Ketan Parekh: Delusions of invincibility?
One would rightly call him the inheritor of the Harshad Mehta tradition. Exactly eight years after the flamboyant Harshad Mehta was trapped in India's biggest financial scandal, it has happened all over again.
On March 30, 2001, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Ketan Parekh in connection with a Rs 1.37-billion loss to Bank of India on account of the default of a tiny Ahmedabad-based co-operative bank.
One the face of it, Ketan Parekh's modus operandi is identical to that of Mehta. He used the same formula of tapping bank funds to play the stock markets and ramp up stock prices, but only after a clear collusive deal with the company management, which included handing over a substantial chunk of the equity to the stockbroker to create liquidity in the scrip.
The difference, if any, was that the capital market provided a happier hunting ground for Ketan Parekh, than it did Harshad Mehta in 1992.
In Harshad's case, the seemingly effortless ramping of prices hid a bitter war with a powerful cartel of bear operators who were backed by an even more powerful American bank. To Ketan, the rise from a quiet, small-time operator to the Big Bull of the Indian market was relatively easier.
But let us start at the beginning. Harshad Mehta, was the complete outsider? Having arrived from Raipur in Madhya Pradesh, Harshad and his brother Ashwin, learnt securities trading and stock broking the hard way.
Harshad worked as a clerk at the New India Assurance Company and spent his lunch hours rushing to the stock exchange to observer the open-outcry based trading until he mastered it.
He had to beg and cajole a broker to accept him as a sub-broker and his trading expertise was gained through several hard knocks and huge losses.
Yet, whatever Harshad may have lost in terms of his non-broking background, he made up with flamboyance, ebullience, enormous audacity and the vision to dream big and even fanciful dreams.
Harshad almost had it within his grasp, if only he was willing to wait a few more years and take the hard route to success, he would still have made it, instead of being destroyed by a system which does not give anyone a second chance.
In Harshad's case, he even had the audacity to try to grab a second chance in 1998, but turning into a Web guru-plus-columnist to dispense tips and make a comeback.
However, without access to legitimate bank funds, the comeback rally did not last more than four months.
Initially, Ketan Parekh seemed entirely different. Though he learnt his trading tricks from Harshad Mehta, his background was affluent upper middle class.
He came from the well-respected trading firm called Narbheram Harakchand Securities (NH Securities) which has been a top institutional brokerage firm.
But even in 1992, Ketan was clearly hankering for more.
Shy and serious, he hung around the fringes of Harshad's high-spirited group of flashy bull operators, and that itself may have saved him, except for the one single case where he was Accused No.10 - it was case 3 of 1996, CBI v/s Canbank Mutual Fund which is being heard by the Special Court to try scam related offences.
In the last two years, Ketan had such a hold on the market's imagination, that people simply disbelieved this involvement.
There were other reasons, too. His serious demeanor, relatively simply lifestyle, studiously low profile made him an unlikely scamster.
In fact, when I met him sometime in July 2000, I too came away with the impression that he has his feet too much on the ground to go the Harshad way.
Also, unlike Harshad Mehta's carefully concocted 'replacement cost theory' (which argued the old and depreciated companies ought to be valued on the basis of the cost of replacing them -- he used this theory to drive the ACC scrip to a mind-boggling Rs 10,000 in 1992), Ketan needed no prop.
He had simply caught the very beginning of the worldwide mania in Information Technology, Communications and Media stocks. All he had to do was to remain low profile and keep buying.
Initially he did just that. He was also advised by Harshad Mehta's equally publicity-shy brother Ashwin.
In fact, until August 25, when the market hinted at the first signs of trouble, most newspapers did not even have a photograph of the broker.
But things changed sometime in January 2000 - a star-struck Ketan, finally got carried away by the glitz and glamour of Bollywood.
It probably needed a stronger person than him to keep a cool head when Bollywood superstars ranging from Amitabh Bachchan to diamond-merchant and financier Bharat Shah were lionising him.
It started with his famous Millennium bash at Mandwa, where Parekh owns a lavish seaside bungalow, off the coast of Bombay.
His guests comprising emerging software czars, fund managers, acolytes and a sprinkling of film stars, first assembled for a champagne reception at the Taj Mahal Hotel's Sea Lounge restaurant.
Later they were ferried in high security catamarans to the party, which transformed Ketan from shy trader to party animal.
From then on, he acquired all the trappings of his new status - a Cadillac and a Lexus, a five-star lifestyle, the company of industrialists, superstars and who ranged from close pal Vinay Maloo, to Amitabh Bachchan, Amar Singh and Australian magnate Kerry Packer and his son James.
Suddenly, he was giving his views on the budget to economic newspapers, featuring in front page profiles and signing up headline-hitting joint ventures with Maloo and Packer (KVP Ventures is a team up between Ketan, Vinay Maloo and Kerry Packer).
He was also expanding rapidly from mere market operators to investment banker (Triumph International), mutual fund (he is supposed to be the man behind Vinay Maloo's acquisition of the asset management company of Kothari Pioneer Mutual Fund from the Kotharis) and also struck a deal to buy up the ICICI office building for a hefty Rs 750 million (the deal has failed for want of government permissions).
One of his biggest coups was to turn around the ailing Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd from being a sick company to a profitable one.
Suddenly, the superstar Bachchan ranked among Ketan's closest buddies along with Amar Singh, who now prefers to distance himself from the beleaguered broker. The best and worst of Bollywood formed a fawning fan club, each wanting him to help them corporatise their business ventures and adventures and them market it to investors at fancy premiums.
But the tide for IT, Communications and Media stocks suddenly turned. It was trouble time globally, and Ketan was probably too trapped by his Big Bull image, to make a quick exit.
In fact, he did exit from many scrips, but not all the K-10 stocks which were his targets. The crashing index trapped him in the double bind of having to continuously top up margins on his borrowings and cover the losses on his investment.
It was a vicious circle; things were moving too fast and his operations were too big for him to get out without causing a crash.
It is not quite clear how long KP has been involved in shady funding arrangements with tiny banks such as Bank of Madhavpur, but the scrips owned by him when he was finally arrested seem to indicate that he had divested almost all his holdings but Himachal Futuristic, Zee and Global Tele-Systems.
Why Ketan remained stuck with this scrips is a story that is bound to emerge in the coming weeks - he was probably trapped by friendship, political pressure or maybe a mistaken sense of his own invincibility.
What will also emerge is the true extent of his borrowings and his arrangement with various banks and companies.
How little is known about the man is only proof of his quiet style of operation.