DRAM antitrust investigators knock on Mitsubishi's door

Mitsubishi Electric has been contacted by U.S. Department of Justice investigators looking into DRAM price fixing, the Japanese company said Monday.

Mitsubishi Electric has been contacted by U.S. Department of Justice investigators looking into price fixing in the computer memory market, the Japanese company said Monday.

The DOJ's antitrust division contacted U.S.-unit Mitsubishi Electric and Electronics USA in search of documents relating to Mitsubishi's DRAM (dynamic RAM) business in the U.S. between 1998 and 2002. No other details of the request were provided by Mitsubishi.

DRAM is used as the main memory in personal computers. The market for DRAM chips is typically volatile and highly competitive but the ongoing DOJ investigation has uncovered evidence of price fixing between major DRAM makers bidding for business with major U.S. computer makers including Dell, Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM.

In October 2004 Germany's Infineon Technologies pleaded guilty and had a US$160 million criminal fine levied against it. Then in May 2005, Korean manufacturer Hynix Semiconductor Inc. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a US$185 million criminal fine. In November 2005, Samsung Semiconductor and its Korean parent Samsung Electronics also pleaded guilty and had a US$300 million criminal fine levied against them.

The first Japanese company to become entangled in the probe, Elpida Memory, pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a US$84 million fine, the DOJ said earlier this year.

Most recently three Samsung executives agreed to serve prison time for the part they played in the price fixing. The company's senior manager of DRAM sales agreed to serve eight months in U.S. prison and two other managers agreed to serve seven months. The three also agreed to pay US$250,000 each and cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Mitsubishi said it is "unable to predict the impact of the DOJ request or civil lawsuits, including but not limited to a possible adverse affect, on our business performance in the future" but stopped short of revising its financial forecast.

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