‘In infrastructure you cannot expect really high returns’

Sidharth Rath, president, corporate banking (infrastructure business), Axis Bank talks to Amritha Pillay on the challenges facing the infrastructure industry. This is the first part of a two-part series

Amritha Pillay ML: To begin with, can you give us a general perspective of how focused is Axis Bank on the infrastructure sector?

Sidharth Rath SR:
The bank has been funding infrastructure projects in a large way; it will continue to do so. As on 31 March 2010, Axis Bank had a credit risk exposure of Rs9,069.49 crore (fund-based) and Rs9,775.60 crore (non-fund based). This investment is in the telecom, road and port segments put together. In the power sector, our exposure is around Rs4,094.97 crore (fund-based) and Rs 4,352.03 crore (non-fund based).

The infrastructure business is a focus area for the bank. Axis is committed and positive about good infrastructure projects. Any viable and bankable project in any infrastructure segment will be looked at positively. Our total gross credit exposure industry-wise is highest at 9% in infrastructure.

ML: How bullish are you on each of the segments in infrastructure — given each of these are plagued by their own share of political issues — environmental clearances being a major one?

Each and every infrastructure project has its own share of environmental issues. In India we will have to go through processes and procedures, which will take their own time. Things have moved slowly in the past. But we have witnessed a new thrust from the government on infrastructure development. These issues are being discussed at the highest level, so obviously certain ways would be found out on how to expedite clearances.

ML: Moving towards a sector-specific outlook, what is your view on the ports segment?

In general, we are bullish on ports; trade movement has to take place. But to be specific about individual port projects — they have their own characteristics. The sector is a major requirement in infrastructure and hence I am bullish on the sector. But, to be specific, it all depends on the location, hinterland traffic and connectivity — road and rail are important and need to be taken into account. As a sector, it has fine opportunities. For the last fiscal (as of 31 March 2010), our total credit-risk exposure to the port sector was Rs682.27 crore through funds and another Rs1,222.84 crore which is non-fund based.

ML: If location plays an important role, do ports on the west coast enjoy an advantage?

The west coast definitely has the headway. Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and Mundra Port both have proved to be successful in terms of container traffic. Ports on the west coast cater to both the northern and western markets. Thus, definitely, the west coast has an advantage.

However, this does not mean that the east coast is not doing well. Chennai has a container terminal. We also see a number of other container terminals coming up. Of course, traffic on the west coast is well placed, but the east coast has an edge in the container segment.

ML: Roads and power are two important segments in the infrastructure space. From a banker’s point of view, what are the main risks?

There is an overall demand for infrastructure development across segments. How we fulfil this demand is the main issue. When we look at individual projects as a banker, we will have to look at the merit of individual projects. How competitive is the project — be it a road, power or a port project. Our credit exposure to road construction has been around Rs1,542.56 crore through funds and another Rs822.69 crore is non-fund based.

For road projects, the main factor is project implementation. We need to factor in issues like land acquisitions and environmental clearances at the time of appraisal. These are the issues at the start-up stage, but we will have to look beyond whether there is a specific demand. If the traffic is not as per expectation, the entire project fails.

If it’s a power project, the dynamics of fuel supply, competitive rates of accessing this fuel, power off-take arrangements and evacuation facilities like transmission lines are the main issues. Each of these risks need to be factored in and the risk mitigation for each of these needs to be worked out.

ML: Taking the power off-take point forward, what are you more comfortable with — merchant power or long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs)? What is your view on the various power companies which have large untied capacities?

Both have their own advantages and disadvantages. Smaller projects are good for merchant power. Smaller projects like small hydro-projects or gas-based projects are good for merchant power as the capacity can always be reduced or increased depending on demand. It can cater to peak demand, when the tariffs are generally higher. For large projects, obviously, the power capacity has to be tied up through long-term off-take agreements. The long-term (approach) is what banks should be comfortable with.

Every player is tying up power capacity in one or the other way. Some power companies are tying up with State utilities, some are tying up with traders. Some capacity is being kept untied for merchant power. Banks will not be ready to finance power projects without a tie-up in place. Banks insist that a certain level has to be tied up. However, this level depends upon the merit and the competitiveness of the project developer. Huge capacities cannot be left for merchant sales. Banks will not be comfortable in funding (such projects); they will insist on having a certain level of capacity tied up.

ML: What kind of returns do you think private power companies should expect, given the high volatility of merchant power rates?

For any infrastructure project, around 20% is the expected rate of return. In infrastructure you cannot expect really high returns — as these are long-term projects with long implementation and operational periods. One cannot factor in merchant power rates on a long-term basis. Such high points in merchant rates arise at certain intervals of time; those who have implemented their projects can take advantage of that. If there is an opportunity for merchant power to maximise returns then it is obviously welcome.

ML: What is your perspective on the aviation industry?

In the aviation industry, airports have a fair amount of potential, civil aviation traffic is going up, thus definitely the country needs good airports. Considering the manner in which the traffic has been growing, (the) potential is huge. It depends on how it works out along with the location, size, and other aspects of a particular airport project. If the project is very large, one has to see how viable it is and how quickly will it generate returns. There is a potential for airports at metros other than the four main ones. It depends on how they are developed and how is the viability issue addressed.


India adds 12.29 million GSM subscribers in June

Bharti Airtel, the number one GSM operator, added three million new users in June while rival Vodafone Essar added 2.71 million subscribers during the month

Indian GSM telecom operators added 12.29 million new subscribers in the month of June, taking the all-India GSM cellular subscriber base to 456.58 million, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India COAI, reports PTI.

Bharti Airtel, the number one GSM operator, added three million new users in June, taking its total subscriber base to 136.6 million, data released by COAI showed today.

Bharti is the leader with a 29.92% market share.

Rival Vodafone Essar added 2.71 million subscribers during the month, taking its subscriber base to 109 million, it said. It had a market share of 23.89% by the end of June 2010.

Idea Cellular added 2.15 million users in June, taking its total user base to 68.88 million, while Aircel — in which Malaysia's Maxis owns a majority stake — added 1.6 million customers to reach 41.67 million subscribers.

State-run telecom firms BSNL and MTNL added 1.09 million and 44,413 new users respectively, taking their subscriber base to 66.88 million (BSNL) and 4.90 million (MTNL).


Power ministry seeks data on gas availability

An Empowered Group of Ministers headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is likely to meet on 27th July to consider allocating natural gas from RIL's KG-D6 field

The power ministry is believed to have asked the oil ministry to provide data on the availability of gas from all sources — including Reliance Industries' (RIL) Krishna Godavari (KG) basin — for power projects, so it could decide on fuel allocation.

"We have asked petroleum ministry to indicate likely availability of gas from all sources," a power ministry official said.

The power ministry would soon decide on the allocation of fuel to gas-based power stations, including NTPC's expansion projects at Anta (Rajasthan), Auraiya (Uttar Pradesh), Faridabad (Haryana) and Dadri (UP).

The ministry has also sought a list of gas-based power plants that would come up during the current financial year (2010-11) from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).

NTPC is planning to augment the combined capacity of its four power stations by about 6,000 MW in the next five years, for which the company would require 30 million standard cubic metres (mmscmd) of gas per day.

"We are planning an expansion of 6,000 MW of our gas-based stations at Anta, Auraiya, Faridabad and Dadri," NTPC official said, adding that the company requires 30 mmscmd of gas for the same.

"If we get the gas, we would be able to start work on the projects by February 2011," he added.

The fuel allocation would also be for Reliance Power's three gas-based power projects -- Samalkot (Andhra Pradesh), Shahapur (Maharashtra) and Bharuch in Gujarat.

An Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is likely to meet on 27th July to consider allocating natural gas from RIL's KG-D6 field.

It is likely to allocate gas to the projects, based on recommendations made by the power ministry.

Meanwhile, Reliance Power is also believed to have written to the oil ministry, asking for 29 mmscmd of gas for its three gas-based projects.


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