MUMBAI, India — Ajay Piramal is sitting on a mountain of cash. Yet the billionaire Indian tycoon, working in one of the world's fastest growing economies, is struggling to figure out what to do with the money.
The problem isn't opportunity, he said. It's India.
"Every large investment, there was no transparency," Piramal said.
His dilemma is a worrying sign for India. With the country mired in corruption, bureaucratic red tape and unclear and changing government policies, many of the men who made their billions here are saying maybe it's time to quit India. It's got to be easier to do business elsewhere.
In May last year, Piramal's healthcare business sold its generic drug operations to U.S. pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories for $3.8 billion. Piramal, a tall big man in a country that still measures prosperity by girth, was eager to set that cash pile to work. He wanted to expand one of his chemical plants, but was told it would take five years.
"The same plant could be set up in China in two years," he said. "I love India, but my customer is not going to wait."
India, still a beacon of relatively fast growth despite a troubled world economy, should be a magnet for capital. Instead, since the beginning of 2010, the amount that Indians have invested in businesses overseas has exceeded the amount foreigners are investing in India, according to central bank figures.
In part this reflects the confidence and aptitude of India's maturing companies and the current malaise in the global economy and financial markets. But it also reflects deep problems at home. India's big coporations may be cash rich but the failure to invest that money domestically is bad news for a developing country that needs capital to build the roads, power plants and food warehouses that could help lift hundreds of millions out of dire poverty.
The frustration of India's business elite with corruption, political paralysis, log-jammed approvals, regulatory flip-flops, lack of access to natural resources and land acquisition battles — to pick a few of the top complaints — has reached a pitch perhaps not heard since India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s.
"If you are an honest businessman in India, it's very difficult to start up anything," said Jamshyd Godrej, chairman of manufacturing giant Godrej & Boyce. "Companies are going to operate where they see the best opportunities and efficiency for their capital."
Increasingly, that's outside India.
In 2008, foreigners poured roughly twice as much direct investment into India — $33 billion — as Indians plowed into businesses overseas. By 2010, that had reversed: Indians invested $40 billion abroad — twice as much as foreigners invested in India — a trend that's continued this year.
There is another, unspoken element to all the complaints. To the extent that business in India ran on corruption, some of the old, dirty ways of doing things are being disrupted, freezing India's already glacial bureaucracy, business leaders say.
Scandals in the staging of the Commonwealth Games, the pilfering of homes meant for war widows and the irregular auction of cellphone spectrum that cost the country billions has sent parliamentarians and even a Cabinet minister to prison.
With Indians tiring of the incessant graft, tens of thousands of middle-class protesters poured into the streets and pushed an anti-corruption bill onto the floor of Parliament.
Steelmakers can't get enough iron ore because a massive mining scandal in the southern state of Karnataka prompted a court to order the closure of illicit mines that account for a fifth of iron ore production in the country.
The bureaucrats — even the honest ones — are reportedly so scared of being punished they are refusing to make the decisions needed to make the country run.
Piramal is not unpatriotic. Each room in his executive suite is named after an Indian epic hero: Arjuna, the most pure; Dhananjay, acquirer and master of wealth. There's a quote from the Upanishads scriptures on the wall.
His office sits in a one million square foot office park in Mumbai his family built. The buildings around him — white with blue glass that flashes back the unforgiving sun — bear his own name in large black letters: Piramal Towers.
Piramal had the will and the means to build power plants and roads.
Instead, his Piramal Group's largest investment to date has been in one of the office park's tenants: the Indian subsidiary of the British telecom giant Vodafone Plc.
Last September, when he got the first payout, of $2.2 billion, from Abbott, the phone started ringing.
"Because people knew we had money, we had so many people approaching us for projects in the infrastructure sector," he said. "These people had no experience and no knowledge and no track record of having built a business in any area. And yet they were coming to us saying we have licenses and approvals. That just didn't sound right or smell right."
Each day, they paraded through his office: The investment banker who decided to build a 500 megawatt power plant, the coal trader assured of a government coal allocation, small-time miners with pretty presentations promising land, licenses and financing.
"They'd name politicians from the center and the state who had it all tied up for them," he said. "It didn't sound right. Obviously there were things going on in the system."
Road and port projects weren't much better, he said.
Piramal also looked at investing in engineering and infrastructure services companies, but couldn't make sense of their books.
"We couldn't find anything," he said. "People get greedy. In their desire to get good valuations they resort to, if I can say, creative accounting."
Today, India's infrastructure companies are known as great wealth destroyers.
"Infrastructure investment has become untouchable, a sure way of losing money," said Jagannadham Thunuguntla, head of research at SMC Global Securities. He calculates that four of India's top infrastructure companies — GMR Infrastructure, GVK Power and Infrastructure, Lanco Infratech and Punj Lloyd — have lost over 80 percent of their value since 2007. A fifth, Larson & Toubro is down 50 percent.
Piramal may have dodged a bullet, but shareholders in Piramal Healthcare aren't happy. Despite a $600 million special dividend and share buyback, the share price has sagged since the Abbott deal was announced on May 21 last year. They'd like to see the Abbott cash productively deployed. Instead, much of it is sitting in fixed deposit accounts.
Piramal said he really does want to run a pharmaceutical company and be the first Indian company to discover a world-class drug — despite his dabbling in telecom, financial services and real estate financing. It's just that pharma can't absorb all his cash. He plans to sell the 5.5 percent stake he picked up in Vodafone Essar for $640 million in a few years, when Vodafone Essar issues shares in an initial public offering, he said.
He has also launched Piramal Capital, to make real estate and infrastructure loans, and spent about $50 million to acquire IndiaReit, a real estate investment company.
Meanwhile, his thoughts have turned to Boston, where he set up IndUS Growth Partners with a professor from Harvard Business School to look for buying opportunities in the U.S., in security, financial services and biotechnology. And he said he's still planning to spend over a billion dollars on biotechnology acquisitions in North America and Europe.
"India was going more towards capitalism than socialism," Piramal said. "I think we're going back. Capitalism went to too much excess. Corruption levels went to the extreme."
He said he'll announce his first overseas acquisition by March.