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FTC “Prior Approval” Policy for Future Transactions Raises Antitrust Risks for Buyers and Sellers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted July 21, 2021, to repeal a 1995 policy statement that eliminated prior approval and prior notice provisions from most merger settlements. In repealing this longstanding policy—and likely insisting on the inclusion of such provisions in future settlements—the FTC will have significantly greater authority to review and block future transactions of companies who enter into consent orders with the FTC. This policy change will have significant implications for the negotiation of antitrust risk provisions in transaction agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In its 1995 Policy Statement Concerning Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions in Merger Cases, the FTC announced that it would no longer routinely require prior approval of certain future acquisitions in consent orders entered in merger cases.
    • Prior to this statement, FTC consent orders to settle merger reviews routinely required parties to seek and receive the FTC’s prior approval for future acquisitions in the relevant product and geographic markets at issue in the first challenge/consent order for a 10-year period. In some cases, the FTC also included a prior notice provision obligating companies to notify the FTC of any intended transactions that were not subject to the premerger notification and waiting period of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).
  • On July 21, 2021, the FTC voted 3-2 to rescind its 1995 policy statement, opening the door to requiring prior approval and prior notice provisions in future merger consent orders.

 
WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This policy change substantially increases the FTC’s merger enforcement authority for companies that settle investigations with a consent order and become subject to prior approval requirements.
    • Prior approval provisions place the burden on companies to demonstrate that their transactions are not anticompetitive.
    • The FTC can deny approval for these future transactions with very little—if any—limits on its discretion.
    • This differs significantly from the enforcement regime under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, where the FTC has the burden of proving that a transaction will substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
  • Prior notice provisions require companies to provide the FTC with advanced notice of certain transactions—even smaller transactions that typically would fall under the HSR threshold (e.g., transactions valued below $92 million). The notification requirement increases the likelihood of FTC investigation for these transactions.
  • By rescinding the 1995 policy statement, the FTC may seek to impose such provisions in its orders as a routine matter. It remains to be seen under what circumstances the FTC will insist on prior approval or prior notice (or how broad they will be crafted). In supporting the repeal, FTC Chair Lina Khan stated that the FTC will employ these provisions based on “facts and circumstances of the proposed transaction.”
    • These prior approval and/or notice provisions, when previously employed, generally lasted for the term of the order—typically 10 years.
    • Generally, the scope of these provisions was limited to the geographic and product market in which the FTC determined that the [...]

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Enforcement Agencies Announce Moratorium on Early Termination Program for Merger Reviews

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a joint statement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 4, 2021, signaling comprehensive changes to the merger review process. In a significant development, the agencies declared a moratorium on the early termination program for merger reviews. This policy shift signals a potential sea change in antitrust enforcement under the Biden administration.

The Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Premerger Notification program imposes an initial 30-day waiting period, prior to merger consummation, during which the enforcement agencies have an opportunity to evaluate the likely effects of the proposed merger and decide whether to investigate further by issuing a Second Request or ending the HSR review by letting the initial 30-day waiting period expire.

A third potential outcome of the initial 30-day waiting period is early termination. The early termination program under the HSR Act was originally established as an exception to an HSR review if the relevant parties demonstrated a “special business reason.” This policy was reversed after Heublein v. FTC (1982) and since that time early termination of the initial 30-day waiting period has become commonplace if the merger does not merit further review (in 2019 early termination was requested in 74.2% of transactions and granted in 73.5% of those instances). Further review would be merited, if the enforcement agencies determined the transaction posed a risk of a substantial lessening of competition under the Clayton Act.

Pursuant to the moratorium on early terminations, merging parties must now refrain from consummating any proposed transaction for the full initial 30-day waiting period—early termination is not a potential outcome.

The joint statement regarding the early termination moratorium provided the following justifications:

  • The early termination review was precipitated because of the transition to a new presidential administration as well as an “unprecedented volume” of HSR filings;
  • The above factors warrant the use of the full 30-day window to allow the agencies to do “right by competition and consumers;”
  • The suspension of the early termination program “will be brief.”

Past pauses in early terminations coincided with extraordinary circumstances such as the move to an e-filing system at the Premerger Notification Office (PNO) at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic (paused from March 13, 2020, until March 30, 2020) or during periods of government shutdown. However, this current pause appears likely to endure longer than these past instances, given that this pause is driven by the confluence of a number of factors, beyond what was indicated in the joint statement, such as:

  • A longstanding agency funding drought resulting in understaffing
  • Transitioning to a new presidential administration
  • A desire to engage in more expansive investigations under the new Biden administration
  • A large influx in HSR filings in recent months (on pace for a 60% increase in 2021)

From the agencies’ point of view, these changes are necessary to meet their mandate of preventing unfair competition and anticompetitive practices. With agency resources stretched thin due to budget constraints, in addition to an increased [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | FTC and DOJ Continue M&A Transaction Investigation While UK CMA Continues Role as Key Jurisdiction in Merger Clearance Process

Antitrust regulators in the United States and Europe were very active in the final quarter of 2019. The FTC and DOJ continue to investigate and challenge M&A transactions in a variety of industries. Events of this quarter highlight the importance of states in merger enforcement. As well, recent FTC activity highlights the regulators’ focus on preventing monopolists from buying nascent competitors.

In Europe, the UK CMA continues to expand its role as a key jurisdiction in the merger clearance process, which will only accelerate with Brexit. The EC agreed to clear, subject to conditions, acquisitions in the aluminum production and battery industries as well as in the wholesale supply and retail distribution of TV channels after conducting Phase II reviews. Moreover, the EC opened new in-depth investigations into transactions in the copper refining and engineering sectors.

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Notification Threshold Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Increased to $94 Million

The US Federal Trade Commission today announced increased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and for determining whether parties trigger the prohibition against interlocking directors under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

Notification Threshold Adjustments

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced revised thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR) pre-merger notifications on January 28, 2020. These increased thresholds will become effective on February 27, 2020. These new thresholds apply to any transaction that closes on or after the effective date.

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DOJ Set to Increase Scrutiny of Government Contractors with New Procurement Collusion Strike Force

Government contractors should be aware that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking new steps to scrutinize public procurement. The DOJ Antitrust Division’s creation of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) means that government procurement enforcement will be a significant focus for the agency moving forward. Although the new strike force builds on past government-wide efforts to detect illegal conduct in public procurement, recent activity from the Antitrust Division has raised the stakes. In light of this, government contractors should broaden their compliance programs to include antitrust so they can avoid heightened monetary penalties and possible prison terms for implicated employees.

I. What Happened

The DOJ’s Antitrust Division took another step to increase its attention on government procurement by focusing resources on a new task force designed to detect anticompetitive behavior amongst government contractors. On October 24, 2019, the Antitrust Division posted a notice in the Federal Register inviting public comment on its implementation of a “Procurement Collusion Strike Force” complaint form. The complaint form will facilitate “reporting by the public of complaints, concerns, and tips regarding potential antitrust crimes affecting government procurement, grants, and program funding.” While the DOJ’s unveiling of the PCSF is significant in itself, the event is just one of several pieces of activity from the Antitrust Division indicating that government contractors must begin to consider antitrust risk much more seriously.

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Notification Threshold Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Increased to $90 Million

The US Federal Trade Commission recently announced increased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and for determining whether parties trigger the prohibition against interlocking directors under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

Notification Threshold Adjustments

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced revised thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR) pre-merger notifications on February 15, 2019. These increased thresholds will become effective mid-to-late March. These new thresholds apply to any transaction that closes on or after the effective date.

  • The base filing threshold, which frequently determines whether a transaction requires filing of an HSR notification, will increase to $90 million.
  • The alternative statutory size-of-transaction test, which captures all transactions valued above a certain size (even if the “size-of-person” threshold is not met), will be adjusted to $359.9 million.
  • The statutory size-of-person thresholds will increase slightly to $18 million and $180 million.

The adjustments will affect parties contemplating HSR notifications in various ways. Transactions that meet the current “size-of-transaction” threshold, but will not meet the adjusted $90 million threshold, will only need to be filed if they will close before the new thresholds take effect mid-to-late March.

Parties may also realize a benefit of lower notification filing fees for certain transactions. Under the rules, the acquiring person must pay a filing fee, although the parties may allocate that fee amongst themselves. Filing fees for HSR-reportable transactions will remain unchanged; however, the size of transactions subject to the filing fee tiers will shift upward as a result of the gross national product (GNP)-indexing adjustments:

Filing Fee Size-of-Transaction $45,000 $90 million, but less than $180 million $125,000 $180 million, but less than $899.8 million $280,000 $899.8 million or more Interlocking Directorate Thresholds Adjustment

The FTC also announced revised thresholds for interlocking directorates. The FTC revises these thresholds annually based on the change in the level of GNP. Section 8 of the Clayton Act prohibits a person from serving as a director or officer of two competing corporations if certain thresholds are met. Pursuant to the recently revised thresholds, Section 8 of the Clayton Act applies to corporations with more than $36,564,000 in capital, surplus and undivided profits, but it does not apply where either interlocked corporation has less than $3,656,400 in competitive sales. These new thresholds are effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, expected within the week.




Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. (more…)




Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: January – March 2018 Update

One year into the Trump administration, the US antitrust agencies are finally starting to implement their enforcement policies. Most notably, trial began in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, which is the Antitrust Division’s first significant vertical challenge in several decades. Judge Richard J. Leon’s opinion in that case could alter the outlook for several other vertical transactions pending before the agencies. While the DOJ was preparing for trial, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was preparing for a transition to five new commissioners, who were approved by the Senate in April. It remains unclear whether the new, Republican-led FTC will be more moderate in its enforcement efforts, similar to prior Republican administrations, or will follow in the footsteps of President Trump’s DOJ, which has been surprisingly aggressive.

EU: January – March 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) continued to be quite active in the first quarter of 2018, clearing five mergers. The most significant decision was the approval of a megamerger in the agrochemical sector—Bayer/Monsanto—where the parties submitted a remedy package that totalled over €6 billion. This remedy package included divestitures of research and development assets that addressed the EC’s concerns about innovation, similar to the EC’s Dow/DuPont clearance last year. In addition to Bayer/Monsanto, two other proposed acquisitions in the chemicals sectors fell through, most notably Celanese/Blackstone, due to excessive divestiture requests required by the Commission. (more…)




THE LATEST: Trump DOJ’s Next Target: the Illinois Brick Indirect Purchaser Rule?

In the course of one week, two top level DOJ Antitrust officials in the Trump Administration separately spoke at panels and suggested the possibility of a sea change in federal antitrust law with respect to indirect purchaser lawsuits. The comments further reinforce the Administration’s active focus on antitrust issues.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division (the Division), spoke at a conference organized by the Antitrust Research Foundation on January 19, 2018, and is reported to have stated that the Division was looking into the possibility of pursuing civil damages on behalf of taxpayers in antitrust price-fixing suits.
  • A few days later, on January 23, 2018, Andrew Finch, DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke at a Heritage Foundation conference and reportedly stated that the Division was “looking at whether or not it might be worthwhile to revisit those rules and suggest the same to the Supreme Court,” referencing the landmark decision Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, which prohibits indirect purchasers from recovering antitrust damages under federal antitrust law.

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FTC Increases Notification Thresholds under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and Clayton Act Section 8

The US Federal Trade Commission recently announced increased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and for determining whether parties trigger the prohibition against interlocking directors under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

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