Merger Control – Competition Act
Following the amendments of March 2009, Canada now has a “two-stage” merger review process. The merits and demerits of this new regime were never thoroughly debated among competition law practitioners or in Parliament, because the amendments were included in a budget implementation bill drafted in response to the global economic crisis of 2008. The bill moved through the legislative process in a matter of weeks, with the clear focus of parliamentary debate being on economic stimulus measures, rather than amendments to the Competition Act and other statutes. In any event, the new merger review process shares many similarities with the US process under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act1. More particularly, the submission of the required notification filings by the purchaser and the target company triggers a 30 calendar day waiting period during which the transaction may not proceed, unless the Commissioner of Competition (the Commissioner) issues a positive clearance for the transaction and/or terminates the waiting period. If the 30 calendar day waiting period expires without the issuance by the Commissioner of a supplementary information request (a SIR), then there is no legal impediment to the parties closing the transaction. However, if the Commissioner issues a SIR within the 30 calendar day waiting period, the transaction may not close until 30 days after the parties have complied with the SIR, unless the Commissioner issues a positive clearance for the transaction and/or terminates the waiting period.
To those familiar with US antitrust law, the above-outlined structure of the new Canadian regime clearly bears a close resemblance to the structure of US merger control law under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. However, two key differences between the Canadian and US regimes are that: a) it is possible in Canada, and even common, for parties to seek and obtain clearance for substantively simple transactions via an “advance ruling certificate” process, removing the need to make formal notification filings in the first place; and b) the expiry of the 30 calendar day waiting period in Canada does not amount to substantive comfort that the Commissioner has concluded that a transaction does not raise competition issues.
Since the new law came into force in March 2009, the rate at which the Commissioner and the Competition Bureau (the Bureau) have obtained negotiated remedies has increased dramatically in 2009 and 2010, as compared to historical levels. Indeed, between July 2009 and September 2010, (a 14 month period), the Bureau obtained Canadian competition law remedies in approximately 10 transactions, including numerous international transactions. Whether this is due to an increased number of strategic transactions or the new law is open to debate. Although it is impossible to say whether the Bureau could have obtained divestitures in respect of this number of transactions under the previous merger control regime, it is clear that this rate is considerably higher than in recent years where there were typically two or three merger remedies per year.2
Looking more closely at the transactions for which divestitures have been required, they vary greatly in terms of their Canadian elements. Some (Suncor/Petrocan, Clean Harbours /Everready and IESI-BFC/Waste Services) exclusively, or almost exclusively, raised competition issues in Canada and not in any foreign jurisdictions. In these situations, the Bureau obtained divestitures entirely independently from any foreign competition law regulators. Others (Pfizer/Wyeth, Merck/Schering Plough, Novartis/Alcon) were very much international mergers with relatively small Canadian components, and where international cooperation would have been significant in arriving at conclusions. Others still were international majors, but with relatively large Canadian components (e.g.,Agrium / CF Industries) with international cooperation again likely being significant. However, even where international cooperation was an important component of the Bureau’s review, the divestitures obtained have frequently had Canada-specific elements, demonstrating that Canadian remedies are not merely an exact re-iteration of any foreign remedies.
Prior to the March 2009 amendments, merging parties had the ability to force the Commissioner to litigate to prevent closing on the expiry of the 42 day period after pre-notification filings were submitted. Although such litigation was, in practice, a rare occurrence because parties wanted to obtain positive clearance from the Commissioner, the bargaining dynamic that existed between the Commissioner and the parties was nevertheless generally more favourable to the parties than is the case today. More particularly, for transactions the review of which lasted longer than 42 days, which captures the significant majority of mergers that are substantively complicated from a competition law perspective, the Commissioner had an incentive to negotiate to avoid litigation.
Under the new regime, this dynamic is often not present, as the Commissioner’s review of substantively complicated transactions occurs largely, or even exclusively, during a period in which the parties are not able to close. Parties can only put themselves in a legal position to close by complying with a SIR (or the terms of a timing agreement), but the very act of complying with a SIR is a time-consuming, resource-intensive process, and results in the parties providing, under oath, the internal data and documents that the Commissioner would use to support a merger challenge. Parties can and do agree to pull and refile their merger filing such that the waiting period recommences and the Commissioner need not issue a SIR to prevent closing.
While information regarding the timing of parties’ compliance with SIRs (or timing agreements) for specific transactions is not publicly available, it is very likely that at least some of the recent divestitures contained in consent agreements obtained by the Commissioner were negotiated in situations where the parties were not in a legal position to close. This was never or virtually never the case under the old regime, where the parties would often be in a legal position to close during the negotiation of any remedy. One of the implications of the new regime for merging businesses where there is some competitive overlap is that if a relatively short interim period between signing and closing is contemplated, the parties will very likely arrive at their intended closing date in a situation where they require positive clearance from the Commissioner to close, meaning that their bargaining position in negotiating a consent agreement may be relatively weak.
Finally, it is notable that although the Commissioner has obtained merger remedies at an unprecedented rate since the implementation of the March 2009 amendments, the Commissioner has only brought a single formal merger challenge at the Competition Tribunal, continuing a trend that dates back a number of years. Furthermore, the merger in question was “non-notifiable,” in the sense that it was not large enough to trigger a mandatory Competition Act filing. The new SIR process and the enhanced leverage of the Commissioner would therefore have been an irrelevant consideration in the review of this merger.
It is unclear whether there will be much in the way of contested merger proceedings in the future. On the one hand, the enhanced information gathering powers of the Commissioner, which operate to extend the waiting period, suggest that the Commissioner may be in a better position than before to prepare for a contested merger challenge. On the other hand, parties to a transaction, recognizing the enhanced power of the Commissioner, may be more inclined to arrive at a negotiated settlement by way of consent agreement relating to the problematic portions of the transaction, in order to permit a relatively expeditious closing. It may take several years before the impact of the March 2009 amendments on merger investigation and litigation in Canada is fully understood. It would seem, however, that consent agreements will continue to occupy a significant position in the Canadian competition law landscape at least so long as the current strategic merger activity continues and that, consequently, case law under the Competition Act’s substantive merger review provisions will remain sparse.
Foreign Investment Review – Investment Canada Act
The ICA provides for the pre-closing review and Ministerial approval of certain investments in Canadian businesses, with such approval granted where the Minister determines that an investment is of “net benefit to Canada.” Prior to March 2009, the ICA did not contain any explicit “national security” review mechanism. We provide below a brief overview of Canada’s new “national security” review regime under the ICA. Certain other technical amendments to the ICAwere made in March 2009, but are not discussed in any detail herein.
- National Security - Overview
A national security review may be launched where the Government regards a foreign investment as potentially “injurious to national security”. If it concludes that there is a potential threat, the Government can prohibit or attach conditions to a foreign investment, whether an investment in an existing Canadian business or the establishment of a new Canadian business. If the investment is already completed, the Government’s powers include the ability to order the divestiture of a Canadian business. It is important to note that this mechanism for national security review is separate from the existing economic review process.
The national security amendments to the ICA raise a number of issues, including the following.
- National Security is Undefined
The ICA does not define “national security”. The Government has not provided any meaningful guidance on the factors it will consider when determining whether there is a national security issue. The concern that national security could be interpreted expansively (beyond obvious defence-related concerns) is heightened by the large and varied group of governmental departments and agencies listed in the National Security Review of Investments Regulations (the National Security Regulations), including the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Transport, the Canada Revenue Agency, the Department of Public Works and Governmental Services and the Department of Finance, in addition to the more obvious agencies such as the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
- Small Transactions and Other Investments are Subject to the New Law
Unlike the case in economic reviews under the ICA, the new national security review law applies to minority investments. Also, under the new law, the government may order a review if the business in question carries on any part of its operations in Canada and has any of: a place of operations in Canada; one or more individuals who are employed or self-employed in connection with the operations; or assets in Canada used in carrying on the operations. There is no minimum asset or transaction size threshold, with the result that a national security review is possible even with respect to small transactions.
- No Process for Voluntary Pre-Clearance
The ICA does not provide a pre-clearance process for national security issues. However, in some cases the National Security Regulations provide for a statutory limitation on the Minister’s ability to act after a certain date. In some cases it may be possible to have the limitation period expire before closing. If this is not possible, there will be some (in most cases minimal) risk of a post-closing national security review.
- State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs)
It is generally thought that the genesis of the national security law was the proposed acquisition of Canadian nickel miner Noranda Inc. by China Minmetals in 2004. Although that transaction did not proceed, it did generate debate about the role of national security considerations under the ICA.
In December 2007, the government issued guidelines on how it would apply the “net benefit to Canada” test to investments by SOEs that were being reviewed under the economic review provisions of the ICA (as opposed to the new national security law, which was not then in force). In addition to the factors that the Minister of Industry typically considers in deciding whether to approve reviewable investments, the SOE Guidelines indicate that the governance and commercial orientation of SOEs will be considered.
With respect to governance, the SOE Guidelines state that the SOE’s adherence to Canadian standards of corporate governance will be assessed, including any commitments to transparency and disclosure, independent directors, audit committees and equitable treatment of shareholders, as well as compliance with Canadian laws and practices. The Minister will also consider how and to what extent the investor is controlled by a state.
With respect to the commercial orientation, the SOE Guidelines state that the following will be relevant: (i) destinations of exports from Canada; (ii) whether processing will occur in Canada or elsewhere; (iii) the extent of participation of Canadians in Canadian and foreign operations; (iv) the support of on-going innovation, research and development; and (v) planned capital expenditures in Canada.
Finally, the SOE Guidelines outline the types of binding commitments or undertakings an SOE may be required to provide to pass the “net benefit” test. While many of these include commitments required by any foreign purchaser, of particular interest is the potential for a requirement to list the shares of the acquiring company or the target Canadian business on a Canadian stock exchange.
Despite the uncertainty generated by the introduction of the national security review process in Canada, foreign investors should in most cases not be overly concerned for a number of reasons.
- Experience with National Security Reviews to Date
As at the date of writing, there has apparently only been a single national security notice (not a full review) since the new law came into force a year ago. Moreover, as at the date of writing, even under the “net benefit to Canada” test that is applicable to economic reviews, there have only been two non-cultural investments rejected in the quarter century since the ICA came into force (the ATK - MDA aerospace transaction, and the BHP Billiton – PotashCorp transaction, both described below).
- Canada has an Open Economy
Canada’s economy has historically been open to foreign investment. In 2009 (not a particularly active year for global foreign investment), 22 transactions were approved by the Minister of Industry under the economic review provisions of the ICA,including three significant investments by SOEs: (i) China National Petroleum Corporation’s acquisition of control of Athabasca Oil Sands Corp, (ii) Korea National Oil Corporation’s acquisition of Harvest Energy Trust and (iii) Abu Dubai’s International Petroleum Investment Co’s acquisition of NOVA Chemicals Corporation. Also, China Investment Corporation’s acquisition of a 17% interest in Teck Resources Limited was successfully completed in 2009, and, in 2010, Sinopec’s acquisition of an interest in Syncrude received approval under theICA. To date, no SOE transactions have been formally rejected.
Investment Canada Act Developments in Recent Months
The most significant ICA development in recent months was the rejection of BHP Billiton’s proposed acquisition of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PotashCorp) in November 2010. This rejection, combined with other foreign investment controversies, has drawn considerable attention to the ICA and has generated widespread debate within the Canadian foreign investment bar, corporate Canada, policymakers and academia as to the appropriate role of government in screening, imposing conditions on and approving foreign investment in Canada. Most recently, parliamentary hearings regarding further potential changes to the foreign investment review regime have been commenced. The outcome of such hearings, in terms of further amendments to theICA, is uncertain. A brief summary of the PotashCorp situation follows.
BHP’s hostile takeover bid for Saskatchewan’s PotashCorp, an iconic world-class producer of a key Canadian natural resource, attracted massive political and media attention from the moment of its launch in mid-August 2010.3
The Premier of the Province of Saskatchewan vigorously argued that the federal government should refuse the proposed bid, concerned among other things, about potentially significant negative tax consequences for the Province of Saskatchewan and the loss of a public company Canadian head office.
On November 3, 2010, the Minister issued a preliminary decision rejecting BHP’s bid on the basis that it failed to satisfy the “net benefit to Canada” test. Although the law provided BHP with a 30-day period within which further submissions could be made to try to change the Minister’s view, BHP apparently chose not to proceed, officially withdrawing its application on November 14, 2010. BHP issued a detailed press release following the failure of the bid, outlining numerous specific commitments it had been prepared to make. Undertakings would apparently have included a five-year commitment to remain in a Canadian potash export group, significant spending on infrastructure, increased investment in BHP’s already planned Jansen mine (also located in Saskatchewan), commitments to forgo certain tax benefits and to apply for a listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Other proposed undertakings apparently related to employment increases, spending on community and education programs and an unprecedented US$250 million performance bond to ensure that the company fulfilled its undertakings.
Following the decision, some commentators noted suggestions by Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz that BHP’s bid had been refused because potash is a “strategic resource” for Canada. This is not an explicit factor for consideration under the ICA. However, other countries have, in the context of foreign investment review, taken measures to protect their most valuable resources or companies.4
The ICA certainly provides the Minister with significant discretion and the PotashCorp decision has led to calls for clarification of Canada’s foreign investment rules from businesspeople, investors and politicians across the political spectrum. Critics have cited a lack of transparency and a lack of predictability as factors affecting the efficacy of foreign investment review. While the current approach gives the Minister significant flexibility to assess proposed investments on a case-by-case basis, it is also true that perceived unpredictability might complicate the risk assessments undertaken by foreign acquirers and, conceivably, deter investment in Canada. Nevertheless, the PotashCorp decision had numerous unique features, including the opposition to the transaction from the Premier of Saskatchewan, suggesting that it would be incorrect to draw any broader conclusions regarding Canada’s approach to foreign investment from this apparently unique transaction.