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Even Amid Extremely Low Prices, European Commission Investigates Container Shippers for Price Fixing

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Prices remain low among ocean container shippers, particularly concerning rates for shipping between Europe and Asia. However, the European Commission is pursuing investigations on about 14 different shippers because the EC has reason to believe that the companies were engaging in activities which violated antitrust laws. According to the laws, companies do not actually have to engage in price-fixing to be in violation. The mere signaling of one company to the others of price change plans is enough to violate these antitrust laws. When examining data collected between 2009 and today, it is clear that prices among many of the top companies spiked at about the same times, always following an announcement by one of the shippers that their rates were going to go up. Most of the rate hikes involved price increases between just $25 and $100 per TEU (twenty-foot equivalent). Such announcements happened 34 different times since 2009, all involving shippers operating between Europe and Asia.

The European Commission has not made public which of the shippers are under investigation. Before 2008, the Commission allowed shippers to engage in meetings known as liner shipper conferences, but these conferences are no longer legal. An analyst for Drewry Shipping Consultants, Neil Dekker, said it does appear that the rate hikes that occurred since 2009 do not appear to have happened as a natural cause of normal supply and demand.

It is not yet clear if Asian and American governing bodies have any immediate plans to conduct similar investigations in their jurisdictions. According to data derived from the market regarding price spikes over the time period in question, it does appear that Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, and Maersk were involved in the announcements and subsequent price hikes. The rate increases for these three companies were almost identical over the course of January 2009 through the final quarter of 2013.

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