Rebecca Kelly Slaughter
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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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THE LATEST: FTC Allows Problematic Vertical Merger to Proceed with a Behavioral Remedy

On January 28, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it had accepted a proposed settlement with office supply distributors Staples and Essendant in connection with Staples’ proposed $482.7 million acquisition of Essendant. The settlement suggests that the FTC is currently more willing than the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to accept conduct remedies to resolve competitive issues raised by vertical mergers.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • The FTC Commissioners voted 3-2 to accept a proposed settlement establishing a firewall to prevent Staples from receiving competitively sensitive customer information from Essendant.
  • Staples is the largest reseller of office products in the US, and one of only two retail office supply superstores in the US. Essendant is one of only two nationwide office product wholesale distributors. In September 2018, Staples agreed to acquire Essendant.
  • Staples competes with various resellers to sell office supplies to mid-sized companies. Many of those resellers rely on Essendant as their wholesale distributor. In that role, resellers have to provide Essendant with detailed information about their end customers’ identities, purchasing history, product preferences and similar data.
  • The FTC alleged in its complaint that the transaction was likely to harm competition by giving Staples access to the commercially sensitive information (CSI) of Essendant’s resellers and those resellers’ end customers. The FTC contended that access to that information could allow Staples to offer higher prices than it otherwise would when bidding against a reseller for an end customer’s business.
  • To address this competitive concern, the FTC imposed a conduct remedy. Specifically, the FTC required the parties to establish a firewall limiting Staples’ access to the CSI of Essendant’s resellers and the end customers of those resellers.
  • Two FTC Commissioners issued dissenting statements, arguing that the settlement does not fully remedy the transaction’s likely anticompetitive effects. In the dissenters’ view, the evidence suggests that the integrated firm could implement a strategy of raising costs for Staples’ reseller rivals.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • The settlement indicates that the FTC remains willing to cure competitive issues raised by vertical mergers with conduct remedies, such as firewalls, instead of imposing a divestiture or seeking to block the deal.
  • Under Makan Delrahim’s leadership, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division has been less receptive of conduct remedies, even in vertical merger cases. Delrahim has stated that conduct remedies are fundamentally regulatory and are inconsistent with the DOJ’s role as a law enforcement agency.
  • The DOJ refused to accept conduct remedies to resolve the competitive issues arising from AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. DOJ challenged the transaction in federal court. In June 2018, a DC district court judge ruled against the DOJ, and the case is currently on appeal to the DC Circuit.
  • One of the FTC Commissioners, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, argued in her dissenting statement that the FTC should be more willing to challenge, and seek to block vertical mergers when it identifies competitive concerns. That position is more aligned with the DOJ’s currently stated policy, but overall the FTC appears more willing to accept conduct remedies [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: January – March 2018 Update

One year into the Trump administration, the US antitrust agencies are finally starting to implement their enforcement policies. Most notably, trial began in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, which is the Antitrust Division’s first significant vertical challenge in several decades. Judge Richard J. Leon’s opinion in that case could alter the outlook for several other vertical transactions pending before the agencies. While the DOJ was preparing for trial, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was preparing for a transition to five new commissioners, who were approved by the Senate in April. It remains unclear whether the new, Republican-led FTC will be more moderate in its enforcement efforts, similar to prior Republican administrations, or will follow in the footsteps of President Trump’s DOJ, which has been surprisingly aggressive.

EU: January – March 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) continued to be quite active in the first quarter of 2018, clearing five mergers. The most significant decision was the approval of a megamerger in the agrochemical sector—Bayer/Monsanto—where the parties submitted a remedy package that totalled over €6 billion. This remedy package included divestitures of research and development assets that addressed the EC’s concerns about innovation, similar to the EC’s Dow/DuPont clearance last year. In addition to Bayer/Monsanto, two other proposed acquisitions in the chemicals sectors fell through, most notably Celanese/Blackstone, due to excessive divestiture requests required by the Commission. (more…)




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