Competition regulator becomes predictably interventionist

By Cat Rutter Pooly, Financial Times

The UK competition watchdog’s review of a gambling megamerger between Flutter and Stars is predictable. It comes from a regulator that dealmakers complain is increasingly unpredictable.

The Competition and Markets Authority upset advisory apple carts when it dared to block Sainsbury’s tie-up with Asda in 2019, after clearing Tesco’s takeover of wholesaler Booker. A tardy intervention in Takeaway.com’s takeover of Just Eat last month and an in-depth probe of Amazon’s acquisition of a minority stake in Deliveroo have left dealmakers spitting that uncertainty will stifle M&A.

They are right there is a new uncertainty over which deals the CMA will call in for scrutiny. It has been pushing its jurisdictional boundaries. Dealmakers who once assumed their transactions would not trouble the antitrust authorities can no longer be so sure.

But the CMA’s belligerence should not surprise. The watchdog has said, plainly and repeatedly, that it is taking a more active approach. And a wide-ranging review by the CMA of competition in Britain, commissioned on Wednesday, shows government support. The reasons are several, and sensible.

Brexit plays a part. The EU has handled the complex, cross-border cases. The CMA must prove, quickly, that companies should fear it as much as they do Margrethe Vestager, EU competition commissioner. After almost two years as CMA chairman, ex-MP Andrew Tyrie is doing his best. He has brought a politician’s perspective to the regulator. His political nous is plain in the watchdog’s choice of big, consumer-facing cases, and in prioritising consumer protection.

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