Vaibhav Agarwal of PhillipCapital India reviews the ups and downs of the cement industry in 2017 and also shares the expectations from the industry in 2018.
The year 2017 has remained a challenging year for the cement industry. As per the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, cement production fell 2 per cent yoy in April-October 2017. However, the validity of these numbers is uncertain. GV’s checks pointed at 3-4 per cent industry growth in this period, most of which was led by east-India markets. The demand in the east remains most robust (in double digits) followed by central, north, south, and west markets. Cement manufacturers who have been through a consolidation phase or have increased their capacities (organically or inorganically) continue to outperform in terms of volume growth. The industry saw multiple challenges in 2017, most of which were structural and permanent, including:
Latent effect of demonetisation – mainly dented the southern markets
GST rollout – though this was not a major concern, it created teething troubles in the initial months
Strict loading compliances severely dampened the earnings of several manufacturers – Shree Cement remains the worst affected (led to its de-rating by nearly 20 per cent)
Accommodating the largest consolidation move in the sector – UltraTech acquiring Jaypee
Sand mining bans dented cement demand in several states
Pet-coke ban (implemented by the Supreme Court of India, subsequently withdrawn on a conditional basis)
Latent effect of demonetisation
In the initial phases of demonetisation, the southern markets, being less-cash, were least impacted. However, this less-cash nature was limited to the cement distribution system while end markets such as real estate and contractors continued to depend on cash and were negatively affected, which in turn hurt distributors. In order to keep business as usual, cement distributors sought support from cement manufacturers in the form of extended credit periods, which increased the working capital cycle of the industry, especially of southern manufacturers.
GST rollout for the cement sector
The rollout was smooth, except for initial teething troubles and a few structural changes in the distribution system, which impacted short-term demand dynamics. The rollout led to the proportion of ex-factory sales increasing multifold, as all buyers were inclined to take full credit of the GST impact by paying the requisite GST on freight component. Because of GST, the differential EBITDA contribution gap between trade and non-trade sales reduced significantly (to just about Rs 10 per bag say from Rs 20-25 earlier), as the differential in cost of sales for cement manufacturers narrowed. While this was more of an initial challenge (now streamlined), it is a key structural change in the distribution system of the sector (but for the better).
Strict loading compliances: The dampener
After GST, and given the very strong retaliation on overloading by various NGOs/environmentalists, it is a thing of the past for the cement sector. Ground checks revealed extremely strict adherence to overloading norms in almost all regions of the country. GST has made it extremely difficult for cement manufacturers to not to comply with truck-loading norms, as the processes of invoicing and transportation have become much more transparent. It is very unlikely that this will reverse, and ground checks suggest a sustained impact of Rs 4-10 per bag (depending on region of operation and lead distance travelled).
North and east markets have seen very high overloading in the past, so much so that few plants in east India were shut on grounds on non-compliance to environmental norms. The overloading practices of these plants were severely damaging the roads around the plant and hurting the local habitat. In order to avoid local agitation, in many cases, loading compliance has also been applied to dumpers for limestone transfer from mines. Manufacturers such as Shree Cement have been worst hit, visible in the structural de-rating of the stock by nearly 20 per cent.
UltraTech buying Jaypee
This was the sector’s largest consolidation move which had wide-ranging implications. It impacted the distribution dynamics of the states in which the acquisitions were made as UltraTech needed to be accommodated in terms of volume share. Volume pushers such as Shree Cement had to compromise on its volume push strategy – likely to be visible in its Q3 numbers. Another problem was the difference in the mindsets of the managements of UltraTech and Jaypee. While UltraTech has always been predominantly a brand-conscious company, Jaypee’s business model has been based on a volume-push strategy. It was difficult to convince erstwhile Jaypee distributors to come on board UltraTech’s strategy.
Sand-mining bans dent demand
Sand is essential for cement usage. For manufacturing concrete, with every tonne of cement nearly four tonnes of sand is needed. For all other usage, for every one tonne of cement nearly eight tonnes of sand is required. Broadly, the ballpark ratio of cement to sand is 1:6. Many state governments of the country such as Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh have been regularly intervening in sand mining, denting the availability of sand. The worst impacted state is Tamil Nadu, where no resolution seems to be in sight. Various NGOs and environmentalists have raised regular concerns about sand mining, because in many cases this activity is done beyond the allotted quota, leading to illegal sand mining. As a result, many states are now depending on ‘crush sand’ for their requirements. The problem is that all states do not have enough crush-sand infrastructure (factories, licenses) – and this continues to affect sand availability. Though this issue is longstanding, 2017 was one of the worst years for cement demand because of lack of sand availability in the states mentioned above.
Pet coke ban implemented by the Supreme Court, subsequently withdrawn In November 2017, the Supreme Court of India issued an order implementing a ban on pet coke usage by cement manufacturers in overall plant operations in Rajasthan, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. GV found that many cement manufacturers in other regions voluntarily changed their fuel (to coal from pet coke) anticipating a ban. Few state governments also issued ‘soft notices’ to cement manufacturers; while these did not outright ban pet coke, they seemed to advise cement manufacturers to stop using or avoid using pet coke.
The industry filed a petition arguing that as long as emission norms of cement factories are within prescribed environmental norms, the industry should be allowed to use any fuel. This plea was partially successful and cement manufacturers were allowed to use pet coke in kiln operations, subject to the plant fulfilling environmental norms. However, the power plants may not be able to use pet coke again. This was another setback for the industry in 2017, and if this stay, which lasted for nearly a month, is implemented permanently, it will definitely have cost implications for cement manufacturers.
All the issues that the industry faced in 2017 are structural and will have long-term implications for the sector: