European Commission authorities have found two European companies (SKF and Schaeffler) and four Japanese companies (JTEKT, NSK, NFC and NTN with its French subsidiary NTN-SNR), operated a cartel in the market for automotive bearings and have imposed fines totalling nearly EUR953m (US$1.3bn).

Brussels says the companies colluded to secretly coordinate their pricing strategy for more than seven years, from April, 2004 until July, 2011, in the whole European Economic Area (EEA).

Japanese company, JTEKT, was not fined as it benefited from immunity under the Commission's 2006 Leniency Notice for revealing the existence of the cartel to the Commission.

NSK, NFC, SKF and Schaeffler received reductions of their fines for their cooperation in the investigation in the Commission's leniency programme. Since all companies agreed to settle the case with the Commission, their fines were further reduced by 10%.

"Today's decision is a further milestone in the Commission's ongoing effort to bust cartels in the markets for car parts, after the sanctions we imposed on producers of electric wires and of foam used in car seats," said Commission vice president in charge of competition policy, Joaquin Almunia.

"It is incredible to see one more car component was cartelised. I hope the fines imposed will deter companies from engaging in such illegal behaviour and help restore competition in this industry.

"If left unchallenged, cartels for car parts might impair the competitiveness of the automotive sector and artificially raise the price paid by European consumers who buy cars."

The EC noted companies involved in the secret cartel coordinated the passing-on of steel price increases to their automotive customers, colluded on Requests for Quotations and for Annual Price Reductions from customers and exchanged commercially sensitive information.

This occurred through multi-, tri- and bilateral contacts. The size of the EU market for automotive bearings is estimated to be at least EUR2bn per year.

The decision is part of a major investigative effort into suspected cartels in the sector of car parts.

The Commission is investigating more products, such as airbags, safety belts and steering wheels, air conditioning and engine cooling products, as well as lighting systems.