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Posts Tagged ‘price fixing’

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 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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Galvanised into action

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched in October 2013, has been operating since April of this year. It is the successor to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Competition Commission. One of the current cases under investigation by the CMA is that of suspected criminal cartel activity in the supply of galvanised steel tanks.

On 11 July, Clive Geoffrey Dean, a former director of Kondea, and Nicholas Simon Stringer, a former director of Galglass, appeared before Westminster Magistrates Court. They were charged with dishonestly agreeing with others to divide customers, fix prices and rig bids between 2004 and 2012. The deals were with a number of companies. The charges are under section 188 of the Enterprise Act 2002.

This is the second prosecution in this case. On 17 June 2014, Mr Peter Nigel Snee, Managing Director of Franklin Hodge Industries, pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Under the Act, directors found guilty face custodial sentences of up to 5 years and unlimited fines. The CMA and government are keen to send the message that they will not tolerate cartels and that board members had better beware of colluding with other companies. Indeed, the CMA is committed to pursuing cases of suspected criminal cartels more frequently and more rigorously.

The question is whether this will deter criminal collusion or whether it will simply make companies more careful to keep collusion hidden from the authorities.

Two men face charges in ongoing criminal cartel investigation CMA Press Release (11/7/14)
The First Real Test of Sentencing for the UK Cartel Offence Competition Policy Blog: UEA/ESRC/ccp, Andreas Stephan (24/6/14)
An Important Watershed in the CMA’s Prosecution of the Criminal Cartel Offence Eversheds (18/6/14)

Questions

  1. What types of restrictive practices constitute ‘cartel agreements’?
  2. In what ways are cartels against the interests of their customers?
  3. Are there any ways in which consumers might gain from a cartel?
  4. What factors are taken into consideration in deciding whether a director is guilty under section 188 of the 2002 Enterprise Act.
  5. Find out what other cases are being considered by the CMA. Choose one or two and examine how the activities of the firms/people involved might adversely affect consumers or other firms.
  6. Is anti-cartel legislation in the UK similar to that in the EU for cartels operating in more than one EU country?
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CMA referral for energy sector

One example of an oligopoly was recently discussed on this blog –supermarkets. Here, is another classic example: the energy sector. It is dominated by six big firms, which hold the majority of the market in an industry with high barriers to entry; there is inter-dependence between the firms; and there are accusations of price fixing and collusion – all typical features of an oligopoly that may operate against consumers’ interests.

There have been numerous investigations into the actions of these energy providers, owing to their high prices, a lack of competition and significant profits. Developments in the industry have focused on reducing the barriers to entry created by the vertical integration of the incumbent firms in order to make it easier for new firms to enter, thus boosting competition.

However, the latest step is the biggest one, with the energy regulator, Ofgem, referring this industry to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The investigation is likely to last 18 months and will ‘leave no stone unturned in establishing the truth behind energy prices’.

One of the key things that will be investigated is the accusation of profiteering and thus whether the big six should be broken up. This would inevitably lead to reductions in entry barriers and more opportunities for new firms to enter the market, thereby creating a much needed increase in competition. The Chief Executive of Ofgem, Dermot Nolan said:

Now is the right time to refer the energy market to the CMA for the benefit of consumers…There is near-unanimous support for a referral and the CMA investigation offers an important opportunity to clear the air. This will help rebuild consumer trust and confidence in the energy market as well as provide the certainty investors have called for.

Further comments were made about the energy sector and the future direction in terms of market reforms. This was another reason given for the referral to the CMA. Dermot Nolan added:

A CMA investigation should ensure there are no barriers to stop effective competition bearing down on prices and delivering the benefits of these changes to consumers.

The impact of this latest news will undoubtedly be felt by the big six, with share prices already taking a small hit, as investors start to look ahead to the potential outcome, despite any decision not being expected for a good 18 months. The following articles consider this latest energy market development.

Ofgem puts big six energy suppliers under CMA spotlight The Guardian, Terry Macalister (26/6/14)
Ofgem refers ‘big six’ energy groups for competition probe Financial Times, Claer Barrett (26/6/14)
U.K. energy regulator Ofgem asks for utilities probe Wall Street Journal, Selina Williams (26/6/14)
Energy probe could lead to ‘major structural change’ BBC News (26/6/14)
Probe into energy firms’ £100 per home profits The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (26/6/14)
UK competition watchdog kicks off energy suppliers probe Reuters (26/6/14)
Energy sharks may £101 profit per family: Major inquiry launched into power Mail Online, Sean Poulter (26/6/14)
Big six energy firms face full competition probe Independent, Simon Read (26/6/14)

Questions

  1. How well does the energy sector fit the structure of an oligopoly?
  2. What are the barriers to entry in the energy market? How can this referral to the CMA help to reduce them?
  3. Which factors determine the price of energy?
  4. The big six have been accused of profiteering. What is meant by this and why is it against the public interest?
  5. Why has it taken so long for such a referral to take place?
  6. In the BBC News article, the suggestion is that this investigation could lead to a ‘major structural change’. What is meant by this and why is it a possibility?
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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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Apple found guilty of coordinating the fixing of e-book prices

Apple was last week found guilty in the US for its role in the fixing of e-book prices. A subsequent hearing will now be held to determine the damages that Apple will be forced to pay. However, Apple vehemently denies the allegations and looks set to appeal the decision.

To understand what the US Department of Justice (the European Commission has also brought a case) is objecting to, we need to look back to how pricing in this rapidly growing market has evolved over time.

Until the end of 2009 e-books were sold under a wholesale pricing model. Here, publishers charge retailers a wholesale price per book and retailers are then free to charge final consumers whatever price they choose. This all changed in the US (there were also similar developments in Europe) during an eventful period of a few days in January 2010 when Apple unveiled its iPad for April release.

The publisher Macmillian proposed that Amazon switch to an agency pricing model under which the publisher sets the retail price. This is typically referred to by economists as Resale Price Maintenance (RPM). Interestingly, RPM has a long history in the book industry. In the UK for example, throughout most of the last century publishers set prices under the Net Book Agreement, until this broke down in the mid 1990s. In addition, in some countries, for example Germany, books continue to be sold under RPM.

Macmillan also threatened Amazon that if it preferred to keep wholesale pricing it would delay the supply of e-book releases to them. Amazon initially responded by refusing to stock Macmillan titles. However, soon after Amazon ceded to Macmillan’s proposal. Despite this, Amazon made clear its dissatisfaction to its customers:

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.

It turned out that 5 of the 6 major publishers (including Macmillan) had already agreed the same agency terms to sell e-books for Apple devices. Like Macmillan, the other publishers all then also imposed agency pricing on Amazon. Furthermore, crucial to the contracts agreed with Apple was a so called ‘most-favoured customer’ clause which guaranteed that e-books would not be sold elsewhere at prices below those charged to Apple customers. Effectively, therefore, this clause made it necessary for the publishers to impose agency terms on Amazon. The Department of Justice objected to this and believed consumers would be harmed due to higher prices. All of the publishers involved eventually decided to settle the case, leaving Apple alone to fight the case in court.

In the decision Judge Cote concluded that:

the publisher defendants conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy. Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the Spring of 2010.

It is interesting to consider the reasons why the publishers would be keen to take control of the prices Amazon charges for e-books. Evidence suggests that Amazon was frequently retailing e-books at substantial discounts and even below wholesale costs. One explanation for this is that Amazon was keen to increase demand for Kindle devices. The publishers, on the other hand, might well be concerned about the implications of Amazon dominating the e-book market. Potentially, this would give Amazon significant bargaining power over them.

Of course, such dominance might also have knock-on effects on consumer prices in the long-run. Whether the publishers will be permitted to use agency pricing to mitigate such concerns in the future remains unclear and depends on whether the competition authorities object to agency pricing per se or just the coordinated way in which it was achieved.

As the articles below demonstrate, opinion is strongly divided for and against the judgement against Apple.

EU raids ebook publishers in price fixing investigation The Guardian, Benedicte Page and Leigh Phillips (4/3/11)
Apple Faces Damages Trial Over E-Book Antitrust Violation Bloomberg Businessweek, Bob Van Voris, Adam Satariano and David McLaughlin (10/7/13)
Apple played ‘central role’ in ebook price-fixing conspiracy, says federal judge The Guardian, Amanda Holpuch (11/7/13)
US: Apple found guilty, but what happens next? Competition Policy International (11/7/13)
Why It’s Insane That No One Cares About Apple’s Price-Fixing Conspiracy (AAPL) Seattle pi, Jim Edwards (13/7/13)
Apple Learns The Hazards Of Innovation With E-Book Antitrust Ruling Forbes, Daniel Fisher (10/7/13)

Questions

  1. What are the important features of the e-book market?
  2. What are the key differences between the traditional and e-book markets?
  3. To what extent do Amazon and Apple have different incentives in the e-book market?
  4. Do you think Resale Price Maintenance is more likely to harm competition in the market for traditional or e-books?
  5. What do you think might be the short and long-run implications of this decision?
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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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OPEC cartel faces lawsuit for price fixing

Cartels are formal collusive agreements between firms, typically to fix prices, restrict output or divide up markets. As in the case of monopoly, the lack of competition may harm consumers, who are likely to have to pay higher prices. This, as economic theory demonstrates, results in a reduction in overall welfare.

For this reason competition authorities throughout the world now impose substantial fines on firms found to be involved in collusive activities and participants also face the threat of substantial jail sentences.

One of the most famous cartels is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is an agreement between 12 countries to limit their production of oil. The OPEC cartel has been in place for over 50 years. Arguably, the intergovernmental nature of the cartel and political ramifications of intervening have meant that OPEC has been able to operate free from prosecution for so long.

However, very interestingly Freedom Watch, a US public interest group founded by a former US Department of Justice lawyer, has this week filed a lawsuit against OPEC for violation of competition laws. Quoted in the above press release, Larry Klayman, the founder of Freedom Watch, says that:

These artificially-inflated crude oil prices fall hard on the backs of Americans, many of whom cannot afford to buy gasoline during these severely depressed economic times.

Furthermore, how some of the members use the profits gained from the cartel is also called into question. He also goes on to suggest that the lack of intervention from US government agencies may be because the leaders of both political parties:

… line their pockets from big oil interests and are just sitting back and not doing anything.

This is not the first time that Freedom Watch has served a lawsuit on OPEC. In 2008, at an OPEC meeting in Florida:

In a bold move in front of members of the news media, Freedom Watch Chairman and Chief Legal Counsel Larry Klayman literally jumped out from behind a line of TV cameras and microphones on Friday, October 24, to serve a complaint on an OPEC oil minister.

That complaint was unsuccessful.

It will be fascinating to see the outcome of this latest case and, if successful, the implications for OPEC – updates to appear on this blog in due course.

Articles
Profile: Opec, club of oil producing states BBC News (01/02/12)
OPEC accused of conspiracy against consumers WND World, Bob Unruh (09/05/12)
Freedom Watch Attorney Sues OPEC Oil Minister for Economic Terrorism Conservative Crusader, Jim Kouri (31/10/08)

Lawsuits
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (7/5/12)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (9/6/08)

Questions

  1. Why are cartels so severely punished?
  2. Why might it be important to punish the individuals involved as well as fine the cartel members?
  3. Why is fixing the price of oil particularly harmful for the economy?
  4. Why do you think the OPEC cartel has survived for so long?
  5. What do you think might be the long term implications of the lawsuit for OPEC?
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