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EC to scrutinise box lines in test case for container industry

EC to scrutinise box lines in test case for container industry
Antitrust investigations into several container lines have intensified as the European Commission (EC) announced formal proceedings against undisclosed companies.

The proceedings will focus on the lines' public announcements of rate increases, which are usually released a number of weeks ahead of their implementation dates, and whether they are a method of telegraphing a company's intentions to competitors with a view to harming competition.

In October 2008, the repeal of the block exemption for liner shipping conferences made capacity regulation, tariff and rate-fixing agreements in shipping markets to and from Europe illegal. As the first large scale antitrust case since the repeal, the proceedings and investigation may have increased significance by setting a legal precedent.

An announcement from the EC suggests that it will be focussing on rate announcements since 2009, and whether they constitute a breach of the ambiguously-worded EU Article 101 TFEU which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and concerted practices.

According to Alphaliner's data, there have been 34 rate increases on Far-East trades since 2009, with the frequency and size of increases growing over time, increasing market volatility.

Earlier this year, many lines announced $1,000 per teu rate increases for 1 July, an example of lines releasing similar-sized price hikes within a narrow time frame for similar implementation dates.

In 1998, the 16 box lines of the Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement (TACA) were fined EUR273m for transgressions on US-Europe routes, including prescribing the terms under which service contracts could be entered, fixing of inland prices and agreeing the level of reward for freight forwarders.

The move by the EC comes at a time when container shipping's biggest proposed alliance of Maersk Line, MSC and CMA CGM is coming under scrutiny from the US Federal Maritime Commission, which has called for a forum of US, European and Chinese regulators to discuss its implications.

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