Explaining the Harshad Mehta Scam of 1992: The magnitude of the Harshad Mehta scam was soo big, that if put into perspective today, it brought a bear market in the Dalal street. If we look into the numbers, this single man deceived the entire nation with an amount of over Rs 24,000 crores (which is way bigger than Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallaya scams).
Today we take a look at how the Harshad Mehta scam was executed and possibly try to understand how he was able to fool the entire Dalal market and even the Indian banking systems. Further, we’ll also discuss why he plays such a considerable role in our pop culture and that too not as an antagonist.
Harshad Mehta’s Rs 40 Journey
Perhaps what makes the Harshad Mehta story even more interesting is that despite migrating to Mumbai with only Rs. 40 in his pocket he managed to influence the country in such a massive way. Once he discovered his interest in the stock market he worked for broker Prasann Panjivandas in the 1980s. Harshad considered Prasann Panjivandas as his guru. Over the next decade, he went on to work for several brokerage firms eventually opening up his own brokerage under the name GrowMore Research and Asset Management.
By the 1990s, Harshad Mehta had risen to such prominence in the Stock market that he was known as the ‘Amitabh Bachchan of the Stock Market’. Terms such as ‘The Big Bull’ and ‘ Raging Bull’ were regularly used in reference to him. Over time he became particularly known for his wealth in the 1990s which he did not shy away from boasting about through his 15,000 sq. ft. penthouse and array of cars. He was described by Journalist Suchita Dalal as charismatic, ebullient, and recklessly ambitious. Perhaps it was this recklessness that led to his downfall through his ambitious schemes.
The Broken Financial Environment of the 1990s
The year 1991 marks the year of liberalization of the Indian economy. Today we are grateful for this opening-up, however, Indian businesses found their own set of challenges. The public sector was forced to face increased competition and was under pressure to display profitability in the new environment. The private sector, however, responded positively to this news as this would mean more funds from foreign investments.
The new reforms also were welcomed by the private sector as they now were allowed entry into new sectors of businesses that were earlier reserved for the government enterprises. The stock market reacted positively to this with the Bombay Stock Exchange touching 4500 points in March 1992. But liberalization was not the only factor responsible for this. The period also an increase in demand for funds. The Banks were pressured into taking advantage of the situation to improve their bottom line.
The banks are required to maintain a certain threshold of government fixed interest bonds. The governments issue these bonds with the aim of developing the infrastructure of the country. Million-dollar development projects are taken up by the government which are financed through these bonds. How much is to be invested in these bonds depends on the bank’s Demand and Time Liabilities. The minimum threshold that the banks had to maintain as bonds in the 1990s was set at 38.5%. This minimum percentage that banks have to maintain in the form of bonds or other liquid assets is known as the Statutory Liquidity Ratio(SLR).
Along with this, the banks were also pressured to maintain profitability. Banks were, however, barred from participating in the stock market. Hence they were not able to enjoy the benefits of the Stock Market leap during 1991 and 1992. Or at least they were not supposed to.
What did banks do if they couldn’t maintain the SLR ratio?
The banks at times may have temporary surges in the Net Demand and Time Liabilities. In such times banks would be required to increase their bond holdings. Instead of going through the whole process of purchasing bonds the banks were allowed to lend and borrow these liquid securities through a system called Ready Forward Deals (RFD). An RFD is a secured short term loan (15 days) from one bank to another. The collateral here is government bonds.
Instead of actually transferring the bonds the banks would transfer something called Bank Receipts (BR). This is because the bond certificates held by the banks would be of bonds worth 100 crores whereas the requirements by the banks to maintain their SLR would be much lower. Hence BR’s were a much more convenient way of short term transfer.
The BR’s were a form of short term IOU’s (I Owe You). However, when an RF deal was exercised they never looked like loan transfer but a buy and sale of securities represented by BR’s. The borrowing banks would sell some securities represented by BR’s to the lending banks in exchange for cash. Then at the end of the period say 15 days the borrowing bank would buy the BR back (securities) at a higher price from the lending bank. The difference in the buy snd sell prices would represent the interest to be paid to the lending banks. Due to the BR’s, the actual transfer of securities doesn’t take place. BR’s could simply be canceled and returned once the deal was completed.
Was the use of Bank Receipts (BR) allowed?
The RBI set up a Public Debt Office (PDO) facility to act as the custodian for such transfer of bonds. As per the RBI BR’s were not permitted to be used for such purposes. However, the PDO facility was plagued with inefficiencies. Hence the majority of the banks resorted to BR. This system existed with the knowledge of the RBI which allowed it to flourish as long as the system worked.
What roles did the brokers play here?
Brokers in the markets played the role of intermediaries between two banks in the RFD system. They were supposed to act as middlemen helping borrowing banks meet lending banks. A brokers’ role should have ended here where it is done in exchange for a commission.
Where the actual exchange of securities and payments should have taken place only between the bank’s brokers soon found a way to play a larger role. Eventually, all transfer of securities and payments were made to the broker. Banks also began welcoming these because of the following reasons
- Liquidity: Brokers provided a quick and easier alternative to dealing with in comparison to dealing with another bank. Loans and payments would hence be provided on short notice in a quick manner.
- Secrecy: When deals were made through a broker it would not be possible for the lending banks to find out where the loans were being moved to. Similarly, the borrowing banks too would not be concerned where the loans would be coming from. The dealings were both done only with the broker.
- Credit Worthiness: When banks would deal with each other, the transaction would be placed depending on the creditworthiness of the borrowing bank. However, once brokers took over the settlement process this benefitted the borrowing banks as they would have loans available regardless of their creditworthiness. The lending banks would lend based on the trust and creditworthiness of the broker.
Brokers entering the settlement process made it possible that the two banks would not even know with whom they have dealt with until they have already entered into the agreement. The loans were viewed as loans to the brokers and loans from the brokers. Brokers were now indispensable.
The Role played by Harshad Mehta.
Harshad Mehta used to broker the RF deals as mentioned above. He managed to convince the banks to have the cheques drawn in his name. He would then manage to transfer the money deposited in his account into the stock markets. Harshad Mehta then took advantage of the broken system and took the scam to new levels.
In a normal RF deal, there would be only 2 banks involved. Securities would be taken from a bank in exchange for cash. What Harshad Mehta did here was that when a bank would request its securities or cash back he would rope in a third bank. And eventually a fourth bank so on and so forth. Instead of having just two banks involved, there were now multiple banks all connected by a web of RF deals.
Harshad Mehta and the Bear Cartels
Harshad Mehta used the money he got out of the banking system to combat the Bear Cartels in the stock market. The Bear Cartels were operated by Hiten Dalal, A. D. Narottam and others. They too operated with money cheated out from the banks. The Bear Cartels would aim at driving the prices low in the market which eventually undervalued various securities. The Bear Cartels would then purchase these securities at a cheap price and make huge profits once the prices normalized.
Harshad Mehta countered this by pumping money from the stock market to keep the demand up. He argued that the market has simply corrected the undervalued stock when it revalued the company at a price equivalent to the cost of building a similar enterprise. He put forward this theory with the name replacement cost theory. This theory was a fallacy on his behalf or an illusion he resented to the public to justify his investments. Such was his influence in the stock market that his words would be blindly followed similar to that of a religious guru.
He would use the money from the banks which was temporarily in his account to hike up the demand of certain shares. He selected well-established companies like ACC, Sterlite Industries, and Videocon. His investments along with the market reaction would result in these shares being exclusively traded. The price of ACC rose from Rs.200 to nearly Rs. 9000 in a span of 2 months.
Harshad Mehta celebrated this victory by feeding peanuts to the bears at the Bombay Zoo as it signified his victory over the bearish trends.
Benefits to Banks
The banks were aware of Harshad Mehta’s actions but chose to look away as they too would benefit from the profits Harshad would make from the stock market. He would transfer a percentage to the banks. This would also enable banks to maintain profitability.
The Scam within the Scam
Harshad Mehta noticed early on the dependence of the RF deals on BR’s. In addition to this, the RF deal system also placed a great deal of reliance on prominent brokers like Harshad Mehta. So he along with two other banks namely Bank of Karad (BOK) and the Metropolitan Co-operative Bank (MCB) decided to further exploit the system. With the help of these two banks, he was able to forge BR’s. The BR’s that were forged were not backed by any securities. This meant that they were just pieces of paper with no real value. This is similar to a situation where you can avail loans with no collateral. Harshad Mehta further would pump this money into the stock market increasing his amount of influence.
The RBI is supposed to conduct on-site inspections and audits of the investment accounts of the banks. A thorough audit would reveal that amount represented by BR’s in circulation was significantly higher than the government bonds actually held by the banks. When the RBI did notice irregularities it did not act decisively against Bank of Karad (BOK) and the Metropolitan Co-operative Bank (MCB).
Another method through which the collateral was eliminated was by forging government bonds themselves. Here the BR’s are skipped and fake government bonds are created. This is because PSU bonds are represented by allotment letters making it easier for them to be forged. However, this forgery amounted for a very small amount of funds misappropriated.
Exposing the Harshad Mehta Scam
Journalist Sucheta Dalal was intrigued by the luxurious lifestyle of Harshad Mehta. She was particularly drawn to the fleet of cars owned by Harshad Mehta. They included Toyota Corolla, Lexus Starlet, and Toyota Sera which were rarities and a dream even for the rich in India during the 1990s. This further interest had her further investigate the sources through which Harshad Mehta amassed such wealth. Sucheta Dalal exposed the scam on 23rd April 1992 in the columns of Times of India.
It has been alleged that the Bear Cartel ganged up on Mehta and blew the whistle on him to get rid of him and the bullish run altogether.
Aftermath of Harshad Mehta Scam Exposure
— Effect on the Stock Market
Less than 2 months after the scam was exposed, the stock market had already lost a trillion rupees. The RBI created a committee to investigate the matter. The Committee was called the Janakiraman Committee. As per the Janakiraman Committee Report, the scam was of the magnitude of Rs.4025 crores. This impact on the stock market was huge considering that the scam amounted to only 4025 crores in comparison to a trillion or 1 lakh crores.
This major fall, however, cannot be attributed to the scam alone but also to the governments’ harsh response. In an attempt to ensure that all the parties involved are brought to justice, the government did not permit the sale of any shares that had gone through the brokers in the last one year. This affected not only the brokers but also the innocent shareholders who may have gone through these brokers to purchase securities. The shares came to be known as tainted shares. Their value was reduced to pieces of paper as their holder was not allowed to sell them. This just resulted in a worsened financial environment.
— Effect on the Political environment
The opposition demanded the resignation of the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and the RBI Governor S. Venkitaramanan. Singh even offered his resignation but this was rejected by prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao.
— Effect on the Banking Sector
When the scam was exposed the banks started demanding their money back and recovery efforts made them realize that there were no securities backing the loan either. The Investments in the stock market by Harshad Mehta were tainted and had reduced by a significant value. A number of bankers were convicted. It also led to the suicide of the chairman of Vijaya bank.
— Further Investigation
The investigations revealed many players like Citibank, brokers like Pallav Sheth and Ajay Kayan, industrialists like Aditya Birla, Hemendra Kothari, a number of politicians, and the RBI Governor all had played a role in the rigging of the share market. The then minister P. Chidambaram also had utilized Harshad Mehta’s services and invested in Harshad Mehtas Growmore firm through his shell companies.
— Effect on Harshad Mehta’s Life
Harshad Mehta was charged with 72 criminal offenses and more than 600 criminal action suits. After spending 3 months in custody Mehta was released on a bail. The drama however never subdued but only intensified. In a press conference, Harshad Mehta claimed that he had bribed the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for Rs 1 crore to secure his release.
Harshad Mehta even displayed the suitcase in which he allegedly carried the cash. However he CBI never found any concrete evidence of this. Harshad Mehta was now also barred from participating in the stock market.
Investigators felt that Harshad Mehta was not the original perpetrator who forged the bank receipts. It was clear that Harshad Mehta capitalized and made profits using these methods. They also saw the possibility of the bear cartels ganging up on Harshad Mehta to get rid of the bearish markets by blowing the whistle on him and having the scam exposed through Sucheta Dalal. This, however, drew the investigators’ attention to the bear cartel as well as they too had used the same means as Harshad Mehta. These other brokers were eventually tried too.
In addition to this, the IT department claimed an income tax owed to them Rs.11,174 crores. Harshad Mehta’s firm GrowMore had significant clientele and the IT department had linked all the transactions that may have involved Harshad Mehta or his firm with Harshad Mehta’s income. His lawyer addressed this as bizarre as Harshad Mehtas lifetime assets were worth around Rs.3000 crores. He highlighted the possibility where by making Harshad Mehta the face of the scam allowed other powerful players a chance to have the focus lifted away from them and escape or slowly be exonerated.
Life after Release and Death
Harshad Mehta made a comeback as a market guru sharing advice on his website and newspaper columns. In September 1999 the Bombay Highcourt convicted him and sentenced him to 5 years of imprisonment. Mehta died while in criminal custody after suffering from cardiac arrest in Thane Prison on 31st December at the age of 48.
— Effect on Harshad Mehta’s Family
When Harshad Mehta died he still had 27 cases pending against him. Although all criminal cases have been cleared before his death there were still several civil cases pending in court. His wife still fights cases with recent victories over the IT department and a broker who owed Harshad Mehta 6 crores. The broker was ordered to pay the amount with 18% interest which roughly accumulated to 524 crores. The cases have dragged on for so long that his brother secured the law degree in his 50’s and represents the family in court. Harshad Mehta’s son now makes headlines regarding his investments.
Despite the scam, Harshad Mehta is still looked up to in certain circles, As reported by Economic Times some financial experts believe that Harshad Mehta did not commit any fraud, “he simply exploited loopholes in the system”. When Harshad Mehta was first released out of prison in 1992 he was greeted with cheers and applause as his return would signify the return of his bullish trend. It is doubted that if businessmen who have been embroiled in scandals with the likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi will receive the same welcome.
The Harshad Mehta scam can be looked on from two sides. The first as a scam where Harshad looted the stock market and the public or the second way where Harshad Mehta was made the scapegoat as someone had to be blamed and at the same time kept other influential people away from the limelight. The Year 1991 is generally referred to as the year of progress due to liberalization but if seen from this perspective discussed here it just makes one exclaim “ What a mess!”.