We have recently returned from a research trip to India, a visit we had been very excited about as we had missed in-person interactions with our holdings and interesting businesses that we have been following for a while. While our regular calls and meetings in London have allowed us to stay in close contact, a personal meeting with CEOs and managers on site cannot be substituted.
India has been an important allocation for the Mobius Emerging Markets Fund since its inception. MEMF’s Indian holdings have contributed 40% to (gross) return as of the end of March 2023. This was almost entirely driven by stock selection. Our visit has confirmed our bullish outlook on the region, and the exciting companies diligent stock pickers can find in India.
India, a country of 1.4 billion people, and soon expected to be the most populous country in the world, offers a plethora of opportunities for us as long-term, quality-oriented investors. Companies have evolved, are increasingly more professionally managed, and are focused on corporate governance and sustainability efforts, which has helped in attracting domestic and foreign capital flows. Innovation is omnipresent, and India has created 100 unicorns in the last five years. Unrelenting deal activity in PE and VC also means new and innovative businesses available to invest in as public market investors. There are over 6,000 listed companies in the small- and mid-cap space.
In India, we observe income inequality and a changing social fabric, as in most other emerging markets, but are convinced that rapid income acceleration, technological adoption and corporate spending—aided by favourable economic and fiscal policies—will keep India on a steady growth path. GDP per capita has quintupled over the last 20 years. By 2030, the Indian economy will be led by the middle class, and upward income mobility will continue to drive consumption.
In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF forecast India to grow 5.9% in 2023 and 6.3% in 2024, more than any other major economy. This compares to 1.3% and 1.4% projected growth for advanced economies. The Indian economy clearly has recovered from the pandemic-related slowdown and is now on an impressive, sustained growth trajectory for the next decade. Growth will primarily come from the increase in private consumption (and we have witnessed this on the ground with busy markets and fully occupied restaurants and shopping malls) and will be fuelled by a broad-based expansion of capital expenditure by the private and public sectors.
We view the recent economic policies—including increased spending on infrastructure, incentives to boost certain niche manufacturing segments, focus on improving ease of doing business and fiscal measures undertaken to keep inflation in check—largely positively. Shortly before our visit, India’s government announced a raise in capital expenditure of 33% to 10 trillion rupees ($122.29 billion) in the next fiscal year to drive investments in infrastructure. We witnessed first-hand rampant construction activity across the cities we visited. The scale of expansion of the Metro (public rail transport) is mind-boggling and is being talked about by everyone we met. Further, construction of new expressways, bridges and airports continues to support the public infrastructure and we see this as a good indicator of the economic growth the country is witnessing.
Another key driver of economic growth is a healthy credit cycle with multiple banks competing and lending activity again on the agenda. Our interactions with small and large banks also point to the good health of corporate credit in India which is the cornerstone of future expansion. India’s financial system has made significant progress in efficiency with technology and innovation becoming mainstream. The digital payment system UPI is basically used by every Indian and has almost replaced cash entirely (UPI enabled approximately 2,300 transactions a second in 2022). Ever-increasing smartphone penetration, combined with the government’s efforts to reduce cash transactions, has brought the majority of the population into the digital payment ecosystem. As a result, about 80% of Indians own a bank account today, a significant change from only five years ago.
During our visit, the world was surprised to learn about one of the largest airplane deals in recent history with Air India (the erstwhile national carrier, now owned by the Tata Group, among India’s largest conglomerates) ordering over 400 planes from Airbus and Boeing. Our visit also coincided with several global investor summits and G20 meetings and we constantly heard of the large-scale investments across diverse sectors such as manufacturing and renewable energy. India’s recovery and robust position is clearly no secret, and a term we heard everywhere was ‘China plus 1’. Although we don’t invest directly in airlines, infrastructure or asset-heavy manufacturing companies, we have found small businesses that fit our quality criteria and are poised to benefit from these sectoral tailwinds. As part of our research, we met over 20 companies during our trip in addition to economists, local fund managers, entrepreneurs and private investors.
The most satisfying finding from our trip was that our holdings are doing even better than we had expected. APL Apollo Tubes, one of our key holdings for over three years, had just reported its highest ever quarterly volume of 600k tons of steel tubes. The passion and the vision of the founder MD, his attention to detail and strong intent to professionalise the organisation with the right talent, continues to impress us. We are firm believers in investing in companies with good culture and this meeting with the MD reaffirmed APL’s focus on their culture—employees are considered family. During the visit to the warehouse of a distributor to APL for 10+ years we clearly saw the brand appeal and scale of distribution of APL Apollo superseding that of their peers. At a visit to one of their plants, we witnessed the highly efficient manufacturing process with >90% of energy needs met through renewable energy.
A key holding—and one of the top performers for us since inception—is Persistent Systems, a global digital engineering company that differentiates itself from the other IT companies in India by catering to a niche customer segment. Despite the macro headwinds, Persistent continues to be among the fastest growing companies and has kept up its trajectory of new deal wins. All our interactions with competitors and other investors highlighted the quality of management, the recent success in reorganisation and its ability to continue to grow in a difficult market. We remain firm believers in their long-term success and have successfully engaged with the company on various initiatives over the years.
We continue to find similar promoter-run businesses in India led by professional management teams and with a clear succession plan in place. One such new addition to our portfolio is CE Infosystems (MapMyIndia), a small yet exciting business that is a domestic leader in providing geospatial technology and automotive navigation solutions in India (please also see Company Spotlight above). Our interactions with the founding family—including the CEO and the heads of different businesses who have been with the company for over 10 years—highlighted the importance of culture in the organisation. Promoters have gradually transferred ownership in the form of ESOPs to key employees, even before ESOPs became common among tech companies in India. Coincidentally, CE Infosystems was celebrating its 25th anniversary on the day of our visit and were preparing for an organisation-wide cricket tournament. After our visit to their experience centre and the interactions with the team, we walked away with the feeling that they can innovate continually and combat disruption, while maintaining their sticky customer base.
India will remain an exciting country for us, and we will watch closely as the country is headed into elections in May 2024 during which the incumbent government needs to successfully navigate current economic headwinds for a third victory. During our trip we identified new potential investments in niche segments within financials, manufacturing and technology sectors which would benefit from the longer-term opportunities the country offers across consumer and corporate spending.