Gautam Adani's rise to the No. 2 spot in global wealth rankings, crafted chiefly from shares traded in the local market, deserves to be in the spotlight - as much as a poster child of Narendra Modi's "Make in India" self-reliance as an opportunity for some much-needed transparency about the tycoon's investors.
In Prime Minister Modi's eight years in power, the first-generation entrepreneur from his home state of Gujarat came out of relative obscurity and eclipsed Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. No other Asian businessman has ever risen this high - not when Japan Inc. was buying up everything in the 1980s, nor when China's meteoric rise held the world spellbound 20 years later.
The four Japanese who took the top positions in the inaugural 1987 Forbes list of international billionaires - the rich Americans were counted separately back then - had a combined wealth of about $50 billion, or $130 billion in today's money. Adani is worth nearly $145 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Surely that's a good reason for the market to know the major shareholders behind such a large fortune?
To that end, a felicitation ceremony by the Securities and Exchange Board of India, the market regulator, for the offshore funds that have backed the billionaire would be an apt tribute. It would also be a great motivator for the lay investing public. They would get to meet the savvy investors who helped make Adani's commodities, energy and transportation empire the $255 billion stock-market juggernaut it is today, even when the combined annual net income of its seven publicly traded firms is less than $2 billion.
Everyone ought to hear from the managers of the Elara India Opportunities Fund, which has amassed $4.2 billion - practically all of its assets under management - from three stocks: Adani Transmission Ltd., Adani Enterprises Ltd., and Adani Total Gas Ltd. APMS Investment Fund Ltd., whose $3.6 billion portfolio also includes Adani Power Ltd., has done it with four.
There are three more of these Mauritius-based entities among major shareholders: Cresta Fund Ltd., LTS Investment Fund and Vespera Fund Ltd. A sixth, Albula Investment Fund Ltd., has exited Adani firms, with its portfolio shrinking to about $240 million from $1.6 billion in December, according to Bloomberg data. Between them, these publicity-shy investors own a combined $12 billion of Adani stock.
One can understand these funds' reluctance to be in the public glare: Before they lucked out with Adani, four of them - Elara, Cresta, Albula and APMS - held significant stakes in two companies whose founders fled India and have since been probed for money laundering; another went bankrupt; and a fourth was liquidated after sparring with the Ethiopian government, Bloomberg News reported in July last year.
The Indian market wobbled last summer on a media report that three out of the six offshore funds had seen their accounts frozen by the country's national share depository. Adani called the report "blatantly erroneous," the depository issued a clarification, and in a reply to a lawmaker's question in parliament, India's Junior Finance Minister Pankaj Chaudhary said neither the funds nor Adani firms were being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate, the agency that probes serious financial crimes such as money laundering and round-tripping.
As Jugeshinder Singh, the group's chief financial officer, explained back then, Adani firms are new entrants to public markets. They ended up with a similar bunch of shareholders when they were spun off from Adani Enterprises, the flagship. As to who they are and the source of their funds, those questions should be asked of the offshore managers themselves, he said.
Trouble is, Bloomberg News couldn't find contact details for Markus Beat Dangel, Anna Luzia Von Senger Burger, and Alastair Guggenbuchi-Even and Yonca Even Guggenbuehl, the names Chaudhary gave in parliament as persons responsible for Cresta, Albula and APMS, respectively.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists' "Offshore Leaks Database" lists Beat Dangel as a judicial representative and director at Malta-based Lascaris Capital Fund and Prime Pan-Asia Investment Fund. The ICIJ website has a Swiss address for Beat Dangel.
Guggenbuchi-Even is the chief executive and partner at Zurich-based Monterosa Group, according to his LinkedIn profile. When Indian opposition lawmaker Mahua Moitra asked in parliament if people at Monterosa are under investigation by Indian agencies, the minister said no. As part of its job of ensuring the integrity of Indian stock markets, the regulator must have full knowledge of these fund bosses. So it should go ahead and invite them over. Raj Bhatt, the London-based chairman and CEO at Elara Capital, should be easy to get: He hosted an investment event in Mumbai recently, attended virtually by Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
These smart investors must have known early what analysts are starting to recognize now: Adani's is not just any conglomerate. The coal he mines, moves through his ports, and burns at his power stations provides electricity to Indians. Adani supplies families with piped gas when they're sitting down to dinner, in which the cooking oil is also his, and the wheat probably stored at his warehouses.
The new structures that will adorn the landscape of an underbuilt India over the next couple of decades will take construction materials from Adani, who just acquired 70 million tons of cement capacity and now wants to double it in five years. The businessman will collect toll on roads in the states of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, and host Indians' data when they're browsing the internet, waiting for a flight to take off from one of his airports. He'll also help book the airplane tickets. And before you complain about the impact of coal, cement, palm oil and data centers on the environment, Adani says he'll invest $70 billion into "cooling the planet down" with green hydrogen, wind turbines and solar panels.
Throw in forays into media and money-lending to small businesses, and Adani may soon command a bigger share of an average Indian's life than Amazon will ever garner from a typical American's wallet. The investors who backed this grand vision should realize that their reticence is robbing retail shareholders of solid wealth-creation advice, and leaving them at the mercy of pundits who peddle the virtues of diversification.
The lack of publicity for the equity success story - shares of Adani Green Energy Ltd. have jumped 4,500 per cent over the past three years - is also bringing too much attention to debt. The group's bonds are doing nowhere as well as stocks. Fitch Ratings' unit CreditSights wasn't exactly revealing a secret when it wrote last month that "Adani enjoys a strong relationship with the ruling Modi administration" and that "policy tailwinds" are supporting the development of infrastructure assets. While Adani, 60, has said he doesn't receive or expect special treatment from the government, that alignment has definitely served him well.
However, it was CreditSights' characterization of the conglomerate as "deeply overleveraged" that the Adani Group contested strenuously, asserting that gross debt wasn't the 2.3 trillion rupees ($29 billion) estimated by the research firm's analysts, but less than 1.9 trillion rupees.
Subtract the cash in hand and include the full profit-generation potential of projects that haven't yet run for a whole year, and net debt is a little over three times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, down from 7.6 times in 2013, the year before Narendra Modi came to power. Besides, to CreditSights' point that it sees "little evidence of promoter equity capital injections into the group companies," Adani said in its 15-page rebuttal that it has raised $16 billion in the last three years from marquee investors, including France's TotalEnergies SE, Abu Dhabi-based International Holding Co., Qatar Investment Authority and Warburg Pincus LLC.
All that's fine, but what about the non-marquee investors? Once again, the contribution of the Mauritius-based funds to the empire got ignored. This won't do. The silent soldiers behind the world's second-biggest personal fortune are overdue their recognition. They also deserve some scrutiny.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)