These are challenging times for chit fund operators. A scam involving the Saradha group allegedly conning customers under the guise of a chit fund, has raised serious questions for the industry. With a reported 10,000 chit funds in the country handling over Rs 30,000 crore annually, chit fund proponents maintain that these funds are an important financial tool. The scam has also sparked responses from both the centre and states: the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Corporate Affairs and SEBI have all promised to act and the West Bengal Assembly has passed The West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013, with Odisha and Haryana considering similar legislation. What is a chit fund? A chit fund is a type of saving scheme where a specified number of subscribers contribute payments in instalment over a defined period. Each subscriber is entitled to a prize amount determined by lot, auction or tender depending on the nature of the chit fund. Typically the prize amount is the entire pool of contribution minus a discount which is redistributed to subscribers as a dividend. For example, consider an auction-type chit fund with 50 subscribers contributing Rs 100 every month. The monthly pool is Rs 5,000 and this is auctioned out every month. The winning bid, say Rs 1000, would be the discount and be distributed among the subscribers. The winning bidder would then receive Rs 4,000 (Rs 5,000 – 1,000) while the rest of subscribers would receive Rs 20 (1000/50). Winners cannot enter the auction again and will be liable for the monthly subscription as the process is repeated for the duration of the scheme. The company managing the chit fund (foreman) would retain a commission from the prize amount every month. Collectively, the subscribers to a chit fund are referred to as a chit group and a chit fund company may run many such groups. What are the laws governing chit funds? Classifying them as contracts, the Supreme Court has read chit funds as being part of the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution; hence both the centre and state can frame legislation regarding chit funds. States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala had enacted legislation (e.g The Kerala Chitties Act, 1975 and The Tamil Nadu Chit Funds Act, 1961) for regulating chit funds. Chit Funds Act, 1982 In 1982, the Ministry of Finance enacted the Chit Funds Act to regulate the sector. Under the Act, the central government can choose to notify the Act in different states on different dates; if the Act is notified in a state, then the state act would be repealed[i]. States are responsible for notifying rules and have the power to exempt certain chit funds from the provisions of the Act. Last year the central government, notified the Act in Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala and Nagaland. Under the Act, all chit funds require previous sanction from the state government. The capital requirement for establishing chit funds is Rs 1 lakh and at least 10% of profits should be transferred to a reserve fund. The amount of discount (i.e. the bid) is capped at 40% of the total chit fund value. States may appoint a Registrar who would be responsible for regulation, inspection and dispute settlement in the sector. Any grievances over decisions made by the Registrar can be subject to appeals directed to the state government. Chit fund managers are required to deposit the entire value of the chit fund (can be done in 50% cash and 50% bank guarantee) with the Registrar for the duration of the chit cycle. Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 The Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 defines and prohibits any illegal chit fund schemes (e.g. schemes where auction winners are not liable to future payments). Again, the responsibility for enforcing the provisions of this Act lies with the state government. Reports suggest that the government is discussing amendments to this Bill in the wake of the chit fund scam. West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013 Last month the West Bengal Assembly passed the West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill, 2013. This was a direct response to the chit fund scam in West Bengal. While not regulating chit funds directly, the Act regulates and restricts financial establishments to curb any unscrupulous activity with regards to deposits. Chit funds are specifically included under the definition of deposits. The state government will appoint a competent authority to conduct investigations. What is the role of RBI and SEBI? The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the regulator for banks and other non banking financial companies (NBFCs) but does not regulate the chit fund business. While chit funds accept deposits, the term ‘deposit’ as defined under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 does not include subscriptions to chits. However the RBI can provide guidance to state governments on regulatory aspects like creating rules or exempting certain chit funds. As the regulator of the securities market, SEBI regulates collective investment schemes. But the SEBI Act, 1992 specifically excludes chit funds from their definition of collective investment schemes. In the recent case with Sarada Group, the SEBI investigation discovered that Sarada were, in effect, operating a collective investment scheme without SEBI’s approval.
[i] The central act repeals the Andhra Pradesh Chit Funds Act, 1971; the Kerala Chitties Act, 1975, the Maharashtra Chit Funds Act, 1974’, the Tamil Nadu Chit Funds Act, 1961 (applicable in Chandiragh and Delhi), the Uttar Pradesh Chit Funds Act, 1975, Goa, Daman and Diu Chit Funds Act, 1973 and Pondicheery Funds Act, 1966.
Need for Urban Co-operative Banks
The history of UCBs in India can be traced to the 19th century when such societies were set up drawing inspiration from the success of the co-operative movement in Britain and the co-operative credit movement in Germany. Urban co-operative credit societies, were organised on a community basis to meet the consumption-oriented credit needs of their members. UCBs are primary cooperative banks in urban and semi-urban areas. They are co-operative societies that undertake banking business. Co-operative banks accept deposits from the public and lend to their members. Co-operative banks are different from other co-operatives as they mobilise resources for lending and investment from the wider public rather than only their members.
Concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of one lakh rupees were brought under the scope of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 with effect from March 1, 1966. Prior to this, such banks were regulated under the scope of state-specific cooperative laws. The revised framework brought them under the ambit of supervision of the RBI. Till 1996, these banks could lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. However, this distinction does not apply today.
The Expert Committee noted that UCBs play a key role in financial inclusion. It further observed that the focus area for UCBs has traditionally been communities and localities including workplace groups. They play an important role in the delivery of last-mile credit, even more so for those sections of the population who are not integrated into the mainstream banking framework. UCBs primarily lend to wage earners, small entrepreneurs, and businesses in urban and semi-urban areas. UCBs can be more responsive than formal banking channels to the needs of the local people.
Over the years, concerns have been raised about non-professional management in UCBs and that this can lead to weaker governance and risk management in these entities. RBI has also taken regulatory action on several UCBs. For instance, in September 2019, RBI placed Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank under restrictions on allegations of serious underreporting of non-performing assets. The bank could not grant loans, make investments or accept deposits without prior approval from RBI. While these restrictions were originally put in place for six months, the time frame was extended several times and has now been extended till December 31, 2021. In addition, low capital base, poor credit management and diversion of funds have also been issues in the sector.
Shrinking share in the banking sector
There were 1,539 UCBs in the country as of March 31, 2020, with deposits worth Rs 5,01,180 crore and advances worth Rs 3,05,370 crore. Even though 94% of the entities in the banking sector were UCBs their market share in the banking sector has been low and declining and stands at around 3%. UCBs accounted for 3.24% of the deposits and 2.69% of the advances in the banking sector. The Committee noted that state-of-the-art technology adopted by new players, such as small finance banks and fintech entities, along with commercial banks can disrupt the niche customer segment of the UCBs.
Figure 1: Growth in deposits of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Figure 2: Growth in advances of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Burden of non-performing assets
UCBs had the highest net non-performing asset (NNPA) ratio (5.26%) and gross non-performing asset (GNPA) ratio (10.96%) across the banking sector as of March 2020. These levels correspond to around twice that of private sector banks, and around five times that of small finance banks. The Committee noted that, as of March 2020, UCBs have the lowest level of net interest margin (difference between interest earned and interest spent relative to total interest generating assets held by the bank) and negative return on assets and return on equity.
Figure 3: Asset quality across banks (in percentage)
Sources: Report of the Expert Committee on Urban Co-operative Banks; PRS.
Supervisory Action Framework (SAF): SAF envisages corrective action by UCB and/or supervisory action by RBI on breach of financial thresholds related to asset quality, profitability and level of capital as measured by Capital to Risk-weighted Asset Ratio (CRAR). The Committee recommended that SAF should consider only asset quality (based on net non-performing asset ratio) and CRAR with an emphasis on reducing the time spent by a UCB under SAF. The RBI should begin the mandatory resolution process including reconstruction or compulsory merger as soon as a UCB reaches the third stage under SAF (CRAR less than 4.5% and/or net non-performing asset ratio above 12%).
Constraints in raising capital
The Committee also observed that UCBs are constrained in raising capital which restricts their ability to expand the business. According to co-operative principles, share capital is to be issued and refunded only at face value. Thus, investment in UCBs is less attractive as it does not lead to an increase in its value. Also, the principle of one member, one vote means that an interested investor cannot acquire a controlling stake in UCBs. It was earlier recommended that UCBs should be allowed to issue fresh capital at a premium based on the net worth of the entity at the end of the preceding year.
Listing of securities: The Committee recommended making suitable amendments to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to enable RBI to notify certain securities issued by any co-operative bank or class of co-operative banks to be covered under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992. This will enable their listing and trading on a recognised stock exchange. Until such amendments are made, the Committee recommended that banks can be allowed to have a system on their websites to buy/sell securities at book value subject to the condition that the bank should ensure that the prospective buyer is eligible to be admitted as a member.
Conflict between Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and co-operative laws
The fundamental difference between banking companies and co-operative banks is in the voting rights of shareholders. In banking companies, each share has a corresponding vote. But in the case of co-operative banks, each shareholder has only one vote irrespective of the number of shares held. Despite RBI being the regulator of the banking sector, the regulation of co-operative banks by RBI was restricted to functions related directly to banking. This gave rise to dual regulation with governance, audit, and winding-up related functions regulated by state governments and central government for single-state banks and multi-state banks, respectively.
2020 Amendments to the Banking Regulation Act: In September 2020, the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 was amended to increase RBI’s powers over the regulation of co-operative banks including qualifications of management of these banks and supersession of board of directors. The Committee noted that due to the amendment of the Act, certain conflicts have arisen with various co-operative laws. For instance, the Act allows co-operative banks to issue shares at a premium, but it is silent on their redemption. It noted that if any co-operative societies’ legislation provides for redemption of shares only at par, then, while a co-operative bank incorporated under that legislation can issue shares at a premium, it can redeem them only at par.
Note that on September 3, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a circular released by the RBI on appointment of managing director/whole-time director in UCBs. The circular provided for eligibility and propriety criteria for the appointment of such personnel in UCBs. The petitioner, Mahanagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Maryadit, argued that the service conditions of the managing director and chief executive officer of co-operative banks are governed by bye-laws framed under the M.P. State Cooperative Societies Act, 1960. The petition noted that co-operative as a subject falls under the state list and hence the power to legislate in the field of co-operative societies falls under the domain of the states and not the central government.
Over the years, several committees have looked at the feasibility to set up an Umbrella Organisation (UO) for UCBs. It is an apex body of federating UCBs. In 2011, an expert committee on licensing of new UCBs recommended that there should be two separate UOs for the sector. In June 2019, RBI granted an in-principle approval to National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies Ltd to set up a UO in the form of a non-deposit taking non-banking finance company. The UO is expected to provide information technology and financial support to its federating members along with value-added services linked to treasury, foreign exchange and international remittances. It is envisaged to provide scale through network to smaller UCBs. The report of the current Committee recommended that the minimum capital of the UO should be Rs 300 crore. Once stabilised, the UO can explore the possibility of becoming a universal bank. It can also take up the role of a self-regulatory organisation for its member UCBs. The Committee also suggested that the membership of the UO can be opened-up to both financial and non-financial co-operatives who can make contributions through share capital in the UO.
Comments on the report of the Expert Committee are invited until September 30, 2021.