Tag: cartel

OPEC members agreed on 30 November 2016 to reduce their total oil output by 1.2m barrels per day (b/d) from January 2017 – the first OPEC cut since 2008. The biggest cut (0.49m b/d) is to be made by Saudi Arabia.

Russia has indicated that it too might cut output – by 0.3m b/d. If it carries through with this, it will be the first deal for 15 years to include Russia. OPEC members hope that non-OPEC countries will also cut output by 0.3m b/d. There will be a meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC members on 9 December in Doha to hammer out a deal. If all this goes ahead, the total cut would represent nearly 2% of world output.

The OPEC agreement took many commentators by surprise, who had expected that Iran’s unwillingness to cut its output would prevent any deal being reached. As it turned out, Iran agreed to freeze its output at current levels.

Although some doubted that the overall deal would stick, there was general confidence that it would do so. Markets responded with a huge surge in oil prices. The price of Brent crude rose from $46.48 per barrel on 29 November to $54.25 on 2 December, a rise of nearly 17% (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart)..

The deal represented a U-turn by Saudi Arabia, which had previously pursued the policy of not cutting output, so as to keep oil prices down and drive many shale oil producers out of business (see the blog, Will there be an oil price rebound?)

But if oil prices persist above $54 for some time, many shale oil fields in the USA will become profitable again and some offshore oil fields too. At prices above $50, the supply of oil becomes relatively elastic, preventing prices from rising significantly. As The Observer article states:

It is more likely that a $60 cap will emerge as the Americans, who stand outside the 13-member OPEC grouping, unplug the spigots that have kept their shale oil fields from producing in the last year or two.

… The return to action of once-idle derricks on the Texas and Dakota plains is the result of efficiency savings that have seen large jobs losses and a more streamlined approach to drilling from the US industry, after the post-2014 price tumble rendered many operators unprofitable. Only a few years ago, many firms struggled to make a profit at $70 a barrel. Now they can be competitive at much lower prices, with many expecting $50 for West Texas Intermediate – a lighter crude that typically earns $5 a barrel less than Brent.

OPEC as a cartel is much weaker than it used to be. It produces only around 40% of global oil output. Cheating from its members and increased production from non-OPEC countries, let alone huge oil stocks after two years when production has massively exceeded consumption, are likely to combine to keep prices below $60 for the foreseeable future.

Webcasts

OPEC Cuts Daily Production by 1.2 Million Barrels MarketWatch, Sarah Kent (30/11/16)
How Putin, Khamenei and Saudi prince got OPEC deal done Reuters, Rania El Gamal, Parisa Hafezi and Dmitry Zhdannikov (2/12/16)
Fuel price fears as OPEC agrees to cut supply Sky News, Colin Smith (30/11/16)
OPEC Confounds Skeptics, Agrees to First Oil Cuts in 8 Years Bloomberg, Jamie Webster (30/11/16)
Game of oil: Behind the OPEC deal Aljazeera, Giacomo Luciani (3/12/16) (first 10½ minutes)
Russia won’t stick with its side of the OPEC cut bargain CNBC, Silvia Amaro (1/12/16)

Articles

Oil soars, Brent hits 16-month high after OPEC output deal Reuters, Devika Krishna Kumar (1/12/16)
OPEC reaches a deal to cut production The Economist (3/12/16)
Opec doesn’t hold all the cards, even after its oil price agreement The Observer, Phillip Inman (4/12/16)
Saudi Arabia discussed oil output cut with traders ahead of Opec Financial Times, David Sheppard and Anjli Raval (4/12/16)
The return of OPEC Reuters, Jason Bordoff (2/12/16)
‘Unfortunately, We Tend To Cheat,’ Ex-Saudi Oil Chief Says Of OPEC Forbes, Tim Daiss (4/12/16)
After OPEC – What’s Next For Oil Prices? OilPrice.com (2/12/16)
The OPEC Oil Deal Sells Fake News for Real Money Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (1/12/16)

Data and information

Brent crude prices, daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC home page Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
OPEC 171st Meeting concludes OPEC Press Release (30/11/16)

Questions

  1. What determines the price elasticity of supply of oil at different prices?
  2. Why is the long-term demand for oil more elastic than the short-term demand?
  3. What determines the likelihood that the OPEC agreement will be honoured by its members?
  4. Is it in Russia’s interests to cut its production as part of the agreement?
  5. Are higher oil prices ‘good news’ for the global economy and a boost to economic growth – a claim made by Saudi Arabia?
  6. What role does oil storage play in determining the effect on the oil price of a cut in output?
  7. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time? Explain your reasoning.
  8. Is it in US producers’ interests to invest in new shale oil production? Explain.

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?

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?

Most observers were once again left stunned by how much media companies are willing to pay to secure the rights to broadcast live games in the English Premier League (EPL). At the same time the method used to sell those rights is being investigated by Ofcom following complaints made by Virgin Media. Virgin Media actually requested that the auction was halted until the investigation was completed.

Between them, BSkyB and BT Sport have paid £5.136bn to purchase the rights to broadcast live matches in the EPL over a three-year period beginning in the 2016–17 season. This is a 71% increase in the price paid for the previous three-year deal which runs from 2013 to 2016 and cost £3.018bn. However, the headline figure hides some big differences between the amounts paid by the two companies.

How exactly are the rights sold? The broadcast rights for the 168 live matches are split up into seven different packages labelled A through to G and are placed in seven different auctions. The type of auction used by the EPL is a sealed bid auction. Interested companies are invited to make an offer for any of the packages. However, when they make a bid they do not know (a) if other firms have also made a bid and (b) the size of any other bids. Another constraint is that one firm is not allowed to win more than five of the auctions. When the auction finishes the EPL only releases information about the winning offers. It never provides information about any of the failed bids.

Some of the packages are worth more than others to the broadcasters. The first five packages (A–E) each contain the rights for 28 games per season, while the other two packages (F and G) contain the rights for 14 matches. In some of the packages all of the games kick off at the same time and on the same day. For example all 28 games in package ‘A’ kick off at 12.30pm on a Saturday. Others contain more of a mixture. Some of the games in Package E take place on a Monday evening. while others take place on a Friday evening. Given the potential advertising revenue and number of viewers, the most valuable package is D, which has 28 games that kick off at 4.00pm on a Sunday.

Another factor that influences the value of a package is the number of ‘first picks’. In any given week, more than one broadcaster might want to screen the same match. To overcome this problem, each package is allocated a number of first, second, third, fourth and fifth ‘picks’. For example, package D comes with 18 first and 10 fourth round picks. This means that whichever company wins this package will get first choice on the games they want to broadcast on 18 occasions a year. Package C contains no ‘first picks’ but offers 15 second, 4 fourth and 7 fifth round picks. There is also a maximum and a minimum limit on the number of times games including a specific team can be broadcast.

BSkyB won the auctions for packages A, C, D, E and G for a price of £4.17bn. This means that it will be paying £1.396bn to broadcast 126 live games per season. This is an average payment of £11,031,700 per game. In the previous deal it paid £760million for the rights to broadcast 116 live games per season. This is an average payment of £6,551,724 per game. The new deal represents a cost increase of 68% per game. However, the number of first picks BskyB has secured in the new deal increases from 20 to 26.

BTSport won the auctions for packages B and F for a price of £960m. This means that it will be paying £320m for the rights to broadcast 42 live games per season. This is an average payment of £7,619,048 per game. In the previous deal it paid £246 million per year for the rights to broadcast 38 live games per season. This is an average payment of £6,473,684 per game. The new deal represents an increase in costs of 17.7% per game for BT Sport – a much lower figure than for BSkyB.

BSkyB has stated that it will cover the increase in the price it has paid for the rights with efficiency savings. However, many observers believe that it will ultimately result in significant increases in the subscription rates for SkySports. The impact of the deal on BskyB’s profit may well depend on the willingness of its customers to pay higher prices. What is the price elasticity of demand for SkySports at the current subscription rates they are charging?

There is still some uncertainty about the deal following Ofcom’s decision to investigate the legitimacy of the method used by the EPL to auction the rights. Virgin Media made a formal complaint in September 2014 about the collective selling of the live broadcast rights and argued that it was in breach of competition law. The investigation by Ofcom will make a judgment about whether the joint selling of the rights by the EPL is a contravention of Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and/or Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. An initial announcement will be made in March.

Premier League set to announce record £4.4bn TV rights deal BBC Sport (10/2/15)
Premier League TV rights: What does deal mean for fans & clubs BBC Sport, Ben Smith (11/2/15)
How Sky paid £4m more per Premier League match than BT The Telegraph, Ben Rumsby (11/2/15)
Premier League TV deal: Windfall must benefit grass roots and England The Telegraph, Henry Winter (10/2/15)
Sky and BT retain Premier League TV rights for record £5.14bn The Guardian, Owen Gibson (10/2/15)
Premier League TV rights: Sky Sports and BT Sport win UK broadcasting rights as price tops £5billion Independent, Tom Peck (10/2/15)

Questions

  1. Draw a demand curve for package A and package D of the live broadcast rights. Which one do you think will be furthest to the right? Explain your answer.
  2. What are the potential benefits to the EPL of not revealing the details of any of the losing bids?
  3. Explain how the price elasticity of demand is a useful concept for assessing the impact of the new deal on the profits of BSkyB and BTSport.
  4. Given the impact of the new deal of the size of Parachute payments, what impact might it have on the level of competitive balance in the Championship?
  5. Find out the key provisions of Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

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?