The Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association has submitted to the Hong Kong Competition Commission for consideration a block exemption for liner shipping agreements. The HK Commission gave interested parties until March 24 to comment on the Association’s request. Hong Kong’s new Competition Ordinance, which bans cartel and other anticompetitive agreements, took effect just last month (see blog post Hong Kong Competition Ordinance Takes Effect), and without an exemption would presumably prohibit the types of agreements proposed under the exception request.
In the summary of its application (here), the Hong Kong Shipping Association says it seeks immunity for two types of agreements: (i) voluntary discussion agreements (“VDAs”); and (ii) vessel sharing agreements (“VSAs”). VDAs are commercial agreements between carriers whereby parties exchange and review market data and trade flows, supply/demand forecasts and business trends to better inform business decisions. They may discuss, develop and agree to recommend voluntary guidelines for rates, charges, service contract or tariff terms and other similar commercial issues. Contracts with shippers are then negotiated and agreed by individual carriers (not the VDA), who may or may not follow the VDA’s guidelines. VDAs bring about: rate stability; service stability; and rate and surcharge transparency, all of which represent efficiencies that benefit customers (and ultimately the wider Hong Kong economy) by enabling better planning and budgeting of long-term shipping costs. VSAs, by contrast, are operational and similar to airline code-sharing agreements, with carriers discussing and agreeing on “technical and operational arrangements relating to the provision of liner shipping services, including the coordination or joint operation of vessel services, and the exchange or charter of vessel space.
The HK Competition Commission is calling for interested parties to submit their views in relation to the application (here). In particular, the Commission said it is seeking comment on experiences with using the two types of agreements in Hong Kong business operations, specific concerns related to either agreement, economic efficiencies related to either and broad market conditions in the industry, “including the state of competition.” The decision could be critical to the continuation of Hong Kong’s shipping industry, as discussed in this Journal of Commerce article (here).
Liner agreements are common in the shipping industry because cooperation can have pro-competitive efficiency enhancing effects that can benefit customers through increased service and lower prices. The Hong Kong Shipping Association has documented the benefits of, and widespread acceptance of, shipping agreements in the international community (here). But, even if the liner agreement exemptions are approved, it is critical for the industry to understand that the exemptions are limited to the specific terms of the immunity. Carriers that confer with one another on legal exemptions have to be particularly aware of the limitations of the immunity and the consequences of reaching broader or non-reported agreements. Over the years, there have been enforcement actions brought against carriers in industries where the agreements reached extended beyond the limited scope of any immunity. I myself led a prosecution of a worldwide ocean parcel tanker price fixing/customer allocation agreement that ran from at least 1998 into 2002.
More recently, the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice has brought criminal actions against shippers and individuals in the auto roll off carrier industry for industry wide-price fixing. United States prosecutes cartels, include shipping cartels, as crimes, punishable by huge fines and jail sentences for individuals. An employee of Japan-based NYK pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in a U.S. prison for his involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices, allocate customers and rig bids of international ocean shipping services for roll-on, roll-off cargo, such as cars and trucks, to and from the United States and elsewhere. This was the third case against an individual in the Antitrust Division’s ocean shipping investigation, and the first against an individual from NYK. Three corporations have agreed to plead guilty and to pay criminal fines totaling more than $136 million, including NYK, which has agreed to pay a criminal fine of $59.4 million. See the DOJ press release here. The investigation by the US DOJ has spurred enforcement actions by several other jurisdictions including the EU, China, South Africa and others, though the US is usually alone in seeking jail for individuals. Here is a blog post I did on the huge fines recently imposed in China–China Fines 7 Shipping Companies $65 Million.
Briefly put, immunity for two carriers to discuss and agree on code sharing for a specific route is not a license for an industry wide agreement to fix prices. Or, on non-legal terms as my Mom used to say, “I said you could borrow the car; I didn’t say you could drive to Las Vegas.” [She said that to my brother; I was an angel.]
On a related note, I will be giving a talk before the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong as part of a trade policy panel on February 1, 2016 (here). The topic will include how the US goes about prosecuting international cartels and how Hong Kong’s new Competition Commission begin its enforcement efforts.
Thanks for reading.