EDITORIAL: VBS — A cash heist that will cost taxpayers
How is it possible that three-quarters of a bank can so brazenly be stolen?
Let’s be clear, what has been happening at VBS is fraud. The regulator is not there to be detecting whether the institution is being defrauded. The board and the management of an institution are supposed to have proper systems of controls and governance to make sure that fraud is prevented."
Those are the words of Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago, stating what has become obvious about VBS Mutual Bank — but in this country, the obvious still needs to be stated.
This week, we learnt that up to 75% of VBS’s assets may have been stolen, as the curator Anoosh Rooplal is now seeking to recover R1.5bn (of its assets of R2bn) from the bank’s majority shareholder Vele Investments and others.
How is it possible that three-quarters of a bank can so brazenly be stolen? Especially in the modern era when every banker you meet will tell you about the asphyxiating regulations they are forced to comply with, the endless paperwork?
However, VBS underscores what we should have learnt by now: governance processes, however advanced, merely help the good guys demonstrate that they are the good guys. The bad guys, if they are senior enough and have crafty accomplices, find it easy to get around them.
Which is partly because oversight policing just isn’t good enough. When Kganyago speaks of "systems of controls", he is, in part, referring to the auditors whose job it is to ensure that the financial accounts aren’t a fiction. Yet in this case, both KPMG (VBS’s external auditor) and PwC (internal auditor) appear to have missed the greatest bank robbery of the decade.
It reminds one of an old Western, where the bought-off sheriff leans against the saloon door while the bandits ride into town, shamelessly hold up the local bank and ride off into the sunset, without a shot being fired in anger by the law.
Auditors will argue that their opinions are based on the information given them by a company, and even a detailed examination of the accounts on a test basis is not guaranteed to reveal anything dishonest. But are we to accept that if money is stolen from a bank by the directors, there is no way of picking it up?
Any reasonably sussed auditor will have noted how VBS came into prominence when it controversially lent R7.8m to the then president, Jacob Zuma, in 2016. A theory is doing the rounds which is enticing even if, at this point, there is no evidence to support it — that ANC officials "rewarded" VBS by instructing municipalities to place their deposits with the bank.
On this point, connoisseurs of the state capture project will have noticed that, between December 2015 and February 2018, the national minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs (responsible for municipal affairs) was David Des van Rooyen, the two-day finance minister. It was during Van Rooyen’s tenure that there was a sudden influx of municipal money into VBS, boosting the bank’s balance sheet from R200m to R2bn.
Many of VBS’s customers are small depositors who trusted their local provincial bank and whose lives depend on being able to get their money. When it became clear that the money had mostly vanished, the Treasury worked out a rescue plan that will enable 97% of these depositors to get all their money from Nedbank.
The VBS disaster shows that while some banks may be too big to fail, it seems no bank is too small to fail. But don’t think this is the last amount the Treasury will have to fork out as a result of 2018’s great bank robbery. One consolation for taxpayers is that at least some of their hard-earned money will also be spent on orange overalls for those responsible for breaking VBS.