PRIME THE PUMP

Earlier in May, when I had asked Sajjan Jindal, chief of JSW – the group with the best appetite for capital investment – when the private sector would begin investing, he had replied that we were poised for an imminent renewal in sentiment for private investment. Recently, Ajay Piramal, head of Piramal Group and Shriram Group, reflected that a higher GDP number would initiate private investment flow into the economy. And, the World Bank projects that gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), which indicates investment demand in the economy, will grow by 6.8 per cent in FY18 and 8.8 per cent in FY19.

However, the situation appears to be suboptimal currently. According to CMIE, announcements of new industrial and infrastructural projects remained muted in the first quarter of 2017-18. Only 448 projects were announced during the quarter. This is the lowest quarterly project announcement seen since June 2014, the time when the last capex cycle bottomed out. Further, the completion of projects has dipped over previous consecutive quarters. Lower project initiation and a falling commissioning rate will be a double whammy – the only way to change this situation is to enhance the rate of commissioning of the project pipeline and, at the same time, improve the launch of new infrastructure projects. Stalled projects have also not seen any significant resolution. Ideally, the current government is in the best position to resolve and move this rapidly. If the RBI has recognised the need to resolve the mountain of debt through insolvency resolution professionals, why not seek help in resolving stalled projects too?

Foreign funds are keen to invest in toll-operate-transfer (TOT) projects so they can realise the toll yields on completed projects. Hence, NHAI is preparing to offer such completed projects and generate liquidity. Further, the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code will help quicker consolidation as companies find a solution for bailing out. L&T’s results also indicate that larger companies with stronger balance sheets can take on the burden of stressful financial cycles as contracting for infrastructure is essentially becoming a big boys’ game. There is a need for out-of-the-box solutions to resolve the infrastructure growth gridlock.

So, if private investment is yet to make its mark, what is keeping our engines sputtering if not humming? Public spending. Government spending grew by 13 per cent, year-on-year, in the two months April-May 2017 to touch Rs 4.6 lakh crore against Rs 2.9 lakh crore in April-May 2016. Capital expenditure for infrastructure creation and other assets rose 63 per cent in April-May to Rs 54,000 crore from Rs 33,000 crore in the same two months a year ago. With GST affecting working capital cycles, government spending will be needed to keep the economy pumped up.

Set for an infra-run

Data suggests that demonetisation has hit the pace of announcement of new investment proposals during the quarter-ended December 2016

The Union Budget has set the tone for 2017 by accelerating the growth agenda. The allocation for infrastructure at Rs 3.96 lakh crore, over Rs 3.49 lakh crore last year, will fuel the sector. Of the increase of Rs 47,000 crore, transport itself will consume Rs 24,000 crore.

The Railway Budget has been the largest-ever at Rs 1.31 lakh crore – an 8.26 per cent increase over the Rs 1.21 lakh crore allocated in 2016-17. Railway lines of 3,500 km will be commissioned in 2017-18 while at least 25 stations are expected to be awarded during 2017-18 for station redevelopment. Allocation for highways has been increased from Rs 57,976 crore in 2016-17 to Rs 64,900 crore in 2017-18. Around 2,000 km of coastal connectivity roads have been identified for construction and development.

The dark horse in the transport sector, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) has gathered pace. Last year, when I asked Minister Nitin Gadkari at a CII meet, why the PMGSY programme, which had tremendous potential, was not going anywhere – he responded that it did not fall under his ministry but that the government was working on an impetus for it.

The pace of construction of PMGSY roads has accelerated to reach 133 km per day in 2016-17, as against an average of 73 km during the period 2011-2014. And, the Budget has continued to provide Rs 19,000 crore in 2017-18 for this scheme. Together with the contribution of States, an amount of Rs 27,000 crore will be spent on PMGSY in 2017-18.

The other big bang boost has been for the housing sector. National Housing Bank will refinance individual housing loans of about Rs 20,000 crore in 2017-18. Affordable housing has been given the ´infrastructure´ status, which will enable these projects to avail benefits including interest subvention. Further, a target to complete 1 crore houses by 2019 has been set for the homeless and those living in kutcha houses.

Allocation for Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) has been raised from Rs 20,000 crore in 2016-17 to Rs 29,000 crore in 2017-18. Owing to these reforms, there is a likelihood of an ample availability of affordable housing in the next three years.

Among other infrastructure projects, the Metro projects will see the introduction of a Metro Policy and higher allocation of Rs 18,000 crore, against Rs 10,000 crore in the previous year. AMRUT and the Smart Cities mission will continue to move forward with an allocation of Rs 9,000 crore, against Rs 7,296 crore, as 60 selected cities gear up to issue tenders for city development.

The Namami Gange project has been allocated an increase of Rs 100 crore from Rs 2,150 crore to Rs 2,250 crore. And, Sagarmala has received an enhanced allocation of Rs 150 crore from Rs 450 to 600 crore. The Swachh Bharat campaign is being vigorously run and the allocation has risen to Rs 16,000 crore. Armed with the demonetisation swell in the banks, the finance minister had some head room to hold back the temptation of hiking the service tax in view of the forthcoming Goods and Service Tax (GST), which was a big relief. Further, though the large corporate sector did not get the tax reduction, the FM reduced taxes by 5 per cent for the MSMEs, which have an annual turnover of Rs 50 crore or less, thereby benefitting nearly 64 lakh companies.

Issues that need further attention by the ministry include implementation of the projects. Even the irrigation projects, which found mention in his last year´s Budget speech where 23 of the 99 projects would require to be completed by March 2017, are likely to miss the deadline. As per CMIE, new investment proposals worth Rs 1.25 lakh crore were observed during the quarter ended December 2016. This is low compared to the average Rs 2.36 lakh crore worth of new investments seen per quarter in the preceding nine quarters of the Modi Government. Data suggests that demonetisation has hit the pace of announcement of new investment proposals during the quarter-ended December 2016. Two hundred and twenty seven new investment proposals worth Rs 81,800 crore were announced during this quarter till November 8, 2016. In comparison, only 177 investment proposals worth Rs 43,700 crore were made between November 9 and December 31, 2016.

As for stalled projects, though the current government was to invigorate the economy by debottlenecking and accelerating these, the data points to the contrary. CMIE capex figures show that year-end stalled project figures for 2016 are at their highest levels since December 1995. The total value of stalled projects has reached Rs 11.70 lakh crore in the December quarter, accounting for 12.11 per cent of the total projects under implementation. Among the prime reasons for which the projects are stalled, ´obstacles in environment clearances´ contribute to 20 per cent while ´lack of promoter interest´ seems to be a growing trend over ´land acquisition issues´.

However, the absolute value of new project announcements shows that 2016 ranks second best among the last five years. This means that but for demonetisation, the economy was set for a run. Even if we examine the performance for the road sector, the contracts awarded and the length of roads constructed in the highway sector has been way behind claims of the road ministry.

The status of construction awarded and completed during September 2016 vis-a-vis targets set forth for 2016-17 are as follows:
However, the stage is set for a revival of the tempo. The Dispute Resolution Bill, release of funds for cases stuck in arbitration, reduction in interest rates, resolution of some severely stuck road projects, consolidation of some road assets and the infusion of some foreign capital, which has come to the rescue for some developers – all has signaled the dawn of the good times by Diwali 2016. And now, with the demonetisation impact easing up, the delayed dawn of good times is on the horizon again.

The tide is turning

There is finally good news on the economic front.
Projects commissioned in the country reached a record high of Rs 4.6 lakh crore in FY2016, according to CMIE. This is the highest-ever commissioning of projects in a year and represents a 12 per cent increase over Rs 4 lakh crore in FY2015. The stock of projects on hand is also huge – total outstanding projects are worth Rs 159 lakh crore. Of these, Rs 92 lakh crore worth of projects are estimated to be under implementation.

FDI increased by 27.5 per cent to $42 billion during April-February FY2016 as against $32.96 billion during the corresponding period of the previous year. Indirect tax collections moved up by 31.1 per cent to Rs 7.11 lakh crore in FY2016 over FY2015, indicating an improvement in demand. Transmission companies are recording a 20-25 per cent surge in their order books. And, initiatives like UDAY and DISCOM reforms are firing the power sector.

Among other patches that have started to see green shoots are the solar sector, railways and coal production. Commercial vehicle (CV) sales, which were languishing till a few quarters ago, have veered into positive territory, especially in the medium and heavy segment. In FY2015-16, the overall CV industry did well to post 11.51 per cent year-on-year growth with sales of 685,704.

Even consumption of products used for construction or industrial purposes are indicating an uptick: Bitumen (up by 16.9 per cent), petroleum coke (up by 42.9 per cent) and furnace oil (up by 39.4 per cent). Further indicators include sales of medium and heavy commercial vehicles (up 29.9 per cent in 2015-16), cement production (13.5 per cent increase year-on-year in February) and electricity generation (9.2 per cent growth in February).

Government spending has contributed to this spurt. In 2015-16, a total of 6,029 km of national highways were built, which was not just an all-time high but a substantial jump over the 4,340 km, 3,950 km and 5,732 km that were constructed in the preceding three fiscal years. In the past three to four months of 2016, construction equipment too has been witnessing growth over the previous corresponding years. The green shoots are evidently here. And, with the prospect of a good monsoon after two bad years, the time seems set for an overall improvement in the economic scenario in the construction and infrastructure space. Real estate will still take time as the buoyancy in the economy will take some time to percolate.

A revival in PPP also indicates an improvement in the confidence of the business sector. For India’s infrastructure building plans, a huge contribution has been envisaged from the private sector. A total of about 1,200 projects in different segments of the infrastructure sector, with investments worth about Rs 7 lakh crore, are being carried out under PPP mode throughout India, according to an ASSOCHAM study. Of these, there are about 650 projects worth over Rs 4.5 lakh crore with about 67 per cent share in roads and bridges; followed by over 100 projects in the ports sector (12 per cent) with an investment worth over Rs 80,700 crore; over 150 projects in energy (6 per cent) with investments worth over Rs 41,000 crore; investments worth over Rs 30,000 crore in SEZ (5 per cent); as well as projects in water sanitation (2.6 per cent), and others. Almost 73 per cent of total investments worth over Rs 3.3 lakh crore (rest are either terminated or information is not available on them) attracted by the infrastructure sector in various segments under construction in the PPP mode are concentrated in roads and bridges. Currently, there are about 480 investment projects under construction in the PPP mode in various other segments: SEZ, ports, energy, water sanitation, airports, tourism, healthcare, cold chain and others.

The stage is set for a revival and, with the indulgence of the rain gods, the clouds on the horizon are signalling good tidings – at last!