EU, Japan, S.Korea probe suspected TV tube cartel

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BRUSSELS/TOKYO, Nov 9 (Reuters) Antitrust authorities in Europe and Asia raided a Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd unit and other cathode ray tube makers on suspicion of price-fixing, weighing on the share price of the Panasonic maker.

Cathode ray tubes are used in television sets and computer monitors, although the market for them has shrunk with the advent of liquid crystal and plasma displays.

Matsushita confirmed Japan's Fair Trade Commission (FTC) had begun a probe of its cathode ray tube unit, MT Picture Display Co Ltd, while Samsung SDI Co Ltd said South Korea's FTC had started an investigation into its CRT business.

Shares in Matsushita, the world's largest consumer electronics maker, were down 3.6 percent at 2,155 yen by late afternoon, underperforming the Tokyo stock market's electrical machinery index which fell 1.1 percent.

Analysts said, however, it is too early to gauge any potential impact of the development on Matsushita's earnings.

''Nothing is clear at the moment. It is not clear what these companies did or did not. It is not clear how big a penalty would be if they decide to impose a penalty,'' Shinko Securities analyst Hideki Watanabe said.

MT Picture Display posted 82 billion yen (9 million) in sales in the year ended March, less than 1 percent of Matsushita's group revenues for the year.

Samsung SDI shares were up 4 percent at 66,600 won.

The European Commission said it had reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EC Treaty rules on cartels and restrictive business practices.

''The European Commission can confirm that on Nov. 8 Commission officials carried out unannounced inspections at the premises of manufacturers of cathode ray tubes,'' the Commission said in Brussels.

''The Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EC Treaty rules on cartels and restrictive business practices,'' it said.

Commission officials were accompanied by officials from the affected countries, it said.

Matsushita competes in the cathode ray tube market with Hong Kong-based LP Displays, formerly called L.G. Philips Displays, and with Samsung SDI.

Samsung SDI said last month it may pull out of the cathode ray tube business if it continued to make losses.

Global demand for CRT TVs is expected to almost halve to 69 million units by 2010 from 130 million in 2006, according to research firm DisplaySearch.

REUTERS BJR GC1219

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