Articles Posted in Mergers & Acquisitions

FTC-Antitrust-Challenge-300x225

Author: Steven J. Cernak

The FTC’s challenge of Altria’s investment into its e-cigarette competitor JUUL Labs, Inc. (JLI) already raised interesting antitrust and administrative law issues: Did the parties’ discussions of FTC compliance during merger negotiations create an unreasonable agreement? Are the structure and procedures of the FTC constitutional?

Recently, the case took another unusual turn. In early November 2022 — after the Commission voted out the complaint; FTC Complaint Counsel tried the case; the in-house administrative law judge issued a decision favoring the parties; and the Commissioners heard oral argument on an appeal — the Commissioners sought additional briefing on the possibility of applying different theories that would make it easier for the FTC to win. The Commissioners’ request seems to be allowable under the FTC’s procedures but might not help it in responding to potential constitutional challenges to those procedures, whether in this case or another one before the Supreme Court.

Facts and Prior History

We covered the case’s facts and procedural history in detail for this Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder. Here is a short recap.

Altria was the largest and one of the oldest cigarette companies in the country but struggled mightily with e-cigarettes. JLI was a new, smaller company successfully focusing on e-cigarettes. In early 2018, the two parties began nearly year-long negotiations towards a large Altria investment in JLI. Throughout the rocky negotiations, the parties and their respective antitrust counsel discussed and exchanged documents about the likely need to take some action regarding Altria’s competitive e-cigarette assets during the expected FTC antitrust review.

After some FDA communications and during a break in the negotiations, Altria announced that it would pull some of its e-cigarette products. Negotiations resumed and shortly before reaching an agreement with JLI (which included a formal non-compete agreement), Altria announced that it would cease all e-cigarette sales.

The FTC investigated and the then-Commissioners, including current Commissioners Slaughter and Wilson, issued a complaint challenging the entire transaction. The complaint, inter alia, alleged an unreasonable agreement by which Altria agreed not to compete with JLI in the e-cigarette market “now or in the future” in exchange for an ownership interest in JLI. Specifically, that agreement took the form of the non-compete provisions of the written agreement as well as an implicit agreement to exit the market reached during negotiations as a “condition for any deal.”

Per the FTC’s procedures, the challenge was heard by the FTC’s internal administrative law judge. After extensive pre- and post-trial briefing, 20 witnesses, 2400 exhibits, and 13 days of hearing, in February 2022 the ALJ issued a 250-page opinion finding that the FTC’s Complaint Counsel did not prove that the parties reached an agreement for Altria to exit the e-cigarette market and that the non-compete provision of the investment agreement was not unreasonable. FTC Complaint Counsel immediately appealed to the Commissioners.

Throughout the challenge, the parties challenged the constitutionality of the FTC and its procedure on separation of powers and due process grounds. The parties’ briefing made much of the FTC’s enviable 25-year winning streak of the Commissioners never ruling against a challenge that they voted out. A different company whose actions are being challenged by the FTC, Axon Enterprise, recently argued to the Supreme Court that it should be allowed to raise similar constitutional issues before going through the same FTC’s procedures as Altria/JLI did.

Latest Request from Commissioners

In the WLF piece just before the oral arguments to the Commissioners, I suggested that the most interesting antitrust issue would be whether discussions among parties about actions they might take to address expected FTC antitrust concerns could ever add up to an agreement. I also wondered whether the Commissioners might, for the first time in 25 years, rule against a complaint they had issued to avoid any constitutional challenges in this case and, perhaps, to assist in any constitutional challenge in the Axon case.

I expected that by early November, the four remaining Commissioners would be well on their way to deciding the case and issuing an opinion; instead, on November 3, the Commissioners issued an Order requiring the parties and Complaint Counsel to brief two new issues. Specifically, assuming they overturn the ALJ’s opinion that the parties did not reach an unwritten agreement for Altria to exit the e-cigarette market, the Commissioners sought briefing on whether such an agreement should be analyzed as either per se illegal or inherently suspect. The Commissioners also ask if the history of this matter poses any impediments to considering these different standards and, if so, what steps would be necessary to overcome those impediments.

Applying the per se standard would make automatically illegal any such agreement that the Commissioners find the parties to have reached. Applying the inherently suspect standard would drastically lower the standard that the FTC must clear to find unreasonable any unwritten agreement reached by the parties. The inherently suspect standard, and an appellate court’s criticism of it the last time it was used in a high-profile case, are summarized in this recent post.

Conclusion

The briefing by the parties and Complaint Counsel will end just before Christmas. A ruling by the Commission would then be required by around the end of March, unless the Commission again further delays its responsibilities unilaterally. Here are three take-aways.

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FTC-DOJ-Antitrust-Merger-Loses-206x300

Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

Hard times for the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and Department of Justice (“DOJ”). In the last few weeks, the Biden Administration has suffered three significant antitrust loses. This is the result of the Government’s determination to try to block mergers that, despite their size, were found by courts to not hinder competition.

Below is a short summary of the three merger cases with some final remarks on what to expect from the Government moving forward.

Illumina/Grail

In March 2021 the FTC filed an administrative complaint to block Illumina’s $7.1 billion proposed acquisition of Grail. Grail is a maker of a non-invasive early detection (MCED) test to screen multiple types of cancer using DNA sequencing, known as next generation sequencing or NGS.

In its complaint, the FTC alleged that the proposed transaction would substantially lessen competition in the U.S. MCED test market by reducing innovation and potentially increasing prices and diminishing the choice and quality of MCED tests. According to the FTC, Illumina, as the dominant provider of NGS––an essential input for the development and commercialization of MCED tests in the United States––would have the ability to foreclose or disadvantage Grail’s rivals while having at the same time the incentive to also disadvantage or foreclose firms that pose a significant competitive threat.

In September 2022, Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell dismissed the complaint in an unexpected decision ruling for the first time against the FTC in a merger case. In a nutshell, Judge Chappell concluded that the FTC failed to prove that Illumina’s post-acquisition ability and incentive to advantage Grail to the disadvantage of Grail’s alleged rivals would likely result in a substantial lessening of competition in the relevant market for the research, development, and commercialization of MCED tests.” On September 2, the FTC Complaint Counsel filed a Notice of Appeal.

Of interest is the fact that shortly after Judge’s Chappell ruling, in parallel the European Commission decided to block the acquisition under the EU Merger Regulation using similar antitrust arguments as the FTC. And that was despite the fact that the transaction did not initially trigger EU merger control thresholds and that the parties closed the acquisition during the investigation. The stakes are also high on that side of the Atlantic.

UnitedHealth/Change Highlights

In February 2022, the DOJ, together with Attorneys General in Minnesota and New York, filed a complaint to stop UnitedHealth Group Incorporated (UHG) from acquiring Change Healthcare Inc. According to the complaint the proposed $13 billion transaction would harm competition in commercial health insurance markets, as well as in the market for a vital technology used by health insurers to process health insurance claims and reduce health care costs.

In the complaint the Government argued that the proposed acquisition was (i) an illegal horizontal merger because it would create a monopoly in the sale of first-pass claims editing solutions in the U.S., (ii) an illegal vertical merger because UHG’s control over a key input—Change’s EDI clearinghouse—would give it the ability and incentive to use rivals’ CSI for its own benefit, which in turn would lessen competition in the markets for national accounts and large group commercial health insurance; and (iii) an illegal vertical merger because United’s control over Change’s EDI clearinghouse would give it the ability and incentive to withhold innovations and raise rivals’ costs to compete in those same markets for national accounts and large group plans.

In its press release, the DOJ also stated that the proposed transaction would give United access to a vast amount of its rival health insurers’ competitively sensitive information. Post-acquisition, United would be able to use its rivals’ information to gain an unfair advantage and harm competition in health insurance markets. The proposed transaction also would eliminate United’s only major rival for first-pass claims editing technology — a critical product used to efficiently process health insurance claims and save health insurers billions of dollars each year — and give United a monopoly share in the market. It further claimed that the proposed acquisition would eliminate an independent and innovative firm, Change, that today supports a variety of participants in the health care ecosystem, including United’s major health insurance competitors, with vital software and services.

To tackle DOJ’s three theories of harm, UHG agreed to divest Change’s claims editing business, ClaimsXten, to TPG upon consummation of the proposed acquisition. The divestiture package included all four of Change’s current claims-editing products. In May 2022, UHG also issued its “UnitedHealth Group Firewall Policy for Optum Insight and Change Healthcare,” addressing the sharing of customers’ competitively sensitive information (CSI) following the transaction.

In September 2022, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols, after a two-week trial concluded that the Government was not able to meet its burden of proving that the transaction would substantially lessen competition in the relevant markets, which allowed the deal to move forward.

First, on the horizontal theory of harm, Judge Nichols determined that UnitedHealth’s proposal to divest ClaimsXten to TPG, allowed TPG to adequately preserve the level of competition that existed previously in the market for claims-editing software. In other words, the DOJ failed to show that the proposed merger was likely to substantially lessen competition in the market for first-pass claims-editing solutions in the U.S. Thus, the Court required UHG to divest ClaimsXten to TPG as proposed.

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Altria-Antitrust-Merger-FTC-300x200

Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

The FTC’s challenge of Altria Group’s proposed minority investment in JUUL Labs, Inc. (JLI) in April 2020 generated attention in both the mainstream media and the competition law press. Press coverage since that time has hit the latest developments but often missed the important issues this challenge raises: When can parties reach an anticompetitive agreement before they sign their official merger documents? Non-compete agreements have been pilloried lately, but are they anticompetitive even in a partial merger situation like this one?

This summary should help you prepare for the September 12 oral arguments in front of the Commissioners. You can read Steve Cernak’s more detailed article on these issues for the Washington Legal Foundation here.

The Parties and the Transaction

Altria, together with its subsidiaries, is the largest and one of the oldest cigarette companies in the U.S. In addition to its other products, it also sold e-cigarettes during the relevant period. JLI, is a smaller, newer company focused only on e-cigarettes.

As with most antitrust matters, especially merger investigations, market definition was contentious. Generally, e-cigarettes are electronic devices that aerosolize nicotine-containing liquid using heat generated by a battery as the user puffs. Open system e-cigarettes contain a reservoir that a consumer can refill with their choice of a nicotine-containing liquid. Closed system e-cigarettes have a container that already contains that liquid. Closed systems include cig-a-likes, which mimic the shape and look of a traditional cigarette, as well as pod products that have various shapes, including a shape like a USB thumb drive.

The e-cigarette category began growing rapidly about ten years ago. A few companies offered different options. Altria offered cig-a-like products and then pod products, but JLI offered only pod products. At the time of the challenged transaction, pods were the dominant choice of consumers, with JLI’s product the market leader.

While sales of pods, especially JLI’s pods, grew strongly at the end of 2017, Altria was only selling cig-a-likes and their sales fell. For regulatory reasons, Altria sought to purchase an existing pod product because it couldn’t develop its own product in a reasonable timeframe. In late 2017, it licensed the rights to a Chinese pod product and rushed it to market in early 2018.

Altria then approached JLI in early 2018 about an acquisition. By the end of July, the up-and-down negotiations centered around a multi-billion-dollar investment by Altria in exchange for a minority interest in JLI, possibly a non-voting interest convertible to voting after antitrust clearance. (An acquisition of non-voting securities does not require Hart-Scott-Rodino approval; conversion of such securities does.) At this point, the parties were far from reaching a deal, but began to discuss two other items that would lead to the FTC’s challenge of the eventual transaction.

The ironic first issue was how the parties could obtain antitrust clearance for the entire transaction. The parties’ term sheet described cooperation with the FTC and agreement to any “concessionary requirements of the FTC” related to Altria’s e-cigarette business. That is, the parties agreed that Altria would “divest (or if divestiture is not reasonably practicable, contribute at no cost to [JLI] and if such contribution is not reasonably practicable, then cease to operate” Altria’s e-cigarette business. JLI did not want to compete with Altria because Altria, as a major JLI shareholder, would have access to important JLI information. JLI’s executives later testified that they expected the FTC to oversee this process.

Second, in exchange for regulatory aid, Altria would agree to not compete with JLI’s e-cigarette products. Again, JLI didn’t want Altria’s to access sensitive JLI information when performing these services would allow Altria to improve its current e-cigarette products (before divestiture) or develop better new ones.

While negotiating over financial considerations and Altria’s voting rights, the parties continued to refine these two items. In later term sheets, the requirement that Altria “cease to operate” its e-cigarette assets disappeared while the requirement that Altria either contribute those assets to JLI or divest them remained.

Negotiations broke down in early September, but improved in October as Altria came around to terms much closer to JLI’s proposals. In early December, Altria announced that it was pulling its remaining e-cigarette products from the market, allegedly to conserve costs for product development or to invest in JLI. The parties finally reached an agreement later in December.  Altria then ceased its other e-cigarette development efforts.

The Challenge and Initial Decision

On April 20, 2020, the FTC issued a two-count administrative complaint against the parties. Count I alleged an unreasonable agreement by which Altria agreed not to compete with JLI in the e-cigarette market “now or in the future” in exchange for the ownership interest in JLI. Specifically, that agreement took the form of the non-compete provisions of the written agreement as well as an agreement to exit the market reached during negotiations as a “condition for any deal.” Count II alleged that the transaction, including the agreed upon market exit by Altria and the written non-compete provisions, violated Clayton Act Section 7’s prohibition of mergers that “substantially lessen competition” in the relevant market.

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Yang Yang

Author: Yang Yang.

Ms. Yang is an Antitrust Partner at Fairsky Law Firm, which has a New York office. She is also a lecturer and researcher at China University of Political Science and Law. She authored a treatise on China Merger Control and is a member of the expert advisory team for Amendments to China Anti-Monopoly Law (with a total number of 8 members). Indeed, she leads the drafting of an expert report on suggested amendments to China Merger Control regime, Chapter 4 of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. She is also a frequent contributor to the Antitrust Report of LexisNexis and Competition Policy International (Asia Column and Asia Chronicle).

On June 24, 2022, the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed amendments to the Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law, which will come into force on August 1, 2022. These amendments have been the first ones since the first adoption of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law in 2008.

They cover the following topics: (i) antitrust investigations by the Chinese Antirust Bureau under the SAMR, (ii) merger control review by the Chinese Antitrust Bureau under the SAMR, and (iii) civil litigation or private actions seeking damages or claiming invalidations of contractual provisions based on a violation of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. These amendments mark significant changes to China’s antitrust regime.

You might also enjoy the following articles that I’ve authored on The Antitrust Attorney Blog:

Antitrust Merger Control in China: Notifiable Transactions under the People’s Republic of China Anti-Monopoly Law

Draft Amendment to Chinese Antitrust Law Calls for Further Clarifications

Administrative Enforcement by Chinese Antitrust Bureau

With regard to antitrust investigations by Chinese Antirust Bureau under the SAMR, the changes primarily relate to (a) vertical agreements––i.e., RPM; (b) hub-and-spoke agreements, and (c) to the abuse of dominance by internet/technology companies.

Vertical Agreements

These amendments introduce a new “safe harbor” rule for vertical agreements based on the market share of investigated parties in their relevant markets. They now supply more detailed guidance on relevant-market definition, including specific precedents for certain industries. This guidance reduces uncertainty for the investigated parties.

Hub-and-Spoke Agreements

Hub-and-spoke agreements involve manufactures and distributors not entering directly into Resale Price Maintenance provisions (RPM), but rather holding meetings to facilitate horizontal agreements. These fall within the scope of prohibited horizontal agreements in Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law.

For any investigation relating to horizontal or vertical agreements, there is also a new issue of whether any party to such agreements has hosted meetings, organized exchanges of information, or provided substantial facilitation. This also calls for more future guidance from the regulators.

Abusive Conduct by Technology Companies

For internet companies, the provision on prohibiting abusive conduct by algorithms or platform policies is not new. Algorithms and platform policies are commonly used by internet companies. But this new provision may indicate a potential priority from law enforcement. This seems to be consistent with merger control rules and the Chinese Antitrust Bureau’s priority relating to markets impacting the national economy and people’s daily lives, which includes areas of public facilities, pharmaceutical manufacturers and internet platforms.

Merger Control

In the merger control realm, there are three main changes: (i) notification of voluntary transactions, (ii) the introduction of a “Stop the Clock” mechanism, and (iii) a new merger review process by categories and levels. These changes can cause the following uncertainties in practice and may require more detailed guidance.

Notification of Voluntary Transactions

Under this new provision the Chinese Antitrust Bureau has the power to require parties to notify transactions before they are implemented if there is evidence of potential anticompetitive effects. There is no mandatory obligation, however, to notify transactions that do not trigger the relevant merger thresholds before their implementation.

But, despite the new law, current rules do encourage voluntary transactions involving, for example, active pharmaceutical ingredients. These changes create uncertainty on whether the authority has any power to reverse such transactions or impose remedies after their implementation.

In addition, under the new law, the authority must first require the parties to notify the transaction. If the parties do not comply with the notification request, the authority will initiate an official investigation. This process allows the parties to provide evidence and prove that the transaction does not have anticompetitive effects. The authority then has the power to approve (with or without remedies), or prohibit the transaction.

“Stop the Clock” Provision

The new “Stop the Clock” provision grants the authority more time to review the transaction if the notifying parties fail to provide documents on time. At the same time, the notifying parties will now have more time to respond to the authority and to other parties’ concerns.  But under the current law and rules, the authority usually requires the parties to withdraw and refile a notification if the review process has reached the 180-day deadline. Therefore, the new law may restrain the Chinese Antitrust Bureau from extending an investigation longer than 180 days. We will have to see what happens.

New Merger Review Process by Categories and Levels

Finally, the new merger review process by categories and levels calls for more detailed rules on implementation and policies and creates uncertainty as to whether some industries will have higher scrutiny than others.

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Authors:  Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

Section 8 of the Clayton Act prohibits certain interlocking directorates between competing corporations. But while the prohibition has been around since 1914, most antitrust lawyers pay little attention to it, partly because companies can quickly resolve any issues voluntarily. Recent comments by the new AAG Jonathan Kanter, however, hint that litigation might play a larger role in future Section 8 issues.

Clayton Act, Section 8 Basics

The prohibitions of Section 8, in its most recent form, can be simply stated: No person can simultaneously serve as an officer or director of competing corporations, subject to certain jurisdictional thresholds and de minimis exceptions. Truly understanding the prohibition, however, requires understanding all those italicized terms.

First, Section 8’s prohibition applies only if each corporation has “capital, surplus, and undivided profits,” or net worth, of $10M or more, as adjusted. The FTC is responsible for annually adjusting that threshold for inflation and usually announces the change early in the calendar year along with changes to the Hart-Scott-Rodino thresholds. Currently, the threshold is just over $41M.

Section 8 provides an exception where the competitive sales of either or each of the corporations is de minimis. Specifically, no interlocks are prohibited if the competitive sales of 1) either corporation are less than $1M, as adjusted (currently about $4.1M); 2) either corporation are less than 2% of that corporation’s total sales; or 3) each corporation are less than 4% of that corporation’s total sales.

Originally, Section 8 applied only to directors of corporations; however, the 1990 amendments extended the coverage to officers, defined as those elected or chosen by the corporation’s Board. Despite the clear wording of the statute limiting it to officers and directors, courts have considered the possibility that Section 8 might apply when a corporation’s non-officer employee was to be appointed a director of a competitor corporation.

The language of Section 8 clearly applies to interlocks between competing corporations. An interlock between a corporation and a competing LLC would not be covered by the statutory language or the legislative history of the original statute or amendment. The FTC and DOJ have not explicitly weighed in on application to non-corporations, although the FTC’s implementing regulations for Hart-Scott-Rodino cover LLC explicitly as “non-corporate interests” different from corporations. Still, the spirit of Section 8 would seem to cover any such non-corporate interlock. Also, any corporate director who also serves a similar role for a competing LLC would face an increased risk of violating Sherman Act Section 1.

Section 8 clearly applies if the same natural person sits on the boards of the competing corporations. It might also apply if the same legal entity has the right to appoint a natural person to both Boards, even if that entity appoints two different natural persons to the two Boards. That interpretation is consistent with the Clayton Act’s broad definition of “person” and has been supported by both the FTC and DOJ and the one lower court to consider the question.

As with other parts of the antitrust laws, the question of competition between the two corporations requires some analysis. The few courts to look at the question have found that corporations that could be found to violate Sherman Act Section 1 through an agreement would be considered competitors. On the other hand, these same courts did not define competitors more narrowly to be those corporations that would not be allowed to merge under the more extensive analysis of Clayton Act Section 7.

Kanter’s Speech

On April 4, 2022, at the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, Jonathan Kanter, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division at the DOJ, made during his speech some significant remarks about Section 8. First, he highlighted the fact that the Division is committed to litigating cases using the whole legislative toolbox that Congress has given them to promote competition, including Section 8 of the Clayton Act. Second, he reminded everyone that Section 8 helps prevent collusion before it can occur by imposing a bright-line rule against interlocking directorates. Third, that for too long, Section 8 enforcement has essentially been limited to their merger review process. And last but not least, that the Division will start ramping up efforts to identify violations across the broader economy and will not hesitate to bring Section 8 cases to break up interlocking directorates. The former head from the FTC made a similar statement back in 2019, indicating how Section 8 of the Clayton Act protects against potential information sharing and coordination by prohibiting an individual from serving as an officer or director of two competing companies.

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Authors: German Zakharov and Dmitry Domnin

German Zakharov
German Zakharov is a Partner of the Competition/Antitrust and Foreign Direct Investments Practices at ALRUD Law Firm. German supports clients on a wide range of antitrust issues: coordination of merger control transactions with Federal Antimonopoly Service of the Russian Federation (FAS Russia), cartel investigations, advising on distributorship agreements, and analyzing compliance of commercial agreements with antitrust requirements. German represents companies during dawn raids performed by FAS Russia and its territorial subdivisions as well as in court.

Dmitry Domnin Dmitry Domnin is a Senior Attorney of the Competition/Antitrust and Foreign Direct Investments Practices at ALRUD Law Firm. Dmitry advises on a wide range of antimonopoly issues. His experience includes merger control clearance of global M&A/JV transactions. In addition, Dmitry represents clients during the national security clearance of transactions related to the foreign investments in Russia, including investments in strategic industries. Dmitry has experience in assisting clients during antimonopoly cases, in particular cases on abuse of dominance. Dmitry also has experience in preparation and running mock dawn raids. Dmitry advises clients on the various issues related to the antimonopoly risks of vertical agreements, including risks under the legislation of the Eurasian Economic Union.

FTC-and-HSR-Thresholds-Increase-300x219

Authors: Steven J. Cernak and Luis Blanquez  

As we have discussed in several recent posts, the FTC has made several changes to the merger antitrust review process. This month, the FTC made two more changes, one completely expected and one hinted at in other recent announcements.

HSR Thresholds Updated

As expected — in fact, required by statute — the FTC announced the annual update to various HSR thresholds based on growth in the economy in the last year. The minimum threshold for filings was increased to $101M. Any transactions properly valued at that level or less do NOT trigger any HSR filing requirement. The upper threshold was also increased, this time to $403.9M. Any transaction valued in excess of that level will trigger a filing requirement unless one of several exemptions apply. Transactions valued in between those two amounts will trigger a filing requirement only if the size of the person thresholds are crossed. In short, those thresholds require one of the parties to have annual net sales or total assets exceeding $202M while the other party’s figures exceed $20.2M.

While the FTC announced these new threshold levels this month, they will only become effective thirty days after the official announcement is published in the Federal Register — so, late in February. The FTC has said that it is exploring other, more substantive, changes to the HSR process but none have been announced. As we have discussed previously, HSR’s valuation and exemption rules can be complicated so be sure to reach out to your Bona Law contact for further advice on HSR filing requirements and strategy.

Merger Guidelines to Change?

Earlier in the month, the FTC also announced that it was joining with the DOJ Antitrust Division to consider a complete rewrite of both the Horizontal and Vertical Merger Guidelines. In a virtual conference and a long statement, the agencies announced both the dozens of questions they hope to consider in the coming months and the process for the exercise. Comments and suggestions from the public are welcome until the end of March. The agencies expect to have a draft of new Guidelines shortly thereafter before opening another comment period. They hope to complete the process by the end of 2022.

The Guidelines have been issued by the agencies for decades. They are meant to describe the analysis that the agencies use to evaluate whether any merger or similar transaction violates the antitrust laws. Making the Guidelines public helps merging parties have some idea if their transaction will be challenged by the agencies. While not officially law, they have proven to be highly influential with courts considering such challenges.

The exact changes the agencies will propose are not yet known; however, based on their statements during the announcement and the questions posed to the public for comment, here are some key questions that the agencies will consider and that could lead to drastic changes in merger review:

  • Should new Guidelines further de-emphasize market definition in favor of an approach that tries to directly predict competitive effects?
  • Should presumptions based on market shares or similar measures be strengthened?
  • Should effects on parties other than consumers, like labor and local communities, receive greater emphasis?
  • Should effects on elements other than price, such as product quality and wages, receive greater emphasis?
  • Should some efficiencies, such as lower input prices from suppliers, be seen as reasons to challenge the merger?
  • Should distinctions between horizontal and vertical transactions reflected in the guidelines should be revisited considering trends in the modern economy?

The agencies also seek input on potential updates to the guidelines’ discussion of potential and nascent competitors, which may be key sources of innovation and competition, as well as how to account for key areas of the modern economy like digital markets in the guidelines, which often have characteristics like zero-price products, multi-sided markets, and data aggregation that the current guidelines do not address in detail.

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DOJ-Antitrust-Merger-Challenges-300x300

Authors:  Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

As we have reported numerous times (most recently here), the Federal Trade Commission has been making headlines with some controversial changes to U.S. merger review procedures, disputes over its voting rules, and personnel changes. But while the FTC was making headlines, the other federal antitrust enforcer, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, was launching the three antitrust enforcement actions we summarize below.  Now that Jonathan Kanter has been confirmed as the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Division, we expect the pace of actions to only pick up.

American/JetBlue

In July 2020, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways announced the formation of the “Northeast Alliance.” The Alliance is a series of agreements between the two competitors relating to their respective operations at Boston’s and New York City’s four major airports. The agreements commit the two airlines to pool revenues and coordinate on “all aspects” of network planning except pricing at the four airports. The companies sought and, after making a few minor tweaks, received approval from the Trump Administration Department of Transportation in January 2021.  Shortly thereafter, the Alliance began operation.

In September 2021, the Biden Administration, joined by several states, sued the two companies alleging that the Alliance was a civil violation of Sherman Act Section 1 under the rule of reason.  The complaint describes the Alliance as effectively a merger of the two companies’ operations in Boston and New York that will reduce choice for consumers. Because the Alliance is effectively a partial merger, the complaint uses Clayton Act Section 7 analysis, including HHI calculations for various city-pairs that will be affected by the Alliance, to predict the negative effects on consumers.

In November 2021, the parties moved to dismiss the case. Their main argument is that in a Section 1 case, the complaint must allege anticompetitive effects that have already occurred. Predictions of potential anticompetitive effects, while sufficient for a Section 7 merger challenge, are insufficient here. The complaint does not allege any negative competitive effects, such as reduced flights, since the Alliance’s inception. In fact, as the motion and the companies’ monthly press releases since the lawsuit make clear, the capacity of the two airlines in the four airports has only increased. As of this writing, the Division and their state partners have not yet responded to the motion.

Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster

In November 2021, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to block Penguin Random House’s proposed acquisition of its close competitor, Simon & Schuster.  As alleged in the complaint, this acquisition would enable Penguin Random House, which is already the largest book publisher in the world, to exert outsized influence over which books are published in the United States and how much authors are paid for their work.

As described in the complaint, the publishing industry is already highly concentrated. Publishers compete to acquire manuscripts, which they edit, package, market, distribute and sell as books.  Publishers pay authors advances for the rights to publish their books. In most cases, the advance represents an author’s total compensation for their work. Just five publishers, known as the “Big Five,” are regularly able to offer high advances and extensive marketing and editorial support, making them the best option for authors who want to publish a top-selling book.

While smaller publishers occasionally win the publishing rights to anticipated top-selling books, they lack the financial resources to regularly pay the high advances required and absorb the financial losses if a book does not meet sales expectations. The complaint alleges that Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher, and Simon & Schuster, the fourth largest in the United States, compete head-to-head to acquire manuscripts by offering higher advances, better services and more favorable contract terms to authors.

This is a good example of how the Antitrust Division analyzes the existence of monopsony power and the way it sometimes harms competition in input markets.  In this case, the proposed merger would result in lower advances for authors and ultimately fewer books and less variety for consumers. It would also put Penguin Random House in control of close to half the market for acquiring publishing rights to anticipated top-selling books, leaving hundreds of individual authors with fewer options and less leverage.

U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar

During the same month of November, the new chief of the Antitrust Division––Jonathan Kanter–– filed his first merger challenge to stop United States Sugar Corporation from acquiring its rival, Imperial Sugar Company. The complaint alleges that the transaction would leave an overwhelming majority of refined sugar sales across the Southeast in the hands of only two producers.  As a result, American businesses and consumers would pay more for refined sugar, a significant input for many foods and beverages.

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NY-Antitrust-Law-Donnelly-Act-300x200

Author: Luis Blanquez

“The legislature hereby finds and declares that there is great concern for the growing accumulation of power in the hands of large corporations. While technological advances have improved society, these companies possess great and increasing power over all aspects of our lives. Over one hundred years ago, the state and federal governments identified these same problems as big businesses blossomed after decades of industrialization. Seeing those problems, the state and federal governments enacted transformative legislation to combat cartels, monopolies, and other anti-competitive business practices. It is time to update, expand and clarify our laws to ensure that these large corporations are subject to strict and appropriate oversight by the state.”  

Self-explanatory, isn’t it? This is just an extract from the draft Act. Indeed, while the antitrust world is watching the U.S. Senate due to the vast reforms going on, and the FTC continues to repeal unilaterally the Hart-Scott-Rodino (“HSR”) merger review process, something is also currently cooking in New York: The New York 21st Century Antitrust Act.

In June 2021 New York’s proposed 21st Century Antitrust Act (Senate Bill S933A) passed the State Senate. The remaining steps before that bill becomes law are passage by the Assembly and the signature of the Governor, both of which are expected at some point next year. When that happens, the proposed law will radically amend the long-standing Donnelly Antitrust Act. This is potentially a much bigger deal than it may seem. Not just for the state of New York, but also for the future of U.S. antitrust law more generally. Why? Basically, because if the Act becomes law, it will import the well-known and more far-reaching “abuse of dominance” standard from the European Union ––targeting companies with market shares as low as 30% in NY; and will establish––for the first time––a state premerger notification system in the U.S.

General Scope but with a Specific Focus on Big Tech and Importing the Abuse of Dominant Position Standard

The Donnelly Act applies to any conduct that restrains any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in New York. N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 340. The New Antitrust Act has the same scope but introduces two important wrinkles.

First, even though it generally applies to all sectors and industries, it expressly addresses and calls out anticompetitive behavior in the Big Tech industry. This is clearly in line with all the recent proposed antitrust bills and monopolization cases at federal level.

Second, it also imports the well-known and more far- reaching “abuse of dominant position” standard from Article 102 the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union. Until now, under the current standards applied by courts under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, Big Tech has been able successfully to challenge or defeat many of the unilateral action complaints filed in federal court. The New Antitrust Act explicitly acknowledges this: “effective enforcement against unilateral anti-competitive conduct has been impeded by courts, for example, applying narrow definitions of monopolies and monopolization, limiting the scope of unilateral conduct covered by the federal anti-trust laws, and unreasonably heightening the legal standards that plaintiffs must over-come to establish violations of those laws.” A good example of such limitations are refusal to deal cases in the U.S. But, if passed, this is going to change next year. NY’s Attorney General is going to have not only the authority to enforce the New Antitrust Act, but also the powers to define what constitutes––under New York Antitrust law––an abuse of a dominant position. As a European antitrust attorney who currently practices antitrust law in the U.S., this is indeed very interesting news.

While NY’s Attorney General will need to provide further guidance, for now the New Antitrust Bill states that a dominant position may be established by direct or indirect evidence.

Direct evidence may include, for example, the unilateral power of a monopolist to set prices, terms, conditions, or standards; unilateral power to dictate non-price contractual terms without compensation; or other evidence that an entity is not constrained by meaningful competitive pressures, such as the ability to degrade quality without suffering reduction in profitability. Under the Act, if the direct evidence is sufficient to show a dominant position, conduct that abuses that dominant position is unlawful without regard to a defined relevant market (or the conduct’s effects in that market). This seems to be––for the first time–– in line with a “per se” analysis under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. How the NY Attorney General is going to determine the existence of a dominant position, without even first defining the relevant antitrust market(s) concerned, remains to be seen.

A dominant position may also be established by indirect evidence. For instance, the Act incudes a presumption of a dominant position when a seller enjoys a market share of 40% or greater and 30% or greater for a buyer. This is a significantly lower threshold than the one currently used in federal cases brought under the Sherman Act. But the determination of a dominant position requires a much more detailed analysis of barriers to entry, potential competition, and purchasing power downstream, among many others. That’s without even considering the special circumstances of all the digital and technological markets where Big Tech companies are present. Once again, we will have to wait until we see further guidance from NY’s Attorney General under the newly acquired rulemaking powers to flesh out the definition of dominant position.

As for the existence of an abuse, the Act enumerates a non-exhaustive list of anticompetitive behavior: conduct that tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete, such as leveraging a dominant position in one market to limit competition in a separate market, or refusing to deal with another person with the effect of unnecessarily excluding or handicapping actual or potential competitors. With the new abuse of dominance standard in play, it will be interesting to watch how these theories of harm develop in NY, and how much tension they create with existing federal antitrust case law.

The Act, in a very cryptic one-line paragraph, excludes any procompetitive effects as a defense to offset or cure competitive harm. This seems to create a “per se” liability to any abuse of a dominant position, which would be problematic both under U.S. federal law and EU Competition law.

Under EU Competition law, not every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may result in the elimination of less efficient competitors from the market. See for instance C-209/10 Post Danmark I, or C-413/14 Intel. Indeed, aside from very few “by nature” abuses which are considered presumptively unlawful (and even under these the European Commission must still carry out a competition analysis if the dominant firm provides evidence on the contrary), a full-blown effects analysis is always required. See T-201/04 Microsoft.

Not only that, even if a specific conduct is found to constitute an abuse of a dominant position and restricts competition, a person can always attempt to show that its conduct is objectively justified. This applies to any alleged abuse, including “by nature” abuses. More information on treatment of exclusionary conduct in the EU may be found in: Guidance on the Commission’s Enforcement Priorities in Applying Article 82 EC Treaty to Abusive Exclusionary Conduct by Dominant Undertakings.

First State Premerger Notification System in the U.S.

The new Act also will establish a separate premerger notification system in New York where buyers––regardless of where they are incorporated––will have to notify the NY Attorney General sixty days before the closing of any transaction where any of the parties involved exceed the applicable reporting thresholds, set at assets or annual net sales in New York exceeding $9.2 million, which is currently 2.5% of the current federal HSR threshold. The sixty-day notification is double the thirty-day period applicable under the HSR Act.

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Yang Yang

Author: Yang Yang

Ms. Yang is an Antitrust Partner at Fairsky Law Offices in Shangai. She is also a lecturer and researcher at China University of Political Science and Law. She authored a treatise on China Merger Control and is a member of the expert advisory team for Amendments to China Anti-Monopoly Law (with a total number of 8 members). Indeed, she leads the drafting of an expert report on suggested amendments to China Merger Control regime, Chapter 4 of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. She is also a frequent contributor to the Antitrust Report of LexisNexis and Competition Policy International (Asia Column and Asia Chronicle).

See also Yang’s previous article on this website: Antitrust Merger Control in China: Notifiable Transactions under the People’s Republic of China Anti-Monopoly Law

On October 23, 2021, the Chinese legislative authority released a draft amendment for public comments to China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”)1, with a public comment period open until November 21, 2021.2 The amendment is controversial because of the hefty fines on antitrust violations imposed in China by the State Administration for Market Regulation (“SAMR”). Internet platforms have been the most heavily fined by the SAMR, partially due to the use of a calculation method for monetary fines based on gross sales.3

Still No Clarification on the Definition of “Sales”, Which Serves as the Base for Monetary Fines

One of the most controversial legal matters for antitrust enforcement in China is the definition of “sales” as the basis for the calculation of monetary fines. The SAMR has the power to impose a fine between 1 to 10 percent of the “sales” generated by the firm in the preceding year. Even though both the current AML and the amendment are silent on the definition of “preceding year,” the SAMR has been considering for this purpose the year when the investigation is officially initiated.

Similarly, according to the published cases of the SAMR, the word “sales” refers to all sales from the firm as a whole, rather than just the firm’s sales from the relevant products and geographic markets.

With these two factors in mind, under the new draft, the calculation of “sales” would significantly impact firms doing business in China. Indeed, once the SAMR discovers the existence of a cartel or a Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) provision in one product market, it would consider all sales from the firm(s) involved as the basis for the calculation of the monetary fine.

But the main reason why this matter is controversial is the fact that––according to Chinese Administrative Law––administrative fines must be commensurate with the underlying violation in degree, importance and effects, among others. Considering the size of a firm as a whole, even 1 percent of the total sales would be heavier than any underlying violation.

For example, in the Alibaba Group decision, the parent company owns and operates shopping platforms, including Taobao.com and Tmall.com4. There, the abusive conduct refers to the alleged exclusive-dealing agreements since 2015, where Alibaba “forced” some major downstream merchants to enter the “Strategic Merchant Framework Agreement”, the “Joint Business Plan”, the “Memorandum of Strategic Cooperation” and other agreements. In those agreements Alibaba required that such major merchants would not access other competing online platforms. Despite the conduct only involving exclusive-dealing agreements with certain major merchants, the sales as the basis for calculating the monetary fines were the total sales of Alibaba Group in 2019, the year preceding the year when the government initiated the investigation.

Another example is the fine on Meituan, a platform well known for food-delivery.5 In this decision, the relevant market was the online food-delivery platform, implying that the violating abusive conduct all occurred in this market. But, the basis for the fine was still the total sales of the group, RMB 114,747,995,546 in 20206, which also included sales from travel and other businesses, like drug-delivery and flower delivery. Such non-food-delivery businesses in 2020 generated approximately 46% of the sales for this public company7.

Hub-and-Spoke Agreements Constitute a Third Kind of Illegal Agreement

Article 18 of the amendment provides that Operators shall not organize other operators to reach monopoly agreements or provide substantive assistance to other operators in reaching monopoly agreements. This clause essentially accepts “hub-and-spoke” agreements as a third kind of illegal agreement in addition to horizontal agreements between/among competitors and vertical agreements between/among merchants and distributors.

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