The EU cracked the whip on cartels last year, while the US backed down

 
Hayley Kirton
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The EU has been weeding out the bad apples with bumper cartel fines last year (Source: Getty)

Global fines for cartels rose to over $6bn (£4.9bn) last year, as a clampdown from the EU helped to push the figure higher, statistics out today show.

Law firm Allen & Overy has calculated that fines for cartel involvement rose to $6.68bn worldwide in 2016, up 28 per cent compared with $5.2bn the year before, while the European Commission dished out penalties of $4.09bn.

Making up the bulk of the European Commission's penalty pot was a $3.2bn charge for a group of truck producers which were claimed to have ganged together to fix prices.

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On the other hand, the US Department of Justice's antitrust division handed out fines of just $387m in its 2016 financial year. That represents a drop of 86 per cent from $2.85bn in 2015, when the department dolled out big penalties for foreign exchange fixes.

The legal eagles at Allen & Overy predict cartel activity fines will inch up even further in 2017, with a focus on Brazil, South Korea and the EU.

The South American country, in particular, is expected to have a bumper year for fines, thanks to a recent flurry of investigations, including probes linked to the Petrobras scandal.

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Meanwhile, the Korea Fair Trade Commission has increased its monitoring of cartel-related activity recently, while the European Commission still has a number of open cases to conclude, especially in the area of financial services.

However, shifts in the political landscape last year could throw a spanner in the works for regulators looking to work together across borders to stop cartels.

"The new political headwinds against globalisation suggest that co-operations could be scaled back, which could change strategic decision-making for multinationals," added John Terzaken, partner and head of the cartel enforcement practice at Allen & Overy. "And cartel enforcement is likely to be no exception.

"While any changes are unlikely to result in less cartel enforcement, evolving views on jurisdiction, comity and adequate deterrence will no doubt pose new challenges for authorities seeking to co-ordinate, and thus for companies trying to navigate, global cartel investigations."

Donald Trump taking his seat at the White House later this month could also cause a change in trends for US fines.

"If history is any guide, the next US administration will likely continue the trend of aggressive enforcement of the criminal antitrust laws, including the emphasis on pursuing individual executives," said Terzaken.

"What may change given the more nationalist agenda proposed by the next US administration, however, is the amount of energy and resources that will be committed to cooperation efforts with authorities in international cartel enforcement cases. Such a shift would pose new challenges for multinationals navigating global cartel investigations."

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