction.

Background

The 10th amendment became necessary due to the implementation of the ECNplus Directive. The implementation of the so-called ECNplus Directive will strengthen the effectiveness of antitrust prosecution. In conjunction with the system in place at the EU level, companies and their employees are now obliged to cooperate by clarifying these facts.

The amendment also contains various innovations in the area of fine regulations. For example, “reasonable and effective precautions taken in advance to avoid and detect infringements” (i.e., compliance measures) can be considered mitigating circumstances in the future assessment of fines. In addition, the leniency program has now been codified into law. The Federal Cartel Office will adapt its announcements in this regard. Leniency applications can of course still be submitted at any time.

New obligations and sanctions for digital ‘gatekeepers’: European Commission proposes Digital Market Act

The debate about competition issues and unfair practices specific to online platforms and the appropriate tools to tackle them was taken a step further by the European Commission (‘Commission’), which presented two legislative proposals on 15 December 2020: The Digital Services Act (‘DSA’) and the Digital Markets Act (‘DMA’). While the former is intended to regulate online content and increase transparency and accountability, the latter is intended to ensure contestable and fair markets in the digital sector by imposing limits (and potentially sanctions) on so-called ‘gatekeepers’. This post focuses on the latter. The DMA is the confirmation that, from the Commission’s point of view, the competition law toolbox does not perfectly address the new challenges encountered in the digital sector. Designed more specifically at tackling unfair practices and closing (what is perceived by the Commission as) an enforcement gap, the DMA complements the competition law toolbox with new obligations for market players and new control and enforcement tools for the Commission.

Identifying the gatekeepers

The first potentially contentious issue concerns the determination of the subject-matter of the DMA.

Digital platforms will have to assess whether the DMA applies to them. During the press presentation, the two commissioners in charge, Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age (and continued head of DG Competition), and Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, refrained from naming any specific platform.

The DMA establishes a concept of ‘gatekeeper’, which refers to providers of ‘core platform services’. These services include online intermediation, search engines, social networks, video-sharing platforms, online-communication, operating systems, cloud computing, as well as related advertising.

More specifically, the proposal sets out three cumulative criteria for defining ‘gatekeepers’: the provider must (i) have a significant impact, (ii) act as an ‘important gateway for business users to reach end users’ and (iii) enjoy an ‘entrenched and durable position’ or will foreseeably do so in the near future.

The Commission will presume that these criteria are fulfilled above the following quantitative thresholds:

a) for criterion (i) above, where the provider has an annual turnover in the EEA of at least EUR 6.5 billion in the last three financial years or market capitalization or market value of at least EUR 65 billion in the last financial year and it provides a core platform service in at least three Member States; or

b) for criterion (ii) above, where, in the last financial year, the core platform service had more than 45 million monthly active EU end users and 10,000 yearly active EU business users; or

c) for criterion (iii) above, where the provider meets the two thresholds mentioned in b) for each of the last three financial years.

The gatekeeper status will result from a Commission assessment and subsequent decision, but providers will have an obligation to self-assess and report themselves to the Commission when they meet the thresholds for the presumption to apply.

The presumption is rebuttable: a provider meeting the thresholds can argue that it does not fulfil the gatekeeper criteria. The Commission can also identify a gatekeeper even when not all the thresholds are met. A list of gatekeepers will be published and maintained to take into account market developments.

Specific duties and prohibitions

Regarding behavior, the DMA contains a list of Do’s and Don’ts for gatekeepers.

A first set listed in Article 5 of the DMA applies per se and needs no further details for the gatekeepers to fully comply with and be held responsible if they do not. For the second set listed in Article 6 of the DMA, the Commission may impose specific, more precise measures on a gatekeeper.

Do’s

Don’ts

Obligations for gatekeepers
(art. 5 DMA)

  • Allow business users to offer the same products or services to end users at different prices or conditions via other platforms;
  • Allow business users to do business with end users acquired on a platform also outside that platform, and allow end users to access content via the platform even if it was acquired outside the platform;
  • Upon request by a client of advertising services, provide it with pricing and remuneration information in relation to a specific ad and for each relevant advertising service.
  • Refrain from combining personal data sourced from these core platform services with other personal data;
  • Refrain from preventing or restricting business users from raising issues with any relevant public authority relating to any practice of gatekeepers;
  • Refrain from imposing its own identification service on end users that want to access business users’ services on the gatekeeper’s platform;
  • Refrain from tying core platform services.

Obligations for gatekeepers susceptible of being further specified
(art. 6 DMA)

  • Allow end users to uninstall any preinstalled software applications (unless it is essential for the functioning of the operating system or of the device and cannot technically be offered on a standalone basis by third parties);
  • Allow use of or interaction with third party software applications or software application stores on the gatekeeper’s operating systems, and allow access to these outside the gatekeeper’s core platform services (but the gatekeeper can take proportionate measures to ensure that the integrity of its hardware or operating system is not endangered);
  • Allow business users providing ancillary services access to and interoperability with the same operating system, hardware or software features used for the gatekeeper’s ancillary services;
  • Provide advertisers and publishers, upon their request and free of charge, with access to the performance measuring tools of the gatekeeper and the information necessary for advertisers and publishers to carry out their own independent verification of the ad inventory;
  • Provide effective portability of data generated through the activity of a business user or end user;
  • Provide business users (or third parties authorised by them), with free, effective, high-quality, continuous and real-time access and use of data provided for or generated in the context of end users engaging with the products or services provided by those business users; however, for personal data, the end user must have opted in for such access, and the access must be limited to the data directly connected with the use of the relevant platform in respect of the products or services offered by the relevant business user;
  • If the gatekeeper offers an online search engine, provide any third-party providers of online search engines (upon their request) with access on FRAND terms to ranking, query, click and view data generated by end users, subject to anonymisation of personal data;
  • Apply fair and nondiscriminatory general conditions of access for business users to the gatekeeper’s software application store.
  • When the gatekeeper competes with business users, refrain from using relevant data not publicly available and generated or provided in relation to the use of the core platform services by these business users or their end users;
  • Refrain from ranking more favourably its own products and services compared to those of third parties (fair and nondiscriminatory conditions should apply);
  • Refrain from technically restricting the ability of end users to switch between and subscribe to different software applications and services to be accessed using the operating system of the gatekeeper, including as regards the choice of Internet access provider for end users.

 

Regarding acquisitions, the DMA introduces an obligation for gatekeepers to inform the Commission of any intended concentrations in the digital sector, even for transactions falling outside the scope of EU or national merger control regimes.

Enforcement powers for the Commission (EU level intervention)

The Commission will have several tools to monitor gatekeepers and sanction lack of compliance: market investigations, investigative proceedings (including requests for information, interviews, on-site inspections), interim measures in case of emergency, noncompliance decisions, and ultimately fines up to 10% of the gatekeeper’s worldwide annual turnover and periodic penalty payments up to 5% of the average daily turnover. A provider will be able to make commitments to avoid a noncompliance decision and sanctions.

Limited intervention at national level

For the sake of a uniform and coherent response to unfair practices implemented by gatekeepers within the EU, the proposed legislation takes the form of a Regulation, directly enforceable within the EU, meaning that it will apply without the need for Member States to adopt national rules. The DMA lays down harmonized rules and Member States must not impose further obligations specific to gatekeepers, be it by way of national legislation, administrative action or else. The only way for Member States to intervene is when at least three of them jointly request the Commission to open an investigation. Regarding public enforcement, no specific role is foreseen for national competition authorities.

However, private damages are still handled at national level. The DMA leaves room for business users and end-users of core platform services provided by gatekeepers to claim damages for the unfair behaviour of gatekeepers before national courts.

Not yet a reality – the legislative process ahead

The current version of the DMA is still likely to change as it will undergo the normal EU legislative process involving the European Parliament and national governments via the European Council. According to the Commission, the search for a broad political consensus was already part of the preparatory phase, so that the final legislative act is anticipated to be adopted rather rapidly, in about one and a half years. Add the proposed six-month delay between entry into force and application, and the DMA could apply beginning of 2023. Yet, the real pressure against the proposal will probably come from providers likely to be identified as gatekeepers and that had already made their objections known during the public consultation launched by the European Commission prior to the drafting of the DMA.

 

SEP licensing in supply chains: ECJ gets opportunity for a major trend-setting decision

Patent License agreement on a table Intellectual Ventures Wins Summary Judgment to Defeat Capital One’s Antitrust Counterclaims

In a decision of November 26, 2020 in a patent infringement case of Nokia Technologies Oy against Daimler AG, the Düsseldorf Regional Court (file number 4c O 17/19) referred several questions to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding the licensing of standard essential patents (SEPs) within multi-level supply chains. The Düsseldorf Regional Court suspended the infringement action until the decision of the ECJ. These questions referred to the ECJ address whether SEP owners are obligated to make licenses available to upstream component suppliers and the implications for the failure to do so, which are some of the biggest unresolved disputes involving SEPs. The questions also seek clarification on some of the “safe harbour” requirements for seeking injunctions set forth in the ECJ’s decision in the Huawei./. ZTE case (judgment of July 16,2015, C170/13).

In the lawsuit, Nokia is seeking an injunction against Daimler for an infringement of the German part of its European patent EP 2 087 629 B1. The patent concerns a method for sending data in a telecommunications system, whereby the patent is essential for the LTE standard (4G). LTE-capable modules from various suppliers of automotive parts make use of this standard. These modules are installed in cars of the automobile manufacturer Daimler and enable mobile radio-based services such as music or data streaming and/or over-the-air updates of specific software in cars.

In September 2014, Nokia’s predecessor in title indicated that it considered its patent essential to the LTE standard and issued a statement committing to grant licenses to third parties on terms that are fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND). Both Daimler and many of its suppliers have so far used the patent without paying royalties.

Nokia argues that, as the owner of an SEP, it is free to decide at which stage of a complex production and supply chain it grants licenses on FRAND terms.

In contrast, Daimler and its upstream component suppliers argue that, based on the rules of the EU internal market and the FRAND declaration of September 2014, Nokia, as the owner of the SEP, must offer every license seeker, who is willing to obtain a license for the SEP, an individual unlimited license for all patent-relevant types of use of the SEP. Therefore, priority should be given to the license-seeking suppliers, which would correspond to the standard procedure in the automotive industry.

In the referral decision, the Düsseldorf Regional Court assumed that Nokia has a claim for injunction against Daimler due to a patent infringement. However, the court raises the question whether Nokia’s assertion of its injunctive relief against Daimler can be regarded as an abuse of its undisputed dominant position in the licensing market. The decisive question would be whether and, if so, under which circumstances the owner of an SEP abuses his dominant position if he files an action for injunction on the grounds of a patent infringement against the seller of an end product without first having complied with the licensing request of the suppliers that use the SEP as well.

Specific questions referred to the ECJ

  1. May a company, that is active on a downstream economic level, raise the objection of an abuse of a dominant position within the meaning of Art. 102 TFEU against an action for injunction due to the infringement of an SEP, if the standard (or a part of the standard) is already implemented in an intermediate product purchased by the infringing party whose supplier are willing to obtain a license and the patent owner refuses to grant an unlimited license for all patent-relevant types of use under FRAND conditions for products implementing the standard?
  2. Does the prohibition of an abuse of a dominant position require that the supplier be granted its own unlimited license for all types of use on FRAND terms for products implementing the standard in the sense that the final seller (and possibly the upstream buyers) in turn no longer need a separate license from the SEP owner in order to avoid the infringement of the patent through the intended use of the relevant parts of the suppliers?
  3. If the question 1) is answered in the negative: Does Article 102 TFEU impose specific qualitative, quantitative and/or other requirements on the criteria according to which the owner of an SEP decides against which potential patent infringers at different levels of the same production and exploitation chain he takes action for injunction?
  4. Notwithstanding of the, fact that the duties of conduct to be performed by an SEP owner and an SEP user (notification of infringement, licensing request, FRAND license offer; license offer to the supplier to be licensed with priority) must be fulfilled prior to a court proceeding, is it possible to make up for duties of conduct that were missed prior to a court proceeding in the course of a court proceeding?
  5. Can a considerable licensing request by the patent user only be assumed if a comprehensive assessment of all accompanying circumstances clearly and unambiguously shows the intention and willingness of the SEP user to conclude a license agreement with the SEP owner on FRAND conditions, whatever these (in the absence of a license offer not foreseeable) FRAND conditions may look like?

Timing and Implications

It likely will take between one to two years until the questions are fully briefed and the ECJ rules on the questions.

Notwithstanding the delay, these questions will provide the ECJ with an important opportunity to make a decision that will have a major impact on supply chains around the globe. They also will reduce the likelihood, pending the ECJ’s decision, that courts in Europe will issue injunctions against automotive manufacturers for cellular SEPs when upstream telematic component manufacturers are willing to enter FRAND licenses. Finally, they likely will influence ongoing efforts by the European Commission to provide policy guidance to improve transparency and predictability in SEP licensing.

The answers of the ECJ will give guidance and can be expected to have a tremendous effect not only in the automotive industry, but for any industry that relies on SEPs. The further proceedings will, thus, need to be followed closely.

Foreign subsidies: The European Commission goes extraterritorial

The EU State Aid regime has long protected the EU internal market from anti-competitive subsidies granted by EU Member States. On 17 June 2020, the European Commission published a White Paper that proposes a new set of tools designed to address distortive effects in the internal market caused by subsidies granted by states outside the EU.

The White Paper outlines three complementary tools, or “modules”, intended to tackle the distortive competitive effects arising from foreign subsidies. These modules would be implemented by “supervisory authorities”, possibly at EU-level (most likely by the Commission itself) and/or at national level by an authority chosen by the Member State. For each of the three modules, the existence of a foreign subsidy with an actual or potential disruptive effect in the EU would be assessed in a “preliminary review”, potentially followed by an “in-depth investigation”. Undertakings under investigation could face “redressive measures” including the prohibition or even unwinding of certain transactions, or else make commitments to avoid prohibition. Failure to comply with procedural obligations would be subject to fines and periodic penalty payments.

Module 1 – General instrument to capture distortive effects of foreign subsidies

This largely mirrors the existing EU State Aid regime that applies to states in the European Economic Area (EEA). It proposes a general instrument that could capture all distortive effects of foreign subsidies exceeding a certain threshold, currently proposed at EUR 200,000 over three consecutive years. The Commission lists several categories of distortive subsidies, i.e. foreign subsidies that would distort the EU’s internal market: export financing, debt relief to the benefit of ailing undertakings, unlimited government guarantees, individual tax reliefs and foreign subsidies directly facilitating an acquisition.

For all other forms of subsidies, a more detailed assessment would be necessary, based on indicators such as the size of the subsidy, the size of the beneficiary and the utilisation of production capacity, the market situation, specific behaviour such as outbidding in acquisitions or distortive bidding in procurement procedures, and the level of activity of the beneficiary in the EU. If a distortive effect is established, it would be weighed up against any positive impact (the “EU interest test”), taking into account EU objectives such as job creation, climate neutrality goals, digital transformation, security, public order, public safety and resilience. Redressive measures could range from structural remedies and behavioural measures, to redressive payments to the EU, or the Member States, and could be subject to a limitation period of ten years.

Module 2 – Control of acquisitions facilitated by foreign subsidies

This proposes to tackle subsidised acquisitions of EU businesses by introducing an ex ante notification system, separate from and complementary to EU merger control and foreign direct investment screening. This module would investigate direct facilitation of acquisitions by foreign subsidies, as well as indirect de facto facilitation when foreign subsidies increase the acquirer’s financial strength. The regime would be subject to certain quantitative and qualitative thresholds and cover not only the acquisition of control over EU targets, but also the acquisition of significant – but possibly non-controlling – minority rights or shareholdings. The time period for the benefit of foreign subsidies would be limited, e.g. from three years prior to the notification until one year after closing. To avoid a prohibition of the planned transaction the acquirer could offer commitments, which would likely have to include structural remedies.

The proposals also envisage an ex officio review process to scrutinise acquisitions that should have been notified by the acquirer but were not, including after they have completed. The module includes the right to order the unwinding of completed transactions.

Module 3 – Control of unfair advantages in public procurement due to foreign subsidies

This complements the public procurement regime by introducing an additional notification obligation when submitting a bid, where the bidding party has received a “financial contribution” in the last three years. This module would address direct distortion of a procurement procedure by operation-specific foreign subsidies, as well as indirect de facto distortion by increasing the financial strength of the operator. The Commission aims to avoid situations where artificially low public procurement bids are facilitated by foreign subsidies. If a bidder is found to benefit from foreign subsidies, it could be excluded from public procurement in the EU.

The White Paper also identifies a risk that foreign subsidies create unfairness in the context of EU funding. The proposals are less developed, but the solution could be similar to Module 3 where EU funding is distributed through public tenders.

Hurdles and next steps

A first obstacle might be resistance by national governments that will scrutinise the proposal – the outcome of this process will influence the distribution of powers between the Commission and the Member States. For the general instrument (Module 1) as well as the public procurement instrument (Module 3), it is proposed that the Commission and the relevant national authorities would have concurrent authority for the initial stages. However, the Commission proposes to be exclusively competent to apply the EU interest test. Similar to its “one-stop shop” role in EU merger control, the Commission envisages exclusive responsibility for the enforcement of the ex ante control of acquisitions facilitated by foreign subsidies (Module 2).

In any event, enforcement outside the EEA will largely depend on third countries’ willingness to co-operate, which is not a given. State aid is highly political – foreign countries are unlikely to give the EU access to detailed information, unless the benefit of achieving EU approval outweighs the intrusion in the foreign state’s autonomy and political process. While the White Paper proposes an obligation to provide information, as well as powers to impose a fine or to order parties to unwind a transaction, the lack of effective enforcement outside the EEA could jeopardize the new regime(s). Even providing the supervisory authorities with the possibility to make decisions based on the facts available would not fully address this fundamental and intrinsic weakness.

Conversely, foreign companies benefiting from subsidies may lack information that would enable them to argue either the absence of a distortive effect, or the benefits outweighing such distortive effects. These dynamics could cause a stalemate between the EU and foreign countries, with increased trade barriers as a result.

The Commission acknowledges that there might be overlaps with existing legal tools, including international law such as the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (for goods), as well as bilateral free trade agreements with third states, which may contain relevant dispute settlement or consultation provisions. In case of overlapping actions, the White Paper merely suggests the ability to suspend the proceedings under the proposed new instruments and to conditionally resume those if the distortion persists.

A public consultation is open for stakeholders to comment on the White Paper until 23 September 2020, with proposed legislation scheduled for 2021. Legislation is unlikely to come into force before 2022.

State Attorneys General Ramping up Merger Enforcement

AttorneyGeneralDefinition

Last month, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a law repealing a provision of the Colorado Antitrust Act that prohibited challenging a merger under state law where the federal antitrust agencies did not also challenge the merger. This action is another sign that state Attorneys General are prepared to more aggressively enforce state antitrust laws, increasing the likelihood of divergent federal and state merger enforcement priorities and outcomes.

There are two complementary merger enforcement regimes. The federal regime, enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the state regime which the state Attorneys General enforce. The Hart-Scott-Rodino Act’s pre-merger notification and waiting period requirements apply to the federal merger enforcement regime but do not apply to a state merger challenge. Generally, states may investigate a merger at any time, even after it has been consummated.

Historically, federal and state antitrust authorities have taken a cooperative approach to merger enforcement, working together to investigate and litigate proposed mergers. Playing more of a supporting role, the states typically deferred to the federal agencies’ enforcement decisions. For example, the DOJ and various states jointly investigated and successfully litigated the Anthem/Cigna merger. More recently, however, federal and state merger enforcement has diverged, most notably when several states filed an action challenging the T-Mobile/Sprint merger before the DOJ had completed its investigation. Anecdotally, line attorneys in state antitrust units have reported rising tensions with DOJ.

This recent divergence has been driven in part by a perception among many state AGs that DOJ and FTC have been under-enforcing federal antitrust law, particularly in the high-tech sector. Colorado and other states that have a record of more aggressive antitrust enforcement include New York, California, Texas and Washington. They and other states may be more willing to fill the void when they believe federal agencies have failed to act.

Given the increasing independence and assertiveness of state Attorneys General, merging parties cannot ignore their concerns. The strategic and practical considerations of state antitrust review should be on every checklist for a merger or major acquisition.

The European Antitrust Enforcers’ response to the Covid-19 outbreak: Antitrust rules will bend, but will not break

SupplyDemandScales

In a welcomed attempt to align their approaches, the antitrust enforcers of the European Competition Network (ECN)1 have published a brief joint statement on the application of competition law during the Covid-19 crisis.

If one may regret that its content remains too high-level, it is an important step, which comes just shortly after the European Commission adopted a specific temporary State Aid framework in order to offer Member States the flexibility required in this exceptional context to support businesses impacted by the critical disruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak (commented here).

In addition to flexible public support measures, businesses need more clarity as to whether they can similarly benefit from a flexible enforcement of antitrust rules. At a time where businesses are put under considerable pressure, no one seems to question the fact that increased cooperation between them may be necessary, not to say indispensable for some economic sectors to continue to address basic consumers’ needs; likewise, there are reasons to believe that the traditional special responsibility of dominant firms may be harder to assume in the current circumstances.

Here and there, voices have rapidly been raised about the need to explicitly relax competition laws or their enforcement to allow companies to continue to meet European consumers’ vital needs while not dreading subsequent antitrust investigations (see for instance: the public statement issued by EuroCommerce, a trade association of European retail and wholesale companies, advocating for a waiver of normal competition rules to allow retailers to “share information on supplies and arrang[e] deliveries to the homes of people who cannot get out”).

At the same time, faced with the risk of a generalization of inflated prices for products or services in high demand due to the pandemic, antitrust enforcers naturally feel the need to be extra-vigilant and ensure that adequate safeguards remain in place, despite their own challenges of having (at least for some of them) their personnel working from home. It explains why some enforcers (such as the German Federal Cartel Office) have been vocal about the fact that existing competition law rules already provided sufficient flexibility and that they would continue to crack down on those who would unduly take advantage of the crisis to adopt anticompetitive conducts.

The guidance offered in the ECN’s joint statement strikes a balance between encouraging good-faith solutions and preventing abuses. It combines different approaches that have previously been supported by some European antitrust enforcers. But let’s make no mistake: the underlying message is clear: antitrust rules may bend but will not break, meaning that companies shall not lower their guard and ensure that they take adequate steps to mitigate the antitrust risks.

Flexible antitrust to ensure continued supply

In its joint statement, after acknowledging that “this extraordinary situation may trigger the need for companies to cooperate in order to ensure the supply and fair distribution of scarce products to all consumers”, the ECN assures that it “will not actively intervene against necessary and temporary measures put in place in order to avoid a shortage of supply”.

The ECN statement yet continues by stressing that “such measures” are likely to already comply with existing competition law, since they would either not be caught by the antitrust prohibitions or would fall under the existing exemptions. In other words, the message is that businesses will benefit from flexibility where this is justified by the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly because this flexibility is already an inherent part of the existing antitrust regime.

While nothing is said about what would be accepted as “necessary measures” or what is meant by “temporary” measures, some illustrations may already be found in decisions concerning topical sectors taken by some national enforcers. For instance, the Norwegian antitrust enforcer recently approved a three-month cooperation between Norwegian airlines in order to allow them to continue to ensure critical activities for citizens. Likewise, the German Cartel Office seems to have taken a softened approach to cooperation in the retail sector to the extent it is necessary to ensure continuous supply.

If useful, these precedents, however, leave numerous questions unaddressed.

To help companies navigate these issues, the members of the ECN seem willing to provide “informal guidance” to companies, which is a good thing in theory but clearly does not provide the same level of comfort as proper formal decisions. One may also have some doubts as to the enforcers’ ability to respond adequately in a timely manner to consultations considering that many of them have already made it clear that stakeholders needed to be prepared to face significant delays in the handling of pending investigations and merger control reviews.

It is hence to be hoped for that the members of the ECN will take inspiration from the UK CMA and will shortly, individually or jointly, follow-up with more detailed guidance.

Flexible antitrust to avoid excessive price increases

To tackle the other main issue, the risk of exaggerated inflation, the ECN joint statement contains a warning to companies that prices of “products considered essential to protect the health of consumers in the current situation (e.g., face masks and sanitising gel)” should “remain available at competitive prices” and that antitrust enforcement will continue to fight against antitrust infringements such as cartels or abuses of dominance. To the same end, the ECN joint statement also explicitly recalls that manufacturers can continue to use their right to set maximum prices.

This position is in line with the messages sent previously by several European antitrust enforcers. For instance, the Latvian Competition Council warned against price cartels resulting in overpayment for consumers. The Greek Competition Authority has communicated that it would indulge vertical agreements tending to maintain prices at a low level (maximum or recommended prices), which otherwise could be deemed anticompetitive in certain circumstances; conversely, resale price management (minimum prices) would still be examined and prosecuted.

However, one may wonder whether antitrust (flexible or not) is the appropriate tool to tackle excessive pricing problems in the current context. Why? Because, it may not offer a timely remedy (as a prior investigation will still be needed); because, the concept of exploitative abuse to address excessive prices traditionally raises several complex legal questions, and even more if we are to speak about temporary dominance resulting from the current context.

One may therefore not exclude that, in the most critical situations, European Governments will prefer ex-ante regulation over ex-post regulation, like in France where the price of hydroalcoholic gel was eventually fixed by decree.

 

1 ECN is the network for coordination between the national competition authorities (NCAs) within the EU/EEA, the European Commission (DG Comp) and the EFTA Surveillance Authority.

The implications of Brexit on the competition law landscape: Key takeaways from the CMA’s ‘Guidance on the functions of the CMA under the Withdrawal Agreement’

The UK will no longer be a Member State of the European Union (the “EU”) as of 11 p.m. on 31 January 2020 (“Exit Day”). A ‘transition period’ will run from Exit Day until 11 p.m. on 31 December 2020 (the “Transition Period”).

The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has published a guidance document explaining how Brexit, or “EU Exit,” will affect its ‘powers and processes’ for competition law enforcement (antitrust, including cartels), merger control and consumer protection law enforcement during, towards the end of and after the Transition Period (the “Guidance”). The Guidance also explains how ‘live’ mergers and ‘live’ antitrust cases being reviewed by the European Commission (the “Commission”) or the CMA during and at the end of the Transition Period will be treated.

In this post, we provide an overview of the key takeaways in relation to merger control and antitrust.

Merger control

The implications of EU Exit on merger control need to be considered during three different periods: (i) during the Transition Period; (ii) towards the end of the Transition Period; and (iii) after the end of the Transition Period.

  • During the Transition Period: The ‘one-stop shop’ principle will continue to apply. When considering whether the merger control thresholds under the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”) are met, the turnover generated by an undertaking in the UK will still need to be included. The CMA will not open an investigation into a transaction unless jurisdiction has been transferred to it under the EUMR’s referral mechanisms. The UK courts and the Competition Appeal Tribunal will not have jurisdiction to review decisions of the Commission or the UK-related aspects of these decisions.
  • Towards the end of the Transition Period: The Commission will retain jurisdiction over transactions that have been formally notified to it before the end of the Transition Period or if it has accepted referral requests under the EUMR (or the deadline for Member States to disagree to the request has expired (Article 4(5) of the EUMR)). If the Commission’s clearance decision in a particular case is subject to commitments, the Commission will continue to be responsible for monitoring and enforcing all aspects of these commitments, including any aspects relating to the UK, irrespective of whether the commitments have been agreed before the end of the Transition Period. However, the Commission and the CMA can agree to transfer responsibility for the monitoring and enforcement of the UK aspects of any commitments to the CMA.
  • Following the end of Transition Period: The ‘one-stop shop’ principle will no longer apply. The turnover generated in the UK will no longer be relevant for determining whether the jurisdictional thresholds under the EUMR are met. Parallel investigations (i.e. investigations by the Commission and the CMA) can take place with regards to transactions that meet the thresholds under the EUMR and the Enterprise Act 2002. The Commission will continue to be able to investigate the effects in the UK of transactions over which it had already exercised jurisdiction (i.e. because the transaction had been notified during the Transition Period or referral requests were accepted).

Antitrust

As with merger control, the implications for antitrust enforcement should be considered during three different periods: (i) during the Transition Period; (ii) towards the end of the Transition Period; and (iii) after the end of the Transition Period.

  • During the Transition Period: Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”) will have full force and effect in the UK in addition to the domestic Chapter I and Chapter II prohibitions. Regulation 1/2003, the EU block exemption Regulations and EU guidance will also continue to be applicable. The Commission will continue to have the power to enforce and investigate suspected infringements of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU in relation to the UK. If the Commission has initiated an investigation into a suspected breach of either Article 101 or Article 102, the CMA and concurrent (sector) regulators in the UK will not be able to launch a parallel investigation. In the event that commitments have been accepted by the Commission before or during the Transition Period, the Commission will continue to have the responsibility for monitoring and enforcement of the UK-related aspects of these commitments. Infringements of EU law are relevant to the disqualification of directors for competition law infringements. This will continue to be the case during the Transition Period.
  • Towards the end of the Transition Period: The Commission will retain jurisdiction over cases in relation to which it has formally initiated proceedings before the end of the Transition Period. However, the CMA and the concurrent regulators may be able to obtain jurisdiction over such cases. For instance, if the agreement or conduct under investigation affects trade within the UK and are ongoing at the end of the Transition Period, the CMA or concurrent regulators may investigate facts post-dating the Transition Period. Further guidance will be issued concerning the applicable procedure. If the CMA and the concurrent regulators are investigating conduct that may affect trade between EU Member States and have not issued a decision before the end of the Transition Period and the case is ongoing, Articles 101 and 102 TFEU will no longer be applied.
  • Following the end of Transition Period: After the end of the Transition Period, the CMA and the concurrent regulators will only investigate suspected infringements of the Chapter I and Chapter II prohibitions. The Commission will continue to have responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the UK aspects of commitments given or remedies imposed; however, there is an option under the Withdrawal Agreement for this responsibility to be transferred to the CMA and concurrent regulators by ‘mutual agreement.’ Further guidance will be issued concerning the applicable procedure. It is expected that company director disqualification orders will also concern conduct found to have infringed Articles 101 and 102 TFEU during the Transition Period. The EU block exemption Regulations are ‘retained exemptions.’ As such, after the Transition Period, exemptions will operate as exemptions from domestic prohibitions. The Secretary of State, acting in consultation with the CMA, will have the power to vary or revoke the application of the retained exemptions. Businesses entering into agreements after the end of the Transition Period will be able to benefit from the retained exemptions provided they meet the relevant criteria.

The CMA considers the Guidance to be a ‘live’ document subject to change “in light of further political and legal developments.”

The Guidance is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-exit-from-the-eu-guidance-on-the-functions-of-the-cma-under-the-withdrawal-agreement

M&A HSR Premerger Notification Thresholds Increase in 2020

Chinese: 美国提高2020年HSR法案并购前申报门槛

Takeaways

  • The new minimum HSR threshold is $94 million and applies to transactions closing on or after February 27, 2020.
  • The current threshold of $90 million is in effect for all transactions that will close through February 26, 2020.
  • Failure to file may result in a fine of up to $43,280 per day of non-compliance.
  • The HSR Act casts a wide net, catching mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new HSR thresholds for 2020. Transactions closing on or after February 27, 2020 that are valued in excess of $94 million potentially require an HSR premerger notification filing to the U.S. antitrust agencies. The HSR Act and Rules require that parties to certain transactions submit an HSR filing and wait up to 30 days (or more, if additional information is formally requested) before closing, which gives the government time to review the transaction for potential antitrust concerns. The HSR Act applies to a wide variety of transactions, including those outside the usual M&A context. Potentially reportable transactions include mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

Determining reportability: Does the transaction meet the Size of Transaction test?

The potential need for an HSR filing requires determining whether the acquiring person will hold an aggregate amount of voting securities, non-corporate interests, and/or assets valued in excess of the HSR “Size of Transaction” threshold that is in place at the time of closing. Calculating the Size of Transaction may require aggregating voting securities, non-corporate interests, and assets previously acquired, with what will be acquired in the contemplated transaction. It may also include more than the purchase price, such as earnouts and liabilities. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine what must be included in determining your Size of Transaction.

If the transaction will close before February 27, 2020, the $90 million threshold still applies; closings as of February 27, 2020 will be subject to the new $94 million threshold.

Determining reportability: Do the parties to the transaction have to meet the Size of Person test?

Transactions that satisfy the Size of Transaction threshold may also have to satisfy the “Size of Person” thresholds to be HSR-reportable. These new thresholds are also effective for all closings on or after February 27, 2020. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine which entity’s sales and assets must be evaluated.

Filing Fee

For all HSR filings, one filing fee is required per transaction. The amount of the filing fee is based on the Size of Transaction.

Failure to File Penalty

Failing to submit an HSR filing can carry a significant financial penalty for each day of non-compliance.

Always consult with HSR counsel to determine if your transaction is HSR-reportable, especially before concluding that a filing is not required. Even if the Size of Transaction and Size of Person tests are met, the transaction may be exempt from the filing requirements.

No HSR Filing Means No Antitrust Issues? Think Again!

My transaction does not require an HSR filing. That means we don’t have to worry about potential antitrust issues, right? WRONG.

The HSR Act requires that parties to certain transactions submit a premerger notification filing to the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and then observe a waiting period before closing. Any transaction valued in excess of the HSR threshold – currently $90 million – may require an HSR filing and expiration of the HSR waiting period as conditions to closing. An HSR filing may not be required where the transaction does not meet the minimum jurisdictional thresholds or an exemption to filing is available. Parties, however, should not equate “no HSR filing” with “no antitrust issues.”

The FTC just ordered the unwinding of a 2017 merger that was not HSR-reportable. German company Otto Bock HealthCare acquired private equity-backed Freedom Innovations; both companies supplied prosthetics and were the #1 and #3 manufacturers of microprocessor-equipped prosthetic knees. Otto Bock and Freedom confused “no HSR filing” with “no antitrust issues,” stating in the press release that “Anti-trust matters have already been clarified and a ‘simultaneous signing and closing’ was carried out.”

DOJ and FTC History of Investigating HSR Non-Reportable Deals – Even Very Small Deals

The DOJ and FTC have a history of launching investigations into transactions that did not require an HSR filing – including very small deals. Two examples are the DOJ’s post-consummation challenge of George’s $3 million acquisition of a chicken plant from Tyson Foods Inc., and the FTC’s challenge of American Renal’s $4.4 million acquisition of Fresenius dialysis clinics.

Even HSR-Cleared Deals Can Be Challenged Later

Parties also should not confuse HSR “clearance” with substantive “antitrust clearance.” While rarely used, the DOJ and FTC have the ability to later challenge transactions that were HSR-reportable and cleared. Recently, DOJ allowed the HSR waiting period to expire for Parker-Hannifin’s $4.3 billion acquisition of CLARCOR, Inc., and then challenged the consummated merger nine months later.

When the Federal Antitrust Agencies Pass, Others May Step Up to Investigate

The DOJ and FTC are not the only antitrust enforcers who can investigate a deal, and State Attorneys General (AGs) are becoming more active in merger investigations. For example, when the FTC decided against challenging Valero’s proposed acquisition of two Plains All American petroleum terminals in California, the California AG filed suit to block the deal.

All Deals Can Raise Concerns about Sharing Competitively Sensitive Information

Even after Valero abandoned the Plains All American terminal acquisition, the FTC continued to investigate if Plains improperly shared competitively sensitive information with prospective bidders, which could have been used to harm competition during or after the sale process.

Takeaways

Regardless of whether an HSR filing will be required:

  • Parties should always consider the antitrust risk of a transaction, no matter how big or small the deal or competitive overlap. Antitrust concerns can emerge from potential competition, too, in which case there may be no directly competing sales at the time the deal documents are executed. Before or after closing, filing HSR or not, the deal could face questions or a challenge from the federal antitrust agencies, State AGs or others.
  • Parties should always practice good document hygiene, bearing in mind that anything could be produced to the government or come to their attention. For example, Freedom’s own press release flagged that the merger combined the “number one and the number three” players.
  • Parties should implement practices to safeguard any competitively sensitive information that is shared through due diligence or otherwise during the bid/sale process. They also should ensure they do not violate anti-gun jumping laws that prohibit a buyer from taking control of a target or its operations pre-close.

 

U.S. v. Sabre: Putting the Innovation Theory of Harm to the Test?

In its recent complaint challenging the $360 million acquisition of Farelogix by Sabre, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) appears to have left the door open to offering proof that harm to innovation in the market for airline bookings is a separate and independent basis to block the merger. When the case goes to trial in January 2020, watch to see if DOJ uses this case to provide a roadmap for the evidence and analytical tools to analyze innovation effects in a technology merger.

The Sabre/Farelogix Lawsuit

The DOJ complaint alleges that Sabre’s acquisition of Farelogix is a “dominant firm’s attempt to eliminate a disruptive competitor after years of trying to stamp it out.” Sabre operates the largest global distribution system (“GDS”) in the United States. A GDS is a computerized system that allows brick-and-mortar and online travel agents to search for fares and schedules and book flights across multiple airlines. The complaint alleges Farelogix is a disruptive competitor that has eroded Sabre’s dominance in airline bookings. Farelogix offers an innovative booking service that allows airlines to bypass GDSs and connect directly to travel agencies. Farelogix has also pioneered the next-generation technology standard, called “New Distribution Capability” (“NDC”). NDC offers more advanced communications between airlines and travel agents and gives airlines greater flexibility to offer travelers ancillary products and services, such as priority boarding and Wi-Fi.

The complaint alleges that over the years Sabre has used its dominant position to engage in a broad range of anticompetitive conduct to delay adoption of NDC and to impede Farelogix’s ability to compete . Despite Sabre’s efforts, Farelogix has loosened Sabre’s grip on the market for airline bookings which has given the airlines leverage to negotiate lower fees from the GDSs. In addition, competition from Farelogix has pushed Sabre to update its own outdated airline booking technology. In spite of Sabre’s efforts to hobble Farelogix, demand for NDC has steadily grown and Sabre has recognized Farelogix as an existential threat to its business model. According to DOJ, “[i]nstead of innovating to compete with Farelogix, Sabre has resorted to eliminating the competitive threat by acquiring Farelogix” and the “acquisition would wipe out this competition and innovation, harming airlines and American travelers.”

In a press statement released the same day the complaint was filed, Sabre wrote that the “DOJ’s claims lack a basis in reality and reflect a fundamental misunderstanding” of the airline booking market. In its answer, Sabre argues the transaction is procompetitive because it will accelerate the delivery of new technology to the airline booking market by combining Farelogix’s NDC technology and retailing capabilities with Sabre’s travel agent network and global footprint. Sabre challenges DOJ’s conclusion that Farelogix is a particularly disruptive and innovative competitor. Sabre contends Farelogix is “not disruptive today and will not become so in the future.” Farelogix’s booking service earned only $7 million in revenues in 2018 and has close to a zero percent share of the airline booking markets alleged in the complaint. Sabre further contends Farelogix is not poised to disrupt the market because there is nothing unique about Farelogix’s technology. NDC is an open standard that is freely available and at least 39 other firms are certified to provide NDC solutions.

Harm to Innovation

Traditional merger analysis has focused on price competition—the merged firm’s ability to raise price or reduce output. In recent decades, nonprice competition—the merged firm’s ability to reduce quality and innovation—has become an important dimension of merger analysis. The emphasis on innovation is nothing new. Section 6.4 of the DOJ/FTC 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines makes clear that competition may be harmed if a merger reduces the merged firm’s incentives to innovate:

The Agencies may consider whether a merger is likely to diminish innovation competition by encouraging the merged firm to curtail its innovative efforts below the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

Alleging harm to innovation is a well-accepted theory and many DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) complaints have alleged technology mergers will reduce incentives to innovate. For example, in U.S. v. Bazaarvoice, a litigated case involving the consummated merger of the two leading ratings and review platforms, the DOJ introduced substantial evidence that competition between the parties was the primary driver of innovation in the market. In another recent DOJ case, the proposed acquisition of Tokyo Electron by Applied Materials, the parties abandoned the merger when they were unable to address the DOJ’s innovation concerns. Similarly, the FTC has challenged mergers to protect innovation in high-tech markets. For example, in Nielsen/Arbitron, the FTC required divestitures to protect future competition in the market for cross-platform audience-measurement services and in NXP/Freescale the FTC required divestitures to protect future competition in the semiconductor industry. FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen explained the importance of innovation in the review of high-tech mergers:

Higher prices are obviously a fundamental concern in reviewing mergers of close competitors. The loss of competition to innovate and to develop better, faster, more efficient products, however can be just as concerning – particularly in the technology area, where essential competition often is not on price, but rather on product features.

Assessing Harm to Innovation

Most of these enforcement actions were resolved by consent where the agencies did not go into detail regarding the evidence considered and the analytic tools used to assess harm to innovation. In Bazaarvoice, the one litigated case, DOJ alleged harm to innovation along with effects on price and quality. DOJ did not ask, and the court did not find, that harm to innovation was a separate and independent basis to find the merger substantially reduced competition in the ratings and review market.

The Sabre complaint alleges two separate and distinct theories of competitive harm: (i) higher prices due to the elimination of head-to-head competition between Sabre and Farelogix, and (ii) reduced incentives to invest and innovate next-generation technology. The structure of the Sabre complaint and the extensive references to innovation competition suggests that DOJ may ask the court to make a separate finding that the merger should be blocked based on an innovation theory of harm.

The DOJ’s focus on innovation effects is likely a response to criticism that the agencies have placed excessive focus on price effects and failed to intervene when dominant firms acquire smaller, disruptive competitors. DOJ may seek to use the Sabre case to put harm to innovation on equal footing with price effects. Discovering whether DOJ intends to allege harm to innovation as a separate and independent basis to block the merger will have to wait until DOJ files its pretrial brief and presents expert and other testimony at trial. But if this is DOJ’s intention, the trial may very well answer some open questions about how the agencies approach the elimination of small, innovative competitors. For example, will DOJ articulate a clear standard for blocking a dominant firm’s acquisition of a smaller, innovative competitor? Even if Farelogix has been an aggressive and innovative competitor, will DOJ be able to prove Farelogix is uniquely positioned to push the airline booking industry forward? Expect Sabre to offer evidence that the GDSs have been a source of innovation and that there are many other similarly situated competitors that can match Farelogix’s NDC technology. Will DOJ be able to prove how Farelogix would have developed without the merger? Expect Sabre to argue that Farelogix is a weak competitor that does not have the resources to implement NDC technology at scale. What weight will DOJ give to any integration efficiencies of combining Sabre’s and Farelogix’s respective technologies? Expect Sabre to argue that the merger will lead to better products that will enhance, rather than stifle, innovation. Finally, what, if any, economic tools will DOJ use to measure any potential reduction in innovation in the airline booking market?

After Almost Two Decades the EU Commission Finally Revived Interim Measures

On June 26, 2019, the EU Commission opened a formal investigation into U.S. chipmaker Broadcom’s alleged abuse of dominance. In a rather unexpected move, the EU Commission informed the company, on the same day, of its intention to impose interim measures, a long-forgotten tool.

Broadcom, which is a major supplier of components for TV and modem chipsets, is being suspected of having put in place contractual restrictions to exclude its competitors from the market.

Hearings were held in late August.

On October 16, 2019, the EU Commission, likely unconvinced by Broadcom’s arguments, ordered Broadcom to unilaterally cease applying exclusivity clauses contained in its agreements with six manufacturers of TV set-top boxes and modems, withhold commercial advantages granted to some of its customers, and refrain from agreeing to the same provisions or like provisions for the time being.

The investigation on the merits is still ongoing.

Commenting on the October decision, Commissioner Vestager justified the recourse to interim measures, which had not been used for almost two decades, by saying that DG COMP had “strong indications” of Broadcom having engaged in exclusive or quasi-exclusive dealings with key customers and that “in the absence of intervention, Broadcom’s behavior [was] likely to create serious and irreversible harm to competition.

In her official statement about the Broadcom case, Commissioner Vestager made it clear that it would not remain a one-off case and that she was “committed to making the best possible use of this important tool,” whose advantages (efficiency, quickness) seemed to have been “re-discovered” on this occasion.

So, why such a change?

Interim measures, a tool long neglected by the EU Commission

The EU Commission’s power to impose interim measures was first recognized by the EU judge in 1980 in the Camera Care case. In this case, the judge ruled that the EU Commission had the power “to take interim measures which are indispensable for the effective exercise of its functions and, in particular, for ensuring the effectiveness of any decisions requiring undertakings to bring to an end infringements which it has found to exist.

The conditions to impose such interim measures were further clarified by subsequent caselaw.

Regulation 1/2003 later codified them as follows: “In cases of urgency due to the risk of serious and irreparable harm to competition, the Commission, acting on its own initiative may by decision, on the basis of a prima facie finding of infringement, order interim measures” (Article 8).

This codification, which could have been viewed as an opportunity to develop the use of this tool, has, instead, discouraged the EU Commission from doing so.

The conditions set forth in Article 8 of Regulation 1/2003 were indeed perceived as significantly harder to fulfill than the caselaw conditions until then applicable. The risk of a false positive (or Type 1 errors) was another reason for the EU Commission’s reluctance to use interim measures.

Thus, while decisions imposing such measures were already rare, there have simply been none since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003.

The Commission is regularly asked to revisit its overly cautious approach to interim measures to no avail – until the Broadcom case.

Interim measures is a tool already used with some success by EU national competition authorities and is intended to be further developed at a national level

The EU Commission’s status quo contrasted with the dynamism of certain EU Member States’ competition authorities.

With an impressive track record of 27 cases of interim measures imposed between 2002 and 2019, the French Competition Authority (“FrCA”) has been by far one of the most active. While the greater use of interim measures by the FrCA may be explained by a lower burden of proof (condition of “likelihood of competition infringement” for the FrCA versusprima facie finding of infringement” for the EU Commission; condition of “serious and immediate harm” construed broadly for the FrCA versus serious and irreparable damage to competition as a whole for the EU Commission), it is also the result of a greater interventionism.

The fact that certain national competition authorities, like the FrCA, have used interim measures for years, with some success (including in the high-tech industry), has necessarily inspired the EU Commission.

It may also well be that, with the upcoming implementation of the ECN+ Directive that requires all Member States to enable their competition authorities to resort to interim measures, the EU Commission felt increased pressure to lead by example.

Dusted off tools for new challenges

The development of fast-moving markets and the hot debate as to whether the traditional tools of antitrust law are sufficient to tackle the issues posed by some big tech companies also explain the timely resurgence of interim measures.

While, around the world, legislators, academics, practitioners and competition authorities themselves continue to devise the best possible answer(s), competition authorities must find solutions to address everyday concerns voiced by consumers, clients and competitors confronted with potentially unlawful conduct adopted by big tech companies.

Dusting off some tools from the existing toolbox clearly forms part of the solution. It has been the case with the notion of exploitative abuse, voluntarily left aside from the Commission’s enforcement priorities back in 2009, and now revived.

It may now be the case with interim measures.

Conclusion

The EU Commission’s change of approach to interim measures is good news: certain circumstances do require prompt action to preserve competition on the markets and avoid irreversible harm to consumers, something which can only be achieved by interim measures given the long duration of the investigation on the merits.

This renewed interest for interim measures should not however make the EU Commission forget too quickly what it has long feared, namely Type 1 errors. Interim measures are prone to these errors which are very costly for the companies concerned and the economy in general. They can discourage companies from innovating and have the power to adversely affect public opinion for years to the detriment of the investigated companies even if the companies are cleared at the end of the day.

We can, of course, count on companies facing such measures to remind the EU Commission of these limits, as necessary.

In any event, to know whether this tool has definitively found its place in the EU Commission’s arsenal, one will have to wait for the EU judge’s reaction either in the Broadcom case, if Broadcom appeals the October decision (which seems highly likely), or in the following case of appeal against interim measures. If the EU Judge sets the bar too high in terms of the standard of proof required from the EU Commission, it will probably consign interim measures to oblivion. If the EU Judge is less demanding, it will open a rift that the EU Commission is sure to rush into.

‘Competitors’ Challenges to the Merits of a State Aid Decision is a Tough Nut to Crack, the Scor (Court) Case Reminds Us’

1. Background:

Back in 2013, Scor SE (“Scor”), whose subsidiary is engaged on the French market for the reinsurance of risks relating to natural disasters, lodged a complaint with the European Commission alleging unlawful and incompatible State aid in favor of Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (“CCR”). CCR is a public undertaking of reinsurance whose core activity concerns the reinsurance of risks relating to natural disasters in France and benefits from an unlimited State guarantee to the extent certain of its activities are concerned.

Unlimited public guarantees granted to undertakings are generally incompatible with EU State aid law. As the European Commission pointed out in its Guarantee Notice,[1]guarantees must be linked to a specific financial transaction, for a fixed maximum amount and limited in time. In this connection the Commission considers in principle that unlimited guarantees are incompatible with Article [107] of the Treaty.”

Departing from the aforementioned Notice and its decisional practice, the Commission, after having reviewed the measure in Phase I, dismissed Scor’s complaint and declared compatible, in decision C(2016) 5995 final of September 26, 2016 (the “Decision”), the unlimited guarantee in favor of CCR. The Commission considered that this guarantee was essential for the French regime for indemnification of natural disasters and pursued an objective of national solidarity in the face of risks related to natural disasters, and that it was necessary and proportionate in light of this objective and of limited disturbance on competition and interstate trade.

On May 6, 2019 the General Court of the European Union (“General Court”) dismissed the action in annulment that Scor introduced against the Decision (case T‑135/17 or the “Scor Court case”).

2. Interesting features of the Scor Court case:

It is not really its contribution on State aid substantive issues that makes this case interesting; it is rather that it reminds us of the difficulties facing companies willing to challenge the merits of a State aid decision that benefits a competitor (in this case, a compatibility decision to the benefit of CCR).

●   Legal standing to challenge a State aid compatibility decision on the merits

Referring to the landmark Plaumann case (Case 25-62), the General Court recalled that for Scor (as a non-beneficiary third party) to have standing to challenge the Decision on the merits, it had to demonstrate that it was “individually concerned,” i.e. affected by the disputed decision by reason of certain attributes peculiar to it or by reason of circumstances that differentiate it from all other persons and, by virtue of these factors, distinguish it individually just as in the case of the addressee.

To pass this test, the General Court traditionally considers that it is not enough for the applicant to be a competitor. The applicant must demonstrate that the disputed decision substantially affected its position on the market.

Hence the difficulty lies in what “substantially affected” shall mean.

We know from precedents, and this is emphasized once again by the Scor Court case, that the mere fact that a measure may exercise an influence on the competitive relationships existing on the relevant market and that the undertaking concerned was in a competitive relationship with the recipient does not suffice.

Rather, the criterion of substantial affectation of the applicant’s market position requires to be demonstrated by specific circumstances, such as: significant decline in turnover, appreciable financial losses or a significant reduction in market share following the grant of the aid in question, loss of an opportunity to make a profit or a less favorable development than would have been the case without such aid.

Hence it is easy to understand why this criterion can constitute a serious obstacle for competitors willing to challenge a State aid decision on the merits. It is even more true when one considers that, in the finding of State aid, the Commission generally does not devote too much effort to the demonstration of the affectation of competition resulting from the aid. One may regret this, as it would be very helpful (let alone for the concept of State aid) to find more developments in that regard.

In the case at hand, the General Court, following a two-step analysis, first identified the market concerned by the dispute (i.e. the French market for the reassurance of risks caused by natural disasters). It then went on to examine the circumstances put forward by Scor to demonstrate legal standing, namely: its subsidiary’s modest size on the market concerned (i.e. 0.08-0.11% – figures criticized by the Court for not being contemporaneous to Scor’s application) compared with its position on other French reinsurance markets (around 8-13%), as well as its complainant status and active role in the course of the proceedings. Regarding the first circumstance, the General Court took the view that Scor had failed to provide evidence of a potential link between the State guarantee to CCR and the particularly low level of Scor’s subsidiary’s market share on the French market for the reassurance of risks caused by natural disasters. As for the second circumstance, the complainant status and the active role played in the proceedings was recognized as a circumstance to account for, but it was said to be insufficient in itself to prove legal standing. The General Court consequently rejected, as inadmissible, Scor’s pleas challenging the merits of the Decision.

However, it declared admissible Scor’s pleas pertaining to the protection of its procedural rights, applying here again a well-established case-law according to which any “interested party” may claim protection of its procedural rights before the EU judge in relation to a decision not to raise objections or a non-aid decision.

●   Types of arguments left for competitors to challenge a State aid compatibility decision as illustrated by the Scor Court case

Competitors are easily deemed to be “interested parties,” i.e. “any person, undertaking or association of undertakings whose interests might be affected by the granting of aid …” (Article 1 of Regulation 2015/1589). But, then, as recalled by the General Court, the scope of their pleas is much more limited than if they were Plaumann-applicants, as they can only claim violation of procedural rights.

Applying this principle in the Scor Court case, the Court hence accepted to examine Scor’s pleas only on the failure to state reasons (an issue of public policy that EU courts must raise on their own motion), and on the violation of its procedural rights.

In that regard, Scor alleged that there were serious doubts as to the compatibility of the Decision, which should have led the Commission to open formal proceedings (phase II), i.e. long duration of the administrative proceedings; Commission’s hesitation on the legal basis for the Decision; the fact that a potential alternative system was envisaged; indications in the content of the Decision demonstrating serious doubts: failure to state reasons, insufficient and incomplete investigation, greater focus on the compatibility than on the existence of aid, no review of Scor’s proposal for alternative systems, misunderstanding by the Commission of the functioning of the guarantee, various circumstances raising doubts about the proportionality of the aid).

But, after addressing each of them in turn, the General Court eventually rejected all these arguments.

If, to some extent, procedural arguments may have a connection with the merits (in particular, the Court may examine substantive arguments to the extent they tend to support a procedural plea), it goes without saying that they are rather weak weapons and cannot compensate for the inadmissibility of substantive pleas. This can understandably leave the competitor-applicants frustrated when they do not manage to successfully pass the Plaumann test.

Furthermore, even in cases where pleas on the violation of procedural rights succeed, this does not necessarily mean that the measure at stake would ultimately be declared incompatible aid, as the Commission may comply with the requirements set out in a judgment without having to declare the measure incompatible.

At a time of increasing calls for enhanced private enforcement in the State aid space and when it is duly acknowledged that “State aid (…) directly harm[s] the interests of other players in the markets concerned, who do not benefit from the same type of support” (emphasis added) (see the 2019 Recovery notice), one may wonder whether it should not be necessary to revisit traditional principles about legal standing of competitors when it comes to challenging the merits of compatibility or non-aid decisions.

______________

[1] Commission Notice on the application of Articles 87 and 88 of the EC Treaty to State aid in the form of guarantees (2008/C 155/02).

New Anti-Monopoly Regulations in Force in China

September 1, 2019 may be seen as a new starting point for the enforcement of China’s antitrust and competition laws. On this date, three new sets of rules and regulations (the “Three New Regulations”) took effect, which were issued by China’s newly formed competition authority, the State Administration for Market Regulation (“SAMR”): [1]

  • the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Monopoly Agreements (“IPP-MA”),
  • the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Abuse of Dominant Market Positions (“IPP-AD”), and
  • the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting the Acts of Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abuse of Administrative Power (“IPP-AAP”).[2]

The Three New Regulations are expected to provide clear guidance for the SAMR and the provincial market supervision departments in their enforcement of China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”).[3]

Main Contents of the Three New Regulations

The IPP-MA (36 Articles in total), the IPP-AD (39 Articles in total), and the IPP-AAP (25 Articles in total), are all for implementing the relevant sections of the AML (respectively, “Monopoly Agreements,” “Abuse of Dominant Market Position” and “Abuse of Administrative Power to Eliminate or Restrict Competition” sections), and have similar structures. Basically each of the Three New Regulations has the following main contents:

  1. Systematic provisions on AML enforcement mechanisms against relevant acts in violation of the AML. They are to:
    • Establish the two-level law enforcement system involving the national level and provincial level enforcement departments;
    • Set up working mechanisms, including general authorization to provincial level enforcement departments, designation of enforcement powers, commissioned investigations, and cooperation in investigations;
    • Set up the reporting system for the provincial enforcement department to initiate and handle an investigation into relevant AML violation acts; and
    • Urge the SAMR to strengthen guidance and supervision of provincial-level market regulation departments, and to unify the standards of law enforcement.
  2. Detailed provisions on law enforcement procedures:
    • The procedural regulations for each of the main stages of case handling, including whistleblowing, case-filing, investigation, case disposition, publicity, etc. are provided; the IPP-MA and the IPP-AD also clarify procedures regarding commitment proposal and handling.
    • The IPP-MA and the IPP-AD also incorporate by reference the procedural regulations promulgated by SAMR earlier this year in April, i.e. the Interim Provisions on the Procedures for Administrative Punishments for Market Supervision and Administration, and the Interim Measures for the Hearings for Administrative Punishments for Market Supervision and Administration.
  3. More details in implementing relevant sections of the AML:
    • Each of the Three New Regulations specifies the conditions or factors for finding violations of the AML, and clarifies the specific manifestations and constituent elements of violating acts. On one hand, they are expected to facilitate the implementation of the AML by not only providing guidance to AML enforcement agencies but also restricting those agencies’ discretions, and on the other hand, they may serve as clear guidelines for compliance by the parties subject to those regulations.
    • Each of the Three New Regulations provides details on how to deal with illegal acts. The IPP-MA and the IPP-AD specify the types of penalties, the factors to be considered for determining the amount of fines, and the content of administrative penalty decisions; they further clarify that a business operator shall still assume legal responsibility for reaching a monopoly agreement or abusing the dominant market position by passive compliance with administrative orders, but the responsibility can be lightened or mitigated according to law. The IPP-AAP distinguishes the action types in different case situations and clarifies the specific content of an administrative proposal after the investigation.
    • The IPP-MA also specifies the exemption and leniency system. For instance, it clarifies the conditions for applying for exemptions/leniency treatments, the consideration factors for the AML enforcement agencies to determine granting exemptions/leniency treatments, and the content of the exemptions/leniency treatments.

It is believed that the Three New Regulations will further enhance the fairness, standardization and transparency of AML enforcement.

The New Regime vs. the Old – A Comparison

  1. Each of the Three New Regulations is more comprehensive for including both substantive and procedural provisions. Before the institutional reform, the original AML enforcement agencies issued separate regulations respectively on substantive provisions and procedural provisions. Now each of the Three New Regulations combines substantive and procedural provisions to make the regulations more comprehensive and complete, which could be conducive to the implementation by AML enforcement agencies and compliance by the parties subject to the governance of those regulations.
  2. The Three New Regulations overall may improve the AML enforcement supervision mechanism: Each of the Three New Regulations clearly requires the provincial law enforcement departments to investigate and deal with illegal acts in accordance with the relevant provisions of the SAMR, and the SAMR shall strengthen the guidance and supervision of the provincial law enforcement departments. Moreover, the reporting system and a stricter supervision mechanism are to be established according to each of the Three New Regulations, which could be conducive to the AML enforcement and the formation of a new pattern of AML enforcement with the expectation of comprehensively unified standards and procedures and practice.
  3. Each of the Three New Regulations refines relevant provisions of the AML. The main highlights are:
    • The Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Monopoly Agreements[4]
      • Factors for identifying other monopoly agreements are provided. It clarifies the factors that need to be considered when applying the section “Monopoly Agreements” of the AML to identify other monopoly agreements. It is clarified that other monopoly agreements in the AML can be determined only by the SAMR, which reflects the prudential principle adopted by law enforcement agencies on this issue.
      • Prudence is attached to the application of the commitment system. Where an operator promises to correct his behavior and take the initiative to eliminate the consequences of his behavior, the AML enforcement agency may decide to suspend the investigation. The commitment system is conducive to saving law enforcement resources and improving law enforcement efficiency. At the same time, however, it is also prone to problems such as replacing punishment with suspension. It particularly stipulates that the commitment system shall not be applied to monopoly agreements for (i) fixing prices, (ii) restricting the number of goods produced or sold, or (iii) segmenting market; moreover, if the AML enforcement agency concludes after investigation that a monopoly agreement exists, it shall no longer accept an application for suspension of investigations, which is conducive to maintaining the authority of AML enforcement.
      • Adjustment is made to the leniency system. It sets different levels for the reduction and exemption of penalties, which may make the leniency system produce a better incentive effect, and encourage reporting and surrender. It also increases the number of operators entitled to lenient treatment up to three in a case, and at the same time it adjusts the extents of mitigation or exemption of punishments, which may make the leniency system work better.
    • The Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Abuse of Dominant Market Positions [5]
      • Factors for determining dominant market position of operators in new areas are provided. In recent years, the abuse of dominant market position in the Internet and intellectual property fields has received widespread attention. In response to the concerns of all sectors of society, and in order to strengthen the AML enforcement regarding dominant market position in the above two areas, the IPP-AD clearly clarifies the special factors that need to be considered in determining the dominant market position of operators in these two areas.
        • Prudence is attached to the determination of abuse of dominant market position. In law enforcement practice, it could be a complicated process to determine that the behavior of an operator constitutes such abuse. Although some acts may appear to constitute abuse of dominant market position, they may be actually commercially reasonable and should not be enjoined. The IPP-MD is believed to have fully considered the rationality of the behavior of operators, and clearly enumerates the typical abuse conducts; for instance, it stipulates that when a case involves sales of goods at a price lower than the cost, the analysis should be focused on whether the price is lower than the average variable costs; and in the case of free products provided in emerging areas such as the Internet, an overall consideration of free goods and related paid goods provided by the operator would be needed.
      • Circumstances of “justifiable reasons” are specified. Under AML, the question on whether “justifiable reasons” exist needs to be considered when determining whether a suspected act constitutes an abuse of dominant market position. The IPP-AD, based on enforcement authorities’ relevant experience, enumerates specific possible justifiable reasons for acts like selling goods at prices below cost, refusing to trade, restricting transactions, tying or attaching unreasonable trading conditions, differential treatment, etc. These provisions refine relevant provisions of the AML and are expected to enhance the law enforcement operability and increase the market predictability.
    • The Interim Provisions on Prohibiting the Acts of Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abuse of Administrative Power [6]
      • Specific types of acts of abusing administrative power to eliminate or restrict competition are provided. As compared with the old regulations by NDRC and the former SAIC, the new regulations are expected to help accurately identify the violation acts and further enhance the operability in law enforcement practice.
      • Procedures of law enforcement and handling are improved as compared with the old regulations by NDRC and the former SAIC. For instance, it clarifies that the AML enforcement agencies may initiate investigations against suspected violation acts through performing their powers, whistleblowing, assignments by higher authorities, cases transferred by other organs, reports of lower-level organs, etc., and market-level regulatory authorities below the provincial level can also receive whistleblowing materials or discover case clues, which improves the case-filing procedure.

The Three New Regulations further clarify the standards for identifying violation acts and imposing penalties, grant the AML enforcement agencies relatively full power and authority to conduct investigations, collect evidence and sanction violating parties, which is expected to better guide and regulate enforcement activities and more effectively combat monopolistic behaviors.[7]

_____________

[1] Year 2018 is the 10th year of implementation of China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), and it is also the year seeing China’s new round of administrative system reform. This round of reform directly led to a major change in China’s AML implementation mechanism, namely the establishment of SAMR, into which the duties of anti-monopoly law enforcement agencies originally dispersed throughout the National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”), the former State Administration for Industry and Commerce (“SAIC”) and the Ministry of Commerce (“MOFCOM”) were integrated. The SAMR now assumes the unified functions for AML enforcement.

[2] See the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Monopoly Agreements, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/fgs/201907/t20190701_303056.html, the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Abuse of Dominant Market Positions, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/fgs/201907/t20190701_303057.html, and the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting the Acts of Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abuse of Administrative Power, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/fgs/201907/t20190701_303058.html.

[3] See Legal Daily, The Three Regulations for Implementing the Anti-Monopoly Law Implemented since September – The Anti-Monopoly Law Enforcement System Now Has “Steel and Sharp Teeth”, 2019-07-19, available at http://www.xinhuanet.com/2019-07/19/c_1124774162.htm.

[4] See Anti-monopoly Bureau, A Chart to Understand the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Monopoly Agreements, August 30, 2019, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/xwxcs/201908/t20190830_306388.html.

[5] See Anti-monopoly Bureau, A Chart to Understand the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting Abuse of Dominant Market Positions, August 30, 2019, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/xwxcs/201908/t20190830_306387.html.

[6] See Anti-monopoly Bureau, A Chart to Understand the Interim Provisions on Prohibiting the Acts of Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abuse of Administrative Power, August 30, 2019, available at http://gkml.samr.gov.cn/nsjg/xwxcs/201908/t20190830_306386.html.

[7] See Legal Daily, The Three Regulations for Implementing the Anti-Monopoly Law Implemented since September – The Anti-Monopoly Law enforcement system has “Steel and Sharp Teeth”, 2019-07-19, available at http://www.xinhuanet.com/2019-07/19/c_1124774162.htm.

 

Merger Non-Compete Clauses – Be Lawful or Be Gone

Non-compete clauses are commonly included in M&A agreements. Although generally recognized as lawful, non-competes must fulfill certain requirements to comply with antitrust and competition laws. A recent FTC enforcement action further clarifies these requirements for the U.S., and serves as a reminder that U.S. antitrust authorities are actively reviewing these provisions.

In January 2019 NEXUS Gas Transmission LLC entered into a Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA) to acquire Generation Pipeline LLC, a 23-mile natural gas pipeline in the Toledo, Ohio area, from a group of sellers for $160 million.

In the Complaint and Proposed Consent announced on September 13, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took issue with the non-compete clause in the PSA, which would have prohibited one seller, North Coast Gas Transmission (NCGT), from competing with the Generation Pipeline for three years. NCGT not only holds a minority interest in the Generation Pipeline, but also holds the North Coast Pipeline, a 280-mile natural gas pipeline partially serving the same region. In the FTC’s view, the non-compete clause was effectively an agreement by two competitors to cease competition for a period of time. As a condition to receiving antitrust clearance to proceed with the transaction, the parties were required to amend the PSA to eliminate the non-compete clause, enabling NCGT’s North Coast Pipeline to continue competing with the Generation Pipeline. The parties will also be subject to various reporting and compliance requirements for ten years.

It is important to note that even where a transaction does not itself raise antitrust issues – as here, where the FTC did not find any issues with NEXUS’s acquisition of the Generation Pipeline – the antitrust agencies may nonetheless take issue with the ancillary agreements to a transaction. Here, the FTC looked beyond the competitive implications of the primary transaction and investigated the impact of the non-compete clause. Parties should carefully draft and negotiate all M&A agreement clauses that may impact competition, and consult with antitrust counsel as needed.


Does California’s Ban on Non-Competes Apply to Business Agreements? The California Supreme Court May Weigh In Shortly.

The Ninth Circuit recently certified a question to the California Supreme Court regarding the scope of California Business & Professions Code Section 16600.  As readers of the Orrick Trade Secrets Watch blog are likely aware, Section 16600 states that “[e]very contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade or business of any kind is to that extent void.”  Pursuant to this statute, California courts have struck down a number of restrictive covenants in contracts with employees in California, including non-compete provisions, customer non-solicit provisions, and certain employee non-solicit provisions.  The Ninth Circuit now wants to know whether the statute should apply to an agreement between two businesses.  The Supreme Court’s answer may have significant effects on business agreements and collaborations in or involving California.

The question arises in a recent case, Ixchel Pharma LLC v. Biogen, Inc., where the plaintiff sought to apply Section 16600 to an agreement limiting a pharmaceutical company’s ability to develop a new drug.  In 2016, Ixchel and a third-party company, Forward Pharma, entered into a collaboration agreement to develop a new and potentially profitable drug.  The collaboration agreement stated that Forward had the ability to terminate the agreement at any time by written notice.

In 2017, Forward entered into a separate agreement with Biogen.  Pursuant to that agreement, Forward agreed to terminate the collaboration agreement with Ixchel, stop development of the new drug, and refrain from entering into any new contracts for the development of the new drug.  In exchange, Biogen agreed to pay Forward $1.25 billion.

Ixchel subsequently filed suit against Biogen asserting claims for interference with contract, interference with prospective economic advantage, and unfair and unlawful business practices.  As a predicate for its unlawful business practices claim, Ixchel argued that Biogen entered into an agreement that violates Section 16600.  Specifically, Ixchel argued that the provision in the agreement with Biogen restricting Forward from working on the new drug violates Section 16600.

According to Ixchel, the statute applies to provisions that restrain “anyone” from engaging in lawful business.   Although “anyone” is not defined in the statute, Ixchel contends it should indeed mean “any” person and that other statutes regulating competition define “person” to include “a corporation, partnership, or other association.”  The district court disagreed.  It found that Section 16600 does not apply outside of the employer-employee context and dismissed the case.  Ixhcel appealed and the Ninth Circuit, after argument, certified this question to the California Supreme Court.

Applying Section 16600 to invalidate provisions in business-to-business agreements could have significant implications for all California businesses and firms doing business in California.  According to Biogen, for example, such a ruling would be contrary to the rule of reason in the federal antitrust context and could jeopardize any joint venture, lease, distribution agreement, or license agreement, as well as other widely used business agreements in which a business voluntarily limits the scope of its operations geographically, by sector, or otherwise.

When the California Supreme Court takes up certified questions, it generally requires separate briefs and oral argument.  The time to resolution varies among cases, but Antitrust Watch will keep an eye on the issue and provide updates as it develops.