The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division issued a business review letter that underscores the flexibility of the US antitrust regulators towards competitor collaborations aimed at increasing the supply and distribution of medical equipment needed to fight the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This letter can provide guidance to other companies considering collaborations to assist in the response to COVID-19.
In a prior note we provided guidance on COVID-19’s Impact on HSR Filing Timelines. The Agencies had indicated that early termination would not be granted while FTC operated on a temporary e-filing system.
Today, the Agencies have updated that guidance and as of March 30 will again grant early termination when both the FTC and DOJ have determined that no enforcement action will be taken during the initial waiting period. The granting of early termination for the initial HSR waiting period is not a right and is granted only at the Agencies’ discretion. The new guidance from the Premerger Notification Office states that early termination will be provided on a more limited basis and later in the process than historically provided.
On March 24, 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Joint Antitrust Statement Regarding COVID-19. In this statement, the FTC and DOJ recognize that public health efforts in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) require government and private cooperation. To address the speed at which companies and individuals must engage in COVID-19 response activities, the FTC and DOJ will respond to COVID-19-related requests for advisory opinions and business review letters within an expedited seven days of receipt of all information.
Amid the economic shocks caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, many industries are facing reduced demand for their products and services. Other industries—notably healthcare and food—are adjusting rapidly to expanding demand requirements and changing consumption patterns due to large-scale population confinement in several countries. Significant over- or under-capacity can create incentives, or even the necessity, to collaborate in ways that may push the limits of antitrust and competition rules.
On 23 March 2020, the European Competition Network (ECN) took unprecedented action. ECN, the network of competition enforcement authorities in the European Union, issued a joint statement announcing that its members will not actively intervene against “necessary and temporary” measures, including cooperation among competitors, in order to avoid a “shortage of supply.” At the same time, the ECN cautioned that its members would actively intervene against any measures taken by companies to limit the supply or charge excessive prices for critical products, such as masks or hand sanitising gel. This joint statement followed steps taken by several competition authorities in Europe to signal relaxed antitrust treatment of certain types of collaboration.
This article provides an overview of how companies can navigate these rapidly evolving developments in line with EU competition law. In brief, competition rules still apply, but are sufficiently flexible to allow critical industry adjustments during economic shocks that cannot be addressed in the short term by market forces, which are currently in turmoil.
In the midst of the ongoing global effort to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, the Directorate-General for Competition (DG Competition) of the European Commission (EC) and the EU courts are taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus among individuals whilst at the same time seeking to ensure that the EU economy remains as stable as possible. The situation remains highly fluid for the foreseeable future. Companies are therefore urged to stay abreast of the continually changing measures being taken.
EC Staff working on “non-essential” projects are working remotely from home. However, officials who hold “critical” functions, such as the Commissioner, the Director-General and Heads of Unit, will generally be present at DG Competition, although working on a shift basis. In-person meetings will be replaced by video conferences going forward. DG Competition staff who are dealing with the provision of State aid exemptions during the crisis are being considered “critical”.
With COVID-19-related closures rolling in daily, you may have questions about the operating status of the federal government’s antitrust enforcement agencies. Currently, the HSR review process does not seem to be significantly impacted, although the agencies will not grant a request for early termination during this period (as noted in our recent update, the FTC will again process early termination requests as of March 30, though on a more limited basis and later in the process than historically provided). Unlike the government shutdowns in 2013 and 2018, all FTC and DOJ staff are working full time. In addition, the agencies have implemented a mandatory e-filing system for all HSRs.
Given that the agencies will continue to work full-time and that an e-filing system is in place, we think it is unlikely that there will be significant impact on timing for the vast majority of transactions, particularly where there is no competitive overlap between the transacting companies.
The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) was active in 2019. At the beginning of 2019, the DOJ was preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations. Throughout 2019, the DOJ made public several new investigations, including in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment, the insulation installation industry and suspension assemblies used in hard disk drives. The DOJ also announced developments in other ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, the European Commission (Commission) entered into settlements with parties in three cartel cases: Occupant Safety Equipment, FOREX and Canned Vegetables. The Commission imposed total fines of €1,469 million in 2019. In March 2019, the Commission launched an online tool to submit documents and information in the context of leniency and settlement proceedings.
The potential for government investigation increases during periods of rapid and extreme movement in price. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently reiterated its focus on prosecuting violations of antitrust laws, especially in areas affected by the coronavirus outbreak. On March 9, 2020, the DOJ announced that individuals or companies engaging in price fixing, bid-rigging, customer or region allocation, or other antitrust violations could face criminal prosecution. Government scrutiny is likely to be even higher on companies that produce items for sale to federal, state or local governments, as the DOJ’s Procurement Collusion Strike Force acts as a dedicated watchdog over government contractors to prevent bid-rigging in government contracts. More information on the Strike Force is available here.
On March 3, 2020, the American Bar Association (ABA) hosted a Q&A with two members of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF)—Mark Grundvig, the Assistant Chief of the DOJ Antitrust Division’s Criminal II section, and Marcus Mills, Special Agent, Major Fraud Investigations Division, USPS Office of Inspector General.
During the course of the Q&A, Mr. Grundvig and Mr. Mills provided their perspective on the goals and progress of the PCSF.
The European Commission has reiterated its position that if a business allows for the non-exclusive licensing of its products in the EEA, such licensor can no longer control where, to whom, and in what manner (online/off-line) the products can be sold within the EEA.
On 30 January 2020, the Commission fined NBCUniversal Media, LLC, and other Comcast Group companies (collectively, NBCUniversal) EUR 14.327 million for restricting licensees from selling licensed products across customer groups and across countries within the European Economic Area (EEA). This is the third time in one year that the Commission has fined a brand owner for such restrictions, following Nike and Sanrio.
Although agreements restricting out-of-territory sales (i.e., market partitioning by territory) have long been prohibited under Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the Commission’s increased enforcement activity on vertical restraints is remarkable.