Q4 UPDATE: OVERVIEW OF CARTEL INVESTIGATIONS

Although 2018 saw guilty pleas and new indictments in several ongoing Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, the year finished by continuing a downward trend in antitrust enforcement. DOJ’s criminal and civil fines in 2018 ended around $400 million—well short of the billion-dollar plus highs in 2014 and 2015, during

On 14 February 2019, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) annulled the decision of the European Commission (Commission) on the Belgian excess profit exemption system (SA.37667) in its entirety on the ground that the Commission erroneously categorized the system as an “aid scheme” (T‑131/16 and T‑263/16).

IN DEPTH

Background

Since June 2013, the Commission has been investigating the tax practices of Member States. In the context of this investigation, on 11 January 2016, the Commission found that the so-called Belgian excess profit exemption system constituted an aid scheme that is incompatible with the internal market and that it had been implemented in breach of Article 108(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). By the same decision, the Commission ordered that the Kingdom of Belgium recover the aid from the beneficiaries.

The excess profit exemption system allows Belgian entities of multinational companies to reduce their tax base in Belgium by deducting from their actually recorded profit so-called “excess profit”. That excess profit is determined by estimating the hypothetical average profit that a standalone company carrying out comparable activities could be expected to make in comparable circumstances and subtracting that amount from the profit actually recorded by the Belgian group entity concerned (the two-step methodology). To benefit from the excess profit system, multinational groups were required to obtain advance rulings from the Ruling Commission in respect of new situations (substantial investments and/or the creation of employment and/or the relocation of activities to Belgium) (the new-situation requirement).

The Kingdom of Belgium and Magnetrol International (one of the 55 beneficiaries listed in Annex to the decision) brought appeals against the decision.


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McDermott’s Annual EU Competition Review summarizes key developments in EU competition rules. During the previous year, several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission. There were also many interesting cases decided by the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union. All these new rules and judicial decisions

On 16 January 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) dismissed the appeal by the European Commission (Commission) against the 2017 judgment of the General Court of the European Union (GCEU). This annuls the Commission’s decision to block the proposed acquisition of TNT Express NV (TNT) by United Parcel Services (UPS) in its entirety (C-265/17 P). The judgment reminds the Commission that it must maintain a balance between the need for speed and the observance of the rights of the defence in merger proceedings.

IN DEPTH

Background

By decision on 30 January 2013, the Commission blocked the proposed acquisition of TNT by UPS (Case M.6570).

On 7 March 2017, the GCEU annulled the Commission’s decision in its entirety on the grounds that (i) the Commission infringed UPS’s rights of defence by failing to communicate to UPS the final version of an econometric model on which it relied in its prohibition decision and that (ii) UPS might have been better able to defend itself if it had at its disposal the final version of that model.

The Commission challenged the GCEU judgment before the CJEU. First, the Commission argued that it was not required to communicate the final econometric analysis to UPS. Second, the Commission claimed that even if UPS’s rights of the defence had been infringed, the GCEU should have dismissed UPS’s plea alleging infringement of the rights of the defence as ineffective because a significant impediment to effective competition (“SIEC”) could in any event be established in Denmark and the Netherlands without having to rely on the econometric model concerned.


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The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruled that a jurisdiction clause does not need to refer expressly to disputes arising from a breach of competition law where damages are claimed based on Art. 102 TFEU (i.e., for abuse of a dominant position). This contrasts with the ECJ’s position in follow-on cartel damages

Overview of Current Cartel Investigations

Although the third quarter of 2018 saw guilty pleas and new indictments in several current Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, 2018 continues a downward trend in antitrust enforcement. At its current pace, DOJ’s annual 2018 fines will end around $300 million—well short of the billion-dollar plus highs in 2014 and

United States: July – September 2018 Update

Both US antitrust agencies marked the third quarter of 2018 with significant policy announcements regarding the merger review process. The announced reforms seek to expedite the review process through cooperation between the agencies and the merging parties. Moving first, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed a Model Timing Agreement that provides the FTC Staff with earlier notice of the parties’ intent to substantially comply with a Second Request. Earlier notice allows the FTC Staff to create a more effective timeline for meetings with division management, front office staff and the Commissioners. Less than two months after the FTC revealed its Model Timing Agreement, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced procedural reforms aimed at resolving merger investigations within six months of filing. The DOJ will commit to fewer custodians and depositions in exchange for the merging parties providing key information earlier in the investigation. Overall, these reforms appear to be a positive step forward for parties considering future transactions, but their effectiveness remains uncertain as the agencies start a difficult implementation period. While the FTC timing agreement may provide more certainty around the process, it does not reduce the review timing and actually extends it.

EU: July – September 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) remained quite active clearing mergers in the third quarter of 2018. Most notably, the EC cleared Apple’s acquisition of Shazam without imposing conditions despite the EC’s stated concerns about access to data as a competitive concern. The EC opened a Phase II investigation into the transaction to investigate the potential for Apple to obtain a competitive advantage over competing music streaming services by accessing Shazam’s consumer data obtained through its music recognition services. In this case, the EC did not find evidence that the access to Shazam’s data would provide Apple a competitive advantage. In addition, the EC found that there were no concerns about Apple potentially restricting Shazam as referral source for Apple’s competitors. Going forward, it is clear that access to data is an issue that the EC will continue to investigate, but it is also clear that the EC is taking a careful approach in assessing when that access will truly lead to a competitive harm. 
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United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals.
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Pursuant to the EU merger control rules, a transaction that falls within the purview of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) must be notified to the European Commission (Commission) in advance (Article 4(1) EUMR), and must not be implemented until cleared by the Commission, known as the “standstill” obligation (Article 7[1] EUMR). A principal rationale behind the standstill obligation is to prevent the potentially negative impact of transactions on the market, pending the outcome of the Commission’s investigation.

While the standstill obligation represents a clear-cut rule, it can often be a significant challenge for businesses to apply in practice. Failure to get it right, however, can result in draconian penalties. Indeed, the Commission’s recent €124.5 million fine on Altice, which comes in the wake of a spate of enforcement actions in this arena, bears testimony to an increasingly hard stance against companies flouting the notification requirement/standstill obligation.
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