EU Antitrust Probe Includes Asian Carriers

EU Antitrust Probe Includes Asian Carriers

European Union antitrust officials raided the European offices of a number of Asian carriers on Tuesday in addition to European shipping lines as part of a probe into suspected price fixing in the sector, the lines said on Wednesday.

Neptune Orient Lines, OOCL, Evergreen Marine and Hanjin Shipping all said that were part of a European Commission investigation into the violation of antitrust rules.

EU regulators on Tuesday raided several liner shipping companies, including Maersk Line, CMA CGM, and Hapag-Lloyd.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive wing, said it “has reason to believe the companies concerned may have violated the antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive practices and/or abuse of a dominant market position.”

The EU outlawed price-setting liner conferences in October 2008 when it abolished carriers’ long-standing exemption from antitrust enforcement.

The EC, which conducted the unannounced visits to carrier offices Tuesday with national competition regulators, did not identify the companies involved.

"We can confirm that the EC raided our office in the UK's Levington," OOCL spokesman Stanley Shen said on Wednesday. "It's a very general raid and not carrier-specific, it seems."

Carriers have been hit by plunging freight rates on the Asia-Europe trade lanes since at least the beginning of this year because of looming overcapacity of vessel space. Rates to and from Europe rose sharply in early 2010 as the sector recovered from a downturn.

NOL said in a statement late on Tuesday that the EC officials inspected its Uxbridge office in the United Kingdom.

"NOL understands that the intent of the inspection is to identify the existence of any evidence of infringement of anti-competition rules relating to the liner shipping industry."

The Singapore-based carrier said it believes that it is in "compliance with the anti-competition regulations and is cooperating fully with the European Union."

Evergreen Marine said EC inspectors visited its London office on Tuesday as part of an investigation into major container carriers.

"Evergreen will continue to fully cooperate with the EC agents in their efforts," a company spokesperson said.

In Seoul, Hanjin Shipping said its Hamburg office had been inspected by EU officials and added that it would also fully cooperate with the investigation.

--Contact Peter T. Leach at pleach@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @petertleach.