Analysis | Why India’s Billionaires Banded Together for Adani

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The world’s biggest democracy now has a brotherhood of billionaires. One of them gets into trouble, the others rally to save him. 

That’s one explanation for how Indian tycoon Gautam Adani’s $2.5 billion share sale scraped through. No doubt the heavy lifting was done by a $400 million check from Abu Dhabi. But that was along expected lines — the Middle East royals have backed Adani in the past, too. The bigger surprise is how the other uber-rich came to the last-minute defense of their compatriot in the crosshairs of an American short seller. 

Thanks to these ultra-high-net-worth individuals, people who’re neither financial institutions nor small investors bid for 3.3 times the stock reserved for them as a class. Contrast it with the portion kept for retail: It saw only a 12% take-up rate. Even the Adani Group employees subscribed to just 55% of the shares earmarked for them. Mutual funds sat out the sale.

A Delhi-based industrialist, three Gujarati pharmaceuticals billionaires and a steel magnate from Mumbai are among the share sale’s white knights, according to the Economic Times. (Individual subscriptions aren’t required to be disclosed. A spokesperson for Sajjan Jindal, the steel mogul who’s named in the Economic Times article, said he wouldn’t comment on the matter. Others didn’t reply to emails. Bloomberg News reported participation by Jindal and Sunil Mittal, who controls India’s No. 2 wireless carrier, by citing people familiar with the matter.)

What makes the corporate czars’ support extraordinary is that it came through after a three-day, $68 billion rout in Adani shares. The New York-based Hindenburg Research accused the infrastructure giant last week of alleged stock manipulation and accounting fraud. The group has denied this as baseless and an attack against India itself. 

That nationalistic spin bore fruit to the extent that the issue went through even though investors could have bought the stock cheaper in the secondary market. However, any relief may be temporary. Hindenburg’s allegations are still out there, as are the short seller’s bearish bets of undisclosed size in foreign markets. The Adani Group has already had to top up collateral for a $1 billion loan made by a group of banks including Barclays Plc, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday. It remains to be seen whether the jitters die down, or the locus of nervousness around the highly leveraged empire shifts from equity to debt.

For now, though, the real message has come from the rescue team. We don’t know its motives. Adani’s proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no secret, even though the businessman says he hasn’t sought or received any favors. Wealthy people anywhere want to be on the right side of their government. Besides, a prolonged Adani-Hindenburg battle can hurt all of India Inc’s valuations, at least in the short run. What’s more problematic is if these men — the names I have seen suggest it’s a men’s-only club — genuinely believe that the best defense of their own long-term interests is to side with anyone from their tribe who comes under attack from a foreigner with 106 pages of allegations and 88 questions.

Then it’s a descent into what Arvind Subramanian, a former economic adviser to the Modi government, has described as India’s “stigmatized capitalism,” or the view that its private sector can’t be trusted. The Adani-Hindenburg saga has already dented investor confidence. As the soon-to-be most-populous nation looks to make the best use of its 1.4 billion consumers and its young and hungry workforce, it needs to reassure the world of both its abilities and its intentions, something it did very successfully in the 1990s.

With some exceptions, wealthy business families were missing from the vanguard of the country’s post-socialist reforms. Talented middle-class youngsters came out of nowhere and went on to script large successes in everything from computer software to telecom. Multinationals like General Electric Co. and Citigroup Inc. made heavy use of the nation’s technically educated, English-speaking talent even when the local consumer was too poor to give them business. This professional class spawned a fresh crop of entrepreneurs. The new-age Indian business courted global investors by promising disclosures and transparency superior to what they could get in most other developing countries. The quality of domestic stock markets improved tremendously. India Inc. earned trust — at home and abroad.

Continued capitalistic success requires much more of that same openness, competition, and continuous regulatory and institutional improvement. Otherwise a small group of bigwigs will, in the garb of nationalism, chase out innovative foreign firms and swallow or shut down domestic startups that threaten them. That’s why this apparent billionaire bromance is to be frowned upon. The impromptu national team may have came together as much for themselves as for Adani or New Delhi. And that’s what should worry India. 

More from Bloomberg Opinion: 

• Adani Saga Puts Investor Trust in India in Doubt: Andy Mukherjee

• Adani Short Seller Hindenburg Opened a Pandora’s Box: Shuli Ren

• Modi Will Shrug Off Gandhi’s Populist Challenge: Andy Mukherjee

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

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia. Previously, he worked for Reuters, the Straits Times and Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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