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.

 

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.

Mergers at the CMA: What’s Up?

The Competition and Markets Authority completed its first six months of cases at the end of September.

Since mid-August it has been in the unusual position (as compared with its predecessor, the Competition Commission) of having no Phase 2 merger cases to consider.

As one FD put it to me last week: “What’s up at the CMA? –  I thought there has been a merger boom going on”

Well, actually, in the UK there hasn’t !…………. (as the latest official statistics show).

There are in fact several different elements to the answer, as the following picture shows.

Figure 1: UK Mergers: April 1st to September 30th 2014

141006-merger-funnel

On the face of it some of these figures appear very striking.

No wonder some competition practitioners are already talking of a significant change of approach by the CMA, compared to its predecessor agencies.

Indeed change would not be at all surprising because:

  1. New timetables and procedures are revising what is possible at Phase 1 (including pre-notification) in some cases.
  2. Putting Phase 1 and Phase 2 into a single organisation gives incentives to optimise resources across the two phases that did not exist when the OFT and Competition Commission were separate agencies.

But, not so fast….

….whatever changes do eventually emerge, there is a real danger of drawing premature conclusions.

Six months of case data is far too short a period from which to infer changes in underlying trends. And bear in mind that the number of cases involved at the lower end of the funnel is small.

Looking at the individual cases involved and comparing them with previous years, it is just as likely that the six month figures reflect the mix of cases in terms of sector, size and the pattern of competition issues raised.

With this in mind it is worth remembering that many of the parameters in the ‘funnel’ shown above can and do vary widely from year to year.

To take just one example: the following chart shows how the proportion of qualified cases (i.e. those that have met the jurisdictional criteria) found to raise competition problems at Phase 1 has varied since the Enterprise Act came into force. The latest year’s figure is in fact not much lower than for six of the previous ten years.

Figure 2: Phase 1 ‘Substantial Lessening of Competition’ findings as a proportion of qualified merger cases

141003-SLC per cent

I’ll be returning to this subject in a future article so do drop me a line if you have thoughts.

In the meantime, with eleven Phase 1 decisions due for announcement over the next six weeks, the picture could change rapidly.

Then again…..

 

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Click here for the latest UK merger control statistics.

My article on the one CMA merger reference so far is here.

My ‘A-Z of 2014 UK Merger Analysis’ presentations are taking place in January. Please get in touch if you are interested in arranging one for your firm.

 

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.