Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Agency Heads Discuss Revisions to Merger Guidelines at ABA Antitrust Meeting

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

Antitrust practitioners reviewing proposed revisions to the federal antitrust agencies’ Horizontal Merger Guidelines should have a better understanding of current agency practice, according to federal antitrust enforcers speaking April 23 at an enforcement roundtable during the American Bar Association’s Section of Antitrust Law Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.

The proposed revisions to the guidelines, which outline how the federal antitrust agencies evaluate the likely competitive effects of mergers in order to determine compliance with U.S. antitrust law, were released on April 20 in anticipation of the meeting. The proposed revised guidelines appear at CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶ 50,252.

Reflection of Agency Practice

Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, told meeting attendees at the enforcement roundtable that, while the proposed revised guidelines are not all that different in substance from the current 1992 guidelines, the 1992 guidelines do not reflect the actual practice at the agencies. This latest update is an effort to be transparent, according to Varney.

The antitrust chief reminded attendees that each transaction is viewed on the facts of that transaction. She noted the importance of direct evidence of a potential merger’s competitive effects in evaluating a merger. The role of direct evidence in merger analysis is reflected in the proposed updated guidelines, Varney said.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz also described the proposed revisions to the guidelines as an effort to explain to practitioners and judges what the agencies are doing when evaluating the competitive effects of mergers.

Leibowitz discussed the role of direct evidence of competitive effects in actions challenging Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Corporation’s 2000 acquisition of Highland Park Hospital and Western Refining, Inc.’s proposed acquisition of rival energy company Giant Industries, Inc., in 2007. He suggested that the judge in the latter case took a mechanistic view of the Horizontal Merger Guidelines in rejecting the FTC’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking Western Refining’s acquisition of Giant Industries.

Market Concentration

The proposed updates also raise the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) measures for market concentration in order to be more consistent with current agency practice, Leibowitz explained. As a result, mergers that would have appeared to be highly concentrated under the 1992 guidelines, based on HHI measures, would be considered only moderately concentrated under the proposed revised updates.

According to the guidelines, mergers that cause a significant increase in concentration and result in highly concentrated markets are presumed to be anticompetitive.

Merger Enforcement

Both agency heads took the opportunity to tout recent merger enforcement activity. Chairman Leibowitz said that the FTC was on “a little bit of a winning streak” in the merger enforcement area. He pointed to the decision of CCC Information Services Inc. to abandon its merger with Mitchell International Inc., in light of the agency’s challenge to the transaction.

The federal district court in Washington, D.C. had granted the FTC’s request for a preliminary injunction (PI) to block the transaction pending administrative litigation. The 2009 decision was the agency’s first PI win since 2003, according to the Commissioner.

Assistant Attorney General Varney discussed the Antitrust Division’s recent settlement with Ticketmaster Entertainment, Inc. In order to proceed with its proposed acquisition of concert promoter Live Nation, Inc., ticket seller Ticketmaster was required to license ticket software and divest a subsidiary ticketing business. In addition, behavioral remedies were imposed on Ticketmaster.

Varney told attendees that the agency’s preference was for structural relief, but that sometimes there is a need for both structural and behavioral remedies.

Canada Competition Bureau Merger Procedures

Canada Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken, who was also on the roundtable panel, discussed recent changes to the merger review process north of the border. Aitken said that the changes “make for a far more effective merger review process.”

While she described the process as “Made in Canada,” Aitken noted that the reforms, which have to do with process and not substance, bring the merger review process more in line with U.S. practice. For instance, the two-stage review process replicates the second request process utilized by the federal antitrust agencies in the United States. Aitken said that the changes make coordination with her counterparts in the United States easier.

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