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.

Which mergers threaten competition?

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has just celebrated its third anniversary since taking over from the Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission.

It has now made competition decisions in nearly 200 Phase 1 merger cases, enough to be able to discern some of the key factors that have informed its decision-making.

One factor that some (though far from all) companies and investors think about in assessing the chances of merger clearance is how the CMA may view the share of supply that the merged company would have in the products and services in which they overlap.

The following share of supply heatmap shows the pattern of decisions to date:

Share of supply in CMA Phase 1 decisions*

(April 1st 2014 to March 31st 2017)

170402-Share of supply heatmap

The colours indicate the proportion of cases that the CMA has found to represent a ‘substantial lessening of competition’ (SLC) at Phase 1 – ranging from:

  • brightest green at 0%
  • up through the shades of green to middle yellow (circa 50%)
  • and on through orange to the deepest red (100%).

The figures underlying the heatmap are taken from the large number of Phase 1 CMA decisions that report the merging parties’ shares of supply in the markets on which those cases focus.

Three features of the map stand out:

  1. The very high proportion of SLC findings in cases where the party with the smaller share of supply has a share of 20% or more
  2. No SLC finding where the parties’ combined share of supply is below 40%
  3. The significant proportion of cases that are found not to threaten an SLC even where the parties have a high combined share of supply.  This is where many of the cases with the most interesting lessons for companies and investors reside.

In general, as one might expect, the proportion of SLC findings increases the higher the combined share of supply and the higher the percentage increment to the larger share.

Further detail is covered in my merger briefings, including:

  • How (and how not) to interpret the heatmap
  • The most insightful parts of the map
  • Disaggregation of results, for example
    • by decision-maker
    • sector patterns
    • time period
    • remedies versus reference versus ‘de minimis’
  • Other notable patterns in the CMA’s decisions to date.

There are not yet enough Phase 2 cases to give a meaningful picture for Phase2.


 

* The share of supply heatmap is copyright Adrian Payne, 2017. The heatmap can be quoted and reproduced with the appropriate attribution.

 

 

2015/16: A Record Year For UK Merger Control

This post looks at the pattern of merger control decisions during the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA’s) second full year, which ended on March 31st. The decisions covered are those for which final decisions were published during the year.

In summary:

2015/16 turns out to have been a record-breaking year in many different respects

  1. A record low number of Phase 1 merger decisions

The 62 published CMA Phase 1 decisions was the lowest number of any year since the Enterprise Act came into force and well down on 2015/16.

A third successive sharp drop in the number of non-notified mergers that the CMA ‘called in’ for investigation contributed to the fall. Only 10 cases were called in, the lowest number I can recall for any year. Another record.

Phase 1 Merger Decisions – 2015/16 compared to previous years

160406-phase 1 figures 15-16

2. A record low number of decisions was found not to meet the jurisdiction criteria

The number and proportion of published cases found not to meet the qualifying tests for jurisdiction was in 2015/16 a fraction of its historic average – and by far the lowest in any year so far under the Enterprise Act.

3. Phase 1 competition problems at a record high

The proportion of Phase 1 cases meeting the jurisdiction tests (so-called ‘qualified cases’) that was found to threaten a ‘substantial lessening of competition’ (SLC) doubled compared to the CMA’s first year and reached a record high of 38%.

There are two elements to this that are worth noting:

  • Cases that are candidates for a Phase 1 SLC decision are examined in detail at a so-called ‘Case Review Meeting’, late in the Phase 1 process. The proportion of cases taken to a Case Review Meeting was well above average in 2015/16.
  • And of those cases, over 80% resulted in an SLC finding – again well above average.
  1. The lowest ever proportion of cases decided at Phase 1

The proportion of qualified cases decided at Phase 1 was the lowest to date under the Enterprise Act.

This result stems from the fact that, even though the proportion of problematic cases referred to Phase 2 for further investigation was well below average, the percentage of problematic cases in the overall caseload was at a record high, as described above.

  1. The proportion of problematic Phase 1 cases deemed too small to merit a Phase 2 investigation was at a record low

This statistic relates to so-called ‘de minimis’ cases. It is a great example of how one needs to look at individual cases (both notified and un-notified) in order to interpret the result.

Might it indicate that the CMA is taking a harder line on arguments put to it that a case is too small to warrant further investigation? Or does it show that the CMA is calling in fewer potential ‘de minimis’ cases? Cases strongly favour the latter.

6. A record high for Phase 1 remedies

The proportion of problematic cases dealt with by remedies at Phase 1 rose to a record high of nearly 40% in 2015/16.

It is striking that, at one point during the year, seven out of ten consecutive SLC decisions (excluding de minimis cases and automatic references) were dealt with through Phase 1 remedy rather than reference to Phase 2, another record under the Enterprise Act as far as I recall.

It is interesting that this is in the context of there being….

7. No Phase 2 prohibitions for the second consecutive year.

This means that the CMA Phase 2 decision-makers have yet to prohibit a merger.

There have, however, been two previous occasions in which there have been no prohibited mergers for two consecutive years. So this one isn’t a record !

2015/16 – CMA Final Phase 2 Merger Decisions

160406-phase 2 decisions 15-16

Looking ahead

Where does this cascade of new merger records leave the CMA, merging firms, competitors and customers?

There is little doubt that the CMA has become increasingly selective in the cases it has chosen to call in for investigation, to a degree that requires highly reliable information being available from merging parties in order to enable the CMA to avoid missing too many problematic deals of reasonable size.

The particular challenge here for the CMA is to make these ‘call in’ decisions accurately and quickly outside of the formal review process, without the range and quality of cross-checks that comes from interaction with competitors and customers when a case is called in for review.

As some have already recognised, for merging parties greater CMA selectivity is clearly relevant to decisions regarding notification. A key question, therefore, is whether the CMA will decide to be as selective in the year ahead. It is worth remembering here that there has already been more than one occasion under the Enterprise Act when tighter case selection has been followed by a move back to a more expansive approach to calling in cases for review.

For customers and competitors greater CMA case selectivity clearly puts a premium on making representations more quickly, rather than waiting for a formal investigation to begin. The much-expanded role for pre-notification also points in this direction, as does the earlier involvement of the Phase 1 decision-maker than used to be the case.

Turning to substantive decisions made during 2015/16 , as the National Audit Office recently put it, “the CMA is expanding the practice of clearing cases with remedies in phase 1 without the need to go for a more detailed and resource-intensive phase 2 review.”

It would be easy, however, to overstate the extent to which the 2015/16 remedies record is due to the CMA’s expanded Phase 1 remedy ambitions. In particular, the increasing level of challenge in many deal valuations (a factor in the low number of deals) seems to me to have had a notable effect on the appetite for regulatory risk and therefore the pattern of deals being brought to fruition (including their suitability for Phase 1 remedies).

Two other questions are also relevant here:

  • To what extent has the way in which CMA plans and manages its casework (now that Phase 1 and Phase 2 are under one roof) affected the pattern of Phase 1 decisions being made?
  • And what has been the impact of certain ‘bold’ Phase 2 clearance decisions on the attitude to remedies at Phase 1, both by parties and by the CMA?

On the whole, my own 2015/16 casework leads me strongly to suspect that the CMA’s record-breaking year for mergers hides patterns that are more complicated than they first appear from the aggregate statistics.

As always, many of the main lessons for interested parties to future mergers come from understanding what has worked well or badly in individual cases during 2015/16, as well as from understanding what the aggregate figures do and do not show.

In both respects 2015/16 should leave plenty of pause for thought for all concerned.

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© Adrian Payne, 2016

CMA merger decisions : another bunch of fives

150119-bunch of fivesJust when some companies thought it was becoming safer to merge the Competition and Markets Authority has found competition problems with five mergers …..

..  in just six weeks

(These relate to Phase 1 merger cases requiring further Phase 2 investigation, or undertakings to resolve the problems, for which decisions were announced between December 1st 2014 and January 15th 2015)

This after the CMA identified just four problematic deals at Phase 1 during the whole of 2014 up to the beginning of December (excluding cases deemed too small to justify a Phase 2 investigation).

What should companies currently contemplating difficult deals make of this recent bunch of five?

As always with short sequences of merger decisions it is vital to take a long view and to avoid the temptation to read too much into too few decisions.

So what does the long view look like?

The history of Phase 1 decisions under the 10+ years of the Enterprise Act helps put things in perspective.

In actual fact the UK merger authorities have delivered several speedy bunches of five over the years….2006, 2011 and 2012 each contained six-week periods in which five mergers were found to raise competition concerns at Phase 1.

And those episodes are by no means the record.

In early 2005 there was a similar period when seven deals fell foul of the then-OFT’s decision-makers. And later that same year eight deals were found to be problems in just over a month.

What is more, this number of five-plus/six-week bunches over the years is more or less exactly what one would expect given the average number of cases each year and the average probability of a case giving rise to an adverse competition finding.

And, not to forget that the latest Christmas/New Year decision-making flurry followed an influx of new cases in October that numbered well above average. Perfect timing for a bumper seasonal delivery of merger decisions.

So while it is true that a bunch of fives from the UK’s merger authorities hasn’t happened that often, it is also the case that it has not been that unusual either.

No need for companies to worry unduly yet about the latest bunch of fives.

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© Adrian Payne 2015

 

 

 

2014 in Numbers : An Overview of UK Merger Control

150101-Number picture0  – The number of new merger prohibition decisions

1  – The number of appeals to the Competition Appeals Tribunal

3  – The number of Phase 2 decisions – all clearances

4  – The number of Phase 1 cases that investigated coordination between firms

5   –  The number of rail franchise cases examined

  –  The percentage of cases in which merger efficiencies or customer benefits were examined in some detail

13  –  The number of cases opened in August, the peak month of the year for new cases

16  –  The percentage of cases found not to qualify for investigation under the tests for jurisdiction

18  – The percentage of qualifying cases found to result in a substantial lessening of competition at Phase 1

19  – The percentage of cases in which parties argued that one of the businesses involved would exit if the merger did not proceed

20  – The percentage of cases qualifying for investigation under the turnover test

21  – The number of Phase 1 cases involving ‘vertical’ theories of harm

33 – The number of opened Phase 1 cases being investigated at the peak month-end of the year – October

45  – The percentage of cases involving completed deals

50  – The percentage of cases found to harm competition that were referred for Phase 2 investigation

53  – The percentage of cases in which one or more competitors to the merging parties expressed concerns about the deal

54  – The percentage of cases that investigated more than one theory of harm to competition

59 – The percentage of cases in which one or more customers of the parties expressed concerns about the deal

60  – The smallest share of supply for the parties to those deals found to harm competition

78  – The number of pages in the longest Phase 1 decision

82  –  The number of Phase 1 decisions announced

90  – The highest percentage share of supply of one of the parties to a merger that was cleared at Phase 1

6,500,000  – The size (in pounds) of the largest market deemed too small to justify a Phase 2 investigation (under the de minimis criteria)

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Note: Numbers refer to those OFT, CC and CMA cases for which the decisions were announced during 2014 and for which relevant details were published as at 31/12/14.

© Adrian Payne 2015

 

 

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.