Late last month, a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. granted the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for a preliminary injunction against the proposed combination of Sysco and U.S. Foods because, according to the FTC, the merger “raised questions going to the merits so serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful as to make them fair ground for thorough investigation, study, deliberation and determination by the FTC in the first instance . . . .” In essence, despite having already conducted an intensive, 15-month investigation, the FTC sought an injunction that would allow it to further study the merger. The court’s injunction and the likely further delay predictably put an end to the merger.
The death of the Sysco/U.S. Foods merger underscores the sensibility of the proposed Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act, now working its way through Congress. While opposed by the FTC, SMARTER can simply and fairly require the FTC to show that a merger is likely to harm competition before it blocks the deal through the procedural device of a federal court preliminary injunction. That’s the same standard the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department (DOJ) must meet, and is the standard approach for federal courts considering a preliminary injunction request. Under current law, unlike DOJ the FTC faces the lower “further inquiry” standard quoted above. Passage of SMARTER could lead to equal treatment for all mergers under the law when tested in federal court regardless of which agency happened to review them. Continue reading