David Gilo
David Gilo Photo by David Bachar
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The Antitrust Authority will ban companies operating in industries with little competition from coordinating prices via the media. Which means: The authority, headed by commissioner David Gilo will shortly publish new regulations explaining what will - and will not - be permissible for company executives to say in interviews, speeches or in other public venues.

The Antitrust Authority does not mean to impede free speech, but does mean to bar price fixing. A company that disobeys will be in violation of the Restrictive Trade Practices Law.

The present law bans coordinating prices or pricing policies between competitors. In order to enforce the law, the authority usually has to find documents proving such coordination, which is often hard to come by since such coordination is invariably done secretly and without documentation. In recent years, the authority has broadened its enforcement to include a number of bodies that are not companies - for example, professional and industry organizations such as the Association of Contractors and Builders. The authority has banned such bodies from publishing price lists or coordinating between companies. The new regulations will also broaden the Antitrust Authority's powers to take action against those who use media forums to expressly coordinate such matters.

"You don't have to be a genius to understand that as a business strategy it is better for Strauss and Tara to remain bound together with Tnuva, and that none of the three will go off in a different direction," said a source close to the Antitrust Authority. The problem is proving the price coordination, he said. The law requires hard evidence, and that was the problem in the case of the bank fee coordination case, he added.

As long as a decision to change prices - in particular, to lower them - was made independently, there is no problem. But it is likely, for example, that Strauss and Tara have been waiting to see what Tnuva does and then follow suit - and a "me too" pricing policy is not illegal, said the source.

On Sunday, Strauss and Tara announced lower prices on many dairy products, only a few hours after Tnuva made a similar announcement. The dairies have known for days that the price of raw milk would be lowered on Sunday, but it seems they all waited until the last minute to see what the biggest player in the dairy market, Tnuva, would do.

"This smells like price coordination," an executive in one of the supermarket chains told TheMarker yesterday. "They knew of the reduction in milk prices for days and waited to see what Tnuva would do before they acted. Strauss and the Central Bottling Company, the owner of Tara, are both large companies with huge revenues. Now they are trying to look like a small, miserable operator instead of taking advantage of the situation to create competition."