Last May, Warren Buffett had made it clear in an interview that he was not going to repeat his PetroChina deal, where he made a 720% return on his 1.3% stake in just five years, and instead would prefer to buy a business wholly. But Vijay Shekhar Sharma's Paytm, India's largest digital financial services provider, has managed to change the Oracle of Omaha's mind.
Citing documents accessed from the Registrar of Companies (ROC), The Economic Times reports that One97 Communications, Paytm's parent, has approved the investment of $300 million (Rs 2,178.75 crore) from Buffett's company Berkshire Hathaway. In lieu of this investment, the US-based investment firm has acquired 1,702,713 fully paid up equity shares in Paytm.
This is Berkshire's first investment in an Indian company, underlining the potential Buffett sees in India's start-up ecosystem - although he was not directly involved in the negotiations. The buzz is that the deal gives it a nearly 3% stake in Paytm, valuing the latter at around $10 billion. That's a nearly 43% jump in valuation from $7 billion last year when it raised $1 billion from Japan's Softbank Vision Fund. Moreover, it makes Paytm one of the most valued fintech companies in India.
"A number of people have inquired about whether Berkshire had made an investment in One97 Communications, the parent company of Paytm. This is to confirm that the investment was made and that it was not a transaction in which Mr. Buffett was involved," Debbie Bosanek, assistant to Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, reportedly said in a press note.
This deal raised eyebrows since Buffett had long refused to invest in the tech space saying that it was too difficult to predict which tech businesses would prosper in the long run. It was only in 2011 that he invested in IBM; VeriSign and Apple came later in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Significantly, he has thus far stayed away from private technology companies, including unicorns.
A source in the know previously told the daily that that Berkshire was "impressed by the scale that Paytm has been able to build in a short period of time" and recognises that tech firms "go through a cycle of losses" before they start making money. Indeed, One97 is yet to turn profitable. Regulatory documents show that the company posted a loss of Rs 1,604 crore for FY18 compared with Rs 899.6 crore a year ago and Rs 1,496.7 crore in FY16. Nonetheless, it has the backing of several behemoths like China's Alibaba Group Holdings and Japan's Softbank.
According to the daily, Todd Combs, one of Buffet's key deputies and among the top investment managers at Berkshire Hathaway, who was leading the negotiations for this deal, will be joining the eight-member Paytm board.
The development comes against the backdrop of a rapid expansion and diversification drive by One97. To begin with it has signed several deals in recent times, including savings management application Balance Technology Pvt. Ltd in an attempt to upgrade user experience. Moreover, apart from its thrust on Paytm Payments Bank Ltd, One97 has recently launched its mutual fund distribution platform under Paytm Money Ltd.
While Berkshire's backing will give major fillip to Paytm, it has a tough battle ahead if it wants to hang on to its leadership position. Apart from deep-pocketed rivals like Flipkart-owned Phonepe, Amazon Pay, and Google Pay, newer players like WhatsApp Payments and Reliance Jio and WhatsApp Pay are also eyeing India's $200 billion digital payment market, expected to mushroom to $1 trillion in the next five years.