One day, some 30 years ago, before the trophy wife and the floodlights, when a berth on the Forbes billionaires list was still a moon shot, Eike Batista was restless. At age 23, he’d had enough of Europe and the golden cage he’d spent his childhood in, and decided to move back to his native Brazil to make something of himself. The engineering school dropout had sold corned beef to Africa and brokered some Brazilian diamonds with mixed success. But Batista wanted something bigger.
He found it in a glossy photomagazine with a feature on the Amazon gold rush. “I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he said in an interview two years ago. His father, Eliezer Batista, a legendary Brazilian mining executive, was livid. “I’m going to give you an idiot’s diploma!” he exploded, pounding a fist on the dining room table when he learned his son had bought into a rainforest gold mine. They didn’t talk to each other for the next 10 years, but the young Batista didn’t back down. “This was alluvial gold,” he said. “It was idiot-proof.”
For the next three decades, versions of that scene—the parental scolding, doubling down against withering odds, a daredevil’s self-confidence, a choirboy’s belief in “idiot-proof” assets—would loop over and over again through Batista’s career. If his father doubted him, Batista’s mother pumped him up. “She called me Goldesel,” he said, recalling the Grimm brothers’ fairytale about the good luck donkey that dropped gold pieces from its mouth.
With his bullet-proof ego and camera-ready smile, Batista parlayed his stakes in Amazon gold into cash and then into cachet to leverage ever bigger ventures. In a little less than a generation, he’d rebooted himself into this emerging nation’s alpha investor, shedding the image of pampered playboy to become the world’s eighth richest man, courted by investors and politicians alike.
When he was king, everyone—Anglo American, Pimco, Black Rock, the Schlumberger Group—wanted a piece of Eike (pronounced Ike), as Brazilians know him. His emerging mining and energy conglomerate rocketed to the top of the São Paulo stock market. Cordial and bullish, with a tropical swagger to his step, Batista was not just a Brazilianaire but an emblem of Brazil itself, a sleeper country now aggressively on the make. Some two million people followed his Twitter feed.
It was only fitting that Batista’s fall would be just as spectacular. On Oct. 30, Batista’s signature oil and gas company, OGX, filed for bankruptcy. Once the bluest chip on the São Paulo bourse, worth $35 billion in 2011, OGX is trading at a few cents a share. His mining, logistics and energy companies have been taken over by foreign investors. The net value of the entire cluster of Batista’s businesses, each branded with a letter X, a symbol for the multiplication of wealth, has turned to dust.
Minority stakeholders, who eagerly hitched their wagons to Eike’s rising star, are scrambling to court to recover their crumbling investments. The policy whizzes in Brasilia who reveled in the new national business icon are mulling over how to retrieve the $2.9 billion they loaned to Batista at sweetheart rates through the publicly subsidized development bank. Reporters are no longer invited to helicopter out to the future site of his superport. Batista’s patented pink tie and Cheshire cat smile no longer light up the Rio night. His Twitter feed has gone silent.
Not surprisingly, the slow motion fall of Batista’s holdings has become this year’s rolling headline in Brazil, and beyond. Yet many savvy investors saw trouble coming two years back, when the value of Batista’s corporate portfolio ballooned in the stock market even before he had fetched a single barrel of oil from the ocean floor or loaded his first ton of coal. Yet in road show after road show, he talked up a storm. The massive Porto Açu, a superport and planned city complex north of Rio, may have been little more than a sea bridge connected to a bald building site, but Eike managed to draw world class partners on board.
Investors were impressed with his grasp of details and 30,000-foot perspective on logistics and economies of scale. They winked at his bare knuckle business style and his reputation as a corporate raider, poaching alpha executives from Petrobras, Vale and other mega companies, with lavish pay and stock options. In vexatious Latin America, they knew that a blue chip ego was an asset. “I see myself as a knight of efficiency. If there is something that isn’t efficient, I’m going to break it down,” he said. “The Google guys do that. Steve Jobs was famous for that. They look for ways to make life more user-friendly and that’s how I see myself.”
In time, as production targets were missed and delayed, skepticism stirred. Was Batista all smoke and mirrors? Still, he talked a good game. “Batista doesn’t think big, he thinks huge,” said Armínio Fraga, an investor and former Brazilian Central Bank president, who briefly held a stake in one of the X companies. The joke in the financial trenches was that after Bill Gates, no one had made so much money off of PowerPoint. Eike waved away the Cassandras and spun his dedication to “fundamentals.” “These are not subprime mortgages,” he said of his portfolio that stretched from shipyards to oil rigs. “This is productive investment.” After all, he sat on mountains of ultra high grade Colombian coal and his oil was in shallow offshore wells, not the deepwater crude that Brazil had just discovered a daunting four miles below the surface of the Atlantic. “These are idiot-proof assets,” he said, repeating the blue skies refrain he’d coined a quarter century earlier.
Batista’s eccentricity also helped inflate the X bubble. He was a rarity in a country where the superrich shun publicity or pretend they are like everyone else. Unashamed about his wealth—made from sweat not speculation, he claimed—he worked at leveraging fortune into celebrity. Back in the nineties, when he was already fabulously rich, Batista was known—and often lampooned—as the heat-seeking scion of a top Brazilian mining official and the husband of a carnival queen. Mr. Luma de Oliveira, they called him, after his supernova wife, whom he later divorced. Other moguls might collect Picassos. Batista, a onetime powerboat racer, favored fast cars and yachts. For years, he kept a Lamborghini and a silver Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren in his living room.
Even when giving, Batista went over the top. He paid over $550,000 at a benefit auction for the jersey of national football hall-of-famer, Ronaldo, and brought Madonna to tears by pledging $7 million to her charity, Success For Kids. When physicians from a struggling public hospital in Rio needed an MRI machine, Batista wrote them a $1.5 million check and shelled out another $500,000 to install it. “I was floored,” says neurosurgeon Paulo Niemeyer, who had contacted Batista for the event.
Every tycoon has a shtick but in business, Batista was all brass knuckles. By the mid-2000s he had shed the showboat wife (reportedly paying Playboy to kill a photo spread of her) and started plunging money into multimillion dollar plays in energy, infrastructure and mining, scooping up properties and resources. He boldly claimed to be sitting on $2.3 trillion in assets, including top grade coal, gold, iron ore and a potential 10 billion barrels of oil.
Of course, living in floodlights had its inconveniences. Last year, when Batista’s 20-year-old son Thor, driving a fancy gull wing Mercedes Benz, struck and killed a cyclist on a Rio highway, the media frenzy turned the tragedy into a tropical version of Bonfire of the Vanities. Feeding the script were the facts that Thor was on his father’s payroll, had racked up a fistful of fines for traffic violations, and that the victim was a bricklayer. Batista’s lawyers blamed the accident on the cyclist’s imprudence but, quickly agreed to pay a generous, undisclosed fee to the victim’s family. In June, Thor was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Still, Eike was just the kind of benefactor Brazil ached for: superrich, conscientious and an enthusiastic backer of the arts and worthy causes. “The Eike story played well,” says Alberto Ramos, an emerging market analyst at Goldman Sachs. “There was a narrative that made him more magical, a symbol of the new Brazil, a big emerging, global player.”
Batista’s image got a material bump in early 2012, when his wells in the vaunted Tubarão field, in the southeast Atlantic, started pumping their first barrels of crude. By March, the company had raised about $500 in the bond market, halting a worrying slide in share prices. His cluster of Xs was Brazil’s hottest buy on the bourse. Forbes lifted him to eighth place on its roster of fat cats.
But the expected offshore oil gusher never happened. As it turned out, OGX had vastly overstated its oil reserves. By August 2013, the company announced its prize cache was producing just 17,000 barrels a day, about a third of the yearend target. Investors bolted and by late October, with OGX bleeding top executives and trading at pennies per share, Batista filed for bankruptcy.
Soaring success followed by collapse is nothing new to the business world. Yet Batista’s debacle turned heads. For many Latin America watchers, the fall of this entrepreneurial wunderkind was a body blow to Brazil itself. Not only had a big man stumbled, but the country he so daringly represented also seemed diminished by his woes. After all, authorities in Brasilia had made a point of touting Eike as the new face of Brazilian business, a mogul who took risks but also worked closely with the government to boost national development. Batista was a frequent guest of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “He deserves our respect,” said Lula’s successor, president Dilma Rousseff, posing alongside the favored tycoon, both dressed in matching oilman’s overhauls on a deep sea rig.
Batista’s success stoked patriotism. Here, after all, was a homegrown mogul, who thrived in a market dominated by giant state oil companies and multinational majors, like Chevron and Exxon. “There was a deliberate effort to forge a national champion,” says former finance minister Mailson da Nóbrega. “Eike was drafted into the role.”
He was also a Cinderella story for the media, eager for a popular idol who didn’t wear football cleats or strut the catwalks. A national newsmagazine splashed him on its cover in a photo montage wearing a beret and a Chinese work jacket: “Eike Xiaoping” read the cover line. The National Development Bank, BNDES, gave him generous loans subsidized by taxpayers.
That deference might explain the eagerness to overlook some of Batista’s failings. “Among energy experts there was plenty of talk about how Eike was overselling his hand, but no one said anything in public,” says Jean-Paul Prates, chief of Expetro, an oil and gas consultancy. “Everyone likes a winner and no one wanted to say the king had no clothes.” The result, says Prates, was “the biggest sham in the country’s recent economic history.”
Not that Batista was conniving to play investors or that Brazilian officials groomed him to lure foreign capital. “Batista was no Mike Milliken [the junk bond trader, convicted of securities racketeering]. This was not Enron, where a company was deliberately defrauding the markets,” says Nóbrega. “The problem was a failure of corporate governance. Eike was allowed to operate without the proper financial anchors.”
In some ways, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Brazil rightly prides itself for having kept tight reins on consumer credit and for its vigilant capital market, virtues that helped the country avoid the bubbles that took down the global financial markets. But the long-sheltered economy is just getting used to the rigors of the globalized market—not least in the oil business, which in Brazil is dominated by a single, state owned giant, Petrobras.
“Brazilian capital markets have little experience overseeing private players,” says Prates. The same goes for the oil and gas regulator, the National Petroleum Agency, which lacks the technical expertise to vet discoveries or evaluate the commercial viability of wells. “Our market isn’t just young, it’s in its infancy,” says Prates. “This reflects poorly on Brazil, which comes off as an immature market. The next time there’s a public stock offering in the oil sector, investors are going to think twice.”
Others are not so sure. “The oil industry is risky business,” says Goldman Sachs’ Ramos. “Sometimes you drill and the wells come up dry. It happens and it’s not necessarily bad management.”
For Brazil, mercifully, the lasting damage may ultimately be limited. “The collapse of Batista’s conglomerate was a shock test for Brazil,” says Nobrega. “There was no earthquake in the markets. No banks are likely to go under. Years ago, a bankruptcy the size of Batista’s might have caused all hell to break lose, maybe even a credit crisis. That shows maturity.”
That may be a small comfort to the man who made and lost $28 billion in a heartbeat. But the fact that a giant fell but barely wobbled this country on the rise is already a victory of sorts.