Antitrust Lawyer Blog

Commentary on Current Developments

On April 25, 2016, the DOJ entered into settlement agreement approving Charter Communications, Inc.’s (“Charter”) acquisition of Time Warner Cable Inc. (“TWC”) and its related acquisition of Bright House Networks, LLC to create New Charter as long as the parties agreed to certain behavioral conditions.

DOJ’s Vertical Concerns Related to the Creation of New Charter

New Charter became the second largest cable company and third largest Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (“MVPD”).  MVPDs include cable companies such as Comcast, TWC and Charter, but also direct broadcast satellite providers (i.e., DirectTV and Dish Network) and telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon.

On May 13, 2016, the FTC approved a merger American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc. and Airgas, Inc. as long as the parties divest certain production and distribution assets to settle the FTC’s allegations that their proposed merger likely would have harmed competition and led to higher prices in several U.S. and regional markets.

Competitive Problem

According to the FTC’s complaint, the deal would eliminate direct competition between the two companies in certain markets that are already concentrated, increasing the likelihood that Air Liquide could unilaterally exercise market power.  The FTC’s complaint also alleged that the proposed acquisition would also make it more likely that remaining competitors, if any, could collude or coordinate their actions.  The FTC also alleged that entry was not likely happen quick enough to sufficiently counteract any anticompetitive price increases.  As a result, customers would likely pay higher prices for industrial gases in various regional and national markets within the United States.

Corona’s advertising slogan encourages consumers to find their beach, but consumers may soon have trouble finding Corona.

In 2013, the U.S.Department of Justice required Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) to grant a perpetual and exclusive U.S. license to some of its Grupo Modelo Mexican beer brands that were at the time competing in the U.S. market, including Corona Extra, Modelo Especial and other popular brands, to Constellation Brand Inc.[1] In addition to the sale, the DOJ put a number of conditions on ABI to ensure that the Grupo Modelo Mexican beer brands, including Corona, remained competitive in the U.S. market, including critical protections to make sure distribution was open and independent. This summer will be the third anniversary of the sale of the Modelo American portfolio to Constellation and the lapse of important protections could leave many Corona consumers scrambling to find their beer of choice.

Prominent among the conditions the DOJ required in its consent decree was the sale of the Piedras Negras Brewery in Nava, Coahuila, Mexico to Constellation. The sale was required so Constellation can brew the Modelo brands itself for importation into the United States, and not rely on its chief competitor, ABI. Accompanying the sale of Piedras Negras was a condition that Constellation obtain its supply of necessary materials from ABI for a three-year period. That provision is about to lapse.

A couple of months ago, ABI and Constellation agreed to extend their supply agreement by another year, making Constellation dependent on ABI for necessary inputs through June 2017. However, this reliance on its chief rival for inputs with no extension of other important protections will be a recipe for disaster, as Constellation is still in the transition of becoming a fully independent brewer. Reliance on ABI has not entirely helped it in its transition, and Constellation is still in a very precarious position. For example, there have been two recalls of Corona due to defective glass bottles in less than two years.

In addition to the supply agreement, the DOJ required protections for independent ABI beer distributors carrying the Modelo American portfolio brands, which have been pivotal to the success of Constellation’s stewardship of the Modelo American portfolio brands. In its review of the ABI/Modelo deal, the DOJ stated that “[e]ffective distribution is important for a brewer to be competitive in the beer industry.” Recognizing that independent distribution is the artery that spurs consumer choice and the explosion of craft beer, the DOJ prohibited ABI from adversely affecting a distributor’s ability to carry the Modelo American portfolio brands, including Corona, for a three-year period.

ABI is known to offer incentives and other tactics to exclude craft and other non-ABI brands from independent distributors’ brand portfolios. In fact, ABI’s current distributor incentive program already encourages the exclusion of non-ABI brands in exchange for marketing payments and favored position. ABI will soon be able to use these incentives and tactics against the Modelo American portfolio brands, including Corona. Accordingly, there is substantial concern that ABI will attempt to ice Corona out of many distributors’ portfolios once this protection provision expires this summer.

Indeed, ABI has strategically timed the roll out of its Mexican beer brand Estrella Jalisco (also under the Modelo brand, which is controlled by ABI outside of the United States), designed to compete with Corona in the U.S. market, to roughly coincide with the lapse of these protection provisions as well as the important Cinco de Mayo and kick-off of summer sales seasons. ABI will undoubtedly push its independent distributors to shift focus away from the Modelo American portfolio brands, including Corona, to Estrella Jalisco once the DOJ protections expire in June.

The DOJ’s consent decree and the protections put in place for distributors of the Modelo American portfolio brands have undoubtedly allowed it to flourish over the last few years in the United States. Hence, Constellation’s growth has exploded since the acquisition of the U.S. rights to the Modelo American portfolio brands, and its growth has far outpaced the overall growth of the U.S. beer market.

To keep the U.S. beer markets competitive, the DOJ needs to act to extend the consent decree and the protection of Constellation through independent distributors or risk losing this important source of competition that gives consumers choice and keeps prices down. The marketplace will be able to “find their beach” if ABI is prevented from pushing out the competition.

[1] Final Judgment, U.S. v. Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV and Grupo Modelo S.A.B. de C.V., No. 13-cv-00127-RWR (D.D.C. Oct. 24, 2013), ECF No. 48.

Andre Barlow
(202) 589-1838
abarlow@dbmlawgroup.com

 

On January 21, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission announced its annual revisions to the monetary thresholds of the Hart Scott Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, as amended, (the “HSR Act”) and Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

The revised thresholds are expected to become effective in late February 2016, 30 days after the date of their publication in the Federal Register.  These changes increase the dollar thresholds necessary to trigger the HSR Act’s premerger notification reporting requirements.  The FTC also increased the thresholds for interlocking directorates under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

The HSR Act requires parties to certain transactions to notify the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, and to observe a waiting period prior to consummation. The HSR Act enables antitrust regulators to review transactions, investigate and address potential competitive concerns prior to consummation, and also carries with it monetary penalties for failure to comply.

In an indirect way, today’s craft beer renaissance in the United States was made possible by prohibition.  The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, normally referred to as prohibition, was in part a reaction to the system of “tied houses” that dominated the alcohol retail market.  Brewers at the time exerted tremendous exclusive control over retailers and used that control to pressure sales without concern for the safety of customers or the general public.  When prohibition was repealed, the states were tasked with putting in place systems that would prevent a repeat of this harmful state of affairs.  The answer was simple, they created a three-tiered system where independent distributors stand between brewers and independent retailers.

The three-tiered system was put in place to prevent brewers from having too much control over what consumers purchase.  Truly independent distributors and retailers want to sell beer driven by consumer demand, and do not want to be beholden to one or two powerful brewers.  Consumers can seek out whatever beer tastes the best, and retailers can get a diverse array of brands from their independent distributor.

However, large beer brewers are actively working to reverse the benefits of a three-tiered system by exerting control over distribution.  To be sure, craft brewers are raising alarm bells over Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) incentive programs that significantly reward distributors whose ABI sales reach 98% of their total volume.  Besides employing its incentive programs, ABI has become the largest and fastest growing distributor in the United States.  ABI is also adding retailer locations at a fast clip so it is involved in all three tiers in various locations around the country.  Recently, ABI has employed a strategy of actually purchasing craft brewers in an effort to destroy the craft brews that do not sell out.  Indeed, ABI recently announced purchases of Four Peaks Brewing and Breckenridge Brewery.  ABI’s purchases of craft brewers harm the remaining independent craft brewers in a round about way.  Distributors carry craft brews to meet retailers and its consumers demand for craft brews, but with these craft brew purchases, ABI can replace independent craft brands currently carried by a distributor for ABI owned craft brands.  ABI’s move into craft brews allows distributors to meet the demand for craft beer while also hitting ABI incentive targets.  Accordingly, distributors will likely carry fewer independent craft brews in the future.

On January 22, 2016, it was reported that the Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into Turing Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s  decision last year to hike the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim by more than 5000 percent.  The New York Attorney General opened an investigation last October after Turing raised the price of Daraprim, a 62-year old drug no longer under patent protection, to $750 a tablet from $13.50.  The drug’s main use is to treat life-threatening parasitic infections but it is also needed by some infants and patients with AIDS.  The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had previously issued a subpoena ordering Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing, to testify regarding the price hike.  Mr. Shkreli’s lawyers revealed that the FTC opened an investigation in a letter sent to the Committee.  While the FTC only brings civil cases, Mr. Shkreli’s lawyers state that he will not appear at the hearing and answer questions relating to the price hike because of the pending government investigations as any statements about Daraprim could be used against him to support criminal antitrust charges.

On December 15, 2015, the Department of Justice announced that it reached a settlement with AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and SMH Theatres Inc. (Starplex Cinemas) that requires AMC to divest two movie theaters in Connecticut and New Jersey to resolve the DOJ’s antitrust concerns.

The DOJ found that AMC’s and Starplex Cinemas’ theaters in the Berlin, Connecticut, and East Windsor, New Jersey, areas compete to attract moviegoers on ticket prices as well as through the quality of the viewing experience, such as by offering moviegoers the most sophisticated sound systems, largest screens, best picture clarity, premium seating, and high quality food and drink.  Because AMC and Starplex Cinemas are each other’s most significant competitor in the Berlin and East Windsor areas, the DOJ alleged that the proposed acquisition would likely reduce price competition as well as the overall quality of the movie viewing experience. 

Under the terms of the proposed consent decree, the Starplex Town Center Plaza 10 in East Windsor, New Jersey, and the Starplex Berlin 12 in Berlin, Connecticut, must be divested to a buyer or buyers approved by the United States.  The DOJ worked with the Connecticut Attorney General on the investigation and Connecticut is a party to the consent agreement.

 

On December 7, 2015, after four weeks of trial in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, GE terminated its $3.3 billion sale of its appliance business to Electrolux.

In September of 2014, Electrolux announced its acquisition of GE’s appliance business.  The deal was characterized as a way to make Electrolux more competitive with Whirlpool and allow GE to simplify its business, focusing on technology and infrastructure.

However, on July 1, 2015, the DOJ brought a law suit to challenge Electrolux’s $3.3 billion acquisition of GE’s appliance business because as alleged the deal would combine two of the leading manufacturers of ranges, cooktops and wall ovens sold in the United States.  Generally, the DOJ alleged that the deal would eliminate competition that benefits American consumers and home builders who buy cooking appliances adn that the deal would result in higher prices and less options.  More specifically, the DOJ’s main antitrust concerns focused on appliances such as ranges, cooktops and wall ovens sold to “contract-channel” purchasers.  According to the complaint, contract-channel purchasers are single-family homebuilders, multifamily homebuilders, property managers of apartments and condominiums, hotels and governmental entities who individually negotiate contracts for major cooking appliances with suppliers like GE and Electrolux.  The DOJ alleged that GE, Electrolux and Whirlpool are the three biggest suppliers in this contract-channel market, accounting for more than 90 percent of sales.

In one of the most famous scenes in the Star Wars franchise, Obi-Wan Kenobi used a Jedi mind trick to tell a Stormtrooper that “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” and that they can “move along.” The Stormtrooper ignored what was right in front of him and complied. Tomorrow, the CEO of the largest beer company in the world will be trying a Jedi mind trick of his own.

On Tuesday, the heads of Anheuser-Busch InBev (“ABI”) and Molson Coors testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights in a hearing aptly titled “Ensuring Competition Remains on Tap: The AB InBev/SABMiller merger and the State of Competition in the Beer Industry.”  Like Obi Wan they will try to create an illusion and tell the senators that there is no reason to worry about the merger of the two largest beer companies in the world, which will account for over 1/3rd of all global beer production.

This is an illusion the senators should treat with extreme skepticism.

On December 3, 2015, the Department of Justice announced that Thai Union Group P.C.L., owner of Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, doing business as Chicken of the Sea International, and Bumble Bee Foods LLC abandoned their deal after the DOJ informed the companies it had serious concerns that the proposed transaction would harm competition.

The DOJ said that Thai Union’s proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee would have combined the second and third largest sellers of shelf-stable tuna in the United States in a market long dominated by three major brands, as well as combined the first and second largest domestic sellers of other shelf-stable seafood products.

Bill Baer, head of the Antitrust Division, had some strong words saying that “consumers are better off without this deal.” He added that “our investigation convinced us – and the parties knew or should have known from the get go – that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”