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).

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