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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2021

In the United States, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of American Airlines and JetBlue’s “Northeast Alliance” after the joint venture’s approval by the US Department of Transportation earlier this year demonstrates the Biden administration’s commitment to aggressive antitrust enforcement. US President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order calling for tougher antitrust enforcement, including “encouraging” the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to modify the horizontal and vertical merger guidelines to address increasing consolidation. At the same time, the FTC, under Chair Lina Khan, continues its rapid pace of change to the merger review process.

Under a new interpretation of Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR), the European Commission (Commission) asserted jurisdiction over Illumina’s acquisition of GRAIL and Facebook’s acquisition of Kustomer, even though the transactions did not meet the Commission or Member State filing thresholds. The EU General Court confirmed a significant gun-jumping fine imposed on Altice for breach of the EUMR notification and standstill obligations.

In the United Kingdom, the UK government published plans to update antitrust rules, including revising its jurisdictional thresholds and expanding the “share of supply” test to allow the CMA to more easily capture vertical and conglomerate mergers, as well as acquisitions of startups. And the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) handling of the Veolia/Suez transaction demonstrates the CMA’s willingness to engage with parties to seek practical interim solutions while it is investigating a consummated transaction for potential antitrust concerns.

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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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European Commission Announces New Approach to Merger Review Referrals Falling Below Thresholds

Under current EU merger control rules, whether a concentration has to be notified to the European Commission (“Commission”) depends, among other things, on the level of revenue generated by the parties worldwide and in the European Union.  A key question that has sparked considerable debate in recent years is whether the current merger control thresholds cover all transactions that have the potential to harm competition, or whether there is a so-called “enforcement gap”.

On September 11, during the International Bar Association’s 24th Annual Competition Conference, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced that the Commission intends to change its approach towards referrals to the EU from national competition authorities. Commissioner Vestager noted that although the current, revenue-based thresholds set out in the EU Merger Regulation generally work well, revenue does not always reflect a company’s significance – particularly in innovative sectors, such as the pharmaceutical and digital sectors. In other words, innovative firms with low revenues may have a significantly out-sized market presence.

This issue is not entirely new, and has been debated in recent years – for example, in connection with possibly amending the thresholds set out in the EU Merger Regulation.  On this point, however, Commissioner Vestager pointed out that “changing the merger regulation, to add a new threshold like this, doesn’t seem like the most proportionate solution”.

Instead, as a solution to this shortfall, Commissioner Vestager stated that the Commission intends to broaden its approach to cases referred to it from one or more EU Member States, stating that the Commission will “[…] start accepting referrals from national competition authorities of mergers that are worth reviewing at the EU level – whether or not those authorities had the power to review the case themselves”.

The current referral system set out in the EU Merger Regulation enables the Commission to review concentrations that fall below the EU thresholds. Indeed, in recent years, certain significant transactions have been reviewed by the Commission only after an upward referral, as they did not fulfil the jurisdictional thresholds of the EU Merger Regulation, including for example Apple/Shazam (2018), Microsoft/GitHub (2018) and Facebook/WhatsApp (2014). Under the current rules, the Commission can review transactions which fall below the EU merger control thresholds on the basis of referrals from national competition authorities where:

  • the concentration is notifiable in at least three Member States; or
  • where the concentration affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the Member State(s) making the request for a referral.

The Commission has discouraged national competition authorities from referring cases to the Commission  in instances when they themselves did not have the power to review because national merger control thresholds were not met.

The proposal announced by Commissioner Vestager would change this approach, and would allow a broader universe of cases – including those which fall below national thresholds – to be referred to the Commission.  Ms. Vestager explained that “those referrals could be an excellent way to see the mergers that matter at a European scale, but [...]

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Annual European Competition Review 2019

McDermott’s Annual European Competition Review summarizes key developments in European competition rules. During the previous year, several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission. There were also many interesting cases decided by the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union. All these new rules and judicial decisions may be relevant for your company and your day-to-day practice.

In our super-connected age, we can be inundated by information from numerous sources and it is difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this review is to help general counsel and their teams to be aware of the essential updates.

This review was prepared by the Firm’s European Competition Team in Brussels and Paris. Throughout 2019 they have monitored legal developments and drafted the summary reports.

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Bigger Is Better. . .Or Maybe Not: The Siemens/Alstom Railway Merger

The European Commission recently reaffirmed that industrial policy objectives have no role to play when it comes to applying the EU merger control rules. Despite unusually intense industrial and political pressure to get the Siemens/Alstom railway merger done, Competition Commissioner Vestager has forcefully reiterated that the substantive test under the EU Merger Regulation remains exclusively competition based.

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European Court of Justice Provides Guidance on Scope of the Standstill Obligation Enshrined in the EU Merger Regulation

Pursuant to the EU merger control rules, a transaction that falls within the purview of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) must be notified to the European Commission (Commission) in advance (Article 4(1) EUMR), and must not be implemented until cleared by the Commission, known as the “standstill” obligation (Article 7[1] EUMR). A principal rationale behind the standstill obligation is to prevent the potentially negative impact of transactions on the market, pending the outcome of the Commission’s investigation.

While the standstill obligation represents a clear-cut rule, it can often be a significant challenge for businesses to apply in practice. Failure to get it right, however, can result in draconian penalties. Indeed, the Commission’s recent €124.5 million fine on Altice, which comes in the wake of a spate of enforcement actions in this arena, bears testimony to an increasingly hard stance against companies flouting the notification requirement/standstill obligation. (more…)




Overview of the Proposed Reforms of the EU Merger Control Regime

In the past couple of years, the European Commission has decided to review and evaluate the functioning of different aspects of the EU merger control regime regulated by EU Regulation No. 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings (the EU Merger Regulation), its implementing regulation and related notices and guidelines.

The process started in 2014 when the Commission adopted a White Paper titled “Towards More Effective EU Merger Control” (the White Paper), which presented the Commission’s view that EU merger control worked well and that no fundamental overhaul of the system was needed. The Commission did, however, identify specific amendments to the EU Merger Regulation to make it more effective.

In the wake of the positive feedback it received during the consultation it organised following the publication of the White Paper, the Commission launched another public consultation in October 2016 on the “Evaluation of procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control”, through which it is seeking feedback from stakeholders on the effectiveness of certain additional procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control. Stakeholders have until 13 January 2017 to respond.

(more…)




US and EU Requirements for Pre-Merger Notification of an Acquisition of a Minority Shareholding Interest

In May, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required Hikma Pharmaceuticals PLC to divest its 23 percent interest in Unimark Remedies, Ltd. and its US marketing rights to a generic drug under manufacture by Unimark as a condition to allowing Hikma to complete its acquisition of Roxane Laboratories. The FTC was concerned that Hikma’s continued holding of a 23 percent interest in Unimark after consummation of its proposed acquisition of Roxane would create the incentive and ability for Hikma to eliminate future competition between Roxane and Hikma/Unimark in the sale of generic flecainide tablets (a drug used to treat abnormally fast heart rhythms) in the United States.

The FTC’s divestiture requirement was unusual but not unprecedented. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines identify three theories of competitive harm associated with an acquisition or holding of a small but significant minority interest in a competitor.

  1. Minority ownership, and any associated rights, such as veto rights over the competing firm’s budget or strategic decisions, or representation on its board of directors, may allow the shareholder to forestall, delay or otherwise hamper the competing firm’s further development or marketing of competitive products
  2. The holder of a minority interest in a competing firm has diminished incentives to compete aggressively with the competitor firm because the holder obtains an economic benefit from the success of the competing firm through its partial ownership of that competitor.
  3. The holder of a minority interest in a competing firm may have access to non-public, competitively sensitive information of the competing firm, and thus may be better able to coordinate its business decisions—such as pricing, output, or research and development efforts—with those of the competing firm, thus diminishing competition.

These theories of potential antitrust harm from minority interest acquisitions are not unique to the United States; other competition agencies, including the European Union’s competition directorate, accept and apply these theories when considering the competitive impact of a firm’s actual or proposed partial ownership interest in a competitor. However, the United States applies a significantly lower threshold than the European Union (and other competition agencies) for the pre-acquisition notification of an entity’s acquisition of a minority, non-controlling interest in another firm.

Read the full article here.




EU: Merger case cleared following offer of FRAND technology license

On 20 April 2016, the European Commission (Commission) cleared, under its merger control rules, the acquisition of Equens and PaySquare by Worldline subject to, amongst others, a commitment to license technology to any customer interested, at Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions.

Worldline is a French provider of payment services and terminals, financial processing and software licensing and e-transactions services. Equens offers a number of services across the value chain of both payments processing and cards processing services. Its fully-owned subsidiary, PaySquare, provides merchant acquiring services.  This transaction combines two large payment systems operators, active across the full value chain in both payment processing and card processing services.

The EU antitrust regulator was concerned that the acquisition would have raised certain issues with respect to, in particular, merchant acquiring services in Germany.  The Commission’s market investigation revealed that Worldline’s Poseidon software and modules are used by the majority of German network service providers (including PaySquare), there are no other readily available alternatives to Poseidon and post-transaction, Worldline would have the ability and the incentives to favour its new subsidiary PaySquare, in terms of price and quality, over other network service providers relying on Poseidon.

In order to address the Commission’s concerns, the companies offered a commitment to grant licenses for the Poseidon software on FRAND terms during a period of 10 years. Specifically, this commitment consists of the following elements:

  • The granting of a license for Poseidon and its modules to third-party network service providers under FRAND terms and capping of the maintenance fees
  • A monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with FRAND terms by a licensing trustee and by a group composed of network service providers
  • Giving access to the Poseidon source code under certain conditions
  • Transferring the governance of the ZVT protocol, on which most German point of sale terminals run, to an independent not for profit industry organisation

The Commission’s decision to accept this commitment is interesting for a number reasons; the Commission generally has a strong preference for structural rather than behavioural undertakings, FRAND obligations are typically applicable to technologies that are standardised, and this case presents the first time that a commitment to licence on FRAND terms has been used as a remedy under the EU Merger Regulation.




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