A lot has been written on the jeweller Nirav Modi defrauding Punjab National Bank to the tune of $1.8 billion (or Rs 11,400 crore). One line of thought that has been pursued is that of the difference between the public sector banks and the private sector banks.
The logic offered here is that frauds happen only in public sector banks and not private sector banks. And even if they happen at private sector banks, the taxpayer does not pick up the tab. The taxpayer did pick up the tab when the private Global Trust Bank went belly up and had to be merged with the Oriental Bank of Commerce. If the bank is big enough and is going bust, the government has to ultimately come to the rescue, irrespective of whether it is privately owned or government owned. No bank of any significant size can be allowed to go bust.
Now let’s look at the first point I raised, whether public sector banks are defrauded more?
In a recent answer to a question raised in the Lok Sabha, the ministry of finance pointed out that between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, the total number of bank frauds were 12,778.
Of these 8,622 frauds happened in public sector banks and the remaining 4,156 at private sector banks. The ratio of the total number of frauds at public sector banks to the total number of frauds at private sector banks is 2.07.
The ratio of the average assets of public sector banks to the average assets of private sector banks, between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, is 2.95. If the ratio of frauds between the two types of banks were to be the same at 2.95, the total number of frauds at public sector banks would have amounted to 12,260 (4,156 multiplied by 2.95). This is not the case. The number of frauds is significantly lower than that. Hence, this basically means that public sector banks are having fewer frauds in terms of their size in comparison to their private sector counterparts in India.
Having said that what is true about public sector banks in general may not necessarily be true for the Punjab National Bank in particular. Punjab National Bank is the second largest public sector bank in the country. As of March 31, 2017, it had total assets worth Rs 7,20,331 crore.
In July 2017, the ministry of finance had provided some very interesting data points with regard to bank frauds. Between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, a period of five years, the Punjab National Bank faced 942 bank frauds with losses amounting to Rs 8,999 crore.
The only other public sector bank bigger than Punjab National Bank, is the State of Bank of India. As of March 31, 2017, it had assets worth Rs 33,23,191 crore, making it significantly bigger than the Punjab National Bank.
Between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the State Bank of India, faced 2,786 frauds with losses amounting to Rs 6,228 crore. Even though the State Bank of India faced more frauds, its total losses were 30.8% lower than that of Punjab National Bank.
Further, of the 78 banks that data was offered on, the Punjab National Bank faced the highest losses due to frauds. It’s average loss on a fraud was also three times the overall average loss on a fraud.
This tells us very clearly that the control systems at the Punjab National Bank were weaker than in comparison to the other banks, and that allowed bigger frauds to happen. In comparison, other banks were placed better than Punjab National Bank. Does this mean that if the bank had better control systems, Nirav Modi wouldn’t have been able to defraud the bank, to the extent that he did? On that your guess is as good as mine.
The column originally appeared on Firstpost on February 20, 2018.