AUGUST 4, 2002
 Cover Story
 Personal Finance
 Case Game
 Back of the Book

Nasscom Does Some Brain Racking
Slowdown or not, NASSCOM is still eyeing Indian software revenues of $77 billion by 2008. Just what will make it happen? To get a strategy together, it got some top minds to meet in Hyderabad at the India it and ITEs Strategy Summit 2002. A report on what came of it.

Q&A With Ashraf Dimitri
The CEO of Oasis Technology, a key provider of e-payments software, tries to win over converts to a new system.

More Net Specials
Business Today,  July 21, 2002
Psst, Want A Tip? Go For The Mid-Caps
The buzz on the Street is largely about mid-cap stocks. But there are mid-caps and mid-caps. Here's a quick tour of five that matter.

Want to out-buffet buffet? Easy, just follow Ben Graham. Warren cut his teeth under him and rates his book The Intelligent Investor the best book on investing ever written. If you decide to do a Graham now, your timing couldn't be more perfect: the man was a proponent of what we now know as value investing-exploiting low valuations to pick winners with sound fundamentals. And if you decide to do a G now, you certainly won't be alone: Graham is the reigning deity on Dalal Street. Analysts scouring the financial statements in search of value, mutual funds seriously evaluating the logic of launching mid-cap funds, the market is filled with people hoping to make a pile while the valuations are still down. "We think this is the right time to invest in mid-cap stocks," says T.P. Raman, the Managing Director of Sundaram Mutual Fund, which recently launched a mid-cap fund. "Valuations are low, and the risk-reward equation favours investment."

If everyone is picking them, don't you run the risk of being a lemming all over again if you pick mid-cap stocks? You don't, and that's because most people are doing it all wrong. "The entire mid-cap thing is already being overplayed," rues Sandeep Talwar, an analyst with online brokerage Sharekhan. "Small-cap junk, which hadn't moved in the past seven-to-eight years, has suddenly gone from Rs 2 to Rs 10."

Our recommendation: seek value. Still, there are some caveats. One, don't invest in a mid-cap stock unless you know something about the quality of the company's management. Two, if a company is available cheap given its quality of assets, stop and ask whether it is capable of leveraging them to improve profitability? If it isn't, these very assets could make the company a takeover-target. That's good news for investors but only if the promoter can be edged out. Three, if a company claims to have turned around, evaluate the sustainability of this revival. And four, look for companies that did well even when the industry to which they belong fared badly. That said, as Alroy Lobo, the head of research at Kotak Securities, points out, "Mid-cap stocks have the ability to beat benchmark indices."

Here are five of the species: profitable (consistently so), at attractive valuations, and with attractive prospects. What's stopping you?

Electrosteel Castings (Rs 335)

It's simple really: the company is the largest manufacturer of ductile iron pipes used in water and sewage transportation, it recently increased capacity, acquired a strategic stake in competitor Lanco thereby ending a period of rampant price undercutting in the industry, and, bonus, bonus, the promoters own 61 per cent of the equity. "It is a technology-heavy business that is viewed as a commodity one," says S. Ranganathan, an analyst at LKP Securities, who believes only their financial woes is preventing most states from moving to ductile iron pipes (replacing the old cast iron ones) for their waterworks. He may be right: Electrosteel's order book already lists some proactive southern states. At a P-E multiple of around 6, it's a steal.

Hikal (Rs 148)

Fine, you haven't heard of the company. It makes thiabendazole (TBZ) and sells all of it to Merck's US operation. It also makes some agrochemical and biotech intermediates and formulations-Sygenta, the behemoth formed by the merger of Novartis and Zenecca, is its biggest customer for agrochemicals-and recently acquired Novartis' Panoli plant that makes quinalphos.

The raw material will continue to come from Novartis, which will also pick up the finished product. Then, there's a contract manufacturing initiative in the biotech domain.... Don't you wish you'd heard of Hikal earlier?

Vesuvius (Rs 75)

We must be crazy to recommend a company that makes a living supplying refractories to the ailing steel industry. Not quite: Vesuvius has consistently grown its topline and bottomline through some smart diversification moves. Two recent acquisitions-Carborundum Universal's Vizag plant and Premier Refractories-have increased its non-ferrous footprint. Another in the making (of Foseco's lining business) should reflect in the company's financials in the coming quarter.

Put simply, the company's dependence on the steel sector is decreasing. There's more: from selling products, Vesuvius has moved to hawking solutions; 35 per cent of its business comes from design, logistics, and maintenance. This stock, despite its name, isn't all that volatile.

Balrampur Chini Mills (Rs 149)

BCM is, arguably, India's largest and most efficient sugar company. Sugar may be a strange business with even stranger must-for-success parameters, but the company comes out tops in most.

The company's focus on operational effectiveness means it extracts, on an average, more sugar per tonne of cane crushed than its rivals. Its relations with farmers is amicable, ensuring a steady supply of cane. And it proposes to enter the lucrative branded sugar market soon.

Then, there's the new market opportunity presented by the government's decision to allow a 5 per cent concentration of ethanol in blended fuel-ethanol is a by-product in the manufacturing of sugar. At its current valuation, the company is a sweet deal.

Sundram Fasteners (Rs 311)

The buzz created by the awards bestowed by General Motors on its Indian supplier of radiator caps has ensured that most people know of SF. We'll make this quick: in a period that saw most auto ancillaries struggling to maintain profitability, Sundram Fasteners grew sales and profit, and actually reduced its interest cost.

"It is not only the most efficient auto ancillary in India, but among the most competent ones in the world," gushes Jigar Shah, Head of Research, K.R. Choksey. If the anticipated upswing in auto happens, SF is your stock.