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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2020

In the United States, despite initial obstacles because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 rounded out to be the busiest year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) enforcement in nearly two decades. In the fourth quarter, US agencies challenged five transactions. November 2020 saw the most premerger filings in any month since 2001. Mergers and filings in the United States are predicted to remain at high levels into the new year in light of the current economic climate. The antitrust agencies have continued to maintain that their evaluation and investigation of anticompetitive harm will remain rigorous despite the uncertain times.

In Europe, the European Commission (EC) and the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had a busy last quarter of 2020. The EC completed several in-depth investigations, including the Fiat Chrysler/Peugeot merger. The EC approved this transaction with behavioural remedies. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC published the much-anticipated draft of the Digital Markets Act, which is intended to regulate the market behaviour of large online platforms which act as “gatekeepers” in digital markets. Given the end of the transition period for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the CMA published a guidance paper explaining how it will conduct its work following Brexit.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2020

In the United States, mergers and acquisitions appear to be bouncing back after a muted start to the year due to COVID-19. Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filings in Q3 2020 were up significantly over Q2, but still down from the mergers & acquisitions (M&A) boom we saw in Q3 and Q4 of 2019. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, we also saw significant developments in the approaches taken by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) in reviewing proposed acquisitions. The FTC has recently announced an intention to expand its retrospective analysis of consummated mergers; DOJ has restructured its merger review operations to reflect changes in how the economy operates and to allow the regulator to further specialize its review efforts; and the regulators jointly proposed amendments to the HSR premerger notification regulations that are likely to increase the number of filings required for private equity organizations.

In Europe, as a result of the ongoing pandemic, the European Commission (EC) received a lower number of notifications (78) compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019 (106 and 116 respectively). In August, however, the number of notifications made to the EC returned to a level that has been seen in previous years (30). That being said, in September, the number of notifications fell again (24). In terms of key cases, the EC approved the acquisition of Bombardier Transportation by Alstom. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC announced a new policy of accepting referrals from national competition authorities in cases where the national thresholds for notification have not been met. This new policy is expected to be implemented by mid-2021. The EC also plans to introduce changes to the merger control procedural rules with a view to bringing more deals within the ambit of the EC’s simplified procedure, and to reduce the amount of information that parties are required to provide.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2020

In the United States, despite requesting additional time to review pending mergers, the US antitrust agencies have continued their work through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached settlements with a number of merging parties during Q2 2020, and the FTC is proceeding to trial in several merger cases. Both the FTC and the DOJ are conducting investigational hearings and depositions via remote videoconferencing technology such as Zoom. The FTC also announced it prevented 12 deals from closing in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Five of the transactions were blocked and another seven were abandoned due to antitrust concerns, putting the FTC on pace for one of its busiest years for merger enforcement in the past 20 years.

In Europe, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the European Commission (EC) warned that merger control filings would likely not be processed as swiftly as usual. The EC encouraged parties to postpone merger notifications because the EC envisaged difficulties, within the statutory deadlines imposed by the EU Merger Regulation, to elicit relevant information from third parties, such as customers, competitors and suppliers. In addition, the EC foresaw limitations in accessing information on a remote basis. This period thus saw a drop in merger notifications to the EC; however, notifications increased in June and July.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Quarter 1 2020

In the United States, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) faced new issues this quarter with the unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In March, the agencies made certain changes to the merger review process to accommodate businesses and counsel working remotely. However, merger reviews, challenges, trials and consents have continued as usual at both agencies despite the additional obstacles.

In Europe, the European Commission (EC) also put in place special measures to ensure business continuity in the enforcement of merger control during the COVID-19 crisis. The first quarter of 2020 also saw the United Kingdom’s official departure from the European Union, which has consequences on the enforcement of EU competition law in the United Kingdom.

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House Passes GOP-Backed SMARTER ACT Aiming to Harmonize Merger Review Process for FTC and DOJ

On March 23, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act by a vote of 235-171, despite strenuous objections from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) review proposed mergers and acquisitions.  Currently, the FTC can challenge transactions under different processes and standards than the DOJ, and those procedures provide several advantages to the FTC.  The SMARTER Act would neutralize those advantages for the FTC by: (1) eliminating the FTC’s ability to use its internal administrative proceedings to challenge unconsummated transactions; and (2) standardizing the criteria for the FTC and DOJ to obtain a preliminary injunction to block a merger in federal court.

The FTC has the authority to pursue administrative relief to challenge a transaction.  Even if the FTC is denied a preliminary injunction in federal court, the agency may continue to seek to block or unwind a transaction in an administrative trial at the FTC’s own in-house court.  That process creates two procedural advantages for the FTC.  First, the FTC can continue to challenge a transaction even after a federal district court denies an injunction.  Second, because the full trial will take place in the FTC’s court, some courts have said that the the standard the FTC uses to obtain a federal court injunction is lower than the standard the DOJ must meet.  The courts will generally grant the FTC an injunction if the case “raise[s] questions going to the merits so serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful as to make them fair ground” for a full hearing “by the FTC in the first instance and ultimately by the Court of Appeals.”  Under that standard, the FTC need not show a substantial likelihood of success at the trial on the merits or irreparable harm.

The DOJ can only challenge transactions in federal court proceedings.  The DOJ can seek a preliminary injunction under Section 15 of the Clayton Act (15 U.S.C. § 25) on the grounds that the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition.  The DOJ is subject to a traditional equitable injunction standard including criteria such as a showing of a substantial likelihood of success and the potential for irreparable harm.

Supporters of the SMARTER Act argue that reform is necessary to ensure consistent and fair application of the antitrust laws.  SMARTER Act supporters also argue that courts apply a more lenient standard to the FTC for blocking a transaction than to the DOJ.  However, those that oppose the SMARTER Act argue that in practice, courts impose the same standards on the FTC and DOJ during injunction hearings.  Those against the SMARTER Act also argue that workload statistics compiled in the DOJ and FTC Annual Competition Reports actually demonstrate that mergers reviewed by the DOJ are more likely to be challenged or receive a Second Request than mergers reviewed by the FTC.  FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez expressed concern that the SMARTER Act “risks undermining the effectiveness of the FTC.”  Chairwoman Ramirez also [...]

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Top Antitrust Enforcers Respond to Congressional Questioning

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Assistant Attorney General William Baer testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law on May 15, 2015. The oversight hearing provided an opportunity for the heads of the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies to survey their agencies’ priorities and recent achievements. The two agency heads also faced congressional questions on a variety of topics ranging from proposed reforms to the FTC’s merger review process to the alleged unfair targeting of foreign firms by Chinese antitrust authorities.

In her prepared testimony, Chairwoman Ramirez reviewed her agency’s recent activity, emphasizing especially recent U.S. Supreme Court and appellate court victories. She reiterated the agency’s strategic focus on core areas of concern, including health care, where the agency continues to review health care provider and pharmaceutical industry mergers carefully. Ramirez also stressed the agency’s continued attention to combating efforts to stifle generic drug competition. Other key focus areas include consumer products and services, technology and energy markets.

For the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Antitrust Division, Assistant Attorney General Baer’s prepared remarks focused on the division’s criminal cartel enforcement activity, including the expansive London Interbank Offered Rates  and auto parts investigations. Baer also highlighted the Division’s civil enforcement activity, noting for example that three major mergers had recently been abandoned in the face of concerns raised by the division.

Chairwoman Ramirez faced questioning from the subcommittee about its merger review process. Asked about a recent rule change, Ramirez downplayed the significance of the change and stated that it was meant merely to clarify the agency’s position in situations where a court has refused to issue a preliminary injunction. She stated that the new rule was not a departure from past practice and that the Commission always assessed each case to determine whether to continue with an administrative hearing in the wake of the denial of an injunction.

Ramirez also faced questioning about the proposed SMARTER Act. The proposed legislation, which passed out of committee in the House last fall, would require the DOJ and FTC to satisfy the same standards to obtain preliminary injunctions against mergers. Currently, for the DOJ to obtain an injunction, it must show that the transaction would cause irreparable harm if allowed to go forward. The FTC faces a different test, and must only show that the injunction is in the public interest. Under the proposed legislation, both agencies would be held to the irreparable harm standard. In addition, the legislation would prevent the FTC from using its administrative court for mergers where an injunction has been denied.  Chairwoman Ramirez contended that the proposed Act “undermines one of the central strengths of the Federal Trade Commission and one of the reasons the FTC was created in the first instance, which was to have an expert body of bipartisan commissioners rule on and develop antitrust doctrine.” She pointed also to the agency’s record of appellate success to stress her view that the [...]

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