Innovation

Illumina vs European Commission: the EU General Court endorses the Commission’s new approach to Article 22 EUMR allowing the capture of mergers below the thresholds

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In a judgment dated 13 July 2022 (T-227/21), the General Court of the European Union (the “General Court” or the “Court”) upheld the decision of the European Commission (the “Commission”) whereby the latter accepted to assert its (merger control) jurisdiction over the “below-the-thresholds” acquisition of Grail by Illumina (the “Transaction”), following referrals from EU and EFTA member states based on Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”)[1].

In addition to its direct and almost immediate implications for Illumina and Grail (see below), this judgment paves the way for new cases that capture concentrations below the thresholds (i.e., not triggering merger control requirements based on the numerical thresholds) while leaving a few questions open.

It was indeed the first time, since the announcement by Margrethe Vestager of the Commission’s willingness to use Article 22 EUMR to tackle potentially problematic “below the thresholds” mergers, that the General Court was given the opportunity to have its say on this new approach.

Background

Pursuant to Article 22 EUMR, national competition authorities (“NCAs”) may refer to the Commission any concentration that does not have a European dimension, but (i) which affects trade between Member States and (ii) threatens to significantly affect competition in the territory of the Member State concerned (see our previous Blog post on the Commission’s guidance published on 26 March 2021).

This provision was long conceived as a tool designed for EU Member States lacking national merger control regimes. Over recent years, however, there had been increasingly clear messages that the Commission wanted to use it for other purposes, namely to extend its jurisdiction to catch the so-called killer acquisitions, or more generally potentially problematic concentrations below the thresholds. But, before the issuance of the Commission’s guidance regarding the application of Article 22 EUMR on 26 March 2021, the rules of the game were not clear at all.

Made public in September 2020, before the release of the aforementioned guidance, the Illumina/Grail Transaction was not notified to any NCAs within the EU or to the Commission, as it did not cross any relevant thresholds. However, a complainant, as well as the Commission, has considered it a textbook case of a “killer acquisition.”

In this case, Grail is a start-up, not yet generating any turnover, developing innovative blood-based cancer tests based on genomic sequencing and data science tools. Reportedly, the alleged concern would be that the purchaser, Illumina, a U.S. major biotechnology company supplying sequencing and array-based solutions for genetic and genomic analysis, could post-transaction restrict access to or increase prices of next generation sequencers and reagents to the detriment of Grail’s rivals active in genomic cancer tests.

Likely informed of the Transaction by the complaint, the Commission reached the preliminary conclusion that the Transaction satisfied the necessary conditions for a referral. In accordance with Article 22(5) EUMR, the Commission informed the EU and EFTA Member States of the Transaction and invited them to request a referral (through a so-called “Invitation Letter”), and on 9 March 2021, the French competition authority sent a request (joined by the Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, and Icelandic competition authorities). By decisions of 19 April 2021, the Commission accepted the referral request and associated requests to join (the “Decisions”).

Subsequently, Illumina, supported by Grail, initiated an action for annulment against both the Invitation Letter and the Decisions before the General Court of the EU, competent to rule on such annulments for acts of the institutions of the European Union that are contrary to European Union law.

The judgment at hand was much awaited as, by contrast with traditional guidelines which build upon a long decisional practice, the Commission’s guidance develops a new untested approach to Article 22 EUMR and has generated much debate amongst academics and practitioners about its legality.

Findings of the General Court

First ruling on the admissibility of the case, the General Court confirmed that the Commission’s Decisions constituted challengeable acts within the meaning of Article 263 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”), notably as each were considered to produce binding legal effects vis-à-vis Illumina and were thus capable of affecting its interests by bringing about a distinct change in its legal situation.

The Court thus rejected the European Commission’s position that its Decisions were merely preparatory acts, the illegalities of which could be raised in an action brought against the final decision on the concentration at issue. On the contrary, the Invitation Letter was considered to constitute only an intermediate step in the context of the referral procedure so that the Court held Illumina’s action against such letter to be inadmissible.

On the substance of the case, Illumina challenged the Commission’s Decisions on three points, essentially alleging: 1) a lack of competence on the part of the Commission, 2) that the referral request of France was late and 3) that the Decisions violated the principle of protection of legitimate expectations.

1° Article 22 EUMR is an adequate legal basis for the Commission to exercise its jurisdiction over the Transaction

Illumina argued that the Commission did not have a valid legal basis to review the transaction at issue, since the referral request was made by a competition authority which was not itself competent, under its own national legislation, to review the transaction. For Illumina, the residual purpose of Article 22 EUMR only enables a Member State that does not have a merger control legislation to submit a referral request in order to prevent a concentration affecting its territory from not being subject to any scrutiny.

Following a holistic review, through a literal, contextual, teleological and historical interpretation of the provision at issue, the Court concluded that the Commission was right to accept the referral request and the requests to join under Article 22 EUMR, thus confirming with a particular strength, the validity of this recent and major change in the Commission’s merger control policy.

Relying on the wording of Article 22(1) EUMR, and in particular the use of the expression “any concentration,” the Court took the view that a concentration could be the subject of a referral, regardless of the existence or scope of national merger control rule. Interpreting Article 22(1) EUMR otherwise, as Illumina and Grail advocated, would in fact add a condition for a referral that is not apparent from its wording, the Court added.

It also considered that although the referral mechanism was originally conceived, under the previous merger regulation 4064/89, primarily for Member States which did not have their own merger control system (in practice, the Kingdom of the Netherlands), it did not, however, preclude other Member States from also having recourse to that mechanism. For the Court, nothing in that regulation indicates that the EU legislature intended at the time to reserve that mechanism for those aforementioned States.

For the Court, while the scope of the EUMR depends primarily on the exceeding of the turnover thresholds defining the European dimension, it also depends, alternatively, on the referral mechanisms provided for in Article 4(5) and Article 22 of that regulation, which supplement those thresholds by authorising the examination, by the Commission, of certain concentrations that do not have such a European dimension. It further emphasized the distinction that was operated between the referral mechanism set forth under Article 4(5) EUMR, the “one-stop shop” threshold, which specifically requires 3 Member States having competence to review a transaction for it to be referred to the Commission, and the referral mechanism of Article 22, which does not provide such a condition.

Eventually, the Court found that referral mechanisms are an instrument necessary to remedy the control gaps inherent to a rigid system solely based on turnover thresholds. It considered that the use of the expression “effective corrective mechanism” in recital 11 of the EUMR, to describe referrals, shows that such mechanisms create a subsidiary power of the Commission which confers on it the flexibility necessary to achieve the objective of the regulation, namely, to allow for the control of concentrations that are likely to significantly impede effective competition in the internal market.

Accordingly, the General Court concluded that the Commission was right to accept the referral request at issue and that neither a legislative amendment nor a revision of the EU thresholds were necessary, contrary to what Illumina claimed.

2° The Transaction was lawfully referred to the Commission as the referral request was not late

Beyond the much-anticipated conclusion on the overall lawfulness of the referral request made by a non-competent NCA, the General Court’s judgment also provides clarifications as regards the deadline to be complied with by Member States to submit such a referral request, which, if helpful, still leaves open a number of questions.

As a reminder, the second subparagraph of Article 22(1) EUMR provides that a referral request “shall be made at most within 15 working days of the date on which the concentration was notified, or if no notification is required, otherwise made known to the Member State concerned.”

Illumina, supported by Grail, argued that the referral request was submitted after the expiry of the time limit, since the Transaction was announced publicly through a press release and the CMA and the FTC had already started investigating the deal, which therefore was necessarily known to the French NCA.

The General Court rejected the argument and held that the concept of a concentration being “made known” within the meaning of the second subparagraph of Article 22(1) EUMR must, as regards its form, consist of the active transmission of relevant information to the Member State concerned and, as regards its content, contain sufficient information to enable that Member State to carry out a preliminary assessment.

According to that interpretation, the Court followed, the period of 15 working days laid down in that provision starts to run from the time when that information was transmitted, and in the present case, the information was transmitted through the Invitation Letter sent by the Commission, which eventually enabled the NCAs concerned to carry out a preliminary assessment of the required conditions. In consequence, the Court found that the referral request at issue was made on time since it was rightly made within 15 working days from receipt of the Invitation Letter.

The Court did note, however, that the Invitation Letter itself was sent within an unreasonable period of time as a period of 47 working days elapsed between receipt of the original complaint by the Commission and the sending of the Invitation Letter to the NCAs, a delay which the Court found to be unjustified. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that such an infringement of the reasonable time principle could not in the present situation justify the annulment of the Commission’s Decisions as it did not adversely affect the ability of Illumina or Grail to defend themselves effectively, such adverse effect being the legal standard to call into question the validity of an administrative procedure.

3° The recent shift in the Commission’s approach towards Article 22 EUMR does not violate the principle of protection of legitimate expectation

Finally, Illumina argued that the recent shift in the commission’s guidance on Article 22 violated its legitimate expectations since, at the time it agreed on the concentration with Grail, the Commission did not accept referral requests for concentrations that did not fall within the scope of national merger control rules. To that end, it pointed out to a specific speech made by Margrethe Vestager in September 2020 in which she confirmed that, at the time, the Commission was discouraging Member States to make use of such referral requests and that a change of approach would take place in the future. Illumina and Grail emphasized the clear and unconditional nature of that speech, as regards the process and timing of the implementation of the new referral policy. They also reminded that the Commission’s guidance on the application of the referral mechanism of Article 22 was adopted after the Invitation Letter was sent, without public consultation.

However, the Court dismissed such argumentation, reminding that a party’s right to rely on the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations presupposes the fulfilment of certain conditions set by the case law, notably that “precise, unconditional and consistent assurances originating from authorised, reliable sources have been given to the person concerned by the competent authorities of the European Union” and “has led him or her to entertain well-founded expectations.” In the present case, the Court held that Illumina failed to demonstrate the existence of such assurances. In particular, with regard to Margrethe Vestager’s speech that Illumina relied upon, the Court found that the Vice-President of the Commission simply stated in her general policy speech that it was time to change that past practice but did not make any commentary on the transaction. And since the speech occurred months before the transaction was even publicly announced, that speech could not contain precise, unconditional and consistent assurances in relation to the treatment of that specific concentration.

Furthermore, the Court noted that the fact that the Commission has a practice of discouraging NCAs from referring cases to it that they do not have the power to review themselves does not, in itself, precluded such referrals.

The Court added that because the contested Decisions were based on a correct interpretation of the scope of Article 22 EUMR (as developed supra in section 1°), Illumina could not rely on the reorientation of the Commission’s decision-making practice to claim any violation of the principle of legitimate expectation.

The General Court thus concluded by dismissing Illumina’s action in its entirety.

Conclusion

Given the novelty of the Article 22 doctrine and the absence of guidance thereof at the time of the contemplated Transaction, this is arguably a particularly harsh ruling against Illumina, with serious consequences. The Commission, which had temporarily halted its in-depth probe into the Transaction last February while waiting for the General Court’s ruling, may now resume its work. As for now, Illumina and Grail remain subject to the interim measures imposed by the Commission in October 2021 requiring, in particular, that Grail be kept separate, be run by independent managers and that the parties implement Chinese walls in order to avoid sharing confidential and strategic information. In parallel of the in-depth review and the interim measures, the Commission, just six days after the judgment, sent a statement of objections to Illumina alleging unlawful gun-jumping (i.e., violation of the standstill obligation). The latter had indeed publicly announced that it had completed its acquisition of Grail while the Commission’s in-depth investigation was still ongoing. What’s next? Illumina made public its intention to appeal the judgment almost immediately after its issuance. It may hence not be the end of the story.

About the impact of the ruling beyond the Illumina/Grail transaction, it vigorously reinforces the Commission’s expansion of jurisdiction over mergers below the thresholds and confirms the need, for companies, whatever the activities concerned, to adapt to this new legal framework and take into account the clear uncertainty that derives from a potential Article 22 referral.

This is even truer as Margrethe Vestager, commenting upon the judgment, declared “We have a few acquisitions within our sights that might be relevant candidates.” So, there are clearly more cases to come.

In this context, our recommendations made a few months back (see here) remain all the more relevant after this confirmation’s judgment.

Finally, one can only hope that in the future the Commission and the NCAs will use this new Article 22 approach sparingly, focusing on the highest risks’ cases.

[1] Article 22 EUMR provides that « one or more Member States may request the Commission to examine any concentration as defined in Article 3 that does not have a Community dimension within the meaning of Article 1 but affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State or States making the request. »

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

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

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

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

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

Transactions falling within the new policy

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

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

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

Procedure/timing

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

The timing for referral is as follows:

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

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

Implications for parties to corporate transactions

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

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

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

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

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

Our recommendations in light of the new policy

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

In light of this, transaction parties should consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sabre/Farelogix Lawsuit

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

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

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

Harm to Innovation

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

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

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

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

Assessing Harm to Innovation

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

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

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