SKF to Schaeffler fined $1.3 billion in EU ball-bearing case

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BRUSSELS (Bloomberg) -- SKF, the world's largest maker of ball bearings, and Schaeffler were among five suppliers that agreed to pay a combined 953.3 million euros ($1.3 billion) to settle a European Union probe into an automotive-parts cartel.

"We will not stop here -- we are still investigating suspected cartels for airbags as well as lighting systems of the cars to mention a few examples," Joaquin Almunia, the EU's antitrust chief, told reporters in Brussels today. "If we add one by one these parts we can have almost a fully fledged car."

Schaeffler was fined the highest amount -- 370.5 million euros -- as part of the cartel settlement. SKF received a 315.1 million-euro penalty and NTN Corp. will have to pay 201.4 million euros. Jtekt Corp. escaped a 86 million-euro fine for blowing the whistle on the cartel, the EU said in a statement.

Regulators across the world have been clamping down on car- parts manufacturers. In the U.S., companies including Bridgestone have agreed to pay more than $2 billion in fines. The EU has ongoing probes into manufacturers of car safety systems, heating and cooling systems and car lighting.

Ball bearings are used in cars and trucks to reduce friction in wheels, gearboxes and air-conditioning systems. The size of the EU market for automotive bearings is estimated to be at least 2 billion euros a year, according to the European Commission.

Pricing strategy

The companies colluded to secretly coordinate their pricing strategy vis-a-vis automotive customers for more than seven years, from April 2004 until July 2011, the EU said.

NSK received a 62.4 million-euro penalty and Nachi-Fujikoshi will have to pay 3.96 million euros. SKF, Schaeffler and NTN had all set aside provisions for an EU fine.

Companies that agree to settle EU cartel cases receive a reduction of 10 percent of their fine, with additional discounts for aiding regulators.

"What happened was unacceptable and should never happen again," SKF CEOTom Johnstone said in a statement. Christoph Beumelburg, a Schaeffler spokesman, declined to comment.

Jtekt "has taken appropriate measures to prevent recurrence," the company said in a statement on its Web site. Kasper Uittenbogaard, an executive at Jtekt's European unit, said it had introduced a compliance program in 2011.

NTN's French unit declined to immediately comment. NSK and Nachi-Fujikoshi didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.

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

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