Financial Free Fall?

KIEV, Ukraine -- The official investigation into what the nation’s top cop is calling one of the worst financial frauds in the nation's history may be going nowhere fast.

Alleged massive corruption in spending of Western aid, at Ukraine's National Bank, may stall economic recovery.

Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko on Sept. 23 said employees with the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) are not cooperating with his ministry’s investigation into how the central bank has refinanced commercial banks and conducted foreign currency auctions.

“We are questioning anyone who can give valuable information, but it is too early to talk about results. Much will depend on whether top NBU officials want to cooperate. We have asked for information about who was in charge of what, but we still have not received answers,” Lutsenko said. “We do not sense any desire on their part to cooperate with our investigation.”

At issue is how billions of dollars got spent – or misspent – in government assistance that was supposed to help the nation’s banks recover from a raft of bad borrowing and lending. Much of the aid came from the International Monetary Fund or World Bank in loans that will have to be repaid by Ukrainian taxpayers.

So far, the government has spent Hr 107 billion ($13 billion) to refinance many of the nation’s 170 or so commercial banks. Further, the government has recapitalized three of the most financially precarious – Rodovid Bank, Ukrgazbank and Kyiv Bank. The government now owns and runs those three banks. Currently, 15 of the most trouble banks are under temporary NBU administration and others might fail.

If the central bank ended up helping favored insiders profit from sweetheart deals, then recovery of the banking sector – vital to getting the nation out of recession – could stall even further.

Most Ukrainians distrust their banks anyway, so the burgeoning scandal will only reinforce these opinions. The lack of faith undermines Ukraine’s ability to emerge from one of the worst financial crises in its 18 years of independence. If disillusionment rises, more citizens may stop trusting banks altogether with their deposits or stop repaying their loans.

Oleksandr Savchenko, who resigned as deputy head of the central bank on Sept. 11, said the central bank’s recapitalization of commercial banks was done in an unfair and non-transparent way that allowed insiders to profit on currency manipulation and speculation.

Savchenko told Korrespondent magazine in an interview published on Sept. 18 that at least one scheme involved selling dollars to favored banks at the official NBU rate, which is much lower than the commercial rate. Those who benefited, Savchenko said, profited greatly.

“The banks which were able to buy currency at the official rate made big profits because of the 8-12 percent difference between the official and commercial rates. Imagine you bought $20 million for Hr 7.55 and sold for Hr 8.55. That’s $2 million in your pocket,” Savchenko said.

Suspicions of irregularities also haunt NBU’s infusions to improve their liquidity. Nadra Bank (Hr 7.1 billion), Rodovid Bank (Hr 2.1 billion), Ukrgazbank (Hr 1.2 billion) and Kyiv Bank (Hr 412 million) were among the top recipients.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko flagged the problem as far back as December.

“The redistribution of the Hr 40 billion among Ukraine’s commercial banks occurred in such a fashion that much of it went to individual banks conducting large-scale speculative attacks against the hryvnia,” Tymoshenko said on Dec. 18. “Nearly one-fifth went to a bankrupt bank, which turned around and bought cheap dollars at the NBU rate.”

The IMF and World Bank, which have lent billions of dollars to support Ukraine’s currency and banking, commissioned their own probes months ago, analyzed the results and effectively reached a two-word conclusion: No wrongdoing.

In its most recent country report this month, the IMF says that its special review of refinancing and foreign exchange interventions “suggests that the NBU had broadly followed approved procedures and authorization policies in conducting these operations.”

And the World Bank chimed in: “A recently completed audit by Ernst & Young on behalf of the IMF of the NBU’s liquidity support suggests that the NBU followed approved procedures and authorization policies in conducting liquidity operations in late 2008.”

But these findings appear to contradict the results of an audit by Ukraine’s Accounting Chamber, conducted in May, which said that most of the decisions taken by the NBU board on refinancing commercial banks in December 2008 “did not comply with existing laws and procedures.” The Accounting Chamber is responsible to parliament for reporting how budget funds are spent.

One commercial bank manager, who did not want to be identified because of fear of central bank retaliation, said he regarded the NBU as opaque in its hard-currency dealings.

The Ernst & Young report is considered confidential and neither the IMF nor World Bank responded to requests for comment on its findings.

The Economist Intelligence Unit on Sept. 22 said that “an audit for the IMF showed that the NBU had not fully followed approved procedures and authorization policies in conducting refinancing and foreign-exchange operations.”

The IMF last November began lending Ukraine money from a $16.4 billion credit limit to help restore confidence in the economy and financial sectors. Nearly one year later, after more than $10 billion in disbursed loans, stability is far from assured.

Ukraine’s Finance Ministry, in the government’s 2010 draft budget, anticipates Hr 50 billion ($6.2 billion) for recapitalizing a dozen so or more banks.

But government officials are still arguing with lawmakers and financiers over whether the new rules make sense. The list of candidates for recapitalization emerged in April, when eight of the country’s larger banks applied for assistance. The number dropped subsequently to three, as some banks withdrew because of their owners’ unwillingness to cede majority stakes to the state. The government was demanding stakes of at least 75 percent.

Oleksandr Suhoniako, chairman of the Association of Ukrainian Banks, a non-governmental organization representing 130 commercial banks, said the new scheme is as vague as the old NBU scheme was secret.

Suhoniako said his association “was excluded from the process of formulating a new recapitalization program because of our unequivocal opposition to the half-baked eligibility criteria proposed by the government. We think that the new recapitalization plan, which is actually a bank nationalization plan, is doomed. The proposed terms do not make sense and the program will serve clan interests.”

Suhoniako continued: “Just take a look at the members of new supervisory council of the NBU, at how the NBU regulated the currency exchange during the crisis, how the NBU refinanced and capitalized banks, the central bank’s monetization policy. Its dependence on the different centers of power and business interests is obvious.”

Victor Suslov, head of the state committee for regulation of financial services, agrees. He says by law the NBU has conflicting tasks, and this basic contradiction has to be removed. “It is difficult anywhere in the world besides Ukraine to find a central bank responsible for both the monetary policy and supervision of commercial banks.

Overseeing commercial banks makes the NBU establish close ties with their owners. And in the end, instead of implementing the monetary policy in the best interests of the state, the National banks ends up protecting certain banks,” Suslov said.

Victor Marchenko, former owner of Kyiv Bank, said that cordial relations with government banking officials are the most important eligibility requirement for recapitalization. “It is necessary to lobby in order to receive preference. Whether recapitalization is forthcoming depends more on government connections than a NBU recommendation,” Marchenko said.

He says financial scandals are continuing. He said the now-government owned Rodovid, Ukrgazbank and Kyiv Bank are asking for more money than the government had been willing to give them earlier. Marchenko’s former Kyiv Bank received Hr 3.5 billion and he said its government-appointed managers are seeking an additional Hr 1.5 billion.

“Hr 5 billion? Kyiv Bank doesn’t have that much in assets. I think the Finance Ministry is using recapitalized banks for their own purposes,” Marchenko said. “Imagine you want to buy a car for $20,000 and ask your parents to give you $30,000, so you can spend the difference on something else. The government acts the same way.”

Millionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko, chairman of the central bank’s advisory council, appeared sanguine during a cameo appearance at a telephone conference call by Concorde Capital on Sept. 22. He credited tighter monetary policy, including a revised procedure for hard-currency auctions put in place by the NBU, for decreasing the gap between the official and commercial exchange rate.

That, in turn, has resulted in the hryvnia regaining “some equilibrium in recent days.” Other positive signs, he said, are that most of Ukraine’s corporate external debt has been restructured and there are no liquidity problems at any of Ukraine’s major banks.

Poroshenko is unlikely to impress ordinary Ukrainians, who are finding it more difficult to afford imported goods, especially medicine, and to repay their bank loans denominated in hard currency, which has gained greatly in value against the hryvnia in the last year.

According to a survey conducted Sept. 14-16 by the Horshenin Institute of Management Issues, 85 percent of Ukrainians call their banks “unreliable” places to keep money. Even more – 88 percent – are concerned by the hryvnia’s sharp devaluation.

The bad news – discussed after Poroshenko delivered his monologue and departed – is that the percentage of loans not being repaid is rising. The NBU reported on Sept. 21 that the share of non-performing loans rose 0.6 percent in August, to 6.8 percent by Sept. 1.

In volume, non-performing loans increased 11.6 percent, or by Hr. 5.3 billion in July, up from 5.4 percent registered at the end of June. Bankers fear the bad loans could hit 30 percent by year’s end, which would radically raise the cost of further government bailouts.

Source: Kyiv Post