Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2021

In the United States, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of American Airlines and JetBlue’s “Northeast Alliance” after the joint venture’s approval by the US Department of Transportation earlier this year demonstrates the Biden administration’s commitment to aggressive antitrust enforcement. US President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order calling for tougher antitrust enforcement, including “encouraging” the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to modify the horizontal and vertical merger guidelines to address increasing consolidation. At the same time, the FTC, under Chair Lina Khan, continues its rapid pace of change to the merger review process.

Under a new interpretation of Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR), the European Commission (Commission) asserted jurisdiction over Illumina’s acquisition of GRAIL and Facebook’s acquisition of Kustomer, even though the transactions did not meet the Commission or Member State filing thresholds. The EU General Court confirmed a significant gun-jumping fine imposed on Altice for breach of the EUMR notification and standstill obligations.

In the United Kingdom, the UK government published plans to update antitrust rules, including revising its jurisdictional thresholds and expanding the “share of supply” test to allow the CMA to more easily capture vertical and conglomerate mergers, as well as acquisitions of startups. And the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) handling of the Veolia/Suez transaction demonstrates the CMA’s willingness to engage with parties to seek practical interim solutions while it is investigating a consummated transaction for potential antitrust concerns.

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EU General Court Clarifies Rules on Gun Jumping

On September 22, 2021, the EU General Court (GC) upheld a decision from the European Commission (Commission) by which it fined telecommunications operator Altice for gun jumping (T-425/18, Altice Europe v Commission). In particular, the GC affirmed that the Commission could impose two separate fines: (i) a fine for implementing a concentration prior to its clearance by the Commission, and (ii) a fine for implementing a concentration prior to its notification. In coming to those findings, the GC also clarified the appropriateness of certain pre-closing covenants and information exchanges.

CASE HISTORY

  • In December 2014, Altice signed a share purchase agreement (SPA) with telecommunications operator Oi to acquire PT Portugal. The deal was subject to EU merger control.
  • Prior to signing, Altice began communications with the Commission to inform it of its intention to acquire PT Portugal. Shortly after signing, Altice sent a case-team allocation request to the Commission and commenced pre-notification discussions with the Commission. Altice formally notified the transaction in February 2015; in April 2015, the Commission cleared the acquisition subject to commitments.
  • A gun-jumping investigation arose following press reports of contacts between Altice and PT Portugal, which took place before the adoption of the Commission’s clearance decision.
  • Three years after clearing the acquisition, the Commission concluded that Altice infringed both the notification obligation and the standstill obligation under the EU Merger Regulation and imposed two separate fines with a total amount of EUR 124.5 million.
  • The Commission found that Altice had the possibility of exercising decisive influence or had exercised decisive influence over PT Portugal before the adoption of the clearance decision and, in some instances, before notification:
    • Certain pre-closing provisions included in the SPA gave Altice the right to veto decisions regarding PT Portugal’s commercial policy.
    • Based on these provisions, Altice had been involved in the day-to-day running of PT Portugal in several instances.
  • Altice brought an action for annulment before the GC, which was dismissed in part. The GC sided with the Commission, but reduced the fine relating to the infringement of the notification obligation by 10% (from EUR 62.25 million to EUR 56.025 million). The GC considered it appropriate to lower the fine because Altice had informed the Commission of the concentration before the signing of the SPA, and it had sent a case-team allocation request to the Commission shortly after signing.

CASE LEARNINGS

  • The notification obligation and standstill obligation can be subject to separate fines. The GC held that the notification obligation (obligation to act) and standstill obligation (obligation not to act) are separate obligations. Because each obligation was violated, the Commission was entitled to impose two fines.
  • Pre-closing provisions included in a SPA cannot afford a purchaser the possibility to exercise decisive influence over the target. EU merger rules do not preclude pre-closing provisions in a SPA aimed at protecting the value of the target between signing and closing. However, such provisions can only be [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2021

In the United States, aggressive antitrust enforcement is likely to continue with the appointment of Lina Khan as Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair and the nomination of Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division. The premerger notification landscape continues to shift as filings reach another record high. Technology companies remain in the “hot seat” as legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced five antitrust reform bills that would change the enforcement landscape for digital platforms, including seeking to preclude large digital platform companies from acquiring smaller, nascent competitors. And the US Department of Justice is making good on President Biden’s pledge to regulate “Big Ag” by challenging Zen-Noh Grain Corporation’s proposed acquisition of 38 grain elevators from Bunge North America, Inc.

Meanwhile, in Q1 2021, the European Commission (Commission) published its Guidance on Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation. The Guidance encourages the EU Member States to refer certain transactions to the Commission even if the transaction is not notifiable under the laws of the referring Member State(s). In Q2, not long after the issuance of the Guidance, the Commission received its first referral request to assess the proposed acquisition of GRAIL by Illumina. In light of the growing global debate on the need for more effective merger control, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed that the Commission will not soften EU merger policy going forward. The Commission’s statement was made despite the fact no deals have been blocked by the Commission in about the last two years.

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FTC Looks to Fix Repair Restrictions

A newly announced change in Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy could have dramatic implications for the ways manufacturers of everything from cell phones to cars draft warranties, design products, and distribute replacement parts. Specifically, the FTC has set its sights on repair restrictions.

On July 21, the Commission unanimously voted to approve a policy statement announcing increased antitrust and consumer protection enforcement against business practices that make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products, or use independent repair shops. Manufacturers should take note of this import change in enforcement policy, and promptly evaluate their exposure.

Notably, the FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which encouraged the FTC to address “anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items…” It also follows a recent report by the FTC to Congress addressing repair restrictions, and a July 2019 FTC workshop examining the issue.

One area of particular concern for the FTC is product warranties that require the use of specific service providers or parts. Section 102(c) of a 1975 federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) prohibits companies from conditioning warranty coverage, expressly or impliedly, on a consumer’s use of an article or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name, unless the company provides that article or service without charge or the company has received a waiver from the FTC.

Recent reports, including empirical analyses cited by the FTC in its report to Congress, suggest that violations of Section 102(c) are widespread. Indeed, one recent analysis by a prominent public interest group alleged that 45 out of 50 companies whose warranties the group examined appeared to violate the provision. Accordingly, Section 102(c) enforcement is likely to play a prominent role in the FTC’s crackdown.

It also appears that the FTC intends to use its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” to challenge a wide range repair restrictions. In its report to Congress, the FTC highlighted the following practices in particular as “restricting independent repair or repair by consumers:”

  • “Physical restrictions” and “product designs that complicate or prevent repair”;
  • Purposely making parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic software and tools unavailable;
  • Designs that make independent repairs less safe, such as the use of glue to fasten lithium ion cells into mobile phones and other devices;
  • Steering consumers to preferred repair networks using telematics;
  • “Policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks”;
  • “Application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks;
  • Disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair”;
  • “Software locks, Digital Rights Management and Technical Protection Measures”; and
  • “End User License Agreements.”

The diverse range of practices that the FTC has identified make this shift in enforcement an important issue for a wide range of companies. Still, there are clues to how the FTC may deploy its scarce resources in this area, at least initially.

First, its prior enforcement may provide an indication. In 2015, [...]

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FTC “Prior Approval” Policy for Future Transactions Raises Antitrust Risks for Buyers and Sellers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted July 21, 2021, to repeal a 1995 policy statement that eliminated prior approval and prior notice provisions from most merger settlements. In repealing this longstanding policy—and likely insisting on the inclusion of such provisions in future settlements—the FTC will have significantly greater authority to review and block future transactions of companies who enter into consent orders with the FTC. This policy change will have significant implications for the negotiation of antitrust risk provisions in transaction agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In its 1995 Policy Statement Concerning Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions in Merger Cases, the FTC announced that it would no longer routinely require prior approval of certain future acquisitions in consent orders entered in merger cases.
    • Prior to this statement, FTC consent orders to settle merger reviews routinely required parties to seek and receive the FTC’s prior approval for future acquisitions in the relevant product and geographic markets at issue in the first challenge/consent order for a 10-year period. In some cases, the FTC also included a prior notice provision obligating companies to notify the FTC of any intended transactions that were not subject to the premerger notification and waiting period of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).
  • On July 21, 2021, the FTC voted 3-2 to rescind its 1995 policy statement, opening the door to requiring prior approval and prior notice provisions in future merger consent orders.

 
WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This policy change substantially increases the FTC’s merger enforcement authority for companies that settle investigations with a consent order and become subject to prior approval requirements.
    • Prior approval provisions place the burden on companies to demonstrate that their transactions are not anticompetitive.
    • The FTC can deny approval for these future transactions with very little—if any—limits on its discretion.
    • This differs significantly from the enforcement regime under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, where the FTC has the burden of proving that a transaction will substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
  • Prior notice provisions require companies to provide the FTC with advanced notice of certain transactions—even smaller transactions that typically would fall under the HSR threshold (e.g., transactions valued below $92 million). The notification requirement increases the likelihood of FTC investigation for these transactions.
  • By rescinding the 1995 policy statement, the FTC may seek to impose such provisions in its orders as a routine matter. It remains to be seen under what circumstances the FTC will insist on prior approval or prior notice (or how broad they will be crafted). In supporting the repeal, FTC Chair Lina Khan stated that the FTC will employ these provisions based on “facts and circumstances of the proposed transaction.”
    • These prior approval and/or notice provisions, when previously employed, generally lasted for the term of the order—typically 10 years.
    • Generally, the scope of these provisions was limited to the geographic and product market in which the FTC determined that the [...]

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