Price Fixing: Definition, Types, Examples, Legality, and Implications

By Thomas Bennett Financial expert at Priceva
Published on June 5, 2024
Price fixing often emerges as a dark art in the economic theater, shadowing the genuine forces of supply and demand. This practice, where competitors or market players come together to set prices instead of competing against each other, can drastically skew market conditions. Here, we peel back the layers of this economic strategy to understand its mechanisms, legality, and the impact on consumers and markets alike.

What Is Price Fixing?

Price fixing represents one of the most insidious threats to a free market economy, involving a secretive pact among businesses to set product or service prices, thereby circumventing the competitive dynamics that typically dictate market pricing. Such agreements are not only a betrayal of free market principles but also a direct manipulation aimed at inflating prices to unnatural levels, ensuring higher profits for those involved at the expense of consumers and fair market operations. This practice can be orchestrated by manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, or any market player who benefits from manipulating prices rather than allowing them to be determined by market forces.

These covert agreements, often hidden from the public eye, are considered one of the purest forms of anticompetitive behavior and are illegal in many countries under various antitrust laws. They distort the natural price-setting mechanism that would otherwise balance supply and demand, leading to inefficiencies and lost economic welfare. The ethical implications are profound, as price fixing undermines the foundation of trust and integrity upon which markets are built.

Horizontal Price Fixing

Horizontal price fixing occurs at a peer level within the market, where companies that might otherwise be competitors agree on price levels or market conditions, effectively reducing competition. This type of price fixing is most common among direct competitors within the same industry who find it mutually beneficial to establish agreed-upon prices that are typically higher than those that would prevail in a competitive market. The collusion might also include agreements to restrain production, reduce innovation, or divide markets, all of which stifle competitive forces and harm consumer choice.

The legality of such practices is universally negative, as they contravene basic principles of antitrust laws such as the Sherman Act in the United States, which seeks to promote competition and reduce monopolistic behaviors. Horizontal price fixing is often the target of antitrust enforcement actions because it directly impacts consumers by keeping prices artificially high and reducing the quality and choice of goods and services available in the market.

Vertical Price Fixing

In contrast to horizontal price fixing, vertical price fixing involves agreements between different levels of the same supply chain. For example, a manufacturer might dictate the minimum price at which a retailer can sell its goods, known as resale price maintenance. This practice can significantly affect pricing strategies down the line, from production through to the final sale. While sometimes less intuitively damaging than horizontal price fixing, vertical arrangements can still have serious anticompetitive effects, restricting how retailers can compete and potentially leading to higher consumer prices.

Vertical price fixing can also include conditions set by landlords on commercial tenants regarding the pricing of goods and services sold on the property, thereby extending the reach of price fixing agreements into various aspects of economic activities. Although certain types of vertical price fixing, like setting maximum retail prices, can sometimes be seen as beneficial in preventing price gouging, they remain tightly regulated under antitrust laws.

Types of Price Fixing

Price fixing can manifest in multiple forms—from agreements to inflate prices to pacts that freeze them to avoid competitive pressure.

  • Horizontal price fixing
  • Vertical price fixing

Whether it's horizontal collusion among competitors to fix prices or vertical agreements that set minimum or maximum price limits, the intent is generally the same: to control pricing within the market artificially. This manipulation can lead to increased prices, reduced output, and less innovation, as companies are no longer incentivized to improve products or reduce prices.

Examples of Price Fixing

Historically, several high-profile cases have shown how pervasive and damaging price fixing can be. Notorious price fixing examples include the lysine cartel, which involved major agribusinesses conspiring to fix the price of animal feed additives, and the global banks involved in the LIBOR scandal, manipulating interest rates to profit from trades. These cases, along with others involving industries from air cargo to e-books, highlight the widespread nature and potential financial rewards of price fixing.

Why Price Fixing Is Illegal

Illegal price fixing manifests in various forms, each designed to manipulate market dynamics to the favor of those involved. Whether it’s agreeing to inflate prices, freeze them to sideline competitors, or set maximum or minimum price thresholds, the underlying intent is to control and stabilize market prices artificially. These manipulations can lead to a broad spectrum of market distortions, including reduced product availability, less innovation, and ultimately, a diminished economic landscape.

Each form of fixing, whether horizontal or vertical, shares the common goal of undermining the competitive pressures that typically drive down prices and improve consumer welfare. Such schemes not only harm consumers but also hinder the economic efficiencies that a free market promotes. The broader implications of fixing extend beyond just increased prices—it reshapes market landscapes, alters consumer behaviors, and can trigger significant legal consequences for those involved.

What Is the Difference Between Price Fixing and Predatory Pricing?

While both price fixing and predatory pricing are manipulative market practices that distort competition and harm consumers, they differ significantly in their methods and effects on the market. It involves a coordinated effort where two or more companies conspire to set prices at an agreed level, often above the competitive pricing point. This is generally achieved through clandestine agreements among competitors who choose to avoid price wars by instead inflating prices to a stable, mutually beneficial level. Such practices not only rob consumers of fair price options but also impede the healthy competitive forces that drive market innovation and efficiency.

Predatory pricing, on the other hand, occurs when a company unilaterally sets its prices significantly low enough to drive competitors out of the market. This is a strategic, albeit aggressive, approach intended to establish or increase market dominance. Once the competition is sufficiently weakened or eliminated, the company with predatory pricing can monopolize the market and potentially raise prices significantly without the check of competitive pressure. Predatory pricing can be just as damaging as price fixing, creating barriers to entry for new competitors and leading to higher long-term prices for consumers.

Why Aren't Gas Prices Considered Price Fixing?

Rising gas prices frequently prompt public outcry and suspicion of price fixing, especially when similar prices are observed across different brands and locations. However, these price movements are typically reflective of broader economic forces rather than the result of direct collusion among gas companies. Factors such as fluctuations in global crude oil prices, changes in regional taxes, environmental regulations, and seasonal demand significantly influence gas prices. Additionally, the oil and gas industry is subject to intensive market monitoring and regulation, making overt collusion risky and less likely.

It's crucial to understand that while gas stations might charge similar prices, this often results from following market trends rather than engaging in a price-fixing agreement. The synchronization of gas prices across different stations frequently results from a highly responsive supply chain adjusting to the same sets of external market conditions rather than from any illicit coordination among businesses.

Price Fixing and Economic Equilibrium

Price fixing disrupts the natural balance of supply and demand, which is the cornerstone of any healthy free market economy. By artificially inflating or stabilizing prices through agreements among competitors, companies involved in it directly interfere with the market's ability to self-regulate, leading to inefficiencies and misallocations of resources. This manipulation results in higher prices for consumers, reduced availability of goods, stifled innovation, and an overall less competitive market environment.

Economic equilibrium is achieved when market supply meets consumer demand at a price point that balances the interests of both producers and consumers. Price fixing skews this equilibrium by imposing artificial prices that do not reflect the true dynamics of market forces. Such interference can lead to a surplus where goods cannot be sold due to high prices or a shortage where too little is produced, harming both consumer welfare and the economic health of broader sectors. The repercussions of disrupting market equilibrium are far-reaching, impacting not just the immediate products involved but also related industries and, ultimately, the entire economic landscape.

Price Fixing and Small Businesses

Price fixing schemes pose a significant threat to small businesses, which typically do not have the leverage or the financial buffer to compete against artificially manipulated high prices. For new enterprises attempting to enter the market, these practices can set prohibitively high barriers to entry, effectively locking out innovative newcomers and preserving the status quo favoring larger, established companies. This stifling of competition limits the diversity and dynamism within markets, as small businesses often drive innovation and bring fresh ideas and products to consumers.

For small business owners, navigating an industry dominated by firms engaged in price fixing can feel like sailing against a relentless tide. Without the ability to compete on price, these smaller entities may be forced to find niche markets or differentiate their offerings in other ways, which can divert resources from other areas of business development. This not only impedes their growth but also reduces the overall competitive pressure in the market, which is essential for maintaining fair prices and high-quality products for consumers.

Legal Exceptions and Government Price Fixing

While price fixing is generally illegal due to its detrimental impact on competition and consumers, there are scenarios where such practices are legally permissible, particularly involving government interventions. In sectors considered vital for national interests or public welfare, such as utilities and some services, governments may enforce price controls to ensure affordability and access. These regulated industries often face little to no competition, making government oversight necessary to prevent price gouging and to ensure a steady supply of essential services.

These exceptions are tightly controlled and are meant to protect the public rather than to benefit specific industries or market players. For instance, during crises or in markets where competition is not feasible for logistical or economic reasons, price controls can prevent exploitation and help stabilize essential parts of the economy. However, even these measures are subject to scrutiny and are often temporary, as prolonged price control can lead to inefficiency and discourage investment in the sector.

How Authorities Detect and Investigate Price Fixing

The detection and investigation of price fixing are complex tasks that require sophisticated tools and an understanding of market dynamics. Regulatory bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other antitrust authorities worldwide employ a variety of techniques to uncover these illicit activities. These include detailed market surveillance, the analysis of intricate pricing data, and the monitoring of industry communication channels for signs of collusion. Often, insider tips and whistleblower information play a crucial role in initiating investigations.

These authorities use advanced statistical models and algorithms to analyze pricing patterns across related industries, looking for anomalies that suggest coordinated efforts to manipulate prices. When suspicious patterns are detected, further investigation is warranted, which can include subpoenas for company records, interviews with potentially involved parties, and even raids on company offices. Successful detection and prosecution of price fixing are vital for maintaining market integrity and consumer trust in the economic system.


Understanding the intricate details of price fixing is essential for businesses, regulators, and consumers alike. Recognizing the signs of such illegal agreements and comprehending their implications helps to promote a more transparent and competitive marketplace. As markets evolve and new forms of economic collusion emerge, staying informed and vigilant against price fixing is crucial for ensuring that market dynamics continue to benefit the broadest swath of society, fostering an environment where innovation can flourish and consumer interests are protected.


How do companies coordinate price fixing schemes in practice?

Companies involved in price fixing typically use clandestine meetings and covert communications to align their pricing strategies. This can involve detailed discussions on setting minimum or maximum prices, agreeing on production limits, or even dividing markets to avoid direct competition. The secrecy and complexity of these agreements are crucial, as overt collusion would quickly attract regulatory scrutiny.

Can price fixing occur in service industries as well as product markets?

Absolutely, fixing is not limited to physical products and can just as easily occur in service industries. Any sector where businesses might benefit from stabilizing prices to avoid competition can potentially see price fixing agreements. This includes industries like airlines, banking, insurance, and healthcare services, where pricing is often opaque and can be easily manipulated without conspicuous signs.

How are price fixing schemes typically discovered and uncovered?

Price fixing schemes are most often exposed through the vigilance of regulatory authorities who use a mix of data analysis, market surveillance, and tips from insiders. Authorities may analyze pricing patterns, check compliance with known competitive practices, and follow up on consumer complaints. Whistleblowers play a significant role in uncovering these schemes by providing insider information that can lead to formal investigations and eventual prosecution.

What steps can consumers take if they suspect price fixing is occurring?

If consumers suspect that price fixing is taking place, they should report their suspicions to regulatory bodies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S., or similar authorities in other countries. Providing detailed accounts of pricing anomalies, especially if similar prices are seen across multiple providers without clear reasons, can be particularly helpful. Documentation, such as receipts, advertised prices, and dates, assists authorities in initiating a thorough investigation.

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