The majority of merger control regimes around the world impose standstill or waiting period requirements for notifiable transactions, e.g. the US, the EU and most EU Member States. If a transaction meets the filing thresholds, it must be notified to the competent antitrust regulator and must not be closed without prior approval by the antitrust regulator or the expiration of the applicable waiting period.
Under German merger control rules, a notifiable merger must not be implemented without prior clearance decision. An infringement of the standstill obligation can (theoretically) lead to fines of up to 10 percent of the group’s worldwide turnover. In addition, the infringement of the standstill obligation renders the contracts ineffective under German merger control rules.
The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has recently taken a stricter approach to the enforcement of the merger standstill obligation. In the past, the risk of fines was minor if the merger did not lead to any serious competition concerns, if it was the group’s first infringement of the standstill obligation and if the company itself notified the FCO ex post of the implemented merger.
We see now a growing number of decisions imposing fines for the infringement of the standstill obligation (sometimes referred to as "gun jumping" in the United States). In May 2011, in the latest of a string of such decisions, the FCO imposed a substantial fine for infringement of the standstill obligation although the merger did not lead to any serious competition concerns and although the company had itself notified the implemented merger. These facts were only taken into account as mitigating factors for the calculation of the fine.
The European Commission has also recently imposed fines for the infringement of the standstill obligation.
In this changing environment, the filing requirement and the standstill obligation cannot be seen as a pure formality. It is therefore essential to always verify whether and in which jurisdictions a transaction is notifiable – and not to close the deal before the relevant competition authorities have cleared the deal.