Archive for the ‘Industry analysis’ Category.


I recently posted the following comment on twitter

Indian IT still earns 30%+ Roe vs. 15-20% for other IT majors. Cannot see any competitive advantage to justify such excess profits 4 long term

This initiated a discussion with prabhakar on twitter. Now, a 140 character space is sufficient to provoke a discussion, but very painful to explore any meaningful topic. So I decided to write a post and share some thoughts (and hopefully carry the discussion with prabhakar and others in the comments section)

I have written about the competitive advantage (moat) of Indian IT companies in detail here. I drew the following conclusion then,

The broad conclusion one can draw from the above analysis is that IT companies do enjoy a certain degree of competitive advantage. The source of this advantage is no longer the global delivery model (everyone does it) or the employees (all the companies source from the same pool). The key sources of competitive advantage can be summarized as follows

  • Switching cost due to customer relationships
  • Economies of scale
  • Small barriers due to specialized skills in specific verticals such as insurance, transportation etc
  • Management. This is a key source of competitive advantage in this industry and explains the wide variation of performance between various companies operating in the same sector with the same inputs and under similar conditions.

Let’s look at where we stand on these factors

  1. Switching costs – I personally think switching costs are coming down now. The nature of work is getting commoditized and as a result, companies are less reluctant to switch vendors. Sure, it is a pain to do so, but if the cost benefits are large then a lot of companies are ready to bite the bullet. In addition, the threat to switch to a different vendor is sufficient to drive down prices.
  2. Economies of scale – This is now turning from an advantage to a disadvantage for the larger firms as they continue to grow. A firm with 150000 employees (top IT vendors) will develop diseconomies of scale as it grows further
  3. Specialized skills – this was a weak advantage to begin with and in most cases these skills reside with individuals (who can leave easily) and are not really institutionalized (via a product offering)
  4. Management – It is important to have a good management, but a great management cannot change the competitive dynamics of a company completely.

Weak and strong moats

Let me introduce a new concept here – Weak and strong moats. A strong moat is one which cannot be breached easily by competition. Think about the moats enjoyed by titan industries (brand, distribution), Asian paints or Crisil – these are wide and strong moats which cannot be easily breached by competition.

A weak moat or weakening moat in contrast is a moat which is shrinking and can be breached much more easily by competition.

My hypothesis is this – Indian IT has a weak moat which is shrinking by the day.

Some numbers

Let’s look at the ROIC numbers for some IT companies (Indian and global)

IBM – 15-20 % (based on invested capital including debt)

Infosys – 50% (based on invested capital, excluding cash)

NIIT tech – 25%+ (based on invested capital, excluding cash)

The above numbers are not precise, but sufficient to paint a picture. The mid cap and foreign IT majors have an attractive ROIC (in excess of 15%) and are good businesses. The large cap Indian IT companies have phenomenal return on capital numbers, in comparison to their Indian and global counterparts.

What explains this big difference?

Eliminating some factors

I would like to argue against some points which are put forward to justify the presence of a competitive advantage for the IT majors

Talent – Everyone has access to the same talent (in India and abroad). You can easily pay 10-20% more and hire employees from competition, if you need to do that. So all this talk about differentiated talent and training ….is just talk and does not create any competitive advantage

Intellectual property – Some Indian companies focused on niche areas, do have IP and are able to charge more for it. At the same time, IP is not a sustainable competitive advantage and a company has to constantly invest, to build on it. In addition, if IP was such as source of sustainable advantage, then companies like IBM (which has more IP than a lot other vendors) would be earning a much higher return on their service business (they earn around 10% NPM)

Differentiated model, client engagement etc etc – This is all fluff and good for annual reports and client presentation.

The future

I will take a guess now (which is as good as yours). I think the return on capital  (margins and asset turns) will slowly drift downwards for the top IT companies as the commoditization increases without the presence of a sustainable competitive advantage.

This has already started and you can see it happening with several of the large cap IT companies. If I am even half correct, it is important to be careful in looking at valuations based on the past performance alone.


At first blush, mining stocks are a value investor’s dream. A company with a mandated monopoly, earning around 50%+ net margins and almost 400%+ return on capital should be an ideal opportunity. On top of that if this business sells for 7-8 times cash flow, it is like hitting the jackpot!

Is the stock market nuts to ignore such companies?

Let’s look at the numbers

Let’s look at some of the Government owned mining companies. I will look at two examples in this post – NMDC limited and GMDC (Gujarat mineral development corporation).

NMDC is the largest iron ore producer in India, with an annual production of around 26MMT per annum. The company earned around 12680 Crs in 2011, mainly through the production and sale of iron ore. The company made a net profit of around 50% and earned a return on capital of around 400 % (after excluding the excess cash).

The net profit has grown from around 2300 Crs to almost 6500 crs in the last five years, mainly due to the rise in iron ore prices (as volumes have grown only by around 10% during the same period). The company has around 17000 Crs of excess cash and can easily meet capex requirement from the interest income alone.

The company is also selling at around 6-7 times free cash flow (excluding the cash)

GMDC is one of the largest lignite producer based in Gujarat. The company earned around 375 Crs on a topline of around 1400 crs in 2011. The company made around 25% net margins and around 25% return on capital (excluding excess cash). The company has grown the topline and profits at around 18% p.a in the last 10 years.

As you can see, the numbers look good and are likely to be maintained as iron and Lignite/coal continues to be in high demand (With imports being far more expensive)

Why is the market discounting these companies?

There is more to these companies than meets the eye. The numbers look good for a specific reason – These are government mandated quasi monopolies, which have preferential access to these mineral resources. A private company cannot get license to a mine (other than for captive purposes).

In addition, even if a company were to get a license, it would take a lot of effort and money for the company to get all the clearances to operate the mine. These factors add up to a meaningful competitive advantage.

The flip side of this advantage is that these companies are run by the government as it sees fit and not necessarily for the benefit of the shareholder (or maybe the general public too – which is a different issue completely)

The impact of government control

There are several obvious and non obvious impacts of government ownership . For starters, these companies are not in the business of maximizing shareholder value. These companies exist to serve a specific objective, as decided by the government.

For example, NMDC’s objective seems to be to expand the mining operations to meet domestic and international demand. It has managed to make a lot of money in the process, but the excess capital has not been returned to shareholders. You may argue that this is true in case of a lot of companies. However in all such cases, where the management (private or public) uses the capital inefficiently, the stock market takes a dim view and does not give the company a high valuation

In case of NMDC, the company has now decided to invest in a 3 MTPA steel plant at the cost of around 15000 Crs. You can call this as forward integration, but I see this as a high return business investing in low to average return business – not exactly a value enhancing decision.

In case of GMDC, the company is now expanding into power generation. Power generation in India, is a very tough business with poor free cash flow. In case of the GMDC, look at page 56 of the annual report –  The mining segment made almost 570 Crs on 60 Crs of asset (1000% !),  whereas the power segment made around 57 crs on 1300 (less than 5%).

I hope you can see the pattern here – We have a very profitable business in mining (due to the government policies) and the big profits from this business are being invested into some very mediocre businesses (again due to the government)

Isolated cases ?

The above example may be seem to be a case of related diversification. The problem with such related diversification is that the bureaucrat making these decisions, is doing it with some non financial objective in mind (nation building !!) and does not care about the return on capital

In addition to all these lofty goals, there are smaller cases of waste of capital too. NMDC recently acquired sponge iron limited for around 80 Crs. This is a  30000 TPA producer  of sponge iron with a sale of around 65 Crs and loss of around 10-15 Crs per annum. In comparison , Tata sponge iron has a capacity of 300000 TPA , made a profit of around 100 Crs and sells for around 300 Crs (net of excess cash).

GMDC has several such cases of cross holdings in other PSUs, guest houses and what not!

The above cases are small, but indicative of the way these companies are being run.

Should one avoid these companies?

I am not indicating that these companies are to be avoided at all costs just because they are controlled by the government. On the contrary, there are several PSUs which are run much better , where economics and not politics is the driving factor.

In the case of mining companies one should not get infatuated by the huge cash profits being made by the company, but also look how these cash flows will be utilized. One can expect  to receive decent dividends over time in case of some of these companies, but the intrinsic value of these companies is unlikely to grow rapidly (more likely at around 10% per annum).

The bladder theory is very much at work in these companies – When  management  and more so the government has too much cash, there is a high tendency to piss it away.

What do you guys think? please share your thoughts in the comments

Stocks discussed in this post are for educational purpose only and not recommendations to buy or sell. Please read disclaimer towards the end of blog.


The short answer to this question is – Most companies in this industry never make any money ! Sure they make money once a while, but over a period of time most airlines loose money. As a whole the industry has lost money for its investors over a period of time.

If you don’t believe me, following is the list of airlines since early 90s, which closed down or got bought out by other airlines.

Air Deccan , Air Sahara , Archana Airways , Crescent Air,  Damania Airways , East West Airlines , Himalayan Aviation, Indian , Indus Air , Kalinga Airlines , MDLR Airlines , ModiLuft, Paramount Airways , Skyline NEPC , Tata Airlines , Vayudoot.

Do you think the airlines which have survived such as jet airways or kingfisher are making money ? Kingfisher’s troubles are in the news and jet airways has lost money in aggregate over the last 5 years. The other airlines are not doing much better.

If the above reasoning is not sufficient, read on

Let’s look at the competitive structure of the industry

Entry barriers

There are some entry barriers in the industry in the form of capital requirements and license. These barriers make it difficult for a small time entrepreneur to start an airline in India, but any one with deep pockets and a desire to burn money can get the required permissions to start an airline.

The entry barrier may be tough, but the exit barriers are even tougher. Once you start an airline , it is not easy to unwind it. It is difficult to layoff the employees and sell off the planes.  In most cases, airlines have generally been sold off to competing airlines for a fraction of the cost of setting it up.

Pricing and competition

Competition in the airline industry across the world is Kamikaze  behavior. It is generally a race to the bottom  as airlines compete on the basis of price. The majority of an airline’s costs are fixed  – cost of an airplane, fuel and salaries  do not vary with the number of passengers flown.

In addition the perishable nature of the product (an empty seat on a flight is a lost forever), the incremental pricing is generally based on the marginal cost of revenue which is  the cost of the peanuts or snacks on the flight.

So an airline looses money whether it flies a half empty plane or drops the ticket price to fill it up. Finally in times of peak demand, a hike in the ticket prices has led to a lot of howling and pressure from the government  to cut down the price hike.

In such an environment, is it a surprise that most airlines in india loose money ?

Power of suppliers

Who are the suppliers to this industry ? They are the aircraft manufacturers, the fuel providers and finally the unionized pilots and other employees.  I don’t think most airlines have much leverage with the aircraft manufacturers or can negotiate the price of fuel . In addition pilots and other personnel are unionized, so airlines really cannot fire them or reduce their pay easily.

In terms of the cost  structure, airlines are pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place

Irrational behavior of the largest airline in India

I now come to an emotional topic (atleast for me ) – Air india !. You will have to excuse me for the rant and can choose to skip the next few paragraphs.

<start rant > Why the ***@@ is the government running an airline ? We are not a rich and developed country with too much money lying around. Air india has always lost money and now has accumulated debt of 45000 Crs and operating loss of 22000 Crs (there is no typo in these numbers !). The government is planning to pump in 10 billion dollars over the next 10 yrs into airindia !

Can you imagine the waste? . In a poor country like india this money can be spent on infrastructure (roads, schools)  healthcare or education. Heck, even if the government decided to just give away this money to people below the poverty line, I would be fine.

The government in its infinite wisdom continues to run the airline run for politicians and babus. At the same Airindia  prices tickets below cost on several route to increase the utilization factor (on which it is measured) without concerning itself with the profitability of such a decision. This kind of behavior has caused losses for the entire industry which has to match the pricing of  the most irrational player.

By the way, an airticket priced below cost is an indirect subsidy to people like me (who don’t need it). < end of rant 🙂 >

Future of airlines in india

Any industry with such poor economics is bound to loose money. This has been the case for airlines in the US and other countries. In addition, we have the largest airline in india (air india) which is not run with any profit motive. In such a situation it is difficult to imagine if any airline will consistently make money over the next 10 years .

In investing, sometime discretion is the better part of valor. I will buy a ticket to fly  (kingfisher is my favorite 🙂 ), but will never invest in an airline.

Atleast when I fly by  jet or kingfisher the flight is good and the airhostesses are pretty 🙂 .  That is money well spent !