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Rhodia, et al.; Analysis to Aid Public Comment

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AGENCY:

Federal Trade Commission.

ACTION:

Proposed Consent Agreement.

SUMMARY:

The consent agreement in this matter settles alleged violations of federal law prohibiting unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition. The attached Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes both the allegations in the draft complaint that accompanies the consent agreement and the terms of the consent order—embodied in the consent agreement—that would settle these allegations.

DATES:

Comments must be received on or before April 13, 2000.

ADDRESSES:

Comments should be directed to: FTC/Office of the Secretary, Room 159, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Robert Tovsky, FTC/S-3105, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580. (202) 326-2634.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Pursuant to section 6(f) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 38 Stat. 721, 15 U.S.C. 46 and section 2.34 of the Commission's Rules of Practice (16 CFR 2.34), notice is hereby given that the above-captioned consent agreement containing a consent order to cease and desist, having been filed with and accepted, subject to final approval, by the Commission, has been placed on the public record for a period of thirty (30) days. The following Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes the terms of the consent agreement, and the allegations in the complaint. An electronic copy of the full text of the consent agreement package can be obtained from the FTC Home Page (for March 14, 2000), on the World Wide Web, at “http://www.ftc.gov/​ftc/​formal.htm. A paper copy can be obtained from the FTC Public Reference Room, Room H-130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580, either in person or by calling (202) 326-3627.

Public comment is invited. Comments should be directed to: FTC/Office of the Secretary, Room 159, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580. Two paper copies of each comment should be filed, and should be accompanied, if possible, by a 31/2 inch diskette containing an electronic copy of the comment. Such comments or views will be considered by the Commission and will be available for inspection and copying at its principal office in accordance with Section 4.9(b)(6)(ii) of the Commission's Rules of Practice (16 CFR 4.9(b)(6)(ii)).Start Printed Page 15157

Analysis to Aid Public Comment

The Federal Trade Commission (“Commission”) has accepted, subject to final approval, an Agreement Containing Consent Orders (“Consent Agreement”) from Rhodia, Donau Chemie AG (“Donau”), and Albright Wilson PLC (“AW”) (collectively “respondents”). The Consent Agreement is intended to resolve anticompetitive effects stemming from Rhodia's proposed acquisition of AW. The Consent Agreement includes a proposed Decision and Order (the “Order”), that would require Rhodia to divest AW's pure phosphoric acid business to Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (“PCS”). For the last several years, AW and PCS have been partners in a phosphates manufacturing joint venture (the “Joint Venture”), which includes, among other assets, a pure phosphoric acid production facility in Aurora, North Carolina, and in phosphates manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Consent Agreement also includes an Order to Maintain Assets that requires respondents to preserve the assets they are required to divest as a viable, competitive, and ongoing operation until the divestiture is achieved.

The Order, if finally issued by the Commission, would settle charges that Rhodia's proposed acquisition of AW may have substantially lessened competition in the United States market for pure phosphoric acid. The Commission has reason to believe that Rhodia's proposed acquisition of AW would have violated section 7 of the Clayton Act and section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. The proposed complaint, described below, relates the basis for this belief.

The proposed Order has been placed on the public record for thirty (30) days for reception of comments by interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After thirty (30) days, the Commission will review the agreement and comments received and decide whether to withdraw its acceptance of the Consent Agreement or make final the proposed Order.

According to the Commission's proposed complaint, the relevant line of commerce in which to analyze the effects of Rhodia's proposed acquisition of AW is pure phosphoric acid, and the relevant geographic market is the United States. Pure phosphoric acid is used as an input into a wide variety of consumer of industrial products, ranging from cola beverages to cleaning compounds and metal treatments. The proposed complaint alleges that the pure phosphoric acid market in the United States already is highly concentrated, and that the proposed acquisition of AW by Rhodia would increase concentration in that market, as measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, by over 600 points, to a level close to 3000. The Commission's complaint further notes that Rhodia and AW currently employ the low-cost solvent extraction process to produce pure phosphoric acid.

The proposed complaint also alleges that entry into the relevant market would not be timely, likely, or sufficient to deter or offset adverse effects of the acquisition on competition. Entry is difficult in this market because of the length of time it would take to build new construction facilities and enter the market; and because of the large minimum efficient scale of new production facilities, which would require a new entrant to sell large volumes of pure phosphoric acid into the North American market, driving down market prices to a level that would render new entry unprofitable. Significant expansion by smaller producers also is unlikely.

The proposed complaint alleges that Rhodia's proposed acquisition of AW would lessen competition by making coordinated interaction among the remaining producers more likely. The complaint describes how Rhodia's documents project that the combination of Rhodia and Albright Wilson would lead to higher prices for pure phosphoric acid.

The proposed Order is designed to remedy the anticompetitive effects of the acquisition in the United States market for pure phosphoric acid, as alleged in the complaint, by requiring the divestiture to PCS of AW's United States pure phosphoric acid business, including AW's interest in the Joint Venture, as well as joint venture manufacturing assets, including the Aurora pure phosphoric acid plant and the Cincinnati plant. The Order would also require respondents to provide PCS with technology AW has developed for manufacturing pure phosphoric acid and for using it in certain applications. PCS would be able to use that technology to build pure phosphoric acid plant both within and outside of the United States, and to license the technology to other firms that sought to build pure phosphoric acid plants. The proposed Order would also require respondents to divest other assets related to AW's pure phosphoric acid business, including customer lists, contracts, and other intangible assets. The proposed divestiture does not require divestiture of AW's pure phosphoric acid plant in Mexico, which does not export pure phosphoric acid to customers in the United States. AW's Mexican plant produces pure phosphoric acid used primarily in home laundry detergents in Mexico, an application that no longer exists in the United States.

PCS, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is the world's third-largest producer of phosphoric acid for fertilizer. It also produces other fertilizer materials such as nitrogen and potash. PCS entered the phosphates business in 1995, through its acquisition of Texasgulf. A publicly-traded Canadian company, PCS in 1998 had an operating income of $446 million and a net income of $261 million on sales of $2.3 billion. PCS mines phosphate rock at Aurora, North Carolina, and also produces “green” phosphoric acid at that site. Slightly over 10% of PCS's green acid production at Aurora is used as a feedstock for the manufacture of pure phosphoric acid.

If the Commission, at the time that it accepts the Order for public comment, notifies respondent that it does not approve of the proposed divestiture to PCS, or the manner of the divesture, the proposed Order provides that respondents would have 120 days to divest the AW pure phosphoric acid business to a different acquirer. If respondents did not complete the divestiture in that period, a trustee would be appointed.

The proposed Order to Maintain Assets that is also included in the Consent Agreement requires that respondents preserve the AW assets they are required to divest as a viable and competitive operation until those assets are transferred to the Commission-approved acquirer. It requires that respondents to maintain the viability and competitiveness of the assets, and to conduct the AW pure phosphoric acid business in the ordinary course of business. Furthermore, the Order to Maintain Assets includes an obligation on respondents to build and maintain a sufficient inventory of pure phosphoric acid to ensure there is no shortage of supply during the period that the business is being transferred to the Commission-approved acquirer. The Order to Maintain Assets also requires respondents to provide necessary support services and maintain an adequate workforce for the AW pure phosphoric acid business.

The Consent Agreement requires respondents to provide the Commission, within thirty (30) days of the date the Agreement is signed, with an initial report setting forth in detail the manner Start Printed Page 15158in which respondents will comply with the provisions relating to the divestiture of assets. The proposed Order further requires respondents to provide the Commission with a report of compliance with the Order within thirty (30) days following the date the Order becomes final and every thirty (30) days thereafter until they have complied with the terms of the Order.

The purpose of this analysis is to facilitate public comment on the proposed Consent Agreement and the proposed Order. This analysis is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the Consent Agreement or the proposed Order or in any way to modify the terms of the Consent Agreement or the proposed Order.

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By direction of the Commission.

Donald S. Clark,

Secretary.

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Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Mozelle W. Thompson

In the matter of Rhodia, staff has presented to the Commission a complaint and consent order that would settle the section 7, Clayton Act and section 5, Federal Trade Commission Act concerns raised by Rhodia's acquisition of Albright Wilson plc from Donau Chemie AG. The proposed complaint narrowly defines the relevant market for pure phosphoric acid (PPA) as within the boundaries of the United States. For the following reasons, I disagree.

The North American PPA market has operated in an oligopolistic manner for the past twenty years or more. The major North American competitors have successfully engineered the highest PPA prices in the world through a variety of actions, including signaling prices, retaliating selectively to enforce high prices, controlling imports through agreements with a foreign supplier, and eliminating domestic competitors through acquisition. Rhodia, a significant member of the North American oligopoly, now proposes to acquire Albright Wilson. I believe such an acquisition would allow Rhodia to:

(1) Reinforce its world-wide dominant position among phosphates producers;

(2) Protect PPA prices and market share in North America; and

(3) Position itself to have the capacity to enforce market discipline in the North American market.

Evidence of Rhodia's view of the acquisition's impact on the North American market alone leads me to believe that the geographic scope of the PPA product extends to all of North America, thus including Albright Wilson's Mexican plant in the market. Other evidence, however, also demonstrates that North America is the relevant market. Accordingly, the Commission should have fully considered ordering the sale of Albright Wilson's interests in both of its North American PPA plants to Potash Corporation and/or another purchaser not saddled with the incentives and history Rhodia carries.

Shipment Decisions and the Scope of the Geographic Market

The complaint apparently limits the scope of the geographic market because Albright Wilson, the owner of a Mexican PPA plant and part owner of a North Carolina plant, does not currently ship Mexican PPA into the United States even though the evidence convinces me that the Mexican capacity could be used to supply customers in the United States. Although this private business decision from a multi-plant supplier creates a shipment pattern that superficially supports finding a United States PPA market, one principle of geographic market analysis is that competition among geographically differentiated producers may be linked indirectly by the customers they can economically serve.

Despite the decision not to ship PPA into the United States from the Mexican plant, North American capacity is competitively linked—and North American PPA suppliers compete—because the Mexican plant's PPA is sold to customers in Mexico and Canada that U.S. domestic plants would otherwise supply. Moreover, Albright Wilson's joint venture plant, as well as other competitors' U.S. plants, undoubtedly serve customers that Albright Wilson's Mexican plant would otherwise serve, but for Albright Wilson's decision concerning which of its plants would serve which North American customers.

Divestiture Policy and the Adequacy of the Ordered Relief

As a routine starting point, the Commission's ongoing policy concerns about merger relief generally leads us to consider requiring the complete divestiture of either one of the merging parties' overlapping businesses in the relevant market. This divestiture policy limits the potential adverse market consequences by maintaining the pre-acquisition market structure and by maximizing the potential that the purchaser would be viable and competitive.

I am concerned that we have not adhered to this policy here, where there is significant evidence that the market is acting noncompetitively, as well as compelling evidence supporting a challenge of the proposed acquisition. Rhodia is the dominant phosphates producer in the world and it will become—even taking into account the majority's relief—the leader in the North American PPA market. Thus, Rhodia, through this acquisition, would gain additional North American capacity that could be used to enforce higher prices.

Although the relief set forth in the consent order—which requires Rhodia to sell the current Albright Wilson joint venture interest in the North Carolina plant—does limit the potential adverse market impact, I still am concerned that the relief does not go far enough. In looking forward, if we allow Rhodia to acquire the Mexican plant and become the competitor controlling the greatest amount of capacity in North America, it could leverage the Mexican plant's capacity to discipline competitors' pricing. Thus, a settlement that allows Rhodia to become the North American market leader by acquiring Albright Wilson's interest in either of its two North American plants should be fully and cautiously scrutinized by the Commission to determine whether further relief is warranted. By alleging a United States geographic market here, the majority has unfortunately isolated itself from a full consideration of the appropriate divestiture and, when evaluating future possible PPA plant acquisitions, the Commission would face the additional burden of justifying a market redefinition.

One could argue that Rhodia's ownership of the Mexican plant, while providing it the capacity to attain the leading position in North America, ironically may well slightly improve the market concentration data. But the limited evidence before me suggests that the majority neither fully explored nor evaluated the consequences of this concentration data or the options available to the Commission. These options include ordering the sale of all of the Albright Wilson assets to Potash, a North American-only competitor, or ordering the sale of the joint venture interest in the North Carolina plant to Potash and the Mexican plant to another independent purchaser. These options—when evaluated with the limited information presented to the Commission—appear no worse than allowing Rhodia to own the Mexican plant, and, in fact, either of these options might prove superior to the majority's relief.

Thus, by basing a complaint on a narrow United States market and avoiding direct confrontation of the issue whether Rhodia should be allowed Start Printed Page 15159to purchase the Mexican plant, the majority permits Rhodia to acquire additional North American capacity and perhaps ensures that the PPA market will act noncompetitively in the future. In my view, the majority's unwillingness to make a minor correction now could squander a valuable opportunity to protect North American PPA consumers.

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[FR Doc. 00-6988 Filed 3-20-00; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 6750-01-M