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From Antitrust Law Daily, September 2, 2015

Justice Department brings first charge in capacitor price fixing investigation

By Jeffrey May, J.D.

Japanese capacitor manufacturer NEC Tokin Corporation has agreed to plead guilty and pay a $13.8 million criminal fine for conspiring to fix prices for electrolytic capacitors. A one-count felony charge was filed today in the federal district Court in San Francisco. In addition to pleading guilty to that charge and paying a criminal fine, NEC Tokin has agreed to cooperate in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation. The plea agreement is subject to court approval (U.S. v. NEC Tokin Corp., Case No. CR 15 0426).

The charge against NEC Tokin is the first to arise from a federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging, and other anticompetitive conduct in the capacitor industry. Capacitors, also known as condensers, are a fundamental component of electrical circuits and are used primarily to store and regulate electrical current. Electrolytic capacitors, including aluminum and tantalum types, are a major sub-type of capacitors. These capacitors store and regulate electrical current in electronic products, including computers, televisions, car engine and airbag systems, home appliances, and office equipment.

According to the government, the conspiracy began in 1997 and continued until early 2014. NEC Tokin was charged with participating in the conspiracy between April 2002 and December 2013. The Justice Department alleged that NEC Tokin agreed with competitors to fix prices and rig bids at meetings in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Unnamed co-conspirators manufactured electrolytic capacitors in Japan, Thailand, China, and the United States, it was charged.

Antitrust chief’s reaction. “NEC Tokin and its co-conspirators fixed prices on capacitors, a component used in just about every product that has a battery or a plug,” said William Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division. “In announcing our first guilty plea in this ongoing investigation, we are enforcing the principle that American consumers are entitled to competitive markets. We will vigorously investigate and prosecute illegal cartels regardless of where the defendants are located or the products they target.”

Other government and private proceedings. In addition to the U.S. Department of Justice, competition authorities around the world have launched investigations into price fixing and bid rigging conspiracies in the capacitor industry. China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the Japan Fair Trade Commission, the South Korea Fair Trade Commission, the Taiwan Fair Trade Commission, and the European Commission’s competition authority have reportedly been looking into the conduct.

Putative class actions also have been filed on behalf of direct purchasers of capacitors as well purchasers of finished goods that include capacitors. The federal district court in San Francisco concluded in May that dismissal of many of these claims was not warranted. The civil plaintiffs have identified Panasonic Corporation as a leniency applicant under the Antitrust Division’s Corporate Leniency Program. Other defendants identified in the private suits include Japanese companies Avx Corporation, Elna Co., Hitachi Chemical Company, Ltd., Kemet Corporation, Matsuo Electric Co., Nichicon Corp., Nippon Chemi-Con Corp., United Chemi-Con, Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd., and their U.S. affiliates.

Companies: NEC Tokin Corp.; Panasonic Corp.; Avx Corp.; Elna Co.; Hitachi Chemical Co., Ltd.; Kemet Corp.; Matsuo Electric Co.; NEC Tokin Corp; Nichicon Corp.; Nippon Chemi-Con Corp.; United Chemi-Con; Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd.

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