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REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Dark days.
ONE MORE DOWN

India’s central bank has booted yet another top banker

By Nupur Anand

It has been a troubling year for India’s private sector banks.

The latest one to receive a blow is YES Bank, the country’s fourth-largest private lender. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Sept. 19 extended its managing director and CEO Rana Kapoor’s term only till Jan. 31, 2019.

In June this year, shareholders had approved Kapoor’s re-appointment. His new three-year term began on Sept. 01 and was subject to RBI approval. Two days before the last term was about to get over, on Aug. 30, the RBI gave its nod for Kapoor to continue “till further notice” (pdf).

Now, almost three weeks later, the bank informed the stock exchanges about the RBI’s latest decision. “The board of directors of the bank are scheduled to meet on Sept. 25, 2018, to decide on the future course of action,” the notice said.

Kapoor, along with his brother-in-law Ashok Kapur, founded YES Bank in 2004, and has been at its helm since then. In a short span, he has managed to grow the bank’s corporate and retail loan book aggressively and substantially. Investors have clearly given its performance a thumbs up—its stock has shot up from only Rs12.5 in June 2005 to Rs318.50 on Sept. 19, 2018. (The stock market was shut on Sept. 20)

However, the bank has reportedly come under the central bank’s scanner over regulatory and governance issues under Kapoor’s watch.

What led to this?

In 2015, the RBI decided to conduct an asset quality review (AQR) to clean up the rising toxic loan problem in the country’s financial sector. As a result, several banks were forced to report loan divergences, i.e., the difference between the RBI’s assessment of bad loans and the one reported by the bank, in their quarterly results.

At a time when most banks were struggling with rising bad loans, YES Bank had managed to keep a check on its non-performing assets (NPAs). However, following the AQR review, the bank reported a divergence of Rs4,176 crore ($580 million) in its gross NPAs for the year ended March 2016. In the next financial year, as well after RBI’s audit, the bank reported an even larger loan divergence of Rs6,355 crore, which was three times the reported amount.

“Loan divergence is mere account jugglery and these things are not taken lightly by the regulator when exposed,” said an analyst with a domestic brokerage house, requesting anonymity. “Sometimes banks extend loans to genuinely restructure a loan. At other times, it is done only to delay recognising a problem.”

In 2016, the bank received another blow when YES Bank’s plan to raise $1 billion via qualified institutional placement failed. A few hours after it was launched, the bank decided to withdraw the offer, resulting in a major beating to the stock.

Bumpy road ahead

Now, the bank’s management needs to find Kapoor’s successor—an uphill task.

Earlier, its journey had been marred by a long-drawn legal battle. A few years after his tragic death in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, co-promoter Ashok Kapur’s wife and daughter dragged the boardroom battle to the court. They had accused Kapoor of exercising full control over the bank’s board, saying they were unable to jointly nominate one director to the board, which has 10 members.

In 2015, the Bombay high court ruled in Kapur’s favour and directed that any new whole-time director on the board of the bank can only be appointed with the consent of all the promoters. Considering the promoters have been at loggerheads and unable to agree on any major issue, this may be challenging, Hemindra Hazari, an independent bank analyst, noted in a post on Smartkarma, an investment research provider.

Private banking crisis

In the meantime, the bad loan problem has been festering.

By the end of March 2018, the sector’s gross NPAs had risen to 11.6% of total assets, from 10.2% in September 2017. These are loans against which repayments have not been made and there are chances of default. Public sector banks constitute a lion’s share of this pile while private players are relatively better placed.

Typically, the government-owned banks are also the ones plagued with governance issues while it is comparatively smooth sailing for the latter. However, not in recent times.

At Axis Bank, the country’s third-largest private sector bank, a similar governance issue story had played out earlier this year. Reportedly, the banking regulator was reluctant to grant Shikha Sharma, the managing director and CEO, another three-year extension considering the dismal performance of the bank in the last few quarter. Amidst this, Sharma announced her decision to step down by Dec. 31, 2018, after only six months into her term, which began in June.

“The RBI’s decision is a warning shot to the new private sector banks that they can no longer continue to mismanage their operations, that the regulator’s writ reigns supreme and that bank CEOs violate it at their peril,” Hazari noted. “Such a decision, though causing uncertainty for shareholders, reinforces the banking regulator’s credibility as a supervisor.”

Meanwhile, ICICI Bank’s chief Chanda Kochhar has been battling nepotism allegations over loan disbursal. She is now on leave till a probe into the issue is concluded.

In a surprise move, Paresh Sukthankar, the deputy managing director of HDFC Bank, also resigned in August. It was widely believed he was likely to succeed the managing director Aditya Puri, whose term ends in October 2020.