market watch

A fifth of India’s steel industry is up for grabs – and an intense bidding war is on

Marquee names, both local and global, are scrambling to get a leg up over each other amid a sale season in India’s steel sector.

Three out of India’s six biggest steel makers are bankrupt, and the banks are in a rush to get as much as they can for the loans made to these companies. Making the most of it are industry giants, like the Tatas, Mittals, and the Jindals, who are fighting each other to get a tighter grip on a sector that is now available at a bargain.

India is the world’s third-largest steel producer and the top six companies currently account for over half of the country’s steel production, according to ratings agency Crisil. At the end of the ongoing bidding war for a fifth of the country’s total steel-making capacity, the market will be controlled by even fewer players. That would explain why marquee names, both local and global, are scrambling to get a leg up over each other amid a sale season in India’s steel sector.

For instance, ArcelorMittal, owned by London-based billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, is pulling out all the stops to ensure its Rs 32,000 crore ($4.9 billion) bid for Essar Steel gets approved by the court. Mittal has already lost a bid for Monnet Ispat to the JSW Group, owned by the Indian steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal.

Essar Steel may be Mittal’s last opportunity to have a sizeable asset in India after nearly 13 years of failed efforts to set up operations in the country of his birth. It’s hardly a wonder that he is leaving no stone unturned.

On the other hand, Tata Steel’s Rs 32,500 crore ($4.9 billion) bid for the broke Bhushan Steel has already been approved by the courts. With that one stroke, the group’s steel-producing capacity in India went up by over 40% overnight. But the Tatas are not resting yet. The steel unit of the $103 billion Indian conglomerate is battling the UK-based Liberty House and the JSW Group for another company, Bhushan Power and Steel.

Even the British mining giant Vedanta Group, owned by Indian baron Anil Agrawal, was in one of the races. However, Vedanta ended the scouting after winning a bid for a relatively small player, West Bengal-based Electrosteel Steels, with Rs 5,320 crore.

“…these (auctioned) companies will move to stronger hands, resulting in better working capital and liquidity management. That, in turn, would lead to improving utilisation levels,” Crisil said in a note released on May 14. “Higher utilisation and volumes, coupled with better pricing, will bode well for the profitability of players.”

The highest bids for the five companies on the block, so far, add up to Rs 92,000 crore ($14 billion) compared to the Rs1.78 lakh crore that the bankrupt companies owe the banks.

The banks do not mind losing nearly half their loans’ worth as the sales will clean up the lenders’ balance sheets. Out of all the bad loans worth Rs 8.4 lakh crore at the end of December 2017, over 40% came from the steel sector alone.

The suitors are keen to buy out the bankrupt companies fast and cheap because the outlook for the sector is improving. A host of protective import duties by the Indian government, alongside supply squeezes in China, have helped steel prices rise in the last one year.

The Narendra Modi government has also stepped up spending on infrastructure, leading to an increase in domestic demand for steel. The National Steel Policy, unveiled in 2017, aims to treble India’s steel production capacity to 300 million tonnes a year by 2030-’31.

The Tatas, Jindals, and Mittals have one eye on the profits of the coming decade as they try to get more control of the market.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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