Antitrust / IP

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.

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

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.

 

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.

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.


Another Reminder That the UK Merger Control Regime Is More Than Just Voluntary

On 6 August 2019, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (the “CMA”) imposed an ‘Unwinding Order’ on a U.S. company, Bottomline Technologies (de), Inc (“Bottomline”), active in the business payment automation technology space, and its UK subsidiary (“Bottomline UK”), in connection with its investigation into Bottomline’s completed acquisition of Experian Limited’s Experian Payments Gateway business (the “EPG Business”). The acquisition was completed on 6 March 2019.

An ‘Initial Enforcement Order’ or ‘IEO’, preventing further integration, had already been imposed on Bottomline and Bottomline UK on 22 May 2019.

The Unwinding Order imposes obligations in relation to the handling of information:

  • Bottomline must not use “EPG Confidential Information” (i.e. commercially sensitive information regarding the EPG business) to “solicit” any existing EPG customers in relation to any product or service that competes with the EPG business;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must “segregate” all EPG Confidential Information (including existing physical and electronic materials) and ensure that such information cannot be accessed by any Bottomline and Bottomline UK representatives or employees other than certain EPG staff, except where necessary to comply with regulatory and/or accounting obligations or with the prior written consent of the CMA;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that EPG staff destroy or delete any “Bottomline Confidential Information” (i.e. any commercially sensitive information regarding the Bottomline business in respect of any products or services that compete with the EPG business) that they hold; and
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that no EPG staff have access to Bottomline Confidential Information, except with the prior written consent of the CMA.

The Unwinding Order remains in force until it is varied or revoked.

This matter reminds us of the risks inherent in proceeding to complete a transaction without having obtained CMA clearance, i.e. the risks of the CMA investigating a transaction (that has been legally completed) and imposing disruptive measures pending the outcome of its investigation. At a more general level, the difficulties of reversal are relative to the scale of implementation and would be far more difficult for instance if employee’ contracts have been terminated, or supply/customer contracts novated or terminated. A careful assessment of whether to voluntarily notify the CMA of a transaction prior to completion should therefore be conducted in respect of transactions involving overlapping businesses in the UK.

Companies, Board Members and Officers Take Note: U.S. Antitrust Agencies Are Focused on Interlocking Directorates

The FTC and the DOJ Antitrust Division have again warned companies, along with their board members and officers, of the legal prohibition on interlocking directorates: when an individual, or an organization’s agent(s), simultaneously serves as an officer or director of two competing companies. In a recent FTC blog, and prior post, the agency flagged the importance of monitoring for interlock issues during standard antitrust compliance. The DOJ Antitrust Division likewise recently made clear in remarks by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch, that it, too, is closely monitoring interlocks, particularly during transaction reviews. In-house counsel, board members and executive officers must routinely monitor interlock issues, or risk an independent government investigation or side investigation to an M&A review.

The Law

Section 8 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 19, prohibits “interlocking directorates.” The concern is that officer or director interlocks between competitors could result in inappropriate coordination or the sharing of competitively sensitive information, in violation of antitrust laws. The purpose of Section 8 is therefore to “nip in the bud incipient violations of the antitrust laws by removing the opportunity or temptation to such violations through interlocking directorates.” U.S. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 111 F. Supp. 614, 616 (S.D.N.Y. 1953).

Q: Which positions are covered?

A: “Director” means a member of the board of directors, and “officer” means a position elected or chosen by the board. The prohibition applies not only to the same individual serving as an officer and/or director of two competing companies but also to entities (like private equity firms) that have their agent(s) or representative(s) serving in these roles.

Q: Which entities are covered?

A: While the statute specifically refers to interlocks among “corporations,” DOJ Antitrust Division AAG Delrahim recently signaled a willingness to enforce Section 8 against unincorporated entities such as LLCs, as the potential harm is “the same regardless of the forms of the entities.” The FTC has taken similar positions in, for example, investigating interlocks involving banks, which Section 8 exempts, and competing non-bank corporations.

Q: What are “competitive sales”?

A: “Competitive sales” are “the gross revenues for all products and services” sold by one company in competition with the other, “determined on the basis of annual gross revenues for such products and services in [the company’s] last completed fiscal year.” Companies are “competitors” if an agreement between them would violate antitrust laws. 15 U.S.C. § 19(a)(1)(B), (a)(2). The FTC has advised companies to look at their ordinary course business documents and to speak to knowledgeable employees in determining if two companies compete.

Q: Is there a grace period for compliance?

A: If an interlock did not violate Section 8 at the time it was established but, later, changed circumstances cause a prohibited interlock (such as two companies that previously did not compete becoming competitors), the companies or individuals will have one year to cure. During that time frame, parties must remember that other antitrust laws still apply.

When an interlock violates Section 8 from the time it was established, there is no grace period to cure.

The Risks

Section 8 violations are inherently illegal and do not require proof that the interlock resulted in harm to competition. The government’s remedy for a Section 8 violation is injunctive relief—elimination of the offending interlock, typically with an officer or director’s resignation. But any interlock — in violation of Section 8 or not—could give rise to claims under other antitrust laws. Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits combinations and conspiracies in restraint of trade, and Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive acts in restraint of commerce. The FTC has stated it may use Section 5 to reach interlocks that may not “technically meet” the ban in Section 8 of the Clayton Act but which the agency determines may “violate the policy against horizontal interlocks expressed in Section 8.” Private plaintiffs also could bring a Sherman Act claim for treble damages.

Whistling in the Wind? DOJ’s Unusual Statement of Interest in FTC v. Qualcomm Case Highlights Disparity Between U.S. Antitrust Agencies on FRAND, SEPs, & Competition Law

In a highly unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently filed a statement of interest in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s unfair competition case against Qualcomm. The statement asks the court to order additional briefing and hold a hearing on a remedy if it finds Qualcomm liable for anticompetitive abuses in connection with its patent licensing program. As the FTC pointed out in its short response to the DOJ, the court had already considered and addressed the question of whether liability and remedies should be separately considered, and the parties had already submitted extensive briefing regarding remedies.

The DOJ’s “untimely” statement of interest, in the words of the FTC, comes three months after a bench trial concluded in January of this year, while the parties are awaiting a decision on the merits from Judge Koh. The DOJ’s filing represents the most direct clash between the DOJ and the FTC on the issue of standard-essential patents (SEPs) subject to a commitment to license on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms (FRAND). The two agencies have expressed divergent positions but up until recently had not directly taken any affirmative actions in the other’s cases or enforcement activities.

Though the statement of interest notes that the DOJ “takes no position . . . on the underlying merits of the FTC’s claims,” the DOJ’s views on this subject are well known. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim has been a prominent and outspoken critic of the principal theory of the FTC’s entire case—that breach of a FRAND commitment can amount to an antitrust violation—despite the fact that legal precedent is well-settled in favor of the FTC’s position.

The Filing Represents Another Step by DOJ to Protect SEP Holders

For some time now, the DOJ has articulated a position largely hostile to the FTC’s underlying theory in its case against Qualcomm: the applicability of competition law upon a breach of a FRAND commitment. As background, SEPs are patents that have been voluntarily submitted by the owner and formally incorporated into a particular technological standard by a standard-setting organization (SSO). Because standardization can eliminate potential competitors for alternative technologies and confer significant bargaining power upon SEP holders vis-à-vis potential licensees, many SSOs require that the patent holder commit to license its SEPs on FRAND terms.

Beginning in late 2017, AAG Delrahim made a series of speeches presenting the DOJ’s new position on SEPs, FRAND commitments, and competition law. Among other issues, AAG Delrahim stated that the antitrust laws should not be used to police the FRAND commitments of SEP holders, insisting that such issues are more properly addressed through contract and other common law remedies. This new position by the DOJ was notable not only because it reversed the approach of the prior administration but also because it was largely inconsistent with numerous U.S. court decisions—including Judge Koh’s denial of Qualcomm’s motion to dismiss the FTC’s case. At a conference last week, AAG Delrahim doubled down on the DOJ’s position and stated he is looking for the “right case” to test the DOJ’s views on this issue. But if the DOJ were to press its views in court, it would find itself in a difficult and awkward position of having to argue that other cases that have ruled on these issues were wrongly decided.

In addition to the speeches, the DOJ has taken measures to implement its new approach, which up until recently, stopped short of effectively challenging the FTC. First, the DOJ opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by companies that make devices implementing standards. Second, the DOJ withdrew its support from a 2013 joint statement issued by the DOJ and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on remedies for FRAND-encumbered SEPs because of the DOJ’s view, as explained by AAG Delrahim recently, that the policy statement “put a thumb on the scale” in favor of licensees. Third, the DOJ sought to submit another statement of interest in a private lawsuit filed by u-Blox alleging that InterDigital breached its FRAND commitments by demanding supra-competitive royalty rates for various wireless communications SEPs.

The DOJ’s current position fails to recognize the market distortion that can result when an SEP owner fails to comply with a voluntary commitment to limit those same patents rights—and the market power that is conferred on SEP holders in return for that commitment. It also fails to recognize that such policy actions ultimately will embolden certain SEP owners to engage in even more aggressive behavior at a critical period when innovative companies are beginning to incorporate wireless communications SEPs into entirely new industries, such as automobiles and the Internet of Things.

DOJ’s Filing Is Highly Unusual

The DOJ’s decision to insert itself into a case brought by another enforcement agency is exceedingly rare (although not entirely unprecedented). This is especially true because the FTC is representing the interest of consumers by acting pursuant to its authority under the FTC Act. The timing is also curious because the DOJ waited three months after the bench trial ended to file its statement, likely long after the court began drafting its opinion. The statement could be seen as a warning to the court that if it finds an antitrust violation it should not impose a remedy based on the evidence presented at trial.

The DOJ’s statement of interest further begs the question of why the agency thought it was necessary to bring itself into the case. To the extent that Qualcomm believes that the court should order additional briefing and a hearing on the issue of a remedy, even though the issue has seemingly already been addressed, Qualcomm is perfectly capable of presenting those views to the court on its own. In its response, the FTC made clear that it “did not participate in or request” the DOJ to weigh in on the case.

DOJ’s filing notes it is concerned about the risk that an “overly broad remedy” could “reduce competition and innovation in markets for 5G technology and downstream applications that rely on that technology.” But such a statement is remarkable. First, it suggests that the DOJ believes its sister enforcement agency is not concerned about fostering competition and innovation. Second, the statement suggests that the DOJ is willing to second-guess from the sidelines the judgment of both a court and competition agency that have been evaluating in detail the effect of Qualcomm’s business practices. Even if both of those positions are true, it is surprising to see the DOJ submit such a controversial filing in a matter in which AAG Delrahim is recused.

Ultimate Impact of Filing

The DOJ could have had multiple underlying motivations for choosing to submit this filing. Consistent with the split between the DOJ and FTC noted above, the DOJ could be signaling to the court that it disagrees with the FTC’s theory of competitive harm in an effort to influence the outcome on the merits. The DOJ could also be attempting to apply subtle pressure on the FTC to reach a settlement with Qualcomm to avoid drawing further attention to the two agencies’ divergent views on breach of a FRAND commitment. The statement could also be intended to discourage litigants from bringing antitrust cases premised on a breach of FRAND theory, demonstrating that, like in the u-Blox case, the DOJ is not reluctant to intervene.

However, regardless of the DOJ’s intention, its filing is unlikely to achieve any of those objectives. Judge Koh is an experienced judge who is well versed in issues at the intersection of antitrust and intellectual property law and does not shy away from ruling on difficult issues. Notably, when the FTC and Qualcomm jointly requested that she delay ruling on the FTC’s motion for partial summary judgment to pursue settlement negotiations, she denied the request and issued a significant decision holding that Qualcomm’s FRAND commitment means that it must offer licenses to its SEPs to competing chipset suppliers. Judge Koh may also exercise discretion to deny the DOJ’s statement, as the FTC pointed out in its response. More broadly, it is also unlikely that such a public airing of disagreement will go over well with an agency very focused on the state of competition in technology sectors. And the statement is also unlikely to deter private plaintiffs in light of the well-established and increasing body of case law holding that a breach of FRAND can violate competition law. The DOJ’s statement of interest, as unusual as it is, may ultimately amount to nothing more than whistling in the wind.

China’s Conditional Approval of Bayer’s Acquisition of Monsanto: Lessons for Future Merger Cases in China

On March 13, 2018, China’s Ministry of Commerce (“MOFCOM”)[1] announced its Conditional Approval following antitrust review of a concentration of undertakings relating to Bayer’s proposed merger with Monsanto (“Merger”) (Bayer and Monsanto are hereinafter collectively referred to as the “Parties”). This matter, plus three other mergers approved with restrictive conditions by MOFCOM or SAMR in 2018, suggests some trends in China’s approach to antitrust merger review, as discussed below.[2]

In the Bayer/Monsanto matter, the Parties filed a declaration on concentration of undertakings with MOFCOM on December 5, 2016. Afterwards, the Parties withdrew and refiled the declaration twice, and MOFCOM’s review period for each refiled declaration was extended once, with the last one extended to March 15, 2018, which indicates the complexity of the Merger and the antitrust review.

During the review process, MOFCOM raised the concern that the Merger would or might have the effect of eliminating and restricting competition in the following markets: (1) China’s non-selective herbicide market; (2) China’s vegetable seed market (long-day onion seeds, carrot seeds and large-fruit tomato seeds, etc.); (3) field crop traits (corn, soybean, cotton, and oilseed rape); and (4) digital agricultural markets.

According to Article 27 of the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Ministry of Commerce conducted an in-depth analysis of the impact of the Merger on market competition from the following aspects, among others: (i) the market concentration of the relevant market; (ii) the market share and the control of the market by the participating operators in the relevant market; (iii) the impact on market entry and technological progress; and (iv) the impact on consumers and other relevant operators. MOFCOM solicited opinions from relevant government departments, industry associations, downstream customers and industry experts, and held multiple symposiums to understand relevant market definitions, market participants, market structures, industry characteristics, etc. Based on its analysis, MOFCOM believed that the Merger would or might have the effect of eliminating or restricting competition in the four markets, as mentioned above.

MOFCOM then timely informed the Parties of its review opinions and conducted multiple rounds of negotiations with the Parties on how to reduce the adverse impact of the Merger on competition. For the restrictive conditions submitted by the Parties, MOFCOM, in accordance with the “Provisions of MOFCOM on Imposing Additional Restrictive Conditions on the Concentration of Business Operators (for Trial Implementation),” evaluated mainly the following aspects, among others: (i) the scope and effectiveness of divested business; (ii) the divested business’ continuity, competitiveness and marketability; and (iii) the effectiveness of conditions requiring actions to be taken. On March 13, 2018, after evaluation, MOFCOM decided to approve the Merger with additional restrictive conditions, requiring Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity to fulfil the following obligations:

  1. Globally divesting (i) Bayer’s vegetable seed business, (ii) Bayer’s non-selective herbicide business (glyphosate business), and (iii) Bayer’s corn, soybean, cotton, and oilseed rape traits businesses. The above divestitures include divesting related facilities, personnel, intellectual properties (including patents, know-how and trademarks) and other tangible and intangible assets.
  2. Allowing all Chinese agricultural software application developers to connect their digital agricultural software applications to the digital agriculture platform(s) of Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity in China, and allowing all Chinese users to register with and use the digital agricultural products or applications from Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity, within five years from the date when Bayer’s, Monsanto’s and the post-merger entity’s commercialized digital agricultural products enter the Chinese market, and based on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

This case, as well as the other three mergers approved with restrictive conditions by MOFCOM or SAMR in 2018, suggests the following trends in China’s antitrust review of mergers:

  •  Economic analysis and market research tools are more frequently being introduced for case analysis. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM frequently used the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI”) to analyze market concentration issues, and MOFCOM also held hearings/seminars to discuss issues related to market definition, market structure and industry characteristics with industry experts.
  • Potential effects of excluding or limiting competition without proved market shares may also be considered in the antitrust review. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, as to the large fruit tomato seeds market, Monsanto’s market share was 10-20%, which was believed to be much larger than that of other competitors. Considering that Bayer was an important competitor in the market, MOFCOM believed that Bayer’s potential in the Chinese market had not yet been fully reflected in its own market share, and that the Merger might render the market less competitive. Thus, in addition to market shares, the Parties’ market power or potential for expansion will also be considered when determining whether or not a merger might exclude or limit the competition in the market.
  • The impact on technological progress will be assessed and the theory of damaging innovation is likely to be adopted. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM adopted a “damaging innovation” theory by positing that a merging party’s innovative level and research and development (R&D) ability should be considered in assessing its market position. After the merger, because there are fewer R&D competitors, the merging parties might have less incentive to innovate and they might reduce R&D investment and delay the release of new products to the market, consequently causing an adverse impact on innovation in the whole market. It seems likely that Chinese antitrust officials will continue to consider the technological factor and will apply the damaging innovation theory when necessary for reviewing complicated transactions.
  • Structural conditions and conditions requiring certain actions to be taken may be combined as remedies. Finally, in the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM imposed both structural conditions (requiring global divestiture of certain of Bayer’s businesses) as well as conditions requiring certain actions to be taken (requiring that the Parties make their platforms and digital agricultural products available to Chinese users). Similar combined remedies were imposed in two of the three other approved mergers in 2018. Again, it seems likely this trend will continue.

_____________

[1] In April 2018, the anti-monopoly law enforcement agencies under the three ministries, i.e. the Ministry of Commerce, the National Development and Reform Commission and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, were incorporated into the newly-formed State Administration for Market Regulation (“SAMR”) based on the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

[2] See Announcement No. 31 [2018] of the Ministry of Commerce – Announcement on Anti-monopoly Review Decision concerning the Conditional Approval of Concentration of Undertakings in the Case of Acquisition of Equity Interests of Monsanto Company by Bayer Aktiengesellschaft Kwa Investment Co. [Effective], available at http://fldj.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ztxx/201803/20180302719123.shtml.

 

EU State Aid Tax Ruling Cases: Not Yet the End of It?

More than a couple of years ago, a lot of fuss was made around the first string of State Aid tax rulings cases of the European Commission (Starbucks, Fiat, Apple, the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies). Everyone has indeed heard about the massive amounts of State Aid, sometimes wrongly qualified by journalists as “fines”, that the European Commission ordered various EU Member States to recover from companies having benefitted of reportedly special and preferential tax treatment (e.g., up to €13 billion from Apple in the Irish tax ruling case).

At the time, some pretended that the approach taken by the European Commission was totally unheard of and that it was just another way for the European Commission to harass large U.S. companies.

They were not quite right.

The approach taken by the European Commission undoubtedly hinges on old precedents and on the European Commission guidance on the application of the State Aid rules to measures relating to direct business taxation (1998). What seems true however is that the European Commission, experiencing political pressure from the European Parliament in the aftermath of LuxLeaks, may have sometimes acted in haste at the cost of a lack of robustness of the underlying legal reasoning. The first setback suffered by the European Commission before the EU judge (annulment of the decision against the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies) or the early closure by the European Commission (without any in-depth investigation) of the case against the Luxembourg tax ruling in favor of McDonald’s, tend to illustrate this point. But these findings do not equally apply to all tax ruling cases (about ten cases). It goes without saying that not all the tax rulings cases will come to a happy ending for beneficiaries. The case against Gibraltar which decided not to appeal the European Commission’s decision ordering recovery of €100 million of unpaid taxes from multinational companies is a good counter-example.

To see the bright side, the refined analytical grid which will soon emerge from those cases will at least help the EU Member States and (actual or potential) beneficiaries of tax rulings within the EU to better assess their own risks.

Why is it important to keep an eye on these developments?

  • There may still be a few more State Aid cases to come regarding tax rulings. Since the beginning of 2019, no less than two new investigations have been launched by the European Commission (Nike, Huhtamäki). They signal that some rulings are still under review;
  • The financial stakes may be high;
  • The time limitation period for the European Commission to order recovery of the aid is 10 years; and
  • Should the aid be deemed unlawful and incompatible, State Aid recipients bear in fine the risk of recovery.

That said, it remains difficult to predict what the next cases will be. Part of the answer probably lies with the statements of Commission’s officials who suggested that the European Commission would prioritize what it would perceive as the most caricatural cases.

It would however be surprising if this was to remain at the heart of the European Commission’s State Aid priorities once it has exhausted its current stock of rulings (those made known in the context of LuxLeaks, Panama Papers or Paradise Papers or those requested from the EU Member States in the years 2013-2014). With the State Aid cases that prompted changes of practices from EU Member States and the new legislative safeguards (e.g., EU Directive 2016/1164 laying down rules against tax avoidance practices that directly affect the functioning of the internal market to be transposed by EU Member States this year), one may indeed reasonably think that the State Aid tax rulings subject will gradually lose its topicality…at least until the next tax scandal.

Hell or High Water for Nidec

The phrase “come hell or high water” is said to have originated in the late 1800s in reference to the conditions cattle herders encountered when they trekked from Texas to the Midwest across large prairies in the summer heat and through deep rivers. In the merger context, a hell or high water (HOHW) clause requires a buyer to take all action necessary, including divestitures, to secure approval from competition authorities. On March 8, 2019 Whirlpool Corp. sued Nidec Corp. in the Southern District of New York alleging that Nidec breached its obligations under their Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) to take all actions required to secure antitrust approvals. The case highlights the importance of antitrust risk sharing provisions in merger agreements and how courts interpret HOHW provisions.

The Whirlpool Complaint

On April 24, 2018 Nidec and Whirlpool entered into the SPA for Nidec’s $1.1 billion purchase of Whirlpool’s Embraco compressor business unit. Whirlpool manufactures home appliances and related products. Whirlpool’s Embraco business unit manufactures refrigeration compressors for kitchen refrigerators and freezers and for light commercial uses such as beverage coolers. Nidec manufactures electric motors and related products. Nidec’s Secop business unit is an Embraco competitor that also manufactures refrigeration compressors.

Given the competitive overlap in refrigeration compressors, the parties anticipated the transaction would encounter significant antitrust issues. The SPA contained several provisions that allocated the antitrust risk to Nidec:

  • Conditions to Closing: Nidec agreed to obtain approvals from competition authorities, including approval from the European Commission (EC).
  • HOHW Provision: Nidec agreed to “take any and all actions and do all things necessary, proper or advisable” to obtain all competition approvals. If any competition authority raised objections, Nidec agreed “to hold separate or to divest, license or otherwise dispose of any of the businesses or properties or assets of [Nidec], and of its Affiliates, or [Embraco].”
  • Closing Date: Nidec agreed to secure all antitrust approvals in time for closing on April 24, 2019.

The EC can approve a transaction during a Phase I investigative period if the parties offer remedies sufficient to address any competitive concern. Whirlpool alleges that Nidec prolonged and hindered the EC’s Phase I review of the transaction. Specifically, Whirlpool alleges that Nidec:

  • Failed to make timely submissions to the EC;
  • Wasted valuable time making futile arguments that no remedy should be required; and
  • Submitted a series of five remedies that failed to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

According to Whirlpool, the obvious remedy was to divest all of Secop, a clear-cut remedy that would have addressed all of the EC’s concerns. Nidec, however, refused to offer this remedy, and on November 28, 2018 the EC opened an in-depth, or Phase II, investigation of the transaction. The EC’s press release announcing the in-depth investigation noted that it tested various commitments submitted by Nidec and found that they were insufficient to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

Although Nidec ultimately agreed to divest all of Secop, it continued to prolong and hinder remedy discussions during the Phase II investigation. For example, Nidec (1) delayed responding to the EC’s request for an upfront buyer, (2) failed to effectively market Secop and (3) failed to offer attractive terms to potential buyers.

As of March 8, 2019, the date Whirlpool filed its complaint, Nidec had not reached a deal with a buyer acceptable to the EC. With the April 24, 2019 closing date fast approaching, Whirlpool seeks an order requiring Nidec to meet its HOHW obligations and immediately divest Secop at no minimum price and at whatever terms required to effect an immediate sale. In the alternative, if Nidec fails to sell Secop, Whirlpool seeks the appointment of a trustee fully empowered to immediately sell Secop.

Takeaways

HOHW provisions are not commonly used in merger agreements because they signal to the competition agencies that the parties believe the transaction raises competitive concerns and can provide the agencies significant leverage to extract a remedy. Here, Whirlpool clearly anticipated significant antitrust problems and successfully shifted all risk to Nidec by obtaining a pure HOHW provision that placed no cap on the assets that could be subject to divestiture. It appears from the complaint that rather than honor its HOHW commitment, Nidec took steps to avoid making all necessary divestitures for EC clearance of the transaction.

Whirlpool argues for a strict interpretation of the HOHW provision. Whirlpool would require a buyer to promptly propose a divestiture remedy that no reasonable competition agency could reject. Nidec will likely argue for a more flexible interpretation. It is reasonable to argue no remedy is necessary before offering remedies, and it is reasonable to offer alternative divestiture packages to test a competition agency’s bottom line. There is very little case law on a party’s obligations under a HOHW provision. If Whirlpool and Nidec are unable to settle this dispute before the April 24, 2019 closing date, we may get greater clarity on what constitutes a breach of HOHW provision.

 

More Affordable and Innovative Medicines and Treatments in Europe – Has the Competition Enforcement Met the 2009 Objective?

A decade ago, the European Commission conducted a thorough sectoral inquiry into the European pharmaceutical sector that identified antitrust shortcomings impeding access to more affordable and innovative medicines and treatments. Concluding this inquiry by setting priority actions for the years to come, former Competition Commissioner Kroes called for “… more competition and less red tape …” (sic).

Since this statement, there has been intense enforcement activity in the sector not only by the European Commission itself, but also by the European Union Member States’ antitrust authorities.

In its report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector,”  issued on January 28, 2019, the European Commission takes stock of their actions in this space.

The past enforcement record (2009-2017): intense activity, hard stance towards pharmaceutical companies with the use of novel or less known theories of harm

Between 2009 and 2017, no less than 29 infringement decisions were issued by European antitrust authorities, leading to fines totaling over €1 billion, while the European Commission asked for structural remedies for 25% of the reportable mergers in the sector.

Antitrust enforcement

In total, European antitrust authorities investigated over a hundred cases during the 2009-2017 period. Their investigations related to a wide range of medicines and many of the actors involved in the pharmaceutical sector: manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors.

Applying Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (or its national equivalent), which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and cartels, European antitrust authorities condemned, for the first time, certain pay-for-delay agreements, whereby a generic company agrees to restrict or delay its independent entry onto the market in exchange for benefits transferred from the originator. They also condemned practices of collusion in tenders, price fixing, conduct aimed at excluding competitors or limiting their ability to compete, and other types of coordination between competitors.

Besides, European antitrust authorities found that the misuse of the regulatory framework, whereby a dominant company misleads public authorities and misuses the regulatory procedures, can infringe Article 102 TFEU (or its national equivalent). Similarly, disparagement and other practices curbing demand for generics were found to infringe Article 102 TFEU. Reviving the neglected notion of exploitative abuse, European antitrust authorities found that under certain circumstances, a dominant pharmaceutical firm may infringe Article 102 TFEU if it imposes unfair terms and conditions or excessive pricing. In these cases, the reward for innovation seemed to have weighed little in the balance against the alleged harm caused to patients.

Merger control

19 of the 80 mergers reviewed by the Commission over the 2009-2017 period were subject to structural remedies, namely divestitures, offered by the merging firms. Antitrust concerns in those cases related to the risks of (i) price increases for some medicines in one or several Member States, (ii) depriving patients and national healthcare systems of some medicinal products, and (iii) diminishing innovation in relation to certain treatments developed at the EU or even global level.

All in all, the Commission takes a positive view: it considers that active competition enforcement throughout the European Union has fostered innovation, choice and affordability by intervening where companies, unilaterally or jointly, relax competitive pressures that force them to innovate further or prevent others from innovating or illegitimately exploiting their market power.

What’s next?

After this positive assessment, the question that finally arises is whether pharmaceutical companies remain in the spotlight in Europe and should expect the same level of attention from the European antitrust authorities.

The response is, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the standpoint), yes, definitely.

The now numerous precedents and case law have undoubtedly helped the sector to put some order into the practices implemented in the past. However, the critical challenges facing pharmaceutical companies for years (succession of blockbusters, very high cost and remuneration of innovation, very lengthy development process, etc.) weaken them and may still lead them to adopt either defensive or aggressive strategies at risk from an antitrust perspective. The European Commission remains fully aware of such risk and ultimately recommends that: “Authorities … remain vigilant and pro-active in investigating potentially anti-competitive situations, including where new practices used by companies or new trends in the industry are concerned, such as the growing relevance of biosimilars.”

So, it is most likely not the end of the story …

2019 Antitrust Writing Awards Nominees

Two articles authored (or co-authored) by Orrick attorneys have been nominated for a 2019 Antitrust Writing Award from Concurrences, published by The Institute of Competition Law. Concurrences picks its Antitrust Writing Award winners in part by popular vote. You can view the articles and cast your vote(s) here:

Voting closes on March 26, 2019.

CMA Orders Parties to Unwind Integration During Ongoing Investigation

For  the first time, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has flexed its regulatory muscles by ordering the unwinding – during the course of its ongoing investigation – of a completed acquisition. In a demonstration of its willingness to use all of the tools at its disposal – regardless of deal size or complexity – the CMA ordered Tobii AB (Tobii) to reverse any integration that had taken place as a result of its completed acquisition of Smartbox Assistive Technology Limited and Sensory International Ltd (Smartbox).

 

Background

Tobii announced its acquisition of Smartbox for £11 million in cash through a debt-financed deal in August 2018. Both are relatively small tech companies that provide specialist “augmentative and assistive communication” (AAC) for those with speech disabilities through hardware and software solutions, including eye-gaze cameras.

Following completion of the transaction, Tobii took various steps to integrate the Smartbox business, including entering into an agreement (Reseller Agreement) whereby Smartbox would act as reseller of Tobii products in the UK and Ireland, the discontinuation of certain Smartbox R&D projects, and the withdrawal of certain Smartbox products from the market.

CMA Investigation

In September 2018, the CMA opened an investigation into the completed transaction and subsequently found that it would lead to less choice, higher prices and reduced innovation for customers. The CMA gave the parties one week to submit undertakings to address these concerns, or the CMA would proceed to an in-depth, Phase 2 investigation.

Despite the parties offering various undertakings designed to alleviate the CMA’s concerns, these were not deemed sufficient and, on February 8, 2019, the CMA referred the transaction for Phase 2 investigation, simultaneously imposing an interim order preventing preemptive action.

Unwinding Order

Following further investigation during the Phase 2 process, the CMA issued – for the first time – an unwinding order. The order requires the parties to reverse integration and restore the parties to the positions in which they would have been had the integration not taken place. The parties are required to fulfil any open orders pursuant to the Reseller Agreement, but terminate it once these are fulfilled. Moreover, the unwinding order requires Smartbox to supply certain products which had been discontinued. Smartbox is also required to reinstate all R&D projects, including investment and staff allocations, which were discontinued due to the acquisition.

In imposing the unwinding order, the CMA concluded that the integration actions taken by the parties might prejudice the Phase 2 reference or impede the taking of any action by the CMA to rectify competitive harm caused by the transaction.

The CMA is scheduled to make its final decision on the transaction by July 25, 2019.

Practical Implications

The imposition of an order to unwind integration in a small tech deal could be seen as the CMA wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the Tobii/Smartbox case reflects several of the CMA’s priorities for 2019, including an increased focus on tech deals and the protection of vulnerable consumers.

The willingness of the CMA to use the full range of merger control tools at its disposal impacts not only tech deals, but deals in all industry sectors, regardless of size and complexity. Parties in completed transactions, which might affect competition in the UK, but which are not notified to the CMA, should consider carefully what steps to take in terms of integration, and whether and how those steps could be reversed if required to do so by a CMA unwinding order.

The CMA’s approach in this case also highlights the perils of not notifying transactions prior to completion. While the UK merger control regime is voluntary in theory, the consequences of not notifying are such that, in practice, the regime requires parties to carry out a careful pre-transaction assessment of the impact on competition in the UK and the risk of the CMA’s launching an investigation, instead of simply concluding that filing is not required because the UK regime is voluntary.

For more information, contact Douglas Lahnborg ([email protected]) or Matthew Rose ([email protected]).

 

Japan Introduces ”Commitment Procedure” for Alleged Antitrust Violations

On December 30, 2018, an amendment to the Japan Antimonopoly Act (the Act) to introduce “Commitment Procedure” became effective. The Commitment Procedure is a new procedure to resolve alleged violations of the Act voluntarily by an agreement between the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) and a company under investigation. It is similar to an antitrust consent decree under U.S. law.

The Commitment Procedure was introduced in accordance with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, first signed by 12 countries but then by 11 countries after withdrawal of the United States.

The Commitment Procedure is expected to provide opportunities to JFTC and companies under investigation to remediate alleged violations of the Act at an early stage, as an alternative to issuing cease-and-desist orders and/or imposing surcharge payments. With respect to its scope, according to the Policies Concerning Commitment Procedures, the following conducts will not be subject to the Commitment Procedure, and certain conducts such as Private Monopolization and Unfair Trade Practices (e.g. abuse of superior bargaining position) could be subject to it:

  • When an alleged violation is a so-called hardcore cartel matter such as bid rigging or price fixing;
  • When an investigated company has committed the same violation multiple times within 10 years; or
  • When an alleged violation is malicious and substantial and could result in criminal accusation.

A typical flow of the Commitment Procedure is: (i) JFTC issues notice of an alleged violation of the Act to a company under investigation, (ii) the company under investigation voluntarily composes and submits to JFTC within 60 days a plan to remediate the violation and (iii) JFTC decides whether or not to approve the plan. As a result of JFTC’s approval of and the investigated company’s compliance with the plan, JFTC will not issue a cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment order.

In practice, it will be important for an investigated company to closely communicate with JFTC and promptly conduct an internal investigation to seek possible options including taking advantage of the Commitment Procedure and avoiding a possible cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment.

The New Madison Approach Goes to Court

On January 11, 2019, the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division (Division) filed a Notice of Intent to File a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit filed by u-blox against Interdigital in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to obtain a license consistent with Interdigital’s voluntary commitment to license its 2G, 3G and 4G telephony Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Simultaneous with the filing of its Complaint, u-blox filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to prevent Interdigital from further interfering with u-blox’s customer relationships. The Division argued that the Court would benefit from hearing its views on granting a TRO based on u-blox’s claim that Interdigital monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology markets. Intervening in a District Court case is highly unusual and is yet another clear signal that the Division has reversed the Obama Antitrust Division’s antitrust treatment of FRAND violations, despite the disparity between the Division’s current position and numerous well-reasoned U.S. court decisions that have carefully considered these issues and come to precisely the opposite conclusions.

Retro-Jefferson Approach[1]

By way of background, standard setting involves competitors and potential competitors, operating under the auspices of Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs), agreeing on a common standard and incorporating patented technology. Patents that are incorporated into a standard become much more valuable once a standard becomes established and commercially deployed on a widespread level, and it becomes impossible for companies manufacturing devices that incorporate standardized technology to switch to alternative technologies. In these circumstances, patent holders may gain market power and the ability to extract higher royalties than would have been possible before the standard was set. This type of opportunistic conduct is referred to as “patent hold-up.” To address the risk of patent hold-up, many SSOs require patent holders to commit to license their SEPs on FRAND terms. FRAND commitments reduce the risk that SEP holders will exercise market power by extracting exorbitant licensing fees or imposing other more onerous licensing terms. One way to address patent hold-up is through breach of contract and antitrust suits against holders of FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

The Obama Antitrust Division advocated the position that, under appropriate circumstances, the antitrust laws may reach violations of FRAND commitments. This position was, and remains, consistent with applicable legal precedent. For example, in 2007 the Third Circuit recognized in Broadcom v. Qualcomm, 501 F.3d 297, that a SEP-holder’s breach of a FRAND commitment can constitute a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act where the SEP-holder makes a false FRAND promise to induce an SSO to include its patents in the standard and later, after companies making devices that incorporate the standard are locked in, demands exorbitant royalties in violation of the FRAND commitment. Numerous other cases similarly stand for the proposition that it is appropriate to apply competition law to the realm of FRAND-encumbered SEPs. See, e.g., Research in Motion v. Motorola, 644 F. Supp. 2d 788 (N.D. Tex. 2008); Microsoft Mobile v. Interdigital, 2016 WL 1464545 (D. Del. Apr. 13, 2016).

The Obama Antitrust Division also took the position that in most cases it is inappropriate to seek injunctive relief in a judicial proceeding or an exclusion order in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) as a remedy for the alleged infringement of a FRAND-encumbered SEP. Injunctions and exclusion orders (or the threat of one) are generally incompatible with a FRAND commitment and unfairly shift bargaining power to the patent holders. In the Obama Antitrust Division’s view, money damages, rather than injunctive or exclusionary relief, are generally the more appropriate remedy. Again, the Obama Antitrust Division’s policy reflected case law recognizing the same principles. See, e.g., Apple v. Motorola, 757 F.3d 1286 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

The Obama Antitrust Division articulated its views on the use of exclusion orders against the infringing use of SEPs in a joint statement issued by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on January 8, 2013 entitled “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments” (Joint Policy Statement). The Joint Policy Statement urged the ITC to consider that “the public interest may preclude issuance of an exclusion order in cases where the infringer is acting within the scope of the patent holder’s F/RAND commitment and is able, and has not refused, to license on F/RAND terms.”

New Madison Approach

The Division is now of the view that the Obama Antitrust Division’s focus on patent implementers and its concerns with hold-up were misplaced, even though many courts and other regulatory bodies around the world have noted the significance of the hold-up problem. The Division currently does not believe that hold-up is an antitrust problem. According to the Division, the more serious risk to competition and innovation is the “hold-out” problem. The hold-out problem arises when companies making products that innovate upon and incorporate the standard threaten to under-invest in the implementation of a standard, or threaten not to take a license at all, until their royalty demands are met. The Division further has questioned the role of antitrust law in regulating the FRAND commitment, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – and numerous other competition agencies around the world – has engaged in enforcement efforts to curb allegedly anticompetitive SEP licensing practices, many of which are directed at Qualcomm (which is the subject of an ongoing trial between the FTC and Qualcomm in Federal District Court in California).

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the term the “New Madison Approach” to describe his approach to the application of antitrust law to patent rights.[2] The four premises of the New Madison Approach are:

  • The antitrust laws should not be used as a tool to police FRAND commitments that patent holders make to SSOs.
  • To ensure maximum incentives to innovate, SSOs should focus on implementer hold-out, rather than focus on patent hold-up.
  • SSOs and courts should not restrict the right of a patent holder to seek or obtain an injunction or exclusion order.
  • A unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a patent should be considered per se legal.

The Division has taken at least three concrete steps to implement the New Madison Approach. First, it has opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by implementers, for example to exclude alternative technologies. Second, in a December 7, 2018 speech in Palo Alto, California, AAG Delrahim announced that DOJ was withdrawing its support of the Joint Policy Statement. According to AAG Delrahim, the Joint Policy Statement created confusion to the extent it suggests a FRAND commitment creates a compulsory licensing scheme and suggests exclusion orders may not be appropriate in cases of FRAND-encumbered patents. AAG Delrahim noted he would engage with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to draft a new statement. Finally, the Division intervened in the u-blox case.

u-blox v. Interdigital

u-blox presents a fact pattern that commonly arises in FRAND cases. Since 2011, u-blox has licensed Interdigital patents that had been declared essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G standards. U-blox relied on Interdigital’s FRAND commitments, and its devices are now allegedly locked into 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology. u-blox alleges that in its most recent round of negotiations, Interdigital is demanding supra-competitive royalty rates. Among its various claims, u-blox alleges Interdigital breached its contractual obligation to offer its SEPs on FRAND terms and has monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G technology markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. u-blox also alleges that Interdigital threatened its customers to force u-blox to pay excessive, non-FRAND royalties. u-box has asked the court to set a FRAND rate and filed a TRO to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its contractual relationships.

On January 11, 2019, the Division filed its Notice of Intent to explain its views concerning u-blox’s monopolization cause of action. The Division further explained that due to the partial government shutdown, it was unable to submit a brief before the TRO hearing scheduled for January 31, 2019, and asked that the TRO hearing be delayed until after DOJ appropriations have been restored, or in the alternative, to order DOJ to respond. Although not stated in the Notice of Intent, the Division can be expected to argue that it would be improper to grant a TRO based on a claim of monopolization because the antitrust laws should play no role in policing Interdigital’s FRAND commitment where contract or common law remedies are adequate. On January 14, 2019, u-blox responded that it would withdraw reliance on its monopolization claim to support its request for a TRO and instead rely on its breach of contract and other claims.

Implications of the Division’s Intervention in the u-blox Case

The Division’s filing of a Notice of Interest in the u-blox case is highly unusual. The Division rarely intervenes in district court cases, and it may be unprecedented for the Division to intervene at the TRO stage. It is also difficult to explain why the Division chose to intervene on this motion. While u-blox was relying on its antitrust claim, among several other claims, to support its TRO request, u-blox was only seeking an order to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its customer relationships while the court adjudicated its request for a FRAND rate. It is also notable that the Division put its thumb on the scale in the aid of Interdigital, a company that often finds itself in FRAND litigation.

The Division appears to be attempting to aggressively implement the New Madison Approach that the antitrust laws should protect innovators. The Division’s decision to withdraw its assent to the Joint Policy Statement appears to have been a clear signal to the ITC that it is free to grant an exclusion order in SEP cases. The Division’s intervention in the u-blox case is a clear signal that it is willing to intervene at the district court level to advance its view that the antitrust laws are not an appropriate vehicle to enforce FRAND commitments where there are adequate remedies sounding in contract or other common law theories.

To date, the Division has used speeches to make policy arguments that the antitrust laws should not be used to enforce FRAND commitments. If the Division ever gets the opportunity to present its views to a district court, watch to see what legal arguments it can marshal to support its policy position. Also watch to see whether the Division attempts to participate in other FRAND cases.

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[1] Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the phrase in his March 16, 2018 speech at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “The ‘New Madison’ Approach to Antitrust and Intellectual Property Law” based on the initial understanding of patent rights held by Thomas Jefferson, the first patent examiner of the U.S. (and a former president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence). AAG Delrahim describes the retro-Jefferson view of patents as conferring too much power on patent holders at the expense of patent implementers and that such power should be constrained by the antitrust laws or Standard Setting Organizations.

[2] The term “New Madison Approach” is based on the understanding of intellectual property rights held by James Madison, the principal drafter of the U.S. Constitution. Madison believed strong IP protections were necessary to encourage innovation and technological progress.