Mergers and Acquisitions

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.

State Attorneys General Ramping up Merger Enforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.