ACCC pursues petrol chains over price information sharing

The consumer watchdog has accused big petrol station chains BP, Caltex, Coles, Woolworths and 7-Eleven of using website Informed Sources to co-ordinate fuel prices and says it is concerned the practice led to higher costs to motorists.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said that by sharing petrol price information in close to real time, the retailers and Informed Sources reduced competition in Melbourne.

‘‘The ACCC alleges that the arrangements were likely to increase retail petrol price co-ordination and co-operation, and were likely to decrease competitive rivalry,’’ Mr Sims said.

‘‘Given the importance of price competition in petrol retailing, the ACCC is concerned that consumers may be paying more for petrol as a result.’’

Informed Sources provides subscribers with petrol prices from the service station chains, delayed by half an hour.

Mr Sims said the retailers used the site as a ‘‘near real-time communication device in relation to petrol pricing’’.

‘‘In particular, it is alleged that retailers can propose a price increase to their competitors and monitor the response to it,’’ he said.

‘‘If, for example, the response is not sufficient, they can quickly withdraw the proposal and may punish competitors that have not accepted the proposed increased price.’’

Woolworths said it would ‘‘strongly defend our use of Informed Sources for the benefit of our customers’’. Richard Goyder, the chief executive of Coles owner Wesfarmers, declined to comment.

Caltex said it ''strongly rejects the allegation that the OPW service is in any way illegal'' and will defend the action.

Informed Sources has been under investigation by the ACCC since May 2012.

‘‘We are concerned at companies in a market having access to real-time information that can allow them to quickly tell whether their competitors are responding to what they're doing,’’ Mr Sims told the Senate estimates committee at the time.

‘‘The idea that just because the information's available to everybody is in our view not sufficient.’’

It had long been under ACCC scrutiny, with the regulator’s head, Graeme Samuel, saying in 2008 that it was ‘‘as close to being illegally collusive as we can find, but it is not illegal’’.

Last month, the ACCC failed to renew its contract to receive price data from Informed Sources, sparking speculation that the regulator was preparing legal action.

SMH

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