U.S. judge rules AT&T can acquire Time Warner for $85 billion

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If Senior United States District Judge Richard Leon approves AT&T's purchase of Time Warner today, analysts and investors are likely to read it as a positive sign for the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.

In October 2016, AT&T announced its plan to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion, and a total of $108 billion with debt. In February, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for documents and emails between the Justice Department and the White House about the decision to sue AT&T and Time Warner.

AT&T, in turn, said it needs Time Warner to have a fighting chance against tech giants like Google and Facebook.

But AT&T failed to provide any evidence suggesting that the DOJ's prosecution of the merger had "discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent", Leon said in a ruling earlier in the trial. The DOJ moved to block the merger in March, arguing that the merger would reduce competition and hurt consumer choice. Therefore, AT&T would likely increase the rates that other content distributors must pay to air Time Warner content - forcing its rivals to either raise prices on their subscribers (which would inspire some consumers to switch to DirectTV), or else accept lower profit margins (which would impair their ability to compete with AT&T in the long term). The companies then entered into discussions with the DOJ past year and rumors surfaced that the agency had suggested some divestitures in order for AT&T to avoid an antitrust lawsuit.

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AT&T's wooing of Time Warner has been politically complicated from the outset. The "drop dead" deadline for the merger to be completed is June 21.

The decision on a so-called "vertical integration" - between two companies who do not make competing products - could have a profound impact on future mergers.

Twenty-First Century Fox, which has garnered interest from Disney and Comcast, saw its shares climb 4.6 percent, to $42.25, in after-hours trading. President Donald Trump, while still a candidate, said he would block the deal "because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few".

A Comcast-Fox deal would be another vertical merger, like the AT&T-Time Warner deal.

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It was reported in May that Comcast was preparing a $60 billion all-cash bid for 21st Century Fox media assets that Disney already agreed to buy for $52 billion in stock.

The case - one of the most closely watched antitrust trials in decades - is viewed as a bellwether for other deals waiting in the wings. Beyond its wireless network and internet service, AT&T acquired DirecTV in a $67 billion deal in 2015, which also had the blessings of government regulators.

Critics charged that Trump had come out against the deal because of Time Warner's CNN, which has been highly critical of his presidency.

The mega-merger is a high-stakes bet by AT&T Inc. on the synergy between companies that produce news and entertainment and those that funnel it to consumers - who spend more time watching video on phones and tablets and less time on traditional live TV on a big screen.

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