During the course of the last one week, the hottest news-story in India has been that of a jeweller named Nirav Modi, allegedly defrauding one of India’s largest government owned banks, the Punjab National Bank (PNB).
PNB is India’s second largest government owned bank (with assets of around Rs 7,203 billion ($111.7 billion, assuming $1 = Rs 64.5) as on March 31, 2017). The total amount of the fraud has been estimated to be at $1.8 billion (or around Rs 114 billion). News report suggest that Modi (no relation to the current prime minister of India Narendra Modi) fled the country in early January. His immediate family also left India, during the course of the month.
Nirav Modi is believed to be holed up in a luxury hotel in New York and was last seen in Davos, as a part of a business delegation which got a picture clicked with the prime minister Narendra Modi. Before Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, another businessman, who hasn’t repaid loans worth Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion) due to Indian banks, fled the country.
The latest fraud basically involves PNB guaranteeing loans issued to Nirav Modi by issuing a letter of undertaking (LOU). Every time a loan became due, Nirav Modi got PNB to open another LOU equivalent to the loan amount plus the interest that was due on it. The money from the new LOU was used to pay off the loan and the interest due on the previous LOU. In the process, Modi never repaid the loan.
Currently, it is being suggested that he was helped in the process by two employees of PNB. That such a huge Ponzi scheme could be run without the top or the middle management of the bank knowing about it, is a little difficult to believe.
Thus, Modi managed to operate a Ponzi scheme, with money from the new LOU being used to pay off the previous one. Of course, like all Ponzi schemes, Nirav Modi’s scheme collapsed as well. And before the authorities came after him, he left the country, along with his family.
How does Nirav Modi’s fraud look in light of the other frauds that Indian banks face? In July 2017, the ministry of finance had shared some interesting data in this context.
Between the years 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the banks in the country had seen a total number of 22,949 frauds, with total losses to banks amounting to Rs 698 billion ($10.8 billion). The average loss on a fraud thus amounted to Rs 30.4 million ($0.47 million). The interesting thing here is that of the 78 banks on the list, PNB faced the highest losses when it came to frauds. Over the five-year period, the bank faced 942 frauds with losses of Rs 90 billion ($1.4 billion). The losses amounted to around 12.9% of the total losses faced by the Indian banks due to frauds.
In fact, the average loss for PNB due to frauds stood at Rs 95.5 million ($1.48 million), which was three times the total average of Rs 30.4 million. Also, more than that, PNB faced more frauds than the State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, with an asset base which is 4.6 times that of PNB.
What this tells us is that PNB’s control systems were in bad shape and hence, the bank got defrauded significantly more than the other banks did. Having said that, the average fraud at PNB between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 had cost the bank Rs 95.5 million. In Nirav Modi’s case, the size of the fraud is around Rs 114 billion, which is much bigger than the size of the average fraud PNB has faced in the recent years.
What this tells us is that Nirav Modi’s case is more than a petty bank fraud. It is basically more along the lines of a large bank loan default; which many of India’s crony capitalists specialise in.
India’s government owned banks have been facing a huge pressure of corporate loan defaults over the last few years. As of September 2017, the bad loans ratio of these banks stood at 13.5%. This basically means that of every Rs 100 of loans given by these banks, Rs 13.5 had been defaulted on. A bad loan is a loan which hasn’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. The corporate default rate has been even higher.
Largely due to corporate loan defaults, the Indian banks have had to write off loans worth around Rs 2,500 billion ($38.8 billion) for the period of five years ending March 31, 2017. Nirav Modi’s bank fraud will only add to this.
To keep these banks going, the government of India has to regularly keep infusing capital in them. In fact, an estimate made by The Times of India suggests that the government has infused Rs 2,600 billion ($40.3 billion) in the banks that it owns, over the last 11 years. Every rupee that goes into these banks is taken away from more important areas like agriculture, education, health, defence etc.
The reason why many Indian businessmen blatantly default on loans is because they know that given India’s slow judicial system and their closeness to politicians, their chances of getting away with a loan default are very high. Nirav Modi is just a small part of this significant whole.
No wonder, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, in a November 2014 speech had said that, India was a “country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters”.
A slightly different version of this column appeared on BBC.com on February 20, 2018.