Exploring the web: A map of the auto parts cartel relationships

It’s an easy trap to fall into. For the world’s antitrust wonks, the word “conspiracy,” singular, is as reflexive to say when talking about a cartel as a Starbucks order in response to “What’ll you have?” The air cargo conspiracy. The liquid-crystal-display conspiracy. The auto parts conspiracy.

We say it, even though it’s not exactly true.

As burdensome as it might be to say “the collection of interlocked cartels known as the auto parts conspiracy,” when speaking in antitrust shorthand at a conference or a meeting, that is far closer to the truth. The global auto parts investigation began small, then rapidly ballooned into what it is today: the largest collection of related conspiracies ever uncovered by the world’s trustbusters in every way – companies involved, amount of fines and number of separate products involved. A cartel web might be more accurate, with each price fixing scheme distinct yet linked to the next.

Until now, no one has mapped publicly the myriad links that make up the web of the auto parts cartel. So, using the relationship illustration software Kumu, GCR has mapped every known link between every company and conspiracy that makes up the auto parts web. The result is a lush galaxy of cartels that spirals from a dense centre of interlocked companies, to sparse outliers of price fixing plots that appear perhaps only tangentially related. While tracking guilty pleas and expanding lawsuits allows for mere glimpses of the whole auto parts picture, our map provides the context and contours of the web, all on one page for the first time.

There are a few important points to note. First, the links outlined in the map should not be viewed as evidence of participation in a cartel. While most of the companies are linked to conspiracies because an antitrust enforcer somewhere has charged them with taking part in that cartel, the links also can represent a company that has been named as a defendant in a private lawsuit, which certainly does not prove guilt or even liability of any kind.

In our map, there are conspiracies that appear unconnected to any other auto parts-related plot - particularly on the outskirts of the map, where cartels and their member companies sit outside of the dense center of the web. In one case, it may indeed be because it is unconnected to the auto parts conspiracy proper: the aftermarket auto parts cartel case has generally not been included in any discussion of the wider collection of cartels. Elsewhere, some conspiracies appear to float with no connection to any other cartel because the company that links it to a neighbouring conspiracy was not named in the underlying data, likely because it was the immunity applicant in the case and its identity has been kept secret. When an “unidentified company” appeared in the data, we did not include it in the map because we could not differentiate one unidentified company from another.

The key to our map is straightforward. The large circles represent conspiracies, while the smaller circles represent companies. The major conspiracies – those with four or more alleged participants – have been assigned a colour, while the companies have generally been assigned the colour of the conspiracy in which they are allegedly involved - unless they are linked to several, in which case they are randomly assigned the colour of one conspiracy. Hover over any element on the map to see the companies and conspiracies to which it relates. To find a company or a conspiracy, simply use the search bar – a tool that might be particularly helpful when looking for a company in the cluttered centre of the map.

Takeaways are of little surprise. The most populous conspiracy remains one of the first that antitrust enforcers uncovered: wire harnesses, with 17 companies linked to the conspiracy through government investigation or private lawsuit. The wire harnesses conspiracy is connected to other cartels on the map primarily through Denso. That massive parts maker has pleaded guilty to taking part in the wire harnesses price fixing plot and is linked in our map to 14 other branches of the auto parts investigation – the most of any company ensnared in the global probe. Those two elements – Denso and the wire harnesses cartel – comprise the gravitational centre of the map, with almost every other conspiracy spinning out from those two points.

That is unlikely to change, as the investigation is by all accounts winding down, particularly in the US, which has led the probe from its earliest days. But growth remains. Just as GCR published this map in early March, the European Commission announced fines against six auto parts companies for allegedly fixing the price of air conditioner components. Mexico, Brazil and Korea have also made public their air conditioner parts investigations, but the US has yet to say whether it is investigating price fixing of those parts, and if so, how many companies its probe might include.

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