Oil deregulation

Overpricing amid speculative oil price spikes, not supply, is more urgent concern

(This article was first published by the Philippine Online Chronicles)

On Tuesday (Mar. 8), oil firms implemented the eighth round of oil price hikes this year and the third round in one week. All in all, the pump price of diesel has already increased by P6.75 per liter since January; kerosene, P6.50; and gasoline, P6. The retail price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), on the other hand, posted a net decrease of P1.90 per kilogram (kg). But recent trends show an uptrend in the LPG international contract price, consequently hiking the local retail price by P2.50 per kg since March 1. (See Table 1)

Alarming pace

The pace with which pump prices are increasing is very alarming. This year, the price of diesel at the pump is rising by almost 68 centavos a liter per week and those of gasoline and kerosene by 65 centavos and 60 centavos, respectively. Just to give you an idea how bad the situation is, note that during the 2008 oil price crisis, the retail price rose by just 57 centavos a liter per week. This, of course, is just an average. At its peak (June and July), the 2008 crisis jacked up local pump prices by P1.42 a liter per week. Unfortunately, we all have no idea if the current surge in prices has already peaked or at least nearing the summit. As we speak, tension continues to build up in the Middle East, with protests now spreading to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the US is planning to intervene militarily in the Libyan civil war. These fuel more speculations, driving wild spikes in prices like in 2008. But unlike in 2008, the oil rich regions are today embroiled in serious volatility that may actually disrupt supply which means more bad news for importing countries like ours.

No shortage

Certainly, there is no actual shortage yet with most members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) pumping more oil than their individual quotas even before the unrest in Libya. The spare capacity of OPEC is pegged by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at 4.9 million barrels a day or about three times Libya’s output. Spare capacity means capacity levels that can be achieved in 30 days and sustained for 90 days. Oil inventories of the world’s largest economies under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also exceed the normal 52-54 days with 57.5 days in December. Nevertheless, taking early measures to prepare for a possible supply disruption is a prudent decision on the part of President Aquino who created an Inter-Agency Contingency Committee (IACC). The Department of Energy (DOE) has also imposed a minimum inventory of 30 days for refiners and 15 days for importers of finished products.

Real problem

However, the real problem right now is not supply but the skyrocketing costs of oil and its impact on the people, especially the poor. Although much of the increases in the global oil prices are speculative (there is no actual shortage, only fears of shortage), Filipino consumers bear the full brunt of soaring prices because of the Oil Deregulation Law or Republic Act (RA) 8479. Worse, oil companies have been taking advantage of the deregulated downstream oil industry to overprice their products. In a deregulated environment, oil firms simply “text” someone in the DOE that they are increasing prices, as a matter of FYI. This system obviously creates a lot of room for abuses. To illustrate, from 2008 to January this year, oil firms have implemented price hikes that were bigger than what changes in global prices and foreign exchange warrant. Similarly, they also implemented smaller rollbacks. The net result is an overpricing of around P7.50 per liter.

P7.50 per liter in overpricing

Thus, on top of the speculative increases, consumers also shoulder the cost of overpriced oil which is an enormous burden for ordinary folks. Consider, for instance, a lowly tsuper who uses 30 liters of diesel for his jeepney in a one day. Through overpricing, oil firms are robbing each of the more than 400,000 jeepney drivers nationwide and their families around P225 per day. About 8.6 million households that use LPG are being robbed of some P147.58 per month. More than 700,000 fishers, who are the poorest sector in this country (50% of them try to survive on just P41 a day), shell out P75 per fishing trip to cover the cost of overpriced gasoline. The poorest Filipino households use kerosene for lighting and cooking and even they are being squeezed dry by the oil companies. (See Table 2)

From the burden of these poor sectors and the rest of consumers, oil companies squeeze P369.65 million everyday in extra profits from overpricing. Of this amount, Petron accounts for P124.59 million, followed by Shell with P91.41 million; Chevron, P40.66 million; Total, P14.31 million; and other players, P54.32 million. Even the Aquino administration gets its share from the profiteering of the oil companies through the 12% value added tax (VAT) imposed on oil to the tune of P44.36 million daily. (See Chart)

Regulate prices now

The Aquino administration at first refused to engage the issue of skyrocketing prices, as it has done on the general increase in prices of basic goods and services. (Read “A regime of high prices: Aquino’s apathy towards the poor”). But as the oil price hikes rage on and escalating people’s protests over high prices loom, government is now at least showing a semblance of concern. The Department of Finance (DOF) is reportedly considering subsidizing oil products consumed by the poor and reducing the VAT on petroleum. These measures are apparently the most “drastic” proposals that government is ready to make.

While any measure that can immediately bring down the price of oil (especially the scrapping of the 12% oil VAT) to provide much needed relief is welcome, we need a truly drastic reform. Overpricing must be addressed because even during times of low prices, consumers are still being exploited by the oil companies. Of course, there is a task force composed of the DOE and the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the Oil Deregulation Law created to look into the abuses of the oil players. But in the 13 years that this task force has existed, not a single oil company has ever been penalized for overpricing. Not even when the Director General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) himself is saying that they are overpricing (remember now Sen. Ralph Recto’s allegation in 2009 that oil products were overpriced by P8 a liter?).

The excuse for this is simple. As argued by the late Angelo Reyes, who as the then DOE chief lambasted Recto’s claim, there is no such thing as overpricing or a standard formula under deregulation. Every price adjustment is justified as a business decision in the name of competition and driven by the world market. But we all know that this is hogwash. More than eight out of every 10 liters of oil sold in the domestic market are from just four companies (Petron, Shell, Chevron, and Total) with tight links to the global oil cartel. They set the price adjustment and everyone else just follows. Government should stop using the world market as an excuse for being helpless. Otherwise, there is no more need for a government. At the very minimum and as an immediate policy reform, we need to regulate the price adjustments through a system of credible, democratic, and transparent public hearing. Hindi pwedeng “text-text” lang ang oil price hikes. (end)

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Consumer issues, Fiscal issues

Toll hike, VAT, soaring utility rates in lieu of new taxes

SLEx toll will quadruple due to VAT and privatization of infrastructure development (Photo from ryucloud/photobucket.com)

President Noynoy Aquino has promised that his administration will try not to raise or impose new taxes to bridge the widening fiscal gap, which is expected to reach a record high P325 billion this year. But while not imposing new taxes (yet) to address its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration is still squeezing the people dry through unabated increases in prices and rates charged by privatized and deregulated utilities, and by getting the most out of the previous administration’s most onerous and anti-poor revenue-raising tool – the 12 percent value added tax (VAT).

By the way, did you know that the VAT, like privatization, was also a legacy of Noynoy’s late mother, President Cory Aquino? On July 25, 1987, Cory issued Executive Order (EO) No. 273, adopting the VAT. Cory issued the EO just before the 8th Congress opened, thus preempting the legislature’s constitutional power to impose taxes. The move was a ploy to swiftly implement the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) prescription to impose the VAT and ensure that the bankrupt Cory administration can raise revenues for continued debt servicing.

Controversial tax

Today, the ever controversial tax is again in the headlines following the insistence of Aquino’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) chief to impose the regressive VAT on toll. If Noynoy will not intervene and order the Department of Finance (DOF) and BIR to suspend its implementation, fees charged by toll operators around the country will go up starting Monday (August 16) as the cash-strapped Aquino administration collect from motorists the VAT on toll roads.

The table below summarizes the current rates and new rates to be charged (12 percent increase, representing the VAT) by major toll roads in Luzon, based on a notice released by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).

Meanwhile, those using the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) will feel the double whammy of VAT and toll hike that will raise the toll charged by its private operator, the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC). Motorists using the SLEx will see their toll almost quadruple mainly because of the new rates approved by the TRB last May.

Ironically, the principal author of the 2005 VAT law Republic Act (RA) 9337, Senator Ralph Recto, is strongly opposing the move arguing that VAT should not be imposed on a government service. Recto, who belongs to Aquino’s Liberal Party (LP) and presently chairs the Senate ways and means committee, suffered the VAT backlash and lost his reelection bid in the 2007 midterm elections, which explains his stance on the VAT on toll. Aside from Recto, another LP member, Sen. Franklin Drilon is also questioning the BIR plan because it is supposedly imposing a tax on tax. Business groups, in particular those operating in Southern Tagalog’s industrial zones, on the other hand, have warned of commodity price hikes while transport groups plying the SLEx threatened to increase fares.

Aquino’s dilemma

While some prominent LP members are against it, the Aquino administration’s dilemma is that backing down on the BIR plan to collect the unpopular VAT on toll will further limit its already scant revenue sources, which have been perennially drained by trade liberalization, automatic debt servicing, promotion of foreign investment and export production, and onerous privatization contracts, on top of tax evasion, smuggling, and fat paychecks of high officials of the bureaucracy.

Given the persistent external pressure from the IMF for so-called fiscal consolidation and to hike the VAT rate to 15 percent, it is unlikely that Aquino’s economic team – led by ardent VAT champions and neoliberals DOF Secretary Cesar Purisima (who as Arroyo’s DOF chief helped design and lobbied for RA 9337) and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Cayetano Paderanga (who was among the UP economists that pushed for VAT and VAT rate hike) – will advise Aquino to heed the public clamor and stop the VAT on toll. But if Aquino will push through with the VAT on toll, he risks suffering a major political blow very early in his term because of the measure’s unpopularity and severe impact on the people. Such setback can be further compounded in case the Supreme Court (SC) decides favorably on petitions filed against the VAT on toll amid growing public opposition.

Nonetheless, the pending toll hikes, whether implemented or not, further highlight the lack of real reforms that matter to the people under the Aquino administration. That Aquino is trying to widen the scope of the onerous and anti-poor VAT is proof that prospects of better and more decent living conditions for social sectors neglected by past regimes remain dim, if not dimmer.

VAT on privatized, deregulated utilities

And even if the VAT on toll is withdrawn, the continued implementation of neoliberal policies will still oppress the poor and impoverish more people. Note for instance, that in the case of SLEx, the VAT imposition is just a small portion of the enormous increase in toll that stems from infrastructure privatization, the same policy that Aquino highlighted in his State of the Nation Address (Sona). With Aquino’s promotion of so-called Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), we expect more similar increases in the future as these are built-in mechanisms to make privatization attractive to potential investors. A case in point is the proposed MRT fare hike, which the Aquino administration is seeking in order to pay for the guaranteed debts and profits of private investors that took part in MRT’s development and ease government’s fiscal burden.

Indeed, indications show that privatization and deregulation will not only continue but will even expand under the new government. Just barely one and a half months into the much hyped Aquino administration, we have already seen oil prices and electricity rates go up. Players in the deregulated oil industry have recently raised the pump prices of diesel, kerosene and gasoline by 50 centavos to P1 per liter, with the Department of Energy (DOE), just like in the past, warning of more oil price hikes in the coming months. In addition, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) has again increased its generation charge by 44 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). More nationwide increases in the privatized and deregulated power industry, based on petitions pending before the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), should be expected by hapless households.

In the context of its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration welcomes these increases despite their harsh effect on consumers as they mean more VAT collections for the government. In fact, oil and electricity are the two largest sources of VAT revenues, increasing in direct proportion with rising pump prices and monthly electricity bills. From November 2005 (when RA 9337 was implemented) to December 2009, the VAT burden from oil and power has reached P239.94 billion, or more than 65.3 percent of the total revenues (P367.28 billion) generated by RA 9337.

Similarly, higher toll means higher VAT collection for the government. Under the old SLEx fees, for example, government’s VAT revenues will only range from P2.64 to P7.80 per vehicle per trip. But under the new rates approved by the TRB, the VAT burden of SLEx users will quadruple to P10.2 to P30.6. Overall, taxpayers will shoulder a tax burden of more than P12 billion annually from the VAT on toll.

No new taxes? It does not make a difference amid rising rates and prices due to deregulation and privatization, and continued imposition and expanded coverage of the 12 percent VAT. And lest we forget, Aquino’s promise of no new taxes is highly conditional on the results of its anti-smuggling and tax evasion drive which means the worst is yet to come.

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Consumer issues, Power industry, Privatization

Meralco’s rate hikes and neoliberal power reform (1)

Photo from flickr.com/Maan Bernales

Consumers are again up in arms with the latest increase in electricity rates imposed by the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco). The utility giant called the rate hike “slight”. At 5.8 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh), maybe it will be hardly felt by Meralco’s 4.7 million customers in their August billing.

But the recent power rate increase is neither small nor negligible when viewed in the context of successive rate hikes in the previous months (amid rotating brownouts, no less). The past increases were also huge that some consumers complained of having to pay Meralco twice as much for the same consumption.

Long-held perception

The unabated rise in monthly power bills reinforced the long-held public perception that Meralco is greedy and abusive and government regulators are inutile. It also revived calls to immediately bring down power rates by scrapping the 12 percent value added tax (VAT) on electricity. Indeed, Meralco and the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) must be held to account and the VAT on power must be scrapped.

But these proposals are not enough. Power rates will remain exorbitant and power utilities like Meralco will continue to abuse consumers without reversing one of Gloria Arroyo’s most anti-people, anti-development, corruption-ridden legacies – the neoliberal privatization and deregulation of the energy sector through the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira).

Soaring profits

Doubtless, Meralco is a bad company (for consumers, that is, but surely not for its stockholders). Its long list of illegal and over collection cases is a testament to its unscrupulous reputation. To be sure, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) is an even worse regulator. Its habitual failure to check Meralco’s abusive practices, and in many cases even legitimizing them, demonstrates its bias for industry players.

Last year, Meralco’s net profits increased by a whopping 114 percent (from P2.8 billion in 2008 to P6 billion) mainly due to an ERC-approved 13.9-centavo per kilowatt-hour (kWh) hike in the distribution charge of the utility giant in April 2009. Then in December, the ERC approved another increase in Meralco’s distribution charge, this time by 26.9 centavos. The distribution charge of Meralco thus increased from P1.0831 per kWh at the start of 2009 to P1.2227 in April and then to P1.4917 in December.

Imagine how much profits Meralco will rake in this year once the December increase in distribution charge makes its presence felt in the company’s end-2010 balance sheet. But to give you an idea, Meralco disclosed to the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) that its first quarter 2010 profits grew by 135 percent compared to the same period in 2009 (from P0.8 billion to P2 billion).

Overcharging

One week approving after Meralco’s distribution rate hike in December, the regulatory body received the report of the Commission on Audit (COA) saying that Meralco illegally collected as much as P6.64 billion from its customers in 2004 (P4.7 billion) and 2007 (P1.93 billion). But instead of reconsidering its earlier decision allowing the utility to hike its distribution charge, the ERC sat on the COA report. It was only after more than one and a half months since receiving the audit body’s findings that the ERC started to hear the case.

Amid this fresh allegation of overcharging, the ERC still allowed Meralco to continuously jack up its rates to recover the supposed increases in the cost of power generation like the 5.8-centavo/kWh increase this month. Prior to this increase in generation charge, Meralco also raised it by 44 centavos in February, P1.83 in March and P1.20 in April. It eased by P1.26 in May that the utility attributed to lower price of power it buys from its suppliers. But it again jumped by 18 centavos in June.

Remember also that until today, Meralco has yet to fully implement the billions of pesos in refunds that it owes to consumers worth more than P34.12 billion, including the P30.2 billion in income taxes that Meralco illegally collected from 1994 to 2002.    

VAT on power

Meanwhile, the 12 percent value added tax (VAT) imposed on electricity continues to be an onerous burden for consumers. In the case of the power industry’s system loss, VAT is doubly onerous since it is a consumption tax charged on electricity that is not even consumed.

In 2009, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) collected P10.6 billion (preliminary data) in VAT from the power industry and electric cooperatives. Since electricity was included among VAT-able goods and services in November 2005, no thanks to Republic Act (RA) 9337, the government has already collected a total of more than P47.41 billion in VAT on power.

Latest national data on electricity sales is 2008, pegged at 49,206 gigawatt-hours (GWh). Meanwhile, VAT collection from the power sector during the same year was P16.05 billion. This means that on the average, VAT collection from the power sector in 2008 was about 32.6 centavos per kWh.

System loss in 2008 for the entire power industry was about 12.63 percent of total electricity sales. This means that on the average, hapless consumers shelled out more than P2 billion to pay for the VAT on electricity they never used.

(To be concluded)

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Fiscal issues

World Bank, bad bank: Gas tax hike proposal to hurt the poor

The World Bank, in its latest quarterly report on the Philippines, recently proposed that government increase the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter on imposed on gasoline products to ensure a quality implementation of Arroyo’s fiscal stimulus plan and address a ballooning budget gap.
According to the multilateral lending institution, its proposal would “improve the progressivity of the tax system as petroleum products are disproportionately consumed by the richer citizens”. In other words, it is acceptable to hike current taxes imposed on gasoline products because the poor will not be hurt.
The World Bank, a global institution controlled by the US and other rich countries, has become increasingly discredited and notorious through the years. For a brief discussion on how it works to intensify global poverty, as told by a former World Bank insider, watch the short video below.
With just a little over two weeks before Mrs. Gloria Arroyo deliver her supposedly farewell State of the Nation Address (SONA), I expected Malacañang to issue an outright rejection of the World Bank proposal. Severely wanting in favorable public opinion and amid persistent allegations of overpriced petroleum products, a categorical “no” from government would have been at least a positive public relations move.
But Finance secretary Margarito Teves, while acknowledging that the World Bank proposal is untimely, said that his department is seriously studying the suggestion and implied that if the World Bank can convince them, they might increase the gasoline excise tax, albeit in a proper time. Maybe after SONA?
There are two points I wish to raise here. One, petroleum products in the country are already artificially and unjustly high due to onerous taxes such as the 12% value added tax and overpricing especially by the Big Three (Petron, Shell, and Chevron) oil cartel. Further increasing gasoline prices through a higher excise tax will further aggravate the injustice and abuse that consumers already suffer.
Two, it is not true that the poor will not be hurt. It has been the recurring argument of Malacañang in its efforts to justify the continued imposition of the 12% VAT (which incidentally, Arroyo worked hard to increase from 10% to the current 12% starting in November 2005). But studies we made at Bayan point to the contrary. For instance, in the case of gasoline products, private car owners are not the only ones who will bear the impact of an excise tax hike. Tricycle drivers and small fishers using motorized bancas who also use gasoline products for their livelihood will be hurt more.
These people barely earn enough to meet the daily needs of their families and every centavo that will be added to their expenses will certainly make their daily existence much harder. At present, almost 600,000 tricycle drivers nationwide directly pay government P9.42 per liter in taxes on unleaded gasoline, representing the 12% VAT and the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter. Such taxes are already burdensome for them as they consume an average of 4 liters a day and thus pay government almost P38 daily in taxes.
Similarly, some 700,000 small fishers using motorized bancas directly pay government P9.10 per liter in taxes on regular gasoline, representing the VAT and excise tax. Per fishing trip, a fisher consumes as much as 10 liters and thus pay government almost P91 daily in taxes.
The World Bank, together with its twin the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has significantly shaped the country’s fiscal policies over the decades. It has strongly supported and pushed for more and higher taxes including the VAT to ensure that government would be able to service its debt obligations. At the same time, the World Bank has firmly opposed policy reforms to control the prices of basic goods and services such as the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law. It has pushed for lower government spending on social services and promoted the privatization and commercialization of such services.
The people must oppose this latest policy dictate (cloaked as “proposal”) of the World Bank. The burden of addressing the budget gap and raising tax revenues should not fall on the shoulders of the poor. The 12% VAT on oil products must be scrapped and additional revenues should be generated through efficient tax collection, curbing corruption and smuggling, arresting the biggest tax evaders which are the corporations, and re-imposing the eliminated or reduced tariffs on imported goods.
World Bank logo

World Bank logo

The World Bank, in its latest quarterly report on the Philippines, recently proposed that government increase the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter imposed on gasoline products to ensure a quality implementation of Arroyo’s fiscal stimulus plan and address a ballooning budget gap.

According to the multilateral lending institution, its proposal would “improve the progressivity of the tax system as petroleum products are disproportionately consumed by the richer citizens”. In other words, it is acceptable to hike current taxes imposed on gasoline products because the poor will not be hurt.

The World Bank, a global institution controlled by the US and other rich countries, has become increasingly discredited and notorious through the years. For a brief discussion on how it works to intensify global poverty, as told by a former World Bank “insider” – its former Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz – watch the short video below.

With just a little over two weeks before Mrs. Gloria Arroyo deliver her supposedly farewell State of the Nation Address (SONA), I expected Malacañang to issue an outright rejection of the World Bank proposal. Severely wanting in favorable public opinion and amid persistent allegations of overpriced petroleum products, a categorical “no” from government would have been at least a positive public relations move.

But Finance secretary Margarito Teves, while acknowledging that the World Bank proposal is untimely, said that his department is seriously studying the suggestion and implied that if the World Bank can convince them, they might increase the gasoline excise tax, albeit in a proper time. Maybe after SONA?

There are two points I wish to raise here. One, petroleum products in the country are already artificially and unjustly high due to onerous taxes such as the 12% value added tax and overpricing especially by the Big Three (Petron, Shell, and Chevron) oil cartel. Further increasing gasoline prices through a higher excise tax will further aggravate the injustice and abuse that consumers already suffer.

Two, it is not true that the poor will not be hurt. It has been the recurring argument of Malacañang in its efforts to justify the continued imposition of the 12% VAT (which incidentally, Arroyo worked hard to increase from 10% to the current 12% starting in November 2005). But studies we made at Bayan point to the contrary. For instance, in the case of gasoline products, private car owners are not the only ones who will bear the impact of an excise tax hike. Tricycle drivers and small fishers using motorized bancas who also use gasoline products for their livelihood will be hurt more.

These people barely earn enough to meet the daily needs of their families and every centavo that will be added to their expenses will certainly make their daily existence much harder. At present, almost 600,000 tricycle drivers nationwide directly pay government P9.42 per liter in taxes on unleaded gasoline, representing the 12% VAT and the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter. Such taxes are already burdensome for them as they consume an average of 4 liters a day and thus pay government almost P38 daily in taxes.

Similarly, some 700,000 small fishers using motorized bancas directly pay government P9.10 per liter in taxes on regular gasoline, representing the VAT and excise tax. Per fishing trip, a fisher consumes as much as 10 liters and thus pay government almost P91 daily in taxes.

The World Bank, together with its twin the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has significantly shaped the country’s fiscal policies over the decades. It has strongly supported and pushed for more and higher taxes including the VAT to ensure that government would be able to service its debt obligations. At the same time, the World Bank has firmly opposed policy reforms to control the prices of basic goods and services such as the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law. It has pushed for lower government spending on social services and promoted the privatization and commercialization of such services.

The people must oppose this latest policy dictate (cloaked as “proposal”) of the World Bank. The burden of addressing the budget gap and raising tax revenues should not fall on the shoulders of the poor. The 12% VAT on oil products must be scrapped and additional revenues should be generated through efficient tax collection, curbing corruption and smuggling, arresting the biggest tax evaders which are the corporations, and re-imposing the eliminated or reduced tariffs on imported goods.

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Oil deregulation

Oil firms and Malacañang unjustly squeeze P329 M every day from consumers

poverty-ibonPump prices continued its downtrend, with three rounds of rollbacks announced by the oil firms in the first week of March. On Monday (March 2), the so-called Big Three (Petron Corporation, Pilipinas Shell, and Chevron Philippines) slashed the price of their diesel and kerosene by P1 per liter and gasoline by 50 centavos. It was followed by two rounds of price cuts in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by members of the LPG Marketers’ Association (LPGMA) on Wednesday (March 4) and Friday (March 6), which brought down the price of an 11-kilogram (kg) cylinder tank by a total of P22. It matched the earlier rollback in LPG prices by the major oil players.

The reductions have come at a time when public officials have all but admitted that Republic Act (RA) 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law have been ineffective in curbing manipulations in the industry. Under public pressure to get tough on abusive oil companies, Secretary Angelo Reyes of the Department of Energy (DOE) said that while the government’s role is to protect public interest, it will “have to follow what the law dictates”. And the law (i.e., RA 8479), Reyes added rather candidly, does not say that government takes “more aggressive action versus the oil companies”.

But with the recent price cuts, proponents of deregulation will surely argue that there is no need for such state intervention. Market forces such as competition will supposedly impose discipline on the oil companies. The problem is despite these rollbacks, the unfortunate consumers are still burdened with overpriced petroleum and the profiteering of the oil companies, especially the major players, remains vicious.

Due to overpricing, oil companies in the country are earning extra profits of around P289.51 million daily, according to the latest estimates of the multisectoral group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan). Petron Corporation accounted for the lion’s share of the daily extra profits cornering an estimated P112.04 million; followed by Pilipinas Shell, P86.56 million; Chevron Philippines, P40.82 million; and Total Philippines, P13.03 million. Other oil players posted an estimated collective share of P37.06 million.

The huge amounts of extra profits that oil companies collect from overpricing make the series of price cuts that they have implemented in the past two weeks meaningless. The price rollbacks are much smaller than what oil firms should reflect in pump stations to offset their overpricing. Bayan earlier said that as of mid-February, oil products in the country remain overpriced. Diesel is overpriced by around P2.94 per liter; kerosene, P6.42; unleaded gasoline, P2.31; and 11-kg LPG cylinder, P125.35.

The group’s overpricing estimates looked at the monthly movement of Dubai crude and the US dollar – peso exchange rate and their combined impact on pump prices. The results were then compared with the actual price changes as monitored by the DOE.

The extra profits were computed using the latest available (i.e. first half of 2008) figures on local oil demand of around 286.6 thousand barrels per day (MBD) and the market share of each player. As of first half 2008, Petron controls almost 39% of the market, followed by Shell, 30%; Chevron, 14%; and Total, 4%. The rest of the market, 12.8%, is divided among the smaller oil players. Furthermore, the overpricing and profiteering belie claims of losses by oil companies such as Petron’s reported P3.9-billion net loss last year due to “extreme volatility” of global oil prices. The commanding position that Petron enjoys in the local market and the automatic price adjustments under the Oil Deregulation Law allow it to squeeze billions of profits from hapless consumers.

But are Malacañang and its allies in Congress willing to pass a law, or amend RA 8479, that will allow aggressive government intervention against the abuses of the oil industry? Consider that the national government is collecting an additional P39.48 million everyday in value added tax (VAT) imposed on overpriced oil products.

Such amount is on top of Malacañang’s regular collections from the 12% VAT on oil, which the Department of Finance (DOF) described as the “biggest tax measure since the birth of the republic”. Why will government kill its own milking cow? Obviously, the additional VAT collections of government from overpriced oil make it disinterested in calls to regulate the industry and repeal the Oil Deregulation Law.

The oil companies and Malacañang together squeeze about P328.98 million in unjust collections everyday from the Filipino consumers. This brazen act of exploitation is downright condemnable, especially today that millions of workers face unprecedented job scarcity and poverty.

The Oil Deregulation Law should be repealed to ensure reasonable pump prices. The VAT on oil must be cancelled to immediately bring down the prices of petroleum products. These urgent measures can go a long way in easing the impact of the global financial and economic crisis on ordinary Filipino consumers. (END)

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Fiscal issues

VAT: Defending The Indefensible In The Name Of Foreign Debt

Gloria's SONA speech illustrates how defensive Malacanang is over the VAT (Photo from Reuters)

First published in Paninindigan, Ang Pahayagan ng Bayan, Jul-Sep 2008 – In her latest State of the Nation Address (SONA), Gloria Arroyo spent a considerable portion of her speech defending the value added tax (VAT), calling it the means for Filipinos to ride out the world food and energy crisis. The speech illustrates how defensive Malacañang is over the unpopular and regressive tax, which various sectors and some lawmakers want scrapped as food and fuel prices escalate. It aggressively hypes the so-called Katas ng VAT program to justify the VAT and show that it provides concrete and direct benefits for the poor.

 

Arroyo is forced to uphold the VAT in particular on oil and power despite growing clamor against it as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have both warned the government against cancelling or even reducing the VAT. Malacañang could not afford to let go of what the Finance department described as the “biggest tax measure since the birth of the Republic”.

 

Indeed, Arroyo’s VAT reform agenda, realized through Republic Act (RA) 9337 that increased from 10 to 12 percent the VAT rate and further expanded to include oil and power among others, have notably increased government’s tax revenues. Total RVAT (reformed VAT under RA 9337) collections from 2006 to the first half of 2008 have already reached P219.08 billion. Of this amount, oil accounted for P122.4 billion or almost 56 percent while power, P24.04 billion or just below 11 percent. For the second half of 2008, government expects to collect P51.6 billion in VAT on oil and P8.4 billion from power.

 

Malacañang is determined to protect these revenues to maintain its good standing among the foreign creditors, who get their signal from the IMF’s assessment of a country’s fiscal position. In 2007, no less than the former managing director of the IMF hailed the Philippine government for its fiscal progress and described the VAT as Arroyo’s “central achievement”. Days before the SONA, the IMF strongly warned the Philippines of the adverse fiscal effects of tax cuts in response to the run-up of oil prices.

 

In her last SONA, Arroyo went as far as to say that scrapping the VAT will only benefit the non-poor (i.e. may kaya) who supposedly consume “84 percent of oil and 90 percent of power”. Thus, the poor according to the government, do not shoulder a heavy burden of the VAT but even gain from it through programs such as the P7.5-billion Katas ng VAT. The Finance department, however, later said that the poor (i.e. low-income) refers to those earning less than P80,000 a year – a ridiculously low standard to measure poverty.

 

Nonetheless, the Katas program has been widely discredited as its various components merely offer one-time dole-outs such as the P500-subsidy for small power users. Its frivolity was fully exposed when the Budget department announced that it is no longer funding the program next year. It cited the falling prices of petroleum for its decision and said that the program will only resume if global oil prices top $200 per barrel next year. Such is the character of the Katas program, which the Arroyo administration hyped so much to counter calls to scrap the VAT on oil and power. At its core, it is an empty publicity and stopgap measure of an embattled government scrambling to justify its anti-poor policies.

 

No matter how Malacañang packages the VAT as a pro-people fiscal measure, it still could not conceal how the regressive tax puts undue additional burden on the consumers. In the case of oil, the VAT has become even more unjustifiable as pump prices soared to record levels, with diesel peaking at P60 per liter in July. Though oil prices have eased in the last couple of weeks, VAT still comprises between P6 to 7 per liter, a significant amount for ordinary income earners especially in these times of double-digit inflation.

 

Arroyo of course also claims that with increased revenues, there are now more funds for the poor – a blatant lie easily exposed by official records. Bureau of Treasury data, for instance, show that from 2001 to 2005, the annual allocation for education was 15.6 percent of the national budget; health, 1.7 percent; housing, 0.2 percent; and debt servicing (interest), 27.8 percent. Comparing these levels with the RVAT period (2006-2007), the share of education even fell by 1.4 percentage points and health by 0.1, while housing slightly increased by 0.2. Interest payments as a portion of the national budget, in contrast, rose by 1.2 percentage points.

 

But Arroyo and her economic managers could not care less, obsessed as they are to achieve fiscal stability and keep the foreign loans flowing. As of first quarter 2008, the country’s foreign debt stood at $54.6 billion, up from $54 billion in the same period a year ago. Government expects to incur an additional foreign debt of $2.3 billion for the whole year, and another $2.5 billion in 2009. Consequently, Malacañang will allocate increasing amounts to pay for these loans – P636.1 billion this year and P681.2 billion next year.

 

What’s in store for Arroyo and her cabal from these debts? Well, think of the botched NBN-ZTE, the Northrail and Southrail, and other projects funded by foreign debt wherein multimillion dollar tongpats abound. This is how the vicious onerous taxes – foreign debt – corruption cycle milk the Filipino people dry.

 

This vicious cycle must end and it is only possible through direct political actions by the people. The series of protests against the VAT in the past months and the favorable public opinion it has created have obviously helped to compel the House ways and means committee to propose the targeted scrapping of the VAT on power. Of course, this is not enough and thus, the people’s campaign to remove the VAT on oil and power must continue and intensify. (END)

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Fiscal issues, Oil deregulation, Poverty

At our expense: Malacañang collects almost P123 M daily in VAT from diesel, kerosene, LPG

Crude futures prices continue to post record highs after breaching the $130 a barrel mark last Wednesday. In my previous article, I have argued that these prices are speculative and while they tend to push prices up in the physical spot market, pump prices in the Philippines should not be affected.

But all Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes can say is that “this is the reality that we must face” as he warned the public yesterday to brace for still higher fuel prices. Reyes added that the government is cancelling the 3% tariffs on imported crude and refined oil to mitigate price hikes by at least 50 centavos per liter.

I do not know what relief this move can provide to hapless consumers considering that oil firms have been implementing P1 a liter weekly oil price hikes and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Compare this with the proposal to scrap the 12% value added tax (VAT) on oil which can immediately lower pump prices by P5 to 6 per liter.

Unfortunately for the public, the VAT particularly on oil is one of the Arroyo government’s most important and reliable sources of tax revenues. But these revenues are raised at our expense as we are forced to cope with spiraling oil prices amid depressed wages and incomes and job scarcity.

To give an idea how much the government has been collecting from the oil VAT and how it burdens ordinary people, let us look at three of the most socially sensitive petroleum products – diesel, kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). In 2007, the average daily consumption for diesel is around 17.63 million liters; kerosene, 4.54 million liters; and LPG, 5.06 million liters.

Applying these consumption levels to 2008 average pump prices, Malacañang has been collecting since the start of the year until May around P122.7 million everyday in VAT revenues from diesel (P82.81 million), kerosene (P17.87 million), and LPG (P22.02 million) alone. This translates to total collections of about P18.65 billion in the first five months of the year for the three petroleum products. (See tables below for details)

Official data from Finance department show that total VAT collections from oil in 2006 and first half of 2007 reached P67.8 billion or 56.2% of total revenues from the VAT during the said period.

2008 estimated VAT collections from diesel

Month

Pump price ave

VAT

Consumption (million liters)*

Est. VAT collections (P million)

Jan

38.45

4.61

546.53

2,521.69

Feb

37.03

4.44

511.27

2,271.88

Mar

38.31

4.60

546.53

2,512.51

Apr

40.28

4.83

528.90

2,556.49

May**

41.54

4.98

546.53

2,724.34

Total VAT collections

12,586.91

* Based on 2007 consumption levels

** Based on 1-7 May ave only

Estimates by Bayan based on DOE data

2008 estimated VAT collections from LPG

Month

Pump price ave

VAT

Consumption (million liters)

Est. VAT collections (P million)

Jan

30.64

3.68

156.86

576.74

Feb

29.52

3.54

146.74

519.81

Mar

29.06

3.49

156.86

547.00

Apr

28.77

3.45

151.80

524.07

May*

29.15

3.50

156.86

548.70

Total VAT collections

2,716.33

* Based on 2007 consumption levels

** Based on 1-7 May ave only

Estimates by Bayan based on DOE data

2008 estimated VAT collections from kerosene

Month

Pump price ave

VAT

Consumption (million liters)

Est. VAT collections (P million)

Jan

39.99

4.80

140.74

675.38

Feb

39.61

4.75

131.66

625.81

Mar

40.90

4.91

140.74

690.75

Apr

42.86

5.14

136.20

700.50

May*

44.12

5.29

140.74

745.13

Total VAT collections

3,437.58

* Based on 2007 consumption levels

** Based on 1-7 May ave only

Estimates by Bayan based on DOE data

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Oil deregulation

$130 a barrel oil: notes on recent oil price trends

The Inquirer’s headline today says that world oil prices have already reached $130 a barrel and that domestic oil companies are implementing weekly price increases supposedly to reflect the uptrend in international prices. But the article is actually referring to the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) futures price for July delivery. It does not have anything to do with the actual or physical supply and demand of oil in the Philippines but is only a speculative price based on speculative supply and demand.

However, it indirectly pushes local oil prices up as physical spot market prices are also affected. So is it reasonable to implement oil price hikes based on the spot price movements? In the Philippines, more than 90% of oil come from long-term supply contracts of transnational oil companies and not from the spot market. But why are oil companies allowed to implement weekly increases in local prices to reflect these movements in the spot market as well as speculative prices? Answer: deregulation which allows oil companies to automatically adjust pump prices. But why does the Arroyo government allow automatic oil price hikes? Answer: VAT.

Price movement

Oil companies, including the Big 3 (Petron, Shell and Chevron) claim that they use benchmark prices in the international oil market to determine domestic pump prices. For crude oil importers such as Petron and Shell, they refer to the Dubai crude spot price while other players that import refined petroleum products like Chevron refer to the Mean of Platt’s Singapore (MOPS) spot prices.

Table 1 shows that the spot price of the benchmark Dubai crude is now pegged at $110.72 per barrel as of the first seven days of May. It breached the $100 a barrel monthly average in April and is now 26.7% higher than its average last January. On the other hand, MOPS-based unleaded gasoline averaged $122.37 per barrel in the first nine days of May while diesel, $146.34 per barrel. The said figures are 21.7% and 35.6% higher, respectively than their averages last January. 

Table 1. Crude benchmarks & foreign exchange, Monthly average, 2008 (crude prices in $ per bbl; forex in P per $)

Month

Dubai

Brent

WTI

Forex

Dec 2007

86.87

92.51

94.67

43.20

Jan

87.37

92.19

94.24

40.90

Feb

90.02

94.73

95.53

40.66

Mar

96.76

103.26

106.07

41.35

Apr

103.41

109.98

112.80

41.84

May*

110.72

116.42

118.85

42.49

*May 1-7 ave only

Source: Department of Energy/Platt’s

Meanwhile, the country’s foreign exchange has been declining since the start of the year with a 1-7 May average of P42.49 per US dollar, weaker by P1.59 from its January average.

These factors have supposedly combined to push domestic pump prices up. Table 2 shows that during the period in review, the prevailing pump price of unleaded gasoline in the National Capital Region (NCR) surged by P4.11 per liter between its January average and 1-7 May average; kerosene, by P4.13; and diesel, by P3.09. Overall, the average retail price of various petroleum products increased by P3.58 per liter during the said period.  

Table 2. Prevailing pump prices in NCR, Monthly ave, 2008 (in P per liter)

Month

Premium

Unleaded

Regular

Kerosene

Diesel

LPG (per 11-kg tank)

Ave retail

Jan

45.08

44.45

41.76

39.99

38.45

602.93

41.10

Feb

44.66

44.04

41.35

39.61

37.03

580.89

40.16

Mar

45.95

45.33

42.63

40.90

38.31

571.84

41.45

Apr

47.91

47.29

44.60

42.86

40.28

566.14

43.41

May*

49.17

48.56

45.86

44.12

41.54

573.61

44.68

* As of 7 May

Source: Department of Energy

Domestic pump prices have increased much more rapidly this year than in the previous years. Table 3 shows that the prevailing price of diesel in NCR as 7 May, for example, has already exceeded the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan’s (New Patriotic Alliance or Bayan) simulated monthly price for May 2008 based on the monthly average growth rate for 1996-2007 (deregulation period) and for 2005-2007. Note that the said prevailing price does not yet reflect the latest round (as of this writing) of P1 a liter oil price hike (OPH) implemented by the oil firms last 10 May. Five days before the said OPH round, Shell has warned that oil firms allegedly still need to recover P6-7 per liter more in the coming weeks.

Table 3. Actual pump price movement vs Bayan’s simulated prices for diesel, 2008 (in P per liter)

Month

Actual diesel pump price

Based on 1996-2007 growth rate

Based on 2005-2007 growth rate

Jan

38.45

38.50

38.76

Feb

37.03

39.00

39.39

Mar

38.31

39.50

40.03

Apr

40.28

40.01

40.69

May*

41.54

40.53

41.35

*Actual diesel pump price for May as of 7 May only

Source of basic data: DOE

Unmitigated price increases allowed under Republic Act (RA) 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law of 1998 has only worsened the fundamental problem of transfer pricing by the global oil cartel and the speculative attacks by transnational banks and other giant financial firms that further artificially push oil prices up in the international market and taken advantage by the local Big 3 cartel (local units of the global cartel).

Massive speculation, and not physical supply and demand balance, continues to account for recent global oil price surges with the Goldman Sachs predicting in May that prices could rise as high as $200 a barrel over the next six months to two years. One estimate claims that speculation now comprises as much as 60% of current global oil prices.

Token measures

Note that there was a general decline in domestic pump prices in February in spite of an uptrend in Dubai crude and MOPS spot prices apparently due to the Arroyo government’s efforts to gain political points for the Energy Summit it organized from 29-31 January and 5 February. It was also the period that the clamor to scrap the 12% value added tax (VAT) on oil products to immediately lower pump prices started to gain ground.

To fend off criticisms that the Energy Summit does not offer anything concrete that could bring down pump prices as well as to derail the campaign to scrap the oil VAT, GMA rehashed the oil tariff adjustment mechanism through Executive Order (EO) 691. Under this system, tariffs on imported crude oil and petroleum products will be reduced or waived based on certain trigger prices. For February, GMA ordered a tariff cut of one percentage point.

Taking their cue from Malacañang, the biggest oil companies Petron and Shell implemented an oil price rollback of as much as P1 per liter starting 29 January and the other players followed suit. But it has been a steep climb for domestic pump prices since then, starting with the 50 centavo a liter hike implemented by the oil firms on 1 March.

Overall, oil companies have implemented 10 rounds of oil price hikes that increased the pump prices of gasoline, kerosene and diesel by P6 per liter between 1 March and 10 May, or an average of one OPH round per week. The biggest increases were implemented on 3 May and 10 May, when pump prices were raised by P1 per liter in each round from the usual 50 centavos a liter in the previous weekly increases.

The price increases since March has exposed the worthlessness of the oil tariff cut mechanism in lowering pump prices. For instance, the trigger price set by the Department of Finance (DOF) to reduce oil tariff from 3% to 0% for MOPS-based diesel is $115.2 per barrel and $103.25 per barrel for Dubai crude. Table 4 shows that since March, MOPS-based diesel price has already breached the DOF trigger price and Dubai crude, since April. This means that the government is no longer collecting oil tariffs to supposedly mitigate domestic pump price increases but such intervention has not been felt at all.

Table 4. Oil tariff cut trigger prices vs actual global prices, March-May 2008 (in $ per bbl)

Benchmark

Trigger price to reduce tariff to 2%

Trigger price to reduce tariff to 1%

Trigger price to waive tariff

March monthly ave

April monthly ave

1-7 May monthly ave

MOPS diesel

105.00

110.00

115.70

128.00

141.98

146.34

Dubai crude

83.37

92.41

103.25

96.76

103.41

110.72

Sources of basic data: DOF, DOE & MOPS

In the face of more and bigger price hikes in the coming weeks, the Department of Energy (DOE) asked the oil firms to justify the increases but then later retreated to its usual helpless mode of pleading the oil companies to implement staggered increases. In response, Petron announced that it will revert to 50 centavo weekly price hikes until July to recover its supposed losses. But note also that Petron made the announcement on the same day that the nationwide transport strike and people’s protest against the oil VAT and the Oil Deregulation Law was held. Thus the announcement was an obvious, albeit meaningless, effort to appease the public.

VAT cancellation

Meanwhile, the Arroyo government continues to ignore the demand to cancel the VAT on oil products as a doable measure to immediately bring down pump prices. The latest statement came from the DOF which argued that the “VAT on oil should be collected to fund the 2008 budget.” Instead of oil VAT cancellation, the DOF is proposing to “use the revenues (from VAT) for targeted expenditures to cushion the impact of oil price hikes on the poorest of the poor.”

However, scrapping the VAT on oil remains the most immediately doable policy option which can significantly lower pump prices and provide relief to the consumers. Table 5 shows that based on the prevailing prices in NCR as of 7 May, VAT cancellation can immediately bring down pump prices of unleaded gasoline by P5.83 per liter; kerosene, P5.29; diesel, P4.98; and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), P68.83 per 11-kilogram cylinder tank.

Table 5. Comparative pump prices, with VAT & without VAT, as of 7 May 2008

Product

With VAT

Without VAT

Difference

Premium plus

50.26

44.23

6.03

Premium

49.17

43.27

5.90

Unleaded

48.56

42.73

5.83

Regular

45.86

40.36

5.50

AV turbo

48.17

42.39

5.78

Kerosene

44.12

38.83

5.29

Diesel

41.54

36.56

4.98

Fuel oil

31.57

27.78

3.79

LPG*

29.15

25.65

3.50

* LPG prices equivalent to P573.61 per 11-kg tank with VAT & P504.78 w/o VAT

Source of basic data: DOE

In justifying the oil VAT, the DOF said that scrapping the said regressive tax will “bring minimal benefits to the lowest income groups.” But Bayan has already pointed out the concrete and direct benefits that the poor will reap from the oil VAT cancellation, including the jeepney and tricycle drivers, small fishers, and poor households using kerosene and LPG, as summarized in Table 6.

Table 6. Estimated benefits of oil VAT cancellation based on 7 May 2008 prevailing prices in NCR

Sector

How much do they spend on oil?

How much will they save without the oil VAT?

How many will benefit? (nationwide)

With VAT

Without VAT

Jeepney drivers using 30 liters of diesel per daily trip

P1,246.20 per daily trip

P1,096.66 per daily trip

P149.54 per daily trip

426,572 jeepney drivers

Tricycle drivers using 4 liters of unleaded gasoline per daily trip

P194.24 per daily trip

P170.93 per daily trip

P23.21 per daily trip

581,578 tricycle drivers

Small fishers using motorized bancas with 10 liters of regular gasoline per fishing trip

P458.60 per fishing trip

P403.57 per fishing trip

P55.03 per fishing trip

708,000 small fishers

Households using 11-kg LPG tank

P573.61 per tank

P504.78 per tank

P68.63 per tank

8.6 million households

Households using 4.2 liters of kerosene per month for lighting & cooking

P185.30 per month

P163.07 per month

P22.24 per month

9.4 million households

Sources of basic data: DOE, LTO, IMF, NSO, Piston, Pamalakaya, interviews

The real reason behind Malacañang’s persistent refusal to scrap the oil VAT is its impact on the national budget deficit that could affect the regime’s foreign borrowings. The oil VAT provides a steady stream of revenues for the government, especially amidst high oil prices, which is favorable for the country’s credit worthiness. The DOF estimated that removing the VAT on oil products will result in P54 billion annual revenue losses for the national government. Table 7 also shows that the oil VAT accounted for 56.2% of total VAT revenues raised by the GMA regime from 2006 to the first half of 2007.

Table 7. VAT collections, 2006 & 1st sem 2007 (in P billion)

Period

Oil VAT

Others

Total VAT

Jan-Dec 2006

49.20

27.70

76.90

Jan-Jul 2007

18.60

25.10

43.70

Total

67.80

52.80

120.60

Source: DOF

Higher oil prices mean more revenues for the GMA regime that will assure its foreign creditors of debt repayments. In 2006, for example, Bayan estimates show that the government collected an average of P4.34 per liter in VAT for all petroleum products. This year, it is collecting 72 centavos per liter more in oil VAT due to unabated price increases. (See Chart 7)

Table 7. Annual average retail price of all petroleum products & VAT collections (in P per liter)

Year

Ave retail price

VAT collection

2006

36.17

4.34

2007

36.48

4.38

2008*

42.16

5.06

*Jan-7 May only

Source of basic data: DOF

The regime’s so-called fiscal health should take a backseat to the more pressing problem of the ordinary people on high and increasing oil prices. In the first place, the government is raising revenues to supposedly help ease the people’s burden – a responsibility that it has not been fulfilling as most revenues go to debt servicing and lost to corruption. Cancelling the oil VAT thus simply means returning back the people’s money which will translate to actual, immediate and direct benefits (in the form of lower oil prices and improved incomes) instead of entrusting that money to a corrupt and anti-poor regime through the oil VAT.

Furthermore, even if the oil VAT is removed, there are other measures that government can do to raise revenues. Tax effort, for instance is dismal – in 2007, tax effort was only 10.3%, a significant drop from 2006’s 14.3 percent. Certainly, improving efficiency in tax collections will result in billions of pesos in additional revenues. Addressing bureaucratic corruption can raise revenues as well as an estimated P30 billion in public funds are lost annually due anomalous contracts alone such as the NBN-ZTE scam. Tax perks and fiscal incentives to big foreign corporations and the liberalization of trade have also resulted in billions of pesos in foregone revenues and these policies must be reversed.

At present, there are two bills pending at the Senate that seek to suspend or scrap the oil VAT. Senate Bill (SB) 1962 filed by Senator Mar Roxas proposes to suspend the imposition of the oil VAT for six months. SB 1977 of Senator Miguel Zubiri, on the other hand, offers to exempt petroleum products (as well as electricity) from the VAT. SB 1962 and SB 1977 have been pending at the ways and means committee of the Senate since December 2007. At the House of Representatives, the Bayan Muna (People First) party-list has filed House Bill (HB) 3442 to cancel the VAT on petroleum products but has yet to be scheduled for first reading.

But while the VAT removal could provide immediate relief, such respite is only temporary. It can be wiped out in the coming months as oil prices continue to escalate. Thus, the call to scrap the VAT on oil must be complemented by price control and repeal of the ODL with the direction towards the nationalization of the Philippine oil industry. This is the only way that we can protect our people and the economy from the merciless attacks of speculation and price manipulation by transnational corporations.

Sources and notes

P6-7 fuel price increase seen, Philippine Daily Inquirer online, 6 May 2008

RA 8479 is actually the second Oil Deregulation Law. The first, RA 8180, was passed in 1996 but was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997

For further discussion, please refer to Hinggil sa pagtaas ng presyo ng langis, Bayan’s powerpoint presentation downloadable from its website < http://www.bayan.ph/>

Democrats: close speculation loophole, CNNMoney.com, 8 May 2008

Perhaps 60% of today’s oil is pure speculation by F. William Engdahl, Financial Sense Editorials, 2 May 2008

EO 691 was signed by GMA on 10 January 2008

Palace: no cut in VAT on oil, Philippine Daily Inquirer online, 15 January 2008

(2nd update) Oil firms to cut prices by P1/liter, ABS-CBN news online, 29 January 2008

Oil firms decide week not complete without price hike, Philippine Daily Inquirer online, 10 May 2008

Major oil firm to revert fuel price hikes P0.50, Business World online, 13 May 2008

DOF counts cost of suspending VAT on oil, Business World online, 13 May 2008

ibid

Sen. Roxas, on the other hand, claims that net yearly revenue losses if the oil VAT is removed is only around P30 billion because the amount saved by consumers from the VAT removal can be translated to increased consumption of other VAT-able goods and services.

There is no available data yet on full-year VAT collections for 2007 showing revenues from the oil VAT. Latest data from the Bureau of Treasury peg total VAT revenues at P69.47 billion from January to September 2007.

Corruption, inefficiency cost govt P30B yearly, Manila Times internet edition, 4 April 2008

Addressing the oil price increase, Senate Economic Planning Office policy brief, January 2008

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Economy

Real story for 2008: more hardships, more unrest

Gloria Arroyo’s distorted version of reality shows how detached her regime is from the people who face worsening poverty and hunger. But empty propaganda about economic growth will not quell the deteriorating political crisis that engulfs the country today.

Arroyo proclaimed Thursday (March 27) that the “real story for 2008” is that the economy grew by 7.3 percent last year, the fastest in three decades, and that the Philippines is on track to become a First World country. She attributed such milestone to “tough” decisions she made including increasing and expanding the taxes that people pay like the 12 percent value added tax (VAT). But she assured the people that the benefits of a robust economy will soon “trickle down” on them. Arroyo also dismissed the raging political crisis as “noise” that does not need to interfere with economic progress and reform.

The statement was issued by Arroyo immediately after the Supreme Court (SC) issued its 9 – 6 decision upholding the argument of former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) secretary Romulo Neri that his conversations with Arroyo on the anomalous broadband scandal is covered by executive privilege. With this victory in the SC, Arroyo now goes on a propaganda offensive anchored on her supposed achievements in turning the economy around.

Meaningless economic growth

What Arroyo refers to is the growth of the aggregate production of the various economic sectors. Economics is not only about the creation of wealth but more importantly, how such wealth is equitably distributed. Equitable wealth distribution is ensured through the generation of sufficient and productive jobs in the domestic economy, decent wages and income, and availability of reliable social services, among others. These must be carried out through programs and projects by the government because without them, economic growth becomes meaningless to most people, in particular the poor. Yet, domestic job creation, decent wages and income, and reliable social services have been neglected and compromised by the Arroyo regime.

Job scarcity remains alarming and has been described by the think tank IBON Foundation as the worst in the country’s history. The January 2008 Labor Force Survey (LFS) of the National Statistics Office (NSO) shows that around 9.6 million Filipinos are either jobless or underemployed. The number of unemployed is much higher than official figures because of flawed methodology and distorted employment definition that the NSO uses in the LFS.

Meanwhile, those who managed to land a job are not assured of a decent and sufficient income. In Metro Manila, for instance, the daily cost of living per family is pegged at P806 as of December 2007 based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC). But an ordinary worker receives only P325 to P362 per day. This means that most families with one wage earner can only fulfill 40 to 45 percent of the amount needed to meet their daily food and non-food needs.

No wonder that amid a supposedly vibrant economy, poverty continues to worsen in the Philippines. The number of poor Filipinos has increased by 3.8 million between 2003 and 2006, data from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) show. Again, such poverty figure, while already high by any standard, is grossly understated. For the government, a person with around P41 per day is not considered poor.

Poor and jobless, the people rely on social services that the government provides such as health care, education, housing, etc. But social services are lacking as well in spite of the increased taxes that the people are forced to shoulder. Since the RVAT (reformed VAT, which raised the tax from 10 to 12 percent and further expanded to include oil and power, among others) was implemented in 2005, tax revenues have jumped by an average of 18 percent in 2006 and 2007 or more than P159 million per year. However, this did not translate to better social services as debt servicing continues to eat up a huge portion of the country’s resources. In 2006, for instance, IBON noted that payments for interest and principal were equivalent to around 87 percent of total revenues, an all-time high.

Worse, these debts include odious and illegitimate debts like the botched national broadband network (NBN), Northrail and Southrail projects, the cyber education project, and others that have been hugely bloated by kickback and commissions of corrupt government officials.

More hardships

The SC decision may have seemed to bolster the earlier claim of national security adviser Norberto Gonzales that the worst of the political crisis is over and that Arroyo has survived the $329-million NBN corruption scandal. But the battle in the SC is not yet over, as various sectors now prepare to question the decision. At an initial vote of 9 versus 6, and with the strong dissenting opinions led by SC chief justice Reynato Puno, there is reason to hope that the SC decision may still be reversed and compel Neri to expose Arroyo’s involvement in the broadband scam.

And unfortunately for Arroyo, the worsening economic hardship, intensifying, repression and persistent corruption allegations will continue to feed social unrest and fan political instability. The worst is yet to come for the embattled regime.

Already, the rice crisis is stimulating more instability as rice prices shoot up to unprecedented levels in March and are projected to increase further to around P40 a kilo in the coming months as supply becomes tighter. In the last five weeks, the pump prices of oil products have jumped by P2.50 per liter, forcing transport groups to ask for a fare hike. Bayan has projected that petroleum prices could reach as much as P50 per liter and LPG, more than P700 per cylinder tank, by yearend if no price intervention is done by the government. Meanwhile, Meralco is asking for another round of increases in its power rates.

Trends indicate that the worsening economic hardship will persist and intensify in the coming months. Unprecedented oil price increases, almost simultaneous hikes in the prices rice and other basic food items, utilities, etc will continue to erode wages and income. At the global level, the looming US recession has yet to take its full impact on the local economy. But once it does, expect a serious production slowdown that could mean higher unemployment and poverty.

There are also no signs that Arroyo will depart from her current pro-market and anti-people economic policies. She could not afford, for example, to let go of the regressive VAT. While the VAT contributes to high prices of basic goods and services, it is also the most reliable source of revenues for the bankrupt regime. On the other hand, Arroyo is pushing for more liberalization and privatization of rice importation in the country. If implemented, this could further worsen the rice crisis as local production is further discouraged and private traders jack up retail prices.

More unrest

Meanwhile, the repression of the Arroyo regime of legitimate protests for economic and political reforms is becoming more vicious. The brutal dispersal of protesting workers in front of the Labor department on March 6 shows the readiness of the regime to use more violence to preserve itself. But this only fuels the people’s outrage and determination to fight for justice and reforms.

Furthermore, the public perception that corruption under the Arroyo regime is chronic remains pervasive and will continue to hound Arroyo. A Pulse Asia survey in October 2007 shows that Arroyo is perceived by most Filipinos to be the most corrupt president. This has been confirmed by a recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) that ranked the Philippines as the most corrupt country in Asia.

The combination of worsening poverty, increasing repression, and continuing efforts to cover up corruption provides the condition for the lingering unrest and more protests.

The people will not remain passive amid the current political turmoil. They will take action once they realize that their plight is being aggravated by the wrong economic policies, repression, and corruption of the Arroyo regime. This will further strengthen the growing movement calling for a change in the national leadership and for meaningful political and economic reforms.

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