The US Department of Justice on Wednesday said it has filed a lawsuit against Novelis, a major aluminium company fully owned by India's Aditya Birla Group, seeking to stop it from acquiring rival player Aleris over concern that the acquisition would create a monopoly in aluminium industry.
A defiant Novelis asserted that it will challenge the lawsuit and is going ahead with its proposed acquisition of Aleris Corporation.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that it has filed a civil antitrust lawsuit seeking to block the proposed transaction in order to preserve competition in the North American market for rolled aluminum sheet for automotive applications, commonly referred to as aluminum auto body sheet.
However, Novelis president and CEO Steve Fisher said, "Our merger with Aleris threatens no one, and to the contrary will strengthen our ability to compete against steel, meet growing customer demand for aluminum, achieve our recycling goals, and bolster our sustainability platform worldwide,"
The DOJ lawsuit is based on the contention that the only relevant competition among automotive body sheet providers is that among aluminum manufacturers such as Novelis and Aleris, the Aditya Birla group company said.
It ignores competition from steel automotive body sheet, even though steel automotive body sheet is currently used in nearly 90 per cent of the market, it asserted.
"The day-to-day reality of the automotive body sheet market is aluminum automotive body sheet striving to take share from steel, and the steel automotive body sheet companies fighting back," Fisher said.
"We are disappointed that the DOJ has missed this, but also confident that in the next phase of this process the full scope of the competition we face will be recognised appropriately," Fisher said.
In its lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohion, the Antitrust Division of Department of Justice alleges the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet.
Automakers rely on Novelis and Aleris to produce aluminum parts for automobiles to make cars lighter, more fuel-efficient, safer and more durable, the lawsuit said. The Antitrust Division has agreed Novelis to refer the matter to binding arbitration should certain conditions be triggered.
"Automakers increasingly need aluminum auto body sheet to satisfy American consumers' demand for larger vehicles that are lighter and more fuel-efficient. The loss of a competing supplier of aluminum auto body sheet ultimately would harm American car buyers," said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.
"This arbitration would allow the Antitrust Division to resolve the dispositive issue of market definition in this case efficiently and effectively, saving taxpayer resources. Alternative dispute resolution is an important tool that the Antitrust Division can and will use, in appropriate circumstances, to maximise its enforcement resources to protect American consumers," he said.
In its lawsuit, DOJ says that Aleris is an aggressive competitor whose expansion into the North American market had an immediate impact on pricing in North America.
If this deal were allowed to proceed, Novelis would lock up 60 per cent of projected total domestic capacity and the vast majority of uncommitted capacity, enabling the company to raise prices, reduce innovation and provide less favourable terms of service to the detriment of automakers and ultimately American consumers, it said.
Novelis's acquisition of Aleris would eliminate a rival it described as "poised for transformational growth", it said.
In a statement, Novelis said that to prevail in its lawsuit, the DOJ will need to prove that there is a distinct "relevant market" for aluminum automotive body sheet, which means that steel automotive body sheet does not significantly constrain the price and quality of aluminum automotive body sheet.
The DOJ does not deny that steel automotive body sheet usually competes with aluminum automotive body sheet, but instead contends that the constraint from steel is absent from some procurements (where an automotive manufacturer has supposedly already decided between steel and aluminum), it said.
Novelis believes that by focusing on just a small slice of steel-aluminum competition and ignoring the broader competitive process, the DOJ's theory contravenes well-established principles of market definition.
The DOJ also disregards the extraordinary bargaining power of the automotive manufacturers and their ability to generate bid processes that will ensure competitive pricing for automotive body sheet, Novelis alleged.
According to Novelis, due to the agreement reached with the DOJ on a timetable and process for resolving this dispute, it is confident that the DOJ suit is not an impediment to closing the transaction by the January 21, 2020, outside date under the merger agreement, even if a remedy is required to address the DOJ's competitive concerns.
The company is confident that the transaction will ultimately receive all necessary regulatory approvals in the US and in other relevant jurisdictions, said the Novelis statement.