Bharti Airtel’s cost controls cushion Reliance Jio’s impact, but worst yet to come

Bharti Airtel’s efficient cost management in the March quarter propped up the telecom firm’s share prices despite results that missed estimates


Bharti Airtel Ltd’s market capitalization increased Rs10,873 crore ($1.68 billion) on Wednesday. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Bharti Airtel Ltd’s market capitalization increased Rs10,873 crore ($1.68 billion) on Wednesday. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Bharti Airtel Ltd’s market capitalization increased Rs10,873 crore ($1.68 billion) on Wednesday. Do Airtel’s fourth quarter results, announced on Tuesday after market hours, deserve that kind of celebration? On the contrary, the continuation of Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd’s free services offerings meant yet another dismal quarter for India’s telecom companies.

Bharti Airtel March quarter results show that, with consolidated revenue and Ebitda (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) declining by 6% and 6.7%, respectively, on a quarter-on-quarter basis.

Even so, Ebitda at Rs7,993 crore was above Street expectations, helped by Airtel’s efficient cost management. And that is the bright spot in the results the markets focused on. Network expenses and sales and marketing costs were lower sequentially during the March quarter.

To some extent, that explains the close to 8% jump in the share price on Wednesday, also a day when the BSE Sensex index closed at an all-time high.

But the beat may not be all that exciting. Analysts from JM Financial Institutional Securities Ltd pointed out the obvious: “The market would have clearly preferred a revenue-driven Ebitda surprise, as against a pure margin beat.” The brokerage added that its FY 2018 Ebitda of Rs31,800 crore now appears less demanding in light of the March quarter Ebitda beat. What also offers comfort is that Airtel’s Africa operations reported strong Ebitda margins.

Jio’s adverse impact, as it continued with its free services during the quarter, is evident in the numbers. Airtel’s India mobile services revenue declined 5.9% compared to the December quarter, which in turn had seen a 6.5% revenue decline compared to the September quarter. Even though voice realization per minute declined 17.5% sequentially for the March quarter, 15% growth in traffic or minutes on the network compensated for the drop in realization to some extent. Data revenue declined 11% sequentially for the March quarter. Similar to the voice segment, higher traffic offset the decline in realization to some extent.

Ambit Capital Pvt. Ltd. says data pricing was severely pressured, declining 32% quarter-on-quarter as Airtel launched several new low-cost data bundles to counter Jio’s freebies. While the voice business was less affected by Jio, “(its) revenue declined by 10% year-on-year; down from 4% year-on-year growth in 1HFY17,” said Ambit in a report on Wednesday.

What next? After a beat in the March quarter results, the million-dollar question is whether this is the bottom. Far from it. The fact is that competitive pressures persist. “We believe the worst is yet to come, with Jio continuing to charge aggressively, and incumbents matching every step,” said analysts from Credit Suisse Securities (India) Pvt Ltd in a report on Wednesday.

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