Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Jumping the gun

A colleague in the competition business read my post about a recent Aussie 'gun jumping' case and let me know that one of the recent OECD 'Best Practice Roundtables on Competition Policy' had been all over the topic.

These roundtables focus on the hot competition issues of the day, and they're good stuff. 'Public interest considerations in merger control' (March '17), for example, was directly relevant to the issues at play in the NZME/Fairfax merger. Other recent ones on current frontier issues include 'Excessive pricing in pharmaceuticals' (November '18), plus two coming up this June, 'Vertical mergers in the technology, media and telecom sector' and 'Licensing of IP rights and competition law'. I found their market studies one very helpful when I was lobbying for legal change to allow market studies here (and they've since added a how-to-do them kit, 'Market study methodologies for competition authorities').

The gun jumping one, 'Gun jumping and suspensory effects of merger notifications', is also worth a read. The roundtable put two different things into the same 'gun jumping' box: not notifying mergers when you're required to or ought to, and premature coordination between merging competitors before the merger goes final. I'd personally have said only the second one is what most people would see as 'gun jumping' but it's semantics: it really doesn't matter whether you see them as two kinds of the same thing or two different things. The Commerce Act in any event puts them in different boxes (s47 for going ahead with an anti-competitive merger you should have had cleared or authorised, s27/s30 for premature collusion).

The roundtable was mostly geared to the vast majority of countries which operate compulsory merger notification schemes: as the OECD summary report says at para 21, "The UK, Australia and New Zealand are the only OECD jurisdictions with purely voluntary notification systems". But it also had some useful practical advice (at paras 65-77) for businesses under either regime, on how to avoid premature coordination. Sadly, there isn't any bright line certainty.
competition agencies fully recognise that these types of co-ordination are often necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives of a merger agreement ... Merging parties certainly have room to satisfy information and co-ordination needs which are justifiable in the context of a transaction. Such acts may need to be accompanied by appropriate safeguards in order to avoid gun jumping ... The remaining uncertainty on how to distinguish forms of information exchange, value preservation and post-merger planning that amount to gun jumping from those that are lawful seems inevitable ... While certain provisions in agreements and covenants and the safeguards applied may be considered ancillary, justifiable and sufficient in one case, this might not be true in another case [66, 76-77]
Interestingly both the ACCC and our own ComCom put in written submissions.

The ACCC talked about the Cryosite case but was also concerned about too-clever-by-'arf arrangements - my phrasing, not theirs -  that achieve all the benefits to the parties of an anti-competitive merger without looking like one. They cited one back in 1996, and they're currently alleging there was one in 2017: 'ACCC takes action against Pacific National and Aurizon'.

ComCom revisited NZ Bus and the Waikato pathology case and also mentioned a more recent instance in the horticultural sector where "the [acquirer's] receipt of the target’s customer lists and the target’s possible encouragement of its customers to switch to the acquirer raised concerns about pre-merger coordination" (para 45). In the end the Commission flagged away any enforcement action under s47 or s27/s30 but added that in general it sees "gun jumping as a potentially serious breach of competition law and is prepared to enforce against such breaches" (para 46).

Stepping back a bit from the minutiae, I think anti-competitive mergers and pre-merger-closing gun jumping are now one of the touchier hot buttons for competition authorities everywhere. There's a rising political head of steam building - here's just one example - behind the idea that too many mergers have been allowed through, with various damaging effects. In that environment, the enforcement level gets dialled up: horses and stable doors, maybe, but if you're on either side of a merger, it's time to be extra careful that the swinging door doesn't bang you on the bum.

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