It's not just banks that are involved in rigging prices - Times LIVE
   
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Fri Mar 24 04:11:35 SAST 2017

It's not just banks that are involved in rigging prices

KATHARINE CHILD | 2017-02-23 07:11:11.0
Euro, Hong Kong dollar, U.S. dollar, Japanese yen, British pound and Chinese 100-yuan banknotes are seen in a picture illustration
File photo.
Image by: REUTERS/Jason Lee/Illustration/File Photo

It's been widely reported that 15 foreign banks and three South African banks have been referred by the Competition Commission to a tribunal for prosecution.

This relates to accusations that currency traders colluded to fix the price of the rand.

But banks are not alone in engaging in anti-competitive behaviour that leads to higher prices.

Tyre companies, furniture removal companies, Computicket, shops at airports and companies selling fabric for army uniforms have all been referred by the Competition Commission to the Competition Tribunal for price- fixing or anti-competitive behaviour.

Last year alone, the tribunal earned R2.1-billion in fines from companies who admitted to price- fixing or who were caught behaving anti-competitively.

This includes fishing companies, ArcelorMittal, Life Hospital Group, retailers, construction companies, fabric suppliers, steel manufacturers, camera distributors, and furniture removal companies.

"Our investigations reveal price-fixing is widespread indeed," said Competition Commission spokesman Sipho Ngwenya.

David Lewis of Corruption Watch and a former Competition Tribunal chairman agrees.

"There is a huge volume of cartel investigations in South Africa. It is not surprising.

"The earnings from collusion mean the incentive is huge. Even if businesses factor in the likelihood of getting caught and fined, much cartel conduct will still work out to be profitable."

Last year, the tribunal fined fabric supplier Da Gama Textiles for colluding with two other companies on tenders for the government on the price of fabric for prison and army uniforms.

ArcelorMittal paid a record fine of R1.5-billion for price-fixing in the steel industry. Stanley's Removals was the 16th furniture removal company to pay a fine after companies worked together to decide which one would get business by ensuring their quote was the lowest.

The exclusive distributors of Nikon cameras, Premium Brand Distributors, last year paid a R300,500 fine for setting the price at which wholesalers should sell Nikon cameras and accessories.

This year the tribunal is prosecuting security firms, media companies, and coffee importers.

Tyre sellers Continental, Goodyear and Apollo will appear before the tribunal accused of fixing tyre prices between 1999 and 2007.

Computicket is appearing before the tribunal after ticket sellers complained it created exclusive ticket-selling contracts with entertainers.

Lawyers say the small number of companies in each industry makes it easy for sectors to collude or communicate on prices and tenders.

Kasturi Moodaliyar, a law professor at Wits University, said: "South African markets are a symptom of its apartheid legacy. Prior to 1994, many industries were highly concentrated, meaning that only a few players were allowed in those markets."

Rosalind Lake, a director at the Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, said: "South Africa does appear to have more sectors affected by cartels than in other jurisdictions - however, in most other developed countries these laws have been around for much longer than South Africa."

She said the size of the South African economy made it conducive to cartel conduct.

"The economy is simply not big enough to support hundreds of suppliers in each industry and as such having less competitors in a market can make it easier for cartels to operate."

Mitchell Morrison, a director at the Fullard Mayer Morrison commercial law firm, said sometimes companies settle even if they wouldn't have been found guilty.

"Firms pay fines or settle to make bad publicity go away and avoid a long, drawn-out case."

He said there had been an increase in referrals to the Competition Tribunal - which some speculated was a way to earn more money for a cash- strapped government.

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