India Inc’s soaring fortunes contrast with Covid trauma
At the end of April, as Indian hospitals were swamped with sick patients and severe oxygen shortages, the country’s richest man’s flagship spent Â£ 57million on a historic English golf club famous in the James Bond films.
The delicate moment of the acquisition of Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire, one of several overseas deals in recent years by Reliance Industries of Mukesh Ambani, is a striking symbol of India Inc’s meteoric fortunes at a time when the country was facing its biggest crisis in decades.
A brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections in recent months has caused untold human suffering and cost the economy dearly. However, the upward march of the country’s largest companies continued despite the upheavals.
This divergence in the fortunes of large and small businesses, financial markets and economies is a global trend. The recent bullish mood among Indian corporate titans, brokers and investors, however, has appeared particularly incongruous given the collective trauma of recent months.
Listed companies posted record profits in the quarter ended in March, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. The National Stock Exchange’s Nifty 50 Index, which tracks the top 50 companies, hit record highs this month as Indian billionaires such as industrialist Gautam Adani have climbed the global wealth rankings.
Meanwhile, India has faced a horrific Covid crisis. The latest wave has not been as hard on the Indian economy as it was last year, when a nationwide lockdown put a halt to many activities. But at its peak in May, the country reported more than 400,000 infections and 4,000 deaths per day, both numbers being seen as vastly underestimates.
Corporate India has mobilized considerable resources to consolidate failing health systems. Ambani’s Reliance, for example, built makeshift treatment centers and donated large amounts of medical oxygen.
But the scars are worrying, as India’s recovery recedes from a historic recession last year. As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express this month, the country is for the first time in a generation “considering the prospect of slower growth, increasing poverty and declining middle class â.
Many of India’s biggest companies, however, are in ideal areas. Foreign investors invest money in Indian stocks.
“Yes [stock markets] reflected the reality of the Median Indian. . . they would be much more moderate, âsaid Devesh Kapur of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Nonetheless, “it says a lot about people’s confidence in the future.”
Indian banks have been shielded from an increase in bad debts by government emergency aid measures. IT service groups like Infosys are in demand as multinational customers turn to cloud-based remote working. Industrial groups, including steelmaker JSW, are benefiting from the global surge in commodity prices.
They are also the beneficiaries of deeper trends in the home. Investors have rewarded those behind critical infrastructure such as telecommunications ports or cables, including Reliance and the Adani Group, with unparalleled wealth in a way reminiscent of America’s golden age .
The consolidation of what had been India’s fragmented economy, a pre-pandemic process, has only accelerated as large companies have proven to be in a better position to move online and stand out from the crowd. their smaller competitors. Many have also ruthlessly controlled costs, including laying off workers.
âIndustry consolidation is expected to continue, with dominant companies in each sub-sector gaining market share,â said Farida Khambata, co-founder of emerging market investor Cartica Management. âGiven the advantages of scale and pricing power, these companies are expected to experience significant profit growth. “
According to investment firm Marcellus, India’s top 20 profit generators now account for 90 percent of corporate profits, down from 14 percent thirty years ago.
Infections are now receding rapidly and investors can hope India’s so far slow vaccination campaign will make enough progress to limit destruction from future waves, allowing the country to return to growth this year.
Yet the way the onslaught of cases has widened the chasm in people’s fortunes has ominous implications for India’s already glaring inequality. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the sustainability of India Inc’s growth trajectory if it leaves so much in the country.