Antitrust Lawyer Blog

Commentary on Current Developments

On June 27, 2108, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division announced that The Walt Disney Company (“Disney”) agreed to divest 22 regional sports networks (“RSNs”) to resolve antitrust concerns with its approximately $71 billion acquisition of certain assets from Twenty First Century Fox (“21CF”).

Speedy Antitrust Approval

DOJ’s announcement of the settlement agreement is noteworthy because of the speed at which Disney was able to negotiate a remedy to a combination that raised a number of antitrust issues.  Though the parties received second requests on March 5, 2018, and Disney had only recently entered into a new agreement with 21CF on June 20, 2018, the DOJ and Disney were able to negotiate a divestiture worth approximately $20-23 billion within 6 months of review and 4 months after issuing information requests.  The dollar value of the Disney/21CF divestiture will likely double what the DOJ characterized as the largest divestiture in history in Bayer/Monsanto.

On July 6, 2018, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) announced procedures for requesting product exclusions from the  25% tariff imposed on certain Chinese goods under Section 301.

The announcement of exclusion procedures coincided with the imposition of the first phase of tariffs on July 6, 2018 covering 818 tariff subheadings listed in USTR’s Federal Register notice on June 20. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-06-20/pdf/2018-13248.pdf. The tariffs were imposed following USTR’s investigation of the Chinese government related to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation. The goods identified relate to  industrial sectors that are part of China’s Made in China 2025 initiative.

Interested persons have until October 9, 2018 to request a product exclusion. Requests will be open for response within 14 days after the request is posted in USTR’s docket number USTR-2018-0025 at www.regulations.gov. Replies to responses will be due 7 days after the close of the 14-day response period.

On June 20, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced that it will hold a series of public hearings on whether broad-based changes in the economy, evolving business practices, new technologies, or international developments might require adjustments to competition and consumer protection enforcement law, enforcement priorities, and policy.  The multi-day, multi-part hearings will take place this fall and winter.

It is expected that a lot of time will be devoted to the dominant digital two sided platforms (Google, Facebook, and Amazon) as well as the associated network effects.  The FTC is interested in learning more about how their conduct hinders competition and innovation or how their services actually benefit consumers and enhance competition and innovation.

The hearings and public comment process will provide opportunities for FTC staff and leadership to listen to interested persons and outside experts representing a broad and diverse range of viewpoints.  Additionally, the hearings will stimulate thoughtful internal and external evaluation of the FTC’s near- and long-term law enforcement and policy agenda.  The hearings may identify areas for enforcement and policy guidance, including improvements to the agency’s investigation and law enforcement processes, as well as areas that warrant additional study.

On March 15, 2018, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division filed a modified proposed final judgment (“MPFJ”) and responded to amici briefs filed in the Antitrust Procedures and Penalties Act (“Tunney Act”) proceedings regarding the DOJ’s settlement agreement that allowed Anheuser Busch InBev SA/NV’s (“ABI”) to acquire SABMiller.  In other words, the consent decree that was signed on July 20, 2016 between the Obama DOJ and the merging parties has yet to be approved by a federal court. One would think that the DOJ would move quicker on finalizing a consent decree that allowed the largest beer merger in history proceed.  But, here we are just about at the two-year mark without a finalized decree.

The DOJ permitted the merger of the two largest global brewers, which without a remedy threatened to reduce head-to-head competition between Anheuser Busch InBev SA/NV’s (“ABI”) and MillerCoors in local markets throughout the country.  The DOJ alleged that the elimination of competition between ABI and MillerCoors would increase ABI’s incentive and ability to disadvantage its remaining rivals – in particular, brewers of high-end beers that serve as an important constraint on ABI’s ability to raise its beer prices – by limiting or “impeding the distribution” of their beers, likely resulting in increased prices and fewer choices for consumers.   This allegation is significant because “effective distribution is important for a brewer to be competitive.”

To resolve these competitive concerns, the DOJ’s Proposed Final Judgment required the divestiture, which permanently cemented a duopoly where two suppliers exert control over approximately 85-90% of the distributors in the United States.  The DOJ further acknowledged in its Competitive Impact Statement (“CIS”) that ABI and Molson Coors have business arrangements and contacts throughout the world and that the divestiture may actually facilitate coordination.  Because of the increased likelihood of coordinated anticompetitive effects, the DOJ alleged that the merger “would increase ABI’s incentive and ability to disadvantage its beer rivals by impeding the distribution of its beers.”  Accordingly, the DOJ sought behavioral remedies, which are designed to keep beer distribution independent and open as well as to level the playing field for ABI’s high end rivals.

On June 18, 2018, T-Mobile and Sprint filed initial papers with the FCC.  The parties made a number of arguments on why their deal should pass regulatory muster.

First, T-Mobile and Sprint argue that they need the deal to compete with the Big Two (AT&T and Verizon) – the combined firm would be able to take advantage of efficiencies and economies of scale to bring technological innovations (5th generation (5G)) to the market faster to provide customers with better broadband services at a lower cost.  Thus, customers would benefit from the merger through lower prices and investments to their network.  The parties basically acknowledge that it is a four to three deal.

Second, the parties argue that the wireless market is no longer as concentrated because an abundance of competition exists or will exist in the near future as cable companies, Google, and others are increasingly entering this space. Even using current technologies, Comcast has rolled out low-cost wireless service to its cable customers that rides on Verizon’s network.  So the argument goes that this isn’t a case of going from 4 to 3 wireless companies – there are now at least 7 or 8 big competitors in this converging market.  There is a lot of reasons why long time staffers at the FCC and DOJ might be skeptical of this claim.

On June 5, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced that Northrop Grumman’s (“Northrop”) $7.8 billion acquisition of aerospace and defense contractor Orbital ATK, a vertical merger that combined a supplier with its customer, could proceed so long as the Northrop agreed to certain behavioral remedies.

According to the complaint, Northrop is one of four companies capable of supplying the U.S. government with missile systems, including tactical missiles, strategic missiles and missile defense interceptors.  Orbital ATK is the premier supplier of solid rocket motors (“SRMs”), which propel missiles to their intended targets and are an essential input for missile systems.  The FTC’s complaint alleges that Northrop’s proposed acquisition of Orbital ATK would have reduced competition in the market for missile systems purchased by the U.S. government, resulting in less innovation and higher prices. The FTC was concerned that Northrop could raise prices on the motors on competitors or withhold them altogether, both of which the agency said would give the merged firm a clear advantage for missile contracts.  Additionally, “the acquisition creates a risk that the proprietary, competitively sensitive information of a rival (solid rocket motor) supplier supporting Northrop’s missile system business could be shared with Northrop’s vertically integrated SRM business.”

To resolve the vertical competition concerns, the FTC required several behavioral or conduct remedies.  First, Northrop was required to supply SRMs to competitors on a non-discriminatory basis.  Second, Northrop was required to separate the operation of its SRM business from the rest of the company’s operations with a firewall.  Third, the settlement agreement provides for the U.S. Department of Defense (“DOD”) to appoint a compliance officer to oversee Northrop’s conduct pursuant to the settlement.  Fourth, the FTC required the merging parties to implement a compliance program and create regular compliance reports, to be submitted to the FTC, the DOD and the compliance officer.  The FTC said that by ensuring that other missile suppliers can continue to compete, the settlement preserves the procompetitive benefits of the transaction while addressing the potential anticompetitive harms.

On June 7, 2018, the DOJ’s Makan Delrahim sought to reassure investors that worries that regulators would crack down on proposed vertical combinations were over-blown.  “I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers,” he said.  Noting that some point at the decision to sue to block AT&T from buying Time Warner “as a supposed bellwether”, Delrahim said: “rest assured these concerns are misplaced.”

So, is the Antitrust Division only concerned about vertical mergers in the media industry?

On May 29, 2018, the DOJ approved Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto with a $9 billion asset divestiture.

Background

In September 2016, Bayer agreed to acquire Monsanto.  Bayer and Monsanto overlapped in the research, development, and marketing of seeds, crop protection chemicals, and related agricultural products.  The principal areas of competitive concern related to the seeds business.  The seeds and crop protection businesses are highly concentrated in the United States so from the get go Bayer knew that it needed to propose a comprehensive and complex remedy to resolve the antitrust concerns.

On May 21, 2018, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged the DOJ to review the power that large technology firms such as Google have over the U.S. economy.  A “60 Minutes” segment on Sunday devoted to assertions that Alphabet Inc.’s Google wields a destructive monopoly in online search hammered home the notion of the company’s dominance during a time of heightened public concern with technology giants.  The report didn’t include new allegations about the company.  “These issues deserve to be reviewed carefully,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview in response to a question about the CBS News report.  “These are issues the Justice Department needs to look at seriously, not for any one company, but as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy.”

The report highlighted how critics and rivals, such as Yelp Inc., are trying to bring Europe’s antitrust approach to Google to the United States.  Margrethe Vestager, the European Union competition commissioner, told CBS that she is intent on stopping Google’s “illegal behavior” in web search, suggesting that the EC isn’t appeased by the company’s proposed solution for the hefty charges the EU filed last year.  “You have to look at the power they have and it’s something the Justice Department I hope takes a serious look at,” Mnuchin said, though he added that “issues of monopolies are out of my lane” and that it’s up to the DOJ to review antitrust violations.

CBS featured guests who argued Google abuses its dominance in search and search advertising.  It didn’t show any evidence that U.S. lawmakers or enforcement agencies will target the company or mention the potential cases Vestager is pursuing against Google for its Android mobile software and advertising business.

More Fallout From The Ill-Advised Tuna Merger

On May 16, 2018, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Christopher Lischewski, the President and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods LLC (“Bumble Bee”), for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices for packaged seafood sold in the United States.

The indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, charges Lischewski with participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of packaged seafood beginning in or about November 2010 until December 2013.  The one-count felony indictment charges that Lischewski carried out the conspiracy by agreeing to fix the prices of packaged seafood during meetings and other communications.  The co-conspirators issued price announcements and pricing guidance in accordance with these agreements.