Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

Aspen Mountains

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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Sculpture Man Controlling Trade

This 1942 sculpture by Michael Lantz, 17-feet long, is meant to suggest a heroic figure (the FTC) restraining violent and untamed American commerce.

Author: Steven Levitsky

If you liked the old computer game, “Minesweeper,” then you’re ready to take on Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filings for antitrust review of mergers & acquisitions. Both have rules. And both can produce unexpected catastrophes even if you think you’re following the rules. In fact, major clients, advised by major law firms, have been hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for mistakes that no one thought of at the time.

Let’s start with the 50,000 foot view of HSR compliance. You might know the basics: (a) you need to make an HSR filing when one side of the transaction has sales or assets of at least $16.9 million; (b) the other side has sales or assets of at least $168.8 million; (c) the transaction size is greater than $84.4 million; and (d) no exemptions apply. (These are 2018 figures).

An example to consider

Here’s an example of how things can work out badly. Let’s assume you get a call from the CEO of your client, Alpha Co. Alpha Co. is a small and relatively new company and the CEO tells you:

  1. Alpha’s annual sales and assets are $15 million.
  2. Alpha plans to buy $80 million of the voting securities of Bravo Ltd. (Alpha’s borrowing $65 million to do the deal.)
  3. Based on this, he wants to know if they need to make an HSR filing.

Applying what you know, you conclude that the “size-of-person” and “size-of-transaction” tests are both not met, so no HSR filing is required. Alpha Co. goes ahead and closes the deal.

Three months later, your client hears from the FTC. The FTC tells them that they violated the HSR Act by not filing, and that the fine is $41,484 per day, or $3,733,560 in all. What went wrong? (We’ll explain in detail in Point 2.)

But generally, what went wrong is that the 50,000 foot view is not enough. HSR rules are extremely technical and, some would say, not exactly logical. A lot of HSR terms don’t have a common sense meaning. You need to check and cross-reference the definitions and rules. And these, by the way, are not organized in any friendly or rational way, but seem to read like the Tax Code.

Here are some basic HSR concepts that might help you avoid the worst minefields.

  1. What are the basic HSR tests?

There are two tests to see if a filing is required.

First, “size-of-person.” Normally, you don’t need to file for the antitrust enforcers unless one side of the deal has sales or assets of at least $16.9 million and the other side has sales or assets of at least $168.8 million. (This are 2018 figures; these numbers change every February.)

But, as we’ll see soon in Point 2, the size-of-person test does not mean the size of the transaction party. Instead, it means the size of the buyer’s entire business group, or everything under the control of its highest entity (see §5). Don’t fall into the trap of measuring an incomplete control group.

Second, the “size-of-transaction” must be over $84.4 million (again, this is 2018; the numbers change every February). But there are several other filing thresholds that cover more purchases in the same target and could require successive filings. These include $168.8 million; $843.9 million; 25% of the target — but only if the size-of-transaction is more than $1.688 million; and 50% of the target — or control. Once you get control, you can buy as much more of the target as you want without ever filing again.

But, as we’ll see soon in Point 2, the “size-of-transaction” does not really mean the size of the transaction. Instead, it means (1) the combination of existing holdings and planned acquisitions, (2) that the entire buyer control group will have in the target control group after the deal closes (see §2). This includes voting stock acquired years before, that has to be analyzed at its current value. Don’t fall into the trap of measuring the wrong amount.

  1. What is an “ultimate parent entity” and why does it matter?

The “ultimate parent entity” is the top controlling entity of an entire business group.

The “ultimate parent entity” matters to your antitrust filing for the following reason. The purpose of the HSR filing system is to let the antitrust agencies know of significant shifts in competitive power. As a result, they don’t care about the names on the contract, which may be only small subs or special purpose vehicles. The antitrust agencies want to know what is really happening in terms of changes of competitive power.

To give the agencies that information, you must identify the entire control group of your transaction party. You do this by tracing control upwards from the transaction party (Alpha Co., in our case) to the very highest control level of the business group. That entity at the top, that isn’t controlled by anyone else, is the “ultimate parent entity,” which can be a company or an individual. The “ultimate parent entity” makes the filing. Its collective size and holdings affect the “size-of-person” and “size-of-transaction” tests we discussed in Point 1.

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exclusive-deailng-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Sometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, maybe a supplier and retailer agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores? This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract can seem quite aggravating. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bring an antitrust action and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws.

You can read our article about exclusive dealing at the Bona Law website here.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive dealing agreement, you are probably quite angry and feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may give you some false positives.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

An exclusive dealing agreement occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also occur in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements.

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Golden Gate Bridge California

Author: Jarod Bona

In an earlier blog post, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. We’ve also written about these agreements here. As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t consider is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. Several years ago during my DLA Piper days, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content and application of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly our antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California. Bona Law, of course, also has a New York office.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2018, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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European-Union-Online-RPM-300x225Author: Luis Blanquez

On July 24, 2018, the European Commission fined manufacturers Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer for over €111 million for restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own retail prices for a variety of widely-used consumer electronics products.

Background

Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney with an antitrust blog, my phone rings with a varied assortment of antitrust-related questions. One of the most common topics involves resale-price maintenance. “Resale price maintenance” is also one of the most common search terms for this blog.

That is, people want to know when it is okay for suppliers or manufacturers to dictate or participate in price-setting by downstream retailers or distributors.

I think that resale-price maintenance creates so many inquiries for two reasons: First, it is something that a comparatively large number of companies need to consider, whether they are customers, suppliers, or retailers. Second, the law is confusing, muddled, and sometimes contradictory (especially between and among state and federal antitrust laws).

If you want background on resale-price maintenance, you can review my blog post on Leegin and federal antitrust law here, and you can read my post about resale-price maintenance under state antitrust laws here.

Here, we will discuss alternatives to resale-price maintenance agreements that may achieve similar objectives for manufacturers or suppliers.

The first and most common alternative utilizes what is called the Colgate doctrine.

The Colgate doctrine arises out of a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that the Sherman Act does not prevent a manufacturer from announcing in advance the prices at which its goods may be resold and then refusing to deal with distributors and retailers that do not respect those prices.

Businesses—with the minor exception of the refusal-to-deal doctrine—have no general antitrust-law obligation to do business with any particular company and can thus unilaterally terminate distributors without antitrust consequences (in most instances; please consult an antitrust attorney).

Both federal and state antitrust law focuses on the agreement aspect of resale-price maintenance agreements. So if a company unilaterally announces minimum prices at which resellers must sell its products or face termination, the company is not, strictly speaking, entering an agreement.

Update: You can now read this article translated to French at Le Concurrentialiste.

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Rebound-300x154

Author: Jarod Bona

Business can be brutal.

Let’s say you have this business. Maybe you started it recently, or maybe you’ve been around for some time. But, in any event, you offer a good product or service. Customers like you and you are making money.

This is—for many—the American dream. You have freedom, which plays itself out by your decision to exercise that freedom by working 80 hours per week. But you are working those 80 hours for your baby—your business.

And at least you have control over your circumstances: If you keep providing your customers with great value at a great price, you will succeed.

That’s true, except sometimes it isn’t.

Competing for customers in a market isn’t just about providing the best services, products, or prices. That is, of course, the biggest part of it, most of the time. If you do well for your customers, they will usually do well for you. But sometimes it is more complicated than that.

Companies compete within markets, but they also compete for markets.

What does that mean?

Let’s say you own a restaurant and there are five restaurants on your street. You compete within the market because whoever offers the best combination of atmosphere, price, and quality and can best match the needs (i.e. demand) of the prospective restaurant customers in that geographic area will make the most money. That is competing within the market.

But the more competition there is, the harder it is to make money. Every market is different, of course, but the greater the differentiation among competitors within the market and the less competition within that market, the more profit margins increase. This, of course, is just a rough approximation. Markets are complicated beasts.

The truth is, if you want to make more money as a business, it is best to avoid or minimize competition. That is why Peter Thiel tells you in Zero to One to create new markets or to build businesses that will face minimal competition. In that sense, a restaurant is a terrible business—too much competition. We wrote about avoiding competition and Peter Thiel’s excellent book here.

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Resale-Price-Maintenance-Toys-300x252

Author: Jarod Bona

If you are looking for controversy, you came to the right place. Today, we discuss resale price maintenance, one of the most contentious issues in all of antitrust. If you look around and see a bunch of antitrust economists, hide your screen so they don’t start arguing with each other. Trust me; that is the last thing you want to experience.

Let’s start with some background: A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between, for example, a supplier and a retailer that the retailer will not sell the supplier’s product to an end user (or anyone, for that matter) for less than a certain amount. It is a vertical price-fixing agreement.

That type of agreement has a storied—and controversial—past. Over a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court in a case called Dr. Miles declared that this type of vertical price fixing is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws. This is a designation that is now almost exclusively limited to horizontal agreements.

During the ensuing hundred years or so, economists and lawyers debated whether resale price maintenance (RPM) really should be a per se antitrust violation. After all, there are procompetitive reasons for certain RPM agreements and the per se label is only supposed to apply to activity that is universally anticompetitive.

After a trail of similar issues over the years, the question again landed in the Supreme Court’s lap in a case called Leegin in 2007. In a highly controversial decision that led to backlash by certain states, the Supreme Court lifted the per se veil from these controversial vertical agreements and declared that, at least as far as federal antitrust law is concerned, courts should analyze resale price maintenance under the rule of reason.

You can read more about Leegin and how courts analyze these agreements in our prior article. And if you want to learn more about how certain states, like California, handle resale price maintenance agreements, you can read this article. Finally, if you are looking for a loophole to resale price maintenance agreements, read our article about Colgate policies and related issues.

Minimum advertised pricing policies (MAP) are related to resale price maintenance: you can read our article on MAP pricing and antitrust here.

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European-Commission-Enforcement-Actions-300x200

Author: Luis Blanquez

In our prior article, we discussed the European Commission’s final report of its study of the EU’s e-commerce market for consumer goods and digital content.

In this article we describe EU investigations and enforcement actions that arose from the EC’s final e-commerce market study. While the final report itself offers companies doing business in the EU helpful guidance, the Commission’s actual conduct is perhaps an even better indicator of how the EC will implement what it learned.

Since the European Commission published its Final Report, it has opened investigation of about 20 companies.

Below is a summary of the relevant cases that the EC recently opened. We expect additional cases in the future in this area, both at EU and national level.

Geo-blocking cases

Video Games

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened an investigation to analyze bilateral agreements between Valve Corporation, owner of the Steam game distribution platform, and five PC video game publishers:  Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax.

This investigation concerns geo-blocking practices, where companies prevent consumers from purchasing digital content, in this case PC video games, because of the consumer’s location or country of residence.  After the purchase of certain PC video games, users need to confirm that their copy of the game is not pirated to be able to play it.  This is done with an activation key.

The investigation focuses on whether such agreements require the use of activation keys for the purpose of geo-blocking.

Clothing Company, Guess

On June 6, 2017, the EC opened an investigation against clothing manufacturer Guess.  The EC is analyzing whether Guess’s distribution agreements impose cross-border sales restrictions on (i) retailers making online sales to consumers in other Member States, (ii) or wholesalers, selling to retailers in other Member States.

Interestingly, as a result, other clothing manufacturers such as Mango, Oysho and Pull&Bear have now started to review and revise their distribution agreements.  Other companies, such as coffee machine manufacturer De Longhi, and photo equipment manufacturer Manfrotto, are doing the same (See here).

Hotel Pricing Discrimination

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened another investigation into hotel accommodation agreements between the largest European tour operators on the one hand: Kuoni, REWE, Thomas Cook and TUI, and Meliá Hotels on the other hand.

The EC encourages hotels to develop and introduce innovative pricing mechanisms to maximize room usage.  But the EC is concerned that these agreements may contain clauses that discriminate among customers based on their nationality or country of residence.  As a result, customers may not be able to see the full hotel availability, or book hotel rooms at the best prices, simply because of the consumer’s nationality or place of residence.

Licensed Merchandising Products

On June 14, 2017, the EC opened more investigations into the licensing and distribution practices of Nike, Sanrio and Universal studios.  These three companies license intellectual property rights to manufacturers of merchandising products such as the Fútbol Club Barcelona, Hello Kitty and Minions merchandise, respectively.

The EC is concerned that these companies, in their role as licensors of rights for merchandising products, may have restricted the ability of their licensees to sell licensed merchandise cross-border and online.

Resale Price Maintenance cases

Consumer electronics manufacturers

The EC has opened another investigation against Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer.  In this case, the EC is concerned that the companies involved might be restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own prices for widely used consumer electronics products such as household appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.

This is the first resale price maintenance case that the EC has initiated in a long time.  Instead, the Member States themselves have scrutinized resale price maintenance at national level during the last decade.

Germany, for example, has recently published a new guidance note on resale price maintenance. The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) in the UK also published additional guidance on these types of pricing agreements in the form of an open letter, a film, a 60-second summary, and  case studies.

Indeed, the CMA recently fined National Lighting Company (NLC), a light fittings supplier, £2.7 million for restricting online prices. They also sent out warning letters to others in the industry.  In 2016, the CMA also fined two other online companies for resale price maintenance practices: Ultra Finishing Limited (“Ultra”) in the Bathroom fittings sector and ITW Limited in the commercial refrigeration sector.

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EU-ECommerce-Report-300x200

Author: Luis Blanquez

  1. BACKGROUND

Over the past two years, the European Commission (“EC”) has been scrutinizing the e-commerce market of consumer goods and digital content in the European Union.  This is a key step on the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy to improve access to digital goods and services.

Such strategy includes legislation to promote cross border e-commerce through the following:

In May 2015, the EC started in parallel its Sector Inquiry to identify possible competition concerns affecting European e-commerce markets.  Its main purpose was to gather information on companies’ conduct and barriers to cross-border online trade, looking at online sales of consumer goods and digital content.  In September 2016, the EC published a report with its preliminary findings, together with a Staff Working Document.

Finally, in May 2017, the EC issued its Final Report.

You can read our follow-up article to this one about ongoing EC enforcement actions arising out of the E-Commerce Report.

You might also enjoy our articles on EU dominance abuse and antitrust compliance programs in the US and EU.

  1. RELEVANT FINDINGS

The EC outlines in the Final Report what it considers as the key issues in the field of e-commerce.  It acknowledges the changing characteristics and fast-growing tendency of a sector with an increasing economic role in today’s economy. It further identifies business practices and barriers that could restrict competition and limit consumer choice.

The EC reviewed more than 2,600 agreements concerning the distribution of goods in the EU, and received more than 6,800 licensing agreements from digital content providers and rights holders.  The main findings in the Final Report differentiate between consumer goods and digital content.

(A) CONSUMER GOODS

Contractual Restrictions on Cross-Border Sales: Geo-Blocking

The Sector Inquiry identifies contractual restrictions between operators in the online market that the EC believes could cause problems.  Unilateral decisions by non-dominant firms, however, fall outside the scope of EU competition law.

But before telling you which contractual restrictions are problematic, let me explain first what the term “geo-blocking” means.  Basically, it refers to practices that prevent cross-border sales in the EU.  These include the following:

  • Blocking access to websites by users located in another Member State—for example when a customer located in Madrid tries to acquire a product via a French website, and is prevented from doing so because the website has been blocked due to its Spanish IP address;
  • Automatic re-routing of a customer to another website of the same or a different service provider—for example when a customer located in Madrid trying to access a French website is directly re-routed to the company’s Spanish website; or
  • Payment refusals based on the place of residence of the customer—for example when the payment to the French website is refused because the credit card used is linked to an address in Spain, or the delivery to Spain is denied based on the customer’s residence.

So back to the relevant contractual restrictions now:  The EC is concerned about how retailers face contractual restrictions from suppliers, which prevent such cross-border selling on-line.

These questioned agreements are ones that (i) are not covered by the EC “safe harbor” under the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (“VBER”) – this is if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, (ii) preventing cross-border sales between Member States in distribution agreements, may infringe EU Competition rules.

Restrictions on the use of online marketplaces

An online marketplace is a website that facilitates shopping from different sources, such as Amazon or eBay.

An absolute ban on online selling is considered a hard-core restriction under EU law.  There is, however, an important ongoing debate in Europe as to whether an absolute ban on selling via marketplaces is contrary to EU rules.

In Germany, the Bundeskartellamt issued an infringement decision against Asics on its ban to sell via online marketplaces. In April 2017, the Dusseldorf Regional Higher Court found that only the price comparison tool restrictions involved in the case were anticompetitive.

At EU level there are currently two preliminary rulings pending.  One the Coty case, where the high EU court has been asked to analyze the restrictions imposed on a selective distribution agreement by manufacturer Coty on one of its authorized distributors to sell products via third party online platforms. The second one is the Samsung and Amazon case, concerning a ban on resale outside a selective distribution network and on a marketplace, by means of online offers on several websites operating in various Member States.

In its Final Report, the EC does not consider marketplace selling bans as hardcore restraints.  It may, however, still scrutinize them on a case by case basis, if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, according to the VBER.

Selective distribution agreements: Requirements for brick-and- mortar shops

Contractual requirements to operate at least one brick-and-mortar shop under a selective distribution agreement are compatible with the EU competition rules, as long as they are linked to quality or brand image.

The EC, however, states in its Final Report that brick-and-mortar shop requirements imposed for the sole purpose to exclude online operators from the market, may infringe EU competition rules.

Pricing restrictions: Resale Price Maintenance (“RPM”) and Price collusion

E-commerce has significantly increased price transparency, competition on price and opportunities for users to compare different options in the internet.  According to the EC’s investigation, almost 30% of manufacturers systematically track resale prices: 67% track resale prices manually, whereas 38% use specific software (spiders).

The Final Report highlights that this may also increase the risk of RPM or collusion between competitors.

Resale Price Maintenance (RPM)

The imposition of minimum resale prices is considered a hardcore restriction under EU Competition law.  Similarly, when manufacturers seek to enforce compliance with recommended prices through contractual restrictions or some form of coercion, they may also infringe competition rules.

The EC is concerned that online price transparency may facilitate such practices, making it easier for manufacturers to detect deviations and enforce RPM provisions.

You can read articles on The Antitrust Attorney Blog on Resale Price Maintenance here.

Price collusion

Price fixing between competitors is considered one of the most serious infringements under EU competition rules.

The Final Report found that almost 50% of retailers track online prices of competitors, and 78% of them use software to monitor rivals’ prices, adjusting their own prices accordingly.

The EC is thus concerned that price monitoring may facilitate or strengthen collusion between retailers, by making the detection of deviations from the collusive agreement easier, while allowing them to counteract by adjusting their prices.

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