6 minute read

Mergers and Acquisitions

Federal Antitrust Regulation

Since the late nineteenth century, the federal government has challenged business practices and mergers that create, or may create, a MONOPOLY in a particular market. Federal legislation has varied in effectiveness in preventing anticompetitive mergers.

Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 The SHERMAN ANTI-TRUST ACT (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 et seq.) was the first federal antitrust statute. Its application to mergers and acquisitions has varied, depending on its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U.S. 197, 24 S. Ct. 436, 48 L. Ed. 679 (1904), the Court ruled that all mergers between directly competing firms constituted a combination in restraint of trade and that they therefore violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. This decision hindered the creation of new monopolies through horizontal mergers.

In Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1, 31 S. Ct. 502, 55 L. Ed. 619 (1911), however, the Court adopted a less stringent "rule of reason test"to evaluate mergers. This rule meant that the courts must examine whether the merger would yield monopoly control to the merged entity. In practice, this resulted in the approval of many mergers that approached, but did not achieve, monopoly power.

Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 Congress passed the CLAYTON ACT (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 12 et seq.) in response to the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey decision, which it feared would undermine the Sherman Act's ban against trade restraints and monopolization. Among the provisions of the Clayton Act was Section 7, which barred anticompetitive stock acquisitions.

The original Section 7 was a weak antimerger safeguard because it banned only purchases of stock. Businesses soon realized that they could evade this measure simply by buying the target firm's assets. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Thatcher Manufacturing Co. v. Federal Trade Commission, 272 U.S. 554, 47 S. Ct. 175, 71 L. Ed. 405 (1926), further undermined Section 7 by allowing a firm to escape liability if it bought a controlling interest in a rival firm's stock and used this control to transfer to itself the target's assets before the government filed a complaint. Thus, a firm could circumvent Section 7 by quickly converting a stock acquisition into a purchase of assets.

By the 1930s, Section 7 was eviscerated. Between the passage of the Clayton Act in 1914 and 1950, only 15 mergers were overturned under the ANTITRUST LAWS, and ten of these dissolutions were based on the Sherman Act. In 1950, Congress responded to post–World War II concerns that a wave of corporate acquisitions was threatening to undermine U.S. society, by passing the Celler-Kefauver Antimerger Act, which amended Section 7 of the Clayton Act to close the assets loophole. Section 7 then prohibited a business from purchasing the stock or assets of another entity if "the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly."

Congress intended the amended section to reach vertical and conglomerate mergers, as well as horizontal mergers. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U.S. 294, 82 S. Ct. 1502, 8 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1962), interpreted the amended law as a congressional attempt to retain local control over industry and to protect small business. The Court concluded that it must look at the merger's actual and likely effect on competition. In general, however, it relied almost entirely on market share and concentration figures in evaluating whether a merger was likely to be anticompetitive. Nevertheless, the general presumption was that mergers were suspect.

In United States v. General Dynamics, 415 U.S. 486, 94 S. Ct. 1186, 39 L. Ed. 2d 530 (1974), the Court changed direction. It rejected any antitrust analysis that focused exclusively on market-share statistics, cautioning that although statistical data can be of great significance, they are "not conclusive indicators of anticompetitive effects." A merger must be viewed in the context of its particular industry. Therefore, the Court held that "only a further examination of the particular market—its structure, history, and probable future—can provide the appropriate setting for judging the probable anticompetitive effect of the merger." This totality-of-thecircumstances approach has remained the standard for conducting an antitrust analysis of a proposed merger.

Federal Trade Commission Act of 1975 Section 5 of the FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 45), prohibits "unfair method[s] of competition" and gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) independent jurisdiction to enforce the antitrust laws. The law provides no criminal penalties, and it limits the FTC to issuing prospective decrees. The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT and the FTC share enforcement of the Clayton Act. Congress gave this authority to the FTC because it thought that an administrative body would be more responsive to congressional goals than would the courts.

Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 The Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act (HSR) (15 U.S.C.A. § 18a) established a mandatory premerger notification procedure for firms that are parties to certain mergers. The HSR process requires the merging parties to notify the FTC and the Department of Justice before completing certain transactions. In general, an HSR premerger filing is required when (a) one of the parties to the transaction has annual net sales (or revenues) or total assets exceeding $100 million and the other party has annual net sales (or revenues) or total assets exceeding $10 million; and (b) the acquisition price or value of the acquired assets or entity exceeds $15 million. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in the RESCISSION of completed transactions and may be punished by a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day.

HSR also established mandatory waiting periods during which the parties may not "close" the proposed transaction and begin joint operations. In transactions other than cash tender offers, the initial waiting period is 30 days after the merging parties have made the requisite premerger notification filings with the federal agencies. For cash tender offers, the waiting period is 15 days after the premerger filings. Before the initial waiting periods expire, the federal agency that is responsible for reviewing the transaction may request the parties to supply additional information relating to the proposed merger. These "second requests" often include extensive interrogatories (lists of questions to be answered) and broad demands for the production of documents. A request for further information may be made once, and the issuance of a second request extends the waiting period for ten days for cash tender offers and 20 days for all other transactions. These extensions of the waiting period do not begin until the merging parties are in "substantial compliance" with the government agency's request for additional information.

If the federal government decides not to challenge a merger before the HSR waiting period expires, a federal agency is highly unlikely to sue at a late date to dissolve the transaction under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The federal government is not legally barred from bringing such a lawsuit, but the desire of the federal agencies to increase predictability for business planners has made the HSR process the critical period for federal review. However, the decision of a federal agency not to attack a merger during the HSR waiting period does not preclude a lawsuit by a state government or a private entity. To facilitate analysis by the state attorneys general, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has issued a Voluntary Pre-Merger Disclosure Compact under which the merging parties can submit copies of their federal HSR filings and the responses to second requests with NAAG for circulation among states that have adopted the compact.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Marque and Reprisal to MinisterMergers and Acquisitions - Types Of Mergers, Corporate Merger Procedures, Competitive Concerns, Federal Antitrust Regulation, Merger Guidelines