A deluge of falling prices will seem far heavier than anything a monsoon can produce
The beginning of July often is part of the early monsoon season in Africa, south western US and South Asia. For investors it marks the beginning of earnings season for the second quarter. The upcoming season could dampen profit expectations as much as the seasonal rainfall.
The recession that started in 2008 has brought instability, defaults, high unemployment and a lot of bad news. But one area routinely impressed investors: corporate profits. Despite the many challenges, businesses in almost all countries managed to delight shareholders with record profits. In the US corporate earnings have grown steadily since the bottom in 2009 and ascending into record territory last year. Earnings growth for US companies last year was 14% down from 39% in the post-recession spurt of 2010. Earnings forecasts for 2012 continue that optimism and expect the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) earnings grow to an all time high.
Recently the optimism has been tempered. As I pointed out in May many companies try to manage earnings in order to be sure that when they announce their earnings they beat analysts’ expectations. But this quarter it appears that pessimism is wide-spread. So far, there are 74 companies in the S&P 500 who have lowered their forecasts compared to 28 who have raised them a ratio of almost three to one. For US financials, the projected growth has fallen from 55.2% to 9.5%. The energy sector is no better. Their estimates have fallen by 5%.
But it’s not just the US. Forecasts are declining all over the world. Consensus forecasts were predicting 12% growth for Europe next year. Morgan Stanley reduced this to a fall of 8% this year followed by growth of only 2% next. The spectacular growth in Asia has begun to slow. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch in June there were only 63 upgrades for every 100 downgrades.
Over the past two months some large multinational companies in the US have been trimming expectations. One bellwether is FedEx. As an international shipper, its health can reflect the prospects for world trade. It recently reduced its forecast of $1.45 to $1.60 a share, which was well below expectations of $1.70. Procter & Gamble is usually considered a defensive stock. Even in bad times, people still have to buy soaps. But it recently issued profit warnings. The Olympic Games were not enough to boost global sportswear giant Nike. Inventories are rising in Europe and China, which will ultimately lead to discounting and lower profits.
The US company, Caterpillar Inc, manufactures machinery used in construction, mining, energy and other areas integral to growth. A large part of its sales are international, 9% come from China alone. In the final months of last year it sales were up 27%. These have slowed to 11%. Still analysts remain optimistic. The company projects record earnings and analysts generally haven't made big changes in their second-quarter estimates. Caterpillar believes that growth in the US will make up for loss of international sales even though the most numbers show tepid growth.
US companies are not the only ones that are having issues. The Economic Times in India reported that its analysis of 2,302 companies reported that revenue growth fell to 13.5% year-on-year, compared to 19.3 % in the previous quarter, and 17.8 % in the quarter to September 2011. According on analyst in Mumbai the second quarter “is going to be very rough—it will be a train wreck.”
China is certainly not in any better shape. The widely expected soft landing has turned decidedly hard. The much anticipated monetary easing has actually been going on for six months without much effect. The Chinese adamantly refuse to lift restrictions of construction for fear of exacerbating the housing bubble. But the construction industry makes up between 11% and 15% of the gross domestic product (GDP). As the US is discovering, it is difficult to stimulate an economy without a healthy construction industry.
Meanwhile the need for short-term loans has created myriads of unstable daisy chains based on a wide variety of overleveraged stores of commodities, everything from copper to soyabean to cement and heavy equipment, each used as collateral for other investments. So it is not surprising that the Shanghai Composite is valued at near its record low of 12 times last year’s earnings and 9.7 P/E of forecast earnings.
Last quarter managers were able to perform miracles managing analysts’ expectations. Over 79% of reporting companies posted earnings per share that beat analysts’ forecasts. This record has encouraged wildly optimistic forecasts of future earnings despite the global slowdown. These expectations will no doubt return to haunt the companies in the harsh light of reality. Present market valuations may be in for a large correction. A deluge of falling prices will seem far heavier than anything a monsoon can produce.
(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages. Mr Gamble can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected].)
The Employees Provident Fund Office is more than willing to help with online facilities
Nothing can be more depressing than meeting young people who have lost their jobs due to the ongoing slowdown such as airline pilots and seafarers as well as people from the infotech industry. Many of them without the family back-up and support to continue with the lifestyle they had achieved or aspired to.
What makes things worse is that even the ‘protected’ savings like Employee Provident Fund and leave wages appear to have gone adrift. It is also not feasible, in many cases, for these young people to consider legal options for recovery as apart from placing a big question mark on their future careers, the practical part is that these legal options are not so simple and nor do they come for free.
However, specifically in the context of provident fund, the EPFO (Employees Provident Fund Office) appears to be trying to take some steps. And you can do some good work for yourself if you want to.
1) You can now find out about the latest position about balances in your EPFO account online here: http://www.epfindia.com/membbal.html. Downside is that while the response online says information up-to-date, the fine print in some cases when you get the SMS message says “account updated up to 31st March 2011”. There is also some doubt on whether the interest calculations for FY10-11 and FY11-12 have been added to this figure as yet or not.
2) The next step is to file an online grievance in this context here: http://www.epfindia.com/grievance.htm. You can ask for specific details like all deposits by your employers into your specific EPFO account here. In return you will get a very specific reference number as well as a contact person. It is reported by many that this appears to work at some EPFO offices, and is absolutely useless at some other EPFO offices.
3) The next step is to file an RTI (Right to Information) application direct to the head office of the EPFO in New Delhi, whose postal address is:
Shri Jag Mohan, (CPIO under RTI Act of India 2005 or incumbent) RPFC I,
Head Office, Bhavishya Nidhi Bhawan, 14, Bhikaiji Cama Place,
cc Shri .B.Saini, (CPIO under RTI Act of India 2005 or incumbent), Section Officer,
Head Office, Bhavishya Nidhi Bhawan, 14, Bhikaiji Cama Place,
The relevant email addresses are: [email protected]; [email protected] and [email protected].
Give a reference of your grievance under step ‘2’ above and seek information on action taken as well as the details requested. Full precise details including all interest calculations to date as well as information about the separately-held pension account.
An important point to remember is that the EPFO has set various accountability levels within its organisation for defaults by employers/EPFO, and they are as follows, listed in the circular appended below: http://www.epfindia.com/Circulars/Y2012-13/RRC_Cir_4149.pdf.
The good thing about EPFO was that you would eventually get your money, and meanwhile, it would keep earning interest. In one specific case involving this writer, it took about 14 years to get the money stuck with the EPFO when the company was merged with another group company—one of the top groups of the country. But after relentless follow-up, the new entity had to pay up—and it was all tax-free with interest.
This, however, is not the case anymore, as the EPFO has taken it upon itself to stop paying interest on “inactive accounts” after three years. Problem here is that an account also becomes ‘inactive’ when an employer/establishment defaults, and the withdrawal of EPFO by a claimant is accompanied by all sorts of fine print which makes his/her position weak against a defaulting employer, which is a very anti-employee step by the EPFO department.
Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing.)
Save, invest and prosper by cutting out tobacco and putting the money in a Systematic Investment Plan
Tobacco is consumed in India in many forms—in cigarettes, beedis, snuff, chewed raw and gutka. In any form tobacco is bad for health. Consumers know this and yet continue to use it carelessly.
Some 10% of the Indian population is addicted to the consumption of tobacco. Starting early in life (age 15 or so) and reaching the peak level by 40-49 years. There are an estimated 110 million males and a growing crop of 8 million females, who consider it a fashion to smoke, something that was taboo a decade ago!
Cigarettes are produced in the organized sector, some 108 billion sticks, which are taxed at the source. Beedi, the so- called poor-man’s cigarette, is basically produced in the cottage industry is not fully tax-compliant, possibly because of logistics. The tax revenue collected amounted to Rs70.86 billion while beedi contributed Rs4.3 billion during 2006-07. Revenue from Beedi industry was only one-third of the collectible because of the nature of production, in small houses as a cottage industry. Besides, a beedi smoker hardly has brand loyalty unlike the cigarette user. For some years now, fortunately, cigarette advertisements are banned.
Now the manufacturers are seriously considering if they should escape and reduce the taxation impact by reducing the size, as the tax is determined by the length of the stick!
We all know that tobacco usage can cause cancer. Yet we use the products in a nonchalant manner.
It may be recalled that, in order to discourage use of tobacco in public places, COPTA—Cigarette and Other Tobacco Prohibition Act—was passed. This Act defines the public places where one cannot smoke—such as bars, pubs, hotels, restaurants, auditoriums, bus stops, airports, railway stations, schools, colleges and offices. It also provided that separate zones be created in hotels, bars restaurants, etc where smoking may be allowed. COPTA was passed in 2003 and many cities, including, for example, Bangalore, does not strictly enforce this rule!
In many countries, one cannot smoke on the road, parks, etc. In fact, selling of tobacco products is strictly prohibited without presentation of proper ID and the buyer should be at least 18 years old. Surprise inspections are carried out and licenses to operate are cancelled, the seller is fined and shop closed.
However, in India, people smoke in trains and buses and fights between co-passengers are frequent. There is no way a TTE who travels in the train can control this situation, very much like the bus driver or the conductor. However, civil responsibility and sense prevails and smokers, if any, take the opportunity to puff away at stops!.
Let us take a look at the grim situation, how this smoking really starts?
Whether it is Ram, Rahim or Robert, exposure to smoking starts very early in life, like a parent or a close relative who smokes. Passive smoking starts from this point. A case history would reveal how it generally happens!
Ram, as a student lived in a joint family; he was more close to his grandparent than his own. Then, one day, the father turns around and says: “If I catch you smoking, I will break your hands”. Ram had seen others smoke outside his family, and not even the thought ever crossed his mind.
Yet, the challenge was acceptable and with a few friends, he managed to buy some beedis. All that they could dare to do was to have a few puffs and coughed it all the way home, having smoked in a different locality! Not much happened after that, until his father moved to a metro, on promotion. It was while concentrating on his studies, his cousin returned from abroad, and had trunk-load of Pall Mall and Chesterfield cigarettes. These were available at home and a sudden jump from Kareem beedis to Chesterfield was irresistible and the urge to smoke a ‘foreign’ cigarette won the day. It was a passing phase giving a sense of ‘achievement’.
The real urge to smoke, on a regular basis, aided by colleagues was when he began to work. From one or two free cigarettes a day, he began to buy one or two himself, until it became a habit to have a smoke after a cup of tea, lunch, snacks or dinner.
Ram graduated from getting freebies to buying a packet of 10 cigarettes a day and it became a constant companion. Just as work progressed from clerical position to that of an executive level, expensive brands replaced the cheaper cigarette, and one packet a day became two. By this time, tobacco companies started promoting 20 cigarette packs.
Meantime, some “well-wishers” in the smoking group suggested that Ram should now really go in for a pipe! Naturally, a Briar was bought along with some Virginia tobacco. Already, an occasional cigar after a good dinner and a VSOP was the norm of the day, and resultant complication was the consumption of tobacco in every manner possible. Fortunately, he did not experience the breathing difficulties and sleepless nights that follow in such a hectic life, which had moved him to two packs a day. Family pressure, the guilt of influencing his children did not appear to affect him until, one day, the reality kicked in by ‘loss’ of his prestigious job. Yet, Ram could not control his urge to smoke; instead, it was the cigarettes that controlled him.
In between, he had tried to give up smoking, by reducing the consumption pattern; switching brands and even substituting beedi for a cigarette as some “wise men” told him that this was a better option. Nothing worked! A special filter, to be used in four stages, was bought and tried, and it would not help stop smoking. Until one day...
And that day, Ram decided that “from tonight, I shall will not touch the cigarette; please help me, God”. With that determination, he simply crushed the last few cigarettes in the pack and threw it away. That was in 1984. He has kept his promise to himself till this day!
Cigarette prices vary and if we take a reasonable ‘quality’ cigarette, the average cost of a unit is Rs 5. Instead of taking the extreme consumption of 40 a day, and taking a mean average of 20, it would mean an expenditure of Rs100 a day, or some Rs36,500 per year. With a smoking life-span of 30 years, this would amount to Rs10,95,000 per smoker. India has some 120 million smokers. Imagine the colossal amount of money that has gone up in smoke! This, of course, excludes the health and medical costs that would be occurred for a patient; should he/she get the benefit of lung or other forms of cancer, the pain and misery would be horrendous.
What can the government do, apart from educating the public on the ills of smoking? Increase the taxes on all tobacco products; completely ban the sales and licenses for shops selling these products near the institutions identified by COPTA; not sell the products to anyone without ID proof; increase the personal tax for smokers and give a reduced rate slab for non-smokers; give special incentives for those converting tobacco growing land to other edible and exportable produce and rehabilitate those who have given up smoking!
If one applies the Systematic Investment Plan to divert the amount that would have gone into the purchase of tobacco products, he/she can Save, Invest and Prosper!!!
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)