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THE LATEST: Antitrust Agencies Show Frustration with Slow Divestitures

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently extracted a $3.5 million civil penalty from two companies involved in a gas station merger. The FTC asserts the companies violated their settlement agreement with the government, which required the divestment of 10 gas stations within 120 days from the date of the settlement agreement. The parties overshot the divestiture deadline by more than three months. The Commission stated its deadlines are not a suggestion and it will not permit parties to profit from order violations of any kind, including late divestitures.

FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra’s dissenting statement, made in an unrelated case just two weeks prior to this fine, emphasized that divestitures should be completed promptly and raised concerns with settlements involving divestitures that are made “after a prolonged period of time.” Taken together, if there is a change in administrations in November, we may see even more focus on requiring buyers up front or buyers in hand for mergers that require divestitures to gain clearance.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On July 6, 2020, the FTC imposed a $3.5 million civil penalty on two companies relating to 10 gas stations the Commission required the companies to divest within 120 days of the settlement, to gain clearance for their recent transaction. The companies failed to divest the gas stations by the June 15, 2018, Commission deadline.
    • The FTC noted that “Commission orders carry the force of law” and Commission “deadline[s are] not a suggestion.”
    • The FTC emphasized that it will “vigorously pursue and penalize” parties who attempt to “profit from order violations of any kind, including late divestitures.” The daily civil penalty is $43,280.
    • The Commission voted 5–0 on this settlement and civil penalty.
    • The divestitures were ultimately made more than three months after the original agreed-to deadline.
    • The Commission also claimed that the compliance reports submitted to the FTC were not complete, and the incomplete reports, in and of themselves, constituted consent order violations, commencing the daily civil penalty clock.
  • On June 26, 2020, less than two weeks before the civil penalty in the gas station matter was made public, Commissioner Chopra issued a dissenting statement in the Matter of Eldorado Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. In that case, the Commission allowed the assets to be divested to be retained by Eldorado for a period of roughly a year post-closing. During that period, the divestiture buyer would seek state gaming licensures needed to take ownership, and the casinos to be divested would be operated by an independent trustee.
    • Commissioner Chopra argued that “the Commission should not agree to merger settlements unless divestitures are completed promptly to a qualified buyer ready and willing to compete on day one.”
    • He also stated that “[i]t is risky and makes little sense to propose a complex settlement with a prolonged divestiture period and unorthodox terms to justify a merger that has no meaningful benefits, particularly given [...]

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United Technologies/Raytheon Highlights Key Issues in Aerospace and Defense Industry Merger Review

The DOJ Antitrust Division’s recent challenge to the United Technologies/Raytheon merger highlights a few key considerations for antitrust reviews of aerospace and defense industry transactions. The case is a useful illustration of important principles applicable to this unique industry.

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FTC Ratchets up Scrutiny on Pharmaceutical Deals

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • Recent developments indicate that pharmaceutical deals are attracting greater scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • In September 2019, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons reportedly stated that the FTC will more closely scrutinize deals with overlaps involving products that are still in clinical study or development. Because of the high failure rate of products in early phases of study, the FTC typically has focused on overlaps between marketed products or products near Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval, g., products in Phase III of the FDA pipeline. Chairman Simons’s statement makes clear that the FTC plans to examine earlier stage products while reviewing deals.
  • In 2018, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition announced in a speech that the FTC would favor divestitures of marketed drugs over pipeline drugs in pharmaceutical deals. Traditionally, when the FTC has had a concern about overlapping products, it has allowed the merging parties to decide which of the overlapping products to divest to remedy the concern. The director explained that, unlike marketed products, pipeline products may be costly to transfer or never be brought to market, eliminating a potential source of future competition.
  • Legislators on Capitol Hill have placed pressure on the FTC to scrutinize pharmaceutical deals with more vigor. Nine US senators wrote the FTC in September to voice concerns about the effect of pharmaceutical deals on innovation and prices. In their letter, the senators specifically highlighted divestitures of pipeline products, stating that such divestitures may not sufficiently address threats to competition because pipeline products may never make it to market.

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DOJ and Merging Parties Agree on Unprecedented Arbitration Procedure to Resolve Merger Challenge

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On September 4, 2019, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) sued to block Novelis Inc.’s proposed $2.6 billion acquisition of Aleris Corporation.
  • DOJ alleged that the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet (ABS). DOJ further alleged that Aleris was a new and disruptive rival supplier of aluminum ABS whose expansion into the North American market immediately impacted pricing.
  • Prior to DOJ’s suit to block the transaction, the merging parties and DOJ agreed that the dispute boiled down to a single dispositive issue: whether aluminum ABS constitutes a relevant product market, and specifically, whether the market for aluminum ABS also includes steel ABS.
  • DOJ and the merging parties agreed to refer this product market issue to arbitration pursuant to the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (5 U.S.C. § 571 et seq.) and the Antitrust Division’s implementing regulations (61 Fed. Reg. 36,896 (July 15, 1996).
  • In a filing in federal court the DOJ explained that it decided to arbitrate rather than litigate the merger in federal court because all sides agreed that the case turned on the single question of product market definition and referring the matter to arbitration would lessen the burden on the Court and reduce litigation costs to the merging parties and to the United States.

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

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.

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Recent Enforcement Trends in Divestiture Packages

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division have been actively challenging mergers and acquisitions (M&A) across a variety of industries where there is not a viable or acceptable remedy to mitigate the agencies’ competitive concerns. Parties to M&A transactions that the FTC or the DOJ believe are likely to harm competition may remedy those concerns by divesting certain businesses or assets. The parties may divest the business or assets that raise anticompetitive concerns and proceed with the remainder of the transaction. Divestitures in horizontal mergers (i.e., transactions between competitors) aim to maintain or replace the competition in the relevant market that might otherwise be lost as a result of the transaction.

Proposed divestitures are evaluated on the particular facts of the case and must be robust enough to present a viable competitor. Recent transactions demonstrate that the FTC and DOJ will reject divestiture proposals that the agency finds insufficient, putting the entire deal at risk for merging parties. Before proposing a remedy to the FTC or DOJ, parties should keep the following in mind: (1) in today’s enforcement environment, the agencies are more demanding in seeking effective remedies; (2) the agencies are more likely to  require a buyer up front, particularly if the parties seek to divest assets that are less than an entire on-going, stand-alone business, or the to-be-divested assets are at risk of deterioration pending divestiture; and (3) a buyer must be competitively and financially viable.

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McDermott’s Antitrust M&A Snapshot Published on July 17, 2016

McDermott’s Antitrust M&A Snapshot is a resource for in-house counsel and others who deal with antitrust M&A issues but are not faced with these issues on a daily basis. In each quarterly issue, we will provide concise summaries of Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Justice (DOJ) and European Commission (EC) news and events related to M&A, including significant ongoing investigations, trials and consent orders, as well as analysis on the trends we see developing in the antitrust review process.

United States: January – June Update

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) have been actively challenging mergers and acquisitions in the first half of 2016. In some instances, the parties abandoned their deal once the FTC or DOJ issued a complaint, in others, the parties entered into consent agreements with the agencies. In matters where a divestiture is an acceptable remedy, the FTC and DOJ have required robust divestitures with financially and competitively viable buyers. There is increasing pressure for broad divestitures and for upfront buyers in industries where the agencies do not have ample experience and where there may not be multiple competitive buyers willing to acquire the assets.

In merger challenges, the agencies have been successful in obtaining preliminary injunctions in Washington, DC, but have been less successful outside of their home court. The agencies have successfully argued price discrimination markets, where sales of products to a narrow group of customers were the market, and courts are accepting the agencies’ narrow market definition. We also see a trend in challenges due to innovation, where the merging parties are the market leaders in new developments and research and development in particular areas. Investigations continue to take many months, with many approaching or exceeding a year.

EU: January – June Update

In the EU, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of notified transactions to the European Commission (from 277 notifications in 2013 to 337 in 2015). Most of these transactions have been cleared by the EU regulator in Phase I without any commitments. However, there have still been a number of antitrust interventions requiring the merging parties to offer, often far-reaching, remedies. One industry has recently seen a particularly high ratio of antitrust intervention is the telecoms sector. For example, in the merger between the mobile operators Telenor and TeliaSonera, the parties abandoned the transaction due to European Commission opposition to the transaction. The European Commission publicly announced that the transaction would not have been cleared, and that the remedies offered by the companies were not convincing. A prohibition decision was also issued, despite the offered remedies, in the failed combination of Telefónica UK’s “O2” and Hutchison 3G UK’s “Three”. This transaction involved the longest merger control review by the European Commission to end up in a prohibition decision (243 calendar days, compared to the average of 157 calendar days to block a deal).

With regard to current trends in merger control remedies at the level of the European Commission, there continues to be [...]

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