Brussels, 31 January 2012
Antitrust: Commission closes investigation into European Minibulk and Container Feeder cooperatives
The European Commission has closed an antitrust investigation into two cooperation schemes of ship owners, European Minibulk eG and Container Feeder eG. These two maritime cooperatives established in Germany aimed to coordinate certain activities of the owners of minibulk and container feeder vessels, mainly in Northern Europe, for example the joint purchasing of inputs such as fuel. The Commission was concerned that a compensation system set up for owners laying-up their vessels (i.e. keeping them idle) would give them an incentive to withdraw capacity from the market. The Commission was also concerned that an information exchange scheme could have enabled the coordination of rates between competitors. Following discussions with the Commission the cooperatives agreed to abandon these two aspects of their cooperation before they had been implemented. As a result, competition on the market will be maintained. Consequently, the Commission has now been able to close the case without having to initiate formal proceedings.
Container feeder vessels transport containers between small regional ports and major deep-sea terminals, while minibulk vessels are used for the transport of smaller bulk cargo in regional trade (e.g. ore, grain). Vessel owners usually charter their vessels to shipping operators through brokers.
The Commission started investigating the two cooperatives in January 2012 after receiving information from the market. The Commission wanted to verify whether a planned compensation system for owners laying-up their vessels was compatible with EU rules that prohibit anti-competitive business practices (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – TFEU). The Commission was concerned that the compensation system would provide an incentive to withdraw capacity from the market resulting in charter rate increases.
The Commission was also concerned about an aspect of the information exchange scheme. The scheme would have provided charter rate recommendations to vessel owners on the basis of information collected from them about their own charter rates. This could have enabled the coordination of rates between competitors that would have likely resulted in charter rate increases.
In 2010 the Commission had opened proceedings against a similar cooperation, the Baltic Max Feeder scheme (see IP/10/21). The scheme was consequently abandoned and the Commission closed its investigation (see IP/10/374).