Saturday, 20 February 2021

You probably got ripped off, too

I'm involved with a training programme for an overseas competition agency, and we've been going through the law and economics of cartels: I've been talking about the detriments they cause. As it happens, there's a recent spectacular example of how bad they can be.

One of the gurus of cartel documentation has been John Connor, emeritus professor at Purdue and a senior fellow of the American Antitrust Institute. In 'Twilight of Prosecutions of the Global Auto-Parts Cartels', he's written about one of the biggest cartels ever (amounts cited are US dollars):

At last count 18 jurisdictions vigorously prosecuted this supercartel, which demonstrated exceptional duration, global reach, size, and injuriousness. Estimates for affected commerce of the Auto-Parts supercartel range from $3.2 to $5.0 trillion. There are few reliable estimates of overcharges, but averaging the few preliminary estimates suggests that injuries are in the range of $0.6 to $1 trillion (p1)

That's a pretty impressive level of overcharges, exacted from 17 different car manufacturers from around the turn of the millennium though to late 2009, when the cartels started to get rumbled. Chances are, if you bought a car in the 2000s, you're one of the vast number of victims yourself. Depending on what criterion you use, this was either the largest or second largest grouping of related cartels ever found.

Connor reproduced this picture, originally from a European Union enforcement announcement, showing just how many different components of a car got targeted by the cartels. Basically everything but the engine, the transmission and the bodywork got rorted. If the 'wire harnesses' rings a bell, that's one where the ACCC got involved: the Japanese company pinged in that case unwisely decided to appeal their fine, with appropriately karmic results.

There's a great deal of stuff to take away from this example, one being that companies can be too hard-nosed at bargaining for their own good: "Did the assemblers [the carmakers] push too hard on price reductions in the early 2000s, and thereby trigger supplier collusion to cope with an existential threat?" (p1). It's not a defence, and it doesn't even take us very far into tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner territory, and you shouldn't blame the victims, but (like the Lodge case here at home) you do wonder whether the damn thing would ever have happened in a more reasonable world.

And if you're into corporate strategy, you might want to think twice about all that financial engineering cleverness. You can't be rorted if you've vertically integrated that component. Divest it, though  - free up capital and all that good stuff - and you've opened up some vulnerabilities:

Perhaps it is no coincidence that collusion against GM began soon after it sold its Delco-Remy division in 1994, against Toyota after DENSO no longer supplied a majority of output to Toyota, etc. Any financial cost savings resulting from divestment may have backfired. Second, by delegating manufacturing of minor inputs (say, 2% or 3% of total material inputs) to ostensibly unaffiliated suppliers, the OEMs ['original equipment manufacturers', i.e. the carmakers] suffer a substantial loss of information about manufacturing costs and a consequent loss of bargaining power over price (p16)

The main takeaway from the cartel, though, is the ineffectiveness of the fines. We know the theory: if there's a 100% chance of being detected, a fine equal to 100% (or more) of the overcharging will deter; if there's a 20% probability, then a fine of 500% (or more). What actually happened here?

There are few reliable estimates of the size of overcharges for these cartels, and more are desperately needed, but averaging the few preliminary estimates suggests that injuries are in the range of $0.6 to $1 trillion. Even if monetary penalties rise to double the current $20 billion, cartel deterrence or cartel dissuasion is highly unlikely (p30)

Which does get you thinking about the alternative sanction of criminalisation - sending executives to jail - which we are about to introduce from April. In egregious cases like car parts, you can see why people would well reach for it. But as someone from the socially liberal end of town, I have two reservations.

Here's the first one (data from this Statista page, and originally compiled here). We're already well down the wrong end of this international comparison: we're just about the last country in the world that ought to be thinking about putting even more people in jail. 

And here's the other:

Unlike typical international cartel prosecutions in the past, few of the individuals held accountable by antitrust authorities in Auto Parts have been CEOs, COOs, or CFOs of their parent companies or even their subsidiaries ... Rather, they have held titles like sales manager, director, marketing manager, or department head of units below the corporate VP level (p27).

When we eventually press the criminalisation button, I hope we don't make the car parts mistake - jailing some midlevel functionaries, but letting the big fish swim free.

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