Fraud Probe Rocks Gupta Empire Just as It Seemed to Win Lifeline
(Bloomberg) -- Sanjeev Gupta’s plans to save his embattled industrial empire suffered a major setback as the U.K. opened a fraud investigation, prompting a potential financial partner to walk away.
For two months, Gupta has been scrambling to refinance after the collapse of his group’s main lender, Greensill Capital, and recently looked close to winning a reprieve -- helped along by a surging commodity prices.
But on Friday, the Serious Fraud Office announced a probe into Gupta’s GFG Alliance, including into the financing arrangements with Greensill. That prompted White Oak Global Advisors LLC -- which had recently offered a lifeline with terms for a 200 million-pound ($282 million) loan for Gupta’s U.K. steel business -- to walk away. White Oak was also behind funding for part of Gupta’s Australian assets, the Australian Financial Review has said.
“As with any regulated financial institution, we are not in a position to continue discussions with any company that is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for money laundering,” White Oak said in a statement.
GFG said Friday it will co-operate fully with the SFO investigation. It declined to comment on White Oak’s decision.
The fraud probe also puts other efforts to replace about $5 billion Gupta had borrowed from Greensill in question.
On Thursday, Gupta had conveyed a much brighter outlook, expressing confidence of a “new future” for his sprawling group of companies. On a podcast for employees, he said it had been “relatively easy to get refinancing” for the Whyalla mill in Australia. He also said that GFG had been “inundated by offers to help and to finance,” partly due to strong commodity markets.
The picture is now bleaker in the wake of the SFO investigation, which follows months of scrutiny from lawmakers and the media over Gupta and Greensill’s financing practices. GFG has come under the microscope after the collapse of Greensill in March revealed it had been a recipient of financing based on expected future invoices, for sales that were merely predicted.
The exact scope of the SFO investigation isn’t yet clear. Bloomberg has reported four banks stopped working with Gupta’s Liberty House Group trading business, starting in 2016, amid concerns about what they perceived to be problems in paperwork provided by Liberty, Bloomberg News has reported. In one example, the company had presented a bank with what seemed to be duplicate shipping receipts. A spokesman for Gupta has denied any wrongdoing.
The two-month period it took from starting to covertly look into GFG and its financing by Greensill to announcing a formal probe is a quick turn-around for the SFO, which often takes years to publicly confirm it’s taking action against a company.
It will now start to gather evidence, including securing devices and documents. However, it’ll likely take years for the office to make any tangible updates to the investigation, including whether it decides to charge individuals as part of the probe.
The funding from Lex Greensill’s eponymous firm helped GFG expand at an astonishing rate in the past five years by targeting old, unwanted assets. His loose collection of companies now employs some 35,000 people worldwide, with steel and aluminum plants in the U.S., U.K., France, Romania and Australia.
Staying afloat would enable Gupta to enjoy some of the best times his industrial businesses have seen. Steel prices are near an all-time high as demand recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and China cuts capacity to curb pollution. Aluminum, Gupta’s other major business, hit a three-year high this week amid a broad commodities boom.
Read More: Aluminum Rally May Have More Room to Run Amid Booming Demand
Still, Greensill’s collapse has already taken a major toll on Gupta’s businesses. On Thursday, his Wyelands Bank said it would be wound up if it can’t find a buyer. His steel units in France and Belgium have started creditor protection procedures, he’s approached buyers for some of his engineering assets, people familiar with the matter have said, and also sought buyers for two steel plants in France.
For governments too, there is much at stake. Countries that once feted him as a savior for buying decrepit assets may have to pick up the pieces, due to the jobs at risk and some assets’ strategic importance to industry.
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