Indian probe finds SKF, Schaeffler, Tata Steel units colluded on bearings prices

Reuters New Delhi, Delhi, India Nov 26, 2019, 11.34 AM(IST)

Tata Photograph:( AFP )

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During the probe, ABC Bearings, SKF, and Tata Steel's bearings division told the CCI they had no evidence of such discussions, the report showed

An Indian antitrust probe has found that units of Tata Steel Ltd, Sweden's AB SKF  and Germany's Schaeffler AG  colluded on the pricing of bearings, according to an investigation report seen by Reuters.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) began an investigation in 2017 after receiving allegations of five companies colluding on bearings prices from 2009-2014 to pass higher raw material costs onto customers in the auto sector.

Bearings reduce friction in moving parts, helping smooth the operation of vehicles. India's bearings market is dominated by SKF and Schaeffler and is worth $1.3 billion, showed data from ICRA Research.

CCI's investigations arm, in a report dated May 6 which has not been made public, said it analyzed company emails, call records and executive testimonies and concluded that SKF India Ltd, Schaeffler India Ltd, National Engineering Industries and Tata Steel's bearings division contravened antitrust law by discussing and agreeing on prices.

SKF, the world's largest maker of ball-bearings, in a statement said it aided the investigation, and that "we dispute any claim of wrongdoing on the part of SKF".

Schaeffler did not respond to a request for comment. Tata Steel and National Engineering Industries - part of Indian conglomerate CK Birla Group - declined to comment beyond saying the CCI proceedings were confidential.

The investigations arm said it found no evidence against the fifth firm, ABC Bearings, part of US firm Timken Co, the report showed. ABC Bearings declined to comment.

The report also showed the investigations arm considered the collusion lasted through the financial year to March 2011 but found no evidence to indicate when it actually ended.

The four firms, "through personal meetings of key persons, on two occasions shared the strategic information regarding their future efforts to seek price increase from" auto sector companies, the investigations arm said in its 106-page report.

The CCI did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. A person with direct knowledge of the matter said senior CCI officials are reviewing the report and that the antitrust body is able to dispute the findings of its investigation arm.

The CCI can fine firms up to three times the profit made in each year of wrongdoing or 10 per cent of revenue, whichever is higher.

In 2014, European Union antitrust regulators fined SKF, Schaeffler and three Japanese auto parts makers $1.3 billion for taking part in a bearings cartel from 2004 through 2011.

The investigation report showed the four companies controlled nearly 75 per cent of the domestic bearings market in the period 2009-11 - a time when prices of steel, the key raw material in bearings, were fluctuating sharply.

The steep steel price volatility, the CCI's investigation arm said, provided the companies an "incentive to collude".

There was a consensus among the firms "to seek a price increase of 12per cent and settle at 6 per cent" with a tractor and automotive manufacturers. With motorbike makers, there was a consensus to seek a 10% price increase and settle at 4 per cent, the report showed.

The investigation arm also said Schaeffler and National Engineering Industries told the CCI that employees had participated in discussions with competitors "mainly to seek coordinated price increase of bearings". It did not elaborate on when the companies disclosed discussions to the CCI.

During the probe, ABC Bearings, SKF, and Tata Steel's bearings division told the CCI they had no evidence of such discussions, the report showed.

"The conduct of the parties has resulted in an appreciable adverse effect on competition," the CCI investigation arm said in the report. "The sharing of price information is particularly sensitive to the competition law perspective."