Falling oil prices: Modi and Jaitley should be thanking Saudi Arabia

The fall in oil prices is expected to save $50 billion in oil imports which is expected to increase disposable income of Indians

Vivek Kaul January 15, 2015 10:28:27 IST
Falling oil prices: Modi and Jaitley should be thanking Saudi Arabia

Urjit Patel, one of the deputy governors of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), recently explained the benefits of the dramatic fall in crude oil price for India.

As he put it: “The dramatic fall in oil prices is a boon for us. It saves, on an annualised basis, around $ 50 billion, roughly, one-third of our annual gross POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) imports of about $ 160 billion. This is on a back-of-the-envelope, top-line basis. Of course, there will be leakages and other set-offs. But our external situation undoubtedly improves. The welcome development enhances our disposable income (which will increase consumer demand for other goods and services), reduce input cost of our businesses (which will increase margins and help to enthuse investment demand), and aid government finances by reducing the energy subsidy burden in the budget.”

Falling oil prices Modi and Jaitley should be thanking Saudi Arabia

Reuters

This paragraph needs a detailed discussion. On 26 May 2014, the day Narendra Modi took oath as the Prime Minister of India, the price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $108.56 per barrel. Since then the price of the Indian basket has fallen dramatically and on 13 January 2015, it stood at $ 43.48 per barrel.

Hence, the oil price has fallen by nearly 60% since the Modi government came to power. This, as Patel puts it, has led to a dramatic fall in our oil import bill. He goes on to say that it also increases our disposable income, which in turn will increase consumer demand.

The logic here is very straightforward—people will spend a lesser amount of money to buy oil products, and the money thus saved would be spent on other goods and services. Nevertheless, things aren't exactly like that. The government hasn't passed on the entire fall in the price of oil to the end consumer.

As mentioned above the price of the Indian basket of crude oil has fallen by 60% since May end. Nevertheless, petrol prices haven't fallen by 60%. In Mumbai, the petrol price has fallen by around 14% since April 2014. The same logic stands true for diesel as well.

This has happened because the government has increased the excise duty on petrol and diesel thrice since October 2014, in order to shore up its revenues. The tax growth had been assumed to grow at 16.9% at the time the budget was presented, whereas the actual growth in tax collections between April to November 2014 has been around one-fourth of that at 4.3%.

Analysts Chetan Ahya and Upasana Chachra of Morgan Stanley estimate that the Modi government will collect nearly Rs 14,600 crore between December 2014 and March 2015 through the higher excise duty on petrol and diesel.

What this tells us is that the major benefit of the fall in oil price has gone to the government and has not led to the disposable income of the citizens going up majorly as suggested by Patel. I don't see this increase in disposable income being big good enough to lead to an increase in the consumption of goods and services.

As author Satyajit Das points out in a recent research note titled Reverse Oil Shock: “While positive for public finances and economic efficiency, the diversion of the benefits from consumers to the government is contractionary, reducing the effect on growth.”

The index of industrial production (IIP) data suggests the same.

IIP is a measure of the industrial activity in the country. When looked at from the use based point of view, for the period April to November 2014, the consumer goods number was down by 5.7 percent and the consumer durables number was down by 15.7 percent, in comparison to the same period last year.

Patel then talks about falling oil prices reducing the input cost of our businesses. This, he goes on to say, will increase margins and help to enthuse investment demand. Again this sounds very logical, but it does not take into account the biggest problem Indian businesses face today, excessive leverage (i.e. very high debt).

In the Mid Year Economic Analysis, the Chief Economic Adviser to the finance ministry Arvind Subramanian pointed out: “Over-indebtedness in the corporate sector with median debt-equity ratios at 70 percent is amongst the highest in the world. The ripples from the corporate sector have extended to the banking sector where restructured assets are estimated at about 11-12 percent of total assets. Displaying risk aversion, the banking sector is increasingly unable and unwilling to lend to the real sector.” This has led to a situation where banks aren’t interested in lending and corporates aren’t interesting in investing.

Hence, while a fall in oil price will help corporates, it can't be a major driver in corporate investment picking up

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Now that brings us to Patel's final point which is that a fall in oil prices will “ aid government finances by reducing the energy subsidy burden in the budget”. In this case the answer is slightly complicated.

In the budget presented by Arun Jaitley in July 2014, it was assumed that the total oil subsidies for this financial year would work out to Rs 63,426.95 crore. Jaitley was assuming a low number to start with, given that Rs 35,000 crore of oil subsidies hadn't been paid for in the last financial year. Hence, Jaitley only had around Rs 28,400 crore to play around with in the oil subsidy account.

With a massive fall in the price of crude oil, the oil marketing companies are no longer suffering any under-recoveries on the sale of petrol and diesel. Nevertheless, they do suffer under-recoveries on the sale of domestic cooking gas and kerosene.

Data released by the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) shows that in case of PDS (public distribution system) kerosene and cooking gas, the under-recoveries for the month of January 2015 will be Rs 19.46 per litre and Rs 235.91 per cylinder respectively.

The oil marketing companies need to be compensated for these under-recoveries. In fact, the under-recoveries for the first six months of this financial year were Rs 51,110 crore. This number is already higher than the Rs 28,400 crore that was left in the oil subsidy account. Given this, there can't be any cut in oil subsidies that were budgeted for.

Nevertheless, as explained earlier, the government has raised excise duty on petrol and diesel thrice since October 2014, in order to shore up its revenues. And that would not have been possible if the oil price had not fallen.

Also, Modi and Jaitley should consider themselves lucky that the crude oil price has crashed by 60% since they came to power. If that had not been the case, then the amount allocated by Jaitely towards oil subsidies would have been wholly inadequate. This would have pushed up the fiscal deficit of the government. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. In fact, the fiscal deficit of the government is already at 99% of its annual target for the period between April to November 2014. This number has also been achieved only after a massive fall in oil prices.

Given this, Modi and Jaitley need to thank the Saudi Arabia led Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which hasn't cut production despite falling oil prices. This has driven down the crude oil price even further.

OPEC  is doing this in order to ensure that it does not lose its market share in the global oil market. At the same time, it is trying to make things difficult for shale oil firms in the United States, which had suddenly started producing a lot of oil over the last few years.

As Niels C. Jensen writes in The Absolute Return Letter for January 2015 titled Pie in the Sky: “In effect, OPEC is trying to destroy the economics of this industry, which admittedly requires quite high oil prices to remain profitable. However, Only 4% of total US shale production breaks even at $80 or higher. A high percentage of the industry breaks even with an oil price in the $55-65 range.”

In the past, the Saudi Arabia led OPEC had cut production in times of falling oil prices. But that has not happened this time around. In January 2014, the nations in the Persian Gulf were pumping out 23.41 million barrels of oil per day. By September 2014, this number had remained more or less constant at 23.49 millions barrels of oil per day, despite falling crude oil prices.

In fact, an AP news report points out that the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, a member of OPEC, said yesterday that “there are no plans for OPEC to curb production to shore up falling crude prices, and instead put the onus on shale oil drillers for oversupplying the market.”
Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that the difference between supply and demand for oil is not huge. As Das writes: “The structure of the oil market entails fine margins between demand and supply. The current oversupply is around 2 million barrels a day.”

Data from the Energy Information Administration of the United States points out that the average daily production of crude oil between January and September 2014 stood at 77.17 barrels per day. In comparison to this, the difference between the oil supply and demand works out to 2.6% (2 million barrels expressed as a percentage of 77.17 barrels) of total global production.Despite this small gap, oil prices have fallen by close to 60% since May.

As Jensen points out: “even modest changes in the balance between supply and demand can have a dramatic impact on price, provided demand for, and supply of, the commodity in question is inelastic, and that is precisely the case as far as oil is concerned.”

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