Muted growth in corporate profit, a US slowdown, a stronger dollar and reduced FII inflows…...
No one held guilty in the faulty petroleum adulterant marker case
Moneylife recently reported about the plight of a whistleblower, who took on Indian Oil Corporation, but has not been compensated fully despite a judicial victory. He is not alone, though. Whistleblowers at Hindustan Petroleum, after almost a year, are still similarly unemployed and their plight ignored.
In August 2010, the Bombay High Court upheld the complaint made against the authenticity of an adulterant marker, which the government had purchased at extraordinarily high rates from a UK firm. HPCL officials Ravi Srivastava and Ashok Singh lost their jobs in 2008, when they blew the lid on the issue. Though the court order vindicated their stand, they have neither been compensated financially, nor reinstated in their jobs.
A message from Moneylife to HPCL on this issue has not been answered.
"We are still without jobs," said Mr Srivastava, "just doing some work with some consultants here and there. No compensation, no prestige." To add insult to injury, in November 2010 Mr Srivastava's RTI query to the oil ministry about the status of the Authentix marker revealed that 'the inquiry is still in progress'.
"It has been proved that this adulterant marker could be easily tampered. The CBI has also registered a case against MS Srinivasan, the then secretary in the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, Authentix and their Indian agent SGS, and several officials from oil companies like Bharat Petroleum, HPCL and Indian Oil. What is left to be proved," Mr Srivastava asked.
A marker is a coloured chemical, which if added to substances like kerosene or naptha, can be visually detected if these are mixed with petroleum for adulteration. The government, in order to stop massive adulteration by addition of kerosene allocated to PDS, asked all oil companies to add a supposedly infallible marker from Authentix in kerosene and other cheap fuels in 2006.
Mr Srivastava and his colleague were serving as treasurer and president of the Oil Sector Officers' Association (OSOA), when in May 2008 they received complaints from various corners that there were 'serious irregularities in procurement, specification and implementation' of the policy on this particular marker.
The officers investigated the matter, and discovered that the marker could be got rid of easily with clay and other ordinary lab chemicals. A website named Indianpetro.com conducted a survey at several petrol pumps, depots and oil-cargo ferries, and concluded that the marker had fared pretty badly. The government had also struck a benevolent deal with Authentix, via their Indian agents SGS, and the marker was purchased at Rs13,000 per litre without any chemical specifications. No wonder, Authentix listed the deal as the "largest fuel adulterant marking contract in history" on their website.
When they pointed out the flaws with the marker, Mr Singh was fired first, and Mr Srivastava was stripped of all facilities, accommodation and perquisites. Later, when the officers protested against the arbitrary appointment of a non-employee to a high position, Mr Srivastava was accused of 'instigating other officers' and fired from his job.
In 2008, the duo approached the chief vigilance commissioner, who refused to grant them protection as whistleblowers, treating them as ordinary complainants. A year later, CNN-IBN reported their story and exposed Authentix's dubious reputation abroad. In April 2010, Simpreet Singh, activist, filed a writ petition against the oil ministry's extravagant favour granted to Authentix. During the hearing, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) also released a report that showed there were many lapses in the process, and that the government had awarded the contract to Authentix without inviting a global tender.
The Bombay High Court upheld the whistleblowers' complaints. However, they received no compensation. "Neither Murli Deora who was the minister then, nor other government officials, nor the companies were punished. And, the inquiry on Authentix marker is still 'in progress'. Why would anyone risk their necks to point out discrepancies then," he said.
Fuel adulteration has reached worrying proportions, and the oil mafia has got more entrenched. In January, Yashwant Sonawane, additional collector, was burnt alive when he tried to investigate an instance of fuel theft. If the government chooses to ignore the calls from within the industry and does not protect the whistleblowers, the perils will intensify.
If the market goes down, when should you step in?
Except under abnormal market conditions, the Sensex moves in a P/E band of 13-22. When the expected earnings growth is strong, investors rush into stocks, bidding market P/E to 22+. When there are tremendous headwinds to corporate earnings, earnings may still grow, but stock prices would come down and the Sensex P/E will get compressed to around 12-13.
In case of extreme mania, the P/E can shoot to double these levels too. It happened during the Harshad Mehta scam in 1992 and again in 1994 when the foreign institutional investors ‘discovered’ India and threw all caution to the winds taking the market P/E to 57. Conversely, when pessimism is extreme, or there is an extraneous shock, the market P/E can come down to below 10 based on the expected EPS. It has at least happened thrice in the past 20 years—in November 1998 (during the Asian crisis), in May 2004 (when the BJP-led government was voted out) and once in October 2008 (during the US meltdown).
Where are we now on the valuation count? For FY11-12, we expect the Sensex EPS to be around Rs1,150, based on a 10% rise in EPS next year, factoring in all the current macroeconomic problems. This translates into a P/E of 16.1. The market is not expensive but is not cheap either, especially since earnings growth will be only 10%. Expect the Sensex to be trading in a band of 23,000 (P/E of 20), if earnings seem to bounce back to a 20% range and 15,000 (P/E of 13), if things worsen further.