By James Kanter
Europe’s top antitrust regulator on Wednesday announced fines totaling euro 1.47 billion, or $1.92 billion, for seven companies accused of fixing the price of picture tubes for television and computer screens over 10 years, through 2006.
The regulator, Joaquín Almunia, said the activity had helped delay the market adoption of flat-panel screens for TVs and computers.
The fines added up to the largest single penalty for price fixing yet imposed by the European Commission.
Companies that received some of the highest fines included LG Electronics, Philips, Samsung, Panasonic and Toshiba. Chunghwa, a Taiwanese company, received full immunity from fines because it revealed the conspiracy. The companies involved operated two cartels, one for computer screens and the other for televisions, Almunia said.
Senior managers involved in the cartel dubbed their gatherings “greens meetings” because they usually were followed by a game of golf, according to the European Commission. Meetings between lower level managers were dubbed “glass meetings,” although the commission did not explain the origins of that term.
The commission said the cartels operated for a decade, beginning around 1996, and had engaged in the most organised market manipulation it had ever investigated. The conspiracies included price fixing, market sharing, customer allocation and exchanges of sensitive commercial information.
The cartels “feature all the worst kinds of anticompetitive behavior that are strictly forbidden to companies doing business in Europe,” said Almunia. There had been “serious harm” to producers in Europe and to consumers, he said, explaining that the cathode ray tubes had accounted for up to 70 per cent of the price of screens.
The commission’s antitrust division can fine offenders up to 10 per cent of their annual worldwide sales. But unlike regulators in the United States, the commission has no criminal powers and may not prosecute or seek to jail participants for cartel offenses.