Mark A. Lemley and Andrew McCreary on ‘Exit Strategy’ 101 B.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming, 2021)

The venture capital funding model that dominates the tech industry is focused on the “exit strategy”— the ways funders and founders can cash out their investment. While in common lore the exit strategy is an initial public offering (IPO), in practice IPOs are increasingly rare – they now account for fewer than 1 in 10 exits for start-ups, and happen later in a company’s life than they used to. Instead, most companies that succeed exit the market by merging with an existing firm. Innovative start-ups are especially likely to be acquired by the dominant firm in the market, particularly when they are venture funded, for a variety of reasons – because the dominant firms value the target’s technology, because they have lots and lots of money, or to eliminate a potential competitor who might leapfrog them in Schumpeterian competition. This paper argues that this focus on exit, particularly exit by acquisition, is pathological and one of the main reasons for…

Andre Minuto Rizzo ‘Digital Mergers: Evidence from the Venture Capital Industry Suggests That Antitrust Intervention Might Be Needed’ (2020) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice

There is a growing debate around the possible existence of a kill zone around tech titans. This is an area where venture capitalists will not finance start-ups because of fear of both exclusionary conduct and aggressive acquisition strategies by technology incumbents. This paper, available here, draws upon existing literature and antitrust agencies’ work, as well as data from the venture capital industry, to argue for the need to investigate the existence and magnitude of the kill zone, as well as its possible causes. Section II looks at evidence from the venture capital industry. Venture capital consists of equity investments in companies with innovative ideas characterised by both high growth potential and high risk of failure. Venture capitalists invest across different stages of the life cycle of start-up companies. Recent years have seen larger and later-stage deals, with funds being funnelled to fewer companies, many of which are large enough to be valued at over USD 1 billion, together with a…

Axel Gautier and Joe Lamesch ‘Mergers in the Digital Economy’ (2020) Information Economics and Policy

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft (GAFAM) make huge investments in research and development, with a cumulated investment of over USD 71 billion in 2017. In addition to these important investments, GAFAM have engaged in extensive mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity. Between 2015–2017, GAFAM acquired 175 companies, most of which seem to be young and innovative start-ups. Despite their intense merger activities and the vivid debates they generate, little is known about the the GAFAM’s merger strategies. With the exception of a report reviewing the CMA’s decision-making, there is no systematic analysis of the merger activity of the main digital platforms. This paper, available here, provides detailed information and statistics on the merger activity of GAFAM, and on the characteristics of the firms they acquire. Section 2 present the digital platforms’ business model. The authors identify the segments in which each GAFAM firm operates, i.e. the main categories of users they serve and the main revenue sources of each firm,…

Massimo Motta and Martin Peitz ‘Big Tech Mergers’

Big tech mergers occur frequently. The vast majority of such mergers were not reviewed by competition authorities, and those that were have been approved. Nonetheless, competition authorities and governments have become increasingly nervous at the perceived concentration in some digital markets, and at the persistent and increasing market power of some firms operating in digital industries. There is also concern that recent mergers were investigated using an inadequate methodology, possibly leading to wrong decisions. As a result, some of the (many) mergers in digital industries may well have favoured the entrenchment of large firms’ market positions. This paper, available here, explores this possibility, by developing a model and reviewing the main theories of harm that may apply to such mergers. Section 2 develops a simple model to address the possible anti- and pro-competitive effects of start up acquisitions by digital incumbents. This model provides some guidance as to what to expect from such acquisitions and as to the instances in…

Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram G. Rajan and Luigi Zingales ‘Kill Zones’ (2020) Working Papers 2020-19 Becker Friedman Institute for Research In Economics, University of Chicago

Digital platforms can acquire potential competitors, dissuading others from entering the market and protecting them against disruptive innovations. In a sense, digital incumbents create a “Kill Zone” around their areas of activity, which might discourage new investments. However, the idea that acquisitions discourage new investments is at odds with a standard economic arguments: if incumbents pay handsomely to acquire new entrants, why should entry be curtailed? Why would the prospect of an acquisition not be an extra incentive for entrepreneurs to enter the space, in the hope of being acquired at hefty multiples? This paper, available here, explores why high-priced acquisitions of entrants by an incumbent may not necessarily stimulate more innovation and entry in an industry (like that of digital platforms) where customers face switching costs and network externalities. The prospect of an acquisition by the incumbent platform undermines early adoption by customers, reducing prospective payoffs to new entrants. This creates a “kill zone” in the start-up space, as…

C. Scott Hemphill and Tim Wu on ‘Nascent Competitors’ (2020) University of Pennsylvania Law Review (forthcoming)

A nascent competitor is a firm whose prospective innovation represents a serious future threat to an incumbent. Nascent rivals play an important role in both the competitive process and in developing innovation. New firms with new technologies can challenge and even displace existing firms; sometimes, innovation by an unproven outsider may be the only way to provide new competition to an entrenched incumbent. For competition enforcers, nascent competitors pose a dilemma. While nascent competitors often pose a uniquely potent threat to an entrenched incumbent, the firm’s eventual significance is uncertain, given the environment of rapid technological change in which such threats tend to arise. That uncertainty, along with a lack of present, direct competition, may make enforcers and courts hesitant or unwilling to prevent an incumbent from acquiring or excluding a nascent threat. This essay, available here, identifies nascent competition as a distinct category and outlines a program of antitrust enforcement to protect it. It favours an enforcement policy that…

Chris Pike and Pedro Caro de Sousa ‘How Soon Is Now: How to Deal with Uncertainty as regards Potential Competition in Merger Control’ Competition Law and Policy Debate (forthcoming)

While a short time frame of analysis can help build confidence in the conclusions reached on the likely effects of a transaction within that time frame, it misses potential harms and benefits related to longer-term potential competition. To correct this analytical deficiency requires the use of a longer time frame of analysis. However, with a longer time frame comes greater uncertainty on both probabilities and the magnitude of outcomes. Such prospective assessments often imply the balancing of probabilities by decision-makers, which are subject to substantive, evidentiary and practical constraints. In cases involving potential competition, this uncertainty is further heightened, to the point where meeting evidentiary standards designed for a short time frame analysis can become near impossible. This paper, available here, explores avenues to deal with uncertainty under merger control, and advances two proposals. First, one should ensure that the substantive standards for clearing and prohibiting a merger reflect not only the probability but also the potential magnitude of anti-…

Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer and Song Ma ‘Killer Acquisitions’

This paper, available here, argues that incumbent  firms may acquire innovative targets solely to discontinue the target’s innovation projects and preempt future competition. Using pharmaceutical industry data, the paper shows that acquired drug projects are less likely to be developed when they overlap with the acquirer’s existing product portfolio, especially when the acquirer’s market power is large. Conservative estimates indicate 5.3% to 7.4% of acquisitions in the authors’ sample are killer acquisitions, which occur disproportionately just below thresholds for antitrust scrutiny. Section 2 outlines the theoretical framework and develops testable hypotheses. The authors first build a parsimonious model that combines endogenous acquisition decisions, innovation choices and product market competition. The model looks at acquisitions that occur when the innovative target  firm’s project is still under development, and therefore further development is necessary and costly, and the ultimate project success is uncertain. An incumbent acquirer has weaker incentives to continue development than an entrepreneur if the new project overlaps with (i.e….

Andrew Sweeting, Joel Schrag and Nathan Wilson ‘Not All Pre-Emptive Mergers Are Alike: A Classification of Recent Cases’ (2020) CPI October

There has been much recent debate about whether antitrust agencies have been sufficiently attentive to preemptive mergers, where one firm acquires another that it expects will become a more vigorous competitor in the future. The suggestion, sometimes described in terms of “killer acquisitions” (“kill zones”) or, less graphically, “the elimination of nascent competition”, is that agencies may have allowed transactions that, while perhaps not substantially reducing competition in the short-run, deprived consumers of lower prices, better products, and more variety in the future. It has been claimed that these types of mergers have been particularly common in certain sectors, such as the tech and pharmaceutical industries, but it is an open question whether these issues arise more generally. While these issues are important, the nature of the debate might lead people to believe that similar issues are raised by all preemptive merger cases. This paper by three economists at the FTC, available here, argues that this is wrong. It develops…

Giulio Federico, Fiona Scott Morton and Carl Shapiro ‘Antitrust and Innovation: Welcoming and Protecting Disruption’ in Innovation Policy and the Economy (eds. Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, NBER), Vol. 20, Chapter 4, 125

This paper, available here, focuses on the impact of competition policy on innovation. Disruptive firms drive a significant amount of innovation. By making its offer to customers attractive in a new way, a disruptive firm can destroy a great deal of incumbent profit while creating a large amount of consumer surplus. The resulting churn in products and market shares, as new products enter and old ones exit, and as newer business methods and business models supplant older ones, are typical of a healthy competitive process. If that competitive process is slowed or biased by mergers or by exclusionary conduct, innovation is lessened and consumers are harmed. Competition policy seeks to protect the competitive process by which disruptive firms challenge the status quo, despite the biggest firms being some of the most impressive innovators in many industries experiencing rapid technological change. Innovation is best promoted when market leaders are allowed to exploit their competitive advantages while also facing pressure to perform…