Saudi emerges king at OPEC meet: Oil prices will remain low for now

oilVivek Kaul

The oil ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting (OPEC) countries met in Vienna yesterday. They decided to keep the total production of oil coming from OPEC at 30 million barrels per day. This is one million barrels per day more than OPEC’s estimate of the demand for its oil in 2015.
“It was a great decision,” said Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, after talks which lasted for around five hours. With this decision not to cut production the price of oil fell further, and as I write this the price of Brent crude oil stands at $72.2 per barrel of oil.
The decision not to cut production went against the demand of OPEC members like Iran and Venezuela, who had demanded that production be cut. A falling oil price is hurting these countries badly given that money earned from selling oil is a major source of revenue for the respective governments.
Also, in the past, OPEC has been quick to cut production whenever prices have fallen and that has ensured that prices don’t fall any further. But that doesn’t seem to be happening this time around. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of oil within OPEC, wants to drive down the price of oil.
The question that crops up here is why did OPEC go with what Saudi Arabia wanted it to? It has 11 other countries as members as well.
While OPEC has been regularly referred to as a cartel, it is important to understand that the structure of OPEC is different from that of a cartel. It is probably better to define the structure of OPEC as what economists call a “leading firm” model of oligopoly, a market which is dominated by a small number of sellers and in which the largest producer sets the price and the others follow.
Saudi Arabia is the largest producer within OPEC. Within OPEC, it also has the almost unquestioned support of what are known as the sheikhdom states of Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
These countries have faced threats from other OPEC members, like Iraq and Iran, in the past. For many years, Iraq had been eyeing Kuwait. It had tried to annex Kuwait in 1961 (and it tried again in the early 1990s). The support of Saudi Arabia, the largest nation in the region, is very important for these countries. Hence, these countries tend to go with Saudi Arabia, not leaving much space for the other member countries to disagree.
Moral of the story: OPEC does what Saudi Arabia wants it to do. And these days Saudi Arabia seems to want lower oil prices. Why is that the case? Look at the table that follows. The table shows the daily oil production in the United States, which had fallen to around 4 million barrels per day in 2008. It has since jumped up again to around 9 million barrels per day, the kind of level not since the mid 1980s.
This has happened primarily because of a boom in shale oil production in the United States. As Javed Mian writes in Stray Reflections newsletter for the month of November “The US pumped 8.97 million barrels a day by the end of October (the highest since 1985) thanks partly to increases in shale-oil output which accounts for 5 million barrels per day.”
The more shale oil United States produces the lesser it has to depend on OPEC and other parts of the world, to fulfil its massive oil requirements. The trouble is that shale oil is expensive to produce and is viable only if oil continues to sell at a certain price. Given this, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that price of oil is driven down further, so that it can drive the shale oil producers out of business.
There are various estimates about the oil price at which it is viable to produce shale oil. A report brought out by Deutsche Bank said that around 40% of shale oil production in the United States next year, would be unviable if the price of oil fell below $80 per barrel. Very recently, this was a sentiment echoed by the chief economist of the International Energy Agency as well.
Nonetheless, Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, contradicted her chief economist by telling Reuters recently that 82 percent of the American shale oil firms had a break-even price of $60 or lower.
There are still other estimates. As Mian writes in his newsletter “The median North American shale development needs an oil price of $57 to breakeven today, compared to $70 last year according to research firm IHS.”
Analysts at Citibank recently said that the price of oil would have to fall below $50 a barrel for completely halting shale oil production in the United States. Also, many shale oil companies would continue to remain viable for an oil price of anywhere between $40 to $60 a barrel. It would be safe to say that there are as many break-even prices for shale oil as there are analysts. And it is very difficult to figure out which of these estimates is correct.
This is not the first time Saudi Arabia is following the strategy of bleeding out its competitors. It did the same nearly three decades back. “This has happened once before. By the mid-1980’s, as oil output from Alaska’s North Slope and the North Sea came on line (combined production of around 5-6 million barrels a day), OPEC set off a price war to compete for market share. As a result, the price of oil sank from around $40 to just under $10 a barrel by 1986,” writes Mian.
Hence, Saudis are putting to work a strategy that they have used in the past. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to have had the necessary impact on the production of oil by shale oil firms in the United States. On November 10, earlier this month, the US Energy Information Administration said that the seven largest shale oil players would be producing 125,000 barrels per day more in December than they had in November.
One reason for this is that the money that has already gone into producing shale oil is essentially a sunk cost. Hence, production is not going to be stopped immediately. As Ben Hunt who writes the Epsilon Theory newsletter puts it “T
here’s just too much non-cartelized money, technology, and political capital invested in US shale production to slow it down.”
Also, companies already have long term production contracts in place. These contracts require that they deliver a minimum level of production, even if it means selling at a loss. “Failure to comply could mean the loss of the lease and any future upside when prices [are] normalized,” writes Chip Register on
Legendary oil man, T Boone Pickens feels that Saudi Arabia has entered into a stand-off to “see how the shale boys are going to stand up to a cheaper price.”
To conclude, Saudi Arabia driving down the price of oil hasn’t yet had an impact on shale oil production. Given this, it is likely that Saudi Arabia led OPEC will continue to drive down the oil price in the months to come. “In the current cycle, though, prices will have to decline much further from current levels to curb new investment and discourage US production of shale oil,” writes Mian.
It is also possible that the United States government may decide to intervene and introduce “tariffs on cheap foreign oil imports,” to keep the local shale oil industry viable.
The United States government will also have to take into account the fact that Saudi Arabia buys and sells oil in dollars. This ensures that in order to earn these dollars countries carry out international trade in dollars and accumulate a major part of their foreign exchange in dollars. This ensures that dollar continues to have an “exorbitant privilege” allowing United States to repay its debt to foreigners by simply printing them.
Further, it also helps keep the interest rates in the United States low, as countries line up to invest their foreign exchange reserves in treasury bonds issued by the United States government. Given this, its a Catch 22 situation for the United States. Does it encourage its local shale oil industry and reduce its dependence on importing oil from the Middle East? Or does it work against the “exorbitant privilege” of the dollar? Its not an easy choice to make.
Hence, its safe to predict that oil prices will continue to be low in the short-term. There are too many interplaying factors at work making it impossible to predict how things will turn out to be in the long run.
All I can say is, stay tuned.

The column originally appeared on on Nov 28, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

What Arun Jaitley can learn from Rajan’s IRMA speech


A few days back I wrote a piece questioning the logic of the State Bank of India entering into a memorandum of understanding with Adani Enterprises to consider giving it a loan of up to $1 billion. My logic was fairly straightforward—Adani Enterprises already has a lot of debt (around  Rs 72,632.37 crore as on September 30, 2014) and is just about earning enough to service that debt.
Several readers wrote in on the social media saying what was the problem if Adani was offering an adequate security against the loan? Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, answered this question in a speech yesterday. Rajan was speaking at the third Dr. Verghese Kurien Memorial Lecture at IRMA, Anand.
As Rajan said “The amount recovered from cases decided in 2013-14 under DRTs (debt recovery tribunals) was Rs. 30,590 crore while the outstanding value of debt sought to be recovered was a huge Rs. 2,36,600 crore. Thus recovery was only 13% of the amount at stake. Worse, even though the law indicates that cases before the DRT should be disposed off in 6 months, only about a fourth of the cases pending at the beginning of the year are disposed off during the year – suggesting a four year wait even if the tribunals focus only on old cases.”
So, just because a bank has a collateral does not mean it will be in a position to en-cash it, as soon as the borrower defaults on the loan. As big borrowers (read companies and industrialists) have defaulted on loans over the last few years, the non performing assets of banks, particularly public sector banks have gone up.
As on March 31, 2013, the gross non performing assets (NPAs) or simply put the bad loans, of public sector banks, had stood at 3.63% of the total advances. Latest data from the finance ministry show that the bad loans of public sector banks as on September 30, 2014, stood at 5.32% of the total advances. The absolute number was at Rs 2,43,043 crore. During the same period the bad loans of private sector banks was more or less constant at 1.8% of total advances. Interestingly, public sector banks accounted for over 90% of bad loans in 2013-2014 (i.e. between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014).
All these points have several repercussions. The first is that banks need to charge a higher rate of interest in order to compensate for the higher credit risk (or simply put the risk of the borrower defaulting on the loan) they are taking on. As Rajan said in the speech “The promoter who misuses the system ensures that banks then charge a premium for business loans. The average interest rate on loans to the power sector today is 13.7% even while the policy rate is 8%. The difference, also known as the credit risk premium, of 5.7% is largely compensation banks demand for the risk of default and non-payment.”
Simply put, those who default in effect ensure that those who repay have to pay a higher rate of interest. The irony is that banks give out home loans to individuals at 10-11%. This shows that lending to individuals is a better credit risk for them than lending to infrastructure companies.
As Rajan put it “Even comparing the rate on the power sector loan with the average rate available on the home loan of 10.7%, it is obvious that even good power sector firms are paying much more than the average household because of bank worries about whether they will recover loans.”
Also, a report in the Business Standard today suggests that the RBI is “mulling action in terms of limiting loan-sanctioning powers of banks with stressed asset ratios.”
The stressed asset ratio is the sum of gross non performing assets plus restructured loans divided by the total assets held by the Indian banking system. The borrower has either stopped to repay this loan or the loan has been restructured, where the borrower has been allowed easier terms to repay the loan (which also entails some loss for the bank) by increasing the tenure of the loan or lowering the interest rate.
Business Standard report carries a list of 14 public sector banks that have a stressed asset ratio of 12% or more. Central Bank of India has the highest stressed asset ratio of 20.49%, followed by the United Bank of India at 19.7%.
If the RBI decides to limit the loan-sanctioning power of these banks, it will do so in the backdrop of the finance minister Arun Jaitley asking banks to lend more. A few days back Jaitley said “We have asked banks to go out there and lend without any fear. They should do proper appraisals of projects and provide loans to infrastructure projects.” Like in almost everything else, he was following the tradition set by his predecessor P Chidambaram.
The stressed assets of many public sector banks did not cross 12% because they did not carry out proper project appraisals. It crossed such high levels because the banks were forced to lend to crony capitalists close to the political dispensation of the day i.e. leaders of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Take the case of GMR Infra. For the period of three months ending September 30, 2014, the company paid a total interest of Rs 845.04 crore on its debt. Its operating profit was Rs 101.14 crore. The company had a total debt of Rs 39,187.45 crore as on March 31, 2014. What this clearly tells us is that the company is not earning enough to pay the interest that it has to, on the total debt that it has managed to accumulate.
This is true about many other companies as well particularly in the infrastructure sector, which is dominated from crony capitalists. These companies borrowed much more than they should have been allowed to in the first place. Also, many promoters got away without putting much of their own money in the business.
As Rajan said “The reason so many projects are in trouble today is because they were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.” This could not have happened without the tacit support of the political dispensation of the day.
And this perhaps led Rajan to quip that India is “a country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters.” “In India, too many large borrowers insist on their divine right to stay in control despite their unwillingness to put in new money. The firm and its many workers, as well as past bank loans, are the hostages in this game of chicken — the promoter threatens to run the enterprise into the ground unless the government, banks, and regulators make the concessions that are necessary to keep it alive. And if the enterprise regains health, the promoter retains all the upside, forgetting the help he got from the government or the banks – after all, banks should be happy they got some of their money back!” Rajan added.
Another implication of the massive increase in bad loans for public sector banks has been that the law has become “more draconian in an attempt to force payment.” As Rajan put it “The SARFAESI (Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interests) Act of 2002 is, by the standards of most countries, very pro-creditor as it is written. This was probably an attempt by legislators to reduce the burden on DRTs and force promoters to pay. But its full force is felt by the small entrepreneur who does not have the wherewithal to hire expensive lawyers or move the courts, even while the influential promoter once again escapes its rigour. The small entrepreneur’s assets are repossessed quickly and sold, extinguishing many a promising business that could do with a little support from bankers.” This leads to a situation where upcoming entrepreneurs do not want to take the risk of growing bigger by taking on more loans and may choose to continue to remain small.
To conclude, Rajan’s speech at IRMA was an excellent summary of all that is wrong with the Indian banking sector. He also made suggestions on how to set it right. The promoters should not try and finance mega projects with tiny slivers of equity, he suggested. Banks needed to react quickly to borrower distress. And the government needed to set up more debt review tribunals. These are simple solutions that need political will in order to be implemented.
Arun Jaitley has been asking the RBI to cut interest rates for a while now. He has also asked banks to lend more. Nevertheless, it’s not as simple as Jaitley thinks it is. First and foremost the government needs to ensure that big borrowers cannot just get away with defaulting on loans. This in itself will have a huge impact on interest rates.
As Rajan put it “It is obvious that even good power sector firms are paying much more than the average household because of bank worries about whether they will recover loans. Reforms that lower this 300 basis point risk premium of power sector loans 
vis-a-vis home loans would have large beneficial effects on the cost of finance, perhaps as much or more than any monetary policy accommodation.”
This is something that Jaitley should be thinking about seriously in the days to come, if he wants banks to genuinely bring down lending rates.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

What Uday Kotak should learn from Citi: Bigger banks can end up as liabilities

635266189203244874_Kotak Mahindra Bank
Over the weekend Pramit Jhaveri, the CEO of Citi India, had a thing or two to say about the size of Indian banks. He said that other than needing more banks, India needs bigger banks to compete on the world stage. “At this point, sensible consolidation would be one way to achieve scale,”
he said.
The comment comes right at a time when the Kotak Mahindra Bank has decided to acquire the ING Vysya Bank. The irony here is that Citigroup, of which Jhaveri is a part of, was rescued by the Federal Reserve of the United States from going bust, only a few years back.
The Fed came into rescue Citigroup because it was too big to fail. And if it had been allowed to fail, the repercussions would have been felt by the entire financial system.
The United States Congress passed the the Glass–Steagall Act in1933. This Act was passed after the stock market crash of 1929 and essentially drew a line between commercial banking and investment banking on the grounds that the riskiness of the latter would lead to the required safety and soundness of the former being compromised upon.

This made banking a very boring business with commercial banks having to stick to borrowing money from depositors, and lending it out, and making the difference in interest rates as their income. This meant banks which raised deposits could not trade in stocks and other financial securities. They could not get into the brokerage business either.
The Glass–Steagall Act was replaced with a new Act in 1999 (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) to clear the merger of Citicorp, a commercial-bank-holding company, with the insurance company Travelers Group. This led to the formation of Citigroup, which was a company that had several different financial service brands under it. There was Citibank, which was a bank, Smith Barney, a stock brokerage firm, Primerica, a firm that sold insurance products and Travelers, an insurance company.
Long story short, what emerged was basically a very unwieldy company. A firm which was too big to fail.
On October 31, 2007, Meredith Whitney, an analyst of financial firms at Oppenheimer and Co., went all out against Citigroup. She said that the bank had so mismanaged its financial affairs that it would have to slash its dividend or go bust. The market heard out Whitney. The share price of Citigroup was down by 8.8 percent, to $38.51, by the end of that day.
Chuck Prince, the lawyer CEO of Citigroup, quit seven days later, on November 7, 2007. The stock price by then had fallen by 20 percent, to $33.41, from where it stood before Whitney’s pro­nouncement on the bank. What was interesting was the way Prince looked at things. Only a few months earlier, on July 7, 2007, he had said that things could get complicated in the days to come “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” “We’re still dancing,” he had remarked.
The troubles for Citigroup just erupted after this. It had made huge investments in subprime securities and other financial securities using the structured investment vehicles (SIVs) route which started to go wrong (this story is too long to go into detail here). Once the financial crisis broke out in September 2008, the market did not expect Citigroup to survive.
But Citigroup was too big to be allowed to fail. On October 14, 2008, the treasury department of the United States (or what we call the ministry of finance in India) invested $250 billion in 10 financial institutions as a part of the capital purchase programme.
The Citigroup was a part of this and got $25 billion from the US government. After receiving the investment from the government, the then CEO of the firm, Vikram Pandit, said that the investment would give his firm more flexibility to borrow as well as lend.

But the market wasn’t too confident about the chances of Citigroup surviving, given its huge investments in subprime and other shady securities through the structured investment vehicle route.
The trouble was that like AIG, Citi was also deemed to be too big to fail. So, on November 25, 2008, the government decided to inject $20 billion cash into the firm. This was over and above the $25 billion that Citigroup had already received as a part of the capital purchase programme a little over a month earlier. The government also decided to guarantee $306 billion worth of troubled mortgages and other assets of the firm. And this is how Citigroup, like many other financial institutions was rescued by the government, simply because it was too big to fail.
A firm like Citigroup, which is present in a large number of financial service businesses as well as investment banking businesses, was and continues to be extremely unwieldy to manage. But, at the same time, the firm was so big and into so many different businesses that letting it go, would have led to a lot of job losses and other firms going bust as well.
To his credit, Alan Greenspan, who was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1988 to 2006, had pointed out the risk of big banks as far back as October 1999. He had said in a speech that “megabanks being formed by growth and consolidation are increasingly complex entities that create the potential for unusually large systemic risks in the national and international economy should they fail.”
Hence, it is important to make sure that there are no institutions which are too big to fail. As Bob Swarup puts it in
Money Mania,If the vanishing of an institution will destroy the network of our economy, it is too large to survive. Citigroup will one day go bust. Probability and evolution tell us that. Therefore, we can either keep trying to postpone the inevitable or remove that anomaly. This can be done over time by shrinking the institution through incentive or breaking up the institution.”
Interestingly, research carried out by the Federal Reserve has been unable to find any economies of scale of operation beyond a certain size. As Greenspan asks in
The Map and the Territory: “I often wondered as the banks increased in size throughout the globe prior to the crash and since: Had bankers discovered economies of scale that Fed research had missed?”
In fact, there is little to suggest that banks benefit from any economies of scale, when they grow beyond $100 billion in assets, suggest Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in
The Bankers’ New Clothes. (On a different note Kotak Mahindra Bank had Rs 1,22,237 crore as on March 31, 2014. Hence, as far as economies of scale are concerned it is still well below Admati and Hellwig’s cut off point).
Moral of the story: bigger banks aren’t necessarily better, especially in an environment where governments cannot let a bank go bust in case it runs into trouble. As Swarup points out “No government will ever take the electoral risk of bank failure. Governments throw money at the problem, even if it is in vain, because the incentives are based on perpetuating their political hegemony.”
And this is something worth remembering every time a banker talks about bigger being better.

The article originally appeared on on Nov 25, 2014

Kotak-ING Vysya merger: Why M&As are like Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages

635266189203244874_Kotak Mahindra Bank Elizabeth_Taylor_portraitKotak Mahindra Bank is set to acquire ING Vysya bank. “All ING Vysya branches and employees will become Kotak branches and employees” after the deal is completed,” the banks said in a statement yesterday. “Congratulations @udaykotak on a brilliant merger move. The enormous synergies are obvious,” industrialist Anand Mahindra tweeted after the deal was announced.
Big companies like to acquire other companies and the reason that is often cited is synergy. But things are never very obvious, even though they may seem to be initially. The history of mergers and acquisitions is littered with examples of things going terribly wrong for companies. Nevertheless, the zeal to merge and acquire, and thus grow bigger in the process, doesn’t seem to die down with executives who always remain confident of making it work.
As Paul B Carrol and Chunka Mui write in
Billion Dollar Lessons — What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failure of the Last 25 Years “Executives can be like Elizabeth Taylor, who has said that with each of eight marriages, she was convinced that somehow, someway, this marriage would work.”
Usually a merger is justified by harping on a particular synergy. And what exactly is this synergy? It could be something like the scenario that was used to justify Coca Cola buying Columbia Pictures—consumers while watching movies made by Columbia Pictures will drink Coke. Not surprisingly, this did not work out well and Coca Cola had to soon sell Columbia Pictures.
But on a more serious note what exactly is synergy? John Lanchester defines the term in his book
How To Speak Money: “Synergy: Mainly BULLSHIT, but when it does mean anything it means merging two companies together and taking the opportunity to sack people.” He then goes on to explain the concept through an example.
As he writes “If two companies that make similar products merge, they will have a similar warehouse and delivery operations, so one of the two sets of employees will lose their jobs. The idea is that this will cut COSTS and increase profits, though that tends not to happen, and it is a proven fact that most mergers end by costing money…When two companies merge, the first thing that ANALYSTS look at when evaluating the deal is how many jobs have been lost: the higher the number, the better. That’s synergy.”
An interesting story here is that of Bank of America stepping into acquire Merrill Lynch around the time the current financial crisis broke out. Michael Lewis writes in
Flashboys that Merrill Lynch ended up taking over the equity division of Bank of America and went about firing employees of the bank. Merrill Lynch employees also gave themselves huge bonuses. Lewis quotes John Schwall, who had for Bank of America for nine years, as saying: “It was incredibly unjust. My stock in this company I helped build for nine years goes into the shitter, and these assholes pay themselves record bonuses. It was a fucking crime.”
Also, even in cases of firms which are in the same line of business, things can turn out all wrong, even with all the projected synergy. As an article in a September 1994 edition of
The Economist points out “Even complementary firms can have different cultures, which makes melding them tricky. And organising an acquisition can make top managers spread their time too thinly, neglecting their core business and so bringing doom. Too often, however, potential difficulties such as these seem trivial to managers caught up in the thrill of the chase…and eager to grow more powerful.” This is something that Kotak and ING Vysya will have to deal with. Essentially, what might seem like an extremely valuable operating synergy may simply evaporate because of the cultural differences that exist between the two firms.
A good example here is the merger of America Online and Time  Warner. “At the time of the merger in 2000, when the company’s market capitalisation was $280 billion, AOL’s Steve Case and Time  Warner’s Gerald Levin proclaimed that they had done nothing less  than reinvent media by combining an old-line media company with a new age one. They said AOL  would feed customers to Time Warner’s magazines and its cable, movie, music, and book businesses. Time Warner would provide new kinds of content that would help AOL sign up even more customers for its online subscription service,” write Carrol and Mui.
But the synergy that had been thought of before the merger was simply not there. And there was a reason for it. The idea was to combine the “old and new media”. The top management did a lot to get the synergy going. Nevertheless it did not work out. As Carol and Mul put it “But the folks on the Time Warner side, in particular, didn’t make the jump with them. Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and scores of other magazines had prospered for decades. They had well-established practices for how they produced their stories and sold their ads.”
And once these so called obvious synergies evaporate, there is trouble ahead. Hence, most mergers and acquisitions do not work out well. As Carrol and Mui point out “A McKinsey study of 124 mergers found that only 30% generated synergies on the revenue side that were even close to what the acquirer had predicted. Results were better on the cost side. Some 60% of the cases met the forecasts on cost synergies. Still, that means two out of five didn’t deliver the cost synergies, and forecasts were sometimes way off — in a quarter of the cases, cost synergies were overestimated by at least 25%.”
There is other similar evidence available. As Jay Niblick writes in an article titled
The Problem with Mergers and Acquisitions “According to KPMG and Wharton studies, 83% of mergers and acquisitions failed to produce any benefits – and over half actually ended up reducing the value instead of increasing it. Multiple other studies would agree, finding that the failure rate of most mergers and acquisitions ranges somewhere between 60-80%. It would seem obvious that something is wrong with this industry.”
Niblick goes on to ask “even the average village idiot should be able to notice that something isn’t working here – right?” But that as it turns out is not the case.
Even with a huge amount of evidence that mergers and acquisitions don’t seem to work, the idea of acquiring companies is seductive. This is primarily because “they fill the need for CEOs to make some bold move that will redefine an industry and establish their legacy,” explain Carol and Mui This leads to the acquiring company typically overpaying for the acquired firm and shareholders of the acquired firm lose out in the process. As
The Economist points out “Shareholders of acquiring firms seldom do well: on average their share price is roughly unchanged on the news of the deal, and then falls relative to the market. Part of the reason for this is that lovelorn company bosses, intent on conquest, neglect the needs of their existing shareholders.”
To conclude, the top management of Kotak and ING will have to keep these things in mind once they start merging their operations on the ground. And if history is any guide for things, tough times lie ahead for the two financial firms.

The article originally appeared on on Nov 21, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Why SBI’s $1 billion loan to Adani doesn’t make sense


Vivek Kaul

The State Bank of India(SBI) has decided to lend up to $1 billion to Adani Mining, the Australian subsidiary of Adani Enterprises for the Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia. The mine has massive blocks of untapped coal reserves. The company aims to build the project by end of 2017.
“The MOU with SBI is a significant milestone in the development of our Carmichael mine,” Adani said in a statement released yesterday.
The loan as and when it is extended would be one of the largest given out by an Indian bank for a foreign project. The question is should SBI be giving out a loan of up to $1 billion to a company which already has a huge amount of debt.
Let’s take a look at how the numbers look. As on September 30, 2014, the long term debt of the company stood at Rs 55,364.94 crore. The short term debt stood at Rs 17,267.43 crore. Hence, the total debt of the company stood at Rs 72,632.37 crore.
As on March 31, 2014, the total debt of the company stood at Rs 64,979.04 crore. Hence, the total debt of the company has shot up by Rs 7653.33 crore in a matter of six months.
The question we are trying to answer here is how good is the ability of the company to service all the debt that it has managed to accumulate. For that we use results of the last four quarters and calculate the interest coverage ratio. Interest coverage ratio is essentially the earnings before interest, taxes and exceptional items (or what is often termed as operating profit) of a company divided by its interest expense. It tells us whether the company is making enough money to pay the interest on its outstanding debt.
The total operating profit of the company over the last four quarters comes at Rs 8999.92 crore. The interest that the company has paid on its debt in the last four quarters amounts to Rs 5,733.77 crore. This means an interest coverage ratio of around 1.57.
As points out “The lower the ratio, the more the company is burdened by debt expense. When a company’s interest coverage ratio is 1.5 or lower, its ability to meet interest expenses may be questionable.”
While Adani Enterprises’ interest coverage ratio is not lower than 1.5 it is clearly getting there. In fact, things get even more interesting once we start calculating the interest coverage ratio on the basis of quarterly data. The interesting coverage ratio for the period of three months ending March 31, 2014, stood at 2.67. It stood at 1.58, for the period of three months ending June 30, 2014. And for the period of three months ending September 30, 2014, it stood at 1.12.
As we can see, the ability of the company to keep paying the interest that it needs to pay on its debt has come down dramatically during the course of this financial year. As points out “An interest coverage ratio below 1 indicates the company is not generating sufficient revenues to satisfy interest expenses.” Adani Enterprises is clearly moving towards this situation. Further, in a May 2014 report, Bank of America Merrill Lynch had estimated that the company would have an interest coverage ratio of 1.2 during the course of this financial year.
What all this clearly tells us is that Adani Enterprises is in an over-leveraged situation and is getting to a situation where it will find it difficult to keep paying the interest on its debt. The thing with debt is that it can work both ways. When a company takes on a higher amount of debt it gives itself an opportunity to generate higher earnings vis a vis a situation where it hadn’t taken on that debt at all.
If this happens, then these increased earnings are spread among the same number of shareholders. But at the same time the company runs the risk of getting into a situation where the projected earnings simply don’t come along and it finds it difficult to keep paying the interest on all the debt that it has taken on.
Adani Enterprises runs the risk of getting precisely into this situation. Further as a Reuters news-report points out “Much bigger coal rivals, like BHP Billiton and Glencore, have also shelved coal developments in Queensland at a time when a third of Australia’s coal output is making losses.” Also, coal prices have fallen over the last few years. As a recent report in The Hindu points out “Globally, coal prices have been on a downtrend in the last three years and are at the lowest levels since 2009. Prices of steam coal, a slightly lower grade that is used in power generation, have halved since 2011 to $62 per tonne now.”
This fall in prices has happened because of the supply not shrinking along with demand. “For instance, demand from China — the largest consumer of coal accounting for half of the total global demand — has been slow. After growing at over 10 per cent annually during 2001-2011, the country’s demand has fallen — imports were down to 150 million tonnes (mt) in 2013, from 182 mt in 2011. And given the pollution-related issues, it is expected that the country may look at cleaner sources more actively, holding down demand. Goldman Sachs estimates that imports will fall to 75 mt by 2018,” The Hindu points out.
Goldman Sachs expects the demand growth to be 15 million tonnes per year during 2013-2018, against 60 million tonnes per year it was at during 2008-2012. The supply of coal isn’t likely to come down. In case of Australia the miners have entered into long term “take or pay” contracts which requires them to pay $20 per tonne of transport costs, irrespective of the fact whether or not they ship coal. Hence, Australian miners are likely to continue to ship coal.
What this tells us is that coal is not the best business to be in right now. Despite these reasons SBI has gone ahead and given a loan of up to $1 billion to Adani Enterprises. This is not a logical decision which takes into account the facts as they prevail. The only possible explanation for this decision is the “so called” closeness of Gautam Adani, chairman of Adani Enterprises to Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India.

The article originally appeared on on Nov 18, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)