Archive for the ‘Industry analysis’ Category.


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 !


As an armchair investor, I usually analyze companies and their economic models through their annual reports and other published documents. This is a top down approach and does not involve any grass roots analysis or any kind of investigation at the ground level. At the end of the day, it has a virtual feel to it.

I recently met a distant relative, who is in the transportation business – mainly long distance trucking and started talking with him about the economics of his business. He mentioned a few key points of his business

          The pricing in the business is very volatile in nature. He was able to get good pricing (rate per tonne) during the 2004-2008 period. The rates collapsed during the 2008 -2009 period. Rates have recovered since then, but are still not anywhere near the peak levels.

          The current rates are slightly above break even. He is able to make good profits in a few months, but ends up giving back (looses money) part of it in the other months.

          He had contracted with large companies via fixed rate contracts and got killed by these contracts during the downturn due to low utilization (A truck under a fixed rate contract cannot be hired out). At present, he has inflation related pricing clauses, but is unable to enforce them due to severe competition.

          The trucking business is driven by vehicle finance from banks and NBFCs. Large companies like TCI are able to negotiate rates and payment terms with them. However as a small operator, he is unable to do so.

          The current ROC in the business is an anemic 10-13% of capital. At the same time there is a lot of stress. Due to these factors a lot of small operators are exiting the business and he is planning to do the same.

I started thinking about the economics of the business and did a mental exercise of applying the porter’s five factor model to the business to see how the facts fit the model

  1. Entry barriers: This business has low to nonexistent barriers to entry. A typical truck costs around 22-29 lacs (total cost) and one can easily get a loan of around 20 lacs. So anyone can enter this business with a starting capital of 7 lacs. In addition, one does not need any specialized skills in this business (beyond a driver’s license and a transport permit). Finally, there is an open market for trucking service (via brokers) and any operator can contract out his vehicle (if he accepts the offered price)
  2. Buyer power: Buyer power is quite high in this industry, especially with large companies. A large cement or steel companies drives a hard bargain with the transport operator as trucking, atleast at the small scale is a commodity product.
  3. Supplier power: Supplier power is quite high too. A small transport operator has to deal with large banks or NBFC for finance and with Tata motors or Ashok Leyland for the trucks. It is easy to see the lack of leverage in this unequal relationship. Fuel is the biggest variable cost, which also is priced by the government.
  4. Substitute product: Although there is not much substitution for road transport, multi-modal transport is now becoming a viable alternative. Large operators like GATI, concor or gateway distriparks now offer a combination of road and rail transport and thus provide a cheaper option. This has now started to hurt the smaller operators
  5. Competitive intensity: This is very high in the industry. As it is easy to add capacity (does not take much to buy trucks or divert it to a more profitable routes), pricing is driven by demand and supply. Due to the highly fragmented nature of the industry, most of the small operators are price takers and are not able to earn an attractive return on capital

It is also clear that the industry is now consolidating with the exit of the smaller players. In a commodity industry, the pricing is driven by the lowest cost operator. In the trucking industry the large operators (especially multi-modal transporters) have some leverage with the suppliers and are able to drive costs down (due to scale) and thus earn an attractive return on capital.

One added reason for doing this mental exercise is that I did a short project with Tata motors in their heavy vehicle business as a management student in the late 90s. The economics for the small operator had started deteriorating then and has now become worse due to the entry of multi-modal transport operators.

At the end of the conversation, I did not want to advise my relative that he should exit this business as it would seem presumptuous (what would an armchair investor know?). However, I am guessing that he has arrived at the same conclusion without using the fancy models and would be exiting it soon.

In the end, I think it was a good learning experience for me. The trucking business reminds me of the following quote by warren buffett

‘When a management team with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact’


I  have discussed about the various factors or parameters in analyzing a bank in some earlier posts (see here and here). In this post, I will use these parameters to evaluate a real example.

A warning before I proceed – The wieghtage given to each factor and conclusions derived depend heavily on the temperament and biases of an individual. If you are an investor who likes growth and are ready to take some risks to get a multi-bagger, you may overweight the topline and bottom line growth and pick a bank which is growing rapidly.

On the other hand if you are conservative in nature, you may overweigh the CAR ratio and  may actually get nervous if the bank is growing too rapidly. I personally prefer a middle path – I would prefer a conservatively managed bank which is growing at 1.5-2 times the GDP growth rate and hence is likely to give a 15-20% growth rate.

In my world a 15-20% growth rate is adequate, if it can be sustained for 5-10 years. I am not looking for shooting stars.

I am taking the example of Axis bank for this post to demonstrate the process I  go through when evaluating a bank. I do not have any position in the stock.

Profitability and its source

The first factor I would look at for in any company is the Return on capital (ROE in case of banks). Any company earning below the cost of capital (over the business cycle) is out of contention. The bank or the company should have an average ROE in excess of 15% over the last 10 years. Axis bank has had an ROE of around 23% over the last 10 years. The ROE has dropped from 32% in 2001 to around 20%, but has generally been maintained above 18% during the entire time period.

I am also interested in understanding the source of the above average returns. In case of a bank, the ROA (return on asset) is an important number. A number in excess of 1.3% is considered good. Axis bank has improved its ROA from 0.8% in 2001 to around 1.6% in 2011.

The improvement in ROA was driven by higher net interest margins and better other income, resulting in higher net profit margins which have gone up from around 1.8% to around 3.7% . So in effect the bank has improved the profitability, both from lending and  fee based sources.

Asset Quality

A bank may be very profitable and showing great results, but may have very risky loans on its books. Asset quality is an important factor in evaluating the quality of the earnings of the bank. Unfortunately there is no easy and direct way of doing it.

I typically look at the NPA number, the level of provisioning of the NPA and profile of the assets. It helps to review the distribution of credit risk by industry in the notes to account, to confirm that there is not too much concentration of lending to any specific industry or borrower.

The truth of the matter is that one cannot get a perfect read of the asset quality and has to trust the management. This is the main reason why a long term track record and culture of the bank is important. If the bank has a past history of conservative lending over the business cycle, then one can expect the same to continue.

I am a bit concerned on this count with Axis bank. The bank has been expanding rapidly, especially on the home loans and other retail assets. One cannot be sure if the bank has been conservative in lending.


The next factor I would look at is the safety or capital cushion of the bank. The ratio to look for is the CAR (Capital adequacy ratio). The bank has on average maintained a CAR of 12.5% and may need to raise more capital to fund future growth.

The next factor to evaluate the sustainability of the earnings is the gross/ Net NPA and level of provisioning. The bank has a gross NPA of around 1% and net NPA of around .26%. The bank was provisioned around 68% in 2010, which means that 32% of the NPA have not been provided for (and could hurt the profitability if these loans cannot be fixed).

The NPA number is very crucial for the banks. It is difficult to be sure about the true NPA of the bank as a bank can play a lot of games to modify this number and thus come up with a desired profit number. One has to just trust the numbers, based on the overall feel of the management.


If I am satisfied with the profitability and safety of the bank, I would move on to the growth in topline and net profit for the bank. In case of Axis bank, both the numbers have increased in excess of 30%. Clearly the bank is in a lot of hurry to grow.

In addition to the income and profit, the bank has grown its branch network from 139 to 1390 in 2011 and the ATM network from 490 in 2002 to around 6270 in 2011. The bank is thus expanding the retail network which is healthy growth as it helps the bank on the liability side (gather low cost deposit) and also lend to the retail segment (in the form of home loans, personal loans etc).

Cost analysis

Cost is an important factor in the analysis of any industry and more so in the case of the bank. The two crucial cost elements are the cost of funds and the overhead costs.

The cost of funds in case of axis bank has dropped from around 7.5% to around 5%, due to the increasing current and savings deposits. This is a good trend and has enabled the bank to earn a decent net margin (3.7% currently).

The cost to income (or overhead) ratio has gone up from 30% to around 40% level mainly due to the cost of new branches and other such investments. If this ratio is up due to expansion of the branch network, then I am all for it. Axis bank is clearly investing in expanding the branch and ATM network and is benefiting from this expansion too

Competitive advantage

It is also crucial to evaluate the strength of the bank’s competitive advantage and if the bank is working on enhancing it. The competitive advantage comes from the following factors

          Brand : Axis bank is now a well know brand, especially in the urban areas and is constantly being strengthened through advertising and promotion

          Customer Lockin : The bank is improving the lockin by increasing the number of branches, ATM and by providing a wide range of products. The bank can keep increasing the customer lockin by constantly improving the service levels and adding new products.

          Production side advantage : The bank has been able to expand the branch network and increase the number of customers. This provide the bank, economies of scale in gathering deposits (and lower cost of funds) and reduce the per customer cost of servicing them.

          Entry barrier: There is certain level of entry barrier as RBI does not issue new licenses easily (which may change now). As a result the private banks have been shielded from relentless competition and have been able to grow rapidly and achieve scale. Any new banks will to incur years of investment to achieve the same scale.

Management quality

This is the most important and the most difficult factor to evaluate. In the case of axis bank, I can offer a few view points, but these are just that – views or impressions. Each one of us will come up with their own impressions.

I find the management quite aggressive in expanding growing the bank. In some ways, the bank looks like a version of ICICI bank when it was in the growth phase. Some of you may find that comparison unfair as ICICI grew too rapidly and then had to fix the asset quality issues. I am not implying that axis bank has the same issues, but one cannot sure in cases where the growth has been rapid. 

The disclosure levels of the bank are quite adequate and the bank provides a lot of detail about asset profile and distribution.

Overall the management is definitely doing the right things and has strengthened the balance sheet and increased its competitive advantage over the years.


I have covered how I would evaluate a bank based on the various factors. As you can see, there is no checklist or points system where if the bank scores well on most of the factors, then at the end of the exercise you would have neat conclusion to buy or sell.

I find the bank passes most of the checkpoints in terms of fundamental analysis, except for my concern on asset quality. The key reason for not pulling the trigger is price – I find the price higher than what I would like to pay.