Cartel: Definition, Types & Examples

cartel definition

What is a Cartel?

Cartels, despite their illicit connotation, are an intriguing economic phenomenon. Defined as a coalition of independent businesses formed with the intention to coordinate actions and control competition, cartels hold the capacity to shape industries, influence economies, and impact everyday consumers. From the oil industry to tech giants, instances of cartel-like behavior can be traced throughout history and across various sectors.

Born out of the desire for market control and stability, cartels operate in a realm where the lines between collaboration and manipulation become blurred. They often resort to practices such as price fixing, market allocation, and bid rigging, which, while financially beneficial to the members, typically result in higher costs and fewer choices for consumers.

Key Points
  1. Cartels are formed when competing firms or countries collude to restrict competition and control market prices.
  2. Cartels often involve agreements among members to set production quotas, allocate market shares, and coordinate pricing strategies.
  3. Cartels aim to increase profits by eliminating or reducing competition, stabilizing prices, and protecting market shares.

Types of Cartels

Cartels can manifest in various forms, each with distinct strategies and goals. Here are the primary types of cartels:

  1. Price Fixing Cartels

    Perhaps the most commonly recognized form of cartels, price fixing cartels involve an agreement among competitors to raise, lower, or stabilize prices to their mutual benefit. By doing so, they effectively avoid engaging in price competition with each other, which can result in higher prices for consumers.

  2. Market Allocation Cartels

    In this type of cartel, members agree to divide the market among themselves. This division could be based on geographic areas, types of customers, or specific products. Each member is assured a certain share of the market, thereby reducing or eliminating competition.

  3. Bid Rigging Cartels

    Bid rigging is common in industries where contracts are awarded based on competitive bidding, such as construction or public procurement. Members of the cartel agree in advance who will submit the winning bid for a particular contract. This can take various forms, including bid suppression (competitors agree not to bid or to withdraw bids), complementary bidding (competitors submit intentionally high or unqualified bids), or bid rotation (competitors take turns being the winning bidder).

  4. Product Standardization Cartels

    This type of cartel involves an agreement among competitors to standardize their products. While this can sometimes lead to benefits such as compatibility and interoperability, it can also be used as a strategy to reduce competition and stifle innovation.

While the formation of cartels is generally considered an anticompetitive behavior and is illegal in many jurisdictions, they continue to form in various sectors due to potential gains for the members. The methods employed by different types of cartels often have a direct negative impact on market competition and consumer welfare, leading to rigorous enforcement of anti-cartel laws globally.

The Economics of Cartels

Cartels represent an intriguing paradox in the field of economics. While they emerge from the free-market concept of competition, their ultimate goal is to circumvent and control it. The economic implications of cartels are multifaceted, affecting both the market and consumer welfare.

  1. How Cartels Manipulate Market Competition

    Cartels manipulate market competition by acting as a monopoly. By coordinating their actions – such as fixing prices, allocating markets, or rigging bids – they reduce internal competition among members. This lack of competition allows cartel members to behave like a single entity or monopoly that sets prices and output levels, contrary to the principles of a competitive market.

  2. Impact on Prices and Consumer Choice

    The principal victim of cartel activity is often the consumer. Cartels can artificially elevate prices, resulting in consumers paying more than they would in a competitive market. In addition, cartels often limit the available choices for consumers, as the lack of competition can lead to reduced innovation, product variety, and quality.

  3. Potential Economic Consequences for Cartel Members

    Despite their illegal and unethical nature, the economic allure of cartels is powerful. By eliminating competition, firms can increase their profits and secure their market position. However, these benefits can be short-lived. Cartels are inherently unstable because there’s always a temptation for members to cheat on their agreement, leading to the potential collapse of the cartel. Furthermore, if detected, members can face significant legal and financial penalties.

Moreover, participating in a cartel can also have long-term negative impacts. The damage to a company’s reputation can far exceed any short-term gains, potentially leading to a loss of business and diminishing consumer trust.

In summary, while cartels may provide temporary economic advantages to their members, they fundamentally distort market dynamics, leading to inefficient allocation of resources and harm to consumers. Efforts to detect and dismantle cartels are therefore crucial to preserving market integrity and consumer welfare.

Examples of Cartels

Despite being illegal in many jurisdictions, cartels have been formed in various industries over the years. Here are a few notable examples:

1. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)

OPEC is often described as a legal cartel, consisting of 13 major oil-exporting countries. Formed in 1960, it aims to coordinate the petroleum policies of its member countries to ensure stable oil prices. While it has often been criticized for manipulating oil prices, its defenders argue that it brings stability to a volatile market.

2. The Vitamin Cartel

In the late 1990s, several major companies, including Hoffman-La Roche and BASF, were found guilty of participating in a cartel to control the global market for vitamins. They conspired to fix prices and allocate market shares for various vitamins. The companies involved faced substantial fines, with Hoffman-La Roche paying a record-breaking fine of $500 million in the United States alone.

3. The DRAM Cartel

Around the early 2000s, several large manufacturers of dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), a type of computer memory, were found to have formed a cartel. Companies including Samsung, Hynix, and Infineon were accused of price-fixing and were collectively fined hundreds of millions of dollars by authorities in the U.S. and Europe.

4. The European Truck Cartel

From 1997 to 2011, major truck manufacturers in Europe, including DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania, and Volvo/Renault, colluded to fix prices and delay the introduction of more environmentally friendly technology. The European Commission fined these companies a record €2.93 billion in 2016.

5. The Air Cargo Price-Fixing Cartel

In the mid-2000s, several international airlines were implicated in a cartel to fix the prices of fuel surcharges for air cargo services. Involved companies included British Airways, Korean Air, Air France-KLM, and others. The airlines faced significant fines from regulatory bodies in various countries.

Are Cartels Illegal?

In short, yes – in most jurisdictions, cartels are illegal due to their anticompetitive nature. They violate principles of free trade and competition, which are vital to healthy market economies. However, the exact legal parameters and enforcement mechanisms can vary from country to country.

International and National Laws

Cartels are typically outlawed under competition or antitrust laws. These laws are designed to ensure fair competition, prevent market manipulation, and protect consumers. On the international level, various treaties and agreements, such as those under the World Trade Organization, implicitly or explicitly condemn cartel activity.

In the United States, cartels are considered illegal under antitrust laws, primarily the Sherman Act. This Act prohibits any agreement among competitors to fix prices, rig bids, or engage in other anticompetitive activity. Violation of the Sherman Act is a felony punishable by fine and/or imprisonment.

In the European Union, cartels are prohibited under Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The European Commission enforces this law and can impose hefty fines on companies involved in cartel activities.

Enforcement and Penalties

Enforcement of antitrust laws is carried out by national or supranational competition authorities, such as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division or the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition. Penalties for participating in a cartel can be severe, including substantial fines, imprisonment of company officials, and damage to a company’s reputation.

In some jurisdictions, there are leniency programs for companies that voluntarily report their involvement in a cartel and cooperate with the authorities. These programs aim to destabilize and uncover cartels, as they provide strong incentives for companies to expose illicit agreements.


There are a few exceptions where what might otherwise be considered a cartel is legal. For example, in certain cooperative arrangements among companies that do not unduly restrict competition or harm consumers. One notable example is OPEC, which is often referred to as a legal cartel.

In conclusion, while there may be a few exceptions, the overwhelming legal consensus internationally is that cartels, due to their negative impact on competition and consumer welfare, are illegal. Despite this, their formation and persistence underscore the ongoing need for vigilant enforcement of antitrust laws.


What is a cartel?

A cartel is an agreement or arrangement between competing firms or countries to restrict competition, control market prices, and limit production or distribution in order to maximize profits collectively.

How do cartels operate?

Cartels typically involve members agreeing to set production quotas, allocate market shares, and coordinate pricing strategies. They may also engage in other collusive practices such as bid rigging or market division.

Why do firms form cartels?

Firms may form cartels to eliminate or reduce competition, increase their market power, and generate higher profits. By working together, cartel members can avoid price wars, stabilize prices, and protect their respective market shares.

Are cartels legal?

Cartels are generally considered illegal in most jurisdictions due to their anti-competitive nature. They often violate laws against collusion, price-fixing, and unfair trade practices. Cartels can face significant penalties and fines if discovered and prosecuted.

About Paul

Paul Boyce is an economics editor with over 10 years experience in the industry. Currently working as a consultant within the financial services sector, Paul is the CEO and chief editor of BoyceWire. He has written publications for FEE, the Mises Institute, and many others.

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