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Posts Tagged ‘collusion’

Collusion between German car makers

The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.

Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:

co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.

In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.

Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.

It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.

Articles
European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)

Questions

  1. What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
  2. Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
  3. How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?
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New tools to enhance cartel detection

Price fixing agreements between firms are one of the most serious breaches of competition law. Therefore, if detected, the firms involved face substantial fines (see here for an example), plus there is also the potential for jail sentences and director disqualification for participants. However, due to their secretive nature and the need for hard evidence of communication between firms, it is difficult for competition authorities to detect cartel activity.

In order to assist detection, competition authorities offer leniency programmes that guarantee full immunity from fines to the first participant to come forward and blow the whistle on the cartel. This has become a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels. Recently, competition authorities have introduced a number of new tools to try to enhance cartel detection.

First, the European Commission launched an online tool to make it easier for cartels to be reported to them. This tool allows anonymous two-way communication in the form of text messages between a whistle blower and the Commission. The Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

If people are concerned by business practices that they think are wrong, they can help put things right. Inside knowledge can be a powerful tool to help the Commission uncover cartels and other anti-competitive practices. With our new tool it is possible to provide information, while maintaining anonymity. Information can contribute to the success of our investigations quickly and more efficiently to the benefit of consumers and the EU’s economy as a whole.

Second, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an online and social media campaign to raise awareness of what is illegal under competition law and to encourage illegal activity to be reported to them. The CMA stated that:

Cartels are both harmful and illegal, and the consequences of breaking the law are extremely serious. That is why we are launching this campaign – to help people understand what cartel activity looks like and how to report it so we can take action.

This campaign is on the back of the CMA’s own research which found that less that 25% of the businesses they surveyed believed that they knew competition law well. Furthermore, the CMA is now offering a reward of up to £100,000 and guaranteed anonymity to individuals who provide them with information.

It will be fascinating to see the extent to which these new tools are used and whether they aid the competition authorities in detecting and prosecuting cartel behaviour.

Articles
CMA launches crackdown on cartels as illegal activity rises The Telegraph, Bradley Gerrard (20/03/17)
European Commission launches new anonymous whistleblower tool, but who would use it? Competition Policy Blog, Andreas Stephan (21/03/17)
CMA launches campaign to crackdown on cartels Insider Media Limited, Karishma Patel (21/03/17)

Questions

  1. Why do you think leniency programmes are a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels?
  2. Who do you think is most likely to blow the whistle on a cartel (see the article above by A.Stephan)?
  3. Why is it worrying that so few businesses appear to know competition law well?
  4. Which of the two tools do you think is most likely to enhance cartel detection? Explain why.
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A lorry load of fines

Record fines have been imposed by the European Commission for the operation of a cartel. Truck makers, Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco and DAF have been fined a total of €2.93bn. The fines were considerably higher than the previous record fine of €1.7bn on banks for rigging the LIBOR rate.

Along with MAN, they were found to have colluded for 14 years over pricing. They also colluded in passing on to customers the costs of compliance with stricter emissions rules. Together these five manufacturers account for some 90% of medium and heavy lorries produced in Europe.

The companies have admitted their involvement in the cartel. If they had not, the fines might have been higher. MAN escaped a fine of €1.2bn as it had revealed the existence of the cartel to the Commission.

A sixth company, Scania, is still in dispute with the Commission over its involvement. Thus the final total of fines could be higher when Scania’s case is settled.

In addition, any person or firm adversely affected by the cartel can seek damages from any of the companies in the national courts of member states. They do not have to prove that there was a cartel.

The Commission hopes that the size of the fine will act as a disincentive for other firms to form a cartel. ‘We have, today, put down a marker by imposing record fines for a serious infringement,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner.

Also, by being able to exempt a cartel member (MAN in this case) from a fine if it ‘blows the whistle’ to the authorities, it will help to break existing cartels.

There are some other major possible cartels and cases of abuse of market power currently being considered by the Commission. These include Google and whether unfair tax breaks were given to Apple and Amazon by Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.

Articles
Price-Fixing Truck Makers Get Record E.U. Fine: $3.2 Billion New York Times, James Kanter (19/7/16)
Truckmakers Get Record $3.23 Billion EU Fine for Cartel Bloomberg, Aoife White (19/6/16)
EU fines truckmakers a record €2.93bn for running 14-year cartel Financial Times, Peter Campbell, Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker (19/7/16)
Truckmakers fined by Brussels for price collusion The Guardian, Sean Farrell (19/7/16)

Europa Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines truck producers € 2.93 billion for participating in a cartel European Commission (19/7/16)

Information
Competition DG European Commission

Questions

  1. How have the various stakeholders in the truck manufacturing industry been affected by the operation of the cartel?
  2. What incentive effects are there, (a) for existing cartel members and (b) for firms thinking of forming a cartel, in the fining system used by the European Commission?
  3. Unlike the USA, the EU cannot jail managers for oligopolistic collusion. Compare the relative effectiveness of large fines and jail sentences in deterring cartels.
  4. What determines the profit-maximising price(s) for a cartel?
  5. Apart from the threat of action by the competition authorities, what determines the likely success of a cartel in being able to fix prices?
  6. Choose two other cases of possible cartels or the abuse of market power being examined by the European Commission. What is the nature of the suspected abuse?
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A European cartel – fixing the price of car parts

The European Commission has recently carried out a number of investigations into the various sectors of the industry that supplies parts to car manufacturers. Firms have been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices in the supply of bearings, wire harnesses and the foam used in car seats. The latest completed case relates to firms that supply alternators and starters – both important components in a car engine.

On January 27th the European Commission announced that it was imposing fines on some Japanese manufacturing companies. Melco (Mitsubishi Electric), Hitachi and Denso were found guilty of participating in a cartel between September 2004 and February 2010 that restricted competition in the supply alternators and starters to car manufacturers.

The Commission gathered evidence showing that senior managers in the three businesses held discussions about how to implement various anti-competitive practices. These either took place on the phone or at meetings in offices/restaurants. In particular the firms agreed:

to co-ordinate their responses to tenders issued by car manufacturers. This involved them agreeing on the price each firm would bid.
to exchange commercially sensitive information about pricing and marketing strategies.
which of them would supply each car manufacturer with alternators and starters.

These activities are in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2009). The European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

“Today’s decision sanctions three car part producers whose collusion affected component costs for a number of car manufacturers selling cars in Europe, and ultimately European consumers buying them. If European consumers are affected by a cartel, the Commission will investigate it even if the cartel meetings took place outside of Europe”

The fines imposed on the three businesses were as follows:

– Denso €0
– Hitachi €26 860 000
– Melco €110 929 000

How are these fines calculated? When calculating the size of the fine to impose on a firm the Commission takes into account a number of factors. These include:

the size of its annual sales affected by the anti-competitive activities.
its market share.
the geographical area of its sales.
how long it had taken part in the cartel.
whether it had previously been found guilty of engaging in anti-competitive practices.
if it initiated the cartel in the first place i.e. was it the ring leader?

In this particular case the size of the fine imposed on both Hitachi and Melco was increased because they had both previously been found guilty of breaking EU competition rules.

If a member of the cartel comes forward with information that helps the Commission with its investigation, a reduction in the size of the fine can be applied under a provision called a Leniency Notice (2006). Timing as well as the quality of the information provided influences the size of this reduction. For example, only the first firm to come forward with relevant information can receive a reduction of up to 100% i.e. obtain full immunity. This explains how Denso could be found guilty but not have to pay a fine. (This firm’s initial approach to the Commission actually triggered the investigation.) Any subsequent firms that come forward with information receive smaller fine reductions. Hitachi and Melco received reductions of 30% and 28% respectively.

If a firm accepts the Commission’s decision a further reduction of up to 10% can be applied. This is called a Settlement Notice (2008). All three firms were awarded the full 10% discount in this case.

The European Commission is currently investigating the behaviour of firms that supply car thermal systems, seatbelts and exhaust systems.

Articles
Car parts price-fixing fines for Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric BBC News 27/01/16
EU antitrust regulators to fine Japanese car part makers: sources Tech News 26/01/16
Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi get $150 EU cartel fine Bloomberg 27/01/16
EU fines Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi for car part cartel Reuters 27/1/16

Questions

  1. What market conditions would make the formation of a cartel more likely?
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of a profit maximising cartel agreement on the price, output and profit in an industry.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate the incentive that each firm has to cheat on an agreed cartel price and output.
  4. Why did the European Commission introduce Settlement Notices?
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Fixing the price of envelopes

In December the European Commission (EC) fined 5 envelope makers from Sweden, France, Germany and Spain a total of almost €20m for participating in a cartel. Between 2003 and 2008 these firms had coordinated responses to tenders, fixed prices and exchanged information. This increased the prices paid by their buyers who were stationary distributors and large companies.

Commenting on this case the European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager stated:

On this case we have closed the envelope, sealed it and returned it to the sender with a clear message: don’t cheat your customers, don’t cartelise.

The EC initiated an investigation and undertook dawn-raids on the companies involved following a tip-off from a whistleblower. The Commissioner also had this message for other firms considering taking part in a cartel:

I do hope that you realise that just a simple tip-off from a whistle-blower, from within the company or from a customer is all it takes for your cartel to come up on our enforcement radar.

A previous post on this site highlighted the fact that the game of golf has played a prominent role in a number of previous cartels and that in these code names for their activities were sometimes adopted. The envelope cartel seems to have gone one step further by combining the two and referring to their cartel meetings as ‘golf’ or ‘minigolf’ appointments.

All firms involved in the cartel settled their case with the EC, resulting in reduced fines. The EC encourages such resolution of cases because it frees up resources and allows them to pursue a larger number of cases. In addition, the fines imposed on two of the companies were reduced due to their inability to pay.

Finally, it is also interesting to note that, following the collapse of the cartel, one of the companies involved went into liquidation and subsequently merged with one of its former cartel co-conspirators. This coincides with broader evidence of merger activity following the breakdown of cartels. One explanation for this is that merger activity is a response to competition breaking out in the post cartel environment.

Antitrust: Commission fines five envelope producers over €19.4 million in cartel settlement European Commission – Press release (11/12/14)
EU regulators bust envelope cartel in time for holiday cards The Guardian (11/12/14)
European Commission fines envelope cartel €19.5m PrintWeek, Simon Nias (06/01/15)
Kipper Williams on the envelope cartel The Guardian, Kipper Williams (12/12/14)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of the market for envelopes?
  2. Do the features of this market make it particularly prone to collusive behaviour?
  3. What are the trade-offs involved in reducing the fines for firms that are willing to settle?
  4. Is it right that cartel fines are reduced if firms are unable to pay?
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An oligopoly price war

Oligopoly is the most complex market structure, characterised by a few large firms which dominate the industry. Typically there are high barriers to entry and prices can be very sticky. However, perhaps the most important characteristic is interdependence. With this feature of the market, oligopolies, despite being dominated by a few big firms, can be the most competitive market structure.

There are many examples of oligopolies and one of the best is the supermarket industry. Dominated by the likes of Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, competition in terms of branding, product development and quality is constant, but so is price competition. During the recession, you could hardly watch a TV programme that included advert breaks without seeing one of the big four advertising their low prices.

However, in the past few years, the supermarket industry has seen competition grow even further and the big four are now facing competition from low-cost retailers, including Aldi and Lidl. This has led to falling sales and profits for the likes of Tesco and Morrisons.

Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all felt the emergence of discount retailers and have seen their customer numbers fall. All have reacted with rounds of price cuts and new deals, and this price war looks set to continue. Morrisons have just announced a 14% average price cut on 135 products to match earlier changes in pricing strategies by the other main competitors. As I’m writing this during the Algeria v. South Korea match, I have just seen an advert from Sainsbury’s, promoting their milk chocolate digestive biscuits, priced at £1. The advert explicitly states that they are ‘less than Morrisons’, where the price is £1.50. This was soon followed by another from Sainsbury’s saying that the Cif bathroom spray is £1.50, which is ‘less than Tesco’, priced at £2.75. I need say no more.

So, what is it about this industry which means it is so susceptible to price wars? Are all oligopolies like this? The following articles consider the supermarket industry and the price wars that have emerged. Think about this sector in terms of oligopoly power and consider the questions that follow.

Morrisons announces another round of price cuts/a> BBC News (22/6/14)
Tesco suffers worst sales for decades The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Sean Farrell (4/6/14)
Britain’s Morrisons to cut prices on 135 products Reuters (22/6/14)
Morrisons slashes more prices by up to 41pct The Telegraph, Scott Campbell (22/6/14)
Sainsbury’s and Netto in discount store tie-up BBC News (20/6/14)
Slow to respond, Tesco now pays the price Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans and Ese Erheriene (19/6/14)
One million fewer customer visits a week at Tesco The Guardian, Sean Farrell (3/6/14)
Asda only one of big four to grow share as Lidl achieves highest ever growth Retail Week, Nicola Harrison (3/6/14)
Will Asda shoot itself in the foot with in-store cost cutting? The Grocer, Alec Mattinson (28/5/14)
Tesco sales slide at record speed as discounters pile on the pressure Independent, Simon Neville (3/6/14)
Quester: Back J Sainsbury to prove doubters wrong The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (11/6/14)

Questions

  1. What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
  2. How do the above characteristics explain the conduct of firms in an oligopoly? How relevant is this to the supermarket industry?
  3. In many oligopolies, prices are sticky. Why is it that in the supermarket industry price wars break out?
  4. Is the kinked demand curve a relevant model to use when talking about the supermarket industry?
  5. What other industries fit into the category of an oligopoly? Is the kinked demand curve model relevant in these industries?
  6. Would there be an incentive for the big 4 supermarkets to collude and fix price? Explain your answer.
  7. Interdependence is the key characteristic in an oligopoly. Can this explain the behaviour of the supermarkets?
  8. Given that oligopolies are characterised by high barriers to entry, how is that Aldi and Lidl have been able to compete with them?
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The gardening club cartel

Last month the Swiss air freight company Kuehne + Nagel International AG was fined just over NZ$3m (around £1.5m) by the New Zealand Commerce Commission for their part in a price fixing cartel that ran for 5 years.

In 2002 the firms in the industry faced higher costs due to increased security measures imposed by the British government. They formed a cartel to agree to pass these increased costs on to their customers for air freight services from the UK to a number of countries, including New Zealand. The investigation by the New Zealand competition authority followed a leniency application by one of the participants in 2007. Five other participants had previously been fined, but Kuehne + Nagel decided to fight the case. The fine imposed on them brought the total fines to almost NZ$12m (around £6m).

A previous post on this site highlighted how golf played a prominent role in several previous cartels. However, this cartel seemed to have had a fixation on gardening and referred to the cartel as the gardening club. Other parties involved in the cartel were referred to as fellow gardeners and the agreed upon price as the price for asparagus! When a participant suspected a rival may have cheated on the cartel agreement email exchanges such as this one took place:

I hear… concerns about the price of produce from the garden of Velcro, which appears to be operating as a charitable cooperative for the benevolence of vegetable eaters rather than growers…

It is not known whether the Kuehne + Nagel employees involved in the cartel were placed on gardening leave during the investigation!

‘Gardening Club’ hid hardcore air freight cartel New Zealand Herald, Hamish Fletcher (04/04/14)
‘Gardening Club’ Air Freight Forwarding Cartel Finally Buried by High Court Handy Shipping Guide (08/04/14)
Swiss firm fined $3.1 million over cartel 3 News (08/04/14)
‘Gardening Club’ freight cartel participant, Kuehne + Nagel, fined $3.1m The National Business Review (08/04/14)

Questions

  1. Why is an increase in costs likely to trigger price fixing behaviour?
  2. Why might the members want to use code names to run a cartel’s activities?
  3. Why do competition authorities grant leniency to cartel members that inform them about price fixing behaviour?
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Cleaning up the foreign exchanges

According to latest evidence from the Bank for International Settlements, in April 2013 some £3.2 trillion ($5.3 trillion) of foreign exchange was traded daily on global foreign exchange (forex) markets. About 40% of forex dealing goes through trading rooms in London. This market is highly profitable for the UK economy. But all is not well with the way people trade. There is a scandal about rate fixing.

Exchange rates on the forex market are freely determined by demand and supply and fluctuate second by second, 24 hours a day, except for weekends. Nevertheless, once a day rates are fixed for certain trades. At 4pm GMT a set of reference rates is set for corporate customers by banks and other traders. The rates are set at the free market average over the one minute from 16:00 to 16:01. The allegation is that banks have been colluding, through text messaging and chat rooms, to manipulate the market over that one minute.

Since the early summer of 2013, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK, along with counterparts in the USA, Switzerland, Hong Kong and elsewhere, has been looking into these allegations. Last week (4/3/14), the Bank of England suspended a member of its staff as part of its own investigation into potential rigging of the foreign exchange market. The allegation is not that the staff member(s) were involved in the rigging but that they might have known about it.The Bank said that, “An oversight committee will lead further investigations into whether bank officials were involved in forex market manipulation or were aware of manipulation, or at least the potential for such manipulation.”

Meanwhile, the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee has been questioning Bank of England staff, including the governor, Mark Carney, about the scandal. Speaking to the Committee, Martin Wheatley, head of the FCA said that the investigation over rigging had been extended to 10 banks and that the allegations are every bit as bad as they have been with Libor.

Forex rigging ‘as serious as’ Libor scandal: Carney Yahoo News, Roland Jackson (11/2/14)
Forex manipulation: How it worked HITC (Here Is The City), Catherine Boyle (11/3/14)
Bank of England Chief Grilled Over Forex Scandal ABC News, Danica Kirka (11/3/14)
Carney Faces Grilling as Currency Scandal Snares BOE Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Suzi Ring (10/3/14)
UK financial body urges quick action over foreign exchange ‘fixing’ Reuters, Huw Jones (11/3/14)
Timeline -The FX “fixing” scandal Reuters, Jamie McGeever (11/3/14)
Forex in the spotlight Financial Times (16/2/14)
Forex scandal: What is that all about? BBC News (11/3/14)
Bank of England in shake-up after rate manipulation criticism BBC News (11/3/14)
Mark Carney faces Forex questions from MPs BBC News, Hugh Pym (11/3/14)
Bank of England’s Paul Fisher: ‘It’s not our job to go hunting for market wrongdoing’ Independent, Russell Lynch , Ben Chu (11/3/14)

Questions

  1. For what reasons would sterling appreciate against the dollar?
  2. Most of forex trading is for speculative purposes, rather than for financing trade or investment. Why is this and does it benefit international trade?
  3. If foreign exchange rates fluctuate, is it not a good thing that banks collude to agree the 4pm fixed rate? Explain.
  4. What was the Libor scandal? Why are some people arguing that the current forex scandal is worse?
  5. What can the FCA do to prevent collusion over exchange rates?
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Higher tea prices brewing?

Six of the major tea producing countries – India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Rwanda and Malawi – have formed an International Tea Producers’ Forum (ITPF). Together these countries produce slightly more than the world’s tea. The hope of the members of the new ITPF is that their cartel will allow them to increase the price of tea to the growers and to create greater price stability.

According to the Assam Tribune article below:

ITPF’s main objectives include – safeguarding the interests of the tea-producing countries, evolving collective solutions for the problems facing the producers, providing technical cooperation, sharing of technology and expertise by the member countries, undertaking market studies and research projects to address any specific issues concerning tea in general or any variety of tea, among others.

And according to the article from Sri Lanka’s Daily News:

Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, which represents the interests of 23 Regional Plantation Companies, Lalith Obeyesekere said this was a landmark occasion. Sri Lanka particularly looks to the forum to provide long-term sustainability to the tea industry in maintaining price stability and quality standards, among the other objectives set out in the mandate… The Planters’ Association said they were confident that Sri Lanka could use the ITPF to re-look at the industry in order that local tea producers realize their full potential.

Sri Lanka’s plantation industries minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said:

The bulk of production is in the hands of smallholders. So there’s a need to increase their incomes. Price stability is definitely important.

The main aim of the ITPF over the longer term is likely to be to raise tea prices. The chart shows international tea prices from 1983 to the present day. As you can see, they have fluctuated considerably. Note that these are prices in nominal terms and hence do not take inflation into account. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

But if the main aim is to increase prices to tea growers, how could this be achieved? One objective of the ITPF is to stimulate demand for tea by ‘promoting tea consumption through generic promotional campaigns’. The aim would be to encourage people to switch from coffee and soft drinks.

But to take advantage of its market power, the cartel might also want to reduce tea production, thereby pushing up the price. This, of course, would be more feasible if it had a larger than 50% share of the market.

Although production quotas are not currently part of the agreement, these are likely to be considered at future meetings, especially if the three other large producers – China, Vietnam and Iran – can be persuaded to join.

China, with some 38% of the market, is the world’s largest tea producer. Although it sent an observer to the meeting (as did Iran), it was not one of the signatories. If it could be persuaded to join the cartel, this would increase its power. Nevertheless, China specialises in different types of tea, mainly green teas, and is not the world’s biggest exporter – that is Kenya.

Articles
Tea nations join forces Radio New Zealand (25/1/13)
International Tea Producers’ Forum formed Assam Tribune, Ajit Patowary (23/1/13)
Planters’ Association upbeat on newly formed International Tea Producer’s Forum Daily News (Sri Lanka) (26/1/13)
Leaf Lobby: Sri Lanka hosts tea producer forum Lanka Business Online (24/1/13)
‘Tea cartel’ formed by biggest producing nation BBC News (23/1/13)
Tea producers brew up plan to raise prices Emirates 24/7 (23/1/13)

Data
Tea Monthly Price – US cents per Kilogram Index Mundi

Questions

  1. What are the stated aims of the newly formed ITPF? How realistic are they?
  2. What conditions are necessary for a cartel to be successful in raising prices over the long term?
  3. With reference to the chart, what can you say about the real price of tea over the period 1983 to 2013?
  4. To what extent are these conditions met by the ITPF?
  5. Why may a rise in tea prices in the supermarkets not result in a rise in prices to tea growers?
  6. How may tea growers benefit from the ITPF even if the Forum does not result directly in a rise in prices to growers?
  7. How can game theory help to explain the possible behaviour of members of a cartel and producers outside the cartel?
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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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