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.

On October 19, 2017, the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) imposed a EUR 302 million fine on the three leading companies in the PVC and linoleum floor coverings sector; Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett, as well as the industry’s trade association, SFEC (Syndicat Français des Enducteurs Calandreurs et Fabricants de Revêtements de Sols et Murs), for price-fixing, sharing commercially sensitive information, and signing a non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising.

The FCA said the significant fine reflected the gravity of the offence and the long duration of the anticompetitive behavior, which for one company lasted 23 years.

WHAT HAPPENED

The proceedings were originally initiated by unannounced inspections carried out in the floor coverings industry in 2013 by the FCA, acting on information submitted by the DGCCRF (Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control), which resulted in the discovery of three distinct anticompetitive practices.

Price-fixing

The FCA found that the three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France met secretly at so-called “1, 2, 3” meetings, from October 2001 to September 2011, at hotels, on the margins of official meetings of the SFEC or through dedicated telephone lines, in order to discuss minimum prices and price increases for their products. The manufacturers also entered into agreements covering a great deal of other sensitive information, such as the strategies to adopt with regard to specific customers or competitors, organization of sales activities and sampling of new products.

Confidential information exchange via the trade association

The FCA found that from 1990 until the start of the FCA’s investigations in 2013, Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett also exchanged, in the context of official meetings of the SFEC, very precise information relating to their trading volumes, revenues per product category and business forecasts. In its decision, the FCA also raised the active role played by the SFEC, supporting companies in their conduct.

Non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising

The three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France, together with the trade association, also signed a ‘non-compete’ agreement which prevented each company from advertising the individual environmental performance of its products. The FCA considered that this agreement may have acted as a disincentive for manufacturers to innovate and offer new products, earmarked by better environmental performance, compared to the products offered by their competitors.

Neither the manufacturers nor the trade association disputed the facts and all of them sought a settlement procedure. In addition, Forbo and Tarkett, leniency applicants, benefited from fine reductions corresponding to the respective dates they approached the FCA (the sooner, the higher the fine reduction), the quality of the evidence they provided and their cooperation during the investigation.

WHAT THIS MEANS

The FCA’s decision in the floor coverings cartel case has significant impact due to the total amount of the fines imposed which is (i) higher than the aggregate amount of sanctions imposed by the FCA in 2016 (i.e., EUR 202,873,000), and (ii) until now the highest fine imposed by the FCA in 2017, the FCA having imposed a EUR 100 million fine on Engie for abusing its dominant position in the gas market (Decision No. 17-D-06 of 21 March 2017) and a EUR 40 million fine on Altice and SFR for non-compliance with an agreement made during the acquisition of SFR by the Altice group (Decision No. 17-D-04 of 8 March 2017).

This decision is the first application of the new settlement procedure introduced by the Macron Law of 6 August 2015. This new procedure replaced the previous “no challenge” procedure (“non-contestation des griefs”) pursuant to which companies could only negotiate a percentage reduction without knowing the original amount of the fine. Under the new procedure, the companies’ discussion with the FCA will focus directly on the minimum and maximum amount of the fine and will no longer be limited to a reduction rate applicable to a hypothetical amount of the fine.

This is also the first decision in France where the new settlement procedure and the leniency procedure have been cumulated.

Finally, the FCA raised the very serious nature of the infringement, which lasted for a long time and involved the majority of the market players (between 65% and 85% of the market from 2001 until 2012). This decision sends once again a clear message to companies that cartels and exchanges of competitively sensitive information remain one of FCA’s main priorities. Therefore, discussions in the context of trade association meetings should be approached carefully and in accordance with prior legal advice.

As reported previously, German competition law was recently amended. The amendments included with the introduction of a “size of transaction”-threshold a notable change with respect to German merger control. The following is a reminder of five important features of German merger control which you should be aware of:

The jurisdictional thresholds of German merger control are easily triggered

German merger control applies if the parties to a transaction (usually the acquirer and the target) exceeded, in the last financial year, certain turnover thresholds. In an interna­tional context, these thresholds are relatively low and easily triggered:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • German turnover of another party > € 5 million.

There is a new “size of transaction”-threshold

Since June 2017, German merger control can also be triggered if a newly introduced “size of transaction”-threshold is exceeded:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • “value of compensation” > € 400 million, and
  • The target company has “significant business activities” in Germany (which may be activities with revenues < € 5 million).

The “value of compensation” includes the purchase price and all other assets and non-cash benefits, as well as liabilities assumed by the purchaser.

Acquisition of minority shareholdings may be notifiable

Similar to the HSR Act, but different to European Union merger control and most European jurisdictions, German merger control is not limited to the “acquisition of control”. Additional triggering events are

  • The acquisition of 25% or more of the shares in a company, and
  • The acquisition of a shareholding below 25% if this, combined with other factors (e.g. the right to appoint one out of five members of the board), may have an im­pact on competition (“acquisition of ability to exercise competitively significant influ­ence”).

Review of joint venture situations

German merger control may apply in joint venture situations that are often not covered by other merger control laws:

  •  German merger control may apply to the setting up of a joint venture company, even if the joint venture will have no activities in Germany. The jurisdictional thresholds may be satisfied by the parent companies alone. While there is an exemption for transactions with “no effect in Germany”, it is interpreted very narrowly and applies only in exceptional circumstances.
  • German merger control applies to all joint venture situations where two or more par­ties acquire or continue to hold a shareholding of 25% or more. Examples:
    – A and B set up a 50/50 production joint venture.
    – A acquires sole control and a 70% shareholding, and B acquires a non-control­ling 30% shareholding.
    – A sells 75% of a fully owned subsidiary to B, and retains only a 25% minority shareholding.
    – A, B and C each own 1/3 in a joint venture company. C divests his share­holding to A and B.

In each of these examples, the turnover of both A and B (and possibly the tar­get/joint venture company) will have to be taken into account for assessing the juris­dictional thresholds.

The bright side: The process is usually quick, efficient and relatively inexpensive

The number of transactions requiring a merger control notification to the German Federal Cartel Office (“FCO”) is, compared to most other jurisdictions, relatively high. On the plus side, the notification process is, in most cases, quick, efficient and, in cases without true com­petition issues, relatively inexpensive.

  • The large majority of transactions notified to the FCO are cleared in Phase 1.
  • The maximum duration of Phase 1 is one month; fairly often, the FCO clears trans­actions within two or three weeks after notification.
  • In straightforward cases, the amount of formal information that needs to be pro­vided is limited, and the notification can be drafted relatively quickly.
  • The fee imposed by the FCO in non-complex matters usually ranges between € 5,000 and € 15,000.

On 7 September 2017, the European Court of Justice issued a decision (Decision) on the interpretation of the European Union Merger Regulation (EUMR). The Decision clarifies the conditions under which the EUMR applies to the setting-up of joint venture companies.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 3(4) of the EUMR stipulates that the “creation” of joint ventures requires a notification only if the joint venture “performs the functions of an autonomous economic entity” (Full-Function JV).
  • Companies with management dedicated to its day-to-day operations, as well as access to sufficient resources including staff, finance and assets usually qualify as Full-Function JV. If the joint venture has only one specific function for the parent companies (e.g. supplying input products or services), and has no or only very limited own resources, it is unlikely to be considered a Full-Function JV.
  • There has been considerable uncertainty whether Art. 3(4) EUMR applies only to the creation of a new company (greenfield operation), or whether it also applies if joint control is acquired over an existing company.
  • The European Commission significantly contributed to this uncertainty by repeatedly taking inconsistent and contradictory positions. In a fairly unusually move, the ECJ’s Advocate General chastised the European Commission, calling it “extremely regrettable” that the European Commission did notcommit to a clear and uniform approach and then apply it consistently”.
  • The ECJ’s Decision comes at the request of an Austrian court. The Austrian court had to decide whether the acquisition of joint control over a small asphalt plant–which does not qualify as Full-Function JV–requires notification and clearance under the EUMR by the European Commission.
  • The ECJ has now held that the change of sole control to joint control only requires a notification under the EUMR if the newly created joint venture qualifies as a Full-Function JV.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The Decision brings much-awaited clarity to a key issue of European Union merger control.
  • If two or more companies create a joint venture company, it will be subject to the EUMR only if it qualifies as s Full-Function JV. This applies both to greenfield operations, where a new company is created, and the change from sole to joint control over an existing company. Whether a notification to the European Commission is actually required, will depend on whether the jurisdictional turnover thresholds under the EUMR are met.
  • The creation of joint ventures which do not qualify as Full-Function JV does not require notification to and clearance by the European Commission. However, these joint ventures may still be subject to merger control in one or several EU Member States.
  • The European Commission required and accepted in the past the notification of transactions which involved the creation of joint ventures not qualifying as Full-Function JV. Following today’s decision by the ECJ, it appears that the European Commission did not have jurisdiction. An interesting question to be explored in the coming weeks and months is therefore whether the Decision somehow affects the legality of these transactions.

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 July 19, 2017, the Second Circuit vacated the convictions and dismissed the indictments of two individuals accused of playing a role in the manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). United States v. Allen, No. 16-898-cr, Slip Op. at 3 (2d Cir. July 19, 2017). The ruling was based on the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which provides that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” US Const. amend. V. The Second Circuit’s decision clarifies that this protection against self-incrimination is an “absolute” “trial right” that applies to all criminal defendants in US courts (including non-citizens) and to all compelled testimony (including testimony given during a foreign government’s investigation). United States v. Allen, No. 16-898-cr, Slip Op. at 55. The court’s clarification of the Fifth Amendment’s scope has important implications for US antitrust enforcers prosecuting international cartels and for individuals ensnared in cross-border criminal investigations alike.

Continue Reading Second Circuit Clarifies Fifth Amendment Law, with Implications for US Prosecution of International Cartels

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

A number of amendments to the German competition law (Amendment) entered into force on 9 June 2017. The key changes are:

  • Merger control: Introduction of a new “size of transaction”-threshold
  • Sanctions for antitrust law infringements: Rules of liability aligned to EU concept, in particular with respect to “parental liability”
  • Private enforcement: Implementation of EU Cartel Damage Claims Directive.

Continue Reading Reform of German Competition Law

The Commission’s EUR 110 million fine on Facebook for breach of its procedural obligations under the EU merger control rules underscores the need to submit full, accurate and reliable information during the Commission’s merger control review process. An intentional or negligent failure to do so will lead to draconian fines—even where the provision of incorrect or misleading information does not have an impact on the ultimate outcome of the Commission’s decision.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: EU Commission Fines Facebook EUR 110 million for Providing Incorrect or Misleading Information

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.