India’s largest cement producer UltraTech Cement Ltd turned out a bittersweet show in the December quarter. A sharp drop in fuel costs and higher realizations helped drive profit growth. But the inherent demand weakness was evident in the sales volumes drop during the quarter.
Better realizations during the December quarter, in spite of the 4% year-on-year volume decline, minimized the pain. Net stand-alone revenue fell by 2.6% to ₹9,981.8 crore.
But as pointed out earlier, lower costs on most fronts helped profitability. The chart alongside shows the sharp drop in energy costs led by lower petcoke prices, lower fuel consumption and higher use of green power. Logistics costs, too, fell due to lower railway freight charges and synergies from the acquired assets. These savings helped offset the increase in raw material costs.
The upshot: Q3 Ebitda (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) of about ₹990 per tonne was 29% higher from a year ago. The jump in profit on a per tonne basis was more or less along expected lines, given the increase in realizations. “Besides, the reduction in net debt by about ₹2,000 crore is a key positive,” said Binod Modi, analyst at Reliance Securities Ltd.
What also impressed analysts is the nimble-footed integration of the recently merged cement assets of Nathdwara and Century, which was a concern on the Street.
Kunal Shah, analyst (institutional equities) at Yes Securities (India) Ltd, said: “The company has proved its ability of asset integration. Century’s cement assets were ramped up to 79% capacity utilization in December, even as they operated Nathdwara generating an Ebitda of ₹1,500 per tonne.”
Looks like the demand weakness mirrored in weak sales during the quarter was masked by the deft integration and synergies derived from these acquired assets. This drove UltraTech’s stock up by 2.6% to ₹4,643 after the Q3 results were declared on Friday.
Brand transition from Century to UltraTech, which is 55% complete, is likely to touch 80% by September 2020. A report by Jefferies India Pvt. Ltd highlights that the Ebitda per tonne for premium brands is about ₹5-10 higher per bag than the average (A cement bag weighs 50kg). Of course, with competition increasing in the arena, it remains to be seen how brand premiumization in the cement industry will pan out. UltraTech Cement scores well among peers here.
However, there are road bumps ahead for the cement sector and for UltraTech. Falling gross domestic product growth, fiscal slippages and lower budgetary allocation to infrastructure sector are making industry houses jittery on growth. Although UltraTech’s management is confident that cement demand is looking up, sustainability and pricing power remains a worry for the near term.