Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) and its subsidiaries (including Circle K Stores, Inc.) are engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States, as well as in the operation of convenience stores. ACT is the largest convenience store operator in terms of company-owned stores and is the second-largest chain overall in the United States.
Pursuant to an Equity Purchase Agreements, dated July 10, 2017, ACT would acquire, through its wholly owned subsidiary Oliver Acquisition Corp., all of the equity interests of certain Holiday subsidiary companies.
The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
The FTC defined local geographic markets, identifying ten separate geographic markets in Wisconsin (including Hayward, Siren and Spooner) and Minnesota (including Aitkin, Hibbing, Minnetonka, Mora, Saint Paul and Saint Peter).
In its complaint, the FTC stated that the “relevant geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel are highly localized, ranging up to a few miles, depending on local circumstances” and “[e]ach relevant market is distinct and fact-dependent, reflecting the commuting patterns, traffic flows, and outlet characteristics unique to each market.” Additionally, the FTC stated that “[c]onsumers typically choose between nearby retail fuel outlets with similar characteristics along their planned routes.”
In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the transaction would reduce the number of independent competitors from 3-to-2 in five local markets, and from 4-to-3 in five other local markets.
The FTC also stated that new entry was unlikely to mitigate the impact of the transaction in these local areas because there are significant entry barriers in the retail gasoline and diesel fuel business, including “the availability of attractive real estate, the time and cost associated with constructing a new retail fuel outlet, and the time associated with obtaining necessary permits and approvals.”
The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT and its subsidiaries would unilaterally exercise market power in the relevant markets; and (2) an increased likelihood of collusive or coordinated interaction between the remaining competitors in the relevant markets.
The FTC accepted a consent order in which ACT agreed to divest certain of its subsidiary’s and Holiday’s retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in ten local geographic markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
Local geographic markets are highly fact specific. Factors used to determine local geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel include: commuting patterns, traffic flows and outlet characteristics unique to each market.
In certain markets where only two or three independent competitors will remain post-transaction, the FTC may allege that the transaction will increase the likelihood of coordination though no collusive or coordinated interaction is alleged. Certain aspects of the fuel industry make it vulnerable to coordination including: [...]
On June 29, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) responded to a request for comment from two Minnesota state legislators concerning recently enacted amendments to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). Under the amendments, the MGDPA would be expanded to cover all data collected by health maintenance organizations, health plans, and other health services vendors that contract with the state to provide health care services to Minnesota residents. In practice, this means that the confidential terms and conditions of health plans’ contracts with health care providers could be subject to public disclosure.
While they commended the “laudable goals” of the MGDPA, the FTC ultimately concluded that the amendments could lead to the disclosure of competitively sensitive information and, therefore, increase the likelihood of anticompetitive behavior. Specifically, there were two major concerns raised in the FTC comment.
First, the amendments likely would lead to the exchange of fees, discounts and other pricing terms among providers, which would increase the likelihood of provider collusion. The comment notes that in markets with a relatively small number of competitors and where those competitors have the ability to accurately monitor each other’s transactions, there is increased risk of collusion.
The second concern is that the exchange of information among providers could impede the ability of health plans to selectively contract among providers. In a typical selective contracting environment “where health care providers do not know each other’s prices, providers are more likely to bid aggressively—offering lower prices—to ensure they are not excluded from selective networks.” If providers know the prices, rebates, and discount arrangements offered by their competitors, they possess a new tool in negotiations with health plans and are less likely to bid aggressively.
The FTC argued that a balance is needed between providing consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions concerning their health care and allowing competitors to share information that could facilitate anticompetitive behavior. The FTC encouraged the Minnesota legislature to consider the types of information that would be the most helpful for consumers in selecting their service, such as actual or predicted out-of-pocket expenses, co-pays, and quality comparisons of plans and providers. However, they urged caution in mandating public disclosure of health plan contract details and fee schedules.
While the FTC’s comment was addressed to legislators, it highlights the kinds of information exchanges that the antitrust regulators believe can lead to anticompetitive behavior in the health care industry. In that sense it builds on the joint FTC and U.S. Department of Justice Statements of Enforcement Policy in Health Care, originally published in 1996. Providers should avoid exchange of any information concerning their fees, discounts and other pricing arrangements with their competitors.
To see the full letter from the FTC, please click here.
The Federal District Court in Minnesota recently decided Ovation Pharmaceutical did not violate federal or state antitrust laws when it acquired Indocin IV and NeoProfen, the only two drugs approved for treatment of a specific heart condition that primarily affects premature babies, because the challengers failed to establish that the drugs were in the same product market. The decision raises significant issues to consider when evaluating antitrust risks in future transactions.