The strong uptrend in farm product prices, mounting pressure to expand farm output and yield and expanding government outlays on agriculture, are all likely to stoke demand for agri-inputs such as fertilisers and crop protection products over the next few years.
The policy environment for domestic fertiliser makers is also likely to turn more conducive in this backdrop. However, the stock may deliver only over a 2-3 year time frame, as the company’s cost and sourcing advantages may pay off only over the medium term. Near-term financials, especially for the March quarter, may be muted as one of the units had temporarily suspended production during this period.
Coromandel Fertilisers, one of India’s leading makers of phosphatic and complex fertilisers, has the scale and distribution reach to capitalise on this trend. The company has managed an annualised growth of 15 per cent in its sales and 32 per cent in net profit over the past five years helped by capex and acquisitions, despite limited pricing power and an unfriendly policy environment. The stock, trading at about eight times its estimated earnings for the current year, at its market price of Rs 117, appears to be a value ‘buy’ in this context.
Starting out as a South-based producer of phosphatic and complex fertilisers and pesticides, Coromandel Fertilisers has acquired significant scale and a pan-India presence through a series of acquisitions. The company’s acquisition of EID Parry’s farm inputs division, phosphate producer — Godavari Fertilisers — and pesticide maker — Ficom Organics — have added manufacturing facilities that are well spread-out to reduce logistics costs and an extensive distribution network for agri-inputs. These have been leveraged to market a wide range of farm inputs spanning fertilisers, crop protection products and micro-nutrients across India.
Scale and diversity
In the fertiliser business, the company is India’s second largest phosphate producers, controlling capacities of close to 2.5 million tonnes; this is proposed to be enhanced to 3.3 million tonnes by 2009. Economies of scale allow considerable flexibility and diversity in CFL’s product mix between DAP and various grades of NPK complex fertilisers (12:32:16, 20:20, 10:26:26 and 28:28). CFL’s earnings growth in fertilisers is determined mainly by volumes and product mix changes. Current selling prices are well below production costs, with producers reimbursed for the shortfall through a “concession” (subsidy) determined on the basis of “normative” conversion costs and prices of imported inputs.
Though this subsidy regime allows eventual pass-through of major input costs (significant when international prices of sulphur and phosphoric acid have risen 9 and 3 times respectively in a year), late recoveries and under recoveries do tend to exert pressure on the liquidity of domestic manufacturers. CFL, on its part, has made several strategic moves over the past five years to optimise its cost structure. It has secured sourcing of key raw materials such as rock phosphate by acquiring stakes in large global suppliers such as Foskor.
A JV to produce Phosphoric acid has also been flagged off with Groupe Chimique Tunisien. CFL has also acquired, turned around and expanded capacities at Godavari Fertilisers to attain considerable scale; it has also worked with a flexible product mix to take best advantage of the subsidy regime. The company’s cost structure is now among the lowest in the phosphatic/complexes space, which makes it well-placed to compete with imported fertilisers.
Favourable twist to policy
Domestic demand for complex fertilisers has been strong over the past three years, on the back of stable prices (fixed by the government) and expanding irrigated area, with the Southern market registering the strongest demand growth. Supplies in the domestic market have been extremely tight as investments in new capacity have not kept pace with demand. Bridging the deficit through imports has become an expensive proposition with global fertiliser prices soaring more than two-fold in the past year.
In this backdrop, the policy on the subsidy and pricing of phosphatic and complex fertilisers is likely to turn more favourable in the years ahead. Implementation of the Abhijit Sen committee recommendations (which proposes pricing and subsidy based on landed cost of imported DAP ) could translate into better margins for low cost, integrated producers such as CFL; it will also make the policy regime more stable and transparent. CFL will also benefit from any transition to nutrient-based subsidies, as this will ensure better offtake of phosphatic fertilisers, relative to urea.
The recent spiral in global fertiliser prices has ensured that landed costs of imported products are well above production costs for efficient domestic producers such as CFL, allowing them a substantial margin of comfort. CFL’s other products offerings within agri-inputs — crop protection and micro nutrients — also offer growth potential. Low-cost manufacture makes CFL a supplier of choice for generic agrochemicals, while micro-nutrients offer significant scope for scaling up given the nascent Indian market.