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Illegal price fixing followed by a game of golf

Last week, the European Commission imposed a record fine of almost €1.5b on a group of firms found to have been involved in price fixing. Between 1996 and 2006 these firms fixed world-wide prices of cathode ray tubes which are used to make TV screens and computer monitors.

The firms involved in fixing the prices in one or both of these markets included household names such as Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and Philips. As these tubes accounted for over half the price of a screen this clearly had a significant knock-on effect on the amount final consumers paid. The European competition agency only discovered the cartel when it was informed that it had been in operation by Chunghwa, a Taiwanese company that had also been involved. Therefore, under the Commission’s leniency policy Chunghwa was granted full immunity from the fines.

The cartel members held frequent meetings in cities across Europe and Asia. The top level meetings were known as ‘green meetings’ as they were often followed by a round of golf. Interestingly, this is not the first time the game of golf has featured in an international cartel. In the famous lysine cartel an informant working for the FBI used the quality of the golf courses to convince the cartel members to meet in Hawaii, where the FBI had the jurisdiction to secretly record the meeting as evidence.

The screen tube cartel is one of the most highly organised cartels the European Commission has ever detected. Different prices were even fixed for individual TV and computer manufacturers. Furthermore, compliance with the cartel agreement was strictly monitored with plant visits to audit how much firms were producing. The cartel was also clearly very aware that it was breaking the law and that information needed to be concealed as some of the documents discovered stated that they should be destroyed after they had been read. One document even said that:

“Everybody is requested to keep it as secret as it would be serious damage if it is open to customers or European Commission.”

Another interesting feature of the cartel is that it occurred at a time when the technology was being replaced by LCD and plasma screens. Therefore, the cartel appears to have been partly motivated by a desire to mitigate the negative impact the declining market would have on the firms involved.

According to the Independent newspaper:

“Philips said it would challenge what it called a disproportionate and unjustified penalty. Panasonic and Toshiba are also considering legal challenges. Samsung reserved its comment.

TV makers in record 1.47bn-euro fine BBC News (05/12/12)
TV computer makers fined $1.93 billion for price fixing Corporate Crime Reporter (05/12/12)
European antitrust fines: a new wave of deterrence? EurActiv, Mario Mariniello (11/12/12)

Questions

  1. What is the impact of a successful cartel on economic welfare?
  2. Describe the impact declining demand has on firms in a competitive market.
  3. Why might it have been necessary for the cartel to charge different prices to individual TV and computer manufacturers?
  4. Why would the cartel need to audit how much members are producing?
  5. Why do competition authorities offer immunity to firms that inform them about cartel behaviour?
  6. Based on the evidence in the articles, do you think the firms involved have grounds to appeal the fines imposed?
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