Cartels sound unsavory, suggesting drug kingpins or despotic rulers of oil kingdoms. They are, in fact, illegal within the U.S. and most developed economies. But agreements among members of a given industry to shape markets to their mutual advantage are as natural a feature of capitalism as competition. Cartels exist openly in many places and covertly almost everywhere. The line between a cartel and a more legitimate joint trading or marketing venture can be a fine one, and cartels take many forms: production quotas, price fixing, import/export quotas. Even mechanisms as benign-sounding as product standards or “best price” agreements can be used to keep out new rivals. Some cartels operate inside a single nation; others span international markets. DeBeers controlled the diamond market for decades, and saw its hold loosened only by outside forces, including new competitors and determined prosecutors. Other groups tear themselves apart, like the trading venture in potash that noisily imploded in the summer of 2013.
In July, OAO Uralkali, a Russian company that is the world’s largest producer of potash, a fertilizer ingredient, pulled out of a collaboration with its longtime junior partner, Belaruskali of Belarus. Cartels sometimes split when one member concludes that it can make more money selling more of its product, even at lower prices. In the case of potash, the conflict reflected broader political tensions between the two countries. In August, Belarus jailed the chief executive of Uralkali. In November, he was sent to Moscow after a plan to sell a stake in Uralkali to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was announced, as a steep fall in potash prices appeared to push President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus to heal the rift. In a more loosely organized enterprise, six banks were fined 1.7 billion euros ($2.3 billion) by the European Union in December after it was revealed that traders used online chat rooms to collude in tweaking benchmarks used to set interest rates. That penalty set an EU record, but many expect even bigger fines over charges that traders worked together to manipulate prices in the $5.3-trillion-a-day foreign-exchange market, using instant message groups whose names included “The Cartel.”
The idea is age-old, but formal cartels first emerged in Germany in the 1870s, then spread to other European nations and Japan. The historian Jeffrey Fear has noted that domestic cartels typically emerged in industries with high fixed costs and a record of ruinous competition: steel, coal, salt, paper, fertilizer, aluminum and potash. In the U.S., the years after the Civil War saw a flowering of pools, trusts and other forms of cartels before antitrust laws reined them in. Elsewhere, they were backed by governments as a bulwark against business failures and suffocating monopolies. The predictability of cartel arrangements was also thought to encourage more consistent investments in research and development. International cartels prospered in the 1920s and 1930s in industries ranging from copper to petroleum to rubber. On the eve of World War II, cartels controlled 40 percent of global trade. That conflict destroyed many of the arrangements, as did liberalizing reforms afterward. Cartels continued to flourish in a handful of places, especially Japan, but otherwise began a slow decline. Commodity cartels in emerging economies enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s. As a consortium of sovereign nations, OPEC stood outside antitrust laws, but its aggressive campaign to control oil prices destroyed the good reputation these cooperative arrangements once had. Recent prosecutions over price-fixing, ranging from cathode-ray tubes ($1.9 billion in fines levied in 2012) and in the international auto parts trade ($1.6 billion in fines through 2013 and more to come), show the continued lure of collaboration.
The idea that cartels operate to the detriment of consumers dates back to Adam Smith, who described them as conspiratorial combines that have “an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public.” And even defenders of cartels have little good to say about the kind of geopolitical jousting that landed Uralkali’s CEO in jail. But for much of the modern history of business, this has been a minority point of view. While cartels face more legal hurdles today, their ubiquity throughout the history of capitalism suggests that attempts to eradicate them entirely will fail. Still, there’s a threat to them that will never go away — cheating on the cartel’s rules by members who can’t entirely suppress their competitive side. EU officials have found that every-man-for-himself spirit useful: UBS and Barclay’s avoided $4.3 billion in fines by being the first to come clean about interest-rate manipulation.
The Reference Shelf
- Business historian Jeffrey Fear provides an overview of cartels over the past century and a half.
- Luis Cabral of NYU’s Stern School describes the history of the De Beers diamond cartel.
- Mark LeClair’s historical study of cartels and antitrust laws in the U.S. and Europe.
- A volume of essays edited by economist Peter Grossman covers cartels past and present.
- Tony Freyer’s study shows how anti-cartel laws in the U.S. paradoxically limited competition.
- Stephen Mihm discusses a century of international potash intrigue.