Free market ideologues love to quote Adam Smith, but one passage from The Wealth of Nations that they tend to downplay is Smith’s observation that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Americans today tend to think of price-fixing as a characteristic of the age of the Robber Barons and something that was dealt with by the Progressive movement. It is true that many anti-competitive practices were outlawed by the 1890 Sherman Act and the 1914 Clayton Act, but those laws did not put an end to attempts by corporations and their executives to keep prices artificially high.
Subsequent decades saw major revelations about price-fixing cartels, such as the big electrical equipment industry conspiracy of the 1950s and early 1960s in which companies such as General Electric were implicated. The 1990s saw, for example, the revelation of a conspiracy by companies such as Archer Daniels Midland to fix the price of the animal feed additive lysine. Unfortunately, what many people may recall of that case has now been colored by the comic way it was depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Informant!
A spate of recent cases shows that, even at a time of purported hyper-competition, price-fixing conspiracies are still with us:
- Furukawa Electric Co. Ltd. just agreed to plead guilty and pay a $200 million fine to the Justice Department for its role in a criminal price-fixing and bid-rigging conspiracy involving the sale of parts to automobile manufacturers. Three Furukawa executives, who are Japanese nationals, agreed to plead guilty and serve prison time in the United States ranging from one year to 18 months.
- Former executives from Panasonic, Whirlpool and Tecumseh Products were recently indicted in federal court on charges that they conspired to fix the prices of refrigerant compressors. Earlier, Panasonic and a Whirlpool subsidiary pleaded guilty to related charges and were sentenced to pay a combined fine of $140 million.
- Another Japanese company, Bridgestone, agreed recently to plead guilty and pay a $28 million criminal fine to the Justice Department for its role in conspiracies to rig bids and to make corrupt payments to foreign government officials in Latin America related to the sale of marine hose and other products.
- More than a dozen carriers, including Singapore Airlines, have been caught up in an investigation of a conspiracy to fix air freight prices for shipments going to and from the United States.
Although Asian companies seem to have predilection for price-fixing, U.S. firms are not immune. During recent months the Justice Department has obtained guilty pleas from domestic firms such as aftermarket automobile light distributors in California and ready-mix concrete companies in Iowa.
As in the refrigerant compressor case cited above and the 1990s lysine case, U.S. firms often join with their foreign “competitors” in the conspiracies. The big European paraffin cartel that came to light in 2008 involved secret meetings at a moat-ringed French chateau with representatives of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol of Spain and Sasol of South Africa. European antitrust officials fined Procter & Gamble along with Unilever earlier this year for fixing prices of laundry detergent.
At a time of modest inflation, including falling prices for some popular electronic products, it may be tempting to brush aside price-fixing as an insignificant problem. The fact that the conspiracies often involve industrial components means that consumers do not readily see the effects of anti-competitive practices.
Price-fixing does have an impact. A survey by John M. Connor of Purdue University found that over the long run price-fixing cartels result in overcharges of more than 20 percent.
The fact that price-fixing is still a frequent occurrence is yet another rebuttal to those libertarian and laissez-faire types who insist that government regulation of business is unnecessary and counter-productive. We can’t forget the lesson learned by the Progressive movement more than a century ago: Left to their own devices, large corporations will not act in the public interest and will even undermine the very principle of competition on which capitalism is supposed to be based.