Following a five-year-long investigation, the European Commission (Commission) has fined Samsung, Philips, LG Electronics, Technicolor, Panasonic and Toshiba a total of €1.47 billion for price fixing, market sharing, customer allocation and output restrictions between 1996 and 2006. The fine is the biggest ever imposed in the EU to date. It relates to the companies‟ sales of cathode ray tubes, which are used in televisions and computer monitors. The whistleblower, Chunghwa, was granted 100% immunity from fines, as it was the first to provide evidence to the Commission.

Textbook Cartels

The Commission today described the cartels as „textbook,‟ due to the highly organised nature of the agreements, their long duration and the wide variety of anti-competitive behaviour they covered. The Commission found that the companies: fixed prices; shared markets; allocated customers between themselves; coordinated capacity and output; exchanged commercially sensitive information, including prices charged to individual customers; and monitored the implementation of the cartel, including auditing compliance with the capacity restrictions by visiting each other‟s factories.

According to the Commission, they are some of the most organised cartels it has ever investigated, with meetings taking place at top management level, as well as at lower levels (sometimes meeting weekly) at each company. The investigation also identified evidence that the companies were well aware that they were breaking the law; for example, one document stated that “Everybody is requested to keep it a secret as it would be serious damage if it is open to customers or European Commission,” and other documents contained instructions that they should be destroyed after reading.

Leniency Reductions

In addition to Chunghwa, which was granted 100% immunity from fines, Samsung, Philips and Technicolor were granted fine reductions under the Commission‟s leniency policy of 40%, 30% and 10% respectively. The level of reduction was based on the timing and quality of the information provided to the Commission.

Comment

The TV and computer monitor industry has been the focus of a number of investigations in recent years. In 2011, the Commission settled an investigation into price fixing in the market for cathode ray tube glass, an input into cathode ray tubes. The U.S. Department of Justice has also investigated the cathode ray tubes market, and several class action lawsuits have been brought in the United States. LCD display makers have also been the subject of recent investigations in both Europe and the United States.

The €1.47 billion fine in this case is the largest fine ever imposed by the European Commission. This marks a return to the eye-wateringly large fines which were a hallmark of previous Competition Commissioner Kroes. Fines to date under current Competition Commissioner Almunia have been more modest. Almunia has also granted fine reductions to an increasing number of companies because of their „inability to pay‟ larger fines. One of the companies (unnamed) fined today also had its fine reduced for this reason. A number of the companies have indicated they will appeal today‟s decision.