DOJ and FTC deliver a scuttle of coal for healthcare holiday stockings. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finalized the Merger Guidelines that were drafted back in July [TTA 20 July]. They update prior guidelines first issued in 1968 that have been revised six times since then. They are not legally binding but demonstrate how each agency will examine any merger or acquisition going forward–and are advance notice on how they can and will stop either. US antitrust law is based on three acts passed by Congress: The Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the Clayton Act (1914), and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, now in US Code Title 15.
After 30,000 public comments in the 60-day period, the published Guidelines are now down to 11, but in context based on this Editor’s read (caveat, not a lawyer nor play one on TV) are not materially different than the July draft of 13, perhaps considered unlucky. The language in each Guideline restates the draft language in substantially more restrictive language and interpretation. The agencies’ stated purpose is that when two companies propose a merger that “raises concerns” on one or more of these Guidelines, the agencies “closely examine” whether the effect of the merger may be to substantially lessen competition or to tend to create a monopoly (sometimes referred to as a “prima facie case”). Two “C” words are repeated throughout–concentration and consolidation.
The guidelines are verbatim from the 51-page DOJ/FTC document (PDF link) issued 18 December and are grouped on how the agencies use these guidelines. They are effective immediately.
Distinct frameworks the agencies use to identify that a merger raises prima facie concerns (1-6)
Guideline 1: Mergers Raise a Presumption of Illegality When They Significantly Increase Concentration in a Highly Concentrated Market.
Guideline 2: Mergers Can Violate the Law When They Eliminate Substantial Competition Between Firms.
Guideline 3: Mergers Can Violate the Law When They Increase the Risk of Coordination
Guideline 4: Mergers Can Violate the Law When They Eliminate a Potential Entrant in a Concentrated Market
Guideline 5: Mergers Can Violate the Law When They Create a Firm That May Limit Access to Products or Services That Its Rivals Use to Compete
Guideline 6: Mergers Can Violate the Law When They Entrench or Extend a Dominant Position
How to apply those frameworks in several specific settings (7-11)
Guideline 7: When an Industry Undergoes a Trend Toward Consolidation, the Agencies Consider Whether It Increases the Risk a Merger May Substantially Lessen Competition or Tend to Create a Monopoly
Guideline 8: When a Merger is Part of a Series of Multiple Acquisitions, the Agencies May Examine the Whole Series
Guideline 9: When a Merger Involves a Multi-Sided Platform, the Agencies Examine Competition Between Platforms, on a Platform, or to Displace a Platform
Guideline 10: When a Merger Involves Competing Buyers, the Agencies Examine Whether It May Substantially Lessen Competition for Workers, Creators, Suppliers, or Other Providers
Guideline 11: When an Acquisition Involves Partial Ownership or Minority Interests, the Agencies Examine Its Impact on Competition
The Guidelines are summarized in the Overview. Section 2 explains them more completely with how the agencies apply the Guidelines. Section 3 identifies rebuttal evidence that companies could typically present, and Section 4 presents a non-exhaustive discussion of analytical, economic, and evidentiary tools the Agencies use for evaluation.
More coal, Ebenezer Scrooge. As this Editor described the draft guidelines in July, it it is hard to see that any merger or acquisition of like companies or even complimentary organizations building out capabilities or platforms could pass. Each one of these Guidelines is a tripwire and once tripped, can trip others. Each one of these can be used by FTC and DOJ to present to a Federal district court, where decisions are now more influential than the body of US Supreme Court decisions. Healthcare Dive notes the Illumina decision in the Fifth Circuit appeals court, liberally cited in the Guidelines document. This is forcing Illumina’s divestiture of cancer test developer Grail, earlier purchased for $7.1 billion.
So now the coal’s been delivered…what will 2024 and out look like?
- This will freeze M&A for months as companies try to figure this out. It’s not hard to guess that the imminent publication of the Guidelines nudged the termination of the Cigna-Humana deal. Hospital and health system mergers will continue to find nothing but discouragement.
- Watch for an acceleration of existing company failures in 2024 and disruption in the current funding structure. Smaller healthcare companies, fattened on the investment binge of 2020-21, but now betting on a buyout from a near competitor, are either going to stick it out on their own or run out of runway. VC and PE companies investing not strategically, but for the purpose of a 18-24 month exit or quick payday, will largely be out of luck. Public companies may languish unless they move quickly to profitability. This may stimulate a new look at investing–strategic investors that look at the very long term–or not. (JP Morgan in January will be verrrrry interesting.)
- Companies that have grown organically or benefited from previous acquisitions but need to acquire capabilities for a platform to continue to be competitive will also be affected. These could trip Guideline 9 and if found to be anti-competitive, may trip Guideline 8: “If an individual transaction is part of a firm’s pattern or strategy of multiple acquisitions, the Agencies consider the cumulative effect of the pattern or strategy.”
- The behemoths like UnitedHealth Group, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and CVS Health will have no rivals for many years. The flip side: they will have trouble making additional acquisitions without forcing divestitures, or find buyers when they wish to divest money-losing units.
- Partnerships may accelerate–with all their risks of purloined IP and monetary disputes. But smaller companies may use it to band together without antitrust risk.
- The SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) may make a comeback. They will not have any antitrust conflicts but risk a chancy public market, at least in the US.
- The conglomerate–unrelated businesses under a holding or investment company–may rise again, as it did in a tight antitrust environment in the 1960s. Remember Gulf + Western and LTV (Ling Temco Vought)–both gone? Berkshire Hathaway is a prime example of a current conglomerate. Foreign investment groups may also find US healthcare an attractive proposition.
- Offshore reincorporation. Much as Medtronic moved its corporate headquarters from Minneapolis to Dublin, Ireland, companies may move offshore to friendlier climes like Ireland, Estonia, Hungary or the Visegrad nations, and the Channel Islands, effecting their M&A there and making their US branches operational only.
But…there’s more. Both DOJ and FTC will be reviewing the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines and the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy year.