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Banking licence to UBS put on hold

The RBI puts the licence on hold due to UBS AG's reluctance to help India unravel a multinational trail of money transfers. Mint Correspondent reports.
By Mint Correspondent | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON FEB 06, 2008 10:32 AM IST

UBS AG’s reluctance to cooperate with Indian authorities to unravel a multinational trail of money transfers—across Switzerland, New York, the British Virgin Islands and Pune—between Indian stud farm owner Hasan Ali Khan and a fugitive Saudi arms dealer has not only cost the Swiss bank its deal to buy the Indian mutual fund business of Standard Chartered Bank for $118.2 million (Rs467 crore), but also a presence in the booming Indian banking landscape.

After clearing it, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has put on hold a banking licence to UBS. According to people familiar with the development, RBI had last year issued a licence to UBS, allowing it to open its first branch in Mumbai.

“RBI has put the branch licence on hold. It will not release it till it gets certain clarifications from UBS,” said one person who didn’t want to be identified. Armed with the branch licence, UBS, was ready to commence its banking operations in India and it even identified a premise to open its branch before RBI recalled the licence, according to a person familiar with the the Swiss bank’s Indian plans.

A UBS spokesperson in Hong Kong declined to comment on this development, saying: “It is our global policy not to comment on such speculative reports.” Currently, UBS is present in India through UBS Securities India Pvt Ltd, a broking and investment banking arm, headed by Manisha Girotra. It also runs a private wealth management business and an offshore unit in Hyderabad.

Between July 2006 and June 2007, RBI gave licences to seven foreign banks operating in India for opening 20 branches. It also allowed seven foreign banks to open representative offices in India. Under the World Trade Organisation norms, RBI is required to offer 12 new licences every year to all foreign banks.

At end October 2007, 29 foreign banks from 19 nations were operating in India with 273 branches.

The same people familiar with the development said the banking regulator and the Indian government acted in close coordination in spiking the UBS plan to buy the mutual fund business of Standard Chartered Bank and then the permission to open its first branch in India. The finance ministry had reservations about clearing the mutual fund deal and it had communicated the same to RBI. The home ministry approval is mandatory for any bank lincence and after the banking regulator gives its nod to the entry of a foreign bank in India, it is vetted by the ministry for security reasons.

Last December, Mint reported that RBI decided to turn down the UBS proposal to acquire Standard Chartered Asset Management Co Pvt Ltd over possible money laundering through UBS by Khan. Standard Chartered, the parent company of Standard Chartered Bank in India, sent a notice to stock exchanges in London and Hong Kong in end December, saying it will not proceed with the proposed sale.

On February 2, the Hindustan Times carried a report, saying a top official in the Enforcement Directorate (ED) who did not wish to be identified confirmed that the agency’s officials, in December 2007, had advised the Indian government not to clear a Rs 467 crore plan by UBS AG, the world’s biggest wealth management company, to buy the Indian mutual fund business of Standard Chartered Bank because the Swiss bank had not helped track international money transfers of Pune horse owner Hassan Ali Khan.

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