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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Indian firms spread their wings
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC Correspondent in Mumbai

Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh is a zealous salesman for Indian business
Indian firms are fast emerging as global players with their foreign direct investment and acquisitions activities having gained ground in the last couple of years.

Time was when India was desperate for foreign direct investment (FDI).

Its prime minister Manmohan Singh is still selling India abroad, as he did in his recent visit to the US and Britain.

But the difference is he is doing it from a position of strength, which comes from the fact that Indian companies are making inroads into some of the world's most sophisticated markets.

Analysts say one of the main reasons for this outward flow is that the country is flush with foreign reserves, $120bn in all.

In 1991, when India was left with less than $1bn in its reserves, there was no way it would have allowed its companies to invest overseas, whereas today we are sitting at more than $100bn and its a problem of plenty," says Nilesh Shah, chief investment officer of the Prudential ICICI Mutual Fund.

Bigger deals

A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) report on foreign investment said that firms in Brazil, China and India were about to take off.

In fact, Indian companies are already flexing their muscles and investing overseas.

Indian firms acquired 120 foreign companies in 2001-03 at a cost of $1.2bn.

This is still small by international standards, but big Indian companies have been much busier this year striking much bigger deals overseas.

Just consider this:

VV Birla Group has its presence in 18 countries with annual revenue of $1.8bn.

  • Proshanto Banerjee, Chairman & Managing Director of GAIL (India) Limited
    Mindsets are changing, says Mr Banerjee
    ONGC Videsh, the international arm of the state-run Oil and Natural Gas Commission, is investing $2bn in oil exploration and production activity in as far field as Angola and Sudan.

  • Drugs company Ranbaxy, which manufactures in seven countries, earns 70% of its annual $1bn turnover from overseas operations.

  • Its rival Indian firm Workhardt refuses to be left behind. More than half its business is conducted in overseas markets and it has acquired companies in the UK and Germany.

Bangladesh deal

The list of Indian companies investing abroad goes on.

More than 400 Indian firms have investment or joint ventures in the UK and more than 1400 firms in Singapore.

The Tata Group's Tata Steel recently went to Singapore and coolly bought Singapore steel firm Natsteel. This acquisition gives the Indian company a foothold in seven countries, including Australia.

What could be quite audacious would be if the Tata Group clinches a $2bn deal with the Bangladesh government to build a power plant, steel unit and fertiliser factory with the help of its huge gas reserves.

Bangladesh has confirmed the deal, but the Tata Group offers no comment yet.

In the bag

It was the Tata Group's Tata Tea that began the trend when it acquired the UK's famous Tetley Tea for $430m four years ago.
Alan Rosling, Director, Tata Sons
Indian companies are learning quickly, says Mr Rosling

The deal made Tata Tea the world's second largest tea company and remains the biggest Indian acquisition abroad.

Taking the cue from the Tata, other Indian companies began expanding their business overseas.

From a trickle it became a flood when in January this year the Indian government removed the $100m cap on foreign investment by Indian companies and raised it to the net worth of the companies.

Most of the big deals have taken place since then.

Changing minds

Experts disagree on why Indian firms have started eyeing the world.

Mr Shah believes it is the easy availability of dollars in India. Alan Rosling, a director at Tata, says it is a spin-off of the government's policy of economic liberalisation which began in 1991.

"We have had all sorts of regulations and control which had limited ability to operate internationally beyond exports," says Mr Rosling.

Another reason is the big change in mindset, adds Proshanto Banerjee, chairman and managing director of the state-controlled Gas Authority of India Limited.

He says globalisation is the order of the day.

"Companies with proven expertise, who can offer valuable service with competitive price would naturally take position in the open market and Indian companies, be it public or private, are no different," he says.

Learning fast

The Gas Authority has operations in six countries and competes in foreign markets with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission and with India's biggest private conglomerate of companies, Reliance Industries.

Reliance has the ambition of becoming a truly global player in telecommunications.

Experts say its recent acquisition of America's Flag Telecom is just the beginning.

The Tata group and India's oil and gas companies are largely investing in the old economy, a large chunk of Indian acquisitions is in the IT sector. Many IT companies have invested large amounts in the US, Singapore and Australia.

Indian companies' apparent lack of experience in the global market is not a disadvantage, says Mr Rosling.

"I think India is relatively unusual among some of the largest fast growing markets in the sense that it has very fine companies, well run, world class management that have been waiting over the years for an opportunity to go into the international arena in a more substantive way."

But Mr Shah believes Indian firms have a long way to go if they want to catch up with the global markets' big guns.

"Even in the next five years, India will receive more [inward investment] than its firms will invest abroad," he says.

And that says it all.

Developing countries invest abroad
20 Aug 04 |  Business

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