Stings in India till now have been carried out to expose politicians. The Cobrapost sting is the first sting that has brought into the public domain the murky way in which the big Indian private banks operate. But more than just exposing the murky way in which big banks operate, the sting brings out in the open other uncomfortable truths as well.
1. The finance minister P Chidambaram in his recent budget speech had said “There are 42,800 persons – let me repeat, only 42,800 persons – who admitted to a taxable income exceeding Rs 1 crore per year.” Of course no one took that number seriously. We now know why.
The Cobrapost sting clearly shows us that there are many more people with a taxable income of more than Rs 1 crore. The straightforward and more than helpful way in which the banks were ready to help invest the black money of the ‘supposed’ politician that the Cobrapost reporter was fronting for, can only tell us one thing: Banks seem to be doing this regularly.
And given this we can only conclude that there are many people out there with taxable incomes of more than Rs 1 crore, who don’t pay tax, than just 42,800. While it’s an obvious conclusion that did not need this visual evidence, but it is still an important conclusion nonetheless.
2. The second thing that the sting tells us is that those who have black money do not keep all of it under their mattresses. A lot of it as we know goes into buying real estate (largely benami). But the holders of black money seem to like to diversify their hoarded “wealth”. As the Cobrapost press release points out “(Banks) accept huge amounts of cash and invest it in insurance products and gold.” The money invested in insurance products is in turn invested in stocks, government securities and financial securities issued by corporations. So hoarders of black money do seem to be following the age old investing principle of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. They seem to be buying everything. From gold. To real estate. To stocks. And even have money in fixed deposits with banks.
3. By investing at least in gold and fixed deposits, hoarders of black money also show us that they like to have some liquidity in the assets that they own. Real estate is not terribly liquid and neither are insurance policies.
4. The sting also shows our love for gold which goes with the large amount of black money in this country. Very small amounts of gold can be used to store a large amount of black money as wealth. India has lot of gold because Indians love it is the normal claim that is made, but India also has a lot of gold because there is a lot of black money floating around.
5. The good bit is that instead of just lying around under the mattresses of people, some of the black money is coming into the financial system. When people buy insurance policies which in turn buy either debt securities issued by the government or the private sector or invest in shares issued by a company getting listed on the stock exchange, they are in some way financing someone who needs the money. That is the ultimate job of any financial system. To move money from those who have it, to those who need it. Now what proportion of the total black money comes into the financial system, that no one has any clue off. But its better than people just channelising all their black money into land and other forms of real estate. Also as more of this money comes into the financial system the greater are its chances of being detected.
6. The other interesting thing is that banks are helping channelise black money into insurance and not mutual funds. The main reason for this is the fact that insurance companies pay a much higher commission than mutual funds do, even though mutual funds remain a much superior mode of investing. It also goes with the cross selling that banks tend to do these days given that almost all of them own insurance companies. So if you have ever wondered why the moment you enter a bank they try to sell you all kind of insurance policies and not attend to the need you really went there for, you now know the answer.
7. Another major reason for banks selling insurance and not mutual funds to this set of clientèle who wants to put its black money to work is the fact that the know your customer (KYC) norms for mutual funds are much stronger than those required to invest in insurance. This is clearly an anomaly that needs to be done away with. Either mutual fund KYC norms need to be weakened or insurance KYC norms need to be strengthened. If it was not for these KYC norms, mutual funds remain a better way of hoarding black money given that they are very liquid. You can buy a mutual fund today and sell out tomorrow (unless you are buying a tax saving mutual fund that comes with a lock-in of three years). The same is not possible in case of insurance which comes in with a minimum lock-in of five years. Hence, mutual funds also need to be provided equal access to black money as insurance has. Also someone who has a lot of black money and is wealthy, doesn’t really need to pay for the “pure” insurance that compulsorily comes with the investment oriented insurance plans.
8. The sting also tells us that banks have double standards. If you are ready to deposit/invest a lot of money with/through them, then they are more than ready to lay out the red carpet for you. If you are not, then try changing your address once and wait for all the proofs they want. Or try asking for a locker, and wait for the bank clerk/relationship manager to tell you that you will also have to open a fixed deposit of a few lakhs to get a locker. Meanwhile as the Cobrapost press release points banks “ allot lockers for the safekeeping of the illegitimate cash, including special large size lockers to accommodate crores of hard cash.” Or try depositing money and the bank clerk will give you a nasty look for having to count the total amount of money you are depositing. Whereas if you have black money, the bank will come to your residence to collect it. As the Cobrapost press release points out the bank will “personally come to the residence of the client to take the black money deal forward and collect the cash, even bring along counting machine.” Wow.
9. What the sting also tells us is that how simple it is to create a fake identity in this country. The rapist Bitti Mohanty could do it. So can you if you have black money. And the banks will help you with it. As the Cobrapost press release points out “ICICI Bank officials were ready to make a suitable profile for the client, such as showing him as an agriculturist or engaged in some business, so as to make the investment unquestionable. On the other hand, Axis Bank officials proved to be a notch above in inventing fraudulent means. Use “sundry” accounts of the bank, they suggested, to deposit all the illegal cash from where it is to be routed into investment. Either use accounts of other customers, for a fee, to transfer money abroad, or use some shell company and take away a chunk of foreign currency as expenses toward business-cum-leisure trips.”
10. And to conclude, what the sting clearly tells us is that everybody who pays Income Tax in this country is basically an idiot who is being taken for a royal ride. If you have a lot of black money and you are not paying tax on it, chances are somebody out there is waiting for you with a red carpet.
Please go find him.
The < a href="http://www.firstpost.com/business/10-things-that-the-cobrapost-sting-tells-us-about-banks-661376.html">article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on March 14, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)