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ICICI-Videocon case: Matter of time before Chanda Kochhar quits?

ICICI Bank CEO Chanda Kochhar and other members of her family had invested in a previously unheard of firm called Credential Finance Ltd at a time when Venugopal Dhoot's Videocon International Ltd had held a 17.74 per cent stake in it.

twitter-logoBusinessToday.In | April 12, 2018 | Updated 16:13 IST
ICICI-Videocon case: Matter of time before Chanda Kochhar quits?
ICICI Bank MD & CEO Chanda Kochhar

ICICI Bank CEO Chanda Kochhar and other members of her family had invested in a previously unheard of firm called Credential Finance Ltd at a time when Venugopal Dhoot's Videocon International Ltd had held a 17.74 per cent stake in it, according to the Mint.

A total of seven members of the Kochhar family-including Chanda, her husband Deepak Kochhar and his brother Rajiv Kochhar-together held a 2 per stake in Credential Finance, as proved by its shareholding pattern for 2001 that was filed with the Registrar of Companies (RoC) in 2007. Mahesh Chandra Punglia, closely associated with Videocon group, was another shareholder, holding 0.8 per cent.

The daily added that Chanda sold or transferred her shares in the company soon after being promoted to CEO in 2009 - records from 2010 to 2014 do not show her holding any shares in the firm. However, the other six Kochhars continued to hold their shares at least until 2013-14, beyond which the firm's ownership could not be ascertained. In fact, Credential Finance's directors since 1995 reportedly included Deepak Kochhar as managing director, besides Rajiv Kochhar and sister-in-law of Chanda Kochhar - they all subsequently stepped down from their positions between 2009 and 2011. Earlier this month, Deepak had said that Chanda was not even aware of his business dealings with Dhoot.

"If there ever was a smoking gun in Chanda Kochhar's conflict of interest saga, this is it. Here is documented evidence, which ICICI Bank has not refuted, that Chanda Kochhar was a shareholder in a company along with her family members in which Videocon International, a corporate borrower of ICICI Bank, had significant shareholding," writes Smartkarma Insight Provider Hemindra Hazari in a recent report titled 'ICICI Bank: The End of Chanda Kochhar'.

According to him, the relationship between ICICI Bank and the Videocon group has been continuous, except for a brief period in 2004. In fact, N. Vaghul, the former chairman of ICICI Bank, recently claimed in a media interview that the Videocon Group had been dealing with ICICI Bank since 1985.

Significantly, through this same period, Chanda was steadily climbing the ranks at the bank. In 1998, she reportedly spearheaded an effort to set up a major-clients group to handle relationships with ICICI Bank's top 200 clients, which would have included the Videocon group. In 2002, she joined the bank's board as executive director and four year later, she was appointed as deputy managing director with responsibility for both corporate and retail banking businesses. In 2007, she was promoted to joint managing director.

So the two big questions are whether a bank official can invest in a company in which one of its corporate clients is also a shareholder, and whether the ICICI Bank's board knew about these happenings.

"Chanda Kochhar's subsequent disposal of her shares in Credential Financial sometime prior to 2010 is irrelevant, as the very fact that she and her family members were shareholders in a company where Videocon International was also a shareholder is a major conflict of interest, especially as she occupied a very sensitive post which oversaw the Videocon account," explains Hazari. By the bank's own admission earlier, Chanda was a member of the credit committee which approved the alleged quid pro quo consortium loan to the Videocon group companies in 2012, and she had not recused herself from the meeting.

In fact, ICICI Bank's board, which had previously vigorously defended its CEO, will now find itself backed into quite an uncomfortable position. First the brouhaha over Deepak's investment in NuPower Renewables in which the Videocon group had a stake, and now this new revelation of far-older Kochhar-Dhoot links.

Punglia's stake in Credential Finance is also sure to raise eyebrows. He was an employee of Videocon and later used to offer consultancy services to the group. He was also a director in NuPower Renewables Pvt Ltd, the company set up by the Kochhar brothers in which Dhoot allegedly invested after bagging the Rs 3,250 crore consortium loan. Punglia has already been questioned by the CBI.

The new expose has already done a number on ICICI Bank's stock. The share price has cracked 3 per cent from a high of over Rs 293 on April 10, the day the story broke. This won't make the already-jittery investors happy.

"Now it is merely a matter of time before the CEO is forced to step down. But the question is: Is the ICICI board qualified to run any business, let alone India's second largest private sector bank?" says Hazari.

The RBI has already prompted the exit of Axis Bank's chief. Could Chanda Kochhar be the next target in its crosshairs?

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