Between 2012 and 2013, Marine Harvest ASA (“Marine Harvest”), a Norwegian seafood company, acquired Morpol ASA (“Morpol”), a Norwegian producer and processor of salmon. Marine Harvest notified the transaction to the European Commission under the European Union’s Merger Regulation (“EUMR”), but implemented it prior to the European Commission having granted clearance. In 2014, the European Commission imposed a EUR 20 million fine on Marine Harvest for “jumping the gun”. On 26 October 2017, the General Court of the European Union (“General Court”) confirmed the European Commission’s decision (“Decision”).

WHAT HAPPENED:

On 14 December 2012, Marine Harvest entered into a share and purchase agreement (“SPA”) with companies owned by Jerzy Malek, the founder and former CEO of Morpol. Under the SPA, Marine Harvest acquired 48.5% of the shares in Morpol (“Initial Transaction”). The Initial Transaction was closed on 18 December 2012. On 15 January 2013, Marine Harvest submitted a mandatory public offer for the remaining 51.5% of the shares in Morpol (“Public Offer”). Following settlement and completion of the Public Offer in March 2013, Marine Harvest owned a total of 87.1% of the shares in Morpol (together, the “Transaction”).

Marine Harvest established first contact with the European Commission on 21 December 2012 by submitting a “Case Team Allocation Request”, which initiates the pre-notification process under the EUMR. After submitting various drafts and answers to requests for information, Marine Harvest formally notified the Transaction on 9 August 2013. On 30 September 2013, the European Commission cleared the Transaction subject to some conditions.

On 31 March 2014, the European Commission formally launched a separate investigation into alleged “gun jumping” by Marine Harvest, and in the decision of 23 July 2014, the European Commission imposed a fine of EUR 20 million on Marine Harvest (“Fining Decision”). The European Commission held that Marine Harvest, by implementing the Initial Transaction, had acquired de facto control over Morpol. By acquiring de facto control, Marine Harvest had infringed Art. 7(1) EUMR (“Standstill Obligation”). Under the Standstill Obligation, transactions requiring notification to, and clearance by, the European Commission may not be implemented prior to clearance.

The European Commission rejected Marine Harvest’s argument that the implementation of the Initial Transaction was covered by an exemption provided for in Art. 7(2) EUMR (“Public Bid Exemption”). Under the Public Bid Exemption, the acquisition of control from various sellers through a public bid, or a series of transactions in securities, can be implemented prior to clearance. However, this applies only if the transaction is notified without delay to the European Commission, and if the acquirer does not exercise the respective voting rights. According to the European Commission, the Public Bid Exemption is not intended to cover situations involving the acquisition, from a single seller, of a “significant block of shares” which in itself confers de facto control.

Marine Harvest appealed against the Fining Decision to the General Court. However, with the Decision, the General Court confirmed the European Commission findings, both on substance on with respect to the level of the fine.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

The Decision is an impressive reminder that gun jumping, i.e. the implementation of transactions prior to clearance by the relevant antitrust authorities, can entail severe consequences. Under European merger control law, the European Commission can impose fines of up to 10% of the group’s total turnover on companies infringing the Standstill Obligation. Antitrust authorities in most other major antitrust jurisdictions have comparable sanctioning tools.

The Decision also confirms that the acquisition of a minority stake may well be considered as conferring de facto control. This applies in particular to situations where the minority shareholder is highly likely to achieve a majority at the shareholders’ meetings, taking account of the size of its shareholding and the level of attendance of other shareholders at shareholders’ meetings in preceding years. The General Court furthermore emphasises that the mere possibility to exercise control is sufficient for a breach of the Standstill Obligation. Whether the acquirer actually makes use of that possibility (Marine Harvest argued it did not) is of no relevance.

Finally, the Decision clarifies that the European Commission is entitled to apply a narrow interpretation of the Public Bid Exemption. Parties who intend to rely on the Public Bid Exemption for (partly) implementing transactions prior to clearance should do so, if possible, only after consulting with the European Commission. Indeed, the European Commission, confirmed by the General Court, held that Marine Harvest acted negligently in not having consulted with the European Commission. Marine Harvest’s negligence was a main factor for the European Commission to conclude that a significant fine should be imposed – even though, as Marine Harvest argued throughout the proceedings, the European Commission did not impose a fine in a very similar, previous merger case.

McDermott’s Antitrust M&A Snapshot is a resource for in-house counsel and others who deal with antitrust M&A issues but are not faced with these issues on a daily basis. In each quarterly issue, we will provide concise summaries of Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Justice (DOJ) and European Commission (EC) news and events related to M&A, including significant ongoing investigations, trials and consent orders, as well as analysis on the trends we see developing in the antitrust review process.

Read the full report here.

On 12 July 2017, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) published a guidance paper (Guidance Paper) on the prohibition of resale price maintenance (RPM). The Guidance Paper has a particular focus on the food retail sector. At the same time, it offers good insights into the FCO’s current overall thinking on RPM. The FCO reiterates that companies engaging in RPM may be subject to severe fines. In addition, it is evident from the Guidance Paper that the FCO has a very broad understanding as to what may be considered as RPM.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • RPM describes a situation where a supplier and a retailer agree that the retailer will not resell the supplier’s products below a certain (minimum) price.
  • While RPM falls under the rule of reason under US Federal antitrust law, it is considered as a hardcore antitrust restriction in most European jurisdictions, as well as under some US State antitrust laws (cf. Maryland’s Attorney General’ recent challenge of RPM).
  • The FCO is arguably the most active antitrust authority in terms of RPM. In recent years, it imposed fines for alleged RPM in a number of proceedings across various industries, including cosmetics, furniture, mattresses, tools and toys. In December 2016, the FCO imposed fines totaling € 260.5 million on 27 food retailers and food manufacturers.
  • A number of authorities provided in the past guidance on RPM. For example, the European Commission addresses RPM in its Guidelines on Vertical Restraints, and in the United Kingdom, the CMA published in June 2017 a one-pager on RPM. The FCO’s Guidance Paper now offers very comprehensive and specific guidance on RPM, in particular, but not exclusively, with respect to the retail sector.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: German Antitrust Authority Issues Guidelines on Resale Price Maintenance

On 10 May 2017, the European Commission published its final report on the e-commerce sector inquiry. The report is divided into two sections, covering e-commerce issues in relation to consumer goods and digital content. It also identifies business practices that might restrict competition and limit consumer choice. It would be advisable for e-commerce businesses to review their commercial practices and revise them as necessary in light of the Commission’s stated aim of targeting e-commerce business practices that may negatively impact the functioning of the Digital Single Market.

Read the full article. 

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Rolls-Royce and SENER have a 47 percent/53 percent joint-venture in Industrial de Turbo Propulsores (ITP)–an aircraft engine components manufacturer.
  • Rolls-Royce, together with ITP, MTU and Safran, are members of a military engine consortium–Europrop International (EPI)–that supplies the engine to the Airbus’ A400M, the primary competitor to the Lockheed Martin C-130J.
  • The European Commission (EC) had concerns that Rolls-Royce’s full ownership of ITP would increase its influence in EPI such that Rolls-Royce could undercut the competitiveness of the EPI engine, and consequently subvert Airbus’ competitiveness vis-à-vis Lockheed Martin.
  • The EC and Rolls-Royce agreed to a behavioral remedy focused on EPI’s governance rules that would eliminate the potential conflict of interest and maintain EPI’s competitiveness. While the EC press release does not provide details, the agreement likely allows MTU and Safran to control the consortium’s decision making.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Antitrust enforcers continue to investigate competitive impacts from vertical transactions.
  • While antitrust enforcers have a strong preference for structural remedies, when addressing vertical competition issues, there is greater potential that enforcers will accept a behavioral fix.
  • Antitrust enforcers continue to focus on antitrust impacts in narrow markets. Here, the remedy is designed to maintain competition between the Airbus A400M and Lockheed Martin’s C-130J – military turboprop transport aircraft.

McDermott’s Antitrust M&A Snapshot is a resource for in-house counsel and others who deal with antitrust M&A issues but are not faced with these issues on a daily basis. In each quarterly issue, we will provide concise summaries of Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Justice (DOJ) and European Commission (EC) news and events related to M&A, including significant ongoing investigations, trials and consent orders, as well as analysis on the trends we see developing in the antitrust review process.

Read McDermott’s 1Q2017 M&A Snapshot.

European Commissioner of Competition Margrethe Vestager made news when she announced that the European Commission had launched a new IT system enabling individuals to anonymously report cartel activity. In parallel, several EU Member States have–in recent weeks–highlighted the role of individual informants in their own enforcement efforts. Taken together, these developments show that the stakes of effective and meaningful antitrust compliance continue to rise, as individuals have more avenues to report anticompetitive conduct.

Speaking in Berlin on March 16, 2017, Commissioner Vestager stated, “We’ve discovered a lot of cartels thanks to leniency programs […] But we don’t just rely on leniency. We pay attention to other methods as well. And that includes encouraging individuals to come forward, when their conscience is troubled by the information that they have about a cartel. That’s why we recently launched a new IT system to help people tell us anonymously about cartels. The system means that we can communicate both ways with them without risking their anonymity while we gather information.”

Commissioner Vestager noted that the European Commission’s new system is modelled on a system implemented by the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) in 2012. Notably, the FCO itself published a brochure in late February 2017 titled “Effective Cartel Enforcement” highlighting, among other things, the success of its whistleblowing program. The FCO noted that its system is accessible from its website and “guarantees the anonymity of informers while still allowing for continual reciprocal communication with the investigative staff [at the FCO] via a secure electronic mailbox.” Between June 2012 and December 2016, the FCO reports receiving 1,420 tips, “some of which” have led to proceedings resulting in fines.

Continue Reading European Commission Launches New Cartel Reporting Tool, Member States Laud the Role of Whistleblowers

A grand jury has indicted three foreign currency exchange spot market dealers for alleged violations of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, in a case brought jointly by the DOJ’s Antitrust Division and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). The allegations in the case, United States v. Usher, et al., are that the three named defendants conspired to suppress and eliminate competition for the purchase and sale of Euro/US dollar (EUR/USD) currency pairs via price fixing and bid rigging.

The foreign currency exchange spot market (the “FX Spot Market”) enables participants to buy and sell currencies at set exchange rates. The FX Spot Market is an “over-the-counter” market conducted via direct customer-to-dealer trades, i.e., without an exchange.  In the market, currencies are traded and priced in pairs, whereby one currency is exchanged for the other.  When filling customer orders, dealers in the FX Spot Market do not serve in a broker capacity, but rather fulfill the orders via their own trading and speculation in the requested currency markets.  Dealers employ traders to quote prices and engage in trades to fill customer orders.  The dealers and their traders are able to access a separate virtual market, known as the interdealer virtual market, which enables currency trades amongst dealers.  According to the Indictment, currency pair prices are set by a continuous auction in the interdealer virtual market, where “individual actions taken by competing traders—to bid or not bid, to offer or not offer, to trade or not to trade, at certain times, and using certain tactics—can cause or contribute to a change in the exchange rate shown in the [virtual trading] interface, and thus may benefit, harm, or be neutral to a competing trader.” The Indictment asserts that this is because the benchmarks used by the virtual market were calculated at particular times each day and were based on “real-time bidding, offering, and trading activity” on the virtual trading market.

The Indictment asserts that the defendants violated the Sherman Act by:

  • engaging in chat room communications whereby they discussed customer orders, trades, names and risk positions;
  • refraining from trading against each other’s interests;
  • coordinating bids for the purpose of fixing the price of the EUR/USD pair.

Defendants are alleged to have engaged in profitable EUR/USD transactions while acting to fix prices and rig bids for the EUR/USD product in the FX Spot Market.  The Indictment further alleges that others were co-conspirators, suggesting that there may be cooperating witnesses and possibly further indictments to follow. Of note, however, recent Trump Administration changes to US Attorneys and DOJ Division Deputies and Chiefs may conceivably alter the course of this and any follow-on litigation. Regardless, over-the-counter markets have been a focus of antitrust lawsuits in recent years, most notably in the widely-covered Libor suits, and that trend is expected to continue.

The case follows on from the Commission’s Animal Feed Phosphates cartel decision pursuant to which fines totalling €176 million were imposed on a number of producers of animal feed for price fixing and market sharing throughout the EEA.

During the investigation into the infringement, all the companies involved engaged in settlement discussions with the Commission with a view to obtaining a 10 percent reduction in the fine that would otherwise have been imposed had they not settled with the Commission. However, during the settlement process Timab, a subsidiary of the Roullier Group, decided to withdraw from the settlement procedure. The Commission therefore followed the standard administrative infringement procedure against Timab – despite the fact that it had entered into settlements with the other companies involved in the cartel. This was the first time, therefore, that the Commission rendered a decision in a so-called ‘hybrid’ case i.e. where some parties settle but others do not.

During the initial settlement discussions, several meetings were held between the Commission and Timab, during which evidence of the infringement was discussed. On the basis of the evidence available, the Commission informed Timab that a fine in the range of €41 to €44 million would be imposed on it. However, in its final decision of 20 July 2010, the Commission levied a fine of nearly €60 million on Timab.

Timab challenged the Commission’s decision before the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) in case T-456/10, claiming that the Commission had infringed its legitimate expectations regarding the amount of the fine, on the one hand, and its right not to incriminate itself, on the other. Such challenge was unsuccessful, however.

Continue Reading The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Confirms the Commission’s Approach to Hybrid Settlements