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I see money coming into India left, right and centre: Prem Watsa

The government cannot create jobs, businesses create jobs, says Watsa.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Sep 02, 2019, 09.02 AM IST
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India will be the No. 1 place in the world for FDI: Prem Watsa
Watsa told Mohit Bhalla that he plans to invest another $5 billion in the next five years.
Canadian billionaire Prem Watsa is bullish on India despite the slowdown. His Fairfax Financial Holdings, which has assets of $70 billion, has already deployed $5 billion in India. Watsa told Mohit Bhalla that he plans to invest another $5 billion in the next five years. Edited excerpts:

What do you make of the slowdown that we are facing in India?

Firstly, this country is very lucky to have a business-friendly man like Mr Modi who is so focused on what’s good for the country. Mr Modi has an outstanding 13-year record in Gujarat and a five-year record as Prime Minister. This exceptional experience is highly unusual for a world leader. For example, when he became chief minister of Gujarat, only 4 per cent of the population had tap water. When he left 13 years later, 96 per cent of the population in cities had tap water and more than 80 per cent in rural areas. He will replicate this across India through the Jal Jeevan Mission in the next five years. I think India offers an unusual opportunity. I travel all over the place. You know China and the US have some trade questions. Where do people want to put their money if not India? They want to put money in a large market, democracy, in a place that has rule of law. So, he (Modi) understands the economy slowing down. He is going to come out with things that work out well over time.

What specifically can the government do to provide an impetus to the economy?

The government cannot create jobs. I’ve seen it in North America. Businesses create jobs. Government can only provide the infrastructure. You know in India historically we had a caste system right. What we never had in India was economic freedom. But now with the startup nation, that’s flying. It doesn’t make a difference what your background is. When you look at the 1.2 billion people in India, that’s where it’s going to come from. I see economic growth coming back to 10 per cent. I cannot say when, but I see it happening.

Are we still attractive in the minds of foreign investors?

I think money is going to come here as it should. India’s contribution to world GDP is about 3 per cent whereas it accounts for only 1 per cent of foreign investment money. If you assume that it goes from 1 per cent to just 2 per cent what’s the impact? It’s 3 trillion dollars. So, that’s the potential. I see money coming into India left, right and centre.

What are Fairfax’s plans for India?

I have benefited from India. I got a phenomenal education here studying at the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). My focus is on putting everything back into India. We’ve got $5 billion in India. We employ 350,000 people across companies. In the next five years, I am going to put another $5 billion in India. I think it is the number one country in the world. Few changes in economic policy, few business-friendly policies and the world will be at the doorstep of India.

Any particular sectors where you want to deploy the next $5 billion that you plan to invest here?

We don’t look at sectors. We look at good companies with good people running it. Like Bengaluru airport. We reposed our faith in the management of Hari Marar. Similarly, for Thomas Cook, we’ve got Madhavan Menon who heads it. He is honest and hardworking and a person we can trust. Look at how they have grown since we acquired it. They are now (as Thomas Cook India) in 29 countries and five continents. But the excitement is in the potential also for tourists coming into India. The number of inbound tourists to India today is about 10 million. A small island like Majorca gets 28 million! China gets 60 million inbound tourists… The potential given India’s scale and history is enormous.

Since you have invested in airports, are you also considering other opportunities that could arise from the disinvestment projects?

Yes, we will certainly look at that. The government has said they will be looking at divestment. They said they want investment in oil and gas and Canada is a big oil and gas producer. So, we will look at all of that. If it’s oil and gas, we need someone who has expertise in Canada to come and be partners with. One of the things we want to do is bring good Canadian and American companies and tell them that this is where you should come. So, we come in partnership with them or help them get an Indian partner who is above board. At Fairfax, we attract a certain kind of partner. The ones that do not have established businesses or track records or where the promoter wants to exit, do not come to us. The ones that have an established and proven track record, where the promoter wants to stay and build the business, come to us. We are good, long-term partners for these. We stay invested. Look at Thomas Cook. I’ve said it before – we will always control Thomas Cook India.

Thomas Cook has faced some financial troubles globally. How is that affecting the India business because you carry the same brand?

So, the company is financially very strong – no net debt. Thomas Cook in the UK has some financial difficulties. And some investors are rescuing it. There’s a little noise here and there about it. But you look at the balance sheet of Thomas Cook India and you say, my god, this company is so strong! The brand in India needs to change in the next four-five years as per our original agreement when the business was acquired from Thomas Cook UK. The team at Thomas Cook India have a clear road map for this transition starting as early as next year.

What about your holding in Catholic Syrian Bank (renamed CSB)? What is the timeline within which you will need to pare your stake?

We have a roadmap laid out by the Reserve Bank of India. The first step was to take the company public. We have 15 years in which to reduce our stake to 15 per cent (from the existing 51 per cent). CSB is now expanding outside of Kerala. Banking is a good business to be in. You have to be careful that you don’t lend without discipline.

You also have an investment in IIFL. Are they applying for a bank licence as well?

Yes we own 35 per cent of IIFL. No, I am not aware of any plan to apply for a bank licence there. They are splitting into three businesses. One is wealth management, one is NBFC (nonbanking finance company) and then there is an investment business.

What do you make of the liquidity crisis in the NBFC sector right now?

They have made some adjustments. The government will continue to make some adjustments. The biggest liquidity crisis was in 2008, right? Big companies like Merrill Lynch had to be sold. GE at that time couldn’t issue a commercial paper (CP). The government had to come out and guarantee money market instruments. There’s a lot of things that governments can do. And this government, which is business friendly, will do that. They will figure it out. I don’t think it will last for very long. It will pass.

Everybody asks about Warren Buffet’s successor. Who will Prem Watsa’s successor be?

Fairfax is being built for the next 100 years. Long after I am gone, the company will continue and grow. I have to have control. So, I tell my public shareholders that I’m not going to sell. So, you have a major negative there. Someone comes and wants to pay 100 per cent higher price, I’m not going to take it. But we are going to build it (the company). We have a clear plan in place. My company, my board, my family know who is to come in if something happens to me. We like people from the inside. If you get people from the outside, the culture changes just like that. We have to be careful about our culture.

Also Read

India will be the No. 1 place in the world for FDI: Prem Watsa

Prem Watsa’s love affair: BlackBerry to bank

Prem Watsa on PM Modi, elections and Fairfax’s India investments

Prem Watsa open to investing in PSU banks

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