ICRA maintains ‘negative’ outlook on domestic road freight sector

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Credit Rating Agency ICRA has maintained a ‘negative’ outlook on the Indian road logistics industry given the expectations of continued pressures on the credit profile.

ICRA noted, overall credit metrics of logistics companies is likely to moderate over the near term with Debt/OPBITDA to average at ~4.1x and interest coverage to average at ~2.6x in FY2021, as compared to 2.5x and 4.9x respectively in FY2020. However, deferment of near-term debt-funded capex/acquisition plans by major logistics players would help cushion the impact to some extent.

The financial performance of ICRA’s sample of ten leading logistics companies was also adversely impacted in Q1 FY2021 as aggregate revenues of players declined by 35% on a Y-o-Y basis, in line with the sharp moderation in GDP growth, which hit historic lows of -23.9%, resulting in subdued freight availability. The OPM also contracted sharply by 600 bps on a sequential basis and nearly 900 bps on a Y-o-Y basis to 0.5%,on account of the gross under-utilisation of assets during the lockdown phase, despite the implementation of cost-saving initiatives by several companies. The impact was severe for players operating on an asset-heavy model with owned fleet and warehousing space, whiles those operating on an asset-light business model, fared relatively better due to lower quantum of fixed costs.

For the full year, FY2021, ICRA expects the revenue of its sample to decline by 18-20% Y-o-Y, in the backdrop of 11.0% contraction in GDP.

Shamsher Dewan, VP, ICRA Ratings said, “The aggregate revenues of ICRA’s sample of logistics companies contracted sharply by 35% during the quarter. The impact was more visible on players operating on an asset-heavy model, due to high fixed costs for owned assets, while asset-light players fared relatively better. This decline was also corroborated by the generation of E-way bills, which contracted by 49% during the quarter. In addition to the impact on the road logistics sector, the macroeconomic slowdown and lockdown also had a bearing on the rail and seaways freight traffic that primarily comprises of bulk commodities like coal, cement, iron ore and crude oil with volumes contracting by 21.3% and 19.7% Y-o-Y, respectively.”

Over the medium term, ICRA said, the sector is likely to witness some consolidation trends, given the rising pressure on viability of small fleet operators. Additionally, players offering multimodal services have been better placed to service their customers during this period, given their flexibility to use modes like railways and coastal, which were relatively less impacted by the lockdown. Accordingly, multimodal offerings are expected to gain increased acceptance and traction going forward as well. Given these factors, and the relatively higher financial flexibility available to large organised players vis-à-vis their smaller counterparts, there is potential for increased formalisation in the sector going forward.

While the revenues and profitability in Q2 FY2021 would have revived from the troughs witnessed in Q1 FY2021, given ongoing intermittent lockdowns in various parts of the country and continued rapid spread of the pandemic constraining the pace of recovery in industrial activity, the logistic sector (including warehousing segment) is likely to witness a gradual roadmap to recovery.

“While the situation has eased to some extent in Q2 FY2021, the pressure on cash flows of fleet operators is expected to continue, given under-utilisation of assets, rising diesel costs and continued fixed costs like driver salaries. Furthermore, while RBI’s forbearance initiative provided some relief in the initial days of the lockdown, expiry of the moratorium period and consequent re-commencement of EMI payments from September 2020 would also exert pressure on their cash flows going forward, despite some earnings improvement expected as the year progresses,” Dewan added.

With the economy gradually opening up during unlock phases and industrial, manufacturing and construction activities resuming, freight activity too has also been gradually reviving. The latest E-way bill and Fastag data indicates that freight volumes have recovered sequentially and improved to 87% of pre-covid levels (for E-Way Bill) and 95% of pre-COVID levels (for Fastag) by August 2020. This has potential to increase further going forward as the country gears up for the upcoming festive season.

As per the ICRA note, growth over the near term is expected to be driven by specific segments like e-commerce, as the trend in online purchases and deliveries have picked up substantially post the lockdown. Similarly, the automotive sector has also been picking up. The rural uptick has also augured well for movement of agricultural and allied produce. However, other segments like capital goods continue to remain subdued though.

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