By: Cooper Cuene
Since early this year, both public and private markets have endured a considerable slowdown as interest rates rose and the economy slowed. Despite this turbulence, one super-sized acquisition has demonstrated that not all companies are deterred from making big moves in the current market. In September, Adobe announced a plan to acquire Figma, a fast-growing tech company known for its cloud-based collaborative graphic design software. At a staggering $20 billion, the deal is set to break the record for the largest acquisition of a private tech startup, making Figma’s founder a billionaire in the process. That is, of course, assuming the deal goes through.
That assumption looms large. Because Figma is Adobe’s largest competitor in the market for cloud-based design software, news of the acquisition immediately triggered antitrust concerns. The unease was palpable throughout Figma’s user base, many of whom had been disappointed by Adobe’s mishandling of other design tools acquired in the past. However, while many observers have opined that FTC intervention is forthcoming, regulatory agencies are yet to take any meaningful action to block the acquisition.
The legality of corporate acquisitions, such as this one, is governed by section 7 of the Clayton Act. The act forbids one company from acquiring another when the result would be the creation of a monopoly. The act’s language is expansive, stating that “[n]o person . . . shall acquire, directly or indirectly, the whole or any part of the stock or other share capital . . . where . . . the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly.” 15 USC §18.
Naturally, such broad language has led to the development of expansive case law defining when the results of an acquisition will “lessen competition” or “tend to create a monopoly.” The Supreme Court has not ruled on the interpretation of these provisions since the 1960s. In the 1963 decision U.S. v. Philadelphia Nat. Bank, the Supreme Court ruled that any acquisition that results in a “significant increase” in market concentration would be viewed as “presumptively illegal.”
Over the years, the circuit courts have refined these broad principles. In addition to the standards set forth by the Supreme Court, many circuits have adopted a forward-looking analysis of the merger’s effects. For example, the Seventh Circuit noted in its 1986 decision Hospital Corp. of America v. F.T.C. that all that is required to show the formation of a monopoly is that “the merger create[s] an appreciable danger of such [monopolistic] consequences in the future.” This principle has continued to be applied to more recent cases. For example, when the Ninth Circuit granted an injunction to stop the acquisition of a seafood processing company in the 2016 case Boardman v. Pacific Seafood Group, the court noted that “a prima facie case [under section 7] can be established simply by showing a high market share would result from the proposed merger.”
Alternatively, we can consider the FTC’s own guidelines used to determine whether the agency will take action on a merger or acquisition. According to Section 1 of those guidelines, the “unifying theme” is the idea that mergers should not be permitted to “create, enhance, or entrench market power or to facilitate its exercise.” To this end, the guidelines state that important types of evidence to consider include: whether the firms are, or absent the merger are likely to become, head-to-head competitors; the sizes of the merging parties’ market shares; and direct historical comparisons to the potential merger. In addition to these considerations, the guidelines also consider the principle that the acquisition of one company by another should not serve to “diminish innovation.”
Drawing from both the applicable case law and the guidance published by the regulatory agencies, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Adobe will face antitrust action in its attempted acquisition. Adobe and Figma are the two largest competitors with the market for collaborative graphic design tools, a market which is projected to near $17.7 billion globally by 2027. If the acquisition were to be completed, combining Figma and Adobe’s pre-existing suite of graphic design tools would lead Adobe to possess a market share of nearly 70%.
The probability of FTC action is only increased by the fact that Figma and Adobe are direct head-to-head competitors. Figma’s website speaks for itself: it has an entire page dedicated to directly comparing its product to Adobe XD. By acquiring its largest competitor, Adobe could have the freedom to raise prices for all of its graphic design products. Speculation is already widespread that Figma’s free tier will be eliminated soon after a merger is completed. Finally, as mentioned previously, Adobe has a history of acquiring innovative graphic design upstarts before eventually allowing the products to stagnate and die. A direct historical comparison can be found in Adobe’s own acquisition of Macromedia and their well-loved design software, Firework, which stopped receiving development support soon after the acquisition completed. Between price hikes, direct competition, and Adobe’s acquisition track record, the likelihood of FTC action to block this deal is nearly certain.
Judicial precedent, FTC guidelines, and the circumstances of the acquisition support the conclusion that the FTC will take action to block the Adobe and Figma merger. The timing of the FTC suit and its exact allegations remain to be seen, but in all likelihood, the only question remaining is not if, but when.