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 [...]