Since the start of the year, local pump prices have increased significantly. The government, as always, explains this as the operation of global market forces. Remember that the government deregulated the oil industry, and the country imports almost all its petroleum needs. As such, local price adjustments merely reflect the movement of international oil prices and fluctuations in the peso-dollar exchange rates. At least, that is what government and the oil firms want us to believe.
₱4-5 overpricing at the pump this year
But this explanation is not as straightforward as it appears to be. Pump price adjustments do not reflect global price movements. As of the first week of October, the price of gasoline in the Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS) gone up by about ₱11.49 per liter. Meanwhile, the pump price of gasoline as of Oct. 5 has jumped by ₱16.55 per liter – ₱5.06 higher than MOPS. The same thing is true with diesel. MOPS diesel increased by around ₱10.86 per liter while the pump price of diesel surged by ₱15.00 – a difference of ₱4.14 per liter.
MOPS is the benchmark that the country uses for local petroleum products, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). It is “the daily average of all trading transactions of diesel and gasoline as assessed and summarized by Standard and Poor’s Platts, a Singapore-based market wire service.”
The difference between the adjustments in MOPS and actual price changes at the pump is a form of overpricing that has thrived under the Oil Deregulation Law. This 25-year-old law allows oil companies to implement automatic price adjustments based on global price movements.
By implementing higher price hikes or lower rollbacks than international price adjustments, oil firms and the government can collect billions of pesos in extra profits and taxes. Overpriced gasoline and diesel, for instance, gave them an estimated ₱38.47 billion in additional income, of which ₱4.62 billion went to the government as value-added tax (VAT). This exploitation of the consumers by the oil companies and government becomes even more reprehensible amid the pandemic that has massively wiped away jobs and incomes.
In other words, regardless of whether oil prices are up or down, deregulation allows oil companies to earn additional profits. But the situation for the consumers becomes doubly burdensome when oil prices are rising. There have been 32 rounds of oil price hikes for gasoline and 31 for diesel already this year, including the past seven straight weeks. Diesel, at one point, saw its pump price go up for 14 consecutive weeks between April and July.
The direct cause and effect relationship between higher oil prices and faster inflation means more significant distress for most people battered by COVID-19 and the economic crisis. This year, the prices of essential goods and services are moving nearly twice as fast compared to the first year of the pandemic. The inflation rate from January to August averaged 4.4%; during the same period last year, it was at 2.5 percent.
Rising global prices amid speculation
Global oil prices are much higher this year than in 2020, which most analysts credit to the rebound in demand amid tight supply. Economies are recovering from the impacts of pandemic lockdowns, and they need more oil for increased production, estimated at an extra 450,000 barrels per day (BPD) through the rest of the year. There were calls to boost global output by as high as 800,000 BPD amid pressure from the world’s largest oil consumers like the US, accounting for more than 20% of global oil consumption.
But members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and their partners (collectively, the OPEC+) are only increasing output by 400,000 BPD. OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, earlier tightened oil supply when global prices collapsed due to the pandemic last year.
Looking at commodity prices compiled by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the July price index of the world’s three major spot prices for crude oil (i.e., Brent, West Texas Intermediate or WTI, and Dubai) was its highest monthly average since November 2018. From January to August this year, the average spot prices ($65.14 per barrel) for crude oil are 61% higher than during the same period last year ($40.47 per barrel). More updated weekly data quoted in news reports say that Brent spot prices reached a three-year high of $83.47, and WTI reached a seven-year high of $79.35.
However, as usual in neoliberalism, much of the price increases in the global oil markets are driven by speculation and not by the actual supply and demand. This speculation is being fueled this time by how the global health crisis could further develop. OPEC+ members are reluctant to supply the market with more oil out of fear that demand and prices could weaken again all of a sudden due to another wave of COVID-19 infections. The opposite side of this is the bullish outlook that global economic recovery from the pandemic will remain faster than expected, with speculators from Goldman Sachs and the Bank of America projecting oil prices to climb further up to $90 to $100 per barrel. The last time global spot prices averaged more than a hundred dollars was August 2014. Meanwhile, traders, especially those in the futures markets, also speculate that demand could further increase due to the colder than anticipated winter season amid the climate crisis.
The Philippines is especially vulnerable to global supply and demand speculation because the country is a heavy consumer and big importer of petroleum. Out of 214 countries worldwide, the Philippines ranks top 36 in terms of oil consumption. In the first half of 2021, the country imported 10.03 billion liters of finished petroleum products and 1.21 billion liters of crude oil to meet the domestic demand of 67.70 million liters per day. The oil import bill went up by 55.9%, from $3.07 billion in the first half of 2020 to $4.79 billion in the same period this year due to higher import volume and rising global prices.
Ending oil deregulation is a must
Deregulation fully exposed the country to the price impacts of speculative activities by oil producers, traders, investment firms, and other financial institutions that exploit the uncertainties in the world market. As mentioned, oil companies can automatically implement price adjustments based on international price fluctuations under a deregulated regime.
The continued domination of monopoly corporations in the oil industry, which can dictate how much local pump prices would move, further exacerbated such vulnerability. Only four companies (Petron, Shell, Phoenix, and Chevron) control 47.2% of the domestic oil market, and just one (Petron) retain 100% of the country’s crude oil refining capacity. These companies are tied to the transnational corporations in oil and finance through investments, long-term supply contracts, and other strategic partnerships.
With deregulation, the government abandoned its mandate to guarantee oil supply security and protect the economy and people from excessive petroleum prices. Policy tools to regulate prices and safeguard supply are always necessary but are even more crucial today as the country tries to get back on its feet from the impacts of the pandemic.
Reminding oil companies to ensure the country’s oil supply which is the only “intervention” that the DOE has done amid surging prices, is extremely not enough. The government itself must play the leading role in stockpiling fuel supply through, for instance, a system of centralized procurement of imported oil. Under this system, oil companies will have to buy from the state-owned Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC). Oil firms thus will have to sell it at a price based on PNOC’s cost of importation, which is cheaper than commercial deals as the government can explore various ways to get discounted prices or even waive taxes. In addition, the government can quickly determine if the oil firms are profiteering or selling at a price that is outrageously higher than the cost of buying from the PNOC.There are numerous policy options and possibilities, but it must start at ending the oil deregulation regime. ###