Brussels fines chipmakers €331m for price-fixing

Nine memory chip makers, including world leader Samsung Electronics, were fined a total €331m ($411m) by European Union regulators on Wednesday for illegally fixing prices.

The EU antitrust watchdog levied its biggest penalty of €145.73m against Samsung, while Infineon was fined €56.7m and Hynix Semiconductor €51.47m for a cartel of dynamic random access memory chipmakers that operated from July 1998 to June 2002.

The other companies in the cartel were Hitachi, which received a fine of €20.41m; Toshiba Corp €17.64m; Mitsubishi Electric €16.61m; and Nanya Technology €1.8m. Elpida Memory was fined €8.50m jointly with NEC Corp and Hitachi, while NEC Corp took a €2.12m hit jointly with Hitachi during their joint venture period. NEC got a separate €20.41m fine.

Micron Technology received immunity and no fine for blowing the whistle on the cartel in 2002.

Samsung Electronics and Hynix are the world’s largest and second-largest memory chip makers respectively. D-Ram chips are used in personal computers, printers, mobile phones and game consoles.

The case is the first under a European Commission settlement procedure introduced in July 2008 in which companies admit taking part in a cartel in return for a 10 per cent cut in fines.

"By acknowledging their participation in a cartel the companies have allowed the Commission to bring this long-running investigation to a close and to free up resources to investigate other suspected cartels," competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in a statement.

The commission has championed the new procedure as a more effective method to deter violations and speed up the decision-making process. It can fine companies up to 10 per cent of their global turnover for breaking EU laws.

South Korea's antitrust agency last year ended an investigation of the flash memory industry, saying there was no evidence of a price-fixing cartel. Samsung and Toshiba have said US authorities also ended investigations last August.

(Published by Financial Times – May 19, 2010)

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