The headline of the lead story of yesterday's issue of a leading Bengali contemporary screamed, "Tk.300 billion embezzled in seven years". In fact, the amount mentioned in the story was only a part of the money that was literally looted by fraudulent means from banks, stock market and from unsuspecting people during the period. The amount would surely be bigger since many such incidents either went undetected or were ignored deliberately.
There is no denying that embezzlement of bank funds has been going on since long and the problem is not regime-specific one. However, one can hardly ignore the fact that the rate of such criminal offence involving depositors' and public money has gone up in recent years and the size of the fund in single cases of embezzlement has been astonishingly big. Barring the latest theft of Tk 8.0 billion from the country's reserve by the cyber criminals, scams, namely, Hall-Mark, Basic Bank, Bismillah and Destiny have rocked the financial sector. The question, why scams and theft are hurting the financial sector so frequently is haunting the minds of many.
Some people have found answer to the problem in the quality of overall governance in the country. They have traced a link between the recent financial scams and the state of governance that, allegedly, attaches greater importance to political links than competence. In such a situation institutions are owned or managed by incompetent or dishonest people and regulatory bodies can hardly function in accordance with their respective charters.
It seems that unscrupulous intentions rule the roost in the country's banking sector where a section of sponsors are out to take undue benefits for themselves and influence loan decisions relating to others and, equally, an evil section of borrowers employ all the tricks to siphon off funds from banks and other financial institutions by any means. The political connections, in most cases, do come into play.
What is more worrying is that the masterminds of the financial crimes involving banks or stock market have always gone unscathed. The political connections, it is widely believed, have always saved these people. But such deliberate exemption has been encouraging others to build political connections and indulge in all kinds of financial crimes.
Both financial crimes and culture of impunity enjoyed by the people involved in the same are now taking a heavy toll on the economy. The ongoing sluggish economic activity is a pointer to that fact. Despite all factors, including trouble-free political clime, remaining positive, the private investment has remained stagnant and banks are sitting on huge idle funds.
The propensity to amass wealth illegally and transfer the same abroad has become quite strong among the affluent section of people. The statistics concerning transfer of funds published recently by an international organization does only give credence to such foul play.
Despite all these negative factors, the country's economy, however, has been moving, maybe, not at the pace that the government leaders do claim every now and then. The fact remains that the economy has greater potential. But greed, graft and politicisation have turned out to be stiff barriers to exploiting that potential.
It is hard to eliminate irregularities in the financial sector totally. But efforts should be there to keep the same at very low level. The way things are handled now in the sector, it is not possible to stop recurrence of financial crimes either by cyber criminals or delinquent borrowers or stock market manipulators. The role of regulators concerned remains the key to achieving such a goal.
This is one area in Bangladesh where the performance of the regulators has been either dismal or unsatisfactory. The selection of the men who would run these all-important regulatory bodies has not been, in most cases, perfect. Here too, politics has often come into play.
But it is widely believed that with right kind of persons at the helm of the regulatory bodies and if total freedom is granted to them to work in accordance with their respective laws and rules, a meaningful change in the financial sector could be possible.
However, a change in approach on the part of the government is important here. The willingness of the men in authority to see such a change in the workings of the key regulators in the financial sector matters most. If they are sincere in their desire then a change is very much possible. But the question is: are they willing to bring about the change that millions want to see?