MUMBAI (Reuters) - India’s decision this week to cut petrol and diesel pump prices that had reached record highs sent oil company shares tumbling on Friday on concerns about a return to the kind of regulated regime that had hammered their profits in the past.
The government said on Thursday it was cutting gasoline and diesel by 2.50 rupees per litre to help Indians struggling to pay for fuel prices that had climbed on the back of a rise in global crude prices and a weakening rupee.
The move reversed a 2014 decision to scrap regulated fuel prices, a regime that was blamed for deterring state oil marketing firms from expanding and for choking off investment in domestic oil fields by India’s biggest oil producer.
“This puts the entire deregulation policy of 2014 on shaky grounds,” said Gagan Dixit, a senior analyst with international brokerage firm Elara Capital, although he said any further intervention was unlikely for at least two weeks.
The price cut reduced the government’s excise duty by 1.50 per litre and cut one rupee per litre on the amount charged by state-run oil marketing firms Indian Oil Corp, Bharat Petroleum Corp and Hindustan Petroleum Corp.
Shares in oil marketing companies fell more than 20 percent to multi-year lows on Friday before recovering marginally.
This “risks bringing back petrol and diesel under-recoveries like before deregulation in 2014,” Jefferies said in report, adding that oil marketing companies were likely to see roughly a third of their operating profit eroded by the government move.
Traders cited concerns that the government could make the companies absorb further rises in global crude prices rise or carry the cost of any additional weakening in the rupee.
Since the beginning of the year the rupee has fallen by 14 percent, while the price of crude oil has risen by 37.4 percent.
A government spokesman could not be reached for comment. The three state-owned oil marketing companies did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Shares in Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC), India’s biggest crude oil producer, also slid 15 percent. The state’s most profitable company in India had to absorb losses under the former price regime to keep the oil marketing firms afloat.
The broader Mumbai market slid by 3.2 percent.
After Thursday’s decision, ratings agency ICRA said in a report that oil marketing firms were likely to lose 72 billion rupees ($976 million) on fuel sales this fiscal year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi freed up the price of diesel in October 2014 after a decade or regulation, saying it would encourage competition among vehicle fuel retailers and enhance efficiency in oil company services.
Experts had said it was one of his most far reaching reforms after previous governments failed to free the price of diesel, India’s most widely used transport fuel. Petrol prices were freed up by the former government of the Congress party in 2010.
Any shift back to fuel price controls was also expected to hit private fuel marketers, such as Nayara Energy, which is owned by Russian oil giant Rosneft, and Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries.
Nayara, Reliance and smaller private rival Shell together own around 6,000 fuel retail outlets, compared to the 55,000 outlets operated by state firms.
The three private firms had shut fuel stations in 2008 when they could not compete with what was then highly subsided petrol and diesel prices.
Asked how Nayara would respond to the latest government move, a company spokesman said: “Our fuel prices will be in line with industry standards.”
Australia-based brokerage Macquarie Capital said it expected Reliance to gradually mothball its retail stations again.
Reliance did not respond to an email requesting comment. Shell could not immediately be reached for comment.
($1 = 73.7650 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by Euan Rocha, Gopakumar Warrier and Edmund Blair