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Narender L Ahuja and Sweta Gupta, The Smart Manager | April 18, 2007
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Garuda Udyog Financing Strategy
Rickie smiled to himself as he collected his papers and proceeded to the conference room. He was going to make a presentation on what should be the future long-term financing strategy of Garuda Udyog.
As he mentally reviewed what he was going to say, he felt a sense of satisfaction and pride. He had made a foolproof case for debt financing that no one in the meeting would be able to oppose. It was an open-and-shut case.
The coming up of Garuda Udyog Limited in 1983 was the beginning of exciting times for the Indian passenger car market, which had been dominated by two major car makers Premier Automobiles and Hindustan Motors for over three decades after independence. Garuda's first model G800 became an instant hit and the company enjoyed a near monopoly in the market until mid-1990s.
However, the liberalisation of the Indian economy and de-licensing of the passenger car industry in the 1990s led to the entry of global players like Hyundai, Ford and General Motors as well as domestic giants such as Tata Motors.
The intense competition that followed had an adverse affect on Garuda's market share as well as profit margins, which along with other factors resulted in a substantial downturn in the company's fortunes.
The company's profit before tax declined from Rs 977 crore (Rs 9.77 billion) in FY98 (ending 31 March), to Rs 784 billion (Rs 7.84 billion) in FY99, and further to Rs 285 crore (Rs 3.85 billion) in FY00 before incurring a net loss of Rs 269 crore (Rs 2.69 billion) in FY01.
Later the company made a spectacular come-back and its profit before tax rose to Rs 770 crore (Rs 7.70 billion) in FY04 and further to Rs 1,300 crore (Rs 13 billion) in FY05. The company had to fight on many fronts (including product design, quality control and cost reduction) in order to revive its profitability and gain a position of sustainable competitiveness.
The company also aggressively pursued localization of the high value components that were previously imported. These efforts resulted in a decline in the 'materials cost to net sales' ratio from 90.9% in 2001 to 76.6% in 2005, thus improving profit margins.
Similarly, the cost of debt was lowered by repaying a substantial part of borrowed capital between 2001 and 2005. The company's debt that stood at Rs 1,112 crore (Rs 11.12 billion) was brought down to Rs 3,076 crore (Rs 30.76 billion.) During the same period, the company ploughed back profits by restricting dividend payout, as well as made a public issue of equity in 2003 which together raised the shareholders' funds from Rs 2,643 crore (Rs 26.43 billion) in 2001 to Rs 4,379 crore (Rs 43.79 billion) in 2005.
Now the company was planning to take up further investment projects to the tune of Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion) in the next four to five years, and had to decide whether to rely more on debt or equity capital to finance these future projects.
Rickie had been studying the company financial data related to the past eleven years (see Annexure 01) and just knew how the company's financing strategy should change in the future.
He worked in the finance department of Garuda Udyog where a higher position was to become vacant soon, and Rickie wanted to establish himself as its main claimant. He wanted to assert his position in today's meeting that would be attended by Harsh Dixit, the Chief General Manager of Finance, and two other senior managers, Yashiro Mori and Yashwant Raj.
Therefore, when Dixit asked him to present his viewpoint on the issue, Rickie did not waste any time and said in a heavy and concluding tone, ''As all of you can see it, there is no doubt that the company should primarily focus on debt financing in the next few years. . . "
Raj who came from a technical background cut him short, "Why do you say that? I thought debt would be a financial burden for the company and hence undesirable."
Rickie who was not expecting any opposition to his ideas, and in any case not so early in his presentation, became alert, "Well, I was going to explain myself any way. In my view, debt financing has three undisputable advantages over the equity capital. Debt capital brings in the tax advantage, the company has the flexibility to repay and reduce the debt as well as the related cost of interest and finally it has a favorable impact on the return available to equity holders."
Raj once again stopped him, "The advantages you claim come at a cost. Debt financing increases the financial risk of the company. It also means having to agree to and abide by the debt covenants that could put lots of restrictions on the company."
Mori who was a Japanese national and generally regarded as a confidante of the group representing foreign shareholders in the company, asked, "How do you say that debt financing would increase the return on equity capital?"
Rickie was glad to get a breather from Raj's unnecessary interruptions, "By investing in profitable projects, the company would earn more on the borrowed capital than the cost of interest it would pay. The surplus earned in this way would go to enhance the earnings available to equity holders."
Garuda Udyog was established as a result of the joint collaboration between Tokyo Motors of Japan and the Indian government. Since then, Tokyo Motors had purchased a considerable part of the government's stake in the company and now held 56% shareholding in the company.
The company's corporate objectives were to remain the market leaders in the small car segment, increase its market share, create entry barriers for competitors by ensuring maximum customer satisfaction (for example, by providing highly efficient cars at affordable prices and low maintenance cost throughout the life of the car) while simultaneously enhancing shareholder welfare by enhancing share values and payment of dividends.
Dixit, who was highly qualified and had been with the company for a long time, knew that the financing decision must be integrated with the overall objectives of the company. He said, "I think the financing strategy would be different in various stages of the life cycle of a company's existence. At its inception, Garuda had to access debt capital due to modest availability of equity capital. The debt to equity ratio at that time was close to 1:1. However, as the company grows and has internal accruals of funds through retained earnings, the dependence on borrowed capital would reduce."
Rickie continued, "There are other advantages of debt capital too. The mix of equity and debt capital reduces the overall cost of capital. The equity capital is more expensive because such investors require a greater risk premium.
Assume the cost of equity capital is 18% and the gross cost of interest is 10%. If the corporate tax rate is 35%, the net cost of debt would work out to only 6.50% [ie 10 * (1 - 0.35)]. Now if debt and equity are combined in equal proportions by maintaining the D: E ratio 1:1, the overall cost of capital would be just 12.25% [1/2 * 18 + � * 6.5]."
He paused for breath before continuing, "Raj's worries about the financial risk are baseless. At present, the debt to equity ratio of the company is so low that even a substantial increase in debt would not raise the financial risk to any threatening level in the foreseeable future. Financial risk arises when a company's debt servicing capacity as reflected by the 'interest coverage ratio' is low, as it was for Garuda in the FY01 when the operating profit (see Annexure 02) was low and the relative interest payments high.
Since then our operating profits have grown many fold and, more importantly, the foreseeable future looks bright. I would therefore say that the company should maintain a target debt-equity ratio of 1:1 and finance its investments projects in the next few years through debt."
Raj asked, "How do you think the stock market would react to increasing the debt at this stage?"
Rickie continued confidently, "Let's look at it this way: under what circumstances would the management of any company agree to use debt capital? Let me tell you: only when it is sure that its investment projects would succeed and generate adequate cash flows to service and repay the loans. So, when we take debt capital, our confidence index as perceived by the investors would go up and the stock markets would react positively."
Dixit said, "That is a good point. But while thinking about debt versus equity financing, let us not forget about the company's heavy operating fixed costs related to production, sales and administration. In our industry, we have to frequently introduce new car models, which would require regular investments in plant and equipments. Garuda has gone through three phases of heavy investments in fixed assets: first in 1983-84, then during the capacity expansion of 1995-2000, and finally the more recent investments since 2001 resulting from the introduction of a number of new models such as the Garuda Wagon, Garuda Uno and the Garuda SUV. While the earlier investments have been depreciated, the recent ones are still being depreciated and that's a huge fixed cost each year, in addition to other items. So, do you think the company can commit to heavy fixed financial and operating costs at the same time?"
Rickie had thought of that, "As you know, the interest rates on borrowed capital have come down considerably during the past two years, isn't it, I would say from 15% to 16% to about 9% to 10%. On top of it, the interest cost brings in certain tax advantages. That is a substantial saving and the company must capitalize on it."
Dixit was aware of it, but also knew that the interest rates in India had already started hardening from the end of 2005 and he expected them to rise further during the next couple of years. He said, "Cost control and reduction are crucial to remaining competitive, and this applies to financial as well as other costs. "
Rickie continued, "Of course, as in past, we can use interest rate swaps to keep the cost of debt under control. As you would recall, in 2001 we had taken loans at fixed interest terms of when the interest rates were pretty high, but since we expected the rates to fall, we had swapped the fixed rate interest liability of 12% on borrowings of the remaining Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion)for a flexible rate by paying a one time premium to a bank. The swapping had saved the company a considerable amount. And if we issue debentures to raise debt capital, we'll include a put-call option that will give us the twin advantages of flexibility with manageable cost of debt, thereby reducing our overall risk. We have already had some useful experience of this in July 2004 when the company utilized the call option on its 11.20% secured non-convertible debentures and paid back the entire borrowed amount of Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion)."
"Rickie I must say your observations are not based on facts," said Raj as he glared at Rickie from behind his thick reading glasses, "I think debt capital is not warranted for cash rich companies like Garuda. As you have seen from the company's balance sheet, we have a huge amount of money invested in mutual funds and other financial securities. If we have a cash crunch, why can't we sell off some of these investments to finance the company's future investment projects? That would save the company a lot of interest cost."
For the first time, Rickie seemed to be uncomfortable. He had not considered this aspect. But he knew there had to be a better answer, if the theory of optimum allocation of capital was to hold.
He said, "These investments in mutual funds etc represent shareholders' funds, so the relevant cost of capital of such funds is the same as the cost of equity. They should fetch us higher returns than the cost of external debt which is lower. Let these investments remain as a stand by liquidity cushion, just in case we have a funds problem in the future."
At this juncture, Mori politely said, "My friends, all this is fine, but the company cannot ignore the interests of the majority shareholders. Being a part of a multinational which wants to avoid financial risk, Garuda should remain a debt free company. Even if it has to resort to debt financing, it should be to the minimum extent and be redeemed as quickly as possible. Garuda-Tokyo Motors should be a zero debt company."
Dixit added the concluding remarks, "Well, thank you all for attending the meeting. I'll brief the Board about this discussion, and let you know what the Board decides."
Annexure - 2: Garuda Udyog Profit and Loss Account - 1997 to 2005 (Rs million)
Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.