Friday, 7 July 2017

The good bits from the half-baked cake

It's a shame that MBIE's inquiry into the petrol industry was semi-botched. The commissioned report did some good stuff, but was unable - and was always going to be unable, given the time and resource constraints it was lumbered with - to get to the only answer that would have really mattered: are the returns ('WACC') earned by the petrol companies excessive compared to what is reasonable for an industry like petrol retailing?

That, self-evidently, requires a set of standardised financial information so the companies can be assessed in a sensible way. But as the report team found the data wasn't always there at all, let alone reported on an industry-wide consistent basis, and it would have involved a good deal of heavy-duty financial analysis to make it consistent, as anyone involved with price regulation under Part 4 of the Commerce Act knows. The back end of Chapter 4 of the report lists all the knotty issues: they weren't going to be put to bed in the few months the report team were given.

I'm no great fan of finger-pointing with the benefit of hindsight, but on this occasion I think that the government and MBIE should have known there was a high risk that the profitability numbers, key to any definitive answers, weren't going to be forthcoming given the time and resources allotted.

And I'm also uncomfortable with this kind of judicial limbo. The petrol companies are neither clearly off the hook, nor clearly convicted. I'm not sure governments should be publishing reports, about anyone, effectively saying "you could well be up to something". That can't be right: prove something, or clear off.

That's another benefit, by the way, of properly resourced market studies rather than hurried half-measures. People tend to think that market studies are mostly used to find rorts and abuses, and of course they can and have, but equally they can clear companies of popular misconceptions. In New Zealand (and even more so in Australia) there is always going to be somebody having a go at some industry or other. Sometimes the go is well-founded, sometimes it's basely political: properly run market inquiries can put the facts to bed and see off the uninformed muckrakers. This half-baked time round, we ended up with just about the worst outcome, for everyone, of suspicions left unresolved. And we're now going to have to do the full, proper inquiry that should have been done in the first place.

More positively, the report did find some interesting non-WACC results. This pattern of regional petrol margins, for example, confirmed a lot of what the Commerce Commission's Z / Chevron decision had also found.

This is consistent with Gull constraining profitability where it operates (only north of Wellington). As the Commission put it (para 205), "The evidence suggests Gull is acting as a significant competitive force driving prices downwards".

What's happening in the rest of the country? Three of the Commissioners in Z / Chevron kicked for touch: they said (para 231.2) that in non-Gull areas, "it is unclear whether, viewed in the round, individual local market conditions can be said to be conducive to a coordinated outcome. There are a range of market features, that do not all point in the same direction", and anyway Z acquiring Chevron wouldn't make any difference to whatever was happening. The dissenting Commissioner, Dr Jill Walker, felt (para 10 of her dissent) that "there is currently evidence of such tacit coordination among petrol retailers which follows a leader-follower pattern".

She'd also argued (para 13, footnotes omitted) that "The increase in margins...appears to have come about from Z’s different strategy from Shell. Z has told us that Shell focused on generating volumes of sales and led prices down. Z has shifted to a strategy focused on increased margins at the expense of volume ".

This latest report found the same, as this graph (on p63) shows.

In the bottom half of the chart, Shell often used to take the lead in cutting prices: it never led prices up (BP tended to be first). In the top half, these days Shell, now Z, still does a fair amount of being first to cut prices, but it is now also prepared to lead prices up (it's slightly more active at it than Caltex and BP).

I'd stress there is nothing wrong from a Commerce Act point of view with any of this: any of these companies can pursue any independent pricing policy they like, even if it is follow-my-leader. And as the report notes (page 63) about the change in pricing strategy, "Z Energy – and some other interviewees – maintain that this was necessary, due to margins being too low because of Shell’s approach". But as I argued yesterday the excessively short-term focus of the MBIE enquiry - what's happened to margins since 2011? - meant that the question of whether margins had merely returned to more normal longer-term averages could not be explored properly either.

Finally, there's the finding that the pre-tax price of petrol is high by international standards, as this graph (on page 3) showed: the report said that "New Zealand is now an outlier when it comes to the pre-tax price of fuel".

Well, strictly true I suppose, depending on how "out" you need an "outlier" to be. Here's the same data graphed a bit differently (it's here on MBIE's website). Some countries are a bit higher than the average, some a bit below, nobody is a zillion miles out of line, so I wouldn't necessarily make a song and dance about "outliers".

That said, we are where we are. And while the pre-tax price isn't the be-all and end-all of anything - as the charts show (and the report also notes), taxes tend to make up most of the retail price - it's still an interesting fact that our pre-tax price is on the high side. If indeed it is a permanent fact at all, and not some unlucky draw of prices in particular one quarter at one particular set of exchange rates.

If it is a genuinely ongoing thing, 15 US cents a litre above the OECD average is worth a squizz. Is it transport costs? Some sort of inefficiency? And what on earth explains the grouping of New Zealand, Korea, Mexico, Australia and Switzerland down the dearer end, and the grouping of the Czech Republic, the UK, Slovenia, Ireland and Finland down the cheaper end? Damned if I can see any obvious common explanatory feature among that lot.

Yet another thing that an under-resourced inquiry wasn't able to look at properly.

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