Banking, Uncategorized

Bank Lending & Corruption

There was reportedly a recent meeting of public sector bank heads in Delhi with the Finance Minister. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss something related to bad debts, but the emphasis of the discussion, as per press reports, was on the “fear” of bank heads pursuant to the action initiated by CBI against a few officials of one bank. It is extremely surprising that some of the generally well considered, efficient, competent chairpersons of banks were vocal about such irrational fears. It is also interesting that a similar fear was not expressed as vocally when the Chairman of another bank was arrested on corruption charges some months back. There is no evidence to suggest that there is any witch-hunt on against bank boards or officials.

India needs growth and banks play a very vital role in this. Any commercial decision carries with it a reasonable risk of it going wrong. Similarly some decisions might well turn out to be turning points for both the banks and their borrowers. What matters is whether decisions are taken with a clear conscience and with integrity, taking all known risks at that point of time into consideration. The Bank Board Bureau (BBB) under the ex-CAG Mr. Vinod Rai is not there to oversee every bank lending decision and to have bank bosses take a stand that every decision of theirs with respect to lending should be approved, prior to disbursement, by the BBB is nothing short of weird.

There is supposedly a freeze on lending by banks because bank chairpersons and officials are wary of taking decisions. These people have been put in their positions at high salaries to do a job which means they put the funds at their disposal to the best possible use, which includes lending to good borrowers. If they are going to offer lame excuses and avoid their responsibilities, what justification is there for them to occupy those high positions? They would better serve the organisation by quitting and allowing someone else who is willing to do the job they are supp0osed to do to do it.

The hype about increasing bad debts does not help anybody. Certainly there is a problem that needs to be tackled. In this investigative agencies also do have a role. Wrongdoing, if any, whether of corruption or of undue influence, needs to be identified and taken to its logical conclusion, as per the laws in force. This in no way implies, or should be taken to mean, that there will be unreasonable action again bank officials. Only where justified, the agencies and courts will and should do what they are expected to do.

Any Chartered Accountant or Project Consultant worth his or her name can come up with a glossy and attractive project report for almost any project with rosy projections and supposedly attractive returns. It is upto savvy investors and knowledgeable and experienced bankers to separate the wheat from the chaff, and take up the proposals that look good to them. In this there is ofcourse no guarantee that every decision will turn out to be correct, but as long as the bankers can show that they took all reasonable precautions, neither investigative agencies nor courts should commonly find fault.

Bank debts turn bad or doubtful due to various reasons internal or external to the particular enterprise. That there has been political pressure in the past to lend to a particular borrower is hardly a secret particularly given that bank board appointments have largely been influenced by political considerations. Similarly, there has been corruption within the bank too. However, not all decisions have been unduly influenced and many top bank officials have maintained their integrity despite such pressures. This is indeed creditable and needs to be appreciated.

Many infrastructure projects were stalled due to land acquisition and other external issues, and the companies which borrowed for such projects have been unable to repay. The government has made quite a lot of progress in sorting out some of these issues and this process is ongoing. This will in turn start to show up as marked improvements in the bad debts position. However, it is a fairly long process and will take time. Banks will therefore continue to be saddled with such loans remaining doubtful of recovery in the immediate future. This may well constrain those banks from lending too much more. However, to take a stand that banks will not lend till all these issues are sorted out is clearly self-defeating and it is time the government steps in to rectify this position, improve sentiment and ensure that viable projects, which are vital for the country continue to get the funds they need at the right time.

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Banking, Uncategorized

ATMs and Demonetisation

With the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) restoring currency notes supply to banks to around 80-85% of pre-demonetisation levels, most if not all ATMs should have their normal supply of cash.  Agencies handling ATM replenishment have also by and large confirmed normal levels. Yet many ATMs still show inadequate levels, and where available, dispense only Rs. 2,000 notes. This obviously means people are withdrawing more than they need and many are hoarding notes of small denomination notes as a panic reaction to the previous temporary shortage.

Senior citizens are by nature wary about using debit or credit cards, ATMs or any other online modes of payment. They also hold a certain level of currency at home to meet unforeseen medical and other emergencies. However, they did this even prior to demonetisation so all they did is to deposit the banned notes they had with them and withdraw almost the same level of new notes. Overall this would not affect the stock of currency at ATMs.

What has therefore altered at least for the time being is behaviour of younger bank customers. For no apparent reason, many are reacting in panic and hoarding currency particularly in smaller denominations. Given that many have now started to rely almost entirely on cards and online payments, the demand for currency should by now have gone down considerably. This is also what the RBI has planned for, and therefore if withdrawal from ATMs remains more than needed, other customers, who as a result have to return empty-handed, get affected badly.

Prior to demonetisation, most smaller retail outlets like grocers, vegetable and fruit vendors, gas agencies, smaller hospital, pharmacies, laundries and many others dealt almost entirely in cash. After banks and the government introduced several alternatives, many of them have since shifted to accepting, wherever possible, cashless payments. However some others adamantly refuse to do this. Habitually most retail outlets, small and some larger ones too, rely on cash transactions to hide their actual turnover enabling them to pay less in taxes and levies like sales tax, VAT etc. Many customers have also become accustomed to getting better deals and more discounts if they agree not to insist on bills.  Retailers also tend to get better deals from their suppliers if they too deal in cash and do not insist on tax invoices. It is a cosy arrangement in which well-placed bribes to tax and excise officials get them to look the other way. The government ends up losing much needed revenue and they have been trying in various ways to get people to change their habits. Introducing cashless modes of payment is a step in that direction and it is heartening that some retailers and customer, both have fallen in line.

However we are still a long way off from reaching levels of compliance considered normal in advanced economies. Not that people in such advanced countries are doing this very voluntarily, there are just more checks and balances in their system because of more data being collected and analysed. In India too, data analysis is fast catching up. During the demonetisation exercise, many holders of unaccounted banned currencies resorted to several underhand methods to convert their ill-gotten gains. Aided actively by a set of corrupt bank officials, they used fake IDs, fake/shell company bank accounts, dormant accounts etc. to exchange their currency notes. They also got their employees, associates and hired help to put funds into their accounts and then withdraw new notes. These abnormal withdrawals are another reason for shortage of currency in ATMs. Government and RBI are well aware of these methods and with enhanced data analytical tools at their disposal tax authorities have gone after the black money holders as well as rotten bank officials. This is an ongoing process which will take some time as more than 18 lakh accounts are reportedly being investigated. For sure, many of these account-holders will have legitimate explanations, and these accounts will naturally be eliminated from the list in due course. However is widely expected that many others will be caught. In fact banks have taken action to suspend some officials already.

No one suggests that the steps taken so far will stop black money. While some black money holders will be caught in the ongoing process, many others will go free. The practice of bribery has not stopped and will continue at least for the present. Political spending all in black money has to be tackled and that in itself is a mammoth task. However a serious beginning has been made, and the anger in some quarters at steps taken so far does show that it has made quite a significant impact.

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Banking, Uncategorized

Banks and Demonetisation

The recent demonetisation period from November 11. 2016 to December 30, 2016 prescribed for exchange/deposit of the now banned Rs. 500/1000 notes has clearly exposed the extent for everyone to see the rot and greed in some banking officials. Given this, it is shocking to read that the Ministry of Finance has put out a figure of just Rs. 71.5 crores as the amount wherein bank officials have colluded to fraudulently exchange these banned notes. This is obviously a grossly underestimated figure.

As we are now aware, bank officials have used various methods to assist black money hoarders to exchange their ill-gotten gains and sabotage the good intentions of the government –

  • Accounts which have not been operated for a year or more were identified by crooked branch officials and these accounts were allowed to be used by black money holders to deposit their hoard of banned notes withdrawing new notes to replace that.
  • In the initial days when multiple exchanges of Rs. 4,000 worth of banned notes were allowed, bank officials facilitated photocopies being taken of already submitted photo IDs, without the knowledge of the original ID holder. These photocopies were then put together and used for facilitating bulk exchange of black money.
  • Jan Dhan accounts were allowed to be misused to deposit amounts over Rs. 50,000 without any KYC stipulations, often without the knowledge of the account holders. These accounts were used to deposit black money banned notes and withdrawal of new notes.
  • Multiple new accounts using the same set of identity documents were facilitated to be opened at branches and these accounts were used to launder black money.

These are just some ways by which the system was misused in collusion with bank branch officials, and even a few RBI officials. Apart from this black money hoarders have also made use of their employees and even random persons who were ready to help them by standing in line for a commission.

All of these methods were widely written about in the press and in social media and banks should have taken note of them and initiated remedial measures as the misuse was happening. Quite obviously RBI was aware given some measures they introduce to stop multiple attempts at exchange and so on.

Banks on their own should have by now come up with what they have done to detect wrongdoing and the action taken. If they haven’t it is either that they are lethargic and uninterested in properly supporting the governments steps to curb black money or they are aiding or protecting their customer and staff, in the bargain facilitating a build-up of black funds again.

Every bank, including cooperative banks, is not fully computerised and has a central database. It is quite easy to get their IT department to run queries on the database to identify not just the accounts and identities that have been misused but also to trace out the particular branch officials who put through the transaction. Based on this information the banks should have already taken action against erring officials. If they have not done this, it is now upto the RBI and Finance Ministry to push them into doing this. A clean up of the banking system is long overdue and the demonetisation exercise gives the government a great opportunity to do this

I am not suggesting that all that is rotten in banks and the banking system will suddenly come to the fore and be eliminated, but a significant part of the rot can be corrected if the government acts quickly now.

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