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.
Over the past one year, the RBI has embarked on an ambitious inflation management programme, raising key rates consistently, but with little success so far. A sustained continuation of monetary transmission into higher lending rates could impact both consumption and investment demand
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Thursday raised its short-term lending (repo) and borrowing (reverse repo) rates by 0.25%, clearly choosing inflation control as its main focus that would certainly have some downside risks to economic growth. According to economists and industry experts, the move will put further pressure on financial institutions like banks, to increase deposit rates as well as auto, home and commercial loans.
"While inflation control may remain their (RBI's) bias, growth rate below a threshold will also worry them," said KVS Manian, group head for consumer banking at Kotak Mahindra Bank. "The latest figure on auto sales, general trends in home sales and the preliminary direct (advance) and indirect tax numbers do not allow us to dismiss growth worries. And lastly, given the global commodity prices, there may be a new normal to inflation and it may not entirely be controllable by monetary policy."
In its monetary review, the central bank, however, kept its cash reserve ratio (CRR), the cash which banks are required to keep with the RBI, and the bank rate unchanged. The repo rate now stands at 7.5%. The reverse repo rate will be 100 basis points (bps) lower than the repo rate at 6.5%.
Amar Ambani, head-research for private client group at India Infoline, said, "The RBI raised the repo rate by 25 basis points (bps) to 7.5%, choosing price stability in the growth-inflation trade-off. China raising rates too added credence to the RBI decision to hike rates further. While the news seem factored in the market pricing, we see pressure building on consumption plays, autos and select banks too."
Despite 425 bps of effective tightening, inflation, as measured by both the wholesale and consumer indices remains elevated at over 9% levels. "While, so far, there is not a great deal of moderation in credit growth and industrial activity, especially in the light of the revamped Index of Industrial Production (IIP) data, a sustained continuation of monetary transmission into higher lending rates could impact both consumption and investment demand," said Deven Sangoi, head for equity, Birla Sun Life Insurance.
The RBI said it expects the policy action to contain inflation and anchor inflationary expectations by reining in demand side pressures and mitigate the risk to growth from potentially adverse global developments. "The monetary policy stance remains firmly anti-inflationary, recognising that, in the current circumstances, some short-run deceleration in growth may be unavoidable in bringing inflation under control," the central bank said.
Sonal Varma, vice-president and India economist at Nomura, said, "In our opinion, this tug-of-war between growth and inflation will intensify. The slowdown that started with industry and weakened investments is feeding into services with moderation in consumer durables. Despite more than 400 bps of effective tightening over a 14-month span, the wholesale price index (WPI) inflation has remained high at 9.1% year-on-year (y-o-y) in May, compared to 10.5% a year ago, raising the question of why rate hikes have not yet been effective."
The RBI has been waging a war against inflation, but its year-long efforts don't seem to be having the desired impact. On the other hand, there has been some moderation in the economy. During the January-March quarter, the gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by only 7.8%, the slowest pace of growth in the last five quarters. At the same time, factory output-as measured by the IIP-grew by only 6.3% in April, as against 13.1% same period last fiscal.
Pradeep Jain, chairman, Parsvnath Developers, said, "Inflation continues to remain high despite the RBI raising lending (repo) and borrowing (reverse repo) rates. We request the central bank to make provisions so as to increase the supply in the market. These increases in key rates are having an impact on growth and the repeated rate hikes have led to dwindling investment, which in turn, has led to a slowdown in economic expansion." Mr Jain is also chairman of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Association of India (CREDAI).
Echoing this view, Anuj Puri, chairman and country head, Jones Lang LaSalle India, said, "Purchasing activity had already dropped visibly during the last tranche of interest rate hikes, and we will see a further drop in buyer interest now." Elaborating on the effects of the latest rate hike on the real estate business, he said, "The RBI's hiking of the repo rate by 25 basis points is far from good news for the real estate sector, especially in terms of housing. As for developers coming down on their prices to counter the negative effects of this hike, a lot depends on the financial ability of individual developers to hold on to their current pricing and risk losing sales till the situation improves. Developers with enough capital base are less likely to relent on pricing than smaller developers with an urgent need to sell their stock."
The rate hike would also affect the automobile industry, as it would dampen demand. Pawan Goenka, president, Auto & Farm Equipment Sector, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), and president of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), told the Press Trust of India that the RBI's move will have a negative impact on the industry. "It (the rate hike) was expected... Now we would like to see how much banks pass the burden (on to customers)," he said.
Dilip Modi, president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), said, "High input prices, rising finance costs and global uncertainties are adding to the negative sentiment. All these factors, in a high interest rate environment, will most certainly put the brakes on new investments and put corporate India in a difficult position to maintain the growth momentum."
Over the past year, the RBI has undertaken a highly ambitious inflation management programme, raising key rates consistently, but the results are not really visible yet. There has been an effective increase of 425 bps from a low of 3.25% (reverse repo rate) in the January-March quarter of 2010, to the current repo rate of 7.5%. This clearly shows the limitations of the Centre in taming inflation and economist feel that the government also needs to take other strong measures, like ensuring a proper public distribution system for key food articles, and crack down on hoarders as a measure to control inflation.
Dr Veena Mishra, chief economist, Mahindra Group, said, "Domestic growth has clearly moderated compared to a year ago, but this is, in my view, more the result of policy inaction on the part of the government rather than the monetary actions of the RBI. Without further policy reforms, a stable 'high growth-low inflation' trajectory just will not materialize."
The RBI has been downplaying growth concerns, due to the continued upside risks of inflation. These emanate from an incomplete pass-through of fuel prices, a possible hike in coal and electricity prices and high commodity prices on a year-on-year basis. "WPI inflation has remained high at 9.1% y-o-y in May. One reason is that fiscal policy, by raising farm support prices and boosting rural incomes, is offsetting the impact of higher rates. Therefore, there is an asymmetric impact of tight policy, with investment falling, while consumption demand is less affected. Additionally, the WPI basket is dominated by commodities and even the RBI's measure of core inflation-non-food manufactured WPI-is a mix of input and output prices. So, unless commodity prices ease, inflation should persist," said Ms Varma from Nomura.
Economists and analysts suggest that a good monsoon and moderation in commodity prices, as well as the global growth outlook, would determine the RBI's policy over the next few months. A majority of them expect inflation to stay elevated till September and that the central bank will hike rates by another 25 bps on 26th July. The RBI may feel that if it cannot control commodity prices, it can cut pricing power by squeezing demand, however, for consumers, especially borrowers, it can only mean more bad news.