This December, we were privileged to organise the ICR Cement Expo and Cement Conference concurrently. The theme of the conference was ´Infrastructure to drive cement demand´. When we planned the conference a few months back, and narrowed down on to the proposed theme, it seemed perfectly logical that the cement demand would look up in 2017, and it also looked certain that new upcoming infrastructure projects will help drive up cement demand, duly aided by the positive effects of a great monsoon on rural housing demand.
Little did we know that on 8th November, an upheaval will be triggered in the economy in general, and in all such sectors which substantially transact in cash, including cement, and all our expectations based on industry analysis, would be rudely belied.
The sudden shock of demonetisation adversely impacted the trade or retail component of cement off-take, because at the cement counters of retailers all over India, bags are purchased mostly in cash. However, different regions of the country were affected differently in the early days of demonetisation. For example, in the early days post 8th November, southern markets withstood the shock much better than the eastern or northern markets. This discrepancy was mostly caused by the difference in the extent to which the cement makers in the regions pushed cement into the distribution pipeline ignoring the drop in retail off-take.
But as time passed, let´s say in December, the southern markets are drying up as well. Overall, the drop in demand has varied widely from 20 per cent to 70 per cent in different regional markets of India, and insiders say that this trend will continue into January 2017. In spite of brave attempts of cement players, prices have started sliding down as well, and some analysts say that prices have corrected by Rs 15-30/bag across markets. As a result, the stocks of cement companies have already fallen by 15-30 per cent since that fateful November day.
As if this was not enough, the industry has been also hit by increasing fuel prices, which account for at least 40 per cent of its cost structure. Prices of pet coke, imported coal and diesel are going up. According to the data from S&P Global Platts, pet coke and imported coal prices rose between 30 and 37 per cent between July and December. The companies and plants which are located far away from domestic coalfields and/or depended more on pet coke as fuel, are going to be affected sharply. Together with the demand shocker and softening of retail prices, this cost push is going to come as a double whammy for a number of cement companies. Margins of cement companies will get squeezed to various degrees as a result of all this.
Coming back to the theme of our conference, it seems that the government´s infrastructure investments, both in the Central and state sectors, will be the only saviour of the cement industry in the next 12 months. Even so, the infra players and EPC contractors, being volume buyers, have quite a lot of negotiating leverage, and therefore, overall profitability of cement is going to take a hit in relation to retail markets.
End of the day, it does seem that everything has got postponed by a year. Let us now gear up to face a year of tribulations, and look forward to 2018 for recovery of the industry. We would like to underline the fact that the fundamental strengths of the cement industry continue to be enduring in the longer term.