Tuesday 19 December 2023

U.S. DOJ and FTC Release Merger Guidelines

U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission issued Merger Guidelines on December 18, 2023.  The Press Release states, in part:

Today, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jointly issued the 2023 Merger Guidelines, which describe factors and frameworks the agencies utilize when reviewing mergers and acquisitions. The 2023 Merger Guidelines are the culmination of a nearly two-year process of public engagement and reflect modern market realities, advances in economics and law, and the lived experiences of a diverse array of market participants.

These finalized Guidelines provide transparency into how the Justice Department is protecting the American people from the ways in which unlawful, anticompetitive practices manifest themselves in our modern economy,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Since releasing the Draft Merger Guidelines earlier this summer, we have engaged with stakeholders across the country, and the Guidelines are stronger as a result. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce the laws that safeguard competition and protect all Americans.”

. . . The 2023 Merger Guidelines released today modify the Draft Merger Guidelines, released on July 19, to address comments from the public, including extensive engagement from attorneys, economists, academics, enforcers, and other policymakers at the agencies’ three Merger Guidelines Workshops. They emphasize the dynamic and complex nature of competition ranging from price competition to competition for the terms and conditions of employment, to platform competition. This approach enables the agencies to assess the commercial realities of the United States’ modern economy when making enforcement decisions and ensures that merger enforcement protects competition in all its forms.

. . . The robust process to develop the 2023 Merger Guidelines began in January 2022. The agencies announced an initiative to evaluate possible revisions to the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines and the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines and published a Request for Information on Merger Enforcement, which sought public comment on modernizing merger enforcement. The agencies received more than 5,000 comments. Commenters highlighted excessive market consolidation across industries and overwhelmingly urged the agencies to strengthen their approach to merger enforcement. At the agencies’ four listening sessions, business owners, workers, and other advocates similarly highlighted the potential for mergers and acquisitions to undermine open, vibrant, and competitive markets, in industries ranging from food and agriculture to health care. 

Informed by this feedback, agency experience and expertise, as well as developments in the market, law, and economics, the agencies drafted and jointly released a proposed version of the 2023 Merger Guidelines for public comment in July 2023 and received more than 30,000 comments reflecting the views of consumers, workers, academics, interest organizations, attorneys, enforcers, and many others across various sectors of the American economy. The agencies also held three Merger Guidelines Workshops to discuss the draft Merger Guidelines. This engagement informed an in-depth revision process culminating in today’s release of the 2023 Merger Guidelines.

Like the prior horizontal and vertical merger guidelines they replace, the 2023 Merger Guidelines are not themselves legally binding, but provide transparency into the agencies’ decision-making process.   

The 2023 Merger Guidelines do not predetermine enforcement action by the agencies. Although the Merger Guidelines identify the factors and frameworks the agencies consider when investigating mergers, the agencies’ enforcement decisions will necessarily depend on the facts in any case and will continue to require prosecutorial discretion and judgment.

The Merger Guidelines discuss the issue of nascent technology:

2.6.A. Entrenching a Dominant Position Raising Barriers to Entry or Competition. . . .

· Increasing Switching Costs

· Interfering With the Use of Competitive Alternatives. . . .

· Depriving Rivals of Scale Economies or Network Effects. . . .

Eliminating a Nascent Competitive Threat. A merger may involve a dominant firm acquiring a nascent competitive threat—namely, a firm that could grow into a significant rival, facilitate other rivals’ growth, or otherwise lead to a reduction in its power.  In some cases, the nascent threat may be a firm that provides a product or service similar to the acquiring firm that does not substantially constrain the acquiring firm at the time of the merger but has the potential to grow into a more significant rival in the future. In other cases, factors such as network effects, scale economies, or switching costs may make it extremely difficult for a new entrant to offer all of the product features or services at comparable quality and terms that an incumbent offers. The most likely successful threats in these situations can be firms that initially avoid directly entering the dominant firm’s market, instead specializing in (a) serving a narrow customer segment, (b) offering services that only partially overlap with those of the incumbent, or (c) serving an overlapping customer segment with distinct products or services.

Firms with niche or only partially overlapping products or customers can grow into longer-term threats to a dominant firm. Once established in its niche, a nascent threat may be able to add features or serve additional customer segments, growing into greater overlap of customer segments or features over time, thereby intensifying competition with the dominant firm. A nascent threat may also facilitate customers aggregating additional products and services from multiple providers that serve as a partial alternative to the incumbent’s offering. Thus, the success and independence of the nascent threat may both provide for a direct threat of competition by the niche or nascent firm and may facilitate competition or encourage entry by other, potentially complementary providers that may provide a partial competitive constraint. In this way, the nascent threat supports what may be referred to as “ecosystem” competition. In this context, ecosystem competition refers to a situation where an incumbent firm that offers a wide array of products and services may be partially constrained by other combinations of products and services from one or more providers, even if the business model of those competing services is different.

Nascent threats may be particularly likely to emerge during technological transitions. Technological transitions can render existing entry barriers less relevant, temporarily making incumbents susceptible to competitive threats. For example, technological transitions can create temporary opportunities for entrants to differentiate or expand their offerings based on their alignment with new technologies, enabling them to capture network effects that otherwise insulate incumbents from competition. A merger in this context may lessen competition by preventing or delaying any such beneficial shift or by shaping it so that the incumbent retains its dominant position. For example, a dominant firm might seek to acquire firms to help it reinforce or recreate entry barriers so that its dominance endures past the technological transition. Or it might seek to acquire nascent threats that might otherwise gain sufficient customers to overcome entry barriers. In evaluating the potential for entrenching dominance, the Agencies take particular care to preserve opportunities for more competitive markets to emerge during such technological shifts. Separate from and in addition to its Section 7 analysis, the Agencies will consider whether the merger violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act. For example, under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, a firm that may challenge a monopolist may be characterized as a “nascent threat” even if the impending threat is uncertain and may take several years to materialize. The Agencies assess whether the merger is reasonably capable of contributing significantly to the preservation of monopoly power in violation of Section 2, which turns on whether the acquired firm is a nascent competitive threat. (footnotes omitted).

Guideline 9 is titled, “When a Merger Involves a Multi-Sided Platform, the Agencies Examine Competition Between Platforms, on a Platform, or to Displace a Platform.”  That Guideline provides, in part:

Platforms provide different products or services to two or more different groups or “sides” who may benefit from each other’s participation. Mergers involving platforms can threaten competition, even when a platform merges with a firm that is neither a direct competitor nor in a traditional vertical relationship with the platform. When evaluating a merger involving a platform, the Agencies apply Guidelines 1-6 while accounting for market realities associated with platform competition. Specifically, the Agencies consider competition between platforms, competition on a platform, and competition to displace the platform.

Multi-sided platforms generally have several attributes in common, though they can also vary in important ways. Some of these attributes include:

· Platforms have multiple sides. On each side of a platform, platform participants provide or use distinct products and services. Participants can provide or use different types of products or services on each side.

· A platform operator provides the core services that enable the platform to connect participant groups across multiple sides. The platform operator controls other participants’ access to the platform and can influence how interactions among platform participants play out.

· Each side of a platform includes platform participants. Their participation might be as simple as using the platform to find other participants, or as involved as building platform services that enable other participants to connect in new ways and allow new participants to join the platform.

· Network effects occur when platform participants contribute to the value of the platform for other participants and the operator. The value for groups of participants on one side may depend on the number of participants either on the same side (direct network effects) or on the other side(s) (indirect network effects). Network effects can create a tendency toward concentration in platform industries. Indirect network effects can be asymmetric and heterogeneous; for example, one side of the market or segment of participants may place relatively greater value on the other side(s).

· A conflict of interest can arise when a platform operator is also a platform participant. The Agencies refer to a “conflict of interest” as the divergence that can arise between the operator’s incentives to operate the platform as a forum for competition and its incentive to operate as a competitor on the platform itself. As discussed below, a conflict of interest sometimes exacerbates competitive concerns from mergers. Consistent with the Clayton Act’s protection of competition “in any line of commerce,” the Agencies will seek to prohibit a merger that harms competition within a relevant market for any product or service offered on a platform to any group of participants—i.e., around one side of the platform (see Section 4.3).

The Agencies protect competition between platforms by preventing the acquisition or exclusion of other platform operators that may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly. This scenario can arise from various types of mergers:

A. Mergers involving two platform operators eliminate the competition between them. In a market with a platform, entry or growth by smaller competing platforms can be particularly challenging because of network effects. A common strategy for smaller platforms is to specialize, providing distinctive features. Thus, dominant platforms can lessen competition and entrench their position by systematically acquiring firms competing with one or more sides of a multi-sided platform while they are in their infancy. The Agencies seek to stop these trends in their incipiency.

B. A platform operator may acquire a platform participant, which can entrench the operator’s position by depriving rivals of participants and, in turn, depriving them of network effects. For example, acquiring a major seller on a platform may make it harder for rival platforms to recruit buyers. The long-run benefits to a platform operator of denying network effects to rival platforms create a powerful incentive to withhold or degrade those rivals’ access to platform participants that the operator acquires. The more powerful the platform operator, the greater the threat to competition presented by mergers that may weaken rival operators or increase barriers to entry and expansion.

C. Acquisitions of firms that provide services that facilitate participation on multiple platforms can deprive rivals of platform participants. Many services can facilitate such participation, such as tools that help shoppers compare prices across platforms, applications that help sellers manage listings on multiple platforms, or software that helps users switch among platforms.

D. Mergers that involve firms that provide other important inputs to platform services can enable the platform operator to deny rivals the benefits of those inputs. For example, acquiring data that helps facilitate matching, sorting, or prediction services may enable the platform to weaken rival platforms by denying them that data.

The Agencies protect competition on a platform in any markets that interact with the platform. When a merger involves a platform operator and platform participants, the Agencies carefully examine whether the merger would create conflicts of interest that would harm competition. A platform operator that is also a platform participant may have a conflict of interest whereby it has an incentive to give its own products and services an advantage over other participants competing on the platform. Platform operators must often choose between making it easy for users to access their preferred products and directing those users to products that instead provide greater benefit to the platform operator. Merging with a firm that makes a product offered on the platform may change how the platform operator balances these competing interests. For example, the platform operator may find it is more profitable to give its own product greater prominence even if that product is inferior or is offered on worse terms after the merger—and even if some participants leave the platform as a result. This can harm competition in the product market for the advantaged product, where the harm to competition may be experienced both on the platform and in other channels.

The Agencies protect competition to displace the platform or any of its services. For example, new technologies or services may create an important opportunity for firms to replace one or more services the incumbent platform operator provides, shifting some participants to partially or fully meet their needs in different ways or through different channels. Similarly, a non-platform service can lessen dependence on the platform by providing an alternative to one or more functions provided by the platform operators. When platform owners are dominant, the Agencies seek to prevent even relatively small accretions of power from inhibiting the prospects for displacing the platform or for decreasing dependency on the platform.

In addition, a platform operator that advantages its own products that compete on the platform can lessen competition between platforms and to displace the platform, as the operator may both advantage its own product or service, and also deprive rival platforms of access to it, limiting those rivals’ network effects. (emphasis in original and footnotes omitted).

Thursday 14 December 2023

U.S. House Report on Competition with Chinese Communist Party

On December 12, 2023, U.S. House of Representatives, select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist issued a 53 page report titled, “Party, Reset, Present, and Build: A Strategy to Win America’s Economic Competition with the Chinese Communist Party.”  Unsurprisingly, the report notes concerns with market access and intellectual property theft.  The report also takes on U.S. companies, including venture capitalists for funding China’s development, and China's WTO participation.  The report sets forth three pillars with key findings:

Pillar I: Reset the Terms of Our Economic Relationship with the PRC

1. The PRC’s economic system is incompatible with the WTO and undermines U.S. economic security.

2. Despite the heightened risks associated with U.S. investment in Chinese companies, the full extent and distribution of that risk and the implications for U.S. national security and financial stability remain unknown.

3. The United States lacks a contingency plan for the economic and financial impacts of conflict with the PRC.

4. The PRC uses an intricate web of industrial policies, including subsidies, forced technology transfer, and market access restrictions, to distort market behavior, achieve dominance in global markets, and increase U.S. dependency on PRC imports.

5. The widespread adoption of certain PRC-developed technologies in the United States poses a significant risk to U.S. national security and data protection concerns and threatens long-term U.S. technological competitiveness.

Pillar II: Stem the Flow of U.S. Capital and Technology Fueling the PRC’s Military Modernization and Human Rights Abuses

1. American investors wittingly and unwittingly support the PRC’s defense industry, emerging technology companies, and human rights abuses.

2. U.S. export controls have been slow to adapt to rapid changes in technology and attempts by adversaries to blur the lines between private and public sector entities, particularly the PRC’s strategy of Military-Civil Fusion.

3. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) needs additional authorities and tools to effectively evaluate inbound investments from the PRC.

4. The PRC exploits the openness of the U.S. research environment to steal U.S. intellectual property (IP) and transfer technology to advance its economic and security interests to the detriment of the United States.

Pillar III: Invest in Technological Leadership and Build Collective Economic Resilience in Concert with Allies

1. The United States is falling behind in the race for leadership in certain critical technologies.

2. The PRC is gaining on the United States in the race for global talent.

3. By working with allies, the United States can increase U.S. exports, reduce supply chain reliance on the PRC, and counter the PRC’s economic and technology mercantilism.

4. The United States is dangerously dependent on the PRC for critical mineral imports.

5. The United States’ dependence on the PRC for pharmaceutical and medical device supply chains poses a distinct national security risk.

6. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP has expanded its influence around the world and gained significant positions in key supply chains and strategic infrastructure, such as ports and space facilities.

The findings are followed by specific policy prescriptions. For example, for pillar two, finding four, the policy prescriptions include:

Recommendation 4: Strengthen U.S. research security and defend against malign talent recruitment.

1. Build upon cross-agency disclosure guidance produced under National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 (NSPM-33) by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to mitigate research security risk by requiring all federal research funding applicants to disclose details about past, present, and pending relations and interest with foreign governments, foreign government controlled entities, or entities located in foreign adversary countries, in the past five years for themselves and any key member of their team who will be involved in fundamental research supported by the grant and update such disclosure annually throughout the funding period.

2. Create and maintain an unclassified database using open-source information to keep track of PRC research entities that engage in defense and military research and civil military fusion programs. This database can inform U.S. universities and researchers about current and future research collaborations and help federal grant-providing agencies vet grant proposals for risk mitigation.

3. Enact legislation that would prohibit U.S. entities from engaging in research collaborations with PRC entities involved with military and defense research and development (R&D), to include those that are on the International Trade Administration’s Consolidated Screening List, the Department of Defense’s Chinese Military Companies List, and the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute’s list of PRC Defense Science and Technology Key Labs.

4. Require U.S. research institutions to obtain an export control license if they intend to use any export-controlled item that has a clear and distinct national security nexus, during the course of research collaboration on critical and emerging technologies with any foreign adversary entity.

5. Exercise oversight on enforcement of existing rules in Sec. 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) (P.L. 89–329) that requires U.S. universities to disclose of foreign gifts and contracts reaching certain threshold to the Department of Education.

6. Strengthen Sec. 117 of HEA by requiring U.S. universities to apply the “know-your-customer/donor” rule to understand who the benefactors are for foreign gifts and contracts channeled through U.S.-incorporated 501c(3) entities.

7. Require the Department of State to establish “human rights” and “military end-use” guardrails in any Science and Technology Agreement with the PRC and ensure sufficient consultations with appropriate Congressional committees throughout the negotiation process, as outlined in the Science and Technology Agreement Enhanced Congressional Notification Act of 2023 (H.R. 5245).

8. Require universities that receive federal grants for fundamental research to fully implement NSPM-33, to create and implement risk-based security reviews to detect and counter PRC malign influence and technology transfer risk.

Monday 11 December 2023

The Exercise of Bayh-Dole March-in Rights Coming Soon?

The U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology has released a proposed framework for analyzing whether march-in rights under the Bayh-Dole Act should be exercised.  Notably, march-in rights have never been exercised.  A concern is that exercise of the rights could create a disincentive for companies to invest in commercializing government funded inventions.  Additionally, there is a concern that basing the exercise of march-in rights on pricing concerns will be particularly harmful.  The proposed framework can be found, here.  There is a comment period as well.  The proposed framework contains several Scenarios with a sample analysis of the problem.  All of the Scenarios are worth reviewing, but I found 5 and 6 to be particularly interesting.  The following includes the analysis under Scenario 5 and 6:

Scenario 5

Background: A water filtration company has an exclusive license from a government-funded university to patents covering a subject invention for point-of-use water purification technology. The company manufactures a small device, which can be used to remove organic contaminants like pesticides in households that get their drinking water from wells. Ten years ago, a certain pesticide became very popular because it was safe for native U.S. pollinators but effective at combatting an invasive beetle destroying crops nationwide. But recent studies have shown a ten-fold increase in pediatric cancers that is connected to drinking groundwater contaminated with that pesticide. The water filtration company's point-of-use purification device is uniquely able to remove even trace amounts of that pesticide. As a result, demand has spiked. However, the company has not increased its manufacturing pace, so the price of the devices has jumped 1000% in the past three months. The combination of the limited supply and increased prices has resulted in a health emergency that cannot be adequately addressed without expanding capacity. Three other manufacturers and a dozen rural community groups have asked the government funding agency to march-in and issue licenses to increase supply and reduce cost of the specialized filters.

Discussion: Given the pressing need, march-in would be among a range of options the agency would likely consider for resolving this problem promptly and protecting children.

Statutory Criteria —In this scenario, it appears that march-in may alleviate a health or safety need that, at this time, is not reasonably being satisfied by the contractor or its licensee (Statutory Criterion 2). First, the agency would seek to confirm underlying information, including about the health or safety need. For example, the agency would consult with experts and appropriate agencies, seek available information about how the pesticide contributes to pediatric cancer, and investigate how (and how effectively) this purification device removes the pesticide (Statutorily Defined March-In Criteria; Criterion 2; Sections I–III). The agency would also confirm basic facts with the contractor, including whether it is refusing to ramp up manufacturing and how much the price has increased. All of this would be with an eye toward mitigating the risk of pediatric cancer, which in this scenario would appear to require an increased supply and accessible filtration devices (Section IV). The agency would likely assess whether the contractor is in fact exploiting the health or safety need to set a product price that is egregious within the U.S. market and unjustified given the totality of circumstances (Section IV, E). If the evidence suggests this 1000% increase was an intentional act by the company to “cash-in” on this newly discovered health and safety need, that would weigh in favor of march-in. However, if the entire market has seen similar price increases and there is a compelling justification for such a high price, e.g., a shortage of essential raw materials is making increased production impossible, that would weigh against march-in.

Policy & Objectives of Bayh-Dole —The agency would similarly need to assess the practical impact of march-in on the unmet need and carefully evaluate all alternatives (Would March-In Support the Policy & Objective of Bayh-Dole). For example, if the pesticide stays in the water supply long term and there's no indication other solutions will become available very soon, that would weigh in favor of march-in. If farmers are no longer using the pesticide in question and it dissipates quickly, then the demand for filters could subside soon, weighing against march-in. Additionally, the fact that there are already other interested manufacturers suggests march-in could increase production by these entities soon, weighing in favor of march-in. However, the agency would need to examine the capability of the prospective licensees and manufacturers and be comfortable these are “reasonable applicants” that could get a product to market (Section I, E). Here again, the agency would also consider possible alternatives, like other technologies to protect children (Section II). For example, perhaps another agency has already banned the pesticide and that, combined with an alternative filtration technology, could bring the pesticide levels to a safe percentage within the year, weighing against march-in. Finally, the agency would analyze the wider implications of march-in to ensure consistency with Bayh-Dole policy and objectives (Section III). The agency may determine that exercising march-in rights would have a meaningful positive impact on child health, increase confidence that federally funded inventions are available to improve the lives of Americans, result in increased competition, and set an example of actions by contractors or licensees that are “off limits.” The agency may determine those factors outweigh any negative impacts on investments in future federal R&D, given the apparent bad-faith actions of the contractor (Sections III, A, 2; III, 3).


Scenario 6

Background: In the early stages of a respiratory virus pandemic, a consumer goods company working under a government contract developed improved face masks that filter out 99% of that virus' particles. The contractor filed for a patent on its mask technology, and it reported the subject invention and associated patent application to the government. During a three-week window, several experts published studies confirming that the virus spreads easily and rapidly through airborne transmission. The following week, the consumer goods company increased the price of its masks 100%, and it continued to raise the price over the course of a month, resulting in a 400% price increase. The company has also sent letters to other mask manufacturers, flagging the pending patent application and promising to file lawsuits against any infringers as soon as the patent issues. Trade associations representing frontline healthcare workers asked the government funding agency to march-in and issue licenses to those other manufacturers to bring down the price of the masks.

Discussion: Given the urgent need, march-in would be among a range of options the agency would likely consider for resolving this problem promptly and protecting frontline workers.

Statutory Criteria —In this scenario, it appears there could be actions that promote nonuse or unreasonable use of the subject invention (Criterion 1) as well as health and safety needs that are not being reasonably satisfied by the contractor (Statutory Criterion 2). The agency would first ask the contractor for information to confirm the basic facts—for example, that the contractor has increased price 400%, how that increase compares to prices for other masks, how that price point compares to the cost of developing and manufacturing the masks, that the contractor has filed for patents, and that it is threatening to file suit against competing manufacturers when a patent issues. Based on that, the agency could continue its inquiry to assess whether march-in would alleviate an unmet health need and/or ensure the benefits of the mask are available to the public on reasonable terms, exploring questions detailed in Statutorily Defined March-In Criteria; Criterion 1 and 2. In this scenario, more affordable masks are needed and it may be that more mask production would bring down the price (Section III; IV, E). The agency would likely need more information to assess whether the contractor is exploiting the health or safety need in setting a product price that is egregious within the U.S. market and unjustified given the totality of circumstances and/or whether the masks are available on reasonable terms (Section IV, E). By rapidly increasing the price of masks and threatening other manufacturers with litigation during an urgent public health need, the contractor seems focused on keeping prices unusually high while not satisfying demand. This could weigh in favor of march-in. But the agency would need additional information, for example, to understand the unmet need, how march-in would impact it, and why the contractor is responding this way. Are other mask manufacturers charging similarly high prices under the circumstances, all to fund facility expansion? If so, that would weigh against march-in (Section IV, E). Is there a strong connection between mask usage (or mask availability) and public health benefit? Does this mask provide unique benefits over others? Stronger evidence the masks resolve a health need could weigh more in favor of march-in, whereas tangential evidence of unique benefits could weigh against march-in (Section III). Is there a legitimate reason not to license other manufacturers for this mask, e.g., they lack capacity or capability? Answers to those questions could justify the contractor's actions and weigh against march-in (Section IV, E).

Policy & Objectives of Bayh-Dole —The first part of this analysis looks at whether march-in would promote utilization and protect against non-use of the subject invention (Would March-In Support The Policy & Objective Of Bayh-Dole Section I). The agency would need to understand whether other manufacturers are “responsible applicants” that would be interested and willing to make the masks in question (Section I, E). The agency would also likely want to understand the impact of the pending patent application and threat of (possible) litigation on the other manufacturers (I, B; II, E). If the other manufacturers are actually deterred from making the product, then that could weigh in favor of march-in. However, if other manufacturers do not believe valid patents are going to issue on this subject invention, and those manufacturers are willing to immediately start manufacturing masks, that could weigh against march-in. The agency would also consider whether other action might be warranted—for example, the agency purchasing or manufacturing the masks itself at a lower price (Section II, A). Whether march-in would protect the public against non-use or unreasonable use of subject inventions more broadly likely depends on similar facts (Section III). However, in a situation of a pressing health or safety need, where a contractor is artificially keeping supply low while demand for a product is high or artificially increasing the price, march-in could deter others from similar actions in the future without impacting contractors and licensees who act in good faith to bring products to market and meet market demand (Section III, A, 2).