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Commentary: India-Afghanistan Trade Hangs in the Air after Taliban Takeover

Over the past two decades, India has invested substantial political, diplomatic, and economic capital to foster good relations with Afghanistan, especially since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Trade has been one of the key components of these relations, with India being the largest market for Afghanistan’s exports in South Asia, accounting for 41.2% of its global exports in 2020. In 2021, Afghanistan’s exports to India were US$509 million, while imports from India constituted US$825 million.

However, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has impacted the India-Afghanistan relations on multiple fronts, especially damaging trade relations between the two countries. According to the Federation of Indian Export Organization (FIEO), the Taliban stopped all imports and exports from India through transit routes in Pakistan, also called the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), the main trade pathway.

Textile industry

The route blocking has impacted many businesses across India. One of the sectors witnessing direct repercussions has been the textile industry. The halted trade resulted in stock worth US$540,000 being stuck as corporate bank holders in Afghanistan were not able to withdraw money and do any electronic transactions, as per the Afghanistan Central Bank’s order. Due to this, over 100 traders in Surat, Indian textile hub, were hit hard with delayed payments.

Sugar and dry fruit

India’s sugar exports to Afghanistan have been hit as well with Indian merchants reporting cancellations of orders as a result of the changed rule in Afghanistan. Indian traders were already treading cautiously about exporting to Afghanistan, insisting on advance payments due to the looming uncertainty and restricted trade routes. Following the political upheaval in Afghanistan, Indian sugar exports came almost to a halt in September 2021. Indian food ministry seemed optimistic and expected the trade to resume under the new Taliban regime. However, it is still uncertain how this will unfold, especially in the face of sugar export restrictions introduced by India in May 2022 to ensure domestic availability and to keep the local prices in check.

The new rule in Afghanistan has not only affected Indian exports, but also imports, with imports of dry fruit seeing a particularly major blow as India receives 85% of its dry fruit from Afghanistan. With the disruption of shipments, dry fruit prices in India saw a considerable increase (around 30%), especially as the timing coincided with the festive season (from October to December) in India, a period with the highest demand for dry fruit.

The carefully-nurtured trade relations between India and Afghanistan have been gravely affected post the Taliban takeover and routes closure. As both countries are each other’s important trade partners, there is some hope that trade relations could resume over time, although it would be naïve to expect the matters to fall back to the state from before the Taliban takeover any time soon.

Pakistan routes issue

India had already faced problems routing its exports and imports to and from Afghanistan, as Pakistan repeatedly denied India’s access to overland trade routes with Afghanistan in the past. As a result, India sought alternative routes: one route through Chabahar Port in Iran and an air freight corridor. Although these are not major trade routes, the opening up of such alternatives allowed India’s exports to Afghanistan to be less dependent on Pakistan. Pakistan’s trade routes denials in the past could be somewhat seen as a blessing in disguise, especially in the face of the current INSTC block.

However, the INSTC continued to be the key route for India’s exports to Afghanistan, and its shutting also caused some drastic consequences impacting India’s trade with other countries. Not only was this route used to export products to Afghanistan but it was also a very important trade route for India to reach European and Central Asian markets and vice versa. Although some goods are still being exported through the international North-South Corridor and the Dubai route, the INSTC is the fastest connection to a range of international markets. The closure will continue to have impact on trade timelines and pricing as traders will have to resort to longer trade routes or trim the volumes of goods traded.

EOS Perspective

When and how India-Afghanistan relations could recoup is yet to be seen, and will depend significantly on the Taliban’s recognition as a legitimate government. While the Taliban may have gained military control over Afghanistan and stated that they want better diplomatic and trade relations with all countries, they are still struggling for global recognition and economic support.

While there is not much that India can currently do regarding its trade situation with Afghanistan, it can look at nurturing and developing relationships with alternative trading partners, especially that trade with Afghanistan is unlikely to return to the previous normal. The Indian government needs to work on policies to aid traders and improve relations with other countries, such as Bangladesh and Turkey, to attempt to fill up the void left by the Taliban upheaval.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Europe’s Energy Woes – The Way Forward

Europe is struggling to build up energy supply ahead of anticipated growth in demand due to economic rebound after pandemic outbreak and the winter months. Considering the knock-on effect of the energy crisis on industrial growth and consumer confidence, the prime focus for Europe is not only to respond to the mounting energy issues in the short term, but to also establish energy sustainability and security for the future.

In October 2021, the European Commission published an advisory for the member states to take some immediate steps to ease the effect of the energy crisis. Governments were urged to extend direct financial support to the most vulnerable households and businesses. Other recommended ways of intervention included targeted tax reductions, temporary deferral of utilities bill payments, and capping of energy prices. About 20 member states indicated that they would implement the suggestions outlined by the European Commission at a national level. While these measures may aid the most vulnerable user segment, there is not much that can be done to safeguard the wider population from the energy price shocks.

Energy security and sustainability is the key

While a magical quick-fix for Europe’s energy crisis does not seem to exist, the ongoing scenario has exposed the region’s vulnerabilities and serves as a wake-up call to move towards energy security and self-sufficiency.

Diversify energy mix

In general, petroleum products and natural gas contribute significantly to Europe’s energy mix, respectively accounting for about 35% and 22% of the total energy consumed in the EU. The remaining energy needs are fulfilled by renewable sources (~15%), nuclear (~13%), and solid fossil fuels (~12%).

The high dependence on fossil fuels is one of the main reasons behind Europe’s ongoing energy crisis. In order to mitigate this dependency, Europe has made concerted effort in the development of renewable energy production capabilities. In 2018, the European Commission set a target to achieve 32% of the energy mix from renewables by 2030, but in July 2021, the target was increased to 40%, clearly indicating the region’s inclination towards renewables.

Expediting renewable energy projects could help Europe to get closer to energy self-sufficiency, although the intermittency issue must also be accounted for. This is where nuclear energy can play a critical role.

After Fukushima disaster in 2011, many countries in Europe pledged to phase-out nuclear energy production. France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium planned to shut down 32 nuclear reactors with a cumulative production capacity of 31.9 gigawatts by 2035. However, in the wake of the current crisis, there is a renewed interest in nuclear power. In October 2021, nine EU countries (Czechia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) released a joint statement asserting the expansion of nuclear energy production to achieve energy self-sufficiency. France, which generates about three-fourth of its electricity through nuclear plants, is further increasing investment in nuclear energy. In October 2021, the French government pledged an investment of EUR 1 billion (~US$1.2 billion) in nuclear power over the period of 10 years.

Look beyond Russia

More than 60% of EU’s energy needs were met by imports in 2019. Russia is the major partner for energy supply – in 2019, it accounted for 27% of crude oil imports, 41% of natural gas imports, and 47% of solid fossil fuels imports. While Europe is accelerating the development of renewable energy production, fossil fuels still remain an important source of energy for the region. In the face of escalating political differences with Russia, there is a need to reduce energy reliance on this country and to build long-term partnerships with other countries to ensure a steady supply.

EU has many options to explore, especially in natural gas imports. One of them is natural gas reserves in Central Asia. The supply link is already established as Azerbaijan started exporting natural gas to Europe via Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), operational since December 31, 2020. In the first nine months, Azerbaijan exported 3.9 billion cubic meters of gas to Italy, 501.7 million cubic meters to Greece, and 166 million cubic meters to Bulgaria. Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) is a proposed undersea pipeline to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. This pipeline can connect Europe with Turkmenistan (the country with the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves) via Azerbaijan. As a result, Europe has heightened its interest in the development of this pipeline.

Eastern Mediterranean gas reserve can also prove to be greatly beneficial for the EU. In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed a deal to construct a 1,900 km subsea pipeline to transport natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean gas fields to Europe. This pipeline, expected to be completed by 2025, would enable the supply of 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Israel and Cyprus to European countries via Greece.

Africa is another continent where the EU should try to strengthen ties for the imports of natural gas. Algeria is an important trade partner for Europe, having supplied 8% of natural gas in 2019. Medgaz pipeline connects Algeria directly to Spain. This pipeline currently has the capacity to transport 8 billion cubic meters of gas per year, and the ongoing expansion work is expected to increase the capacity to 10.7 billion cubic meters per year by the end of 2021. In addition to this, Nigeria is planning the development of a Trans-Sahara pipeline which would enable the transport of natural gas through Nigeria to Algeria. This will potentially open access for Europe to gas reserves in West Africa, via Algeria. Further, as African Continental Free Trade Agreement came in to effect in January 2021, the natural gas trade within countries across Africa received a boost. Consequently, liquefied natural gas projects across Africa, including Mozambique’s 13.1 million tons per annum LNG plant, Senegal’s 10 million tons per annum Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, and Tanzania’s 10 million tons per annum LNG project, could help Europe to enhance its gas supply.

Business to strive to achieve energy independence

While governments are taking steps to reduce the impact of the energy crisis on end consumers, this might not be enough to save businesses highly reliant on power and energy. Therefore, businesses should take the onus on themselves to achieve energy independence and to take better control of their operations and costs.

Some of the largest European companies have already taken several initiatives in this direction. Swedish retailer IKEA, for instance, has invested extensively in wind and solar power assets across the world, and in 2020, the retailer produced more energy than it consumed.

There has also been growing effort to harness energy from own business operations. In 2020, Thames Water, a UK-based water management company, generated about 150 gigawatt hours of renewable energy through biogas obtained from its own sewage management operations.

However, a lot more needs to be done to change the situation. Companies not having any means to produce energy on their own premises should consider investing in and partnering with renewable energy projects, thereby boosting overall renewable energy production capacity.

Energy crisis is likely to have repercussions on all types of businesses in every industry. Larger entities with adequate financial resources could use several hedging strategies to offset the effect of fluctuating energy prices or energy supply shortage, but small and medium enterprises might not be able to whither the storm.

Economist Daniel Lacalle Fernández indicated that energy represents about a third of operating costs for small and medium enterprises in Europe, and as a result, the ongoing energy crisis can trigger the collapse of up to 25% of small and medium enterprises in the region. Small and medium enterprises need to actively participate in government-supported community energy initiatives, which allow small companies, public establishments, and residents to invest collectively in distributed renewable energy projects. By early 2021, this initiative gained wide acceptance in Germany with 1,750 projects, followed by Denmark and the Netherlands with 700 and 500 projects, respectively.

EOS Perspective

Europe must continue to chase after its green energy goals while developing alternative low-carbon sources to address renewables’ intermittency issue. This would help the region to achieve energy independence and security in the long term. In the end, the transition towards green energy should be viable and should not come at a significant cost to the end consumers.

On the other hand, immediate measures proposed so far do not seem adequate to contain the ongoing energy meltdown. Further, energy turmoil is likely to continue through the winter, and, in the worst-case scenario, it might result in blackouts across Europe. If the issue of supply shortages remains difficult to resolve in the short term, a planned reduction in consumption could be the way forward.

In view of this, Europe would need to actively encourage energy conservation among the residential as well as industrial sectors. Bruegel, a Brussels-based policy research think tank, suggested that the European governments could either force households to turn down their thermostats by one degree during the winter to reduce energy consumption while not compromising much on comfort, or provide financial incentives to households who undertake notable energy saving initiatives.

This is perhaps a critical time to start promoting energy conservation among the masses through behavioral campaigns. Like businesses, it is necessary to enhance consumers’ participation in the energy market and they should be encouraged to generate their own electricity or join energy communities. The need of the hour is to harness as well as conserve energy in any way possible. Because, till the time Europe achieves self-sufficiency or drastically strengthens the supply chain, the energy crunch is here to stay.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Is Privatization Key to Self-sustainability for US Post?

United States Postal Service (USPS), one of the largest government entities in the USA with over 633,000 employees as of 2019, has been bleeding red ink on its financial statements for many years now, causing a worry that it might soon need a bail-out with tax-payers money. While majority of the crisis at USPS stems from several regulatory and legislative restrictions, privatization could help USPS to transform its business to align with changing market dynamics in the digital age and to secure sustainable future.

USPS is in dire need of a revamp

USPS, the largest postal system in the world, is feared to be gradually moving towards financial instability as the revenues are not able to meet the operational costs and liabilities.

USPS’ financial woes began with enactment of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) in 2006 which required USPS to create a US$72 billion reserve (equivalent to cost of employee post-retirement pension and health benefits during next 75 years) over a 10-year period from 2007 to 2016. This mandate added a huge financial burden and USPS has been registering losses every year since.

The situation is dire, as clearly stated in USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024), released in January 2020, highlighting the grim financial condition of the organization:

We have an underfunded balance sheet, significant debt, and insufficient cash to weather unforeseen cyclicality or changes in business conditions…we expect to run out of liquidity by 2021 if we pay all our financial obligations – and by 2024 even if we continue to default on our year-end, lump sum retiree health-benefit and pension related payments.

On February 5, 2020, US House of Representatives passed the US Fairness Act which repeals the prefunding mandate under 2006 legislation, thus, relieving USPS from financial burden of amassing huge reserves to fund retirement benefits. The reform does not exempt USPS from its obligations to its retired employees, but allows them to fund the costs on pay-as-you-go basis, a practice followed by most other government agencies and majority of private businesses in the USA. This bill still needs to be approved by the US Senate.

Even if the US Fairness Act becomes a law after being approved by the US Senate and the president, it does not seem to end all the challenges faced by USPS. The business has taken a major hit due to changing market dynamics with the rise of the Internet.

USPS’ largest revenue segment, i.e. First-Class Mail services, which include the delivery of letters, postcards, personal correspondence, bills or statements of account, as well as payments, has seen about 43% drop in volume between 2007 and 2019. This is because the mode of communication has changed drastically as email, mobile, social media, other tech-based platforms allow Americans to talk to one another instantaneously and mostly for free.

Marketing Mail, which includes advertisements and marketing packages, is another category that also took a hit because of the rise of digital media. Marketing Mail volume declined by more than one-fourth over the same period.

The package delivery service has experienced multi-fold increase with the rise of e-commerce, but it also faces growing competition from private players such as UPS or FedEx as well as e-commerce giants such as Amazon that are rapidly building and expanding their own network.

Due to the prefunding retirement benefit mandate, USPS has not been able to invest in new products and infrastructure since 2006. Rather than expanding its capabilities to capitalize on the new market opportunities, USPS had to take aggressive cost control measures and restricted investment in new service offerings, technology, and training.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic is adding to the woes of the agency. Though there has been an increase in online orders for medicines and food, the volume of letter mail, organization’s largest revenue stream, has seen a decline. Marketing mail category business has also gone down as a lot of companies have stopped advertising through mail. In April 2020, Congressman Gerry Connolly indicated that the mail volume could decline up to 60% by the end of the year. Further, USPS is facing a spike in expenses due to provision of necessary support and additional benefits to its workforce affected by the virus. In April 2020, Megan Brennan, then postmaster general, hinted that coronavirus-related losses could reach US$13 billion in this fiscal year.

USPS needs structural transformation to meet the demands of the digital age. USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024) emphasized that despite taking all possible measures such as cost control, technology upgradation, and service improvement, financial loses are likely to continue in absence of legislative and regulatory reforms.

Privatization to provide USPS with path towards self-sustainability?

Being a government entity, USPS is subject to many regulatory and legislative constraints which makes it less competitive than its private counterparts such as FedEx or UPS. For instance, under Universal Service Obligation, USPS is required to service all areas across the country six days a week. If privatized, USPS will be able to reduce the frequency of delivery on as-needed basis to optimize operations and control costs.

Similarly, USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, and hence closing down of any branches generally cause public uproar as locals in the remote and rural areas demand their right to postal service. A post office closure process takes at least 120 days during which affected public can appeal the decision. As per USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024) released in January 2020, about 36% of the retail post office locations are retained despite being unprofitable. Unlike private entities, USPS cannot easily close or consolidate underperforming non-profit facilities, a fact that adds to the financial strain for the organization.

Moreover, the pricing of the postal service, which ideally needs to be a business decision based on the cost structure and profit margins, is controlled by the US government. USPS needs approval from the government for making any changes in pricing of its products. While for private entities pricing is part of routine business decision-making, for USPS, unreasonable federal controls and limitations make it difficult to adopt a market-oriented pricing strategy for the services that USPS provides.

It is also to be noted that the average compensation offered by the USPS to it employees is higher than what private-sector workers receive. A study conducted by US Treasury found that, for 2017, the average employee costs at USPS was US$85,800, compared to US$76,200 at UPS and US$53,900 at Fed Ex. About fourth-fifth of the USPS workforce is unionized which means that salary increases occur through collective bargaining agreements. While disputes are resolved in binding arbitration, the financial health of USPS is often not given due consideration in the process. USPS could save significant costs by adopting private-sector labor and compensation standards.

Further, USPS is legally required to invest funds for retirement benefits only in treasury bonds which yield very low interest. The idea of conservatively investing retirement funds to avoid risk is reasonable, but the interest earned is too low compared to other investment returns commonly achieved by private entities. Thus, despite having large reserves, USPS is legally prohibited to make sound investment in debt and equity markets which could potentially yield higher returns.

Privatization and breaking away from these limitations would allow USPS to at least attempt to optimize its operations, amend service standards, provide more pricing flexibility, and earn greater return on investments.

EOS Perspective

Time and again, US president Donald Trump has proposed privatization of USPS to make it self-sustainable and profitable. Many countries across the world have illustrated how privatization of the postal service could be a success. For instance, a European Commission report tracking development in the postal sector between 2013 and 2016 indicated that post-privatization postal services were able to diversify their revenue sources, reduce the labor costs, upgrade technology and infrastructure, close unprofitable facilities, and improve delivery frequency based on demand – all the measures which USPS needs to take. Thus, privatization could potentially help USPS to transform its business towards self-sustainability.

It can be argued that upon privatization, USPS may lose certain privileges it enjoys as a government entity. For instance, at present, USPS is exempt from all government taxes, but if privatized, USPS will be subject to federal, state, as well as local taxes. USPS boasts huge workforce operating more than 31,000 post offices using 204,274 delivery vehicles as of 2019. When USPS is opened to competition, it will have the distinct advantage due to its wide-spread delivery network and last-mile delivery capabilities. From market point of view, levying taxes on USPS may actually create a level-playing field for all the postal delivery firms promoting healthy competition. This will in turn prove to be good for the overall development of the sector.

If the idea of USPS privatization floats through, e-commerce companies and retailers such as Amazon and Walmart could be interested in acquiring a majority stake. As the e-commerce business grows, such companies are investing billions of dollars in building logistics network and capabilities to acquire larger market share. Moreover, they already rely on USPS for last-mile delivery. For instance, as per a Morgan Stanley report released in 2018, Amazon accounted for about a quarter of USPS package business. Thus, USPS’ large delivery network and resources offer a great value proposition to these companies.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: India’s Automobile Sector Breakdown Causing Economic Distress

Over the past few months, a lot has been said about the shrinking automobile sales in the Indian market. Touted as one of the key drivers of India’s economic growth, the automobile industry is facing the worst slowdown in two decades as production and sales numbers continue to drop month after month sending the sector in a slump. While the government has made efforts to improve the situation, it will take more than just policies and measures to flip the status quo and bring the industry back on the growth path.

Indian automotive industry witnessed a period of growth during the first term of Modi government – we wrote about it in our article Commentary: Indian Automotive Sector – Reeling under the Budget in February 2018. However, over the past year, the auto sector is in shambles and far from recovery. The sector that contributes 49% of the manufacturing GDP in the country (and more than 7% to the country’s total GDP) has shown decline in growth in the past 18 months as the numbers continue to fall each month. The slowdown is so severe that it has affected all aspects of the business leading to piled up inventory, stalled production lines, decelerating dealership sales, delayed business investments, and job loss.

Quintessential factors that triggered the slowdown

There are various reasons that have plagued the auto industry in the recent months. One of the key factors is the inability of NBFCs (Non-Bank Financial Companies) to lend money. NBFCs, which largely depend on public funds (mainly in the form of bank borrowings, debentures, and commercial paper), have been facing liquidity crunch in the recent past as both public sector and private sector banks have discontinued lending money. This had a double effect on the auto sales – firstly low liquidity has restricted NBFCs ability to finance vehicles, thus having an adverse impact on sales, and secondly, the limited availability of funds bulleted the cost of financing vehicles thereby making them relatively more expensive, further worsening the sales scenario.

In October 2018, the Supreme Court of India announced that no BS-IV cars shall be sold in India with effect from April 1, 2020 (all automobiles should be equipped with BS-VI compliant engines, with an aim to help in reducing pollution in terms of fumes and particulate matter). Owing to this, consumers have delayed their plans to purchase vehicles expecting automobile companies to offer huge discounts in the early months of 2020. And to clear out their existing stock of BS-IV vehicles, it is highly likely that the companies will offer massive concessions before the deadline hits. Delay in purchase of vehicles on consumers’ end has contributed to the overall low sales.

Additional factors that add to the downfall include changes in auto insurance policy (implemented in September 2018) under which buyers have to purchase a three-year and five-year insurance cover for car and two-wheeler, respectively (as against annual renewals), inclusion of additional safety features (including airbags, seat-belt reminders, and audio alarm systems) in all vehicles manufactured after July 1, 2019 adding to the manufacturing cost for the OEMs, and stiff competition from growing organized pre-owned vehicle market which has doubled in size in less than a decade (the share of the organized channel of the pre-owned car market has increased to 18% in 2019 from 10% in 2010). Customers have been passive on buying new vehicles as the total cost of ownership goes up due to an increase in fuel prices, higher interest rates, competition from used cars segment, and a hike in vehicle insurance costs.

Government initiatives to help the auto sector recover

To boost demand for automobiles and offer some respite to the businesses operating in the space, the government announced a number of measures and policies. These include lifting the ban on purchase of vehicles by government departments (the ban was introduced in October 2014), which is hoped to result in loosening of stocked-up inventory and getting sales for automakers, component manufacturers, and dealers. Government also announced additional 15% depreciation on new vehicles for commercial fleet service providers acquired till March 2020 with the aim to clear the high inventory build-up at dealerships.

Other than lifting the ban and price reductions, the government also announced that all BS-IV engine-equipped vehicles purchased until March 2020 will remain operational for the entire period of registration. This will have a two-fold effect – firstly, automakers will be able to push out their stock without having to upgrade existing models and make them BS-VI-complaint (since no more BS-IV-complaint vehicles will be registered post March 2020 and manufacturers will have to upgrade to BS-VI from BS-IV emission standard on the old stocks) thus clearing old inventory, and secondly, consumers can expect much higher discounts. This is expected to provide enough movement within the auto sector, both in terms of sales and revenue generation.

Government has also taken steps to stabilize the NBFC crisis where a separate budget of US$ 14 billion (INR 100,000 crore) has been announced to refinance selected NBFCs. While it is clear that these limited funds will not last long, currently, any step taken to recover from the situation is welcomed.

Though considered temporary, the relief measures offered by the government have gained traction in the industry and players believe that these provisions will have a positive impact on the buyers’ sentiment, even if for a short period of time.

Implications of the auto industry crisis

The slowdown is expected to have a negative impact across all aspects of auto business, especially in the short term. Drop in sales has led manufacturers to decrease production (and even stop production for a certain period of time), cut down overall costs, and reduce headcounts thus weighing down the overall automotive sector.

The months leading to reduced sales did not only impact the production capacities but also resulted in the loss of more than 350,000 jobs. In the coming months, many more risk losing their jobs owing to plant shutdowns, dealership closures, and small component manufacturers going bankrupt.

The cost of vehicle ownership has also increased. Automobiles attracts the highest GST slab of 28%, and this, coupled with the varying road and registration charges imposed by state governments, makes the upfront cost of the vehicle exorbitant for a large segment of consumers (especially the working middle class for whom a two-wheeler or a small segment car is a basic necessity rather than a nice-to-have convenience) making it almost impossible for them to but it.

Given that the automobile sector works in conjunction with other industries, the current slump in auto sales will pull down ancillary industries including parts and components, engines, battery, brakes and suspension, and tire, among others. Considering the fact that the sector contributes nearly half to the country’s manufacturing GDP, if the issue at hand is not addressed immediately, it will further add to the ongoing economic crisis within the country worsening the situation altogether.

EOS Perspective

Policies announced by the Modi government to revive the tumbling automobile sector only seem to mitigate the negative sentiments circling about the future of the industry. However, at this stage, what the industry really needs is a stimulus package in the form of tax incentives or liquidity boost to immediately change things on the ground level.

There is an urgent need of a remedial course of action on the government’s part to stop the vehicle sales from dropping further. As an immediate relief to boost sales and invigorate the auto sector, the government should implement a GST cut on vehicles. This would kick-start vehicle demand almost instantaneously that would work in favor of the automobile industry – manufacturers (to resume halt production), dealers (to clear inventory), and parts makers (to resume small parts and component manufacturing), help resuscitate lost jobs, and contribute, to a small extent, to strengthen country’s slow economic growth.

However, with the government turning a blind eye to industry needs (lowering the GST slab), there is only so much the business owners can do. Under this current scenario, unless the government takes some drastic measures that ensure validation in backing automakers, auto ancillary businesses, and dealers, the sector is unlikely to recover soon. Provisional policies and short-term measures can offer momentary relief but not the survival kick the auto industry is in dire need of.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Thomas Cook’s Demise – An Eye Opener for Tourism Sector?

There are few people who would not recognize Thomas Cook, as the company carved its name as a premier travel company in the UK as well as globally. Its name became synonymous with travel for many customers, as reminiscent from its slogan of “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it”. Unable to strike a deal to refinance its burgeoning debt, Thomas Cook, UK’s oldest package tour company, shut down operations this Monday, facing compulsory liquidation, and sending passengers as well as the tourism sector into panic. While the announcement may come as a shock, warning signs of the company’s jeopardized existence have surfaced several times over the past decade.

Thomas Cook has been in the news for large part of this year, as the company reported a record pre-tax loss of GBP1.5 billion, with the auditor raising concerns about Cook’s ability to manage a recovery. The company has been trying to secure funding of GBP900 million from banks and the Shanghai-based conglomerate Fosun, while also offloading parts of its packaged tours and airlines business.

However, an inability to secure an additional GBP200 million funding as working capital to cover cost of operations for winter season, which is traditionally characterized by low demand, meant that the company failed to secure its near future. As a result, Thomas Cook entered compulsory liquidation, fate it would have faced earlier, had it not funded its operations through accrued debt over the years, which eventually led to the company’s collapse.

Thomas Cook’s debt problem

It is not the first time that Thomas Cook has to run for its life, with serious doubts rising about the company’s existence already in 2011. At that point, Thomas Cook managed to survive by securing some expensive credit facilities, as well as restructuring and cost-cutting. However, all this came at a cost. High interest paid on these credit facilities left a heavy burden on cash flows.

The company showed signs of recovery in the following years, even posting a pre-tax profit in 2015 and bringing net debt to more acceptable levels. However, due to market conditions and other contributing social and economic factors, the company’s tour operator business displayed a particularly weak performance, suffering massive losses in 2018. These losses resulted in the company struggling to maintain working capital, as well as witnessing net debt increasing close to GBP350 million by end of 2018, with the trend continuing in 2019.

Other contributing factors

While debt remained the largest problem, other factors contributed to Thomas Cook’s demise. Proliferation and growth of budget airlines and hotel offerings such as Airbnb had already increased competition for Thomas Cook, impacting the company’s bottom line, as customers were shifting to these low-cost options.

Demand was also impacted by the 2018 heatwave in Europe, with customers from UK and Northern Europe preferring to stay at home instead of travelling to other warmer European countries, such as Spain and France, which are key contributors to Thomas Cook’s business. Total demand has also been impacted by the lack of clarity around Brexit, with customers delaying their travel decisions under the growing economic uncertainty.

Impact on the tourism sector

The collapse of a major player such as Thomas Cook is expected to impact the tourism sector, albeit primarily in the short term. Thomas Cook had developed relationships with hotels and businesses in key destinations, which are dependent on the company’s customers for majority of their revenue during peak seasons. Thomas Cook’s collapse will negatively impact these players, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, business is expected to return to normal as these companies will develop new relationships.

While customers may look to Thomas Cook’s competitors for their travel needs in the short term, limited capacities (or partnerships) are likely to make the competitors unable to take up this additional demand unless they are paid a premium for it.

EOS Perspective

The collapse of Thomas Cook highlights the challenge that traditional tour operators face in the current tourism market. Customers are shifting from traditional packaged tours to offers that allow them to decide their own destinations, and make bookings through lower-cost online service providers. Traditional players, which generate most of their revenue through offline sales channels, have been put under pressure to evolve their business model, to adopt an online channel that offers more convenience and flexibility to their customers.

Emergence of innovative travel platforms, such as Airbnb, has also put pressure on the bottom lines of these traditional players, impacting their ability to invest in new business opportunities without accumulating debt. Thomas Cook is not the only one impacted. Recently, SOTC (formerly known as Kuoni) has also been in the news for its negative debt position.

Thomas Cook’s case, however, comes as an eye-opener for the tourism industry players, clearly showing that they cannot continue to take on excessive debt. More conservative approaches and cost management need to be considered to build a profitable, and more importantly, sustainable business.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: How USA Can Deal with Its Waste Crisis

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It is not often that one can hear that a US$100 billion industry is in tatters, however, this is currently the reality in case of the US recycling industry. For years, the USA has been dependent on waste exports, to countries such as China, India, and Korea. However, that dependence has now placed the USA in a very difficult position, as the implementation of National Sword policy by China, the largest export destination for US waste, amidst the China-USA trade disputes, resulted in waste exports coming to a virtual halt since the start of 2018.

With waste generation growing, the USA has been left scrambling to look for alternative destinations for its waste, the largest being India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, albeit none of them capable of completely compensating for waste exports to China. Recently, in March 2019, India also banned imports of plastic waste, eliminating another major avenue through which the USA could get rid of its trash.

US dependence on exports for waste recycling meant that the development of domestic recycling facilities has been neglected. The country’s domestic waste recycling sector is now incapable of handling the ever-increasing waste, a major chunk of which ends up in landfills, creating other environment and health-related problems.

However, where there are challenges, there are opportunities as well. We look at what challenges the USA currently faces, and how the recycling industry is trying to adapt and come up with potential solutions to the country’s waste problem.

USA’s linear model left recycling industry unprepared

Traditionally, US municipals have depended on external companies to dispose their waste. Most disposal companies follow a linear model, under which they collect the municipal waste and then segregate it for further processing (with majority of it previously being exported to China). This dependence on waste exports led to limited investments in developing or expanding the domestic recycling infrastructure, which the country has been left to rue in the wake of the waste import ban imposed by China and India.

Limited capacities have put extra burden on the system. Moreover, elimination of revenue from scrap sales to China puts additional economic pressure on waste processors. As a result, many waste collection agencies have either suspended waste pickup or raised prices to dispose of waste. Municipals too have to bear greater economic burden. Cities, which were earlier paid for their waste, are now being charged significant amounts for hauling waste.

Current waste disposal process is not up to the mark

Another key challenge is the lack of sorting at source, i.e. at the household level. Due to consumer’s preference, the USA follows a single-stream recycling system, where all recyclables are collected in the same receptacle. With no segregation happening at this stage of waste collection, the processor is responsible for sorting different type of materials for recycling.

However, the lack of capacity and established infrastructure makes it difficult and expensive to sort these waste materials, resulting in most of the waste being discarded, either ending up at an incineration facility or a landfill, which are much more cost-effective compared with recycling. Currently, only 10% of plastic waste generated in the USA is recycled, while 75% of it is discarded in landfills (remaining 15% being incinerated to form electricity – but that too has its critics due to the pollution caused).

How USA Can Deal with its Waste Crisis

Recycling companies invest to boost processing capabilities

Impacted by the loss of the key buyer and facing own limited capacities, several smaller recycling companies reliant on exports to China have shut down their operations, while several other recyclers have been forced to reassess market strategy from exports to processing.

Several recycling companies have already started investing to develop their domestic waste processing and collection infrastructure. As an example, Waste Management, a US-based waste disposal and recycling services provider, invested more than US$110 million in 2018 alone in developing additional processing capacity, acquiring new technologies, and boosting waste collection infrastructure.

Robotic technology is likely to witness more investment

With limited capacities and waste production growing, there is a need to improve the overall efficiency of waste sorting and recycling process. Companies across Europe and Asia Pacific have been researching and developing trash robots (also called “trashbots”) capable of collecting, sorting, and recycling waste and other scrap materials.

The trend is now catching up in the USA as well. Waste Management has already installed a waste sorting robot at one of its material recycling facilities, and plans to install three more robots in 2019. The company is also planning to install additional screeners and optical sorters at its facilities.

New opportunities are emerging in plastic waste recycling

With a significant focus on promoting sustainability, several other companies also see recycling as a promising business opportunity, thereby driving investment in recycling infrastructure. GDB International, a US-based company selling plastic scrap to international markets, was impacted by the Chinese import ban, and decided to invest in developing its own recycling capabilities. The company plans to recycle plastic scrap domestically, and sell recycled plastic pellets to plastic product manufacturers within the USA and abroad.

EOS Perspective

Chinese and Indian waste import bans have jolted the US recycling industry as a whole, pressing it to search for a solution to its swelling problem. The industry is witnessing problems which question the entire structure of the industry and challenge companies to reconsider their commonly utilized business model – shifting from a linear model to a circular economy.

The most obvious solution for the US recycling industry, in the short term, is to consider alternative waste destinations, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, to share the waste burden. However, since none of these markets are developed enough to sustain over a long term, this solution, at best, can be considered a temporary fix.

The government needs to take several initiatives to lay a strong foundation for a revamped recycling industry, such as banning or restricting the use of hard-to-recycle plastics (including single-use plastics such as straws and disposable spoons), and laying down strict guidelines for sorting of waste already at the household level, which will improve the efficiency and costs associated with the recycling process.

A coalition of plastics players and other industry groups is lobbying for provision of funds by the US government, an investment of US$500 million, to help develop local waste management systems. If disbursed, these investments will enable development of the recycling industry until it becomes self-sufficient in handling domestic waste. Once this happens, the costs of disposing and processing waste are also likely to reduce.

In the long run, significant private investments in building domestic recycling capacities will be required to effectively address the ever-increasing waste. Excess waste, which was earlier exported to China and India, offers a sustainable source of raw materials to justify these investments in developing the recycling infrastructure. Furthermore, increasing focus on sustainability is driving a demand for recycled raw materials. Development of downstream recycling and processing capabilities can also enable recycling companies to tap this lucrative business opportunity. Partnerships with end users are likely to open further revenue stream.

While private investments in recycling infrastructure have started flowing in and the rate is expected to pick up, these investments will take time before the added capacities actually become operational. The success of these investments, however, will depend on how effectively the US government is able to execute initiatives to aid growth of domestic recycling industry.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: The Suzuki-Toyota Partnership – Are Such Partnerships Here to Stay?

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In February 2017, Suzuki and Toyota signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for business partnership. The two Japanese carmakers drafted framework for collaboration on future technology development, joint manufacturing, and market development projects. Both companies agreed to share their R&D, product portfolio, infrastructure, and dealer networks in India.

The collaboration includes mutual supply of passenger vehicles between the two companies for the Indian market. Maruti Suzuki (Suzuki’s Indian subsidiary) will supply Toyota with between 30,000 and 50,000 units of Baleno and Vitara models, while Toyota will provide Suzuki with 10,000 units of Corolla annually. These vehicles will be marketed nationally through their respective sales networks. In addition, Toyota and Denso Corporation (owned by Toyota) will offer technology transfer to Suzuki for developing a compact and highly efficient powertrain. Toyota’s Indian arm, Toyota Kirloskar Motor (TKM) will manufacture models developed by Suzuki for sale in India, Africa, and other emerging markets via their global sales networks. Further, in November 2017, both companies announced plans to co-develop and introduce electric cars (EV) in India by 2020. For this, they are setting up a lithium ion battery plant in the Indian state of Gujarat.

What does it mean for both OEMs?

By tapping into Toyota’s under-utilized manufacturing capacity in India, Maruti Suzuki will get access to the much needed extra production bandwidth. The OEM has so far relied heavily on Fiat for its diesel engines. With the new collaboration, it will have access to Toyota’s superior diesel engines that will help Suzuki to improve its brand perception in the Indian market. The partnership will also provide Maruti Suzuki with a chance to take a stab at the executive sedan space by offering Toyota’s Corolla via its sales network. Lastly, Suzuki will leverage Toyota’s technology and EV expertise, an area where the OEM is relatively weak and definitely needs improvements.

The partnership will give Toyota access to Suzuki’s expertise in India. It will hopefully help it to penetrate the low-priced compact cars market, a segment it has failed to crack so far. The OEM relies mainly on diesel car sales in India. However, the new partnership will help Toyota to fill the current product gaps, broaden their portfolio with petrol cars from Suzuki, and achieve higher sales in India.

What does it mean for Indian automotive industry and customers?

At present, both carmakers have started sharing a few of their models with each other. However, there is a potential for more models in pipeline, followed by joint product development and manufacturing platform sharing (shared engineering and production efforts for different vehicle models). This is likely to lead to the introduction of new cars in various market segments. The co-developed cars are promised to have Toyota’s technological sophistication as well as Suzuki’s affordable ticket price, providing customers with broader and better options. In addition, the partnership can be expected to make both carmakers compete with each other for performance improvement, this will result in enhanced products and services for customers.

From an industry perspective, the joint manufacturing will result in creating more local jobs. Volume production will mean that both OEMs will also look to source components locally for cost savings. This will provide some boost to domestic components industry and government’s Make in India initiative. Suzuki’s size, scale, market knowledge, as well as unrivalled supply chain in India, along with Toyota’s global expertise and technology know-how, make this tandem a great fit in the context of kick-starting, promoting, and meeting the Indian government’s ambitious 2030 EV targets. In the EV space, the partnership will contribute to manufacturing more efficient cars and aid in development of the automotive and ancillary industries.

Are such partnerships here to stay?

Since growth opportunities in developed automotive markets are confined, global carmakers have set their eyes on emerging markets as these are projected to represent around 60% of the total global auto sales by 2021. India is on a fast track towards becoming the world’s third-largest auto market thanks to the rapidly growing passenger car market. According to IHS Markit estimates, annual new car sales are expected to reach 5.1 million in 2020, an increase of about 30% from 2016-2017 figures. Therefore, it looks like a logical move for global OEMs, such as Toyota, to look at all possible collaboration avenues to capture the growth opportunities in these markets.

The global automotive industry is constantly evolving triggered by rapidly rising new technologies, changing customer preferences, and multiplying sustainability policies. Carmakers globally are faced with massive costs to develop new technologies for highly energy-efficient cars. To remain competitive in such rapidly changing industry, OEMs need to increasingly look for strategic collaborations that will enable them to work together and leverage their shared expertise to optimize cost as well as performance. As a result, increasing number of alliances are seen where carmakers collaborate by sharing platforms and joint manufacturing for cost savings in R&D, manufacturing, and components procurement. This is especially true in emerging markets where growth opportunities are ample, but own set of challenges exists, and such alliances are increasingly becoming catalysts for growth. Recent examples include five MoUs signed between Mahindra and Ford to jointly develop new products in India and other emerging markets, or a similar alliance between China’s Geely Group and Daimler.

While the coming together of two Japanese OEMs with two different working cultures may pose its own challenges, both carmakers need this collaboration to succeed for their own reasons. For Toyota, the reason is to increase its presence in a country that is soon to become the world’s third-largest auto market. Suzuki’s reason is the much needed technical know-how to enter the EV space. While the success of this partnership at present remains uncertain and it will be interesting to see how this partnership pans out in the next few years, one thing that is certain is the fact that one can expect more such collaborations in the near future, as carmakers will look for partners to better penetrate new markets, develop new products to grow, at the same time optimize their R&D, manufacturing, and procurement costs.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Truck Drivers’ Strike amid Brazil’s Recovery from Recession

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In May 2018, Brazil witnessed a nationwide strike conducted by 200,000 truck drivers, which managed to paralyze the entire country for over 10 days and caused major issues such as shortage of food, death of poultry, and unavailability of public transport, among others.

In 2017, Brazil’s Oil and Gas Company, Petrobras, tied its fuel prices to float with international prices. This was following years of being exposed to high prices paid by Petrobras for refined fuel in international markets and the company’s inability to pass on these higher costs onto the customers domestically, due to existing price controls. The decision to float the domestic prices was further sealed by Petrobras’ attempt to seek recovery of profits after the company’s share prices fall due to a corruption scandal.

The floating price mechanism brought an increase in domestic fuel prices, which greatly affected truck drivers whose earnings were gradually slashed, in a scenario where the Real, Brazil’s official currency, weakened by 17% against the US dollar between May 2017 and May 2018. As a result, truck drivers decided to take their demands for a fuel price control policy to the streets, paralyzing many activities and sectors of the Brazilian economy, and exposing some of Brazil’s main weaknesses.

Brazil greatly depends on the truck industry for distribution

The strike caused substantial fuel shortage as oil trucks were not delivering petrol to gas stations, which affected delivery of other goods across the country. Subsequently, disruption in the distribution of food and other products translated into a visible shortage of items on supermarket shelves and a general hysteria that made people over-purchase what was left. The strike also exposed Brazil’s over-dependency on road distribution system for various sectors to operate (instead of using a balanced mix that would include other means of transport, e.g. cargo trains). Most importantly, the strike, in which truck drivers blocked main road arteries within the country’s 19 states, caused great losses, including (but not limited to) US$826.8 million worth of poultry during those 10 days.

After several attempts by the Brazilian government to reach an agreement with truck drivers, both parties settled to pause the strike – initially for 15 days although now for unlimited time, despite truck drivers’ reservations about the government eventually meeting their demands. The potential of the strike being resumed is still looming on the horizon of the Brazilian economy. The persistence of this conflict and the threat of a longer strike could lead to longer interruption of businesses and industrial activities, which is detrimental for a country that is recovering from one of its deepest recessions of 2015-2016.

Consumers’ purchasing power and confidence may decline

Consumers’ purchasing power is expected to slightly decline due to price increase after the temporary food shortage. According to the price index released by the FIPE (Economic Research Institute Foundation) during the strike, general food prices rose by 1.82%, resulting in a 0.62% increase above what was expected when compared to the same period of 2017. Price of half-finished goods (e.g. poultry) rose by 8.43%, while dairy products prices increased by around 5.85%. In some cases, such as with potatoes, the price increase was of 50.3%. Further, a spread hysteria among consumers led to over-purchasing of products, even at a higher value, meaning Brazilians’ disposable income was reduced for the month of May.

Inflation in May reached an unexpected 3.22%, an atypical increment for a month with usually low inflation rate. In a country overcoming a two-year deep economic recession, uncertainty about food availability and low disposable income have affected consumers’ confidence, which has fallen 4 percentage points in June, potentially translating into reduction of expenditures and hindering Brazil’s economic growth.

Investors’ trust may also fall

The 2015-2016 recession weakened local demand, however, Brazil managed to register a trade surplus and a low account deficit due to positive exports volumes and foreign direct investments (FDI) entering the country. Since the government and the truck drivers are still in talks to reach an agreement, the threat of another strike of similar nature is real. Experts agree that investors may become wary and cease to invest further, if political unrest and economic instability were to continue in the country. As a result, Brazil may not be capable of improving, or even maintaining, its low deficit in the account balance. In 2017, investments reached US$70.3 billion and, before the strike happened, experts believed FDI would register US$80 billion in 2018.

Brazilian president, Michel Temer, offered Petrobras US$274 million as compensation for losses it would incur by cutting oil prices. Though this may offer a 60-day solution to the worried truck drivers, it is only a short-term compensation which Brazil does not plan on extending forever.

EOS Perspective

It should come as no surprise that the strike was conducted only a few months away from Brazil’s presidential elections. Analysts believe it to be a strategy to weaken the image of president Temer, and shed some positive light on the Worker’s Party, of which Lula Ignacio Da Silva, former Brazilian president, is a current member. Despite Lula’s conviction in January 2018 for corruption, its party requested Brazil’s Supreme Court to grant a “suspensive effect” to the conviction, which would eventually allow him to run in the next presidential elections.

Regardless of who will be elected president, the strike has certainly stirred the economic and political scene, and has uncovered several of Brazil’s vulnerabilities.

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