Saturday, July 18, 2015

DOJ Investigates Airlines - Are the Trucking Companies Next?

A while back I wrote about how I thought executives in the trucking industry were getting dangerously close to collusion as they discussed capacity in the industry.  My comments were around a concept of "signaling".

I am not a lawyer and do not pretend to be one but "signaling" is when one company sends a signal to the other about its intents in terms of key actions effecting pricing.  So, for example, an executive says in an interview in a prominent industry magazine something like, "Until we see better ROI we cannot and will not add capacity to our system".

Ok, what just happened?  He essentially told his competitors two things which normally a company, especially a private one, would want to keep private.  He (or She) said:  "I am restricting capacity and raising rates".   Now, the executive on the other end knows he or she can do exactly the same thing and voila!  you know have thinly veiled collusion.

See the graph below, from the article cited below, which displays the profitability of the airline companies who publicly "restrict capacity":

I was thinking about this yesterday as I read in Bloomberg BusinessWeek an article about the FTC complaint against the airlines entitled "What Does it Take To Prove Airline Collusion"?  The core of the matter is what they call "unlawful coordination". A line from that article:
"A trigger may have been the June meeting ... where airline executives talked openly about 'capacity discipline', a not so subtle code for limiting the number of seats available" [My comment: thus increasing prices] (Bloomberg Businessweek, July 20, 2015)
It went on to say the following:
"At a press conference, Delta President Ed Bastian said his company is "continuing with the discipline the marketplace is expecting".  American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told Reuters it was important to avoid over capacity: "I think everybody in the industry knows that." (Bloomberg Businessweek, July 20, 2015)
 Does any of this sound familiar to the shipping community out there?  The DOJ has never really looked at the trucking industry because it was so fragmented.  However, is is becoming very consolidated at the top with the top 5 or 10 carriers commanding a huge market share and, of course, if you are a very large shipper, about the only carriers you can use are the very large ones.

At least we have come a long way. Businessweek recounts the following from 1982:
"Robert Crandall of American Airlines told the CEO of Braniff Airlines, Howard Putnam, 'I have a suggestion for you. Raise your goddamn fares 20%. I'll raise mine the next morning. "
While doing what is right for drivers and treating people right is the right thing to do (the infamous "shipper of choice" debate),  I really think shippers should be far more concerned about this.

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