The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has announced it is conducting a formal investigation into suspected anti-competitive agreements and/or practices involving businesses in the property sales and lettings sector.
Its concerns relate to the advertising of fee rates in media entities and the businesses' approach to each other's customers.
The investigation is under 'Chapter I' of the Competition Act 1998. The Chapter I prohibition forbids agreements between businesses that prevent, restrict or distort competition to an appreciable extent in the UK.
At this stage, it is unclear precisely what allegations the OFT is investigating.
The types of agreements or practices which might be caught by the prohibition include:
- fixing the prices to be charged for goods or services
- limiting production
- carving up markets
- sharing certain categories of commercially sensitive information with one or more competitors.
This is not an exhaustive list, and agreements can be formal or informal, written or verbal. For example, an informal understanding or telephone conversation where two competitors agree to match each other's prices will be caught in the same way as a formal agreement.
The prohibition also covers decisions of associations of businesses, as well as concerted practices (cooperation that falls short of an agreement or decision).
The OFT will be carrying out its initial investigation over the next month or so. During this period it will be gathering information, including the issuance of formal or informal information requests. Once the OFT has gathered the information it requires, it will review the parties' responses and carry out its analysis. It might then issue further information requests and interview key witnesses. It is anticipated that any state of play meetings with the parties under investigation will happen in February 2014. The OFT estimates it will issue a decision in April 2014 regarding any further action it might take.