Better Assessment of UK Merger Control Risk

Mergers and acquisitions involve the potential for the relevant competition authorities to scrutinise a deal and, if they think it may harm competition, impose remedies or prohibit it altogether.

This article focuses on merger control in the UK, by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The better the assessment of these intervention risks (sometimes known as ‘merger control risks’) the better the judgments companies are able to make on matters such as:

  • whether to go ahead with a putative transaction or to re-shape it to mitigate the potential competition risks
  • whether or not to notify deals to the CMA
    • (it’s worth noting here that non-notified deals called in for examination by the CMA were at record numbers in 2018)
  • what they need to do to manage and mitigate risks, both before and during an investigation – recognising the potential for unwelcome surprises, including:
    • unexpected merger remedies or
    • costly Phase 2 investigations that the company hadn’t anticipated
  • whether or not to offer remedies to head off problems at Phase 1 or risk reference to a full Phase 2 investigation.

In practice companies adopt a wide spectrum of approaches, ranging from no risk analysis at all right up to a full replication of the assessment that the CMA might take.

Most lie somewhere in between but many make limited use of lessons from past cases.

As a result companies are regularly surprised by Phase 1 outcomes.

With just over 300 Phase 1 merger decisions now published there are many insights available that companies can use, and in some cases are using, better to assess and manage their  prospects.

Here are four initial steps companies can take to help utilise learning from those decisions much more effectively:

1.Take into account the full range of risk factors identified in past cases, not just some of them.

Ignoring even one of the main risk factors gives an unrealistic outlook which detracts from effective planning.

Risks unrecognised cannot be mitigated or managed.

Looking across past cases, where three of the top risk factors are present the Phase 1 clearance rate has been less than 20%. (And in 2018 it was 0%).

This is orders of magnitude lower than the average clearance rate (of 67%).

What’s more, the problematic deals in this ‘higher risk’ category have been disproportionately more likely to be referred to Phase 2 investigation, rather than being remedied at Phase 1.

2. Recognise the risk in ‘low risk’ mergers

The key here is that:

Low risk is seldom no risk.

This is where CEOs have most often been taken by surprise because

  1. There is a tendency to underestimate risks in ‘lower risk’ cases (especially from factors that are largely or wholly outside the merging parties’ control) and
  2. Mergers in the ‘lower risk’ category account for a large number of cases.

Even in the 73 cases to date where none of the top competition risk factors materialised the CMA found problems in 15 of these ‘lower risk’ cases, of which 6 went on to a full Phase 2 investigation.

15 cases since the CMA began equates to 2 or 3 cases each year. That’s a lot of scope for surprise.

3. Understand the impact of different types of risk .

There are now enough previous CMA decisions to be able to gauge the influence of different factors on case outcomes and to take this into account in focusing effort on the aspects that really matter to building a stronger case.

For instance:

  • What if a transaction involves more than one type of competition issue?
  • What if customers and/or competitors complain?
  • What if a case involves many local markets?
  • What if there are unhelpful internal business documents?
  • What if these factors combine?

In an earlier blog, I looked specifically at the role that so-called ‘market shares’ have played in merger decisions.

And in this one, I showed how merging companies paid too little attention to how closely they compete with one another.

4. Learn from cases that have a similar risk profile

In preparing for a CMA merger investigation most companies take a look at what happened in previous cases in their own sector.

There’s nothing wrong with that but it does mean that a lot of relevant case-learning often goes untapped.

It can be especially insightful to look at what made the difference between clearance and non-clearance in cases with a similar risk profile to your own, including those outside one’s own sector.

In conclusion…

Understanding and managing merger control risks can help avoid costly mistakes and focus case-making effort.

The CMA’s 300 merger decisions to date provide plenty of insights that can be deployed in a very practical way in order better to manage risk and build a stronger competition case.

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This article has focused on risk management and is based on analysis from my comprehensive database of CMA merger decisions.

In addition the 300 cases to date offer many other lessons as to how best to make a merger case. These feature prominently in my merger briefings.

 

More Merger Remedies Than Ever

The Competition and Markets Authority has just completed its fourth year.

One particular development stands out, looking at the pattern of outcomes among the 250+ CMA merger decisions since 2014….

More Phase 1 remedies: Fewer Phase 2 investigations

On average, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has accepted between 3 and 4 more remedy outcomes each year at Phase 1 than the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which had responsibility for Phase 1 mergers until 2014.

At first glance that increase doesn’t look significant…. until one considers that:

  • the average number of Phase 1 remedies under the OFT was only 5 in the first place and that
  • the CMA has been formally considering 30% fewer cases than did the OFT.

The number of references to Phase 2 is on average just over 3 lower each year than it was before the CMA took over responsibility for Phase 2 mergers from the Competition Commission.

Pre-CMA the average annual number of references was 11.

While there is not be a direct one-for-one relationship between the increased average number of remedies and the lower average number of references, a  link would not be too surprising given the CMA’s stated policy of resolving more cases at Phase 1.

Overall, the percentage of problematic Phase 1 cases resolved through Phase 1 remedies, rather than reference to Phase 2, has been more that a third higher in the CMA’s first four years than for any four-year period under the OFT.

What has been the change in the pattern of outcomes at Phase 2?

The reduction in the average number of Phase 2 cases under the CMA reflects, in order of scale of change:

  • fewer mergers being abandoned on reference to Phase 2
  • fewer Phase 2 clearances
  • the near elimination of Phase 2 prohibitions and
  • a lower number of Phase 2 remedy outcomes.

This is consistent with the notion that, if there is some link between more Phase 1 remedies and fewer references to Phase 2, it is the more ‘marginal’ and more ‘fragile’ that may have been most affected.

If so it means that some cases that might have been cleared at Phase 2 are undergoing merger remedies at Phase 1.

This may be one reason why the proportion of cases being unconditionally cleared at Phase 1 or at Phase 2 is sharply lower under the CMA than it was under the OFT. (Another is the CMA’s greater selectivity in which cases formally to investigate.)

How Are Companies Responding?

Judging from conversations during some of my recent merger briefing sessions ,some companies considering or implementing mergers are already paying much closer attention to the potential for a Phase 1 remedy outcome than used to be the case.

This includes thinking harder about the more expansive types of Phase 1 remedy that the CMA has shown itself prepared to consider and accept.

For some it also means attending more to how they shape and scope their transactions and how they measure the degree of merger control risk they are taking on.

There are plenty of lessons merging companies can learn from the CMA’s 34 Phase 1 remedy cases so far – the subject of one of my recent briefings.

In recent months the rate of remedied cases has come back somewhat from its peak. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see, therefore, whether we have already reached ‘peak Phase 1 remedy’.

 

 

 

 

A Closer Call – UK Merger Control Decisions in 2017

As 2017 draws to a close here are some of the distinctive features of this year’s merger decisions by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

The picture I present is a bird’s-eye view, rather than a commentary on individual cases (which I will cover separately in my Merger 2017 A-Z briefings).

In particular, I focus on noticeable differences between this year’s cases (taken as a whole) and the overall pattern of CMA decisions across previous years, since the agency took over from its predecessor bodies in April 2014.

I focus on the 60 Phase 1 decisions in 2017 to date as there are too few Phase 2 cases to enable a meaningful comparison.

In what follows reference to ‘SLC’ cases means those Phase 1 decisions that found that the merger brings a reasonable prospect of a ‘substantial lessening of competition’.

Below I look at:

  • The pattern of cases
  • Decision outcomes
  • Theories of harm
  • Evidence
  • Key reasoning behind the decisions
  • Analysis
  • Implications for companies

Pattern of cases

  • Across the 60 Phase 1 published decisions in 2017 to date there has been a similar profile to the overall profile for previous years in terms of market concentration, though with more cases with 90%+ shares of supply
  • A much higher proportion of cases qualified for investigation under the ‘turnover test’ for jurisdiction, as opposed to the ‘share of supply’ test.

Decision outcomes

  • A much greater proportion of SLC decisions, almost wholly accounted for by….
  • A much higher proportion of cases dealt with by Phase 1 remedies – so-called ‘undertakings in lieu of reference’ to a Phase 2 investigation
  • A noticeably larger proportion of remedy findings among cases in which the parties had middle ranking shares of supply and/or modest increments to the share of supply

Theories of Harm

  • A much smaller proportion of cases in which a ‘potential competition’ theory was examined (i.e. the notion that the parties may compete in the future even if they have not to date). Previously such cases have proved untypically problematic for competition.

Evidence

  • Customer surveys and diversion evidence featured much more regularly
  • Clearance decisions relied noticeably more on third party evidence
  • Cases in which bidding analysis was key were much more frequently problematic than on average across previous years
  • A noticeably lower proportion of cases attracted complaints from rival firms

Key reasoning behind the decisions

  • ‘Closeness of competition’ between the merging parties featured prominently in a much higher proportion of cases than on average previously – to the extent that, in 2017, it was the most important of the three main reasons behind clearance decisions when taken as a whole. This was also the case for SLC decisions when taken as a whole
  • The number of rival firms remaining after the merger (another of the CMA’s three main decision reasons) was much less important in the reasoning behind SLC cases taken as a whole compared to previously, when it was the most prominent factor overall.

Analysis

  • The following topics all had a much higher profile in 2017 cases than on average previously:
    • Customer benefits through merger
    • Customer switching between rivals
    • Bidding analysis
    • Customer catchment areas
    • Customer surveys

Implications

What are the implications of the above for companies contemplating or planning a merger?

Click here for my summary assessment.

I shall be talking more about the above, as well as about the many other lessons to be learnt from individual cases within this year’s portfolio, at my customary January ‘Merger A-Z’ briefing events.

Fit for merger?

The CM140921-gymA’s long-awaited lengthy merger decision on the Pure Gym/The Gym deal has finally been published, nearly two and a half months after the decision was announced to refer it for Phase 2 investigation.

Although the deal was abandoned soon after the reference decision was made, the decision itself is one of the most interesting decisions of the year.

In terms of some of the issues raised, it reminds me very much of the OFT’s Rank/Gala casinos decision almost exactly two years ago.

It should give plenty of food for thought to merging parties in similar types of business on matters such as:

  • how important national parameters of competition can be, even when services are provided through local outlets
  • the importance of realistically assessing which types of outlet compete most strongly and how – not all gyms are created equal, it appears
  • why 80% customer catchment areas are not always the whole story in thinking about the geographic scope of competition
  • how internal documents need to provide sufficient support to the narrative parties put forward
  • why potential competition between parties (i.e. in opening new outlets near the other party) can be every bit as important as existing overlaps, especially where there is only a small number of national players
  • the role of entry analysis and customer switching analysis when competition is as much about fighting for new customers as it is about retaining existing customers and when tariff structures complicate incentives
  • what can happen when the CMA believes it may not have received all the information that is available
  • why website material can become an important source of evidence that needs to be managed well
  • the importance the CMA can attach to being able to replicate or extend results of analysis that the parties present.

Throughout the decision the CMA makes repeated reference to the commentary on retail mergers, published jointly by the former OFT and CC .

It is well worth reading and fully considering the points made in the commentary if you are contemplating a retail merger (even though I would say that having had a close hand in developing the retail commentary!).

The commentary can be found here and the decision itself is here.