A federal judge in Minnesota recently granted final approval to a $75 million settlement between Smithfield Foods and plaintiffs alleging that the company was part of a conspiracy to fix the prices of pork products. This came a week after the Washington State Attorney General announced $35 million in settlements with a group of poultry processors.
A couple of weeks ago, a federal judge in New York approved a $56 million settlement of a class action lawsuit in which two drug companies were accused of conspiring to delay the introduction of a lower-cost generic version of an expensive drug for treating Alzheimer’s Disease.
All these court actions are part of an ongoing wave of illegal price-fixing conspiracies by large companies throughout most of the U.S. business world. The scope of the antitrust violations is revealed in a report I just published with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First. The report, entitled Conspiring Against Competition, draws on data collected from government agency announcements and court records for inclusion in the Violation Tracker database.
We looked at over 2,000 cases resolved over the past two decades, including 600 brought by federal and state prosecutors as well as 1,400 class action and multidistrict private lawsuits. The corporations named in these cases paid a total of $96 billion in fines and settlements.
Over one-third of that total was paid by banks and investment firms, mainly to resolve claims that they schemed to rig interest-rate benchmarks such as LIBOR. The second most penalized industry, at $11 billion, is pharmaceuticals, due largely to owners of brand-name drugs accused of illegally conspiring to block the introduction of lower-cost generic alternatives.
Price-fixing happens most frequently in business-to-business transactions, though the higher costs are often passed on to consumers. Apart from finance and pharmaceuticals, the industries high on the penalty list include: electronic components ($8.6 billion in penalties), automotive parts ($5.3 billion), power generation ($5 billion), chemicals ($3.9 billion), healthcare services ($3.5 billion) and freight services ($3.4 billion).
Nineteen companies (or their subsidiaries) paid $1 billion or more each in price-fixing penalties. At the top of this list are: Visa Inc. ($6.2 billion), Deutsche Bank ($3.8 billion), Barclays ($3.2 billion), MasterCard ($3.2 billion) and Citigroup ($2.7 billion).
The most heavily penalized non-financial company is Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which with its subsidiaries has shelled out $2.6 billion in multiple generic-delay cases.
Many of the defendants in price-fixing cases are subsidiaries of foreign-based corporations. They account for 57% of the cases we documented and 49% of the penalty dollars. The country with the largest share of those penalties is the United Kingdom, largely because of big banks such as Barclays (in the interest-rate benchmark cases) and pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline (in generic-delay cases).
Along with alleged conspiracies to raise the prices of goods and services, the report reviews litigation involving schemes to depress wages or salaries. These include cases in which employers such as poultry processors were accused of colluding to fix wage rates as well as ones in which companies entered into agreements not to hire people who were working for each other. These no-poach agreements inhibit worker mobility and tend to depress pay levels—similar to the effect of non-compete agreements employers often compel workers to sign.
Despite the billions of dollars corporations have paid in fines and settlements, price-fixing scandals continue to emerge on a regular basis, and numerous large corporations have been named in repeated cases.
Higher penalties could help reduce recidivism, but putting a real dent in price-fixing will probably require aggressive steps to deal with the underlying structural reality that makes it more likely to occur: excessive market concentration.