It is not uncommon for companies to commence integration process right after the deal documents for the transaction are signed. While the senior management of the parties delight at the prospect of speedy harmonisation between the two businesses pending regulatory clearances and formal closing, often the reasonable boundaries of legitimate information exchange are trespassed. This excessive exchange of information and coordination between parties prior to consummation of a transaction is often susceptible to antitrust laws and can lead to heavy penalties.
This issue has been scrutinised by the French Competition Authority (FCA) in a recent decision in Altice Case (Altice order) where the parties to the transaction had exchanged strategic information between signing and closing, including the acquirer intervening in the targets commercial and pricing policy requiring the target to take buyers consent for few activities, and exchanging price sensitive information. The exchange of such information was considered to be “gun jumping” and the FCA imposed a penalty of EUR 80 million on Altice.
Considering the trend of exchanging information in mergers and acquisitions, a common query that often arises is what can be done, and what cannot be, to ensure a seamless transition yet not draw the wrath of the antitrust authorities. In pursuance of answering this question, the Federal Trade Commission of United States of America has recently issued a brief guidance (FTC Guidance) explaining how the parties can reduce antitrust risk when exchanging competitively sensitive information prior to closing.
The FTC Guidance provides that the party disclosing the information should share the least amount of information needed for effective due diligence or premerger integration planning issue and such information should be narrowly tailored. If more detailed information is required for integration purposes, then resort should be taken to have clean teams to share such information. The Guidance further provides that if customer and competitive information is required to be given, then such information should be masked and consolidated and customer identities should be protected through redactions. Care should also be taken to ensure that information is not provided in tranches which can be consolidated to recover confidential information. Lastly, due care should also be taken to ensure that post due diligence or in the event of failure of the transaction finally taking place, the information provided is destructed. As for the receiving party, the FTC Guidance provides that, any employee handling the confidential information should be aware of the terms of confidentiality and clean teams should be established with third-party consultants. Clean team should also be vetted by outside counsel, and members of the clean team should have a strategy in place regarding who may access the acquired information. Clean teams should also undertake diligence to ensure that information meant for the clean team is not provided to members outside the clean team, and if such information is required to be provided, then, such information should be blinded, aggregated and vetted by an outside counsel before dissemination.
While this is an FTC Guidance, “gun jumping” issues are similar across all jurisdictions where there is a mandatory merger control regime which requires a pre-clearance before closing. India too is a mandatory suspensory regime where transactions which require a notification to the Competition Commission of India (CCI) pursuant to the Competition Act, 2002 (Act) are required not to consummate the transaction in part or whole before the CCI clearance or the expiry of the waiting period of 210 days. Since 2011, while the CCI has passed significant number of orders under Section 43-A of the Act penalising companies which have partly/wholly consummated the transaction before the same is notified to the CCI or before the receipt of approval, thus far there has been no specific decision in relation to gun jumping issues relating to information exchange. However, the CCI in its recent order in Hindustan Colas (P) Ltd./Shell India Markets (P) Ltd. has furthered its jurisprudence by holding that pre-payment of consideration constitutes gun jumping as it creates a tacit collusion which may cause an adverse effect on competition even before consummation of the transaction, effectively stating that the actions of the parties which can have a possibility of affecting the independent behaviour of the transacting parties could be amenable to antitrust scrutiny.
The issue of what affects the independent behaviour of transacting entities prior to the final closing is somewhat foggy in India. However, what is rather clear is that while the exchange of benign information between the parties pre-closing is permissible, information which is commercially or competitively sensitive in nature such as strategic pricing information etc. would constitute “gun jumping” and therefore frowned upon. Having said that, given the practicalities of conducting business, sensitive business information is often shared even prior to closing through a safeguarded mechanism such as the one mentioned in the FTC Guidance (i.e. clean teams).
In this regard, although the competition regulators recommend that clean teams comprise external advisors, employees/personnel of the parties not closely associated with the day-to-day business operation and management of the transacting companies can also safely form a part of the clean teams arrangement subject to strict non-disclosure commitments ring-fencing the confidential information’s flow beyond the clean team members. This is one of the reasons why clean teams is fairly popular with the corporate houses as it allows effective integration planning sans the risk of antitrust concerns. Finally, in case of a doubt, it is best to seek the counsel of an external advisor to ensure that an otherwise harmless integration planning is not sabotaged resulting into a heavy fine from the CCI.
|Anshuman Sakle is a Partner with the Competition Law Practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anisha Chand is a Principal Associate with the Competition Law Practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and can be contacted at email@example.com. Authors would like to thank Soham Banerjee, Associate, Competition Law Practice, for his contribution.|
 Decision No. 16-D-24 of 8-11-2016.
 Combination Registration No. C-2015/08/299.