The second quarter of 2018 proved to be an active one with a number of US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations resulting in criminal charges against individual executives. However, the DOJ’s total criminal fines still fall below the highs reached in 2014 and 2015. In this period, the European Commission made one notable cartel decision, imposing fines on eight Japanese manufacturers of capacitors.
McDermott’s Cartel Snapshot presents the latest information about active antitrust investigations to inform defense representatives, in-house counsel and agency regulators of the latest compliance risks and private actions. Our highly rated team of competition lawyers has selected the most relevant US and EU cartel matters to support risk management assessments for international cartel defense and to provide insights for legal and business planning.
As a general proposition, when the validity of a European Commission antitrust decision is challenged before the General Court of the European Union (GCEU), the procedure is one of judicial review, not a retrial on the merits (although the GCEU does have special jurisdiction to increase or reduce the amount of any fine). Thus there are only three possible outcomes: annulment of the Commission’s decision; variation in the amount of any fine, upwards or downwards; or rejection of the challenge altogether.
In the case of annulment, Article 266 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union requires that the Commission “take the necessary measures to comply with the judgment” of the GCEU. Provided that the limitation period has not expired, the Commission may take a new decision on the case, taking care to avoid the illegalities identified by the GCEU in respect of the first decision. The new decision can be different from the first decision, as illustrated by the recent judgments in Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba, but it can also be substantially the same, as illustrated by the recent judgment in Éditions Odile Jacob.
The Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba cases arose out of the gas insulated switchgear cartel. Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba were fined for their participation in the cartel. The companies challenged the Commission’s decision imposing the fines, and the GCEU annulled the fines imposed individually on Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba on the ground that the Commission had infringed the principle of equal treatment by choosing, when calculating the fine, a reference year for Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba which was different from that chosen for the European participants in the infringement.
Following the annulment, the Commission addressed a letter of facts to Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba informing them of its intention to adopt a new decision remedying the unequal treatment criticised by the GCEU. Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba submitted comments on the Commission’s letter of facts and had meetings with the Commission team responsible for the case. Subsequently the Commission adopted a new decision imposing lower individual fines on Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba than in the first decision.
Global antitrust regulators are on pace to levy record-breaking cartel penalties in 2014. If global regulators keep pace, cartel penalties will surpass 2013’s record total. Through June, U.S. antitrust regulators issued fines totaling $709 million (USD), while European regulators imposed fines of $1.95 billion.
The record-breaking fines are the result of global regulators more actively enforcing antitrust and competition laws. While the U.S. and Europe have been rigorously investigating cartel activity, Russia and many Asian countries have also seen a noticeable uptick in activity. To date, China has levied $36.3 million in fines, and Japan and South Korea are considerably ahead of the pace needed to exceed 2013 totals. If the current rate continues through the second half of 2014, global regulators are likely to hit all-time highs by the end of the year, especially considering that many large fines are frequently handed out near year’s end.
In addition to increased fines and enforcement activity, many jurisdictions are also more proactively taking a role in multinational cartel investigations. Particularly, Asian countries have been more vocal about the extraterritorial reach of U.S. and European antitrust laws. For example, in Motorola Mobility LLC v. AU Optronics Corp., et al., Taiwan, Japan and South Korea submitted letters to the Seventh Circuit expressing concerns about allowing recoverable damages for the purchase of end-products made with price-fixed products sold abroad.
The majority of merger control regimes around the world impose standstill or waiting period requirements for notifiable transactions, e.g. the US, the EU and most EU Member States. If a transaction meets the filing thresholds, it must be notified to the competent antitrust regulator and must not be closed without prior approval by the antitrust regulator or the expiration of the applicable waiting period.
Under German merger control rules, a notifiable merger must not be implemented without prior clearance decision. An infringement of the standstill obligation can (theoretically) lead to fines of up to 10 percent of the group’s worldwide turnover. In addition, the infringement of the standstill obligation renders the contracts ineffective under German merger control rules.
The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has recently taken a stricter approach to the enforcement of the merger standstill obligation. In the past, the risk of fines was minor if the merger did not lead to any serious competition concerns, if it was the group’s first infringement of the standstill obligation and if the company itself notified the FCO ex post of the implemented merger.
We see now a growing number of decisions imposing fines for the infringement of the standstill obligation (sometimes referred to as "gun jumping" in the United States). In May 2011, in the latest of a string of such decisions, the FCO imposed a substantial fine for infringement of the standstill obligation although the merger did not lead to any serious competition concerns and although the company had itself notified the implemented merger. These facts were only taken into account as mitigating factors for the calculation of the fine.
The European Commission has also recently imposed fines for the infringement of the standstill obligation.
In this changing environment, the filing requirement and the standstill obligation cannot be seen as a pure formality. It is therefore essential to always verify whether and in which jurisdictions a transaction is notifiable – and not to close the deal before the relevant competition authorities have cleared the deal.
The China Automobile Dealers Association recently issued a formal complaint to Mercedes-Benz Beijing regarding its allegedly illegal “double limit” policy for car dealers—minimum prices and restrictions on sales into other dealers` territories—revealing tension between a widespread industry practice and China’s Anti-Monopoly Law.
China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce has imposed the first fines for violation of the country’s Anti-Monopoly Law on a concrete cartel. The swift action indicates business operators should anticipate more widespread and vigorous investigations by the newly empowered Chinese competition regulatory authorities.