Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-2005

Abstract

This Article examines whether the current penalties in the United States Sentencing Guidelines are set at the appropriate levels to deter cartels optimally The authors analyze two data sets to determine how high on average cartels raise prices. The first consists of every published scholarly economic study of the effects of cartels on prices in individual cases. The second consists of every final verdict in a US. antitrust case in which a neutral finder of fact reported collusive overcharges. They report average overcharges of 49% and 31% for the two data sets, and median overcharges of 25% and 22%. They also report separate results for domestic cartels, international cartels, more recent cartels, and bid-rigging The authors conclude that the current Sentencing Commission presumption that cartels overcharge on average by 10% is much too low. If this finding is correct, the principles of optimal deterrence imply that the current levels of cartel penalties should be increased significantly.

Our survey identified about 200 serious social-science studies of cartels which contained 674 observations of average overcharges. Our primary finding is that the median cartel overcharge for all types of cartels over all time periods has been 25%; 17-19% for domestic cartels, and 30-33% for international cartels. Thus, in general, international cartels have been about 75% more effective in raising prices than domestic cartels. Since the United States has had, historically, by far the toughest system of anti-cartel sanctions, this could imply that these sanctions have been having significant effects.

In our social-science sample, 79% of the overcharges were higher than the 10% presumption contained in the US Sentencing Guidelines; 60% were above 20%. Perhaps surprisingly, bid rigging was no more injurious than other forms of collusion. If anything, our data suggests that bid rigging might be about one-fifth less injurious. These results suggest that the USSC should amend its Guidelines, which currently treat bid rigging more harshly than other forms of collusion.

The results of the survey of final verdicts in decided U.S. collusion cases, only three of which were international cartels, show an average median overcharge of 21.6% and an average mean overcharge of 30.0%. Thus, the 25 decisions produce average overcharges that are quite comparable to the results of the much larger set of economic estimates. All but five of the reported decisions found that the cartel had raised prices by more than the USSC's 10% benchmark.

For these reasons, if the U.S. Sentencing Commission decides to re-examine whether 10% is the right overcharge presumption, it should consider raising the presumption to 15% for domestic cartels and 25% for international cartels. This is a conservative and modest proposal in light of this article's demonstration that cartels typically generate at least two or three times the harms presumed by the current Sentencing Guidelines.

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