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Mergers and Acquisitions
Methods by which corporations legally unify ownership of assets formerly subject to separate controls.
A merger or acquisition is a combination of two companies where one corporation is completely absorbed by another corporation. The less important company loses its identity and becomes part of the more important corporation, which retains its identity. A merger extinguishes the merged corporation, and the surviving corporation assumes all the rights, privileges, and liabilities of the merged corporation. A merger is not the same as a consolidation, in which two corporations lose their separate identities and unite to form a completely new corporation.
Federal and state laws regulate mergers and acquisitions. Regulation is based on the concern that mergers inevitably eliminate competition between the merging firms. This concern is most acute where the participants are direct rivals, because courts often presume that such arrangements are more prone to restrict output and to increase prices. The fear that mergers and acquisitions reduce competition has meant that the government carefully scrutinizes proposed mergers. On the other hand, since the 1980s, the federal government has become less aggressive in seeking the prevention of mergers.
Despite concerns about a lessening of competition, U.S. law has left firms relatively free to buy or sell entire companies or specific parts of a company. Mergers and acquisitions often result in a number of social benefits. Mergers can bring better management or technical skill to bear on underused assets. They also can produce economies of scale and scope that reduce costs, improve quality, and increase output. The possibility of a takeover can discourage company managers from behaving in ways that fail to maximize profits. A merger can enable a business owner to sell the firm to someone who is already familiar with the industry and who would be in a better position to pay the highest price. The prospect of a lucrative sale induces entrepreneurs to form new firms. Finally, many mergers pose few risks to competition.
Antitrust merger law seeks to prohibit transactions whose probable anticompetitive consequences outweigh their likely benefits. The critical time for review usually is when the merger is first proposed. This requires enforcement agencies and courts to forecast market trends and future effects. Merger cases examine past events or periods to understand each merging party's position in its market and to predict the merger's competitive impact.
Types of Mergers
Mergers appear in three forms, based on the competitive relationships between the merging parties. In a horizontal merger, one firm acquires another firm that produces and sells an identical or similar product in the same geographic area and thereby eliminates competition between the two firms. In a vertical merger, one firm acquires either a customer or a supplier. Conglomerate mergers encompass all other acquisitions, including pure conglomerate transactions where the merging parties have no evident relationship (e.g., when a shoe producer buys an appliance manufacturer), geographic extension mergers, where the buyer makes the same product as the target firm but does so in a different geographic market (e.g., when a baker in Chicago buys a bakery in Miami), and product-extension mergers, where a firm that produces one product buys a firm that makes a different product that requires the application of similar manufacturing or marketing techniques (e.g., when a producer of household detergents buys a producer of liquid bleach).
Corporate Merger Procedures
State statutes establish procedures to accomplish corporate mergers. Generally, the board of directors for each corporation must initially pass a resolution adopting a plan of merger that specifies the names of the corporations that are involved, the name of the proposed merged company, the manner of converting shares of both corporations, and any other legal provision to which the corporations agree. Each corporation notifies all of its shareholders that a meeting will be held to approve the merger. If the proper number of shareholders approves the plan, the directors sign the papers and file them with the state. The secretary of state issues a certificate of merger to authorize the new corporation.
Some statutes permit the directors to abandon the plan at any point up to the filing of the final papers. States with the most liberal corporation laws permit a surviving corporation to absorb another company by merger without submitting the plan to its shareholders for approval unless otherwise required in its certificate of incorporation.
Statutes often provide that corporations that are formed in two different states must follow the rules in their respective states for a merger to be effective. Some corporation statutes require the surviving corporation to purchase the shares of stockholders who voted against the merger.
Horizontal, vertical, and conglomerate mergers each raise distinctive competitive concerns.
Horizontal Mergers Horizontal mergers raise three basic competitive problems. The first is the elimination of competition between the merging firms, which, depending on their size, could be significant. The second is that the unification of the merging firms' operations might create substantial market power and might enable the merged entity to raise prices by reducing output unilaterally. The third problem is that, by increasing concentration in the relevant market, the transaction might strengthen the ability of the market's remaining participants to coordinate their pricing and output decisions. The fear is not that the entities will engage in secret collaboration but that the reduction in the number of industry members will enhance tacit coordination of behavior.
Vertical Mergers Vertical mergers take two basic forms: forward integration, by which a firm buys a customer, and backward integration, by which a firm acquires a supplier. Replacing market exchanges with internal transfers can offer at least two major benefits. First, the vertical merger internalizes all transactions between a manufacturer and its supplier or dealer, thus converting a potentially adversarial relationship into something more like a partnership. Second, internalization can give management more effective ways to monitor and improve performance.
Vertical integration by merger does not reduce the total number of economic entities operating at one level of the market, but it might change patterns of industry behavior. Whether a forward or backward integration, the newly acquired firm may decide to deal only with the acquiring firm, thereby altering competition among the acquiring firm's suppliers, customers, or competitors. Suppliers may lose a market for their goods; retail outlets may be deprived of supplies; or competitors may find that both supplies and outlets are blocked. These possibilities raise the concern that vertical integration will foreclose competitors by limiting their access to sources of supply or to customers. Vertical mergers also may be anticompetitive because their entrenched market power may impede new businesses from entering the market.
Conglomerate Mergers Conglomerate transactions take many forms, ranging from short-term joint ventures to complete mergers. Whether a conglomerate merger is pure, geographical, or a product-line extension, it involves firms that operate in separate markets. Therefore, a conglomerate transaction ordinarily has no direct effect on competition. There is no reduction or other change in the number of firms in either the acquiring or acquired firm's market.
Conglomerate mergers can supply a market or "demand" for firms, thus giving entrepreneurs liquidity at an open market price and with a key inducement to form new enterprises. The threat of takeover might force existing managers to increase efficiency in competitive markets. Conglomerate mergers also provide opportunities for firms to reduce capital costs and overhead and to achieve other efficiencies.
Conglomerate mergers, however, may lessen future competition by eliminating the possibility that the acquiring firm would have entered the acquired firm's market independently. A conglomerate merger also may convert a large firm into a dominant one with a decisive competitive advantage, or otherwise make it difficult for other companies to enter the market. This type of merger also may reduce the number of smaller firms and may increase the merged firm's political power, thereby impairing the social and political goals of retaining independent decision-making centers, guaranteeing small business opportunities, and preserving democratic processes.
Federal Antitrust Regulation
Since the late nineteenth century, the federal government has challenged business practices and mergers that create, or may create, a monopoly in a particular market. Federal legislation has varied in effectiveness in preventing anticompetitive mergers.
Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 The sherman anti-trust act (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 et seq.) was the first federal antitrust statute. Its application to mergers and acquisitions has varied, depending on its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U.S. 197, 24 S. Ct. 436, 48 L. Ed. 679 (1904), the Court ruled that all mergers between directly competing firms constituted a combination in restraint of trade and that they therefore violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. This decision hindered the creation of new monopolies through horizontal mergers.
In Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1, 31 S. Ct. 502, 55 L. Ed. 619 (1911), however, the Court adopted a less stringent "rule of reason test"to evaluate mergers. This rule meant that the courts must examine whether the merger would yield monopoly control to the merged entity. In practice, this resulted in the approval of many mergers that approached, but did not achieve, monopoly power.
Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 Congress passed the Clayton Act (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 12 et seq.) in response to the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey decision, which it feared would undermine the Sherman Act's ban against trade restraints and monopolization. Among the provisions of the Clayton Act was Section 7, which barred anticompetitive stock acquisitions.
The original Section 7 was a weak antimerger safeguard because it banned only purchases of stock. Businesses soon realized that they could evade this measure simply by buying the target firm's assets. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Thatcher Manufacturing Co. v. Federal Trade Commission, 272 U.S. 554, 47 S. Ct. 175, 71 L. Ed. 405 (1926), further undermined Section 7 by allowing a firm to escape liability if it bought a controlling interest in a rival firm's stock and used this control to transfer to itself the target's assets before the government filed a complaint. Thus, a firm could circumvent Section 7 by quickly converting a stock acquisition into a purchase of assets.
By the 1930s, Section 7 was eviscerated. Between the passage of the Clayton Act in 1914 and 1950, only 15 mergers were overturned under the antitrust laws, and ten of these dissolutions were based on the Sherman Act. In 1950, Congress responded to post–World War II concerns that a wave of corporate acquisitions was threatening to undermine U.S. society, by passing the Celler-Kefauver Antimerger Act, which amended Section 7 of the Clayton Act to close the assets loophole. Section 7 then prohibited a business from purchasing the stock or assets of another entity if "the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly."
Congress intended the amended section to reach vertical and conglomerate mergers, as well as horizontal mergers. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U.S. 294, 82 S. Ct. 1502, 8 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1962), interpreted the amended law as a congressional attempt to retain local control over industry and to protect small business. The Court concluded that it must look at the merger's actual and likely effect on competition. In general, however, it relied almost entirely on market share and concentration figures in evaluating whether a merger was likely to be anticompetitive. Nevertheless, the general presumption was that mergers were suspect.
In United States v. General Dynamics, 415 U.S. 486, 94 S. Ct. 1186, 39 L. Ed. 2d 530 (1974), the Court changed direction. It rejected any antitrust analysis that focused exclusively on market-share statistics, cautioning that although statistical data can be of great significance, they are "not conclusive indicators of anticompetitive effects." A merger must be viewed in the context of its particular industry. Therefore, the Court held that "only a further examination of the particular market—its structure, history, and probable future—can provide the appropriate setting for judging the probable anticompetitive effect of the merger." This totality-of-thecircumstances approach has remained the standard for conducting an antitrust analysis of a proposed merger.
Federal Trade Commission Act of 1975 Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 45), prohibits "unfair method[s] of competition" and gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) independent jurisdiction to enforce the antitrust laws. The law provides no criminal penalties, and it limits the FTC to issuing prospective decrees. The Justice Department and the FTC share enforcement of the Clayton Act. Congress gave this authority to the FTC because it thought that an administrative body would be more responsive to congressional goals than would the courts.
Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 The Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act (HSR) (15 U.S.C.A. § 18a) established a mandatory premerger notification procedure for firms that are parties to certain mergers. The HSR process requires the merging parties to notify the FTC and the Department of Justice before completing certain transactions. In general, an HSR premerger filing is required when (a) one of the parties to the transaction has annual net sales (or revenues) or total assets exceeding $100 million and the other party has annual net sales (or revenues) or total assets exceeding $10 million; and (b) the acquisition price or value of the acquired assets or entity exceeds $15 million. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in the rescission of completed transactions and may be punished by a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day.
HSR also established mandatory waiting periods during which the parties may not "close" the proposed transaction and begin joint operations. In transactions other than cash tender offers, the initial waiting period is 30 days after the merging parties have made the requisite premerger notification filings with the federal agencies. For cash tender offers, the waiting period is 15 days after the premerger filings. Before the initial waiting periods expire, the federal agency that is responsible for reviewing the transaction may request the parties to supply additional information relating to the proposed merger. These "second requests" often include extensive interrogatories (lists of questions to be answered) and broad demands for the production of documents. A request for further information may be made once, and the issuance of a second request extends the waiting period for ten days for cash tender offers and 20 days for all other transactions. These extensions of the waiting period do not begin until the merging parties are in "substantial compliance" with the government agency's request for additional information.
If the federal government decides not to challenge a merger before the HSR waiting period expires, a federal agency is highly unlikely to sue at a late date to dissolve the transaction under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The federal government is not legally barred from bringing such a lawsuit, but the desire of the federal agencies to increase predictability for business planners has made the HSR process the critical period for federal review. However, the decision of a federal agency not to attack a merger during the HSR waiting period does not preclude a lawsuit by a state government or a private entity. To facilitate analysis by the state attorneys general, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has issued a Voluntary Pre-Merger Disclosure Compact under which the merging parties can submit copies of their federal HSR filings and the responses to second requests with NAAG for circulation among states that have adopted the compact.
In the vast majority of antitrust challenges to mergers and acquisitions, the matters have been resolved by consent order or decree. The Department of Justice and the FTC have sought to clarify they way they analyze mergers through merger guidelines issued May 5, 1992 (4 Trade Reg. Rep. [CCH] ¶ 13,104). These guidelines are not "law" but enforcement-policy statements. Nevertheless, the antitrust enforcement agencies will use them to analyze proposed transactions.
The 1992 merger guidelines state that most horizontal mergers and acquisitions aid competition and that they are beneficial to consumers. The intent of issuing the guidelines is to "avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral."
The guidelines prescribe five questions for identifying hazards in proposed horizontal mergers: Does the merger cause a significant increase in concentration and produce a concentrated market? Does the merger appear likely to cause adverse competitive effects? Would entry sufficient to frustrate anticompetitive conduct be timely and likely to occur? Will the merger generate efficiencies that the parties could not reasonably achieve through other means? Is either party likely to fail, and will its assets leave the market if the merger does not occur?
The guidelines essentially ask which products or firms are now available to buyers, and where could buyers turn for supplies if relative prices increased by five percent (the measure for assessing a merger-generated price increase). The guidelines redraw market boundaries to cover more products and a greater area, which tends to yield lower concentration increases than U.S. Supreme Court merger decisions of the 1960s.
Mergers in the Telecommunications Industry
Beginning in 1980, with President Ronald Reagan's administration, the federal government has adjusted its policies to allow more horizontal mergers and acquisitions. The states have responded by invoking their antitrust laws to scrutinize these types of transactions. Nevertheless, mergers and acquisitions have increased throughout the U.S. economy, and this has been especially true in the Telecommunications industry.
Beginning in the mid 1980s and extending to the mid 1990s, each of the three major television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, was purchased by another corporation. In 1985, Capital Cities purchased ABC for $3.5 billion. The same year, General Electric (G.E.) purchased RCA, and in 1985, G.E. purchased NBC. Westinghouse purchased CBS in 1994 for $5.4 billion, and the Walt Disney Co. purchased Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion in 1995. Other mergers also had a major impact on the industry. In 1989, Time, Inc. merged with Warner Corporation to form the largest media conglomerate in the world, and in 1993, Viacom, Inc. purchased Paramount Corporation in an $8.2 billion deal.
These mergers were major news at the time, and they still have an impact on the industry. Congress deregulated much of the industry with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56 (codified in scattered sections of 47 U.S.C.A.). It was the most significant legislative change in the industry since the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1064. The act called for more open competition among companies within the industry, designed for the purpose of improving services to consumers. The result of the legislation was a wide number of mergers among smaller and larger companies within the industry.
Almost immediately after the passage of the Telecommunications Act, four of the seven Bell telephone regional holding companies announced proposed mergers. More mergers occurred among Bell companies and other local carriers. At least 13 significant mergers in the industry occurred in 1996 alone. Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting in 1996 in a $6.7 billion deal, creating the largest media corporation in the world. Worldcom, Inc. purchased MFS Communications for $12.4 billion to become the first local and long-distance telephone company since 1984. Westinghouse/CBS purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $4.9 billion, allowing Westinghouse/CBS to become the dominant power in the radio market.
These mergers continued throughout the 1990s and beyond. For instance, Time Warner merged with America Online, Inc. in 2000 in a $166 billion deal to form the largest convergence of Internet access and content in the world. Although some companies and consumer groups complained that the formation of these conglomerate companies could stifle competition and control prices, these mergers have become commonplace.
The Future of Mergers and Acquisitions
Although a number of factors influence mergers and acquisitions, the market is the primary force that drives them. The late 1990s saw an unprecedented influx in mergers. In 1999, companies filed a record 4,700 Hart-Scott-Rodino filings, about three times the number received in 1995. The total dollar value of the mergers announced in 1998—$11 trillion—was ten times the amount since 1992. The rash of mergers in the telecommunications industry accounted for many of these mergers, but companies in other industries were involved as well.
Another factor in the rise in mergers during the late 1990s was a booming economy, which grew at unprecedented levels. As the country faced recession in the following decade, many companies were forced to downsize, and the number of major mergers decreased accordingly. Improvements in the economy, as well as potential legislative changes, could very well spark another wave of mergers.
Ginsburg, Martin D. and Jack S. Levin. 1989. Mergers, Acquisitions and Leveraged Buyouts. Chicago: Commerce Clearing House.
Marks, Mitchell Lee. 2003. Charging Back up the Hill: Workplace Recovery after Mergers, Acquisitions, and Down-sizings. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.