Mergers & Acquisitions

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) is a Canadian corporation and is engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States. Circle K Stores, Inc. (Circle K) is a wholly owned subsidiary of ACT. Circle K indirectly owns all of the membership interests in CrossAmerica GP LLC, CrossAmerica Partners LP’s (CAPL) general partner.
  • Pursuant to three separate Asset Purchase Agreements, dated August 4, 2017, ACT would acquire ownership or operation of all Jet-Pep, Inc. retail fuel outlets. Specifically, Circle K would acquire 18 retail fuel outlets, a fuel terminal and related trucking assets and CAPL would acquire 102 Jet-Pep retail fuel outlets.
  • While the purchases did not require an HSR filing, the FTC learned of the transaction, investigated and required remedies before allowing the transaction to proceed.
  • The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
  • The FTC defined the geographic markets as local markets and identified the three separate geographic markets in Alabama including Brewton, Monroeville and Valley.
  • In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the “number of competitively constraining independent market participants” would be reduced “to no more than three in each local market.”
  • The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT would unilaterally exercise market power in the relevant markets; and (2) an increased likelihood of collusive or coordinated interaction between the remaining competitors in the relevant markets.
  • The FTC accepted a consent order in which ACT agreed to divest certain Jet-Pep retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in three local geographic markets in Alabama. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This consent decree is a reminder that even when a transaction is not HSR reportable, the transaction may still be reviewed and challenged by the FTC and DOJ.
  • Local geographic markets are highly fact specific. Factors used to determine local geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel include: commuting patterns, traffic flows and outlet characteristics unique to each market.
  • If the proposed divestiture package is something less than a complete, autonomous and operable business unit, the parties must show that their proposed package will enable the buyer to maintain or restore competition in the market.
  • FTC and DOJ may not require a buyer-up-front where they have significant experience in the industries at issue, and where the ownership interest is a high-value, low-risk asset (e.g., retail fuel business) that is likely to generate substantial interest from more than one potentially acceptable buyer.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On Thursday, November 16, 2017, newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim, speaking at the American Bar Association Section of Antitrust Law’s Fall Forum, explained where antitrust enforcement fits in the broader Trump administration effort to reduce federal regulations.
  • Delrahim remarked that “antitrust is law enforcement, it’s not regulation.” Antitrust enforcement “supports reducing regulation, by encouraging competitive markets that, as a result, require less government intervention.” Delrahim explained that “[v]igorous antitrust enforcement plays an important role in building a less regulated economy in which innovation and business can thrive, and ultimately the American consumer can benefit.” As a result, the government can minimize regulation related to price, quality, and investment.
  • Delrahim announced that the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) would seek to reduce the number of long-term consent decrees and “return to the preferred focus on structural relief to remedy mergers that violate the law,” thereby limiting the use of behavioral remedies in consent decrees particularly in vertical transactions, where such remedies have historically been common. According to Delrahim, “a behavioral remedy supplants competition with regulation; it replaces disaggregated decision making with central planning.” Delrahim also expressed concern that behavioral remedies simply delay the exercise of otherwise anticompetitive market power.
  • Mentioning by name several consent decrees in vertical transactions containing behavioral provisions in merger cases brought by the Obama administration, Delrahim expressed concern that these remedies “entangle the [Antitrust] Division and the courts in the operation of a market on an on-going basis.” Delrahim cautioned that the lack of enforceability and reliability of behavioral remedies diminish the effectiveness of antitrust enforcement, a risk that consumers should not have to bear.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Delrahim’s stance on behavioral remedies starkly contrasts with previous DOJ policies, followed under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Prior administrations strongly preferred structural remedies, but recognized that behavioral remedies could be appropriate particularly for vertical transactions that presented pro-competitive benefits. The DOJ’s most recent policy paper on remedies (issued by the Obama administration) exemplifies this view, stating: “conduct remedies often can effectively address anticompetitive issues raised by vertical mergers.”
  • Despite the new administration’s disfavored view of behavioral remedies for a vertical merger, such remedies are not off the table. To secure a DOJ consent decree with behavioral remedies for a vertical merger, parties will likely have to show that the transaction “generates significant efficiencies that cannot be achieved without the merger or through a structural remedy.” Delrahim unambiguously stated that this is “a high standard to meet.”
  • Delrahim’s speech appeared aimed at several high profile vertical transactions that are currently under review by the DOJ, likely seeking to explain why the DOJ will insist on structural remedies in transactions where most outside observers thought a behavioral remedy may suffice.
  • It is possible that Joe Simons, President Trump’s unconfirmed appointee for Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, may take a differing stance on behavioral remedies, following prior policy statements. This could result in a slight difference in policies between the Federal Trade Commission and the DOJ in merger enforcement.

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.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On February 14, 2017, Integra agreed to purchase Johnson & Johnson’s Codman neurosurgery business (excluding Codman’s neurovascular and drug deliver businesses) for $1.045 billion.
  • Seven months later, on September 25, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) agreed to clear the transaction subject to the parties divesting five neurosurgical tools and associated assets including the relevant intellectual property (IP), manufacturing technology and know-how, and research & development (R&D) information related to the five tools. Additionally the buyer of the divested assets can freely negotiate to hire any employees that worked on sales, marketing, manufacturing, or R&D for the divestiture products. The parties must also supply Natus Medical Incorporated (Natus) with cranial access kits often sold with the divestiture assets until Natus can start sourcing them independently.
  • The FTC required that the parties divest the following medical devices:
    • Intracranial pressure monitoring systems, which measure pressure inside the skull. The FTC determined that Integra (68 percent) and Codman (26 percent) combined market share in the United States would be 94 percent and that only fringe competitors with limited presence would have remained.
    • Cerebrospinal fluid collections systems, which drain excess cerebrospinal fluid and monitor pressures within the fluid. The FTC found that Integra (57 percent) and Codman (14 percent) would combine for 71 percent market share in the United States and would have reduced the number of significant competitors from three to two.
    • Non-antimicrobial external ventricular drainage catheters, which funnel excess cerebrospinal fluid form the brain to cerebrospinal fluid collection systems to relieve intracranial pressure. Here, the FTC said Integra (29 percent) and Codman (17 percent) are the number two and three competitors accounting for 46 percent of the market in the United States and would have reduced the number of significant competitors from three to two.
    • Fixed pressure valve shunts, which are used to treat excessive accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid. The FTC found that Integra (23 percent) and Codman (15 percent) were the number two and three competitors would control 38 percent of the US market and, again, that the number of competitors would have been reduced from three to two.
    • Dural grafts, which are used to repair or replace the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and keep cerebrospinal fluid in place. The FTC determined that the merger would have reduced the number of significant competitors from four to three with Integra (66 percent) and Codman (nine percent) combining for 75 percent market share.
  • Under the terms of the settlement, the parties must divest within 10 days of closing to Natus, which is a global health care company with an existing neurology business including systems that are complementary to the divestiture assets.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Integra Forced to Divest Neurosurgical Tools to Gain FTC Clearance

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On December 1, 2016 Parker-Hannifin agreed to acquire Clarcor for $4.3 billion.
  • The merger agreement included a $200 million divestiture cap – that is, Parker-Hannifin was required, if necessary, to divest assets representing up to $200 million in net sales to obtain antitrust clearance.
  • The initial antitrust waiting period under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR Act) expired on January 17, 2017.
  • Parker-Hannifin completed the acquisition on February 28, 2017.
  • Nearly seven months later on September 26, 2017, the DOJ filed suit in US District Court for the District of Delaware seeking to require Parker-Hannifin to divest either its or Clarcor’s aviation fuel filtration assets.
  • The DOJ did not include in its complaint an allegation or statement that the parties increased prices.
  • The DOJ press release indicates that the parties “failed to provide significant document or data productions in response to the department’s requests.” We believe that this refers to the DOJ’s post-closing investigation.
  • The DOJ did not suggest in its complaint or the press release that the parties failed to provide required documentation under the HSR Act (e.g., Item 4 documents). During the initial 30-day HSR waiting period, the parties are under no obligation to submit documentation or data to DOJ or FTC requests – all responses are voluntary.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Challenges to transactions after the HSR waiting period expired are rare and typically involve a situation where the parties failed to supply required documentation under the HSR Act.
  • Challenges post-HSR clearance are even rarer when the parties complied with their obligations under the HSR Act and supplied all required documentation (e.g., Item 4 documents).
  • The DOJ’s post-HSR clearance action demonstrates that the DOJ may still challenge a transaction post-closing if it later discovers a niche problematic overlap that it did not discover during the initial HSR waiting period.
  • While this challenge may be an aberration, it raises additional considerations when drafting risk allocation provisions in merger agreements for HSR reportable transactions because merger agreements do not typically account for a post-HSR clearance challenge from the DOJ or FTC.
  • DOJ action in this matter suggests the Trump administration is unlikely to be lax in its merger enforcement and will continue to analyze competition in narrow markets.

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 September 14, 2017, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), introduced new legislation to curtail market concentration and enhance antitrust scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions. As the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Klobuchar is the leading Senate Democrat for antitrust issues.

Two bills were submitted to the Senate: the Consolidation Prevention and Competition Promotion Act (CPCPA) and the Merger Enforcement Improvement Act (MEIA). The CPCPA is co-sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA). The MEIA is co-sponsored by Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Gillibrand, along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Al Franken (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Both bills propose amendments to the Clayton Act. Earlier this year, Senate democrats announced these legislative proposals as part of their “A Better Deal” antitrust agenda.

WHAT DO THE BILLS PROPOSE:

  • Notably, the CPCPA proposes to revise the Clayton Act so that in challenging an acquisition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) would only have to show that the proposed transaction materially lessens competition rather than significantly lessens competition, which is the current standard. The legislation defines “materially lessens competition” to mean “more than a de minimis amount.” This change would reduce the burden of proof for the government in challenging an acquisition.

Continue Reading Senate Democrats Push for Tougher Merger Enforcement

On Monday, September 11, Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, the US subsidiary of Thai Union Group, announced it blew the whistle on competitors in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of the packaged seafood industry. The “Chicken of the Sea” canned tuna manufacturer also said it received conditional leniency from DOJ in exchange for its cooperation.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In 2015, DOJ began investigating the packaged seafood industry for anticompetitive conduct, including price fixing. DOJ’s investigation followed a failed merger between Thai Union and Bumble Bee Foods LLC.
  • In June 2017, a former StarKist Co. sales executive pleaded guilty to price fixing.
  • Private plaintiffs filed class action complaints in October 2016 alleging antitrust violations in the packaged seafood industry. The private plaintiffs represent grocery retailers who sold packaged tuna to US consumers.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Despite the significant costs of participating in DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program, leniency recipients continue to receive significant value for their cooperation. Conditional leniency recipients like Tri-Union and their employees will not face criminal fines, jail time or prosecution.
  • Full cooperation with DOJ’s program will place heavy demands on leniency applicants, including gathering and translating foreign documents, bringing foreign witnesses to the United States for interviews and testimony, and providing several attorney proffers.
  • It is critical to have a robust compliance program in place to detect any potential or actual violations of antitrust law. Such a program will allow a company to investigate any potential misconduct and, if necessary, report it to DOJ. Time is of the essence when seeking leniency with DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program.
  • Companies contemplating acquisitions should consider whether any problematic antitrust conduct could arise during the merger review and result in a subsequent criminal investigation.

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 June 21, 2017, US District Judge Sue L. Robinson blocked EnergySolutions, Inc.’s proposed acquisition of Waste Control Specialists LLC (WCS), applying a strict standard for the “failing firm” defense to a merger challenge. The parties compete in the disposal of low level radioactive waste (LLRW). WCS had argued that it would be forced to exit the market due to heavy operating losses if the transaction were not approved. Judge Robinson’s recently released opinion provides insights into how aggressively a putative failing firm must shop its assets to third parties before it can qualify for the failing firm defense to an otherwise anticompetitive merger.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit in November 2016 to enjoin the proposed acquisition of WCS by EnergySolutions, arguing that the merger would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the LLRW disposal industry. DOJ alleged that EnergySolutions and WCS are the only significant competitors in this industry for the relevant geographic market.
  • The court found that the government easily established a prima facie case of anticompetitive effects by demonstrating that the proposed acquisition would create a firm controlling an exceedingly high percentage of the relevant market and result in a significant increase in market concentration. Judge Robinson identified two product markets: the disposal of higher-activity LLRW, and the disposal of lower-activity LLRW. In both markets she found that the relevant measures of concentration “blow past the presumptive barriers” for harm to competition, especially in regards to higher-activity LLRW where the transaction would result in a “merger to monopoly.” 
  • The defendants’ main defense to rebut the government’s prima facie case was that WCS was a “failing firm.” The failing-firm doctrine considers the possible harm to competition resulting from an acquisition preferable to the negative impact on competition, loss to stockholders, and negative effect on local communities that results when a company goes out of business. Judge Robinson’s opinion explains that in order to assert a valid failing firm defense, the defendants must show that WCS faces the “grave possibility of business failure” and that there was no “other prospective purchaser.” 
  • Judge Robinson avoided deciding the more difficult question concerning whether WCS indeed faced imminent business failure, finding instead that the defendants failed to demonstrate that EnergySolutions was the only available purchaser. According to Judge Robinson, WCS’s parent company failed to make the necessary “good faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers” that would have lesser negative effects on competition. 
  • The opinion highlights the fact that once it was clear that the parent company was serious about selling all of WCS, the parent company had already agreed to several deal protection devices, such as a 30-day exclusivity period with EnergySolutions, and a “no-talk” provision in the merger agreement. WCS and its parent company thus did not respond to other companies that reached out to express interest in acquiring WCS after the transaction with EnergySolutions was announced.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Judge Robinson’s application of the failing-firm doctrine is consistent with the approach taken in the joint Federal Trade Commission (FTC)/DOJ Horizontal Merger Guidelines, which require the failing firm to demonstrate that “it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than does the proposed merger.” 
  • The opinion is also consistent with a March 2015 article, published by the FTC and discussed here, that addressed the agency’s application of the failing firm doctrine to the health care context. In the article, the FTC explained that the mere fact that the acquired firm may be clearly failing does not quell the FTC’s concerns. Rather, the agency will seek information from the failing firm regarding its search for alternative offers, and reach out to other prospective purchasers to see if they were contacted and whether they have interest in acquiring the failing firm.
  • As Judge Robinson’s opinion demonstrates, in the rare case where merging parties believe that the “failing-firm” defense may be available to rebut a presumption of anticompetitive effects, the owners of the failing company should make serious, good faith efforts to seek out alternative offers that pose less danger to competition than a proposed merger. Further, owners of the failing company should not agree to any deal protection devices or exclusivity periods with the acquiring firm. The failing company should be aware that in soliciting reasonable alternative offers, the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines consider any offer to purchase the assets of the failing firm for a price above the liquidation value to be a reasonable alternative offer.

Noah Feldman-Greene, McDermott summer associate, also contributed to this Antitrust Alert post.