x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fall from grace an Indian malaise

Corporate fraud has existed for some time but is coming to the fore now because of modern and effective methods for in-house audit processes and controls.

Central Bureau of Investigation officials escort Ramalinga Raju, the founder and former chairman of Satyam, into custody last year. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo
Central Bureau of Investigation officials escort Ramalinga Raju, the founder and former chairman of Satyam, into custody last year. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo

Before his fall from grace, Ramalinga Raju was lionised in India's corporate circles as a business visionary.

He won laurels for his meteoric rise from the son of a humble farmer to the head of Satyam Computers, India's fourth-largest outsourcing company and recognised as the back office of more than 185 Fortune 500 companies, with a network spanning 66 countries.

Mr Raju was worshipped by small and big investors alike for shepherding the company to profit margins exceeding 20 per cent a year - even in a tough economic climate.

But last year his admirers were stunned when he confessed to fabricating Satyam's key financial results. Its revenues had been overstated for years, its operating margins inflated and profits concocted.

In the second quarter of 2008, Mr Raju stood before the Indian media to declare a 28 per cent revenue gain on the same period in 2007.

As was later revealed, Satyam's revenues had been overstated by 76 per cent and its profits by 97 per cent. Its reported operating margin of 24 per cent was actually 3 per cent.

After much delay, Mr Raju, who faces charges of criminal breach of trust, criminal conspiracy, cheating, falsification of records and forgery, is set to go on trial from tomorrow after a preliminary schedule hearing last Tuesday.

The hearing will be held on a daily basis by a special court in the southern city of Hyderabad, and is expected to completed by July next year.

But even if Mr Raju is brought to book for the estimated US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn) alleged scam, corporate India is troubled by a worrying possibility: white-collar fraud is perpetuating undetected at many of India's top companies.

Fraud, observers say, is symptomatic of India's weak regulatory environment, poor whistle-blowing mechanisms and the government's lackadaisical attitude towards corporate sector law enforcement that threatens to hobble the country's economic expansion.

In a survey released in April by the audit and consulting company KPMG, 81 per cent of the 1,000 Indian companies inspected said fraud, especially involving financial statements, was a "major threat".

While 75 per cent said fraud had grown in the past two years, 87 per cent said they bore financial losses of at least 1 million rupees (Dh83,698) due to fraud last year.

"Volatile economic conditions and increasing business and technological complexities have led to increased opportunities for fraud," the survey said. "Diminishing ethical values and a failure on the part of managers to act against deviations from established policies and processes were cited as reasons for the increase in fraud."

In October last year, India's serious fraud investigation office began investigating Sesa Goa, the country's biggest exporter of iron ore, for alleged "mismanagement, malpractices, financial and other irregularities".

In the same month, it also began investigating the finances of Reliance Communications, Reliance Telecom and Reliance Communications Infrastructure, all controlled by the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group.

ARaja, the Indian telecommunications minister, claimed the group had under-reported revenues of between 10bn rupees and 15bn rupees between 2006 and 2008 to avoid payment of the government licence fee. In the process, the government lost revenue of up to 2.5bn rupees.

In June 2007, the information technology services unit of the outsourcing giant Wipro was blacklisted by the World Bank until next year and barred from doing direct business with the bank for "providing improper benefits to bank staff". The bank refused to give any further details on the matter.

In another case in March, Wipro discovered one of its accounting staff had stolen $4m from the company's bank account by illegally accessing a colleague's password.

In a recent survey entitled "2010 Internal Audit State of the Productivity of the Profession Survey", the global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said the effective use of technology for in-house audit processes could significantly curb instances of fraud.

About 48 per cent of Indian companies lacked the skill and professional knowledge of data tools in internal audit software, while 18 per cent companies had absolutely no access to these tools, PwC said.

But in an "encouraging sign", an increasing number of companies were placing greater emphasis on controls to identify fraud.

Since the Satyam situation was revealed, more and more companies are hiring forensic accountants and expressing the need for greater fraud control and risk-mitigating strategies.

"The need of forensic accountants is prevalent across industries," Deepankar Sanwalka, the executive director of KPMG, said in the report."The current availability of industry-specific forensic accountants is quite low and there exists a gap between demand and supply."

Rohit Mahajan, the executive director of KPMG's forensic services, points out that corporate fraud has existed for some time but is coming to the fore now because these controls are detecting it.

In KPMG's 2008 fraud survey, most companies stated they uncovered fraud "by accident". But this year's survey revealed 47 per cent detected it through internal audits and 26 per cent through whistle-blowing.

The tightening of controls, analysts say, stems from the dire financial repercussions of undetected fraud.

Satyam's stock rapidly fell by almost 90 per cent soon after Mr Raju's revelations. It was revitalised after a government-appointed board took control of the beleaguered company, which was later acquired by Tech Mahindra, a joint venture between British Telecom and the Indian conglomerate Mahindra and Mahindra, after a rigorous bidding process.

But significant damage had already been done. Due to the dramatic erosion of Satyam's stock value immediately after Mr Raju's confession, retail and large institutional investors lost about 140bn rupees, according to India's Central Bureau of Investigation.

Last August, India's supreme court rejected a petition to seek government compensation by the Midas Touch Investors Association, a private group claiming to represent more than 300,000 retail shareholders who say they lost a total of 50bn rupees after the Satyam stock tumbled.

But more significant was the damage dwne to the company's brand image - and that of India as an outsourcing powerhouse.

The Satyam case demonstrated how the very existence of a company can be at risk because of fraud, says Mr Mahajan.

"It changed the widely held perception that fraud could only cause monetary damage," he says.

In an effort to demonstrate its zero-tolerance policy towards corporate fraud, the Indian government announced a draft law last December to protect investors from the ramifications of such financial crime.

The legislation would enforce stricter corporate governance norms, protect the rights of minority shareholders and for the first time enable investors to file a class-action lawsuit against companies where fraud is suspected. It would hold companies liable to pay damages to shareholders if found guilty.

With stricter penalties, greater disclosures and more scrutiny of company records, the government hopes it "can avoid something like Satyam happening again", Salman Khurshid, the Indian minister for corporate affairs, said when the law was drafted.

business@thenational.ae