By Foo Yun Chee and John Acher
COPENHAGEN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union regulators raided several liner shipping companies on Tuesday, including Danish group A.P. Moller-Maersk <MAERSKb.CO>, France's CMA CGM and Germany's Hapag-Lloyd, on suspicion of price fixing, the Commission and those companies said.
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"The (European) Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated the antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices and/or abuse of a dominant market position," the EU executive said.
The Commission, which can fine companies up to 10 percent of their global revenues for breaching EU rules, did not identify the companies raided.
A.P. Moller-Maersk, which owns the world's biggest container shipping company Maersk Line, said it was raided but its practices were in compliance with EU competition law and it would cooperate fully with the Commission in the investigation.
French privately held CMA CGM, the world's No.3 container shipping company, said it was also subject to the investigation and was cooperating fully with the Commission's agent.
German liner Hapag-Lloyd, which is 49.8 percent owned by German travel and transport group TUI AG <TUIGn.DE> also said it was under investigation by the Commission.
"Hapag-Lloyd is working closely with the investigating authority," it said in a statement. "We are convinced that we are in compliance with EU legislation."
A.P. Moller-Maersk's legal chief Christian Kledal said in a statement: "We can confirm that today the European Commission carried out an unannounced inspection in our offices."
The Commission was checking for any infringement of European competition law related to liner shipping, Kledal said.
"The Commission has stated that it is interested in possible coordination of prices and/or liner transport capacity to and from the EU or the EEA," Kledal said.
Maersk, which has about 15 percent of the global container shipping market, did not say which other liner shipping companies were under suspicion of cooperating with it.
"Furthermore, the EU Commission is investigating whether there is abuse of dominant position on the market," Kledal said.
COVERS PERIOD SINCE 2008
The Commission's probe covers the period from late 2008, when liner shipping conferences were banned, to the present, Maersk's spokesman Michael Storgaard said.
Liner shipping was earlier organised in groups called "liner conferences," which met to discuss market conditions, freight rates and other common concerns under a block exemption from European competition rules.
But the European Union decided in 2006 to ban the practice as against competition rules and the ban took effect in 2008.
Another major European competitor in liner shipping is privately held Switzerland-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).
The main Asian container shipping rivals, which also operate to and from Europe, include Taiwan's Evergreen Marine <2603.TW>, China's COSCO <1919.HK> <601919.SS> and China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL) <2866.HK> <601866.SS>, Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines <NEPS.SI> and Korea's Hanjin Shipping <117930.KS>.
Shares in A.P. Moller-Maersk closed down 0.7 percent, faring slightly worse than the Copenhagen bourse's blue chip index <.OMXC20> which fell 0.6 percent.
TUI shares fell 0.7 percent.
(Additional reporting by Mette Fraende in Copenhagen, Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Maria Sheahan in Frankfurt)
(Editing by David Holmes and Jon Loades-Carter)