Gas shortage exposes fragile South Asian economies to more pain
LAHORE, Pakistan/DHAKA, Feb 20 (Reuters) - With a little over a month to go for peak shopping season during Ramadan, the head of Pakistan's retail industry body is shuttling between meetings, pressing officials to relax orders that forced malls to shut by 8.30 p.m. to save energy.
More than 40% of annual retail sales occur in the 30 days of the holy month, and malls are packed between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Tariq Mehboob, also the chief executive of Pakistani menswear franchise Royal Tag, said in a letter to the government.
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"Early closure could result in job losses for 3-4 million people," Mehboob wrote.
Fear in the retail sector highlights how a shortage of imported gas has cut power output and hit the economy in Pakistan, just as it reels from soaring inflation and a sliding currency. Bangladesh faces the same issues.
Both countries are scrambling to avoid a repeat of massive power cuts they faced last year, but industry officials and analysts say the crisis is likely to worsen this year because of a sharp drop in imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Pakistan and Bangladesh are heavily dependent on gas for power generation, but have had to slash their imports of LNG after prices rocketed on a surge in Europe's demand to replace Russian supplies following the Ukraine war.
"High spot LNG prices and dwindling domestic production will mean that Pakistan will continue facing issues with ramping up gas-fired power generation," said Poorna Rajendran, LNG consultant at FGE.
"We expect power outages to worsen in 2023," he said.
Despite LNG prices <LNG-AS> having fallen from last year's record highs, the superchilled fuel is still expensive for South Asian buyers as their currencies have weakened sharply, making it hard for them to boost LNG imports this year.
Pakistan relies on gas for a third of its electricity output, but is grappling with dwindling foreign exchange reserves to pay for energy imports.
Ship tracking data from Kpler shows Pakistan's LNG imports in 2022 fell 17% from the previous year to a five-year low.
As a result, in the first 11 months of 2022, Pakistan's gas-fired power production fell 4.4%, even as overall generation rose by 1.8% to 129 gigawatt hours (GWh), data from energy think tank Ember showed.
Total power output fell well short of generation capacity and demand due to fuel shortages, analysts and government officials said, resulting in blackouts for hours every week in the second half of last year.
A key problem is that the older oil-fired power plants are inefficient and cost more to run than gas-fired plants, Pakistan Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said.
Power production costs were 1.25% higher than they would have been had sufficient LNG been available during the year ended June 2022, Reuters calculations based on data in the energy ministry's annual report show.
However generation costs have likely jumped further since July, as officials say peak shortages intensified last summer due to lack of LNG. Currently only two of the country's four LNG dependent plants are running.
"Summer is going to be difficult like most summers, because we walk this thin line between affordability and availability," Dastgir told Reuters in an interview.
A similar trend could be expected in Bangladesh, where gas fuels more than two-thirds of electricity generation, said Raghav Mathur, an analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
Bangladesh's LNG imports in 2022 fell 14% from the previous year, according to Kpler, which drove down power output while demand was rising.
As a result, last year Bangladesh resorted to cutting power on 85 of the 92 days ending Oct. 30, a Reuters analysis of data from the country's grid operator shows. That compares with just two days of forced outages between January 2019 and July 2022.
Outages have rocked commercial operations, hitting lucrative garment industry exports to clients such as Walmart, Gap Inc and H&M and Zara.
"It has become difficult to sustain the garment industry," Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said in a letter to the government last month, asking for regular power and gas supply and lower gas prices.
LNG prices are unlikely to ease enough to help Bangladesh and Pakistan, with analysts expecting a rebound in Chinese purchases to push prices up in 2023.
Rystad Energy sees Asian prices averaging $32 per mmBtu this year, well above the $20 per mmBTU that Bangladesh's energy adviser to the prime minister considers an acceptable spot price.
The country has issued two spot tenders so far this year, with the first awarded to TotalEnergies at around $19 per mmBtu, two Petrobangla officials told Reuters.
The South Asian nation aims to buy more spot LNG cargoes and wants to secure more long-terms deals with Papua New Guinea and Brunei, the officials said, but analysts question whether that will be achievable.
"It is not possible for them to afford high prices for LNG," Woodmac's Mathur said.
Even with power output from alternate fuels, businesses are worried about the economic impact of uncertain power supply. Royal Tag's CEO Mehboob expects reduced operations during peak shopping hours to cut retail sales by 30%.
"We are concerned that there will be a negative knock-on effect on GDP, employment, and tax collection, as well as disruptions to the entire supply chain." ($1 = 264.0000 Pakistani rupees)
(Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore, Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Sudarshan Varadhan in Singapore; Additional reporting by Emily Chow in Singapore and Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; Editing by Florence Tan and Sonali Paul)