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Is It time For Structural Realignment Of RBI?

Is It time For Structural Realignment Of RBI?

The regularity of frauds at Indian banks has shaken the faith of the public in the banking system. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has attracted a lot of flak for the Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud for the fact that it happened right under its nose and the fraudsters got away. Suggestions have poured in from well-meaning opinion makers and couch pundits – from replacing the RBI Board to privatizing the banks.

In this context, in what may be a rare occurrence, two governors of the RBI – one former and one current – hit the media spotlight and spoke about the issue.

Dr.Raghuram Rajan in an interview with a business news channel spoke more like a politician – all generalities and little or no specifics. He pointed fingers at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), conveniently forgetting that he was the governor when the fraud was being perpetrated.

On the other hand, Dr. Urjit Patel, the present governor, spoke of the need to privatize the public sector banks and appeared to deflect blame from the Central Bank. Many saw this as a response to Finance Minister Jaitley’s pointing fingers at the RBI for the scam.

RBI governors, in a time tested tradition, are known to be reticent and tend to shy away from media spotlight. But that may be in a bygone era and not in the new normal we all live in.

While there may be some truth in what Dr. Patel had said, the fact that he chose to speak at all on the topic and the timing were indeed bizarre. It is unclear why he chose to bring this up in public. Nor did Dr. Rajan cover himself in glory. The RBI and the Ministry of Finance, per an unwritten etiquette, never drop even the faintest hint of discord amongst them. This is because it has the potential to create turbulence downstream in the economy and could unsettle markets.

The RBI is a venerated institution that is deeply entrenched in the economy. In it’s over eight decades of existence it has requited itself extremely well. It has been at the forefront of expansion of bank branches and credit delivery. It had also played a pivotal role in the nationalization of banks in 1969 as well as in nurturing several developmental financial institutions.

To its credit, the central bank has embraced advances in technology to build a modern banking and supervisory infrastructure. It has adopted risk based supervisory model, a contemporary best practice in bank supervision worldwide. The key pillars of this model are a combination of onsite and offsite monitoring and greater reliance on backend data analytics to proactively gain insights into problem areas in the system. These early warning insights would enable the regulators to monitor banks better.

So, at least on paper, systems and processes were in place for effective supervision. Yet, the repeated occurrence of high profile frauds despite these innovations, only reinforce the common perception that the RBI and bank auditors have not lived up to the expectations of the country.

 The real culprit here, of course, is the fact that India’s institutions and enforcement agencies, despite constitutional and legal guarantees, have long been rendered toothless paper tigers by vested interests. That was done deliberately so that scams like the ones at PNB could be committed with ease.

But the deliberate defanging of the watchdogs or the ownership of public sector banks by government raised by Dr. Patel, are secondary issues that need to be addressed separately. They should not obfuscate the principal responsibility of the RBI in securing the banking system. Given the stature and dignity of the institution and office, it does them no good to pass the buck.

 Having said that, the truth however, is that the RBI carries an overload of functions and responsibilities that range from traditional central banking to other “developmental functions”. This was probably necessary in the early days after independence when the modern banking system was in its infancy. But today the situation is different.

Digital banking has rapidly taken root in every corner of the country today, thanks to technology and mobile phones. At the same time, it has also set the bar higher for customer expectations in convenient and secure delivery of banking services. This, in turn, has only accentuated the enormity of challenges in managing and regulating the burgeoning industry.

The fraud at PNB has exposed the vulnerability of the banks system in the new digital ecosystem. There are powerful lesson to be learnt here. Institutions that do not adapt and change with the speed of time risk becoming irrelevant.  Hence the need of the hour is a structural transformation of the Central Bank to meet the enhanced challenges in the new digital banking order.

It is certainly an opportune time to review and offload some of the regulator’s functions. One recommendation would be to carve out the Board for Financial Supervision (BFS) into a separate organization. The BFS was constituted 1994 as a committee of the Central Board of Directors of the RBI “..to undertake consolidated supervision of the financial sector comprising commercial banks, financial institutions and non-banking finance companies …”. It enjoys enormous powers under the Banking Regulation Act, 1949. In the light of repeated frauds, the BFS must be reincarnated as a more agile and results driven body.

An expert committee could help with the finer details and setting up of this new entity. Suffice it to mention here that this new institution must rise well above the turf battles between the RBI and the Ministry of Finance. It must be on par with other institutions like the Election Commission of Indian (ECI) and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to prevent the institution from being bludgeoned into submission by vested interests.

But given the current preoccupations of the government, the much needed administrative reforms for governance may not happen in the current term of office. Many pundits and analysts believe that the Modi government may have already prepared a blueprint for comprehensive reforms that will radically change the civil, police and judicial services in India. Redefining the role and function of the RBI must find the pride of place in the administrative reforms that is long overdue.

Creating this new entity will show the government’s determination in delivering safe and secure banking services to all Indians.

 

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Posted by on March 16, 2018 in Banking, Economics, India

 

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Is the PNB Fraud Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

Is the PNB Fraud Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

Another major financial scam hit headlines in January 2018 involving “fraudulent and unauthorized” transactions involving letters of undertaking (guarantee) to Antwerp based diamantaire Nirav Modi amounting to over Rs. 12,500 crores at the Punjab National Bank (PNB). Initial reports have suggested that this originated at a branch in Mumbai where a manager allegedly took advantage of the incomplete integration of the bank’s core banking platform with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network. The LOUs provided Nirav Modi access to huge foreign exchange loans provided by banks including the State Bank of India, Axis Bank, Allahabad Bank and Canara Bank. The diamantaire’s subsequent default on the loans blew the lid.

It is well known that the Banking industry all over the world, including India, is a highly regulated industry. Yet, with so many regulations and agencies monitoring it, Indian banks have been subjected to high profile, high value frauds with a regularity that is numbing. What is even more galling is the apparent ease with which the fraudsters seem to get away and live happily ever after. It makes us wonder if the authorities are really capable of providing a safe and secure banking environment for the people in India or are really just paper tigers. Whatever be the truth, the money has disappeared and there is little hope of retrieval.

This scam is reminiscent of the fraud that bought down Barings Futures Singapore (BFS) in the late 90s. Investigations had then revealed that Nick Leeson, a broker at the Bank’s Singapore office allegedly unbeknownst to the management, had entered into unauthorized speculative trading, that bought the bank down.

It is precisely to fix these types of frauds by lone wolves as well as risks arising from technology related issues that the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) brought out guidelines for enhanced scrutiny in the subsequent release of the Basel II guidelines. These robust guidelines have further been expanded in Basel III release and have largely succeeded in plugging these types of frauds worldwide. Like many countries, India too has mandated its banks to adopt these guidelines to bolster their risk management capabilities.

It will be instructive to look at the level of scrutiny banks in India, in particular, are subjected to. Firstly, each of these banks has their own set of guidelines for periodic – usually annual – mandatory audit of high value transactions both by internal as well as external auditors. This means, in the PNB scam case, at least ten internal and external audits of the five banks must have reviewed the same high value transactions of Nirav Modi at different points in time.

In addition, these banks themselves conduct periodic governance, risk and compliance audits that would specifically look into any operational or enterprise risks. Over and top of all this, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) meticulously inspects the banks regularly. This includes on site as well as offsite surveillance of the banks by dedicated teams.

The million dollar question on everybody’s mind is how did the diamantaire manage to pull wool over the eyes of PNB and the regulators? The obvious answer is that the auditors and agencies appear to have been silenced by invisible hands.

A look at the data published by RBI is indeed telling. (Please see table below – Bank-wise and Bank Group-wise Gross Non-Performing Assets report published by RBI at www.rbi.org.in). The non-performing assets (NPA) or bad loans as a percentage of gross loan jumped from 6.55% in 2015 to 12.90% in 2016 and then to 12.53% in 2017.

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It must be mentioned here that loans take several payments cycles and considerable delinquency (non-payment of dues) and/or a default to be classified as an NPA. In other words, Nirav Modi’s loan accounts and consequent exposure to banks arising out of the letters of undertaking would have been in active audit and regulatory scrutiny for considerable amount of time before it became a hot potato.

The report itself points to the fact that RBI knew about this precipitous jump in NPAs at PNB in 2016 or even much earlier. This would have automatically raised red flags internally and triggered closer review by the regulator. There is absolutely no gainsaying the fact that Dr.Raghuram Rajan, the then Governor of the RBI, must have been fully aware of this scam.

As is the wont of such high profile scams, many questions, including the most obvious ones, remain unanswered. If data available in public domain was already pointing to almost doubling of delinquent accounts in just twelve months at PNB, what actions did the regulators take? Were they prevented from discharging their duties? If so by whom? What was the role played by the then Ministry of Finance?

At least some things can be deduced from the above report. PNB must have been aware of this much before the RBI or the Ministry of Finance were informed since they compiled and sent the data to RBI.  The RBI knew what was going on at PNB long before the matter became public. Hence the arrest of low level officers at PNB or the alleged lack of connectivity to SWIFT are nothing but scapegoats in what now appears to be a premeditated loot of public money.

The PNB executive management and the auditors cannot escape responsibility for their negligence and apparent inaction, for that is tantamount to abetment of this colossal crime. The need of the hour is to revamp the bank’s executive management and clean up its audit and compliance processes. PNB has to step up the transparency in disclosures and come clean on the fraud so the real culprits face the law.

Recent media reports have pointed to the involvement of a senior politician of the UPA regime in this scam. Fingers point to a former minister in the UPA regime who has also been at the center of multiple other corruption accusations. Given India’s post-independence history of corruption, this comes as no surprise at all. That the scam leaked into public domain is the real surprise if at all there is any.

Banking, as we all know, is a business built on trust and relationships. Repeated breach of public trust in banks in India are symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the banking system.  It is now incumbent on the government and it’s investigating agencies to get to the bottom of the PNB scam and book the culprits – be it lowly officers or the high and mighty political overlords and bring them to justice. Any delay will only widen the public’s trust deficit in India’s banks.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2018 in Banking, Economics, India, Indian Economy

 

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