Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Knee-jerk reaction to rising oil prices (or why bringing back OPSF is counterproductive)

Here we go again! Every time crude prices in the world market moves up, some wise guys out there would call for the return of dreaded Oil Price Stabilization Fund (OPSF), or the institutionalization of its monster cousin, the so-called Oil Exchange. On Monday, it was Party List Representative (Bayan Muna) Teodoro Casiño’s turn to do so. Not only that, he wants the government to “nationalize” the country’s oil industry. He has bills filed in Congress to achieve his desires. The country has tried all these Marcosian measures in the past and it made us all miserable but it seems people simply don’t learn.

We share Casiño’s concern about the price of oil and its impact on the economy and Filipino people. For global crude prices to hover at a hundred dollars per barrel or higher would surely hurt the Philippine economy. But we don’t share his enthusiasm for “nationalization,” the return of the OPSF or its variant, and the Oil Exchange. These proposals are among the most misguided policies any policymaker could ever think of when dealing with prices of oil and oil products. There are better ways; we should avoid knee-jerk reaction that would do more harm than good.

Consider the OPSF established during the years of the Marcos dictatorship. We used to have a free and relatively competitive oil sector prior to the OPSF with wits 6 oil refining companies Shell, Caltex, Esso, Mobil, and Getty competing in the local market. Marcos set the OPSF as reaction to the rapid rise of global oil prices as a result of oil crisis in the 70s triggered by the Yom Kippur war. It worked this way: when prices are low, the government collects money from the industry for the fund (which is necessarily passed on the consumers as higher prices); when crude prices were rising oil companies drew money from the fund supposedly to prevent a surge in oil prices. The Central Bank also allocates dollars to oil companies at an exchange rate on the day the contracts for the shipment of oil were signed.

The government then set the prices and allows firms certain mark-ups based on landed costs, in effect guaranteeing their profits. There was also cross subsidies supposedly to help the poor. It looked fine on paper then but in reality the OPSF ended up draining the Treasury. As prices abruptly rose, the Fund easily got depleted, and the government was always forced to get money from the country’s coffers—from people’s taxes—to replenish it, thus causing massive fiscal deficits. These are not loose change: when the OPSF was depleted in 1990, the government infused P5 billion, and the cycle went on and on. So in reality, OPSF ended up as a massive state subsidy to oil companies, while domestic oil prices remained high despite lower international crude prices and remained even higher when global crude prices were rising. Do we want to get back to this messy policy environment?

The Oil Exchange seems to be an attractive option. The idea is for the government to determine the country’s monthly requirements and ask potential suppliers to bid for the right to supply the requirement. What Casiño has failed to see is that the he is trying to create a monopoly, a monster, this time however, to be controlled by government bureaucrats paid by people’s taxes. Doesn’t he realized that we suffered so much when Marcos had all those monopolies in various commodities (e.g. remember the sugar monopoly) around?

And we know monopolies, much worse a government one. It will surely be managed inefficiently by Malacañang cronies and its humongous cost passed on to consumers via higher prices. They are going to corrupt the bidding process and allocation of oil products. If the Oilex will try to earn money, as it may have to just to finance its operations and the huge layer of bureaucracy its going to create, it will have to charge prices on top of its inefficiency and corruption, thus making us all worse off. And there’s no guarantee that the Oilex officials will not collude with the bidders to rig the allocation of oil products.

An oil exchange either mean that the government will either have to commandeer the storage facilities of the private sector (especially for LPG) so it could bring oil products to every town without delay or it will have to borrow billions of money for the construction of its own depots and related facilities. It’s a prescription for deeper indebtedness.

Why oil prices are rising? It’s because China, India, and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region are growing fast. They need more oil and are buying more oil. Oil experts say the demand and supply of oil are fairly balanced but recently, speculators came into the picture with hedge funds, investment funds, traders, and ordinary investors going after oil futures and oil derivatives. Many of these characters are apparently using oil futures as a hedge against the weak dollar. All these dynamics suggests an OPSF, Oilex and nationalization of the downstream oil industry would simply create more disruptions and uncertainty that are going to manifest in high and unstable retail oil prices.

The solution lies neither in the dismantling the oil deregulation law nor returning to the dark days of Marcos. The solution lies in strengthening oil industry deregulation. These days, the big three oil companies (Shell, Petron and Caltex) still lord it over the industry especially in gasoline and diesel. But certainly some competitors have started to make inroads into their markets, with the new players getting about 15 percent of the market, based on 2005 data. In terms LPG, new players—based on government data—now account for 45 percent of the market. Overall, the downstream oil industry has more than 600 players engaged in different downstream activities from liquid bulk marketing, LPG bulk marketing, bunkering, to terminaling.

In effect, oil deregulation is imperfect but is working. The worry about the continuing dominance of the Big Three is valid but the solution is not another government monopoly but a different set of policy measures like an anti-trust law or a competition policy to promote efficiency and greater competition and discourage the formation of oligopolies and cartels. And we have to do that policy not only for the oil industry but for all other sectors like banking, shipping and port operations, aviation, insurance, among others.

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