EC advisors undecided on conference antitrust issue
Five advisors asked by the European Commission’s competition directorate to help analyze industry and government comments on the conference antitrust immunity question have concluded in a report that the submissions provided insufficient information to make a case for or against the existence of conferences in liner shipping.
The team of advisors from the Dutch Erasmus university reviewed comments and material sent by 31 organizations representing shippers, carriers, forwarders and governments as part of the EC’s consultation on a potential reform of the European liner shipping regulation 4056/86.
“Reviewing all responses it must be concluded that, at this point, no convincing new arguments are made either for or against the existence of conferences,” the academics concluded in their report to the EC. The advisory group noted that the submissions “hardly provided any new evidence or proof,” and said that more market data is needed to form the basis for a sound review of the regulation.
“Apart from the European Liner Affairs Association, very little market information was provided in response to the consultation paper,” the advisors said. But even the data from the European Liner Affairs Association, a Brussels-based carrier lobby, showed only “official liner conference prices” that represent only 10 to 20 percent of total volumes, the advisors remarked.
The advisory group concluded that many questions in the EC consultation paper remain unanswered.
However, the advisors said that independent action, service contracts and independent carriers “have eroded substantially any market power vested in conference rate-setting.”
“Most experts would tend to agree that any carriers’ reluctance to regulatory reform is based on psychology and preconceptions rather than any foreseeable tangible ramification,” the report added.
In an annex to the report, produced on the consultants’ initiatives, the advisors carried out a quantified
economic analysis of the relationship between freight rate stability and other variables, such as excess capacity. One result from the analysis “gives credence to the notion that ocean liner shipping conferences are not price setting cartels,” the report said. The advisors argued that conferences are “platforms to discuss prices and the related cost levels,” but “hardly set prices and stick to them.”
As expected, shippers’ organizations told the EC in their submissions that they favored the ending of the conference immunity, while carriers argued the opposite. Forwarders’ organizations took a middle position in their comments, saying that they favor stability and a limited ability of rate setting, but oppose the conference system when it engages too much in applying adjustment factors.
The advisors noted that shippers appear to be in favor of liner consortia and carrier alliances. They suggested a compromise between abolishing price-setting immunity and ensuring that conditions are put in place to safeguard liner shipping alliances.
The EC will now hold oral hearings of industry spokesmen in Brussels on Dec. 4.