Merger & Acquisitions, Competition Theory, Legislation & Regulation

Is a Moratorium on Mergers During the Pandemic a Bridge Too Far?

Some fear cash-rich corporations and private equity firms will exploit the downturn to devour competitors.

In an interview with Politico’s Leah Nylen and Betsy Woodruff Swan, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) explained that he wants the next coronavirus relief package to include a moratorium on mergers while the U.S. economy struggles to face the pandemic. According to the report, the Rhode Island Congressman’s proposal would allow deals “only if a company is already in a bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.” Any other deals would be on hold at least until the national pandemic declaration is lifted.

Proposed merger moratorium would be an over-correction. Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In prepared remarks, Rep. Cicilline’s stated: “As millions of businesses struggle to stay afloat, private equity firms and dominant corporations are positioned to swoop in for a buying spree.” The remarks continued: “This is not complicated. Our country can leave room for merger activity that is necessary to ensuring that distressed firms have a fresh start through the bankruptcy process or through necessary divestitures while also ensuring that we do not undergo another period of rampant consolidation.”

These comments were part of the Congressman’s presentation for an event run by the Open Markets Institute (OMI), which recently said that it favors “an immediate ban on all mergers and acquisitions by any corporation with more than $100 million in annual revenue, and by any financial institution or equity fund with more than $100 million in capitalization.” The OMI claims the ban should remain in place during the current economic and health crisis.

According to the OMI, the ban is necessary because enforcement agencies are partially shut down and unable to effectively evaluate mergers. The OMI believes the ban will help “prevent a wholesale concentration of additional power by corporations that already dominate or largely dominate their industries, especially in ways that may significantly worsen the crisis that now threatens America’s health, social, and economic systems. The history of the Panic of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession instructs us that such a massive, uncontrolled consolidation will result in the unnecessary firing of millions of employees, the unnecessary bankrupting of innumerable independent businesses, a dramatic slowing of innovation in vital industries such as pharmaceuticals, and a further concentration of power and control dangerous both to our democracy and our open commercial systems.”

Piles of Cash

The organization says that private equity firms and corporations “sit today atop vast piles of cash” and can readily swallow up distressed companies.

Rep. Cicilline and the OMI are rightfully concerned about an uptick in unlawful mergers stemming from the pandemic and should be commended for proactively raising the issue. History has demonstrated that well-capitalized firms will use economic downturns and the consequent drop in company valuations to acquire struggling rivals. And antitrust enforcers are certainly not operating at full capacity given current health and safety guidelines.

Even so, a moratorium on mergers seems like an overcorrection. Most mergers are lawful. While we can debate their overall effectiveness, since 2015, federal antitrust authorities have made second requests in less than 3% of qualifying transactions. And lawful mergers can lead to lower prices, higher quality, and increased innovation, as well as providing liquidity events.

Given these realities, lawmakers should craft legislation that aims to preserve the integrity of the pre-pandemic oversight process. This presumably can be achieved by giving regulators the power to slow down the merger review process when necessary. A resolution along these lines would seem to strike a better balance between protecting against rampant, unlawful consolidation and permitting lawful mergers to proceed.

Edited by Tom Hagy for MoginRubin LLP. Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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