Flat panel display mart antitrust probe widens

An investigation into possible anticompetitive behaviour in the flat-panel display market widened Tuesday, with four more big vendors saying they had been contacted by investigators.

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. said it had been served with subpoenas by regulators in the U.S., South Korea and Japan, while Sharp Corp. and Taiwan’s AU Optronics Corp. were contacted by the Japan Fair Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), they said. Taiwan’s Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp. said a subsidiary in the U.S. was also contacted by the DOJ.

The investigation came to light Monday when LG.Philips LCD Co. Ltd. revealed that it had been subpoenaed by regulators in the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

The probe centers on TFT (thin-film transistor) LCDs, according to Samsung. They are used in a wide range of electronics products including flat-panel televisions and computer monitors, laptop computers, cell phones and digital music players. The three companies being investigated are among the largest manufacturers of such displays.

The investigation comes on the heels of anticompetition probes in the DRAM (dynamic RAM) and SRAM (static RAM) markets. The DRAM investigation focussed on price-fixing, which is when vendors cooperate to set prices artificially.

Sharp Spokeswoman Miyuki Nakayama said the company was surprised to have received the summons. Sharp has a policy of “fair and ethical management,” she said. Cho Sung In, a spokeswoman for Samsung in Seoul, said: “Samsung Electronics is strongly committed to fair competition and ethical practices and forbids anti-competitive behavior.”

Among other LCD manufacturers, Sony Corp. said its joint-venture with Samsung, S-LCD Corp., had not been contacted by the investigators.

Shares in LG.Philips dropped 4 per cent Tuesday, while Samsung’s closed down two-thirds of a percent. The general market, as measured by the Kospi index, fell 1 percent. Sharp waited until after the market had closed to announce it had been contacted. Its shares rose 2 percent Tuesday.

In the DRAM investigation, Market leaders Samsung and Hynix Semiconductor Inc. pled guilty in 2005 to price-fixing and received fines of US$300 million and $185 million, respectively. Japan’s Elpida Memory Inc. had to pay $84 million and Germany’s Infineon Technologies AG paid a $160 million fine.

In October several manufacturers of SRAM chips said they had been subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) although they did not disclose the nature of the DOJ’s requests. The companies were Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and the U.S. units of Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Samsung Electronics, Sony and Toshiba Corp.

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