The Narendra Modi government’s move to demonetize an overwhelming bulk of Indian currency notes in circulation has squeezed the country’s banking system to the limit.
At a time when Indians are struggling to get their hands on legitimate cash, banks have come under acute pressure, both from desperate customers and government agencies. From the long queues at branches and ATMs, formed by cash-starved people, to overworked employees, lenders have borne the brunt of demonetization over the past few weeks.
One of them, however, has been in a particularly bad spot: Mumbai-based Axis Bank.
India’s third-largest private lender has been battling on multiple fronts: a series of raids by sleuths of the income tax (IT) department, employees allegedly swindling cash, and rumours of losing the banking licence.
All this has, unexpectedly, taken a toll on its reputation. Investors, for one, aren’t a pleased lot. Since demonetization, Axis Bank’s shares have dropped 3% (until Dec. 15):
The many battles
On Dec. 15, the IT department found that 20 fake companies had deposited Rs60 crore ($8.8 million) in various accounts at Axis Bank’s branch in Noida, a Delhi suburb.
And this was just the latest in a long list of such cases involving this bank.
It all began on Dec. 05 when the enforcement directorate (ED), an agency that tackles economic crime, arrested two Axis Bank officials for allegedly laundering money—illegally exchanging the delegitimized notes for new ones. The bank “suspended the erring employee.”
Two days later, on Dec. 07, it sacked 19 officials for alleged discrepancies in the bank’s currency exchange operations. It roped in KPMG India, an audit and consultancy firm, for a forensic audit and formed a special task force to conduct a “parallel investigation into possible deviations.”
On Dec. 08 and 09, the IT department raided Axis Bank’s Chandni Chowk branch in Delhi where they found 44 fake accounts with Rs100 crore in deposits.
On Dec. 12, the bank said it had temporarily suspended accounts of some bullion traders and jewelers as a part of its due diligence process. Axis Bank is the country’s top importer of gold, and this move may hit imports of the yellow metal in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Left red-faced, the beleaguered lender dubbed these “isolated incidents.”
“We have had bad apples who have done things that are inconsistent with the code of Axis (Bank)… We are embarrassed that this has happened, but these are isolated incidents given that we have more than 3,000 branches and 50,000 employees,” Shikha Sharma, managing director and CEO of Axis Bank, told The Economic Times newspapers in an interview on Dec. 13.
As if these weren’t enough, a regional daily reported that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) may cancel Axis Bank’s licence following the arrests and fraud allegations. RBI, however, refuted the rumors.