Mergers and Acquisitions

A Boiling Frog? Merger Enforcement of Early-Stage Tech Companies

Fable has it that a frog placed in tepid water slowly brought to a boil will not perceive danger until it is too late to leap. According to some critics, U.S. high tech merger review has a similar problem insofar as it fails to adequately consider and challenge acquisitions of startups that, on their face, appear to constitute incremental changes to competitive dynamics but that over time may suppress competition. Indeed, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official confirmed last week that the agency faces “withering criticism of antitrust” and its enforcement with respect to competitor acquisitions of startup companies.

The comments were made during a conference in San Francisco by Michael Moiseyev, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and a leading enforcer with responsibility for merger and acquisition review. Without identifying particular transactions, he acknowledged that players in the venture capital (VC) space have characterized the U.S. antitrust agencies as “snookered” in permitting certain early-stage companies to be acquired.

Making the case that an existing competitor’s acquisition of a nascent, potential rival poses “a substantial lessening of competition” (Clayton Act, § 7) is a high hurdle for the U.S. agencies to clear. Mr. Moiseyev assessed the state of current case law as both “terrible” and “unforgiving.” The agency’s most recent challenge invoking a potential competition theory resulted in a district court concluding that the FTC had failed to provide evidence the target would have launched a new, competing technology. FTC v. Steris Corp., No. 1:2015cv01080 (N.D. Ohio 2015). In that matter, the FTC had sued and invoked the theory that the target, if it were not acquired, was poised to create “actual potential competition” for the U.S. market leader by importing technology currently offered by just one European facility. The merging parties undermined that theory by demonstrating a dearth of customer commitment to using the would-be-imported technology.

Yet criticism of a perceived lack of U.S. agency challenges in the tech sector continues to mount.

Under this pressure, will the U.S. agencies take a fresh lens to acquisitions of new and innovative competitors? The key analytical question is how to evaluate whether those companies would evolve to constrain actual, current competition. This fall, the FTC’s ongoing policy hearings devoted a day to acquisitions of potential competitors in tech markets. Nearly all participants endorsed studies of the effects of past transactions via merger retrospectives. Several panelists advised that the agencies scrutinize more closely transactions involving dominant platforms and whether the underlying deal removes a nascent competitive threat. Other participants in the hearings emphasized that the competitive analysis should focus on harms to innovation but that an information imbalance at times constrains the agencies’ ability to assess emerging industry developments.

We do not know whether a boiling frog is in our midst. Nevertheless, if you are advising VCs or a company that is considering an acquisition involving an innovative, new or potential competitor, reach out to antitrust counsel to consult on these issues.

DOJ Encourages Self-Disclosure of FCPA Violations Discovered Through M&A Activity

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew Miner, head of the DOJ’s Fraud Section, recently discussed the DOJ’s efforts to address corruption discovered during mergers and acquisitions. During his remarks at the American Conference Institute 9th Global Forum on Anti-Corruption Compliance In High Risk Markets, DAAG Miner explained that the DOJ would apply the principles in the FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy (“FCPA Policy”) to successor companies that disclose and cooperate with the agency after discovering wrongdoing in connection with a merger or acquisition.

The FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits corporate bribery of foreign officials and requires strong accounting practices. Last year, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced a revised FCPA Policy to help companies understand the costs and benefits of cooperation when deciding whether to voluntarily disclose misconduct. Absent aggravating circumstances or recidivism, and provided certain conditions are met, companies that voluntarily disclose, cooperate and remediate misconduct benefit from a presumption that they will receive a declination. (9-47-120 – FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy.) Where a criminal resolution is warranted and (again) absent recidivism, the DOJ will recommend a reduction in the fine range. (Id.)

Application in the Mergers and Acquisition Context. With respect to M&A activity, especially in high-risk industries and markets, DAAG Miner explained that application of the FCPA Policy will give companies and their advisors more certainty when evaluating a foreign deal and determining how, and whether, to proceed with the transaction. (Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew S. Miner Remarks at the American Conference Institute 9th Global Forum on Anti-Corruption Compliance in High Risk Markets.) Recognizing the benefits of having companies with strong compliance programs entering high-risk markets, the DOJ wants to encourage acquiring companies to “right the ship” by enforcing robust compliance. (Id.) Not only does application of the FCPA Policy in the M&A context encourage greater corporate compliance, it also frees up DOJ resources and enables the agency to focus on other matters. (Id.)

If potential misconduct is discovered during due diligence, the DOJ recommends the company seek guidance through its FCPA Opinion Procedures. (Id.) These procedures allow a party to assess the risk by obtaining an opinion about whether certain conduct conforms with the DOJ’s FCPA Policy. (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Opinion Procedure.) Even for companies that discover misconduct after the acquisition, the DOJ wants to “encourage its leadership to take the steps outlined in the FCPA Policy, and when they do … reward them[.]” (Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew S. Miner Remarks at the American Conference Institute 9th Global Forum on Anti-Corruption Compliance in High Risk Markets.)

Takeaways. The DOJ’s approach highlights the need for strong cross-disciplinary team staffing on mergers and acquisitions. For example, white-collar counsel can advise buyers on strategy once misconduct is flagged by corporate or antitrust counsel during the M&A process. Counsel for sellers that learns of misconduct during due diligence can discuss options with the client and coordinate as necessary to take advantage of the DOJ’s policies and guidance in mitigating any issues. Moreover, counsel for either party may uncover conduct from documents reviewed or conversations with the client that should be flagged to further assess whether misconduct has occurred. It is important to keep in mind that some of these documents may get produced to the DOJ or FTC during a merger review. Entities involved in deals in high-risk markets or industries should therefore involve deal, regulatory and enforcement experts where necessary.