Thursday, August 19, 2010

Federal Antitrust Agencies Issue Revised Guidance for Merging Competitors

This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice announced today the issuance of revised Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The guidelines are intended to outline for merging parties, courts, and antitrust practitioners how the federal antitrust agencies evaluate the likely competitive impact of mergers and whether those mergers comply with U.S. antitrust law.

The guidelines have not been thoroughly overhauled since 1992. The 1992 guidelines were updated in 1997 to include a discussion of merger-specific efficiencies that might justify approval of a transaction (CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶13,104).

At the outset, the revised guidelines explain that the agencies seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.

The focus is on the competitive effects of a transaction. The revised guidelines detail the categories and sources of evidence that the antitrust agencies consider informative in predicting the likely adverse competitive effects of a merger.

Role of Market Definition, Market Concentration

The analysis need not start with market definition, according to the revised guidelines. “Evidence of competitive effects can inform market definition, just as market definition can be informative regarding competitive effects,” the guidelines explain.

The draft guidelines, which were released on April 20, had been criticized by some commentators for failing to recognize the significance of market definition in merger analysis.

Among the comments from the American Bar Association Section of Antitrust Law in response to the draft guidelines was a suggestion that the guidelines make clear that market definition remained a necessary element of merger analysis under Sec. 7 of the Clayton Act in order to be consistent with judicial precedent.

On the other hand, the American Antitrust Institute concluded that the guidelines draft “rightly downplays the centrality of market definition to the enforcement process.”

Recognizing the continuing need for market definition in merger analysis, the revised guidelines update the thresholds that determine whether a transaction warrants further scrutiny by the agencies. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) measures for market concentration have been raised in order to be more consistent with current agency practice.

Approach of Enforcers

The heads of both the FTC and the Department of Justice Antitrust Division said the revised guidelines more accurately reflect the methods their staffs use to review mergers than the earlier guidelines.

“The revised guidelines better reflect the agencies’ actual practices,” said Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division. “The guidelines provide more clarity and transparency, and will provide businesses with an even greater understanding of how we review transactions.” Text of Varney's statement appears here on the Department of Jusitice website.

In a statement released this afternoon, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called the revised guidelines “a clear and systematic description of the techniques the FTC and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice use to review mergers, and a document that has received bi-partisan and unanimous support from the Commission.”

Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, however, issued a statement saying that the guidelines “are still flawed both as a description of how the staff (at the Commission at least) conducts ex ante merger review and what the Agencies should tell courts about merger analysis.”

“These Guidelines do not describe the way that the Bureau of Competition and enforcement staff at the Commission proceed today,” Rosch continued. “They also do not reflect the way that the courts proceed.”

Rosch questioned an “overemphasis on economic formulae and models.” He expressed concern that the revised guidelines create “the misimpression that non-price factors are far less significant than price factors to the Commission” and “fail to offer a clear framework for analyzing non-price considerations.”

Significant Advancements

Despite the criticisms, Rosch concurred with the issuance of the guidelines in light of significant advancements made by the revised guidelines. Rosch said that the revised guidelines corrected a misimpression of the 1992 guidelines that proof of market structure and shares were “gating items” without which competitive effects cannot be considered.

“The revised guidelines properly consider competitive effects first, and market definition second, thereby making clear that while market definition is important to assessing competitive effects and that the market must be defined at some point in the process, ultimately merger analysis must rest on the competitive effects of a transaction,” the commissioner said.

Rosch also pointed to the revised guidelines’ list of empirical evidence that might illuminate a transaction’s competitive effects as a substantial contribution.

2006 Commentary

The revised guidelines note that the “Commentary on the Horizontal Merger Guidelines,” which the agencies jointly issued in 2006 (CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶50,208), remains a valuable supplement to the guidelines. Some of the revisions reflect refinements and changes previously identified in the commentary.

The revised Horizontal Merger Guidelines are available here on the FTC website. They will appear at CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶13,100.

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