Hakim to crack down on oil price profiteers
BEIRUT: The Economy Ministry will clamp down on companies that maintain high prices of goods despite the fall in oil prices and depreciation of the euro currency, Economy Minister Alain Hakim vowed Monday.
“The ministry will strike with an iron fist [when it comes] to controlling prices and preventing monopolization or fraud,” Hakim said at a news conference.
He did not name which companies or industries would be monitored or investigated, but made it clear he was referring to those profiting from the oil price drop.
Jassem Ajaka, economics affairs adviser to the economy minister, explained that the ministry plans to ask wholesalers and suppliers to disclose their invoices in order to match them with those of retailers.
The ministry believes that comparing the cost of imports with the prices of retail and wholesale would enable officials to determine if prices were dropped in view of the fall in oil prices and the euro’s depreciation.
There is deep concern that most retail merchants and traders have not reduced the prices of commodities in line with the fall in the price of oil.
“Nothing can prevent us from asking wholesalers for their bills. We have a database with prices so we can compare them,” Ajaka said. “If we find out that a wholesaler is selling at double the cost, we will give him a penalty for sure.”
Ajaka said that the minister would also ask Customs to provide him with information about the prices declared by wholesalers.
“If the cost declared by the wholesaler to the custom duty is lower than his original cost and he is selling at a very high price then he will be fined as well and he will have to return the money to customs,” he said.
Ajaka said that the proposed procedures would need prior approval from the Cabinet.
Addressing institutions suspected of manipulating prices, Hakim said he would also ensure that the prices of goods sold to consumers would not be astronomically higher than the original import bill.
In pursuit of this, Hakim announced the reactivation of three ministerial departments to increase monitoring and control over prices.
He said he has revived the National Council for Prices, the Technical Office for Prices, and is set to reactivate the Technical Committee for Prices, which plays a consultative role within the ministry.
Hakim said that the Economy Ministry does not have the right to impose fines or shut down entities accused of manipulating prices and would only refer cases to court.
“I promise that I will ask for more authority from the Cabinet and I assure you that I will fight against anyone who tries to harm the consumers’ interests,” he said.
Giving an example of price manipulation in light of the oil slump, Hakim cited reports that claimed petroleum distribution companies were refusing to provide gasoline to gas stations at the current market prices. Instead, distribution companies are demanding prices that exceed the current market value by LL700 – this week’s expected inflation rate.
Hakim said that if the reports were confirmed, the issue would be referred to the judiciary.