Over in the Old Country, Eurocrats have themselves all in a lather over suggestions that a "cartel" is fixing the prices of bananas and pineapples. Despite this story having broken nearly a week ago, details remain scarce. Still, what we do know is this:
- Cincinnati-based Chiquita
(NYSE:CQB)has discovered that some of its employees shared unspecified information with unspecified competitors about the volume of Chiquita's fruit shipments and its pricing.
- Chiquita informed the European Commission of its discovery, and the Commission subsequently began an investigation.
- European offices of Chiquita competitors Fresh Del Monte
(NYSE:FDP), Fyffes (Pink Sheets: FYFFF), and Dole Food have all been raided by EU antitrust officials.
- Sorry. That's about it.
The press releases put out by the companies involved, including Chiquita's own, are remarkable mainly for the lack of information they contain. Everyone admits they are being investigated. Everyone (except for Chiquita) denies there's any cartel. As for why Chiquita is "breaking ranks," that remains a mystery. The company has little to lose if its allegations are true, because EU antitrust regulations exempt a "corporate whistleblower" from fines for any anticompetitive acts it has committed. On the other hand, if Chiquita's allegations are false, it's hard to see what the company has to gain from making them. By that reasoning, it seems likely that there's at least some truth to Chiquita's story.
Even so, the facts as reported make no sense. The aim of a cartel (think "OPEC") is usually to divide up a market among the cartel members and fix prices at an artificially high level to maximize profits. But Europe already divides up its fruit market on its own by imposing quotas on foreign fruit companies in an effort to reserve market share for former European colonies. With their ability to "flood the market" with cheap produce stymied by those quotas, it seems unlikely that the foreign companies could depress prices to drive their ex-colonial competition out of business. The formation of a fruit cartel seems virtually impossible without the cooperation of the ex-colonials. Playing "Cartel" is no fun unless everyone plays, you see.
Finally, the facts as reported by Chiquita don't exactly scream "cartel." Chiquita is only saying that its employees told other companies about Chiquita's plans -- it doesn't sound like the information flowed both ways. Unless there's more to this story than has so far been revealed, I have to say that, yes, it's looking very much like a tempest in a fruit cup, indeed.
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