Dubai: Officials of 15 banks met in Dubai on Wednesday to discuss growing concerns over the financial health of Atlas Jewellery which owes an estimated Dh550 million to them and has allegedly defaulted on payments, banking and industry sources told Gulf News. Some banks are planning to lodge a formal complaint of financial fraud with the Central Bank.
The whereabouts of MM Ramachandran, the founder of the group, are not known as the banks are trying to get in touch with him. His mobile is switched off and his secretary is also not responding to calls and text messages, the sources added.
Atlas Jewellery founded three decades ago currently has over four dozen stores in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and has also diversified into health care.
The sources told Gulf News that the banks are considering filing a case of “wilful default and financial fraud” with the Central Bank.
Nearly Dh50 million was borrowed by the chain last month and the group invested Dh20-Dh30 million in gold purchases recently. However, sources said inventory levels across the chain have come down appreciably, compelling bankers to question where the recent Dh30 million used, fearing that the finances and assets were being wilfully diverted.
A visit to their Deira branch in the Gold Souq on Wednesday evening showed it had fewer jewellery items on display. Apart from four to five heavy gold pieces in the front showcase, the store had light chains, rings, lockets and a small section of diamond jewellery in 18 carat gold.
A sizeable section contained watches which other jewellers in the market said are obtained on a consignment basis and can be returned to the investor if not sold. This kind of light stock was seen in their other branches in Bur Dubai as well.
When questioned on the limited inventory, a salesman at the store said jewellery from all the stores had been taken for “tagging to the main office and would be returned soon”. He could not specify when the pieces were taken and when they would be returned.
Poor inventory sent alarm bells ringing in the banks. When the group began defaulting on interest payments, the banks surveyed the stores and found fewer pieces of jewellery on display. They then tried to get in touch with the owner who switched off his phone ten days ago.
This prompted some banks to present the security cheques. However, the cheques were returned citing ‘insufficient funds’. Following this, some bankers have registered cases with Dubai Police.
A senior official with Bank of Baroda told Gulf News that the group owed Dh70 million to his bank. “This amount was taken over a period of many years and is not something he owed us in a day, months or even couple of years. We usually were alert and examined the assets in his stores. When the jewellery started disappearing, we raised objections, however, it happened so quickly that apart from legal recourse we have no other alternative.”
Local and regional banks work on the reputation of a borrower. When they see the borrower is well established for three decades and has got overdraft facilities from other banks, they usually do not go into examination of detailed credit history of the borrower and tend to give him loans to the tune of millions, the sources said.
The Gold Souq in Deira, meanwhile, was abuzz with rumours and the CEO of a major jewellery chain toldGulf News: “This group has been in severe financial trouble for 8-10 years and I wonder how the organisation was given loans.”
Banking sources, however, said that the group’s financial crisis was unlikely to have been triggered by the falling gold prices.
“The organisation has been around for more than three decades and has bought gold at the price of Dh400 and Dh500 in the past. Every time a trader sells gold, he quickly replenishes the inventory. So the group did not face the consequences of price crash.
"If at all he faced any loss it was not more than 25 per cent as gold prices in the last four years gradually come down from US$1,600 (Dh5,877) per ounce to US$1,200 per ounce. The only loss he may have faced is valuation loss which is not more than 25 per cent. But he had gold reserves from so many years and had made profits,” a source explained.
Loans owed to banks by gold traders are not securitised debts where the bank can recover the amount against any concrete security if the borrower defaults. So the only alternative banks have is either to write off the loans as bad debts or file a formal complaint of financial fraud with the Central Bank, the source said.
All attempts made by Gulf News to contact the group founder and his secretary on their mobiles proved futile. While the founder’s mobile was switched off, his secretary did not to respond to calls or text messages.