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After PNB fraud, RBI discontinues letters of undertaking for trade credit for imports

The RBI said the decision to discontinue the practice of LoUs and Letters of Comfort (LoCs) for trade finance comes into force with immediate effect.

business Updated: Mar 13, 2018 23:47 IST
Alekh Archana and Gopika Gopakumar
Alekh Archana and Gopika Gopakumar
Livemint, Mumbai
RBI,Letters of Understanding,Trade credit
Reserve Bank of India (RBI) headquarters in Mumbai.(Reuters File Photo)

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Tuesday barred banks from issuing letters of undertaking (LoUs), the instruments used by Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi to defraud Punjab National Bank (PNB), in a move that may deal a blow to trade financing in India and raise credit costs for importers.

RBI also barred lenders from issuing letters of comfort (LoC) as trade credit for importing goods into India with immediate effect. It, however, allowed banks to continue to issue letters of credit and bank guarantees.

The central bank’s move is likely to lead to a freeze in trade financing activities in India, increasing costs for importers who have relied on these instruments to get cheaper overseas credit to pay suppliers. It will also put companies that have received credit based on LoUs in a spot, as they have to now repay their borrowings since there will no rollover of existing LoUs.

Importers prefer taking loans based on LoUs as they are denominated in foreign currency and are cheaper than rupee credit. A letter of credit, on the other hand, is used to establish the credit worthiness of the buyer in the purchase of goods.

“LoUs and LoCs don’t come under a normal credit sanction. It has been understood as giving just a letter. In the case of PNB, it looks like bank officials issued these instruments without proper credit assessment,” said R Gandhi, a former deputy governor of RBI.

Lenders will have to look at alternative instruments like bank guarantees. “Banks are now exploring alternative instruments like bank guarantees which are typically used as a guarantee to raise loans from other banks,” an official with a private sector bank said, requesting anonymity.

LoUs and LoCs are used widely in several industries including gems and jewellery, oil and gas, electronic goods, solar panels and metals. Ajay Sahai, director general at lobby Federation of Indian Export Organisations, however, said, RBI’s move will have only a limited impact.

“I see only limited impact of the RBI directive because gems and jewellery sector was the main sector availing LoUs/LoCs. That, too, was limited to major players. As far as other sectors are concerned, they have alternative instruments in the form of bank guarantees,” said Sahai.

Until the PNB fraud surfaced, buyers’ credit was seen as a safe business because of its short-term nature and the risk of default was essentially on another lender. That apart, it provided the LoU-issuing bank with a source of fee income.

First Published: Mar 13, 2018 18:56 IST