A cartel is a group of independent market participants who collude with each other in order to improve their profits and dominate the market. Cartels are usually associations in the same sphere of business, and thus an alliance of rivals. Most jurisdictions consider it anti-competitive behavior. Cartel behavior includes price fixing, bid rigging, and reductions in output. States that pursue economic interests may form cartels such as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The doctrine in economics that analyzes cartels is cartel theory. Cartels are distinguished from other forms of collusion or anti-competitive organization such as corporate mergers.


The word cartel comes from the Italian word cartello, which means a "leaf of paper" or "placard". The Italian word became cartel in Middle French, which was borrowed into English. In English, the word was originally used for a written agreement between warring nations to regulate the treatment and exchange of prisoners.[1]


Cartels have existed since ancient times.[2] Guilds in the European Middle Ages, associations of craftsmen or merchants of the same trade, have been regarded as cartel-like.[3] Tightly organized sales cartels in the mining industry of the late Middle Ages, like the 1301 salt syndicate in France and Naples, or the Alaun cartel of 1470 between the Papal State and Naples.[4] Both unions had common sales organizations for overall production called the Societas Communis Vendicionis.[in English?]

Laissez-faire (liberal) economic conditions dominated Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Around 1870, cartels first appeared in industries formerly under free-market conditions.[5] Although cartels existed in all economically developed countries, the core area of cartel activities was in central Europe. The German Empire and Austria-Hungary were nicknamed the "lands of the cartels".[6] Cartels were also widespread in the United States during the period of robber barons and industrial trusts.[7]

The creation of cartels increased globally after World War I. They became the leading form of market organization, particularly in Europe and Japan. In the 1930s, authoritarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, Italy under Mussolini, and Spain under Franco used cartels to organize their planned economies. Between the late 19th century and around 1945, the United States was ambivalent about cartels and trusts. There were periods of both opposition to market concentration and relative tolerance of cartels. During World War II, the United States strictly turned away from cartels.[8] After 1945, American-promoted market liberalism led to a worldwide cartel ban, where cartels continue to be obstructed in an increasing number of countries and circumstances.


Cartels have many structures and functions. Typologies have emerged to distinguish distinct forms of cartels:[9]

  • Selling or buying cartels unite against the cartel's customers or suppliers, respectively. The former type is more frequent than the latter.
  • Domestic cartels only have members from one country, whereas international cartels have members from more than one country.[10] There have been full-fledged international cartels that have comprised the whole world, such as the international steel cartel of the period between World War I and II.
  • Price cartels engage in price fixing, normally to raise prices for a commodity above the competitive price level. The loosest form of a price cartel can be recognized in tacit collusion, wherein smaller enterprises follow the actions of a market leader.
  • Quota cartels distribute proportional shares of the market to their members.
  • Common sales cartels sell their joint output through a central selling agency (in French: comptoir). They are also known as syndicates (French: syndicat industriel).
  • Territorial cartels distribute districts of the market to be used only by individual participants, which act as monopolists.
  • Submission cartels control offers given to public tenders. They use bid rigging: bidders for a tender agree on a bid price. They then do not bid in unison, or share the return from the winning bid among themslves.[11]
  • Technology and patent cartels share knowledge about technology or science within themselves while they limit the information from outside individuals.
  • Condition cartels unify contractual terms – the modes of payment and delivery, or warranty limits.
  • Standardization cartels implement common standards for sold or purchased products. If the members of a cartel produce different sorts or grades of a good, conversion factors are applied to calculate the value of the respective output.
  • Compulsory cartels, also called "forced cartels", are established or maintained by external pressure. Voluntary cartels are formed by the free will of their participants.


A survey of hundreds of published economic studies and legal decisions of antitrust authorities found that the median price increase achieved by cartels in the last 200 years is about 23 percent. Private international cartels (those with participants from two or more nations) had an average price increase of 28 percent, whereas domestic cartels averaged 18 percent. Less than 10 percent of all cartels in the sample failed to raise market prices.[12]

In general, cartel agreements are economically unstable in that there is an incentive for members to cheat by selling at below the cartel's agreed price or selling more than the cartel's production quotas. Many cartels that attempt to set product prices are unsuccessful in the long term. Empirical studies of 20th-century cartels have determined that the mean duration of discovered cartels is from 5 to 8 years.[13] Once a cartel is broken, the incentives to form a new cartel return, and the cartel may be re-formed. Publicly known cartels that do not follow this business cycle include, by some accounts, OPEC.

Cartels often practice price fixing internationally. When the agreement to control prices is sanctioned by a multilateral treaty or protected by national sovereignty, no antitrust actions may be initiated.[14] OPEC countries partially control the price of oil, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) fixes prices for international airline tickets while the organization is excepted from antitrust law.

Cartel theory versus antitrust concept

The scientific analysis of cartels is based on cartel theory. It was pioneered in 1883 by the Austrian economist Friedrich Kleinwächter and in its early stages was developed mainly by German-speaking scholars.[15] These scholars tended to regard cartels as an acceptable part of the economy. At the same time, American lawyers increasingly turned against trade restrictions, including all cartels. The Sherman act, which impeded the formation and activities of cartels, was passed in the United States in 1890. The American viewpoint, supported by activists like Thurman Arnold and Harley M. Kilgore, eventually prevailed when governmental policy in Washington could have a larger impact in World War II.


Because cartels are likely to have an impact on market positions, they are subjected to competition law, which is executed by governmental competition regulators. Very similar regulations apply to corporate mergers. A single entity that holds a monopoly is not considered a cartel but can be sanctioned through other abuses of its monopoly.

Prior to World War II, members of cartels could sign contracts that were enforceable in courts of law except in the United States. Before 1945, cartels were tolerated in Europe and specifically promoted as a business practice in German-speaking countries.[16] In U.S. v. National Lead Co. et al., the Supreme Court of the United States noted the testimony of individuals who cited that a cartel, in its versatile form, is

a combination of producers for the purpose of regulating production and, frequently, prices, and an association by agreement of companies or sections of companies having common interests so as to prevent extreme or unfair competition.[17]

Today, price fixing by private entities is illegal under the antitrust laws of more than 140 countries. The commodities of prosecuted international cartels include lysine, citric acid, graphite electrodes, and bulk vitamins.[18] In many countries, the predominant belief is that cartels are contrary to free and fair competition, considered the backbone of political democracy.[19] Maintaining cartels continues to become harder for cartels. Even if international cartels cannot be regulated as a whole by individual nations, their individual activities in domestic markets are affected.[20]

Unlike other cartels, export cartels.[21]


Template:Prose section

See also


  • Connor, John M.: Private international cartels. Effectiveness, welfare, and anti-cartel enforcement. Purdue University. West Lafayette, Indiana 2003.
  • Fear, Jeffrey R.: Cartels. In: Geoffrey Jones; Jonathan Zeitlin (ed.): The Oxford handbook of business history. Oxford: Univ. Press, 2007, p. 268–293.
  • Freyer, Tony A.: Antitrust and global capitalism 1930–2004, New York 2006.
  • Hexner, Ervin, The International Steel Cartel, Chapel Hill 1943.
  • Kleinwächter, Friedrich, Die Kartelle. Ein Beitrag zur Frage der Organization der Volkswirtschaft, Innsbruck 1883.
  • Leonhardt, Holm Arno: Kartelltheorie und Internationale Beziehungen. Theoriegeschichtliche Studien, Hildesheim 2013.
  • Leonhardt, Holm Arno: The development of cartel+ theory between 1883 and the 1930s – from international diversity to convergence: syndicats industriels, ententes, comptoirs, trusts, pools, combinations, associations, kartells, cartelle, Unternehmerverbände. Hildesheim 2018.
  • Levenstein, Margaret C. and Valerie Y. Suslow. "What Determines Cartel Success?" Journal of Economic Literature 64 (March 2006): 43–95.
  • Liefmann, Robert: Cartels, Concerns and Trusts, Ontario 2001 [London 1932]
  • Martyniszyn, Marek, "Export Cartels: Is it Legal to Target Your Neighbour? Analysis in Light of Recent Case Law", Journal of International Economic Law 15 (1) (2012): 181–222.
  • Stigler, George J.: The extent and bases of monopoly. In: The American economic review, Vol. 32 (1942), pp. 1–22.
  • Stocking, George W. and Myron W. Watkins: Cartels in Action. New York: Twentieth Century Fund (1946).
  • Stocking, George W. and Myron W. Watkins: Cartels or competition? The economics of international controls by business and government. New York: Twentieth Century Fund 1948.
  • Strieder, Jakob: Studien zur Geschichte kapitalistischer Organizationsformen. Monopole, Kartelle und Aktiengesellschaften im Mittelalter und zu Beginn der Neuzeit. München 1925.
  • Wells, Wyatt C.: Antitrust and the Formation of the Postwar World, New York 2002.


  1. "Definition of CARTEL". Retrieved 2019-11-29.
  2. Hans-Heinrich Barnikel: Kartelle in Deutschland. In: Ders. (Hrsg.): Theorie und Praxis der Kartelle, Darmstadt 1972, S. 1.
  3. Holm A. Leonhardt: Kartelltheorie und Internationale Beziehungen. Theoriegeschichtliche Studien, Hildesheim 2013, p. 79.
  4. Nino Herlitzka: Bemerkungen zur historischen Entwicklung von Kartellen. In: Ludwig Kastl (Ed.): Kartelle in der Wirklichkeit. Köln 1963, p. 124–127.
  5. Holm A. Leonhardt: Kartelltheorie und Internationale Beziehungen. Theoriegeschichtliche Studien, Hildesheim 2013, S. 80–87.
  6. Holm A. Leonhardt: Kartelltheorie und Internationale Beziehungen. Theoriegeschichtliche Studien, Hildesheim 2013, S. 83–84.
  7. Holm Arno Leonhardt: The development of cartel theory between 1883 and the 1930s. Hildesheim 2018. p. 18.
  8. Holm A. Leonhardt: Kartelltheorie und Internationale Beziehungen. Theoriegeschichtliche Studien. Hildesheim 2013, p. 251–292.
  9. Jeffrey R. Fear: Cartels. In: Geoffrey Jones; Jonathan Zeitlin (ed.): The Oxford handbook of business history. Oxford: Univ. Press, 2007, p. 269–274; Robert Liefmann: Cartels, Concerns and Trusts, Ontario 2001 [London 1932], p. 63–71.
  10. Fellman, Susanna; Shanahan, Martin (2015). Regulating Competition: Cartel registers in the twentieth-century world. London: Routledge. p. 224. ISBN 9781138021648.
  11. John M. Connor and Dan Werner. Variation in Bid-Rigging Cartels' Overcharges: SSRN Working Paper No. 3273988. (October 27, 2018). .
  12. John M. Connor. Cartel Overcharges, p. 249–387 of The Law and Economics of Class Actions, in Vol. 29 of Research in Law and Economics, edited by James Langenfeld (March 2014). Bingley, UK: Emerald House Publishing Ltd. June 2017
  13. Levenstein, Margaret C. and Valerie Y. Suslow. "What Determines Cartel Success?" Journal of Economic Literature 64 (March 2006): 43–95
  14. Connor, John M. Private International Cartels: A Concise Introduction: SSRN Working Paper. (November 12, 2014). Abstract.
  15. Holm Arno Leonhardt: The development of cartel theory between 1883 and the 1930s. Hildesheim 2018.
  16. Cini, Michelle; McGowan, Lee (2009). Competition Policy in the European Union. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 63. ISBN 0-230-00675-2.
  17. Lee, John (2016). Strategies to Achieve a Binding International Agreement on Regulating Cartels: Overcoming Doha Standstill. Berlin: Springer. p. 13. ISBN 978-981-10-2755-0.
  18. Connor, John M. (2008): Global Price Fixing: 2nd Paperback Edition. Heidelberg: Springer.
  19. Sagafi-Nejad, Tagi; Moxon, Richard; Perlmutter, Howard (2017). Controlling International Technology Transfer: Issues, Perspectives, and Policy Implications. New York: Pergamon Press. p. 180. ISBN 0-08-027180-4.
  20. Fellman & Shanahan, p. 224.
  21. Martyniszyn, Marek (2012). "Export Cartels: Is it Legal to Target your Neighbour? Analysis in Light of Recent Case Law". Journal of International Economic Law. 15 (1): 181. doi:10.1093/jiel/jgs003.
  22. Martyniszyn, Marek (2017). "Foreign State's Entanglement in Anticompetitive Conduct". World Competition. 40 (2): 299.
  23. Holm Arno Leonhardt: Regionalwirtschaftliche Organisationskunst. Vorschlag zur Ergänzung des NRW-Antrags zum UNESCO-Welterbe. In: Forum Geschichtskultur Ruhr 2013, issue 2, pp. 41–42.
  24. Charles W. Baird. "Unions and Antitrust". Archived from the original on 2006-09-07.
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