My next encounter with State Bank of India (SBI) was in 2007, when I was a non-resident Indian (NRI) living in Dubai.
In February that year, a news item appeared – HSBC’s subsidiary in the US had made a large provision for bad loans in its sub-prime housing loan portfolio. The news was met with derision from many quarters – “What do these limeys know about business in US?”
But an alarm bell rang in my mind.
I knew that HSBC was a conservative bank, and did not take large risks. If such a bank had taken a hit in the sub-prime market, there was big trouble brewing for the banks that were deep into this sector.
Acting on an impulse, I cashed out my investments in mutual funds across various markets and converted the entire amount into US dollar. I wanted to park the money in the safest possible place until I figured out what was happening.
In hindsight, this was a masterstroke, but alas, I did not have the gumption to make the next logical move – short-sell the shares of banks deep into sub-prime lending. Had I done that, I would have been a multi-millionaire.
The safest place, I reckoned, was India, and the safest bank in India was SBI – the bank least likely to fail. With the help of SBI’s Bahrain office, I opened an account with SBI’s NRI branch in Mumbai, and transferred all my money into foreign currency non-resident (FCNR) accounts.
The service I received was simply extraordinary.
My first line of contact was Mr Abhayankar (God bless him!), and within a day I received a call from him, plus welcome emails from his boss and the branch head. Thereafter, I simply had to make a call or send an email to Mr A, and whatever I needed to be done was attended to immediately. Mr A was also very informative without being intrusive.
Overall, I was very happy with SBI. The service level was way better than what my bank’s wealth management chaps could provide.
I had placed the FCNR deposits for staggered terms from two years to three years, maturing from mid-2009 onwards. By early 2009, I had made up my mind to retire and go back to India, and put my money into debt funds because of the favourable income tax rules.
US dollar was at a substantial premium to the rupee, about 5+%pa (per annum), in the forward market, so I figured that if I could book forward contracts on the dollar proceeds of the FCNR deposits to convert them to rupees, rather than do the conversion after the deposits matured, I would gain a little bit.
Quite tentatively, I asked Mr A if I could book such forward contracts, and within a day he confirmed – yes.
The fantastic service continued and, in fact, got even better. Mr A would monitor the US dollar/ rupee forward premiums, keep me advised, and help me book forward contracts at optimum times. Moreover, we booked the deals over the phone, followed by emails from me.
All good things must come to an end and, after some US$600,000 worth of forward contracts had been booked, SBI’s auditors stepped in and stopped this “irregular” practice.
I could not understand what the risk was for SBI. My US dollars were with SBI already, the forward contracts would have been covered by its dealing room, and the money would go into my NRI account at SBI itself. What was the problem?
Well, auditors will be auditors!
Eventually, I returned home to Kolkata. Mr A had retired, I was no longer an NRI, all my money was in rupee debt funds, and there was no point in having an account in SBI’s NRI branch in Mumbai. I closed the account.
Cut to 2022.
When COVID struck, I had encashed my debt funds and put my money into fixed deposits (FDs) at different banks, one big chunk being in a tiny (manager + two staff) branch of SBI closest to my house.
When the FDs were about to mature in 2022, I went to the branch to renew the maturing deposits.
To my consternation, there was a terse notice on the door of the branch saying that the branch had been closed and all the customer accounts had been transferred to another branch of SBI in the locality.
I was quite peeved. I had received no notice or information about the closure of the branch and the transfer of my accounts, even though SBI did have my phone number and email address in its records. In a fairly dismayed state, I went to the branch mentioned to find out the state of my account.
In this branch, I was stonewalled, practically told to go away, and eventually helped by a most unlikely person. Here is how.
I wanted to meet the branch manager, but the security guard would not let me meet him. I was made to sit on a rickety bench for nearly 30 minutes before the accountant deigned to meet me. He heard my story, but even before I could finish, he pointed to another person and said, “Talk to him.”
Another long-ish wait, then I met this person. He did not bother to waste any words, but merely pointed at a third person sitting behind a counter.
This person did hear me out, but said that whatever maturity instructions had been recorded at the time of opening the FDs, exactly those would be done. Nothing could be done about it. I had to go away and wait for the maturity date to pass, and then do whatever I wanted to do.
I must mention that all three men had very sullen and morose expressions on their faces. It looked like they hated their jobs, hated being in the branch, and hated me for interfering in their arduous tasks and wasting their time. Why don’t you just go away, you silly old man?
I had just walked out of the branch when a very young girl, probably the junior-most member of the staff, came after me, took my pass-book, and came back to tell me that, on maturity, the proceeds of the FDs would be credited to my savings account.
As you might guess, I returned to the branch the day after the FDs matured, and transferred all the money out via real time gross settlement (RTGS).
SBI – the best, and the worst, in customer service!
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(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)