Mega-cartel in the automotive parts industry

Articles Written by Dr. Wolfgang Hellmann (Special Counsel)

The automotive parts industry is subject to one of the largest global cartel investigations in recent history. The regulators investigating the alleged cartel conduct include, at this stage, the US' Department of Justice (DOJ), the Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB), the EU's DG Competition (DG Comp) and the Japanese Fair Trade Commission (JFTC). It is possible, if not likely, that other antitrust regulators (including the ACCC) will follow suit as more detail about the alleged conspiracy emerges.

What is the alleged conduct?

The allegations are that dozens of automotive parts suppliers participated in a scheme to rig bids and fix prices for a large number of automotive parts sold to car manufacturers around the globe, including wire harnesses, instrument panel clusters, fuel senders, electric control units and heater control panels, among many other products. The conspirators carried out the cartel by agreeing during meetings and conversations to allocate supply of products on a model-by-model basis and to coordinate price adjustments requested by car manufacturers. The affected car manufacturers identified thus far include Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Daihatsu and Subaru.

However, this is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

How did the investigation start?

The Global Competition Review (GCR) reported in an article published on 17 February 2012 that, in late 2009, a whistleblower approached the CCB in Canadato put down a marker and apply for immunity in relation to its participation in a conspiracy in the global car parts industry. According to the GCR, the Canadian regulator sent out requests for information to five other automotive parts suppliers within a couple of months of receiving the immunity application and, in February 2010, coordinated dawn raids by the DOJ, the DG Comp and the JFTC occurred in the USA, Japan, Germany, the UK and other EU member states.

In 2011, further rounds of dawn raids were conducted: the DOJ and the DG Comp targeted suppliers of steering wheels, safety belts and airbags in the first half of 2011 and the JFTC and again the DG Comp visited suppliers of automotive and industrial bearings in the second half of 2011.

The automotive parts cartel investigation is another example of how effective international cooperation between antitrust regulators has become over the last decade. Regulators around the world not only share crucial information about the operation of the alleged cartel (including information in relation to other jurisdictions they may have become aware of in the course of their own investigations), but also coordinate their enforcement actions, in particular by conducting coordinated dawn raids to minimise the risk that conspirators can warn their co-conspirators in other countries that they have been subject to a dawn raid.

It is understood that many of the alleged conspirators are now cooperating with the authorities to obtain leniency, i.e. lower penalties and/or shorter prison terms (in the case of the US and possibly, Canada).

The ACCC's announcement to intensify the engagement and cooperation with its international peers (see the article above about the ACCC's enforcement priorities in 2012) can be regarded as an acknowledgment that it considers international cooperation to be an effective tool to enhance its capabilities to combat global cartels that operate in Australia.

Have there been any penalties yet?

To date, almost US$1 billion of penalties have been imposed on participants of the automotive parts cartel and seven executives have been sentenced to prison terms in the USA, ranging from 15 months and 2 years:

  • USA - On 29 September 2011, Furukawa Electric pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a criminal fine of US$200 million and three Furukawa executives agreed to spend between 1 year and 18 months in prison;
  • JAPAN - On 19 January 2012, the JFTC issued payment orders against Yazaki Corp, Sumitomo Electric and Fujikura totalling approximately US$160 million; and
  • USA - On 30 January 2012, Yazaki Corp and Denso Corp pleaded guilty and agreed to pay US$470 million and US$78 million, respectively, and two executives agreed to spend 2 years in prison and another two executives agreed to spend 15 months in prison.

But again, this is only the tip of the iceberg - there are likely to be many more guilty pleas in the USA and Canada, the JFTC is expected to issue more payment orders and the DG Comp is renowned for imposing hefty fines on companies implicated in illegal cartel conduct. And other regulators may jump on the bandwagon.

Important Disclaimer: The material contained in this article is comment of a general nature only and is not and nor is it intended to be advice on any specific professional matter. In that the effectiveness or accuracy of any professional advice depends upon the particular circumstances of each case, neither the firm nor any individual author accepts any responsibility whatsoever for any acts or omissions resulting from reliance upon the content of any articles. Before acting on the basis of any material contained in this publication, we recommend that you consult your professional adviser. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation (Australia-wide except in Tasmania).

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