European and Swedish steel cartels. A historical perspective on regulation of competition

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1 1 Paper for the 2011 Mölle Conference The Swedish Network for European Studies in Economics and Business Birgit Karlsson Associate professor in Economic History University of Gothenburg European and Swedish steel cartels. A historical perspective on regulation of competition Free competition, liberalisation and privatisation are all positive words today associated with positive economic development and personal freedom. This is very clearly spelled out within the European Union, where the commitment to the principle of an open market economy with free competition is seldom challenged. Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union implies in paragraph 1 that all agreements which have as their object the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition are prohibited. However in paragraph 3 this prohibition can be declared inapplicable if the agreements contributes to improving production or distribution, promoting technical or economical progress allowing consumers a fair share of the benefit. 1 This illustrates one of the problems related to discussions on cartels; the fact that cartels can be efficient and provide benefit for producers as well as consumers. This article gives a historical perspective on cartels in Sweden with emphasis on the iron- and steel industry. One important focus is to analyse how the regulation of competition which took place was motivated and legitimated. Were the words liberalisation, free competition and privatisation as positive in the interwar and early post-war period as they are today? And do the words mean the same thing? The early history of cartels. Free competiton and liberalism were no doubt positive words during the industrialisation of the 19 th century. Nevertheless the model became increasingly unrealistic, in Europe as well as 1

2 2 in the United States. One important reason was that the model of free competition was built on the presumption that there were no economies of scale. As mass production developed in several areas the needs to undertake large investments were important factors towards the development of cartels, trusts and monopolies. Governments reacted to this development in different ways. In the USA the prohibition principle came to rule, while in many European countries the principle of abuse was chosen. Cartels and trusts began to be discussed in the Swedish Riksdag in The politicians were by that time totally convinced that the model built on free competition was about to die. Competition had become organised on the commodity market as well as on the labour market. Trusts and cartel could mean improved production methods related to large-scale production and lead to reduced prices. In these cases the private self interest led to increased social utility. On the other hand there was of course a possibility that cartels and trusts satisfied their own interest on the cost of consumers and common interest. 2 In 1925 legislation was undertaken which meant that a commission had the right to undertake investigations when abuse from a cartel was suspected. The principle was the same as in Germany cartels were accepted and supposed to contribute to social utility but abuse should be fought against. During the interwar period discussion concerning cartels continued in The Swedish riksdag as well as in official investigations on Swedish economic problems. In 1953 a stronger legislation came about which meant increased public control over cartels. An official cartel register was to be established publicity was seen as a good tool to fight abuse. Still the principle of accepting cartel but fighting the abuse remained. When Sweden entered inte the free-trade agreement with the European community in 1973 the principle of abuse stood against the principle of prohibition. However the practical differences between the two principles were not regarded as too big. The praxis within Sweden and the EU was similar. 3 Not until 1993 when the Swedish government prepared their membership in the EU, the principle was changed from fighting abuse to prohibition of cartels. 4 A historical perspective on Swedish cartel legislation reveals that it was politically uncontroversial to claim that regulation of competition was necessary during the first half of the 19 th century. The problem was who would be the regulator. Should regulation take place within the business community or should the state interfere with legislation? There is no 2 Protokoll FK 1911 nr 17 p 70 3 Prop 1972:35,p 50 4 Prop 1992/93:56, s 334

3 3 doubt that business representatives vastly preferred private regulation in the form of cartels or other cooperative arrangements. Actually the threat of regulation from the government was often a strong incentive to increased business cooperation. Looking at competition and cartels from the side of the legislator it can be stated that in the beginning of the century, mainly production cartels were discussed. The focus came to change to cooperation in distribution and marketing over time. In the law of 1953 the principle of abuse was supplemented with two explicit prohibitions on bidding cartels and on gross price system. 5 Another conclusion is that the term free competition was not so often used in the discussions in the Riksdag. Instead there was a lot of talk on sound, efficient and loyal competition. 6 International iron- and steel cartels Iron- and steel production was one of the areas in which cartels were formed early. There are many reasons for this economies of scale, high fixed costs, quick technical development which meant that the production capacity often increased faster than demand. Another important characteristic is that a national steel industry has often been regarded as providing basis for other industries to develop and big investments in steel production has been made in many countries. One example of early cooperation is the formation of United Steel Corporation in 1901which was a holding company created to diminish competition in the US steel industry. A corresponding European example is the creation of the German Stahlwerksverband created in After World War I, the steel industry had big overcapacity problems and competition was regarded as ruinous. To overcome these problems and create stability on the market an international steel cartel was formed in 1926 with participants from Germany, France, Belgium and Luxemburg. Together they produced 30% of the world s steel and were responsible for 65% of the world export. This cartel was organised in terms of production quotas and respect for home markets of each producer. The cooperation did not survive the declining prices of the depression 1929 and in 1931 the cartel was liquidated. 7 New efforts were made and in 1933 an international cartel was created by producers from France, Belgium, Luxemburg and France. Later even Poland, Czechoslovakia, 5 Karlsson, Birgit Liberalism as state non-interference, The development of Swedish cartel legislation , Paper for Workshop Conventional wisdom challenged: Economic cooperation reconsidered May 2010, Paris 6 ibid 7 Hexner, Erwin, International cartels (Durham N.C. 1946) p 206 and 210

4 4 Great Britain and the USA became members. 8 This cartel was more efficient, partly since it was directed towards regulation, not of production, but of export. This meant that countries who were not parts of this cartel could meet strong competition from abroad. Swedish iron- and steel cartels Iron- and steel production has long traditions in Sweden but during the inter-war period it was regarded as an industry in crisis. Swedish production units were comparatively small and it was difficult to compete with big continental producers. According to the Swedish producers it was also a problem that tariff levels were so low in Sweden. 9 During the period ironworks were closed down in Sweden. 10 Attempts of cooperation had been undertaken for a long time some were more successful than others. Cooperation existed on all levels - raw material, steel production and steel distribution. Some steel producers had access to their own iron ore but scrap gradually became more important as raw material. During World War I scrap was scarce and prices increased. In 1917 AB Järnbruksförnödenheter was founded. It was not a cartel but an enterprise with seven ironworks as owners. The company noted maximum prices and the shareholders agreed not to pay higher prices. 11 Scrap had to be imported but it was difficult to get access to scrap since many countries prohibited exports. In 1927 the Swedish government after a long period of pressure at last did the same. As more and more companies joined the cooperation the logical effect was that scrap dealers became organised. The Swedish authorities wanted better cooperation between buyers and sellers and in 1936 the scrap company negotiated with the sellers organisation. The scrap dealers by then understood that a steady price level in the long run was better than a quickly fluctuating level. Nevertheless the negotiations were difficult and no agreement could be reached until the government threatened with taking away the prohibition of export if they would not agree. A clearing system was constructed which meant that price differences between districts were to be levelled out. The Swedish scrap company also for a time was attached to the International Scrap convention but left it in Hexner p Fritz, Martin., Svenskt stål: nittonhundratal: från järnhantering till stålindustri (Stockholm 1997) p Ibid p It was Hallstahammar AB, Smedjebackens Valsverks AB, Hofors AB, Forsbacka Järnverks AB, Schebo Järnverks AB, Horndals Järnverks AB och Storfors Bruks AB. JBF centrum för skrotinköp (Solna 2008) p 8 12 JBF p 22

5 5 When it came to production the Swedish cartels were organized according to the product logic. There were cartels for rolled iron, drill steel, girders and rails and so on. Most companies had diversified production which meant that they participated in many different cartels. The high fixed costs were a strong incentive to keep production close to the capacity level, which meant that companies often had to face new cartel organizations. One example of this is when Sandvikens Jernverk and Uddeholms AB in the 1920s lost a big part of their export to Germany and replaced it with production of tubes. This was made possible by association with the International Tube cartel created in 1929 which meant that home markets were to be protected. This left room for increased Swedish production for the home market. However the other cartel members felt that the Swedish producers were unduly favored by the devaluation in 1931 and they were excluded from the cartel. Not much later the Swedish producers turned to the government requesting tariff protection. The argument was that competition should be fair foreign producers had their own homemarket protected and that should also be the case for Sweden. The government was reluctant but at last the parliament gave the government right to increase tariffs for tubes if that would be necessary. This right was also used. 13 When it comes to distribution, the Swedish wholesalers of steel became organized in This was a result of the creation of the international steel cartel EIA (Entente Internationale de l Acier), which was an export cartel. For EIA it was important to be able to make an agreement with a national organization which meant that EIA sold only to members and the local members bought only from EIA. The Swedish organization was called JBG (Järn- och balkgrossisters förening). This organization in turn had to have a counterpart and the corresponding producer organization was Valsjärnsgruppen, in which many of the big Swedish ironworks became members. One important aim was to create fair competition which among other things meant that freight costs were leveled out. It became possible to offer identical delivery prices to all parts of Sweden despite the fact that freight costs could be quite different. There was no complete dominance from the JBG it was possible for consumers to import directly from foreign works, there was a big Swedish outsider (Domnarvets Järnverk) and there was a strong counterpart in Valsjärnsgruppen. 14 These three examples illustrate how cartels were perceived and developed during the interwar period. First it can be concluded that the producers saw state interference as a threat. They 13 SOU 1940:35 Organiserad samverkan inom svenskt näringsliv p Järnimporten (Stockholm 1949) p 17-18

6 6 were convinced that the market had to be regulated but they were equally sure that this was done best through private regulations. There were cooperative traditions to build on but there is no doubt that the cartelization process accelerated during the interwar period. The threat of state interference was an incentive to recruit producers who wanted to stay out of cartels. Second the international development is crucial for understanding the development. The international cartels that were created more or less demanded national counterparts. Organized markets were regarded as necessary. This aspect is tightly connected to the national aspect. The Swedish producers were convinced that they had a common interest in defending their home market from foreign competition. The fear that the international cartels would dump their excess production in Sweden was regarded as a reality. For the iron organizations it was regarded as self evident that protecting Swedish iron production was a national interest. Despite the averseness to the state, the cartels did not hesitate to ask for tariff protection when the private regulation did not deliver the desired results. Third the whole discussion on the necessity for regulation was motivated with the striving for stability. The violent price fluctuations during the interwar period created a situation in which it was very difficult to make predictions on the future. This caused economic damage, since companies refrained from investment in better technique. This was the common view of the political as well as the economic establishment. 15 The discourse in which the iron- and steel producers worked could be summarized in a few words private ownership and private regulation, fair competition, national interest and stability. It should also be noticed that cartels were seen as contributing to peace. Private regulation within the continental cartel 1926 was greeted with satisfaction in the US since economic cooperation within a cartel was seen as more contributing to peace than diplomatic agreements. 16 The idea that economic cooperation created mutual dependency and thereby became an obstacle for war was thereby expressed. State and cartels During World War II cooperation between state and organized business increased generally. For iron and steel this meant that almost all cartels became coordinated within an umbrella organization Svenska järnbrukens gruppcentral. This organization got responsibility for allocating orders to the different companies. Cooperation between state authorities and the business organization functioned acceptably, but tensions increased during the last years, 15 SOU 1935:65 Betänkande om folkförsörjning och arbetsfred 16 Af Wirsén till utrikesministern13 oktober 1926, H 1157, Archive of Foreign Office, Riksarkivet

7 7 mainly related to state orders. After the war the producers were unwilling to continue the close cooperation with the public authorities. It was by then difficult to import iron needed for reconstruction and quality steel producers were requested to continue their production of ordinary steel for the building industry. The quality steel producers were more anxious to return to their old markets and the ordinary steel producers feared the competition from abroad. The resistance against continued state regulations increased and in 1949 the regulations on iron production and trade were taken away. This also meant that the central for allocating orders handled by the Svenska Järnbrukens Gruppcentral was dissolved. 17 In 1951 a big public commission presented an investigation on cartels and competition. Suspiciousness against cartels had increased, not least because they had been used as tools for the Nazi regime in Germany. The commission maintained that cooperation and concentration was socially acceptable, only if it made rationalization possible. The development towards a more negative view on cartels is often explained in general terms by increased American influence. 18 Discussions within the trade association Jernkontoret once again showed the skeptical view on state measures to increase efficiency in production. According to the persons who took part in the internal debate the main reason for constraints and stiffness in the economic life were related to state measures depreciation and taxation were emphasized. It was also argued that cartel did not mean that competition was abolished. Cartel agreements were normally concluded for one year and then had to be renegotiated. Import was also an important brake on high prices, since Sweden had exceptionally low tariff protection. There was competition and this competition forced the producers to constant technical development. 19 The more severe cartel legislation did not fall heavy on iron industry. Their cooperation could often be motivated in terms of rationality and efficiency. The legislators were more concerned about cooperation within trade and distribution where no real value was considered to be added in the chain from producer to consumer. In the public cartel register which was created there were 34 cartels registered within the iron and steel industry in Thereby the complexity in which the companies acted also became visible. As examples can be mentioned that Sandvikens Jernverk participated in 20 of these cartels, Fagerstabruken in 21 and Avesta 17 Protokoll JBC 16 december 1949, A1 Järnbrukscentralen, Värmlandsarkiv 18 Schröter Harm, G., Americanization of the European Economy; a compact survey of American economic influence in Europe since the 1880s (Dordrecht 2005) 19 Sveriges Industriförbund to Minister of trade 25/1 1952, Archive of Jernkontoret

8 8 Järnverk in 10 cartels. Each of the companies had to take a line to cartels when they were acting as buyers of raw material, when they were producers and when they were sellers. 20 European Coal and Steel association In 1950 the Monnet plan for Europe was launched. A new institution the High Authority was designed to achieve economic growth, increased employment and a common market for coal and steel. The High Authority had the right of taxation and the right to dissolve cartels. It could also, if necessary decide production quotas, direct exports and enforce rationalizations. In a historical perspective the development of this plan can be seen as a continuation of the interwar efforts to create international cartels, like EIA. A functioning cooperation had to work at troughs as well as peaks in the business cycle and independently of political events. The privately organized cartels had failed in these aspects. The hope was that the semi-official status of the High authority would have enough of state character to provide necessary regulation and enough of business organization character to retain the confidence of business. The High Authority s members were appointed by the governments but not responsible to the governments. Their task was to undertake measures for the common good of the community, unbound by national interests. 21 There were economic rationality for the arrangements in terms of increased possibilities for exchange and rationalization but the main motivation was political. It was related to the firm opinion that increased trade led to increased dependency and that countries who were economically interdependent would refrain from going into war with each other. To this can be remarked that this same logic was used as a reason for going to war by the Nazi government. The very fact of being dependent on the Western powers that had access to their own empires was a reason to undertake war measures. When this had been done the Nazi vision was to create a common economic market in Europe, to achieve enough economic strength to be able to withstand outside aggression. 22 Nevertheless the development of CECA (Commission Européenne du Charbon et de l Acier) was of great importance to the Swedish iron- and steel producers. The Swedish organization 20 Kartellregistret: meddelanden från Kommerskollegii monopolutredningsbyrå (Stockholm 1951) 21 Förland, Tor & Claes Dag Harald, Europeisk integration (Lund 1998) p Karlsson, Birgit, Egenintresse eller samhällsintresse: Nazityskland och svensk skogsindustri (Lund 2007) p 17

9 9 Jernkontoret discussed the organization and found it to consist of two different tendencies. On the one hand the ideology was claimed to be liberal in the meaning of free trade. On the other hand it expressed planning ideology even in normal circumstances in the investment area. In times of crisis the planning could increase to production as well as to relations with outside markets. 23 The countries of CECA were important for Swedish buyers as well as sellers % of all steel mainly ordinary steel - that was imported to Sweden came from CECA-countries. 24 The organization CECA interpreted the concept of free competition as if it meant more of trade over national borders. It was not interpreted as free global trade but free regional trade limited to the EEC-countries. When it came to prices, the interpretation in fact meant a large amount of regulation. Each steel producer within CECA had the right to decide over his prices but had to report its pricelists to the High Authority. The prices applied to a base point chosen by the company to achieve an adjustment of price differences for freight. However the company was allowed to reduce the price if another union member company had a lower price on a certain district. This was called alignment. This price system was to function within the CECA-countries but it was more problematic with CECA:s export market. Export prices from CECA tended to be above home market prices in good times and below in bad times. Freedom in price setting was confined to the export markets where surplus could be dumped or high prices taken out when there was shortage. 25 This meant problems for countries like Sweden who imported large amounts of ordinary steel from CECA. Swedish export consisted mainly of quality steel and about 30% of the export of this steel went to CECA-countries. For those producers the tariff wall was the largest problem. the CECA level was higher than the tariffs in Germany and Belgium-Luxemburg had been which meant problems for Swedish exporters. Nevertheless the Swedish organization Jernkontoret were in their negotiations with the CECA prepared to accept continued low Swedish tariffs if fair competition on equal terms could be guaranteed. There can be no doubt that CECA meant further regulation of the market for iron and steel. Looking back and comparing with the discourse of the interwar period some changes can be discerned. Private ownership was still regarded as being of utmost importance but private regulation in international cartels had been exchanged for regulation by CECA, a semi-state authority. Fair competition was interpreted as creating similar conditions for different Om Montanunionen av Direktören Ragnar Sundén, 8/ , Archive of Jernkontoret 24 Till plenum , Archive of Jernkontoret 25 Ruist, Erik, Utvecklingstendenser för svensk stålindustri (Stockholm 1966) p Till plenum , Archive of Jernkontoret

10 10 producers for example when it came to freight rates. Rules for fair competition did not apply to the export markets. Stability was to a large extent achieved by using outside markets as a buffer. The nationalistic discourse had become widened as six countries were included. For Sweden the development meant both problems and possibilities. There were close contacts between CECA and the Swedish organization Jernkontoret. Negotiations were maintained for agreements on special steel. There were also lengthy discussions on the possibility of creating a Nordic steel union. Swedish producers wanted to come to agreement with CECA on how the Swedish import should be regulated to achieve fair competition. They also came to gradually accept the CECA-regulations and also how to deal with the Swedish increased interest in their cartels. For the steel producers as well as for most of Swedish business membership in the European Union was the goal and in 1973 Sweden managed to get a free trade agreement with the EU. This meant adaptation to CECA price rules, which had the purpose of creating stable production, stable prices and normal returns on investments. Unsound competition was forbidden especially if it was occasional and local and with the aim to achieve monopoly. CECA price rules were to be stretched out also for Sweden. According to the Swedish trade minister price fluctuations had been more moderate within CECA than on the world market. It was hoped that this would now also be the case for Swedish price development. 27 Swedish iron and steel cartels in the post-war period. In the cartel register of 1971 there were 128 cartels registered in the area related to iron, steel and metal (total number 1123). In 1991 no horizontal cooperation was reported in the area of metal production. 28 One reason for this was adaptation to CECA-rules which diminished the need for Swedish cartels. During the 1950s and 60s it had been regarded as urgent to build up functioning market orders for the sales of ordinary steel on the Swedish market. The relations between producers and wholesalers were complicated and under constant change. To diminish tensions and bring order to pricing and valuation of performance, a common discount system was needed. During this period meetings between producers and wholesalers were held every month. The CECA-system was gradually seen as more of an alternative and investigations made for Jernkontoret came to the conclusion that price consequences of an association would 27 Utrikesutskottets betänkande 1972:20 p Kartellregistret Kartellregistrets historia p 27 and 32,

11 11 mean more advantages than disadvantages. When the agreement came about most of the Swedish ironworks were well prepared. Most of the old steel cartels were dissolved in connection with the steel crisis of the 1970s. Questions of price were regarded as related more directly to trade policy. 29 The diminished amount of cartels is also related to the development of concentration. Investigations on structural problems for Swedish steel were made within Jernkontoret. They ended up in proposals for concentration and cooperation in the form of exchanging products and merging. The steel production was regarded as too much diversified and meant big capital costs. Swedish producers competed unnecessarily and with long selling chains on the world market. During the period exchange of products were constantly discussed. The agreements were often made between two companies where both committed themselves to stop production on each product for 10 years and contribute to make the other acquainted with customers. After 1975, in connection with the international steel crisis mergers were made. Three big Swedish producers of ordinary steel constituted SSAB in 1978 a new state-owned company. 30 Restructuring was dramatic and production was concentrated to fewer units. Obsolete furnaces and rolling mills were closed down and better technology was introduced. SSAB became profitable in The nationalist discourse was still alive, both within the business community and among politicians. An important motive for the big state engagement in the steel industry was to save steel production as a basis for Swedish industrial development. Cooperation and concentration whether in form of cartel or in form of mergers were regarded as positive measures of rationalization. The point of departure was that resources should be saved and the national context together with the logic of economies of scale made diminished amount of competitors a desirable goal. For example the global selling chains for special steel were regarded as costly and it was a step forward when they were reduced from ten to six during the period It was also regarded as progressive that the amount of wholesalers organized in JBG during the same period had been reduced from fifteen to five SMIS, PM Jernkontoret , BN/TI, Archive of Jernkontoret 30 Svensk stålindustris struktur, Föredrag av Wilhelm Ekman 27 januari 1984, Personal archive, Sverker Jonsson, Dep of economic history 31 The Swedish steel industry and its competitiveness, the Sefström Symposium November , Lecture given by Orvar Nyquist, Personal Archive of Sverker Jonsson, Department of Economic History 32 Svensk stålindustris struktur, Föredrag av Wilhelm Ekman 27 januari 1984, Personal archive, Sverker Jonsson, Dep of economic history

12 12 Globalization and specialization The production of special steel in Sweden has mainly been an export affair. The Swedish market has never been big enough to sell well. Production of ordinary steel has mainly been for the home market and it has been completed with imported material. In the beginning of the 1990s SSAB, the main producer of ordinary steel, took a crucial decision which implied a drive for niches. Instead of having a broad register of products the company should concentrate on highly specialized products for a global market. 33 This meant that the production of ordinary steel came to resemble the special steel area. During the same period technical changes took place which at least partly undermined the logic of economies of scale. Mini steel mills had appeared earlier proving that steel production could be profitable in smaller scale when it used scrap as raw material and was coast located. Now computer technique also was increasingly used. It provided possibility to quicker adjustments in production and more flexibility. This made it possible to meet customers demand also for smaller orders. Working closely together with the customer was a mantra. Finding customers and developing long-time relations with them was a dominating strategy. Focus was also turned from the product itself to the function. Customers should not only buy a product, they should also be able to buy the competence and knowledge embodied within the company. 34 The ownership structure of Swedish steel mills was also changed during the period. Swedish steel companies were bought by or merged with foreign companies. Globalization in the sense of increased capital mobility became important for Swedish steel industry. One example of merger was Avesta Sheffield in 1992 and one example of a Swedish company bought by foreign interests was the high-speed steel producer Kloster Speed-steel which was acquired by the French group Eramet SLN in Privatization was also an issue. The liberalization aims of the bourgeois Swedish government in 1994 led to privatization of SSAB. The development of the Swedish steel industry during the last 20 years reflects the international development. Privatization, transformation to a high technology industry and internationalization and owner concentration are common features. 35 Swedish steel companies are small players on the steel market but their experience of internationalization is longer than for many other actors. This is a result of smallness Swedish producers have to a large extent 33 Jonsson Sverker, Skuta på stormigt hav (Stockholm 2009) p Jonsson p Beguin, Jean-Marie, Industrial relations in the steel industry (Luxembourg 2005) Office for official publications of the European communities

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