India’s steelmakers are the covid-ravaged economy’s rare bright spot

STEELMAKERS HAVE for decades embodied India’s failed plans for prosperity. Post-independence socialism produced many mills but little steel. A partial privatisation in the 1990s created capacity, but also large firms fed by feckless state-backed lending. Many were subsequently exposed as bankrupt. Even well-run private producers stumbled, as Tata Steel did with its disastrous acquisition in 2007 of Corus, a troubled European rival. Demand subsequently declined at home and aggressive Chinese rivals expanded abroad. Then came covid-19. In March 2020 India imposed the strictest lockdown of any large economy. For an industry reliant on mills not designed to sit idle, and on the physical shipment of bulky slabs and coils, this spelled disaster. JSW, a rare success, filled its blast furnaces with coking coal to preserve heat, but not with ore; 14,000 workers completing an expansion of its mill in Maharashtra state dispersed to their villages. “There was no market,” recalls Sajjan Jindal, JSW’s chairman. The market has since come back with a vengeance. In the past year steel prices have nearly doubled in India, doubled in Europe and China, and more than trebled in America. Surveys by Edelweiss, a Mumbai-based broker, show them heading up. Even Tata’s European business is now profitable. With efficient plants running at near-…
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