India fines cement firms US$1.1bn over cartel

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India: In one of the largest fines of its kind, India's antitrust body has imposed a penalty of a combined US$1.1bn on 11 cement companies for price fixing. The companies penalised by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) include ACC and Ambuja Cements (both units of Swiss cement-maker Holcim), UltraTech Cement, Jaiprakash Associates, India Cements, Madras Cements and the local unit of France's Lafarge.

"The commission has found that the cement companies have not utilised the available capacity, so as to reduce supplies and raise prices in times of higher demand," said the CCI in its judgement. It said that the penalty on each company amounted to 50% of their profit for the financial years 2009-10 and 2010-11.

ACC has been fined US$201m and Ambuja has to pay US$204m. India's largest producer of the building material, Ultratech Cement, has to pay US$206m, while Lafarge's Indian unit will have to shell out US$84m. Jaiprakash Associates has been fined US$232m.

On 21 June 2012 the CCI said that the cement companies' action of limiting supplies to the market through an 'anti-competitive agreement' was not only detrimental to consumers but also to the economy, as the building material is a critical input for infrastructure projects. The regulator asked the companies to pay the fine within 90 days. The companies can challenge the regulator's orders in the Competition Appellate Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body and can then appeal to India's Supreme Court.

In response UltraTech said that it hasn't indulged in any cartelisation and that it would appeal against the order in the appellate tribunal. In Zurich Holcim said it would, "contest the allegations and findings against (ACC and Ambuja) in the order and will pursue all available legal steps to defend their respective positions." In Paris Lafarge said, "We will see the detailed report and decide the suitable actions to take. Lafarge has a strict policy to comply with competition laws."

The CCI started accepting cases in 2009, replacing a relatively toothless antitrust body that had been in place since 1970, and has been becoming increasingly assertive. The biggest penalty it had imposed so far was in 2011, when it ordered DLF Ltd., India's biggest property developer by sales, to pay US$120m for abusing its dominant market position by changing agreements signed with some property buyers.

The judgement comes at a bad time for cement companies, as demand for construction materials is weak due to sluggish economic growth and a fall in spending on infrastructure projects. The cost of raw materials such as coal is on the rise as well, pressuring margins.

Last modified on 27 June 2012

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