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.
Aerospace and Defense Series: DOJ and FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines Will Impact Government Contractors
Last month, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released updated Vertical Merger Guidelines in draft form. These guidelines provide a useful resource for aerospace and defense contractors involved in M&A transactions. Vertical competition issues frequently arise in this industry given the nature of the supply base and contracting and supply relationships between companies operating at different levels of the supply chain.
This is the first time the antitrust agencies have released updated guidelines for analyzing vertical mergers since 1984. Although the agencies have updated the Horizontal Merger Guidelines several times since then (most recently in 2010), they have not provided similar updated guidance to businesses regarding vertical merger enforcement until now. The new guidelines summarize the practices, standards, and theories the agencies have used in evaluating vertical mergers for a number of years. Although the guidelines do not signal any shifts in current agency practice, they do provide the business community greater transparency about how the agencies analyze vertical mergers. This is helpful for the aerospace and defense industry, which is particularly susceptible to vertical competition issues given the heavy reliance on contracting out important elements at different levels of the supply chain.
THE LATEST: Federal Judge Blocks Merger of Nuclear Waste Disposal Companies Rejecting “Failing Firm” Defense
On June 21, 2017, US District Judge Sue L. Robinson blocked EnergySolutions, Inc.’s proposed acquisition of Waste Control Specialists LLC (WCS), applying a strict standard for the “failing firm” defense to a merger challenge. The parties compete in the disposal of low level radioactive waste (LLRW). WCS had argued that it would be forced to exit the market due to heavy operating losses if the transaction were not approved. Judge Robinson’s recently released opinion provides insights into how aggressively a putative failing firm must shop its assets to third parties before it can qualify for the failing firm defense to an otherwise anticompetitive merger.WHAT HAPPENED:
- The US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit in November 2016 to enjoin the proposed acquisition of WCS by EnergySolutions, arguing that the merger would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the LLRW disposal industry. DOJ alleged that EnergySolutions and WCS are the only significant competitors in this industry for the relevant geographic market.
- The court found that the government easily established a prima facie case of anticompetitive effects by demonstrating that the proposed acquisition would create a firm controlling an exceedingly high percentage of the relevant market and result in a significant increase in market concentration. Judge Robinson identified two product markets: the disposal of higher-activity LLRW, and the disposal of lower-activity LLRW. In both markets she found that the relevant measures of concentration “blow past the presumptive barriers” for harm to competition, especially in regards to higher-activity LLRW where the transaction would result in a “merger to monopoly.”
- The defendants’ main defense to rebut the government’s prima facie case was that WCS was a “failing firm.” The failing-firm doctrine considers the possible harm to competition resulting from an acquisition preferable to the negative impact on competition, loss to stockholders, and negative effect on local communities that results when a company goes out of business. Judge Robinson’s opinion explains that in order to assert a valid failing firm defense, the defendants must show that WCS faces the “grave possibility of business failure” and that there was no “other prospective purchaser.”
- Judge Robinson avoided deciding the more difficult question concerning whether WCS indeed faced imminent business failure, finding instead that the defendants failed to demonstrate that EnergySolutions was the only available purchaser. According to Judge Robinson, WCS’s parent company failed to make the necessary “good faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers” that would have lesser negative effects on competition.
- The opinion highlights the fact that once it was clear that the parent company was serious about selling all of WCS, the parent company had already agreed to several deal protection devices, such as a 30-day exclusivity period with EnergySolutions, and a “no-talk” provision in the merger agreement. WCS and its parent company thus did not respond to other companies that reached out to express interest in acquiring WCS after the transaction with EnergySolutions was [...]
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published an article that offers guidance on the “failing firm” or “flailing firm” defense often invoked in the hospital merger context. The article, written by Debbie Feinstein and Alexis Gilman of the Bureau of Competition, clarifies the circumstances under which this defense is and is not available.
At the outset, Feinstein and Gilman point out the basic requirements for establishing a failing firm defense, as set forth in § 11 of the Horizontal Merger guidelines:
- the company is unable to meet its obligations as they come due;
- the firm would not be able to reorganize successfully in bankruptcy; and
- it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than does the proposed merger.
The article goes on to emphasize an additional nuance required for the defense—that the acquiring company is the only available purchaser. This goes hand-in-hand with requirement three listed above. As an example, the authors describe a recent FTC investigation that involved “a hospital that was clearly failing.” The hospital’s bankrupt status did not calm the FTC’s concerns about the transaction, because the FTC learned that there was an interested alternate purchaser who did not pose the same competitive risks as the chosen acquirer.
Even if the acquisition price of a “failing” or “flailing” firm is below the Hart-Scott-Rodino reporting threshold, potential acquirers should assess the antitrust risk associated with the transaction and be sure to factor any costs associated with that risk into the sticker price. The failing or flailing firm should be prepared to demonstrate the efforts it made to find an acquirer. Non-reportable transactions are within the FTC’s reach and are often on the agency’s radar, particularly in the health care context.
The full text of the article is available here.