Export contraction in April could surpass March's steep 25-year decline

In March, exports had contracted by 34.5 per cent - the steepest monthly fall in at least 25 years - as overseas demand remained lackluster due to the coronavirus pandemic
Financial year 2020-21 is expected to begin on a somber note for India's exports, which are likely to continue sliding in April after a record fall in March. Lack of labour, liquidity and key raw materials dogged even the few industrial units that had managed to reopen once industry was partially allowed on April 20, exporters complain.

In March, exports had contracted by 34.5 per cent - the steepest monthly fall in at least 25 years - as overseas demand remained lackluster due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the following month, a few export units such as those in the chemical and pharma sectors that were allowed to function had complained of logistics issues and port troubles.

"Given that factories were shut nationwide for 20 days in April, as compared to only five days in March, there's no doubt that April will see a 40-50 per cent decline in exports," said Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO). With even processed petroleum exports also taking a beating since international prices nosedived, outbound trade will crash but a decline of more than 50 per cent will be a cause of worry, Sahai added.

Not running smoothly

In the crucial engineering goods sector, which accounts for one-fourth of India's $314 billion exports in 2019-20, a lack of labour has crippled the bicycle, fasteners and hand tools industries in Punjab while Gujarat based castings units have suffered from lack of raw materials, according to Ravi Sehgal, chairman of Engineering Export Promotion Council.

"As we had feared, major chunks of our foreign market share in key export destinations like the United States and Europe are under pressure from competing nations. On the face of it, Mexico and Brazil are gaining on Indian exports in North America while products from Turkey and Egypt are creating pressure in European markets. But the real threat remains from Chinese suppliers who have now resumed production and are undercutting prices," Sehgal stressed.

The sector had been badly hit by order cancellations but with European nations again opening up, a sudden demand in equipments for water, gas and power distribution is expected which may allow for some recovery of lost ground. The industry has informed the Commerce and Industry Ministry that it wants units to start soon as most of the April-October peak season has already been lost.

Hanging by a thread

With an even shorter business season, apparel and textile exports are witnessing significant turbulence. With major retailers like J Crew, Neimann Marcus and Aldo filing for bankruptcy in the United States, vast shipments ordered by a clutch of related brands for the ongoing Spring-Summer Season 2020 have languished in shut warehouses.

"While the industry has now turned to pushing out more raw materials to Vietnam and Thailand. But on one hand, freighters have kept up charging extremely high costs of shipping. On the other, complete breakdown in movement across the overland crossing to Bangladesh has left more than 1000 tonnes of cargo stranded," said Siddhartha Rajagopal, Executive Director, at Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council. Securing certificate of origin and digital signatures for documents have also become difficult, he added.
Elsewhere, the Commerce Department has continued receiving pleas. The Apparel Export Promotion Council has requested the Department to push the issues of extension of packing credit and forward contract by 6 months without penal interest and waiver of penalty imposed on forward covers by some banks, with the Finance Ministry. Meanwhile, the Confederation of Indian Textiles Industry has suggested all raw materials, dyes and chemicals, intermediaries, spares, and accessories be exempted from anti-dumping duty and basic customs duty to reduce costs.

Bitter pills

Hoping to secure a breather in April, pharmaceutical exports have come up against a string of restrictions on export of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) even as the sector recovered from the lack of bulk drugs, imported from China. While in April, Europe sought about 1,000 tonne of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) for paracetamol -- used commonly to treat body pain and fever -- from India, the shipment of these were held up by slow movement at ports.

The gap in production due to the absence of bulk drugs also shook the sector. "Having seen the the good pace of export trend in first three quarters and price stabilisation in the United States, it was estimated that FY2020 exports would reach $22 billion," said Pharmexcil Director General Uday Bhaskar.

Exporter's bodies have now asked the government to let industrial units reopen fully even in the high-risk red zones, stating that losses are rising rapidly. "We understand it may be difficult to keep business running, since the red zones are where the corporate offices, server systems and distribution points are based," said a senior government official.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel