Storage

Samsung, Hynix, Micron sued for DRAM price fixing that could have raised PC prices

Record high prices for DRAM may have a cascading effect on computers, which have multiple parts that use DRAM.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Revenues for Samsung, Hynix, and Micron doubled between Q1 2016 and Q3 2017, with a 47% increase in 2017, the largest in 30 years.
  • Samsung and Hynix were fined both by the US and EU for price fixing practices between 1999 and 2002.

Samsung, Hynix, and Micron are facing a class action lawsuit over allegations of DRAM price fixing. The trio—which control 98% of the global DRAM market as of Q3 2017, according to DRAMExchange—have allegedly conspired to inflate DRAM prices.

Hagens Berman, the law firm that filed the suit, indicates that revenues for the trio of manufacturers doubled between Q1 2016 and Q3 2017, with a 47% increase in 2017—the largest in 30 years.

Concerns of price fixing attracted the attention of Chinese regulators last December, with Reuters citing a report in the China Daily that the National Development and Reform Commission's Pricing Supervision Department has "noticed the price surge and will pay more attention to future problems that may be caused by 'price fixing' in the sector," according to an official quoted in the report.

DRAM is effectively ubiquitous if not an outright requirement for practically any smart device. It is not just that it is used in workstations, servers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, etc., individual components have their own memory requirements that are furnished with DRAM. Average computers currently on the market typically have 8 or 16 GB of system RAM, with an additional 2 to 8 GB for systems with a dedicated graphics card, plus another 512 MB or 1 GB as a buffer for an SSD, giving price fixing practices a cascading effect on computer prices.

While the spot market is prone to price fluctuations and sales, the effects are rather dramatic, at least anecdotally. As an example, the G.Skill F4-3200C16D-16GVGB memory kit was sold for $68.99 in June 2016, according to price history data from PCPartPicker, though is presently sold for $169.99, which is down from a peak of $202.99 last seen in January. Similar results can be found with practically any other memory kit. Graphics cards have also been affected by price fixing, a problem compounded by cryptocurrency miners alone buying 3 million GPUs last year, though this trend has abated over the last month as the price of Ethereum has fallen.

Smart devices like Google Home or Chromecast, which do not typically list RAM capacities or have different SKUs for different capacities still use RAM, and would similarly be affected by these price increases.

SEE: Quick glossary: Storage (Tech Pro Research)

This is not the first time DRAM prices have been artificially inflated. Samsung paid out $300 million in a 2005 settlement for price fixing between 1999 and 2002, which our sister site ZDNet reported at the time was the second-largest criminal antitrust fine in US history, and the largest criminal fine since 1999.

Similarly, Hynix paid $185 million the same year for the price fixing conspiracy, while the now-defunct Infineon paid $160 million in 2004. In 2010, the EU assessed €331 million in fines to those three companies, as well as Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Elpida, and Nanya for the same price fixing scheme. That report indicated that Micron was a participant of the price fixing cartel, though received no fines "in exchange for its role in blowing the whistle on the scheme in 2002."

Hagens Berman also brought a civil class action suit independent of the Justice Department's action against DRAM manufacturers at that time. Managing partner Steve Berman characterized the present alleged price fixing scheme as "[putting] consumers in a chokehold, wringing the market for more profit."

While the DRAM market is currently controlled by three companies, a Chinese government plan to invest billions of US dollars into fabrication plants is starting to bear fruit. Xi'an UniIC Semiconductors, which bought the assets of Infineon, started shipping mid-range DDR4 DRAM chips earlier this year. Fujian Jin Hua Integrated Circuit and Innotron Memory are similarly working to start shipping DRAM before the end of 2019, though it is unclear if these products will make it outside of China.

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Image: iStockphoto/spainter_vfx

About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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