India's National Steel Policy 2017: Poor assessment of triggers

It is short on any concrete measures to help the immediate situation although it will aid in capacity addition in the long term

K Shankar
Updated: May 19, 2017 01:33:06 PM UTC

An avid golfer, a cricketer by passion and a talent spotter in the game, K Shankar is also a business and strategy consultant. With over 20 years’ experience, Shankar has served a wide spectrum of clients across industries both in India and around the world. An engineer from Bangalore University, Shankar is responsible for assessing market opportunities & advising clients on investment ecosystems to deliver successful business results. Over the last 23 years at Feedback, Shankar has been an integral part of all strategic engagements involving setting up new business operations in India. In recent years, he has played a key role in bringing together partnerships between Indian and International firms. Shankar brings in a strong strategic perspective to clients. Shankar is widely travelled and serves on the boards of listed companies. He is a regular speaker at events and conferences concerning various industry sectors. In his spare time, he teaches in management schools and enjoys mentoring students.

An employee holds a steel rod as he works on the production line inside Hallmark steel factory in Bhiwadi in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan September 30, 2013. India's prolonged economic slide has affected many companies in India, but small and medium-sized firms have been hit the most because of their more limited access to finance. Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The World Steel Association states that global steel demand increased by 0.2 percent to 1,501 Mt in 2016 after a contraction of -3.0 percent in 2015. In 2017, it expects global steel demand to grow by 0.5 percent and reach 1,510 Mt. The net conclusion – steel industry is reeling under a weak demand-led tailspin and is further compounded by oversupply situation from select geographies. This is not an easy situation and could take 3-4 more years to improve unless engineered proactively.

Around the world, steel industry fortunes are directly linked to the capex plans of industry, infrastructure investments, housing, railways, automotive sector performance, etc. While government spend on capex will be high, it is the private sector capex spend that allows for steel suppliers to nurse acceptable margins. The private sector capex and investment in core sector around the world is extremely weak at this point in time and is going through a certain rebalancing like never before.

India, the third largest producer and a top consumer of steel, is impacted too. Steel industry accounts for almost 2 percent of India’s GDP. This industry also has the highest debt exposure with local financial institutions. A variety of issues have decelerated the Indian steel industry:

  1. Cheap Imports: India has been flooded with cheap imports for a very long time primarily from China and Korea. The government imposed a provisional safeguard import duty for 200 days on some steel products in 2015 and subsequently set up a ‘minimum import price’ to protect the local industry. This helped the situation but only marginally.
  1. Low Capacity Utilisation: Easy availability of cheaper imported steel products, high input cost due to soaring raw material prices and availability of ore and coal, reduced operating margins of the business. This impacted the capacity utilisation which went down to 65-75 percent capacity levels.
  1. Lack of Adequate Capital and High Interest Cost Burden: The steel industry needs adequate capital for capacity building, investments in upgradation and technology to stay competitive both domestically and globally. This was unfortunately not available to the industry.
  1. Small Steel Mills: In the early years beginning 2003, a lot of small steel mills were set up across the country. Steel is a long gestation business and profits are realised after a significant sustenance. These small steel mills had marginal holding power and turned over their head with worsening business situation.

The national policy had to consider all these issues and the global situation to articulate a new direction for the steel industry. The policy is short on any concrete measures that could help the immediate situation. While in the long term, it will aid in capacity addition, but as John Keynes says “in the long term we are all dead “.

Let’s evaluate what the policy missed:

  1. Root Cause of Trigger:  My friend Jayantha Sampath has this rustic yet erudite way of asking, ‘What is the trigger?’ The government has actually missed on subsuming all the triggers in the policy. The big triggers should have been on improving demand for steel, improving consistency and input costs of raw material supplies, creating a pipeline for capital. The policy instead focuses on increasing the capacity of steel production by almost 3 times over the next 14 years. The current capacity utilisation of 65-75 percent should have been a trigger to set out steps on improving demand. There is talk of an initiative to make it mandatory for local projects to buy local steel. While it is a welcome initiative, its shelf life may be limited since it is a protectionist plan.
  1. Steep Trajectory for Performance Improvement: From a best cost steel producer in 2012, India ($340/ ton) has now become a high cost ($420/ ton) producer! The competitive advantage is fully eroded. The policy needed to have a focussed approach on freight challenges, energy tariff improvement, resolving raw material supply and cost issues. It does not help the overall situation if most new projects will come up on the coastal belt. What about the existing 122 MT capacity? How are they going to benefit from the policy? There is no deep thinking on improvement of competitiveness. The local steel industry requires incubation today but on a different pedestal. Protection for the industry, focussed policy on mining, and capital allocation plans will help the industry improve their performance in the immediate short term. When most countries have begun looking inward, why not India?
  1. Balance the Beast: It would have been a great idea if the government encouraged a consolidation of the steel industry before any further capacity addition. There are a lot of steel mills that are languishing and in serious debt. If these capacities can be absorbed by some ‘healthy’ players, it could be a ‘win-win’ situation for both. Some amount of consolidation should be encouraged by involving concerned financial institutions. The government’s immediate policy focus has to be on improving capacity utilisation to the robust levels of 90 percent.

The National Steel Policy 2017 has missed a trick or two. It has not conceived all the triggers and is therefore a bit off target.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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