Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2022

In the United States, parties continue to be cautious in litigating challenged transactions. Since January 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits (or threatened to sue) to block 16 transactions. Of those transactions, 12 were abandoned and six are in various stages of litigation. The data suggest that the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive merger enforcement policy is raising the stakes for parties to potential mergers and acquisitions, including an increased willingness by the agencies to litigate potentially problematic transactions.

Between May 6 and June 3, 2022, the European Commission (Commission) held a public consultation to seek views on the draft revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation) and the Notice on Simplified Procedure. This consultation was launched in the context of the Commission’s review process of the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control.

On April 20, 2022, the UK government proposed new measures to boost consumer protection rights and competition rules. In particular, the UK government’s reforms aim to strengthen the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) powers and alleviate burdens on smaller companies.

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International News Spotlight on Competition Law

In line with the evolution of the economy and the ongoing growth of online business and global trade, we’re seeing a corresponding increase in competition regulation and a rise in enforcement across all authorities. In our latest International News, we take a deep dive into the issues at play.

The growth of the online economy has triggered the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) update of its 20 year old .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising guide, and the development of an analytical framework for all digital distribution across the European Union. In just one seismic shift under the new EU Vertical Block Exemption Regulation 2022/720, dual-pricing, i.e., setting different wholesale prices for online/offline sales by the same distributor, is no longer considered a hardcore restriction unless its purpose is to prevent the effective use of the internet to sell the goods or services.

In the United States, there is an increased focus on anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The Biden Administration, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, and the FTC have all stated that the regulatory landscape needs to be reshaped to better reflect dynamic markets, and their priority is the aggressive pursuit of litigation against offending parties rather than the granting of consent decrees. The tendency to “sin first and beg forgiveness later” will emphatically no longer work, as a recent French gun-jumping case demonstrates.

Both the United States and the European Union have also turned their attention to investigating wage fixing and no-poach labour market violations that are not connected with M&A or business collaborations. It’s clear that competition/antitrust authorities are determined to expand their remit.

Read our full Spotlight on Competition Law here.




DOJ to Merging Parties: The Time of “Underenforcement” is Over; Fix-It-First or Risk Being Challenged

WHAT HAPPENED

During a conference last week, Ryan Danks, Director of Civil Enforcement at the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ), suggested that merging parties—not the antitrust enforcement agencies—should devise fixes for allegedly anticompetitive transactions.

Danks stated “that something is broken about the way that the antitrust community talks about remedies in the context of mergers, where parties will bring in a three-to-two or four-to-three or even a two-to-one [transactions] and say ‘now we want you, government, to work with us to figure out how to fix this’ . . . that’s not our job. Our job is to maintain competition.”

Danks added that merging parties bear the responsibility for remedying their anticompetitive transactions and have more information on the businesses, allowing them to formulate strong solutions. Such “fix-it-first” approaches may allow merging parties to complete their transactions quicker, avoiding lengthy merger reviews and consent decree negotiations.

Danks also suggested that “the simplest remedy . . . is to just stop an anticompetitive transaction from occurring,” strongly hinting that today’s DOJ would rather challenge an entire transaction than work with the parties on devising a remedy to address specific competitive concerns in limited product or geographic markets.

Jonathan Kanter, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, conveyed similar views in two speeches last week, making it clear that merger enforcement at the DOJ will become even more vigorous.

On September 13, 2022, Kanter:

  • Warned that “[c]ompanies considering mergers that may harm competition should know that the Antitrust Division will not back down from a fight so long as that threat remains.”
  • Emphasized that the Clayton Act’s “expansive definition of antitrust liability” requires the government only to prove that a transaction’s effect “may be substantially to lessen competition.” According to Kanter, antitrust agencies have, for too long, “underenforced a statute that was meant to be prophylactic” by focusing on concrete evidence of a merger’s effect on prices.

On September 16, 2022, Kanter said that antitrust enforcers “can no longer be so cautious to avoid overenforcement that [they] intentionally underenforce the law.”

Moving away from negotiating settlements that allow transactions to proceed while resolving anticompetitive issues is part of a trend of dramatic policy and procedural changes at both the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) designed to discourage mergers and acquisitions (M&A), such as:

  • Suspending early termination of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR) waiting period for transactions that do not raise competitive issues
  • Sending merging parties “close at your own risk” letters, informing the parties that antitrust investigations are ongoing despite expiration of the HSR waiting period
  • Insisting on inclusion of prior approval/prior notice provisions in all merger settlements
  • Including new topics, such as the impact on labor and environment, in Second Requests and adding additional hurdles to modifying Second Requests.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR MERGING PARTIES

Merging parties should increasingly consider resolving likely competitive issues with their transaction before the antitrust [...]

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DOJ Revamps Corporate Criminal Enforcement Policies with Continued Emphasis on Compliance

At a September 15, 2022, speech at New York University School of Law, US Deputy Attorney General (Deputy AG) Lisa Monaco announced several new policies intended to further the aggressive stance the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken under the Biden administration to corporate criminal enforcement.

The DOJ’s landmark new policies are focused on encouraging and enticing companies to self-report criminal violations and cooperate in DOJ investigations. They include:

  • First, for the first time, every DOJ component that prosecutes corporate crime will have to develop a formal program to incentivize voluntary self-disclosure. Importantly, the DOJ will not seek a guilty plea when a company has voluntarily self-disclosed, cooperated in the DOJ’s investigation and remediated misconduct.
  • Second, companies seeking cooperation credit need to come forward and disclose important evidence to the DOJ quickly. Companies—and prosecutors evaluating those companies—will now be “on the clock.” Undue or intentional delay in providing information and documents will result in a reduction or outright denial of cooperation credit.
  • Third, the DOJ will now formally encourage companies to hold in escrow or claw back compensation from executives and employees responsible for wrongdoing.

Deputy AG Monaco provided additional guidance with respect to significant changes announced in October 2021, including on how prior criminal, civil and regulatory misconduct by companies will be evaluated when deciding an appropriate resolution, and how and when monitors should be imposed.

Deputy AG Monaco also announced that the DOJ would seek an additional $250 million in targeted resources for corporate criminal enforcement and other corporate crime initiatives.

IN DEPTH

While Deputy AG Monaco continued to emphasize—as she did in speeches in October 2021 and March 2022—that the DOJ’s No. 1 priority remains individual “accountability” and prosecutions, the recent announcement is the latest in a series of ambitious steps taken by the DOJ under the Biden administration to further the Department’s ongoing and increasing emphasis on misconduct at the corporate level. Taken collectively, the mixture of carrots, sticks and potential additional resources demonstrates the DOJ’s continued focus on pursuing corporate wrongdoing and the need for companies to proactively assess their compliance programs and ensure they are well-positioned to respond to the DOJ’s boundary-shifting approaches.

NEW DOJ-WIDE VOLUNTARY SELF-DISCLOSURE PROGRAM

Among the more significant changes, every DOJ component that prosecutes corporate crime will, for the first time, be required to have a documented policy that incentivizes voluntary self-disclosure. Deputy AG Monaco highlighted the success of a handful of self-disclosure programs that several DOJ components have already developed, such as the long-standing Antitrust Division Leniency Program and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) unit’s self-reporting program. She also stated that if a DOJ component does not have such a formal, documented policy, they must draft one. In support of this policy, she noted that the DOJ’s “goal is simple: to reward those companies whose historical investments in compliance enable voluntary self-disclosure and to incentivize other companies to make the same investments going forward.”

Deputy AG Monaco also announced several [...]

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FTC Flexes Its Muscle in Suit against Kochava (But May Not Like the Results)

On August 29, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against Kochava, Inc. alleging that Kochava engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by selling the “precise location information” of consumers. This suit comes on the heels of the FTC’s announcement earlier this month that it would “crack down” on “commercial surveillance practices” and July’s warning that the agency would be exercising its enforcement authority against the “illegal” use and sharing of sensitive consumer data.

IN DEPTH

The FTC alleges that Kochava amassed a large amount of sensitive data by tracking the mobile advertising IDs from hundreds of millions of mobile phones, and that such data could be used to track people visiting abortion clinics, domestic abuse shelters, places of worship and other sensitive locations. The FTC then said that Kochava sold that data without first anonymizing it, allowing anyone who purchased the data to use it to track the movements of the mobile device users. The FTC wants to not only block Kochava from selling such data, but also require them to delete and destroy it. In its complaint, the FTC relied on the FTC Act’s general prohibition against “unfair and deceptive acts or practices” and alleged that the company unfairly sold the sensitive data.

Kochava, which beat the FTC to the courthouse and preemptively filed a lawsuit against the FTC prior to the FTC’s complaint, asserted that all of the location data came from third-party data brokers who obtained the information from consenting consumers. Despite the alleged consent, Kochava says it is in the process of implementing steps to remove health services location data from its database. Kochava argued that the litigation was the outcome of the FTC’s failed attempt to implement a vague settlement that had no clear terms and made the problem a moving target.

The Kochava suit brings to the forefront several competing policy considerations, the determination of which could shape the scope of the FTC’s enforcement authority for years to come. The first and foremost issue that the Kochava suit raises is whether the FTC has the authority to effectively impose a consent-based regime for the sale of sensitive consumer information when no federal law enforced by the FTC (other than the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act (COPPA), which applies to data collected about children under 13) expressly provides for that requirement. While it is not uncommon for the FTC to take expansive views of its enforcement authority, that authority has been successfully challenged in recent years. (See AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC, which held that the FTC does not have the statutory authority to seek equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act).) Now, Kochava will test the FTC’s authority to regulate in the privacy space—and the FTC may not like the result.

In the unlikely event that Kochava were to litigate against the FTC all the way to the Supreme Court of the [...]

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