The curious case of Russian oil deals that benefited Essar, hurt ONGC

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Delhi in December 2014, his camaraderie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely noted. What received less attention were the curiously asymmetric deals that an oil company controlled by the Russian government went on to sign with Indian companies over the next two years.

First, between September 2015 and October 2016, Kremlin-controlled Rosneft sold 49.9% in its Vankor oilfield in the northern parts of eastern Siberia to Indian public sector oil companies. According to oil and gas experts in Russia and India, the Indian companies significantly overpaid Rosneft.

Towards the end of these transactions, in October 2016, Rosneft announced its purchase of a refinery and port owned by the Essar Group in Gujarat. The price surprised observers in both Russia and India – it was much higher than initial valuations.

Reuters reported it was the biggest-ever foreign acquisition in India and Russia’s largest outbound deal. It rescued debt-ridden Essar Oil from bankruptcy. It also gave Rosneft access to the large Indian market at a time it faced sanctions slapped by the United States in 2014 as retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

But what about India’s government-owned oil companies?

Did they gain at all?

India’s curious inflexibility in trying to fix its bad loan crisis is leading to unforeseen problems

India’s crackdown on companies that have defaulted on loan repayments is reshaping the country’s economy in fundamental ways. As the first three articles in this series detailed, competitive advantage is being tilted towards larger firms because only a handful of buyers is picking up most of the insolvent firms on sale. Between the resulting consolidation and the fact that most of these firms are changing hands at low rates, existing companies will struggle to compete. In addition, regional companies are being pushed into businesses beyond their core strengths.

These processes have been in motion since January 2016, when India’s banks, prompted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and the Reserve Bank of India, started taking defaulting firms to the National Company Law Tribunal in an attempt to recover outstanding loans.

These structural transformations have been caused by the curious inflexibility that characterises India’s insolvency proceedings, which place the blame for bankruptcy entirely on the firm’s promoters, experts said. “The government is not making any concessions,” complained the chief financial officer of a steel plant in Chhattisgarh which has slipped into insolvency proceedings. “It is just putting the project up for sale.”

Inflexibility also shows in how these distressed projects are being rehabilitated. This is obvious from the way the proceedings have unfolded for a thermal power plant set up some 10 years ago by a well-regarded business group in North India. The group’s chief financial officer, who is in his mid-50s, said in his 35-year career, he has never seen anything similar to India’s bankruptcy proceedings that his unit is now facing.

We have the fourth — and concluding — part of our series on India’s insolvency proceedings out today. The first part, to recap, had flagged some curious patterns showing up as companies change hands to argue we need to pay more attention to these proceedings.  The second looked at the handful of buyers picking up most of these stranded assets. The third looked at what this means for local capital as global capital (and big capital) comes in.  Today’s piece builds on those observations, using them to point out the self-damaging inflexibility that characterises India’s insolvency proceedings, tries to understand its origins, asks if there was a better way to handle all this, and then ends.

India’s proceedings to recover bad debt are reshaping Chhattisgarh’s economy – and politics too

A baton is changing hands in Chhattisgarh.

Big companies are entering the state’s steel and power sector, using India’s ongoing insolvency proceedings to buy distressed firms. At the same time, Chhattisgarh’s local steel makers, several of whom entered the power sector in the mid-2000s, are looking beyond these two sectors.

Part Three of our series looks at how NCLT will affect the provincial business classes of India — as the buyers detailed in Part Two come in.

As India tackles its bad loans problem, large local groups and global funds are gaining advantage

By March, seven companies had evinced interest in buying Lanco Infratech.

The company began life in 1986 as a construction contractor, but grew into a power and infrastructure behemoth after liberalisation. Much of this growth was funded by bank loans. In June 2017, after missing its loan repayments, the company found itself on the Reserve Bank of India’s first list of defaulting companies that would have to face insolvency proceedings. At the time, Lanco Infratech owed Rs 45,200 crore to banks and another Rs 5,300 crore to its business partners.

The list of companies that queued up to buy the infrastructure firm was intriguing. There were seven large bidders, four of them from outside India. They operated in disparate fields from international finance and energy to mining and real estate.

Lanco Infratech illustrates a broad pattern that is becoming apparent as India’s National Company Law Tribunal tries to recover bad loans from companies. The tribunal is selling these companies in whole or auctioning off their parts. Alongside, some companies are making their own attempts to reduce debt by selling off some of their units. Through this process, a small group of Indian and foreign companies are taking most of the assets on sale.

Out today, the second part of our series on India’s hugely important insolvency series. This one looks at the folks buying up stranded assets in india.


India’s bid to fix bad loan crisis is reshaping its corporate sector – and creating new challenges

After a long break, I finally — and rather sulkily — resumed work in the middle of August. Out today, the first of my trademark long-winded and tremendously depressing series: on how India’s business insolvency cases are coming along. The series — it is a four-parter — essentially argues that India needs to pay far closer attention to how these insolvency cases are faring, that these are taking the country into uncharted waters. For more, click here.