Today, companies looking to merge with others across jurisdictions would do well to consider antitrust issues at the beginning of the transaction process; regulatory antitrust challenges to M&A are increasing globally. On Corporate Counsel, McDermott partners Jon B. Dubrow and Joel R. Grosberg discuss six risks to deals from antitrust regulators, such as vertical merger enforcement changes at the US DOJ, and ways to manage them.
- Recent developments indicate that pharmaceutical deals are attracting greater scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
- In September 2019, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons reportedly stated that the FTC will more closely scrutinize deals with overlaps involving products that are still in clinical study or development. Because of the high failure rate of products in early phases of study, the FTC typically has focused on overlaps between marketed products or products near Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval, g., products in Phase III of the FDA pipeline. Chairman Simons’s statement makes clear that the FTC plans to examine earlier stage products while reviewing deals.
- In 2018, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition announced in a speech that the FTC would favor divestitures of marketed drugs over pipeline drugs in pharmaceutical deals. Traditionally, when the FTC has had a concern about overlapping products, it has allowed the merging parties to decide which of the overlapping products to divest to remedy the concern. The director explained that, unlike marketed products, pipeline products may be costly to transfer or never be brought to market, eliminating a potential source of future competition.
- Legislators on Capitol Hill have placed pressure on the FTC to scrutinize pharmaceutical deals with more vigor. Nine US senators wrote the FTC in September to voice concerns about the effect of pharmaceutical deals on innovation and prices. In their letter, the senators specifically highlighted divestitures of pipeline products, stating that such divestitures may not sufficiently address threats to competition because pipeline products may never make it to market.
A Hollywood union’s recent amendments to its union rules has sparked federal antitrust lawsuits by talent agencies. The Writers Guild of America (WGA), a labor union and the exclusive collective bargaining representative for writers in the entertainment industry, recently instituted new rules that prohibit its members from dealing with talent agencies that do not adopt the WGA’s new “Code of Conduct.” The WGA’s new Code prohibits its members from dealing with talent agencies that employ “packaging” arrangements, whereby agents forego individual commissions from their clients in lieu of “packaging fees” from production companies for providing pools of talent (writers, actors, directors, etc.). The Code also prohibits WGA’s members from affiliating with “any entity that produces or distributes content.” If WGA members continue to deal with talent agencies that have not adopted the Code, the members face sanctions, up to and including expulsion from the union.
- On September 4, 2019, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) sued to block Novelis Inc.’s proposed $2.6 billion acquisition of Aleris Corporation.
- DOJ alleged that the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet (ABS). DOJ further alleged that Aleris was a new and disruptive rival supplier of aluminum ABS whose expansion into the North American market immediately impacted pricing.
- Prior to DOJ’s suit to block the transaction, the merging parties and DOJ agreed that the dispute boiled down to a single dispositive issue: whether aluminum ABS constitutes a relevant product market, and specifically, whether the market for aluminum ABS also includes steel ABS.
- DOJ and the merging parties agreed to refer this product market issue to arbitration pursuant to the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (5 U.S.C. § 571 et seq.) and the Antitrust Division’s implementing regulations (61 Fed. Reg. 36,896 (July 15, 1996).
- In a filing in federal court the DOJ explained that it decided to arbitrate rather than litigate the merger in federal court because all sides agreed that the case turned on the single question of product market definition and referring the matter to arbitration would lessen the burden on the Court and reduce litigation costs to the merging parties and to the United States.
- DTE and Enbridge’s natural gas pipeline joint venture, Nexus, agreed to purchase the Generation Pipeline (Generation).
- Generation was owned by a group of sellers including North Coast Gas Transmission (North Coast).
- Generation’s primary asset is a 23-mile pipeline that serves the Toledo, Ohio, area.
- North Coast continues to own a competing pipeline near Toledo, Ohio.
- The purchase agreement contained a non-compete provision that prevented the sellers, including North Coast, from competing in three counties surrounding Toledo, Ohio, for three years.
- After an investigation, the FTC announced a settlement with DTE, Enbridge and Nexus to remedy the FTC’s concern with the non-compete provision by requiring the purchase agreement to be amended to remove the non-compete provision.
- The FTC Commissioners were unanimous in their conclusion that the challenged non-compete was unlawfully broad, though several Commissioners issued concurring statements regarding the import of the FTC’s action in this case.
On 10 September 2019, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen nominated Margrethe Vestager as Competition Commissioner for a second consecutive term. As part of a structural shake-up of the Commission, involving the institution of eight Vice-Presidents, three of whom will be “Executive Vice Presidents”, she will additionally serve as “Executive Vice President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age”. As head of the competition portfolio Ms. Vestager will be supported by DG-Comp. As chief coordinator of the digital portfolio she will be supported by the Commission’s Secretariat-General. With respect to the latter role in particular, Ms. Vestager will be charged with ensuring that “Europe fully grasps the potential of the digital age and strengthens its industry and innovation capacity” and will be responsible for specific initiatives including new laws governing digital platforms and a potential tax on digital companies. Subject to European Parliament consent, which is expected to be given, she will carry out this dual rule until 2024.
What This Means:
Ms. Vestager’s mission as Competition Commissioner will be based on the following priority actions:
- Strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors: this tenet focuses on improving case detection, expediting investigations and facilitating cooperation with and between EU national competition authorities, including global cooperation among competition authorities.
- Evaluate and review Europe’s competition rules: this will cover antitrust regulations that are due to expire during her mandate (e.g. the Verticals Block Exemption Regulation (Reg. 330/2010), the ongoing review of the merger control rules and the review of State aid rules and guidance.
- Use of the sector inquiry instrument in new and emerging markets: in the context of new and emerging markets, sector inquiries will be carried out in markets that the Commission believes are not working as well as they should, and that breaches of the antitrust rules might be a contributory factor. Ms. Vestager already presided over the Commission’s sector inquiry into the e-commerce sector in 2015.
- Develop tools and policies to address the distortive effects linked to state-owned companies or subsidized companies from outside the EU but operating in the EU.
While it is somewhat unusual for a Competition Commissioner to be re-elected for a second term, her re-nomination serves as a testament to widespread appreciation for her unwavering commitment to ensuring consumer welfare. That being said, and against the Commissioner’s mandate to secure enhanced global cooperation amongst competition authorities, the move will likely raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill. This is principally because of Ms. Vestager’s alleged crusade against many of the biggest U.S. tech companies, a path likely to be pursued during the Commissioner’s second term in office. Indeed, her mandate over rule-making related to the digital economy could also give her increased influence over global tech regulation. Furthermore, her mission appears to be heavily influenced by the fall-out of the failed Alstom/Siemens railway merger. It will be interesting to see, for example, what role, if any, industrial policy will play under the EU Merger Regulation going forward. With Ms. Vestager’s focus on tech and her stance on the role of industrial policy under the EU Merger Regulation, her second tenure is likely to be a bumpy one.
The second quarter of 2019 proved to be a busy season for antitrust matters. In the United States, agencies continued to be aggressive and blocked transactions or required significant remedies. They cleared three mergers where divestitures were required; and in the face of FTC or DOJ opposition, companies abandoned several transactions, including between Republic National Distribution Company and Breakthru Beverage Group. Regarding vertical transactions, we continued to see a split between the FTC Republican and Democratic Commissioners regarding whether enforcement is required and the appropriate remedies.
In the European Union, the EC published a report on competition policy for the digital era, which deals with, among other things, acquisitions of nascent competitors. The EC also closed two merger control proceedings subject to divestitures, blocked a proposed joint venture, and showed that it will seek large fines for companies violating EU competition rules for merger notifications.
- Last week, the Antitrust Division reported that it has changed its Justice Manual to state that it will consider antitrust compliance at the charging stage in criminal antitrust investigations, instead of waiting for plea negotiation or the sentencing stage.
- Previously, the Antitrust Division had granted leniency only to the first whistleblower to come completely clean. Under the Antitrust Division’s policy reversal, this is no longer the only way to gain credit with the Antitrust Division, and the Antitrust Division will now consider if the Company has “robust” compliance programs when determining whether to bring charges.
- With the announcement this past Thursday, the Antitrust Division published a guidance document that focuses on evaluating compliance programs in criminal antitrust investigations. This is the first time the Antitrust Division has published guidance on evaluating compliance programs in the context of criminal antitrust violations, and companies can now use this document to determine whether their compliance programs are in line with the Antitrust Division’s standards.
- The Antitrust Division lists certain factors that Antitrust Division prosecutors should consider when evaluating the effectiveness of an antitrust compliance program. These are:
- The design and comprehensiveness of the program
- The culture of compliance within the company
- Responsibility for, and resources dedicated to, antitrust compliance
- Antitrust risk assessment techniques
- Compliance training and communication to employees
- Monitoring and auditing techniques, including continued review, evaluation and revision of the antitrust compliance program
- Reporting mechanisms
- Compliance incentives and discipline
- Remediation methods
- In general, when analyzing a program, the Antitrust Division will ask whether the compliance program is well designed, whether it is being applied earnestly and in good faith, and whether it works.
- Finally, the Antitrust Division also revised sections of its Manual on the processes for recommending indictments, plea agreements and selecting compliance monitors.
- On May 7, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State signed House Bill 1607 into law. The law goes into effect for transactions closing after January 1, 2020, and requires advance notice to the Washington Attorney General (AG) of certain transactions 60 days in advance of closing the transaction. The intent of the law is “to ensure that competition beneficial to consumers in health care markets across Washington remains vigorous and robust[.]”
- Parties must file written notice with the AG for any deal that involves two or more hospitals, hospital systems, or other provider organizations that represent seven or more health care providers in contracting with insurance companies or third-party administrators. A “provider” includes a physician, nurse, medical assistant, therapist, midwife, athletic trainer, home care aide, massage therapist, among others.
- The law can apply to transactions involving very small medical groups, as long as there are seven providers who contract with insurance providers. The law can also apply to transactions with non-Washington parties if the out-of-state party generates $10 million or more in revenue from Washington patients.
- Given the relatively low thresholds for an AG filing, this law would require notifications for transactions that are not reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR Act), as well as those that are reportable under the HSR Act.
- If a transaction is HSR reportable, the parties must submit their HSR filing to the AG.
- If a transaction is not HSR reportable, parties must submit the following information in writing to the AG:
- The names and addresses of the parties;
- The locations where health care services are provided by each party;
- A brief description of the nature and purpose of the proposed transaction; and
- The anticipated effective date of the transaction.
- The notification requirement applies to mergers, acquisitions and contracting affiliations. A contracting affiliation is a “formation of a relationship between two or more entities that permits the entities to negotiate jointly with carriers or third-party administrators over rates for professional medical services” but does not include arrangements among entities under common ownership.
- The penalty for noncompliance is $200 per day.
- The AG has 30 days from the date of notice to submit a request to the parties for additional information. If the AG has antitrust concerns, it may serve a civil investigative demand to investigate.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), along with the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), approved amendments to the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Rules and the instructions for completing the HSR Form.
- After the amendments take effect on September 25, 2019, HSR filers will be required to use new 10-digit North American Product Classification System (NAPCS) codes in place of the current 10-digit North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes when reporting revenues in the HSR Form. The Form will continue to use 6-digit NAICS codes, but will switch from the 2012 codes to the latest version, released in 2017 by the Census Bureau.
- Data on non-manufacturing revenue will be required to be reported using the updated 6-digit NAICS codes, while data on manufacturing revenue will be required to be reported using both the 6-digit NAICS industry code and the 10-digit NAPCS product codes.
- The FTC intends to update the instructions for the HSR Form to reflect the changes made to the revenue reporting requirements.
What this Means:
- Companies expecting to file an HSR after September 25 will need to familiarize themselves with the new 10-digit NAPCS codes and the updated 6-digit 2017 NAICS codes, and may want to update their databases to be in a position to file promptly when the new codes take effect on September 25.