Deregulating diesel prices: A good decision that will be tested when oil prices rise again


Vivek Kaul

The government on Saturday announced the decision to deregulate diesel prices. “Henceforth—like petrol—the price of diesel will be linked to the market,” the finance minister Arun Jaitley said after a cabinet meeting. “Whatever the cost involved, that is what consumer will have to pay,” he added.
After this decision the price of diesel was reduced by around Rs 3.50 per litre (the cut would vary all around India given the different rates of taxes in different states). This was the first cut in the price of diesel since January 2009.
The proposal to allow oil marketing companies to decide the price of diesel was first made in 1997, when Inder Kumar Gujral was the prime minister. The price of petrol and diesel were finally deregulated in April 2002, under the regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
But this decision was over turned in late 2004, around the time oil prices had touched $50 per barrel. In November 2004, Mani Shankar Aiyar, the then Petroleum Minister said “since January 1, 2004, government was dictating even petrol and diesel prices… We have been far more honest in saying the government will control prices of cooking and auto fuels.”
This led to the oil marketing companies having to sell oil products at a price at which they incurred under-recoveries. The government compensated a part of these under-recoveries. And due to this the government expenditure and in turn, the fiscal deficit went up. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
In the last two financial years (i.e. 2012-2013 and 2013-2014) the total petroleum subsidy (subsidy for diesel, cooking gas and kerosene) amounted to Rs 1,82,359.9 crore. As an article in The Wall Street Journal points out “Around half of that was for diesel. Before diesel prices were freed, economists estimated that a $1 per barrel rise in the global price of oil would increase India’s subsidy bill by around $1 billion a year.”
As government expenditure in order to pay for the under-recoveries of the oil marketing companies went up over the years, so did its borrowing. When the government borrows more, it crowds out the other borrowers i.e. it leaves lesser on the table for the private borrowers to borrow. This, in turn, pushes up interest rates, as the other borrowers now need to compete harder.
The high interest rate scenario that has prevailed in India over the last five-six years has been because of this increased government borrowing. If diesel prices had continued to be deregulated this wouldn’t have happened.
Other than the high interest rates, there were several other things that happened. But before we get into that let’s see what the economist Henry Hazlitt writes in
Economics in One Lesson “We cannot hold the price of any commodity below its market level without in time bringing about two consequences. The first is to increase the demand for that commodity. Because the commodity is cheaper, people are tempted to buy, and can afford to buy, more of it…In addition to this production of that commodity is discouraged. Profit margins are reduced or wiped out. The marginal producers are driven out of business.”
The demand for diesel went up in the form of people buying more and more passenger cars that ran on diesel, given the substantial difference between the price of petrol and diesel. This led to the government of India indirectly subsidising car owners over the last few years. Hence, rich consumers ended up consuming more than their fair share of diesel.
As Hazlitt writes in this context: “Unless a subsidized commodity is completely rationed, it is those with the most purchasing power than can buy most of it. This means that they are being subsidized more than those with less purchasing power…What is forgotten is that subsidies are paid for by someone, and that no method has been discovered by which the community gets something for nothing.”
The move to dismantle diesel price deregulation also drove private marketers of oil (Reliance, Essar etc) out of business, as suggested by what Hazlitt had to say on the issue. The government owned oil marketing companies (Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum) were compensated by the government and the upstream oil companies (like ONGC, Oil India Ltd) for selling diesel at a lower price. There was no such compensation for the private oil marketers and hence, they had to shut down their business.
Once all these factors are taken into account the decision to deregulate diesel prices is a brilliant one even though it took a long time to come. Nevertheless, it will not lead to any major immediate benefits for the government. Since Narendra Modi took over as the prime minister of the country, the oil price has fallen dramatically.
As per the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell, the international crude oil price of Indian Basket as on October 17, 2014, stood at $ 85.06 per barrel. This price had stood at $108.05 per barrel on May 26, 2014, the day Modi took over as the prime minister.
Interestingly, during April to June 2014, the first quarter of this financial year, the under-recoveries of oil marketing companies on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene were at Rs 9,037 crore. This is much lower in comparison to the huge under-recoveries that these companies suffered over the last few years.
Also, since January 2013, the price of diesel has been raised by 50 paisa every month. This has led to the under-recoveries of oil marketing companies coming down significantly. Interestingly, for the fortnight starting October 16, 2014, the over-recovery on diesel stood at Rs 3.56 per litre. And that explains why the government was able to cut the price of diesel by around Rs 3.50 per litre.
What this tells us clearly is that there will be no immediate benefit on the fiscal front of diesel price deregulation to the government. Further, the real benefit of this reform will kick in only once oil prices start to rise. And it is at that point of time, the government of the day will have to resist any temptation to start controlling diesel prices, as has been the case in the past.
If it resists this temptation, the upstream oil companies (ONGC, Oil India) will also benefit because the government will not strip them of their profits to pay off the under-recoveries of the oil marketing companies. This explains why the share price of ONGC is up by more than 5% today.
Nevertheless, one immediate benefit of the diesel price cut will be a slightly lower inflation. On the flip side, this also means that if and when oil prices start to go up, the inflation will start reflecting a higher price of diesel more quickly than was the case in the past.
Another benefit of the deregulation will be that private marketers can now look to get back into the business. This is good news for the Indian consumer as it will mean more competition, which may lead to better services. In fact, one huge problem with the products sold by the public sector oil marketing companies is adulteration. Given the cheap price of kerosene, there is lot of adulteration of petrol and diesel. Private marketers can make in roads into the market by providing pure petrol and diesel, and hope to attract the attention of the consumer.
To conclude, there are a few immediate benefits of diesel price deregulation, but the real challenge and the benefit for the government will only come, once oil prices start to go up again.

The article originally appeared on on Oct 20, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)