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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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THE LATEST: DOJ Price-Fixing Probe Demonstrates That Deal Risk Is Not the Only Antitrust Concern Merging Parties Should Keep in Mind

Bumble Bee Foods, and two of its senior vice presidents, have recently pled guilty to US Department of Justice (DOJ) charges that they engaged in a conspiracy to fix prices of shelf-stable tuna fish sold in the United States from 2011 to 2013. Bumble Bee agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine that can increase to $81.5 million under certain conditions, and the company’s two senior vice presidents pled guilty and agreed to pay criminal fines as well. The investigation appears to have been prompted by information that the DOJ uncovered during its investigation of Thai Union Group’s (owner of Chicken of the Sea) proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee, which was abandoned after DOJ concerns.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On December 19, 2014, Thai Union Group, the largest global producer of shelf-stable tuna, announced that it had agreed to acquire Bumble Bee Foods for $1.5 billion. A year later, on December 3, 2015, the DOJ announced that the parties had abandoned the transaction after the DOJ expressed concerns that the acquisition would harm competition. The DOJ stated that “Thai Union’s proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee would have combined the second and third largest sellers of shelf-stable tuna in the United States in a market long dominated by three major brands, as well as combined the first and second largest domestic sellers of other shelf-stable seafood products.”
  • Beyond its comments about the potential for competitive harm from the transaction, however, the DOJ further noted that “[o]ur investigation convinced us – and the parties knew or should have known from the get go – that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”
  • It appears that the DOJ’s concerns that the market for packaged seafood was not functioning competitively spurred the government to proceed with an investigation into potential collusion among the suppliers of packaged seafood. After its investigation, the DOJ concluded that Bumble Bee Foods, two of its senior vice presidents, and other co-conspirators “discussed the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States[,] agreed to fix the prices of those products [and] negotiated prices and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements they reached.”
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • In the Mergers & Acquisitions context, the merging parties are most often concerned with the potential risk that antitrust concerns may pose to the deal and the ability to obtain DOJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clearance for the transaction. This criminal investigation by the DOJ demonstrates that the parties need to be aware of their conduct in the market, whether they have engaged in conduct that may be found to be collusive, and the potential consequences of such conduct [...]

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THE LATEST: National Security Reviews of Foreign Ownership May Broaden

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS, commonly pronounced “syphius”) reviews M&A transactions that may pose a risk to national security through foreign control of a US business.  (See our recent article).  CFIUS is composed of members from the Departments of Treasury (chair), Homeland Security, State, Defense and other agencies.  It has the power to recommend to the President that a transaction be stopped, and is well known for its reviews of the Dubai Ports World and IBM/Lenovo deals, both of which it approved (though the former was terminated because of strong political opposition).  By law, its process is fairly secretive, although it holds itself to tight deadlines for issuing final recommendations.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • As reported February 21, Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Schumer (D-NY) are separately working on legislation that would strengthen CFIUS’ hand in reviewing proposed acquisitions.
  • In the face of skyrocketing investment by Chinese companies in US firms, Senator Cornyn’s bill would require CFIUS to look harder at proposed Chinese acquisitions of US technology companies.
  • Reportedly, Senator Schumer’s bill would take a different tack, requiring CFIUS to consider economic implications in addition to national security concerns as part of its review. Currently CFIUS’ mandate is restricted to considering national security issues that may include national defense, technological leadership, critical infrastructure, foreign government influence and export controls compliance.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • Companies considering sensitive cross-border transactions involving US business should watch any proposed legislation closely.
  • The Trump Administration has not yet addressed these specific legislative ideas, but President Trump may be likely to support legislation that furthers his “Buy American, Hire American” theme.
  • Currently CFIUS can initiate review of a deal either by voluntary disclosure from the parties or on its own initiative, even post-closing. Thus, any legislation that broadens CFIUS’ mandate or that alters the voluntary nature of self-notifying, could add a significant regulatory burden to cross-border transactions.
  • CFIUS’ current investigative timeline of 30 days (initial review) plus 45 days (investigation if concerns exist) looks unlikely to change and will continue to provide some regulatory certainty for parties.



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