The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Aswath Damodaran studies the levers that drive Paytm's value.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A restaurant advertises the use of the Paytm, in Mumbai, on July 17, 2021. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)</p></div>
A restaurant advertises the use of the Paytm, in Mumbai, on July 17, 2021. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

This column was originally published on Oct. 6. One97 Communications Ltd., Paytm’s parent company, opened its initial public offering on Nov. 8, 2021.

A few weeks ago, I valued Zomato, the Indian online food delivery company, just prior to its IPO, and argued that the excitement about its potential was tied to the potential for growth in India and the shifting habits of Indian consumers.

Since its public offering, Zomato's stock price has reflected that excitement, more than doubling from its offering price of 74 a share. Waiting in the wings for its public debut, is Paytm, a company that in many ways is even more closely tied to India's macro story, drawing on the growth of online commerce in India and a willingness of Indian consumers to use mobile payment mechanisms.

In this post, I will look at the levers that drive Paytm's value, and you can make your judgments on where you think this offering will lead in terms of valuation and pricing.

Setting The Table

As the Paytm IPO speeds to offering date, it is worth looking back at its relatively short history as a company, and how much change has been packed into that period. Since so much of Paytm’s success has been driven by the rise of smartphone usage among Indian consumers, and the concurrent rise in mobile payments for goods and services, I will start with a review of that rise, before looking at how Paytm has put itself in position to take advantage of that market shift.

The Rise of the Indian Smartphone User

India was late to join the smartphone party, held back both by the relative expensiveness of these devices, as well as the absence of affordable and reliable cell service in much of the country. In 2010, fewer than 2% of Indians had smartphones, with most of them being well off and living in urban areas. In the decade since, that has changed, as the smartphone market has exploded to reach hundreds of millions of Indians in 2020.

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Entering 2021, more than 500 million Indians had smartphones, making it the second largest smartphone market in the world (after China), but its penetration rate of less than 50% of the market gave it more room to grow. There are multiple forces that have contributed to this shift, but two stand out.

  • The first is that the costs of smartphones have decreased, and especially so in India, as technology and competition have worked their magic. In particular, the entry of Chinese brands, with Xiaomi and Vivo leading the charge, played a major role in making smartphones more affordable to Indians.

  • The second is that cell service costs have also dropped, and in India, the drop in costs has been precipitous, after Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. entered the game in 2016, and quickly acquired 100 million subscribers by offering free voice and data calls over its 4G network. Today, Jio has more than 400 million subscribers, and while it remains a lightning rod for criticism, it is undeniable that it has played a major role in the evolution of the market.

As smartphones have become ubiquitous in India, their usage has soared, partly because they are the only digital devices that many Indians have available to them to get online, and thus use to access social media, entertainment and shopping. By 2020, Indians ranked third in the world in how much time they were spending per day on their phones, with Covid-19 contributing to a surge in that year.

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Access to these smartphones, in conjunction with poor banking outreach in India, has created the perfect storm for a surge in mobile payments in India, and this graph bears out this trend:

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Within the mobile payment space, there was also an external development that added to its acceleration, and that was the advent, in 2016, of United Payments Interface, a real-time payment interface devised by the National Payments Corp. of India, and regulated by the Reserve Bank of India, facilitating and speeding up inter-bank, person-to-person and person-to-merchant transactions.

Paytm: Operating History

The rise of Paytm (Pay through Mobile) as a company parallels the rise of mobile phones in India.

When it was founded in 2010 by by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, it operated as a pre-paid mobile platform, but its market then was small both in terms of numbers and services offered. As mobile access improved, Paytm has relentlessly added to its suite of products.

In 2014, it introduced Paytm Wallet, a digital wallet that was accepted as a payment option by leading service providers and retailers.

In 2016, it added ticket booking to movies, events and amusement parks, with flight bookings soon after, and started Paytm Mall, a consumer shopping app, based upon Alibaba's Taobao Mall model.

In 2017 it added Paytm Gold, allowing users to buy gold in quantities as little as Re 1, and Paytm Payments Bank, a messaging platform with in-chat payments.

In 2018, it added a Paytm Money, for investment and wealth management, and in 2019, it launched a Paytm for Business app for merchants to track payments.

In short, over time, it has used its platform of users to launch itself into almost every online activity. As Paytm's product suite has expanded, its numbers reflect both its strengths and weaknesses, with four key statistics tracking its expansion.

  • The first is the number of users on its platform, using one or more of its many services.

  • The transactions that these users make on the platform plays out in the gross merchandise value of all the products and services bought.

  • The third is the take rate, i.e., the percentage of this gross merchandise value that Paytm records as its revenues.

  • The last is the operating margin, its operating income (or loss) as a percent of operating income each year.

The table below is my attempt to recreate how Paytm has performed on these key measures in recent years, with the caveat that some of the information (on users and GMV, especially prior to 2019) is cobbled together from claims by corporate executives, press reports and opaque disclosures from the firm.

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Looking at the numbers, we start to get a picture of Paytm, warts and all, over its lifetime.

First, it is a growth company, if you define growth as growth in user count and number of transactions done on its platform, and perhaps in gross merchandise value. However, its growth in revenues has not kept track with those larger statistics, leading to a cynical conclusion that the company is adding new services and giving them away for nothing (or close to it) to pad its user/transaction numbers.

Second, this is a company that seems to run on hyperbolic forecasts from its founders and top management, that are not just consistently higher than what the company deliver, but often by a factor of three or four. For instance, just to pick on one of many examples, Vijay Sharma claimed in an interview in 2019 with Business Standard that the company's GMV would be $100 billion (Rs 7.5 lakh crore) by the end of the year, more than double what the company reported as GMV for that year or the next.

Third, access to capital from its deep pocketed investors, especially Alibaba, seems to have made this company casual about its business model and profitability, even by young, tech company standards. In fact, there is almost never even a mention of profitability (or aspirations towards profitability) in any of the corporate soundbites that I was able to read.

The picture that emerges of Paytm is that of a management that is too focused on racking up user numbers, and too distracted to care about converting those into revenues and profits, while making grandiose statements about its future. Using the corporate life cycle framework to assess Paytm, it resembles an adolescent with attention deficit issues, in its scattershot approach to growth and absence of attention to business details, and if you are an investor, you have to hope that going public will cause it to grow up quickly.

Paytm: Funding and Ownership

Paytm's ambitious growth plans have made it one of India's premier cash burning machines, and it has been able to pull these plans off, because it has found ample sources of capital to feed them. In the table below, I list Paytm's big capital infusions over its lifetime:

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Along the way, there have been others who have provided capital to the firm (Reliance, Ratan Tata) who have exited as foreign investors, led by Alibaba and SoftBank, have muscled their way into the firm. Those capital infusions have naturally led to a diminution of the share of the company held by its founder, and the pie chart below lists the owners of Paytm, ahead of its IPO:

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

Note that while the company's origins and business are in India, it is primarily a Chinese-owned company ahead of its IPO, with Ant Group, Alibaba and SAIF Partners (a Hong-Kong based private equity firm) collectively owning more than 50% of the shares, with the SoftBank Vision fund as the next largest investor with 18%. Sharma's holdings in the company have dwindled to 15% of the company, and his tenure as CEO depends on whether he can keep his foreign shareholder base happy.

Paytm: Story And Valuation

With that lead in, the pieces are in place to value Paytm and I will start by laying out the value drivers for the company and follow with my valuation. In making this assessment, I will draw on the company's stated plans to raise money from the offering, though they may be altered as the company gets to its offering date

The Story

The company's history provides some insight into the Paytm's value drivers, starting with a large and growing mobile payment market in India, and working down to the company's operating metrics.

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

The value story for Paytm starts with a large and growing digital payment market in India, one that has surged over the last four years, and is expected to increase five-fold over the next five years, as smartphone penetration rate rises for India and more merchants accept mobile payments. While Paytm has the advantage of having been in the Indian mobile payment market the longest, and having the largest user base, PhonePe and Google Pay have outmaneuvered Paytm in the UPI app ecosystem, claiming the lion's share of that market, though the bulk of the transaction in that ecosystem are person-to-person. Paytm's large user base, close to 350 million, and the wide acceptance of its wallets allow it to dominate the person-to-merchant (P2M) market in India, giving it a market share of close to 50% in early 2021.

The Indian Smartphone Revolution: Paytm’s Coming of Age IPO

The growth in the Indian mobile payment market will provide enough of a tailwind for Paytm to continue to grow its user base and transactions, but the bigger challenges for Paytm will be on the business dimensions where it has lagged in the past.

  • The first is in the take rate, where Paytm has seen its revenue share of GMV drop from 2.18% in 2016-17 to 0.79% in 2020-21, as the company has prioritized acquiring users and user transactions over actually generating revenues from these transactions. To get a measure of a reasonable take rate that the company can aspire to reach in the long term, I looked at larger, more established players in the payment processing space:

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>From company 10Ks. Removed net interest income from Amex revenues and subscription/bitcoin/hardware revenues from Square revenues</em></p></div>