Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Posted in Merger Highlights

The federal antitrust agencies continue their emphasis on investigating, challenging, and unwinding consummated transactions that are not reportable under the Hart Scott Rodino (“HSR”) Act.

Most recently, on November 6, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued an Opinion and Final Order in which the Commission upheld the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision that Otto Bock HealthCare North America, Inc.’s (“Otto Bock”) acquisition of FIH Group Holdings, LLC (“Freedom”) was anticompetitive and that Otto Bock must divest Freedom’s entire business with the limited exceptions granted by the ALJ.  The Commission’s order was approved by all five commissioners and continues the trend of unwinding consummated acquisitions that are deemed to be anticompetitive.

Accordingly, buyers must be aware of the risks of closing a non-reportable transaction that eliminates competition.  Here are a couple of points to keep in mind:

On September 12, 2019, a coalition of unions, consumer groups, and public interest organizations filed a letter with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) opposing AbbVie Inc.’s (“AbbVie”) acquisition of Allergan plc (“Allergan”).

Coalition Opposing the Merger

The coalition includes Families USA, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, UNITE HERE, Consumer Action, American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Retired Americans, American Family Voices, Doctors for America, End AIDS Now, Prescription Justice, Social Security Works, the Other 98, Treatment Action Group, and NextGen California.  It is asking the FTC to conduct a thorough investigation and to block the merger if the facts support it and a remedy cannot be devised to restore competition.  The coalition highlights the competitive problems arising from continued consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry and requests that the FTC include in its investigation ongoing anticompetitive conduct by the parties, such as the use of rebate walls, which will have an even more profound anticompetitive effect if this merger is consolidated, as well as past abuse of the patent system.

On September 4, 2019, the DOJ filed an antitrust lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio to block Novelis Inc.’s proposed acquisition of Aleris Corporation.

Complaint

The DOJ alleges that the acquisition would substantially lessen competition in the North American market for rolled aluminum sheet for automotive applications, commonly referred to as aluminum auto body sheet.  The complaint explains that steel companies are developing lighter, high strength steel varieties for the auto industry. But as Novelis has observed, high strength steel “is largely replacing existing mild steel” and “cannibalizing the existing material” (i.e., traditional steel). The threat of substitution from aluminum to high strength steel is, as Aleris confirms, “limited.”  The price of aluminum auto body sheet is three or four times more expensive than traditional steel.  The complaint further alleges that the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet.  The other two suppliers’ capacity is mostly committed to automakers.  Thus, other automakers rely on Novelis and Aleris to produce aluminum body sheet for automobiles to make cars lighter, more fuel-efficient, safer and more durable.

On August 27, 2019, two U.S. senators asked the DOJ to investigate the state of competition in the ticketing business, and to extend the DOJ’s consent agreement with Live Nation Entertainment (“Live Nation”), the industry giant that owns Ticketmaster.

Background

In a letter to Makan Delrahim, the head of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) described the ticket industry as “broken” and they lamented the “exorbitant fees and inadequate disclosures” in the ticket buying process.

On August 20, 2019, the DOJ filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware seeking to block Sabre Corporation’s (“Sabre”) $360 million acquisition of Farelogix, Inc. (“Farelogix”).

Complaint

The DOJ alleges that Sabre and Farelogix compete head-to-head to provide booking services to airlines.  Booking services are IT solutions that allow airlines to sell tickets and ancillary products through traditional brick-and-mortar and online travel agencies to the traveling public.  The DOJ alleges that the acquisition would eliminate competition that has substantially benefited airlines and consumers in both the traditional and online markets.  The complaint further alleges that the transaction would allow Sabre, the largest booking services provider in the United States, to eliminate a disruptive competitor that has introduced new technology to the travel industry and is poised to grow significantly.

On August 2, 2019, the FTC authorized an enforcement action to challenge Evonik Industries AG’s (“Evonik”) proposed $625 million acquisition of PeroxyChem Holding Company (“PeroxyChem”).

Complaint

The FTC is alleging the merger of the chemical companies would substantially reduce competition in the Pacific Northwest and the Southern and Central United States for the production and sale of hydrogen peroxide, a commodity chemical used for oxidation, disinfection, and bleaching.

Senate Democrats Aim at Strengthening Antitrust Enforcement

On Friday, February 1, Senator Amy Klobuchar re-introduced two bills aimed at strengthening antitrust enforcement.

The co-sponsors include Senators Ed Markey (Dem-Massachusetts), Richard Blumenthal (Dem-Connecticut), Dick Durbin (Dem-Illinois) and Corey Booker (Dem-New Jersey).

On January 11, 2019, Congressman Peter Welch and Francis Rooney, members of Congress, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), urging the Commission to investigate Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (“BMS”) acquisition of Celgene.

The letter asks the FTC to examine how the transaction may harm competition with respect to horizontal overlaps and even complementary drugs.  Specifically, the letter points out that the acquisition allows BMS to increase its drug portfolio and leverage over pharmacy benefit managers (“PBMs”) when negotiating preferred drug placement on formularies and bundled discounts that can create “rebate walls”.

The transaction gives the FTC an opportunity to investigate a questionable contracting practice in the pharmaceutical drug industry known as a “rebate wall” or “rebate trap”.  Payors such as PBMs and health insurers obtain rebates on prescription drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers that have actually inflated the price of drugs and stifled the ability of rival drug manufacturers to effectively compete.  This practice is recognized by both the administration and industry players as anticompetitive.  Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has noted that rebate walls can prevent competition and new entrants into the system. Moreover, major drug manufacturers such as Pfizer and Shire have filed antitrust suits challenging rebate walls as antitrust violations.  In theory, rebates could have a positive impact on the prescription drug market if they led to lower prices and benefit consumers.  But, in practice, this is simply not the case.  Rebate walls distort the workings of the free market, result in higher drug prices, and reduce patients’ access to affordable branded drugs.

The government shutdown is likely to delay FTC merger reviews, but the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Second Request investigations will likely proceed as they normally do albeit with less staff.  Although the FTC’s Premerger Notification Office (PNO) and the DOJ’s Premerger Office remain open during regular hours to receive HSR filings, the FTC PNO will be operating with a limited staff and is unavailable to provide guidance about the administration of the HSR Act.  All merging parties have to wait the full initial waiting period before obtaining antitrust clearance, because the PNO is not granting early termination of waiting periods during the shutdown.

The staff attorneys who run investigations and negotiations at the Commission are out of the office, which means that parties are simply waiting while everything is on hold.  HSR waiting periods will continue to run during a government shutdown.  DOJ and FTC staff will continue to review premerger filings and conduct investigations to determine whether to challenge reported transactions under the antitrust laws.  Second Requests will continue to be issued and, if engaged in merger litigation, FTC and DOJ attorneys will notify opposing parties and the courts of the government shutdown and attempt to negotiate timing extensions and suspensions. If such relief is not available, they will continue to litigate the matter.

The DOJ and the FTC both issued contingency plans indicating that certain employees connected to antitrust enforcement within the Antitrust Division of the DOJ and the Bureau of Competition at the FTC will be excepted from the furlough and will continue to conduct antitrust enforcement activities.

On September 5, 2018, Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the Federal Trade Commission’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing Tronox Ltd. (“Tronox”) from completing its proposed $2.4 billion acquisition of National Titanium Dioxide Company Ltd. (“Cristal”) until after a final ruling in the FTC’s administrative proceedings challenging the deal.  Federal Trade Commission v. Tronox Ltd. (D.D.C. Sept. 12, 2018).  It is a huge victory for the FTC.

Background

On February 21, 2017, Tronox inked a deal to buy Cristal for $1.67 billion and a 24% stake in the new entity. The transaction would have created the largest TiO2 company in the world, based on titanium chemical sales and nameplate capacity.