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Alcohol beverages

United States Publication July 2021

1. What is in the Executive Order?

The Executive Order sets forth the Biden Administration's vision of a whole-of-government antitrust policy and commits the federal government to aggressive enforcement of the antitrust laws. In particular, the Executive Order:

  • Calls on the federal antitrust enforcers, the US Department of Justice, Antitrust Division ("DOJ") and the US Federal Trade Commission ("FTC"), to enforce the antitrust laws more vigorously.
  • Recognizes that the federal antitrust enforcers may lawfully challenge consummated mergers that previous Administrations did not challenge.
  • Directs the antitrust enforcers to focus on labor, agriculture, healthcare, and technology sectors.
  • Establishes a White House Competition Council, led by the Director of the National Economic Council, to monitor progress on the initiatives set forth in the Executive Order and coordinate implementation between agencies.

In addition to the above, the Executive Order seeks to introduce new rules and/or guidelines for specific economic sectors. We include below takeaways for various industry-specific mandates.

2. What's pending?

To date, there are several proposals pending from Federal and State legislatures, US agencies, and the Executive Branch. Some of the more prominent proposals are listed below:

Federal proposals

In October 2020, the US House Subcommittee on Antitrust issued a Report and Recommendation titled, "Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets," which resulted from a bipartisan investigation into the state of on-line competition. In brief, the 449-page report recommended three areas for further action: (1) restoring competition in the digital economy, (2) strengthening the antitrust laws, and (3) reviving antitrust enforcement.1 This Report and Recommendation, co-written by now FTC Chair Lina Kahn, has fueled a spate of legislative and administrative proposals.

There presently are six bills introduced in the House that, in sum, would change US monopoly laws to make it more difficult for major tech companies to buy nascent competitors, prohibit them from giving preference to their own services on their platforms, and ban them from using their dominance on one business to gain leverage in another business.2 These bills also propose a broader definition of consumer welfare that goes beyond lower prices. At present time, the bills still need to pass the full House of Representatives and then get introduced into the Senate. We do not expect these bills to be enacted without some political compromise.

There currently are also three proposed antitrust bills in the Senate.3 Although they differ somewhat in approach, all three bills seek to amend the Clayton Act to (1) relax the standards to determine whether an acquisition is anticompetitive; (2) restrict mergers by "extremely large" companies; and (3) enhance the antitrust enforcement powers of both private plaintiffs and the federal government. While all three bills seek to increase the enforcement powers of the DOJ, the Klobuchar and Hawley bills also increase the FTC's enforcement powers—the TEAM Act seeks to consolidate all federal antitrust authority at the DOJ. All three bills would have a chilling effect on Big Tech companies by restricting acquisitions, even unrelated to the core technology business, of companies with large market capitalization. While the target of the three bills may be Big Tech, the proposed modifications would also negatively impact the business activities of other types of large companies considering potential acquisitions.

Recent court decisions applying traditional antitrust laws in favor of dominant companies have fueled bipartisan support for the need to "modernize our antitrust laws to address anticompetitive mergers and abusive conduct in the digital economy."4

FTC administrative proposals

Subsequent to her appointment as FTC Chair on June 15, 2021, Lina Khan has announced almost daily administrative changes designed to strengthen and broaden the FTC's enforcement powers. Most of these changes have been approved based on party line voting. Among those changes are:

  • Repealing the long-standing policy of requiring prior approval of certain future acquisitions only in certain limited situations as part of a merger remedy;
  • Reviewing the existing merger guidelines with a goal of implementing a rigorous analytical approach;
  • Promoting the use of compulsory process to investigate seven specific enforcement priority targets including repeat offenders; technology companies and digital platforms; and healthcare businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, pharmacy benefits managers, and hospitals. The agency is also prioritizing investigations into harms against workers and small businesses, along with harms related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, at a time when merger filings are surging, the agency is ramping up enforcement against anticompetitive mergers, both proposed and consummated; and
  • Rescinding limits on the FTC's use of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which authorizes the FTC to investigate and bring enforcement actions for "unfair methods of competition," which is not defined and could be used more broadly than existing federal antitrust laws.

DOJ administrative proposals

As we await President Biden's appointment of an Assistant Attorney General to lead the Antitrust Division, the DOJ has taken some modest steps recently toward more vigorous antitrust enforcement. These include:

  • Declaring support of the US Department of Agriculture's proposed rules strengthening enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act;
  • Participating in (along with the FTC) the Multilateral Pharmaceutical Merger Task Force, which seeks to identify concrete and actionable steps to refresh and update the analysis of pharmaceutical mergers;
  • Planning to launch a joint review with the FTC of the existing merger guidelines; and
  • Following the issue of Biden's Executive Order, signing an interagency Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Maritime Commission to foster cooperation and communication between the agencies to enhance competition in the maritime industry.

State proposals

New York State is presently the only state to propose legislative antitrust reform measures. On June 7, 2021, the New York State Senate passed the "Twenty-First Century Antitrust Act," which seeks to expand New York's antitrust laws by establishing first-of-its-kind US state premerger notification requirements for mergers with as low as a $9.2 million threshold in New York, prohibiting "abuse of dominance" by companies with market shares as low as 30%, authorizing private class actions, and raising criminal penalties. We expect other states to follow this trend.

3. What does all this mean?

The Executive Order and the legislative proposals are not binding law—however they presage a change in the scope of antitrust law that is certainly underway. How far these proposals go remains to be seen. But right now, one thing is certain: merger reviews in all industries—but especially in technology, pharmaceuticals/healthcare and banking/finance—will take longer and be more in-depth. Moreover, it is certain that complaints from competitors and customers involving transactions will be taken very seriously by the agencies and will be carefully considered as part of the merger review. In connection with potential anticompetitive conduct, this provides new opportunities for companies that wish to bring complaints to the agencies about conduct undertaken by competitors to have their complaint heard and taken seriously. And it should serve as a wake-up call to those dominant companies to reconsider aggressive positions that impact competition and result in harm to social welfare—no longer will a focus on price and output suffice to determine anticompetitive impact.

4. How does this affect my industry?

Longer investigations for all transactions

Although the Order contains specific references to several industries, we believe that transactions in virtually all industries will be affected by this more aggressive antitrust enforcement regime. Where previously routine merger investigations may have taken between 2-6 months, with more in-depth investigations taking 6-12 months, most investigations going forward can be expected to take longer. Moreover, we expect both agencies to raise a wide range of theoretical economic issues that go beyond traditional investigations as they test the boundaries of a more aggressive and holistic approach to antitrust enforcement. We further expect the agencies to more aggressively solicit information from non-party market participants. In addition, parties may be required to offer broader divestiture packages than comparable transactions have in the past. Parties should plan accordingly.

Labor markets

For the past several years, the FTC and DOJ have focused on restrictions that employers impose on their workforce and rooting out anti-poaching and anti-solicitation agreements among employers that prevent worker mobility. Picking up on this theme, the Order encourages the FTC to ban or limit non-compete agreements and to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility. The Order further encourages the FTC and DOJ to strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.

Alcohol beverages

Counsel should keep in mind three major takeaways from the Executive Order viewed in light of current antitrust trends:

1. Heightened scrutiny in the short-term presents increased risk, but also unique opportunities.

The long-term ramifications of the Executive Order remain unclear, but given the Administration's views on competition and consumer protection, the potential impact on alcohol production, distribution, and retail sales is enormous. In the short-term, these sectors will face heightened scrutiny as antitrust enforcers assess market conditions—in particular, the Executive Order directs the Secretary of Treasury, Attorney General, and the Chair of the FTC to within 120 days submit a report to the Chair of the White House Competition Council detailing the state of competition in the alcohol beverage industries. Dominant players, particularly in the supplier and distributor sectors, should prepare to respond to civil investigative demands ("CIDs") and potentially justify their business practices. On the other hand, for industry players who may have suffered from anticompetitive conduct by competitors, the Executive Order presents a unique opportunity to engage in advocacy, whether through responses to CIDs, or by adopting a proactive approach with enforcers. In any event, given the fluid nature of current antitrust developments, as well as recent enforcement focus on conduct that may be peripheral to the information being requested (i.e., no-poach agreements, non-competes), recipients of CIDs should take care to engage antitrust counsel in responding.

2. The potential for changed regulations or lowered barriers to entry could lead to additional opportunities.

Following her submittal of a report on competition to the White House Council on Competition, the Secretary of Treasury, acting through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ("TTB"), is instructed to consider appropriate measures to restore competition. In particular, the TTB is asked to consider:

(i) initiating a rulemaking to update the TTB's trade practice regulations;

(ii) rescinding or revising any regulations of the beer, wine, and spirits industries that may unnecessarily inhibit competition; and

(iii) reducing any barriers that impede market access for smaller and independent brewers, winemakers, and distilleries.

Should the TTB decide to exercise its rulemaking power, industry participants should look for the opportunity to engage during the notice and comment period to be properly positioned to capitalize on any changes. In addition, the lowering of barriers to entry could spur the entry of small producers, presenting new business opportunities.

5. Where do I get guidance?

The Norton Rose Fulbright US Antitrust and Competition group is following all these developments as they happen. We can assist you with your strategic plans and counsel you through these important times. Please contact us if you have any questions or need further information.


Footnotes

1   Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, Majority Staff Report and Recommendations, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative law of the Committee on the Judiciary, October 2020.

2  

The House bills are:

  • The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (HR 3816) would prohibit "discriminatory conduct" by tech giants. That means the companies would no longer be able to give their own products and services preference over rivals' products and services. It also would prohibit other discriminatory behavior, such as cutting off a competitor from services, and ban tech giants from using data collected from companies using their platforms to develop competing products.
  • The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act (HR 3826) would bar the use of acquisitions to crush competitive threats or to expand their market power. If passed, the bill would shift the burden of proof in merger cases to the big tech companies, making it their responsibility to prove acquisitions are lawful rather than the government's responsibility to prove a merger would be harmful. The change could slow the rate at which larger companies gobble up competitors. 
  • The Ending Platform Monopolies Act (HR 3825) would restrain Big Tech companies from using their power across multiple types of business to give themselves unfair advantages. The bill targets platforms with at least 50 million monthly active US users and market capitalizations of more than $600 billion to own or operate another line of business that creates a conflict of interest. Those conflicts of interest would include any incentive for a company to favor its services over a competitor's or an incentive to disadvantage a potential competitor. Lawmakers have previously indicated that Amazon, whose branded products compete with those of sellers on its marketplace, and Apple, which builds apps that compete with third-party apps sold in its app store, engage in this practice. 
  • The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act, or Access Act (HR 3849), would make it easier for people to take their personal information from one tech platform to another. A similar Senate bill was introduced last year
  • The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act (HR 3843) would raise filing fees providing the government funds to pursue antitrust actions. The money would go to the country's top antitrust enforcers, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.
  • The State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act (HR 3460) would prevent the transfer of actions arising under the antitrust laws in which a State is a complainant.

3  

The Senate bills are:

  • Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act of 2021 ("Klobuchar Bill");
  • Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act ("Hawley Bill");
  • Tougher Enforcement Against Monopolies Act ("TEAM Act").

4   See "Congress Faces Renewed Pressure to 'Modernize Our Antitrust Laws," New York Times, June 29, 2021.



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