Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Sparring for margins

Commentary - Executive magazine

Oil importers, government face off in obfuscation

There are few sectors of the economy that elicit less sympathy than the oil industry. Thus one has to wonder whether there wasn’t more anger than pity generated last month toward oil-importing companies, truckers and gas stations after their one day strike left those who failed to fill up in time sucking on fumes. The oil industry was crying foul, however, over what it claims are profit margins that are plummeting due to government imposed surcharges and the minimum salary increase. The March 15 protest was the latest engagement of a long running battle with the Ministry of Energy and Water over price structuring.

To judge whether industry advocates have a case or not, one must understand the basic dynamics of the sector. Every Wednesday the government sets the price for a jerrycan (20 liters of fuel); it is a crucial revenue stream for the country, with tax of 5,500LL ($3.66) and value added tax (VAT) of 2,500LL ($1.66) on every jerrycan ($23.16 as of going to print). For gas station owners, margins used to be 10 percent on a jerrycan, but has been whittled down as oil prices have risen (to $108 a barrel as of going to print) to 4 percent, or 800LL ($0.53), which they claim is not enough to cover infrastructure costs and the newly introduced minimum monthly wage, which went from 500,000LL ($333) to 675,000LL ($450).

The government did not give in to the strike, saying if it did, prices would rise by $3.33 on every jerrycan. The argument put forward by the Energy Minister, Gebran Bassil, was that the oil sector's demands were “unrealistic and unjust,” he told reporters at a press conference. “How can they claim to be losing money when we see stations opening everywhere and given that Lebanon has the highest number of gas stations per kilometer in the region.”

The minister has a point but he seems to have overlooked the fact that a license freeze on new gas stations was put in place last year, and if new stations are springing up around the country, they have done so illegally, outside the remit of Bassil's own ministry. Indeed, what Bassil did not mention was that out of the 3,250 gas stations in Lebanon, only 1,450 have licenses. Perhaps the ministry itself should start a nationwide process of regulating, even fining, the 1,800 gas stations operating without licenses as part of a project to reform the sector.

Bassil also threw out a figure that the oil importers make $100 million a year. General Labor Confederation Union chief Maroun Khawli went even further by saying the country's 14 oil importers are acting like a cartel and generate $300 million in profits each year.

However, Bahij Abu Hamzi, the head of Cogico — which owns Levant Oil and Nat Gas — and is the former head of the country’s oil importers syndicate, told me he had no idea where these figures came from. He claimed $1.2 billion in oil is imported each year and profits are 5 percent, or $60 million, which is around LL800 per jerrycan.

While something doesn't totally add up here given discrepancies in the tens of millions of dollars, there appears to be some truth in oil companies not having the high profits commonly assumed, as over the past several years five oil importation companies went bankrupt and the sector is struggling to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades, which has had negative knock-on effects. Safety standards are far from being up to par; there have been reports of oil seeping into the ground water and last year an explosion at a gas station in Beirut left seven dead.

A recent report by global accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers has proposed that margins should be raised to 2,800LL ($1.85) for 20 liters. This is assuredly too high for the government to accept given how high oil prices already are for the public, and even oil importers acknowledge that this is not the right time to raise it to that level.

A solution needs to be found that placates both parties, as the oil sector has indicated it will once again lock up the pumps if its demands are not met. But a viable solution is not likely unless there is transparency in what the oil sector's profits — or lack there of — really are. Addressing the prices at the pump is just the start of a much needed refinement of an industry that is as opaque as the oil it sells.

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