Glossary of competition terms

This Glossary was prepared by DG COMP and the OECD for non-competition specialists. Each term is enriched with references of national case laws from the e-Competitions Bulletin. (© European Union - © OECD)

Cartel

Arrangement(s) between competing firms designed to limit or eliminate competition between them, with the objective of increasing prices and profits of the participating companies and without producing any objective countervailing benefits. In practice, this is generally done by fixing prices, limiting output, sharing markets, allocating customers or territories, bid rigging or a combination of these. Cartels are harmful to consumers and society as a whole due to the fact that the participating companies charge higher prices (and earn higher profits) than in a competitive market.

© European Commission

A cartel is a formal agreement among firms in an oligopolistic industry. Cartel members may agree on such matters as prices, total industry output, market shares, allocation of customers, allocation of territories, bid-rigging, establishment of common sales agencies, and the division of profits or combination of these. Cartel in this broad sense is synonymous with "explicit" forms of collusion. Cartels are formed for the mutual benefit of member firms. The theory of "cooperative" oligopoly provides the basis for analyzing the formation and the economic effects of cartels. Generally speaking, cartels or cartel behaviour attempts to emulate that of monopoly by restricting industry output, raising or fixing prices in order to earn higher profits.

A distinction needs to be drawn between public and private cartels. In the case of public cartels, the government may establish and enforce the rules relating to prices, output and other such matters. Export cartels and shipping conferences are examples of public cartels. In many countries depression cartels have been permitted in industries deemed to be requiring price and production stability and/or to permit rationalization of industry structure and excess capacity. In Japan for example, such arrangements have been permitted in the steel, aluminum smelting, ship building and various chemical industries. Public cartels were also permitted in the United States during the depression in the 1930s and continued to exist for some time after World War II in industries such as coal mining and oil production. Cartels have also played an extensive role in the German economy during the inter-war period. International commodity agreements covering products such as coffee, sugar, tin and more recently oil (OPEC: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are examples of international cartels which have publicly entailed agreements between different national governments. Crisis cartels have also been organized by governments for various industries or products in different countries in order to fix prices and ration production and distribution in periods of acute shortages.

In contrast, private cartels entail an agreement on terms and conditions from which the members derive mutual advantage but which are not known or likely to be detected by outside parties. Private cartels in most jurisdictions are viewed as being illegal and in violation of antitrust laws.

Successful cartels, be they public or private, require "concurrence", "coordination" and "compliance" among members. This means that cartel members need to be able to detect when violations of an agreement take place and be able to enforce the agreement with sanctions against the violators. These conditions are not easily met and this often explains why cartels tend to break down over time.

See also Agreement © OECD

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