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Antitrust Chief Retools to Ensure Compliance -- WSJ

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Antitrust Chief Retools to Ensure Compliance -- WSJ
August 21 2020 - 03:02AM
Dow Jones News
By Brent Kendall

https://ih.advfn.com/stock-market/NASDAQ/alphabet-GOOGL/stock-news/83114949/antitrust-chief-retools-to-ensure-compliance-ws

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 21, 2020).

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's top antitrust official is shaking up internal operations, aiming to better coordinate enforcement in the financial sector and ensure that companies across the economy stick to commitments they make in legal settlements designed to protect competition.

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who is ordering the restructuring, also is creating a new group to promote scrutiny of potentially anticompetitive business practices that are unrelated to mergers and acquisitions, which tend to absorb much of the antitrust division's attention.

After nearly three years in the job, "my goal is to capitalize on what I have witnessed as the institution's strengths and to fix some of the organizational weaknesses," Mr. Delrahim said in an email interview with The Wall Street Journal. He is expected to discuss the changes in a virtual event hosted later Thursday by Stanford University.

On the financial front, the Justice Department's oversight and enforcement has been fragmented for years, with areas like banks, credit cards, insurance and securities exchanges each being handled by different sections within the antitrust division. Mr. Delrahim said he is bringing all of these areas into one cohesive group, with the goal of combining internal expertise and improving antitrust enforcement on financial issues.

The department needs to "take a fresh look at how new technologies are changing the competitive dynamics in these industries, particularly the financial services industry that is key to every American consumer and small business," he said.

The changes come as financial markets are becoming another front for high tech, with consumers conducting an array of transactions with a click of their smartphones. The department is grappling with more issues related to this transformation. For example, it is currently scrutinizing Visa Inc.'s proposed $5.3 billion deal to buy Plaid Inc., a growing San Francisco-based firm that provides the technology connecting bank accounts to payment apps like Venmo. It is also looking at Mastercard Inc.'s nearly $1 billion deal for fintech firm Finicity, which helps consumers connect their banking data to third parties like mortgage lenders.

The reorganization also comes after the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission recently agreed to a formal working partnership that could lead to greater antitrust scrutiny of the securities industry, including the fees charged by stock exchanges for crucial market data.

While the Justice Department does resort to litigation to challenge some threats to competition, the reality is that many of its antitrust cases, especially related to mergers, are resolved through consent decrees -- legal settlements in which companies agree to make concessions designed to prevent harm to consumers.

Mr. Delrahim said he is creating a new office that will monitor compliance with those agreements.

Settlement compliance became a prominent issue last year when the department alleged concert promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc. repeatedly violated the terms of an agreement in which the department allowed it to buy Ticketmaster in 2010, on the condition that it refrain from using its growing power to suppress competition.

Instead, Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, strong-armed concert venues into using its Ticketmaster subsidiary in violation of the decree, the department alleged. The company denied the allegations but agreed to resolve them by extending the terms of the settlement another five years.

Last week, telecommunications provider CenturyLink Inc. agreed to an extended consent decree and the appointment of an independent monitor after the department alleged it violated a settlement that allowed it to buy Level 3 Communications Inc.

The third prong of the division's update involves creating a new task force designed to bolster investigations of civil antitrust concerns unrelated to mergers.

Government antitrust lawsuits challenging attempted monopolization or other anticompetitive conduct have been rare for years, across Republican and Democratic administrations, drawing widespread criticism.

There have been occasional exceptions, including a 2012 case the Justice Department and about 30 states brought against Apple Inc. alleging the iPad maker orchestrated a conspiracy among five of the top six U.S. publishers to fix e-book prices. The case ultimately led to Apple returning about $400 million to consumers.

The number of conduct-related investigations has grown recently, with the Justice Department working on several high-profile probes now, including tech-platform investigations of Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Apple, as well as investigations of the beef and pork industries.

Mr. Delrahim didn't comment on any specific investigations -- and he has recused himself in the Google matter -- but said the task force would allow a dedicated group of attorneys to become experts at some of the unique skills required for investigating and litigating conduct cases.


Write to Brent Kendall at brent.kendall@wsj.com

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