Though I have never invested in the shares of Reliance Industries, my recently gleaned understanding of the world petroleum scenario has made me respect the company’s vision in its refining projects. As I mentioned once earlier, RIL’s existing refinery, and the one nearing construction, reportedly have unparalleled flexibility to process heavy, high-sulphur (so-called sour) crude, especially that emanating from Iran. This crude sells at a huge discount to other crudes; once it is refined into diesel, though, RIL is able to sell the resultant distillates, especially diesel, into a world market which is thirsty for such products.
Most mature consumers, the US especially, have made no investment in refining capacity over the last 2 decades, and strategic thinkers in the petroleum industry go so far as to say that RIL’s investments are changing the pattern of world flows in petroleum and petroleum products.
For this reason, I have recently turned from a bear on RIL to a mildly positive neutral. Until last week, that is. With Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh all but in the ruling coalition, suddenly life has become difficult for Mukesh Ambani. The first salvo across his bows was a minor irritant, namely the questioning of concessional import duty paid on two private jets.
More significantly, there are now calls for a ‘windfall tax’ on profits RIL is making on its refining operations. Nothing could more arbitrary than such a tax; windfall taxes have been discussed in the US, on the extra profits oil companies make when commodity prices suddenly ramp up – the implicit logic being that the companies have done nothing to earn this extra profit. I disagree with such taxes, in any case, since anyone who invests in an industry, resource-based or otherwise, runs the risk of prices being lower than he anticipated – in which case he is not compensated by the exchequer.
But in the proposal that RIL be taxed, all one sees is the vindictiveness of those opposed to him. If RIL is making higher profits than other refineries, this is due to its far-sightedness in investing in a more complex and sophisticated refinery. The profits accruing from such an operation are far from a ‘windfall’, a term normally used to describe a lottery win, for example.
If this nonsensical suggestion is accepted by the government, it will send out a signal that Indian governance is of the banana republic variety.
Mohit Satyanand is consulting editor at Outlook Money