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[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Scott Sher (Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati) and Matthew McDonald (Associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati).]

On January 10, 2020, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) (collectively, “the Agencies”) released their joint draft guidelines outlining their “principal analytical techniques, practices and enforcement policy” with respect to vertical mergers (“Draft Guidelines”). While the Draft Guidelines describe and formalize the Agencies’ existing approaches when investigating vertical mergers, they leave several policy questions unanswered. In particular, the Draft Guidelines do not address how the Agencies might approach the issue of acquisition of potential or nascent competitors through vertical mergers. As many technology mergers are motivated by the desire to enter new industries or add new tools or features to an existing platform (i.e., the Buy-Versus-Build dilemma), the omission leaves a significant hole in the Agencies’ enforcement policy agenda, and leaves the tech industry, in particular, without adequate guidance as to how the Agencies may address these issues.

This is notable, given that the Horizontal Merger Guidelines explicitly address potential competition theories of harm (e.g., at § 1 (referencing mergers and acquisitions “involving actual or potential competitors”); § 2 (“The Agencies consider whether the merging firms have been, or likely will become absent the merger, substantial head-to-head competitors.”). Indeed, the Agencies have recently challenged several proposed horizontal mergers based on nascent competition theories of harm. 

Further, there has been much debate regarding whether increased antitrust scrutiny of vertical acquisitions of nascent competitors, particularly in technology markets, is warranted (See, e.g., Open Markets Institute, The Urgent Need for Strong Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Enforcers should be vigilant toward dominant platforms’ acquisitions of seemingly small or marginal firms and be ready to block acquisitions that may be part of a monopoly protection strategy. Dominant firms should not be permitted to expand through vertical acquisitions and cut off budding threats before they have a chance to bloom.”); Caroline Holland, Taking on Big Tech Through Merger Enforcement (“Vertical mergers that create market power capable of stifling competition could be particularly pernicious when it comes to digital platforms.”)). 

Thus, further policy guidance from the Agencies on this issue is needed. As the Agencies formulate guidance, they should take note that vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally promote efficiency and innovation, and that any potential competitive harm almost always can be addressed with easy-to-implement behavioral remedies.

The agencies’ draft vertical merger guidelines

The Draft Guidelines outline the following principles that the Agencies will apply when analyzing vertical mergers:

  • Market definition. The Agencies will identify a relevant market and one or more “related products.” (§ 2) This is a product that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the product in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market. (§ 2)
  • Safe harbor. Unlike horizontal merger cases, the Agencies cannot rely on changes in concentration in the relevant market as a screen for competitive effects. Instead, the Agencies consider measures of the competitive significance of the related product. (§ 3) The Draft Guidelines propose a safe harbor, stating that the Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger “where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.” (§ 3) However, shares exceeding the thresholds, taken alone, do not support an inference that the vertical merger is anticompetitive. (§ 3)
  • Theories of unilateral harm. Vertical mergers can result in unilateral competitive effects, including raising rivals’ costs (charging rivals in the relevant market a higher price for the related product) or foreclosure (refusing to supply rivals with the related product altogether). (§ 5.a) Another potential unilateral effect is access to competitively sensitive information: The combined firm may, through the acquisition, gain access to sensitive business information about its upstream or downstream rivals that was unavailable to it before the merger (for example, a downstream rival of the merged firm may have been a premerger customer of the upstream merging party). (§ 5.b)
  • Theories of coordinated harm. Vertical mergers can also increase the likelihood of post-merger coordinated interaction. For example, a vertical merger might eliminate or hobble a maverick firm that would otherwise play an important role in limiting anticompetitive coordination. (§ 7)
  • Procompetitive effects. Vertical mergers can have procompetitive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization (“EDM”). A merger of vertically related firms can create an incentive for the combined entity to lower prices on the downstream product, because it will capture the additional margins from increased sales on the upstream product. (§ 6) EDM thus may benefit both the merged firm and buyers of the downstream product. (§ 6)
  • Efficiencies. Vertical mergers have the potential to create cognizable efficiencies; the Agencies will evaluate such efficiencies using the standards set out in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. (§ 8)

Implications for vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups

At present, the Draft Guidelines do not address theories of nascent or potential competition. To the extent the Agencies provide further guidance regarding the treatment of vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups, they should take note of the following facts:

First, empirical evidence from strategy literature indicates that technology-related vertical mergers are likely to be efficiency-enhancing. In a survey of the strategy literature on vertical integration, Professor D. Daniel Sokol observed that vertical acquisitions involving technology start-ups are “largely complementary, combining the strengths of the acquiring firm in process innovation with the product innovation of the target firms.” (p. 1372) The literature shows that larger firms tend to be relatively poor at developing new and improved products outside of their core expertise, but are relatively strong at process innovation (developing new and improved methods of production, distribution, support, and the like). (Sokol, p. 1373) Larger firms need acquisitions to help with innovation; acquisition is more efficient than attempting to innovate through internal efforts. (Sokol, p. 1373)

Second, vertical merger policy towards nascent competitor acquisitions has important implications for the rate of start-up formation, and the innovation that results. Entrepreneurship in technology markets is motivated by the opportunity for commercialization and exit. (Sokol, p. 1362 (“[T]he purpose of such investment [in start-ups] is to reap the rewards of scaling a venture to exit.”))

In recent years, as IPO activity has declined, vertical mergers have become the default method of entrepreneurial exit. (Sokol, p. 1376) Increased vertical merger enforcement against start-up acquisitions thus closes off the primary exit strategy for entrepreneurs. As Prof. Sokol concluded in his study of vertical mergers:

When antitrust agencies, judges, and legislators limit the possibility of vertical mergers as an exit strategy for start-up firms, it creates risk for innovation and entrepreneurship…. it threatens entrepreneurial exits, particularly for tech companies whose very business model is premised upon vertical mergers for purposes of a liquidity event. (p. 1377)

Third, to the extent that the vertical acquisition of a start-up raises competitive concerns, a behavioral remedy is usually preferable to a structural one. As explained above, vertical acquisitions typically result in substantial efficiencies, and these efficiencies are likely to overwhelm any potential competitive harm. Further, a structural remedy is likely infeasible in the case of a start-up acquisition. Thus, behavioral relief is the only way of preserving the deal’s efficiencies while remedying the potential competitive harm. (Which the Agencies have recognized, see DOJ Antitrust Division, Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, p. 20 (“Stand-alone conduct relief is only appropriate when a full-stop prohibition of the merger would sacrifice significant efficiencies and a structural remedy would similarly eliminate such efficiencies or is simply infeasible.”)) Appropriate behavioral remedies for vertical acquisitions of start-ups would include firewalls (restricting the flow of competitively sensitive information between the upstream and downstream units of the combined firm) or a fair dealing or non-discrimination remedy (requiring the merging firm to supply an input or grant customer access to competitors in a non-discriminatory way) with clear benchmarks to ensure compliance. (See Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, pp. 22-24)

To be sure, some vertical mergers may cause harm to competition, and there should be enforcement when the facts justify it. But vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally enhance efficiency and promote innovation. Antitrust’s goals of promoting competition and innovation are thus best served by taking a measured approach towards vertical mergers involving technology start-ups. (Sokol, pp. 1362–63) (“Thus, a general inference that makes vertical acquisitions, particularly in tech, more difficult to approve leads to direct contravention of antitrust’s role in promoting competition and innovation.”)