Now the regulator, the Reserve Bank of India, will decide whether Kumar’s unhappiness is a case of sour grapes or if Puri did indeed cross a line. For State Bank of India, Altico is just one of the several instances where the taxpayer-funded bank has been at the receiving end.
didn’t drag tycoon Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications Ltd. to an in-court bankruptcy process, hoping instead that Ambani would be able to sell assets to his brother Mukesh, India’s richest man, out of court. Ericsson AB, an operational creditor, pursued the opposite strategy and got itself a very decent court-enforced settlement by invoking the younger Ambani’s personal guarantee.
More recently, SBI’s Kumar received a fresh blow when India’s enforcement directorate, tasked to fight economic crime, attached the assets of insolvent Bhushan Power & Steel Ltd. on suspicion of money laundering by its previous management. Both the new owner, who won control of Bhushan during bankruptcy, and Kumar, who’s waiting for his check, are impatient. Yet, thanks to the enforcement directorate, the $2.8 billion sale has now been put on hold by an adjudicating authority.
ArcelorMittal, too, has also been waiting endlessly to conclude a near-$6 billion purchase of Essar Steel India Ltd., the most keenly watched Indian bankruptcy. There, Kumar and other creditors are facing a legalized version of snatch-and-grab: An appellate authority has held that rights of financial creditors like SBI
are no superior to those of unsecured operational creditors.
101 is being turned upside down in India. Take securitization. It got a bad rep during the 2008 subprime crisis, but the reality is that for India’s cash-starved shadow banks
to survive, they must package more of their small-ticket loans into securities and sell them on to people like Kumar, who have a more stable source of funding: deposits.
How hard is this? A court order is blocking the troubled Dewan Housing Finance
Corp., which is seeking a restructuring of its $12 billion liabilities to Kumar and other creditors, from putting cash collected from homeowners into accounts from which holders of its mortgage-backed securities are paid. Six of these bonds were downgraded this week by Moody’s Corp. affiliate ICRA — three of them defaulted. These notes were supposed to perform for investors even if Dewan went bankrupt. Securitization will not lead to a safer financial system in India if this basic tenet is flouted.
Small savers may not understand the nuances of high finance, but they’re the ones who feel the pain when a cooperative bank goes up in flames and the regulator puts limits on cash withdrawals. That’s what happened recently after a $1 billion fraud at Punjab & Maharashtra Co-operative Bank. The Reserve Bank is playing with fire. Imagine the consequences if, say, housing societies decide to move money out of smaller institutions and into too-big-to-fail SBI
or HDFC Bank. Bailing out even small parts of a large deposit-taking industry will become a headache for Indian taxpayers.
A capital-constrained economy like India can’t afford a jungle raj in finance. Only a set of clear rules can end the cash grab by powerful intermediaries and state authorities. Once powerless depositors join in the free-for-all, it will be too late.