‘Avoid getting caught’: report shows how Carlsberg, SABMiller, UB fixed beer prices

CCI investigation finds officials in these firms exchanged information, colluded

Top executives of Carlsberg, SABMiller and India’s United Breweries (UB) exchanged commercially sensitive information and colluded to fix beer prices in India over 11 years, according to a government antitrust investigation report seen by Reuters.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) in 2018 raided the offices of the three brewers and started an inquiry. The investigation’s findings — which are not a final judgment of wrongdoing — cast a shadow on the brewers, which account for 88% of India’s $7-billion beer market. Senior CCI members will consider the report, drafted in March, as they decide on fines, which could exceed $250 million, two sources familiar with the case said.

Executives’ conversations, WhatsApp messages and e-mails contained in the report show the companies regularly and collectively strategised in seeking price increases in “several States”, forging a cartel the CCI said gave them more bargaining power with State authorities.

The firms also used the All India Brewers Association (AIBA) as a “common platform” to decide collectively on prices; and the local group then lobbied on the companies’ behalf for price increases, the report found.

At least three times, executives exchanged messages urging one another to keep their plans quiet, it showed.

“We should avoid getting caught,” AIBA’s director general wrote in an e-mail in 2016 to executives of the three companies.

The CCI did not respond to Reuters queries. Lobby group AIBA and Carlsberg declined to comment, citing ongoing CCI proceedings. United Breweries, part-owned by Heineken, said it had cooperated with authorities and would make submissions to the CCI. Heineken didn’t respond to requests for comment. The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which acquired SABMiller in 2016, said it takes “antitrust compliance very seriously”.

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