Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Tagged with FTC

On December 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to adopt the Restoring Internet Freedom Order and in doing so, scrapped its net neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015.

Net Neutrality is a principle that allows for an open and free internet.  The Internet Service Providers (ISPs”) are the gatekeepers to all content on the internet.  Net Neutrality rules prohibited ISPs from unfairly discriminating against others by speeding up, slowing down, throttling, or blocking the delivery of internet traffic.  Net Neutrality is what gives users the freedom as they browse through web pages, apps or any other content available on the internet.

By scrapping the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, ISPs will be free to act without burdensome regulations, which imposed substantial costs, chilled investment, and lessened innovation. ISPs, however, will be required to disclose information about their practice to consumers, entreprenuers, and the Commission, including any blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or affiliated prioritization.  While the FCC is returning to a light touch approach, its action restores the FTC’s jurisdiction to act when ISPs or broadband providers get out of line through unfair, deceptive, or anticompetitive acts.

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 December 5, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued an administrative complaint challenging Tronox Limited’s proposed acquisition of Cristal, a merger of two of the top three suppliers of chloride process titanium dioxide (“TiO2”) in the North American market.

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.

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.

On November 3, 2017, the FTC announced that Red Ventures and Bankrate agreed to a divestiture of Bankrate’s Caring.com business unit to settle FTC charges that their $1.4 billion merger would likely harm competition in the market for third-party paid referral service for senior living facilities.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Red Ventures was not itself present in that market.  Nevertheless, the FTC was concerned that two of Red Ventures’ largest private equity shareholders: Silverlake Partners and General Atlantic jointly own A Place for Mom.com, which allegedly competes with Bankrate’s Caring.com, which competes in the market for third-party paid senior living facilities referral services.  A Place for Mom.com, the largest provider of such services, and Caring.com is the second largest provider.  In addition to their 34% equity interest in Red Ventures, General Atlantic and Silver Lake Partners have two of the seven seats on Red Ventures’ board, approval rights over two other seats and approval rights over significant capital expenditures.

According to the complaint, a Place for Mom.com and Caring.com are each other’s closest competitors, competing for national and local business.  Other competitors in the U.S. market for third-party paid referral services for senior living facilities comprise a much smaller fringe.  The complaint alleges that the two Red Venture shareholders have the collective ability to significantly influence management of Red Venture and Caring.com.  Thus, if consummated, the transaction may increase the chance for Red Ventures to unilaterally exercise market power and the potential for coordinated interaction between Caring.com and A Place for Mom.

On September 27, 2017, the FTC announced that Integra LifeSciences Holdings Corp. (“Integra”) and Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) agreed to a divestiture of five neurosurgical medical device product lines to settle FTC allegations that Integra’s proposed $1 billion acquisition of J&J’s Codman Neuro division (“Codman”) would negatively impact competition in those markets.

Competitive Issue

Both companies supply a range of devices used in operative neurosurgery, hydrocephalus management and neuro-critical care.  According to the FTC’s complaint, the acquisition as it was proposed would likely harm competition in the U.S. markets for (1) intracranial pressure monitoring systems, where Integra and Codman are the only significant suppliers of these systems, together accounting for 94% of the U.S. market; (2) cerebrospinal fluid collection systems, where Integra and Codman are two of the only three competitively significant suppliers of these collection systems in the United States, together accounting for 71% of the market; (3) non-antimicrobial external ventricular drainage catheters, where Integra and Codman are two of the only three competitively significant suppliers of these catheters in the United States, together accounting for 46% of the market; (4) fixed pressure valve shunt systems, where Integra and Codman are two of the only three competitively significant suppliers of these catheters, accounting for a combined 38% of the U.S. market; and (5) dural grafts, where Integra and Codman together control 75% of the U.S. market.

On September 19, 2017, Valero Corporation (“Valero”) abandoned its acquisition of two northern California bulk petroleum terminals from Plains All American Pipeline (“Plains”) after the California state attorney general filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California against Valero’s proposed acquisition.  The lawsuit was filed on July 8, 2017, a day after the FTC decided not to take any action against the transaction.

Background of Case 

Valero is a refiner and retailer of gas in California and through the acquisition, it was seeking to add Plain’s storage and distribution terminals in Richmond and Martinez, California.  California alleged that the transaction would allow Valero to control the last independently operated gathering line in the state with available capacity.  Part of the state’s argument was that the acquisition would eliminate Plains as a maverick competitor.  California alleged that Valero’s acquisition would permit the vertically integrated refiner to reduce competitor access to the distribution terminals, which would result in increased fuel prices at retail gas stations.  California alleged that Valero would be able to recoup lost terminal profits (after withholding access from competitors) through a downstream increase in gas prices.  California also alleged that once all the fuel terminals were vertically integrated, there would be a higher risk of coordination among Valero and other vertically integrated providers to similarly reduce supply into the terminal and increase prices at gas stations.

On August 30, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced that Mars, Incorporated (“Mars”)  agreed to divest 12 specialty or off-hours emergency animal hospitals around the United States to settle FTC allegations that Mars’s $9.1 billion acquisition of pet care company VCA Inc. (“VCA”) would violate federal antitrust laws.

Competition Problem

The animal hospital industry is highly fragmented and very crowded.  For the most part, the FTC found that there were really very few antitrust concerns with the deal so there was much in terms loss of competition.  Overall, the combined entity would own roughly 6.5% of the North American market (26,000 animal hospitals) in terms of locations.  While a 6% share of the national or North American space is by no means troubling, problematic overlaps could nevertheless exist in smaller local markets.  Indeed, the primary factors influencing a customer’s selection of an animal hospital are convenient location and hours, personal recommendations, reasonable fees and quality of care.

On August 23, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission cleared Amazon.com Inc.’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market Inc. without a second request investigation. As mega mergers go, this antitrust review was fast and furious.

When the deal was announced, consumer groups and politicians questioned whether the combination was anticompetitive. Even President Trump, during the campaign, had been quoted as saying “Amazon had a huge antitrust problem”.

Many others were outspoken that the deal should at the very least undergo a thorough investigation because as they saw it, Amazon was adding groceries to its mix in an effort to cement its position as the go to platform where most online commerce takes place. The argument goes that Amazon is a monopolist in online retailing (46% of online retail sales) and it was acquiring Whole Foods, an organic and premium food grocery brick & mortar retailer providing Amazon with additional infrastructure that would allow Amazon to sell and deliver groceries in more cities. Indeed, AmazonFresh is available only in a handful of cities, and doesn’t have the same range of offerings as Whole Foods. Whole Foods delivers through Instacart, but not in a number of of cities. Amazon Prime offers free delivery and Instacart’s delivery fees can add up. Therefore, the deal raised both vertical (online platform along with brick & mortar stores) and horizontal (both firms competed in the retail distribution of food) issues, but combined the merged firm was still a very small retail grocer and the addition of Whole Foods tiny share of the grocery business was trivial.

On June 22, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission and the Attorney General of North Dakota filed a complaint to block Sanford Health’s proposed acquisition of Mid Dakota Clinic, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the deal and to maintain the status quo pending an administrative trial on the merits of the case.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the deal would reduce competition for adult primary care physician services, pediatric services, obstetrics and gynecology services, and general surgery physician services in the greater Bismarck and Mandan metropolitan area or four counties.

According to the complaint, Sanford and Mid Dakota are each other’s closest competitors in a four-county Bismarck-Mandan region of North Dakota, an area with a population of 125,000.  The FTC’s complaint alleges that the transaction would create a group of physicians with at least 75 to 85 percent share in the provision of adult primary care physician services (59 out of 77 physicians in the area), pediatric services (10 out of 12 physicians), and obstetrics and gynecology (15 out of 17 physicians) services.  Moreover, the complaint alleged that the merged firm would be the only physician group offering general surgery physician services in the relevant geographic market with a total of ten physicians.  In total, the two firms would combine approximately 94 physicians in the relevant geographic market.