Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Tagged with DOJ

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.

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 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.

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 September 16, 2015, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (“DOJ” or “Antitrust Division”) issued a statement regarding it decision to close its six month investigation of Expedia’s $1.3 billion acquisition of Orbitz. The decision means that Expedia can close its acquisition of Orbitz to combine two of only three online travel agencies (“OTAs”) in the United  States.

Second Request

The transaction was announced on February 12, 2015 and the Antitrust Division issued a second request on March 25, 2015.  The transaction drew antitrust scrutiny because it came on the heels of Expedia’s acquisition of Travelocity in a deal that was cleared via early termination of the Hart-Scott-Rodino (“HSR”) waiting period on January 14, 2015.  That transaction reduced the number of sizable OTAs in the United States from the four-to-three, and consolidated 56% of the market in the hands of the enlarged Expedia.  The DOJ scrutinized the Expedia/Orbitz deal because the transaction presented a three-to-two situation, in which the combined Expedia/Orbitz would possess a commanding 75% of the OTA space in the United States, leaving just Priceline as a sizable alternative with roughly 19% share of the space.

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 16, 2015, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and New York State Attorney General announced that they reached a settlement with Coach USA Inc., City Sights LLC and their joint venture, Twin America LLC, to remedy competition concerns in the New York City hop-on, hop-off bus tour market.  This case is noteworthy because it is the first time the DOJ’s Antitrust Division sought and obtained disgorgement in a consummated merger matter.

Background

In March of 2009, Twin America, LLC was formed by Coach USA, Inc. and City Sights, LLC.  Coach USA and City Sights were operators of double-decker tour buses that had aggressively competed against each other to attract customers, which were and are for the most part, visitors/sightseers in New York city.  Indeed, the Antitrust Division’s complaint alleged that prior to the formation of Twin America, LLC, Coach USA, the long-standing market leader through its “Gray Line New York” brand, and City Sights, a firm that launched the “City Sights NY” brand in 2005, accounted for approximately 99 percent of the hop-on, hop-off bus tour market in New York City.  Between 2005 and early 2009, the two companies engaged in vigorous head-to-head competition on price and product offerings that directly benefited consumers.