Price Fixing is on the Rise. Only the US Can Stop It!

But will it?

As per these recent articles in the Economist on Cartels: Just One More Fix and Boring Can Still be Bad, competition authorities have uncovered several whopping conspiracies in recent years, including one in which more than 20 airlines worldwide had fixed prices on approximately $20 Billion of freight shipments. (In 2010, the European Commission fined 11 Air Cargo Airlines €800 Million for operating a worldwide cartel which affected cargo services within the European Economic area – namely Air Canada, Air France-KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Cargolux, Japan Airlines, LAN Chile, Martinair, SAS, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.)

In addition, investigators are still unravelling a huge network of cartels among suppliers of a wide range of car parts, including seat belts, radiators, and foam seat-stuffing. And the European Commission recently fined five marks of automative bearings $1.32 Billion and raided a number of manufacturers of car exhaust systems. On the other side of the Atlantic, Brazilian prosecutors have charged executives from a dozen foreign train-makers accused of rigging bids for rail and subway contracts in the country’s main cities.

This is despite the fact that enforcement has gotten tougher, smarter, and more coordinated, the fact that firms can expect staggering fines, and bosses can go to jail … unless they are in the United States. As the latter article states American courts, only too ready to lock up other types of miscreants for a long time, have rarely jailed egregious price-fixers for anything like the maximum of ten years that the law allows. But what do you expect from a country that won’t even jail executives who got caught knowingly laundering Billions for Mexican Narco-Terror Cartels? As per this recent article on BoingBoing, on HSBC Settlement Approved, there were no criminal charges, only 5 weeks’ profit in fines, and deferred bonuses for laundering Billions for Narco-Terrorists. That’s right, they still got their bonuses! (But whatever you do, don’t feed the birds, since you go to jail for feeding birds.)

Until significant mandatory jail sentences are enforced for all executives involved in price-fixing, given the still-low risk of detection, collusion pays. After all, best case is you succeed undetected and make a few Billion. Worst case is you get caught, pay some of your ill-gotten gains in fines, and go back to business.

And stiffer fines aren’t the answer — if fines inflict so much damage on guilty companies, they will undermine competition as new entrants will be afraid to enter the market in fear that their efforts to keep costs in line with the competition will be seen as price fixing that could net them fines that would put them in bankruptcy.

The only answer is stiff prison sentences against executives, and the only major country that is unwilling to pursue them is the country that controls 25% of the global GDP – the US. So while you can do a lot to detect price-fixing and, if possible, avoid it by way of big data, statistical tests, market research, and collaboration with authorities – until the US DoJ and Courts step up and do the right thing, price fixing will likely remain a major problem.