Who is Gautam Adani? India’s richest man is bleeding money after getting in a war of words with a major short-seller

January 31, 2023, 6:41 PM UTC
Gautam Adani speaking at a conference
Gautam Adani's long history may be catching up to him.
Edwin Koo—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Gautam Adani had his moment in the spotlight last year when he briefly became the world’s second-richest person. But after the Indian billionaire’s fortunes plummeted spectacularly over the past week, he may now be up against the biggest business and reputational challenge of his career.

For a time last year, Adani’s $120 billion net worth put him in the company of Elon Musk and Bernard Arnault as one of the world’s wealthiest people, and the outright richest person in Asia. He built his wealth on the back of his sprawling Adani Group, a conglomerate that manages ports, airports, power plants, coal mines, food companies, and more.

On paper, Adani is still wealthier than most. But the billionaire’s net worth has fallen by nearly $40 billion to $84 billion in the past week, and he risks being overtaken as Asia’s richest person by his domestic rival, the industrialist Mukesh Ambani. Adani’s fall began last week when his company was targeted by Hindenburg Research, an American financial research firm that advises investors to short-sell, or bet against particular companies after publicly exposing alleged corporate malpractice that often sends the stock of its targets into a spiral.

Hindenburg has accused Adani of pulling off the “largest con in corporate history,” and as expected, the company’s stock has taken a hit, shedding more than $70 billion in value in a matter of days.

Adani has rejected the claims and accused Hindenburg of initiating a “calculated attack on India.” The businessman promised legal action against the research firm, but Hindenburg’s history of unseating and even wiping companies off the map does not bode well for the Indian tycoon, who may have to confront a list of fraud claims against his company that long preceded the new report.

Asia’s richest man (for now)

Adani holds a crucial role in Indian business and society, and was referred to as his country’s “Rockefeller” to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in terms of the political influence he wields by Tim Buckley, an Australian energy analyst who tracks India, to the Financial Times in 2020. But his position as Asia’s wealthiest individual and his company’s high standing in India’s growing business world means the repercussions of Hindenburg’s research could ripple far beyond Adani himself.

Adani, 60, founded his company in the late 1980s as a commodity trading operation specializing in polymers, but it wasn’t long before he moved into the sector that really put him on India’s business map: infrastructure. He began building a port in Mundra in northwestern India in the 1990s that has since grown into the country’s largest commercial port

Adani has since expanded to own and operate 13 ports across India, representing 24% of the country’s port capacity. He has added solar and wind energy farms and six Indian airports to his portfolio, but his ports—all of which operate in special economic zones—are among his company’s largest revenue sources, bringing in record sales of more than $2 billion during its last financial year that ended in March 2022. 

But Adani’s biggest money-making ventures over the past few decades have been his investment in coal around the world. As of last December, more than 60% of the Adani Group’s revenue was from its coal business, according to the Washington Post, including 18 coal mines, four coal-fired power plants, and importing a quarter of India’s coal capacity.

The Adani Group has grown in tandem with India’s economic rise, as the country is now the world’s fifth-largest economy and may already be its most populated. Adani has been outspokenly optimistic about India’s future and economic growth trajectories, announcing last month that the 21st century “belongs to India,” while predicting that the country will add $1 trillion to its GDP every 12 to 18 months within the next decade.

Falling fortunes

But if the coming decades do prove to be India’s century, Adani may not be playing as central a role as he had once hoped.

Adani and his company have long been plagued by accusations of financial irregularities, numerous run-ins with local communities and conservationist groups, as well as accusations of cronyism given his close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

In 2018, India’s customs department accused Adani of siphoning off $600 million of his company’s taxable revenues and placing it with family accounts in overseas tax havens. Adani has also come under fire from local groups in Australia and India as a result of his coal mining projects there.

Soaring profits in the past year has pushed Adani to expand his conglomerate faster than ever, and he is planning to spin off five new companies to go public as soon as 2026, Bloomberg reported earlier this month. India’s stock market was among the world’s fastest-rising last year, largely due to the surging share value of Adani’s companies over the past two years. But the meteoric rise of Adani’s portfolio has come under the spotlight; regulators voiced concerns of stock manipulation in 2021, while the company’s rapid expansion has sparked fears that it is falling into a debt trap. 

Last year, debt research firm CreditSights, a subsidiary of Fitch Ratings, raised concerns over the high debt levels in several Adani Group branches. The firm said it “remained concerned over the Adani Group’s leverage,” although it walked back an earlier red flag about the company becoming “deeply overleveraged.” Adani Group officials have dismissed any criticism of the company’s debt levels.

Many of the old accusations of financial fraud and market manipulation resurfaced in the Hindenburg report. The U.S. firm specifically accused Adani of conducting a “brazen stock manipulation and accounting-fraud scheme” over the years and overstating his companies’ valuations to “maintain the appearance of financial health and solvency” despite debt rising to unsustainable levels.

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