BRUSSELS EU regulators are to investigate whether 14 of the world's major container shipping companies, including the world's biggest, A.P. Moller-Maersk (MAERSKb.CO), have been orchestrating price rises since 2009 for routes to and from Europe in breach of EU competition rules.
The decision to launch an investigation, announced on Friday, followed raids at the companies in several EU countries more than two years ago. Firms found guilty of violating EU rules could be fined up to 10 percent of their global turnover.
The European Commission's action comes as the industry continues to grapple with overcapacity in a faltering global economy, but the Commission said in a statement it was concerned that the companies appeared to be alerting each other of their price increases via press releases and on their websites.
"The Commission has concerns that this practice may allow the companies to signal future price intentions to each other and may harm competition and customers by raising prices on the market for container liner shipping transport services on routes to and from Europe," it said.
It did not name the companies under investigation or say how many are involved but a person familiar with the matter said 14 companies in Europe and Asia have been targeted in the probe, which is expected to take several years to complete.
A.P. Moller-Maersk confirmed it was part of the investigation and said it would cooperate with the authorities.
"A.P. Moller-Mærsk A/S has no reason to believe that Maersk Line has behaved in a manner not in accordance with EU competition law," the company said in a statement.
One of Maersk's biggest rivals, Germany's Hapag-Lloyd HPLG.UL, which is 22-percent owned by German travel and tourism group TUI AG (TUIGn.DE) and was raided by the Commission in 2011, said it had not been notified by the Commission of the latest investigation and declined to comment.
Prior to 2006 shipping companies were exempted from EU competition rules to allow them to continue to meet in groups called "liner conferences" to discuss market conditions, freight rates and other issues.
Regulators ended the exemption in 2006, giving the companies two years to adapt to the new regime.
(Additional reporting by Mette Fraende in Copenhagen and Marilyn Gerlach in Frankfurt; Editing by Greg Mahlich)