Archives For HSR

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

Last week, over Commissioner Wright’s dissent, the FTC approved amendments to its HSR rules (final text here) that, as Josh summarizes in his dissent,

establish, among other things, a procedure for the automatic withdrawal of an HSR filing upon the submission of a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announcing that the notified transaction has been terminated.

I discussed the proposed amendments and Josh’s concurring statement on their publication in February.

At the time, Josh pointed out that:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction. Indeed, it would be surprising to see firms incurring the costs and devoting the time and effort associated with antitrust review in the absence of a good faith intent to proceed with their transaction.

The proposed rules, if adopted, could increase the costs of corporate takeovers and thus distort the market for corporate control. Some companies that had complied with or were attempting to comply with a Second Request, for example, could be forced to restart their antitrust review, leading to significant delays and added expenses. The proposed rules could also create incentives for firms to structure their transactions less efficiently and discourage the use of tender offers. Finally, the proposed new rules will disproportionately burden U.S. public companies; the Federal Register notice acknowledges that the new rules will not apply to tender offers for many non-public and foreign companies.

Given these concerns, I hope that interested parties will avail themselves of the opportunity to submit public comments so that the Commission can make an informed decision at the conclusion of this process.

Apparently none of the other commissioners shared his concerns. But they remain valid. Most importantly, the amendments were adopted without a shred of evidence to suggest they were needed or would be helpful in any way. As Josh says in his dissent:

It has long been accepted as a principle of good governance that federal agencies should issue new regulations only if their benefits exceed their costs….However, I have not seen evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions that have been notified under the HSR Rules has resulted in the allocation of resources to a truly hypothetical transaction.

In the absence of evidence that the automatic withdrawal rule would remedy a problem that exists under the current HSR regime, and thus benefit the public, I believe we should refrain from creating new regulations.

For what it’s worth. the single comment received by the Commission on the proposed rule supported Josh’s views:

Although the rule may prevent such inefficiency in the future, it would also require companies to incur substantial costs in premerger negotiations and resource allocation while waiting for FTC approval during the HSR period. Currently, firms can avoid such costs by temporarily withdrawing offers or agreements until they are assured of FTC approval. Under the proposed rule, however, doing so would automatically withdraw a company’s HSR filing, subjecting it to another HSR filing and filing fee.

Presumably the absence of other comments means the business community isn’t too concerned about the amendments. But that doesn’t mean they should have been adopted without any evidence to support the claim that they were needed. I commend Josh for sticking to his principles and going down swinging.

Although it probably flew under almost everyone’s radar, last week Josh issued his first Concurring Statement as an FTC Commissioner.  The statement came in response to a seemingly arcane Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to Hart-Scott-Rodino Premerger Notification Rules:

The proposed rules also establish a procedure for the automatic withdrawal of an HSR filing when filings are made with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announcing that a transaction has been terminated.

The proposed rulemaking itself isn’t enormously significant, but Josh’s statement lays down a marker that indicates (as anyone could have predicted) that he intends to do everything he can to improve the agency and its process.

The rule, as suggested above, would automatically withdraw an HSR filing whenever transacting parties filed certain notices with the SEC announcing the termination of a deal.  You may recall that the Hertz/Dollar Thrifty deal had been in the works for at least five years when it finally closed.  When Hertz withdrew its tender offer in October 2011, it did not withdraw its HSR filing.  As reported at the time, Hertz withdrew its bid over difficulty securing FTC approval, which had plagued other offers for Thrifty:

In a sign of frustration, Mr. Thompson said that the company had spent some $30 million over the last few years dealing with the barrage of takeover offers.

Obviously, given the difficulty of securing FTC approval and the costs imposed by the uncertainty it created, there was real benefit to Hertz (and perhaps Thrifty, for that matter) from receiving a decision from the FTC without meanwhile tying up the company’s resources, restraining its decision- and deal-making abilities, complicating negotiations and weakening its credit by maintaining a stalled-but-pending merger.  So the deal was withdrawn, but the HSR filing was not.

In August 2012 the parties re-initiated the merger following ongoing consultations by Hertz with the FTC, and, in November 2012 — a full year after the deal was withdrawn (and a year and a half after the HSR filing) — the FTC approved the deal.

But, understandably, FTC staff don’t want to be wasting resources reviewing hypothetical transactions, and so, following on the heels of the Hertz/Dollar Thrifty deal, wrote the proposed rule to ensure that it never happens again.

Except it didn’t happen in Hertz because, after all, the deal was eventually made. According to Josh, in fact, the situation intended to be avoided by the rule has never arisen:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction. Indeed, it would be surprising to see firms incurring the costs and devoting the time and effort associated with antitrust review in the absence of a good faith intent to proceed with their transaction.

This isn’t to say (and Josh doesn’t say) that the proposed rule is a bad idea, just that, given the apparently negligible benefits of the rule, the costs could easily outweigh the benefits.

Which is why Josh’s Statement is important. What Josh is asking for is not that the rule be scrapped, but simply that, before adopting the rule, the FTC weigh its costs and benefits. And as Josh points out, there could indeed be some costs:

The proposed rules, if adopted, could increase the costs of corporate takeovers and thus distort the market for corporate control. Some companies that had complied with or were attempting to comply with a Second Request, for example, could be forced to restart their antitrust review, leading to significant delays and added expenses. The proposed rules could also create incentives for firms to structure their transactions less efficiently and discourage the use of tender offers. Finally, the proposed new rules will disproportionately burden U.S. public companies; the Federal Register notice acknowledges that the new rules will not apply to tender offers for many non-public and foreign companies.

Given these concerns, I hope that interested parties will avail themselves of the opportunity to submit public comments so that the Commission can make an informed decision at the conclusion of this process.

What is surprising is not that Josh suggested that there might be unanticipated costs to such a rule, nor that cost-benefit analysis be applied. Rather, what’s surprising is that the rest of the Commission didn’t sign on. Why is that surprising? Well, because cost-benefit analysis is not only sensible, it’s consistent with the Obama Administration’s stated regulatory approach. Executive Order 13563 requires that:

Each agency must, among other things:  (1) propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs (recognizing that some benefits and costs are difficult to quantify) . . . In applying these principles, each agency is directed to use the best available techniques to quantify anticipated present and future benefits and costs as accurately as possible.

Unfortunately, as Berin Szoka has pointed out,

The FCC, FTC and many other regulatory agencies aren’t required to do cost-benefit analysis at all.  Because these are “independent agencies”—creatures of Congress rather than part of the Executive Branch (like the Department of Justice)—only Congress can impose cost-benefit analysis on agencies.  A bipartisan bill, the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act (S. 3486), would have allowed the President to impose the same kind of cost-benefit analysis on independent regulatory agencies as on Executive Branch agencies, including review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for “significant” rulemakings (those with $100 million or more in economic impact, that adversely affect sectors of the economy in a material way, or that create “serious inconsistency” with other agencies’ actions). . . . yet the bill has apparently died . . . .

Legislation or not, it is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that the rules it enacts will actually be beneficial (it is a consumer protection agency, after all). The staff, presumably, did a perfectly fine job writing the rule they were asked to write. Josh’s point is simply that it isn’t clear the rule should be adopted because it isn’t clear that the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs.

It may have happened before, but I can’t recall an FTC Commissioner laying down the cost-benefit-analysis gauntlet and publicly calling for consistent cost-benefit review at the Commission, even of seemingly innocuous (but often not actually innocuous), technical rules.

This is exactly the sort of thing that those of us who extolled Josh’s appointment hoped for, and I’m delighted to see him pushing this kind of approach right out of the gate.  No doubt he rocked some boats and took some heat for it. Good. That means he’s on the right track.