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Averting price war

PETALING JAYA: MALAYSIA must get on the dance floor and tango with Indonesia to avoid a price war, said Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia (Poram) chief executive officer Mohammad Jaaffar Ahmad.

Last month, the Indonesian Palm Oil Association reportedly urged its government to slash refined palm oil export duty from 12.5 per cent to zero. This would further widen the export tax gap between its crude and refined oils.

Poram has urged the Malaysian government to be vigilant. “The government must take a more dynamic approach. We cannot afford to repeat the mistake of staying on the sidelines when Indonesia makes a move,” said Jaaffar when asked about the prospects of Indonesia changing its palm oil tax structure.

“The last time Malaysia hesitated in 2012, we fell into a lose-lose situation, of which downstream players bled losses and planters in both countries suffered from a price war.”

Two years ago, Indonesia, in its efforts to boost exports, slashed its refined palm olein tax to seven per cent and retained its crude palm oil (CPO) duty at 15 per cent.

As a result, stakeholders throughout the palm oil value chain in Malaysia took a beating. At that time, decades-old partnerships between millers and refiners in Malaysia broke down as refiners bled losses for every tonne of CPO refined. Jaaffar said to stem losses, refiners unwound long-term contracts, which then slowed down purchases and resulted in a rapid build-up of CPO inventories.

This, in turn, caused CPO and crude palm kernel oil prices to tumble, affecting planters in Indonesia and Malaysia. With cheap CPO and low duty export for packed products, Indonesian exporters sold their products at reduced prices, thus grabbing the market share from refiners in Malaysia.

When Indonesia moved and Malaysia took a wait-and-see’ approach in 2012, the local palm oil industry lost an estimated RM9 billion in export revenue. 

“We cannot afford to remain static again. Ideally, it’s best for Malaysia’s tax gap between crude and refined palm oil to mirror that of Indonesia. If and when Indonesia widens its tax gap, Malaysia must also follow suit.

“We need to move in lockstep with Indonesia, like the way dancers hold hands and do the tango. That way, Malaysia’s refiners can continue to compete on a level playing field and hopefully, oil palm planters in both countries can avoid the dreaded price war.

“The yesteryear thinking of ‘We’re better than the other’ is over. In the spirit of the Asean Economic Community, it’s time for Malaysia and Indonesia to adopt a mutually beneficial approach of ‘We’re better together.’

He said if Indonesia widens the tax gap between crude and refined oil by a certain percentage, Malaysia’s CPO tax must be immediately amended to match the gap. This will allow oleochemical and specialty fats producers here to also benefit from the competitive prices. 

Palm oil prices have been on a downtrend for six months. Last Friday, the third-month benchmark CPO futures on Bursa Malaysia Derivatives Exchange traded RM49 lower to close at RM1,930 a tonne, below the psychological comfort level of RM2,000.

On the current downtrend, Jaaffar said it is wrong to assume that refiners and planters are engaged in a zero-sum game. “It is a misconception that in times of falling CPO prices, refiners are happy at the expense of planters. As refiners, we are margin players. It doesn’t matter if palm oil prices are high or low.

“In fact, everybody will win if the price of CPO is high. That is the role of the refiners in supporting the price of CPO by being able to buy and process every drop of CPO in the country,” he added.

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