Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

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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  When prohibition was repealed, the states were tasked with putting in place systems that would prevent a repeat of this harmful state of affairs.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.

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.”

We are increasingly aware of how mergers often cost consumers and the economy in less competition, higher prices and less choice.  Fortunately, the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department (“DOJ”) has been more willing to go to court and block deals that will harm consumers.  The DOJ should remind itself of the vital role of tough merger enforcement when it looks at the proposed merger between ABI and SABMiller.

A straightforward merger between the two would raise antitrust alarm bells that would awaken the dead.  Together, the companies control over 70% of the U.S. market by volume and 65% of the market by sales value.[1]  Recognizing such a deal would be a nonstarter, ABI has suggested that any competitive concerns in the United States will disappear because MolsonCoors will acquire control of the MillerCoors joint venture.  Of course, the DOJ has become increasingly skeptical of negotiated attempts to restructure a market to resolve competitive concerns for deal approval – recently rejecting a massive divestiture in Comcast/Time Warner — and as we explain below they should do the same in this deal unless there are substantive amendments.

There is a tremendous amount at stake in this merger.  The increased size and scope of ABI on a global basis will likely have effects in the U.S. market.  Molson Coors taking over the control of the MillerCoors portfolio may also result in significant changes in how the business operates today.  Moreover, economic studies have shown a simple truth – increased beer consolidation leads to higher prices.[2]  The recent expansion of the high end U.S. craft beer market is remarkable in light of the 2007-2008 big brewer (ABI and MillerCoors) mergers thanks to a robust and independent distribution market which has facilitated the explosion of craft beer entry.[3]  But the craft beer segment is increasingly threatened by ABI’s acquisitions of independent craft brewers and increasing efforts to cut off distribution of competition brands within the ABI aligned distribution channels.  Not only is ABI the largest U.S. brewer, it is also the largest U.S. distributor – currently controlling over 135 million cases with $3 billion in sales across distributorships in multiple states.[4]

On Monday, October 26, 2015, in a joint statement, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice urged the state of Virginia to reform or repeal its certificate-of-need (CON) law.

CON laws typically require hospitals to obtain government approval before undergoing expansion projects or purchasing major assets, including hospital equipment.  Virginia is known to have one of the most restrictive CON laws in the country, and the antitrust enforcement agencies recently have addressed the possible negative effects such laws have on competition, stating that CON laws may impede on healthcare providers’ abilities to provide efficient and effective services for consumers and may hinder competition by creating barriers to entry, limiting consumer choice, and stifling innovation.

In the joint statement, the enforcement agencies cited several studies that show that CON laws have not been effective at controlling costs or improving quality for consumers and indicated that more targeted measures might better address such goals.  While Virginia has an established working group tasked with addressing the issues surrounding CON laws, no final decisions have been made on the status of the state’s current CON law.

On Monday, October 26, 2015, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, requesting that the FTC investigate possible illegal collusion by saline solution manufacturers.

In their letter, the senators noted that there has been a shortage of saline solution in the United States since 2013 and that the three companies that provide all the saline solution for the United States, Baxter, Hospira, and B. Braun, have failed to end the shortage.  The senators further claim that such activity may be the result of collusive behavior by the manufacturing companies to exploit the shortage of saline solution to increase their own profits and that this activity has resulted in higher costs to hospitals, patients, and the overall healthcare system.  The letter also states that hospitals have reported that Baxter, Hospira, and B. Braun have each imposed greater price increases (200-300%) since the shortage began.  The senators also state that the manufacturers on saline solution customers who do not also purchase additional non-saline products, effectively claiming that the manufacturers may be illegally tying the products.

Given the rising costs of healthcare, the FTC should ensure that anticompetitive conduct does not further increase those costs.  Therefore, the senators urge the FTC to investigate the troubling allegations to determine whether the saline suppliers’ apparent anticompetitive conduct is harming consumers and running afoul of the antitrust laws.

On May 29, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued an administrative complaint alleging that Steris Corporation’s (“Steris”) proposed $1.9 billion acquisition of Synergy Health plc (“Synergy”) would violate the antitrust laws by significantly reducing future competition in regional markets for sterilization of products using radiation, particularly gamma or x-ray radiation.

Background

On October 13, 2014, Steris, headquartered in Mentor, Ohio, announced its intention to acquire Synergy, headquartered in the United Kingdom.  On January 9, 2015, the parties received request for additional information and documentary material (“second requests”).  On April 30, 2015, the parties announced that they certified compliance and entered into a timing agreement where they agreed to close the combination before June 2, 2015, unless the FTC closes the investigation before June 2nd.

On April 27, 2015, the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Antitrust Division released a statement regarding Applied Materials Inc. (“AMAT”) and Tokyo Electron’s (“TEL”) joint announcement that they abandoned their merger.  The Antitrust Division’s statement indicates that the transaction was blocked because the combination would have diminished innovation.  In other words, the Antitrust Division was concerned about the potential loss of head to head competition in the development of future cutting edge semiconductor products and made no allegation that the combined firm would have monopolized any existing or actual product market.  The Antitrust Division’s tough stance against AMAT indicates that it is willing to scrutinize and challenge deals that raise longer-term anticompetitive concerns related to future competition even if there is no past pricing evidence that may predict that the merger will result in higher prices regarding actual products.

Background

On September 24, 2013, AMAT and TEL announced a definitive agreement to merge via an all-stock combination, which valued the new combined company at approximately $29 billion.  The companies claimed that securing regulatory clearances should not be a problem because their product offerings were highly complementary with few overlaps.  Indeed, AMAT was strong in markets where Tokyo Electron was not and vice versa.  In areas, where they directly competed, the combined shares were low.  Nevertheless, the transaction would have combined AMAT, the largest semiconductor equipment supplier in the world, with TEL, the third largest equipment supplier.

On March 13, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced revisions to its rules regarding the FTC’s process of determining whether to continue on with an administrative challenge to a merger in the situation when it loses a preliminary injunction motion in federal court.

When the FTC seeks to challenge a transaction, the FTC generally seeks a preliminary injunction in federal court to prevent consummation of the transaction pending the outcome of an internal administrative trial.  If the injunction is implemented, it prevents the parties from integrating the assets until the conclusion of the administrative proceeding.  The preliminary injunction is important as it preserves the FTC’s ability to create an effective merger remedy in the event the FTC’s Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) finds that the merger violates the antitrust laws.

Under new changes to Commission Rule of Practice 3.26, if the FTC loses its request for an injunction, the pending administrative proceeding will be automatically withdrawn or stayed if the parties file a motion to have the administrative case withdrawn.  If all respondents move to have the administrative case withdrawn from adjudication, it will automatically be withdrawn two days after the motion is filed.  If any motion to dismiss the administrative complaint is filed, the administrative case will automatically be stayed until seven days after the Commission rules on the motion for dismissal.  All deadlines will be tolled for the amount of time the proceeding is stayed.  While the automatic withdrawal of the complaint and stay are characterized as new changes to FTC rules, the changes to Rule 3.26 actually reinstate the long standing practice of an automatic withdrawal from, or stay of, the administrative litigation that was in place until 2009.

The key to closing transactions that raise straightforward antitrust concerns in a relatively short time frame is the antitrust counsel’s and the merging parties’ ability to effectively cooperate with the Antitrust Division staff tasked with reviewing the transaction.

A.    Martin Marietta/Texas Industries

On June 26, 2014, the Antitrust Division approved Martin Marietta Materials, Inc.’s $2.7 billion acquisition of Texas Industries on the condition that Martin Marietta divest a quarry in Oklahoma and two Texas rail yards used by it to distribute aggregate in the Dallas area.