The European Union fined nine producers of memory chips more than $400 million for colluding in a price-fixing cartel Wednesday.
The mainly non-European chipmakers are accused of rigging the market between 1998 and 2002 sharing secret proprietary information that allowed them to set prices and quotes for dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips.
The companies in the suit are Samsung Electronics, NEC Electronics, Hynix Semiconductor, Elpida Memory, Hitachi, Infineon, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric and Nanya Technology.
Market-leader Samsung of South Korea received the biggest fine: more than $177 million. Germany's Infineon was fined $72 million and Hynix $66 million. The others received lesser fines.
The case was the first time companies accused of price-fixing co-operated with the EU Commission to reach an agreement. The companies received a 10 per cent reduction in fines for reducing the costs and time of the investigation.
"This first settlement decision is another milestone in the Commission's anti-cartel enforcement," said EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia. "By acknowledging their participation in a cartel, the companies have allowed the Commission to bring this long-running investigation to a close and to free up resources to investigate other suspected cartels."
Almunia said there were several more such settlements in the pipeline but refused to elaborate. He insisted that the use of settlements did not soften the Commission's stance on the illegal practice.
'We are not compromising on cartels.' — Joaquin Almunia. EU competition commissioner
"We are not compromising on cartels," he told reporters. "We will continue to be clearly against cartels."
Over the past decade, the EU Commission has struck across the globe to impose massive fines on multinationals that fix prices.
In 2008, France's Compagnie de Saint-Gobain SA had to pay896 million euros in a car glass cartel case where fines totaled 1.38 billion euros. The sectors are as diverse as the fines, ranging from software, to elevators, to vitamins, to paraffin and beer. In the past year alone, the agency has ordered huge fines against technology titan Intel Corp. and numerous airlines for anti-competitive behaviour.
Seven years after the cartel, the chip companies involved started discussing the case with the Commission, seeking a settlement, Almunia said. The Commission agreed with the settlement after the companies "clearly and unequivocally acknowledged their respective liability," the Commission said in a statement.