The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the third in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners. Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”.
Part one focused on the issues associated with the voluntary nature of UK merger control (and can be found here), and part two considered options for change that in our view should not be adopted (and can be found here).
Prioritising the CMA’s work load is clearly important due to Brexit. This is because the European Commission will cease to have exclusive jurisdiction over large UK mergers that currently fall for consideration under the EU Merger Regulation. In March 2017, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) indicated that this could lead to increase in its mergers caseload by 40-50% since 1 April 2014, potentially amounting to an additional 30-50 phase 1 cases and six phase 2 cases per year.
This final blog in our series considers how the CMA could prioritise and manage its mergers workload, with particular focus on the CMA’s consultation of 23 January proposing amendments to its guidance on the application of the exception to its duty to refer a merger in markets of insufficient importance (i.e. the de minimis exception).
The CMA is proposing increasing the upper threshold for markets considered to be sufficiently important to justify a merger reference from £10 million to £15 million, and would raise the lower threshold for markets not considered to be sufficiently important from below £3 million to below £5 million. Where the size of the market falls between these two thresholds, the CMA would continue to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the potential harm caused by the merger against the cost of an investigation.
The importance of the de minimis exception in UK merger control
The de minimis exception is designed to save the CMA, and therefore the public purse, money by not referring insignificant mergers to phase 2. These costs are material as the National Audit Office’s 2016 report on the UK Competition Regime estimated that the average cost of a phase 2 investigation to the CMA is £275,000. Moreover, this figure does not include any costs to the merging parties (or third parties), and for a large complex phase 2 investigation, these costs are high and often substantially more than the CMA’s costs.
The de minimis exception has become an important part of UK merger control. It is particularly important since it only applies where, in principle, clear-cut undertakings in lieu of reference could not be offered, and the parties would thus otherwise face the costs and risks of a phase 2 investigation. In particular, over the last seven years, 28 mergers have been cleared on de minimis grounds, and absent this exception the number of merger references would have increased by 46 per cent (28/61). (Over this period, a further 40 mergers were cleared conditionally at phase 1 on the basis of undertakings in lieu of reference).
As many cases affect markets worth under £10 million per annum, any assessment of merger control risks needs to consider even overlaps in relation to even small parts of the merging parties’ businesses.
The Office of Fair Trading’s (OFT) guidance on exceptions to its duty to make merger references, which has been adopted by the CMA, also indicates that, for now, it draws a distinction between markets with an annual value of below £3 million and those with values of between £3m and £10m. In particular, their guidance notes that it would “expect to refer a merger where the value of the market(s) concerned was less than £3 million only exceptionally, and where the direct impact of the merger in terms of customer harm was particularly significant”. For mergers between £3m and £10m, the OFT/CMA will weigh up the size of the market and the likely harm to customers, as well as considering the wider implications of the decision.
Our analysis of 400+ UK merger decisions since 1 April 2010 also included many cases where the OFT/CMA considered applying the de minimis exception. As set out in the chart below, there were 45 cases between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2017 where the OFT/CMA considered applying the de minimis exception and how the decision reached varies according to the size of the relevant markets affected.
Consistent with the OFT’s guidance, there were very few cases where the relevant market was valued at under £3 million per annum where the CMA/OFT nevertheless decided to refer the merger for a phase 2 investigation. An analysis of all the various cases is set out in the next chart, and the two exceptions relate to mergers between local bus operators, where the OFT and CMA respectively decided that these mergers warranted phase 2 investigation. This reflected a recommendation from the Competition Commission for a cautious approach following its market investigation into local bus services.
Where the relevant market size is greater than £3 million per annum, a merger reference is more likely. This is set out in detail in the following chart, which covers all 45 merger decisions that considered the de minimis exception from 1 April 2010 through to 31 March 2017. This chart also covers the phase 2 outcomes of those cases where the OFT/CMA decided not to apply the de minimis exception and referred the merger.
Note: The OFT/CMA decisions often only included a range for the relevant market size. Therefore, the bars represent the expected market size (i.e. the middle of the range) where applicable. The top of the range is represented by the black triangular dotes.
This review highlights the rather sharp distinction in outcomes between mergers that affect markets with an annual aggregate value of around £3 million per annum and those valued between £3 million and £10 million.
Looking more closely at the 17 cases that were referred at Phase 1 despite the small sizes of the markets affected, seven of these mergers were abandoned. This is entirely unsurprising given the high costs to the parties of phase 2 investigations, which will often exceed merger synergies in small markets. For non-abandoned mergers, three cases were cleared unconditionally, six were cleared with remedies, and only one prohibited. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to speculate that some of the seven abandoned mergers would have been cleared either unconditionally or with remedies.
The CMA’s proposed changes in market size thresholds
At first sight, the proposed changes in the thresholds at which the de minimis exception will apply suggests that it may be applied substantially more often.
However, some words of caution are warranted. First, as a matter of policy, the CMA will not apply the de minimis exception if, in principle at least, clear cut undertakings in lieu of reference could be offered.
Second, considering the CMA’s proposed £5 million threshold for mergers where the de minimis exception will generally apply, since 1 April 2010 only another two referred mergers would fall into this category.
Third, turning to those mergers with turnover between £5 million and the proposed £15 million threshold, the de minimis exception may be considered in many more cases. However, historically the OFT/CMA has referred many of the mergers below the £10 million upper bound, and it remains to be seen whether this will be the case in relation to the higher £15 million threshold.
As discussed in part one and part two of this blog series, productively improving the UK merger control regime is not simple. The CMA has had to address the changes associated with becoming a single authority covering phase 1 and phase 2 decisions, and having a full prenotification regime and statutory phase 1 deadlines.
In our view, the CMA’s proposed changes to the de minimis thresholds is sensible. However, it remains to be seen whether this will substantially reduce the CMA’s workload, and the burden of UK merger control on small mergers.
 As of the 1 April 2014, the OFT transferred its merger related functions to the newly created CMA. CMA has been used throughout this document, but if any examples occur before this date, read as OFT.
 See paragraph 2.2: http://www.regulation.org.uk/library/2016_NAO_The-UK-Competition-regime.pdf
 OFT, “Mergers, Exceptions to the duty to refer and undertakings in lieu of reference guidance”, December 2010.
 Note that this excludes certain mergers where the OFT/CMA briefly considered applying the de minimis but where the parties could offer clear-cut undertaking in lieu of reference to address the competition concerns identified. In these cases, the OFT/CMA did not consider the size of the relevant market (see for, example, Reed Elsevier / Jordon Publishing (2015)).