Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

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Changes in the economy, technology, international business, and data collection have all converged to make the FTC rethink its enforcement priorities going forward. In the spirit of the 1995 Pitofsky Hearings, the FTC on September 13, 2018 kicked off the first day of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century at Georgetown University Law Center. The public hearings are expected to open the debate up to the public and experts so the FTC can formulate a modern antitrust enforcement and consumer protection agenda.

The first day of hearings was broken into three panel discussions which broadly discussed the current landscape of antitrust law, U.S. economic competitiveness, and consumer protection and data privacy. The discussions focused on process and substance and how best to reframe FTC priorities to deal with complex 21st century issues.

Panelists drew lines in the sand when it came to whether the FTC is successfully navigating the landscape in an era of mega-mergers. Some panelists took the “populist” view that FTC’s merger guidelines are unhealthy for the overall economy and consumer welfare. The FTC has been guided by the “consumer welfare standard” when it comes to mergers, and has accommodated mergers that increase efficiencies and provide benefits in the form of lower prices to consumers.  Those in favor of the consumer welfare standard want to avoid a ‘big is bad’ mentality while keeping the interests of consumers in mind.  Proper antitrust enforcement is about protecting consumers, and protecting the competitive process, not about protecting competitors.  Some panelists argued, however, that the consumer welfare standard has failed to take into account important social concerns like privacy, rising social and income inequality, and decreased economic competition and dynamism. They pointed to recent studies seeming to vindicate the view that the FTC needs to reorient its enforcement procedures because the economy appears to be more concentrated and less dynamic than it used to be.

On December 6, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren sharply criticized the state of antitrust enforcement in a speech at the Open Markets Institute.

She said that antitrust enforcers adopted the Chicago School principles, which narrowed the scope of the antitrust laws and allowed mega-mergers to proceed resulting in many concentrated industries.  She believes that antitrust enforcers already have the tools to reduce concentrated markets and that they simply must start enforcing the law again.

Senator Warren’s recommendations included stronger merger enforcement, cracking down on anticompetitive conduct and increasing agency involvement in defending competition.

On November 22, 2017, the FTC announced that retail fuel station and convenience store operator Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (“ACT”) agreed to divest three fuel stations in Alabama to settle FTC charges that ACT’s proposed acquisition of Jet-Pep, Inc. (“Jet-Pep”) would violate federal antitrust law.

Under the terms of the deal, ACT will acquire ownership or operation of 120 Jet-Pep fuel outlets with convenience stores – 18 via Circle K, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ACT, and 102 via CrossAmerica Partners LP, over which Circle K has operational control and management.

According to the complaint, the acquisition would increase both the likelihood of successful coordination among the remaining firms and the likelihood that ACT will unilaterally exercise market power in three local retail fuel markets.  The complaint alleges that without a remedy, the acquisition of Jet-Pep by ACT would reduce the number of independent market participants from three or fewer in Brewton, Monroeville, and Valley, Alabama.

About a week before taking office, President-elect Trump had two high level meetings with CEOs of companies that are involved in significant acquisitions currently under antitrust review by the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  The meetings raise questions about the integrity and independence of the DOJ’s merger reviews going forward under a Trump administration. 


AT&T/Time Warner

On January 12, 2017, AT&T Inc. (“AT&T”) Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said that in his meeting with President-elect Donald Trump they touched on job creation, investment and competition, but he noted that AT&T’s merger with Time Warner Inc. (“Time Warner”) did not come up.  We find that hard to believe given President-elect Trump’s open reservations about the transaction and his ongoing battle with CNN.

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