Of all forms of price fixing, the practice of suppliers pre-arranging high and low bids on various contracts to share the business is distinctly Japanese. Nominally, it fits a national culture that values consensus and avoids conflict.
Defenders say that style of collusion stabilizes market shares and doesn't really fix prices because automakers later renegotiate bid prices downward. Some even suggest that law enforcers elsewhere unfairly pick on the Japanese because foreigners don't understand Japanese culture.
Those arguments are wrong. Japanese auto companies compete in every country in the world, and most of their revenue comes from outside Japan. If the Japanese auto industry opts to compete in the world, it should play by global rules.
Slowly, Japanese agencies have added more investigators and levied larger fines, although enforcement against individual executives remains lax. U.S. and European regulators are less tolerant of Japanese companies that let executives indicted overseas live and work unscathed in Japan.
Especially pernicious are cases in which Japanese suppliers support the families of midlevel managers jailed on price-fixing convictions and later rehire the employees.
Rationalizing that that's just compensating employees for their sacrifice may sound plausible, but it's equally fair to view it as hush money to keep employees from implicating higher-ups. Either way, it's grossly unfair to the individuals who take the fall for illegal company policy. They and their families carry lifetime stigmas.
It's also bad business. It harms the ability to attract and retain high-quality employees and stains a supplier's reputation.
Suppliers can't take all the blame. Automakers that tacitly accept price fixing as normal know they condone bad behavior. And automakers should question the wisdom of their fake bidding processes, in which a part's real price comes from beating down a supplier's initial winning bid.
Price fixing is unacceptable anywhere in a more global industry. Automakers want suppliers they can trust.
Suppliers that adopt business ethics acceptable anywhere gain an advantage. Clinging to outmoded, illegal ways of doing business is the path to extinction.