Gas pricing: Get govt out of the way

The contentious issue of gas pricing has evoked strong reactions from all quarters. Not wanting to be left out, everybody is jumping into the fray with his gyan on gas prices, either by dishing out their pricing formula or leveling allegations of scam, favoritism and so on.

Sample this: the Petroleum Ministry, Finance Ministry, Power and Fertilizer Ministries, political parties like Communist Party of India, BJP, Left, explorers like RIL, ONGC, GAIL, Cairn India, Oil India and experts like the Rangarajan Committee, the Vijay Kelkar committee, etc, have all been making statements in recent months about gas prices.





The Rangarajan Committee on production sharing contract has arrived at a price of $8.80/mmBtu for gas from the current $4.2/mmbtu. The panel recommended the 12-month average of US’s Henry Hub, UK’s National Balancing Point and Japan’s liquefied natural gas price along with the average of the price of India’s LNG imports for arriving at the domestic price.

In line with Rangarajan Committee’s recommendations, Mukesh Ambani-led RIL and his partner UK’s BP Plc have also favored linking of domestic gas prices with international prices, seeking prices of around $12.5/mmbtu.

But the Power ministry has opposed the near doubling of gas prices saying it will raise the costs for power plants by over Rs 46,000 crore per annum.





The Finance Ministry has also rejected the formula and, instead, wants the panel to taken into account wellhead prices prevalent in Qatar, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Malaysia.

Sensing the backlash that was brewing over Rangarajan panel’s report, the oil ministry, recently, moved a cabinet note recommending a price of $6.8/mmBtu.

Amidst all this hoopla surrounding the pricing of gas, a key factor to consider is: why should the government be involved in fixing gas prices or for that matter any fuel?

Prices of fuels like gas and coal should be determined by the market based on demand-supply, taxes prevalent in states and levies on imports and exports, rate of inflation, availability of alternate fuels, etc.




On pricing rationale, linking domestically produced gas with international prices makes little sense. While offering adequate incentives for producers in developing gas fields is a priority for recovering investment and a reasonable rate of return, using global prices as a benchmark for arriving at a cost for producing gas in India would be tantamount to exploiting consumers to benefit explorers.

From an economic standpoint, why should lawmakers be fixing prices? Let the explorer and industrial consumers negotiate the prices themselves, sign up long-term agreements for gas supplies? Let the buyers decide for themselves whether the price suits them or not.

As long as the gas pricing mechanism is controlled by the government, explorers like RIL and Cairn India will have no desire to produce more, forcing the economy to rely on coal and oil, both of which are neither eco-friendly nor available cheaply.




Market-linked price also results in increased government share apart from eliminating unwanted consumption. Some analysts have also called for price discovery through a competitive, transparent bidding process by the contractors wherein all spectrum of buyers of natural gas participate in the process.

Taking about alternatives, the emergence of shale gas has been billed as a game changer. In the US, gas prices are at record lows as a surge in shale gas production coupled with lower demand has led to oversupply and record high gas inventories. The average price of gas at the Henry Hub has reduced from US$8.8 per mmbtu in 2008 to around US$2.9 per mmbtu in July 2012.


shale gas reserves


In India, shale gas formations are spread over several sedimentary basins such as Cambay, Gondwana, Krishna-Godawari on-land and the Cauvery. By initiating steps to identify prospective areas for exploration, shale gas can emerge as an important new source of energy and also pave the way for lower gas prices.

The country’s dream of energy security may turn into a reality only if its policies are aligned to meet the challenges facing all its stakeholders including the end consumer. But as it stands, everybody is allowed to have an opinion except the market.

[stockquote]CAIRN[/stockquote] [stockquote]GAIL[/stockquote] [stockquote]OIL[/stockquote] [stockquote]ONGC[/stockquote] [stockquote]RELIANCE[/stockquote]

Analysis: ONGC

Today’s pick is [stockquote]ONGC[/stockquote]. The last year saw the stock trading in a 225 to 300 range and the stock was range-bound for the longest time since July. However, it broke-down the range a week ago. During the last three month period, the stock was -5% vs. the +8% of the Nifty.


Oscillators RSI and CMO are currently at 36 and -56 and are close to the over-sold territory.

MACD line and the signal line are at distant but the histogram levels are steady – this can be the early sign of a short-term up-trend.

The GMMA chart is not giving any signal as both long-term and short-term lines are tightly packed.


ONGC’s average correlation of 0.51 with the Nifty is positive. The stock will not replicate the movements of Nifty closely. [stockquote]NIFTYBEES[/stockquote]


ONGC had a historical volatility in the range of 0.3 to 0.7. Current high volatility can be attributed to the Emkay disaster.

The decline in the price can also be attributed to the withdrawal of the much awaited FPO issue for the stock. With the stock trading at a 12% discount to where LIC bailed it out in March, it looks like its not so nirmal anand after all.

Looking at these technicals a short-term buy is suggested if the stock picks up from the 260 support levels. Although for the long-term, a decisive breakout from the current trading range will suggest a direction.

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India finds itself on a slippery slope

Oil companies raised gasoline (petrol) prices by Rs 6.28 per liter or 11-12% at the retail level, sparking severe outrage from politicians and the so called ‘aam aadmi’. Apart from political rhetoric, it would help to look at the economic implications of fuel price hikes and the entire subsidy mechanism.

imageSince petrol prices are technically decontrolled, the hike will not bring down the fiscal subsidy bill. For that to happen, the paralytic government must get bold, meaning, it has to go out and raise the prices of diesel, LPG, kerosene as oil companies continue to bleed on selling these fuels at below-market prices. Although global crude prices have come off significantly from $125/ barrel mark, the benefits have been offset by the sharp depreciation in the rupee.

But the pressing issue is the entire subsidy sharing mechanism. Global prices of crude oil play a decisive role in the domestic pricing of petroleum products since more than 75 per cent of the country’s crude oil requirement is met through imports. The government subsidizes its refiners (downstream companies like IOC, HPCL and BPCL) to sell fuel below cost, and pushes drillers (upstream companies like ONGC, GAIL and IOC) to foot part of the bill while it bears the rest.

imageOil Marketing Companies (OMCs) had lost a record Rs 1,38,541 crore on selling fuel at government- controlled rates during the last fiscal. While the government will make up 60 per cent or Rs 83,500 crore of the total revenue loss, upstream PSUs will shell out 40% or Rs 55,000 crore as their share of the subsidy burden. Out of the Rs 55,000 crore, ONGC will bear Rs 45,188 crore (82%), Oil India will shell out Rs 5,978 crore (11%) while GAIL will contribute Rs 3,834 crore (7%).

imageThis time around, all OMCs will get full reimbursement which means they will not have to share the subsidy burden. As a result, both IOC and BPCL have reported solid numbers in Q4. Net profit of IOC trebled to Rs 12,670 crore from Rs 3, 905 crore a year ago while BPCL reported a four-fold hike in profits in Jan-Mar quarter at Rs 3,962 crore against Rs 935 crore a year ago.

imageThe ad-hoc subsidy mechanism and the financial jugglery with one oil PSU compensating the other has only worsened India’s fiscal position and the balance sheets of oil firms. It may be politically unfeasible but the sensible thing to do is to eliminate subsidies. While it may push costs and spike inflation, Pranab & co must get rid of price controls and allow oil companies to pass on higher global energy prices to curb wasteful consumption and rationalize energy usage. Cheap energy has discouraged energy saving which can be seen in the sharp spurt in sales of diesel-driven passenger cars.

Simultaneously, supporting measures for the needy—such as well-targeted cash support programme to compensate households for the price increase is easy to implement and understand.

Pussyfooting on this issue will only increase the subsidy burden further even as consumption rises while the rupee depreciates further. This is a potent mixture that can send the macro-economic picture into further tailspin.

[stockquote]IOC[/stockquote] [stockquote]BPCL[/stockquote] [stockquote]ONGC[/stockquote] [stockquote]HINDPETRO[/stockquote] [stockquote]GAIL[/stockquote]

Lessons from the ONGC fiasco

Oil and Natural Gas Corporation

Image via Wikipedia

The government tried to auction off 5% of ONGC [stockquote]ONGC[/stockquote] on Thursday in what was supposed to be the door opener for its Rs 40,000 crore divestment target. The ONGC offer made up a big chunk (Rs 12,400 crore) of this target. It was so poorly managed that it required LIC to step in with Rs. 12,000 crores, almost half the amount, at the last minute to salvage the situation. Here are some real-world lessons that the common man can derive from this:

  1. Know when it’s a seller’s market and when it’s a buyer’s market. When the market knows that you are trying to sell stocks worth Rs 40,000 crores (~$8 billion) within the next couple of months, your are in a buyer’s market.
  2. Leave some money on the table so that investors brave enough to invest in a banana republic can actually make some money on the first day. The stock was trading at Rs. 275-280 levels when the auction price was announced. The reserve price was Rs. 290. It closed the week at Rs. 281.40. Auction investors are now staring at notional losses of Rs 1,000 crore.
  3. If you are arrogant enough to ignore #1 and #2, at least ask for hard underwriting from the investment banks who handled the process. Asking LIC to bail you out is like moving money from one government bank account to another. Now at some point in the future, LIC itself would need a bailout because of this.
  4. Know what you are selling. ONGC is a government slush fund for its stupid fuel subsidies. It shares 33% of the total subsidy burden and there’s no immediate hope that these subsidies are actually going to go down. ONGC should be making money as crude prices are going up but instead, its profits tanked 33% in the most recent quarter.
  5. Don’t look like a fool. There were “technical glitches” which resulted in “some” large orders to be rejected. Investors did not know the results of their bids even hours after the process had ended.

Is there anything that this government can do right?

China to ONGC: bu pao

The South China Sea

Image via Wikipedia

With gas prices at the pump close to $6 to a gallon and a bulk of its energy being imported, India is out exploring for oil. However, it has hit a wall in its efforts, a Chinese-wall, if you will:

India is being pulled into a complex and increasingly tense territorial dispute in the South China Sea, with China repeatedly warning ONGC, the Indian state oil company, that its joint exploration plans with Vietnam amount to a violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety, is thought to be rich in oil and gas and is one of the world’s most important shipping routes. And is increasingly becoming one of the region’s major potential flashpoints.

ONGC’s overseas arm, ONGC Videsh, accounts for much of India’s investment in Vietnam. It operates one gas field—Block 06.1 in the Nam Con Son basin off Vietnam’s south coast—in a joint venture with TNK-BP and PetroVietnam, which China has not protested over.

While the world is busy with the old world’s problems, this has the potential to turn real ugly real fast.

Read more here.

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