India bowls Holcim-Ambuja merger a googly

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Minority shareholders have bowled a googly at Holcim's attempt to simplify its business structure in India.

Or for readers unacquainted with cricket terminology, domestic institutions which hold about 9% in Ambuja Cements have been widely reported in the Indian media as having voted against a move to merge the cement producer with its parent company, Holcim India. The final results of the shareholders vote will be publicly announced on 21 November 2013. The shareholders actions follow Holcim's recent approval by the Indian Foreign Investment Promotion Board for the merger.

That this is bad news for Holcim is not in doubt given that the multinational cement producer has taken a hit in its Asia-Pacific region, particularly in India. Overall for the region its operating profit fell by 32.5% year-on-year to US$333m for the quarter to 30 September 2013.

Specifically, Ambuja Cements managed to maintain its sales volume of cement and clinker year-on-year at 4.89Mt for the third quarter. However, its net profit after tax fell by 45.4% to US$27m. It blamed the decline on subdued demand due to overall economic slowdown combined with higher input costs. Meanwhile, ACC saw its sales revenue from cement fall slightly to US$388m for the third quarter while its profit for cement before costs and tax fell by 57% year-on-year to US$22m.

As mentioned in August 2013 when this column last looked at India, the parallels to cement industry consolidation in China are telling. In China guidelines have been issued to cut overcapacity in the cement industry, with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology releasing lists of companies that should cut excess production. Alongside this, the country's leading cement producers have reported a return to profit so far in 2013. Who exactly is taking the loss from this production retraction in China, if it is happening, remains unreported and unclear.

In India, much more light has been shone upon an over-producing cement industry. Holcim and its subsidiaries are just some of the companies reporting falling profits at present. Ambuja's minor shareholders look like they have made a decision that is counter to the best interests of the Indian cement industry.

In a recent UK newspaper article, political theorist David Runciman compared the respective merits of democratic and more autocratic modes of government. Unsurprisingly for a British academic Runciman came out in favour of democracies, yet the advantages of more centralised governments were noted, such as the ability to make wide-reaching decisions faster and more comprehensively.

In light of this, comparing the Indian and Chinese cement industries in 2040 will be fascinating. Minor shareholder tussles will likely be forgotten but cement (and hopefully cricket) will be as vital then as they are now.


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