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Enforcement Agencies Announce Moratorium on Early Termination Program for Merger Reviews

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a joint statement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 4, 2021, signaling comprehensive changes to the merger review process. In a significant development, the agencies declared a moratorium on the early termination program for merger reviews. This policy shift signals a potential sea change in antitrust enforcement under the Biden administration.

The Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Premerger Notification program imposes an initial 30-day waiting period, prior to merger consummation, during which the enforcement agencies have an opportunity to evaluate the likely effects of the proposed merger and decide whether to investigate further by issuing a Second Request or ending the HSR review by letting the initial 30-day waiting period expire.

A third potential outcome of the initial 30-day waiting period is early termination. The early termination program under the HSR Act was originally established as an exception to an HSR review if the relevant parties demonstrated a “special business reason.” This policy was reversed after Heublein v. FTC (1982) and since that time early termination of the initial 30-day waiting period has become commonplace if the merger does not merit further review (in 2019 early termination was requested in 74.2% of transactions and granted in 73.5% of those instances). Further review would be merited, if the enforcement agencies determined the transaction posed a risk of a substantial lessening of competition under the Clayton Act.

Pursuant to the moratorium on early terminations, merging parties must now refrain from consummating any proposed transaction for the full initial 30-day waiting period—early termination is not a potential outcome.

The joint statement regarding the early termination moratorium provided the following justifications:

  • The early termination review was precipitated because of the transition to a new presidential administration as well as an “unprecedented volume” of HSR filings;
  • The above factors warrant the use of the full 30-day window to allow the agencies to do “right by competition and consumers;”
  • The suspension of the early termination program “will be brief.”

Past pauses in early terminations coincided with extraordinary circumstances such as the move to an e-filing system at the Premerger Notification Office (PNO) at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic (paused from March 13, 2020, until March 30, 2020) or during periods of government shutdown. However, this current pause appears likely to endure longer than these past instances, given that this pause is driven by the confluence of a number of factors, beyond what was indicated in the joint statement, such as:

  • A longstanding agency funding drought resulting in understaffing
  • Transitioning to a new presidential administration
  • A desire to engage in more expansive investigations under the new Biden administration
  • A large influx in HSR filings in recent months (on pace for a 60% increase in 2021)

From the agencies’ point of view, these changes are necessary to meet their mandate of preventing unfair competition and anticompetitive practices. With agency resources stretched thin due to budget constraints, in addition to an increased [...]

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New FTC Interpretation Will Require HSR Act Filing for Many Hospital Affiliation Transactions

The Premerger Notification Office (PNO) of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently formalized a new position on Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR Act) reporting obligations for certain not-for-profit, non-stock transactions. The change is currently in effect and applies to transactions that have not yet closed. The change in position will require reporting of many hospital transactions that have not traditionally been treated as reportable events. The biggest area of change relates to affiliation transactions where hospitals or health systems affiliate under a new parent entity.

Under its previous position, the PNO focused on whether a transaction results in a change of “control” of the board of directors of one or more of the combining entities. Under its new position, the PNO will focus on beneficial ownership–whether one party receives beneficial ownership over the assets of another party as a result of the transaction. Now, a potentially reportable acquisition can occur even when there is no change in the control of the board of directors of one of the combining entities because formal board control is not the exclusive method of obtaining beneficial ownership.

In a recently published Tip Sheet, the PNO provided analysis of reportability for three types of not-for-profit combinations that it regularly sees, which we summarize below. The first two examples involve traditional application of the rules to hospital transactions, while the third example represents the PNO’s newly formed position on affiliations. Note that in all of the examples below, we focus on the nature of the transaction structure to evaluate whether a potentially reportable acquisition of assets has occurred. In any specific transaction, the parties would also need to evaluate whether the statutory thresholds are met (e.g., the $84.4 million size-of-transaction test), as well as whether any exemption applies.

1. A simple acquisition in which an existing acquiring person (g., a not-for-profit hospital) is deemed to hold the assets of the acquired entity (e.g., another not-for-profit hospital) as a result of the acquisition. This can happen in a variety of ways, such as a straight asset acquisition or a transaction in which one not-for-profit becomes the sole corporate member of another. If one not-for-profit obtains the right to manage and operate another through a corporate transaction, that is likely a reportable structure.

a. PNO conclusion: This structure is reportable as an asset acquisition.

2. A transaction in which the existing not-for-profit entities remain independent but form a new joint venture entity as a jointly owned subsidiary or affiliate. The pre-existing entities remain separate persons for HSR Act purposes.

a.  PNO conclusion: This structure is reportable. However, the 16 C.F.R. § 802.40 exemption for the formation of a not-for-profit joint venture is likely to apply.
b. The illustration below depicts this structure:

3. A transaction in which the existing not-for-profit entities consolidate under a new not-for-profit entity. The existing entities lose their [...]

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