Samsung Electronics, the world’s second-largest chipmaker, on Thursday agreed to pay a $300m fine after admitting it participated in a huge international price-fixing conspiracy, the US Justice Department's antitrust division said.
The guilty plea makes Samsung the third semiconductor manufacturer to be fined as part of a wide-ranging investigation by the Justice Department into price-fixing in the market for D-Ram, chips used in everything from computers to electronic games. The price-fixing occured between 1999 and 2002.
Thomas Barnett, the head of the antitrust division, characterised Samsung as one of the “leaders” in the conspiracy and said seven individuals at the company had been “cut out” of the plea deal it had agreed with the Justice Department, raising the prospect that individuals could still be charged in the case.
The fine came ahead of the release of Samsung Electronics’ quarterly profits, which dropped 30 per cent in the third quarter as prices of computer memory chips and flat screens declined. Samsung said it expected a shortage in supply of liquid crystal displays to continue in the current quarter.
Hynix Semiconductor of South Korea paid $185m (€154m, £105m) in April and Germany's Infineon paid $160m in fines last year in connection to the conspiracy. Four Infineon executives three of whom were German nationals have already served time in prison. Micron, another chipmaker, has said publicly that it has applied for a leniency agreement with the Justice Department in connection to the case.
The conspiracy was hatched by the companies through a series of telephone conversations and electronic correspondence in which individuals discussed charging certain prices for D-Ram for specific customers, and exchanging information on sales of D-Ram to customers “for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing adherence to the agreed-upon prices”.
The announcement underscored that the pursuit of criminal cartels has become the number one priority of the Justice Department's antitrust division. This is the second largest criminal antitrust fine the department has levied and the largest during the Bush administration.
Mr Barnett emphasised the toll the price-fixing scheme had on US consumers. He said Dell and Apple had both been forced to raise the prices of their computers following a rise in D-Ram prices. The US market alone for D-Ram chips was worth nearly $8bn last year.
According to the terms of its plea, which still need to be approved by US district court in San Francisco, Samsung will co-operate with the investigation.