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India charges up the ranks of Asia300 companies

Favorable factors at home provide an edge while Chinese players struggle

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Indian companies are thriving on strong domestic consumption even as other Asian businesses struggle with China's slowdown.   © Reuters

MUMBAI -- It's India's time to shine, according to a Nikkei analysis of some 300 major Asian listed companies outside Japan.

Although Largan Precision, a Taiwanese maker of optical lenses, topped the ranking of performance by companies in the Nikkei Asia300 list, Indian players held 10 of the top 30 spots, outperforming their Chinese and Southeast Asian counterparts.

The Asia300 list consists of a total of 327 companies in India, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and six Southeast Asian nations. The Nikkei ranked them based on average growth in sales and profit over the past five years, profitability, capital efficiency and financial soundness.

On the march

India's rise in the rankings is remarkable. While none of the country's companies made the top 10 for the previous financial year, three did this time, as many as from Taiwan, though there were slight revisions in calculations between the two years. The top 20 includes eight Indian companies from the information technology, entertainment, pharmaceutical and automobile sectors.

These results testify to India's solid personal consumption despite the government's demonetization of two high-denomination bank notes last November.

"Our domestic advertising revenue grew by 8.1% despite the impact of demonetization," said Punit Goenka, managing director and CEO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises.

Operating 33 domestic channels and 39 overseas, the leading Indian media and entertainment company jumped to third place in the rankings on well-balanced performance that included growth in sales and profit. In the fiscal year ended in March, Zee Entertainment logged year-on-year gains of 9.2% and 10% in its two core revenue sources -- advertising and pay TV broadcasting. Consolidated sales increased 11% to 64.3 billion rupees ($1 billion).

Buying broadcasting rights for Indian movies and investing in their production helped net profit increase 2.7 times to 22.2 billion rupees.

Maruti Suzuki India, meanwhile, which did not make it into the top 30 last year, jumped to 17th, primarily on a sharp rise in profitability. Unit sales, including exports, rose 10% to 1.57 million in a fiscal year ended in March, while net profit rose 37% to 73.4 billion rupees, setting a record high for the third straight year.

Tobacco and consumer goods maker ITC came in 16th, chalking up a 6.4% rise in profit in its core cigarette, food and beverage segment. Dabur India, which makes food and daily necessities based on traditional ayurvedic medicine, posted a 2% profit gain.

Consumer spending has been solid since 2014, thanks to falling oil prices, which helped keep the price of goods stable, and to successive interest rate cuts. Even the slight dip following last November's demonetization seems to be fading as new bank notes enter circulation.

According to Joshua Crabb, head of Asian equities at Old Mutual Global Investors, corporate earnings in India are showing signs of having bottomed out.

"India's earnings growth has been incredibly weak" until now, Crabb said, speaking in Hong Kong on June 5. "Probably, we've seen the worst."

The it factor

External demand forms the other pillar of the Indian corporate sector, and IT services are at its core. HCL Technologies and Tata Consultancy Services grabbed second and fourth place, respectively.

As global demand for IT increases, Indian providers are enjoying rapid growth and high profitability by sending Indian engineers hired at home for relatively low wages to work in the U.S. and other countries.

Rajesh Gopinathan, CEO and managing director at TCS, said the year through March "was a year of broad-based growth amidst economic and political turbulence in our key markets. We ... increased our digital revenues sharply as we helped our customers leverage the digital economy."

TCS's net profit rose 9% on an increase in revenue from the digital segment, which included the development of apps for cloud services and smartphones and big data analysis. The company logged double-digit sales gains in services for manufacturers, health care companies and media organizations, while also posting strong earnings from services for financial institutions.

TCS also continued to perform strongly in the North American market, its biggest source of earnings, registering an 8% increase in sales.

Pharmaceutical companies are also representing India on the international stage, and two companies in this sector made the top 20. Sun Pharmaceutical Industries, the country's biggest maker of generic drugs, booked a 53% increase in net profit on strong sales as well as the acquisition of a Russian company and of 14 off-patent drugs sold in Japan from Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis Pharma. Fellow drugmaker Lupin increased sales by introducing 18 new drugs in the U.S.

The combined net profit of Indian companies on the Asia300 list increased 9.8% on the year, a sharp contrast to the 9.8% fall for Chinese and Hong Kong companies combined. Relying more on the U.S. and European markets than other Asian companies, Indian players have been relatively unaffected by China's economic slowdown.

Net profit of Indian companies is expected to increase 22.7% in the current fiscal year, outpacing the 11.1% gain forecast for their Chinese and Hong Kong peers, according to an average of analysts' forecasts as of the end of May compiled by QUICK-FactSet.

The market has big expectations for Indian companies. The economy-by-economy Asia300 stock index for India surged to an all-time high on June 5. This helped push the overall index to a record 1,251.12 on June 9, as did contributions from South Korea and Taiwan, particularly their tech companies. The indexes for ASEAN, China and Hong Kong have not yet set fresh highs.

In addition to a rise in consumption, policy is expected to be another driver of India's growth. Old Mutual's Crabb believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to deploy a more aggressive growth policy ahead of the general election in 2019, with increased spending on railways, affordable housing and other projects.

"The probability of [Modi] starting to accelerate all these changes and fixed-asset investment is pretty high," he said. "And he needs to start doing that relatively soon in order to have it impacting real people when it comes to the time to have their votes."

Crabb sees steel and cement companies as the logical beneficiaries, predicting they will see "phenomenal" growth rates.

Andrew Swan, head of Asian and global emerging markets equities at BlackRock, told reporters on June 5 in Hong Kong that the Indian economy "has a lot of tailwinds for growth."

But while he is overweight on India, he warned that investors "still need to be very selective, because it's a market with very high valuations and high expectations."

On the other hand

Indeed, not everyone in corporate India is riding high. Despite the rapid spread of smartphones, telecommunication companies are mired in fierce competition. The fight has only intensified since Reliance Industries, led by tycoon Mukesh Ambani, entered the market last autumn. Reliance Jio Infocomm, a unit of the conglomerate, has won more than 100 million users in just six months by offering free voice and data services for a limited time.

Reliance Communications, operated by Mukesh's younger brother Anil Ambani, booked its first-ever loss in the recently ended fiscal year. Co-CEO Gurdeep Singh said the "telecom sector has been adversely impacted ... by competitive intensity on a scale never witnessed before in the country."

Idea Cellular, the third-largest mobile carrier, also incurred a net loss and decided to merge with the Indian unit of British telecom company Vodafone Group.

Tata Group, India's biggest conglomerate, is also facing problems. Tata Power's net profit after subtracting such factors as equity-valued gains and losses dropped 60% to 9.4 billion rupees, while steelmaker Tata Steel saw its net loss soar 8.4 times to 41.7 billion rupees due to huge pension-related expenses at its British operations.

Massive nonperforming loans in the banking sector represent a much graver structural problem. Government-owned State Bank of India, the country's biggest commercial bank, suffered a net loss despite an increase in revenue in the year ended in March.

BlackRock is positive on India's overall outlook but identifies bad debt as a major risk. Neeraj Seth, head of Asian credit, told reporters in Singapore on June 5 that a rough estimate of nonperforming loans and restructured loans add up to "anywhere between $150 to $200 billion."

Although the government has taken some action, such as overhauling the bankruptcy law last summer and amending banking regulations in May, Seth said it will "take some time" for the situation to improve.

Dark clouds are also looming over the IT industry. With customer needs changing along with the emergence of artificial intelligence and other new technology, profit margins are declining. The U.S. government's expected tightening on visas for skilled foreign workers means Indian IT companies may have to step up recruitment of local employees in America.

Nomura analysts Ashwin Mehta and Rishit Parikh said IT service providers need to invest in "reskilling employees on newer technologies and putting in greater investments to develop competencies," as well as adopt a startup-style approach to innovation.

"We stay cautious," the two said in a report on May 23, naming HCL Technologies as "our only buy in the space." They gave a "neutral" rating for Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services and a "reduce" for Wipro.

Even amid robust growth, there will continue to be both winners and losers in corporate India.

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase and staff writer Joyce Ho in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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