Articles Posted in Mergers & Acquisitions

Cable Net NeutralityAn article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye: “FCC Questions AT&T Over Investment Pause: Company Freezes Plans to Build Ultrafast Internet Service.” The reason for the pause is the FCC’s flirtation with the idea of net neutrality.

A government policy of net neutrality would require internet service providers—like broadband companies—to enable access to all content and applications no matter the source and without additional charges for particular products or websites.

This debate is in the news lately because of the issue of whether cable companies that control broadband should be able to charge extra to content companies like Netflix that make greater use of the broadband, or to offer content companies a faster and better route that isn’t available to other companies (for a price, of course). The FCC has been debating this policy, and the issue is wrapped up in the FCC and DOJ’s review of the Comcast-Time Warner merger. President Obama recently came out in support of net neutrality, which adds pressure on the FCC to adopt the policy.

So where does AT&T fit into this?

They are in the process of gaining approval to purchase the satellite company, Direct TV, which is a competitor to the broadband services from cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner. After President Obama issued a statement supporting net neutrality, AT&T announced that it would freeze plans to build ultrafast Internet service in light of new uncertainty around the government’s net-neutrality policy.

Here is the problem: Net neutrality turns broadband service into a more commoditized business. If you are in the business, you must charge everyone equally—the content providers that is—which means there is substantially less room for innovation.

Right now the cable companies offering broadband have substantial market power because they offer the fastest broadband to customers in each locality. Substantial resources over time have built-up the necessary framework and connections to offer broadband service to customers.

When a business becomes commoditized, there are fewer aspects of competition. That is, the product is substantially the same no matter where you get it, so price becomes the biggest area of competition. Businesses then compete by innovating on how to reduce costs and building economies of scale, which usually reduces costs. They do not, however, innovate on improving the quality of the product because, by definition, the product is the same.

If the FCC were to require a net-neutrality policy, it would remove substantial areas of potential competition between the entrenched monopolist broadband (i.e. cable) companies and potential competitors. So competition would primarily be based on cost reduction, which usually comes down to economies of scale.

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Antitrust SuperheroSome lawyers focus on litigation. Other lawyers spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. And another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature.

But your friendly antitrust attorneys—the superheroes of lawyers—do all of this. That is part of what makes practicing antitrust so fun. We are here to solve competition problems; whether they arise from transactions, disputes, or the government, we are here to help. Or perhaps you just want some basic advice. We do that too—all the time.

Perhaps you are a new attorney, or a law student, and you are considering what area to practice? Try antitrust and competition law. Not only is this arena challenging and in flux—which adds to the excitement—but you also don’t pigeonhole yourself into a particular type of practice. You get to do it all—your job is to understand the essence of markets and competition and to help clients solve competition problems.

For those of you that aren’t antitrust attorneys, I thought it might be useful if I explained what it is that we do.

Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust.

Businesses compete in the marketplace, but they also compete in the courtroom, for better or worse. And when they do, their big weapon is often a federal antitrust claim (with accompanying treble damages and attorneys’ fees), but they may also be armed with other claims, including trade secret statutes, Lanham Act, patent, tortious interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, I will receive a call from a client that thinks they may have an antitrust claim. Perhaps they read this blog post. Sometimes they do, indeed, have a potential antitrust claim. But in other instances, an antitrust claim probably won’t work, but another claim might fit, perhaps a Lanham Act claim for false advertising, or tortuous interference with contract, or some sort of state unfair trade practice claim.

Antitrust lawyers study markets and competition and are the warriors of courtroom competition between competitors. If you have a legal dispute with a competitor, you should call your friendly antitrust attorney.

Antitrust litigation itself is great fun. The cases are usually significant, document heavy, with difficult legal questions and an emphasis on economic testimony. Some of them even involve class actions.

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BlackjackSo here’s an idea. Let me know what you think: A hedge fund or other investment vehicle centered on antitrust analysis.

I’ll explain.

As you might know, I am an antitrust attorney. And I write a blog on antitrust and competition law. So, as you may expect, I follow antitrust developments somewhat obsessively at times. As a result, I have a good sense of the practical antitrust implications of certain cases, investigations, or prospective mergers.

I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. Nor do I have any inside information. And since human beings—judges or agency officials—make the relevant decisions, nobody can actually predict what will happen.

But by now, I can review a complaint or a motion to dismiss or description of facts and have a good sense of the strength and risk of the antitrust issues. I think I also have a decent idea how the major antitrust agencies—the FTC and Department of Justice—focus their priorities and like to resolve investigations, cases, and mergers. Like I said, I can’t predict anything with certainty, but there is a high learning curve for antitrust (probably more than most specialties) and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort climbing that curve.

Enough about me—for now anyway.

Let’s talk about antitrust and company stock performance. The obvious scenario is a merger. Two companies, perhaps competitors, announce a merger or acquisition. It isn’t a dead-on-antitrust-arrival merger between the first and second leading companies in a product and geographic market that is easily defined. Instead, it is the sort of merger where the markets are somewhat complicated, perhaps in flux, and it isn’t entirely clear whether an antitrust agency will challenge it or a court will stop it.

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Dollar signWhen you are a law student, you don’t usually understand that most cases are just one of several business tools that are companies utilize to advance their interests in the marketplace.

You might think that cases are academic-like exercises that reach either trial or some appellate court (perhaps after a motion-to-dismiss or summary-judgment motion). One or the other party or both are seeking justice and will not rest until the case terminates. That’s not a surprise, really, because much of what you do in law school is read such cases. I guess that is why many law students want to become appellate attorneys.

But the reality is that—as much as lawyers like myself like to view the law through an academic lens—a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit is often just a way for someone to seek leverage. The claim is real and is serious, but litigating the case to termination is usually a last resort. The best result is often a settlement—the earlier the better.

Lawyers don’t like to talk about that much because unless you are on a contingency fee an early settlement means less money for the attorney. But it is the truth; lawyers are not special, really. What we do in litigation is often just another business tool to advance our client’s position in the marketplace. There are exceptions, of course—cases where justice must be done—but most commercial litigation doesn’t fall into that category.

Most of commercial litigation is a negotiating tool.

And an antitrust claim is a particularly large (and effective) bat when it comes to leverage.

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Global AntitrustJust because your company isn’t based in the United States doesn’t mean it can ignore US antitrust law. In this interconnected world, there is a good chance that if you produce something, the United States is a market that matters to your company.

For that reason, I offer five points below that attorneys and leaders for non-U.S. companies should understand about US antitrust law.

But maybe you aren’t from a foreign company? Does that mean you can click away? No. Keep reading. Most of the insights below matter to anyone within the web of US antitrust law.

This article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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Cable MergerAntitrust attorneys do everything that a lawyer can do: They litigate in both courts and agencies; they counsel clients; and they participate in mergers & acquisitions. If you are a young lawyer or law student that can’t decide what type of legal activity you like best, try antitrust and competition law—you can do it all.

In the mergers & acquisitions category, antitrust’s most recent obsession is the deal between Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable., Inc.

Competition Policy International (CPI) was kind enough to ask me to write a few words expressing my thoughts, and you can read them here. You can view the other Comcast-TWC articles from the CPI Antitrust Chronicle here.

I won’t go into a lot of detail because you can read the actual article (which is less than five pages), but I thought I’d provide a little introduction into my thinking.

Usually in these circumstances, you will see commentary on one side stating that, of course, the merger should be approved, maybe even “as is.” On the other side, you will read analyses that the world will fall apart if the merger is not blocked forever.

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