Construction sector: FDI cannot be a game changer unless execution hurdles ease
On Wednesday, the government decision to allow 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in the construction sector fired up a few stocks with higher exposure to the roads business. Coming close on the heels of the ambitious target to lay out 83,000km of roads (including Bharatmala and other plans) by the ministry of road transport and highways, the hope is that the FDI nod would help lure global funds and bidders into the grand plan.
Although the intent is commendable, there is much to be sorted out beneath the surface in the sector. Demonetisation and the goods and services tax may have slowed the pace of execution in 2017, but the average length of roads constructed over the last five years is far below targets.
An analysis by Icra Ltd says that cumulative awards and execution for the last eight years, by the ministry of road transport and highways, was 61,977km and 43,307km, respectively. Going by this measure, 83,000km in the next four years is a tall task.
And this is not without reason. The funding needs are huge. The ministry has started monetizing existing toll roads by awarding them to private firms. Called the TOT (toll-operate-transfer) model, this is expected to bring in part of the funds needed for road development. But critics say that tough bidding norms could slow the pace of monetizing as it would restrict bidders.
According to Prabhudas Lilladher Pvt. Ltd, “While cess was the main source of funds for National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the funding model is undergoing a change, with the institution supporting project execution through external borrowings.”
But balance sheets of firms with good track record are flush with orders up to twice their annual revenue. Hence, they may have little appetite for more. The opportunity for FDI in the sector too is nothing great to write home about as it has already been allowed on a case-to-case basis with approvals.
Meanwhile, land acquisition in huge parcels may slow down the process of awarding itself, given that the new contracting model is to ensure that most of the land is acquired by the government before contracts are awarded.
“Land acquisition cost as a percentage of total project cost for the NHAI projects was at 9% in 2009, increased to 16% in 2012 and; for some of the recent expressway projects, the land acquisition cost is estimated to be in the range of 37-55% of total project cost,” says the Icra report.
Besides, a lot depends on the government’s ability to access funds, given its higher degree of involvement in the initial stages of road construction.
That said, road construction companies such as Ashoka Buildcon Ltd, Dilip Buildcon Ltd, Simplex Infrastructures Ltd, IRB Infrastructures Ltd and Sadbhav Engineering Ltd are the front runners that have done well in terms of revenue and profit ramp-up on the back of a robust order book and efficient execution. Yet, shares of these companies have already run up, returning between 35% and 60% in the last six months, thanks to the strong push by the government to the sector.
Valuations are rich at nearly 18-20 times the estimated earnings for fiscal year 2020. Unless profit growth improves by leaps and bounds by better tolling rates and traffic or improved margins in the construction segment, mere news of allowing 100% FDI in the sector will not be a game changer.
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