Ocean shipping: EU Commission widens its price-fixing probe

The unannounced visit was made to enforce the abolished exemption from antitrust activity the Commission enacted three years ago.

By Patrick Burnson · May 19, 2011

The European Commission’s investigation of ocean carrier antitrust rules ramped up to a new level this week, as Asian players were also targeted by regulators.

“In the old days of conference pricing, this kind of behavior was called ‘independent action,’” said Dirk Visser, managing director of the Dutch consultancy, Dynamar. “But the government is now becoming much more vigilant where this is concerned.”

Indeed, the Commission reported that when antitrust officials raided European headquarters, Asian carriers were among the others targeted for investigation. Neptune Orient Lines, OOCL, Evergreen Marine and Hanjin Shipping – all leading operators in the transpacific trade – are said to be complying with the price-fixing probe.

Earlier in the week, EU regulators began searching through the files kept by Maersk, CMA-CGM, and Hapag-Lloyd. The unannounced visit was made to enforce the abolished exemption from antitrust activity the Commission enacted three years ago.

Spokesmen for OOCL confirmed that the Commission’s raid was not “carrier specific,” and that it was complying with investigators. Meanwhile, Visser told LM that the few remaining U.S.-flag carriers were unlikely to face similar scrutiny.

“Only APL is at risk,” he said, “but of course, that belongs to a Singapore-based company now.”

Earlier this year Horizon Lines, a pure-play U.S. flag based in Charlotte North Carolina, was recently fined $45 million for a price-fixing scheme of its own following Justice Department charges that it had conspired with Crowley, Sea Star and Trailer Bridge to fix prices and increase fuel surcharges on shipping lanes to Puerto Rico.

Shippers comprising the Agriculture Transportation Coalition and the National Industrial Transportation League allege that carriers in the transpacific are also quietly colluding on prices through sub rosa “talking agreements.”

The Federal Maritime Commission is currently looking into that matter, said spokesmen.

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About the Author

Patrick Burnson
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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