Going Backwards: The FTC’s New Prior Approval Policy
On October 25, 2021, in a 3-to-2 vote, strictly along party lines, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a major policy shift in how the agency will review and settle mergers. Going forward, all parties who agree to a merger remedy order, including a divestiture, must also agree with the agency’s demand that, for at least a decade, they obtain “prior approval” from the agency before closing a future acquisition within the same relevant market. Further, buyers of any divested assets must also agree to a prior approval condition for a minimum of ten years. Finally, the agency “may decide,” at its discretion, to apply the prior approval condition even to markets beyond those in which the transaction at issue raised competitive concerns.
This new prior approval policy nontrivially weakens parties’ due process protections and puts the FTC more into a regulatory position, implicating significant ongoing costs to businesses and to the economy as a whole. While the Commission may defend its new policy as targeted only at “facially anticompetitive deals,” the practical effect is to trap both anticompetitive and procompetitive acquisitions in the agency’s regulatory net. This increases the cost of merger activity and likely will lead to consequences — whether intended or not — that are detrimental to economic efficiency and overall economic growth.