'Corporate weddings' spur antitrust watch

This is a big year for weddings - corporate weddings, that is. Big companies have bought out little companies. Companies in financial trouble have merged with stronger companies. And, of course, big companies have merged with other big companies, forming ''mega-companies.''

The latest marriage made in the board room is between the INA Corporation and Connecticut General Corporation, two giants of the insurance industry. When the two formally tie the knot, they will become the second largest publicly held, multiline insurance company after the Aetna Life & Casualty Company.

Such giant mergers, notes W. T. Grimm & Co., merger specialists, have accelerated this year. Through the first nine months of 1981, there have been eight mergers valued at more than $1 billion. Since then, there have been more, including Mobil Corporation's pending purchase of Marathon Oil for nearly $5 billion. Total dollar volume during nine months for the companies acquired has amounted to $60.8 billion, topping the record amount paid last year of $44.3 billion.

This merger mania has not gone unnoticed in Washington.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina recently held a hearing at which the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, William Baxter, was questioned on antitrust policy. According to an aide, the committee will also question James Miller, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), on Nov. 18.

Still another senator, Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, has thrown down a gauntlet, challenging the Justice Department's Baxter to take a stand against some of the mergers. After the Mobil-Marathon announcement, Senator Metzenbaum fumed that ''while the merger movement swells, the Justice Department has become benignly indifferent'' to the needs of the consumer and small business.

At the Justice Department, a spokesman says the department looks at every merger of signficance as it comes along. And he notes that the FTC is looking at the Mobil-Marathon merger. Additionally, the spokesman says it or the FTC would examine the Connecticut General-INA merger.

The guidelines used by the FTC and the Justice Department often revolve around whether or not a merger will stifle competition. Although size is important, anticompetitiveness is considered more important.

When the FTC or the Justice Department begins to look the INA-Connecticut General merger, they will find two companies of about the same size, competing in different areas. The INA Corporation is the nation's ninth largest property-casualty insurer with revenues in this area of $3.3 billion. Congen, as its new partner is known, had only $998 million in property-casaulty revenues, but reported $4.2 billion of life, health, and annuities revenues compared with only $999 million for INA. While Congen had $80 billion of life insurance in force, INA had only $18 billion.

Analyst Jeffrey Cohen of the Value Line Investment Survey says the merger could make the new company, to be called North American General Corporation, ''a formidable company'' in the insurance business.

This type of merger has been somewhat unusual this year. According to W. T. Grimm, many mergers have been divestitures and sales of privately held businesses.

However, it is the giant takeovers, such as the DuPont-Conoco merger for $8 billion or the Texasgulf-Elf Aquitaine combination for $4.3 billion, that make the headlines. With the stock market currently in the doldrums, Tomislava Simic, director of research at W. T. Grimm, says it will be interesting to see if the merger trend continues, since stock payments have outnumbered cash transactions this year.

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