Mercedes-Benz and vehicle dealers fined for market rigging
posted on 25 February 2013 | posted in News
Watchdog identifies price co-ordination and exchange of commercially sensitive information by Mercedes and dealers
Mercedes-Benz and three commercial vehicle dealers are to pay fines totalling £2.6m following an inquiry into market rigging.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) identified three separate breaches of competition law in relation to market sharing, price co-ordination and the exchange of commercially sensitive information.
The case, which centres on the distribution of Mercedes-Benz trucks and vans in the north of England and parts of Wales and Scotland, resulted in a fine of £1.5m for the Daimler-owned company.
Ciceley, which has dealerships in Bolton, Blackburn, Carlisle and Dumfries, was fined £659,675, while the penalties for Enza Motors of Warrington, Stoke, Trafford Park and Manchester and North-Wales based Road Range were fined £347,000 and £115,000 respectively. A further dealer, Yorkshire-based Northside, avoided a fine as it provided evidence of collusion in return for immunity.
The OFT said two of the breaches related to the distribution of vans involving Ciceley and Northside and Ciceley and Road Range over a two-year period starting in early 2008.
The third breach involved the distribution of trucks between December 2009 and the following January and related to Ciceley, Enza, Mercedes-Benz and Road Range.
Ali Nikpay, the OFT's senior director of cartels, said: "These cases send a clear signal that the OFT will take firm action against companies that collude to deny customers the benefit of fair competition regardless of the size of the firms involved or geographic scope of the investigation.
"These examples also underline that the OFT can uncover cartels even in cases where the businesses involved do not blow the whistle, as well as being a concrete illustration of the benefits of businesses acting quickly and co-operating at the earliest opportunity so as to qualify for immunity from fines."
A Mercedes-Benz UK spokesman said: "We have reached a settlement with the OFT for one infringement of competition law relating to its recent investigation into the company and three of its commercial vehicle dealers operating in northern England and Wales. Mercedes-Benz regrets the incident and has learned a lot from it.
"The company has strengthened its internal controls, and every member of staff participates in comprehensive and ongoing integrity training programmes. The company and its staff have fully co-operated with the investigators over the past three years."
The spokesman went on: "This thorough OFT investigation took three years to complete, and the agreed settlement with Mercedes-Benz UK relates to one meeting held in late 2009. The settlement figure, based on company turnover, is £1.49m.
"The settlement reached with the OFT draws the investigation into this matter to a close. Mercedes-Benz takes its responsibilities under competition law seriously and has taken all appropriate steps to ensure all its staff comply fully with the law."
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China floods Iran with cheap consumer goods in exchange for oil
With the Islamic republic increasingly cut off from global markets due to sanctions, Beijing is in a prime position to benefit
On the north Tehran stretch of the busy Shariati Street, the newly opened car dealership, Geelran, offers a range of Chinese-made vehicles to middle-class city dwellers. A stone's throw from the former grounds of the British embassy, left vacant after a hostile takeover by anti-western demonstrators in late 2011, the new headquarters of the Geely brand is the second Chinese automobile manufacturer in Iran. Another company, Chery Motors, has been active here for five years, and produces several of its low-range vehicles on Iranian assembly lines.
The price of the French-made Renault Mégane, until recently a staple for local car buyers, has tripled since 2011. It now sells for around 42.2m tomans (£22,450), and spare parts are becoming scarce.
Meanwhile, Geely's Emgrand EC7 hatchback has a slightly lower price range (38.7m tomans), suggesting that Zhejiang Geely Holding Group is angling to attract a slice of the local consumer market as sanctions make western-made goods difficult to come by – but at a quality experts say is far lower than the European-made cars it imitates.
"It's an appalling car manufacturer, and yet another one flooding Iran with cars made on old platforms," said a Tehran-based financial analyst with close links to Sino-Iranian trade. "Instead of hard cash, China is bartering for Iranian oil with cheap consumer items."
With Iran increasingly cut off from global markets due to sanctions, China is in prime position to capitalise on what is left of the ailing economy. As the world's largest importer of Iranian oil, China has long used the Islamic republic's global isolation to sate its business interests, which have a wider scope than just the energy sector. The United States" latest instalment of sanctions, which on 6 February imposed additional restrictions on international entities that do business with Iran, are likely to further add to this trend.
Importing 441,000 barrels of Iranian oil each day, China is Iran's top trade partner. Some 70 Chinese businesses are currently active in the country, and the Heritage Foundation lists it as the Middle East's largest recipient of Chinese non-bond investment. While primarily energy-focused, the relationship stretches to key non-oil sectors like construction, transportation and manufacturing and has a strategic importance for Beijing's efforts to balance its position in the Middle East vis-a-vis US interests. Although China's oil imports from Iran declined by nearly 21% last year, few in Iran view this as the onset of a long-term weakening of Sino-Persian ties.
In what Iran's official media interpreted as an outward defiance of western sanctions, the Chinese oil firm Zhuhai Zhenrong announced in December it would keep importing 230,000 Iranian oil barrels a day in 2013, and that the end purchaser of this crude would be the China Petroleum and Oil Corporation (Sinopec). In addition, Zhenrong introduced plans to import gas condensate from South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, according to Iran's state-run PressTV.
"Since Zhenrong is already on the [US] blacklist, it feels no political pressure to cut Iranian oil imports," an unnamed Chinese oil trader reportedly told the news service.
As international sanctions make it increasingly difficult for Iran to get cash for these energy exports, China is likely to find novel ways to provide goods and services in exchange, which will likely be to the detriment of the already crippled non-oil sectors. By threatening to cut off companies that transfer money to Iran's central bank (even those from countries that currently enjoy waivers to the previous oil sanctions) from the US banking system, the United States" February sanctions aim to trap much of Iran's oil revenues in Chinese bank accounts. This, in effect, gives China a double advantage, allowing it to gain premium access to Iran's energy as well as investment opportunities in its non-oil sectors.
"These reserves will provide [China] with more bargaining power, since now the only way the Iranian government could receive its money is to accept barter products in return," said an economist based in Tehran.
These policies have a profound impact on ordinary Iranians. Chinese consumer products have long crammed local storefronts, and Iranian manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to compete, especially since the plummeting national currency drove up the cost of imported raw materials.
In addition, the Iran-China chamber of commerce last year announced it was receiving member complaints about the types of goods China was sending to Iran, which "usually ... contradicted the ordered goods."
Tehran's roads are thus full of taxi drivers who until recently owned businesses, but went bankrupt because they could no longer afford to pay for imports while competing with cheap Chinese merchandise.
"Unlike with most GCC economies, the craft, small and medium industries play an important role in the Iranian economy, but the flow of cheap Chinese goods, [which are] in some cases low-quality, generated a popular resentment against China and a backlash from merchants and factories that are exposed to significant competition from Chinese goods," UK-based Middle East expert Naser al-Tamimi recently wrote for al-Arabia.
Small business owners are not the only ones losing out. In a country where the state plays a significant role as an employer, the outsourcing of major infrastructure projects to Chinese businesses takes construction and engineering jobs away from the already struggling local labour pool. Over the past two decades of fortifying bilateral ties, Chinese engineers have spearheaded countless infrastructural projects, most prominently the Tehran metro system – a trend both Iranian and Chinese officials have been keen to encourage.
"The new agreement seems to be, no more consumer goods. If we're going to barter, build us motorways, bridges and dams," said the Sino-Iranian trade analyst.
As Iran's inflation and unemployment levels climb, the growing visibility of Chinese workers at public construction sites is thus likely to further foment public resentment. Presently, the massive expansion of Tehran's Sadr expressway – touted as a pre-election achievement of the mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf – may give enough cause for local ire. Easily the most visible infrastructural endeavour in Tehran, the two-level, four-mile project is sponsored by China.
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Ford giving away Fiesta models to bloggers in bid for social feedback
Car giant to hand out 100 cars to bloggers and tweeters in exchange for their contributions on the Fiesta driving experience
Ford kicked off Social Media Week in New York on Tuesday with the announcement that it is launching an updated version of its "Fiesta Movement" campaign, supplying bloggers, tweeters and other social media users with brand new Fiestas for six months and asking them to document the experience.
Speaking at Bloomberg's headquarters in Manhattan, Ford's head of social media, Scott Monty, said 100 people, including some celebrities, would receive the cars in what he said was a "social remix" of the company's 2009 campaign. The videos and photographs participants share on social media will contribute to Ford's television and print advertising campaigns, Monty said.
Ford's first Fiesta Movement campaign in 2009 was seen as a success story in how big brands can use social media for advertising and marketing. The small hatchback was new to the US market, with the company using young people who had followers on social networks to spread the word. The company backed up the six-month loan with adverts on the web, TV and print.
Some of those who received the Fiesta in the first campaign will get the new model too, Monty said, along with some yet-to-be-named celebrities being loaned the car.
The 100 selected individuals – thousands applied in 2009 and more are likely to sign up this time – will receive the 2014 Fiesta free of charge for half a year. Gas, parking and insurance will be paid for by Ford. In return, those 100 people commit to producing various types of content on social media, which can be used in more traditional advertising material.
"All of the content that's being created by these 190 individuals is going to be eligible" for television and print advertisements, Monty said. He described the campaign as "the next wave of where we go with social, and how we embrace the relationships along the way". Applications opened on Tuesday, and the successful applicants will get their cars in April or May.
Monty said the 2009 campaign "brought people to Ford" who were not traditional customers – predominantly young people at whom the Fiesta was aimed. The company got 132,000 people to sign up for updates on its website, 82% of whom were new to the brand, and 6,000 people pre-ordered the car when it came up for general sale, impressive figures for a model new to the market.
Despite the success of the launch, sales of the Fiesta tailed off, with Forbes contributor Dale Buss writing last April that the car had "experienced one of the most hyperbolic sales arcs of any significant new model in recent years". Ford sold more than 23,000 Fiestas in just the second half of 2010 and more than 69,000 in 2011, but sales tailed off steeply through 2012. Ford blamed the continuing financial struggles of the young buyers at which the car was aimed and the introduction of a new Ford Focus which competed with the smaller model.
Those wishing to become a Ford "agent" can apply through a specially established website, listing their presence across various social networking websites alongside a video application. An advertising video played at the Ford event on Tuesday said the 100 people will "create cool shareable content and become celebs of the social space", with the possibility of seeing their faces "in print ads, and maybe even on TV".
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Ford, Peugeot Citroën and Toyota drive European car sales to new low
New car registrations fell 8.5% in January to lowest level in more than two decades, European carmakers association says
Ford, PSA Peugeot Citroën and Toyota led European car sales to a new low in January, kicking off 2013 with an 8.5% decline, according to the association of European carmakers.
Registrations fell to 918,280 new cars, Brussels-based industry body the European Automobile Manufacturers" Association (ACEA) said, making it the slowest January since its records began in 1990.
Ford, which is cutting back its European production capacity with three plant closures to stem regional losses, recorded a 26% sales plunge to 61,544 cars. Peugeot and Toyota posted the next biggest declines among major carmakers, dropping 16% each.
After falling to a 17-year low in 2012, European car demand is expected to contract further this year, squeezing mass-market brands still harder between excess capacity and cut-throat pricing. Most carmakers see the regional market shrinking between 3% and 5% in 2013.
Hopes for a broader eurozone economic upturn have yet to percolate to the car industry.
Germany in particular is weighing on the outlook. After resisting much of last year's slump, Europe's biggest car market is in sharp decline, extended by an 8.6% drop in January.
Despite weak demand at home, Volkswagen increased its share of European sales. Its registrations fell 5.5% in January, a more modest decline than the market's, as the premium Audi nameplate fell just 2.1%. Its two German luxury rivals proved even more resilient, with BMW brand sales rising 9.4% and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz gaining 4.7%.
South Korea's Kia also fared well, with registrations surging 7.7%, while affiliate Hyundai's sales fell just 2.2%.
Italy's Fiat group posted a 12.4% sales decline, despite a more modest 4% drop for the carmaker's namesake brand.
The upscale Alfa Romeo marque, upon which Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne is building his recovery strategy for the group, saw its European sales collapse 37% in January.
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General Motors not planning to give Peugeot additional funding this year
US carmaker reveals it is not betting on a rise in demand in stagnant European automobile market
General Motors is "not betting on" a rise in European car demand this year and has no plans to provide additional funds to Peugeot, its struggling partner in the region, GM's chief financial officer said on Thursday.
"We have no intention of putting more cash into Peugeot," GM's Dan Ammann told reporters during a briefing for the largest US carmaker's fourth-quarter results.
GM reported a weaker-than-expected profit, citing wider losses in Europe and lower vehicle prices in its core North American market.
It also took an accounting change in the quarter intended to signal confidence that it will continue to be profitable in coming years.
GM posted a profit of 48 cents per share before one-time items.
Losses in Europe totalled $699m (£450m) in the quarter and $1.8bn for all of 2012, more than doubling from 2011, reflecting the rapid deterioration of vehicle demand and economic conditions in the region. It was the 13th straight year of losses in Europe.
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Tesla's Elon Musk posts data from disastrous New York Times test drive
Angry at what he called the paper's 'fake" review, Tesla founder supplies charts that appear to contradict reviewer's account
The world of electric cars is usually seen as one of mildly eccentric do-gooders striving to solve the world's all-too real addiction to fossil fuels by developing vehicles that can be recharged with a plug.
But a New York Times test drive of a new model of Tesla electric sports car has instead now descended into a bitter war of words, allegations of lying and fraud and a rapidly ballooning media and technology scandal.
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla as well as private space firm Space X, has now released detailed computer logs that he says are from the onboard computer of a car that New York Times reporter John Broder took for a disastrous test drive that ended with the vehicle being towed away.
According to Musk, the records reveal that Broder's account of his experience with the brand new Model S car differs in key areas from what the computer logs say happened. On a Tesla blog Musk stated: "Our Model S never had a chance with John Broder … he simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running."
Broder's initial report of his test drive in the newspaper certainly made painful reading. On a trip attempting to travel between Washington and Boston – to explore the creation of new recharging stations on the east coast – Broder detailed a nightmare journey. His Tesla, he said, repeatedly logged miles below what he expected and what the car told him the range was, leaving him limping along at slow speeds to conserve energy.
Eventually the car ran out of juice and had to be towed away. The headline on the piece read: "Stalled Out On Tesla's Electronic Highway".
Not surprisingly Tesla were offended. On Twitter and television, Musk called the story "a fake". Broder then in turn robustly defended his journalism as did the New York Times itself. In a Times motoring blog called Wheels, Broder wrote: "My account was not a fake. It happened just the way I described it." He then went on to tackle various assertions made by Musk and defended his writing.
Tesla's outrage and sensitivity might have been explained by a previous experience with the BBC's motoring show Top Gear. In December 2008, a review of the Tesla Roadster showed the car being pushed by the presenters into a hangar at the test track after apparently running out of charge. Tesla claimed the car had not actually run out of charge and sued for libel. The case was dismissed last year in a British court.
But one result of the spat with Top Gear was that Tesla then made sure that it always logged data from media test drives. Now Musk has published what he says is the data from Broder's trip and detailed how he says it directly contradicts key aspects of the Times" account.
He says the logs show that the car never fully run out of charge, even when a tow truck was called. Musk also says that – contrary to Broder's account – he never set the car in cruise control at 54 mph and never drove at a constant speed of 45 mph in order to conserve the charge.
It also addresses Broder's claims that he had to turn down the car's heating system to save energy on what was a freezing day. "At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F," Musk said in a blog post filled with graphs and data.
But, perhaps most damagingly of all, Musk claimed the reporter at one point appeared to have driven in circles around a car park to run down the charge. "After taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said "0 miles remaining". Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in," Musk said.
Such serious allegations are unlikely to go unanswered by the New York Times and Broder. On his Twitter account, Broder promised a further response and posted a link to his initial defence of the piece. "Stay tuned," Broder said. Meanwhile, the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan announced that she would be investigating the issue. "On Tesla I'm on it, as they say. May take some time. Meanwhile, look for a point-by-point response on Wheels blog soon," she said.
Sullivan later wrote a note on her blog on the Times" website in which she revealed that Musk had not yet returned a phone call and that she would be interviewing Broder later on Thursday. "I will keep reporting on this, and, for now, am simply telling readers what I know so far," she wrote.
She revealed that she intended to ask Tesla to fully release all its data so that others could examine it and acknowledged that the allegations made by Musk were devastating if shown to be accurate. "Mr Musk's contentions are devastating ones for any journalist," she said.
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General Motors reports $900m profits but European woes continue
Biggest US carmaker upbeat as GM continues pattern of making money in US and Asia but posting big losses in Europe
General Motors made money in North America and Asia and lost a bundle in Europe as it nearly doubled last year's fourth-quarter profit.
But the numbers were complicated by a dizzying array of accounting gains and losses for tax credits and devaluation of European assets.
The biggest US automaker reported net income of $898m, or 54¢ per share, compared with $468m, or 28¢ per share, a year earlier. Revenue grew 3% to $39.3bn.
The fourth-quarter profit included billions in one-time accounting gains and losses that ended up being a $100m increase. Without the gain, the company earned 48¢ per share, falling short of Wall Street's expectations.
Analysts polled by FactSet expected earnings of 51¢.
Its shares fell 42¢, or 1.5%, to $28.25 in midday trading on Thursday. They have traded in a 52-week range of $18.72 to $30.68.
During the quarter, GM continued its recent pattern of making money in the US and Asia but posting big losses in Europe as the economy there continues to cut into auto sales. GM made $1.4bn pre-tax in North America, which was down $102m from last year. But losses widened in Europe as the company has predicted, to $699m. GM's International Operations, which include China and the rest of Asia, earned $473m. The company made $99m in South America and $146m on its financial unit.
For the full year, GM earned $4.9bn, or $2.92 per share. That was down from $7.6bn, or $4.58 per share, in 2011. The difference was largely due to losses in Europe and one-time items. Excluding one-time items, GM made $3.24 per share last year. Revenue for the year rose 1% to $152.3bn. The 2012 earnings beat Wall Street expectations. Analysts predicted $3.23 per share on revenue of $151.1bn.
In the fourth quarter, GM returned roughly $35bn in U.S. and Canadian tax credits to its books. Under accounting rules, the company must book the credits because it's likely to use them to offset income taxes. GM has been solidly in the black for three years. But the gain largely was offset by removal of goodwill, devaluation of assets in Europe, the cost of shifting its white-collar pension plan to an insurance company annuity and the cost of buying back $5.5bn worth of shares from the US government.
Still, putting the tax credits back on the books was good news for the company because it's a sign of good prospects, chief financial officer Dan Ammann said.
"We've established a clear track record of profitability over the last three years," he said. "It's a reflection of our confidence in the fact that we're going to generate significant profitability in the North American market going forward."
But the change means that GM will return to a 35% tax rate, up from the mid-teens last year. It still won't pay US federal income taxes for many years due to the write-offs.
GM also announced that its union workers would each get $6,750 in profit-sharing checks next month because of the strong performance in North America. In 2011, the company and the United Auto Workers agreed to profit-sharing instead of pay raises. Last year UAW workers got checks for $7,000.
Ammann said GM's North American profits were down a little from 2011 largely due to lower pension income.
In Europe, Ammann said GM still expects to break even on a pre-tax basis by the middle of the decade. Although the loss widened from the third quarter, he said the company is bullish on its prospects. Cost-cutting efforts, including the closure of one plant, are under way. And the company plans to roll out 23 new vehicles in the next two years.
"We're leading with investment. We're leading with new product," he said.
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