Friday, 23 February, 2018

India's banks rattled by $1.8 billion fraud

Punjab National Bank | AFP Punjab National Bank | AFP
Ellis Copeland | 15 February, 2018, 16:21

Punjab National Bank's stock sank almost 10% Wednesday after the company said it "detected some fraudulent and unauthorized transactions" at a branch in Mumbai.

In its caution notice to other banks, PNB has said that "there is clear criminal connivance of group of Shri Nirav Modi and Gitanjali Gems (owned by his uncle Mehul Choksi) with PNB branch officials and officials of overseas branches of Indian Banks". The agency is already probing Nirav for alleged cheating and fraud involving Rs 280 crore at a PNB branch. "Solar Exports, Stellar Diamonds and Diamond R U.S. for availing buyers credit from overseas branches of Indian banks".

Meanwhile, Axis Bank on Thursday issued a letter to National Stock Exchange (NSE) and Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), notifying that it had undertaken transactions against Letters of Undertaking (LoUs) issued by other banks, with PNB in the past. There is no directive from RBI in this matter so far, but PNB has said if push comes to shove they will bear the entire liability involved in this case.

An LOU is a letter of comfort issued by one bank to branches of other banks, based on which foreign branches offer credit to buyers. "The RBI is investigating these transactions... how it happened and the extent of fraud", a top banking source said.

A massive sell off was triggered in bank stocks on Wednesday as new measures announced by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to deal with non-performing assets (NPAs) and a $1.8 billion fraud reported by the Punjab National Bank spooked investors.

When the firms argued that they had used such facilities in the past without keeping any money on margin, PNB scanned through records and found no trace of any transactions, according to the bank's account.

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"The public servants committed abuse of official position to cause pecuniary advantage to Diamonds R US, Solar Exports and Stellar Diamonds and wrongful loss of Rs 280.70 crore to PNB during 2017".

Earlier today, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) registered a money laundering case against Nirav Modi and his relatives along.

Fears that India's wider banking sector may be exposed to Punjab National Bank's troubles left investors panicked, driving shares in several other lenders to close lower on Wednesday, too. Such transactions went on for years without detection, PNB said.

Modi, his wife, brother and Choksi are partners in these three firms, the CBI FIR said.

Terming the matter "sensitive", Mehta said the bank has sought some "breathing time" from the related parties to bring the culprits to book. The bank reported a net worth of Rs 38,096.45 crore for FY 17.

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