There's news today that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is imposing fines on three leading electronics manufacturers -- LG Display Co. Ltd., Sharp Corp. and Chunghwa Picture Tubes Ltd. -- "for their roles in conspiracies to fix prices in the sale of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels." According to the DOJ's press release, of the $585 million in fines, LG will pay $400 million, the second highest criminal fine ever imposed by the DOJ's Antitrust Division.
Regardless of the merits of the DOJ's case, I have to ask: Has there ever been a worse attempt at fixing prices in the entire history of price fixing? After all, have you looked at flat-screen prices lately? They do nothing but fall, fall, fall -- fast! Here are some numbers from Steve Lohr's New York Times article about the DOJ case:
The LCD business is a $100-billion-a-year market and growing, but prices are falling relentlessly. Recently, panel prices have often been cut in half each year, a downward trajectory even steeper than in other technology markets known for steady price pressure, like those for computer chips and hard drives. In the last six months alone, the price of a 15.4-inch panel for a notebook PC has dropped to $63, from $97, and a 32-inch LCD for a television has gone to $223, from $321, according to iSuppli, a market research firm. The price-fixing conspiracy, industry analysts said, was an effort to slow the speed of price declines. "These companies were trying to get a toehold to protect profits in a very difficult market," said Richard Doherty, director of research at Envisioneering, a technology consulting firm.
Yeah, well, that "toehold" didn't protect squat. And how could it; it's not like these are the only three companies in the LCD business. And you'll forgive those of us who only have plasmas or projectors in our homes for wondering what the big deal is (although I am certainly aware that LCDs are the primary technology for smaller flat screen displays in computer monitors, cell phones, and other handhelds).
But hey, I'm sure the DOJ's effort was worth it at some level. Some lucky handful of consumers will probably get a check for 65 cents once the class action dust settles on this one. In the meantime, if there is some sort of Antitrust Hall of Fame out there, I hearby nominate LG, Sharp, and Chunghwa for the "Worst Price Fixers in History" award.