$1.8 Billion in India Bank Fraud Raises Fears of Ripple Effects

Punjab National Bank said almost $1.8 billion worth of fraud had occurred at just one of its Mumbai branches.

NEW DELHI — One of India’s largest commercial lenders said on Wednesday that it had detected fraudulent transactions worth $1.77 billion at just one of its branches, raising concerns about the possible impact across the banking sector at a time when the country is struggling to meet its economic growth targets.

The disclosure comes months after India’s government injected $32 billion into the sector to deal with bad loans, which by some estimates could be as high as $150 billion. Indian lenders, particularly those controlled by the state, have some of the highest ratios of bad loans in the world, but the government’s cash injection in October was nevertheless considered to be an inadequate step in dealing with the mountain of debt. Analysts have called for larger governance overhauls across the sector.

The scandal at Punjab National Bank, a state-controlled lender, risks drying up the very loans that are needed for the country’s small and medium-size businesses to help steer the government’s ambitious growth programs. A million people enter the labor force each month, according to official figures, and India has struggled to create sufficient jobs for them to fill.

Shares of Punjab National Bank closed 10 percent lower on Wednesday on the news of the fraudulent transactions. It and other government-controlled lenders account for about two-thirds of the banking sector and drive a majority of business loans to smaller enterprises, according to analysts.

“This is a reminder that the bank recapitalization scheme that the government outlined months ago doesn’t solve the problems in Indian banking,” said Mihir Sharma, a prominent Indian economist and columnist.

“Trying to do things on the cheap was always doomed for failure,” he said. “They have to bite the bullet and take on bureaucrats and the bank employee unions and actually fix banks’ governance or India will struggle to maintain its growth projections.”

Mr. Sharma, like other analysts, says the government in New Delhi will need to privatize a number of lenders or shut them down. State-owned banks are seen as bloated, with senior positions filled through political appointments rather than merit. Loans, meanwhile, are often doled out to politically important projects or voting regions before being given to financially worthy ones.

Punjab National Bank said on Wednesday that it had “detected some fraudulent and unauthorized transactions” at one of its Mumbai branches. “Based on these transactions, other banks appear to have advanced money to these customers abroad,” it said in a statement posted on the website of the city’s stock exchange.

The value of the fraudulent actions was worth nearly one-third of the bank’s market value after Wednesday’s share-price drop.

Fears that India’s wider banking sector may be exposed to Punjab National Bank’s troubles left investors panicked, driving shares in several other lenders to close lower on Wednesday, too.

The central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

But government officials played down the extent of Punjab National Bank’s woes and the potential for ripple effects on the sector.

“I don’t think this is out of control or too big a worry at this point,” Lok Rajan, joint secretary at the Department of Financial Services, told Indian reporters on Wednesday. “That is my broad sense.”

Analysts were skeptical of Mr. Rajan’s upbeat claims, however.

“This is a very big crisis,” Mr. Sharma said, “but it’s been so slow moving that people haven’t been concerned about it over the last few years.”

“Both the government and the central bank have been slow to fix the bad loans problem,” he added, noting that the government has had trouble getting lenders to come clean about the extent of bad loans in their portfolios.

“Even if bad loans are just under 10 percent in some public sector banks — which is the best we can hope for — that’s still worrying,” he said.

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