Fines worth more than 110 million yuan (17.8 million U.S. dollars) have been imposed on 23 property insurers and one insurance association in east China's Zhejiang Province after evidence of price monopolies was found.
The Zhejiang Provincial Insurance Association and 23 property insurance companies were found to have colluded on discounts on car insurance premiums during multiple meetings, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said on Tuesday.
The penalties against domestic insurance companies were the latest measures in China's anti-monopoly crackdown. Foreign carmakers and auto parts suppliers have also been fined for monopoly activities since the end of July.
The NDRC, China's top price antitrust agency, said it began its investigation into all 32 insurance companies in Zhejiang after it was tipped off that the association convened with 23 insurance companies to collude on discounts for premiums on newly purchased cars.
They also decided on a uniform commission fee for car insurance sales based on market share, according to the NDRC.
The 23 insurance companies violated the Anti-Monopoly Law, which prohibits competing market players from reaching monopoly agreements to fix or change the price of a good or service.
As the organizer and planner of the price monopoly, the insurance association was given the maximum fine of 500,000 yuan, while property insurance companies were fined a total of 110.2 million yuan, or one percent of their revenues from commercial vehicle insurance last year.
Among the punished companies, the Zhejiang branch of CPIC Property Insurance was fined 20.70 million yuan, while the Zhejiang units of Pingan Property Insurance and China United Property Insurance Co., Ltd. were fined 15.99 million yuan and 10.29 million yuan, respectively.
PICC Property and Casualty Co., Ltd. was exempt from the fines as it was the first company to turn itself in to the NDRC and submitted a report on the key evidence it had reached with other insurance companies
Meanwhile, anti-monopoly investigations into the Zhejiang branches of nine other insurers, including U.S. Liberty Insurance and Japanese Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance (China) Company Limited, have been suspended as they did not participate in the monopoly agreement, according to NDRC.
China has stepped up its law enforcement against monopolies over the past two months, but an NDRC spokesman acknowledged that it would be unlikely for antitrust departments to launch anti-monopoly investigation into every industry due to personnel shortage.
"Currently, most monopoly cases handled by the NDRC stemmed mainly from whistle-blowing," the spokesman said.
According to the NDRC, horizontal monopoly agreements between competing companies are quite difficult to spot or investigate when compared with vertical agreements involving a company and its downstream dealers.
The latest punishment followed a series of anti-monopoly investigations by China into top global brands such as Microsoft, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the past two months.
The State Administration for Industry and Commerce on Monday gave Microsoft Corp. a 20-day deadline to explain compatibility and bundling issues with its Windows and Office software in its antitrust probe.
The NDRC spokesman noted that China'a anti-monopoly law treats all enterprises equally, be it a domestic enterprise or foreign firm.
Until the most recent cases, the NDRC itself has launched similar investigations into domestic and overseas LCD manufacturers, milk formula makers, pharmaceutical factories and liquor makers.