Monday, June 23, 2008

Numbers don't lie?

So you think numbers don't lie? Give this mind teaser a try:

Three men go to dine together in a restaurant. The bill comes to $25 and they each contribute $10. The waiter takes the money to the cashier, who gives the waiter the $5 in change. Being a non-assuming waiter he takes the change back to the three men. The men take back a dollar each, hence effectively paying $9.00 each, and they leave the $2.00 as a tip for the waiter. On their way out, one of them points out that they each paid $9.00 for the meal, amounting to $27.00, and the waiter was left with $2.00. What happened to the other remaining dollar? Did the cashier pocket it?

This is a famous puzzle which supposedly first appeared in R. M. Abraham’s Diversions and Pastimes in 1933. Don't be disheartened if you can't figure it out. Many don't. I am not going to spoil your fun by revealing the answer yet.

I am very interested to know how many and who is able to solve the puzzle. I would appreciate if you can participate in the poll that I set up.

Yes, numbers indeed don't lie. But it is exceedingly easy to mislead, confuse, lie, deceive and manipulate with numbers.

While the whole country is focused on Petronas' account, perhaps we were intentionally being mislead into looking at the wrong thing?

More to come ...

(see The fallibility of the human brain for explanation)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The mystery of our vanising oil money

When common folks talked about our oil revenues we usually think of Petronas and the government as being the same entity. That was my perception when I wrote my last article: The 56 billion ringgit questions, but little did I suspect that I would have to completely reconsider my understanding almost the moment I posted the article.

I posted the article on 3:45pm June 4, and moments later I received an SMS that petrol price is going to go up. I was about the chuck the SMS away until I logon to Malysiakini and confirmed that the news was true indeed.

I was shocked by the suddenness and quantum of the increase as Najib’s reassurance of no price hike was still fresh in memory, and Shahrir was only hinting of a price adjustment in August the day before. My first reaction was that Pak Lah has just hammered the last nail in his own coffin.

I am not an economist by any means, but I came from a poor family and I have been through the years where every cent counts. It was completely baffling to me why Pak Lah would make such a sharp increase in petrol prices while the whole country was still reeling from the pain of the recent hike in the prices of food and other essential items. The combined effects are going to cause so much hardship to so many people that I seriously doubt Pak Lah is going to survive the fallout of it. And it got me thinking hard...

The Mystery of Our Oil Money

Let’s get back to the mystery of our oil money. After many hours of research and considerations – I came to realize that the relationship between Petronas and the government is much more complicated that it looks on the surface. The two are not the same entity after all; and by some recent announcements I think there could even be open hostilities between them. Read:
One key understanding is that although Malaysia is a net exporter of crude oil, our products are of very high quality and are primarily for export while we consume lower grade oils that are mainly imported from the Middle East.

While the exploration, production and export our crude oil are handled almost exclusively by Petronas, the import side is a bit more complicated. The importing and retailing of petroleum products are carried out by companies like Shell, Exxon, Petronas, etc. These companies are mandated by the government to sell below cost, thus they are compensated for their losses by the Government in the form of subsidy.

Yes – our government does subsidize our petrol. But it also receives money from Petronas in the form of royalty, taxes and dividends. Petronas is reported to have contributed 52.3 billion ringgit to the government for the financial year ended March 2007.

Is that a fair contribution to the government? I will be eagerly waiting for Petronas supposedly full disclosure. I don’t give much hope that the full disclosure will reveal details like why some big shots get to live like a king with private jet and helicopters, but it should give some basis for some intelligent guess-nalysis.

How much is the Government getting from Petronas?
The graph above shows Petronas contribution to the government over the past few years. I plotted it along with the yearly average crude oil price. The yearly contribution was obtained from Hassan Marican interview in RTM1 reported in Guang Ming Daily and the average oil price from EIA. As you can see Petronas contributions go up nicely with the price of crude oil, as most of us would expect.

What will be Petronas contribution for this year? That will be everybody’s guess. Would it be 70 billion? 80 billions? Whatever it is, it seems that Petronas is mightily reluctant to cough out its profits to the government.

How much is the petrol subsidy costing our government?

Our daily crude oil consumption is 501,000 barrels, or 183 million barrels per year. Each barrel is 158 liters, and typically yields 73.8 liters of petrol, diesel and other by products after refining (data from EIA).

Our yearly petroleum consumption is thus:
183 million barrels X 73.8 liters/barrels = 13.5 billion liters.

At the current crude oil price of 130 USD per barrel, the market price is RM 3 per liter for petrol (according to Shahrir).

Our government’s yearly subsidy on petroleum can be calculated as follows. For lack of data I will assume that the cost price of petrol and diesel is the same.

Before Price hike:
The average price of petrol and diesel =
(RM1.98 + RM1.52) /2 = RM 1.75

Subsidy per liter = RM 3 – RM 1.75 = RM 1.25
Total Subsidy = RM 1.25/liter X 13.5 billion liters
= RM 16.9 billion

After Price hike:
Average price of petrol and diesel =
(RM 2.7 + RM 2.52) / 2 = RM 2.61
Subsidy per liter = RM 3 – RM 2.61 = RM 0.39
Total Subsidy = RM 0.39/liter X 13.5 billion liters
= RM 4.0 billion

What do all these figures means?

Firstly, since Pak Lah took helm, Petronas has contributed RM 146.5 billion to the government. Petronas has been in operation since 1974 and contributed a total of RM 336 billion to the government. Pak Lah’s first 4 years in office received 43.6% of Petronas 35 years of total contributions. It is more than what Mahathir received in 20 years, inflation adjusted. And it does not even include this year’s contributions!

Is your reaction that of disbelieve? Are you wondering where have all these money gone to?

Mahathir is known for his opulence and extravagance and have created monsters like Twin Towers and F1 circuits to match his distorted ego. But what have Pak Lah done that is worthy of being mentioned? To give you a perspective, it costs RM 11 billion to build Putrajaya, and the order of RM 20 billion to build all our toll roads. Whatever happened to this mind boggling 147 billion ringgit? It seems to have just vanished in thin air. Something must be seriously wrong somewhere.

Now the 56 billions petrol subsidy quoted by Shahrir. My own calculations indicate that it should cost the government RM 16.9 billion. My calculations do not include subsidy for gas, but would it amounts to the RM 39 billions difference? Either my calculations are completely wrong or Shahrir is bullshitting. I would appreciate if somebody can verify my calculations.

My calculations show that with RM 52.3 billion contribution from Petronas the government should still be making a net profit of RM 30+ billions. And the recent price hike is going to bring extra RM 17 billions to Pak Lah’s coffer. Is it conscionable for the government to make such an obscene amount of money at the expense of such widespread suffering of the people?

I am shock beyond words by what I discovered today. The level of corruption and mismanagement by the Barisan Nasional government is way way beyond than my wildest imagination. It sickens and disgusts me to the point that I just want to cast the whole Barisan Nasional government to hell right away. Right now I will not hesitate for a moment to lend my support for Pakatan Rakyat to step in to take over the government.

Do I believe that Anwar is able to bring down the price of petrol and give Sabah and Sarawak 20% oil royalty? I have no doubt that he can, if he managed to gain back the control of the oil money. I do not agree with his oil policy, but that's a separate issue altogether. At least with Pakatan Rakyat there is hope that ordinary people like us is able to participate to bring about the right changes.

This is the time for us all to wake up. If the level of suffering and darkness of the current moment is not enough to wake you up, I don’t know what will.

Look who is suffering now? We all are. Does the 50 years of racial politics bring about the supremacy of any race? I hope our sad state of affairs is convincing enough to show us that racial politics can not work. It never will.

We have to forget about race, religion and other trivial differences and stand united as one. This is the time to exercise our collective power, our makal shakti, this is the only strength that we have to cast out the slime bag power mongers that are hell bent to destroy each other and bringing down the whole country with them.

More comments in Malaysia-Today

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The 56 billion ringgit question

(Also posted in Malaysia-Today)

I am referring to the article in Malaysiakini: Pump price at 'market levels by August'.

First of all lets get some basic facts right.

Firstly Malaysia is a net exporter of crude oil. So the government did NOT subsidize our petrol. The RM56 billion ‘subsidy’ per year is the extra amount that the government would have earned if it had exported all of our oil production. There is no 'spiralling bill', the government did not lose any money because it is our own oil and we are not paying anybody for our oil supply.

Secondly – when the government scrapes the so called ‘subsidy’ that it did not pay any money for in the first place – it is forcing the rakyat to buy back our own resources at a much higher price. Each and every one of us will suffer because of this, especially the poor.

The hike in oil prices has not caused hardships to our government. On the contrary it has already earned record profits for Petronas. And now our government is going to squeeze even more profits by squeezing the rakyat. Put it bluntly, the Barisan Nasional government will get filthy rich form the blood money of the rakyat.

Now the 56 billion ringgit question. What will the Barisan Nasional government do with the RM56 billion windfall per year? We already suffered a price hike on our petrol almost a year back, and have we seen any accounting on what has been done with the extra money that the government collected? I remembered that there were some talks of using the money to improve our public transport system. But so far I have only heard about the ailing KTM, failing bus companies and government cutting subsidry to Rapid KL.

Don’t you feel suspicious of what is going to happen to this hefty sum of money? RM56 billion is a mind boggling sum of money, it is almost enough to build 5 Putrajaya according to the official figure. The last thing I want to see is for the money to end up in political machines and lining the pockets of politicians and their cronies. I hope our Pakatan Rakyat representatives will see to it that every sen of it is accounted for.

I am not against raising the price of petrol. It is a matter of urgency that we cut our dependency on fossil fuels now as it is the main source of green house gas that is causing havoc in our weather patterns and ecosystems.

Even if global warming and destruction of our ecosystems is not your concern, you still have to consider the fact that crude oil price is not going to come down. Some analysts even projected that crude oil may reach USD 200 per barrel by 2012. Have you asked what is going to happen to our economy when our oil reserves run out in 5 years time?

Don’t you find it amazing that nobody is talking about these pressing issues now? This whole issue about oil subsidy is completely beside the point. The way it was phrased as if it was costing our government a hefty sum of money was completely misleading. The more pertinent point is really how we can best make use of the last of our rapidly depleting resource to safeguard our future. I have not seen any sensible policies regarding this from the Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat camps as yet. It is already sparking riots in many parts of the world, including our close neighbors, and yet nobody here seems to think that we have a problem.

I don’t think we can look towards our government for answers. Our so called ‘leaders’ are engrossed in fighting and bringing each other down, unscrupulously stirring up racial sentiments for their survivals. They never have the track records of putting the interest of the rakyat in the forefront anyway. The whole political scene is simply disgusting and depressing beyond words.

This is the time that ordinary people like you and I have to come forward and take charge. Count ourselves lucky that we have a 5 years grace period to get ready for the end of cheap oil. But we need to make sure that every ounce of our resources is used wisely for the survival of our future generations. That can only happen if we, the rakyat, unite as one single voice to demand for the right things to be done.

There are a lot we can do together, and we are not isolated either. There are already over a million environmental and social justice organizations around the world that we can work with right now. The fisrt step is to realize that we have a problem in hand. This is not just any ordinary problem. What we are facing is a problem of epic proportion that is going to require the cooperation of the whole world.