At the International Institute of Communication’s Telecommunications and Media Forum, Sydney 2023 our Economist Warwick Davis joined a panel on competition issues in the sectors and commented on proposed merger reforms in Australia and the United States. He suggested that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s proposed reforms for processes and legal tests for merger clearance will be contentious but seem more likely to produce economic benefits than the proposed changes to merger guidelines in the United States. This note explains the reasons for his view.
Merger reform proposals are a response to increasing market concentration
Competition authorities in many parts of the world are steering the debate on mergers towards sterner enforcement. The recently released details of proposed changes to merger enforcement in Australia and the United States show that competition authorities are on quite different paths to achieve that goal.
The US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (the Agencies) issued new draft merger Guidelines for comment in July 2023. As in Australia, merger guidelines do not have the status of law, but they have been influential in US court merger proceedings.
The proposed changes are different, but they are both reactions to similar concerns – perceived harms from increasing market concentration that have not been prevented by merger laws and/or enforcement practices:
There is growing evidence to support the view that Australian markets are becoming more concentrated…It is important that Australia’s merger regime is effective in preventing increases in concentration before they occur.
[In the United States] Empirical research…has documented rising consolidation, declining competition, and a resulting assortment of economic ills and risks.
Proposed changes to US Merger Guidelines renew emphasis on market concentration
The Agencies’ draft Guidelines have undergone a substantial change in form and substance from earlier versions. The draft Guidelines show the Agencies’ desire to simplify the analysis of mergers that increase concentration or occur in concentrated markets, tied where possible to legal precedent. The FTC Chair has stated the draft Guidelines do not rely on “a formalistic set of theories” but “seek to understand the practical ways that firms compete, exert control, or block rivals”, and offer several ways to analyse transactions.
The draft Guidelines have 13 specific guidelines that address analytical frameworks and specific challenges relating to serial acquisitions (creeping acquisitions in Australian parlance), buyer power in labour markets, platform markets and minority interests. This includes a return (in Guideline 1) to a stricter application of the ‘rebuttal presumption’ of market concentration that was first developed by the Supreme Court in 1961, and the introduction (in Guideline 6) of a rebuttable presumption in the case of vertical mergers, where a market share of more than 50% is involved.
The changes from the 2010 version of the Guidelines on the significance of increasing market concentration are stark, as highlighted in Table 1. The thresholds at which the rebuttable presumption is engaged are reduced: in rough terms, a 6 to 5 merger of equally sized firms would now be subject to the rebuttable presumption while under the 2010 version it would not. For reference, the current ACCC Merger Guidelines approach (2017) is also highlighted, but these thresholds do not create rebuttable presumptions but instead provide an indication of the likelihood of concerns being raised.
Table 1: Changes in treatment of market concentration, US DOJ/FTC Merger Guidelines
Source: US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, August 19, 2010, draft Guidelines, p. 6, ACCC Merger Guidelines, 2017.
Similar problems, but different responses in merger reforms
The ACCC also has expressed concern with increasing market concentration. But the ACCC’s proposed reforms do not specifically focus on elevating market concentration to a more central role in merger analysis. Rather, the key elements of the ACCC’s reform proposals include:
- A formal merger clearance regime: large mergers could not go ahead unless a clearance was obtained from the ACCC or Tribunal.
- Changes to the merger clearance test: mergers can be blocked by the Federal Court under section 50 if they have the effect or likely effect of substantially lessening competition. The ACCC proposes that a merger would be cleared only if the ACCC (or Tribunal, on review) is satisfied that it is not likely to have the effect or likely effect of substantially lessening competition.
- Revisions to the section 50 merger factors: added factors include an emphasis on creeping acquisitions and entrenching existing market power.
Concentrating on the right measure of competition?
We have previously suggested that the ACCC’s proposed changes to the process by which mergers are assessed, including formal merger clearance, are worthy of serious consideration. The changes would address defects in the current informal clearance regime and adjudication processes, particularly by empowering the ACCC to be the principal decision-maker and increasing the transparency of its decisions.
On the added measures, the proposed ACCC reforms are better for not aiming directly at market concentration, albeit that concentration will remain a significant element of merger investigations. This is for two reasons:
- Since the 1970s, economists have grown more sceptical of the causal connections between market concentration, competition, and economic performance. Concentration is only one factor in competitive health, and other market structures and conduct factors can be equally or more important. For example, product differentiation, which is relevant to most mergers in Australia, highlights that the identity of competitors, and the similarity of their products, can have a greater influence on the competitive effects of mergers than aggregate concentration measures.
- So much emphasis on concentration places an undue reliance on the defined markets. The definition of markets is rarely clearcut, particularly where products are differentiated, and is inevitably a matter of judgement.
Striking the right balance on the cost of errors
The ACCC’s proposed changes to the section 50 legal test are likely to have a significant impact on the chance of contentious mergers being proposed and approved. Mergers that have uncertain effects would be more likely to be blocked than under the current system.
One framework through which to view the proposed changes is whether they minimise the total costs of decision-making errors:
- from not blocking anti-competitive mergers, and
- from blocking mergers that pose no threat to competition.
Compared with the existing legal test, the ACCC’s proposed changes will reduce errors of the first kind while increasing errors of the second kind. Both kinds of errors are relevant: while errors of the first kind harm consumers directly, blocking mergers that are pro-competitive will also harm consumers. Undoubtedly, the balance of errors is complex to assess and we expect further debate over whether the proposed change restores or upsets the right balance.
Other proposals to structural merger factors seem more likely to be positive. The proposals focusing on accumulation of market power address long-standing concerns about creeping acquisitions but avoid placing increased weight on market concentration thresholds. This leaves more room for nuance in the merger analysis.
A step in the right direction
The ACCC’s proposals are a serious attempt to improve the processes and outcomes of merger reviews. Although the ACCC may be concerned about market concentration, it is helpful that the ACCC has not looked to tie its proposals directly to that concern – as is being pursued in the United States. While further debate on changes to the legal test is justified, we expect the ACCC’s proposed changes have reasonable prospects of improving competition and economic welfare.
 ACCC proposals, pp. 4-5.
 Remarks of FTC Chair Lina M. Khan, Economic Club of New York, July 24, 2023, p.3.
 The Agencies have amended the guidelines several times since the first guidelines were released in 1968, including in 1982, 1984, 1992, 1997, 2010, and 2020.
 Remarks of Chair Lina M. Khan, Economic Club of New York, July 24, 2023, p.2.
 United States v. Philadelphia Nat. Bank, 374 US 321, 363 (1961).
 Draft Guidelines, p. 17: “If the foreclosure share is above 50 percent, that factor alone is a sufficient basis to conclude that the effect of the merger may be to substantially lessen competition, subject to any rebuttal evidence.”
 ACCC proposals, p. 11.
 For example, in oligopoly settings, common market features such as cost asymmetry between firms or economies of scale can reverse the standard intuition that increasing concentration reduces economic performance.
 The ACCC suggests that the increased costs of errors will be borne by the merger parties rather than the public. That would only be true if the merger produced no efficiencies or did not otherwise benefit competition.
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