US may ease merger rules

THE UNITED STATES will consider raising the thresholds for mergers that must be notified to its competition authorities, easing the way for takeover activity.

Washington has been increasingly active in competition policy over the last few years, taking on the software giant Microsoft, for instance. But the government has previously indicated that it wants that activity to be focussed on a few big issues rather than policing the broad mass of mergers.

The latest proposal was put forward by Orrin Hatch, a leading Senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at hearings last week. Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, welcomed the proposal and said she would discuss it with her staff, including Joel Klein, head of the antitrust division.

"It sounds like a very good suggestion and I'd like to talk to Mr Klein," she said at the hearing.

The Hart Scott Rodino law, which is one of the basic US antitrust laws, was passed in 1976, requiring pre-notification for mergers above certain thresholds. Companies must give advance notice if the net annual sales or total assets of one company involved is over $10m and the other is over $100m, and securities and assets in the deal are over $15m.

These thresholds have not been changed in 23 years, and the combination of inflation and the rising global pace of merger activity means that many more deals now fall within these parameters than would have been intended 20 years ago. Mr Hatch said the committee planned hearings to assess how the rules might be changed.

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