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The Asahi Shimbun/2018/5/16 16:10

Suruga Bank must get to the bottom of ‘share house’ debacle

Massive irregularities have come to light in connection with loans provided by Suruga Bank Ltd., based in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, prompting the bank to set up a third-party investigative committee.
The exact nature of the problem must be thoroughly uncovered and all responsible parties identified.
Central to this case were loans made to investors in a "share house" program organized by a real estate agent. ("Share house" is a Japanese expression denoting rental housing where multiple tenants have their own rooms but share common facilities, such as the kitchen and bathroom.)
What happened was that copies of the passbooks of bank customers applying for a loan to invest in this project were falsified to "improve" the customers' financial health, or, in some cases, the prices of the properties they purchased were inflated on paper.
When such investors found out they were not getting the monthly returns from rents they had been promised and repaying their loans became difficult, they suspected foul play by the property sales and rental agents, and are now considering seeking criminal charges against them.
According to the results of Suruga Bank's in-house investigation, many employees were apparently aware of what was transpiring. One case that came to light was that of a loan officer, who was opposed to making the loans to the customers, was intimidated into doing so by the bank's business department executive.
The bank provided a total of approximately 200 billion yen ($1.81 billion) in loans related to the share house project, but the credit-related expenses and other contingencies for bad debts reached 38.2 billion yen.
In terms of protecting customer interests as well as loan-related risk management, Suruga Bank failed dismally enough to lose its credibility. The bank's aptitude may well have to be questioned as an institution of a highly public nature.
In the first place, was this share house project really going to benefit the bank's customers? Why did those illegal deeds spread within the bank? Were any directors and management executives involved?
Many questions need to be answered. And the bank definitely needs to outgrow its reluctance to disclose information, which was apparent in its continued failure to explain the situation to the public after the problems surfaced.
Low interest rates and the sluggish growth of local economies are hurting regional banks. But Suruga Bank has been a rare exception, posting extraordinarily high profits. This is believed to have been due to its aggressive personal loan business of the type other banks stayed away from.
The bank deserves credit for taking a certain degree of risk to develop a new business model. But if the pursuit of profits became everything, to the point where adhering to the law and maintaining loan screening standards became unimportant, then that was tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. It is not possible to sustain a business if basic rules are ignored.
In May last year, Financial Services Agency Commissioner Nobuchika Mori spoke positively of Suruga Bank in a speech, citing it as an example of a small but highly profitable bank. But given the state the bank has fallen into a year later, Mori's judgment has proven rather questionable as the chief of the Financial Services Agency.
Having started raiding the offices of Suruga Bank last month, the agency must intensify the raids and take stern disciplinary measures if necessary.
The fact that "gray" real estate-related loan businesses grow amid prolonged low interest rates and expectations for rising land prices is one lesson this nation learned from the last economic bubble. Financial authorities must pay extra-close attention now, while investors must be diligent in assessing the risks they take.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 16




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