Mergers & Acquisitions

WHAT HAPPENED

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) implemented new provisions in merger consent decrees that:

  • Make it easier for DOJ to prove violations of a consent decree and hold parties in contempt;
  • Allow DOJ to apply for an extension of the decree’s term if the court finds a violation; and
  • Shift DOJ’s attorneys’ fees and costs for successful enforcement onto the parties.

DOJ has implemented these provisions in four decrees to date1, and has communicated that it will require the same in future decrees.

WHAT THIS MEANS

For merger decrees, by reducing its burden of proof for decree violations, DOJ is shifting additional risk to parties for divestitures that do not go as planned. Willfulness is not a required element of civil contempt2, so the change to the burden of proof is significant. Parties will need to be sure to commit to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages that will not present undue implementation challenges.

For non-merger decrees, settling parties will need to remain vigilant against decree violations or even the appearance of them, as the DOJ has ratcheted up its ability to obtain large settlements and civil penalties for violations.

THE CHANGES

The DOJ states that its changes are driven by the principle that antitrust enforcement is law enforcement, not regulation3. Nonetheless, the main impact of the changes is to increase the risk and potential cost on merging parties.

Preponderance Is Now Enough: Reversing the “clear and convincing evidence” standard that has been in place for civil contempt cases since at least the 1960s4, DOJ is now requiring settling parties to agree that a preponderance of the evidence will be enough for a showing of civil contempt and for an appropriate remedy. DOJ states that under the old standard, the DOJ frequently had to engage in extensive discovery when faced with a violation, giving the parties an incentive to hold out from a resolution and “exacerbate the situation.”5 Under a preponderance of the evidence standard, it will be easier for the DOJ to bring an enforcement action without conducting a full CID investigation.

Fee-Shifting Now the Norm: The DOJ now requires the shifting of fees and costs to the parties in the event a violation is proven. DOJ states that fee-shifting provisions are standard fare in many private contracts. Their use by DOJ is designed to discourage violations of consent decrees and speed resolution of disputes.

DOJ Can Request Extension of Decrees: Settling parties must now agree that in the event a court finds a violation, DOJ can request a one-time extension of the decree’s term. The extension that DOJ can request is not time-limited, and the new language does not set forth a standard for when the court should grant DOJ’s request. For decrees that involve costly monitoring and affirmative compliance, this open-ended provision may greatly raise the cost of disputing an alleged violation.

CONCLUSION

The DOJ’s new provisions shift risk and cost to settling parties in the event of a dispute over alleged violations of a decree. Merging parties may disagree about whether these changes further the administration’s deregulatory agenda. Nonetheless, the changes are here to stay, and parties are advised to proceed with appropriate caution in (1) agreeing to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages and (2) implementing comprehensive decree compliance programs to avoid investigation for an actual or perceived violation.


  1. See Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Vulcan Materials Company (Dec. 22, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v TransDigm Group Incorporated (Dec. 21, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Parker-Hannifin Corporation (Dec. 18, 2017); Plaintiff United States’ and Defendant ABI’s Joint Motion and Memorandum for Entry of Modified Proposed Final Judgment, U.S. v. Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, 1:16-cv-01483 (Mar. 15, 2018).
  2. See McComb v. Jacksonville Paper Co., 336 U.S. 187 (1949).
  3. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew C. Finch, Remarks to New York State Bar Association Antitrust Section, Jan. 25, 2018, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/file/1028896/download
  4. See, e.g., Schauffler ex rel. NLRB v. Local 1291, International Longshoremen’s Assoc., 292 F.2d 182 (3rd Cir. 1961).
  5. Supra note ii.

The Chinese government announced on March 13, 2018, that it will consolidate the duties of three competition agencies into a new government agency to handle all antitrust matters. While it is too early to tell how this reorganization will impact China’s review of transactions and conduct cases, we believe that this change could lead to greater consistency and potentially more experienced attorneys reviewing competition matters.

Access the full article.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced that it has challenged a merger between Wilhelmsen Maritime Services (Wilhelmsen) and Drew Marine Group (Drew) because of an overlap in service to “global fleet customers,” a narrow customer segment that purchases marine water treatment chemicals and services.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The FTC issued an administrative complaint and filed a complaint in federal court seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, asserting that Wilhelmsen’s proposed $400 million acquisition of Drew would significantly reduce competition in the market for marine water treatment chemicals and services used by global fleets.
  • The FTC enforcement action focuses on a narrow sub-segment of customers, global fleet customers, that buys marine water treatment chemicals and services.
  • The FTC distinguished global fleet customers from other marine water treatment chemical customers on the basis that:
  • (1) global fleets have specialized needs that only a few suppliers can meet
    (turn-key global sales, service and delivery capabilities, as well as consistent and reliable product supply); and
  • (2) these customers seek out suppliers via requests for proposal and direct negotiation and therefore potential suppliers can price discriminate to that subset of customers.
  • Because of the specific needs of global fleet customers and because global fleet suppliers can identify which customers are seeking service for global fleets, suppliers are able to price discriminate to the global fleet customer set.
  • The FTC alleged a harm to competition because their investigation showed Wilhelmsen and Drew are each other’s closest competitors based on company documents, statements by the business personnel, and bid data showing that the companies are most frequently the first and second choice for global fleet customers. In addition, the FTC noted that Wilhelmsen and Drew would control at least 60 percent of the market with the next largest competitor having less than a 5 percent share.
  • The FTC complaint disparaged the remaining market participants as unable to practicably compete with Wilhelmsen and Drew to service global fleets because they are perceived as offering lower quality products with less reliability, having more limited service capabilities, and failing to price competitively.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The FTC’s enforcement action continues a trend of applying price discrimination markets. These markets are characterized by: (1) buyers with special requirements that only select suppliers can service; and (2) sellers who can identify the buyers with those special requirements and selectively price based upon the knowledge of those special needs.
  • Antitrust enforcement of price discrimination markets lead to narrower product market definitions. Therefore, applying price discrimination markets may result in antitrust enforcers challenging mergers that appear lawful when viewed as a broader market.
  • There is increased risk of price discrimination markets being applied by antitrust enforcers in industries in which:
    • The customers’ end uses differ for the same product;
    • Merging companies’ documents recognize distinctions among customer groups; and
    • Groups of customers require unique product characteristics.

United States: July – December 2017 Update

Although delays in antitrust appointments continued throughout the second half of 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) continued to actively investigate and challenge mergers and acquisitions. Notably, the DOJ challenged the vertical AT&T/Time Warner transaction, the first vertical merger the DOJ has tried since the 1970s. The end of 2017 showed a trend where the FTC and DOJ are focusing on structural remedies rather than behavioral remedies. Additionally, at the end of 2017, the FTC and DOJ challenged several consummated transactions, as well as transactions that were not reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act.

European Union: July – December 2017 Update

After two concentrations within the agrochemicals sector in the second quarter of 2017 — Dow/DuPont and ChemChina/Syngenta — the European Commission continued to see megamergers notifications in the agrochemical sector in the second half of 2017. The fourth quarter of 2017 saw the second Commission merger decision challenged successfully this year and the fourth case of annulment of a clearance decision since the implementation of the EU Merger Regulation.

Snapshot of Events (Legislation/Agency Remarks/Speeches/News, etc.)

United States

  • Seats at the FTC Remain Unfilled Despite Continued Progress in the Appointment of New Antitrust Leadership

After a long wait, on September 27, the Senate confirmed Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s nominee to head DOJ’s antitrust division. The DOJ has also named several deputies to serve under Delrahim: Andrew Finch, Bernard Nigro, Luke Froeb, Donald Kempf and Roger Alford. These positions are not subject to Senate confirmation.

President Trump nominated four Commissioners for the FTC, including Joseph Simons to lead the FTC as Chairman. Joe Simons is an experienced antitrust attorney who was previously Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition. He has mainstream Republican views. Until the new Commissioners are confirmed, there must presently be unanimity between the two Commissioners for the FTC to take action.

  • FTC Warns That It May Challenge Vertical Mergers

Acting Bureau of Competition Director, Bruce Hoffman, gave remarks at the Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium on September 13, 2017. He said that the FTC would be ready to challenge vertical mergers if there were competition issues to resolve. He added that the FTC may impose structural remedies in vertical mergers where it views the remedy as necessary to prevent competitive harm.

  • Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) Introduces New Legislation to Curtail Market Concentration and Enhance Antitrust Scrutiny of Mergers and Acquisitions

On September 14, 2017, two bills were introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar to the Senate: the Consolidation Prevention and Competition PromotionAct (CPCPA) and the Merger Enforcement Improvement Act (MEIA). Both bills are part of the Senate Democrats’ “A Better Deal” antitrust agenda. The CPCPA would impose extra scrutiny on so-called “mega deals” by shifting the burden of proof from antitrust enforcers to the companies. It would also update the Clayton Act to refer to “monopsonies” in addition to “monopolies.” The MEIA would increase the resources allocated to antitrust enforcers, both in terms of substantive information and financial terms.

  • DOJ To Focus on Structural Remedies

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim gave remarks at the American Bar Association Section of Antitrust Law’s Fall Forum on November 16, 2017. He announced that DOJ would seek to reduce the number of long-term consent decrees and focus on structural remedies instead of behavioral remedies.

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) Criticizes Recent Antitrust Enforcement

In a speech at the Open Markets Institute on December 6, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren advocated steps to improve antitrust enforcement. On mergers, she stated that increased enforcement is needed not just for horizontal mergers between direct competitors, but also for vertical mergers.

European Union

  • Application of EU Merger Control Clarified: Non-Full Function Existing Joint Ventures Fall outside the Scope of EU Merger Control

On September 7, 2017, the European Court of Justice decided that, where joint control is acquired over a new or existing undertaking (or parts of an undertaking), that transaction can only fall within the scope of the EU Merger Regulation where the resulting entity will be ‘full-function.’

  • Marine Harvest Gun Jumping Fine Upheld by the General Court

On October 26, the General Court confirmed the €20 million fine imposed by the Commission on Norwegian salmon farmer Marine Harvest in 2014 for allegedly implementing its acquisition of salmon producer Morpol ASA before notifying and receiving clearance from the Commission.

While Marine Harvest had been in contact with the Commission since December 2012, it only formally notified the acquisition of Morpol ASA on 9 August 2013. The Commission held, and the General Court agreed, that the company’s merger filing obligation was triggered several months earlier, when Marine Harvest acquired a 48.5 percent controlling shareholding in Morpol ASA in December 2012.

  • EC Is Ramping Up Enforcement: Conditional Merger Clearances Doubled during Margrethe Vestager’s First Three Years

Since the start of Vestager’s tenure on November 1, 2014, the Commission cleared a total of 70 deals subject to commitments, whereas between February 2010 and February 2013 — Joaquin Almunia’s first three years in the Commission — 34 deals were approved conditionally. Vestager sought remedies in 6.8 percent of cases, while Almunia only required them in 3.9 percent.

In 2014–2017, 55 conditional clearances were granted in Phase I, while 15 were Phase II cases. Between 2010 and 2013 there were 25 Phase I conditional clearances and 9 Phase II, according to data from the EC’s merger database.

Read the full report here.

Dealmakers know that a critical part of the merger process is obtaining antitrust clearance from government enforcers. But, even if the antitrust enforcers review and clear a transaction, a third-party can file a private suit alleging the transaction violated the antitrust laws. Recently, an aggrieved customer did just that—it won a substantial jury verdict and is also seeking a court order to unwind the transaction nearly six years after the transaction was announced.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On February 15, 2018, almost six years after Jeld-Wen announced an acquisition of Craftmaster Manufacturing, Inc. (CMI) in 2012, a federal jury awarded a customer, Steves and Sons (Steves), $58.6 million for antitrust damages and lost profits stemming from the acquisition. Additionally, Steves is seeking to unwind the 2012 Jeld-Wen/CMI transaction through a court order that would force Jeld-Wen to divest of assets sufficient to re-create a competitor as significant as CMI at the time of the acquisition in the doorskin market—that is, restoring competition to pre-transaction levels.
  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) reviewed, but did not challenge, Jeld-Wen’s acquisition of CMI, which reduced the number of doorskin suppliers from three to two. Interestingly, the 2012 transaction involved CMI, a company that entered the doorskin market in 2002, when it acquired divested assets because of DOJ concerns about a doorskin merger at that time.
  • One of the factors that led to DOJ clearance is that customers did not complain about the transaction. Prior to Jeld-Wen and CMI completing the transaction in 2012, Steves, entered into a long term supply agreement with Jeld-Wen.
  • After the transaction, Steves became dissatisfied with Jeld-Wen’s treatment and alleged that it received less favorable price terms, reduced product quality and output, and worse service.
  • As a result, in 2016—four years after closing—the customer filed a complaint alleging that Jeld-Wen’s acquisition of CMI violated the antitrust laws.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Business leaders must understand that even if antitrust enforcers clear a merger, not only can they revisit that decision, but third parties can also sue for damages or to unwind the transaction.
  • Steves did not complain about the merger until years after the transaction and yet still won a substantial verdict. This case is a reminder that business leaders must independently weigh the merits of their customer’s position (regardless of the antitrust enforcers’ posture regarding the same case) and manage the business appropriately after close to avoid a customer lawsuit.
  • Secondarily, business leaders must realize that customer lawsuits can also create significant operational issues that distract from the company’s business objectives. For example, not only may company personnel be distracted from running the business while assisting with the defense of the litigation, the company may also face significant legal costs, as well as invasive discovery. Further, a complaint filed by one private litigant could spur follow-on litigation from other aggrieved customers or third parties. Buyers should be cognizant of those risks and should consider whether mollifying any aggrieved customers or suppliers would avoid litigation.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Bruce Hoffman, acting director of the Bureau of Competition at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), announced that the FTC will no longer accept divestitures of inhalant and injectable pipeline drugs in pharmaceutical mergers.
  • Hoffman, speaking at the Global Competition Review Seventh Annual Antitrust Law Leaders Forum on February 2, 2018, explained that divestitures of pipeline products were not working well for complex pharmaceuticals, such as inhalants and injectables.
  • Instead, in situations in which the parties to the transaction own both a successfully manufactured inhalant or injectable and an overlapping pipeline inhalant or injectable in a concentrated market, the FTC will seek a divestiture of the manufactured product.
  • An internal study at the FTC revealed that the rate of failure was “startlingly high” for divestitures of certain complex pipeline pharmaceutical products. Hoffman blamed the high failure rate on the difficulty in actually getting the complex pipeline pharmaceutical to market by a divestiture buyer. He explained that a divestiture buyer, for example, could struggle to reliably manufacture an inhalant or injectable product, frustrating its ability to ultimately bring the product to market.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Divestitures of Complex Pipeline Pharmaceutical Products off the Table at the FTC

At the one year anniversary of the Trump administration, antitrust merger enforcement remains similar to the Obama administration, but it is still early to judge given the delays in antitrust appointments and given the DOJ’s lawsuit against the vertical AT&T/Time Warner transaction, the first vertical merger litigation in decades.  Below are some of the recent developments that have impacted merger enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as European regulators.

Continue Reading.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) and its subsidiaries (including Circle K Stores, Inc.) are engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States, as well as in the operation of convenience stores. ACT is the largest convenience store operator in terms of company-owned stores and is the second-largest chain overall in the United States.
  • Pursuant to an Equity Purchase Agreements, dated July 10, 2017, ACT would acquire, through its wholly owned subsidiary Oliver Acquisition Corp., all of the equity interests of certain Holiday subsidiary companies.
  • The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
  • The FTC defined local geographic markets, identifying ten separate geographic markets in Wisconsin (including Hayward, Siren and Spooner) and Minnesota (including Aitkin, Hibbing, Minnetonka, Mora, Saint Paul and Saint Peter).
  • In its complaint, the FTC stated that the “relevant geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel are highly localized, ranging up to a few miles, depending on local circumstances” and “[e]ach relevant market is distinct and fact-dependent, reflecting the commuting patterns, traffic flows, and outlet characteristics unique to each market.” Additionally, the FTC stated that “[c]onsumers typically choose between nearby retail fuel outlets with similar characteristics along their planned routes.”
  • In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the transaction would reduce the number of independent competitors from 3-to-2 in five local markets, and from 4-to-3 in five other local markets.
  • The FTC also stated that new entry was unlikely to mitigate the impact of the transaction in these local areas because there are significant entry barriers in the retail gasoline and diesel fuel business, including “the availability of attractive real estate, the time and cost associated with constructing a new retail fuel outlet, and the time associated with obtaining necessary permits and approvals.”
  • The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT and its subsidiaries 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 of its subsidiary’s and Holiday’s retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in ten local geographic markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • 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.
  • In certain markets where only two or three independent competitors will remain post-transaction, the FTC may allege that the transaction will increase the likelihood of coordination though no collusive or coordinated interaction is alleged. Certain aspects of the fuel industry make it vulnerable to coordination including: (1) competitors can observe each other’s fuel prices easily because retail fuel outlets post their fuel prices on price signs that are visible from the street; and (2) “retail fuel outlets regularly track their competitors’ fuel prices and change their own prices in response.”
  • The FTC and DOJ may not require a buyer-up-front in situations in which they have significant experience in the industries at issue, the assets involved can operate as a stand-alone business, the business is unlikely to be harmed in the period before sale (that is, easy to manage via hold separate), and the asset 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:

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a speech at the Open Markets Institute on December 6 entitled “Three Ways to Remake the American Economy for All”, in which she repeatedly positioned antitrust policy as a tool to rebalance competition between “big, powerful corporations” and “just about everyone else.”
  • Senator Warren spoke critically about recent antitrust enforcement and advocated three steps for improving antitrust enforcement: (1) block mergers that choke-off competition; (2) crack down on anticompetitive conduct; and (3) get all government agencies to defend competition.
  • On mergers, Senator Warren asserted that “settlement agreements that allowed bad mergers if the companies promised to take actions” have not worked out because “those expertly crafted provisions have been epic failures” and that “[s]tudies show that those settlement conditions often fail to bring about the cost savings and other benefits giant corporations promised.”
  • She advocated that to improve antitrust enforcement “we need to demand a new breed of antitrust enforcers … Enforcers who will turn down papier-mache settlement agreements and actually take cases to court.”
  • Senator Warren stated that increased enforcement is needed not just for horizontal mergers between direct competitors, but also for vertical mergers (e.g., between customers/suppliers). In her view, the “Chicago School party line” that vertical mergers do not harm competition may be accepted theory, but is “not often the reality” when large companies are involved.
  • On anticompetitive conduct, Senator Warren singled out no-poach agreements as an area for increased enforcement—specifically franchises that do not allow an employee of one franchisee to be hired by another franchisee.
  • On getting other agencies to defend competition, Senator Warren noted that while not enforcers like DOJ, other government agencies like the Defense Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Communications Commission, can significantly impact competition through regulation and purchasing.
  • Finally, Senator Warren highlighted several consolidated industries that she views as significantly concentrated for which she would like to see increased antitrust focus including: airlines, banking, healthcare, pharma, agriculture, telecom and tech.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Senator Warren’s theme that antitrust can be used to protect small businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, workers and just about everyone else from the “rich and powerful” shows that increasing antitrust enforcement has become a key party line for the upcoming midterm elections.
  • Additionally, Senator Warren stated that “[t]he individuals who lead the [FTC and DOJ] determine the federal government’s competition priorities,” and have a significant impact on antitrust enforcement by deciding which cases to open or take to court. Given these statements and that several high-profile mergers will be decided before the midterms, we expect that Senator Warren will continue to highlight the potential impact of high-profile mergers on small business and individuals.