DETROIT -- An aggressive stance on antitrust enforcement by European regulators appears to have sparked the first major antitrust investigation of the U.S. auto industry in roughly 50 years.
In late February, FBI investigators in suburban Detroit raided the U.S. headquarters of Denso Corp., Yazaki North America Inc. and Tokai Rika Group North America. In addition, the European Commission carried out unannounced inspections of companies in Europe. And Japan's Fair Trade Commission raided offices of Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd., Yazaki Corp. and Furukawa Electric Co.
The European Commission did not identify the companies involved in its search. But Lear Corp., of suburban Detroit, acknowledged that it is part of the investigation there, and news outlets in Europe also identified Leoni Kabel GmbH, of Roth, Germany, as a target.
"Antitrust in this country's auto industry has been asleep for years," said Gerald Meyers, a lecturer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. The last time trustbusters had the auto industry in their sights was during the 1950s and 1960s, when General Motors Co. was thought by many to be too big.
European authorities, on the other hand, have shown an aggressive style recently in probing antitrust allegations.
In early February, the antitrust arm of the European Union raided the offices of a number of manufacturers of electrical transmission grid components known as flexible alternating current transmission systems. The officials sought evidence of potential cartel activity or other restrictive business practices.
In recent months, European authorities also have pursued separate antitrust investigations into Google, drug companies and mining companies.
The auto industry raids suggested an investigation into actions that could include price fixing, market sharing or regional monopolies. European Commission officials said the raids were part of an early stage of an investigation and did not indicate that the companies being investigated were guilty.
Yazaki North America was surprised -- and puzzled -- when federal agents raided the wiring-harness maker.
Yazaki spokeswoman Shefali Cromer said it was unclear what the FBI wanted when the company was raided late last month. What is clear, she said, is that the investigation "could take quite a while."
FBI officials brandishing warrants searched the offices of Yazaki in suburban Detroit; Columbus, Ohio; and Lexington, Kentucky. The same day, the FBI also searched U.S. offices of Denso and Tokai Rika.
A source familiar with Yazaki's response to the multiple raids characterized the supplier's reaction as a befuddled: "We don't even compete with them."