President Biden’s top antitrust officials have used novel arguments over the past few years to stop tech giants and other large companies from making deals, a strategy that has had mixed success.
But on Friday, when Microsoft closed its blockbuster $69 billion acquisition of the video game publisher Activision Blizzard after beating back a federal government challenge, the message sent by the merger’s completion was incontrovertible: Big Tech can still get bigger.
“Big Tech companies will certainly be reading the tea leaves,” said Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “Smart money says merge now while the merging is good.”
Microsoft’s purchase of Activision was the latest deal to move forward after a string of failed challenges to mergers by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, which are also confronting the big tech companies through lawsuits arguing they broke antimonopoly laws. Leaders at the two agencies had tried to block at least 10 other deals over the past two years, promising to dislodge longstanding ideas from antitrust law that they said had protected behemoths like Microsoft, Google and Amazon.
But their efforts ran headlong into skeptical courts, largely leaving those core assumptions untouched. In the case of Microsoft’s Activision deal, the idea that the F.T.C. questioned was a “vertical” transaction, which refers to mergers between firms that are not primarily direct competitors. Regulators have rarely sued to block such deals, figuring that they generally do not create monopolies.
Yet “vertical” deals have been especially common in the tech industry, where companies like Meta, Apple and Amazon have sought to grow and protect their empires by spreading into new business lines.
In 2017, for instance, Amazon bought the high-end grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. In 2012, Meta acquired the photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion and then shelled out nearly $19 billion for the messaging service WhatsApp in 2014. Of the 24 deals worth more than $1 billion completed by the tech giants from 2013 to mid-August of this year, 20 were vertical transactions, according to data provided by Dealogic.
The sealing of the Microsoft-Activision deal has buttressed the notion that vertical deals generally are not anticompetitive and can still go through relatively unscathed.
“There continues to be the presumption that vertical integration can be a healthy phenomena,” said William Kovacic, a former chair of the F.T.C.
The F.T.C. is proceeding with its challenge to the Microsoft-Activision deal even as it has closed, said Victoria Graham, a spokeswoman for the agency, who added that the acquisition was a “threat to competition.” The Justice Department declined to comment. The White House did not immediately have a comment.
The idea that vertical transactions were less likely to harm competition than combinations of direct rivals has been ingrained since the late 1970s. In the ensuing decades, the Justice Department and F.T.C. took no challenges to vertical deals to court, instead reaching settlements that allowed companies to proceed with their deals if they changed practices or divested parts of their business.
Then, in 2017, the Justice Department sued to block the $85.4 billion merger between the phone giant AT&T and the media company Time Warner, in the agency’s first attempt to stop a vertical deal in decades. A judge ruled against the challenge in 2018, saying he did not see enough evidence of anticompetitive harms from the union of companies in different industries.
Mr. Biden’s top antitrust officials — Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, and Jonathan Kanter, the top antitrust official at the Justice Department — have been even more aggressive in challenging vertical mergers since they were appointed in 2021.
That year, the F.T.C. sued to stop the chip maker Nvidia from buying Arm, which licenses chip technology, and the companies abandoned the deal. In January 2022, the F.T.C. announced it would block Lockheed Martin’s $4.4 billion acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, a missile propulsion systems maker. The companies dropped their merger.
But judges rejected many of their efforts for lack of evidence and denied Ms. Khan and Mr. Kanter a courtroom win that would have set new precedent. In 2022, after the D.O.J. sued to block UnitedHealth Group’s acquisition of Change Healthcare, a judge ruled against the agency.
The F.T.C.’s move to block Microsoft’s purchase of Activision last year was a bold effort by Ms. Khan, given that the two companies do not primarily compete with one another. The agency argued that Microsoft, which makes the Xbox gaming console, could harm consumers and competition by withholding Activision’s games from rival consoles and would also use the deal to dominate the young market for game streaming.
To show that would not be the case, Microsoft offered to make one of Activision’s major game franchises, Call of Duty, available to other consoles for 10 years. The company also reached a settlement with the European Union, promising to make Activision titles available to competitors in the nascent market for game streaming, which allowed the deal to go through.
In July, a federal judge ultimately ruled that the F.T.C. didn’t provide enough evidence that Microsoft intended to forestall competition through the deal and that the software giant’s concession eliminated competition concerns.
The agencies are “facing judges who have said 40 years of economics show that vertical mergers are good,” said Nancy Rose, a professor of applied economics at M.I.T. with an expertise in antitrust, who is among a group of scholars who say vertical deals can be harmful to competition. She said the agencies should not back down from challenging vertical mergers, but that regulators would need to be careful to choose cases they can prove with an abundance of evidence.
Ms. Khan and Mr. Kanter have said they are willing to take risks and lose lawsuits to expand the boundaries of the law and spark action in Congress to change antitrust rules. Ms. Khan has noted that the F.T.C. has successfully stopped more than a dozen mergers.
Mr. Kanter has said that challenges to mergers from the Justice Department and the F.T.C. have deterred problematic deals.
“There are fewer problematic mergers that are coming to us in the first place,” he said in a speech at the American Economic Liberties Project, a left-leaning think tank, in August.
Still, bigger companies that have the resources to fight back will probably feel more confident challenging regulators after the Microsoft-Activision deal, antitrust lawyers said. The aggressive posture by regulators has simply become the cost of doing business, said Ryan Shores, who led tech antitrust investigations at the D.O.J. during the Trump administration and is now a partner at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb.
“A lot of companies have come to the realization that if they have a deal they want to get through, they have to be prepared to litigate,” he said.