Thursday, February 15, 2007

Should government subsidize Oil?

This question has been puzzling me and the answer to the question "Should Indian govt. control the petrol/diesel prices" produces an answer even baffling to me. I'm a free market supporter and in general against government intervention, but I feel Indian govt is not too wrong in controling the oil prices at the moment. At the same time, I also feel we in the US are enjoying a much cheaper petrol and the government here must raise the prices by increased taxes. I'll explain my contradictory position in this article.

In India, oil prices are not directly determined by the world prices, but controlled by the government in a process called APM (Administered Price Mechanism). What this means is that periodically, based on the international prices, government would set a prices for Petrol (Gasoline), Diesel (used by trucks), Kerosene (used by poor for cooking & lighting) and LPG (used for cooking by middle class) and all the oil market companies have to fix to that price. The price is set in a way that oil companies make profits on Gasoline, break even on Diesel and losses on Kerosene & LPG, and in return get compensated by government bonds.

In an effort to curtail inflation (and score political points ahead of forthcoming elections), the government has reduced the oil prices though the oil companies are still making losses out of subsidies on Kerosen & Diesel. A lot of columnists have blasted the government, and for once I'm not going to attack the government.

In India, currently after the reduction the price for petrol (gasoline) is around Rs.50/liter ($4.18/gallon) compared to US prices of around $2.3/gallon, while Diesel costs around Rs.32/liter ($2.55/gallon) almost the same price as in the US. And India has better refineries and slightly hence lesser cost of fuel production and distribution. Thus, its not correct to say that Indian government subsidizes oil. In effect, what Indian govt does is to tax the fuel heavily and then make profits at all levels mostly going to state & provincial governments.

So, gasoline in India is not cheaper than most countries and this makes sense as India should curtail the use of more cars till the necessary infrastructure comes up, and even then it is better not to go the American way of automobilzation. High gasoline price makes sense, but very high prices can affect sectors like tourism etc. and so I believe that current prices for petrol are neither too high nor too low. And the pricing of Diesel at lower rate makes sense, because Diesel is much more efficient (40% more power compared to Petrol) and it emits just 69% as much greenhouse gases as petrol for every kilometer of ride. Thus, by encouraging the Diesel usage government is pushing more people out of the more inefficient and nasty petrol towards a shade better Diesel. Moreover, Diesel is used by trucks transporting essential items and public transportation (Trains & Buses), apart from small captive power plants. Thus, Diesel subsidization encourages a more healthier practice of relying on public transportation rather than Automobilzation a trap that America got into. Now, US is considering more sops for Diesel based cars. And, since diesel is used in core sectors, a lower price will curtail inflation in a lot of sectors.

Now, coming to the sacred cow of Kerosene & LPG the main cooking and lighting source for the poor and middle class respectively. India has a ultra low price for Kerosene almost half the cost of production and this alone leads to a loss of over $2b/year and a similiar amount in LPG. I believe that LPG prices have to be gradually increased so that it breaks even, while some efforts must be made to modify Kerosene distribution. $2b is not a big deal for trillion dollar economy and the Indian government can effectively carry on protecting the poor for a longer time from the vissicitudes of global economy. The poor spend considerable portion of their earnings on energy, food & transportation and all these are directly affected by the fuel costs, and the resulting unrest can put the economy down by tens of billions of dollars, and hence Kerosene subsidies make sense. But, distribution mechanisms must be modified so that it reaches the appropriate persons and to protect the blackmarket sale and adulteration into petrol and other fuels. This paper has proposed good methods for this problem.

Global oil prices are erratic and you cannot have mechanisms that directly reflect the global prices in a developing economy. Oil prices swing from $10 to $80 in 5 years before coming to $50 in a few months, and this could totally collapse a fledgling economy like India, if the government doesn't interefere and smoothen things out. If you calculate all the taxes that various governing bodies in India make out of oil, it could easily compensate for the various subsidies - notably in Kerosene & LPG. And, even if you have to spend a couple of billion dollars more, its worth it to keep running an economy that adds $100billion to GDP every year. And to compensate the oil majors for the loss, the government has to provide sops, though in the long run I would prefer a more simple system, where the government reduces taxes on these oil products and also take away some of the sops from the companies. The non-m0netary sops including governmental intervention and support for acquiring global oil assets and exploration of alternative fuels and efficient systems should be pursued more.

In the end, I believe that India's currently policy of keeping a higher price for gasoline and a moderate price for diesel makes sense and should be continued. While the oil companies face losses due to this, they could easily be compensated with the government bonds, which inturn can be paid from the taxes the government earns on these fuels. And LPG prices in the long run should get in par with the global market, while Kerosene subsidies should continue but mechanisms must be reformed to ensure appropriate distribution.
Regarding the situation in US, I recommend higher prices and here is a slightly older post, but still relevant to the current issue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rate Hikes in India - Part 2: Effect on Corporations

The previous post had given an introduction to the sectors that could face trouble due to the rate hikes. We will go further on analyzing the ramifications.

First, the rate hike would pressurize a fledgling banking system in India. Indian banks are tiny compared to world standards, inspite of India having one of the deepest and oldest financial markets and some of the best talent in this arena. One of the main reason for this is the over meddling of Indian government in its affairs. Now, things are going for worse. The Prime Lending rate in India has climbed above 12% for many banks, while you could borrow at 5% in Libor (London) or around 1% in Yen nominated loans from Japan. And, given that Indian rupee has bullish prospects both in short & long term, the overseas loans would have an effective rate of less than 3% in rupee terms. To add to this, recently Standard & Poor has upgraded India's ratings and thus, Indian corporations could get better rates due to lesser perceived risk. Thus, any corporation that could borrow from overseas will skip Indian banks and get it at the concessional rates. So, when you read about Tata or Birla's mega acquisitions and dont read any Indian bank acting as the banker for the deal, dont be too surprized. By being burdened with enormous rates, Indian banks lose out the best customers and have to be put up with the lousy ones.

Second, RBI would slowly lose control of Indian market. By forcing more companies to look outward for loans, RBI has little leverage over the market and over the course of time market would act independent of RBI's whims & wishes and long term rates would be less under control. This is somewhat similiar to the situation with US Fed that has control over short term rates but has little control over the long term rates. While, it is debatable whether RBI should have greater control over the economy or not, but an economy totally running out of governmental controls might get reckless if the markets are not mature and deep.

Third, small & medium scale enterprizes would lose out of competition. Large concerns like Tata, Reliance, Birlas, Essar, etc. could borrow at international rates, while their smaller rivals back home cannot do that and have to put up with twice the cost in interest rates. In many businesses that run on lower margins, a small change in the rates could topple the competition totally towards other side and kill a lot of fledgling enterprises that is essentially not good for the country.

In Part 3, we would see what other steps India could take to counter the current inflation crisis

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rate Hikes Counterproductive


The RBI (Reserve Bank of India) the central bank in India has yet again raised the Cash Reserve Ratio. What this means is that banks should lend less of their deposits and currently keep more than 6% of the deposits with the RBI instead of lending. This will lead to higher interest rates for loans, by the supply-demand economics.

Inflation in India is raising very high and currently over 6%, the highest in 2 years. It has mainly contributed by the increase in food prices, along with world oil prices, property boom in India along with expanding business cycles. Whenever inflation grows high, banks follow the textbook method of raising interest rates, so that people will borrow lesser to buy stuff and the the demand will reduce therefore and the price raise will be contained.
Why is it counterproductive?
First, the inflation is more due to the supply side economics rather than demand side economics.

1. Real Estate

While, it is true that people are betting high & high for good properties, the core problem here is the lack of availability of good properties. For example, my 2000 sq ft property in Madurai has hardly experience inflation, while properties in Chennai, B'lore & Mumbai have shot over the roof. This is because, people get very few choices to buys houses if they want a minimum level development. The solution will be to develop properties more and more so that anybody with a decent level of employment could get a decent housing. India is no short of land - currently having more than 30 trillion sq ft of which atleast 10% is fallow and underutilized. So, if we have 3 trillion sq ft, every Indian household could build a 12000 sq ft bungalow and dont even need high raises! That's ideal, but the point is with proper development every household could be assured of a good housing. Invest more in planned housing development and allow real estate developing corporations to expand more and even if the SEZs turn out to be just real estate development, still it will do good for the nation. And once, enough supply of good houses are made, the prices will fall in the super hot spots.
2. Agriculture
Why the food prices have gone up should not be a surprize for those who watch Indian agriculture. The sector is in a state of shit, and the last decade there has been no growth in the yield or productivity, while industrial production surged and technology zoomed. Our per-hectare productivity for most crops are among the lowest in the world, and we have the highest wastage in the world. Lands have to be consolidated, supply chains strengthened and flattened and technology/capital has to reach the field. Allow big private houses to repeate their magic with industry on the field, and with a good retail sector growth, Indian farmers have huge potential to grow. If we do right things, we could potential expand the end value of Indian agricultural produce by 3-4 times and wipe out shortage that is boosting the prices now.
3. Cement/Steel & basic commodities
These are not too different from agriculture. India has vast reserves of coal, iron ore and bauxite (aluminum ore) and they are hardly utilized due to red-tapism. This had forced the stellar players in this field like Tata Steel & Birla's Hindalco to look for overseas purchases. Allow greater reforms, liberalize laws and promote greater development. Given our enormous potential in this segment, most commodities excluding copper & oil, could head south with better technology.

The key in all these three things are - investments, reforms & consistent policies. Regarding the last two the government has the ball in its court and regarding investments the increase in interest rate will jeopardize all the growth. If the interest rates climb up so much, the infrastructure, power development and these three sectors will suffer and the projects might be derailed.
Instead of taking a myopic view, the RBI should curtail the temptation to increase rates and realize that textbook methods are not directly applicable to this complex nation. The need for the hour is greater investment and the RBI should direct them to the right sector and by increasing the rates the RBI is not only curtailing growth but also leading to future inflation by choking supply & infrastructure.

God shall bring lights to the darkness filling economists' brains.