Star Pipe Products, Ltd.; Analysis of Proposed Consent Order To Aid Public Comment

Summary:

The consent agreement in this matter settles alleged violations of federal law prohibiting unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition. The attached Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes both the allegations in the complaint and the terms of the consent order—embodied in the consent agreement—that would settle these allegations.

Table of Contents

Dates:

Comments must be received on or before April 20, 2012.

Addresses:

Interested parties may file a comment online or on paper, by following the instructions in the Request for Comment part of the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION section below. Write “Star Pipe, Docket No. 9351” on your comment, and file your comment online at https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/starconsent, by following the instructions on the web-based form. If you prefer to file your comment on paper, mail or deliver your comment to the following address: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-113 (Annex D), 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20580.

For further information contact:

Linda M. Holleran (202-326-2267), FTC, Bureau of Competition, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20580.

Supplementary information:

Pursuant to section 6(f) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 38 Stat. 721, 15 U.S.C. 46(f), and 3.25(f) the Commission Rules of Practice, 16 CFR 3.25(f), notice is hereby given that the above-captioned consent agreement containing a consent order to cease and desist, having been filed with and accepted, subject to final approval, by the Commission, has been placed on the public record for a period of thirty (30) days. The following Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes the terms of the consent agreement, and the allegations in the complaint. An electronic copy of the full text of the consent agreement package can be obtained from the FTC Home Page (for March 20, 2012), on the World Wide Web, at http://www.ftc.gov/os/actions.shtm. A paper copy can be obtained from the FTC Public ReferenceRoom, Room 130-H, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20580, either in person or by calling (202) 326-2222.

You can file a comment online or on paper. For the Commission to consider your comment, we must receive it on or before April 20, 2012. Write “Star Pipe, Docket No. 9351” on your comment. Your comment—including your name and your state—will be placed on the public record of this proceeding, including, to the extent practicable, on the public Commission Web site, at http://www.ftc.gov/os/publiccomments.shtm. As a matter of discretion, the Commission tries to remove individuals' home contact information from comments before placing them on the Commission Web site.

Because your comment will be made public, you are solely responsible for making sure that your comment does not include any sensitive personal information, like anyone's Social Security number, date of birth, driver's license number or other state identification number or foreign country equivalent, passport number, financial account number, or credit or debit card number. You are also solely responsible for making sure that your comment does not include any sensitive health information, like medical records or other individually identifiable health information. In addition, do not include any “[t]rade secret or any commercial or financial information which is obtained from any person and which is privileged or confidential,” as provided in Section 6(f) of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. 46(f), and FTC Rule 4.10(a)(2), 16 CFR 4.10(a)(2). In particular, do not include competitively sensitive information such as costs, sales statistics, inventories, formulas, patterns, devices, manufacturing processes, or customer names.

If you want the Commission to give your comment confidential treatment, you must file it in paper form, with a request for confidential treatment, and you have to follow the procedure explained in FTC Rule 4.9(c), 16 CFR 4.9(c). [1] Your comment will be kept confidential only if the FTC General Counsel, in his or her sole discretion, grants your request in accordance with the law and the public interest.

Postal mail addressed to the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security screening. As a result, we encourage you to submit your comments online. To make sure that the Commission considers your online comment, you must file it at https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/starconsent by following the instructions on the web-based form. If this Notice appears at http://www.regulations.gov/#!home, you also may file a comment through that Web site.

If you file your comment on paper, write “Star Pipe, Docket No. 9351” on your comment and on the envelope, and mail or deliver it to the following address: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-113 (Annex D), 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20580. If possible, submit your paper comment to the Commission by courier or overnight service.

Visit the Commission Web site at http://www.ftc.gov to read this Notice and the news release describing it. The FTC Act and other laws that the Commission administers permit the collection of public comments to consider and use in this proceeding as appropriate. The Commission will consider all timely and responsive public comments that it receives on or before April 20, 2012. You can find more information, including routine uses permitted by the Privacy Act, in the Commission's privacy policy, at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/privacy.htm.

Analysis of Agreement Containing Consent Order To Aid Public Comment

The Federal Trade Commission (“Commission: or “FTC”) has accepted, subject to final approval, an agreement containing a proposed consent order (“Agreement”) from Star Pipe Products, Ltd. (“Star”). The Agreement seeks to resolve in part an administrative complaint issued by the Commission on January 4, 2012. The complaint charges that Star and certain of its competitors violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 45, by engaging in collusive acts and practices in the market for ductile iron pipe fittings (“DIPF”).

The Commission anticipates that, with regard to Star, the competitive issues described in the complaint will be resolved by accepting the proposed order, subject to final approval, contained in the Agreement. The Agreement has been placed on the public record for 30 days for receipt of comments from interested members of the public. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After 30 days, the Commission will again review the Agreement and any comments received, and will decide whether it should withdraw from the Agreement or make final the proposed order contained in the Agreement.

The purpose of this Analysis to Aid Public Comment is to invite and facilitate public comment concerning the proposed order. It is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the Agreement and proposed order or in any way to modify its terms.

The proposed order is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by Star that it violated the law, or that the facts alleged in the complaint, other than jurisdictional facts, are true.

I. The Complaint

The following allegations are taken from the complaint and publicly available information.

A. Background

The largest sellers of DIPF in the United States are Star, McWane, Inc. (“McWane”), and Sigma Corporation (“Sigma”). DIPF are used in municipal water distribution systems to change pipe diameter or pipeline direction. There are no widely available substitutes for DIPF. Both imported and domestically produced DIPF are commercially available.

DIPF suppliers distribute these products through wholesale distributors, known as waterworks distributors, which specialize in distributing products for water infrastructure projects. The end users of DIPF are typically municipal and regional water authorities.

DIPF prices are based off of published list prices and discounts, with customers negotiating additional discounts off of those list prices and discounts on a transaction-by-transaction basis. DIPF suppliers also offer volume rebates.

B. Challenged Conduct

Between January 2008 and January 2009, Star allegedly conspired with McWane and Sigma to increase the prices at which DIPF were sold in the United States. In furtherance of the conspiracy, and at the request of McWane, Star changed its business methods to make it easier to coordinate price levels, first by limiting the discretion of regional sales personnel to offer price discounts, and later by exchanging information documenting the volume of its monthly sales, along with sales by McWane and Sigma, through an entity known as the Ductile Iron Fittings Research Association (“DIFRA”).

II. Legal Analysis

The January and June 2008 price restraints among Star, McWane, and Sigma alleged in the complaint are naked restraints on competition that are per se unlawful. [2]

The June 2008 agreement, which was allegedly reached after a public invitation to collude by McWane, illustrates how price fixing agreements may be reached in public. Here, McWane's invitation to collude was conveyed in a letter sent to waterworks distributors, the common customers of Star, McWane, and Sigma. McWane's letter contained a section that was meaningless to waterworks distributors, but was intended to inform Star and Sigma of the terms on which McWane desired to fix prices. [3]

The DIFRA information exchange was a component of the illegal price fixing agreement. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the DIFRA information exchange played a critical role in the 2008 price fixing conspiracy, first as the quid pro quo for a price increase by McWane in June 2008, and then by enabling Star, McWane, and Sigma to monitor each others' adherence to the collusive arrangement through the second half of 2008.

Evaluated apart from the price fixing conspiracy, Star's participation in the information exchange is an independent violation of the antitrust laws because this concerted action facilitated price coordination among the three competitors. [4]

III. The Proposed Order

The proposed order is designed to remedy the unlawful conduct charged against Star in the complaint and to prevent the recurrence of such conduct.

Paragraph II.A of the proposed order prohibits Star from participating in or maintaining any combination or conspiracy between any competitors to fix, raise or stabilize the prices at which DIPF are sold in the United States, or to allocate or divide markets, customers, or business opportunities.

Paragraph II.B of the proposed order prohibits Star from soliciting or inviting any competitor to participate in any of the actions prohibited in Paragraphs II.A.

Paragraph II.C of the proposed order prohibits Star from participating in or facilitating any agreement between competitors to exchange “Competitively Sensitive Information” (“CSI”), defined as certain types of information related to the cost, price, output or customers of or for DIPF. Paragraph II.D of the proposed order prohibits Star from unilaterally disclosing CSI to a competitor, except as part of the negotiation of a joint venture, license or acquisition, or in certain other specified circumstances. Paragraph II.E of the proposed order prohibits Star from attempting to engage in any of the activities prohibited by Paragraphs II.A, II.B, II.C, or II.D.

The prohibitions on Star's communication of CSI with competitors contained in Paragraphs II.C and II.D of the proposed order are subject to a proviso that permits Star to communicate CSI to its competitors under certain circumstances. Under the proposed order, Star may participate in an information exchange with its competitors in the DIPF market provided that the information exchange is structured in such a way as to minimize the risk that it will facilitate collusion among Star and its competitors. Specifically, the proposed order requires any exchange of CSI to occur no more than twice yearly, and to involve the exchange of aggregated information more than six months old. In addition, the aggregated information that is exchanged must be made publicly available, which increases the likelihood that an information exchange involving Star will simultaneously benefit consumers. The proposed order also prohibits Star's participation in an exchange of CSI involving price, cost or total unit cost of or for DIPF when the individual or collective market shares of the competitors seeking to participate in an information exchange exceed specified thresholds. The rationale for this provision is that in a highly concentrated market the risk that the information exchange may facilitate collusion is high. Due to the highly concentrated state of the DIPF market as currently structured, an information exchange involving Star and relating to price, output or total unit cost of or for DIPF is unlikely to reoccur in the foreseeable future.

Paragraph III of the proposed order requires Star to cooperate with Commission staff in the still-pending administrative litigation against McWane.

The proposed order has a term of 20 years.

By direction of the Commission.

Donald S. Clark,

Secretary.

Footnotes

1. In particular, the written request for confidential treatment that accompanies the comment must include the factual and legal basis for the request, and must identify the specific portions of the comment to be withheld from the public record. See FTC Rule 4.9(c), 16 CFR 4.9(c).

2. Federal Trade Commission & United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Guidelines for Collaboration Among Competitors (“Competitor Collaboration Guidelines”) § 1.2 (2000);In re North Texas Specialty Physicians,140 F.T.C. 715, 729 (2005) (“We do not believe that the per se condemnation of naked restraints has been affected by anything said either in California Dental or Polygram”).

3. Because McWane's communication informed its rivals of the terms of price coordination desired by McWane without containing any information for customers, this communication had no legitimate business justification. See In re Petroleum Products Antitrust Litig.,906 F.2d 432, 448 (9th Cir. 1990) (public communications may form the basis of an agreement on price levels when “the public dissemination of such information served little purpose other than to facilitate interdependent or collusive price coordination”).

4. The Commission articulated a safe harbor for exchanges of price and cost information in Statement 6 of the 1996 Health Care Guidelines. See Dep't of Justice & Federal Trade Comm'n, Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care, Statement 6: Enforcement Policy on Provider Participation in Exchanges of Price and Cost Information (1996). The DIFRA information exchange failed to qualify for the safety zone of the Health Care Guidelines for several reasons. Although the DIFRA information exchange was managed by a third party, the information exchanged was insufficiently historical, the participants in the exchange too few, and their individual market shares too large to qualify for the permissive treatment contemplated by the Health Care Guidelines. While failing to qualify for the safety zone of the Health Care Guidelines is not in itself a violation of Section 5, firms that wish to minimize the risk of antitrust scrutiny should consider structuring their collaborations in accordance with the criteria of the safety zone.

References

Loading most recent entriesloading

Feedback