Justice Files to Halt Anheuser-Busch Modelo Deal

Acquisition would substantially lessen competition and raise prices

Budweiser may be the king of beers, but the U.S. Department of Justice is looking to confine the kingdom. The DOJ filed a civil antitrust lawsuit today to halt Anheuser-Busch InBev's $20.1 billion deal to buy the remaining shares of Grupo Modelo, the makers of Corona.

Combining the largest and third largest beer makers would "substantially lessen competition," said the DOJ, which filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Together the two firms would control about 46 percent of the beer sales in the U.S. MillerCoors, the second largest beer firm, accounts for about 26 percent of sales. ABI has a 43 percent voting interest and 50.35 economic interest in Modelo.

"If ABI fully owned and controlled Modelo, ABI would be able to increase beer prices to American consumers," Bill Baer, assistant attorney general in charge of DOJ's antitrust division, said in a statement. "This lawsuit seeks to prevent ABI from eliminating Modelo as an important competitive force in the beer industry."

According to the DOJ complaint, the beer industry is already highly concentrated. While other beer makers such as MillerCoors tend to follow ABI's price lead, Modelo has not. Letting ABI take control of Modelo would therefore remove an important price pressure on ABI.

To prove its case, the DOJ's complaint quotes internal company documents showing ABI's intent to maintain its upward price leadership compared to Modelo's strategy, which was to narrow the "price gap" by stealing market share.

The complaint also details ABI's efforts to target Corona, which the brewer considered a competitive threat, leading to the launch of Bud Light Lime in 2008. A merger would have removed the threat.

Responding to the complaint, Anheuser-Busch said it remained confident in its position. "We intend to vigorously contest the DOJ's action in federal court," the company said in a statement.

However, given the lawsuit, the company also said it no longer expects to close the deal during the first quarter.