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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2022

In the United States, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lost four merger challenges (Illumina/GRAIL, UnitedHealth/Change Healthcare, U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar and Booz Allen/EverWatch) in September. The losses demonstrate that parties willing to litigate can have success in court. The absence of “smoking gun” documents and lack of a presumption of anticompetitive effects (based on market shares and concentration) made these cases very difficult for the government. The judges in these cases tended to credit structural and behavioral remedies that the government felt were insufficient and were persuaded by real-world testimony from executives and third parties contradicting the government’s theories of changed economic incentives from the transactions.

In July 2022, the European Parliament published the final text of the European Union’s upcoming instrument to address distortive foreign subsidies, following a provisional political agreement reached between the EU lawmakers in June (Foreign Subsidies Regulation). The Foreign Subsidies Regulation introduces a new mandatory screening mechanism including notification obligations and the European Commission’s right of ex officio investigations, which will have a considerable impact on M&A transactions and procurement procedures.

The Foreign Subsidies Regulation will enter into force once it is formally adopted by EU lawmakers and published in the Official Journal. It will become directly applicable across the European Union six months after entry into force. The notification obligations will start to apply nine months after entry into force. The Commission also is currently drafting procedural rules on how to notify transactions, how to calculate time limits, and the process for preliminary reviews and in-depth probes when there is a suspicion of distortive foreign subsidies.

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Why Courts Are Rejecting Agencies’ Merger Challenges

The US Department of Justice’s and the Federal Trade Commission’s losses in three merger challenges in September and a fourth in October demonstrate that merging parties can close difficult transactions if willing to fight the agencies in court. In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Jon B. Dubrow, Joel R. Grosberg and Matt Evola discuss these four cases and what they mean for merging parties.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2022

In the United States, parties continue to be cautious in litigating challenged transactions. Since January 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits (or threatened to sue) to block 16 transactions. Of those transactions, 12 were abandoned and six are in various stages of litigation. The data suggest that the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive merger enforcement policy is raising the stakes for parties to potential mergers and acquisitions, including an increased willingness by the agencies to litigate potentially problematic transactions.

Between May 6 and June 3, 2022, the European Commission (Commission) held a public consultation to seek views on the draft revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation) and the Notice on Simplified Procedure. This consultation was launched in the context of the Commission’s review process of the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control.

On April 20, 2022, the UK government proposed new measures to boost consumer protection rights and competition rules. In particular, the UK government’s reforms aim to strengthen the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) powers and alleviate burdens on smaller companies.

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International News Spotlight on Competition Law

In line with the evolution of the economy and the ongoing growth of online business and global trade, we’re seeing a corresponding increase in competition regulation and a rise in enforcement across all authorities. In our latest International News, we take a deep dive into the issues at play.

The growth of the online economy has triggered the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) update of its 20 year old .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising guide, and the development of an analytical framework for all digital distribution across the European Union. In just one seismic shift under the new EU Vertical Block Exemption Regulation 2022/720, dual-pricing, i.e., setting different wholesale prices for online/offline sales by the same distributor, is no longer considered a hardcore restriction unless its purpose is to prevent the effective use of the internet to sell the goods or services.

In the United States, there is an increased focus on anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The Biden Administration, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, and the FTC have all stated that the regulatory landscape needs to be reshaped to better reflect dynamic markets, and their priority is the aggressive pursuit of litigation against offending parties rather than the granting of consent decrees. The tendency to “sin first and beg forgiveness later” will emphatically no longer work, as a recent French gun-jumping case demonstrates.

Both the United States and the European Union have also turned their attention to investigating wage fixing and no-poach labour market violations that are not connected with M&A or business collaborations. It’s clear that competition/antitrust authorities are determined to expand their remit.

Read our full Spotlight on Competition Law here.




DOJ to Merging Parties: The Time of “Underenforcement” is Over; Fix-It-First or Risk Being Challenged

WHAT HAPPENED

During a conference last week, Ryan Danks, Director of Civil Enforcement at the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ), suggested that merging parties—not the antitrust enforcement agencies—should devise fixes for allegedly anticompetitive transactions.

Danks stated “that something is broken about the way that the antitrust community talks about remedies in the context of mergers, where parties will bring in a three-to-two or four-to-three or even a two-to-one [transactions] and say ‘now we want you, government, to work with us to figure out how to fix this’ . . . that’s not our job. Our job is to maintain competition.”

Danks added that merging parties bear the responsibility for remedying their anticompetitive transactions and have more information on the businesses, allowing them to formulate strong solutions. Such “fix-it-first” approaches may allow merging parties to complete their transactions quicker, avoiding lengthy merger reviews and consent decree negotiations.

Danks also suggested that “the simplest remedy . . . is to just stop an anticompetitive transaction from occurring,” strongly hinting that today’s DOJ would rather challenge an entire transaction than work with the parties on devising a remedy to address specific competitive concerns in limited product or geographic markets.

Jonathan Kanter, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, conveyed similar views in two speeches last week, making it clear that merger enforcement at the DOJ will become even more vigorous.

On September 13, 2022, Kanter:

  • Warned that “[c]ompanies considering mergers that may harm competition should know that the Antitrust Division will not back down from a fight so long as that threat remains.”
  • Emphasized that the Clayton Act’s “expansive definition of antitrust liability” requires the government only to prove that a transaction’s effect “may be substantially to lessen competition.” According to Kanter, antitrust agencies have, for too long, “underenforced a statute that was meant to be prophylactic” by focusing on concrete evidence of a merger’s effect on prices.

On September 16, 2022, Kanter said that antitrust enforcers “can no longer be so cautious to avoid overenforcement that [they] intentionally underenforce the law.”

Moving away from negotiating settlements that allow transactions to proceed while resolving anticompetitive issues is part of a trend of dramatic policy and procedural changes at both the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) designed to discourage mergers and acquisitions (M&A), such as:

  • Suspending early termination of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR) waiting period for transactions that do not raise competitive issues
  • Sending merging parties “close at your own risk” letters, informing the parties that antitrust investigations are ongoing despite expiration of the HSR waiting period
  • Insisting on inclusion of prior approval/prior notice provisions in all merger settlements
  • Including new topics, such as the impact on labor and environment, in Second Requests and adding additional hurdles to modifying Second Requests.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR MERGING PARTIES

Merging parties should increasingly consider resolving likely competitive issues with their transaction before the antitrust [...]

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General Court Upholds European Commission’s Power to Review Illumina-Grail Despite Untriggered Turnover Thresholds

In Illumina v Commission, the General Court has confirmed the authority of the European Commission (EC) under Article 22 EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) to examine a transaction that does not have a European dimension, but which is the subject of a referral request made by a Member State – even if the transaction is not notifiable in that Member State.

INTRODUCTION

Article 22 EUMR includes a referral mechanism whereby one or more Member States may request the EC to examine any transaction insofar as it does not have an EU dimension but affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State or States making the request (Article 22 Conditions).

With a view to ensuring that non-notifiable yet potentially problematic mergers do not fly under the radar of merger control review, in March 2021 the EC issued practical guidance (Article 22 Guidance) on when it might be appropriate for a Member State to refer such mergers to the Commission. The EC referred in particular to the digital and pharmaceutical sectors (see our On the Subject on the Article 22 Guidance here).

In Illumina v Commission, which concerns a transaction in the pharma sector, the General Court has confirmed that the EC has the authority to examine transactions that do not have a European dimension nor fall within the scope of the national merger control rules of EU or EFTA Member States.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On September 21, 2020, Illumina, an American company specializing in genomic sequencing, announced its intention to acquire sole control of Grail, an American biotechnology company which relies on genomic sequencing to develop cancer screening tests, to “Launch New Era of Cancer Detection” (the Transaction).

The EUMR thresholds were not met by the Transaction, nor were any EU or EFTA Member State thresholds. The Transaction was therefore not notified to the EC nor any of the EU or EFTA Member States. However, on December 7, 2020, the EC received a complaint concerning the Transaction and, on investigation, reached the preliminary conclusion that the Transaction appeared to satisfy the Article 22 Conditions for referral to the EC by a national competition authority. The EC subsequently on February 19, 2021 sent a letter to the Member States (the Invitation Letter) to inform them of the Transaction and to invite them to submit a referral request under Article 22. The French competition authority obliged and other Member States subsequently requested, each in its own right, to join.

On March 11, 2021, the EC informed Illumina and Grail of the referral request (the Information Letter) and about a month later, on April 19, 2021, it accepted the referral request, along with the respective requests to join (the Contested Decisions). This prompted Illumina, supported by Grail, to file suit before the General Court (against the Contested Decisions and the Information Letter).

On substance, Illumina argued that (i) the EC lacked the competence to initiate, under Article 22 EUMR, an [...]

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FTC Takes Action Limiting Overbroad M&A Non-Compete

WHAT HAPPENED

  • GPM Investments (GPM) acquired 60 gas stations from Corrigan Oil (Corrigan).
  • As part of the acquisition agreement, Corrigan agreed not to compete for a period of time with the gas stations purchased from Corrigan. In addition, Corrigan agreed not to compete with GPM for another 190 gas stations that GPM already owned.
  • Few of the 190 existing GPM locations were “anywhere near an acquired Corrigan” gas station.
  • Because the transaction would reduce the number of competitors from 3-to-2 or fewer in five areas, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required divestitures in those areas.
  • Additionally, the FTC determined that the non-compete was overbroad, noting that the non-compete was “untethered to protecting goodwill acquired in the acquisition” because it affected gas stations in “areas geographically distinct from the acquired” gas stations. For this reason, the non-compete was highly suspect and warranted FTC scrutiny.
  • The FTC required the parties to revise the transaction agreement non-compete such that it was no longer in duration than 3 years and impacted an area no greater than 3 miles from each acquired gas station.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan confirmed that some non-compete agreements that are part of a transaction agreement are “necessary to protect a legitimate business interest in connection with the sale of a business, such as the goodwill acquired in a transaction.”
  • Here, the non-compete terms were determined, however, to be “facially” overbroad in scope and unrelated to protecting any goodwill GPM was acquiring with the Corrigan stations.
  • The FTC’s action suggests that it is on the lookout for overbroad non-competes that are not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose even if part of a legitimate transaction agreement.
  • The action by the FTC provides sellers with an example to argue that onerous non-competes demanded by buyers have the potential to raise antitrust issues that could slow deal timelines, particularly if a non-compete is overbroad in relation to the products impacted, the duration of the non-compete, and/or the breadth of the geography covered.

Alex Grayson, a summer associate in the Washington, DC, office, also contributed to this article.




DOJ Antitrust Head Signals Aggressive Enforcement against Private Equity Transactions

US antitrust enforcers have signaled that private equity firms are the prime targets for upcoming aggressive antitrust merger enforcement. In a recent interview, US Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stated that the motive of a private equity firm may be “designed to hollow out or roll up an industry and essentially cash out,” which “is often very much at odds with the law, and very much at odds with the competition we’re trying to protect.”[1] His comment comes after Lina Khan, the current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman, stated that private equity roll-ups would be a focal point for the FTC.[2] It is not entirely unsurprising that progressive antitrust enforcers are focusing on private equity after the industry announced a record 14,730 deals last year globally worth $1.2 trillion, which was nearly double the previous high in 2007.[3] The above comments provide several key takeaways for stakeholders going forward:

  • As a general matter, these statements further solidify the notion that antitrust merger enforcement is going to continue to be extremely aggressive and indicate that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FTC may closely scrutinize private equity transactions even if there is no obvious horizontal or vertical issue. For example, the DOJ and the FTC have already started investigating less traditional theories of harm, such as the impact on labor and the environment.
  • Private equity firms should expect the potential for heightened scrutiny in instances where a private equity firm has engaged in serial acquisitions within the same industry (known as roll-up transactions), especially in healthcare-related fields. It will be important for stakeholders to not only evaluate the current acquisition for competitive issues, but to also consider the impact of a long-term “roll-up” plan and its influence on pricing, service, and quality.
  • Watch for agencies to bring more Clayton Act Section 8 cases, which prohibits interlocking directorates (aka a single firm appointing officers and directors at multiple competitors).[4] Private equity firms often will appoint personnel to the boards of the firm’s portfolio companies, which may consist of horizontal competitors. Going forward, these appointments will require additional attention to avoid running afoul of Section 8.
  • The DOJ and the FTC will also have an enhanced focus on the impact of private equity firms acting as divestiture buyers when the agency orders merging parties to divest assets to preserve competition. Assistant Attorney General Kanter stated, “[I]n many instances, divestitures that were supposed to address a competitive problem have ended up fueling additional competitive problems.”[5]

While the degree to which agencies will more closely scrutinize private equity transactions remains unclear, it is crucial for private equity firms to engage antitrust counsel early in the transaction process both to evaluate the transaction at hand, as well as any future transactions that may, together, bring about enhanced regulatory scrutiny.

[1] Stefania Palma and James Fontanella-Khan, “Crackdown on buyout deals coming, warns [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q1 2022

In the United States, antitrust agencies continue with their aggressive merger enforcement posture. The agencies challenged four transactions this quarter, including multiple vertical mergers. The agencies are increasingly skeptical of merger remedies, including behavioral remedies and divestitures. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are working together to update the current Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The updated guidelines will likely signal a more aggressive enforcement posture.

The European Commission (Commission) blocked one transaction in Phase II and cleared two transactions. Three transactions were abandoned after the Commission initiated a Phase II investigation. The Commission made use of partial referrals to member state national competition authorities in two cases. It also ordered Hungary to withdraw its decision to prohibit Vienna Insurance Group’s (VIG) acquisition of AEGON Group’s Hungarian subsidiaries on foreign direct investment grounds, holding that Hungary’s prohibition decision infringed Article 21 of the EU Merger Regulation.

In the United Kingdom, the first quarter of 2022 also saw a number of Phase II investigations. Specifically, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) cleared one transaction in Phase II and blocked two other transactions in Phase II. One transaction was abandoned after the CMA initiated a Phase II investigation. The CMA blocked the merger of Cargotec and Konecranes just one month after the EC cleared the transaction subject to commitments in Phase II. The parties abandoned the transaction following the CMA’s decision.

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Heard on Day Two and Three of 2022 Antitrust Law Spring Meeting

On April 7 and 8, 2022, the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section wrapped up its annual Spring Meeting. The event featured updates and remarks from several antitrust enforcers, including FTC Chair Lina Khan and US Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Jonathan Kanter. In this post, we share key takeaways from the final two days of the Spring Meeting.

FTC and DOJ Will Stay Focused on Litigation: Top officials at both US antitrust agencies highlighted the agencies’ full dockets and noted that litigation to enforce the antitrust laws will remain a top priority.

  • Three Directors from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—Holly Vedova, the Director of the Bureau of Competition; Samuel A.A. Levine, Director of Bureau of Consumer Protection; and Elizabeth Wilkins, Director of Office of Policy Planning—all emphasized that the FTC will work as one team and will not hesitate to initiate litigation.
  • Vedova noted the FTC’s recent success in several transactions being abandoned after the FTC initiated litigation. She expressed that the Bureau of Competition’s main focus will be litigation, where she believes her bureau will be most effective. Khan echoed these sentiments while speaking on a separate panel, emphasizing that two recently abandoned transactions were in the context of challenges to vertical transactions and that such challenges will continue to be a priority at the FTC.
  • Likewise, Kanter noted that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not afraid to take on big cases or big companies and will not be afraid to litigate. He said the DOJ is just getting started and reiterated that the DOJ has more active cases than it has had in recent years.

Agencies Will Closely Scrutinize Potential Remedies in M&A: Both FTC and DOJ officials emphasized they will continue to examine the effectiveness of remedies and will only pursue strong remedies.

  • Kanter said that divestiture remedies will be the rare exception and will no longer be the norm. He further cautioned merging parties to avoid engaging in “regulatory arbitrage” and trying to leverage investigation outcomes in one jurisdiction against another because global cooperation among antitrust enforcers is high.
  • Vedova also indicated that the Bureau of Competition has no appetite for weak or uncertain settlements, especially those involving behavioral remedies, which have proven ineffective. The FTC will require meaningful structural relief to resolve competition concerns regarding a transaction.
  • Parties should also not expect the FTC to engage in long settlement discussions due to the unprecedented volume of merger reviews. Vedova noted that staff’s time is valuable and is much better spent preparing for litigation rather than negotiating remedies. She further indicated that the FTC will not engage in remedy discussions unless the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) clock is stopped and timing agreements are tolled.
  • State attorneys general will similarly evaluate remedies and, if necessary, pursue additional remedies than those sought by federal antitrust enforcers. For example, in a recent dialysis acquisition, the state of Utah sought divestiture of a fourth clinic above the three divestitures required to [...]

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