Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Tagged with MillerCoors

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  When prohibition was repealed, the states were tasked with putting in place systems that would prevent a repeat of this harmful state of affairs.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

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]