“India is a turnaround scrip in the world market.”
“Either you kill, or you get killed”
— Harshad Mehta
“Though normally quite reasonable and courteous, there was one breed of brokers he truly detested. to him and other kids in the money markets, brokers were meant to be treated like loyal dogs.”
The first two claims by Harshad Mehta could be said to form the central theme of the book, The Scam, while the third statement is testimony to the fact of how compartmentalization within the camaraderie proved efficacious to the broker-trader nexus getting nixed, albeit briefly. The authors Debasish Basu and Sucheta Dalal have put a rigorous investigation into unraveling the complexity of what in popular culture has come to be known as the first big securities scam in India in the early 90s. That was only the beginning, for securities scams, banking frauds and financial crimes have since become a recurrent feature, thanks to increasing mathematization and financialization of market practices, stark mismatches on regulatory scales of The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Public Sector Banks and foreign banks, and stock-market-oriented economization. The last in particular has severed the myth that stock markets are speculative and had no truck with the banking system, by capitalizing and furthering the only link between the two, and that being banks providing loans against shares subject to high margins.
The scam which took the country by storm in 1992 had a central figure in Harshad Mehta, though the book does a most amazing archaeology into unearthing other equally, if not more important figures that formed a collusive network of deceit and bilk. The almost spider-like weave, not anywhere near in comparison to a similar network that emanated from London and spread out from Tokyo and billed as the largest financial scandal of manipulating LIBOR, thanks to Thomas Hayes by the turn of the century, nevertheless magnified the crevices existing within the banking system and bridging it with the once-closed secretive and closed bond market. So, what exactly was the scam and why did it rock India’s economic boat, especially when the country was opening up to liberal policies and amalgamating itself with globalization?
As Basu and Dalal say, simply put, the first traces of the scam were observed when the State Bank of India (SBI), Main Branch, Mumbai discovered that it was short by Rs. 574 crore in securities. In other words, the antiquated manually written books kept at the Office of Public Debt at the RBI showed that Rs. 1170.95 crore of an 11.5% of central government loan of 2010 maturity was standing against SBI’s name on the 29th February 1992 figure of Rs. 1744.95 crore in SBI’s books, a clear gap of Rs. 574 crore, with the discrepancy apparently held in Securities General Ledger (SGL). Of the Rs. 574 crore missing, Rs. 500 crore were transferred to Harshad Mehta’s account. Now, an SGL contains the details to support the general ledger control account. For instance, the subsidiary ledger for accounts receivable contains all the information on each of the credit sales to customers, each customer’s remittance, return of merchandise, discounts and so on. Now, SGLs were a prime culprit when it came to conceiving the illegalities that followed. SGLs were issued as substitutes for actual securities by a cleverly worked out machination. Bank Receipts (BRs) were invoked as replacement for SGLs, which on the one hand confirmed that the bank had sold the securities at the rates mentioned therein, while on the other prevented the SGLs from bouncing. BRs is a shrewd plot line whereby the bank could put a deal through, even if their Public Debt Office (PDO) was in the negative. Why was this circumvention clever was precisely because had the transactions taken place through SGLs, they would have simply bounced, and BRs acted as a convenient run-around, and also because BRs were unsupported by securities. In order to derive the most from BRs, a Ready Forward Deal (RFD) was introduced that prevented the securities from moving back and forth in actuality. Sucheta Dalal had already exposed the use of this instrument by Harshad Mehta way back in 1992 while writing for the Times of India. The RFD was essentially a secured short-term (generally 15 day) loan from open bank to another, where the banks would lend against Government securities. The borrowing bank sells the securities to the lending bank and buys them back at the end of the period of the loan, typically at a slightly higher price. Harshad Mehta roped in two relatively obscure and unknown little banks in Bank of Karad and Mumbai Mercantile Cooperative Bank (MMCB) to issue fake BRs, or BRs not backed by Government securities. It were these fake BRs that were eventually exchanged with other banks that paid Mehta unbeknownst of the fact that they were in fact dealing with fake BRs.
By a cunning turn of reason, and not to rest till such payments were made to reflect on the stock market, Harshad Mehta began to artificially enhance share prices by going on a buying spree. To maximize profits on such investments, the broker, now the darling of the stock market and referred to as the Big Bull decided to sell off the shares and in the process retiring the BRs. Little did anyone know then, that the day shares were sold, the market would crash, and crash it did. Mehta’s maneuvers lent a feel-good factor to the stock market until the scam erupted, and when it did erupt, many banks were swindled to a massive loss of Rs. 4000 crore, for they held on to BRs that had no value attached to them. The one that took the most stinging loss was the State Bank of India and it was payback time. The mechanism by which the money was paid back cannot be understood unless one gets to the root of an RBI subsidiary, National Housing Bank (NHB). When the State Bank of India directed Harshad Mehta to produce either the securities or return the money, Mehta approached the NHB seeking help, for the thaw between the broker and RBI’s subsidiary had grown over the years, the discovery of which had appalled officials at the Reserve Bank. This only lends credibility to the broker-banker collusion, the likes of which only got murkier as the scam was getting unravelled. NHB did come to rescue Harshad Mehta by issuing a cheque in favor of ANZ Grindlays Bank. The deal again proved to be one-handed as NHB did not get securities in return from Harshad Mehta, and eventually the cheque found its way into Mehta’s ANZ account, which helped clear the dues due to the SBI. The most pertinent question here was why did RBI’s subsidiary act so collusively? This could only make sense, once one is in the clear that Harshad Mehta delivered considerable profits to the NHB by way of ready forward deals (RFDs). If this has been the flow chart of payment routes to SBI, the authors of The Scam point out to how the SBI once again debited Harshad Mehta’s account, which had by then exhausted its balance. This was done by releasing a massive overdraft of Rs. 707 crore, which is essentially an extension of a credit by a lending institution when the account gets exhausted. Then the incredulous happened! This overdraft was released against no security!, and the deal was acquiesced to since there was a widespread belief within the director-fold of the SBI that most of what was paid to the NHB would have come back to SBI subsidies from where SBI had got its money in the first place.
The Scam is neatly divided into two books comprising 23 chapters, with the first part delineating the rise of Harshad Mehta as a broker superstar, The Big Bull. He is not the only character to be pilloried as the nexus meshed all the way from Mumbai (then Bombay) to Kolkata (then Calcutta) to Bengaluru (then Bangalore) to Delhi and Chennai (then Madras) with a host of jobbers, market makers, brokers and traders who were embezzling funds off the banks, colluded by the banks on overheating the stock market in a country that was only officially trying to jettison the tag of Nehruvian socialism. But, it wasn’t merely individuated, but the range of complicitous relations also grabbed governmental and private institutions and firms. Be it the Standard Chartered, or the Citibank, or monetizing the not-even in possession of assets bought; forward selling the transaction to make it appear cash-neutral; or lending money to the corporate sector as clean credit implying banks taking risks on the borrowers unapproved by the banks because it did not fall under the mainline corporate lending, rules and regulations of the RBI were flouted and breached with increasing alacrity and in clear violations of guidelines. But credit is definitely due to S Venkitaraman, the Governor of the RBI, who in his two-year at the helm of affairs exposed the scam, but was meted out a disturbing treatment at the hands of some of members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Harshad Mehta had grown increasingly confident of his means and mechanisms to siphon-off money using inter-bank transactions, and when he was finally apprehended, he was charged with 72 criminal offenses and more than 600 civil action suits were filed against him leading to his arrest by the CBI in the November of 1992. Banished from the stock market, he did make a comeback as a market guru before the Bombay High Court convicted him to prison. But, the seamster that he was projected to be, he wouldn’t rest without creating chaos and commotion, and one such bomb was dropped by him claiming to have paid the Congress Prime minister PV Narsimha Rao a hefty sum to knock him off the scandal. Harshad Mehta passed away from a cardiac arrest while in prison in Thane, but his legacy continued within the folds he had inspired and spread far and wide.
Ketan Parekh forms a substantial character of Book 2 of The Scam. Often referred to as Midas in privy for his ability to turn whatever he touched into gold on Dalal Street by his financial trickery, he decided to take the unfinished project of Harshad Mehta to fruition. Known for his timid demeanor, Parekh from a brokers family and with his training as a Chartered Accountant, he was able to devise a trading ring that helped him rig stock prices keeping his vested interests at the forefront. He was a bull on the wild run, whose match was found in a bear cartel that hammered prices of K-10 stocks precipitating payment crisis. K-10 stocks were colloquially named for these driven in sets of 10, and the promotion of these was done through creating bellwethers and seeking support fro Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs). India was already seven years old into the LPG regime, but still sailing the rough seas of economic transitioning into smooth sailing. This wasn’t the most conducive of timing to appropriate profits, but a prodigy that he was, his ingenuity lay in instrumentalizing the jacking up of shares prices to translate it into the much needed liquidity. this way, he was able to keep FIIs and promoters satisfied and multiply money on his own end. This, in financial jargon goes by the name circular trading, but his brilliance was epitomized by his timing of dumping devalued shares with institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and Unit Trust of India (UTI). But, what differentiated him from Harshad Mehta was his staying off public money or expropriating public institutions. such was his prowess that share markets would tend to catch cold when he sneezed and his modus operandi was invest into small companies through private placements, manipulate the markets to rig shares and sell them to devalue the same. But lady luck wouldn’t continue to shine on him as with the turn of the century, Parekh, who had invested heavily into information stocks was hit large by the collapse of the dotcom bubble. Add to that when NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee presented the Union Budget in 2001, the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) Sensex crashed prompting the Government to dig deep into such a market reaction. SEBI’s (Securities and Exchange Board of India) investigation revealed the rogue nature of Ketan Parekh as a trader, who was charged with shaking the very foundations of Indian financial markets. Ketan Parekh has been banned from trading until 2017, but SEBI isn’t too comfortable with the fact that his proteges are carrying forward the master’s legacy. Though such allegations are yet to be put to rest.
The legacy of Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh continue to haunt financial markets in the country to date, and were only signatures of what was to follow in the form of plaguing banking crisis, public sector banks are faced with. As Basu and Dalal write, “in money markets the first signs of rot began to appear in the mid-1980s. After more than a decade of so-called social banking, banks found themselves groaning under a load of investments they were forced to make to maintain the Statutory Liquidity Ratio. The investments were in low-interest bearing loans issued by the central and state governments that financed the government’s ever-increasing appetite for cash. Banks intended to hold these low-interest government bonds till maturity. But each time a new set of loans came with a slightly higher interest rate called the coupon rate, the market price of older securities fell, and thereafter banks began to book losses, which eroded their profitability,” the situation is a lot more grim today. RBI’s autonomy has come under increased threat, and the question that requires the most incision is to find a resolution to what one Citibank executive said, “RBI guidelines are just that, guidelines. Not the law of the land.”
The Scam, as much as a personal element of deceit faced during the tumultuous times, is a brisk read, with some minor hurdles in the form of technicalities that intersperse the volume and tend to disrupt the plot lines. Such technical details are in the realm of share markets and unless negotiated well with either a prior knowledge, or hyperlinking tends to derail the speed, but in no should be considered as a book not worth looking at. As a matter of fact, the third edition with its fifth reprint is testimony to the fact that the book’s market is alive and ever-growing. One only wonders at the end of it as to where have all such journalists disappeared from this country. That Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal, partners in real life are indeed partners in crime if they aim at exposing financial crimes of such magnitudes for the multitude in this country who would otherwise be bereft of such understandings had it not been for them.