Salaam seth salaam seth kuch apne layak kaam seth,
Aap to khaayen murgh musallam apni to bus rice plate.
– Shaily Shailendra, Annu Mallik (now known as Anu Malik), Annu Mallik and Kawal Sharma, in Jeete Hain Shaan Se.
Corporates have reported bumper profits for the period July to September 2020.
This led a friend, who is generally unhappy with most of my writing given that he dabbles in the stock market which just keeps going up, to quip: “How are the corporates making profits if the economy is not doing well?”
This is an interesting question and needs to be addressed. Having said that, the right question to ask is, how are the corporates making profits with the economy not doing well.
Let’s look at it pointwise.
1) A newsreport published in the Business Standard on November 17, 2020, considers the results of 2,672 listed companies, including their listed subsidiaries, for the period July to September 2020. During this period, the net profit of these companies touched a record Rs 1.52 lakh crore, up by 2.5 times in comparison to the same period in 2019.
2) There is a base effect at play here, with last year’s low base making profits this year look very high. During the period July to September 2019, telecom companies faced massive losses. Their losses have come down during the period July to September 2020. Take the case of Vodafone Idea. The company reported a loss of Rs 50,000 crore last year. The loss during July to September 2020 was much lower at Rs 6,451 crore. Similarly for Airtel, the loss came down from around Rs 23,000 crore last year to Rs 776 crore this year.
These losses pulled down overall corporate profits by close to Rs 73,000 crore, during the period July to September 2019. This time around the losses of these two telecom companies were limited Rs 7,227 crore. Hence, these two companies had a disproportionate negative impact on the overall corporate profits last year. The same hasn’t happened this year and in the process has ended up pushing up the overall corporate profit growth this year.
3) Interestingly, companies have managed to report an increase in net profit despite shrinking sales. The Business Standard report referred to earlier suggests that the net sales of these companies shrunk by 5.2% during July to September 2020. This is the fifth consecutive quarter when the sales of listed companies have shrunk. Depsite shrinking sales, profits have gone up.
4) Economist Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, looked at a sample of 1,675 listed manufacturing companies. He found that their combined net profit stood at Rs 72,600 crore, despite their net sales shirking by Rs 96,100 crore.
5) The question is how have companies managed to increase their net profit, despite doing less business than last year, leading to lower revenues. There are sectoral reasons at play. Thanks to the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, the banks did not have to report bad loans as bad loans. This has led to banks setting aside lesser money to meet the losses that may arise from these bad loans. This has clearly pushed up the profit number in the banking sector.
More specifically, the companies managed to cut more costs than they saw a fall in sales and thus pushed up their net profit. Take the case of the manufacturing sector that Vyas has considered in his analysis, while their sales shrunk by Rs 91,600 crore, their operating expenses came down by Rs 1,33,100 crore or around Rs 1.33 lakh crore. The companies managed to drive down the cost of raw materials thanks to a favourable shift in trade terms and drawing down their inventories.
6) Other than driving down raw material cost, companies have also managed to cut down on employee costs. Economist Sajjid Chinoy of JP Morgan in a column in The Indian Express writes that net profit of companies went up despite shrinking revenues because “firms aggressively cut costs, including employee compensation.” “Indeed, a sample of about 600 listed firms reveals employee costs (as a per cent of EBITDA) was the lowest in 10 quarters,” he writes further.
A survey carried out by the Mint newspaper and Bain found that half of the companies had reduced employee costs by either firing employees or cutting their salaries.
The above points explain why corporate profits have gone up disproportionately despite shrinking revenues. Let’s try and understand pointwise why this is not good for the Indian economy.
1) A major reason for raw material costs coming down is a favourable shift in trade terms. What does this mean? No company produces everything on its own. It uses inputs which are produced by other firms. In difficult times, companies are able to drive down the cost at which they purchase things from their suppliers, that is, inputs. The suppliers are other companies, which have to drive down their costs as well, and this is how things are pushed down the hierarchy.
How do suppliers and suppliers to suppliers drive down their costs? They also try to shift the trade terms in their favour and at the same time cut employee costs, like companies have.
2) This leads to what economists call the fallacy of composition or what is good for one may not be good for many. A simple example of this is someone going to watch a cricket match. He stands up to get a better view of the game being played and he gets a better view. But then the person behind him also needs to stand up to get a better view. And so the story continues. In the end, everyone is standing and watching the match, instead of siting comfortably and enjoying it. To repeat, what is good for one, may not be good for many.
How does this apply in the current case? When companies cut down on input costs, they are obviously paying a lower amount of money to their suppliers or not buying new raw material or as much raw material as they did in the past, to increase their inventory.
By cutting down on employee costs, they are either paying a lower amount of money to their employees or simply firing them. The suppliers in turn have to cut their costs in order to continue to be profitable or lose a lower amount of money. So, the cycle continues and in the end leads to lower incomes for everyone involved.
3) This leads to what the economist John Maynard Keynes called the paradox of thrift. With incomes coming down, people spend a lower amount of money than they did before. It is worth remembering here that ultimately one man’s spending is another man’s income, leading to a further cut in spending. Even those who haven’t seen a drop in their income or been fired, cut down on their spending. They are trying to save more, given the risk of them getting fired and not being able to find another job. This is the psychology of a recession and it is totally in place right now.
4) One of the ways of measuring the size of any economy or its gross domestic product (GDP), is to add the incomes of its different constituents. This means adding up rents, wages, interest and profits. While, profits of companies have been going up, individual wages have been going down, leading to lower spending and hence, lower private consumption. This explains why despite corporate profits of listed companies increasing at a fast pace, the GDP during the period July to September 2020, contracted by 7.54%.
5) An August 2019 report in the Business Standard said that the combined net profit of companies that make up for the BSE 500 index was at 2.31% of the GDP. Other studies suggest that this figure has constantly been coming down over the years. Despite the fact that listed companies form a small part of the Indian economy, their influence on the initial GDP figure is very high.
A large part of the Indian economy is informal. The measures representing this part of the economy cannot be generated quickly. In this scenario, the statisticians assume the informal economy to be a certain size of the formal one. Corporate profits are an important input into measuring the size of the formal economy. This is something that needs to be kept in mind while looking at the economic contraction of 7.54%. .
To conclude, while corporate profits going up is good news for the companies, there are many ifs and buts, that need to be taken into account as well, and on the whole the way these profits are being generated, it’s not good news for the Indian economy.
Also, over a longer period, the only way to grow profits is by growing sales. This will start hitting the Indian corporates sooner rather than later.