Celebrated Indian investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, who amassed an almost $6bn fortune with his bullish bets on the country’s stock market, died on Sunday aged 62.
Over a four-decade career, the self-made investor billionaire was known as “India’s Warren Buffett” for his long record of investments in undervalued but successful companies.
An accountant from a middle-class family, Jhunjhunwala’s success came to symbolise the opportunities created by the roaring growth and wealth creation that followed India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s.
Outspoken and relentlessly optimistic about the prospects for India’s economy and companies, he acquired a loyal following of retail investors who closely tracked his comments, recommendations and trades as participation in the country’s stock market soared.
“He had an oversized influence on the market and on sentiment,” said Amit Tandon, founder of proxy advisory firm Institutional Investor Advisory Services. “Everyone was hoping they could emulate what he’s done.”
Jhunjhunwala died in Mumbai on Sunday, according to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. He was suffering from health complications including kidney disease, according to local media, and reportedly died of cardiac arrest.
Indian politicians and business leaders paid tribute to Jhunjhunwala, including Modi. “Full of life, witty and insightful, he leaves behind an indelible contribution to the financial world,” Modi wrote on Twitter. “He was also very passionate about India’s progress.”
Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chair of India’s Tata Group conglomerate, in whose companies Jhunjhunwala amassed several of the stakes that helped make his fortune, said: “Rakesh Jhunjhunwala believed in India and the sheer potential of the country. This conviction led him to consistently make bold decisions throughout his life and career.”
Jhunjhunwala was born in 1960 to a middle-class family from the north-western state of Rajasthan. Jhunjhunwala, whose father was a tax officer, trained as an accountant and began investing on Dalal Street, the Mumbai address of the Bombay Stock Exchange, in the 1980s. He reportedly started investing with Rs5,000 ($62) in capital.
He was well positioned to capitalise on the boom in Indian equities that followed the country’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s. The benchmark Sensex index, for example, took off at the turn of the new millennium and has risen almost 2,000 per cent since.
Jhunjhunwala made a name for himself with outperforming bets on companies such as Titan, a Tata-owned watch and jewellery maker, and Indian rating agency Crisil. “I am shouting at the top of my voice in 2003: ‘Buy, buy, buy! Sell your bloody wife’s jewellery, and buy!’” he told the Financial Times in 2012.
He was the first Indian to become a billionaire through stock market investing in an economy long dominated by family-owned business houses. His wealth at present stands at $5.8bn, according to Forbes.
Jhunjhunwala also attracted attention among retail investors for his colourful and sometimes profanity-laced pronouncements on Indian stocks, as well as his penchant for expensive cars and whiskies. “I like my freedom, boss. I don’t want to be answerable to anyone,” he told the FT.
Just this month, Jhunjhunwala launched his latest business venture: a new Indian budget carrier Akasa Air, appearing on August 7 as it made its inaugural flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad in western India. He owned 40 per cent of the new airline.
The investment in Akasa characterised Jhunjhunwala’s bullishness. He bet on Indian aviation’s growth prospects as rising numbers of Indians take to commercial travel, and yet the sector has in recent years tested investor appetite as carriers struggled to control debt levels while competing to attract price-sensitive consumers.
“I’m prepared for failure,” Jhunjhunwala said of Akasa, according to Moneycontrol.
“It’s better to have tried and failed than not tried at all,” he added.