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EC’s antitrust focus moves from ‘price fixing’ to ‘price signalling’

EC’s antitrust focus moves from ‘price fixing’ to ‘price signalling’
The European Commission’s (EC) suspicions of anti-competitive behaviour by liner shipping companies have moved on. Two years ago they centred on direct “price fixing” via secret collusion between competing lines, but this week’s EC announcement says they now relate to the indirect practice of “price signalling” via advance notification of price increases on websites and through interviews in the trade press, thereby allowing competitors to follow suit.

The EC’s dawn raids on liner shipping companies back in 2011 - following the lifting of liner conferences’ block exemption from anti-competition rules just a couple of years earlier - was intended to uncover evidence via emails or the like that meetings between competitors had taken place, which would have suggested that a “cartel” was in operation. The absence of any follow-up suggests no such evidence of suspected price fixing was found.

Now the EC’s line of attack has changed, and the suggestion is that by open and transparent advance communication of rate changes - aka “price signalling” - the lines were able to achieve exactly the same desired result: coordinated rate increases.

The EC says its new anti-trust probe will concern several unspecified liner companies and is understood to focus on the Asia – Europe trade in 2009. Among those involved are the three largest lines: Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Co (MSC) and CMA CGM.

Lines are protesting that they do not believe they have acted contrary to EU law, but one suspects that by this they may merely be denying that they have acted like a cartel or indulged in any price fixing as was previously suspected.

“Price signalling” is a rather new and different animal, however, and here legal precedent may be against the lines. The EC recently pursued a complaint against rival US banana importers who protested vigorously that in no way were they colluding or acting like a cartel. The EC accepted this argument but found that by widely publicising their import requirements within the trade they were thereby indirectly alerting their competitors and exerting a pricing pressure on the market that was not in favour of consumers.

It would be interesting to know whether the EC’s changed line of attack follows persistent complaints from any specific “whistleblower” that remains unhappy with liner pricing. But in any event, the EC’s continuing hostility towards the international liner industry seems to be a case of “Plus ça change…”.


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