Some Thoughts on Cartels in India
This post arises out of the often lengthy (and occasionally extremely annoying to others!!) bouts of brooding which often hijack my head. Though the subjects of such musings are mixed and varied, this particular one was specifically on competition law. Eventually, the contemplation became more subject specific, i.e., on cartels in India. Therefore, I pen my thoughts below and invite an active discussion on the issues regarding the same.
1. Under Section 27(b) of the Act, the Commission can impose a penalty against any cartel which shall not be more than ten percent, of the average of the turnover for the last three preceding financial years upon each person or enterprise involved in any such a cartel. The Question: Will ten percent really be enough to deter any cartel formation ?? Allow me to explain. It is now accepted that the level of sanctions should be of such amount so as to deter crime. A high level of sanction therefore, contributes to minimise the costs of enforcing the law as a high penalty acts as an effective deterrent to crime. Now when it comes to a cartels, a firm shall only participate in such collusion depending on the advantage it may derive from such a cartel. Obviously, if the profits are not worth the risk, why bother to step on the shoes of the law in the first place ?!?! Now, even with the imposition of penalty (which to be noted cannot exceed ten percent as per Section 27(b)), would this clause of a ten percent limit on an imposition of the penalty actually act as a deterrent in the effective enforcement of the law ??
To take a hypothetical example, lets say four firms decide to enter into a cartel sensing to grab the opportunity to abuse their combine domination on the market. The Cartel presumably, is not discovered for atleast two years (its a lot harder than one would like to believe), and in the meantime each firm manages to garner a turnover/revenue of approximately 400 crore for each year. Therefore, for the two years, a turnover of 800 crore. The year before that (which would be required to calculate the penalty), on an average, each company use to make an average turnover/revenue of 200 crore. Therefore, an average of of the three years – 333 crore(approx.). Therefore, ten percent of this amount would result in 33.3 crore penalty on each firm. A paltry and insignificant sum as compared to the 400 crore advantage each firm derived in the two years of the existence of the cartel. Therefore, where and how does it create a deterrence amongst firms to engage in such future cartelisation , when it is more than obvious that irrespective of the penalties, the firms shall make a profit ?!?!
(Update: Of course, as it turns out, the above was a redundant questions as I completely forgot to take into account the proviso to Section 27(b) which does provide a solution to the dilemma. An unfortunate consequence of writing posts half asleep !! Deeply apologise for the error as regards cartels. However, the theory would still hold true for other anti – competitive arrangements.)
2. Should the Commission (and the DG of investigation) adjust penalties and sanctions by granting the incentive to one or more members of the cartel to undercut each other ?? Simply put, undercutting in cartels is allowing one firm an exemption from a probable penalty for participation in a cartel by encouraging it to break the cartel by offering their goods at lower prices than the collusive price among member of the cartel. Its not a tactic that Commission has used till now, but it should consider using such innovative methods if it intends to maintain competition in the market and still be able to effectively conduct investigations and pass orders in a reasonable time and prevent a backlog of cases, which is unfortunately, more than prevalent among other Courts and Tribunals in the Country.