By Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An Indian antitrust investigation has found that units of Tata Steel, Sweden's SKF and Germany's Schaeffler colluded on the pricing of bearings, a report seen by Reuters shows, opening them up to potential fines.
The Competition Commission of India (CCI) began an investigation in 2017 after allegations that five companies colluded on bearings prices from 2009-2014 to pass higher raw material costs onto customers in the auto sector.
The CCI can fine firms up to three times the profit made in each year of wrongdoing or 10% of revenue, whichever is higher. European Union antitrust regulators fined SKF, Schaeffler and three Japanese auto parts makers $1.3 billion in 2014 for taking part in a bearings cartel from 2004 through 2011.
CCI's investigations arm said in a report dated May 6, which has not been made public, that it analysed company emails, call records and executive testimonies and concluded that SKF India, Schaeffler India, National Engineering Industries and Tata Steel's bearings division contravened antitrust law by discussing and agreeing prices.
SKF, the world's largest maker of ball-bearings, said in a statement it had assisted the investigation and disputed any claim of wrongdoing.
Schaeffler did not respond to a request for comment. Tata Steel and National Engineering Industries - part of Indian conglomerate CK Birla Group - declined to comment beyond saying the CCI proceedings were confidential.
The investigation arm's 106-page report said it found no evidence against the fifth firm, ABC Bearings, part of U.S. firm Timken Co. ABC Bearings declined to comment.
The report also showed the investigations arm considered the collusion lasted through the financial year to March 2011, but found no evidence to indicate when it actually ended.
The four firms, "through personal meetings of key persons, on two occasions shared the strategic information regarding their future efforts to seek price increase from" auto sector companies, the investigations arm said.
The CCI did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. A person with direct knowledge of the matter said senior CCI officials are reviewing the report and that the antitrust body can still dispute the findings of its investigation arm.
The Indian market for bearings, which reduce friction in moving parts, is worth $1.3 billion and dominated by SKF and Schaeffler, ICRA Research data shows.
"INCENTIVE TO COLLUDE"
The investigation report showed the four companies controlled nearly 75% of the domestic bearings market in the period 2009-11 - a time when prices of steel, the key raw material in bearings, were fluctuating sharply.
The steep steel price volatility, the CCI's investigation arm said, provided the companies an "incentive to collude".
There was consensus among the firms "to seek price increase of 12% and settle at 6%" with tractor and automotive manufacturers. With motorbike makers, there was a consensus to seek a 10% price increase and settle at 4%, the report showed.
The investigation arm also said Schaeffler and National Engineering Industries told the CCI that employees had participated in discussions with competitors "mainly to seek coordinated price increase of bearings". It did not elaborate on when the companies disclosed discussions to the CCI.
During the probe, ABC Bearings, SKF and Tata Steel's bearings division told the CCI they had no evidence of such discussions, the report showed.
"The conduct of the parties has resulted in appreciable adverse effect on competition," the CCI investigation arm said in the report.
(Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Euan Rocha, Christopher Cushing and Alexander Smith)