The 24 September Supreme Court of India (SCI) decision to cancel almost every coal block allocation since 1993 will have a negative financial impact on a number of Indian power and steel companies, says Fitch Ratings. The decision is broadly credit negative for these sectors, but should have no impact on the ratings of any Fitch-rated steel or power sector corporates.
The decision to cancel 214 of 218 coal licences follows a ruling in August in which the SCI declared the licence allocation process as arbitrary and illegal. The cancelled licences include 46 producing or near-production blocks, and are owned largely by power and steel sector companies. The producing mines will be allowed to continue operations until March 2015, at which point they will be handed back to state firm, Coal India Limited, until they are sold as part of a new auction process.
Companies with cancelled licences will not receive any compensation on account of development expenditure incurred to date, meaning these will have to be written off. They can bid for the same coal blocks when they come back on the market, while it will be an open bidding process. Furthermore, they will now have to pay for externally sourced coal, resulting in higher operating costs. The SCI's decision also levies a fine of INR295/tonne on coal produced to date from the mines affected, which could amount to INR73bn (USD1.2bn).
The negative financial impact will vary significantly depending on the company. Current credit profiles are likely to remain intact for Fitch-rated steel and power companies. The ruling has no immediate direct impact on Tata Steel Limited (BB+/Stable) and Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL, BBB-/Stable). All but one of their operational coal mines were allocated before 1993, which are exempt from the decision. In addition, SAIL's one operational mine which was allocated after 1993 was one of the four licences upheld by the SCI as valid. The cancellation of non-operational coal licenses will not hurt credit profiles, as these have not been factored into Fitch's long-term financial projections for these companies.
Power company NTPC Limited (BBB-/Stable) could be more vulnerable to the decision, though Fitch maintains that the broader impact will still be relatively small. Pakhri Barwadih, an NTPC mine nearing production, has been exempt from the cancellation. The status of the other nine of NTPC's 10 coal blocks is uncertain, as it is not very clear if they are also exempt - owing to the fact that NTPC is a state-owned entity. The company had expected that its captive mines would be able to serve 4.3% of its coal requirements in FY15 - rising further to 15% by FY17.
The potential long-term effects of the decision on the wider power and steel sectors will depend largely on how quickly the government proceeds with re-auctioning the licences. This could lead to more efficient development of these coal blocks in the long term should the new process go quickly. Uncertainty regarding the original allocation process had previously contributed in part to the underdevelopment and utilisation of these blocks.
However, it is important to highlight that a new and transparent auction process is just one factor needed to boost coal production in India. Other key challenges remain, including tough environmental clearances and regulatory approvals.