Judge rules Apple conspired to raise prices on e-books
Judge rules Apple conspired to raise prices on e-books
US District Judge Denize Cote in Manhattan found “compelling evidence” that Apple violated federal antitrust law by playing a “central role” in a conspiracy with the publishers to eliminate retail price competition and raise e-book prices.
The decision could expose Apple to substantial damages. It is a victory for the US Department of Justice and the 33 US states and territories that brought the civil antitrust case.
Apple was accused of pursuing the conspiracy to undercut online retailer Amazon.com Inc’s e-book dominance, causing some prices to rise to $12.99 or $14.99 from the $9.99 that Amazon charged. Amazon once held a 90 percent market share.
“Apple chose to join forces with the publisher defendants to raise e-book prices and equipped them with the means to do so,” Cote said in a 159-page decision. “Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did.”
Wednesday’s decision was not a total surprise, given that Cote indicated before the 2-1/2 week non-jury trial began on June 3 that Apple’s defenses might fail. Cote ordered a trial to set damages.
“This result is a victory for millions of consumers who choose to read books electronically,” Bill Baer, head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a statement. “This decision by the court is a critical step in undoing the harm caused by Apple’s illegal actions.”
APPLE PLANS TO APPEAL
In a statement, Apple maintained that the plaintiffs’ allegations are false and said it will appeal Cote’s decision.
“Apple did not conspire to fix e-book pricing,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said. “When we introduced the iBookstore in 2010, we gave customers more choice, injecting much needed innovation and competition into the market, breaking Amazon’s monopoliztic grip on the publishing industry. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Last year, Apple settled a separate antitrust case over e-book pricing with the European Commission, without admitting wrongdoing.
The alleged collusion began in late 2009 and continued into early 2010, in connection with the Silicon Valley giant’s launch of its popular iPad tablet.
Only Apple went to trial, while the publishers agreed to pay more than $166 million combined to benefit consumers.
The publishers included Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group Inc, News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers LLC, Pearson Plc’s Penguin Group (USA) Inc, CBS Corp’s Simon & Schuster Inc. and Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH’s Macmillan.
Baer said Cote’s decision, together with the publishers’ settlements, have helped consumers by reducing prices of e-books.
In morning trading, Apple shares were down 30 cents at $422.05 on the Nasdaq.
Steve Berman, a partner at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro pursuing consumer class-action litigation against Apple, called Cote’s decision “a very big deal.”
“It exposes Apple to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, which is what we’ll ask for,” Berman said.
Amazon’s strategy involved buying e-books at wholesale and then selling them at below cost, in an effort to promote its Kindle reading device.
Apple, in contrast, entered into so-called “agency agreements” in which publishers were able to set higher prices and pay commissions to the Cupertino, California-based company.
The federal government said this arrangement pushed Amazon into a similar model, and resulted in prices of e-books from the five publishers increasing by 18 percent.
Evidence in the case included e-mails from Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs to News Corp. executive James Murdoch that the government said reflected Jobs’ desire to boost prices and “create a real mainstream e-books market at $12.99 and $14.99.”
Such evidence hurt Apple’s case, Cote said. “Apple’s efforts to explain away Jobs’s remarks have been futile,” she said.
Apple had argued that it never conspired with the publishers to raise e-book prices, or even understood that publishers might have been talking among themselves about higher prices in advance of the iPad launch.
“There is no such thing as a conspiracy by telepathy,” Apple’s lawyer Orin Snyder said in closing arguments on June 20.
Cote also rejected Apple’s argument that it would be unfair to single out the company when Amazon and Google Inc, among others, entered similar agency agreements with publishers.
The decision allows the plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to prevent further pricing conspiracies.
At trial, the Justice Department said it wanted to block Apple from using the agency business model for two years.
The department also said it wants to stop Apple over a five-year period from entering contracts that insure it will offer the lowest retail prices.
The case is US v. Apple Inc. et al, US District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-02826.
Gulf companies challenged by debt and rising interest rates
- Debt restructurings on the rise, but below crisis levels
- Central Bank of the UAE has raised interest rates four times since last March
There has been an uptick in recent months in heavily-borrowed companies in the Gulf seeking to restructure their debts with lenders. Although the pressure on companies is not comparable to levels witnessed in the region following the 2008 global financial crisis, rising interest rates will eventually begin to have a greater impact, say experts.
Speaking exclusively to Arab news, Matthew Wilde, a partner at consultancy PwC in Dubai, said: “We do expect that interest rate increases will gradually start to impact companies over the next 12 months, but to date the impact of hedging and the runoff of older fixed rate deals has meant the impact is fairly muted so far.”
The Central Bank of the UAE has raised interest rates four times since the start of last year, in line with action taken by the US Federal Reserve. The Fed has signalled that it will raise interest rates at least twice more before the end of the year.
Wilde added that there had been a little more pressure on company balance sheets of late, although “this shouldn’t be overplayed”.
Nevertheless, just last week, Stanford Marine Group — majority owned by a fund managed by private equity firm Abraaj Group — was reported by the New York Times to be in talks with banks to restructure a $325 million Islamic loan. The newspaper cited a Reuters report that relied on “banking sources”.
The Dubai-based oil and gas services firm, which has struggled as a result of the downturn in the hydrocarbons market since 2014, has reportedly asked banks to consider extending the maturity of its debt and restructuring repayments, after it breached certain loan covenants.
A fund managed by Abraaj owns 51 percent of Stanford Marine, with the remaining stake held by Abu Dhabi-based investment firm Waha Capital. Abraaj declined to comment.
Dubai-based theme parks operator DXB Entertainments struck a deal last month with creditors to restructure 4.2 billion dirhams ($1.1 billion) of borrowings, with visitor numbers to attractions such as Legoland Dubai and Bollywood Parks Dubai struggling to meet visitor targets.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Sharjah-based Gulf General Investment Company was in talks with banks to restructure loan and credit facilities after defaulting on a payment linked to 2.1 billion dirhams of debt at the end of last year.
Dubai International Capital, according to a Bloomberg report from December, has restructured its debt for the second time, reaching an agreement with banks to roll over a loan of about $1 billion. At the height of the emirate’s boom years, DIC amassed assets worth about $13 billion, including the owner of London’s Madame Tussauds waxworks museum, as well as stakes in Sony and Daimler. The firm was later forced to sell most of these assets and reschedule $2.5 billion of debt after the global financial crisis.
Wilde told Arab News: “We have seen an increasing number of listed companies restructuring or planning to restructure their capital recently — including using tools such as capital reductions and raising capital by using quasi equity instruments such as perpetual bonds.”
This has happened across the region and PwC expected this to accelerate a little as companies “respond to legislative pressures and become more familiar with the options available to fix their problems,” said Wilde.
He added that the trend was being driven by oil prices remaining below historical highs, soft economic conditions, and continued caution in the UAE’s banking sector.
On the debt restructuring side, Wilde said there had been a “reasonably steady flow of cases of debts being restructured”.
However, the volume of firms seeking to renegotiate debt remains small compared to the level of restructurings witnessed in the aftermath of Dubai’s debt crisis.
Several big name firms in the emirate were caught out by the onset of the global financial crisis, which saw the emirate’s booming economy and real estate market go into reverse.
State-owned conglomerate Dubai World, whose companies included real-estate firm Nakheel and ports operator DP World, stunned global markets in November 2009 when it asked creditors for a six-month standstill on its obligations. Dubai World restructured around $25 billion of debt in 2011, followed by a $15 billion restructuring deal in 2015.
“We would not expect it to become (comparable to 2008-9) so barring some form of sharp external impetus such as global political instability or a protectionist trade war,” said Wilde.
Nor did he see the introduction of VAT as particularly driving this trend, but rather as just one more factor impacting some already strained sectors (e.g. some sub sectors of retail) “which were already pressured by other macro factors.”