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Stock market bulls might finally be looking at an earnings recovery in India

Earnings growth has been the missing piece of the rally that sent Indian stocks to multiple records before the tumult in early February.

business Updated: Mar 28, 2018 15:58 IST
Ravil Shirodkar and Nupur Acharya, Bloomberg
The S&P BSE Sensex entered its first correction in 15 months on Friday after the risk-off mood triggered by concerns over trade skirmishes dented sentiment already weakened by a bank fraud, widening fiscal deficit and the prospects of higher interest rates.
The S&P BSE Sensex entered its first correction in 15 months on Friday after the risk-off mood triggered by concerns over trade skirmishes dented sentiment already weakened by a bank fraud, widening fiscal deficit and the prospects of higher interest rates.(Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

In India, it’s becoming a ritual. Each year investors are assured that earnings are about to recover. Each year, they don’t.

Anything that suggested that might change would be welcome news to stock bulls, who’ve watched last year’s rally hit a wall. Now there’s evidence it may, though you have to look pretty hard to see it.

As usual, analysts are predicting a profit bounty for Indian firms. Net income among NSE Nifty 50 Index companies is set to rise 25% in 2018, they say, catching up with a rally that added $822 billion to prices last year. What’s cheering bulls today is that analysts have gotten a little better at their jobs.

Not a lot better: after overestimating profits by an average of 18% over the last four years, the gap has narrowed in the last few quarters to roughly half that rate. Still, for Indian investors who have waited years for earnings to justify the market’s advance, this is what passes for good news.

Earnings have recovered steadily over the past two quarters as businesses rebound from the disruptions caused by the government’s shock cash ban in late 2016 and the roll out of the new sales tax last July. Bulls hope the strengthening will cushion India’s $2.2 trillion market from a trade war that has rattled equities from US to Japan.

“Economic momentum is picking up as the side effects of the goods and services tax and demonetisation have faded,” said Nilesh Shah, who oversees $19 billion as chief executive officer at Kotak Mahindra Asset Management Co. Improving results “will provide downside protection,” he said.

Earnings growth has been the missing piece of the rally that sent Indian stocks to multiple records before the tumult in early February. In the past four years, Nifty earnings growth has increased at a measly 3% compounded annual growth rate, data compiled by Bloomberg show. And at one point in 2015, actual earnings were 30% below consensus profit estimates, prompting fund managers to warn that valuations were too high.

Demand pick-up

There’s optimism that the underperformance will narrow further as a pick-up in demand filters through to bottom lines. India’s economy grew at 7.2% in October-December, the fastest pace in five quarters. Gross domestic product is estimated to expand 6.6% in the year ending March 31, indicating an improvement in industrial activity.

“We’ve seen consumption improve for two-wheelers, passenger cars and even capital goods companies are saying that they’re seeing a pick up,” Rajat Jain, chief investment officer at Mumbai-based Principal PNB Asset Management Co, said by phone.

The S&P BSE Sensex entered its first correction in 15 months on Friday after the risk-off mood triggered by concerns over trade skirmishes dented sentiment already weakened by a bank fraud, widening fiscal deficit and the prospects of higher interest rates. The gauge slid 0.6% at 9:32 a.m. in Mumbai after two days of gains.

Credit losses at banks may hinder profit revival

While India remains relatively insulated to trade risks, even the most ardent bulls say credit losses at lenders -- the biggest group in the market indexes -- could keep the profit revival momentum from accelerating rapidly.

“Banks will need three quarters to clean up their books, and you will see the effect after the December quarter,” said Manish Kumar, who oversees $22 billion at ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Co. “The banking sector is pulling earnings down.”

For instance, net incomes for Nifty members rose an average 7% in the three months ended December from a year earlier, Motilal Oswal Securities Ltd. said in a note last month. Exclude State Bank of India, which posted a surprise loss, growth gets bumped up to 17%, the brokerage wrote.

For now, bulls are taking heart from the improving results -- the proportion of Nifty firms that reported a profit drop in the latest season was the lowest in 12 quarters, according to Motilal Oswal. Companies will begin reporting March-quarter results in about two weeks.

“There are good chances of India Inc. earnings doubling in the next four to five years, and a lot of company managements will tell you that those are realistic numbers,” Prateek Agrawal, chief investment officer at Mumbai-based ASK Investment Managers Ltd., which manages money for wealthy individuals, told BloombergQuint on Monday. “The story in India going forward is that of earnings growth.”

--With assistance from Srinivasan Sivabalan