VW calls crisis meeting to discuss EU cartel probe: source

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE will hold a special supervisory board meeting on Wednesday to discuss allegations that German carmakers operated a wide-ranging cartel, a source familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The European Commission said on Saturday that antitrust regulators were investigating a possible German auto industry cartel following a tip-off.

At stake is whether carmakers VW, Audi NSUG.DE, Porsche, Mercedes DAIGn.DE and BMW BMWG.DE used German auto industry committees to discuss pricing of components and technologies, and whether such talks constituted anti-competitive behavior.

A VW spokesman confirmed an extraordinary supervisory board meeting would be held on Wednesday, but declined to give further details.

German auto stocks closed lower on Monday, weighed down by the uncertainty over possible antitrust fines, with shares in VW down 1.4 percent, while BMW and Daimler dropped 2.8 percent and 2.7 percent respectively, dragging the blue-chip DAX index .GDAXI to close 0.3 percent lower.

Exane BNP Paribas automotive analyst Stuart Pearson said little was known about the allegations, but no signs had emerged about fixing prices charged to consumers.

“More ugly details could yet emerge, leaving German manufacturers - and the EU auto sector - still firmly in the sin bin for now,” he added.

FILE PHOTO: A Volkswagen logo is pictured at the newly opened Volkswagen factory in Wrzesnia near Poznan, Poland September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

The car industry has been hit with billion-euro fines on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years for cartels related to various parts such as lighting systems, engine coolers and bearings.

The industry’s record on exhaust emissions is also under close scrutiny after VW admitted in September 2015 to cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests and investigations have shown many vehicles exceeding pollution limits outside of testing labs.

On Friday, German magazine Der Spiegel said VW, its Audi and Porsche brands, Mercedes-owner Daimler and BMW may have colluded to fix prices on components, including of diesel emissions treatment systems, using industry committees.

Daimler had first raised the possible collusion with cartel authorities, which could earn the carmaker immunity, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said on Monday in a report researched jointly with broadcasters NDR and WDR.

This contradicted Der Spiegel which reported last week that VW had been first to disclose the matter in July 2016.

After Daimler and other truckmakers were accused in 2011 of price fixing and subsequently fined, the German company at least in part pulled out of the industry tie-ups that are now the subject of inquiries, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said.

A spokeswoman for Daimler declined comment on the report.

Spiegel said the talks also led to the use of smaller tanks containing AdBlue, a urea-based liquid needed to help filter nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel emissions. Larger tanks would have been more expensive, the magazine said.

Auto industry experts, however, have said the effectiveness of exhaust filtering systems does not depend on the size of an AdBlue Tank. BMW, for example, has equipped its cars with urea injection as well as a NOx-storage catalytic converter. The two systems combined ensure vehicles fulfil emissions requirements.

BMW on Sunday said emissions filtering systems in its cars were adequate and that discussions with other manufacturers about AdBlue fluid were held with a view toward building a pan-European network of AdBlue refilling stations.

Daimler said on Monday it had a substantial compliance program which was “constantly improved and adapted”. Daimler’s works council chief Michael Brecht demanded an immediate investigations into the allegations.

Reporting by Edward Taylor, Andreas Cremer, Ilona Wissenbach; Editing by Louise Heavens/Mark Potter/Alexander Smith