Friday, July 27, 2007

Where Art Thou, Chinese Anti-trust Law?

Ok, I know that is a rhetorical question. Here, I blogged about the legislative progress in China’s Anti-Monopoly Law. But the recent chain of events in China only highlights the urgent need for the promulgation of a comprehensive antitrust law in China.

Collusions in price fixing in beef noodles and milk products caught people’s attention and caused quiet a few controversies.

Now, instant Raman noodles are the most recent consumer product that fell prey to, as I suspect, price fixing by major producers in China. Leading producers like Master Kang and President have lifted prices of their noodles by about 20%. Others are following the lead. They blamed the price hike on rising food material costs.

Behind the façade of inflation, in the form of food price increases, is a more culpable factor—horizontal price fixing. And this got me plenty concerned for very personal reasons.

1. Raman noodles are the staple food for college students. When I was getting my undergraduate degree in China, I lived on that stuff of various flavors: spicy beef, fresh seafood, comforting chicken…Poor and cheap students cannot afford to buy noodles that cost more than 1.5 yuan. I am talking about empathy here.

2. Raman noodles are a source for many small business owners. I sold Raman noodles in my dorm to make money, and many others too. For a cent on the dollar, we made a little cash enough for occasional movies and date nights. If the prices of all brands rose for more than 20%, fewer people could afford to buy a package to stave off late-night hunger. That would potentially kill the dormitory grocers' opportunity for entertainment and romance. Serious consequences!!

So, what is horizontal price fixing? Under the U.S. federal law, it is defined as:

Horizontal price fixing is any arrangement among competitors that interferes with the setting of price by open market forces. These price fixing claims arise from competitors’ concerted action to charge pre-set minimum or maximum prices for their goods or services. Horizontal price fixing can violate Sections 1 and 3 of the Sherman Act, which proscribe concerted action in restraint of trade, as well as Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which prohibits conspiracies or combinations to monopolize.

To prove an antitrust claim, the plaintiff must show evidence of agreement between or among manufacturers. And uniform price increases could be one result of such an agreement in restraint of trade.

China Anti-trust Law, you can help this situation (at least cause a serious investigation into the noodle monsters’ pricing hikes). Would you come out soon?

Until then, eat more rice.