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Exchanges under lens for role in Karvy mess

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Sebi investigating more brokers, why bourses failed to spot potential lapsesSebi is examining why exchanges failed to detect that Karvy had illegally pledged client shares to raise money

MUMBAI : The markets regulator has expanded its investigation into the Karvy Stock Broking Ltd default episode to include stock exchanges and a dozen broking firms, two people aware of the matter said.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) is trying to find out why exchanges failed to spot the lapses at Karvy, which prevented an early detection of the suspected fraud, and whether more broking firms engage in similar practices, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.

The regulator is also examining why stock exchanges, which periodically audit brokerages, failed to detect that Karvy had illegally pledged client shares to raise money. In a 22 November order, Sebi said some funds have also been transferred to Karvy group firms.

“Exchanges are required to conduct regular annual inspection of brokers, but in Karvy’s case, they failed to detect instances of misutilization of client money done by the broking firm at an earlier stage,” said a senior regulatory official, one of the two people cited earlier. “The exchanges are first-line regulators and should be cognizant of any misutilization of client securities and should have flagged it.”

While the allegedly illegal transactions took place between 2016 and 2019, they were detected much later, between January and August this year, after a limited-purpose audit by the National Stock Exchange. The audit revealed that Karvy had misused client securities by pledging them with various lenders without authorization. The total value of these transactions is estimated to be ₹2,000 crore, making it one of the largest defaults by a stock broker in India. Based on its preliminary findings, Sebi on 22 November barred Karvy from signing up new clients or transacting on their behalf.

In December 2018, Sebi asked brokers to standardize their books and records, making it easier for exchanges to inspect and compare broker data. In January, it directed brokers to report their security balance weekly. After these changes, exchanges began a reconciliation process of matching exchange records with depository records. Depositories were then directed by Sebi to share pledge details with the brokers. In June, brokers were barred from using client securities to raise funds and asked to wind down existing pledges starting 1 October.

“Auditors of such broker dealers, along with self-regulatory body Finra, are required to give attention to pledges, collaterals, disclosures with respect to related-party transactions, expense sharing agreements, capital contributions and withdrawals, inter-group exposures, and examination of software/compliance tools,” said Sumit Agrawal, founder of RegStreet Law Advisors and a former Sebi official. “In the wake of the recent episode, Sebi may consider stepping up the way stock exchanges or Sebi conducts inspections.”

A Karvy spokesperson said the firm is in the process of making payouts to clients and the first tranche will be done in two weeks.