Last week, an unlikely source in the form of a Parliamentary Committee helped to unseal the tightly held lips of the Chase Bank’s board of directors. The directors had been summoned to assist the Committee to understand the challenges that faced the Bank, resulting in the same being placed under receivership by the Central Bank of Kenya. This was an opportunity for the board to give its side of a controversial story, a tale that has as many versions as there are heads to the Greek mythical hydra. The story caught my attention for one reason only: The directors called the auditors professionally ignorant. Actually let me quote the exact statement here: “The Musharakah Agreements for each of the SPVs clearly show Chase Bank’s 99% interest in the Musharakah assets. Deloitte’s insistence on treating this as a normal loan or advance can only be labelled as professional ignorance at best.” Part of the dispute between the auditors, Deloitte in this case, and the board of directors has been on the treatment of a series of real estate transactions either as internal loans to a key shareholder (according to the auditor) or as Musharakah assets (Islamic financing terms according to the directors). So I pored over the submissions made by the directors in their vigorous defence of these assets.
Banking is premised on the fact that there are depositors who want a safe place to put their money, and there are borrowers who require to borrow funds for consumption. The bank is simply an intermediary. In the case of Islamic banking, the institution applies Sharia compliant procedures in the booking of those deposits and loans. The key point here is: there must be a customer. Period. Finito. Whether it is mainstream or Islamic banking there must be an individual or an entity who is the customer. But the directors state thus in their parliamentary submissions:
“Subsequently, Deloitte rejected the Musharakah Agreements and Deloitte insisted that the Musharakah properties be charged to the bank, thus effectively classifying the SPVs as Loans and Advances rather than Islamic investments as documented. These loans would then become technical insider loans, as the shares in the SPVs were held by the two directors, albeit held in trust for the Bank. Chase Bank’s Management emphasised to Deloitte that treatment of the Musharakah assets as Loans and Advances would be in contravention of not only the principles of Islamic banking (and therefore a breach of trust with Islamic depositors), but also of Section 12(c) of the Banking Act and
would incorrectly treat these as an insider loan. It was evident that Deloitte were simply not interested in appreciating the nature and substance of the Musharakah Assets or the principles of Islamic banking.”
I scratched my head and read the report twice over. At no point did the directors say who the ultimate customer was. I mean, a bank doesn’t wake up and decide to give a loan out to a customer, whether Islamic or otherwise. Why was there no attempt to say that this was an unfair treatment of a yet-to-be-named customer who had borrowed from the bank in good (Islamic) faith? That the assets were bought in the name of the SPV is not in doubt. That the SPV has two Chase directors as the shareholders is not in doubt. But where the shareholders were holding the shares “in trust” for the bank is where it starts to get “grab-a-bag-of-popcorn” interesting. The directors fail to mention if a “deed of trust” was provided to the auditors as evidence of that understanding between Chase Bank on the one hand and the SPV shareholders on the other. I mean, one doesn’t assume trust falls off the back of the Kisumu express train, it must be documented somewhere, right? The directors beat their Islamic financing drum further by dragging in the regulator into their drama: “On 26th July 2012, Chase bank wrote to the Director of Bank Supervision at CBK requesting CBK to revise the Central Bank Prudential Guideline on Publication of Financial Statements and Other Disclosures to accommodate Islamic products and
(i) the Islamic Banking Income received to be reflected separately in the Profit and Loss
(ii) The Islamic Banking Expenses also to be reflected separately in the Profit and Loss
(iii) The Islamic Banking investments or Financing Activities as a separate Asset line in the
(iv) The Islamic Deposits or Liabilities as a separate Liability item in the balance Sheet; and
(v) A separate Off Balance Sheet line item for Islamic banking.
The CBK has not objected, in the absence of any changes to the Prudential Guidelines, to the classification and treatment in any of its reports to the Bank.”
I have to admit, that this submission by the directors stumped me. If you wrote to the regulator and asked to be reporting Islamic Banking products separately, and the regulator did not object, then why do your 2014 and 2015 financial accounts not reflect the same? I zoomed across to the only fully-fledged Islamic Banks in Kenya, Gulf African Bank and First Community Bank (FCB) websites to see how their Islamic assets are recorded. Their professionally competent auditors in the name of KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) respectively reported loans as “financing activities (net)” exactly as Chase had requested the CBK to do in (iii) above. (It’s noteworthy that PWC audited the FCB accounts in 2014 but the 2015 published accounts are silent on who their auditors were) If Chase directors had knowledge as far back as July 2012 on how “Musharakah Assets” should be recorded on the balance sheet why wait until June 2016, or four years later, to call their auditors professionally ignorant? And why are the Islamic depositor funds not separately recorded yet the directors have vigorously highlighted the potential breach of trust for the Islamic depositors if Musharakah Assets are treated as loans and advances?
The Chase Bank saga is a case study of corporate governance failure, weak internal controls, questions on the auditors’ scope and depth of review and a passionate to almost rabid love for the brand by its most loyal customers. But on the back of all of that are innocent depositors who must always remain in the minds of all bank directors whose oversight role gets heavier with each passing day.