Corporate critics, myself included, have long complained about the unwillingness of federal authorities to hold top executives personally responsible for illicit practices at the businesses they run. It was thus surprising but encouraging to learn that the Justice Department Antitrust Division has gotten a grand jury to return an indictment against the chief executive of Bumble Bee Foods for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States.
The case against Christopher Lischewski comes in the wake of the prosecution of the company itself, which last year agreed to pay a criminal fine of $25 million, which under certain circumstances could rise to more than $80 million. The investigation has also ensnared several other individuals, including two at Bumble Bee, which is owned by the British private equity firm Lion Capital, and one at rival Star Kist.
We can hope that these cases are a sign that the Trump Administration’s Antitrust Division is taking its job seriously. Since Trump took office, the division has announced several large penalties against foreign banks such as France’s BNP Paribas for manipulation of currency markets, but this was the continuation of an investigation that began under Obama.
Some other Trump era cases have been pretty minor, such as the $409,342 fine imposed on an e-commerce company for fixing the price of promotional wristbands.
Price manipulation relating to consumer and industrial products is a perennial form of corporate misconduct. It is one of the main business offenses that regularly involves criminal charges and results in guilty pleas.
In Violation Tracker we document 241 Antitrust Division cases against corporations that resulted in more than $10 billion in penalties. Looking at the list, one is struck by the fact that so many of the defendants are foreign firms, including 11 of the dozen biggest fines.
This is not to say that U.S. companies don’t fix prices. Probably the most famous price-fixing case ever was the conspiracy to manipulate the electrical equipment market by the likes of General Electric and Westinghouse in the 1950s. U.S. agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland was at the center of a lysine price fixing scandal in the 1990s.
It may be that in recent years federal antitrust prosecutors have felt pressure not to go after domestic companies, or else that foreign corporations are emboldened by the pro-business climate in the U.S. to engage in more brazen behavior.
In any event, at a time of unprecedented concentration of ownership in many U.S. industries, there is bound to be plenty of price collusion going on that needs to be investigated.