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The COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown coupled with other restrictive measures to contain the disease has adversely impacted the prospects of the Indian logistics sector, especially the road freight transportation movement, rating agency ICRA has said in a note.
The extended nation-wide lockdown for the major part of Q1 FY2021 paralysed economic activity and thereby the freight availability also moderated significantly. This coupled with restrictions on cross-border movement, shortage in availability of drivers, and manpower due to large-scale migration and lack of availability of return load, significantly impacted the road logistics sector during the first quarter.
According to Shamsher Dewan, Vice President, ICRA Ratings, “The aggregate revenues of ICRA’s sample of logistics companies contracted sharply by 35 per cent during the quarter. The impact was more visible on players operating on an asset-heavy model, due to high fixed costs for owned assets, while asset-light players fared relatively better. This decline was also corroborated by the generation of e-way bills, which contracted by 49 per cent during the quarter.”
The financial performance of ICRA’s sample of 10 leading logistics companies was also adversely impacted in Q1 FY2021 as aggregate revenues of players declined by 35 per cent on a YoY basis, in line with the sharp moderation in GDP growth, which hit historic lows of -23.9 per cent, resulting in subdued freight availability. The OPM also contracted sharply by 600 bps on a sequential basis and nearly 900 bps on a YoY basis to 0.5 per cent, on account of the gross under-utilisation of assets during the lockdown phase, despite the implementation of cost-saving initiatives by several companies. The impact was severe for players operating on an asset-heavy model with owned fleet and warehousing space, while those operating on an asset-light business model, fared relatively better due to a lower quantum of fixed costs.
Gradual Revival in Road Freight
With the economy gradually opening up during unlock phases and industrial, manufacturing and construction activities resuming, freight activity has also been reviving gradually. The latest e-way bill and FASTag data indicate that freight volumes have recovered sequentially and improved to 87 per cent of the pre-COVID-19 levels (for e-way bills) and 95 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels (for FASTag) by August 2020. This has the potential to increase further going forward as the country gears up for the upcoming festive season.
As per the ICRA note, growth over the near term is expected to be driven by specific segments like e-commerce, as the trend in online purchases and deliveries have picked up substantially post the lockdown. Similarly, the automotive sector has also been picking up, especially sectors like entry-level cars, motorcycles, tractors, etc., which augurs well for specific logistics segments like auto carriers. The rural uptick has also augured well for the movement of agricultural and allied produce. However, other segments like capital goods continue to remain subdued.
While the revenues and profitability in Q2 FY2021 would have revived from the troughs witnessed in Q1 FY2021, given the ongoing intermittent lockdowns in various parts of the country and continued rapid spread of the pandemic constraining the pace of recovery in industrial activity, the logistic sector (including warehousing segment) is also likely to witness a gradual roadmap to recovery. For the full year, FY2021, ICRA expects the revenue of its sample to decline by 18-20 per cent YoY, in the backdrop of 11.0 per cent contraction in GDP.
“While the situation has eased to some extent in Q2 FY2021, the pressure on cash flows of fleet operators is expected to continue, given under-utilisation of assets, rising diesel costs and continued fixed costs like driver salaries. Furthermore, while RBI’s forbearance initiative provided some relief in the initial days of the lockdown, the expiry of the moratorium period and consequent re-commencement of EMI payments from September 2020 would also exert pressure on their cash flows going forward, despite some earnings improvement expected as the year progresses,” concluded Dewan.
Overall, credit metrics of logistics companies are likely to moderate over the near term with Debt/OPBITDA to average at nearly 4.1x and interest coverage to average at nearly 2.6x in FY2021, as compared to 2.5x and 4.9x, respectively, in FY2020. However, deferment of near-term debt-funded Capex or acquisition plans by major logistics players would help cushion the impact to some extent. Nevertheless, ICRA has maintained a ‘Negative’ outlook on the Indian road logistics industry given the expectations of continued pressures on the credit profile.
Over the medium term, the sector is likely to witness some consolidation trends, given the rising pressure on the viability of small fleet operators. Additionally, players offering multimodal services have been better placed to service their customers during this period, given their flexibility to use modes like railways and coastal, which were relatively less impacted by the lockdown. Accordingly, multimodal offerings are expected to gain increased acceptance and traction going forward as well. Given these factors, and the relatively higher financial flexibility available to large organised players vis-à-vis their smaller counterparts, there is potential for increased formalisation in the sector going forward.