When the over 150-year-old United States investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust in September 2008, it sparked a global financial crisis and a gradual erosion of faith in public institutions, particularly banks.
India largely weathered that storm.
The country’s Lehman-like moment came 10 years later, in 2018, as a series of events shook its banking system and people’s faith in it. These events ranged from the resignation of the central bank governor to the unearthing of a giant fraud at a major state-run bank. The private-sector banks that had been on a better footing till last year also came under fire. A series of other scams and high-profile chief executive officer exits further dented confidence in the system.
Things are expected to improve in 2019, though.
For one, the sector’s huge pile of toxic loans is expected to come off its 2018 peak, according to official estimates. The rupee, Asia’s worst performing currency this year, has already begun recovering. The newly appointed governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Shaktikanta Das, is widely expected to mend battered ties between the government and the central bank.
But before we tread towards the next year, here’s a look at 10 big events in the banking sector that rocked the boat in 2018:
Bad loan resolution
Toxic loans have kept piling up in the Indian banking system for years.
Finally, in February, the central bank introduced a new set of rules for banks to recognise their bad-loan problems immediately and act. The industry strongly opposed these norms on the grounds that they would restrict their operations. Even the government wanted the Reserve Bank to relax some of these rules, but the central bank refused to oblige.
As the lenders were forced to be more prudent in recognising bad loans, more banks were brought under a corrective action plan by the Reserve Bank. The plan imposed restrictions on lending and expansion. Eleven out of India’s 21 public-sector banks were put under this framework, which became a sore point in government-Reserve Bank ties.
Now, however, government banks’ gross non-performing assets have begun declining. Their bad loans reduced from 14.6% at its peak in March to 14.1% by September, the government said in a presentation earlier this month.
Punjab National Bank fraud
The biggest banking fraud in India’s history came to light in February at a Mumbai branch of the Punjab National Bank, India’s second biggest state-run lender. Two diamantaires, Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi, allegedly siphoned nearly $2 billion (Rs 14,000 crore) from Punjab National Bank over a period of seven years.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigation filed a case against the duo on January 31, but by then both were on the run. While indications of their locations emerge at times, the two remain fugitives.
Following the busting of the scam, the government suspended several senior bankers, including Allahabad Bank chief executive officer Usha Ananthasubramanian, who had served as Punjab National Bank’s chief between August 2015 and May 2017. In a chargesheet filed by the CBI, it was alleged that Ananthasubramanian had ignored several red flags raised by the Reserve Bank, which led to the fraud.
Other bank scams
Soon after the Punjab National Bank scam broke out, a string of other frauds, amounting to over $2.5 billion, came to light in the banking system.
These included alleged frauds perpetrated by the owners of the popular Rotomac brand of pens and Simbhaoli Sugars, one of India’s largest sugar refineries. The name of C Sivasankaran, former promoter of telecom firm Aircel, was another one that emerged in this context.
Chanda Kochhar’s fall
Chanda Kochhar, the former chief executive officer of ICICI Bank, India’s second-largest private-sector lender by assets, was one of the most celebrated women bankers in the country till she quit the firm in October. Her 34-year association with the company ended following allegations of nepotism against her.
A whistleblower accused Kochhar of unfairly granting loans to NuPower Renewables, a firm founded by her husband. Soon, questions of conflict of interest, lack of disclosures, and quid pro quos surfaced.
While the bank staunchly defended her initially, it later agreed to set up an independent investigation. In July, Kochhar went on indefinite leave and the bank appointed an interim chief executive officer. Finally, in October, she quit.
Shikha Sharma’s impending exit
The managing director and chief executive officer of Axis Bank, India’s third-largest private lender, will also be stepping down on December 31, nearly two years before her term ends. This decision came amid reports that the banking regulator was not happy with the lender’s performance under Sharma’s watch.
Sharma took charge of the bank in 2009 and is credited with building its retail and investment banking portfolios. However, in the past couple of years, Axis Bank’s bad loans have increased and profits plunged.
Following the exodus of top bankers – Ananthasubramanian, Kochhar, and now Sharma – few women are left in top leadership roles in an industry that has always been dominated by men.
Mergers and apprehensions
The Narendra Modi government had said that bank consolidation was a key point on its agenda.
In line with the stance, in September, it announced plans for a mega merger between Mumbai-based Dena Bank, Bengaluru’s Vijaya Bank, and the Vadodara-headquartered Bank of Baroda. While Vijaya Bank and Bank of Baroda are strong entities, Dena Bank had been posting losses and was even barred from lending by the Reserve Bank, under its corrective action plan.
The merged entity will have total assets of over Rs 14 lakh crore and will end up becoming India’s third-largest lender, after the State Bank of India and HDFC Bank.
While the government believes that the new entity will be a stronger one, employees are not convinced. On December 26, employees of various public and private-sector banks went on strike protesting the merger, saying it will be detrimental for employees and customers.
In August-September, troubles at the non-banking financial company Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services sent tremors across the industry. It defaulted on a few repayments, indicating that the giant, with 169 subsidiaries, associates, and joint venture firms, had run out of cash.
This spooked the credit market and sparked a sell-off in bonds and stocks. Meanwhile, many banks turned cautious and refused to lend to other non-banking financial companies as well, sparking a liquidity crisis. The government then requested the Reserve Bank to relax certain norms to ease cash supply in the market. However, the central bank maintained its position that it was monitoring the situation but refused to oblige.
Currencies in emerging countries were on a weak footing this year as fears of a trade war loom. Higher crude oil prices, a strengthening dollar, and foreign investors pulling out of the country weighed on the rupee, which ended up as Asia’s worst performing currency, depreciating by nearly 10% this year. This despite a 5% appreciation in the period since October-end.
While a weaker rupee led to record remittance inflows, it was a major pain point for banks and other businesses. The government had to step in to stem the fall but the significant recovery in the rupee happened after the price of crude oil declined. Going into 2019, it is expected that the rupee will remain volatile ahead of the general elections next year.
YES Bank chief’s extension
Rana Kapoor, another poster boy of the Indian banking industry, was another chief executive officer to be booted out this year.
Th Reserve Bank refused to extend his term beyond January 31, 2019, but did not cite any specific reasons for its decision. Kapoor founded the bank about 14 years ago and has been its chief ever since.
It is widely believed that repeated under-reporting of toxic loans by the bank led to Kapoor’s exit. In financial year 2016, YES Bank reported a loan divergence of Rs 4,176 crore in its gross non-performing assets. The next year, an asset quality review by the Reserve Bank revealed that the bank had under-reported bad loans of Rs 6,355 crore – three times the reported amount.
The governor leaves
This was a year of exits in the banking industry. But the biggest shocker came when Urjit Patel resigned from his post as Reserve Bank governor on December 10, nearly a year before his term ended. Even though Patel cited personal reasons, it is widely believed the Reserve Bank’s worsening relationship with the Narendra Modi government led to this.
The two had been openly sparring on a host of matters, including access to the central bank’s reserves, lending restrictions placed on banks, and the central bank’s autonomy.
This article first appeared on Quartz.