Can India's LIC IPO narrow the country's budget deficit?

The scaled-down IPO of Life Insurance Company is expected to raise about $2.7bn

An advertisement for Life Insurance Corporation at a bus shelter in Mumbai. The initial public offering of the country's biggest life insurer is expected to raise up to $2.7 billion. AFP

India's biggest initial public offering is set to open this week, as the government pushes ahead with selling a stake in Life Insurance Corporation of India, despite market conditions being dampened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The IPO, which is expected to raise up to $2.7 billion — less than half the amount that was earlier anticipated from the listing — will generate much-needed funds for the government to narrow its budget deficit.

“It's an important event for capital markets as well as for the government of India,” says Mitul Shah, head of research at Reliance Securities. “The government wants LIC to be a long-term value creator in the equity market and it would support the government to get a sizeable amount from its disinvestment plan.”

In March, the government initially planned to offer a 5 per cent stake in the company but delayed the process and last month scaled down the stake sale to 3.5 per cent due to weaker market conditions. It will sell 221.4 million shares at between 902 Indian rupees ($11.78) and 949 rupees each.

Analysts have described the LIC stake sale as India's Saudi Aramco moment. In 2019, Aramco listed its shares on the Tadawul and raised $29.4bn — at the time the world's largest IPO.

The LIC listing will open to anchor investors on Monday and be offered to other investors from May 4 to May 9. Ten per cent of the shares have been set aside for LIC policyholders, who will be given a 60-rupee discount on the offer price.

The IPO is expected to be India's largest, set to overtake the 183bn rupee listing of digital payments company PayTM, which made its stock market debut on the Bombay Stock Exchange and National Stock Exchange in November.

Despite being one of the country's most eagerly anticipated IPOs, shares in PayTM are down more than 70 per cent on their listing price amid investor concerns about the company's path to profitability and overvaluation.

However, investor interest in the IPO of India's largest life insurance company is robust, analysts say.

“Demand for the LIC IPO seems reasonable, with most investors citing it as an opportunity," says Mr Shah.

“Moreover, additional discounts to policyholder and retail investors makes it lucrative for them.”

Established in 1956, LIC has 280 million policies and is the world's fifth-largest insurance company.

“It's synonymous with insurance in India and the public has a great deal of trust in the institution," says Kanika Agarrwal, co-founder and chief investment officer of Upside AI, an Indian FinTech company.

It is anticipated that the listing will attract many first-time stock market investors as the brand has resonance with “the common man”, said Varun Sridhar, chief executive of investment platform PayTM Money

“It is a milestone event for Indian capital markets and is expected to bring millions of new investors,” he says.

The listing will also bring potential benefits to LIC's operations and performance, says Ms Agarrwal of Upside AI.

“It will mean higher transparency as it will not only have to answer to the government, but also to investors and exchanges,” she says. “This will improve the quality of corporate governance.”

However, the critical motivation behind the IPO is that it would help raise a substantial amount of money for the Indian government, which saw its finances take a hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Agarrwal says.

More recently, higher crude oil prices due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine have taken a toll on the economy as India imports 85 per cent of its oil requirements.

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“Even in the current year, government is struggling to meet its disinvestment targets; getting the LIC IPO done will be a huge step in a positive direction,” says Ms Agarrwal.

In the last financial year, the government sold off loss-making Air India to Tata. The airline had been considered an enormous drain on the country's finances.

New Delhi has set a fiscal deficit target of 6.4 per cent of gross domestic product for the current financial year, which runs until the end of March, and the LIC issue is aimed at helping it meet this target.

“The listing of LIC is part of the long-term strategic vision of the government and will be high-value enhancing for LIC in the long run,” Tuhin Kanta Pandey, secretary of India's Department of Investment and Public Asset Management, said during a press conference last week. “This is right-sized considering the capital market environment. We expect significant retail participation.”

It was a bumper year for IPOs in India in 2021, and a record amount was raised.

However, a number of start-ups that listed last year, including fashion and beauty e-commerce company Nykaa, which was founded by Falguni Nayar, and insurance comparison website PolicyBazaar, have declined in share value.

Given the challenging environment and current investor sentiment in global markets, the government's decision to lower the issue size and valuation is a prudent step, says Ms Agarrwal.

Investor sentiment for Life Insurance Corporation's IPO is expected to be robust, analysts say. Reuters

“If it had continued with its initial plan, the IPO could have been a tough sell but now it seems to be fairly priced.”

Foreign investors have been pulling money out of India in recent months, with rising inflation forcing the US Federal Reserve in March to tighten its monetary policies and increase the benchmark interest rate by 0.25 per cent.

But there are high hopes that the LIC IPO will attract a wave of foreign and domestic investors alike.

“Being a landmark issue for the nation, LIC is expected to be pinned on global portfolio watch lists,” says Shivam Bajaj, founder and chief executive at Mumbai-based Avener Capital.

In a country of almost 1.4 billion people and with an economy that is expected to expand rapidly over the coming years, analysts say that the insurance sector is only set to grow and the LIC IPO is an attractive opportunity.

“India’s insurance penetration is only 3 per cent and, hence, this is clearly a sector with great growth potential,” says Ketan Dalal, managing director of Mumbai-based advisory company Katalyst advisers.

“Its brand dominance and vast network of over one million active agents makes it a truly formidable player in the life insurance segment,” Mr Dalal says.

However, the company is also facing challenges including increased competition from private insurance companies, many of which are effectively using technology to win customers, which has led to LIC losing a share of the market, he says.

“Private players have been aggressive in their pricing and grabbed a big chunk of the pie,” says Anoop Vijaykumar, fund manager and head of research at Capitalmind.

“LIC’s market share had come down. We may continue to see this trend continue in the future as well.”

Nevertheless, the IPO is “attractive” even though “the current market sentiment is weak and the IPO euphoria has subsided” following the slew of listings in India last year, Mr Vijaykumar says.

Mr Dalal agrees. “LIC will face several challenges in terms of product innovation, technology, management stability and many other dimensions," he says.

There have also been some concerns among investors that the government's role in LIC could influence the company's investment decisions, but analysts are optimistic that the listing will ensure accountability.

“In any case, the IPO will lead to significant transparency and accountability of the behemoth that LIC is — and that’s a very good sign of the move towards privatisation and accountability,” says Mr Dalal.

Updated: May 05, 2022, 3:32 AM