It’s difficult not to detect a sense of déjà vu in the Nirav Modi scam, especially in all the hand-wringing and ex post facto zeal in setting up committees and investigations. Scams are a recurring motif in Indian banking, and the Punjab National Bank (PNB) case fits into the broad template of all previous stings.

In the search for solutions, a steady crescendo of drum-beats has been advocating whole-scale privatization of public sector (PSU) banks as a cure-all panacea. Implicit in the suggestion is the assumption that scams are the exclusive preserve of PSU banks. While it is true that the extent of scams and corruption is highest in PSU banks, data shows Indian private banks are not entirely immune.

The history of Indian banking over the past 50 years is littered with examples of failed private banks that were forcibly merged with stronger public sector banks (and with even stronger private banks recently—such as Bank of Rajasthan with ICICI Bank Ltd). This was done to safeguard depositors’ monies and to avoid systemic disruption. Here are a few random examples: Bank of Bihar was merged with State Bank of India in 1969; Hindustan Commercial Bank with PNB in 1986; Bari Doab Bank Ltd with Oriental Bank of Commerce in 1997; Kolkata-based United Industrial Bank merged with Allahabad Bank in 1989-90; Bank of Karad with Bank of India in 1994. The word merger has a volitional ring to it, but truth be told, there was nothing voluntary about these mergers.

Private banks have no special genes making them immune to scams and frauds. Global Trust Bank had to be merged with Oriental Bank of Commerce after its net worth was wiped out due to systemic fraud perpetrated by insiders. Even voluntary mergers in the post-reforms era are designed to escape distress and seek shelter with a stronger bank.

On balance, though, the larger proportion of scams in PSU banks does beg the question: why do they recur? One immediate reason could be the blurred lines of control and command. The government is the owner of PSU banks and exercises its shareholder rights capriciously: random appointments and transfers of chief executives, influencing appointment of board members, rationing out capital allocation in the name of fostering efficiency are some of the arbitrary control levers. The terrain turns tricky when government’s shareholder action starts impinging on Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI’s) regulatory regime. Bank senior executives, politically seasoned in picking up conflicting signals, reflexively align with the government even if it means contravening RBI’s regulatory framework.

For example, in the PNB fraud case, the bank’s core banking system (CBS) was not linked to its SWIFT system, thereby allowing officers to clandestinely issue letters of undertaking to Modi’s companies and confirming them with counter-party banks overseas through the SWIFT system.

This is despite RBI exhorting banks to link CBS with SWIFT; yet, PNB chose to violate these orders. It is, therefore, odd that none of the members of PNB’s governance troika—board, RBI or its all-powerful shareholder—pulled up the management or even sought an action taken report.

Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan writes in his book, I Do What I Do: “Today, a variety of authorities…monitor the performance of public sector banks… It is important that we streamline and reduce the overlaps between the jurisdictions of the authorities, and specify clear triggers or situations where one authority’s oversight is invoked."

RBI is tasked with detecting infirmities, but has no authority to enforce its own orders, administer remedial measures or even deliver swift punitive action. The central investigative agencies are tasked with following up on investigations and pursuing legal recourse. The political pulls and pressures on these agencies, as well as the Indian legal system’s long-drawn processes, provides swindlers with enough escape routes (pun intended), and is never a deterrent.

There is a likelihood that diminished incentives to regulate and supervise could be leading to weakened supervision and vigilance: most of it has become detection (after the event investigation) rather than prevention, which is to create systems and processes that raise alarms before the event or while transactions are taking place.

Flawed risk-mitigation design, which puts excessive focus on credit or market risks, has taken away attention from operation risk, leaving it susceptible to breaches. In addition, there is excessive dependence on manual supervision, at both external and internal levels. The sheer volume of transactions makes it impossible to manually control and supervise.

In the end, no matter what the design, somebody will always attempt to finesse the system. Blame corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, or the steadily disintegrating moral fibre of Indian businessmen, bankers and other white-collar professionals (as pointed out in this article), but scams are here to stay. The trick will be to construct a process design that prohibits anybody taking advantage of the system for sustained periods. And that will require dismantling some of the entitlement rights of the majority shareholder.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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