Management

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.

What's a nice round figure to take to a job interview? If the position in question is chairman of Tata Group, there might be three of them: $40 billion; 2020; and 250 basis points.

  • $40 billion

That's the value of the Indian conglomerate's outstanding debt, and there are several reasons it needs to be discussed before pay and perks.

How the $40 Billion Stacks Up
Almost 60 percent of Tata Group's borrowings are denominated in foreign currencies*
Source: Bloomberg
*Active bonds and loans, converted into U.S. dollars at current exchange rates.

For one thing, investors will hound the next chief for answers. About 90 percent of the Tata loans and bonds are on the books of publicly listed companies whose shareholders are nervous about the recent sacking of the group's chairman after less than four years at the helm.

Cyrus Mistry has lashed out against his dismissal by warning of a possible $18 billion in asset writedowns. Discount that estimate for wounded pride, but there's no denying that some of the businesses Mistry described as "legacy hot spots" do have lousy credit metrics. Tata Teleservices Maharashtra Ltd.'s debt exceeds 11 years of the wireless carrier's earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization. Ditto for Tata Steel Ltd. The debt-to-Ebitda multiple at Indian Hotels Co., owner of the Taj group, is approaching 8 times.

Losing $1 Billion Daily
The market value of India's Tata Group has fallen since it fired its chairman on Oct. 24
Source: Bloomberg

Then there's the niggling issue of bunched-up repayments, the second topic toward which the aspiring chairman must steer the interview. 

  • 2020

Given that 30 percent of the Tata Group debt originally contracted in U.S. dollars, and more than 60 percent of the British-pound borrowings, will need to be repaid or refinanced in 2020, the next chairman must know from his recruiters what it is that they wish to tell international creditors about strategy before then.

Watch Out for 2020
Tata Group's refinancing requirements will bunch up four years from now*
Source: Bloomberg
*Data for loans and bonds, based on currencies of original contract.

Much of the group's debt burden has its genesis in the optimistic expansion in the second of the two decades under Ratan Tata. To the extent his return (albeit as an interim arrangement) has ignited concerns that Mistry's attempts at deleveraging will get shelved, the new full-time boss will be expected to calm nerves. 

Otherwise, the loans market, which is currently treating even highly leveraged Tata companies with benign neglect, could turn anxious, especially if the ongoing war of words with Mistry casts a lingering shadow on creditor sentiment. 

  • 250 basis points

A good place to start that uncomfortable conversation may be 250 basis points, which is the spread the group paid over Libor to raise five-year money this year for Tata Steel. For a company that's rated BB- by S&P Global Ratings, the global average for similar dollar loans this year has been 262 basis points, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Clearly, the 148-year-old Tata brand commands a decent premium in credit markets despite the dead weight of its European steel operations.

That privilege could vanish if the bickering doesn't end. The 78-year-old Ratan Tata may have regained control of the conglomerate that bears his family's name, but Mistry's 18.4 percent stake in the holding company -- and board seats across the group -- give the 48-year-old a bully pulpit from which he can demand fire sales, especially of assets his older foe is fond of.

A confrontation could get messy for the next chairman. Taking three crucial numbers into the interview won't guarantee success in what might prove to be India Inc.'s most demanding open job, but making an appearance without them could be a surefire way to end up as collateral damage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andy Mukherjee in Singapore at amukherjee@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net