EU Said to Fine Ball-Bearings Makers to Settle Cartel Probe

The European Union will fine automotive ball-bearings makers as soon as tomorrow in an antitrust settlement, said three people familiar with the case that led three firms to make provisions totaling more than $1 billion.

About six ball-bearings makers have agreed to settle the case, said the people who asked not to be named because the decision isn’t yet public. EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told EU lawmakers today that he would announce a price-fixing decision in a car-parts investigation tomorrow.

Cartels to fix the prices of car parts “are devastating for both Japanese and European car manufacturers and consumers” who pay too much for components and the final vehicles, Alexander Italianer, the head of the EU’s competition service, said last year. Bearings are just one out of about a hundred car components the EU is probing, he said.

SKF AB, the world’s largest maker of ball bearings, said in December it set aside 3 billion krona ($473 million) for a potential EU fine. Schaeffler AG also took a 380 million-euro ($528 million) provision last year for an expected EU fine. NTN Corp. set aside 27 billion yen ($266 million) for an EU fine, it said in January.

Ingalill Ostman, a spokeswoman for Gothenburg, Sweden-based SKF, declined to comment ahead of a statement from regulators. Christoph Beumelburg, a Schaeffler spokesman, declined to comment. NTN didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail and a call seeking comment.

Fines Reduction

Companies that agree to settle EU cartel cases receive a reduction of 10 percent of their fine, with additional discounts for aiding regulators. The first to inform the EU of the cartel is usually exempted from fines.

NTN, NSK Ltd. and Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. were fined by Japan’s antitrust authority last year for fixing prices of bearings in an investigation where Jtekt Corp. was exempted from fines. Jtekt, NSK, NTN and Nachi-Fujikoshi are also being probed by Singapore’s competition regulator.

NSK, Jtekt and Nachi Fujikoshi didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail and a call seeking comment on the EU process.

SKF shares climbed 1.5 percent to 170.90 krona at 5:08 p.m. in Stockholm trading.

SKF’s EU fine “will materially affect our result and cash flow,” Tom Johnstone, the company’s president and CEO, said in a statement in January. The company deeply regrets its involvement in the cartel “which should not have happened,” he said.

Yazaki Corp., Leoni AG and Furukawa Electric Co. paid 141 million euros to settle an EU investigation into a cartel for automotive wire harnesses. Recticel SA, Carpenter Group and Greiner Holding AG paid 114 million euros in January to end an EU probe into foam used for mattresses and car seats.

EU regulators raided SKF, Schaeffler, Jtekt, NSK, NTN and Nachi Fujikoshi to seek evidence for its probe in 2011. The regulator has also raided manufacturers of car safety systems, heating and cooling systems and car lighting.

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