Unmasking an Illegal Cartel 

The  German auto scandal just got much bigger according to a new report by the Spiegel.

Audi, BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, and Porsche colluded in all aspects of diesel technology.

Effectively, the five corporations acted as one via a series of secret working groups that met several times a year.

The Spiegel broke the story with its report on the Auto Syndicate Scandal.

The story is in German, and it’s also behind a pay wall. Eurointelligence has a nice Email report.

Spiegel magazine has an absolutely shocking account of a cartel between the five motor companies – VW, Daimler, BMM, Porsche, and Audi. The original article is worse than any summary we have read because of the many details the two authors have dug up in a large investigation. Coming on top of the diesel emissions scandal, the reputation of the German car industry has been reduced to that of a criminal organization. Unlike the authors, we are less worried about the fines, which will be large, than about the long-term commercial impact.

This is one of the largest cartel cases in German history. The meetings started in the 1990s. The car makers created 60 working groups, each specializing on a different part of the car. For example, they agreed on the maximum speed at which a sunroof opens or closes while the car is in motion, or the maximum size of the tank for the AdBlue chemical which reduces certain toxic emissions. There were working groups for brake systems, for seats, for suspension, for clutches, and naturally also for diesel and petrol engines.

The working groups met several times a year in the cities where the car companies have their HQ’s, like Munich, Stuttgart, or Wolfsburg; as well as during the large European motor shows in Frankfurt, Geneva, and Paris. They also held teleconferences in between meetings. They were quite cocky. An Audi email reads:

“Hello everybody, please find attached the date for the ‘secret’ meeting in Munich.”

The authors, two of Germany’s most renowned business journalists, said the cooperation has gone so far that these companies can no longer be regarded as in competition with one another but as a single Deut­sche Au­to­mo­bil AG.

All the companies, except BMW, have admitted the meetings when questioned by the EU Commission and the Federal Cartel Office.

When industries decline, this type of behavior is very common in the penultimate phase. The industry profits are still high. The companies are still benefitting enormously from past inventions and product developments. As we now know, the German car industry was able to maintain their predominance beyond the natural sell-by date through a cartel. They are approximately at the same stage where Detroit was just before 1967.

The problem with the German car industry specifically is that they bet the house on diesel technology, and used their influence on the German government to prevent more stringent testing of emissions. The function of the cartel was to maintain profit margins, and in particular to secure the predominance of the diesel technology.

The German public had an extraordinary degree of trust in the industry, partly also because German auto journalists failed to do their job since they were part of the cartel.

The next ten years will see two significant developments, for which the German car industry is not prepared: one is the gradual switch towards hybrid and electrical engines, and the other is the advent of artificial intelligence. The German car industry has a lot of patents for electric engines, but they are globally not the leading force. And now their reputation is tarnished.
We don’t expect rapid falls in sales immediately but see an unrecoverable loss of reputation in the long-term because we are confident to predict that the industry will not clean up the mess it has created. Rather, it will seek a cover-up or direct protection from the government. The tendency will be to sit this out, and the government will avoid an open confrontation given the many jobs that depend on that industry. This may delay the onset of a crisis for a while, but will ultimately accelerate it.

Merkel to the Rescue?

Massive fines are on the way but Merkel will do whatever she can to reduce the fines and the impact.

The amazing thing to me is how long these corporations got away with this.

Trust is lost and diesel is toast. The latter was true even without this latest scandal.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock