Even while the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT)’s Mumbai bench blasted a consortium of banks for their attempt to withdraw the bankruptcy petitions of the Sterling Biotech group—bankers themselves seem to be in a defiant mood and are set to contest the NCLT order. This was decided at a meeting of Sterling Biotech lenders on 9th May that Moneylife has accessed.
Remember, the sterling group owes over Rs15,600 crore to a consortium of banks led by Andhra Bank (Sterling Biotech owes over Rs7,500 crore to lenders, sister concern Sterling SEZ owes over Rs8,100 crore). It has offered to pay less than 45% of this amount as a one-time settlement. But what is important here is that the promoters of Sterling -- Nitin, Chetak and Dipti Sandesara and Hitesh Patel—are absconding from India and are also under investigation by all the top investigation agencies in India.
So what emboldens bankers in this specific case when the courts have questioned their conduct? The Gujarat-based Sandesaras have been known for their political connections and their closeness to former CBI special director Rakesh Asthana.
So is there political influence or pressure at work to rehabilitate the Gujarat-based Sandesaras and wipe out over half their debt? Here is a gist of what the bankers decided on 9th May.
1. The committee noted that the final order of the NCLT was yet to be issued as on that day. It also noted that it has the option of approaching the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal and then the Supreme Court. This suggests that bankers, mostly Indian public sector banks (PSBs) intend to spend public money to make a fight of it.
2. The meeting noted that one Mago Singh, who is identified as “representative of the promoters informed over phone to COC that promoters will be approaching the Supreme Court against the NCLT order”. If this does happen, it will be interesting to see whether the apex court entertains a petition from absconding promoters under investigation by all law enforcement agencies that too with an offer to pay less than half their massive outstanding debt. Clearly, the Committee of Creditors (COC) have taken this assurance by Mr Mago, seriously enough.
Comment: There is however no reference to the source of funds that the promoters will access to repay banks? India’s massive bad loans of nearly Rs10 lakh crore have reached this high figure mainly because bankers and politicians colluded with shady industrialists to keep lending to group companies and turn a blind eye to their siphoning of funds.
3. The meeting noted that Andhra Bank and State Bank of India (SBI) had received letters from the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), SFIO (Serious Frauds Investigation Office), ED (Enforcement Directorate) that they are investigating the group and also raised concerns about how bankers can enter into a settlement with absconding, fugitive promoters.
Comment: This recording is interesting, because various governors of Reserve Bank of India (RBI), including the high profile Dr Raghuram Rajan would have us believe that bankers are so worried about action by investigation agencies, that they are afraid to lend. Here is an example, where even questions and investigations by the very same agencies, with draconian powers of arrest, doesn’t seem to have fazed a whole committee of lenders.
4. State Bank of India in fact informed the committee that it would be writing to the “Ministry through the IBA (Indian Banks Association) that more recovery is expected through OTS (One Time Settlement) with promoters and OTS should be allowed.”
Comment: This very assertion makes a mockery of the bankruptcy law and exposes how banks are unconcerned with the actions of promoters including siphoning of funds and money laundering.
5. Andhra Bank has informed the investigation agencies that they had entered into the OTS as per RBI (Reserve Bank of India) guidelines.
Comment: It is unclear whether the RBI guidelines are silent about banks entering into deals with fugitive and absconding promoters or specifically permits it.
6. Andhra Bank also told all the lenders that once the NCLT order is received they plan to obtain a legal opinion on the way forward. It wanted all other lenders to do the same. The COC ended with a decision to meet again to plan further action.
A summary of the meeting, recorded by one of the attendees, expose the preposterous state of affairs in public sector banks and how banks collude with fugitive promoters accused of money laundering and worse, to loot public money.
It is an issue that all Indians need to watch with great interest. If bankers, especially those of PSBs, as a group had acted with half the resolve to recover loans from top industrialists our banking system would have been in far better shape. Remember, banks already stand to lose over nearly Rs50,000 crore on Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications alone.
By way of background, on 26th April, the NCLT had withdrawn its earlier order allowing the lenders of Sterling SEZ to withdraw the bankruptcy petiton. It also directed government to take punitive action against the senior officials of the lenders for misleading the Tribunal with a withdrawal plea.
The Enforcement Directorate had strongly opposed the banks’ move to allow the promoters to get away with a settlement. It remains to be seen how this case plays out, because this move has direct bearing on hundreds of other cases including Essar Steel and Kingfisher Airlines.
While the Sandesaras have allegedly offered to pay 100% of principle and a fraction of interest, Vijay Mallya repeatedly tweets that he has offered to pay 100% including interest and has submitted a list of assets that exceeds his outstanding.
The Sterling group resolution is fast emerging as the biggest test of the bankruptcy code.
Moneylife sent emails to the chairman of SBI and managing director of Andhra Bank seeking their comment on this issue. We will update this article as and when we receive any reply from them.
An industrialist, who has keen interest in the resolution of bad loans, told me that banks are no longer keen on the shining new bankruptcy law—Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC)—to recover bad loans. He says that banks prefer to find other solutions because of long delays and endless litigation, often leading to an outcome that is no better than what could have been achieved through negotiation.
According to him, the government has told bankers to work hard to avoid the liquidation route, because that fetches a pittance. So, banks now prefer to negotiate with promoters and are turning a blind eye to bids from absconding promoters or their front companies.
This indicates that the bankruptcy law will rapidly go the way of all previous legislations and debt recovery mechanisms that failed to help lenders recover bad loans. And, bankers in collusion with borrowers, supported by politicians, will ensure that banks will keep writing off bad loans and the exchequer will bail them out through repeated recapitalisation.
In other words, you and I will continue to pay for the massive bad loans of big industrialists, farmers and anyone else whose outstanding debt is condoned by the our politicians.
Bad loans of Indian banks are estimated at Rs10 lakh crore or more. Moreover, banks have been routinely cleaning up their books through massive ‘technical write-offs’, knowing full well that there will be almost no recovery in most cases. This is done as a tax-saving measure with full support from the finance ministry. Such write-offs are massive.
Gamed from the Start
Despite assertions of having rooted out corruption, many corrupt bankers have been complicit in gaming the IBC from the very beginning. In November 2017, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI) published detailed guidelines on how creditors should evaluate bids. It asked the committee of creditors (CoC) to carry out due diligence to ensure that each resolution plan is viable, to avoid plans that may ‘lead to liquidation, post-resolution’, and ensure that persons submitting the plan ‘are credible’. This guidance was promptly ignored.
As Debashis Basu wrote in November 2017, “One of the many flaws of the badly drafted IBC and the whole new bankruptcy architecture is that it did not take into account the very Indian possibility that promoters (and others) will try to game the system in many obvious ways.” In September 2017, he had written about how the bankruptcy process was gamed from the very first resolution of Synergies Dooray Automotive Ltd.
However, all these clues were buried under the orchestrated hoopla and social media celebration by government ministers after the bidding wars leading to few successful resolutions such as Bhushan Steel, Monnet Ispat & Energy, Electrosteels and Binani Cement. Barring the keen interest among leading industrialists to acquire Essar Steel and Bhushan Power , the average recovery, in most cases, is below 25% and there are simply no buyers for many basket cases.
Of the first 12 accounts referred to bankruptcy proceedings, Bhushan Steel, Electrosteels Steel, Jyoti Structures and Alok Industries found buyers. Lanco Infratech and ABG Shipyard have gone into liquidation, while Amtek Auto also seems headed that way.
Essar Steel, Bhushan Power and Jaypee Infratech are embroiled in endless litigation. The only serious bidder for Jaypee Infratech, which owes Rs9,782 crore to creditors, is State owned NBCC Ltd, which has made a complex and conditional bid that does not seem to give lenders much hope of recovery.
The lenders of Era Infrastructure Engineering (debt in excess of Rs17,000 crore including subsidiaries/special purpose vehicles) are still struggling to find a workable resolution, since the group has arbitration awards with regard to the money owed to it by various entities, including the National Highway Authority of India.
IBC seems headed the way of many other failed laws such as SICA, BIFR, SARFAESI and others; of the 1,484 cases admitted, only 40 have been closed.
Let’s take a look at specific cases that are likely to derail IBC.
Liberty’s Games: London-based Liberty House, headed by Sanjeev Gupta, was one of the big movers & shakers in the bankruptcy business three years ago. It was always rumoured in business circles that Liberty House had no plan to hold on to the companies after getting them cheap. Now, Sanjay Gupta has messed up the resolution process and obstructed serious bidders in his three winning bids for ABG Shipyard, Amtek Auto and Adhunik Metaliks.
ABG Shipyard: On 25th April, NCLT (National Company Law Tribunal) ordered the liquidation of ABG Shipyard after Liberty House failed to pay up the small upfront fee on its Rs5,200-crore bid. ABG Shipyard owes a massive Rs18,245 crore to a consortium of 22 lenders, led by ICICI Bank. They would be lucky to recover even Rs2,200 crore, on liquidation.
Amtek Auto: Liberty House won Amtek Auto with an offer of Rs4,400 crore in July 2018. After it failed to pay up, NCLT’s Chandigarh bench recommended prosecution and allowed it to withdraw the bid after imposing a cost on it. On 4th May, IBBI filed a criminal complaint against Liberty House under Section 74(3) of IBC which, provides for prosecution and punishment including a jail term of up to five years and a penalty of up to Rs1crore.
Sanjeev Gupta and three top executives have been summoned by a special court for ‘wilful’ breach of the resolution plan and asked to be present at the next hearing on 11th July. Liberty House, in turn, has accused the resolution professional and Amtek Auto’s previous owners of misrepresenting facts in the information memorandum. It remains to be seen if it can make the claim stick, when it has reneged on two other bids.
Adhunik Metaliks Ltd: Here, too, Liberty House has missed multiple deadlines to pay up the Rs410 crore as an upfront cash payment. It hasn’t officially withdrawn its bid, but finds varied excuses to delay the payment. Adhunik Metaliks owes Rs 5,371 crore to lenders. Here, Liberty House has certainly derailed a proper resolution because Adhunik had other serious bidders wanting to acquire the company.
Sterling Biotech: As we have written earlier, here is a group that is under investigation by multiple agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and enforcement directorate (ED), for fraud, diversion of funds, money laundering and other offences. The four promoters --Nitin, Chetak and Dipti Sandesara and Hitesh Patel -- are absconding from India. And, yet, bankers, led by Andhra Bank, attempted to withdraw the two main group companies from the resolution process.
The Sterling group owes over Rs15,600 crore to its financial and operational creditors. While the flagship Sterling Biotech owes over Rs7,500 crore to lenders, sister concern Sterling SEZ owes over Rs8,100 crore. The Sandesaras, who are facing criminal investigation, had the gall to make an offer, from their safe hiding place overseas, to settle their loans by paying less than 45% of what they owe the banks. In two separate cases, NCLT has severely reprimanded the resolution professional as well as bankers for failing to make full disclosures to the court.
In Sterling SEZ, NCLT had first allowed the withdrawal from insolvency, but later recalled its order on 26th April and directed government to take punitive action against the senior officials of the lenders for misleading the Tribunal with a withdrawal plea.
The brazenness of the Sterling proposal and the alacrity with which banks attempted to accept it is all the more controversial because the Sandesara family is perceived to be close to the ruling government and the controversial CBI special director Rakesh Asthana.
Ushdev International: In what is considered a Liberty House-like case, a Singaporean bidder wants to acquire Ushdev International, a steel trading firm that ran up a fat debt of Rs3,450 crore. The company was founded by late Vijay Gupta and promoters held a 54% stake.
On 6th May, NCLT’s Mumbai bench asked the potential investor to submit an affidavit with regard to his offer to pay Rs200 crore upfront to acquire the company. At least one leading bank has objected to the move. They expect the company to fetch Rs900 crore, on liquidation. While we wait to see what happens next, business circles believe this is just a proxy bid. It will be a travesty of the IBC, if industrialists get to retain control with nearly 2/3rd of their debt wiped out. Although and amendment to the IBC is supposed to prevent promoters from bidding for their companies, Indian businessmen have been working hard to game the system and appear to be succeeding, going by the next case.
Gemini Communications: According to a report in BloombergQuint, National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) may have permitted a backdoor re-entry by the promoters in Gemini Communications Limited. The NCLAT order in this case says, “A scheme of compromise must be considered first at the liquidation stage before the assets of the company can be liquidated. But it hasn’t explicitly stated whether such a scheme can be proposed by promoters, who are barred to participate in the resolution process even at the liquidation stage under the IBC.”
The promoters of Gemini have reportedly offered Rs30 crore as part of the compromise, as against the liquidation value of Rs3 crore. Although Section 29A of IBC, explicitly bars promoter of defaulting companies from bidding, a couple of Supreme Court judgements are being cited by legal experts to justify this in compromise cases.
If the promoters of Gemini Communications manage to force such a compromise, Essar Steel is bound to fight for similar treatment. The Ruias are already in the Supreme Court using every possible argument and loophole to stop Arcelor Mittal from acquiring the company. As in most cases mentioned above, nobody is asking about the source of their money or their failure to pay up until the company was on the verge of being acquired.
The initial success of IBC was mainly due to the Modi government’s determination to bring crony capitalists, who have defrauded the banking system, to book. In less than three years, that determination seems to have eroded substantially. The fate of the Act now depends on the composition and leadership of the new government that is voted in, on 23rd May. The way the Act has been diluted by strange judgements, multiple amendments and collusions with bankers, it will take Herculean political will to make IBC work any better than the previous failed laws.
A British court on Wednesday extended, till May 30, the judicial custody of fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi, while rejecting his fourth bail plea as it suspected that he could flee the country and "interfere" with witnesses.
The Westminster Magistrates' Court ordered the Metropolitan Police to put him under its custody till the next hearing on May 30.
The 48-year-old businessman, wanted in India in connection with Rs 13,500 crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud case, was arrested from Holborn here on March 19. Since then, he has been fighting extradition proceedings.
Nirav Modi was produced before the court via videoconferencing from Wandsworth prison in south-west London.
The businessman and his uncle Mehul Choksi are being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation after the PNB alleged that they cheated it of Rs 13,500 crore with the involvement of a few bank employees.
Both fled India before the details of the fraud emerged in January 2018. The ED on February 26, 2018 attached property worth Rs 147 crore of Nirav Modi and his companies in connection with the case.
This is the fourth time when the businessman's bail was rejected by the court. Nirav Modi's first bail plea was rejected on the second day of his arrest, and the other two pleas subsequently.
Judge Emma Arbuthnot on March 29 had granted the Metropolitan Police custody of Nirav Modi. She is the same judge who ordered the extradition of former Kingfisher Airlines boss Vijay Mallya in December.
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