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Higher production cost to squeeze steelmaker margin by 500 bps



Soaring prices of raw materials, especially coking coal, are likely to increase the cost of production of domestic primary steel makers and reduce their operating by 500 basis points (bps) to 24-26% this fiscal, said a CRISIL Report.

The potential for price hikes may be limited because of the low discount between domestic prices and the landed cost of imports, and the likely impact on demand from end-use segments such as construction and automobiles, it added.

Despite the moderation, operating margin will remain higher than the 21% average between fiscals 2017 and 2021. Further, operating rates are expected to be highest in the past five fiscals at 90%, supported by robust domestic demand and greater export opportunities. These factors will help steelmakers generate healthy cash flows.

A CRISIL Ratings study of the top five steelmakers accounting for 60% of domestic production shows as much.

Within last fiscal, prices of coking coal — mostly imported, and which form a third of production cost of domestic steelmakers — rose 400% to $600 per tonne3 for two reasons. One, delayed ramp-up of production from mines in Australia which is the largest exporter of coking coal in the world. And two, disruption in global trade dynamics following the sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine in late February.

Says Ankit Hakhu, Director, CRISIL Ratings, “While coking coal prices have moderated to ~$450-500 per tonne in April, they are expected to be higher by over 50% this fiscal on-year. This assumes a gradual easing of prices, in line with expected supply ramp-up from Australia, and gradual abatement of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. We expect other costs, including that of iron ore, to remain stable. Net-net, the cost of production of domestic primary steel makers will still rise by over 20% this fiscal to the highest level in a decade.”

As against this, average domestic steel prices are not expected to rise more than 5% on-year. That’s because these prices are influenced by the landed cost of imports. Currently, the discount is negligible at 2%, compared with an average 3% over fiscals 2019 to 2021. This limits the cushion for domestic producers to take material price hikes.

Further, global steel prices are not expected to rise significantly from here due to concerns over demand in China following a rash of Covid-19 infections leading to lockdowns there. Also, prices could even moderate if geopolitical tensions ease, given Russia is the second-largest steel exporter in the world.

 “Limited cushion to hike the steel prices, along with increased cost of production, could reduce operating margins of players by 500 bps to 24-26% in fiscal 2023. However these will still remain well above the average of 21% for fiscals 2017-21 and support cash accrual generation. Further support to cash accruals will come from five-year-high operating rates at 90% driven by increased spending on construction and infrastructure projects; and export opportunities unlocked by the sanctions on Russia,” said Ankush Tyagi, Associate Director, CRISIL Ratings.

Overall, healthy cash flows should continue to strengthen the balance sheets of steelmakers. Net debt-to-Ebitda is expected to reach a decadal low of less than 1 time, and interest cover would be more than 8.5 times this fiscal.

That said, a prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict impacting global steel trade, weaker global demand, and significantly higher-than-expected input costs will bear watching.

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