>> Sunday, March 15, 2009
Investors can consider buying the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) stock (Rs 82), given its low valuation. The stock trades at a price-to-earnings multiple of 4.5 times the trailing 12 month earnings. Though the jury is still out on whether the recovery in steel demand seen so far in 2009 is sustainable, SAIL remains one of the better-placed companies in the steel sector to weather the challenging times. A sharp drop in contract prices for coking coal and iron ore, expected to be negotiated for the coming year, suggests scope for margin expansion, even if steel prices continue to soften.
Low dependence on international orders, a focus on orders from government agencies which may benefit from higher public spending and low leverage and strong cash flows, make the company a preferred exposure in the steel sector. Investors in the stock, however, should be prepared for high volatility, as the stock’s performance may continue to carry strong linkages to global commodity price trends.Domestic focus helps
The prospect of slowing and even recessionary trends in much of the developed world has weakened the demand for steel from user industries such as forgings, castings, automotive and construction. Both the US and Europe have seen a decline in construction and industrial activity in the last two quarters of 2008. Falling demand prompted production and price cuts by the global steel majors, with players such as Corus, Tokyo Steel and many others cutting back output by up to 30 per cent in October-November ’08.
In India, however, demand has held up better than in the other regions, with the industry’s production still up by about a per cent in the April-December 2008 period. Higher infrastructure spending by the government as a part of its two stimulus packages and a pick up in construction activities following low interest rates could help stimulate growth.
CMIE expects domestic steel production to grow by 1.5 per cent in 2008-09 and achieve a growth of 6.5 per cent in 2009-10. Responding to softening demand, steel prices have been under pressure since last year; hot-rolled coil prices fell 20 per cent from a high of Rs 48,500 per tonne in June 2008 to Rs 39,200 in December 2008.
SAIL’s sales fell in the quarter ended December 31, 2008, given a 11 per cent cut in HRC prices in November. While the effect of price cuts may continue to show up on revenues, a revival in steel volumes (up 9 per cent y-o-y in February ’09), driven by automobile and construction demand, offers some hope. On the cost front, iron ore contracts for the coming year are expected to see a price correction of 30 per cent-plus and coking coal prices are also expected to be 40 per cent lower for the year. Lower input costs would bring substantial margin relief for SAIL, given its high reliance on imported coking coal.
In the December quarter of 2008, SAIL’s profits took a hard blow (down 56 per cent) following a substantial increase in raw material costs as international coking coal prices shot up from $98 per tonne in 2007 to $300 per tonne in 2008.Resilient to current slowdown
SAIL also looks better placed than its peers to tackle an uncertain global demand environment. SAIL derives just 3 per cent of its revenues from overseas, even as peers such as Tata Steel and JSW Steel have a much larger global exposure.
Within the domestic market too, 40 per cent of the orders are from the government agencies. With the stimulus packages promising higher infrastructure spending by the government, the company may sustain healthy order inflows in the coming quarters.
A diversified customer base is also an advantage, with the company serving a wide range of industries from construction, engineering, power, railway, to automotive and defence. The company has also been realigning its product mix, with value-added products now accounting for 40 per cent of production.
Even as other steel companies are shelving their capex plans, SAIL appears well-placed to bankroll its own expansion. The company had Rs 13,760 crore in cash balances by end-FY08, following strong operating cash flows of over Rs 8,300 crore during the year.
The company’s debt-to-equity ratio of 0.18:1 (in FY08) is low, allowing room to increase borrowings for the planned capex. SAIL has outlined a capex of Rs 53,000 crore for expanding its capacity from 14 million tonnes to 26 million tonnes by 2010-11. Of this, the company has already spent Rs 3,230 crore and has placed orders for equipment worth Rs 36,000 crore. As there are certain equipment sourcing-related delays, the projected additions to capacity may be delayed.
Given its relatively strong balance-sheet, we expect SAIL to reap benefits from recent interest rate cuts, though it may still contract higher borrowings for capex. - HBL