Lone survivor remains healthy: Peter Rodgers explains how Meghraj managed to fight off the Asian banking crisis

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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT often that a newspaper serving a community of newsagents, grocers and traders helps to stop a banking crisis.

But an appeal for calm from the weekly Garavi Gujurat played an important part in reassuring nervous depositors in Meghraj Bank, last surviving member - and by far the healthiest - of a group of four small Asian-owned banks in Britain.

Ramnikial Solanki, editor of the London-based paper, was fearful about the effects on Meghraj of the panic that followed the collapse of Mount Banking Corporation, Equatorial Bank and Roxburghe Bank over the previous five months. The failures were the culmination of 18 months of problems for Asian banks which began with the shadow cast by the closure of BCCI in 1991.

Mr Solanki wrote: 'Today . . .the banks that were established to help the Asian business community are in a crisis of confidence. If this crisis is not solved quickly, the whole business community will be in great difficulty . . . Now only Meghraj is left, and people must trust the bank and not withdraw their deposits.'

Anant Shah, who heads Meghraj, says the bank's balance sheet was strong enough to stave off the threat. Deposits and funds under fiduciary management of pounds 150m are nearly twice as large as the bank's loans of pounds 80m, leaving it with a large amount of ready cash to fend off a run. But he agrees the editorial was a help at a difficult time.

Meghraj had other things in its favour. It is more London-oriented than Roxburghe and Mount, whose connections with Nairobi's troubled banking scene played a role in their downfall.

More important, Meghraj loans are all secured directly against overseas deposits, mainly from relatives of the UK borrowers. The deposits come through London, a banking subsidiary in the Isle of Man and an offshoot in Liechtenstein that takes money on a fiduciary basis and reinvests in other banks. Mr Shah says it is the tax advantages that make it worthwhile for customers.

This is extraordinarily defensive banking, a policy Meghraj has adopted over the past three years. It is also a perfect fit for recessionary times and helps to explain why Meghraj is the lone survivor.

The pressures on the bank were not, however, either sudden or new. Meghraj has withstood a 30 per cent fall in deposits and funds under management over the past two years, from pounds 238m the month before BCCI collapsed to pounds 150m this month.

Loans have remained stable and so have shareholders' funds in the financial year to the end of June at about pounds 20m.

Mr Shah says the flight of deposits virtually stopped at the beginning of May, which he ascribes to the 'passing of time and the fact that we are still here.'

It may also have helped that Meghraj is much the oldest established of the four banks, with a 20-year history in the UK. The offices, overlooking the green legal oasis of Gray's Inn, London, are also the headquarters of a larger group run by Mr Shah and his older brother Vipin that has its origins 70 years ago in a firm founded by their father, the businessman and philanthropist Meghji Pethraj Shah, whose first two names gave the bank its name.

All four banks, including Meghraj, are owned by Gujuratis, a group that makes up most of their customers. So in that part of the Asian community the impact of the banks' problems is out of proportion to the relatively modest pounds 250m they have lent in total.

The Gujuratis in Britain, at least 800,000 strong, migrated from north-west India - now Pakistan - to East Africa early in the century, moving on to Britain after the Africanisation policies of the 1960s, when their leading position in business was eroded. Now they have established themselves, Gujuratis dominate large parts of the independent retail trade.

According to a survey by the magazine Asian Trader, Asians own about 60,000 retail businesses, account for 95 per cent of independent newsagents and grocery stores inside the M25 area surrounding London and about 75 per cent nationally.

Kalpesh Solanki, managing editor of Asian Trader, reckons they invest well over pounds 2bn a year. This is not a banking market to ignore.

Language barriers for first generation immigrants encourage them to go to Gujurati banks rather than to the clearers. But Mr Shah is not referring to language when he says: 'We and the customers understand each other.'

Relationships between customers and bank are even closer than they appear at first sight, since banks specialise in subdivisions of the community rather than Gujuratis as a whole. That makes the Asian banking crisis loom even larger for particular groups of businessmen.

Meghraj's 2,000 depositors and 800 borrowers are mainly Oshwals, who like Mr Shah are Jains by religion and originate from the district around the town of Jamnagar in Gujurat.

Roxburghe and Mount were also run by Oshwals named Shah. The owners of these two banks are cousins with strong East African connections, though not related to the Shahs of Meghraj. Equatorial, the fourth bank, was set apart from the others by a broader base of Gujurati shareholders and customers.

The reasons for the three failures differed. Mount was closed last November because the Bank of England was unhappy about the 'fitness and properness' of those controlling and running the bank rather than its solvency.

The administrators, Peat Marwick, are trying to put Mount back in business, but the Bank has said it will not allow the previous incumbents to run it. An appeal against this ruling is under way.

Equatorial was a victim of depositors' panic in the wake of Mount and BCCI, and also lost money on bad loans. Ernst & Young, the administrators, told a creditors' meeting last week that they were still talking to potential rescuers.

Roxburghe, smallest of the four with pounds 40m on deposit, was also brought down by a run on deposits and problem loans.

Meghraj says it would prefer its competitors to survive. It offered to manage Equatorial's loan book for a fee - the administrators refused - while ruling out buying part of the loan book because it did not want to depart from its policy of securing loans against deposits.

(Photograph omitted)