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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2021

In the United States, aggressive antitrust enforcement is likely to continue with the appointment of Lina Khan as Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair and the nomination of Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division. The premerger notification landscape continues to shift as filings reach another record high. Technology companies remain in the “hot seat” as legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced five antitrust reform bills that would change the enforcement landscape for digital platforms, including seeking to preclude large digital platform companies from acquiring smaller, nascent competitors. And the US Department of Justice is making good on President Biden’s pledge to regulate “Big Ag” by challenging Zen-Noh Grain Corporation’s proposed acquisition of 38 grain elevators from Bunge North America, Inc.

Meanwhile, in Q1 2021, the European Commission (Commission) published its Guidance on Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation. The Guidance encourages the EU Member States to refer certain transactions to the Commission even if the transaction is not notifiable under the laws of the referring Member State(s). In Q2, not long after the issuance of the Guidance, the Commission received its first referral request to assess the proposed acquisition of GRAIL by Illumina. In light of the growing global debate on the need for more effective merger control, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed that the Commission will not soften EU merger policy going forward. The Commission’s statement was made despite the fact no deals have been blocked by the Commission in about the last two years.

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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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Executive Order Encourages FTC, DOJ to Address Hospital Consolidation, Vigorously Enforce Antitrust Laws

President Biden recently issued an executive order affirming his administration’s policy of enforcing the antitrust laws to “combat the excessive consolidation of industry” and cited healthcare markets as one of several priorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) already have been actively enforcing the antitrust laws in provider consolidation matters. The FTC is currently challenging the proposed merger of two health systems in New Jersey, and in the past year unsuccessfully challenged the combination of Jefferson Health and Einstein Health in Philadelphia and successfully challenged the proposed combination of two health systems (Methodist Le Bonheur and Saint Francis) in Memphis.

The executive order follows a proposed bill to increase budgets for the FTC and DOJ, FTC resolutions on compulsory process in healthcare investigations, congressional calls to investigate the use of COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund payments for acquisitions, the FTC physician practice acquisition retrospective and other health antitrust developments.

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Government Contractor Pleads Guilty to Bid-Rigging and Procurement Fraud

On June 7, 2021, as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) continuing commitment to prosecuting cases where the government is a victim, a government contractor pleaded guilty to one count of bid-rigging and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into public works contracts for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions LLC (Contech) entered its plea of guilty before a federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and was sentenced to pay a $7 million criminal fine. Contech was also ordered to pay an additional $1,533,988 in restitution to the NCDOT. Notably, the DOJ did not impose a term of probation on Contech because Contech agreed to improve its compliance program to prevent recurrence of anticompetitive conduct. Contech, however, is required to cooperate with the DOJ, including producing documents and making witnesses available for interviews or testimony.

Contech and its former executive were indicted in October 2020 on six counts of alleged bid-rigging, conspiracy to commit fraud and mail and wire fraud in connection with a decade-long conspiracy involving public works projects in North Carolina.

This prosecution highlights the DOJ’s ongoing commitment to the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and its efforts to scrutinize public procurements and combat collusion and related fraud in government contracting.

The PCSF has conducted extensive training of law enforcement officers and procurement officers, among others, to help identify scenarios and situations where collusion is more likely to occur. The PCSF is also utilizing data analytics to advance its investigations, building on technological advancements and more useable data sets to target and prosecute anticompetitive conduct.

Importantly, the PCSF has recently doubled in size and has gone global just as the United States has approved unprecedented stimulus spending in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and as the Biden administration is poised to approve a new infrastructure plan. The PCSF has provided tools that allow any individual to report suspected collusion via email or an online tip center. Enforcers’ renewed commitment to procurement collusion—coupled with increased government spending—will likely lead to more investigations and additional prosecutions in 2021.

Contech, a manufacturer of aluminum and other products, conspired with its supplier in bidding on numerous NCDOT public works projects. According to the indictment, the former Contech executive would obtain (or direct his subordinate to obtain) the supplier’s total bid price in advance. Using that information, Contech then submitted bids to be intentionally higher than its supplier. The indictment also alleged that Contech submitted false certifications that its bids were competitive and free of collusion throughout the conspiracy.

The indictment alleged bid-rigging between a manufacturer and its supplier, which is typically a vertical relationship and generally subject to the Rule of Reason rather than per se criminal analysis. Under the Rule of Reason, antitrust enforcers balance the anticompetitive effects of the conduct in question against the procompetitive benefits. Certain anticompetitive conduct, however, [...]

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Senate Passes Bill to Substantially Increase HSR Merger Filing Fees for Deals Greater Than $5 Billion

On June 6, 2021, the US Senate passed the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act of 2021. The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights; and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

The bill amends the premerger notification provisions of 15 U.S.C. § 18a and substantially increases the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR) filing fees for large mergers, while also effectuating a slight decrease in HSR filing fees for smaller mergers. The text of the bill can be found here.

The adjusted HSR filing fees are as follows:

The proposed HSR filing fees are subject to annual increases based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), unless the CPI increase is less than 1%. Any changes must be published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) each year (no later than January 31). The HSR filing fee thresholds themselves will remain correlated to Gross National Product (GNP).

The competition agencies also stand to directly gain from the passage of this bill. Section 3 of the bill authorizes the appropriation of increased funds for both the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the FTC. The bill appropriates $252 million to the DOJ and $418 million to the FTC, substantially increasing the resources at the disposal of the regulatory agencies and even exceeding the FTC’s requested budget for FY 2022.

The bill is still subject to approval in the House of Representatives and by President Biden. But given the bipartisan support for this bill, its passage appears likely, and it raises the potential for additional bipartisan antitrust legislation in the future.




Proposed Bill to Substantially Increase HSR Merger Filing Fees for Deals Greater Than $5 Billion Advances Out of Committee

On Thursday, May 13, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voice-vote approved and advanced Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act of 2021. This bill seeks to increase HSR filing fees required for mergers and acquisitions, altering fees for all transactions, and substantially increasing HSR filing fees for deals greater than $5 billion to $2.25 million. HSR filing fees have not been updated since 2001.

The proposed bill would further increase the fees each year in accordance with the Consumer Price Index. In an effort to gain bipartisan support, the bill would decrease filing fees for smaller transactions, while increasing fees significantly for all deals over $500 million. Below are tables showing the proposed HSR filing fees versus the current HSR filing fees based on transaction size.

Although no changes are imminent, the advancement of this bill indicates politicians’ continued focus on increasing the burden on mid-size and larger companies seeking to merge, while slightly reducing fees for smaller transactions.Senator Klobuchar has argued that the substantial increase in fees for larger deals is needed because of the government cost required to investigate larger deals. Further, she said she believes the affected parties, such as major technology companies, could easily handle the cost because it is a small expense compared to the amount these companies often spend on legal and professional support in effectuating the deals.




Expect More Criminal Enforcement & What You Can Do to Minimize Your Risk

OVERVIEW

Antitrust cartel and related collusive scheme enforcement is poised to increase. Several factors support this: (1) the Antitrust Division (the Division) has a 10% budget increase for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021; (2) proposed legislation that would increase its budget by $300 million; (3) Democratic administrations have traditionally been more aggressive in enforcing antitrust laws; (4) according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), last year the Division opened the most grand jury investigations in almost 20 years and by the end of 2020 had the most open grand jury investigations in a decade; (5) increased coordination with international law enforcement agencies, including the Division recently signing a number of cross-border agreements, maintaining active memberships in multilateral organizations dedicated to cross-border antitrust enforcement cooperation and a DOJ official recently noting they have been working at strengthening their relationships with international law enforcement agencies during the pandemic and they expect this to benefit international coordination on investigations and (6) as pandemic limitations on in-person investigative tactics subside (including search warrants and knock and talk interviews, among others), expect a return to overt tactics related to open grand jury investigations.

Historically, cartel enforcement has increased following economic downturns and substantial federal stimulus packages. For example, after the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 Recovery Act, the DOJ filed 60% more criminal cases than in prior years. We expect this trend to continue in the wake of the unprecedented government stimulus packages passed in 2020 and 2021 and additional potential government spending on infrastructure. In addition to the increased resources, the Division has stepped up its criminal enforcement program with the creation and recent expansion of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), the expansion of criminal investigations and prosecutions into labor markets, higher expectations for corporate cooperators and new potential benefits for corporate entities with compliance programs addressing antitrust violations.

Below we discuss the sectors most likely to be implicated by increased criminal antitrust enforcement, the PCSF and what steps can be taken to prepare and minimize risk in this environment.

EXPECTED INDUSTRY FOCUS

Based on the trends described above and our recent experience at the DOJ, we expect antitrust criminal enforcement to focus in at least the following industries:

  • Healthcare – The DOJ remains active in this sector with its ongoing generics investigations and prosecutions and other cases relating to market allocation and labor markets. In fact, all of the charged labor market cases thus far have been in the healthcare industry. The DOJ has stated that investigations and prosecutions for violations in the healthcare sector remain its top focus and stimulus spending will likely serve to increase the DOJ’s attention to healthcare markets. Although healthcare compliance policies have often focused on other fraud and abuse issues, such as the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law, compliance with antitrust laws – including for human resources – is now more critical than ever. In addition, the recently signed Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act significantly narrows the exemption [...]

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Intelligently Evolving Your Corporate Compliance Program

All companies—big and small—are collecting a tsunami of data. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has now challenged corporate America to harness and analyze that data to improve corporate compliance programs by going beyond the risk profile of what has happened to better understanding the risk profile of what is happening. But where to begin? Artificial intelligence, which is already used to assist in the review and production of documents and other materials in response to government subpoenas and in corporate litigation, is invaluable in proactively reviewing data to identify and address compliance risks.

Key Takeaways

  • DOJ expects compliance programs to be well resourced and to continually evolve.
  • DOJ wants companies to assess whether their compliance program is presently working or whether it is time to pivot.
  • DOJ uses data in its own investigations and it expects the private sector to rise to the occasion and analyze its own data to identify and address compliance risks.
  • The data is there—mountains of it—and the key is to find an efficient way to analyze that data to improve the compliance program.
  • Artificial intelligence is an important tool for solving the challenge of big data and identifying and remediating compliance risks effectively, quickly and regularly, in conjunction with further periodic review.

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Top Takeaways: Permissible Provider Collaborations During COVID-19 and Beyond

If you missed our latest webinar, enjoy the replay below and learn more as we provide highlights on competitor collaborations, avoiding violations in labor markets, provider M&A and partial acquisitions.


Competitor Collaborations
  • Antitrust compliance remains an important priority in the US. While companies have been engaged in finding creative solutions to COVID-19 challenges and regulators are expressing a willingness to be more flexible in interpreting and enforcing the law, the pandemic is not a carte blanche to engage in anti-competitive
  • Regulators are more prone to accept collaborations limited in scope to respond to COVID-19 and its aftermath, and arrangements undertaken at the behest of or in partnership with government actors. Companies should avoid high-risk conduct such as direct exchanges of competitively sensitive
  • Procompetitive agreements not relating to price, wages or market/product allocations remain possible. Companies should conduct an antitrust analysis before entering new collaborations and consider whether it would be helpful or advisable to engage with federal antitrust authorities or state governments to receive
Avoiding Antitrust Violations in Labor Markets
  • COVID-19 does not change antitrust rules for labor Antitrust laws apply to labor markets just as they do to markets for goods and services. Agreements with competing employers not to recruit, to set employee compensation or hours or to exchange confidential compensation information that reduces compensation can violate the antitrust laws. The Department of Justice (DOJ) will prosecute certain labor market antitrust violations criminally.
  • Establish guardrails to minimize antitrust risk in labor markets. Non-solicitation covenants that are part of broader collaborations should be tailored in scope to minimize antitrust Compensation benchmarking and salary surveys should be done in compliance with DOJ, FTC guidance.
Provider M&A
  • Antitrust planning for transactions should begin early in the deal. This allows the antitrust strategy to be developed and pursued based on specific facts. This planning should include due diligence regarding market conditions, the rationale or justification for pursing the transaction and the financial position of the Parties should also adopt protocols for document creation and communications.
  • Parties should consider transaction efficiencies, and how they benefit payors and patients. Clearly articulating the deal’s cost, access, quality and other benefits can help reduce deal delays from antitrust
Partial Acquisitions
  • Partial acquisitions potentially may help healthcare entities mitigate both the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis and antitrust Acquiring a minority share in a rival can be less competitively restrictive than doing a full-scale merger or acquisition, because by law the parties must remain and act as separate and independent competitors.
  • But anticompetitive effects can result from a partial acquisition and the FTC/DOJ Horizontal Merger Guidelines identify three reasons why: the partial buyer may be able, through board seats or governance rights, to influence the target’s decisions; the buyer may have an incentive to compete less aggressively to protect its investment; and the buyer may have access to its rival’s competitively [...]

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FTC and DOJ Issue Joint Antitrust Statement Regarding COVID-19 and Competition in Labor Markets

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional stressors on labor markets, particularly for healthcare workers and essential employees. While recognizing that employers, recruiters and staffing agencies may need—and be allowed to—cooperate in unprecedented ways to address current needs, on April 13, 2020, the US Department of Justice and US Federal Trade Commission issued a joint statement reinforcing their vigilance against collusion or anticompetitive conduct in labor markets and their willingness to pursue criminal and civil actions against violators.

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